Sunday, 17 May 2020

Book review: A Bitter Revolution: China's Struggle with the Modern World, Rana Mitter (2004)

This Oxford University Press publication was bought at the Co-op Bookstore at Sydney Uni, where I worked from 2003 to 2009. It was bought on sale. A sticker on it shows a date (August 2006, which probably indicates when it was put on the shelf) and a price of $14.95. It was later remaindered for $9. Such an index of success; the author was born in India, but is British, and works at Oxford University.

His wonderful book takes a longer view of Chinese history in the 20th century, launching its narrative in 1919 when there was an incident of some renown in China – the May Fourth Movement began at this point in time – and then it looks at the country’s struggle to accommodate modernity. The Qing dynasty had collapsed in 1911 and there was subsequently a power vacuum that various actors attempted to fill, the Communists being one of them.

It’s salutary to note that the CCP wasn’t by any means destined to win that struggle but Mitter doesn’t just concern himself with politics and also looks at such things as the status of women, and private enterprise. Nevertheless, politics was important as it linked with people’s identities. The incident in question happened as a result of simmering tensions between Chinese people and foreign nations that operated in coastal settlements (such as Shanghai), but it exploded violently after an international meeting in Paris decided, following WWI, to give the German concessions to Japan. Mostly involving students, the incident resulted in no deaths but one man was badly beaten with a metal object and a house was burned down.

In China the 1920s and the first half of the 1930s was an aspirational time, with publications circulating ideas associated with modernity – such things as freedom, equality, democracy, science, and the nation – at least among the part of the community that was literate. Universities attracted students, who formed communities in surrounding suburbs, both in Shanghai and in Beijing. These debates were mainly urban in nature until, later on, the Communists changed the nature of the debate by bringing into it the rural poor.

The war against Japan, which started in 1937, changed the tone of proceedings, and debate became more polarised, even acrimonious. Now, it wasn’t possible to talk publicly about things in the same way that it had been even a few years before, when debates had been relatively free.

Chinese people associated with the movement didn’t restrict their purview to countries such as the USA, Britain, and the newly formed USSR. At least as far as they might be models to follow, countries such as Hungary and Turkey offered more interesting examples of how to embrace modernity. Both of those countries came into existence as a result of WWI and their experiences and the policies of their political parties formed part of the context for discussions in China about how to change things to “save” China, which implied protecting it from foreign interference. This often involved talking about how to deal with China’s heritage, including Confucianism. Was it an asset or a liability? What to keep? What to reject? How to deal with a term like “socialism”? How, even, to translate it?

It’s worth noting also that socialism was a policy also of the Nationalists and so the way that people’s lives could be improved sat at the forefront of the minds of most intellectuals and other people, many of whom were animated by the ideas they retailed in. This, regardless of which party or group they were allied with. It’s also worth noting that the memory of the May Fourth Movement remained strong and was leveraged by the CCP in an effort to create cohesion in the community, though the free-thinking that initially characterised it was, ultimately, discouraged by the Party. As Mitter says of the Cultural Revolution, it “wanted the technology, but not the means of creating the knowledge that went with it”. This is still mainly the case in China today.
The Cultural Revolution, like the Qing, wished the end results of technological modernity, but to fit them into a frame in which they were constructed as purely Chinese products. Yet the xenophobia (expressed as anti-imperialism, but in fact violent anti-foreignism) meant that this was always a well that would run dry eventually: the techniques that had been learned from the west before 1949 and then the Soviets until 1960 could be adapted to Chinese circumstances to a certain point, but the desire simultaneously to create a Chinese knowledge base drawing on western modernity without any foreign input, and furthermore condemning any association with foreign knowledge (Soviet or western), led to a dead end of spectacular proportions.
Millions of people died because the internationalism that had characterised the May Fourth Movement was jettisoned even as, in an attempt to shore up power, Mao celebrated its dead figureheads.

The interplay of economic factors, geopolitical ones, and ideas animates Mitter’s narrative. At different points in it, ideas associated with the May Fourth Movement add drama through historical personages, the men and women who held them and who often expressed them in publications. How ideas themselves are reified constitutes a key point the book tries to make. Ideas are appropriated by people – for example by Party cadres – and are used to achieve specific ends. So while internationalism returned to China in the 1980s, in 1989 the search for more political openness in the form of democracy would be bloodily crushed.

A paradox seems to lie at the heart of China. Nationalism gave birth to it as a modern country but an unwillingness to embrace ideas from outside – an unwillingness that is rooted in the very idea of the nation – makes it hard for the leadership to change direction. Unless the outside idea is in the interests of the Party. So a narrow point of view manacles China's future. And bitterness inculcated by the effort to overcome the humiliations of the 19th and 20th centuries has led the CCP to try to do to other countries what it had done to its internal opponents during the Cultural Revolution. Again, nationalism is at the heart of this dynamic: it is "us" versus "them".

Mitter also suggests that in the absence of the spirit of the May Fourth Movement, China risks a return to backwardness, like the Qing. He offers advice to China’s leaders, suggesting embracing pluralism, wisely pointing to Taiwan as an example of an ethnic Chinese country that went – in the space of one generation – from dictatorship to democracy. Let’s hope the Party follows their lead but in the years since the book was published there have been few indications of a willingness on its part to do so, although Chinese people do discuss politics among themselves (even if they mostly keep their discussions off social media) and the diaspora grows larger every year, sending new ideas back home.

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