China: Politics as Warfare

Private Collection
Tang Xiaohe: Strive Forward in Wind and Tides (detail), 1971; from the Asia Society’s 2008 exhibition ‘Art and China’s Revolution’

Mao’s Invisible Hand is one of those books that make one feel good about scholarship. It describes inner workings of Chinese Communist society about which few nonexperts know anything—it may even surprise the experts—and it will interest anyone professionally interested in China. Its central purpose is to explain how China has escaped the disintegration of other Communist states; but the contributors to the book do not cram their research into a template that promises more coherence than Chinese realities can provide.

The big idea advanced by Sebastian Heilmann of the University of Trier and Harvard’s Elizabeth J. Perry, both well- established scholars of Chinese politics, concerns the ability of the Chinese Communist regime to adapt. Many China-watchers, they recall, predicted that the People’s Republic would collapse after Tiananmen in 1989; nowadays some maintain that the spread of the market will inevitably lead to a civil society and even some form of democracy. From the regime’s point of view, such predictions may recall the warnings of Lenin, quoted by one of the contributors to this volume, who in 1902 urged that the Party must “struggle against spontaneity” because the spontaneous impulses of the masses can result “in the ideological enslavement of the workers by the bourgeoisie.”

In their first chapter, however, Perry and Heilmann contend that the post-Mao regime has “become increasingly adept at managing difficult challenges ranging from leadership succession and popular unrest to administrative reorganization, legal institutionalization, and even global economic integration.” Yet there is no implication anywhere in this book that the editors and their colleagues approve of the regime’s strategies; they are concerned to show how they evolved and actually work.

They state that the regime’s “staying power” is observable “up to this point” and has very dark sides: official corruption, the ruin of the environment, and no civil liberties. “Up to this point,” as is usual with volumes based on conferences, can mean some years ago. Right now is an even worse time for Chinese civil liberties, with the Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo behind bars, many of his supporters and human rights lawyers detained, and the arrest in 2011 and release eighty-one days later of the now largely silenced artist Ai Weiwei—to name only two of the nonviolent dissidents who have been subject to repression. Chen Guangcheng has made it to NYU but his wife and associates have been treated brutally.

The editors and contributors agree that Mao’s successors have retained, although in often-changed form,

a signature Maoist stamp that conceives of policy-making as a process of ceaseless change, tension management, continual experimentation, and ad-hoc adjustment.

The editors insist this has been a relatively recent development in governance that is understood neither by political science nor theories of modernization.…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.