was it ten years of catastrophe or ten years of difficult exploration?

I just read on we chat that all of the new history text books that were issued this semester were recalled without explanation. This was interpreted to mean that criticism of changing references to the Cultural Revolution as “the ten years of catastrophe (十年浩劫) to the ten years of “difficult exploration (艰幸探索)” had successfully pushed back Xi Jinping’s attempt to revise history. At any rate, students were told to go borrow copies of last year’s history books, while the new books are recooked.

re/membering undocumented histories

An Interview with Filmmaker and Artist Hu Jie in the New York Times Review of Books reminds me just how important it is to pay attention and to remain curious: we will be called upon to bear witness to that which we have seen and that which we did not. Indeed, Hu Jie attempts to document histories that at the time could not be documented, such as a series of wood block prints that document rural famine during the Great Leap Forward. Unlike many who lament the loss of material culture during the anti-four olds campaign and the Cultural Revolution, Hu Jie remains focused on the fact that people died as a result of policies and campaigns.

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cultural revolutionaries? bo xilai, mao zedong and populist politics in china

According to a politically savvy friend, if anyone has a chance to democratize China, it will be a leader like Bo Xilai because 1. he had the support of the people; 2. he had support within the Party; and, 3. he could have held power after the transition from a one party to a multi-party system.

The purpose of government is to distribute and justify the distribution of goods, which range from food and shelter through education opportunities and healthy living environments throughout society. Some societies use money as the primary tool to mediate the allocation of social goods, in China, however, political status — power with explicit connection to either the military or the police — is the primary social means of deciding who gets what and how it is delivered. This means that the closer one is to the Center, the more opportunities one will have to monopolize not only the allocation of social goods, but also what those social goods are and how they are produced. In short, opportunities to control and benefit from state monopolies over the means of production.

My friend explained that Chinese politics is a series of expanding circles. At the center are high officials, in the next circle their family and friends, and then lesser relatives, and then the families of friends of friends of family friends… The point, of course, is double.

First, with respect to those who have occupied the center, there are no compelling reasons to change the current structure of unequal distribution. What’s more, successfully changing the structure would entail creating political alliances that cut across all those circles in such a way as to first be able to dismantle the system and then maintain power in the new system.

Second, the one hundred surnames are so far from the center that direct appeals to the people constitute a political wild card, which can be wielded by anyone with a wide enough power base. This is frequently the case in local and regional level politics where national appointees navigate and negotiate unfamiliar terrains before they are sent to their next position. However, most national appointees do not become popular in their brief bureaucratic tenures and popular local leaders rarely convert their local appeal into national charisma.

Bo Xilai, however, was exceptional: he had widespread national appeal; he had deep support within and across the Party organization, including ties to the military and the police; and, he was savvy enough to navigate political upheavals. Indeed, he seemed particularly adept at outside-the-box responses to unexpected problems and it will be interesting to see if he is executed or ends up back at the center in ten years time.

On my friend’s reading, the insular structure of Chinese political interests  overdetermined the Cultural Revolutionary connection that linked Bo Xilai to Mao Zedong. Like Mao, Bo Xilai made highly symbolic gestures to help the people. In Chongqing, fore example, Bo set up neighborhood help systems for elderly residents whose family was working in other cities. A solitary elder could directly ring a bell that linked her to the neighborhood committee representative who would be responsible for coming to her aid. This gesture resonated across generations who have been separated as children have left home to work in other cities. Moreover, Mao and Bo’s willingness to upset high-ranking leaders when making these gestures further endeared them to the people.

Bo Xilai skated at the edge of central Party politics for many years before transmuting a minor appointment in a Dalian county into a springboard to national politics precisely because like Mao, he not only dazzled the people, but also impressed journalists and intellectuals, who in turn promoted his project. Not only journalists sang Bo’s praises, but recently closed leftist websites like Utopianet (乌有之乡) publicly supported the Chongqing Model in contrast to the Shenzhen Model, which remains a key symbol of the success of Reform and Opening.

Bo Xilai symbolized the possibility of an end to Party politics as usual and his “Sing Red, Attack the Black” campaign resonated across Chinese political classes in ways that nothing Xi Jinping or Hu Jintao or Jiang Zemin have done. Today, there are efforts to disparage the Mao-Bo connection, but none have addressed the man’s capital C charisma. In fact, I’ve heard someone say, “I don’t care who he did or didn’t kill, Bo Xilai moved me. I only saw him once, but I felt like a crazy fan, who wanted a body autograph” and this comment goes straight to my point du jour.

Weber has warned us that charismatic leaders do not necessarily overturn unpopular regimes and establish democratic governments. Moreover, the rise and fall of populist leaders in Eastern Europe and Russia have demonstrated that its difficult to uproot the Party machine from national politics. Nevertheless, Bo Xilai’s popularity despite his acknowledged crimes not only hints at just how high levels of dissatisfaction with Chinese politics as usual are, but also alerts us to how much violence is necessary to maintain the status quo.

Rumors, Rumors: What’s Bugging Guagua?

Two days ago, an open letter allegedly from a member of Bo Xilai’s family popped up on the internet, expressing the desire for a public hearing (“此信来自薄家亲戚, 希望公开发表”). Epoch Times – the media arm of Fa Lun Gong – broke the “story” saying that Bo’s son, Guagua may have written the letter. Maybe. Maybe not. Whatever else it may be, I believe that the letter is interesting for four reasons. First, in the absence of political opposition, satire formulates an alternative position. Second, the level of moral outrage that compelled the implied author to write seems genuine. Third, the fact that this letter is circulating as “news” reveals the extent to which the sentiments reflect popular dissatisfaction with the Center and its melodramatic backbiting political infighting Two Meetings. Fourth and relevant to Shenzhen, is the call that Chongqing might have been a Special Zone, like Yan’an and implicitly not like Shenzhen.

Translation of the Guagua letter below.

A FATHER’S TRAGEDY, A PEOPLE’S LAMENT – BO GUAGUA’S PUBLIC LETTER TO THE NETIZENS

In my last open letter to my father, I urged him to return the Chongqing Sing Red, Attack the Black back to the Yan’an years, making Chongqing the flag bearer for a democratic Party and the living spirit of Yan’an; to truly become a Special Zone for political reform. Unfortunately, my father has been too-long educated by the Party, ultimately prioritizing the Party and national power. I had hoped that through reflection and regret, the negative effects of the Chongqing model could be ameliorated. I had hoped that by sacrificing your political future, my Father could have restored the Party and the Country’s stability and harmony. Continue reading

Mulberry Child released!

Based on her eponymous memoir, friend Jennifer Kwong’s independent film, “Mulberry Child” is now complete! Jennifer tells how growing up during the Cultural Revolution shaped her relationship with her American daughter. Check out the trailer and be inspired.

Thoughts on certain questions since Maoism was overturned…

The “Resolution on Certain Questions in the History of Our Party since the Founding of the People’s Republic of China《关于建国以来党的若干历史问题的决议》” was a key document in the political re-evaluation of Maoism and subsequent reforms. On Aug. 27, 2011 in Beijing, a group of influential scholars, political scientists, lawyers, and journalists convened to talk about questions still facing the Party. And yes, I found out about the Beijing meeting as I find out about most political and social events in China – text messages and weibo. Below, I have translated a selection of quotable quotes from a circulating collection of quotations from the meeting. The key message remains – ask not what you can do for the economy, but what the economy should be doing for all of us… 

It is not easy to deny the influence of Reform and Opening, it is possible to broaden democracy within the Party and to have a constitutional government under Party rule – Ma Licheng (马立诚) Continue reading

the way we were

Going through old speeches of Deng Xiaoping, I came across his 1974 address to a Special Session of the United Nations General Assembly, using Third World theory that Zhou Enlai had presented at Bandung 1955. Those were the days, when socialist utopianism inspired the oppressed Peoples of the Third World to roar their anger and retake what had been taken. Of course, two years after Deng’s New York gig, Zhou Enlai and then Mao Zedong would pass, the Gang of Four would be vanquished in a bloodless transition of power (if we don’t take the PLAs one-year foray into Vietnam as a concession to hardliners), and Deng Xiaoping would emerge as the new leader of the People’s Republic of China, employing cats of various colors to jumpstart the economy first in Shekou (1978) and then in Shenzhen (1979), with the SEZ established in 1980.

And yet. As events in the Middle East force us to reflect on the resentments that inequality and oppression foster, Maoist language resonates. And yes, Socialism with Chinese characteristics would qualify for condemnation as “that country which styles itself socialist” if only because the USSR, the other country that styled itself socialist disbanded as Gorbachev, Reagan, Thatcher, and Deng renegotiated the post Cold War order. Memory snippets from the Marxist Internet Archive.

[…] In this situation of “great disorder under heaven,” all the political forces in the world have undergone drastic division and realignment through prolonged trials of strength and struggle. A large number of Asian, African and Latin American countries have achieved independence one after another and they are playing an ever greater role in international affairs. As a result of the emergence of social-imperialism, the socialist camp which existed for a time after World War II is no longer in existence. Owing to the law of the uneven development of capitalism, the Western imperialist bloc, too, is disintegrating. Judging from the changes in international relations, the world today actually consists of three parts, or three worlds, that are both interconnected and in contradiction to one another. The United States and the Soviet Union make up the First World. The developing countries in Asia, Africa, Latin America and other regions make up the Third World. The developed countries between the two make up the Second World… Continue reading