My grandparents on both sides left China before the Communists came to power. For several years, my mother’s father, a UC Berkeley-educated civil engineer, spoke of a desire to go back there and “rebuild China.” Then came the rise Mao Zedong in 1949, when the leaders of the Kuomintang party fled to Taiwan and dubbed the former island of Formosa the Republic of China. Then came the Great Leap Forward in 1958 when Mao collectivized farming and millions died of starvation, and then, in 1966, the brutal horrors of the Cultural Revolution, which I heard about directly from the many relatives my grandfather’s second wife , Laura, brought to the US, one by one starting in the late 1970s.
Laura’s father was a Baptist minister in Shanghai and her brother and many sisters had lived a cultured life, many trained as classical musicians and opera singers. All of this ended when they were sent to Mao’s work camps for years. In contrast, my own grandparents were all peasants who had left villages in rural China at the start of the twentieth century for a better life in America.
I’m not sure what my grandparents would think of the China of today, with annual economic growth rates of 10 percent and numerous innovations: the world’s longest sea bridge, spanning 16 miles (26km) from Qingdao to Huangdao; the world’s longest gas pipeline, 5,400 miles (8,700km) in length from Xingjiang to Guangzhou; and a new high-speed train that can take you from Beijing to Shanghai in five hours. China is still ruled by the Chinese Communist Party, which celebrated its 90th anniversary on Friday with the requisite pomp and circumstance at Beijing’s Great Hall of the People and “Red song singalongs” in workplaces throughout the country. The party was founded 90 years ago in secret in the French concession of Shanghai. Today, its membership totals 80 million or 6 percent of China’s population.
After all the — to my Western-Asian eyes — propaganda (including a “star-studded movie, “Beginning of the Great Revival,” that showed Mao and his cohorts plotting a political coup”), President Hu Jintao spoke for one and a half hours about the ongoing need for “social stability” while China is still suffering from “growing pains” and corruption at all levels of government.
Corruption in China is, as the Guardian says, “endemic”:
Revelations of bribery, influence peddling and misuse of public funds are a regular staple of the domestic media. Among the most recent cases was the sacking of the railway minister, Liu Zhijun, who was accused of taking 1bn yuan (£95m). The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences estimates that 800bn yuan (£76bn) was transferred overseas by officials and executives who later fled the country. Far more is likely to have been squirrelled away or lavished on banquets, second homes and lovers inside China.
The New York Times further describes Hu’s speech.
Mr. Hu’s speech highlighted the early days of the party, when it sided with the ruling Kuomintang party to fight against the invading Japanese, then turned against the Kuomintang in a civil war to establish a socialist China. And it underscored the economic successes of recent decades, when China achieved average annual growth rates of 10 percent and lifted 400 million people out of poverty.
What was missing, as expected, was an honest assessment of Mao’s nearly three-decade rule, when tens of millions died from famine and state-directed violence. There was a fleeting mention of mistakes made, but no detail: “In some historical periods, we once made mistakes and even suffered severe setbacks, the root cause of which was that our guiding thought then was divorced from China’s reality,” Mr. Hu said. But the party, he added, “rose up amid the setbacks and continued to go forward victoriously” because it “resolutely adhered to the principle of seeking truth from facts.”
Mainland China today may have some echoes of the one ruled by the Kuomintang — a stark wealth gap, wide distrust of officials, ideological and spiritual vacuity. But Mr. Hu did not dwell on that. Nor did he mention the harsh measures that the party, betraying its insecurity, employs these days to quash dissent. Since February alone, hundreds of intellectuals and artists [including the world-renowned Ai WeiWei] have been detained and interrogated in the harshest crackdown on liberal thought in years.
As the BBC points out, while hundreds of millions in China are certainly no longer battling poverty, “the party continues to rule because it refuses to hand power to anyone else.” Indeed, it was no surprise that party officials, shaken by the popular protests in the Middle East and North Africa of earlier this year, “seemed especially eager to emphasize the party’s history as a populist movement at a time when mass protests have swept authoritarian leaders from power in the Middle East,” the New York Times notes.
The party may have historically been a “populist movement” and the voice of China’s millions of peasants who suffered at the whims of the ruling local officials and aristocracies. But now, as the Guardian points out, the party itself has some “distinctly aristocratic tendencies,” being an organization in which “many senior cadres – large numbers of whom are now the ‘princeling’ sons and daughters of former leaders – use party connections for self-enrichment in an increasingly divided society.”
I visited China, including the villages in Toisan country that my father’s parents came from, and the cities of Guangdong and Shenzhen, almost 20 years ago. My parents just got back from an extensive trip to Shanghai, Hangzhou, a Yangtze River cruise, the villages and Hong Kong and told me that the huge gulf between the have’s and the have not’s — between those living in luxury high-rises and those making do in a cardboard box — remain. As the BBC points out, there has been a “rapid emergence of private wealth” in China, but also a growing gulf between the incomes of rural (5,900 yuan or $898 a year in 2010) and urban dwellers (19,100 yuan or $2,900 in 2010). In other words, the amazing growth in China’s economy that has led to it being the second largest in the world does not seem to be “[trickling] down to Chinese society’s poorest.”
After 90 years of communist rule, the China of today is not at all, it seems, a classless society, nor one in which social, economic and other kinds of inequalities do not exist — in which wealth and its benefits are shared in common.
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Photo of Cultural Revolution-era image of Mao by IvanWalsh.com