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Copycat China

Published on 16 February 2012
Updated on 05 April 2024

YU Huan’s latest work[1] consists of two parts. The first five “words” with which he characterises China, recall his growing up in small town China (“they don’t even have bicycles there! – scoffed his mother”) during the Cultural Revolution. The remaining five characterise current China. YU sees a clear continuity between the two periods – and this is the interesting point of the book (banished in China; the author, however, still lives in Beijing and is allowed to travel and, I presume, promote his books abroad).

Mao Zedong’s great strength was his ability to “mobilise from the ground up” – “grassroots” organization. The Hundred Flowers Movement in 1957 was launched with the slogan: “Let a hundred flowers blossom and a hundred schools of thought contend is the policy for promoting progress in the arts and the sciences and a flourishing socialist culture in our land.” The Great Leap Forward of 1958 was a voluntarist attempt to mobilize rural China for both agrarian and industrial shock-modernization. The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution of 1966, commonly known as the Cultural Revolution was an attempt to destroy the authoritarian structures which permeated China – from the Party down through the schools to the family. These frenzied efforts started out as “romantic comedy”, and all ended as tragedy.

This voluntarist spirit still permeates Chinese society. Economic activity is “frenzied”: everyone is taking initiatives, often extravagant and duplicate, and these are pursued as vigorously as a revolutionary campaign[2]. Gratuitous violence reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution characterizes many government measures, reminiscent of Red Guards behavior, rather than the circumspect and suffocating embrace of a self-assured totalitarian structure.

The economy is an unending series of “rag to riches” sagas, where getting rich is akin to “flipping pancakes” – everyone is just a pancake sizzling on the griddle, flipped over by the mindless hand of fate. The Hurun of the richest Chinese is popularly known as “Pigs-for-slaughter List” – in the last ten years no less than 49 grassroots-tycoons had to face the law.

When in 1966 Mao Zedong proclaimed: “To rebel is justified” it triggered a release of revolutionary instincts among the weaker segments of society, and they rebelled with a passion” (p. 194). In collectivist fashion a “copycat” phenomenon emerged: thousand declinations of the same idea sprung up everywhere, like bamboo shoots or wild grass. In Darwinian terms this is the frenzy of radiation that follows a catastrophe that has liquidated prior occupants of ecological niches.

Survival in this “copycat” world is obtained by hoodwinking and “bamboozling” Chinese expressions describe this process: “using four ounces to shift a thousand pounds”, or “the more boldly a man dares, the more richly his land bears”. Fraud and chicanery, says the author, has insinuated every aspect of China’s life, leading to a “breakdown of social morality and a confusion in the value system of China” (p. 221). He concludes: “So intense is the competition and so unbearable the pressure that, for many Chinese, survival is like war itself.” (p. 25)

I’m not sure that the moralistic tone would be justified. These expressions point to traditions – and the author admits to “long existent phenomena in Chinese society – boasting and exaggerating, puffery and bluster, mendacity and casuistry, flippancy and mischief” (p. 204)[3]. I suspect that this “frenzy” has always existed – though the elites have refused to acknowledge it, probably because they were afraid of it.

Where is the Communist Party (CCP) in all this? The tension between “grassroots” and “elite” has been a constant in China. One can sense along all of the country’s history the elite’s visceral fear of being flipped over like just any other pancake – the massive novel by LO Kuan-Chung: Romance of the Three Kingdoms is a tale on unremitting and sudden change. Determined preventive[4] oppressive policies were the rule, for no central authority can battle passionate “revolutionary instincts” once released into the social sphere.

DENG has hoped to resolve the tension by channeling the “revolutionary instincts” into headlong economic development. He offered “equal opportunity” to the “grassroots”, together with assurances that the rules would be severely enforced – the Party’s primary task is to fight corruption. This would require political reforms – a process which as stopped after Tienanmen. Instead, the thinking of the CCP has ossified, as I verified recently[5]. Or as YU puts it blithely: “I have a sense that in today’s China we no longer have a leader – all we have is a leadership.” (p. 19)

YU finished the book by recollecting how, as a young boy, he tried to hoodwink his father, a small city surgeon, feigning an inflamed appendix: “I had originally been bent on bamboozling my father, but in the end I simply bamboozled myself onto the operating table and under the knife.

But be silent

This is the only virtue of saints

Stones have seen great ruin and are speechless

The sky looks down overall and is speechless

The earth buries all things and is speechless

The meaning of poems, faith, logic

Silver-tongued humanity is a waste

Believing in language is believing Judas’ promise

LIU Xiaobo[6]

[1] YU Huan (2011): China in ten words. Pantheon Books, New York.

[2] Just one example: in 2006 there were 25 million university students. To fund this student body the Chinese Universities have incurrent 200 billion yuan debt (24 billion €). At the same time tuition has been charged: it is estimated to require the equivalent of 4.1 years of an urban net income (13.6 years of rural net income). (p. 120). Unemployment among the graduates is in the millions.

[3] Does this list sound familiar to any observer of current politics? Why not? I’d agree with Confucius, here. Contrary to Christianity Confucius never stated whether man was born good or evil, noting simply that ‘By nature men are similar; by practice men are wide apart‘.

[4] How thorough this was can be gleaned from Jonathan D. SPENCE (2001): Treason by the book. Viking, New York, in which Emperor Yongzheng engages with an obscure protester, eventually letting him off the hook. Though this conversation may be read as “tolerant”, it is also a pageant of the power of the Emperor, whose exe sees into the tiniest village of China.

[5] https://www.politicalaffairs.net/deng-xiaoping-theory-and-the-historical-destiny-of-socialism/. This is a lenghtish statement of the official Party line: a collection of quotes from DENG’s “thought”. Well written, but very conventional, and quite disconnected from China’s reality. There is no “Blood and iron” vision of the future of China, just the unerring metronome of Marxist dialectics.

[6] A book of essays by Nobel Peace Prize Winner LIU Xiaobo has just been released. As a collection of essays spanning over 20 years, it does not have the coherent feel of YU’s book. In my view, furthermore, it is also inferior in analysis, as I have pointed out in my Amazon.com review: https://www.amazon.com/No-Enemies-Hatred-Selected-Essays/product-reviews/0674061470/ref=sr_cr_hist_4?ie=UTF8&showViewpoints=0&filterBy=addFourStar

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