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How has China managed to survive the global collapse of Stalinism? Mark Wu offers an alternative view of the nature of the Chinese revolution and of the Chinese Communist Party

China: revolution and reform

Books discussed in this article include:

  • Chinese Village, Socialist State, Edward Friedman, Paul Pickowicz and Mark Selden, Yale University Press, £25 hbk
  • The Nationalist Era in China 1927-49, Lloyd Eastman, Jerome Ch'en, Suzanne Pepper, Lyman P Van Slyke, Cambridge University Press, £35 hbk, £12.95 pbk
  • One Step Ahead in China: Guangdong under Reform, Ezra F Vogel, Harvard University Press, £27.95 hbk, £10 25 pbk
  • Investing in China: Ten Years of the Open Door Policy, Richard Pomfret, Harvester Wheatsheaf, £40 hbk
  • China in the Nineties: Crisis Management and Beyond, David Goodman and Gerald Segal (eds), Clarendon Press, £30 hbk, £11.95 pbk
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, the question being asked is how much longer can the Chinese Communist Party last? The survival of the CCP is often attributed to its repressive nature, an impression reinforced by the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989. But repression alone tells us little about how the Chinese party has managed to hold on to power.

Before the death of Mao, books on China were often little more than lyrical accounts of the joys of Chinese peasant life. Nowadays, Chinese studies tend to be based on more rigorous field research and the study of documents which have become accessible since the end of the cultural revolution and the beginning of the reform era in 1978. The result has been a large number of books which allow a much clearer assessment of China and its leading party. Recent volumes of the Cambridge History of China, from which The Nationalist Era in China 1927-49 is taken, have summarised much of this research.

Chinese Village, Socialist State is one of the most important books on China to have appeared in recent years. It provides a compelling refutation of the commonplace notion that the Chinese revolution which put Mao's communists in power in 1949 was a peasant revolution. The book is the product of a decade's field research by three American academics in Raoyang county, a small group of villages in Hebei province, 120 miles south of Beijing. The time span covers the period from 1937, through the land reform of the 1940s, agricultural collectivisation, the Great Leap Forward (1957-60) and the famine that followed. It is an extraordinary work, a unique synthesis of oral history and recorded data on what happened in one small area in this key period of Chinese history. Even for those who never had any illusions in the CCP, it is still a shocking story, a record of total failure.

There is no doubt that the CCP was genuine in its initial attempts to liberate the peasantry. But it had nothing tangible to offer the deeply conservative peasants, for whom every change was regarded with great suspicion. Ironically, the one factor that could have shown the peasants the benefits of collectivisation-mechanisation- was rejected by the CCP, which still has no solution to the problem of surplus labour.

The CCP relied on a mixture of coercion and anti- Japanese nationalism to persuade the peasants to accept changes, changes which were often brutal. For example in 1948, CCP officials directed local officials in areas under their control to implement a new land reform policy. Households were classified on the basis of how much land each had owned in 1936, before land reform began: 'For the rest of their lives individuals would bear the class - labels fixed at this time, labels based on politicized assessments of one's household position in 1936....The majority, those classified as middle peasants floated in political limbo, sometimes linked to class enemies, sometimes located in the ranks of the good people. The supposedly scientific analysis of class was actually fraught with the subjective and the political. By freezing life in a single frame, fate was sealed in perpetuity. A caste-like system, not liberating equality, resulted from class-struggle land reform.' (p101)

Changes were often arbitrary and dependent on the whims of a village leader. In this area of China there were no landlords and nearly all peasants owned the land they cultivated. So in one village, 'a little orphan girl, Song Duo, was pre-emptively made a landlord because of the political pressure to struggle against class enemies. That is, the village leaders decided that when Song Duo grew up she would be formally labelled a landlord and for the rest of her life be treated as an enemy of the people' (p106). Because the official culture was so alienating, peasant traditions and superstitions grew stronger even as they became invisible.

As the fifties progressed and agriculture became more collectivised, agricultural production figures lost all contact with reality. The only way to guarantee preferential access to state funds was for village leaders to maintain the fiction of record production. Close planting of crops was encouraged as proof that plants too could cooperate and therefore prosper; they didn't. Pondering the prospect of fictitious massive grain surpluses, Mao urged a 'three-thirds system': 'Planting one third is enough: another third may be turned into grass or forests; let the remaining third be fallow. The whole country will thus become a big garden.'(Quoted in Chinese Village, Socialist State, p222)

In response to reports of ever-increasing yields, more and more land was taken out of production. Peasants began to starve as record grain harvests were announced. Although even Mao was now sceptical of inflated claims, nobody dared speak out: 'Anyone who did point to economic irrationality, decline, disaster and hunger would be accused of throwing cold water on the enthusiasm of the masses....The sound of politics had the ring of death. The countryside fell silent.' (p230) In the famine that followed, 20m to 30m Chinese peasants died.

After reading this book nobody could believe that there could ever be such a thing as a popular peasant revolution. So why was the CCP engaged in this futile task in the first place? For the answer to this question we have to look at the origins of the CCP. Recent research makes it possible to reconstruct its early history and to n the nature of the Chinese revolution (see for example Dirlik, The Origins of Chinese Communism, and Michael Y Luk, The Origins of Chinese Bolshevism: an Ideology in the Making 1920-28).

Marxism was imported into China from the Union, complete with advisers and a financial resource method of organisation. Recent research has shown how dependent the CCP was on the Soviet-led international movement, the Comintern, for political direction as well as technical assistance. The party was founded by the Comintern delegation, which chose Chen Duxiu, the Dean of Beijing University, for the job. Chen Duxiu was for his influence among Beijing students and not for his organisational skills or knowledge of Marxism. Indeed, a couple of months before founding the party, he was advocating the adoption of Christianity in China as a solution to the country's ills.

The CCP has the unenviable distinction of not having a single Marxist among its founder members. It's hardly surprising that party life in the 1920s was pretty basic. There was a ramshackle organisation, problems of language between members from different parts of the country and virtually no political literature available in Chinese. The Chinese Communist Party never produced a single pamphlet of worthwhile Marxist literature.

In the absence of a social democratic party, the CCP provided an obvious focus for the new Chinese intelligentsia, who were acutely aware of the desperate plight into which China had been plunged. They were impressed by the Bolshevik Revolution and outraged at Western attempts to overthrow it; but while a revolution to liberate workers and peasants was easy enough to support, the idea of a revolution led by the working class was a lot more difficult to accept.

It is scarcely surprising that the party's initial attempts to organise the newly emerging Chinese working class were hesitant. It was not until it joined the Nationalist Party (Guomindang), under Comintern direction, in 1923 that the party got the patriotic platform with which it felt more at home. The CCP's successes and failures in different parts of China as the radical, cutting edge of the Guomindang were entirely predicated upon the degree of tolerance that it was accorded by the Guomindang and the local warlords. Having used the CCP in the northern expedition to reunite China, Guomindang leader Chiang Kai-shek wasted no time in disposing of its cadre in a bloody massacre on the streets of Shanghai in 1927.

The CCP's theoretical and organisational immaturity was cruelly exposed. Jerome Ch'en describes its search for a new strategy in his essay in The Nationalist Era in China. What is striking about the discussions he details is how wooden they were even at this desperate stage, as the CCP searched for a scapegoat and then tried to rebuild the party. Thus began the tradition of selecting an individual or small group to take the blame for a failure of policy, allowing the party as a whole to avoid responsibility, which continues to the present day.

In the orthodox Marxist interpretation, 1927 marks a decisive change in the CCP from a working class to a peasant party. Ch'en points out that the CCP centre in Shanghai was discovered and destroyed no fewer than 14 times. By 1931, when the party centre was moved out of the city, ' no less than 24 000 members of the CCP were either arrested or killed and 30 000 others had to go through the process of confession to the KMT [Guomindang]' (p103). In such circumstances it made sense for what remained of the CCP to move its main organisation from the city to the countryside.

It is certainly true that the party's proletarian base was removed by the events of 1927, but the nature of a political party cannot be deduced merely from changes in the social composition of its membership lists. The CCP's orientation to the working class was always more formal than real. The CCP had tried to organise the peasantry as well as workers before 1927, but with less success (see for example, Roy Hofheinz, The Broken Wave: The Chinese Communist Peasant Movement 1922-28). After 1927, this ratio of successes was reversed.

Harold Isaacs misses the point completely in his celebrated Trotskyist polemic, The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution, which portrays the CCP as a group of hardened Bolsheviks only days away from seizing state power in 1927, only to be inexplicably led astray by messages from Stalin. The real tragedy of the 1927 events is that while the objective conditions for a working class revolution were present at that time, the CCP was never the organisation that could direct it. The important change in the CCP is that from this date the party had an independent army which guaranteed its survival.

Along with the CCP, other left factions were expelled from the Guomindang, and the popular support which it had enjoyed was slowly dissipated. Many left wingers have labelled the Guomindang as the party of the Chinese bourgeoisie. Lloyd Eastman, probably the most reliable authority on the Guomindang, concludes that 'to baldly ascribe a class character to the Nationalist regime, without noting its important differences with the landlords and the capitalists, conceals its fundamental nature. For the regime was dependent first of all on the military. From that fact all else followed. It was not in any basic way accountable to this or that social-economic class or indeed to any forces outside itself' (The Nationalist Era in China, p26).

With its contracting social base, the Guomindang regime degenerated into a military dictatorship. The Japanese invasion of China in 1937 gave it the chance to recover some of its legitimacy. Both the Guomindang and the CCP posed as defenders of China against the aggressor, but Chiang Kai-shek was more interested in finishing off the CCP. As Eastman points out, the CCP's platform 'matched the mood of urban China - of students, intellectuals, large sections of the bourgeoisie, and many workers-far better than the Guomindang's repressive call "for unification before resistance"' (The Nationalist Era in China, p177).

When it functioned as a recruiting agent for the People's Liberation Army, the ideological limitations of the CCP were of little consequence. But the victory of 1949, which liberated China from imperialism, marks the limits of any progressive role for the CCP. Mao was explicit in stating that it was not possible to eliminate capitalism and realise socialism 'at an early date' as this did not fit with China's 'national condition'.

If China had not been forced into isolation by the USA, its development after 1949 would probably have been along the same kind of lines as it has followed in the current era of pro-market reforms. As it was, the CCP was forced inwards, back on to its own voluntarist beliefs which had sustained it through the Long March to final victory. This externally imposed isolation explains why the reform era which began in 1978 was so long in coming: a theoretical justification for most of the reform measures can be seen in CCP documents of the 1950s and 1960s (see C Howe & KR Walker, Foundations of the Chinese Planned Economy: A Documentary Survey 1953-65).

When Deng Xiaoping initiated the reforms at the end of 1978, Guangdong province in southern China was given special permission to move ahead more rapidly than other regions of China. The province was given a large degree of financial independence from Beijing to determine wages, set prices, engage in foreign trade, invest and set up special economic zones as laboratories where capitalism could be relearned from Hong Kong.

The progress of these reforms is described in One Step Ahead in China. Ezra Vogel's choice of Guangdong, with its strong connections with Hong Kong, means that the reforms are presented in the best possible light. Only Fujian province, which has links with Taiwan, could present such a favourable picture. But even in Shenzen, Guangdong's famous special economic zone, the record is mixed. In fact, the importance of Shenzen, described as 'Deng Xiaoping's high cadre university', is as much symbolic as real: it has been a showpiece for potential foreign investors, and a physical source of reassurance for Hong Kong capitalists worried about 1997.

For other provinces, with no connections with overseas Chinese capitalists, the reforms make much less sense. And even in Guangdong, the reforms have not been a runaway success. By stopping his account in 1988. Vogel is able to avoid discussion of many of the problems, such as unemployment and homelessness, which have exploded in the past few years. For example, over China's new year holiday of 1989, two million desperate people entered Guangdong in search of jobs. The province is fast coming to resemble a backward capitalist country with extremes of wealth and poverty.

In Investing in China: Ten Years of the Open Door Policy, Richard Pomfret shows just how much the reforms have favoured Guangdong. In the first decade of reform, 58 per cent of direct foreign investment has gone into Guangdong, far surpassing its nearest rivals - Beijing (12 per cent), Shanghai (seven per cent) and Fujian province (six per cent). Even worse, the 17 inland provinces have 'probably accounted for $350m actual DFI [direct foreign investment] up to the end of 1987, about six per cent of the total' (p95).

Pomfret is more careful than most commentators to distinguish between promised and actual investment; a distinction which the Chinese government is keen to blur. Thus, in the inland provinces only about 11 per cent of the announced investment materialised. Like Vogel, Pomfret's book finishes in 1988; but where Vogel's cut-off point was dictated by the period of his field research, Pomfret's book is based primarily on published statistics. It's hard to escape the conclusion that his choice of 1988 was deliberate, as it allows him to avoid any discussion of the major economic and social problems that have occurred since.

A more balanced appraisal of the reforms is provided by China in the Nineties: Crisis Management and Beyond, a collection of essays edited by David Goodman and Gerald Segal, written after the crushing of the student democracy protests. How much difference to the reforms did the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre make'? It is clear from this book that, while Western commentators and politicians loudly condemned the massacre as a return to 'hardline communism', the Chinese bureaucracy has remained committed to pro-market reform-and the international capitalist fraternity has been conducting business as usual with Beijing.

Goodman and Segal point out that foreign economic relationships remain the cornerstone of China's development strategy. There has been no attempt at recollectivisation of agriculture; and wage reform to encourage differentials and remove job security has not been affected by the events of 1989.

The editors suggest that during the 1980's there were two broad strands of thought on how best to reform China. 'One was of a market-determined economy with an institutionalised and relatively open political system. Though still ruled by a communist party. The other was of a market-oriented economy, with considerably less political liberalisation...where the communist party and the state still dominated the economy and society.' (p2) Although it is probably more accurate to speak of a spectrum of views, this division still makes more sense than the usual one of 'reformers' and 'hardliners' so beloved of Western journalists.

In her essay, Anita Chan looks at who has gained and who has lost from the reforms. If you ask Chinese people, particularly students, who they think has benefited most from the reforms they often single out private households such as taxi drivers, workers in collectives or peasants, three social groups which were widely despised in Chinese urban society in the Maoist era. Chan shows that this view is wrong. For example, the average net income of a peasant in 1988 was a third that of the average city dweller. It is debatable how much better off the average peasant is after 10 years of reform. There is a flourishing rich peasant economy, but it is largely confined to areas around cities where peasants have ready access to urban markets.

Chan points out that intellectuals have done relatively well out of the reforms, although 'their chorus of complaints that workers and peasants were making more money than themselves has been loud and aggressive' (p111). This has worked to the government's advantage: 'indeed, if one sifts carefully through the writings of Chinese intellectuals of all persuasions of the past several years, one is hard pressed to find any mention of working class grievances' (p111). One of the most depressing aspects of the student protests of 1989 was the contempt the student leaders had for the Chinese working class.

What Chan calls the new moneyed elite arc the true winners in the reform process: 'They comprised the $10 000 households, the owners of private enterprises, the lessee-managers of state and collective enterprises, and lastly [CCP] officials and their offspring who were and are raking in large sums by privately serving as middlemen in commodity sales.' (p115)

Earlier this year, Deng Xiaoping toured Guangdong and Shenzen calling for the pace of economic change to be stepped up a shift which can only mean more unemployment and poverty for millions of Chinese workers. Sooner or later along the reform road, the CCP will have to break the 'iron rice bowl' that feeds the masses, bringing it into direct conflict with the Chinese working class. Far from representing a throwback to the communist past, the Tiananmen Square massacre could well turn out to be a sign of things to come as China is violently transformed into a capitalist economy.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 44, June 1992

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