Teng Hsiao-p'ing
Teng Hsiao-p'ing; drawing by David Levine

As we enjoy the Chinese-American honeymoon this time, it seems fitting that we look before and after. Knowing the periodic Marxist inebriation to be expected of one partner and the whilom anti-red frigidity of the other, can we expect it to last? Have Jimmy Carter and Teng Hsiao-p’ing tied a permanent knot or just begun another cycle in a love-hate relationship? Can the Chinese revolution and the American happening settle down together?

We figured in China’s revolution during Mao’s lifetime from 1894 to 1976. In 1899-1900 we announced the Open Door, after the imperialist powers were already inside, and in 1912 we applauded the Chinese Republic’s sudden attempt at parliamentary government, which didn’t work. When China by 1923 opted for party dictatorship, we blamed the reds and eventually backed the anti-red party dictatorship of Chiang Kai-shek with his Wellesley wife and her Harvard brother. Mao later called us imperialist exploiters who backed “feudal reaction,” by which he meant private property, special privilege, and elitism. Today again we are becoming privileged tourists and foreign investors who help Chinese modernizers create a new technological elite. Will history boobytrap us again?

Chou En-lai and Teng Hsiao-p’ing’s program for modernization of industry, agriculture, science-and-technology, and defense is the latest revolutionary solution to China’s age-old problem, how to govern the villages from the cities. The villages today contain 800 million people, the cities 200 million. By the year 2000, whether or not the Four Modernizations are completed, China’s villagers are likely to total one billion, her city dwellers perhaps 300 million. Food and government will still be major problems. Americans accustomed to farmsteads more than villages, whose countryside has generally disappeared into suburbs, can only try to imagine China’s situation. The press of numbers creates problems of economy, government, and values including human rights that are all very strange to us.

If we repeat our experience of the 1930s with Nationalist China, trading, investing, educating, and touring mainly in the cities, we can again be startled, embattled, and embittered by what comes out of the villages. China’s farming people are not going to disappear like ours into urban centers. They were there in their villages before America began and will no doubt outlast us. The modern revolution is only beginning to reach them. Now that the Chou-Teng program seeks our investment of technology in training, equipment, and joint ventures, we must get our minds out of the familiar cities like Canton, Shanghai, and Peking and into the less known countryside. To help China blindly, knowing only what we are told in English, unaware of what our Chinese friends are up against, is a prescription for another American disaster in China reminiscent of the 1940s.

Having got beyond our thirty-year-old Two Chinas problem by agreeing that Taiwan is a self-governing, armed province over which Peking has latent sovereignty, we now face another Two Chinas, urban and rural. The Chinese revolution, not yet finished, is really two revolutions, one social and one technological, that sometimes coincide and sometimes conflict. This is what produces the policy zigzags that always amaze us. They are built into the revolutionary process like “walking on two legs,” as the man said.

Mao Tse-tung’s social revolution aimed to liberate the villagers from second-class citizenship, ignorance, and want. It tried to wipe out the old ruling-class elite of privileged literati, officials, merchants, landlords, and city-dwelling exploiters in general. But mobilizing peasants for this egalitarian purpose inevitably created a great cult of Mao something like a folk religion, and his latter-day followers led by the so-called Gang of Four wound up as anti-intellectual dogmatists. With “politics in command,” they attacked “bourgeois tendencies” like Calvinists routing out original sin. They decried material incentives as unworthy of true socialism. The result was a failure to educate or to produce, which led to an economic stagnation and another shift of course once the Gang were thrown out of power.

Under Teng Hsiao-p’ing the other revolution, to apply modern technology to all aspects of Chinese life, now has its day and opportunity. We must help it to succeed, but how far it succeeds and how long it lasts as Peking’s dominant policy will depend to some degree on how we do our part. Foreigners of all stripes have always found their counterparts in China. Our opium traders found Chinese opium distributors, our missionaries found Chinese devoted to good works. Even without the help of rip-off specialists in our General Services Administration, Chinese purchasers in capitalist America will truly be in enemy territory. To sup with us, they will need long chopsticks. Even the ten-dollar bills of eleemosynary tourists in China’s new 1000-room hotels will be corrupting. With all due respect to one of America’s inexpugnable claims to fame, we may also wonder whether Coca-Cola can really hit the spot in Honan province. In summer Shanghai, yes, but will it increase crop acreage in Lin Hsien, or irrigate more than the purchaser?


In the midst of plans for steel, coal, and oil production to build up industry, we have to wear bifocals that can also keep in view the rural 800 million. They have doubled in numbers since 1949 but are still bone poor. If the new city elite that we help to train should lose touch with the villages, Mao’s ghost may well appear and cry “Remember me!” in more than one rural hamlet. Literacy and transistors are spreading expectations among the most cohesive and the largest bloc of people ever to appear on earth. Teng Hsiao-p’ing’s program for a controlled chain reaction in the Chinese countryside has its dangers. We can expect in ten or twenty years to be feeding China’s cities in exchange for consumer goods we cannot produce competitively. But this symbiosis will be with the modern international fringe of China, a mere 200 or 300 million, while the billion farmers of the Chinese countryside, still poor, may be mobilizing anew. In short, we have reason to study more than China’s technological needs, appreciate more than the tourist cuisine, and offer more than audience enthusiasm for the Chinese people’s great achievements. They have troubles too, and in the global future we cannot escape a connection with them.

Current publications reflect the range of these problems and of Western concerns about them. Some of these books suggest why so many Chinese officials regard foreign China specialists as the most dispensable people. At the moment they must prefer the Western economists to the Western socialists.

Where Mao urged class struggle as the means of changing consciousness and values, Teng drives today for material production. His program was worked out at conferences in 1975 and stated in three documents that the Gang of Four attacked as “The Three Poisonous Weeds.” (They are reproduced in The Case of the Gang of Four.) Of the three, the general policy statement quotes Chairman Mao in every paragraph, while the industrial development statement is a no-nonsense, rather concrete forecast of lines now being pursued. This material program is appraised in Chinese Economy Post-Mao, the fourth hefty volume on China to come from the Joint Economic Committee of the Congress since 1967. It is a symposium of studies by thirty-seven specialists in and out of government, led by Robert F. Dernberger of Michigan and John P. Hardt of the Congressional Research Service. It appraises major aspects of China’s economic policies, performance, and prospects.

Overall, the People’s Republic has done very well. Gross national product has grown about 51/2 percent annually as a whole and 9 percent in industry—rates that we can envy. If politics can remain stable and if military costs can be restrained, the prospects are bright for a continued slow rise in living standards. But this will not happen of itself and several things may impede it—not only political turmoil or a military buildup but also bad weather or natural disaster like the great Tang-shan earthquake of 1976.

One critical problem is that China has run out of crop land. Leveling and combining fields, terracing mountains, reclaiming wasteland are all meeting diminishing returns. Some of the plans for creating new land will boggle the American mind—for example, farming a riverbed by dint of putting the river in a tunnel underneath it. The hand work involved in cutting and carrying the stone for such a river tunnel is the same cheap labor that built the Great Wall, labor that is still the major resource in the country and still low in productivity without more capital equipment. Teng’s program for farm mechanization aims mainly to free labor for the rural small-scale industries that are beginning to provide cement, chemicals, iron, power, machinery, and consumer goods for local consumption in the countryside. By American or Soviet standards these small plants are of poor quality and uneconomic. But industry has to go to the villages and the economy of mass production in central cities must be forgone because no feasible transport system could possibly deliver the goods to 800 million consumers. The villages have to industrialize in situ.

China is so big in people that statistics require a double take. For instance, China is fourth in the world in primary energy production (after the US, USSR, and Saudi Arabia), yet her per capita modern energy consumption ranks close to the hundreth place among the world’s 175 countries. Ross Terrill’s fluent analysis, The Future of China: After Mao, presents an upbeat picture of China’s national eminence: armed forces 3.5 million, the third biggest air force, the third biggest nonmilitary aid program, to which one can add 24,000 Chinese technicians sent to the Third World, and the world’s biggest machine-building industry, a great power in so many ways. Yet because of numbers the individual’s living standard remains lower than we can imagine. Great China may thrive statistically while the tiny Chinese individual must eke things out.


The basic problem is that, while industry has built up rapidly, grain production has grown only about 3 or 3.5 percent a year. It has barely kept ahead of population growth at 1.8 to 2 percent. The agrarian product left over for commercial and industrial use and for export to earn foreign exchange has been very thin. Plans call for 4.5 percent annual growth in grain production even though from 1964 to 1974 it was under 3 percent and no other major grain producer has been able to maintain a rate of 4.5 percent growth. New fertilizer plants coming “on stream,” as the economists so vividly put it, will help. Another tactic in the struggle for grain is to intensify land use by raising not merely two but three crops a year. One analyst, Thomas Wiens, sees this multiple cropping as a doctrine in need of cost analysis. It requires such early ripening seeds and so much more labor, fertilizer, and irrigation that it may in fact be uneconomic.

Overall, however, the economists—piecing together data which Peking regards as nobody else’s business—see great potentialities, probably beyond reach at the breakneck speed now planned for but vast and imposing nevertheless. The command economy of the People’s Republic has done so much better than India that there is no longer any question of competition between the “communist” and “free” systems—or should one say, more realistically, between China and India?

Some Western socialists, on the other hand, are not happy. Teng’s staccato series of deals for Japanese trucks, US steel, British planes, French reactors, German chemicals, and American hotel chains and oil technology—all to be financed with foreign help—has abandoned the Maoist creed of self-reliance. Charles Bettelheim, president of the Franco-Chinese Friendship Association, saw this revisionism coming and resigned his presidency in May 1977. In China Since Mao he explains why the Chou-Teng program is really a “Great Leap Backward.” It reverses the Cultural Revolution, repudiates Marxism, revives factory “despotism” under one-man management, reinstates a concern for profit, opposes egalitarianism, and exploits the peasant masses in order to consolidate the power of the “state bourgeoisie” through the Four Modernizations. Things could not be worse, and Mao must be close to turning upside down in his mausoleum.

Jean Chesneaux in China: The People’s Republic, 1949-1976 offers a less theoretical, highly perceptive, and generally sympathetic narrative history of the Cultural Revolution. He sees it as the true revolution, anti-Stalinist, for the people. His account, however, says little of the Gang and stops short of Teng’s third ascension.

Ross Terrill’s The Future of China skillfully analyzes the emergence of Teng and of Hua Kuo-feng (as Chou’s and Mao’s successors) through the turmoil of 1976-1977. In those events he detects the rise of a Chinese public opinion. Putative evidence of it comes from Hong Kong where a Chinese magazine The Seventies (Ch’i-shih nien-tai) has offered a fresh look at the murk of Cultural Revolution politics. At least Chi Hsin (a collective pen name) asks the questions in everyone’s mind: “if the Gang of Four were so wicked and incompetent,” how come they rose so high? “Why was the Gang not dealt with earlier?” The answer smoothly implied is that Mao was senile. The little books on the Gang and on Teng consist of translated articles from the magazine, often in question and answer form. They state the commonly known grievances and criticisms and give reasonable and persuasive pro-Teng answers. Though they refrain from asking “Why not the best?” they do indeed read like campaign documents.

Teng Hsiao-ping: A Political Biography reprints his self-criticism of 1966 and conveys the general impression that Mao’s critique of “capitalist-roaders” was a sound effort to check bureaucratism and special privilege whereas the Gang of Four later distorted and perverted the Cultural Revolution for vainglorious ends. It is now over, Teng (its number-two target) is legitimately back in action, and with him in charge, as one says, the Maoist revolution can now go forward. This is all very plausible, and even John Connally could learn something from it.

One latent China question dealt with neither by economists nor by socialists is human rights. Since the People’s Republic is only now trying to move from rule by Maoist morality to rule by constitutional legal process, one can understand why Teng Hsiao-p’ing said human rights were not on his Washington agenda. Given the righteousness of any revolution and the conformity demanded by collective life in villages, to say nothing of a communist party, one would not expect much tolerance for dissidents in Mao’s China. Political deviance has been seen as a treasonous crime far more serious than theft or homicide. It has not been possible to separate policy from patriotism and tolerate a loyal opposition. The old Confucian tenets still seem to be held as valid: that one rules by virtue of wisdom and rectitude, that theory and practice are a unity, policies a form of conduct manifesting one’s character, and attacks on policy therefore attacks on the ruling power. The result is that the People’s Republic has had many political prisoners undergoing reform through labor.

Amnesty International’s sober report on Political Imprisonment in the People’s Republic of China is a systematic marshaling of evidence on the Chinese conception of political offenses, judicial procedures, and labor reform with illustrative details on the features described by earlier writers like Jean Pasqualini:* the lack of habeas corpus, unremitting pressure to confess, the use of humiliation, short rations, solitary confinement, handcuffs, and peer group “struggle” sessions to secure compliant thought and conduct, and the general prohibition of torture as such. Many political imprisonments have been reported from the Gang of Four era, but the AI report cites apparently “political” executions even in 1978. Presumably this survey is issued now because more evidence is available and also because Teng’s modernization program lists the development of constitutional rights as one of its aims.

Unfortunately Peter Moody’s Opposition and Dissent in Contemporary China is a seemingly unrevised dissertation that cites all the literature and looks at all sides but has trouble arriving at an overall analysis. As Moody says, “Those who have sponsored this study wish it to have policy implications. It has no direct ones, and this is probably just as well.” The book leaves the reader, like the author, well informed but up in the air.

An indirect perspective on the human rights problem comes from Elisabeth Croll’s Feminism and Socialism in China. It is the fullest account so far of the emancipation of Chinese women during the last 100 years. This great drama encapsulates China’s struggle as a whole—the Chinese revolution started from greater backwardness and had so much farther to go than Western revolutions. While British and American suffragettes were marching to demand the vote, their Chinese counterparts were still trying to get their feet unbound so they could walk down the street.

Croll’s combing of the record points up interesting motifs: foreign women and missionaries in China had helped start the anti-footbinding movement in the 1890s but once the further freedom of women became part of an organized political (and therefore revolutionary) effort in the May Fourth Movement of 1919, foreigners and Christians could no longer lead the way. Nationalism excluded the foreigners and Christianity avoided politics. In 1923 “the women’s representative of the National Christian Council thought women should undertake no activities that would separate them from their menfolk.” Women could still not inherit property and their marriages were still generally arranged by others.

Under the Nationalist regime in the 1930s feminists found Chiang’s New Life Movement a reactionary sell-out while Yenan offered the chance to combine the women’s revolt with a mobilized revolution. Female emancipation was not easy. I remember how Kung P’eng, Chou En-lai’s chief assistant with the foreign press in Chungking, remarked that the peasant women she had worked among were amazed that she had no lice in her hair when she first started living with them. The new Marriage Law of 1949 was a milestone, and Elisabeth Croll traces the interplay since then between the women’s movement and the social transformation of which it is a part. The movement is only part-way along.

Indeed Teng Hsiao-p’ing’s whole program is only a chapter in an unfinished tale. It will not take us back to the old days. We would do well to accept its limitations. There is little evidence that the Chinese really share the vision of the late Senator Kenneth Wherry of Nebraska and want Shanghai to be just like Kansas City.

This Issue

March 8, 1979