Posts tagged: Great Leap Forward

Parallels in Authoritarianism: Trump and the Chinese Communist Party

By , January 31, 2017

President Donald J. Trump (courtesy of whitehouse.gov)

For years, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was in denial about the extent of its air pollution problem, often referring to smog-infested days as perfect “blue sky” ones.  Then, in July 2008, @BeijingAir, a U.S. Embassy-created twitter account, began tweeting accurate pollution data throughout the day. Beijing was furious, claiming sole legal authority to monitor and publish air quality numbers.  But the U.S. Embassy stood its ground, and slowly, the CCP began to acknowledge that pollution levels were dangerously high. By January 2013, the Beijing government began reporting accurate, hourly data and by the end of 2013, climate change, pollution levels, and green technology had become important parts of the CCP’s platform.

Fast forward four years, and it is now the United States that is censoring tweets about climate change. Instead of the transparency that has long been a bedrock of the United States’ political system and that we encourage in other, less democratic nations, President Donald Trump appeared to take a page from the CCP’s playbook: he ordered that the Badlands National Parks remove tweets about increased CO2 omissions and climate change, statements he disagrees with.

In fact, in much of the first week of Donald Trump’s presidency, the parallels to authoritarian regimes, specifically the CCP, have become all too real.  It has become clear that Trump is not going to be the rational businessman that people had hoped for; he is not going to surround himself with advisers who temper his rash decisions. That is not how authoritarian leaders behave.

Upending Society – Trump, America’s Mao Zedong?

Chairman Mao Zedong

Mao Zedong came to power as a revolutionary, a populist and as a man intent on turning over the old world order.  Those tendencies – among other things – help to explain why China was enveloped in disarray for most of Mao’s 27-year reign. Similarly, these are the same impulses found in Trump, his campaign and thus far his presidency, as noted China scholar Orville Schell pointed out two weeks ago at an Asia Society event.  Trump’s preeminent goal is not necessarily to  advance the United States economically or even to advocate a coherent, ideological policy platform; rather his motivating impulse is to upset the current world order: “I think there is a bit of an outsider, troublemaker, turner-over of old orders, putting fingers in the eyes of the establishment in Donald Trump” Schell noted.

It is the disarray and the upending of society that appeals to Trump.  “If you don’t destroy, you can’t construct” was a favorite saying of Mao as he took China on the pointless path of a continuous revolution. Understanding that aspect of Trump is important in figuring out how to deal with his presidency.  Appealing to economic logic when he calls for a 20% tariff on Mexican goods and calling on American values when he institutes a ban on Muslim immigration is not going to resonate with Trump.

Projects That Are Ideological, Not Beneficial

Rural residents and victims of China’s Great Leap Forward

Part of an authoritarian regime is the dedication to ideological-based projects, even at the expense of economic or social progress. For Mao, the Great Leap Forward (1958-1962) stands out.  In order to prove that China had made the “great leap” to an industrialized, rich, communist society, Mao ordered the complete collectivization of farms, factories, and most of society. Harebrained ideas of digging crops deeper, smelting steel in backyard furnaces, and building useless irrigation projects, resulted in one of the greatest man-made famines in history. Within a year, the leadership knew that the program was a failure. But the CCP ignored this fact and continued the campaign, committed to the ideological line.

In his first week, Trump has already called for an ideological project that most agree will hurt America more than it will help: building a wall between the United States and Mexico. But most undocumented immigrants over-stay their legally-obtained visa, not walk across the border. Trump ignores this fact and instead has proposed building a border wall that will cost between $10 billion (Trump’s estimate) and $38 billion (MIT’s estimate) and distract America from dealing with more compelling issues.  While he demands Mexico pay for the wall, the only proposal Trump has offered is a 20% tariff on Mexican goods, a tariff that will likely be borne by the American consumer.

Some of the wall that already exists between Mexico and the U.S. (courtesy of NBC News)

Because the emphasis is on ideology and not practicality, ideological projects are neither particularly well-thought out nor properly executed.  During the Great Leap Forward, Mao decided that China would double its steel production.  To meet this goal, Mao instituted “backyard furnaces:” every item made of metal – doorknobs, farm tools – was smelted down. But as Mao would find out, smelted down metal produces inferior quality pig iron that cannot be used, let alone sold abroad as steel.

Similarly, Trump’s January 27, 2017 executive order, to ban immigration of Muslims from certain countries, gave no thought to its legality or to its implementation.  Signed after 4 pm on a Friday and to take immediate effect, the world was left unprepared. Immigration officials, who had no prior notice of the precise contents of the executive order, were left largely in the dark, and when refugees, green card and visa holders arrived, chaos ensued.

But logical arguments and exposing impracticalities are likely not going to cause Trump to change his mind.  His campaigns are about ideology and like Mao, expect Trump to double down when confronted with facts and the failure of their implementation. Much like he did on his twitter feed on Monday regarding Friday’s executive order.

Of Purges & Sycophants

As part of his purge, Liu Shaoqi, was often publicly criticized during the Cultural Revolution

From Mao to Xi Jinping (pronounced See Gin-ping), Chinese politics have been roiled with political purges.  It is a way for the current leader to eliminate threats to his power, maintain his authoritarian control and ensure that those remaining quickly fall in line. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), Mao purged Liu Shaoqi (pronouced Leo Shao-chi) and Deng Xiaoping, two senior officials who had gained support among the Party for their economic reforms. Liu eventually died in prison but Deng was able to survive, and in the early 1990s, implemented those economic reforms that caused Liu his life.

Current President Xi Jinping has also purged those he considered a threat to his rule, using the Party-controlled legal system to do so.  In 2012, photogenic, ambitious and popular politician Bo Xilai (pronounced Bwo See-lie), long considered competition to Xi and his power base, was arrested and tried on charges of corruption, receiving a life sentence.  In 2015, Zhou Yangkang (pronounced Joe Yongkong), the former head of China’s powerful Ministry of Public Security and a supporter of Bo, received the same fate. A life sentence in a Chinese jail is a good way to eliminate perceived rivals

Former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates

Under Trump’s rule, New Jersey governor Chris Christie was the first to go, even before Trump officially took office.  While the reason is unclear, some saying his son-in-law didn’t get along with Christie while others maintaining that Christie’s honest advice was too much for Trump, it wasn’t the most practical move to remove the head of your transition team – and all of his staff – in the midst of executing the transition plan.

But on Monday, Trump carried out his first purge of his Administration: the firing of Acting Attorney General Sally Yates who, like the courts, questioned the legality of his executive order and called on the Justice Department staff to decline to defend it.  Reminiscent of CCP use of inflammatory rhetoric for its purges, Trump issued a similar factional statement, stating Yates’ “betrayal” of the Justice Department and that she is “weak on borders and very weak on illegal immigration.”

But these purges are not just about eliminating threats and consolidating power, it is also to ensure that those remaining toe the party line.  Before the Great Leap Forward, Premier Zhou Enlai (pronounced Joe N-lie) had fallen out of Mao’s favor.  Desperate to get back in his graces, Zhou became an ardent supporter of Mao’s Great Leap Forward even though he quickly became aware that the program was a failure with hundreds of thousands starving to death. But, fearful of a purge, Zhou never revealed the truth to Mao, afraid to challenge him. Instead, Zhou remained committed to the program and ordered that Mao’s irrational demands be fulfilled: that China immediately pay off its international debt through grain export.

Pence and Mattis watch Trump sign Friday’s executive order.

Most Republicans did not speak out against Friday’s executive order that essentially banned Muslims from a select list of countries from legally entering the United States.  Even those who had previously condemned Trump’s call for a for a Muslim ban – Vice President Mike Pence, Speaker Paul Ryan, newly appointed Secretary of Defense James Mattis – have yet to utter a word.  But speaking up may mean falling out of Trump’s favor. And like Zhou Enlai before them, they appear to prioritize their position in Trump’s inner circle over everything else.

This is why Trump’s cabinet appointees’ statements to the Senate – that climate change is real, that water boarding is torture – cannot necessarily be relied upon.  Once in office, will they be like Pence and Mattis, willing to fall in line with Trump’s extreme views and carry out his orders?  And now that Trump has appointed Steve Bannon, his chief strategist, confidant and heretofore intelligence novice, to the National Security Council, while simultaneously downgrading the director of national intelligence and the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff to a need to know basis, is Trump messaging to his cabinet that ideology takes precedent over expertise – that in red versus expert, red wins?

Attack on the Press                                                                                                    

Press Secretary Sean Spicer on January 21, 2017 discussing the size of the crowds at Trump’s inauguration (courtesy Getty Images)

Calling the press “the opposition party,” lecturing reporters on what they “should be writing,” referring to journalists as “the most dishonest human beings on earth,” are all a part of the Trump Administration’s strategy on how to interact with the media, or more aptly, how to crush it.  Eerily, it is also the strategy of the CCP, in its efforts to ensure that freedom of the press never takes hold in China: “the ultimate goal of advocating the West’s view of the media is to hawk the principle of abstract and absolute freedom of the press, oppose the Party’s leadership in the media, and gouge an opening through which to infiltrate our ideology” (translation of the CCP’s Document No. 9 courtesy of Chinafile).

With its attacks on the media, the question remains just how far the Trump Administration will go in trying to clamp down on the press. The CCP offers a frighteningly effective alternative, with its arrest and prosecution of journalists on trumped up charges, its random detention of reporters critical of the government, its toying of the visa process – and for some outright repulsion from China – for foreign journalists when the CCP does not approve of their coverage of China.

But even in light of the Trump Administration’s censure, the U.S. press continues to try to serve its role as a watchdog of the government. But if the Trump Administration steps up its campaign against the press à la the CCP, who is going to win that battle?

(courtesy of China Digital Times)

Creating a Ministry of Truth

Throughout his campaign and now, in the first week of his Administration, Trump has been accused of telling lies and at times, trying to censor the truth.  But alternative realities are nothing new to an authoritarian regime.  The Chinese government is a master at it.  Referring to hazardous pollution as mere fog?  Trying to hide from your people and the world that SARS is spreading and hitting epidemic proportions? Blaming the recent downturn in the economy on mysterious foreign forces?  Having web pages just disappear? All alternative realities that the CCP uses to maintain its authoritarian control.

Insisting that your inauguration crowd was larger than President Barak Obama’s when the pictures clearly depict otherwise?  Pretending that your executive order is not a ban on Muslim immigration? Claiming that you lost the popular vote because millions of people voted illegally?  Having web pages just disappear? These are all alternative realities the Trump Administration has offered in just the past week alone.

Lies and alternative realities come with a real danger – that people will start to believe them or will never know the truth.  Take for example the Chinese government’s censorship of the its violent crackdown in 1989 on the students protesting in Tian’anmen Square. For the first few years after the Tiananmen massacre, the question was, how long will the Chinese government refuse to investigate the government-sponsored murder of hundreds of Chinese students. Twenty-eight years later, the question now is, will the Chinese ever know their own history?  Most below the age of 30 have never seen the photo of “tank man” let alone have any idea about what happened on that fateful night in June 1989.

Conclusion

Protests erupt on Saturday at San Francisco International airport (courtesy of AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

To be clear, America is not China.  This is not how things have to progress nor necessarily how they will. But what we see with the Trump Administration is a start.  And even a start is dangerous. But at the same time, many of America’s most revered democratic institution – the courts, its lawyers, the media, the American people – have spontaneously stood up to try to protect this country and its people.

But for the past week, Congress has been too slow to realize that the Trump government is no ordinary administration: this is a president and an administration that in its first week in power is more reminiscent of an authoritarian regime than a democratic one.  The ordinary tactics of politics – the give and take, the horse trading – are not going to suffice; bolder steps need to be taken.  Like the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, politicians need to constantly and publicly pressure and oppose the Administration if they want to ensure that America stays true to her democratic ideals.

Book Review – The Corpse Walker: Real Life Stories, China from the Bottom Up

By , October 10, 2012

Too often Westerners’ views of China are shaped through the eyes of a select few – Ai Weiwei, Han Han, and in the legal world, He Weifang, Xu Zhiyong, and Chen Guangcheng.  How they see China is often how we see it.  China is far from an open society and these individuals are educated, media savvy, and maintain a good rapport with foreign reporters.  Make no mistake, they have important stories to tell.

But it is rare to know what the average Chinese person thinks and feels about his own history; what is important and what shouldn’t be forgotten.  Although China has a history that spans more than 2,000 years, it doesn’t have the same respect for the individual history and experiences of the everyman.  There is no Library of Congress that attempts to collect the stories of former slaves before they die or a StoryCorps project where anyone can go to a recording booth and interview a friend or family member.  In some ways, there are likely stories that the Chinese Communist Party (“CCP”) would rather forget.

Fortunately for China and for us, there is LIAO Yiwu and The Corpse Walker: Real Life Stories, China From the Bottom Up.  In his way, Liao Yiwu is trying to be the Library of Congress, interviewing average people before their histories are forgotten.  In The Corpse Walker, 27 of Liao’s interviews with average Chinese people are translated into English, giving the reader a more democratic view of China.

Three of the first four of Liao’s  interviews – The Professional Mourner, The Public Restroom Manager, and The Corpse Walkers – paint a picture of a China that is long gone.  But Liao is able to capture these  dying professions and the men who filled them.  And while they tell the stories of China’s past, their stories are still familiar.  The public restroom manager is still bitter from an incident with a young punk who teases him because of his work, but ultimately he is just happy to have a job.  The corpse walker discussing how to “walk a corpse” and tells his story with the nostalgia of an old man thinking back to other times.

But in each of the 27 interviews, not a single person has been left unscathed by the CCP’s various campaigns and politics.  Liao doesn’t have to delve deep to get these stories.  For each person, the Land Reform Movement, Great Leap Forward, the Anti-Rightist Campaign, the Cultural Revolution, or the Tiananmen crackdown, have shaped their lives.

It is particularly poignant in The Yi District Chief’s Wife.  The wife – Zhang Meizhi – and her family did not fare well during the Land Reform Campaign.  As members of the highest caste of the Yi minority, a caste-based ethnic group in southwest China with land being owned primarily by the highest caste, Zhang and her family were major targets of the Land Reform.  After witnessing her husband’s execution and the subsequent cutting of his tongue from his mouth,  Zhang’s struggle was far from over.  Her eldest son became a target, forcing him to live in a hole in a ground for years to avoid the same fate as his father, all the while degenerating into a wild existence.  Today, Zheng has not forgotten; she has forgiven to a degree, but she has not forgotten.  Unfortunately, as she points out, the children of those who want to forget already have.

In The Retired Official, Liao interviews Zheng Dajun, an official who headed a government work team in rural Sichuan during the Great Leap

Rural residents and victims of China's Great Leap Forward

Forward.  Zheng eye-witnessed a country descending into one of the worst famines in modern history and a people spiraling to a state of nature in the rural areas.  Slowly the starving people moved from eating white clay and drinking castor oil to cannibalism.  Although Zheng repeatedly informed higher officials, nothing was done to stop the export of needed grain from the rural areas to the cities.

Perhaps the most moving of all of Liao’s interviews is The Tiananmen Father.  As poor workers in Sichuan province, Wu Dingfu and his wife felt lucky that one of their sons excelled in school; both were ecstatic when their son passed the college entrance exam and attended college in Beijing.  Wu tells the story of his son, a young man who believed in something and then like many college students, got in over his head.  But before he could get out, he was killed by the troops on their way to Tiananmen Square.  In Wu’s interview, you can feel not just the ache of a father bringing not just his son’s body back to Sichuan, but the collapse of a dream that his family could do better.

The Corpse Walker is an important read since the voices of China’s average person are finally heard.  And what’s remarkable is that while their stories are different from ours, the emotions are not: the bitterness of working a menial job; the need to forgive to go on living; the anger of a former government official who tried to do the right thing; the emptiness of a father who has to bury his son.  If just for this reason – for showing the humanity of the average Chinese person – The Corpse Walker is an important read.

But The Corpse Walkeris vital as a depository of China’s history, the history that the people – not the Party – wants to tell.  The Chinese Communist Party is in denial of its past; it does not want to recognize the divisions and violence that has been a result of its rule and it hopes

The author, Liao Yiwu

that China’s economic miracle can serve as bread and circuses for the young, causing them not to even ask about the past.  But as Liao makes clear in some of his more prescient interviews, the past is often the catalyst for the future.  Can it be forgotten or more importantly, should it be?  For Liao, the answer is no, but for the rest of China, the answer is much less clear.

Not all of Liao’s interviews are as remarkable as the ones mentioned here.  Some are boring and at times, Liao can be rather didactic in his questioning of those that he has less sympathy for which detracts from the stories he is trying to tell.  But the interviews mentioned here, especially The Tiananmen Father, must be read.  Because to understand China’s present, we must understand how the victims of China’s past live today.

Rating: ★★★½☆

The Corpse Walker, by Liao Yiwu (Anchor 2009), 352 pages.

Book Review: Frank Dikötter’s Mao’s Great Famine

By , April 18, 2011

When teaching about China’s Great Leap Forward (1958-1962), my Chinese history professor would remind students that history is not necessarily written by the victors but rather is written by those with the ability to transcribe and communicate their experiences, namely the educated.  A comparison of our knowledge of China’s Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), a campaign largely against the Communist China’s remaining vestiges of wealth and educational elitism, with our knowledge about the Great Leap Forward proves his point.  A simple search on Amazon reveals 20 memoirs, just in English, about the Cultural Revolution.  The number of memoirs on the Great Leap Forward in English?  Zero.  We don’t even know how many people died as a result of one of the worst famines in modern human history (the traditional estimate is 30 million but many believe this is too low).

But Frank Dikötter, in his new book Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962, seeks to enlighten us on this horrifying period in Chinese history, or as he puts it in his opening sentence when “China descended into hell.”  With access to recently published provincial archives from the time period, Dikötter shows a China when all semblance of a rule of law vanished and society returned to a Hobbesian state of nature.

Dikötter goes deeper than just explaining the misery; instead he seeks to refute many common-held beliefs regarding the Great Leap Forward and hold the Chinese Communist Party, in particular Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, directly responsible for the tens of millions of peasants who unnecessarily perished.  For Dikötter the Great Leap Forward is not a famine but rather a genocide on par with the Holocaust and Stalin’s gulags.

Parts one and two of the book – which are perhaps the most interesting – convincingly argues that the highest echelons of power knew exactly what was happening on the ground during the Great Leap Forward and largely didn’t care.  For the leadership, proving to the rest of the world that China had already made the successful “great leap” to an industrialized, rich, Utopian communist society became paramount, even at the expense of Chinese lives.  Mao’s Great Leap Forward began with the complete collectivization of farms, village duties, factories, and most of society.  Dikköter shows that although some in the leadership, most notably Peng Dehui, criticized the rapid drive to collectivization as early as 1959, others like Zhou Enlai who was desperate to return to Mao’s good graces vigorously supported the Great Leap Forward, even with its half-baked ideas of digging crops deeper, smelting steel in backyard furnaces, and building useless irrigation projects that took farmers away from farming the land.

For Dikötter, the leadership’s stupidity was augmented by its arrogance.  To prove to the world that China had

French Photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson visited China during the start of the Great Leap Forward (1958) for Life Magazine. Here is a backyard furnance.

successfully made the transition to communism, Mao didn’t just pressure local leaders to meet agricultural and industrial targets, but to surpass them.  The excess grain and goods were sold, below market value even, abroad.  But in reality, as Dikötter makes clear, there was no excess grain – local cadres lied about the numbers, causing the central government to take what was viewed as excess, but which was largely the sum total of all that a particular village produced.

Dikötter disproves the notion that the central leadership was unaware of the mass starvation.  Instead, Dikötter portrays a leadership that made a choice: instead of returning the grain that it knew would keep people alive, the leadership, at the behest of Zhou Enlai, needlessly sought to pay off China’s international debts through grain’s export.  What is perhaps one of the more shocking aspects of the book, Dikötter goes on to explain that although most of China’s treaties provided 18 years for China to repay its debt, the leadership was intent on paying off all debt by 1965.  Because China did not have cash or bullion, the only commodity it could use to pay off its debt in only 5 years was grain.  For Mao, the choice was simple – “when there is not enough to eat people starve to death.  It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill”  – the image of China that Mao wanted to portray to the rest of the world trumped any local needs.

Mao’s Great Famine, with access to the provincial archives, focuses on the systems in place that allowed the famine to continue as well as the callousness of China’s leadership.  At times, one is left wondering what vestiges of the Great Leap Forward still remain; what is not unique to the time period but instead applicable to the modern-day CCP?  Today, the Chinese government still maintains targets for local cadres, and local officials are desperate to meet these targets, even at the expense of the law.  Prof. Carl Minzner has analyzed the current “cadre responsibility system” especially in terms of forced abortions to meet local one-child policy targets.  See Carl Minzner, Riots and Cover-Ups: Counterproductive Control of Local Agents in China (November 9, 2009). University of Pennsylvania Journal of International Law, Vol. 31, 2009; Washington U. School of Law Working Paper No. 09-11-01. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1502943.

Dikötter also describes the increasing politicization of the legal system, or what was left of it after the Ministry of Justice was disbanded in 1959.  “Every one of our party resolutions is a law.  When we have a conference it becomes the law….The great majority of rules and regulations are drafted by the judicial administration.  We should not rely on these….”  Epitomizing this politicalization of the legal system, Dikötter points to the creation of re-education through labor (laojiao), an extra-judicial proceeding where prisoners could be held indefinitely.  Interestingly, China today, even on its alleged quest for a rule of law, has maintained re-education through labor and has largely kept it an extra-judicial, politicized process.

Cartier-Bresson photographs children paving the road after school.

Dikötter’s book is a necessary read to understand the misery that the Chinese people, especially in the rural areas, suffered during the Great Leap Forward.  Its description of the idiocy of the central leadership in caring more about China’s image abroad than the suffering of its own people makes Mao’s Great Famine an important read, especially parts one and two, in any Chinese history class.  But the book itself isn’t a particularly enjoyable read; certainly not a good subway ride book.  The story of the Great Leap Forward is not told in a lineal way; instead, Dikötter breaks up the story by topics, making it difficult to follow the progression of certain events.  Additionally, Dikötter has a large amount of data to share which is impressive indeed.  But at times the constant recitation of numbers is overwhelming and largely causes the reader’s eyes to glaze over.  Dikötter would have done better to add more charts to the book to reflect these numbers.

Finally, Dikötter cites often to two books about Mao Zedong – The Private Life of Chairman Mao: The Memoirs of Mao’s Personal Physician by Li Zhisui and Mao Zedong by Jung Chang and John Halliday.  The veracity of these books, particularly the latter, has been called into question by some academics.  Dikötter’s reliance on these books, particularly when it comes to quoting Mao, is slightly problematic.

But this is a small issue in what is otherwise an important addition to the understanding of the Great Leap Forward and today’s China.  As Dikötter notes throughout the book, the publication of the provincial archives is only the beginning; we will only know the truth when Beijing finally releases the central government’s archives from the time period.  Dikötter implies that this is an inevitably, but given the current political environment, we will likely be waiting a long time.

Rating: ★★★½☆

Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962, by Frank Dikötter (Walker & Company 2010), 448 pages.
 

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