dining at mao’s homestyle restaurant

Mao’s style food is barbaric spicy Hunan food. At an eponymous restaurant (毛家菜), he and his red handkerchief occupy the entryway. There is a God of wealth in the corner. My interest in Mao’s godhead caused a bit of awkwardness with a friend, who is anti-superstition and often finds things anthropological condescending. She let me know in no uncertain terms, it would be inappropriate for me to use this image as a WeChat avatar. And then she softened the blow, “You like to use your art work. Keep doing that, everyone likes it.”

it’s international labor day, 2015

and I’m listening to music by 张广天, whose music simultaneously evokes revolutionary times and postmodern desires. Zhang Guangtian is considered one of the first figures of Shanghai’s 1980s rock and independent music scene. In 1990, he moved to Beijing, where he has collaborated with both theater practitioners and film makers, most notably with the National Experimental Theatre’s Meng Jinghui. In 2000, Zhang Guangtian burst into national consciousness with Che Guevera (切·格瓦拉), which he wrote and directed. However, today it is the vexed lyrics of Mao Zedong that have me feeling bittersweet about the Chinese Revolution and the aftermath of Reform. The song was written for the 110th Anniversary of Mao Zedong’s birth–how resplendent he was, Zhang Guangtian nostalgically sings–and although the lyrics allude to the need for revolution the images firmly tie Mao to the Party’s purposes. And the idolization. Simultaneously compelling and disturbing, I find it difficult to turn away from the Great Helmsman (below).

voice of the people?

It’s been a while since I’ve had an interesting conversation with a cabbie, but this morning Song Shifu impressed with his convictions, social analysis, and desire to share. 

On the reason for China’s environmental problems: Song Shifu hails from Zhejiang, one of the core industrial areas. Throughout his home county, the rivers stink and smoke clogs the sky. These factories produce goods for European and North American countries. These countries have taken advantage of their strength to unload the contaminating industries on China.

When I asked about Mao Zedong and if there was a need for Revolution, Song Shifu had mixed feelings. The destruction of traditional values has not been good for the country. However, under Mao China stood up for itself. Now China doesn’t dare use it’s army because all the US has to do to influence China’s foreign policy would be to freeze the bank accounts of the Princelings and their children. Moreover, he wouldn’t fight against the United States, after all there was no animosity between the US and China. Contaminating industries notwithstanding. But Japan. He would volunteer to fight Japan. 

audience passivity in the yan’an talks

As preparations for the Bienalle start, I have found myself thinking again about the level of censorship over literature and art in China. Yesterday, I even went so far as to re-read the Talks at the Yan’an Forum on Literature and Art (在延安文藝座談會上的講話), which Mao began on May 2, 1942. Audience passivity and the ignorance of artists and writers were two key ideological assumptions structuring Mao’s arguments about the social functions of literature and art. Below, I have taken several key phrases in order to show the way in which the Maoist politicization of literature and art was concomitantly a disempowerment of the audience or reader of a work, even as artists and writers became tools — and I use the word deliberately — of the Revolution Party.

Mao opens the talks by greeting his comrades and outlining the social-aesthetic questions he sees facing revolutionaries: the question of standpoint, the question of attitude, and the question of the object of work. Mao’s interpretation of correct standpoint and attitude are unsurprising and straight-forward. The question of correct standpoint for Party members was unambiguously defined as being the Party’s position (對於共產黨員來說,也就是要站在黨的立場,站在黨性和黨的政策的立場). The question of correct attitude was then defined with respect to three types of people — enemies, allies, and one’s own people (有三種人,一種是敵人,一種是統一戰線中的同盟者,一種是自己人). The emphasis on “one’s own people” is important because in everyday Chinese, these are the people that one can count on no matter what. Mao then further defines “one’s own people” as the masses and their vanguard (這第三種人就是人民群眾及其先鋒隊). In short, on Mao’s reading, a correct attitude involved opposing one’s enemy, criticizing one’s allies when they were wrong, and “patiently teaching one’s own people, helping them with their burdens, and to struggle with their mistaken views in order to help them make great progress (我們應該長期地耐心地教育他們,幫助他們擺脫背上的包袱,同自己的缺點錯誤作鬥爭,使他們能夠大踏步地前進).” In turn, “our” literary and artistic works describe these struggles to overcome one’s mistaken views (他們在鬥爭中已經改造或正在改造自己,我們的文藝應該描寫他們的這個改造過程). However, when Mao turns to the long discussion of “the object of work” the discussion becomes interestingly convoluted.

The discussion opens with the line, “the question of the object of work, that is the question of who the literary work will be read/seen by (工作物件問題,就是文藝作品給誰看的問題)”. As I read it, the Mandarin defines the intended audience of revolutionary works as objects (物件) who will be given something to read/see (給誰看). In many translations of the Talks, this line is translated as, “The problem of audience, i.e., the people for whom our works of literature and art are produced”. This translation not only transforms the object of literary and artistic creativity into an “audience”, but also gives the writer and artist productive agency. However, neither of these subjectivities is implied in Mao’s language, a fact which becomes more explicit several lines later.

On the one hand, Mao contends that in Yan’an, the objects of literary and artistic work are the workers, peasants, soldiers, and cadres who are the “receivers of literary and artistic work (文藝作品的接受者)”. He emphasizes that the objects of literary and artist work in Yan’an were “completely different (完全不同)” from those in Nationalist-held Shanghai, where the primary objects were students, officials, and merchants.

On the other hand, he also stresses that “our literary and artistic workers (我們的文藝工作者)” who don’t understand the workers, peasants, soldiers, and cadres have a responsibility to learn about them. One of the more interesting examples of Mao’s designation of the object of literary and artistic work comes in this discussion of literary and artistic workers’ ignorance of the lives of workers, peasants, soldiers, and cadres. Mao states, “Literary and artistic works are not familar with the their descriptive object and product-receivers (文藝工作者同自己的描寫物件和作品接受者不熟,或者簡直生疏得很)”. In this line, we see that for Mao, “workers, peasents, soldiers, and cadres” were simultaneously the object of and receiver of descriptions. In other words, the purpose of literary and artistic work was to help the masses become self-conscious of their class position, without actually teaching them critical reading skills.

The discussion then turns to the question of education for both literary and artistic workers as well as for the masses, with the Party providing correct standpoints and attitudes for this work, which is based on Marxist-Leninism. At this moment, we see the rhetorical transformation of creative workers into tools of the State because standpoint and attitude have already been defined as being in line with the Party position.

Thought du jour: as someone who engages in literary and artistic work, I agree with Mao’s contention that many of our ideals and passions are class-determined. Where I part ways with his analysis, however, is in his characterization of audiences as passive object – receivers of creative work and writers and artists as vehicles for one standpoint and attitude on any question. It’s not only that I enjoy a good dose of whimsy in my art, but also that I have more faith in a variety of standpoints and attitudes than I do in one proscribed, formulaic interpretation there of. Indeed, I find the idea that all creative work must be immediately accessible to all audiences more in keeping with Hollywood goals than with creative exploration.

And there in lies a core paradox in doing creative work in Shenzhen: while I agree with Maoist analysis that we need to take economic inequality and class differences into account if we are to create a more just world, nevertheless, as both a writer and reader, I am nourished by a diversity of perspectives and interpretations.

bo xilai: true heir to the revolution?

Bao Tong (鲍彤) was Zhao Ziyang’s secretary. Zhao Ziyang, of course, was the Secretary General of the CCP who fell from power because he supported a non-violent resolution to the Tian’anmen protests. Yesterday, Bao Tong chimed in on the Bo Xilai scandal and how it relates to the upcoming 18th National People’s Conference — and yes, whether or not Gu Kailai killed Niel Haywood is a matter of secondary importance, rather than being a question of life or death for the Party. For Bao Tong and like minded CCP politicos, the question is still one of the absolute authority of the Party.

Here’s the rub: Bo Xilai has become a negative example of abuses of Party authority and power. However, like Deng Xiaoping before him, Bo Xilai is the direct heir of Marxin, Lenin, Mao and Stalin. If the Party removes Bo Xilai, they have rejected the justification for absolute power. If they continue with Bo Xilai, then they must deal with the fact that Bo Xilai has been discredited. Bao Tong thus provocatively and accurately raises the question: If Bo Xilai (or someone like him) is the heir to the revolution, what’s the Party to do? Translation of Bao Tong’s op-ed piece, below.

There are Two Choices at the 18th NPC

Bo Xilai has already become history. The reason he has entered the annals of history isn’t because of his wife, Gu Kailai was convicted, but because he pursued the “Sing Red, Attack Black [mafia] (唱红打黑)” campaign.

Some have slandered Bo Xilai by saying he isn’t a filial descendent of the Party. This is unfair. He really was immoral and lawless, but wasn’t Mao Zedong?  Lenin openly defined revolution as “only dependent on the direct action of the masses and not dependent on any law”, and is thus the even more immoral and lawless ancestor. Under Lenin’s strategy and leadership, the Bolsheviks brazenly dispersed the elected All Russian Constituent Assembly, starting the age of Red Terrorism. Mao Zedong delighted in bragging about his lack of conscious and lawlessness. He didn’t believe this was a source of shame, but rather a source of honor. All Chinese people are familiar with this history. Bo Xilai was merely the direct heir to this tradition. There is no possible discussion about Mao Zedong and Stalin’s personal morality. Thus, if we are to fairly evaluate Bo Xilai, we cannot say that he was the unworthy son of the Party, but must say he was the Party’s worthy son, its skillful and finest son, most worthy in the extreme.

If we are speaking of Party nature (党性), who is more truly of the Party than Bo Xilai. Singing red is to walk with the Party, and attacking black is to struggle against those enemies that the Party has identified. This is the highest essence of revolution and strongest discipline. Bo Xilai had a strong body. During his youth, he was bewitched by Mao Zedong into entering a life or death struggle with his father, Bo Yibo, who Mao had called a traitor. Who else has demonstrated this level of innocent and pure revolutionary spirit and loyalty to the Party?

It must be pointed out that by calling the Chongqing Model “Sing Red, Attack Black”, Bo Xilai had completely digested the marrow of the Party’s authoritative government. Standing in the position of a Party leader, to sing red is to respect only the Party, and to attack Black is to suppress anyone else (异己).

For the masses, singing red is the obligatory way to serve the Party, and attacking black is the willingness to fight on the Party’s behalf. Without exaggeration, we can say that the existence of a political campaign called “Sing Red, Attack Black” signals that the Party’s monolithic control of government has ended. [Within the State Party system] Anything that does not belong to the system is beside the point. Even if it is important, it cannot be a life or death conflict. For example, the difference between Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping’s respective policies or that between Stalin and Hitler’s policies is no doubt one of better or worse, but these differences were differences within the context of serving the absolute political power of the Party.

Consequently, when cutting up a cake, there is always the question of who gets the bigger slice. On the the issues of public housing and hukou, Bo Xilai was not rigid, in fact he was extremely flexible. This is one of the reasons he won the hearts of the people. However, he he could only tentatively hold his deep seeded “follow me and flourish, oppose me and perish” attitude (“顺我者昌逆我者亡”这条命根子). He blatantly raised his “Sing Red, Attack Black” banner, brandishing his sword, declaring his strength and prosperity, without giving any quarter. What was this? This was nothing other than the Bo Xilai Model, or we could call it Bo-ism. It was also Maoism for the 21st century. Bo Xilai didn’t invent “follow me and flourish, oppose me and perish”. However, in order to call corruption a miracle and to paint cruel and inhuman philosophy as miraculous revolutionary truth, Bo Xilai needed extreme sincerity in order to succeed as he did.

Some argue that “Red is true! Black is crime!” Is this true? When were the “nine types of black” established in the legal domain? “The whole country is red” campaign was obviously an unprecedented catastrophe. Governance depends upon clear legal ideas, and does not require romanticism or catchy slogans, and does not permit illegal gutting and rewriting the law.

The especially pernicious aspect of singing red was that it called an ass a horse, sedating the people and deifying leadership. In Bo Xilai’s Sing Red campaign a “power grab” was mystified as “the great victory of democratic revolution”. The ongoing impoverishment and alienation was mystified as “the great victory of socialism”. The widening gap between rich and poor was mystified as “Socialism with Chinese characteristics”. Human rights abuses were mystified as “stability”. And immorality and lawlessness was mystified as “the greatest glory”. Of course, with respect to Bo Xilai himself, he was the new savior of the world.

The especially pernicious aspect of attacking black was using law to solve problems that could not be solved through legal means. It made people crazy to attack wherever the Party pointed: attack rightists, attack anti-rvolutionaries, attack liberalization, attack vulgar values, attack those protest, attack those with power, attack lawyers, attack those with the courage not to submit to the Party’s leaders, attack the enemy in Bo Xilai’s eye; charge with out fear of death, attack! All that was necessary was to raise children who daily sang red and attacked the black, and everyone would be in crazy sedation. The highest power would then naturally pass from generation to generation, flourishing for 1,000 years, the establishment of an imperial house. This was the perfect strategy concealed in Bo Xilai’s four characters “Sing Red, Attack Black”.

Even if this campaign had entered high levels of Party debate, nevertheless early on some clear sighted people saw it was unfeasible. Those who sang red were “Party parrots (党八股)”. Lin Biao advocated reading Mao everyday, but Minister of Propaganda Lu Ding disagreed. Lu Ding contradicted Lin Biao with the colloquialism “even delicious Yunnan ham if eaten everyday will cause indigestion”. Clearly, Lin Biao didn’t have Lu Ding’s experience in propaganda. Attacking black everyday was the same as doing the Cultural Revolution everyday. Likewise, how could Bo Xilai be more knowledgeable than the General Secretary in determining the importance of harmony to social stability? Unsurprisingly, when Bo Xilai first appeared on the list of potential candidates for the Standing Committee, how hard it was for people of understanding to stand like pillars in flowing water. They didn’t make a pilgrimage, they didn’t chant sutras, and they didn’t cheer! (With all the drama for becoming General Secretary, the situation is extremely complicated. Those who had risen by attacking black and made their living singing red were probably a small minority.)

The 18th National People’s Congresses faces a choice: either tie itself to Bo Xilai or cut him loose. If they are unwilling to open the 18th NPC under Bo Xilai’s shadow, then it is time to quietly begin ending the “Sing Red, Attack Black” campaign. Of course, if they are willing to openly and properly join Bo Xilai in singing red and attacking black, this is even more commendable, more deserving of everyone’s welcome and support.

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.