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China the Puzzle of the New

6 minute read
David Aikman

“You could say we have wasted 20 years.” Even in the relatively candid mood prevalent in Chinese ruling circles, that assessment from Communist Party General Secretary Hu Yaobang was blunt. In an article published last month in the current-affairs magazine Outlook, Hu blamed “radical leftist nonsense” for Communism’s failure to meet the economic goals set after the 1949 revolution. Specifically, he warned that China can “never again afford” notions promoted by Mao Tse-tung during the 1958-59 Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and ’70s. Hu’s observations about the turbulent past highlighted China’s current embrace of a new economic philosophy stressing incentives and rewards, propounded by de facto Leader Deng Xiaoping. Correspondent David Aikman, a longtime student of Chinese affairs who has just completed a two-year assignment as TIME’s bureau chief in Peking, provides these observations on the continuing changes in the world’s most populous country:

“I have a sense,” said a Western diplomat in Peking, “that when a quarter of humanity swings in a new direction, the direction of all history is changed.”

It is still too early to determine the permanence of the metamorphosis created by Deng’s reforms over the past five years, and where it will end. The only indisputable indicators are economic: an average annual increase in agricultural production of 7.9% since 1978; a spurt in rural per capita income, from $67 a year in 1978 to $155 in 1983; a 23% expansion in foreign trade last year, to a record $49.7 billion. Chinese construction is booming: nearly half the peasant housing in the countryside has been erected since 1980.

Chinese officials often seem taken aback by the sheer novelty of their recent economic achievements. “Tell me,” an experienced Chinese diplomat asked in Peking not long ago, “do you really think China is going capitalist?” It is not, of course. The key means of production remain in the ! hands of the state, and the Communist Party is firmly in charge. The question that should be asked is this: Is China growing out of its half-century-long embrace of Marxist metaphysics? The answer is a qualified yes.

The distinction is important. Capitalism–in the sense of big corporations, organized labor and rapid movement of money–is unlikely to come to China in the foreseeable future. Yet one of the great maxims of classical Marxism, that market forces are somehow the source of wickedness, has been discarded. Last October, on the heels of impressive economic gains in the rural areas, the Communist Party’s central committee plenum announced reforms as well for the urban economy in which market forces will play a decisive role. Instead of a market economy, Peking’s theoreticians now talk of a “socialist commodity economy.” Only the names have been changed.

In theory, the conceptual breakthrough has been restricted to the economy; in practice, it has begun to affect other areas of national life. Not just Marx but Lenin and Stalin too, China’s dialecticians are now saying, could not possibly have foreseen today’s global and national realities. Their theories, it is argued, should thus no longer be treated as sacred truth.

A conference of the China Writers’ Association last January proclaimed the need for “creative freedom” and sanctioned the publication of “scar literature,” the genre of harsh recollections of the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution. If greater truthfulness about national life in general is permitted to blossom, it will benefit not just the quality of literature but the entire body politic and will kindle a conscious–and unconscious–search among Chinese for the focus of their civilization.

Such a quest may not be the stuff of headlines, but it is real enough and is beginning to shape ways of thinking among educated Chinese. American teachers of English in China report a thirst among their students for discussions of moral and philosophical topics. Christianity has made substantial inroads: in Kaifeng (pop. 600,000), the second largest city in Henan province, officials say that 10% of the population is now Christian. In 1949 it was less than 1%.

Such trends are disturbing to the security forces, the middle-level party hacks deep in the provinces, and the peasant bureaucrats who have run much of the government apparatus since 1949. They are still formidable forces. State security controls where people can live, where they can travel, even whether they may put on an art exhibition. Citizens who are arrested sometimes vanish for months on end. Party cadres and bureaucrats feel that their positions and prerogatives are threatened by the economic reforms. They resent the emergence of a new managerial technocracy and the promotion to positions of responsibility of intellectuals, “the stinking ninth category” in the original Maoist cosmology.

Deng, now 80, appears untroubled by both the ferment his modernization schemes have aroused and the reaction against that ferment. He believes, it seems, that the open-door policy of welcoming foreign skills and investment will permanently change the face of Chinese life–for the better. He may be right. Some 200,000 Americans alone visited China during 1984, many of them leading delegations from sister cities or sister states in the U.S. that are quietly establishing their own special access to China. In the opposite direction, more than 300 Chinese delegations a month travel to the U.S., soaking up technology, skills and, above all, attitudes and ideas.

The exchange is introducing many Chinese, for the first time, to a world far removed from the rigid hierarchy of the old dynastic China and the dated dogmas of Marxism. After a century of foreign humiliation and social iniquity, China in 1949 grabbed at Marxism as a panacea for national renewal. The medicine worked as a purgative but failed as a restorative. It is restoration that China now needs more than anything. After three decades of coercive utopian experimentation, a return to ethics, for three millenniums the unifying theme of Chinese culture, may help. Optimists will be warmed by an event planned for next May: the formation, after years of contempt for the past, of the Peking Academy for the Study of Confucianism and the Chinese Classics.

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