10 September 2016

Red Henan: ironies of latter-day Maoism

In the wake of the 40th anniversary of Mao Zedong’s death, I find myself increasingly intrigued by the kinds of left-wing sentiment that seem to be growing in China, and in particular in my adoptive home-province of Henan. (Full disclosure: I’m very much a Henan nüxu 河南女婿, with everything that that entails.) But this is something that has long held my attention: from the street protests backing OWS in Luoyang and Zhengzhou to the torn-down towering totem in Tongxu, Henan seems long to have been a hotbed of popular support for the Chinese Left, particularly in the wake of ‘reform and opening up’. This is not, or should not be, hard to understand. Henan, along with other rural provinces like Anhui and Guizhou, was overlooked for the new commercial developments that brought astounding new wealth to the coastal cities, even as newly semi-privatised farmland was being expropriated at staggering rates, sending a deluge of mingong 民工 migrant workers into the glittering coastal-urban centres of Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen – where they were at once both gleefully exploited and discriminated against by the urban denizens. In addition, the province of Henan – since antiquity the breadbasket and civilisational core of China – became saddled down, through a series of high-profile scandals, with the monstrously-unjust stigma of being a poverty- and disease-ridden criminal backwater.

Little wonder, then, that so many of the inhabitants of the Zhongyuan would look back with nostalgia on what they consider to be simpler, more egalitarian, less self-centred times – and that nostalgia clearly has enough currency to translate into a potent political force.

There is something of an irony in this nostalgia, though: an irony which is best illustrated in this story of two deceased officials from Henan: Zhang Qinli and Jiao Yulu, and the battle that still rages over their memory. Zhang Qinli was among the first victims of Deng Xiaoping’s party purges in the wake of the ‘Gang of Four’ trials. He was stripped of his Party membership and imprisoned for 12 years; he thus still stands condemned in Chinese officialdom. However, he remains incredibly popular in his Henan hometown to this day, 12 years after his death, as something of a ‘red saint’. He is remembered for having had the misfortune of backing the ‘wrong side’ and thus being a victim of high-ranking injustice. And he has the additional cachet of having been a fairly scrupulous, earnest, industrious and clean-living official who stands in marked contrast to the sort of corruption which exists in the modern China of more nakedly materialist and consumerist pursuits.

This is a nostalgia which appears to be growing and popular among local Party cadres and even local élites. But, for obvious reasons, it remains an uncomfortable subject for higher-ranking officials of the sort who live in Beijing and Shanghai. It is made all the more uncomfortable because Zhang Qinli’s close associate in Henan Province, the Communist Party Secretary Jiao Yulu, together with whom he tackled the problems of postwar economic underdevelopment, agricultural problems and infrastructure degradation, is still remembered in high official circles as a ‘Revolutionary Martyr’, who has been praised publicly by President Xi Jinping. In fact, after Jiao’s death, Zhang Qinli was responsible primarily for continuing his work improving the living conditions among Henan’s peasantry. The difference between Jiao and Zhang, it is to be remembered, is that Jiao’s early death spared him the ignominy of being associated with the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. For local residents of Henan, though, the double standard could not possibly be more glaring.

It is to be remembered that the local Maoist nostalgia that surrounds figures like Zhang Qinli is a loyal nostalgia – loyal, that is, to the ideals which they ascribe (rightly or wrongly) to the founding of the communist Chinese state – but this is a loyalty which Chinese Communist officials, sensitive as they are particularly to internal critics and reformers, seem very willing to do without.

The contours of this Maoist-looking nostalgia are both ironic and tragic. Ironic in that the very system that produced such idealists as Zhang and Jiao, a system which was premised on the need for equality, ended up, under Deng Xiaoping, treating the two monstrously unequally: elevating one as a hero, and imprisoning and dishonouring the other. In one sense, this is not surprising, since revolutions and Thermidorian reactions both have a tendency to eat their own children. On the other hand, though, there is a certain tragedy in it: there is something highly admirable – and not at all wholly-born of the Revolution he was associated with – in the kind of selflessness and love for his countrymen that Zhang is still remembered for in Henan.

(As I have said before multiple times now, I have strong reservations about Mao. Though he is to be credited for some great achievements and improvements in China, what his Cultural Revolution did to good men, good thinkers and good doers like Fei Xiaotong, among many thousands of others, is to my mind simply unforgiveable. And yet the irony shouldn’t be lost that Fei Xiaotong, the tribune of the Chinese peasantry, ill-deserves his ‘rightist’ reputation as much as Zhang Qinli ill-deserves his ‘anti-Party’ one. His care for the peasantry, his communitarian sociology and his economic advice through the 1980’s – for improving peasant life whilst keeping them on their land and retaining some sustainable forms of communal and collective ownership, such as the ‘township and village enterprises’ – all serve to place his work and his memory firmly on the same side as the leftists who are now evoking the image of Mao in their protests. Indeed, no less prominent a Chinese New Left economist than Cui Zhiyuan makes explicit his intellectual debts to Fei Xiaotong! Though the two of them fell victim to the politics of the Cultural Revolution in opposite ways and at different times, Fei Xiaotong is in some ways as much a wrongful victim of political misrepresentation as Zhang Qinli.)

It’s something of a tragedy in itself, that the domestic critics of China’s oppressive and unbalanced economic direction have so few iconic figures other than Mao to draw on. But if you look at the substance of the left’s wishes rather than the style in which they are presented – an end to corruption, an end to regional discrimination, an end to illegal expropriations of land, fair treatment of the poor, a turn away from consumer-capitalist materialism back toward more ‘traditional’ ideals and spirituality – it becomes clear that what they’re really asking for beneath those red banners is a return to something still deeper, older and more meaningful than the Marxist doctrines they represent.

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