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By Xujun Eberlein

One April day in my birth city of Chongqing, I encountered a rare quarrel in People’s Park. The park is one of several places in downtown Chongqing that offer low-cost “baba cha” (open-space tea), where retirees and others with time on their hands lounge under leafy banyan trees with their teacups and bird cages for a good part of the day. Two fiftyish men sat at a plastic table drinking tea and chatting about Bo Xilai, their city’s ousted leader. One of the men said that Bo’s promotion of “people’s livelihood” had been a fake show, because during his four-year rule, prices of meat, food, and other daily goods had risen steeply in Chongqing. Two young women, who happened to be nearby, cellphones in hand and apparently waiting for someone, did not like what they heard and started to argue that Bo made Chongqing better. The man got very upset; his face reddened and he raised his voice, which attracted the attention of onlookers, including me. I asked the man whether his criticism was formed after Bo’s downfall. He was insulted. “This has always been my opinion! I’m not brainless, I was once a journalist!” he yelled.

Tea-drinkers in People's Park, Chongqing

This scene is rare because, seemingly illogically, in the weeks since his downfall, Bo’s local dissenters have been much quieter than his supporters.

Chongqing people’s attitudes toward Bo Xilai range from supportive to condemnatory to “who cares” and everything in between, a broad spectrum with two heavy ends. (For the indifferent, a typical expression I often heard was “The gods fighting is none of our business.”) So far, however, foreign journalists seem to have a hard time penetrating the famous fog of the river-mountain city to find more than one stratum of views. In the English media it is easy to see headlines such as “Bo Xilai Still Admired Locally in China” and “Bo Xilai Remains Popular in Megacity He Once Oversaw.” In those reports quoting “the average people on the street,” the term “average people” generally does not include intellectuals, writers, journalists, academics, and so forth.

In fact, among local intellectuals, professionals, and the middle class, there has been an overwhelming sentiment against Bo’s doings in Chongqing since 2009, according to a dozen such men and women I have spoken to this month, all of whom requested anonymity. One reason their opinions have not been widely reflected in the foreign media is that they are much more reluctant to speak than the “stick men” (棒棒, or porters-for-hire) who roam the streets. When I asked why they were still afraid of speaking up even after Bo was gone, a local journalist told me that the government had issued orders forbidding them from talking to foreign journalists.

There is a long tradition in China of intellectuals being more tightly controlled than any other social class. Their present silence reflects a deep distrust of the government regardless of its position. Though Bo is now officially on the outs, it is still safer not to voice one’s opinions.

A researcher of Chongqing’s Cultural Revolution told me that in early April, within two hours of talking on the phone with the Chinese assistant of a British journalist and agreeing to have an interview about Bo and the Cultural Revolution, two policemen paid him a visit and requested he cancel the interview, on the grounds that it was a sensitive time and speaking to foreign media would damage Chongqing’s image. After turning them down, he was visited by two old ladies representing the “neighborhood committee,” who presented the same request. The next day his boss at his work unit talked with him—again urging him to cancel the interview. He wondered how the government found out about the interview and whose phone was monitored: his or the journalist’s. To their credit, the researcher told me, all of his uninvited visitors were polite. “At least that is progress.”

The local scholars I spoke to view Bo as either a hypocritical opportunist or a ruthless megalomaniac who regards himself as the savior of China, in either case pursuing his own agenda by fair means or foul. Their condemnation of Bo comes down to the bottom line that the system Bo delivered put the ruler’s authority above the law. The billion-dollar gingko trees, expensive police platforms, and subsidized housing that pleased many were all parts of his “face engineering.” My interviewees pointed out that every district of Chongqing is now facing bankruptcy.

Bo’s supporters can be most easily found among housewives, retired workers, “stick men,” and taxi drivers. One reason that many in the lower-income or laboring classes advocate for Bo is that Bo’s violence did not touch them, a university professor said; instead they received small benefits, for which they are grateful. “The poor don’t know that Bo looks down on them in his bones,” the aforementioned Chongqing journalist said. He gave me an example that once, people in a poor neighborhood unexpectedly saw their benefactor inspecting the area, and they ran to him to express their thanks, only to be pushed back by Bo’s guards. Bo simply turned his back, pretending not to see them.

“Chongqing people are very vain,” a local writer told me, giving another explanation for Bo’s popularity. “What made them most happy about Bo is that he dressed the city up with trees and made Chongqing famous. They don’t care what system is behind all this. They don’t care how much the government is spending. Their logic is that since I don’t get to use the money anyway, it is better to waste it on expensive gingko trees than drop it in the pockets of corrupt officials.”

Several scholars have pointed out that Bo drew on a common sentiment among lower-income people today: hatred of the rich, hatred of corrupt officials. Bo satisfied them by killing or punishing some of those people; how he did it or whether anyone was wronged does not matter.

The scholars I talked with are not rich—they do not even qualify as middle class according to the commonly accepted definition of “a house and a car.” But they have better access to information than many people who only see Bo’s propaganda—for example, the “five Chongqing” posters, which were still pervasive in the city during my April visit.

One day during my trip, a middle-aged women sitting behind me in a shared van was talking to another woman about how the police platforms along Chongqing’s streets have made the city much safer—a commonly heard praise of Bo—and how criminals would return now that Bo was gone. I asked what she thought about singing red songs. “Those songs purify people’s souls,” she answered, as if picking a sentence right from a Party newspaper. “Would you like to go back to the Mao era, then?” I continued to ask. “The Mao era was better than now,” she said, “at least poor patients would be accepted and rescued at an emergency room! Nowadays no one cares if you don’t have money.” “But what about the millions of people who starved to death in the great famine?” I had to ask. She replied, “That was a natural disaster!” (The woman is not alone on this—many ordinary people in China are still unaware that the great famine that lasted three years from 1959 to 1961 was mainly caused by Mao’s erroneous policies.)

Other fierce advocates of Bo come from the “CCP (Maoist)” group, a small local organization with no more than two or three dozen members—all retired factory workers. They “elected” Bo Xilai (whose consent was not required) as their “general secretary” in an October 2009 conference at which a number of participants were detained by Bo’s government. After Bo’s downfall in mid-March of this year, a handful (exaggerated by internet rumors to thousands) of “CCP (Maoist)” members held a protest at Chongqing’s riverfront Chaotianmen. A local observer familiar with the incident said that group had tried unsuccessfully to mobilize ex-Red Guards who had suffered imprisonment and other punishment for their activities during the Cultural Revolution. Those past “heroes,” who remain excluded from China’s economic miracle and live in poverty, were disappointed in Bo Xilai after their open letter asking to improve their living condition was ignored.

Bo’s supporters and dissenters all believe their side is in the majority, and each side uses very different logic when interpreting the charges against Bo and his wife. Four out of five taxi drivers I spoke to, for example, said they didn’t believe that Gu Kailai had murdered Neil Heywood or that Bo was corrupt and hiding money overseas. “Think about it,” one driver said in a teaching tone. “Gu Kailai is a very smart lawyer, wouldn’t she know the consequences of murder? Bo Xilai’s interest is in politics, would he care about a few bucks? It is just that simple!” Their interpretation is that all the charges are made-up excuses to bring Bo down because Bo is more capable than Hu Jintao, Wen Jiabao, and Xi Jinping. The dissenters, on the other hand, believe Bo is completely capable of murder because he has no regard for the life of someone standing in his way. Curiously, regardless of their stance on the Bo affair, most of those I spoke to suspected that Wang Lijun’s entry into the US consulate was part of a plot to bring Bo down.

The last thing I heard before leaving Chongqing was that Bo has requested a public trial. If this is true, the request is most ironic: Bo himself put numerous people on “public trial” during his “crackdown on gangsters” campaign in 2009-2010 and no witnesses for the defense were allowed in court. A dozen or so of those arrested were hastily executed as results of such trials. In a country without an independent judiciary, there is no reason to expect Bo’s prosecution would be any more evenhanded, and Bo should know this better than anyone. So an interesting question is what his real motive in asking for a “public trial” would be. Presumably, it indicates his extreme self-confidence, a characteristic that has done him much damage to date.

On the other hand, the Party leaders must have known that given the wide divide in public opinion, an open trial would put the Party in hot water. That is probably why Bo has only been charged with a discipline violation, an offense that can be handled completely within the Party.

The public divide reflects two sides of the same coin; it is a social crisis caused by rapid economic development ill-supported by the country’s political system. The purge of Bo Xilai puts China’s ruler—the Communist Party—to another legitimacy test. It will be most interesting to see how the Party comes out of it.

Xujun Eberlein is the author of an award-winning story collection, Apologies Forthcoming, and the blog Inside-Out China.

How a first-ever exhibition on Chinese dissent got noticed in India

By Reshma Patil

The Chinese artist offered a firm handshake and his business card. The Indian curator hesitated for a split second. They were, after all, standing in a men’s loo in Gwangju, South Korea.

The curator returned to Mumbai, a financial powerhouse that several Chinese artists in the study group at Gwangju had never heard of. “What is Mumbai?” they asked him. The artist, who happened to know where Mumbai lies, returned to his studio in Beijing. He and the curator communicated via email for over a year. There were long silent gaps, until one day this year, the curator received a parcel of video CDs dispatched from Beijing.

For the first time, Ai Weiwei arrived in India.

It was an odd occurrence. Cultural exchanges between India and China are limited to one-off exchanges and festivals of diplomatically correct art.

The last burst of cross-border cultural exchange happened in 2010 during the 60th anniversary of diplomatic ties between the rivals separated by a boundary disputed since half a century. The stage shows sprinkled with song and dance from the esoteric Kuchipudi to Jai Ho were more political than popular in outreach. I visited an India-China Friendship Exhibition spread on an 11th floor hall in Beijing, where I found myself the lone visitor, staring at paintings on India-inspired themes by dozens of Chinese artists.

Now here I was, shuffling clumsily into the darkened century-old Clark House (nobody now remembers who Mr. Clark was) showing the activist-artist’s videos. The colonial building on the southern seaside of Mumbai used to be the office of a tea export company that cut-price Chinese competitors made defunct in the nineties.

The entrance was lit by Mumbai-based artist Justin Ponmany’s work of two skirt-shaped lampshades with blood-red maps of India and China on each. An engrossed old lady sat on a Shenzhen-made replica of a Ming dynasty hunting chair. “You’re blocking my view,” she complained about my presence before the screen draped on the wall. If she had stayed at home, she would be flicking channels broadcasting the successful trial of India’s Agni-5, a nuclear-capable missile that can reach Beijing and Shanghai.

“We had visitors who spent half a day here, to watch all four films,” said curator Sumesh Sharma who accepted Ai’s handshake in a loo in 2010, when he knew the man as just a co-designer of the Bird’s Nest Olympics stadium in Beijing. China’s best-known activist-artist became a familiar name in Indian newsprint only during his 81-day detention last year.

Exhibition view from left to right of video by Ai Weiwei, prints by Nikhil Raunak, posters from the Cultural Revolution, video by Tushar Joag and print by Atul Dodiya. Photo credit Clark House.

“It indicates a government strangely unsure of its legitimacy, wary of its own people,” said a Hindustan Times editorial last April. “Which is why New Delhi and other capitals are watching China’s external actions so carefully, worrying and watching out for any evidence that domestic paranoia is feeding into foreign policy practice.” The Indian Express ran an op-ed on the “dangerous artist” by Salman Rushdie. But Ai is not as well known in India as in the West. The screenings in the Clark House gallery from April 13-22 last month may have changed that. They called it “Arranging Chairs for Ai Weiwei,” as a gesture to welcome him to India.

An art critic paced upstairs. Foreign tourists came daily in droves. A video of Ai in Ordos, Inner Mongolia, streamed on a computer screen atop an antique table topped with sunflower carvings. A miniature porcelain ensemble of an “animal farm” sat in a dusty box under the computer. The screens were surrounded by works of half a dozen Indian artists, including Tushar Joag, who rode a motorcycle from Mumbai to Shanghai two years ago to make symbolic linkages between controversial great dam projects in both nations.

Sharma discussed the “cultural indifference” and “hostility” one experiences on both sides of the border, especially when forging people-to-people connections. “Our motive to bring Ai Weiwei to India stemmed from a personal want to bridge the cultural indifference to a neighbour with whom we share our longest boundary,’’ he said in a statement.

Rambling through the rooms, one watched Ai and Tan Zuoren’s campaign against “tofu schools” that buried over 5,000 child victims of the Sichuan earthquake of 2008; the controversial case of Yang Jia who was executed for killing six Shanghai policemen and Ordos 100, where architects were invited to design 100 villas on a piece of desert in Inner Mongolia.

Nearly all Mumbai-based newspapers reported the screenings, but the coverage didn’t make direct linkages with India. Students, artists, journalists, and retired neighbors trooped in to sit on the replica hunting chairs, showing that Indians too want to listen to what the Chinese are talking about. It’s just not Peking Opera.

Both the contrasting civil societies are becoming more vocal in asserting their rights in governance. Chinese netizens last year attempted to launch anti-bribery websites modeled on those in India. Chinese bloggers spread the word on the Anna Hazare-led anti-corruption campaign last year, noting that Indians, at least, have the right to protest.

“The critique that we often have of India is that it is inefficient and corrupt for [all that] it is democratic and accommodating,’’ said Sharma. “But through Ai’s movies I felt that the state was failing itself initially through corruption and subsequently through repression of people like Tan Zuoren and Ai who uncovered these failures.”

“The relationship between the police and citizens,” he said, “reminds us of the relationship we in India hold with the state.”

Three unidentified Chinese men also came and took a good look. The organizers wondered why they left without revealing their names.

Reshma Patil works as associate editor at the Hindustan Times. She is writing a book on Sino-Indian relations based on her years as the paper’s first China correspondent from 2008-11.

By Duncan Hewitt

It was just like old times—in many of China’s major newspapers, a prominently displayed half-page story headlined: “Officials and citizens all across the country express unwavering support for central party leadership’s decision.” It followed hot on the heels of the previous day’s People’s Daily headline: “Resolutely support the party’s correct decision,” which appeared on many front pages. In the wake of the stunning news that Bo Xilai, one of China’s most prominent politicians, had been suspended from the ruling Politburo, and his wife arrested on suspicion of being involved in the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood, the Chinese Communist Party was in full damage limitation mode. And as so often in a time of crisis, it reverted to tried and trusted methods—in this case wheeling out headlines and slogans straight out of the Mao-era propaganda lexicon. Even the well-known liberal Guangzhou newspaper the Southern Weekend had obviously been ordered to fill its front page with them—though it did manage to squeeze in a recent quote from Premier Wen Jiabao calling for continuing reforms. And by the end of the week, state media had begun pushing other default buttons, with an editorial in the often nationalistic Global Times newspaper accusing the western media of trying to use the affair to split the Communist Party.

But of course times have, in fact, changed. “These headlines are like something out of the Cultural Revolution,” said one very modern urban intellectual, shaking his head in disbelief. And while newspaper editors have apparently been summoned to meetings to ensure they follow the correct line, the authorities have had to work hard policing the Internet against critical comment in recent days. Even before the latest news broke, they had already felt they had no option but to close down the comment function on China’s two biggest microblogging sites for several days, claiming that this was to prevent the spread of rumors, following online speculation about a possible coup attempt by people sympathetic to Mr. Bo. Last week they again blocked the use of (and searches for) the names of Bo Xilai, Neil Heywood, and Wang Lijun, Mr. Bo’s former police chief in the city he ran, Chongqing, whose flight to the US consulate in nearby Chengdu in February was the first hint of the affair.

Yet many people have sought ways to get around the blockade, using abbreviations and homonyms. And opinions are clearly less unified than the official media would seek to have the nation believe. For all that newspapers like the Global Times ran headlines suggesting that the detention of a member of the party’s inner circle, apparently in connection with a murder investigation, was a stirring symbol of the party’s commitment to the rule of law, cynics on the Internet were busy suggesting that it was, in fact, a sign of just how rotten the upper echelons of the party appear to have become. Others, even some who did not necessarily sympathize with the campaigns to promote traditional socialist culture which Mr. Bo ran in Chongqing—which seemed to alarm some people in the central leadership—were suspicious, rightly or wrongly, that his ouster should have come just as he was apparently getting close to an even more powerful post in China’s leadership transition later this year.

In a nation where the media has, despite ongoing official controls on the most sensitive political issues, continued to diversify over recent years, and where the Internet and in particular microblogs have revolutionized the flow of information, it’s now much harder to control public opinion. In Shanghai, for example, where the city’s former Communist Party secretary Chen Liangyu was ousted in 2006, and later convicted on charges of corruption relating to misuse of the city’s pension funds, it’s not hard to find people who argue that Mr. Chen was in fact a good man who put the city’s population first, and claim that his dismissal had more to do with political clashes with the central leadership than any unusual degree of corruption. (And these contrarian attitudes relate to a case which occurred several years before there were microblogs to send such views shooting around cyberspace.)

Some people are undoubtedly glad to see the removal of Mr. Bo, whose populist approach sat awkwardly with the cautious, consensual style of China’s top leadership over recent years. And many liberals in China certainly welcomed Premier Wen Jiabao’s warning, at his press conference in March, that the country had to be on guard to prevent a return to the days of the Cultural Revolution—an apparent reference to Mr. Bo’s Maoist-inspired mass campaigns in Chongqing. It was one of the first times in many years that a top leader had mentioned the Cultural Revolution, serious debate about which still remains almost taboo in China.

Nevertheless, the government’s heavy-handed, traditional-style management of the media—and Internet—during this crisis has made some wonder just how far the Communist Party has moved from its Mao-era traditions. Well-known liberal scholar Liu Junning last week wrote a post (which was quickly deleted, according to Hong Kong University’s China Media Project) warning that the greatest threat to social stability was in fact autocratic rule—an apparent reference to the Party itself.

It’s all added to the sense that, for all its talk of embracing “public scrutiny” via the Internet, the Party is struggling to keep up with the pace of social change in China. It recently revived a campaign to promote the example of Lei Feng, an early 1960s’ soldier promoted by Chairman Mao as a model of altruism—and a throwback to the days when people in China really did “express unwavering support” for the decisions of the party central committee.

But even in the same Shanghai newspapers that hailed public enthusiasm for the government’s handling of the latest events last week, there was a reminder of just how much times have changed. Several papers reported how twenty airline passengers, furious at having been delayed overnight at Shanghai’s Pudong International Airport when a flight was cancelled—and at receiving no compensation for their troubles—burst past security guards and blocked a runway near the plane they were eventually due to leave on, forcing one international flight that had just landed to change its course on the taxi way. The protesters were soon removed from the runway, but to the anger of some local media, the authorities were apparently initially unwilling to take any further action against them (though after much media criticism, they were later reported to have been given unspecified “administrative punishment.”)

It’s perhaps not surprising: with Chinese people increasingly aware of their rights as consumers—and, perhaps, as citizens too—these days, protests by passengers angry at shoddy treatment by state-run airlines (many of which still seem to hanker for the unaccountable days of old) have become commonplace, and the police are often very wary of intervening for fear of provoking a violent reaction. (I saw such a case myself at Shanghai’s Hongqiao Airport a couple of weeks ago, when a passenger furious at the cancellation of his flight due to fog leapt onto the counter of an airline desk and began screaming at the top of his voice. Two young policemen hovered nervously nearby, watching but taking no action.) These days, it seems, achieving total unity of opinion among people who feel increasingly empowered as individuals may not be quite as easy as it was in the days when the People’s Daily first wrote such headlines.

Duncan Hewitt is a former BBC China correspondent who now writes for Newsweek and other publications from Shanghai, and is the author of Getting Rich First—Life in a Changing China (Vintage UK, 2008).

By Anne Henochowicz

The last two years have seen much talk about the explosion of social media as a tool of real change, most notably during the Arab Spring. Tunisia’s and Egypt’s revolutions were powered by Twitter and Facebook. Though these sites are blocked in China, Sina’s microblogging platform Weibo has also changed the political game in that country, forcing government accountability after last summer’s high-speed train crash in Wenzhou and contributing to the very public downfall of former Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai. Weibo’s power may also lead to its demise. After rumors of a coup attempt spread recently, the comment function on posts was disabled from March 31 through April 3.

The rise of Weibo, concurrent with a tightening of restrictions on activists, has focused the world’s attention on Chinese social media. The cat-and-mouse game Chinese “netizens” play with the censors has made it onto the pages of the New York Times, The Economist, and the International Herald Tribune. What is so often missing, though, from the discussion of Internet freedom in China, as in the Middle East, is the role that “free world” business and politics plays in the mechanisms of censorship.

Rebecca MacKinnon’s Consent of the Networked is a synthesis of the global debate over Internet freedom. MacKinnon has extensive journalistic experience in China, but her book encompasses the breadth of Internet issues worldwide. The CNN Beijing bureau chief from 1998-2001, MacKinnon went on to become a fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and later the Berkman Center for Internet and Society. She is the co-founder of Global Voices, an international citizen journalist blog. She is currently a fellow at the New America Foundation and on the Global Network Initiative’s board of directors.

MacKinnon argues that Internet freedom depends on the “consent of the networked.” Like John Locke’s consent of the governed, the denizens of the Internet, its “netizens,” relinquish a certain amount of personal freedom in exchange for security. In the physical world, we accept that we need the police to protect us from harm. If the police are too weak, we don’t feel safe in public. But if the police have too much power, they bring a new kind of danger into our lives. Like real-world institutions, our virtual hegemons should guarantee our freedoms, not encroach on them.

The trouble with the Internet is that the kingdoms governing it—Facebook, Google, Yahoo—make their own rules. They are not accountable to netizens. They may apply their laws arbitrarily or change them without warning. Facebook, for example, has a loosely-enforced real-name policy. Zhao Jing, the Beijing blogger and journalist who goes by the pen name Michael Anti, found his Facebook account shuttered in 2011 for violation of the company’s real-name policy. But the same policy has not been applied to Beast, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s dog.

Zuckerberg argues that netizens should have nothing to hide online. But control over how much personal information exists about us online is vital to our real-world safety, whether we inhabit democracies or authoritarian regimes. Under South Korea’s short-lived real-identification registration requirement, netizens’ identities on the blogging platform Daum, YouTube, and other sites were tied to real names, ID numbers, and addresses. This allowed for the 2009 arrest of Park Dae-sung for “spreading false information to harm the public interest,” even though he blogged under a pseudonym. The real-name regulations remained until July 2011, when the national ID numbers of of about 35 million people were stolen from a popular Korean Web portal.

China’s four biggest microblogging platforms, including Sina Weibo, are phasing in real-ID requirements as of March 16. Users can keep their unregistered accounts, but eventually will not be able to post without giving their real names and mobile phone numbers. This not only threatens Weibo’s freewheeling atmosphere, but also leaves users vulnerable to identity theft.

It is easy to pin all of the on blame the Chinese government. Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Google all had their time in China, before some “mass incident” or conflict between the company and the government threw it on the other side of the Great Firewall. But we should not forget that American Internet and technology companies have also played a role in online censorship. Perhaps the most egregious example is the case of journalist Shi Tao, arrested in 2004 after sending an email from his Yahoo account to the organization Democracy Forum about directives for reporters leading up to June 4. At the Beijing state security bureau’s request, Yahoo turned in all of Shi’s “login times, corresponding IP addresses, and relevant email content.” Shi is still serving his jail sentence.

In the wake of Shi’s conviction, Yahoo made significant changes to its corporate policy to keep similar human rights violations from happening again. MacKinnon is not anti-corporation or anti-regulation, and makes a point of talking about the efforts some governments and Internet companies have made to protect netizens. She also emphasizes the role netizens in the free world can play in promoting a global open Internet. While circumvention software to “climb the wall,” anonymizers, and other tools made in the Western world for people living with a less-than-free Internet have their place, we can do the most good for netizens worldwide by making Internet companies at home accountable to us.

American netizens rose to the task earlier this year in their petition against the House’s SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and the Senate’s PIPA (Protect IP Act), bills which would punish Web platforms allowing copyrighted material to be shared and force Internet service providers and search engines to block access to “rogue websites.” On January 18, Wikipedia and other websites coordinated a blackout in protest. The blackouts, petitions, and rallies influenced the postponement of hearings on both bills.

There is plenty of talk about what is censored online, but not nearly enough about how. To understand why online conversations evolve as they do in China—or Iran, or the US—we need to understand the mechanisms that support those conversations. And to make the Internet free for everyone, we need to start at home.

Anne Henochowicz is the translation coordinator for China Digital Times. She earned her masters in Chinese literature and folklore from The Ohio State University. She lives in Washington, D.C. You can reach her on Twitter @murasakint.

We’ve previously blogged about Oxford University Press’s Very Short Introductions, a series that now runs to over three hundred titles. The books offer readers a quick overview of topics ranging from the meaning of life to folk music, covering major issues and key arguments in a lively and accessible manner (and a slim, pocket-sized volume). We, of course, take special notice when China-related VSIs come along, and were excited to see two new titles join the lineup: The Cultural Revolution, written by political scientist Richard Kraus, and Chinese Literature, authored by Smith College professor Sabina Knight. We’re pleased to feature excerpts from both books today at China Beat.

An economy of “self-reliance”

“Self-reliance” was the slogan that guided China’s Cultural Revolution economy, reflecting both China’s isolation as a nation and Maoist desires to substitute abundant human labor for scarce capital as a strategy for economic development. China’s economy fared better than post-Mao reformers admitted, but it did not conform to typical developmental patterns; Chinese had low incomes but much higher literacy and life expectancy than such poverty usually suggests. China’s self-reliance joined an ideological Puritanism to restrict individual consumption for the sake of public investment. The Cultural Revolution initially disrupted the economy. But order returned to China’s cities after 1968, sending millions of Red Guards to work in the countryside, still home to 80 percent of the population. Although the economy grew significantly, the gap between city and countryside remained problematic. The Cultural Revolution was a last hurrah for distinctively Maoist economic initiatives. Yet Maoist investment in infrastructure and human capital provided an indispensible base for China’s subsequent economic opening to the outside world.

Poverty and economic growth
China was poor; the per capita income in 1978 was $859 in 2010 dollars. Yet it was relatively egalitarian. The revolution had diminished differences in wealth by eliminating the classes that lived most extravagantly. Rural landlords had been dispossessed through land reform. The extended lineage organizations that sustained their power were vastly weakened. Private capitalists lost control over their assets in a 1956 nationalization of property, although the state continued to pay off bonds issued in exchange.

The Cultural Revolution intensified the egalitarianism. Red Guards attacks on “bourgeois” life styles merely underscored existing state policies. Repeated restrictions upon small business created a profound shortage of consumer goods for everyone. In 1952 China had one restaurant for every 676 people; by 1978 there was only one for every 8,189. Ration coupons were needed to buy cotton cloth, grain, meat, fish, cooking oil, and eggs, frustrating some but discouraging hoarding and ensuring more equal access to scarce items. Bureaucratic rank replaced wealth in aiding access to goods and services. But except for the luxuries enjoyed by the very top leaders, the range of official privileges was restricted.

Manual work was celebrated in a land where gentlemen traditionally made a display of the exemption from physical labor by wearing long fingernails and long gowns. Maoists sought to soften China’s poverty through campaigns to “remember past bitterness,” in which older workers and peasants would meet to tell young audiences how they had suffered before 1949.

Should socialism be a framework for egalitarianism in consumption or should it be an engine for increasing production? It is difficult to be both at the same time. Socialist governments have labored to resolve or at least obscure this tension. Maoists, recognizing that China could still achieve only egalitarian poverty, elevated individual austerity and Spartan consumption into an ideal to free funds for greater public investment. The Cultural Revolutionaries often allocated these investments inefficiently; they presided over a planning regime that dismissed service sector needs, tolerated large regional gaps, and allowed only a slow rise in living standards.

Even so, the economy during the Cultural Revolution was not the disaster that is often described. China’s gross domestic product (GDP) grew nearly 6 percent annually, a slightly slower rate than during the earlier years of the People’s Republic but still a respectable performance. The figures appear low only by comparison to the post–Cultural Revolution boom economy. It is difficult to construe these figures as a catastrophe.

China’s Cultural Revolution growth rate stands up to comparison during the same period with two other poor Asian giants, India and Indonesia. All three nations faced similar problems and constraints in industrializing large agrarian societies. China grew somewhat less rapidly than Indonesia but about twice as fast as India. All three grew more slowly than Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, and Hong Kong. These four smaller regions later became known as Asia’s “tigers” for their rapid growth (8–9 percent), following a formula that mixed foreign aid and investment with the export of consumer goods to wealthier nations. These small and briskly authoritarian states, with access to sea transport, integrated with ease into the growing international market for textiles, chemicals, and electronics for Western consumers.

The disorder of the Cultural Revolution’s first two years halted growth and even shrank the economy. As early as September 1966, top leaders tried to prevent rebel disruptions to the economy by demanding that everyone should “grasp revolution, promote production.” The dispersal of the Red Guards by 1968 was accompanied by the slogan “the working class must exercise leadership in everything,” when the restoration of Party authority led to two years of extraordinary growth. The remainder of the Cultural Revolution brought moderate, if uneven, increases, save for 1976, when political disruptions again contributed to a production decline.

The dichotomy of utopianism versus pragmatism may not be as absolute as some might have it. For all its egalitarian appearance, Cultural Revolutionary China retained a doggedly developmentalist agenda. Mao shared this agenda with his rival Liu Shaoqi and the policies of the Seventeen Years [1949-1966]. Similar developmentalism would be continued through Deng Xiaoping’s reform program. Despite differences in approach and emphasis, China’s leaders agreed that the state’s job was to make China rich and strong as quickly as possible.

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Industrial investment
Self-reliance encouraged regional autonomy, in part to cut transport costs. Nonetheless significant improvements strengthened the transportation infrastructure. In 1968 the Yangzi River Bridge opened at Nanjing. Completing this unfinished Soviet-aid project made it possible for the first time for rail traffic to cross China’s great river in East China, thus ending the need to move trains onto ferries. Beijing’s first subway line was completed in 1969. Thousands of new bridges and roads improved rural movement of materials and goods.

Rural industry became a dynamic part of the industrial sector, with new commune-based enterprises producing goods such as chemical fertilizer, farm implements, irrigation equipment, cement, electric motors, and hydroelectric power. These received significant state investment and tax exemptions. The township and village enterprises critical to post–Cultural Revolution reforms grew out of these rural industries.

Self-reliance has its green aspects. Poverty discourages waste, and consumption of local goods cuts transport pollution. But the Cultural Revolution’s relentless developmental agenda was hard on the environment, as self-reliance also pushed every community to grow grain, even where this was environmentally unsound. “Grain as the key link” was bad for grasslands, and the aquifers of the North China plain were seriously stressed. Lakes shrank as farmland was extended. Against this trend, forestation increased biomass in the 1970s. And the level of environmental damage, harmful as it was, worsened quickly after the Cultural Revolution, as Chinese developmentalism shifted to a market paradigm of rapid growth.

Given Maoist resistance to consumer goods, industrial development stressed heavy over light industry, such as clothing. Growth was respectable, but investments were often inefficient. The so-called “Third Front,” a secret, military-led industrialization program to build new factories deep in China’s interior, was a prime example (the First and Second Fronts were coastal and central lines of military defense). Many factories were built in caves or hidden among the mountains of the southwest.

This hidden economic base against American or Soviet attack required huge amounts of capital, which might have been better spent in other regions, where construction was cheaper and local skills more abundant. But coastal investment was vulnerable to possible American bombing or attacks from the Guomindang in Taiwan. Maoists also wanted to reward still-poor old revolutionary base areas for their past services and to spread industrial skills more evenly across the nation. Lesser, but still significant, Third Front factories were built nearer the coast, in the underdeveloped mountains of Zhejiang and Fujian provinces. These also produced armaments, steel, and chemicals.

This defensive, sometimes paranoid aspect pervaded Cultural Revolution economic policy. Self-reliance was inspired by realistic anxiety of foreign invasion. At one point, the Party enjoined citizens to “dig tunnels deep, store grain everywhere.” The idea was to withstand Soviet attacks on China’s transport system. Inadvertent unearthing of previously unknown archaeological artifacts was the immediate result. Lin Biao’s demise and the decline of military power dampened support for the isolationist Third Front. China’s reconciliation with the United States eventually finished it off.

In 1971, the year Lin Biao died, China’s total foreign trade reached a low point of 5 percent of GDP, but foreign trade tripled by 1975. With the end of the Third Front, Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping, with the backing of Mao Zedong, initiated a great shift in economic policy, marked by a decision to import eleven large-scale fertilizer plants from the West. Zhou Enlai’s speech announcing the “Four Modernizations” was a late Cultural Revolution venture. The economic transition from Mao to Deng actually began during the Cultural Revolution, not after, and it was more also gradual than the total rejection of Maoism that we normally hear about.

Without Maoist development, there would have been no Deng “miracle.” The Cultural Revolution foundations for Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms included high literacy and good health, high-yield varieties of rice, and irrigation and transit projects built by all that Maoist labor. Industrial infrastructure may often have been created inefficiently, but it provided a heritage for subsequent growth. Deng inherited an economy free of debt to foreign countries. Maoist decentralization, plus the heavy blows of the Cultural Revolution against the bureaucracy, minimized the sort of economic entrenchment that blocked reforms in the Soviet Union.

Of course the post–Cultural Revolutionary reformers dealt with many inflexibilities as they privatized state firms, improved the supply of consumer goods, developed an aggressive foreign trade system, expanded the credit system, and moved beyond central planning. Maoist approaches reached a point of diminishing returns, in addition to their heavy political costs.

Asking whether the reforms really began in 1971 instead of 1978 is not a silly question. Deng Xiaoping insisted on the 1978 date, as he needed to make all of the Cultural Revolution decade look bad (including those policies that he implemented) in order to justify some of the nastiness that accompanied the turn to market reforms. Moreover, beyond China, neoliberalism has enjoyed a generation of ceaseless propaganda telling us that the market is the only way to organize human affairs. This obscures seeing that the trajectory of “post-Mao” reforms began in the middle of the Cultural Revolution.

© 2011 Oxford University Press, USA

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