China’s Squirrely Path To Modernity


Due to the wonderful book, Wealth And Power (by Orville Schell and John Delury) I’ve already been able to complete a fairly in-depth (introductorily speaking) survey of 20th Century China.

That book piqued my interest so much in China that I had to go back for more.  Finding The Rise And Fall Of China (presented byRichard Baum) at my local library, I went through it with relish (actually no relish was involved at all, and I returned the item– stainfree– to my library).

Being I’ve already presented a factual account of modern China, I’d like to use Baum’s work as a springboard for declaring some of my own thoughts and concerning the waking giant of the East…

What I see when I look at China is a nation which was caught like a deer in headlights by modernity.  Or perhaps, another good roadkill metaphor would be this… China, circa 1850 – 1950, was like a squirrel on a busy road.  It didn’t know which way to go to get of harm’s way  It darted first this way, then that, then this– thus really doing nothing better than making itself an easy target for a couple of tons of cold hard Imperialism.  The bizarre thing is this… the Chinese squirrel was secretly an elephant, but placed under a curse, the curse of the too-rigid embrace of the old ways.

Unable to pull itself out of the mire of the past, China underwent a century of humiliation… from the imposition of the Opium Trade by the profiteering British in the early 1800s– to the Rape Of Nanking by the Japanese in 1937– and beyond, including the temporary loss of Manchuria to Japan during World War Two.  Unable to defend itself, China was subjected to a series of “Unequal Treaties” with the Imperialist powers, treaties which forced the Chinese to cede land to its conquerors and to open its markets to foreign capitalists.  Even China’s internal policies would sometimes be decided by the encroaching Imperialists.

During this century of humiliation– which, believe you me, still burns in the heart of the Chinese– China was never made a colony by a single Imperialist power as were so many areas in the world during this time, but instead suffered what might have been an even worse fate– it became a conglomeration of multiple, conquered territories, an assemblage of colonies ruled by numerous Imperialist powers.  China was being eating up by the ravenous Western and Japanese powers a bite at a time.

China did eventually choose a path into the 20th century… Communism under Mao Zedong circa 1949 (one could argue whether the Chinese people chose this course, or it was chosen for them… but as Acton said, we get the government we deserve).  Yet, even once that course was chosen, Mao still played the squirrel– albeit a dastardly, sharp-toothed, ideologically rabid one.  His policies were extreme and followed no straight path.  Chinese Maoist nightmare can arguably be said to have begun something around 1956…

Something was in the air in Communist circles worldwide in 1956.  In Russia, Stalin –one of the worst natural disasters ever to strike the planet– had died in mid-1953.  Nikita Khrushchev had eventually succeeded him, and in 1956 Khrushchev did what would have been unthinkable a few years earlier and denounced the policies of Stalinism.  That same year, popular unrest erupted in both Hungary and Poland, both countries detesting their situation, trapped as they were beneath the Soviet yoke.

Also in 1956, Mao Zedong issued an invitation to his fellow Chinese citizens (would it be so wrong to call them his “subjects?”), calling on intellectuals to freely air any grievances they had with the Communist stewardship of their country (the Communists had been in power since 1949). This was called the Hundred Flowers Campaign, and it did not last long.  Mao, acting squirrelly as ever, by June 1957 had abruptly cancelled the Hundred Flowers Campaign by decreeing a new, replacement campaign… the Anti-Rightist Rectification movement.

Apparently stung and appalled by the negative comments his invitation for critique had engendered, Mao scurried to the opposite side of the road and began hunting down and punishing those very intellectuals who had taken-up his offer to criticize the government.  Cynics might contend that this was all part of some masterplan of Mao’s, that he had opened the Hundred Flowers Campaign merely to call his enemies out from the shadows so that he could then mow them down.  However, that interpretation I feel gives Mao way, way too much credit.

I think a couple of things happened here (this is merely my own semi-educated guess, of course).  First, I think Mao had been living in a Yes Man Bubble for so long, that he had no idea of the deep unhappiness of the Chinese people, or of the educated class’s seething resentment and disapproval of his policies.  He had simply been mentally unprepared to witness his Communist Party come under direct attack.  Secondly, judging by her later actions, I suspect Mao’s (fourth) wife, Jiang Qing, was whispering in her husband’s ear during this time, words that would have went something like…  “See what a fool they are making of you, my husband.  Your enemies are turning the people against you.  The Bourgeois are using your benevolent invitation to poison the mind of the people…” et cetera.

So, in 1956 we had the Hundred Flowers Campaign, then in 1957, the Anti-Rightist reaction.  1958 brought another horrible idea… The Great Leap Forward…

First, the context… Mao greatly disapproved of Khrushchev’s policies, on two main fronts…  One, Mao felt Khrushchev was moving always from the true path of the Communist Revolution.  Two, Mao disapproved of Khrushchev’s handling of the Hungarian revolt, which showed the Soviet regime’s disregard for national sovereignty.  In truth, Mao was probably a little worried that, with such a precedent established, the Soviets might turn their border-ignoring activities toward their junior partner, China (as late as 1956, China was still receiving substantial Soviet aid and advice).  And if there’s one thing I think we can say about Mao with certainty, it’s that Mao did not like being anybody’s “junior partner”– this probably adds a third, psychological reason for Mao’s dissatisfaction with Khrushchev.

Unlike Stalin, Khrushchev had not been involved in the work of Lenin’s revolution in Russia.  Mao  –who had been the dominant personality, of course, of China’s Communist Revolution–  I think despised the idea of playing second fiddle under this Russian upstart, this inheritor.  It was time to break free of the cloistering Soviet embrace.  Mao considered himself not only Khrushchev’s equal, but his Revolutionary superior.

Mao decided, perhaps with ego-fed, subconscious motivations (I’m very skeptical that Mao was a champion of self-awareness), that China was now in competition with the Soviets for the leadership of the Communist world.  Spurred by this ambition, Mao concluded that China must reach full communism ahead of the Soviet Union (neither nation, though they both had socialized much of their infrastructure by the mid-1950s, had achieved the Communist ideal within their borders;  Communism was proving much harder to implement in the real world than to design on paper.

As history sadly documents, Mao’s mad dash to full Communism resulted in utter misery for the Chinese people.  The Great Leap Forward, occurring during the years 1958 to 1962, resulted in wide-spread famine and thirty million deaths (I never much trust atrocity figures, but whatever the number, we can be assured the results of the Great Leap Forward were horrid, doubtlessly Hell on Earth for thousands and thousands of suffering families).

Mao was twisted… and not just in the sense that he would bend one way and then the other.  After bringing his country to its knees via the Great Leap Forward, the next thing he had in store for his countrymen was even more horrible… the decade long torture-campaign of his own people… the Cultural Revolution.

The Cultural Revolution seems to trace back, not to some great scheme of the Chairman, but to a few vitriolic remarks he made, probably due to frustration and to a misplaced anger at the failure– perceptible to some degree and at last even inside the Yes Man Bubble– of his Great Leap Forward.  Mao blamed neither himself nor his policies, of course, but Reactionaries, conservatives who were holding the country back.  He also seemed to feel that the Chinese people, in general, exhibited a lack of commitment to Communist ideology.

The youth of the nation, idealistic as the youth of most nations are, took his harsh comments to heart.  Spontaneously forming into small, violent bands soon to be known as the “Red Guards,” they went about bullying civilians who did not voice the “right” opinions.  Their aims were nebulous, but can without too much error be summed-up as the attempt to bludgeon to death China’s old habits, customs, culture, and philosophies.  Of course, once one gets rid of all that, it is arguable whether one is saving the person– or preserving the corpse.

When Mao finally died in the mid-1970s, China began its long mending process.



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