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How to Lose a War

The Spokesman, 90

John Gittings, The Changing Face of China: From Mao to Market, Oxford University Press, 372 pages, hardback ISBN 0192806122 £18.99


In a footnote to the Introduction to this important new book on China, John Gittings, who was for many years The Guardian Asia correspondent and China staffer, writes inter alia as follows;


‘In writing this general account of modern Chinese history since the Communist revolution, I have sought to give full value to the ideas and goals of the period when Mao was in power as well as charting the huge changes which have taken place since his death and particularly since the early 1990s … There is no question that we know now much more about Mao’s despotic behaviour and that it reflects very badly on him, even if there is room for argument over the reliability and veracity of some memoirs and recollections. However, I continue to believe that Mao was an original thinker whose arguments should be taken seriously and that the history of post-1949 China cannot be understood if he is regarded simply as a “monster” or as a despot only interested in the exercise of supreme power. Similarly I do not think that it is helpful to dismiss the “Cultural Revolution” simply as “ten years of chaos”, attributable to power-hungry opportunists who exploited Mao’s cult ... My own view remains that even in the area of ideology circumstances can alter cases – as indeed was shown by the speed with which Mao responded when the US eventually sought détente with China in the 1970s.  Beijing’s earlier efforts to open a diplomatic dialogue with the US in the mid-1950s also need to be accounted for. I remain convinced that “Western” (effectively American) hostility to a Communist-led China was an important contributory factor in the growth of Maoist extremism in the late 1950s and 1960s.’


How far then does the history, as Gitttings tells it, of this momentous half century in which China emerged from a semi-colonial state into a great industrial world power support his general conclusion? There can be no question that Mao sought unsuccessfully to win US neutrality in the civil war of 1946-9 and that Mao dismissed Beijing’s anti-US propaganda in the early 1970s as ‘firing off empty cannons’ and immediately welcomed Nixon’s offer of détente. The decision up till then of the United States not even to recognize the Government of mainland China, and to deal with the government of Taiwan as if it represented China, could not fail to generate extreme nationalism and a sense of isolation, in which the concept emerged of a ‘gradual road’ of development without outside help even, after the late 1960s, from the Soviet Union. Mao’s thinking about the ‘gradual road’ did no more than reflect the actual facts of the world which China faced.


While the exaggerated expectations of the Great Leap Forward of the late 1950s undoubtedly led to near starvation and possibly millions of deaths, the twenty years of the People’s Communes cannot be written off as a total disaster. Gittings supplies evidence to support the view that ‘the specialised farming and rural industry of the 1980s derived some benefit from the earlier collective efforts of the rural work force when it was organized into communes, brigades and teams … that current achievements were based upon labour-intensive “capital construction” investment in land improvement of the 1960s and 1970s, but under the previous system could never have been realised.’ William Hinton, author of Fanshen, the classic account of earlier land reform, is quoted by Gittings as arguing ‘It is unlikely that if the collectives had been given the same autonomy in production and freedom to develop markets that private producers now enjoy, they would have lagged behind’. My own visit to China in 1978 with an invited medical mission left me impressed rather than otherwise with the several communes we visited, and I was not surprised to read that in a UNICEF publication of 2000 ‘ the Mother and Child Health network was greatly weakened after the Peoples Communes were abolished’.


Mao’s promotion of the ‘Cultural Revolution’ raises more complex issues, in which Mao’s age and health must be taken into account. A sense of frustration at slow progress and bureaucratic delays was widespread in the mid-1960s, especially among the increasingly large number of students. The 1981 Resolution on Mao’s mistakes passed at the Eleventh Plenum of the Communist Party – five years after Mao’s death – identified three causes behind the Cultural Revolution – first, Mao’s failure to accept criticism and to realize what was being done behind his back by Lin Biao and the Gang of Four; second, the Chinese tradition of ‘feudal autocracy’ to which the Communist Party largely succumbed; third, the Party’s birth and maturation during decades of war and ‘fierce class struggle’ had made it ill equipped to deal with the more subtle contradictions of a peaceful society, this weakness being exacerbated by the split with the Soviet Union.


This leaves untreated the crucial question of democracy in the Party and the ultimate division of the Party on this issue leading to the tragedy of Tiananmen Square in June of 1989 when, according to what Gittings calls the most reliable estimates, around a thousand protesters were killed and many more injured and brutally treated thereafter. Gittings makes it clear that the divisions in the Party were real and witnesses the presence of Zhao Ziyang among the students and workers in the Square and his replacement as Premier by Li Peng; the hesitancy, moreover, of the army at first to move, and the several days before the decision was reached to suppress the protests. The old guard of the Party saw a student victory as foreshadowing the end of the Party’s rule, and was prepared to sacrifice many hundreds of lives to save their dominant position, but this was not the position of a possible majority of the Party members who supported Zhao Ziyang. Many references are made by Gittings to the strength of not only worker and student opposition but that of journalists and intellectuals, and particularly to the role of Professor Su Shaozhi, the path-breaking intellectual who had been head of the Institute of Marx, Lenin and Mao Tse Tung Thought in Beijing. Su Shaozhi spoke out at the time of the occupation of the Square against bureaucratisation and sectarianism. The Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation had made contact with him in the 1980s, and seen to it that his book on Democratisation and Reform was published by the Spokesman Press in 1988. Professor Su believed that democratisation was necessary and possible in China, and suffered exile for his beliefs.


Deng Xiaoping’s subsequent return to power, in Gitttings’ view, ‘demonstrates yet again how the Chinese system still required a great leader to make it function’. The gap that had opened up between the people and the Party was closed by accelerated economic growth, which was providing employment for the millions who were pouring into the cities from the countryside. Deng could then argue that ‘there was nothing inherently capitalistic about encouraging market forces, nothing wrong with allowing the rich to get richer, eventually (but not too soon) paying more taxes to help the poor’. ‘The “non-public ownership sector” had become “an important component part” of China’s socialist economy.’


The emergence of China as a major industrial power with massive international investment, and the domination of world markets for manufactures as a result of

China’s combination of advanced technology and cheap labour leaves, as Gittings clearly demonstrates, many problems unsolved apart from the lack of democracy. There is the widening gap between town and country and of living standards between rich and poor – millionaires at one extreme, slave labour at the other. There is a huge environmental problem of pollution, increasing dependence on imported oil, the threat of the Three Gorges dam to the surrounding countryside, and the rapid growth of the AIDS epidemic; and this is not to mention a possible collapse of the American market, to which so much of China’s production is directed. Gittings starts his Introduction by looking forward to the 2008 Olympics which are to be held in China, and which some doomsters believe will be an environmental disaster. Gittings, as always throughout this book, takes a moderate view, not over-optimistic but not alarmist.


Michael Barratt Brown


Independent News Collective


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 Russell House,

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