mayday, mayday!

Labor Day, May 1, 2022: Shenzhen official media celebrated Xi Jinping thought, while many on social media circulated stories of Deng Xiaoping visiting the city in 1984 and 1992. This interests me because it highlights increasing dissatisfaction with the New Era as a return to the problems that caused and exacerbated by the Cultural Revolution. This logical connection has three elements: First, old Shenzheners associate the laissez-faire governance (reform) and porous borders (opening up) with the city’s ‘true’ identity, implicitly emphasizing the city’s role in repairing the damages of the Cultural Revolution. Second, there have been ongoing efforts to make Shenzhen a symbol of Xi Jinping’s new era, and indeed, the city has become a symbol of zero-Covid success during the ongoing campaign to achieve zero-Covid. Third, to the ears of many who were born before 1970, the New Era emphasis on Xi Jinping as the core of the party and the great leader of the nation echoes the rhetoric of the CR, even as zero-Covid mobilization is increasingly likened to the CR.

So there’s this uncanny resonance between Red Guards and Big Whites that hovers at the edges of social media posts, and sometimes becomes explicit when friends chat over drinks. But, Red Guards were populist, organized on-the-ground in response to specific situations. In contrast, Big Whites are bureaucratic, organized through governmental systems that reach from Beijing into homes via subdistrict police stations, public health stations, and community offices.

Thought du jour: ten years ago, during the Bo Xilai–Xi Jinping struggle to secure the position of general party secretary, the country’s leaders choose between two variants of CR–populist and hereditary. The idea was even though Xi Jinping was clearly a product of the CR, nevertheless, he was seen as a ‘party man,’ so to speak, whose platform was to maintain stability while and by rooting out corruption. (Yes, this is the same kind of choice-no choice just that has characterized recent US American elections.) Today, I’m wondering what if? What if China had gone with a populist CR leader, rather than a leader who seems to have incorporated CR methods into everyday politics?

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.

Continue reading

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.


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

History as Farce

As part of our book club discussion (see previous entry), Liu Jingwen handed out copies of a recent blog entry by Yang Hengjun (杨恒均) entitled “Ten Years of Cultural Revolution and Ten Years of the Internet: Where Do We Go From Here? (十年文革与十年互联网:我们向何处去?)” In the rest of this entry, I will translate some of the more interesting passages from Yang’s (much longer) essay. I hope this synopsis + citations will contribute to understanding about historic continuities between Maoism and what followed.

Yang Hengjun is interested in comparing the first thirty years (1949-1979) and second thirty years (1979-2009) of the People’s Republic because he believes there are startling similarities between these two eras. He is particularly interested in the comparing the ten years of the Cultural Revolution with the ten years of the internet in China.


互 联网十年里,也是以清一色的青年人为主,在虚拟的空间进行独立思考和自由言说。这时期的知识分子们一边从文革和上个世纪八十年代末的事件中吸取了教训,打 骨子里认同了沉默是金的理念;一边从改革开放中收获真金白银,忙于改善自己的生活,从物质和精神上都向官员靠拢。结果,青年人主导思考和言论成为十年文革和十年互联网最大的共同之处,同时也彰显了我们民族的困境:急需知识分子们启蒙和引导青年的时候,思考国家前途和民族命运的担子竟然落在了涉世未深的青年人的肩膀上。

The ten years of the Cultural Revolution was a rare period of “free airing of views” and “democracy” in the 60 year history of the People’s Republic, indeed in the entire history of China. The key players were young people (even high school students) as a majority of intellectuals had already learned their lesson from the 1957 anti-rightism movement and the majority who hadn’t learned their lesson were beaten early on.

Young people again have been the key players during the ten years of the internet, conducting independent thought and free speech in virtual space. On the one hand, this era’s intellectuals have learned their lesson from the Cultural Revolution and the events of the late 80s, and believe in their bones that silence is golden. On the other hand, they have gotten rich during reform, keep busy improving their lives, and their material and spiritual interests overlap with those of officials. Thus, the primary importance of young people in leading thinking and debate is the greatest similarity between the ten years of the Cultural Revolution and the ten years of the internet. This also shows our people’s predicament: at the time when young people desperately need the enlightment and direction of intellectuals,  the responsibility for contemplating the country’s future and the people’s fate has been unexpectly thrust onto their inexperienced shoulders. Continue reading

Book Club Blues

On December 26, Mao’s birthday, our book club gathered to discuss a recent translation of Wang Shaoguang’s The Failure of Charisma: The Cultural Revolution in Wuhan (1995 Hong Kong University Press; translated in 2009: 王绍光 超凡领袖的挫败–文化大革命在武汉 the 80’s.). We were of several generations – the late 1950’s, 60’s, a couple from the 70’s, and a few from the 80’s.Liu Jingwen, member of the 80’s cohort led and organized the discussion.

What was striking about the conversation was the extent to which generational experience continued to dominate the conversation not just because 50’s and 60’s participants could claim personal experience of the Cultural Revolution, but also because of the relative value of political ideology amongst the different cohorts. Crudely speaking, the older the participant, the stronger was the conviction that collective politics is a pressing matter. Likewise, the younger the participant, the more likely s/he was to express surprise/ interest in/ confusion about the  older generation’s valuation of politics.

How and why the Cultural Revolution continues to matter in Shenzhen are pressing questions because Shenzhen was (arguable) the last of the great social experiments from the first thirty years of the People’s Republic. Deng Xiaoping mobilized intellectuals, cadres, and the engineering corps to leave their cities and “cut open a road of blood (杀出一条血路)” or “feel your way across the river (莫这石头渡河),” depending on the relative militarism of one’s ideological commitments – and yes, Deng was militaristic, but it was also a society saturated by martial metaphors. [Deng Xiaoping’s road of blood inevitably makes me wonder, ‘whose blood’ and ‘how much is needed’?]

Importantly, both the road of blood and the river crossed convey the idea of movement – road to where? Crossing which river? Of course in Shenzhen circa 1978, these questions have concrete answers – roads to Hong Kong at Wenjindu and Luohu and a ferry to Hong Kong at Shekou, respectively. But the also entailed hope and an orientation to the future – a new kind of modernity and xiaokang for every Chinese citizen. In other words, the values that infused the establishment of Shenzhen were the values espoused by many during the Cultural Revolution. This connection is even clearer when we take into account the extent to which freedom and proceedural justice were fundamental to the establishment and prominance of Shekou during the 1980s.

What came out of our conversation was how much history has been disappeared not only in terms of relative knowledge, but also in terms of the scope of the debate. Throughout the discussion,  I was struck by the similarity of the debate to American debates about Vietnam. Most of us don’t know enough to do more than debate the relative value of soundbites, rather than analyze and evaluate events and consequences. Moreover, instead of figuring out shared principals on which to base our analyses and evaluations, we end up comparing levels of personal experience – an important part of historical recovery and recognition of ignored lives, but insufficient to the task of building bridges if (and when) experience (or its lack) become the terms for inclusion in the discussion.

I came to two conclusions after three hours of debate: (1) we need an education that will enable us to transform ourselves and future generations into people who can contribute intelligently AND compassionately to social debate and action and (2) we need to get beyond complacent acceptance of business as usual, let alone celebrating Shenzhen’s successful establishment of hypercapitalism. As we left the coffee shop, one of the 50’s participants said to me, “And we still haven’t done anything in Shenzhen (深圳还没动手!)” Perpetual revolution, indeed.