China, the Other Communism
Specialists in the USSR and East Europe have both helped and hindered modern Chinese studies. Many scholars such as Benjamin Schwartz came to the serious interpretation of Chinese Communism from Slavic studies. On the other hand, less sensitive East Europeanists have imagined that their training gave them a unique understanding of modern China. When some Sinologists proposed that the Sino-Soviet Alliance might not last, Professor Beloff, for example, claimed that he knew better than did “students of China alone who have made inadequate study of communism in its original setting.” On the Left there has been a related hazard, the temptation for men disillusioned with the Soviet Union to shift their utopia eastward. Without any attempt to study the country itself they simply picture China as what the Soviet Union should have been.
K. S. Karol, a distinguished observer of Eastern Europe who lived in the Soviet Union for several years, was aware of these and other dangers when he visited China. As a Soviet citizen he had seen the deceptions practiced on foreign visitors: the ragged people sent out of sight, the shops filled for the occasion, the special bonuses paid, and so on. He also knew that, being unable to speak Chinese or to contact people except through official interpreters, he would find it difficult to penetrate deeply into Chinese life. Although he was conscious that the impression he received could be very different from reality, he concluded that in China things were very much as they seemed. He believes that Chinese society is fundamentally more decent and less hypocritical than the society he knew in the USSR.
Here I think he has gone slightly too far. Nearly all the techniques of sweeping unpleasantness out of sight employed in the Soviet Union have been used in China: streets have been specially lit up, shops filled with unobtainable goods, extra supplies sent to towns to be visited, and so forth. Naturally the extent to which this is done depends on economic conditions. Mr. Karol made his visit during the spring of 1965, a time of relative prosperity when these measures may not have been necessary; but they were certainly used during the years of hardship from 1958 to 1962. The author also does not believe that there is as much “wangling” in China as existed in the Soviet Union during the war. In this he is almost certainly right: the German invasion put unbearable pressure on Soviet society. However, many convincing charges of corruption and wangling were made during the Cultural Revolution, which indicate that the Chinese are not quite the “singularly and scrupulously honest” paragons that Mr. Karol supposes them to be.
Nevertheless the author’s personal experience of the Soviet Union was helpful to him in many ways, and the contrasts he draws between China and the USSR are often very enlightening. His knowledge of Marxist-Leninist theory also helped in his interviews with Chou En-lai and with Chou Yang, who was, until his overthrow last summer, the leading…
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