Does China get it wrong? Does China go off centre? How does China self correct?
These questions are often asked. Followers of China – not fawning followers for whom China can do no wrong – but balanced critics, who understand the momentum of China’s progress and have questions about aspects of policy that have veered off centre, often raise these issues.
In China there are mistakes and mistakes. Some arise every day and are part and parcel of political life – in China today there are ‘white elephants’ such as unused airports or factories and something clearly has gone wrong with the preparation and planning process. It happens in China and it happens in all countries of the world. Bureaucracies make mistakes. Sometimes they are testament to poor political leadership. Sometimes they are more long term and reflect fundamental inner conflicts. Here I have in mind political campaigns such as the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution or the Tiananmin Deaths.
Today I focus on the Cultural Revolution that started on 1 May 1966 and ended with the arrest of the Gang of Four in October 1976. But the other two issues are not avoided. If I am to have credibility as a commentator on China, I have to be willing to address the “awkward” topics that friends and followers of China sometimes prefer to avoid. Avoidance is not an option – ever. You diminish yourself if you pick and choose, and only address the good news and not the bad news, and followers of this column will be interested to know that I am now researching the Uyghurs issue prior to writing my next article.
Back to the ‘Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution” to give the episode the title that was originally used. Let me give you some context. I made my first visit to China in 1965. I was fortunate as the invitation to spend eight weeks in China was a reflection of the high regard in which my father, Jack Perry, was held by China for having the foresight and confidence to become the first Western business man to visit China in 1953. I spent time in Beijing at both ends of my 1965 visit which commenced at the beginning of August and finished the day after National Day on 1 October. During my time in Beijing I met Foreign Minister Chen Yi and the Last Emperor – Pu Yi. I also saw China’s Leaders at close quarters in the Great Hall of the People on 30 September and the following day at the 1 October Parade in Tiananmin Square. – Ho Lung, Tung Piwu, Chu De, Deng Hsaio-ping, Peng Chen, Liu Shaochi, Zhou Enalai and Mao Tsetung. I am not name dropping – just conveying the atmosphere created by the presence of the veteran leaders. I, then, travelled with my hosts to Xian, Yanan, Shanghai, Hangchow, Nanchang, Chingkang shang, Kwangchow and Wuhan. At every juncture, among other things, I participated in discussions about the Socialist Education Movement (SEM), the forerunner to the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (GPCR).
The SEM was a broad-based campaign ideologically focused on the writings of Mao. The emphasis was on selflessness, serving the country, maintaining persistence and individual courage, and all in pursuit of the goal of building socialism. The focus was on the discussion of three articles – In Memory of Norman Bethune, Serve the People and The Foolish Old Man who Removed the Mountains”. The texts were read, remembered and recited. Critics would call the campaign “ideological indoctrination” and teaching goals were uppermost because the SEM was merely the forerunner to the GPCR. But there was also a political element in the SEM campaign.
Active in the leadership of the SEM was Mao’s fourth wife, Jiang Qing, and Kang Sheng, and their goal was to transform all art forms – Beijing Opera especially – into instruments of political propaganda. Books were the subject of intense study – for example The Red Lantern and Hai Jui Dismissed from Office (a historical tale that echoed the dismissal of Peng Dehuai, the former Defence Minister in 1959), and the ballet, The Red Detachment of Women. This was not an academic discussion about books and culture – but a harbinger of the intense political period to be covered by the GPCR. These were the early days of a civil war that was to engulf China resulting in many deaths, armed hostilities, and the closure of schools and universities for the decade. China was in the grip of a life + death political struggle which continued until the death of Mao in July 1976 and the arrest of the Gang of Four in October 1976.
There are two competing explanations for the GPCR. The respectable account is that Mao was concerned that the younger generation, with no direct experience of either the Patriotic War against Japan or the Civil War against the Kuomintang, would soon lose touch with the revolutionary spirit that had driven the Communist Party to lead the people to victory and the establishment of the Peoples Republic of China on 1 October 1949. The younger generation would grow soft and succumb to the “sugar-coated bullets” of an improving life style and the intervention of foreign Imperialisms. They would lose contact with the revolutionary zeal that had led the people to victory and replace it with indulgence, material excesses and self seeking. The people would become corrupted and the achievements of the early years of the new China would be undone as the young generation turned away from politics and commitment.
The alternative explanation was that the people were being used in a new civil war within the Party and a struggle was being fought for ownership of China’s future direction. The Left pursued an intensely political approach and their slogans – repeated weekly in the Beijing Review – made their position unmistakeably clear – “Bombard the Headquarters of the Bourgeoisie” “The Working Class must Exercise Leadership in Everything.”. “Politics in Command” and “Destroy the Liu/Deng line”. Students, in particular, were aroused and encouraged to make the leaders of their organisations accountable and – adopting techniques reminiscent of the McCarthy Period in the US in the 1950s and worse – they hauled the leaders to account in front of angry crowds. This generation, who themselves had helped to win the war against Japan and the Civil War against the Kuomintang, were humiliated, attacked and even killed. The brutality was immense. The death toll high. The chaos considerable. Schools and universities were closed and students brandishing The Little Red Book – enthused by Mao’s endorsement of the Red Guards – took it upon themselves to carry out a class war in an attempt to remove from power, influence and authority the leaders who they believed, wrongly, were obstacles to the perpetuation of the revolutionary spirit.
This was a bad time for China and it continued for ten years. The group that I knew were the foreign experts – non-Chinese committed to the victory of the Party – who settled in China and worked as journalists, economists and interpreters. Friends, who I had come to know well in the summer of 1965, suffered badly. They were arrested and left to endure the hardship of imprisonment whilst their young children were looked after by friends who eluded arrest. In due course in 1972 – when they had been released and restored to their homes with their families and their work – they were invited to a social gathering hosted by Premier Chou Enlai who made a speech of apology for the treatment they had received. Whilst the violence had subsided, the political battle remained and the Left was in control until the Gang of Four were arrested in October 1976 and the GPCR came to a formal end.
I recall being at the Chinese Embassy in London the following month at one of the periodic receptions. The host was the Minister for Political Affairs, Mr Hu Dingyi. He made a short speech. I remember his words “Many of you will be puzzled by recent events in China. I understand that. I just want you to know that my wife – Ching He – and I are very pleased that the Gang of Four have been arrested. For us they were always very bad people and I hope that in the months ahead we will be able to meet and discuss this further.” He was smiling. He was happy. Something very important had happened that would be good for the future of China – that was the message that he wanted to convey.
The GPCR was a disaster. The loss of life was considerable. The destruction of property was immense. The economy suffered. Incomes fell. The status of the Party was damaged and China was weakened. This much is clear now but at the time things were not so clear. There was no Sky or BBC or CNN. There were no reporters in China. The news seeped out to the West and none of us were sure of the veracity of the narrative that was being provided. There is another point – there were many in the West who approved of the idea of a “radical shake-up” for schools, universities, companies, factories and a calling to account of the leaders – a bit of turbulence was not a bad thing. But this was far removed from what had happened in China and over the years our understanding changed as facts emerged about the deaths and destruction.
It was about this time that the Chinese revised their assessment of Mao – now he was “70% good and 30% bad”. And gradually, as the years have passed and the accounts of individual experiences have been read, the judgment on Mao has become harsher. There is a story that throws some light on his position which I may have mentioned previously. The European and North American friends who lived and worked in China as experts met once a year for tea and cakes with Mao. It was a social occasion when he would thank the experts for their contribution to the New China. At the 1963 Tea – there were 25 invited guests – Mao took out his cigarette case and offered a cigarette to each of the 25. Only three were smokers and Mao made the comment – heard by all present – “I see I am in a minority here as well”. Everyone understood his comment in the same way – Mao was in a minority in the Politburo. There was political strife at the heart of the Party.
China was hauled back from the brink. Deng Hsiaoping was restored to power and became the significant leader after the interim rule of Hua Guofeng. There is a slogan that I often cite – “Mao saved the Country, Deng saved the Economy and Xi saved the Party”. Deng’s role in the period after the arrest of the Gang of Four was so important because he launched China on a quite different path. Left Politics was no longer in control of the national agenda. A different set of priorities were hailed. The focus moved to providing the people with the fruits of their endeavours. The Little Red Book was not distributed. Class War was not the primary goal. The construction of Socialism remained the main target but with the emphasis on economic development and prosperity and not on political purity. Looking back the restoration of Deng did much to save China and the Revolution. He was aware that economic development was essential – that the people had to see that the new socialist system succeeded in terms of prosperity and material well being. That is another story that brings us to the present day but it is always good to review the past and see the changes in directions and the political struggles that have been part and parcel of the development of the post 1949 New China.
The Uyghurs issue is next up but there may be a pause as there is much for me to read and view. The reason that the issues need to be assessed is because it is being used to batter China and its reputation and I will be asking questions that are on the minds or readers and followers – Is China guilty of genocide? Is China carrying out racist policies? Is China by interning large numbers of Uyghurs acting in the same way as the Nazis in their treatment of the Jews. Challenging questions but as I said at the start of this article you must never run away from the awkward issues.