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.

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.

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.

 

Marxist orientalism

One of the narratives I hear from time to time concerning the CPC is what may be called Marxist orientalism. What I mean is that a number of international (or ‘western’) Marxists have assumed a position common among liberals as well. It goes like this:

In the late 1970s, Deng Xiaoping started – it is believed – the process of China becoming a capitalist market economy. However, Deng continued to speak of the socialist road in, for instance, the first of the four ‘cardinal principles’. So how do you deal with the statements and the perceived acts? The approach that soon became apparent was that you could not trust the words and statements. Deng and those who followed him were speaking in coded language, sending signals for those who could read the code. The best example is Deng’s phrase, ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’.

I come across this move again and again. Apart from the fact that it means you can conveniently ignore most of the detailed statements, writings and research of the last forty years on Chinese Marxism, it is also a form of orientalism. By that I mean a caricature of what an ‘eastern’, if not Chinese person is supposed to do. They never speak truthfully, or they speak in a way that means something different from what they appear to be saying. As someone said to me recently, ‘never trust a Chinaman’ – derogatory, to say the least. For Marxists to take this approach to Chinese Marxism is comparable to the phrase used almost a century ago: ‘the guile of the heathen Chinese’.

As a footnote and for those into cricket, the previous comment actually comes from English commentary on a test match between the West Indies and England in 1933. One of the West Indian bowlers, Ellis Achong, had Chinese background – a point the commentators were quick to notice. Indeed, one of the English batsmen, Walter Robbins, was bowled by Achong, after which Robbins observed, ‘Fancy being done by a bloody Chinaman’. As a further twist, the type of bowling deployed by Achong became known as the ‘Chinaman’. It refers to left-arm unorthodox spin, the suggestion being that it is as rare as a ‘Chinaman’ playing cricket, but that it is also deceptive and unnatural.

Perhaps it is time for ‘Western’ Marxists to put aside this form of orientalism.