Monday, February 1, 2021

China's Cultural Revolution an Ours

There is good and bad in this New Yorker essay by one Pankaj Mishra. On the good side, he offers an extended description of what happened in China, before, during and after the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. He explains that the Chinese rage for an orderly society, even when it is dictated from the top, derives from the chaos that destroyed the country during the GPCR. It isn't entirely true, but it does make some sense.

But then, Mishra tries to apply the lessons of the GPCR to today’s America and declares that Donald Trump, the one who no longer holds power, and whose hold on power was so weak that his enemies harassed and abused him for years with impunity, is Chairman Mao reincarnated.

As Trump officials, Trump supporters and anyone who sounds too conservative is being canceled, Mishra develops the absurd notion that American leftists are being persecuted-- by Jack Dorsey, apparently, who is deplatforming Trump and Trump officials.

Perhaps you need to propose such stupidity to be published in The New Yorker. But one can only wonder how the magazine’s famed fact checkers allowed this to pass.

As for China, Mao’s Great Leap Forward was bad enough. It produced mass starvation, wherein some 35-40 million people starved to death. Mishra de-emphasizes the starvation, but certainly it plays on the Chinese mind.

The ensuing Cultural Revolution, designed primarily to blame it all on party officials and bureaucrats, only killed around a million and a half people, but it destroyed the nation’s economy. By the time it was over the extreme poverty rate in China was over 80%. Extreme poverty means living on, in today’s dollars, around $1.90 a day. 

Today, the extreme poverty rate is somewhere around 3%.

You think that China is evil. The people who rose from starvation to prosperity in two generations will probably take exception. 

After reminding us that most serious intellectuals, especially in France, were all-in with the Cultural Revolution, he explains what the Red Guards were up to:

Red Guards—a pseudo-military designation adopted by secondary-school and university students who saw themselves as the Chairman’s sentinels—soon appeared all over China, charging people with manifestly ridiculous crimes and physically assaulting them before jeering crowds. Much murderous insanity erupted after 1966, but the Cultural Revolution’s most iconic images remain those of the struggle sessions: victims with bowed heads in dunce caps, the outlandish accusations against them scrawled on heavy signboards hanging from their necks. Such pictures, and others, in “Forbidden Memory” (Potomac), by the Tibetan activist and poet Tsering Woeser, show that even Tibet, the far-flung region that China had occupied since 1950, did not escape the turmoil. Woeser describes the devastation wrought on Tibet’s Buddhist traditions by a campaign to humiliate the elderly and to obliterate what were known as the Four Olds—“old thinking, old culture, old customs, and old habits of the exploiting classes.” The photographs in Woeser’s book were taken by her father, a soldier in the Chinese military, and found by her after he died. There are vandalized monasteries and bonfires of books and manuscripts—a rare pictorial record of a tragedy in which ideological delirium turned ordinary people into monsters who devoured their own. (Notably, almost all the persecutors in the photographs are Tibetan, not Han Chinese.) In one revealing photo, Tibet’s most famous female lama, once hailed as a true patriot for spurning the Dalai Lama, cowers before a young Tibetan woman who has her fists raised.

At a time when former Trump administration officials are being persecuted, and canceled from the job market, surely this picture feels familiar. Except not as Mishra would wish.

Among the victims of the GPCR was the father of current Chinese president Xi Jinping. Our own elite intellectuals imagine that President Xi wants to return to Maoism. And yet, considering his own experience with the Red Guards, how plausible is that?

Closer to the center of things, in Xi’an, the Red Guards paraded Xi Zhongxun, a stalwart of the Chinese Communist Revolution who had fallen out with Mao, around on a truck and then beat him. His wife, in Beijing, was forced to publicly denounce their son—Xi Jinping, China’s current President. Xi Jinping’s half sister was, according to official accounts, “persecuted to death”; most probably, like many people tortured by the Red Guards, she committed suicide. Xi spent years living in a cave dwelling, one of sixteen million youths exiled to the countryside by Mao.

As for the post-Mao record, Mishra reports:

In the four decades since, China has moved from being the headquarters of world revolution to being the epicenter of global capitalism. Its leaders can plausibly claim to have engineered the swiftest economic reversal in history: the redemption from extreme poverty of hundreds of millions of people in less than three decades, and the construction of modern infrastructure.

But then, Mishra accepts the argument that the ultimate winner of the post GPCR were the nation’s bureaucrats. He imagines that they amass fortunes and game the system-- to get their children into the best universities.

On the latter point, he is obviously mistaken. President Xi, autocrat that he might well be, could not get his daughter into the best Chinese universities. He was obliged to send her to Harvard-- which has lower admissions standards.

Mishra accepts the view that China today is a capitalist oligarchy, promoting inequality and fostering corruption. This is a standard leftist criticism of all capitalist economic systems, so we have a right to retain some skepticism.

Mishra offers this explanation of today’s China, blaming it all on the Cultural Revolution. He might have added that the Great Leap Forward, the most ambitious effort to communize a nation, also case an ominous shadow on today’s China:

But the Cultural Revolution has instilled in many Chinese people a politically paralyzing lesson—that attempts to achieve social equality can go calamitously wrong. The Chinese critic Wang Hui has pointed out that criticisms of China’s many problems are often met with a potent accusation: “So, do you want to return to the days of the Cultural Revolution?” As Xi Jinping turns the world’s largest revolutionary party into the world’s most successful conservative institution, he is undoubtedly helped by this deeply ingrained fear of anarchy.

How did Deng Xiaoping revive China? Mishra seems to find it objectionable, but Deng, an enormously competent individual himself, promoted people based on merit, not on ideological purity:

Deng not only accelerated the marketization of the Chinese economy but also strengthened the party that Mao had done so much to undermine, promoting faceless officials known for their administrative and technical competence to senior positions.

I will spare you the specious analogizing between Chairman Mao and Donald Trump. Making the Proud Boys into junior Red Guards is simply too stupid to address. Naturally, Mishra, who is promoting his own form of ideological conformity, forgets completely about the Black Lives Matter riots that engulfed major American cities for months on end. And he ignores the fascist Antifa crowd. He also ignores cancel culture, the tech culture that has done everything in its power to make former Trump officials unemployable.

1 comment:

Sam L. said...

"Perhaps you need to propose such stupidity to be published in The New Yorker. But one can only wonder how the magazine’s famed fact checkers allowed this to pass." Easy-peasy, Stuart: They only know what they want to know, and truth is not one of them. Well, they also know what they DON'T want to know, and they keep that in hermetically-sealed containers in their vaults. Can't have it getting out, doncha know.