China’s Despair and China’s Hope

Fang Lizhi, translated by Perry Link

Fang Lizhi, an internationally respected astrophysicist, is China’s most prominent dissident. Formerly the vice-president of the University of Science and Technology in Anhui province, he was dismissed from his job and expelled from the Communist party in 1987, after being accused of encouraging student demonstrations in favor of democratic rights. Recently he was barred by the authorities from leaving China to visit the United States. Andrei Sakharov, along with other scientists in Europe and the United States, has appealed to Chinese government leaders to permit him to travel abroad.

The Editors

Nineteen eighty-nine is the Year of the Snake in China. It is not clear whether this snake will bring any great temptations. But this much is predictable: the year will stimulate Chinese into deeper reflection upon the past and a more incisive look at the present. The year will mark both the seventieth anniversary of the May Fourth Movement of 1919 (a major intellectual and political movement marked by nationalism and Western cultural influence) and the fortieth year since the founding of socialist China in 1949. These two anniversaries may serve as telling symbols of China’s hope and China’s despair.

Forty years of socialism have left people despondent. In the 1950s, the catch phrases “only socialism can save China” and “without the Communist party there could be no new China” seemed as widely accepted as physical laws. Today, a look at the “new” China makes one feel that the naive sincerity of those years has been trifled with, the people’s enthusiasm betrayed.

True, the past forty years have not been wholly devoid of change or progress. But the standard of comparison for measuring the success or failure of a society should be this: Has the distance between it and the most advanced societies of the world increased or decreased? To measure our forty socialist years by this standard, not only was the Maoist period a failure; even the last ten “years of reform” provide insufficient basis for any singing of praises.

The failure of the past forty years cannot be blamed—at least not entirely—on Chinese cultural tradition. The facts clearly show that, among other countries and regions1 that began with similar cultural backgrounds, and at starting points comparable to China’s, nearly all have now joined or are about to join the ranks of the developed.

Nor can the forty years of failure be blithely attributed to China’s overpopulation. First, we must recognize that China’s overpopulation is itself one of the “political achievements” of the Maoist years. It was Mao’s policy in the 1950s to oppose birth control as a “bourgeois Malthusian doctrine” and encourage rapid population growth. Moreover, as everyone knows, one of the greatest factors obstructing China’s economic development has been, for years, the parade of enormous “class struggle” campaigns and large-scale political persecutions. Are we to believe that any overpopulated society necessarily generates such struggles and persecutions? Such a view is plainly illogical.

Logic allows only one conclusion: that the disappointments of…

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