12 March 2013

The continuing ironies of discussing the Great Leap Forward

Well, actually, I’ve been deliberately avoiding it for the past while. I find I am increasingly unable to debate on things China without getting frustrated and angry with both sides, and that is never a useful position to start from. This past month there was a bit of a spat between two of the blogs in my sidebar, Dr Sam Crane’s The Useless Tree (and here) and Hidden Harmonies. Both are equally, and I think unfairly in both cases, dismissive and belittling of the other, because each generally have valid points to make. Not so on this subject, however; what both blogs are hyperventilating over in this case is China’s Great Leap Forward (or, as my China Studies teacher in high school put it, the Great Lurch Sideways).

I’m not a GLF famine scholar, though most of the credible econometric and other statistical work I’ve read on the subject (Amartya Sen and his students) does tend toward a ‘low-ball’ estimate of 13-16 million excess deaths (I hate such objectifying language, but apparently that’s what you have to use in the business of describing human catastrophes like famines). Amartya Sen, of course, is no more an apologist for Mao than I am, which Dr Crane clarified in his follow-up. What is notable about Sen, though, is that he has no dog in this fight, except in the idea that famines do not happen in ‘democratic’ societies (which I think is as contestable as the democratic peace theory, but that is a different argument).

What I find so offensive about arguments like these, is that each side is a mirror image of the other, and each side is trying to control the debate for contemporary political reasons which have nothing to do with respecting history and respecting the memories of the millions of people who died, as Yang Jisheng does in his book. The Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution were heinous crimes on a mass scale, such that the modern CCP doesn’t defend them. There is no point in denying either part of this, so the entire argument between Dr Crane and melektaus (two people for whom I normally have a high degree of respect) seems utterly ludicrous to me. What is happening now, however, is that both atrocities have piled a further crime atop them to complete their awful legacies: a forceable closure of the political imagination.

It has to be noted – it is imperative to note – that the reforms of Deng Xiaoping could not have happened without the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. I mean this not in the standard Marxist sense that the Chinese economy had to industrialise before bourgeois capitalism could take root, but in the sense that Mao’s spirit-destroying project ended up devouring and discrediting itself through these two initiatives, leaving the Chinese people with no grounds for creatively formulating a humane alternative to the authoritarian gangster-capitalist project of Deng. It should further be noted that the Western ideological imports which accompanied the ironically-named ‘reform and opening up’ actively encouraged this reading. Far from denying the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese government has used them (particularly the Cultural Revolution) ever since the Tian’anmen Square protests as blunt instruments to silence criticism of their policies from the left, and to discredit any political alternatives and experimentation which deviates from the accepted authoritarian-capitalist norm. This phenomenon has been noted and criticised by none other than Wang Hui, himself no Maoist, with regard to the airbrushing of the Chongqing Model out of the scope of tolerable debate.

Thus, supporters of grassroots democracy, open access to information and more equal distribution of wealth in China (many of whom supported Bo Xilai and the Chongqing Model for what ought to be obvious reasons), running the risk of being labelled neo-Maoists by both the Western and the domestic Chinese press, find themselves in the intolerable position of having to ‘own’ the legacies of Mao, for whom they are not responsible. Reprehensible as it may be, it is perfectly understandable from a psychological standpoint why some would want to take refuge in denial. The few people who want to make the careful argument which firmly separates the modern desire for more egalitarian economic policies from the disasters of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution – like Wang Hui and Cui Zhiyuan – often find themselves marginalised anyway on account of their social status and on account of the political alliances they find themselves having to make. Denial is easier and has more visceral appeal.

The irony, for which I have never quite been able to forgive my fellow China-expat bloggers long enough to stop laughing at them, is that in spite of all their posturing about being in favour of transparency, democracy and all that jazz, in practice they are contributing to the repressive official climate surrounding political speech. They belittle, they alienate, they polarise and they dismiss those Chinese neoleftists with whom they might share common ground on questions of corruption and (one hopes, in the cases of Sam Crane, Richard Burger and Kaiser Kuo, at least!) distribution of wealth. To add further insult to injury, they contribute to the official climate of polarisation, wherein Thatcher-and-Reaganite supply-siders, neoliberals and market-fundamentalist kooks are unduly fetishised as brave defenders of liberty and speakers of ‘truth’; and even the reasonable, moderate neoleftists who saw something innovative and valuable in the promises of the Chongqing Model policy platform are demonised as fenqing, fifty-centers, reactionary monsters and brainless Mao worshippers.

(And this in spite of the fact that the CCP condemned the Chongqing Model, and used the rumour machine to actively discredit its proponents. If there are fifty-centers who support Bo Xilai, they’re obviously doing something wrong.)

So, again, even though Dr Crane is correct on the point about the GLF being primarily Mao’s responsibility, his entire approach is counterproductive (which I hope, given the storm of back-and-forth anathemas his post provoked, he came to realise). He is providing correct answers to the wrong questions. That Mao was responsible for the GLF is a fact, and it is a fact that deserves to be fully articulated, but in focussing the discussion in the way he does, he ignores the poisonous context in which that fact is used as a weapon by the ruling party against activists and political thinkers who simply do not deserve to be associated with Mao’s crimes. In respect to the victims of the Great Leap Forward famine, I should hardly imagine they would want their memories to be used as political weapons against those among their children and grandchildren who are striving for a more egalitarian China than the one currently on offer.


  1. Hello, Matt:

    Just a question on an unrelated topic. If it proves impossible to have genuine conservatism in your country, would you be considering the idea of moving up north? Just asking. If you feel uncomfortable, you don't need to answer.


  2. You mean, north to Canada? Or north to Mongolia or Russia?

    In the case of the former, I have occasionally toyed with the idea, but honestly, I think there is some really good work being done inside the United States on creating the groundwork for palaeoconservative and Tory ideas which are not hostile to the genuine concerns of labour. (And Christian socialist ideas which are not hostile to the genuine concerns of social conservatives, for that matter!)

    The American Conservative, in spite of its occasional Ron Paul fetishism, is an excellent resource. The new projects ResPublica US and Solidarity Hall are positively brimming with good ideas, and the Coalition for Clarity continues to provide a palaeoconservative critique of the national security state and its anti-human excesses. John at EifD, Mark Shea, Daniel Nichols, Fr John Alexander, Chris Hall and the California Constantian are always, always worth reading - and all of them are American.

    I'm actually feeling pretty good about this country of ours. In spite of the Beltway politicos gravitating to a neoliberal / neoconservative consensus, there is actually a counter-politics, both left and right, which seems to be gaining quite a bit of momentum.

    But it's not going to be either in Code Pink or in the Tea Party.

    Hope that answers your questions!


  3. Matt,

    Hello, and thanks for the reply. Yes, I meant Canada.