It only looks like ideology from the outside

Ideology seems to be everywhere in today’s China: there is a huge apparatus devoted to propagating the correct official views on the big questions of the day, from the Covid-19 pandemic to financial regulation. Given how much effort the Party and the government put into criticizing incorrect ideas and repeating correct ones, it’s natural to think that ideas are truly central to Chinese politics.

An alternative view emerges from Joseph Torigian’s recent book, Prestige, Manipulation, and Coercion: Elite Power Struggles in the Soviet Union and China After Stalin and Mao, a detailed account of the internal battles at pivotal historical moments in two Leninist systems. Torigian suggests that what in standard historical accounts appear as epic struggles over the direction of the nation were in fact narrow arguments over specific political issues, that were driven less by differences of ideas than by maneuverings to gain personal power. It’s certainly a deflating, cynical view, but given the historical evidence he marshals, it is hard to say it is wrong.

Take for instance one of the most famous ideological statements in China’s recent history, the 1978 decision that the Communist Party should shift its focus away from class struggle and toward economic growth. Generalists like me tend to see this as a major historic turning point, when China’s leadership turned its back on Maoism and embraced pragmatism and markets. This corresponded with a change in leadership from Mao’s handpicked successor Hua Guofeng to Deng Xiaoping. But in Torigian’s account, this statement turns out not to be about “class struggle” in the general sense but only a recent internal campaign:

At the November 1978 work conference, [Hua Guofeng] did not oppose changing the party’s “key link” from “class struggle” to economics. The idea that Deng somehow triumphed over Hua on this issue is wrong. During Hua’s tenure, “class struggle” did not have the same meaning that it had during the Cultural Revolution. Then it meant the campaign to expose and criticize the Gang of Four. … At the Eleventh Party Congress in 1977, the plan of Hua and the top leadership was to finish the “ferreting-out” phase of exposing and criticizing the Gang of Four within the year or a little longer. At the Fifth National People’s Congress in February and March 1978, Hua said that the “ferreting-out” campaign was basically finished on a national scale.

Torigian agues that discussion among the top leadership on was mainly over the precise wording of how to announce the end of “class struggle” in this restricted sense, and that Hua and Deng were basically in agreement on the need to end the campaign.

Standard historical accounts present the 1978 third plenum as the culmination of an ideological struggle between Hua’s retrograde leftism and Deng’s free-thinking pragmatism. What was at stake was encapsulated by a phrase in a People’s Daily editorial in 1977 which became known as the “two whatevers”: “We will resolutely uphold whatever policy decisions Chairman Mao made and unswervingly follow whatever instructions Chairman Mao gave.” The official account of this debate appeared in a note to the Collected Works of Deng Xiaoping, and it has since been followed by many scholars:

After the downfall of the Gang of Four, the Party Chairman, Hua Guofeng, who was in charge of the work of the Central Committee, clung to the erroneous notion of the “two whatevers” and reaffirmed the wrong theories, policies and slogans of the “cultural revolution”. On April 10, 1977, Deng Xiaoping wrote a letter to the Central Committee, proposing that to guide the work of the Party, it should use instead a correct understanding of Mao Zedong Thought as an integral whole. Later, he talked with Party comrades on many occasions, explaining to them that the “two whatevers” did not accord with Marxism.

On September 19, 1977, when talking with the leading member of the Ministry of Education, Deng said that seeking truth from facts was the quintessence of the philosophical thinking of Mao Zedong. On May 11, 1978, Guangming Ribao carried an article entitled “Practice is the Sole Criterion for Testing Truth”, which stated that the most fundamental principle of Marxism was the integration of theory with practice. This was a criticism of the principle of the “two whatevers”. It was this article that gave rise to the debate about the criterion for testing truth.

Hua Guofeng and others tried to suppress the debate, but as the majority of the central leaders, including Deng Xiaoping, were fully in favour of it and took the lead in it, it gradually spread throughout the country. The debate demolished the “Left” ideology that had long shackled people’s minds and laid the theoretical and ideological foundation for the convocation of the Third Plenary Session of the Eleventh Central Committee.

The attempt by Party historians to paint Hua as the slavish follower of Mao always lacked a certain plausibility: after all, Hua had in 1976 led a coup against the Gang of Four, Mao’s chief hangers-on during the Cultural Revolution. Torigian’s account of this event makes clear that the arrest and trial of the Gang of Four was in fact a coup, in the sense of a violent and illegal change of government, because the arrest was not formally approved by the Party and was accomplished through the use of force. Hua’s willingness to risk instability by forcibly removing Mao’s favorites just a month after the great leader’s death reflected the urgent need he and other leaders felt to move on from the Cultural Revolution. Why, then, would he change course in 1977 and argue so forcefully that Mao’s wishes needed to be respected? Torigian says he didn’t, and it was all a misunderstanding:

New evidence shows that the origin of the “two whatevers” had nothing to do with political or economic orthodoxy. … What, then, did the “two whatevers” actually mean, and why did so many individuals in the elite misinterpret the expression? The key to understanding this puzzle is that the immediate challenge facing Hua was how to show his flexibility without raising concerns that he was moving too quickly to reject the Maoist legacy. Unfortunately for Hua, he handled this problem in a particularly clumsy way, and it was this clumsiness, as opposed to political dogmatism or opposition to Deng, that led to the “two whatevers.”

The “two whatevers” ended up in the People’s Daily not because Hua was trying to send a top-down signal of the country’s political direction, but because Hua’s speechwriters were trying to find a way to ease the concerns of the still-numerous supporters of Mao and the Cultural Revolution. Obviously the expression turned out to be easily misinterpreted, and it upset Deng, for which Hua later made a self-criticism. In Torigian’s account, this sloppy drafting turned out to be a political windfall for Deng, allowing him to portray himself as being on the right side of a major ideological debate. But this ideological debate was largely an illusion, a cover for Deng’s maneuverings against Hua. In order to oust Hua, Deng went on to say a lot of things that he very clearly did not actually mean:

In August 1980, Deng famously gave a speech criticizing “feudal practices” and calling for an institutionalized political system. The speech is often interpreted as a programmatic statement in favor of “political reform.” However, this is a fundamental misreading of the speech’s origins and implications. Criticisms of feudalism and calls for political reform were not a real platform but rather an ideological justification for Hua Guofeng’s removal from the leadership. …

As Deng Liqun freely admitted, “This speech by Comrade Xiaoping in actuality was directed against Hua Guofeng; it was preparation for Hua to leave his position, to find a theoretical justification.” When a friend pointed out that this speech was a reason why many people believed that Deng Xiaoping supported real inner-party democracy and institutionalization, Zhao Ziyang discounted this analysis, saying, “At this time, Deng was primarily addressing Hua Guofeng; he was struggling against Hua Guofeng.”

Torigian’s detailed reconstructions of the politics behind ideological debates are impressive, but also somewhat depressing for those of us trying to understand China’s contemporary policymaking. Much of the evidence he uses for his revisionist account of the 1970s and early 1980s has only emerged fairly recently, and similar detailed behind-the-scenes evidence is much less available for recent decades.

After digesting his book, it’s harder to have confidence in analyses that take Chinese ideological debates and statements at face value. Most of the time, it seems, outsiders to the system do not really know the precise context for the Party’s various political slogans and the internal uses to which they are being put. What looks like a struggle over ideology on the outside may just be a plain old power struggle.

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