Friend or Foe? The role of criticism in China

A central aspect of democratic practices in whatever type of democracy we are thinking about is the role of criticism. How does criticism work in the Chinese situation of socialist democracy? A common international perception of China is that nearly all criticism is simply squashed down; it is censored and you cannot engage with it. This is actually not the case.

Criticism works in a number of ways in a Chinese situation. First of all, there is a long socialist tradition of what is called ‘criticism and self-criticism [piping yu ziwopiping]’. This tradition also meshes with Chinese culture in a way that is pervasive and productive. But there is a fundamental distinction between constructive criticism and destructive criticism. Or to put it another way, there are certain boundary lines. So it is very common to identify a particular problem, a shortcoming, and propose a constructive solution to that problem. But what is not accepted is a solution that would lead to the destruction of the current situation in China. So the boundary lines are there: forms of criticism and constructive criticism that are very much encouraged and fostered.

My experience in China as a foreigner, who spends more and more time in China, is that the range of criticism and debate is incredibly wide. But there is a really experience in China. Chinese people are extremely sensitive and can pick up very, very quickly the following: if a foreigner disdains or looks down on China and Chinese culture and Chinese people, they pick this up immediately. As a result the mode of engagement will change. You do not have to say anything, but they can sense it immediately. And you will certainly not get access to many dimensions of Chinese life.

But if people can discern that you are what they call a ‘friend of China’, then everything is different. The range of debate is much wider, the possibilities of constructive criticism are much greater, so much so that contributions from foreigners too are fostered and encouraged.

For anyone who is thinking of spending some time in China, it is very important to be aware of whether you are going there with an implicit attitude of looking down on China, or disdaining or dismissing it, or whether you want to go to China to understand, and at least to try and come through as someone who is open and is a friend.

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Back to the roots: rural Red Army schools and training centres

Two other aspects of the rural revitalisation under way in China: Red Army primary schools and rural revolutionary centres. Over the last ten years, more than 200 primary schools have been established in rural areas to specialise in teaching children about China’s revolutionary spirit and history – alongside regular education. In the enmeshed socialist market economy of China, much of the funding for the schools comes from donors, especially families with a history in the Red Army.

Further, the revolutionary training centres have been revived in order to engage with farmers about new developments in rural policy and its implications. In an age of easy access to internet information, it is felt that good old face-to-face engagement is still far better. So local party members and officials, often from villages themselves, organise discussion groups in order to discuss and plan new developments – and, crucially, to gain feedback from farmers themselves so as to shape local implementation. These ventures are the modern form of Jiangxisuo (‘teach and study centres’), the Peasant Movement Training Institutes run by the early Chinese Communists, including Mao himself.

These developments are part of Xi Jinping’s and the CPC’s focus on the rural areas, since farmers are, after all, the heart of the CPC.

Karl Barth on Stalin

The socialism of Karl Barth – the greatest theologian of the twentieth century – is reasonably well-known, but for many the following observation is a step too far:

It would be quite absurd to mention in the same breath the philosophy of Marxism and the “ideology” of the Third Reich, to mention a man of the stature of Joseph Stalin in the same breath as such charlatans as Hitler, Göring, Hess, Goebbels, Himmler, Ribbentrop, Rosenberg, Streicher, etc. What has been tackled in Soviet Russia – albeit with very dirty and bloody hands and in a way that rightly shocks us – is, after all, a constructive idea, the solution of a problem which is a serious and burning problem for us as well, and which we with our clean hands have not yet tackled anything like energetically enough: the social problem (‘Die Kirche zwischen Ost und West’, 1949).

Obviously, for me this is where Barth actually becomes interesting.

The original fake news: Tiananmen square ‘massacre’

This one was sparked by an item in the Global Times debunking a recent ‘report‘ from the former UK ambassador to China. This ambassador claims that more than 10,000 people were killed. But there is one catch: his ‘source’. It turns out to be a person who ‘was passing on information given him by a close friend who is currently a member of the State Council‘. Hmmm … anonymous third hand information is hardly reliable.

But then I went searching, since I had earlier come across a piece that systematically debunked the whole account as what would now be called ‘fake news’. Let’s stay away from Chinese sources, for the sake of argument and see what turned up in corporate press locations traditionally hostile to China and the CPC.

To begin with, Jay Matthews, who was a reporter for the Washington Post covering the events in 1989. In September/October of that year he penned a piece that already debunked the story. This was followed up by a CBS reporter, who indicates that by the time the army entered the square most students and protestors had already left, with the remainder leaving after a period of negotiations. The only gunfire was a burst that silenced the loudspeaker system. Then there were the wikileaks cables that showed yet again that there was no bloodshed in the square itself, although some deaths in other parts of Beijing. This one adds that most soldiers who entered the square did not actually carry guns.

Perhaps the sharpest piece comes from Gregory Clark, a former Australian diplomat and Japanese resident. His article appeared first in the Japan Times (see also here), where he points out the first acts of violence were by protesters setting alight buses full of soldiers, with some charred corpses strung up from overpasses (he cites the suppression of photos of burning buses and of a charred corpse). And the famous image of ‘Tankman’ – well, this one was actually taken a day after the events as the tanks were moving away. The conclusion: not only did the troops and government act with considerable restraint, even without adequate training in crowd control at the time, but the very idea of a ‘massacre’ was the result of UK and US ‘black information’. Or what many would now call fake news.

Mao: ‘Going to see God’

I am in the process of collecting into one volume all of Edgar Snow‘s interviews (in Chinese translation) with Mao Zedong. As I did so I came across this intriguing passage:

‘Speaking of your health, as we were not, judging from this evening you seem to be in good condition.’

Mao Tse-tung smiled wryly and replied that there was perhaps some doubt about that. He said again that he was getting ready to see God very soon. Did I believe it?

‘I wonder if you mean you are going to find out whether there is a God. Do you believe that?

No, he did not, but some people who claimed to be well informed said that there was a God. There seemed to be many gods and sometimes the same god could take all sides. In the wars of Europe the Christian God had been on the side of the British, the French, the Germans, and so on, even when they were fighting each other. At the time of the Suez Canal crisis God was united behind the British and the French but then there was Allah to back up the other side.

At dinner Mao had mentioned that both his brothers had been killed. His first wife had also been executed during the revolution (1930) and their son had been killed during the Korean war. Now, he said that it was odd that death had so far passed him by. He had been prepared for it many times but death just did not seem to want him. What could he do? On several occasions it had seemed that he would die. His personal bodyguard was killed while standing right beside him. Once he was splashed all over with the blood of another soldier but the bomb had not touched him.

‘Was that in Yenan?’

In Yenan, too. His bodyguard had been killed during the Long March. There had been other narrow escapes. According to laws of dialectics all struggles must finally be resolved, including man’s struggle for life on this earth.

‘Accidents of fate which spared you have made possible perhaps the most remarkable career in Chinese history. In all China’s long annals I cannot recall any man who rose from rural obscurity not only to lead a successful social revolution but to write its history, to conceive the strategy of its military victory, to formulate an ideological doctrine which changed the traditional thought of China, and then to live out the practice of his philosophy in a new kind of civilization with broad implications for the whole world.’

After a moment of reflection Mao said that I knew he had begun life as a primary school teacher. He had then had no thought of fighting wars. Neither had he thought of becoming a Communist. He was more or less a democratic personage such as myself. Later on  —  he sometimes wondered by what chance combination of reasons he had become interested in founding the Chinese Communist Party. Anyway, events did not move in accordance with the individual will. What mattered was that China had been oppressed by imperialism, feudalism, and bureaucratic capitalism. Such were the facts. . . .

Mao’s voice dropped away and he half closed his eyes. Man’s condition on this earth was changing with ever increasing rapidity. A thousand years from now all of us, he said, even Marx, Engels, and Lenin would probably appear rather ridiculous.

Before I rose to leave the Chairman sent his greetings to the American people and said simply that he wished them progress. If he wished them liberation weren’t some people bound to disagree? Wouldn’t they say that they already had the right to vote? But to those among them who were not really liberated, and desired liberation, to them he wished his best.

Mao Tse-tung walked me through the doorway and, despite my protests, saw me to my car, where he stood alone for a moment, coatless in the sub-zero Peking night, to wave me farewell in the traditional manner of that ancient cultured city. I saw no security guards around the entrance nor can I now recall having seen even one armed body guard in our vicinity all evening …

Mao shook hands and gave me a precautionary word, to take care, quoting a Chinese maxim: ‘Unpredictable high winds and misfortunes are in the skies!’

As the car drove away I looked back and watched Mao brace his shoulders and slowly retrace his steps and re-enter the great Hall of the people.

Get used to it: Chinese influence is the CPC’s influence

Another good article in the Global Times concerning the CPC on the international arena, called ‘CPC’s role cannot be detached from Chinese influence‘. As China becomes a global power once again, some countries have begun expressing a close-minded concern about the ‘evil’ effects of the CPC, trying to distinguish between Chinese influence and the role of the CPC.

The catch is that you can’t detach them so. As the article points out:

With its 89 million-strong members, consisting mainly of the elite of different sectors, the CPC is a team representing the backbone of Chinese society. The CPC’s organizing ability, inclusive policies and acceptance of differing ideas, has proven essential to helping the country weather various storms since the CPC’s founding in 1921.

As the CPC continues to lead China’s ascent, the influence of China and the CPC is deeply integrated and one cannot be separated from the other.

The many who work to further Chinese influence at all manner of levels consciously also promote the CPC – they have not been strong-armed into doing so. After all, who does not want the ‘community of shared future’, which is the core of Chinese international engagement.

The more international influence of the CPC, the better, if you ask me.

Returning to socialist realism

Socialist realism has had a bad press. Due to Cold War mindsets and the corroding effects of liberalism, many still see it as a crude ideological imposition on the freedom of artists, writers, film makers and so on. ‘Stultifying’, ‘stilted’, a sign of Stalin’s ‘dictatorship’ – these and more are some of the observations you still hear. A common narrative is that after the creativity of the late 1910s and early 1920s in the Soviet Union, Stalin stifled these developments in favour of a ‘conservative’ artistic agenda.

But I have travelled enough and seen enough art, sculpture, posters and so on to realise that socialist realism is an amazing genre, producing some fantastic art. It was the dominant genre in the Soviet Union from the mid-1902s until the 1980s. It also deeply influenced other socialist states, from Eastern Europe to Asia, and it is still manifest in the DPRK, Vietnam, Laos and China. As for literature, long ago I read Mikhail Sholokhov’s And Quiet Flows the Don (1935-1940). Regarded as one of the greatest works of the twentieth century, it focuses on the lives of the Don Cossacks before and after the Russian Revolution. And it has the unique distinction of being awarded both the Stalin Prize in 1941 and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1965. From a different part of the world, I recently completed ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Sharqawi’s alArd (1954), translated as Egyptian Earth. Not only is this one of the great Egyptian novels, and not only did it break dramatically from traditional Arabic literature, but it was inspired by socialist realism. In other words, this genre had a significant effects in many parts of the world, especially in the context of anti-colonial struggles.

It is high time for a complete reassessment of a major artistic genre.

The myth of Chinese repression of Mao’s writings

The CPC has ‘repressed’ Mao’s writings – or so the myth would have us believe. I am never quite sure whether this sort of observation is an article of unquestioned faith, myth, or simply a ‘fact’ that is believed by many due to thousands of repetitions. To wit, since some of Mao’s texts are too explosive, they have – so some believe – been hidden by a CPC keen to keep a lid on how Mao is studied and interpreted. Indeed, if you want a full collection of Mao’s writings you have to go to the series published in Japan, called Maozedong ji.

There is one small problem: you can easily get all of Mao’s material and more in China. For example, this website has pretty much everything. In this collection, have just discovered a wonderful 700 page manuscript, concerning Mao’s study notes and talks about Stalin’s study of economic problems under socialism, as well as material concerning political economy in the Soviet Union and China.

Is China becoming a world leader on human rights?

They are certainly busy in the people’s republic. As the United States undergoes a UN investigation for extreme poverty, with the investigator citing profound human rights violations in terms of private wealth and public squalor, and as that wayward country refuses to ratify international human rights agreements (Australia, I should add, does not have a bill of rights), China moves on with a major ‘white paper’ on human rights. The full text may be found here, but this image provides a handy overview:

From the fuller document, I particularly like section V on CPC leadership and direction concerning human rights, as well as due attention to international concerns – in light of ‘building a community of shared future for humanity’ – in light of Xi Jinping Thought.

But you have to love this one, concerning the enhancement of social mechanism:

Guaranteeing people’s right to self-governance at the community level. China has made constant effort to improve self-governance at the community level, strengthen community consultation in urban and rural areas, and complete the mechanism to help urban and rural residents express their demands, coordinate interests and protect rights and interests. By 2016 about 85 percent of villages had set up villagers’ meetings or meeting of villagers’ representatives. Eighty-nine percent of communities had established congresses of residents. Sixty-four percent of communities had established consultative councils, and consultative forms such as “villager discussion”, “community consultation”, “property owner consultation”, and “villager hearing on decision-making” have steadily taken shape in China. By 2016, 98 percent of rural villages nationwide had formulated villagers’ codes of conduct or villagers’ self-governance regulations, while similar residents’ codes of conduct or residents’ self-governance regulations had been formulated in urban communities. These play an extensive role in social governance.