Divining China's Future

Few people out-and-out believe in prophecy. Lucky guesses happen along now and then, and mathematicians thrive on the so-called educated guess. But a person bluff enough to crane his neck toward the future and expound on the view over yonder is all too often blushing from more than exertion by the time the scene has gotten plain enough for everyone to see. Still, if you can trace an edge here and there, catch a glint on the horizon, and toss in a grain of folk wisdom--say, about history repeating itself--divination is an awfully tempting pasttime. Politicians like to do it; journalists, too; scholars, as befits their trade, tend to be more circumspect.

These days the People's Republic of China is a very popular thing to watch. Yet even with Chairman Mao Tse-tung, a master of enigma, gone, not much is clearly perceptible.

Foreign analysts have left a trail of miscalculations behind them in attempts to gauge shifts in Chinese policy and leadership since the rise of the People's Republic in 1949. For example, less than a year ago many Westerners had slated Deputy Prime Minister Teng Hsiao-ping for a position flanking Mao's. Since then, Teng has been denounced as part of a "right deviationist wing (conspiring) to reverse correct verdicts" or, as the American press loosely put the charge, as a pragmatist. Meanwhile, a relative unknown, Hua Kuo-feng, has glided past Teng to become the highest-ranking official in the country, holding both the prime ministry and the vice-chairmanship of the communist party.

Of course, gauzy stories redolent of power struggles accompanied this reversal: you can still pore them out of newspapers. While the accounts may come across rather authoritatively in print, they are also apt to be vague, and scratching around in reference books often provides no historical clues to these struggles. Instead of offering a sturdy explanation, the journalists unendingly dissect the latest round of titular shuffling (the latest on Teng is still going strong after six months) until someone composes a new variation on the theme of personality clashes and shifts within the hierarchy. Personality and power, after all, make good copy.

But wagers on personality types and power quotients do not necessarily explain Chinese politics or society, or the way a system works in any country, for that matter. That much is agreed upon by Harvard's most prominent and widely-quoted Sinologists--John K. Fairbank '29, Higginson Professor of History, Benjamin I. Schwartz '38, Williams Professor of History, Roy M. Hofheinz Jr. '67, professor of Government, and Ross Terrill, assistant professor of Government. In a typical response to a query about the post-Mao direction of Chinese leadership, Fairbank says, "It's just nonsense to try to guess at history from a great distance. The American press likes to do it a lot. Yet I doubt there is any way the American public can understand Chinese history; they don't study it in school."


Since Mao's death, the American press has limited its discussion of Chinese politics to a couple of contending factions, dubbed "radicals" and "moderates." The radicals are said to be largely the ideological followers and offspring of Mao, including his widow, Chiang Ching, who is usually described as an uppity and outspoken woman, while the less inscrutable moderates are made out to be relatively uninterested in ideological purity when economic efficiency is at stake; one moderate name that seems bandied about is Chen Hsi-lin, commander of the Peking military region. Hua Kuo-feng has managed to elude being tied into either parcel so far, and the press seems to have settled for a draw, granting him the position of issue straddler and compromiser: Fox Butterfield of The New York Times suggests Hua can be counted "a good representative of a second generation of Chinese leader, a post-Maoist man."

Perhaps sensing the meaninglessness of the terms "radical" and "moderate," the press has devised surrogates that hone in on the concept of the dialectic of Chinese politics; when you're in this supposedly more authentic frame of mind, you talk about idealists and pragmatists, respectively. Even this pair of labels, which look to convey the unfriendly notions of revolutionary fervor and steady common sense, derive significance from the writer's cultural attitudes and experiences. Here the terms are being applied to a complex, fairly inaccessible society by Americans, and Thomas B. Gold, a fourth-year graduate student in Sociology, points out that the transfer may be too glib. Gold, who visited the People's Republic a year ago, says, "You go to China and you see it in action, and you cannot understand what they're doing there in our terms. What we mean by pragmatic and what they mean are two different things." Such simple labels promote misunderstanding of the country's social and economic goals, he adds. "There is no question Mao's line wants economic development," Gold says. But this growth should not be forced "by relying on machines alone." Instead it should be accomodated to the people through "'walking on two legs,' relying on modern and indigenous methods."

Government professor Hofheinz echoes Gold's dissatisfaction with the ability of open-ended labels to get to the crux of Chinese politics. The analogies the widely used factional terms conjure up, he says, "are quite inaccurate. In fact, political factions are not oriented around issues of moderate versus radical, but guns versus rice, central versus local control, equality of education versus political control over it--real live issues about which we know nothing in terms of alignment, or know only by implication."

Hofheinz does not expect jockeying for positions within the leadership to become particularly intense in the near future, though he concedes that such maneuverings have long been obscured by the aura of mystery maintained by the Chinese. "China cannot afford internal turmoil--tendencies toward unity will be much tighter than most Western reporters anticipate--but there will be confusion. That is, there is a possibility of general paralysis, with very deleterious effects, especially economic." Hofheinz believes polarization along the radical-moderate lines could occur only outside the leadership that the foreign press is so fascinated with. "There is an outside possibility," he says, that "someone will call for and try to drum up support in external circles--that is, outside of the few dozen people who govern China."

The conflict over the issues Hofheinz focuses on--guns versus rice, central versus local control, equality of education versus political control over it--grew most extreme during the Great Leap Forward of 1958-59 and the Cultural Revolution of the '60s. These startlingly unstable campaigns delineate a unique element in Mao's leadership. Convinced that China would progress only if the principles of revolution remained vital, he encouraged the Chinese people's awareness of the perpetual struggle between two poles--the revolutionary line and the "capitalist road" or "revisionism." Mao's teachings acted as a fulcrum on which these lines would weigh, teeter a bit, and finally reach a temporary equilibrium. In the process individuals and institutions risked annihilation, including the chairman himself. As the programs of the Great Leap and the Cultural Revolution ("Let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools of though contend.") nearly edged out of control, Mao's position twice became precarious. He later recalled that at these times he was not viewed as a contributor or regulator of the government's daily routine. Thus, Mao said, he was dispensable.

A far cry from the U.S. two-party system of Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter--two men of relatively similar outlooks--this questioning process is basic to China, an initial step toward grasping China on its own terms. Grad student Gold chooses the phrase "uninterrupted" revolution to describe the process's constant resolution through change. Gold believes the label "permanent" revolution smacks too much of anarchy or unending chaos.

Indeed, Schwartz and Terrill agree that Mao carefully managed the "uninterrupted" revolution after the Cultural Revolution produced a second serious threat to his position. This suggests a principal question left in the wake of Mao's death: If, as Schwartz says, the revolution can be turned off by Mao, its creator, then what will happen to the revolution now?

Terrill, for one, sees a growth of public opinion in China that may not be amenable to Mao's legacy. "Among a majority there's a great deal of consumerism. Among a minority there's idealism and an attempt to renew Chinese socialism. Consumeristic instincts go against the efforts of the radicals to whip up revolution." While he grants that the Chinese leadership could take either direction in the long run, like other Harvard China-watchers, he insists it would be useless to try to gauge policy shifts so early.

While China's political climate may be uncertain, Terrill says, the country remains stable socially and is ripe for sociological study. Ideology may no longer provide the vital clue to understanding China. "It's the political system at the national level that is less stable. But the family system, the communes in the countryside, the state-owned factories in the cities really run without much ideology, so Mao's thought will become an overarching ethic. The key to the stability of the commune and the factory level is organizational brilliance rather than Mao's thought." Chinese communism, Terrill explains, functions more as a "social morality" while German Marxism serves as a "social science."

As for the continued life of the revolution, Terrill believes, "you can't sustain a revolution forever--that's the internal logic and the sociology of it." Revolution happens, he says, when people feel an intolerable injustice, but it is not required in the push for perfectability. Terrill does allow for the possibility that the Chinese will grow apathetic, making it easier for a rigid bureaucracy to take root--"the old combination of legalism from above and Taoism from below."