May 14, 2010

Despite the fact that a sizable proportion of the world’s inhabitants are Chinese, and that China is a powerful force in contemporary world affairs, and that I work with lots of Chinese immigrants, I know little about the place.   Lately, I’ve been talking with some colleagues about the experiences of their families in China.  I know about Hitler, a lot about Stalin, but nothing much about Mao.  I decided to address that gap with some reading.

I first attacked Mao: The Unknown Story by Chang and Halliday.  I got through about 100 pages before I had to drop it.  As one reviewer said, it reads more like catharsis than history.  The authors clearly hate Mao, probably for good reasons, but the writing is so crude, so powerfully biased that it lacks credibility.  As several critics noted, the authors undermine their own case, despite some excellent material.  History as demonization doesn’t add much to our understanding of events, or of people, and I just couldn’t buy their portrait of Mao as a singleminded, sadistic, intellectual mediocrity who schemed his way to power with lies and trickery only.  No doubt, many of their horrible annecdotes and critical observations are true, but history, and people, are not that simple, I think.

So, I decided to try Mao: A Life by Phillip Short.  This one is a hundred pages or so shorter than the other, and much better as a history and biography.  Short builds his life of Mao slowly, while Change and Halliday are intent from page 1 at demonstrating what a demon Mao was.  This book is very good for a reader like me who knows little of the tangled nature of Chinese politics and geo-political affairs in the early twentieth century.  A few things strike me after getting past about a quarter of the pages:

Mao didn’t have an easy path to power.  He seems to be continually marginalized and dismissed by the leadership, all under the sway of the Russian Comintern.  He was certainly astute in many ways, and he seems to have been the first to thoroughly grasp how different Chinese conditions were from those in pre-Soviet Russia.  His insistence on the peasants as a force for revolution was constantly at odds with Russian directives and internal sentiments.  The peasants, even to most left-wing intellectuals, were just an invisible mass.

Mao was certainly not the one-sided devil that Chang and Halliday create.  He was schooled in the Chinese classics, and wrote romantic poems – his pithy aphorisms were based on his deep absorption of Chinese culture.  One reviewer noted that The Unknown Story quotes poems in a Nietzschean vein that the authors exhort us to accept as the true revelation of Mao’s elitist, inhuman nature.  Why, the reviewer asks, should we not also accept his cultured and restrained writings in the same way?  He was a complex and beastial person.

China was incredibly chaotic at this time!  It is amazing also to contemplate the differences between the state of China and that Russia or Germany in that period.  While the Comintern focused on organizing a worker’s party to smash the bourgeois state, China had hardly any workers!  The intellectual ferment among the progressives was all over the map as they struggled to find a way forward for their society.  Mao was no different, favoring at first a Kropotkin oriented peaceful anarchism!

How did he make it from the sidelines to the undisputed leadership of the united nation?  I have to keep reading…

Lovin’ that bomb

December 30, 2008


The New York Times has an article today under the headline, Soviets Stole Bomb Idea From U.S., Book Says. This follows on an earlier article in the Science Times that discussed two books on this topic, Hidden Travels of the Atomic Bomb. This latter article was an egregious example of the sloppy writing that so often graces the pages of the NYTimes’ Science section.

The historical and political context of the investigations is summarized in the second article this way:

In 1945, after the atomic destruction of two Japanese cities, J. Robert Oppenheimer expressed foreboding about the spread of nuclear arms.

They are not too hard to make,” he told his colleagues on the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, N.M. “They will be universal if people wish to make them universal.”

That sensibility, born where the atomic bomb itself was born, grew into a theory of technological inevitability. Because the laws of physics are universal, the theory went, it was just a matter of time before other bright minds and determined states joined the club. A corollary was that trying to stop proliferation was quite difficult if not futile.

But nothing, it seems, could be further from the truth.

Oppenheimer concluded that international cooperation to reign in the awful power of atomic energy in weapons was the only sensible political course.  He opposed the development of new, stronger, and more plentiful nuclear weapons as a useless attempt to maintain the USA’s temporary nuclear monopoly.  Naturally, he was vigorously opposed, and eventually destroyed by people like Edward Teller, who always had a bigger and better bomb in mind, and were convinced that we had to build them to terrorize the Russians into obediance.  And if they wouldn’t obey, well, we would just nuke ‘em, and win!

So, latter day claims that the Russians only got the bomb because of nasty spies tend to reinforce the anti-Oppenheimer camp.  “See, he was naive!  If it weren’t for the spies, we’d still be the only one with the bomb…” Preserving our nuclear monopoly was possible and sensible.  President Truman expressed this view rather simply – he predicted the Russians would never get the bomb.  These books are simply another neo-con effort to rewrite history.

Yes, the Russians had spies that gave them information.  This is indisputable.  Yes, this may have expedited their progress on the A- and H-bombs.  Notice, however, that Oppenheimer never said exactly when others would get the weapon, just that they would if they truly wanted to.  (Perhaps one reason not everyone has them is that they don’t want them, for good reasons!  Not to mention the cost!)  The fact that there were spies doesn’t mean at all that he was wrong.

As is often the case in the weird world of the NYTimes, a line in the second article totally undercuts the meaning of its lead:

Alarmingly, the authors say one of China’s bombs was created as an “export design” that nearly “anybody could build.” The blueprint for the simple plan has traveled from Pakistan to Libya and, the authors say, Iran.

Look, either the bombs are really hard to make, or they are not.  You can’t have it both ways.

Soul Man

August 16, 2008

As the television world watches the Olympics in Beijing, the Party is ensuring that certain things will not be seen.  In order to stage a protest of any sort, especially during the festivities, you must get a permit and only exercise your right to speech in selected zones.  (Sounds a bit like the Republican convention in NYC, 2004, eh?)  According to this article in the NYTimes, quite a few of those who sign up for the right to voice their grievances publicly are ending up disappearing into the maw of the Chinese Communist Party security apparatus.  It reminds me of that grim old joke about Stalin and the Soviet constitution that was packed with liberal human rights.  They only published it to see who would sign on, so that then they could be dealt with.

The fellow shown here is a veteran protester, profiled briefly in the article:

Despite what seem to be the perils of applying for a permit, scores of people continue to flock to the capital seeking an opportunity to publicize their grievances. Gao Chuancai, 45, a farmer from Heilongjiang Province, evaded a police cordon in his hometown and arrived in Beijing with a handwritten poster describing a litany of abuses by local officials.

Mr. Gao said in an interview that he had no delusions about his prospects. Over the years, he said, he has been jailed a dozen times and beaten repeatedly for trying to publicize corruption in Xingyi, a village just outside Harbin in China’s northeast. Security officials from Harbin had in the past even tracked him down in Beijing and stopped him from petitioning higher authorities in the capital, he said.

Early this month, after he learned of the Olympic protest zones on television, he mailed in an application to Beijing.

On Wednesday, he worked up the nerve to visit the application office. “Whatever happens, happens. I don’t care if I die,” he said as his taxi pulled up to the building.

Just what makes a person act this way?  Some sort of glorious stubborness that might, under most circumstances, make him a rather unpleasant person?  Surely, the authorities are asking themselves the same question:  “Why won’t he just shut up!!”  Philip Pan’s engrossing new book, Out of Mao’s Shadow: The Struggle for the Soul of a New China, tries to answer just this question.  He profiles several men and woman, inspiring, brave people with   tremendous grit, who won’t buckle under to the the Chinese state.  He also describes others who are cynical, rapacious, brutal, and totally unprincipled, and he sees it as an open question as to which group will carry the day in China, ruled as it is by an entrenched, corrupt, kleptocracy.  (Communist ideology dropped by the wayside long ago.)

Meanwhile, Mr. Gao…

At the reception area, a pair of officers questioned him about the nature of his protest and asked him to fill out a lengthy form that included the names and numbers of the officials who had wronged him. Mr. Gao was reluctant, but he complied.

After an hour, they smiled and told him to return in five days. As he walked out the door, he overheard one of the officers on the phone. He was calling the police station in Harbin.

I wish him luck.

Meanwhile, back on Planet Stupid…

August 16, 2008

Once again, David Brooks clocks in with a column that makes me ask, “what planet do you live on?”  Visiting the countryside in China that was recently traumatized by earthquake, he comments:

We’d visited the village without warning and selected our interview subjects at random, but some of the answers were probably crafted to please the government. Still, there was no disguising the emotional resilience and intense mutual support in that village. And there was no avoiding the baffling sense of equanimity. Where was the trauma and grief?

For someone who bills himself as a libertarian-leaning conservative Republican, and a “pop” sociologist, his response is remarkable.  Does he not read the newspaper that publishes his drivel?  He hasn’t heard of the protests by grieving parents, their children crushed to death in shoddily built schools, that were broken up by police, the parents beaten?  He is not aware of the concerted effort by the Party to buy silence with a hush money policy?  It never occurs to him that the vast network of Party officials throughout the country has made it perfectly clear what sort of statements are acceptable?  Does he think that these people are as stupid as he is?  Does he really think that the Chinese collectivist spirit, as he calls it in his superficial maunderings of the last week or so, precludes grief over the death of a child, especially when such mind boggling political corruption is involved?

And speaking of ideas that are so stupid only an educated person could believe them (to use George Orwell’s phrase here for the umpteenth time), what about that “End of History,” eh?  People like Francis Fukuyama are why the word “intellectual” is, for some, a slur.  Just add the pointy headed… How could anyone take this idea seriously?  Well, it seems that Vladimir Putin didn’t.   Fellow neo-con Robert Kagan gets a jab in at FF with his new article, “The End of the End of History,” commenting on the return of 19th century history as Russia pursues the “Great Game” with renewed vigor.

Yeah, every movement is supposed to end history.  The same thing in art – we had Modernism…then Post-Modernism.  In the end, all we have are styles and fads.

Bridge Political

November 17, 2007

Some American women competing at an international bridge tournament in Shanghai, China have caused an uproar in certain circles because they displayed a sign that said, “We did not vote for Bush!”  Today, I read several letters to the editor complaining about their behavior – not appropriate!  I believe that they were criticized by the international association hosting the event.

I wonder if the Chinese government is watching this?  Of course they are!  Can you imagine the wheels turning in their heads?  “Hmmm…they announce their opposition to their national leader with a sign, and they are condemned by the bridge organization.  People declare their actions are inappropriate and unsuitable for this venue.  We put people in prison for similar expressions of dissent, and the entire world condemns us and gets on our case!  Maybe we can learn something from this!”

The Masses

October 2, 2007


People always say that George Orwell’s 1984 was a warning about communism or Stalinism. One reason they say so is because Animal Farm certainly was a dark satire about the Russian Revolution (among other things), but some aspects of 1984 seem a lot closer to Mao’s China during the Cultural Revolution than Russia. I am reading Anchee Min’s memoir, Red Azalea, and the world she describes, one in which people live in mortal fear of being caught in a romantic or sexual relationship, sounds a lot like life under Newthink. At one point, she describes a scene in a large park in Bejing, filled with masturbators hiding in bushes – if they tried it at “home,” they might very well be caught and denounced as a bourgeois reactionary with no devotion to the proletarian spirit, and be “sent down” to slave on the farms. The universal unisex clothing, the endless hectoring about every aspect of private life, the ceaseless propaganda pitched at high decibels…yes, 1984, and a small step to Pol Pot and the killing fields of Cambodia. The mass meetings, the mindless quoting from Mao’s Red Book – it all sounds like 1984′s anti-Goldstein rallies, and the Two-Minute Hate sessions.

In Stalin’s Russia, they didn’t care what you wore, and once you were in the Gulag, they didn’t try to reeducate you – they just expected you to work until you dropped. On the other hand, nothing I’ve read talks about Mao’s China having industrial quotas for shooting people, although they did make up for it by causing millions of people to starve to death.

Our Past, Their Present…

January 21, 2006

There have been many articles in the NYTimes recently about the simmering rural unrest in China, and the trepidation it causes the nation’s leaders. With many Chinese cities seeing unprecedented economic boom times, the land in and around them has become very valuable as developers scramble to make millions with new real estate. Last week, the Times had a piece about a rural city, formerly more of a village before the intense economic growth in the region, and the protests brought on by the locals’ sense that they had been cheated out of their land. They protested, and were put down violently.The police, the state, the economic establishment, all seem to be arrayed against simple and uneducated farmers who, for some strange reason, are reluctant to give up the land that they own or have had rights to for many years. This in the land where urban intellectuals, in a past epoch, were ‘sent down’ to work in the mud of the rural farms to learn true Chinese communist values. Now that those rural denizens have notions of their own about rights and values, they have become inconvenient.

It all seems very reminiscent of the European enclosure movement, about which I have written before. [Who Is this Man?] People with resources and power screw the workers of the land to get the real estate to turn it into fungible wealth – flocks of wool bearing sheep, or apartment houses and factory buildings. A hundred years from now, the descendents of these shysters and ruthless operators will look back on them and talk of how they reached their pinnacles of success through hard work and superior virtue. Well, hard work, yes, but of a particular kind, and with a lot of theft mixed in. Same story, different century. It’s like seeing history in replay mode, if you’re paying attention.


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