I have just received yet another collection of Stalin’s writings, this one called Stalin on China. But what drew my eye on opening it is the preface by Chen Pota, from 1949:

On the basis of concrete analysis of the concrete conditions in China, Stalin, this great scientist of dialectical materialism, the teacher of world revolution, formulates at the time of the first Great Revolution of China, a series of questions concerning the Chinese revolution, to which he offers extremely brilliant solutions. By this means he demolished the nonsense on the question of China advanced by the counter-revolutionary Trotskyites and assisted the Communist Party of China to embark on the path of Bolshevism.

Great scientist of dialectical material, teacher of world revolution, brilliant solutions … and above all, concrete. You don’t find reviews like that any more – except perhaps self-written pieces on academic profile pages.

2014 May 228a

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On two occasions now, Alain Badiou has cancelled a trip to China – at the last minute. To be sure, he had good immediate excuses, such as his adopted son being in prison. But by the time he cancelled, the date and appearance had been fixed, notices had gone out, and people awaited his arrival. So what is going on with the old polemicist? Why can he not bring himself to go to China? Badiou remains in many ways a Maoist, and holds that the path to communism largely came to an end with the death of Mao and the end of the Cultural Revolution. That way he can hold to an ideal communism that has not really been achieved as yet (he also rubbishes the communist states in eastern Europe). Is it perhaps because the old bugger fears facing his own Real? What if he actually came to China and experienced a very different form of socialism, with plenty of life in it yet? Could he continue to deride it, or would it challenge the basis of much of his thought and politics? Better to cancel before facing such a moment.

The foreigner’s moment of transition is upon me: China is becoming familiar. This is a curious time, when much of what struck me on the first few visits starts to seem like normal. What was different is no longer so; what I once noticed I no longer do, since it is becoming part of everyday life. The downside is that I need to work harder to notice what I once did, to create that fiction of seeing for the first time. But the upside is that I am beginning to understand some aspects a little more deeply.

The first is a paradox, at least at first sight. China is at the same time more technologically advanced than any place on the planet and yet more traditional. The examples are multiple, including the highest rate of new technological inventions in the world (outstripping even places like silicon valley) or the development of an anti-aircraft-carrier missile that neutralises the key element of US military supremacy. But let me describe one such item in a little more detail. China has what is already the most comprehensive network of high-speed trains in the world, and the network is expanding rapidly. It may have borrowed the technology from Germany and France, but there only a few short lines operate with trains that run at over 300 kilometres per hour. As China extends its network over thousands and thousands of kilometres, it has developed the technology in its own way, so that now it is the global expert. The network is transforming travel in China in a way other countries can only imagine.

Yet China is deeply traditional. This is most noticeable in the rural villages, even in those close to the cities. Here people cook on wood fires, draw water from wells, use hand labour for farming and animals (mules) for traction. To be sure, they have motorised vehicles – of the ubiquitous three-wheeled type – but they often prefer the animals and their hands. With common rather than private property in land, they practice the age-old reallocation of land shares on a periodic basis. Need and capability are the criteria, depending on family size and capabilities.

I could cite other examples, such as attitudes to relationships, or assumptions regarding food, or the sense of what is important in life (spiritual as well as material), but the underlying paradox is one of the most advanced and yet most traditional societies one can find. However, a widespread sense persists in China that it remains backward, that it still has much catching-up to do to be equal with the ‘West’. I prefer to see it in terms of dialectical possibilities. As past experience shows, the places that feel as though they are still behind the rest usually find new ways to leap ahead. Call it dialectics if you will, but soon enough more and more people realise that backwardness is an advantage. It enables modes of creativity in which one realises that ‘catching up’ is not the path to follow. Instead, such backwardness produces new modes of thinking and acting that solve intractable problems elsewhere. Suddenly, what was once backward is now at the forefront. The fact that China has – as one person put it to me clearly – a very different social framework adds to that potential.

A second feature concerns perceptions of, or rather the production of, the ‘West’. This is a subtle term with many layers of meaning. Of course, the origins of the East-West distinction, as we know it, go back to the struggles between the Greek-speaking (east) and Latin-speaking (west) parts of the Christian Church. Dates for major festivals, doctrinal statements, church structures – these and more were part of the struggle. From this specific, small, and rather insignificant origin it has become a global distinction. But what does ‘West’ mean in China? Sometimes it refers strictly to Western Europe; at other times eastern Europe, the USA, North America as a whole, and even Japan are included; and at others it includes the whole world apart from China (which then embodies the East). Intrigued by these multiple senses, I often ask: what about Russia, is that Western? Some say yes, others say no, but few recognise that Russia is largely an Asian country. How about Eastern Europe – Romania, Poland, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Serbia …? They are definitely Western. What about Africa? South America? Australia? Pacific Islands? Mostly people say they are not ‘Western’. Yet, just when I think I am getting close to the meaning of the term, to pinpoint what ‘West’ really means, it slips out of my grasp. So perhaps we need to ask a very different question: why do Chinese people need a subtle and slippery term like ‘the West’. It is crucial for the constant process of defining what China is, especially in the modern world. So the question should really be: what do Chinese people think the ‘West’ thinks about China?

I am often asked a question like this: what does the ‘West’ think of China? I usually point out that I do not come from the ‘West’ but from the ‘South’. But I also indicate what appears in the corporate media from time to time, indeed what general impressions are in the South Land (Terra Australis). China is still viewed with a mix of mystery and fear, both of which are based on ignorance. The mystery still has a good dose of the orientalism about it, which continues to haunt much of the rest of the world. Indeed, the ‘Forbidden City’ stands as a symbol of this mystery, especially in a country run by a ‘secretive’ Communist Party. So mystery folds easily into fear. Whether the ‘yellow peril’ of a bygone age in Australia when European whites were once the most numerous (now they are the minority), or China’s ‘aggressive’ and ‘dangerous’ rise that is on the minds of fading empires – fear is easy to generate, but especially so in the absence of knowledge. It remains true that people in China know more about the rest of the world than the rest knows of China; hence the ease with which the corporate media fills that space with a mix of fear and mystery, along with ignorance and misinformation. Indeed, I recall vividly my first arrival in China. No matter how much I sought to resist the near-universal images of China portrayed, I too was affected by them. Would I be followed by a secret policeman? What topics should I avoid? Would I be escorted carefully around the place so that I could not see ‘sensitive’ places? All of these preconceptions were simply destroyed. I experienced a near 180 degree reversal of my preconceptions.

Yet, the most significant impression took somewhat longer to build, a result of prolonged periods of living in China: it is the relief of being in a socialist democracy. At first, this experience is not so obvious, except that one begins to enjoy the absence of the inanities of bourgeois democracy – inaction as a result of parties focused on the opinion polls and elections, the to-and-fro of policies instituted only to be undone by the next bunch, the petty squabbles and character assassinations, the corruption that is inseparable from such a system, the absence of real and wide-ranging political debate, and the fact that the ‘parties’ in question are so similar to one another in seeking to gain ‘the middle ground’ that they are really factions of one pro-capitalist party. Far better to have the same party in government year after year – a necessity for the construction of socialism (although it is worth noting that China has more than 25 pro-socialist political parties involved in government).

The first sense of the difference of socialist democracy ‘with Chinese characteristics’ came from a curious angle. I began to notice that political debates were much more wide-ranging than those to which I had become accustomed. Everything was on the table and everyone had a passionate opinion. Was this a paradox of one-party rule, I wondered, which generates wider debate than a bourgeois democratic system? Since then I have realised the situation is more complex. Stability is the norm rather than the exception, which both allows decisions to be made and carried through, and produces the fascinating problem of long-term legitimacy. The government both fosters debate and listens closely, with many channels for gaining a sense of what people think. When it works well, this pattern of listening, processing, reformulating and sending out proposals for further considerations is what socialist democracy, or ‘democratic centralism’, is really about. And it needs to work well – although at times it does not – for a government that has been in power for a long time constantly needs to renew itself. Perhaps Chairman Mao sums it up best: ‘from the masses, to the masses’.

Even at Jinan railway station, Shandong province (the birthplace of Confucius):

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A few portraits from the last four months, from different places between Henan and Sichuan, from the countryside to the city:














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As an Iranian woman in Jinan said to me: God must have been in a very good mood when he created Chinese women and men.

I can say that while teaching in China I am enjoying the process of setting young and active minds on the correct path. To that end, I tell them:

1. The United States is a very strange country, unlike any other. For that reason, they should not generalise from the USA.

2. Europe is a very barbaric place, full of petty tribalisms.

3. Bourgeois (liberal) democracy is a dreadful system, best avoided (actually, they know this already).

4. Australia is neither a Western nor an Eastern country, since it is in the South.

5. Kangaroo meat is very good for you.

Since many of my students will be future government leaders and officials, I hope these items and more will have some effect.

However, I have also learnt a few things from them:

1. Communism is not a rational ideal that you then try to actualise.

2. Communism is not singular but multiple.

3. They work very hard and know much more about the rest of the world than the world knows about China.

4. One’s stomach is the best guide for travelling to different places.

5. Office hours mean I buy them lunch and we talk for more than four hours – about everything.

The indefatigable Dialectical Materialist Collective from Kosovo has just published the first – and bumper – issue of the new journal, Crisis and Critique. As you will see, I follow on the heels of none other than Slavoj Žižek. My contribution concerns ‘Socialist Democracy with Chinese Characteristics‘.

Less known than it should be, China actually has eight officially recognised parties apart from the Communist Party. These are non-communist parties with a total membership of 700,000 and actually provide invaluable feedback for the government in its continual efforts to gain a feel for public opinion. Members of these parties often have government posts and senior roles (more here). They are:

Revolutionary Committee of the Chinese Kuomintang (RCCK)
In November 1947, the sect of democrats in the Chinese Kuomintang (Nationalist Party) held its first joint meeting with patriotic democratic personages in Hong Kong. On January 1, 1948, the meeting declared that the RCCK had been officially founded.

RCCK recruits members mostly from people who have relations with the former Chinese Kuomintang, those who have historical or social relations with the RCCK and those who have ties with Taiwan. The RCCK also recruits members from other sources, especially those of the middle and upper social strata, and senior and leading intellectuals.

The successive chairpersons of the RCCK in the past were Li Jishen, He Xiangning, Zhu Yunshan, Wang Kunlun, Qu Wu, Zhu Xuefan and Li Peiyao. The present chairwoman is He Luli.

The RCCK currently has branches in 30 provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities directly under the central government. Party membership numbers 81,000.

China Democratic League (CDL)
The China Democratic League was secretly established on March 19, 1941 in Chongqing, and was then named China Democratic Political League. On November 16, Zhang Lan officially declared the founding of the China Democratic Political League in Chongqing. In September 1944, the China Democratic Political League held a national congress in Chongqing and decided to rename itself the China Democratic League.

The CDL is mainly made up of senior and leading intellectuals in the fields of culture, education, and science and technology.

The successive chairpersons in the past were Huang Yanpei, Zhang Lan, Shen Junru, Yang Mingxuan, Shi Liang, Chu Tu’nan, Fei Xiaotong and Ding Shisun. The present chairman is Jiang Shusheng.

The CDL now has branches in 30 provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities directly under the central government. Party membership numbers more than 181,000.

China National Democratic Construction Association (CNDCA)
The China National Democratic Construction Association was founded by a number of patriotic industrialists and business people, as well as some intellectuals in Chongqing on December 16, 1945.

The members of the association are mainly business people.

The successive leaders and chairpersons in the past were Huang Yanpei, Hu Juewen and Sun Qimeng. The present chairman is Cheng Siwei.

The CNDCA has branches in 30 provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities directly under the central government, and more than 108,000 members.

China Association for Promoting Democracy (CAPD)
Founded in Shanghai on December 30, 1945, the original members of the China Association for Promoting Democracy were mainly intellectuals in the fields of culture, education and publishing, together with a group of patriotic personages in the fields of industry and business.

Its present members are mainly senior and leading intellectuals in the fields of culture, education and publishing.

The successive chairpersons of the past were Ma Xulun, Zhou Jianren, Ye Shengtao and Lei Jieqiong. Its present chairman is Xu Jialu.

Currently, the CAPD has branches in 29 provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities directly under the central government, with a membership of over 103,000.

Chinese Peasants and Workers Democratic Party (CPWDP)
Deng Yanda, a leader of the left wing of the Kuomintang, held the first national cadres’ conference of the Kuomintang in Shanghai on August 9, 1930, and at the conference the Provisional Action Committee of the Kuomintang of China was founded. On November 10, 1935, it was renamed the Chinese Action Committee for National Liberation. On February 3, 1947, it was renamed the Chinese Peasants and Workers Democratic Party.

Its members are mainly senior and leading intellectuals in the medical field.

The successive leaders and chairpersons of the party were Deng Yanda, Huang Qixiang, Zhang Bojun, Ji Fang, Zhou Gucheng and Lu Jiaxi. Its present chairman is Jiang Zhenghua.

The CPWDP now has branches in 30 provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities directly under the central government, with more than 99,000 members.

China Zhi Gong Dang (CZGD)
The China Zhi Gong Dang was founded in October 1925 in San Francisco, USA, under the sponsorship of some overseas Chinese societies. In May 1947, the party held its third congress in Hong Kong, and reorganized itself into a new democratic party.

Its members are mainly from the middle and upper social strata of returned overseas Chinese and their relatives.

The successive chairpersons of the party were Chen Qiyou, Huang Dingchen and Dong Yinchu. Its present chairman is Luo Haocai.

The CZGD now has branches in 19 provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities directly under the central government, with more than 28,000 members.

Jiu San Society
At the end of 1944, a number of progressive scholars organized the Forum on Democracy and Science, to strive for victory in the Anti-Japanese War and political democracy, and to develop the anti-imperialist and patriotic spirit of the May 4 Movement of 1919. In commemoration of victory in the Chinese People’s War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression and in the world anti-Fascist war, on September 3, 1945, it adopted the name Jiu San Society (“Jiu San” means September 3 in Chinese). On May 4, 1946, the Jiu San Society was formally founded in Chongqing.

Its members are mainly senior and leading intellectuals in the fields of science and technology.

The successive chairpersons of the past were Xu Deheng, Zhou Peiyuan and Wu Jieping. Its present chairman is Han Qide.

The Jiu San Society currently has branches in 30 provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities directly under the central government, with more than 105,000 members.

Taiwan Democratic Self-Government League (TSL)
The TSL was founded in Hong Kong on November 12, 1947 by a number of Taiwan personages engaged in patriotic campaigns after the February 28 Uprising of the Taiwan people that year.

The TSL is composed of people from Taiwan.

The successive chairpersons of the past were Xie Xuehong, Cai Xiao, Su Ziheng, Cai Zimin and Zhang Kehui. The present chairwoman is Lin Wenyi. From 1987 to 1992, the Fourth Central Committee of the TSL adopted the presidium system. The executive chairmen were Lin Shengzhong (1987-1988) and Cai Zimin (1988-1992).

The TSL now has branches in 13 provinces and municipalities directly under the central government, with a membership of over 2,100.

Personages Without Party Affiliation 
During the New Democratic Revolution (1919-1949), the famous personages without party affiliation were generally called prominent public figures. Since the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference was founded in 1949, the category of “democratic personages without party affiliation” has been set up. Currently, those who do not belong to any party but have made positive contributions to and have a positive influence on society are categorized as personages without party affiliation. They are mostly intellectuals.

The representatives of this group included Guo Moruo, Ma Yinchu, Ba Jin, Miao Yuntai and Cheng Siyuan.

(source: White Paper on China’s Political Part System)

Forget the Great Wall, hutongs in Beijing, shopping in Shanghai, the Forbidden City – the best places to visit are the key points in the Chinese Revolution. Yan’an is an absolute must, for here the Central Committee and the Red Armies established their headquarters at the end of the long march. The town of Yan’an, in the northern parts of Shaanxi Province, was the heart of the revolution from 1938 to 1947. Situated on the upper reaches of the Yellow River (yes, the river really is yellow, from the soil in those parts), the town might have grown to one million people today, but it is very much a provincial town. Expect people to photograph you, or even throw an arm around you and expect to be photographed with you; expect that possibly one person in town may speak a language you know; and expect the best Chinese food you can possibly find. The way to get there is by overnight sleeper from Beijing or Xi’an. You’ll probably have an old Chinese man snoring loudly in the bunk above you, when he is not calling his friends and telling them loudly about the laowai (foreigners) in his cabin. And you may have a woman in the other bunk, sleeping beside her daughter, who keeps on staring at the strange people down below.

The place to begin is Yangjialing village, where the leaders of the revolution lived in homes cut into the mountainside:


In case you are unsure about where to begin your exploration, a sign helpfully indicates the pace to start:


And then:


In Yangjialing is the famous meeting hall, where Mao gave his talks on literature and art:

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Yes, I’m standing where the man himself once stood:


Overlooking proceedings are the great four:

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Afterwards, saunter along the banks of the Yellow River for a while, where new bridges celebrate the revolution:

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Until you come to the Revolutionary Memorial Hall. It is a massive museum, with more than 30,000 items from that time. Out the front, the chairman both greets you:

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And watches over the town:

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But the square can be a little daunting for some:

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Inside, a welcoming committee awaits:


I was taken with the song book for soldiers in the Red Army:

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With the women soldiers:

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It is worth noting that the Guomindang, under Chiang Kai-Shek, would immediately shoot any women they captured with short hair and natural feet. Why? They assumed they must be communists. So modern Chinese women have the revolution to thank for normal feet.

I was also intrigued by the literature translated and read in Yan’an:


Lenin, of course, but also Karl Kautsky:

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That one’s actually in Russian, for they avidly learnt Russian as well. But they also read Stalin. Indeed, Stalin is probably the most cited foreign author in Mao’s works.

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Although all four of the ‘hairy grandfathers’ often make an appearance:

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Who are now outnumbered by the hairless grandfathers:

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There were also statistics on communist party membership:

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A significant section was devoted to Norman Bethune, the Canadian doctor (from Montreal) and communist who practised what he preached and took himself to Yan’an and its district to organise the medical units:

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Bethune died from septicemia at the age of 49, and Mao’s famous article on Bethune is still required reading in Chinese schools. Among other things, China’s premier medical prize is named after Bethune, and he was single-handedly responsible for the close relations between China and Canada.

I was also intrigued by model of Yan’an village at the time:

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And of course the reddish artwork:

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