By Isidro Estrada
HAVANA TIMES – My colleague Pedro Campos recently published an article in this space, in which, it seems to me he has lined up for battle his entire arsenal of theoretical weaponry to challenge the economic model that prevails today in China.
I would like to make it clear that I am not going to make a categorical defense of the precepts on which this model is based; far from it, since much of what Pedro says is true as regards the original sins committed in its name.
But on reading his impassioned attack on “Chinese capitalism,” I notice he forgets to mention certain historical facts indispensible for a non partisan and healthily balanced viewpoint.
Having lived for over fifteen years in China, I believe I have learned a thing or two in that respect.
Firstly I would like to point out that in his zeal to demonize the “market socialism” currently operating here, Pedro almost sanctifies the Maoist period, presenting the changes made under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping as a virtual, trumped up betrayal of what the Chinese have deemed (and still refer to as) Mao Zedong Thought and which at divine moments became a quasi state religion of a type the ayatollahs of Iran would readily have applauded for its dictates.
Nor does taking sides in favor of Mao to the detriment of Deng help elucidate how and why China followed the path of change it did in the course of over three decades. The most positive result of which – ignoring for a moment its earlier mentioned transgressions – has made it into the second biggest economy in the world.
Nor is a balanced view encouraged by categorically claiming that Deng was “sanctioned during the life of Mao Zedong for pro-capitalist deviations,” because at the basis of the prolonged Maoist political purge, in essence a corrective chastisement, there was much more than mere rejection of the “enemy “system.
Retaliation against people like Deng took the form of a manhunt for the “disaffected” beginning with the Anti-Rightist Movement of 1957 and only ending in 1976 with Mao’s death, coinciding with the end of the traumatic period of Cultural Revolution which the Great Helmsman himself unleashed in 1966.
Rather than procure the purity of socialism (as it appeared on the surface), Mao and his cohorts committed the unspeakable for nearly two decades, removing from circulation anyone with a modicum of vision opposed to his disastrous collectivist policies and his hyper-ideologized campaigns, all of which proved disastrous in the end.
And to this end Mao shamelessly exploited the personality cult which exalted him to the level of yet another emperor (and I do not exaggerate), in a position to place himself above every authority in the land including the Law and the Party, and from where he could dispense punishment and pardon as he saw fit.
By 1976, when the Great Leader died, China was on the verge of total economic paralysis. The “biological solution” arrived in the nick of time, offering the most moderate wing of the Communist Party the opportunity to offload the most recalcitrant Maoists, whose efforts – especially during the Cultural Revolution – had placed the country on the brink of civil war, willfully destroying in their path the social and cultural fabric of ancient China at the same time as they endangered the very survival of a Party that these same extremist groups claimed to defend.
The reformers (and others less reformist but at least in touch with reality) inherited from the Great Leader a half–ruined country, twinned with backwardness in almost all walks of life and marked by ideological schism.
The Communists of the time were faced with the dilemma of staying harnessed to the cart of Maoism without Mao and spurring the cart horse on, or taking a new direction to lead the country out of the economic, political, social and cultural mire into which Maoism had sunk it.
With no roadmap to go by, the new authorities had no alternative but to fall back on an ancestral sense of Asian pragmatism, groping their way in the dark as they went, assisted by a healthy dose of the Confucian precepts that have been an undercurrent of life in China for over two millennia.
In the late 70’s no one had the faintest idea as to what direction China would take as it tried to move forward. No one knew for sure which of the “isms” would save the country from disaster.
But relinquishing the disastrous Maoist practices did not imply condemning Mao. Or at least not entirely. Hence the official euphemism that Pedro Campos quotes to summarize the legacy of the Great Leader as “70% positive and 30% negative,” a ratio more appropriately expressed the other way round in my humble opinion. It should be stressed that only after Mao “kicked the bucket” did his string of monumental blunders fortunately came to an end.
Mindful of what had gone before, the new Chinese authorities sought inspiration in the experiences of the de-Stalinization” program initiated in the USSR in 1956 under the leadership of Nikita Khrushchev but which culminated in the end in Brezhnevian stagnation.
The lesson was not lost and ultimately persuaded the Chinese authorities not to repudiate Mao entirely. Most of his statues and the giant portrait on the Tribune of Tiananmen Square are still in place but virtually his entire dismal legacy has been refuted.
Not only the hierarchy
Which way the wind was blowing for the Asian nation is illustrated by a singular episode, albeit anecdotal but none the less revealing, at a time when the predominance of the absolute leader’s pronouncements was giving way rapidly to a more consensual form of expression, not only within the party and government hierarchies.
In 1978 in a rustic adobe house in the village of Xiaogang, in eastern China’s Anhui province, 18 farmers met in a conclave to commit heresy. After writing their names on a sheet of paper, they signed their document with their own blood, dipping their fingertips and pressing them to the paper.
The document committed them to renouncing the forced collectivization that Maoism had decreed and imposed on the peasants. Tired of going hungry (and even dying of starvation) in the name of the unattainable utopia imposed on them, they swore to die if necessary if they were denied the right to manage the land they worked from dawn to dusk at their peril and their own risk.
When the initiative, which would have automatically meant the death sentence in Mao’s day, reached the ears of the party, there was quite a stir. Deng however took it upon himself to calm the turbulent waters and described it as “a great contribution of Chinese farmers.”
The government took the “oath of Xiaogang,” seriously and in 1982 gave carte blanche to what has been referred to since as the “system of family responsibility for the land.”
Thus, at the insistence of the peasantry, once declared an ally and advocate by Mao but left eventually to starve, China’s reform began. And when it did it took a direction quite different from that envisioned and propagated by the Great Leader.
And this brought an end to the peasant communes into which Mao had grouped the small plots and holdings redistributed during the agrarian reform in the wake of the Chinese revolution of 1949.
These communes had reached their peak in the height of the frustrated Great Leap Forward that Mao decreed in 1958 with the avowed purpose of making China a world power. This campaign heralded in the final collectivization of peasant land holdings, together with deforestation and the reconversion of productive plots into makeshift steel mills.
In the end the living conditions of the Chinese peasantry deteriorated and lead to famine from 1960 to 1962 and a toll of 35 to 40 million dead according to statistics collated in China and abroad.
Many Communists were aware that Mao was to blame for this disaster. But the only option available to those few who dared confront him was political and social ostracism, or condemnation, as often happened, as “capitalist dogs” or “revisionist in the service of Moscow.”
Soviet “imperialism” was always feared more than the US variety in China. And basically that is how Chinese society operated up until the death of the Great Helmsman.
In terms of the space available to me here I have had to ignore many nuances, data, considerations and ups and downs in the economy. Nor has it been possible for me to put in a nutshell the ups and downs of the ongoing process of reform.
However, the key to understanding what is happening in China today is to accept the infeasibility of the Maoist proposals. In the end they were neither synonymous with genuine socialism, nor did they bring real prosperity.
Mao of course deserves credit for the creation of a powerful party, the defeat of the forces of both the foreign imperialist invaders and those of local semi-feudal interests together with credit for the unification of the nation into a republic with a new content and a new elan that instilled a renewed sense of national pride in millions of Chinese people.
More is the pity, as we say in Cuba: as time went by what was done by his head was undone by his feet.
Unfortunately –as we Cubans say- it’s too bad that with the passing of time, what he made with his head he destroyed with his feet.