What kinds of historical echoes sound loudest in today’s China? And which past leaders deserve the most credit — and blame — for setting the country on its current trajectory? These are timely questions as the Chinese Communist Party celebrates it’s 90th birthday today. For in China, as elsewhere, milestone moments are fitting times for backward glances and often accompanied by symbolic gestures that invite scrutiny.
By Jeffrey Wasserstrom
What kinds of historical echoes sound loudest in today’s China? And which past leaders deserve the most credit — and blame — for setting the country on its current trajectory?
These are timely questions as the Chinese Communist Party geared up for its 90th birthday celebration on July 1. For in China, as elsewhere, milestone moments are fitting times for backward glances and often accompanied by symbolic gestures that invite scrutiny.
One thing is obvious: Mao Zedong (1893-1976), though long gone, has hardly been forgotten in the West or East. Nor should he be, in light of the indelible stamp he has left on China.
He certainly remains omnipresent at commemorative moments. Two years ago, for example, the massive celebratory parade held to mark the 60th birthday of the People’s Republic (the sort that during his lifetime would have passed right before him as he waved to the crowd) unfolded directly in front of the giant portrait of Mao that faces Tiananmen Square. And this year, an actor playing Mao is one of the stars of The Beginning of the Great Revival, the big-budget and officially sponsored cinematic spectacle devoted to the Communist Party’s early years that is playing in theaters across China (and drawing lots of viewers, albeit in some cases ones pressured into seeing it rather than choosing to go on their own).
The continuing influence of Mao is also attested to in many books that stress the degree to which — for good or for ill — he set China on its current path. One of the most sophisticated works of this sort to date, published by Harvard University earlier this year and co-edited by political scientists Sebastian Heilmann and Elizabeth J. Perry, is Mao’s Invisible Hand: The Political Foundations of Adaptive Governance in China. It argues that even the party’s tendency to reinvent itself periodically and continually try new strategies can be seen as a legacy of its best-known leader. For Mao was nothing if not experimental in his tinkering with orthodox Marxist approaches to everything from rural insurrections (he thought them much more valuable than did Karl Marx) to state-supported mass movements.
While Heilmann and Perry’s book makes a strong case for emphasizing Mao’s legacy, a forthcoming work from the same publishing house, Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China, offers a compelling brief for thinking that the Great Helmsman’s most famous successor. Though short in stature, Deng, too, casts a very long shadow.
In this impressive and exhaustively researched biography of Deng (1904-1997), which is due out in September and focuses mainly on the leader’s final decades, sociologist Ezra Vogel reminds readers that it was under this pragmatic politician’s watch that the party made three moves that helped it outlast so many other Leninist organizations.
Without abandoning the party’s monopoly on political control and suppression of dissenting voices (often hallmarks of Leninist groups in power), Deng oversaw a dramatic shift away from the emphasis on class struggle that had been a hallmark of the Mao era (1949-1976). He also, Vogel notes, instigated the turn from individual, charismatic rule to collective leadership that continues to this day. And he spearheaded the courting of foreign investment and experiments with special economic zones that have contributed greatly to China’s economic boom.
Emphasizing Deng’s impact on China takes us beyond the Mao years, but it also, ironically, brings to mind the enduring legacies of earlier periods, for many things he did were throwbacks to the decades that preceded the founding of the People’s Republic. As historian Paul Cohen noted in 1988 in an influential contribution to the Journal of Asian Studies, “The Post-Mao Reforms in Historical Perspective,” Deng’s approach to politics and economics had some important similarities to those of various non-Communist authoritarian modernizers of the first half of the 20th century, including the Nationalist Party leader Chiang Kai-shek (1887-1975), for decades Mao’s archenemy.
What was true of Deng when Cohen wrote is even truer of Hu Jintao today, especially the analogy to the era of Nationalist rule (1927-1949). Chiang insisted in the 1930s and 1940s that the key to China’s salvation lay in combining rule by a disciplined Leninist party (his Nationalists, though not Marxist, were Leninist in their style of governance) and the promotion of traditional “Confucian” ideals, such as social harmony. Hu has made the same claim and even, like Chiang, has elevated Confucius to the status of a national saint.
It is perhaps no accident, in light of this, that two years ago, as the PRC turned 60, Chiang received a partial rehabilitation in The Founding of a Republic, that year’s officially endorsed, high-profile cinematic rendering of revolutionary history. While Mao got the expected adulation, Chiang was portrayed as a tragically flawed patriot, and not purely villainous.
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Jeffrey Wasserstrom is Chair of the History Department at the University of California, Irvine, and the author, most recently, of China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know. His reviews and commentaries have appeared in newspapers such as the Los Angeles Times and a wide range of magazines and journals of opinion, including New Left Review, the TLS, the Nation, the Huffington Post, Time and Newsweek. He is the Editor of the Journal of Asian Studies and co-founder of the UCI-based China Beat blog/electronic magazine. Jeffrey Wasserstrom, Duncan Hewitt, John Gittings, and Rana Mitter will be appearing at a forum on “Reporting China, East and West” at 4.45 pm Weds 6 July, Memorial Room, Queen’s College, Oxford – all are welcome.