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What Kind of China will Emerge From its Ever-expanding Total Cultural Revolution

The difference between Xi and his predecessors (Deng, Jiang and Hu) is not merely party surveillance ー which existed in the past ー but total control over the economic machinery of the country.

M D Nalapat

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What will Chinese culture and society be like after the Xi era?

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Much has been written about Mao Zedong’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (GPCR) of 1966, which continued in varying forms of virulence until his death in 1976. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Chairman was contemptuous of the Chinese boast of an “unbroken civilizational heritage of 5000 years”. Mao regarded much of that period as a disaster for the Chinese people (and not without some justification). 

Just as Stalin sought during the 1930s to build a “New Soviet Man’ (Homo Sovieticus), Mao looked to build a “New Chinese Man”. He made short work of both the artifacts as well as the practices of what he termed the “Four Olds” : Old Ideas, Old Culture, Old Habits, and Old Customs. 

He destroyed the reverence for hierarchy that had been instilled into the Chinese psyche, most notably by the teachings of Confucius, whose philosophy resembled in many respects the views of ancient Greek philosophers who spoke of rule by the demos (people) as an abomination, and called for a meritocracy where citizens would do what they were told by their intellectual superiors. 

Teenagers hunted down and killed their teachers, and sometimes even their elderly grandparents. Reminders of the past (and its previously assumed continuation into eternity) such as the tomb of Confucius or the Ming tombs were wrecked. 

Souvenirs featuring portraits of China’s late Chairman Mao Zedong and China’s President Xi Jinping (REUTERS/Thomas Peter/File Photo)

In the new catechism, the real history of China, the only history that in Mao’s view was worth anything, began in 1921 with the founding of the Chinese Communist Party, and picked up speed after the setting up of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949. Ever conscious of his tenuous hold on life, what the CCP chairman believed was that unless such a transformation in the national psyche of citizens of the PRC took place, the CCP was not safe. Nor was the PRC secure against the predators who were constantly circling around it to pull it down or subvert it, a list that within the onset of the 1960s had the “revisionist” Soviet Union at the top. 

What Mao sought was a Homo (New) Sinicus in the image of the “New Chinese Man” who would emerge from the cauldron into which Mao plunged the Chinese people from almost the start of his reign as master of the PRC in 1949. 

Mao was closer to Stalin and his concept of “Socialism in One Country,” rather than to Trotsky’s “Permanent Revolution,” or the unending search for revolutionary change in South America by Ernesto “Che” Guevara. (Guevara moved to other countries after the Cuban revolution of 1959, and was killed soon afterwards in 1967 in Bolivia.) 

What Mao sought was to create within the psyche of the PRC the conviction that only through the overlordship of the CCP under a powerful leadership could the [ethnic majority] Han dream of regaining lost superiority in the international community be achieved. Bringing back the belief in their own exclusivity and superiority by the Han people would be accompanied by instilling the certitude that this was possible only under the Chinese Communist Party, which itself needed a leader who was not merely “first among equals” but stood alone in his total hold over final authority.   

The True Face of Deng Xiaoping        

While Deng Xiaoping and his economic reforms are seen as the polar opposite of the CCP policies followed when Mao was alive, it needs to be remembered that Deng’s 1980 reforms could never have been accepted and implemented by the CCP but for the furies unleashed earlier by Mao. 

By 1974, the final years of Mao, the CCP had been denuded of its former leadership and was in essence a confused and anxious congeries of cadres who welcomed the decisive leadership of Deng and embraced his ideas. The few who did not, mostly at the upper reaches of the party, were soon cast aside. After all, Deng’s reforms could not be more damaging to lives and devastating for the country than several of Mao’s programs ー such as the Great Leap Forward ー had been. 

In a sense, the chaos that Mao unleashed on his party and his country during the Cultural Revolution created the conditions for Deng Xiaoping to succeed in his long-term objective of using the “capitalist” road, albeit under Communist Party control, to ensure that China emerged again as a Great Power rather than remain a Third World country. 

Apart from his fealty to Mao’s doctrine of the indispensability of the CCP in the realization of the Chinese (Han) dream of global primacy and ultimately dominance, “Paramount Leader” Deng had little time to waste on matters of culture. He was focused instead on ensuring that the U.S., Taiwan, and Japan, in particular, (not to forget Overseas Chinese elsewhere who were attracted to the Han nationalism of the CCP) flooded China with capital and technology.

Deng Xiaoping (foreground) with Mao Zedong.

Quickstep on Confucius in Following Eras of the CCP

Jiang Zemin succeeded Deng as Secretary General of the CCP. He sought a fusion of not just Chinese and Western commerce, but extended that duopoly to culture as well, grafting on top of the new popular culture inherited from the Mao period a medley that combined (what Jiang believed to be) a Western hue, combined with the New Chinese culture. 

The people of the PRC proved to be less than enthusiastic about such a combination. Jiang’s successor Hu Jintao once again separated the two strands, placing emphasis on the CCP makeover of traditional Chinese culture as interpreted by the party leadership. 

By this time, Xi Jinping was convinced that the “5000 year-old Chinese culture” had been irretrievably transformed within the popular psyche into the New Chinese Culture, in which the indispensability of the CCP and the desirability of an all-powerful leader were the two most important strands. 

While Hu Jintao had rescued the teachings of Confucius from the oblivion into which Mao had cast it, it was after Xi Jinping took over that this philosopher of ancient days was fully restored to his pre-Mao glory. What Xi found particularly helpful was the insistence of Confucius on hierarchy and the need for society to obey the rules set by its betters. In the CCP playbook, at the helm of such a hierarchical progression was the CCP, which alone had the wisdom, and therefore the authority, to guide the people on their way to a better future. 

Moreover, within the CCP, the structure of leadership established by the upper ranks of the party was sacrosanct, led of course by an omniscient, omnipotent General Secretary. This “civilizational” rule applies to every aspect of the polity, society and economy of the People’s Republic of China. 

Even in the case of religion in today’s China, it will be “Buddhism with Communist Chinese characteristics” or “Christianity with Communist Chinese characteristics,” just as Deng’s grafts of capitalist models were within the framework of Communist Chinese characteristics. 

Xi’s Expansive Rule of Loyalty

The difference between Xi and his predecessors (Deng, Jiang and Hu) is that these characteristics have been interpreted so as to result in not merely party surveillance ー which existed in the past ー but total control over the economic machinery of the country, with consequences for the future that are uncertain. 

Xi has expanded the definition of fealty to the objective of Han supremacy to mean that even Overseas Chinese need to follow the instructions of the CCP and its agencies, even if in the process they go against the interests of the country whose passports they may have held for generations

It is not only in China that cultural revolutions have taken place. As Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi oversaw in India the burial of several of the traditions of the past, including the residual titles and rights held by the princely families. In several places, it was such families that continued with the patronage of arts and culture, the roots of which sometimes stretched back by millenia. 

Fortunately for those still believing in some elements of continuity of the past (including the culture streams of the Vedic era which have been ignored or suppressed for centuries), “corporate royalty” rather than “political royalty” often took the place of the banished feudal royals in rescuing cultural streams. The result is that much more of traditional Indian culture survives (and in many ways thrives) than has been the case in China, where the systematic and thoroughgoing erasure of the traditions of the past civilization in favour of the creation of the “New Chinese Man” has been far deeper and looks to be permanent. 

Whatever happens to Xi Jinping or to the Chinese Communst Party, society in China will reflect the New Chinese Man, perhaps with some modifications. To pick up and graft back the shredded and discarded  strands of what ー until the emergence of Chairman Mao ー remained a continuum of Chinese culture for several thousand years may be an impossible task, even for successors of not just Xi, but of the Chinese Communist Party itself.

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Author: M D Nalapat, Professor of Geopolitics, Manipal University, India

Director of the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations at Manipal University, India and UNESCO Peace Chair