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Nigel Harris

China: What Price Culture?

(Spring 1967)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.28, Spring 1967, pp.22-24.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

New Evening Post, Hong Kong, November 1966: ‘The sentence “Chairman Mao and his close comrade-in-arms, Lin Piao, Chou En-lai ...” in yesterday’s edition should read “Chairman Mao and his close comrade-in-arms Lin Piao; Chou En-lai ...”.’

February 1st

Despite the increasing wildness of Western interpretations of what little hard information comes out of China, the phases of the cultural revolution are, retrospectively, fairly clear. In November 1965, as a new phase in the socialist education campaign, criticism was launched against a number of distinguished Party intellectuals (cf. The Notebook, IS 26, autumn 1966). After a pause in the new year, the campaign was resumed in the spring and became merged in a more general attack first on the Pekin Party and then on national Party and State organs concerned with education (including universities and schools), culture and propaganda (including the press). This phase lasted until July when there was another pause, during which Liu Shao-chi despatched ‘activist groups’ to the provincial parties. The August Central Committee meeting ended the lull, and launched the Red Guards on an even more wide-ranging attack on the Party structure as a whole and, in particular, its leadership other than the Politbureau. However, the onset of cold weather in November damped down this phase, and there was another lull in December, ended by the People’s Daily editorial of 26 December and 1 January announcing that the cultural revolution must now spread out to encompass factories, mines and communes.

Despite the noise, the campaign up until January did not directly affect ordinary production (although it afflicted transport heavily), but the present phase is directly threatening the ordinary output of the Chinese economy. After the disasters of 1960-61, Chinese industry has been raising its capacity only slowly and in certain restricted fields, and production is only just returning to its previous level; agriculture has not done nearly as well as this – 1964 might have achieved 190 million tons of foodgrains, and perhaps the total today is over 200 million tons, but alongside the population growth this is not much more than standing still. On top of all this China’s defence programme is a heavy burden, putting China among the leading countries of the world in the proportion of its national product it devotes to arms. Thus any check to production is very serious. On the other hand, if the economy stagnates, there is little to push Party men at the local level to exert themselves – those holding local power begin to take on the perquisites of power, the short working day, the fur-collared jacket, the Party car, long holidays, best house; more than that, to safeguard their position, such men through dispensing favours build up cadres of men loyal to them personally, lacing the administration with relatives and friends. This becomes true at each level – how many single families now control particular villages as in old China, or a particular commune? At the level of the province, power over the provincial industry, agriculture and military forces combines in the hands of the same individual or committee. The situation is always possible where there is great scarcity as there is in China, but economic stagnation, like crisis which makes the central leadership heavily dependent on the willing co-operation of its provincial representatives, exacerbates the situation: local power grows as long as the national centre does not challenge it. The longer the centre delays its challenge, tries to survive through negotiation, bribe or threat, the more vulnerable it becomes: when it needs power, it finds it is helpless, a servicing centre for the real decentralised power groups or the front organisation of a coalition of powerful provinces. The popular myth that a Communist Party is somehow protected from the inevitabilities of politics in a poverty-stricken country does not deserve attention.

The Party centre has consistently sought means to enforce a common subjugation to its will since it came to power, and particular purges (as with Kao Kang in 1953-4) have carried off a host of embryonic warlords from the provinces. The socialist education campaign which began in 1962 frontally attacked elitism in the army, Party and intelligentsia – forcing those that could not escape to undertake manual labour for periods lest their souls grow proud. It was of doubtful use – six weeks or even six months on a farm does not create a peasant – and the Party press still complained in, for example, 1964 that there were army officers lording it over ordinary folk, treating village women (even married ones) ‘without dignity;’ that Party cadres protected their children from manual labour or military service, gave them special privileges in the administration, and so on. Poor peasant informers were employed to spy on rural cadres, ‘to conduct supervision over cadres and prevent some of them degenerating’ (People’s Daily, 7 July 1964). Stalin verbally abused but nevertheless pampered industrial managers and enforced a grossly exaggerated inequality of incomes, but the Chinese have always pursued a more egalitarian pattern out of necessity: great inequality in China is potentially explosive:

‘The system of high salaries for a small number of people,’ said the People’s Daily (14 July 1964) ‘should never be applied. The gap between the incomes of the working personnel of the Party, the Government, the enterprise, and the people’s communes, on the one hand, and the incomes of the mass of the people on the other, should be rationally and gradually narrowed and not widened.’

For army officers, came the mid-1965 abolition of marks of military rank with the same end in mind. But changing the externals does not change the substance, any more than the succession of campaigns – Strengthen Political Work, Imitate Lei Feng, etc – could change consciousness in the absence of a change in material conditions. After seventeen years of struggle, the victors demanded some tangible fruit of victory, and a common equal subjugation to Chairman Mao offers less than they already have.

Perhaps to make the lesson quite clear to all provincial parties, the Pekin Party, the most tightly disciplined of all, received the worst savaging of all, launched by Mao from Shanghai. A Red Flag editorial pinpoints the flavour of warlordism in this, the least likely, culprit:

‘The small handful of anti-Party elements in the former Peking Municipal Party Committee regarded the Peking Municipality as an “independent kingdom,” watertight and impenetrable, and nobody was allowed to intervene or criticise it – it was like a tiger whose backside no-one dared to kick.’ [1]

But if Pekin was a separate enclave, under the very nose of the Politbureau, how much more baronial are the provincial parties far from the Pekin Emperor, particularly where they have less need of the national centre, are distant from it, where their agriculture feeds their own population, they have no vulnerable international border and no industry that spreads far beyond the provincial borders. There is also another dimension – the Liu-Teng faction no doubt had its major base in the Pekin party, and Mao won a significant victory in destroying it. Perhaps, Liu’s ‘activist groups,’ despatched to the provinces in early July, were his counter-attack – to rally a coalition of provinces against Mao and warn provincial secretaries to be firm with the impending Red Guards without having to go through the normal Party apparatus where there might be spies for Mao. Certainly, Lin Piao and Chou have attacked these activist groups furiously, and for sending them, Liu and Teng were required to ‘confess’ in October (a ‘confession’ withdrawn in January when the anti-Maoists were stronger).

The struggle between the provinces and the centre, one of many tensions in China, only periodically breaks surface. Normally, what hard bargaining goes on remains secret. But the present struggle is quite unprecendented in scale, and, because it seems to have split the Politbureau Standing Committee, exceptional in that there are two alternatives at the national level. Again, the likely outcome of the struggle has grown increasingly less and less clear – the initiative changes from one side to another, and each province presents a different picture (the information available is itself a separate mystery). Until July, events seem to favour the Mao group, and the three major targets, Peng Chen of the Pekin Party, Lo Jui-ching of the army, and Lu Ting-yi, Minister of Culture, were effectively eliminated. In addition Maoists, in classical revolutionary style, were seizing all the media of mass communication. In July, Liu counterattacked with his activist groups, only to be reprimanded by the August Central Committee meeting. The Red Guards, an extra-Party force to keep them pure (the schools were carefully closed after Maoists seized the educational structure in order to release people for the Red Guards), were launched on the Party, but by October Maoist control of the Guards was weakening, different factions existed (the Red Guard paper, East is Red, said there were three separate Red Guard headquarters in Pekin alone, fighting among themselves) and threatened Party leaders could themselves organise separate Red Guard support no matter how hard the Cultural Revolution Committee stressed that Guards must be loyal not to the Party but to the person of the Emperor himself. In December, after a series of unsuccessful attempts, the Guards were, except for a minority, sent home: they had revealed the strength of the opposition to Mao’s central power without being able to defeat it. Mao’s final thrust was the most dangerous of all – peasants and workers were urged for the first time to revolt against the local Party. The Maoist perspective of more work and less pay can have little appeal for the mass of the working population, but perhaps Mao counted on his personal following to rouse support. However, the richer provinces have a surplus which is available for distribution if not taken by Pekin for national investment, and it is a surplus provincial leaders can use to bribe support, and they seem to have done so. The Maoist move has much more profound dangers for all who govern China: the campaign could stir hostility against all aspects of the Party, and this would be the signal for a genuine revolutionary movement of the masses against both Mao and the provincial leaders. Such a change would force national and provincial leadership back into each other’s arms as fast as would an invasion from Taiwan.

Currently, the course of the struggle is unclear although evidence suggests Mao is having to withdraw: the provincial enclaves are too powerful to be defeated without an open military operation, and this cannot be undertaken since the army itself is divided in loyalties, provincial units being lined up with the provincial Party leadership in many cases. Mao is left with control of the press and radio, control of public ideology without control of private consciousness or Party power. Pekin radio claims a patchy territory for Mao, and, interestingly, mainly control of urban centres (there is only Maoist information available) – Shantung, Shansi, Kwangsi, Hopei, Heilungkiang. Fighting continues, it is said, in Kiangsi (a rebel peasant army?), Shanghai, Nanking, Foochow, Kwantung, Tientsin, Chekiang, and Changchun in Manchuria. On the other hand, control in border provinces in the south, west, north-west and north seems to be unchallenged in the hands of the provincial party – both Sinkiang and Inner Mongolia are said to be firmly controlled by their respective warlords, Wang En-mao and General Ulanfu (however, Huhehot has had a riot). More significantly, Mao has retreated by appealing to workers and peasants to return to work since he cannot count on their support. Nanchang radio (Kiangsi) called on 20 January for workers to cease travelling about the country ‘to exchange revolutionary experiences’ and get back to work. Pekin publicly appeals to banks not to issue currency for the payment of higher wages, presumably private instructions having no effect. The severe absenteeism that has now afflicted production has called Mao’s bluff, showing the razor’s edge on which the Chinese economy operates. Nor, it seems, can China afford the last holiday in the calendar, since Pekin has ordered the cancellation of Chinese New Year (beginning on 9 February) lest workers get into mischief when their hands are idle. At the same time, it is abruptly announced that schools will reopen by 1 March (earlier, they were not to open until the summer) – Red Guard hands must also be put to work since they have failed.

However, a stalemate settles nothing, and drift makes the problems facing the national centre ever more severe. The Maoists will need more guile and less frontal assault, playing one province against another: open assault threatens the whole structure of power in China. The strength of the opposition has been shown too great, although, fortunately for Mao, not a united opposition – each province fights for its own, and can only survive if all the rest do. No cohesive coalition seems to exist although Liu and Teng may have sought to organise one: without it, Mao can return to the policy pursued traditionally by China’s rulers, playing provinces against each other.

Meanwhile President Johnson has a completely free hand to bomb whatever parts of Hanoi he wishes, and both Moscow and Washington can join in a smug, sly condemnation of all events Chinese: the détente is speeded since it is clear China has no foreign policy (apart from rowdy demonstrations in Moscow and Paris over returning students). What is happening in China has been, so far, irrelevant to the poverty of the mass of the population: it is relevant only to which group rides the ruling class. It is inconceivable that China should disintegrate, that the warlords of the twenties should return: the country is integrated, but this says nothing about the degree of tolerable centralisation or who will command the centre on what terms. Ultimately it is to the common interest of the provincial rulers to stick together, but there is a world of bargaining over the terms. The battle then is between different factions of an embryonic ruling class – embryonic because it does not yet accept a uniform definition of its class interest – and it is disastrous if socialists try to argue for one rather than another. In Russia, the Left sided with the ‘Leftist’ Stalin against the ‘Rightist’ Bukharin, at the cost of their own lives.



1. No.9, 1966 in Peking Review, No.28, 8 July 1966, p.30.

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