Modern China is a paradox. Economic prosperity coexists with political autocracy. As Jeffrey Wasserstrom has beautifully written in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Huxley’s Brave New World might be as good a guide or better to China as Orwell’s 1984. It is important to keep in mind that different modes of control are in place in China. It is easy to imagine China as the kind of ‘Big Brother’ state that Orwell imagined, with ubiquitous surveillance and harsh crackdown on political dissidents. But less obvious is how ‘vulgar materialism’ imagined by Huxley could serve as a kind of control.
Perhaps Chen Guanzhong’s science fiction The Fat Years: China, 2013 best explains it. There are obvious parallels between Chen’s novel and 1984. But the hidden message of the novel is that Chinese people ultimately opt for a Brave New World at the expense of living in 1984. In the novel, He Dongsheng, a Politburo member, confesses that there was a period of chaos between the start of global economic meltdown and the advent of China’s prosperous era. For a week, the Central Government takes little action to suppress the public disquiet, panic buying and looting, and China was on the brink of falling into anarchy.
In He Dongsheng’s words, it is a deliberate attempt by the government to instil fear among the people, a fear that the government would abandon them. As Thomas Hobbes wrote in the Leviathan, isolation, impoverishment and violence was the state of nature of human beings. Insecurity was the ultimate fear. In a country as big as China, people fear anarchy and chaos. Instead of pursuing freedom, people would bow in front of the unpleasant Leviathan, because only through it can the security and life of people be guaranteed.
As the novel’s plot unfolds, the Central Government enacts a nation-wide dramatic crackdown on alleged criminals over the next few weeks, with absolute state violence which kills the guilty and innocent alike. Paradoxically, the public welcomes the crackdown. After the crackdown, the government announces that China has officially entered the prosperous age. Everyone in China is happy and complacent, with the party’s rule ever more secure.
It is with this background that two recent opinion pieces in BBC Chinese are illuminating. One of them argues why the massacre in Tiananmen Square 22 years ago was necessary to avoid chaos, which was strongly rebutted by the other piece. One is a path down Brave New World, the other anti-1984. Chinese people know that they live in a politically repressed regime, but this regime has brought a lot of material benefits to most people. And people are inherently shortsighted, because they are wired to enjoy pleasures and convenience at present, not freedom and democracy in some distant future. As experience in other democratized countries show, the transition to democracy is never a smooth path, and sometimes accidental. The fear, then, is that the Chinese Communist Party could ultimately entrench its rule in a 1984-style Brave New World.
By the time, the June 4 massacre would have been forgotten in China, and the answer to the debate, translated below, would have seemed too obvious.
1. The massacre was necessary to prevent chaos
ZLR: The June 4 massacre helped China avoid turmoil. As everyone knows, Russia does not have a democratic tradition. It is only through Peter the Great’s blood and iron policy and Stalin’s authoritarian rule that Russia became a global superpower. The ‘new thinking’ of Gorbachev and Yeltsin converted Russia into a second rate power. Putin the ‘new tsar’ brings back the superpower dream to Russia. Obviously, Russia has paid a heavy price in its recent history. In a similar way, China does not have a democratic tradition. Under the absolute power of the Kingly Way, China had a glorious history and stood out among the nations of the East. In China’s history, there also emerged a wave of democratic and liberal thinking. Luckily, Deng Xiaoping decisively upheld the banner of ‘stability over everything’ and suppressed this liberal wave through blood and iron tactics. It is the June 4 massacre which helped China avoid further turmoil.
拓腾斋主人: From the conclusion, it can be seen that the author is not familiar with Russian history. True, Russia became stronger under Peter the Great. But his concentration of power led to the concentration of wealth among dictators and grievances among the people.
On the eve of the October Revolution, Pyotr Stolypin ruled with an iron fist to defend the Tsar and brutally suppressed liberalism and socialism. The nation’s economic resources were plundered by a group of oligarchs through predatory policy and land reform. At the time, the Russian economy grew rapidly (isn’t this familiar in today’s China?), but reforms enacted by the dictators were highly unfair. As the private interests of most people were hurt, social dissatisfaction rose, leading to the October Revolution and the overthrow of the Tsar. You said dictatorship was good for Russia. But why did the rule of the Tsar collapse?
Under Stalin’s iron fist rule, many people, including Communist Party members, were persecuted and massacred. Stalin’s Russia was indeed a superpower on a par with the US. But after his death, malpractices and problems not obvious under his rule surfaced. Bureaucratic planning led to a brittle economy. Tanks and warships were more numerous than bread and biscuits. The common people endured a harsh life.
By this time, institutional reform in Russia was inevitable, even with or without Gorbachev. The downfall of Russia was not due to Gorbachev’s reforms, but the accumulation of abuses since the Stalin era. As for Putin, you can say he ruled with an iron fist, but he was ‘democratically elected’. Only with over ten years of democratic rule since Yeltsin could Russia hope for a renaissance.
2. A stable China benefits the world
ZLR: The June 4 massacre sent a message to the world: China is a responsible country. Uncontrolled liberalization will only lead to chaos, and it will be a disaster for the world. As Deng Xiaoping said: ‘If it is chaotic to the extent that the Party and national administration cannot function, power over the army will be seized by different parties, leading to civil war. Civil war will lead to massive loss of lives, a break-up of China, decline of productivity, destruction of transportation, and millions of refugees. This will affect the Asia Pacific, the most economically vibrant region of the world. It’s a global disaster. Hence, China cannot afford chaos. It’s about being responsible to China and the world.’ (Selected Works of Deng Xiaoping, Volume 3, pp.360-361) Today, China is appraised for combating the global financial crisis and contributing to global economic growth. US Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner admitted in his Peking University speech that rapid and stable growth in China brings concrete benefits to the US and the world. In this context, the whole world benefits from the June 4 massacre.
拓腾斋主人: The aims of the student demonstrations 22 years ago were to commemorate Hu Yaobang and oppose corruption and official profiteering. It was an expression of the wish that China could be strong and its government clean. Expressions of opinion like this, involving tens of thousands of people, are very common in Taiwan, Europe and America. In the West, governments would at most dispatch police to maintain order. But in China, the government acts as if it faces a deadly enemy. The government threatens the public with the argument that chaos could lead to civil war in China, and uses the army to crush demonstrations. According to the author’s logic, challenging the Party’s authority is messing up with China. In the first half of the 20th century, the Chinese Communist Party organized countless demonstrations, protests and even militarized struggles to challenge the Nationalist Party. At the time, who is messing up with China? Who is pushing China to the brink of civil war?
3. China is different from the West
ZLR: The June 4 massacre proved to the world that there is no universal principle. Although God has created diverse species, there is no one species which can adapt to any environment […] Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping cannot use their talents to rule in Western countries; Washington and Churchill would neither be great rulers in the East. Beef and bread is the main course of the West; in China it is sesame bread. ‘Dad beating up the son’ will be viewed as violation of human rights in the West; in China it is a show of affection. Democracy can only bear fruits in the West; in China rulers have to rely on authoritarianism. If the June 4 massacre occurred in the West, the government will surely topple, society becomes chaotic and development stopped. But in China, it strengthens the rule of the Party, society becomes stable and development accelerated.
拓腾斋主人: I cannot but ask a question: in China’s five thousand years of history, was a universal, democratic system ever being implemented? (I emphasized universal because democracy is not a privilege of the West. Japan, South Korea and Indonesia are all democracies.) Practice is the sole criteria of testing the truth. If democracy has never been implemented, on what basis can we say that it is not suitable for China? Since the Opium War, when shoots of democracy were emerging, dictators would mask their fear with the sophistry that democracy is not suitable for China.
Empress Dowager Cixi of the late Qing dynasty said that reform was not suitable for China. Then, the ‘Six Gentlemen Martyrs’ were executed. Yuan Shikai said that Chinese people still did not have the wisdom to practise democracy. Then, he became the emperor. The ‘anti-revolutionary’ Nationalist Party said that democracy was impossible in China. At that time, the ‘progressive’ Communist Party said: ‘They say that democracy is foreign and cannot be applied in China… Democracy is better than non-democracy. This is like mechanized production is better than manual labor, whether in or out of China… Some say even if China needs democracy, it has to be different, and Chinese people should not be granted freedom. This is ridiculous. It’s like saying that the West should use the Christian calendar, and China should use the lunar calendar.’ (Xinhua Daily, 17 May 1944) 70 years ago, the Communist Party told everyone that democracy is universal. How come in the 70 years that follows, democracy was never being practised, but the Communist Party switched to the side of Empress Dowager Cixi and Yuan Shikai!
4. Obstruction to stability needs to be dealt with severely
ZLR: The June 4 massacre opened a new chapter in the dictatorship of the proletariat. ‘Who is our enemy? Who is our friend? This is the most important question of the revolution.’ (Selected Works of Mao Zedong, 1-4 one-volume edition, p.3) The ‘three big mountains’ were the people’s enemies of yesterday. Today obstruction to stability is the people’s enemy. Today our interests lie in the building of infrastructure. Whoever obstructs the progress of development and stability will be the people’s enemy, no matter what slogans he shouts out. There is no choice and compromise; they need to be dealt with. How to deal with them? Dictatorship. ‘Antagonizing class is the tool of oppression and violence, never anything “benevolent”.’ (ibid. p.1365) The sound of gunfire is the highest form of dictatorship. The June 4 massacre signals a message: ‘If there is need, we will use severe measures to eliminate any chaos which appear.’ (ibid p.349) Bullets are used to kill. Gunfire under the dictatorship of the proletariat is the enemy of obstructers of stability. For those who die, the question of reversing the verdict does not exist.
拓腾斋主人: The author’s logic is not clear. Stability is indeed a pre-requisite for a strong nation. But factors which lead to instability are many. One of them is dictatorship leading to grievances among the people. In such a situation, it would only lead to further instability if the government does not think about what it does wrong, but suppresses expressions of opinion and justice under the banner of ‘stability preservation’.
Looking back in Chinese history, many regimes depended on suppression to maintain stability: the Qin dynasty suppressed the rebellion of Chen Sheng and Wu Guang. But it did not think about reforms, which led to its overthrow by Liu Bang and Xiang Yu. The Tang dynasty was not alarmed by the Huang Chao Rebellion, and it was finally divided up by military governors. The Qing dynasty suppressed the Taiping Rebellion and stopped the Hundred Days’ Reform, only to be overthrown later in the Xinhua Revolution. History teaches us that regimes using the excuse of stability preservation to crack down on dissidents will not last long.
5. Don’t be afraid of foreign criticisms
ZLR: ‘We are dictators. Dear Sir, you are right. We are dictators.’ (ibid. p.1364) ‘Don’t be afraid of foreign criticisms. Their criticisms are all the same – we are uncivilized. Over the years, we endured much of these. But did we collapse?’ (Selected Works of Deng Xiaoping, Volume 3, p.286) We must learn from our two forbearers, Mao and Deng, who showed unusual contempt for the world, were fearless and unmatched then and now. Cheers for the June 4 massacre!
拓腾斋主人: Mao Zedong have said a lot of things in his lifetime. I would not argue with the author, and would just quote Mao’s conversation in 1944 with John Service, an American official in China: ‘There is no democracy unless we end dictatorship by one party. Our experience proves that Chinese people understand and need democracy. They don’t need to be taught and guided. Chinese farmers are smart. They care about their rights and interests.’ ‘Every American soldier in China is a living advertisement of democracy… We are not afraid of American influence through democracy. We welcome it.’ (Party History Communications, Vol. 20-21, 1983, compiled by Party History Research Center) These are in Mao Zedong’s own words. He knew clearly when to say the right thing. He needed to, because his power was at stake.