How Chinese Communism is like religion: an anthropological analogy

This is really quite brilliant:

Despite their explicit atheism, Marxism, socialism and communism are often compared to religions. They require conversion and unquestioned belief in dogma and provide a full eschatology that gives sense and purpose to what has to be done here and now. This continues to be an essential insight but misses one crucial point that is particularly salient to contemporary China.

Viewing these ideologies as such is predicated on a Western understanding of religion modelled on Christianity. Cross culturally, however, religion is not about dogma and belief or how one expresses this belief. Religion is not even necessarily about the supernatural; rather, it is about the privileging of certain aspects of one’s environment, life and experience as sacred, that is, as special and set apart from the normal, profane domains of life. This distinction exists in any society quite independently from what it is exactly that is considered sacred.

If religion is simply about distinguishing the sacred from the profane, it can exist without any dogma and belief, or a material representation and awe of supernatural powers. In his study of the Giriama in Kenya the anthropologist David Parkin has developed this point further. Parkin demonstrates that the Giriama define themselves as a distinct people by reference to a remote, largely uninhabited but nevertheless sacred place of origin called the Kaya. This ‘sacred void’, as Parkin calls it, is kept pure and sacred through periodic acts of cleansing and purification to ensure the fertility and continuity of the Giriama people.

The concept of a sacred void, I would argue, travels rather well to contemporary China. Leninist principles set the CCP apart from society and represent its rule as a sacred mission regardless of any of the beliefs, dogmas or ideologies that it professes. Just as Giriama elders move secretly in and out of the Kaya, with only the occasional elder identified as having broken some rule, so it is that Party leaders are beyond scrutiny and only occasionally get purged. …

The sacredness of CCP politics is why the Party maintains an elaborate edifice of largely vacuous ideological innovations and resists the scrutiny of democratic principles and procedures. Jettisoning ideology would turn CCP rule into an ordinary dictatorship that visibly has no other mission than its own perpetuation. Introducing democracy would crowd the sacred void with the profanity of electoral politics that citizens of democratic countries might deplore, yet fully expect and take for granted: deceitful politicians, greedy interest groups and media theatrics.

It is, therefore, too simple to think that the CCP resists democratic elections and accountability only out of fear of losing power to competing parties. Its resistance to democracy runs at a much deeper indeed religious level. Democracy would expose the inner core of CCP politics to the gaze of ordinary people, stripping the Party of the mystery and sacredness that have rendered its rule unquestionable and untouchable for so long.

The quote is from Knowing China: A Twenty-First Century Guide by Frank Pieke, the chair professor in modern China studies at Leiden University, and an anthropologist by training.

I didn’t intend this post as a commentary on the news about the removal of term limits for Xi Jinping, but it feels appropriate nonetheless.

Perhaps because of its European origins, this 2016 book does not seem to have gotten much notice on this side of the Atlantic, which I think is a criminal oversight. In fact it is one of the clearest and most original summaries of how to think about the Chinese political economy that I have come across. Thanks to Dorothy Solinger for the  recommendation.

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A close encounter of the Sun Ra kind

The next rehearsal was Friday, the day before the show. Surprise, surprise: Sun Ra opened more musical cans of worms. Songs he’d written hours before—or made up on the spot.

Don surely sensed our collective nervous anger, and his anxiety must’ve dwarfed ours. Ticket sales were beyond any previous concert (by show time, the hall would be sold out), and we had virtually no charts prepared. Diplomatically, Don suggested we work on tunes we’d tried before, and Sun Ra, without much fuss, agreed. But even when we summoned forth the riffs as we remembered them, something inevitably wasn’t to his liking. The closer we came to repeating what we’d learned in previous sessions, the faster Sun Ra switched what he was doing.

“Y’all seem so worried,” he said, “about playing the notes. But you can play more than just notes on a page, you know. You can play the wind or the river. You can play the sun rays.”

A cop-out, I thought. If anything goes, nothing needs perfecting.

But fine. He was the visionary.

And so when, with a toss of his hand, as if scattering birdseed, he signaled for the next song to start, I decided to play precisely nothing the way we’d learned it. I’d find a novel way to mutate every note: coming in a millisecond ahead of or behind the beat, tonguing hard or slurring through a half-valve. I’d like to say I did this out of open-minded virtue, but cussedness was closer to the truth. If he was hell-bent on undermining our book-learned perseverance, it seemed only fair to try to beat him at his game.

But, strangely, my mischief-making failed to wreck the music. Sun Ra was accompanying us, as usual, on piano, and for every note I sabotaged, he seemed to change his playing, widening the song’s sidelines so I always stayed in bounds. Could it be? I tried again—a purposely sharpened note—and Sun Ra’s fingers danced into a new configuration, his chord seemingly built on my suggestion. Back and forth we went in our loony musical leapfrog, till I was convoluted with amusement.

Sun Ra flashed a smile at me—not gloating but in gratitude—and now I saw this kind of sport was the goal. You’re right, it’s a game, I imagined him saying, but all of us are on the same team. I couldn’t say we sounded great, or that I fully “got” it; I still searched for handholds in the din. But now I was attuned to, not tuning out, his whimsies.

That is from Michael Lowenthal’s Face the Music: My Improbable Trip to Saturn (or Close Enough) with Sun Ra, a charming set of anecdotes about Sun Ra’s 1990 visit to Dartmouth College (it is a magazine-article-length Kindle Single published in 2016). His recollections are particularly poignant, and perhaps particularly insightful, because he gave up trumpet playing for writing not long after this encounter.

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What I’ve been listening to lately

 

  • Nicole Mitchell, Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds. Fantastic work from Mitchell, whose wonderfully expressive, vocalized flute fronts a mostly string-based ensemble (cello, guitar, bass, drums). The bits with poetry mostly highlight that the poetry is not as good as the jazz, but it’s not too big of a distraction. There’s more in this recent profile of Mitchell.
  • Jeremy Steig, Flute FeverOn this 1963 recording, Steig seems like he is setting out to prove that the flute is every bit as powerful and expressive a jazz instrument as the tenor sax, tackling a couple of Sonny Rollins tunes, Miles Davis’ “So What”, and some other jazz classics. He succeeds brilliantly.
  • Betty Harris, The Lost Queen of New Orleans Soul. A wonderful collection of singles from the Golden Age of New Orleans funk; Allen Touissant wrote many of the songs, and her backing band is the The Meters. Need I say more?
  • Yabby You, Beware DubThe Pressure Sounds label continues their heroic work of preserving Jamaican masterpieces. This 1978 dub album is a classic, consistently excellent all the way through.
  • Zhu Xiao-mei, Goldberg Variations. You can always go back to Bach. I am no specialist, but this recent recording sounds very good to my ears: wonderfully clear lines, and less melodramatic than Glenn Gould’s version.

And one recording that is not yet in rotation at my house, but certainly will be, is the new album from Ethiopian legend Hailu Mergia; Bandcamp has an interview.

 

When will an objective history of China’s 1950 land reform be possible?

Walking through the Road of Rejuvenation, the permanent exhibition on Chinese history at the National Museum of China, it is easy to see a lot of gaps. The Great Leap Forward of 1958, and the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76, are notably mostly by their absence. These are now universally acknowledged as “setbacks,” and if official history and propaganda does not really know how to talk about them, neither does it actively defend them. But I found it interesting that other Mao-era campaigns, such as the land reform of 1950, are not similarly glossed over.

In fact they are proudly celebrated, and justified in language that does not seem to have changed in decades. According to the official line, land reform was necessary to break the pattern of feudal exploitation in which a tiny landlord class controlled most of the land and trapped farmers in poverty. The reform was indeed a massive social upheaval, in which over 10 million landlords were expropriated, and more than 40% of China’s farmland was redistributed. So it was hard not to feel some awe when I looked at the piece of paper that started it all, preserved for posterity:

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The June 1950 order promulgating the Land Reform Law, on display at the National Museum of China

Yet this official caricature of pre-Communist China as a nightmare of exploitation and inequality has not stood up well to historical scrutiny. The historian Frank Dikötter for instance argues, in his The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-1957, that the very term “landlord” (dizhu) was a political invention rather than a reflection of social reality:

The term was imported from Japan in the late nineteenth century and given its modern formulation by Mao Zedong. It had no meaning for most people in the countryside, who referred to some of their more fortunate neighbours as caizhu, an appellation that implied prosperity yet carried no derogatory undertones. There were also plenty of less respectful labels such as ‘big belly’ (daduzi). As S. T. Tung, publisher of the Chinese Farmer with a doctoral degree in agriculture from Cornell University, put it at the time, ‘China has no “landlord class”.’ There is little question that absent landowners abused their power, while malpractices were rife in the countryside, but the country did not have a dominant class of junkers or squires, and nothing equivalent to serfdom.

There is also data available from contemporary surveys that has allowed economic historians to provide at least approximate estimates of the extent of inequality in the pre-Communist countryside. Tian Chuanhao, a professor at Zhejiang University, in a recent article reported that he used a 1932 survey under the Republican government to estimate the Gini coefficient for land ownership at 0.543. He also cites another estimate of 0.563, based on the first world agricultural census of 1930.

Scholars have also used that census to estimate the inequality of land distribution for many other countries, and China’s level was not extreme for the time: a number of European countries and their colonies had land Ginis of around 0.7 (the data in the chart below are from a 2005 paper by E.H.P. Frankema). “From the Ming and Qing dynasties through the 1930s, the inequality in China’s distribution of land was not severe, and in a global context was middle-ranked,” Tian writes.

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If inequality in China’s countryside was not extreme before land reform was carried out, neither was it eliminated by the land reform. Carl Riskin’s classic history, China’s Political Economy: The Quest for Development since 1949, works through data both before and after the reform and concludes:

Inequality of land ownership and operations was greatly reduced, and with it the inequality of income distribution. Yet in the end, the average rich peasant owned and operated more than twice as much land as did the average poor peasant, and the middle peasant 50% more. Land reform had deliberately stopped short of complete economic equality and was incapable of eradicating rural poverty.

Indeed, economic conditions were in some ways worsened by the reform, and the class structure that emerged was inherently unstable. The chief significance of the land reform therefore was in creating the political and social conditions for change in the direction planned by Mao and the Party–towards a collectivized and ultimately industrialized agriculture.

Land reform was indeed very effective in achieving its political goals: eliminating the rural gentry as a potential counter-revolutionary threat, destroying old patterns of authority and deference, and creating loyalty to the new government among those who received land.

And only the fact that land reform was primarily a political campaign against “class enemies” can explain why it was so violent and disruptive: landlords did not simply have their land confiscated, but were publicly denounced at mass meetings, beaten, and killed. On most estimates, at least a million people died during the campaign. Here is Dikötter again with a depressing comparison with the contemporary land reforms in other Asian countries:

In March 1951 a letter was published in the People’s Daily. Several farmers from Hunan had written to ask about land reform. ‘Why doesn’t Chairman Mao just print some banknotes, buy the land from the landlords and then give us our share?’  It was a good question. That was, after all, what was happening in the island fortress of arch-villain Chiang Kai-shek. Between 1949 and 1953, large landowners in Taiwan were compensated with commodity certificates and stocks in state-owned industries for the land that was redistributed among small farmers. This approach impoverished some wealthy villagers, but others used their compensation to start commercial and industrial enterprises. Not a drop of blood was shed. The experience was based on Korea and Japan, where land reform was successfully carried out under General Douglas MacArthur between 1945 and 1950. Not a drop of blood was shed there either.

But it is not yet politically acceptable in today’s China to describe the 1950 land reform as a violent, wasteful political campaign that, by preparing the way for agricultural collectivization, contributed to even more loss of life in the famine that resulted from the 1958 Great Leap Forward.

The musty old Maoist justifications for land reform are not just repeated in official propaganda, but are actively asserted against even mild challenges. The most prominent recent example is the public controversy over the 2016 novel Soft Burial (软埋), which features an older woman dealing with her troubling memories of land reform. There is a good summary in the English edition of the Global Times; here is an excerpt:

Detractors of the novel believe that by sympathizing with the landlords, the novel is discrediting land reform, a major feat of the Communist Party of China (CPC), and therefore challenging the CPC. “Soft Burial is a downright anti-Communist Party novel,” one article, written by a commentator called Chun Lin, asserts. “We have to be cautious about this novel, and criticize it thoroughly.” …

Guo Songmin, an ardent Maoist and political commentator who used to be a pilot in the People’s Liberation Army Air Force, thinks the work aims to discredit land reform and ultimately the legitimacy of the CPC. “There should be a political bottom line in the publishing industry, and works that intend to subvert the government should not be published,” he told the Global Times.

“The land reform and the new democratic revolution are important steps in our history. Without them, China could never have achieved what it has become today,” he said.

Since this article was published last year, Soft Burial appears to have been effectively banned.

 

Some of Marx’s earliest critics were right on the money

I’m working my way through the early chapters of Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion, Gareth Stedman Jones’ recent biography. There’s a lot of German idealism, and these debates often seem to have been lost in the mists of history for pretty good reason. But some of the most interesting bits involve Marx’s arguments with his contemporaries, well before he became widely famous.

Arnold Ruge was a lecturer at the University of Halle and founder of journals that published some of Marx’s early writings. They were frequent collaborators and correspondents, and both were both critical of the autocratic Prussian state and traditional religion. But Ruge was more of a liberal, republican nationalist and their views drifted apart as Marx moved toward a more radical position. They eventually had a personal falling out after living in close quarters in Paris, which led to an open intellectual break:

Ruge went on to attack Karl’s communism. He argued to Feuerbach that neither the aims of the Fourierists, nor the suppression of property that the communists advocated, could be articulated with any clarity. ‘These two tendencies end up with a police state and slavery. To liberate the proletariat from the weight of physical and intellectual misery, one dreams of an organization that would generalize this very misery, that would cause all human beings to bear its weight.’

Karl Grün was a German journalist active in organizing workers around the same time as Marx, and also collaborated with Proudhon, the famous French critic of private property. Marx despised Grün, whose popularity and prominence were a challenge to his own, and devoted a section of the Communist Manifesto to criticizing his “German” socialism. In 1848, Marx and Engels followed up with the Demands of the Communist Party in Germany, which called for the nationalization of industry, transport and finance. 

Writing in the Trier’sche Zeitung, [Grün] criticized the emphasis on centralization and nationalization; its results, he stated, would not be the emancipation of labour, but the replacement of individual monopolies by a ‘collective monopoly’ of the state, and the undermining of individual self-determination.

From today’s perspective, a full century after the Bolshevik Revolution, these criticisms sound very accurate indeed.

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Why was Kornai wrong about the sustainability of China’s market socialism?

I put János Kornai’s The Socialist System: The Political Economy of Communism on my best books list for last year, but I’ve been slow in writing something longer about it. It’s taken some time for me to think through how to understand China in the context of his arguments.

Kornai’s book is brilliant in its diagnoses of the internal conflicts and problems of “market socialism” or “reform socialism”, in which market mechanisms are permitted but the Communist Party maintains political primacy and a large public sector. This is a still a pretty accurate definition of China’s system. There were so many moments while reading when I wanted to shout out loud in recognition: “Yes! That’s exactly how it is!”

Yet the book finally concludes that market socialism is an inherently unstable and unsustainable system that cannot last. Essentially Kornai argues that the combination of a weakened version of state intervention and the half-hearted embrace of market competition enjoys the vices of both systems and the virtues of neither. A government that no longer truly believes in socialism cannot enforce its plans, while market forces are allowed to operate only inconsistently, so that they amplify rather than alleviate distortions. The inevitable accumulation of economic problems means that the public and officials get fed up with the system and eventually decide to jettison it entirely.

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It seems fair to say that this argument has been disproved by how China has developed since Kornai’s book came out (it was written over 1986-91, and published in English in 1992). China’s market socialism has already lasted longer (40 years) than the “real” socialism of the Mao era did (~30 years). And while we don’t know what will happen in the future, it is pretty clear that Kornai thought market socialism should be less stable and enduring than classical socialism, not more:

To sum up, so long as the classical system can be sustained at all, it has a degree of stability and robustness, where the system undergoing the contortions of reform is inherently unstable. There are places where it can only subsist for a short time, and others where special circumstances allow it to continue to for longer, but nowhere has it been able to survive lastingly (and the prediction from the line of thought put forward in this book is that it will be unable to do so in the future).

In fact Kornai’s book contains a pretty accurate depiction of China in the 1980s, which of course he had personally experienced: there was lots of economic volatility and back-and-forth on policy, as well as high inflation and rising popular discontent that culminated in the 1989 protests. But while similar strains eventually led other reforming socialist countries to abandon socialism altogether, this did not happen in China. Instead China in the 1990s mounted a renewed effort to strengthen state institutions and maintain economic growth, which has obviously been very successful.

So what did Kornai miss?

I think one key issue is that China’s growth potential turned out to be much higher than the Eastern European countries with which he was more familiar. Because China under socialism was still a largely undeveloped and agricultural economy, it had enormous potential for high growth driven by structural change. In this respect China in the 1980s was more similar to Korean and Taiwan in the 1960s than it was to the reforming socialist countries of the 1980s, most of which were over-industrialized and internationally uncompetitive. For instance Kornai in the book was dismissive of the potential for market socialist countries to have much success with exports–and of course a successful export sector has made all the difference for China.

This difference in growth potential was probably at least as important as the much-discussed difference between the “shock therapy” style of post-Soviet reform and the “gradualist” style of Chinese reform. Some of China’s most important reforms, such as the household responsibility system of the early 1980s and the downsizing of state enterprises in the late 1990s, were not gradual at all, but were massive changes implemented quite rapidly.

China’s reforms also went further than Kornai allowed for in his book. His generalization was that market socialist countries were willing to allow some space for the private sector, but were never willing to allow the private sector to actually dominate the economy. As a result the economy could never actually become truly subject to the key disciplines of market competition: hard budget constraints and the risk of corporate failure.

It is useless for domestic and foreign advisers to call on the governments of market-socialist economies to be more forceful and impose financial discipline; the requirement cannot be met while public ownership remains dominant.

The menaces of the center are not effective enough; firms are not even afraid they will be implemented. The separation of functions does not apply here. Is the bureaucracy, which is the state, the owner, and the manager all at once, supposed to discipline itself? The budget constraint on firms can only become hard if the firm is really separate from the bureaucracy, that is, if it self-evidently left to itself in time of trouble. The only way of ensuring this separation automatically and spontaneously is by private ownership. …

Is it possible to make the budget constraint on publicly owned firms hard under the prevalent market-socialist system? The four points above provide an unequivocal answer: No, it is not.

Footnote 35: Exceptionally, the hardness of the budget constraint on publicly owned firms can be ensured artificially if there are not too many of them and they are surrounded by privately owned firms in a capitalist system. The behavioral norms of the narrow public sector then resemble the behavior of the dominant private sector of the economy.

In this footnote I believe is contained one of the secrets of China’s success. Over time, the Chinese government has allowed the private sector to become the majority of the economy. (Kornai himself likely played a role in this by helping convince Chinese leaders that the Eastern European reforms were inadequate and not a good model for China to follow.) A larger private sector did not end the problems of state-owned enterprises, and the conflicts and unfairness inherent in the competition between state and private companies. But it did mean that state firms faced at least some market discipline, and thus that their problems did not become overwhelming.

Kornai’s book also placed a lot of emphasis on the fact that in market socialist systems, officials were typically inexperienced and incompetent at managing the economy. Their inevitable mistakes discredited both the government and the concept of market socialism. By sustaining growth over a longer period of time, China was able to establish both the credibility of its system and build up the experience of its economic managers, which in turn made growth more sustainable. In this sense its economic growth created some positive feedback loops.

So I don’t think Kornai’s analysis of how a market socialist economy functions was fundamentally wrong. He was right about the kind of economic costs that state-owned enterprises and other socialist institutions create, and in that respect his book is still a useful guide to understanding China today. But to answer the question of sustainability requires also understanding just how large those costs are, and how much they are offset by positive developments elsewhere in the economy. If underlying growth potential is high and the progress of economic liberalization is consistent, then those costs are more likely to be manageable.

These days, most people seem to agree that China’s growth potential is declining and economic reform is slowing down, or even reversing in some ways. So even if Kornai’s diagnosis was wrong for China in 1992, could it perhaps be right in 2018?

Toward a history of the siege of Changchun

2018 will mark the 70th anniversary of the siege of Changchun, perhaps the greatest atrocity of the Chinese civil war. After Communist troops led by Lin Biao failed in their initial attempt to capture the city, on May 30, 1948, Lin decided to mount a blockade, cutting Changchun off from food and fuel shipments.

The goal was to weaken the Nationalist troops by starving them, and cause enough suffering that the civilian population would stop supporting the troops. The strategy was successful, as the Nationalist forces ultimately surrendered to the Communists in October. But by the time the siege ended, probably around 150,000 people, mostly civilians, had starved to death, and roughly the same number of refugees had fled the city.

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Communist troops at the siege of Changchun, 1948.

The event is still little known within China and probably even less so outside it, though in recent years more English-language accounts have become available. Andrew Jacobs of the New York Times wrote an excellent article in 2009, using Chinese published sources and his own interviews with elderly survivors, which is still probably the best short introduction. The article’s observations about the fraught nature of historical memory in China are still very relevant: public commemoration of this anniversary is highly unlikely.

The Hong Kong-based historian Frank Dikötter also devoted the opening chapter of his 2013 book The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-1957 to the siege. In just six pages, Dikötter defly uses Chinese archival sources to convey the suffering of the people of Changchun. The event serves as a kind of synecdoche for all the violence perpetrated by the Communist Party against its real and imagined enemies, one of the chief themes of his polemical book.

A longer, more detailed and less polemical account of the siege is in Harold M. Tanner’s 2015 book Where Chiang Kai-shek Lost China: The Liao-Shen Campaign, 1948The book is primarily a military history and so it does an excellent job of putting the siege in the context of the civil war and explaining the decision-making on both sides. For instance, he makes it clear that siege tactics were unusual for the Communists, and that the political leadership including Mao was initially skeptical of Lin’s plan (though they ultimately supported it). But Tanner also does not shy away from the human cost and the tricky historical politics of the siege.

Both books rely heavily on White Snow, Red Blood (雪白血红) a 1989 book by PLA colonel Zhang Zhenglong whose revelations about the siege caused a sensation on its original publication. In a comparison that would become famous, Zhang likened the siege to the bombing of Hiroshima: “The casualties were about the same. Hiroshima took nine seconds; Changchun took five months.”

Zhang’s book was banned on the mainland, though it was reprinted in Hong Kong. Tanner also cites a 1997 book by the historian Liu Tong, The True Record of the War of Liberation in the Northeast (东北解放战争纪实) which he says comes to similar conclusions about the casualties as Zhang’s. It’s not clear if that book has been banned, though it does not seem to be in print in China any longer; Liu has also published several other books on the civil war in the northeast.

Another source on the siege that has recently become available in English, which I have not read, is a firsthand account by survivor Homare Endo, Japanese Girl at the Siege of Changchun. She was seven years old at the time of the siege. Her Japanese manuscript was first published in 1984, and Endo apparently also wrote a Chinese version, according to this interview.

While there is a long list of topics in Chinese history that deserve fuller treatment in English, it seems to me that the siege of Changchun is a deep, complex, and emotional subject very much crying out for a book of its own.