China


I usually don’t mention news stories, but this one intrigued me. It is tucked away in a small corner of the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Commission) webpage and is entitled: ‘China pollution: Beijing’s improved air quality a result of good policy, city officials say’. The article mentions the notable improvement in air quality over the last few years, especially in the last year. I have noticed this myself and mentioned it here on a number of occasions. When I first began coming to Beijing some years ago, it was a rare day that you could see blue sky. Now, we have days on end with blue skies. It can still get bad, but those periods are becoming fewer. Often, I go for a run outside. The reason for improvements? By 2016 there will be no coal-fired power stations in Beijing (Australian coal industry take note); old cars are being pulled off the roads (half a million last year and more this year); and polluting factories are being closed down or moved. The last item is not quite a solution, but the general trend is one that I have experienced first hand.

What gender do Chinese couples prefer for a first child? I must admit that until now I had assumed the conventional wisdom of the international media: traditional Chinese couples, especially in rural areas, prefer a boy first. Indeed, such an image suggests they will go to the extent of seeking illegal abortion if they know that the embryo will be a girl. Or, if they do have a girl first, they can have another baby in the hope that it will be a boy. The reason: the family’s name, tradition and inheritance passes down through the male line, so a boy is the pride of a couple – given that traditional Chinese society is hopelessly patriarchal

Recently, I heard a somewhat different perspective from a woman who grew up in the countryside, where traditional practices have a greater hold.

‘A couple prefers a girl first’, she said.

‘What?’ I said. ‘I thought a boy was more desirable’.

‘No,’ she said. ‘The birth of a girl is a great relief for the couple in question, especially if they are of modest means’.

‘Why?’ I said.

‘If a boy is born’, she said, ‘the parents already have nightmares about the costs involved’.

Now I was truly puzzled. ‘Do Chinese boys demand more?’

She laughed. ‘Not in that way’, she said. ‘If a boy is born, then the parents know that later they will have to pay for a wedding, if not a house for the couple. It can cost quite a lot’.

‘So they prefer a girl first’, I said.

‘Yes’, she said. ‘Then they can relax a little’.

‘What about the second child?’ I said.

‘Well’, she said. ‘If they have a boy first and then decide to have a second child, then they worry endless whether it too will be a boy’.

‘That would clearly be too much’, I said. ‘So they sweat out the possibility of the second child also being a boy’.

‘Yes’, she said.

‘But what if they have a girl first?’ I said.

‘Then there is less worry’, she said. ‘If a boy is born then, then that is manageable’.

‘And a girl for the second child?’ I said.

‘That is the easiest’, she said.

Can a religious person join the communist party?

One would expect that the answer would be a resounding ‘no’. Is not Marxism a materialist philosophy and political movement, with no time for the mystifying effects of religion or indeed for reactionary religious institutions? The catch is that communist parties around the world have actually permitted religious people to join and be members.

Let us go back to the First International. It was accused by the reactionary right and indeed by former comrades of requiring atheism for its members. On the other side, the anarchists wanted the International to declare itself atheist, abolish cults and replace faith with science. What was the response of Marx and Engels? While Marx asserted that he was an atheist,[1] he made it quite clear that the International itself did not make atheism a prerequisite for membership – ‘As if one could declare by royal decree abolition of faith!’[2] As for Engels, he repeatedly pointed out that anyone who suggests that the International ‘wants to make atheism compulsory’ is simply guilty of a lie.[3]

Why did they take this position? The first reason was that they saw religion as a secondary phenomenon, arising from alienated socio-economic conditions. Any direct attack on religion would divert the movement from its main task. Second, ‘atheism, as the mere negation of, and referring only to, religion, would itself be nothing without it and is thus itself another religion’.[4] The third reason is that they would simply be copying a bourgeois anti-religious program, which would – and this is the fourth reason – split the workers from the prime task of overcoming socio-economic oppression.

The Second International took an even more explicit position. It followed the Erfurt Program of 1891, of the German Social-Democrats: ‘Declaration that religion is a private matter [Erklärung der Religion zur Privatsache]’.[5] A key question debated at the time was whether a priest or minister could join the party: the answer was yes, but if the minister found the party program conflicted with his own positions, then that was a matter for him to resolve.

Even the far Left that became the Spartacus Group in Germany held to this position. For example, Rosa Luxemburg asserted in Socialism and the Churches from 1905:

The Social-Democrats, those of the whole world and of our own country, regard conscience [Gewissen] and personal opinion [Überzeugung] as being sacred. Everyone is free to hold whatever faith and whatever opinions will ensure his happiness. No one has the right to persecute or to attack the particular religious opinion of others. Thus say the Social-Democrats.[6]

Perhaps Lenin and the Bolsheviks provide us with a clear example of demanding atheism from party members. Here too we will be disappointed, for Lenin – as a good ‘Erfurtian’ – took the position of the Erfurt Program.[7] To be sure, Lenin argued for a radical separation of church and state, and that the party must not leave religion alone in propagating its position – so that religion was also very much a public affair. Yet this did not lead Lenin to propose that party membership applications should include a question on religion and atheism. Even though a socialist may espouse a materialist worldview in which religion is but a medieval mildew, even though the party may undertake a very public and unhindered program of education against the influence of the church, and even though one hoped that the historical materialist position would persuade all of its truth, the party still did not stipulate atheism as a prerequisite for membership. Even more, no one would be excluded from party membership if he or she held to religious belief. As Lenin stated forcefully: ‘Organisations belonging to the R.S.D.L.P. have never distinguished their members according to religion, never asked them about their religion and never will’.[8]

Surely the Cuban Communist Party bans religion for its members. It did so initially, but even then many of the members professed atheism while maintaining religious observance at home. So at the fourth congress of 1991 it decided to remove ‘religious beliefs’ as an ‘obstacle’ anyone who sought to become a member. Indeed, in the Central Committee’s Report to the sixth congress of 2011, it was noted that ‘congruence between revolutionary doctrine and religious faith is rooted in the very foundations of the nation’. To back this up, a statement from none other than Fidel Castro (in 1971) was used: ‘I tell you that there are ten thousand times more coincidences of Christianity with Communism than there might be with Capitalism’.[9]

It is becoming difficult to find a communist party that requires atheism of its members – at least until we come to the Chinese Communist Party. Here at last is a party that officially bans religious belief among those seeking to become members. Indeed, in the process of becoming a member, a candidate is asked whether he or she has professed any religious beliefs. Anyone found to have done so is called upon to rectify such beliefs. According to Professor Li Yunlong, from the Party School of the CPC Central Committee, ‘Party members are banned from joining religions. Believing in communism and atheism is a basic requirement to become a Party member’.[10] At last we have a communist party that is explicitly atheist, banning aspiring members who might be otherwise.

Yet, there is a typical Chinese twist: one must be an atheist upon entry to the party, but should one become religious at a later point, then little is usually done – at least if one keeps such beliefs discreet and exercises them along officially recognised channels.

[1] ‘Record of Marx’s Interview with The World Correspondent’, 1871, MECW 22, p. 605.

[2] Marx, ‘Remarks on the Programme and Rules of the International Alliance of Socialist Democracy’, 1868, MECW 21, p. 208.

[3] Engels, ’ Account of Engels’s Speech on Mazzini’s Attitude Towards the International’, 1871, MECW, p. 608.

[4] Engels, ‘Engels to Eduard Bernstein in Zurich, London, July 1884’. 1884, MECW 47, p. 173.

[5] Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands, Erfurt Program. In German History in Documents and Images: Wilhelmine Germany and the First World War, 1890–1918. Available at  www.germanhistorydocs.ghi-dc.org/pdf/eng/513_Erfurt%20Program_94.pdf.

[6] Rosa Luxemburg, Rosa Luxemburg Speaks, ed. Mary-Alice Walters, New York: Pathfinder, 1970, p. 132.

[7] Lenin, ‘The Attitude of the Workers’ Party towards Religion’, Collected Works 15, p. 404.

[8] Lenin, ‘Does the Jewish Proletariat Need an “Independent Political Party”?’ 1993, Collected Works 6, p. 331 fn.

[9] See http://www.cuba.dk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=229:central-report-to-the-6th-congress-of-the-communist-party-of-cuba&catid=49:politik-og-historie&Itemid=50.

[10] http://en.people.cn/n/2015/0202/c90785-8844565.html.

Is the communist party of China a bunch of mean, nasty and greedy old men, terrorising and suppressing a fearful population? Do they merely use socialism as a thin veneer for outright greed, maintaining power by authoritarian means when needed? I have heard not a few voice such opinions. Yet it jars somewhat with my experience of finding many young people keen to join the party. Why would they desire to join a party that is supposedly widely disparaged and held in disdain? In order to understand rather the impose presuppositions, I set out to find out a little more. This has required an increasingly extensive series of discussions and interviews – an early component of a much larger project called ‘Socialism with “National” Characteristics’.

A few basic facts will help set the scene. The CPC (Communist Party of China) itself has a little less than ten million members. One cannot simply join the party by paying a membership due and gaining admission. Instead, it requires significant preparation, with the usual path requiring precursors in the youth organisations. As with other communist parties, the two main organisations are the Pioneers (中国少年先锋队), for children in schools up to the age of 14, and the Communist Youth League of China (中国共产主义青年团), which has members between the ages of 14 and 28. Only when people have attained the age of 28 may they become full members of the communist party. Membership – particularly of the Youth League – requires courses of study and then entry examinations, testing one’s knowledge of ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’.

Yet the key question is why children and students are attracted to such organisations. Are they picked out early and then ‘brain-washed’ to join – as a foreigner once suggested on a boat voyaging down the Yangze River (Chang Jiang) – thereby ensuring the continuity of the party? It seems not, although this may come as a surprise to many outside China, even those among the international Left.

In my interviews, a breakthrough moment came when one of my interlocutors suggested that socialism is becoming, or has actually become, integrated with Chinese culture at deep and almost unnoticeable levels. In other words, it has become part of Chinese tradition, along with Confucianism and Buddhism. How does this work? What are the reasons why young people want to join the youth organisations?

An almost universal, albeit knee-jerk, response to this question is that young people decide to join for the sake of a better job. For some, this reason is presented as a dismissal of the youth organisations and the party itself: membership is thus a self-serving act with little interest in socialism as such. For others, the reason is perfectly legitimate, although it needs to be seen in light of a wider collection of reasons. Indeed, the prospect of a better job is a relatively minor feature. When hearing this answer, I cannot help comparing it to the appeal of Christianity when it was the ideology of a state. Many are the reasons for joining in, not least being the opportunity to improve one’s lot in this life. And the church wisely knew that people join the movement for myriad reasons.

A second reason, I have been told, is that membership – especially of the Young Pioneers – is seen as a sign of merit. If a school child is recommended to join the Pioneers, it is a clear distinction among one’s class mates. Particularly noteworthy is an invitation by teachers to be among the first to join the Pioneers. In non-socialist education systems the signs of merit are usually academic and sporting achievements. In China, a crucial if not primary sign of merit is to be invited to join the Pioneers. Yet, such a desire for signs of merit can be misread at an individualistic level in terms of a meritocracy: in the incessant competition fostered by schools from an early age, signs of merit can be seen as merely person achievements.

This misreading brings me to the deepest reason: I have been told again and again that the focus is heavily collective. This focus takes two forms. One depends on the wider family, which in day-to-day life is the most obvious collective reality. At times, the emphasis on the family can have a negative effect, as when corruption takes place. A corrupt official does not skim off riches for him or herself, but for the sake of the family. Thus, when arrests are made for corruption, it involves more than one member of a family.

But I am more interested in how the family can encourage a young person to join a youth organisation. Often a young person wishes to become a party member because someone in the family is a member. It may be a grandfather, as one young woman told me. He inspired her through his model of integrity, honesty and directness – typical old communist virtues. Or it may be parents who are members, which means that a child and then young adult too will become a member as a way of continuing a family tradition and showing respect to his or her elders. Or it can be parents and grandparents and even great-grandparents; in such a situation it is a foregone conclusion that the child will wish to join. Not to do so would entail a significant break in the family. In this respect, the crucial role of the family in Chinese society has also become part of a wider socialist identity. That is, socialism has become ingrained even within family patterns.

Another form of the collective focuses on Chinese society itself. Indeed, it became clear among my interlocutors that this form of the collective is the most deeply ingrained. Here the influence of socialism’s emphasis on the collective runs deepest. To be sure, it also connects with a Chinese tradition infused with Confucian and Buddhist values, but it is presented and understood as a primarily socialist value. Thus, the merit for a school child is understood as a sign of one’s contribution to a greater collective good. Or a university student – of all types, from comprehensive universities to specialist universities and colleges – feels that joining the party provides an opportunity to make an improvement to the collective.

That collective, I am told, is primarily China as a whole. The danger here is that such an emphasis can become another manifestation of nationalism, which then twists the socialist stress on the collective to some of the more rebarbative features of nationalism. Yet, not all nationalisms are regressive, and socialism has found again and again that it needs to come to terms with nationalism in its progressive forms – not least being the modes of anti-colonial struggle. Discernment is obviously the key.

Closely connected with China as a collective is the communist party itself, which is still regarded by most as a collective project, even if they feel the party is not living up to expectations and could do with some improvement. Indeed, this need for improvement is crucial to the collective incentive to join the party or one of its youth organisations. One seeks to influence the collective in a positive direction.

In light of all this, it becomes clear that if a school child should refuse the invitation to join the young Pioneers, it is seen as a very strong anti-social, anti-collective statement, challenging the good of China itself. This is a tough call, and few do so. And it becomes difficult to refuse the pull of the Youth League, especially if one seeks a better job, comes from a family tradition of membership, and feels the pull of contributing to collective good. It is not for nothing that more half of the students in my classes at the university have joined the Youth league or are studying to do so.

Of course, not all are interested in the party, for many also are focused simply on getting married, establishing a family and finding a stable job. And there are plenty who are interested primarily in material gain – also a less desirable feature of Chinese traditions. Further, some long-time members do seem to develop a sense of cynical distance from the party. It may the cynicism of age that affects their sense of the party; it may be a disappointment that the party does not always live up to its ideals on a wide range of issues; it may simply be a feature of long-standing membership of a socialist party. But this does not lead them to give up their membership or their involvement, nor does it mean they will let such cynical distance influence the decisions of their children concerning the party. Others are more firmly opposed to the party, not due to some vague notion of bourgeois democracy, but because that party – they feel – has betrayed its socialist roots, especially in relation to workers and farmers. These people may be seen as part of the Left Deviation, which feels that the party has veered too much to the right. Yet, I cannot help noticing that their opposition is predicated on the same collective reasons that leads others to join the party.

Even with these caveats, it seems that the insight I mentioned earlier does have some truth to it: socialism has been and continues to be increasingly integrated within Chinese culture. This reality has finally enabled me to make sense of a feature I have noticed for some time. More often than not, the research undertaken by the people I know – from postgraduate students through to scholars – focuses on a specific problem in China and seeks to find a solution. It may be economic, environmental, social, cultural, technological, and so on. And it obviously entails criticism of what is happening now in such areas. But the underlying motivation is a deep desire to improve the collective good.

I must admit that I have given in to buying an air cleaner for my apartment in Beijing. In general, the air is improving here, with weeks at a time having clear skies. On these days I go for a run outside, and use some outdoor exercise equipment. But the air can also become quite thick, although the particles you can’t see are the ones that can do the most damage. Hence the air cleaner.

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It is basically a strong fan with a good filter. It helpfully indicates when the air is clean, with a friendly blue light illuminating to tell you it is so. However, when the air is less beneficial, it displays an array of red lights: two means mildly polluted, four more so, and six … However, at some points the machine has a habit of suddenly switching from the blue light to six red lights, with no apparent reason.

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After a number of such occurences, I began to suspect that the light system was merely a gimick, to make one feel as though it was doing it’s job. However, then I hit upon the reason: whenever I break wind in its vicinity, it let’s me know it’s displeasure and sets about cleaning up the burst of air pollution.

Some initial dates for the ‘Socialism with “National” Characteristics’ lecture tour, China 2015

15-16 April, Fudan University, Shanghai: ‘Socialism with National Characteristics: Theory and Practice’

20-21 May, Xiangtan University, Xiangtan (at the Mao Zedong Thought Research Centre): ‘Adorno, Marxism and the Ban on Images’

24 May, Henan University, Kaifeng: ‘The Sacred Economy of Ancient Israel’.

27-28 May, Harbin Engineering University, Harbin: ‘Christianity and Culture between “East” and “West”‘

29 May, Jilin University, Changchun: ‘Socialism with National Characteristics: Theory and Practice’

More dates soon, although I will not be giving a talk on my visit to North Korea in June.

My new Chinese name has been something of a hit. As I told both of my classes here at Renmin University, they began to smile and then laugh. Why? Bo Guoqiang is not only a strong name, it is also typically Chinese. Or at least it was for people of my generation. In China, of course, they are the generation of the Cultural Revolution, when one’s parents chose names to express the desire for a strong communist country. I am told it is the typical name an uncle might have – at least Guoqiang. So the students are now calling me Bo Guoqiang, using it when speaking among themselves, even when sending me email messages. But now it becomes even more intriguing. At the first of our informal seminars, for some of the postgraduate class, we began speaking of communism. At one point, I asked whether anyone present was a member of the party. At first one, then two, then more than half of those present raised their hands. Or rather, they are members of the youth organisation, in between the Young Pioneers and the full adult membership. Others are studying the courses in preparation for the exams to enter the youth organisation.

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One even asked me whether we have pioneers and youth organisations in Australia! I began to imagine not only Schools of Marxism in all the universities, but school students keen to join the Young Pioneers, and then young adults studying in order to join the Youth Organisation. I told them I am thrilled to teaching a class like this, not least because we can delve into some of the more complex and intriguing issues around socialism, communism, and the party. Of course, at one point, I was asked whether I am a communist. In reply, I stood up and showed them my Lenin T-shirt:

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