‘Red’ or ‘Expert’?

Education Under Mao: Class and Competition in Canton Schools, 1960-1980

by Jonathan Unger
Columbia University Press, 308 pp., $24.00

Competitive Comrades: Career Incentives and Student Strategies in China

by Susan L. Shirk
University of California Press, 231 pp., $24.00

China's Intellectual Dilemma: Politics and University Enrolment, 1949-1978

by Robert Taylor
University of British Columbia Press, 215 pp., $18.50 (Canadian)

Mao’s last decade was as full of confusion and surprises as the 1790s in France. In size and complexity the Cultural Revolution was of course a much bigger event than the French Revolution. At any rate it will be studied from many angles for a long time to come. Probably its most arresting feature, in retrospect, was its disastrous attack on learning and intellectuals in the very land that had exalted scholarship and invented civil service examinations thirteen hundred years before. In fact, the two were not unconnected—learning was attacked in China because it seemed to be so entrenched in the establishment. This historical circumstance makes the Cultural Revolution hard to understand without reference to history. Some political scientists, however, are willing to try.

Because the twentieth-century Chinese educational system is roughly comparable with those in other developing countries, Jonathan Unger’s Education Under Mao began as part of a project sponsored by Great Britain’s Institute of Developmental Studies to seek “solutions to the ‘diploma disease’ that has beset the educational systems of many of the Third World countries.” To study the violent Cultural Revolution as a manifestation of diploma disease is like treating toxic shock under a diagnosis of chickenpox. But never mind. We used to give money to China research in the name of national defense.

To study China as part of the third world presumably answers the need for all social scientists to be comparative, whether or not comparison explains anything. Similarly Susan Shirk’s Competitive Comrades begins by noting that Mao’s political moralism resembled that of Rousseau and other revolutionary movements (Puritanism, fascism, satyagraha, Islam, Marxism) which have advocated “total ethical transformations.” She is a structuralist and says that “policy-generated structure is a better starting point for understanding behavior” than is the usual concern for psychological tendencies passed down through cultural tradition. One is tempted to ask her about the “culture-generated policy” that must lie behind the “policy-generated structure.”

To make an exception of an area like China on the grounds of cultural differences fostered by a long history is not feasible in her kind of social science. To be sure, Susan Shirk notes that Mao’s “moralism also was rooted in ancient Chinese tradition” and Unger seems historically well informed. His Appendix B notes that the Chinese literati “have always been associated with the political realm.” Both writers make a polite bow to history but prefer to go into contemporary situations and outward in space rather than backward in time.

In their comparative and contemporary world view, China stands, by definition and by its own policy statements, in the ranks of the third-world countries. If we look at the facts, China does indeed stand there, in size and age an elephant among rabbits. Comparing China with Ghana no doubt has theoretical value. To argue that China is a “nation imprisoned by its history,” as has been said, may of course be only another way of showing that Sinologists are imprisoned by their China. But if we grant…

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