Watching China Watching
The following essay, written in November 1983, appeared in the Australian weekly The National Times in January 1984 under the title ‘China Blames the West for “Cultural Pollution” ’.
It was reprinted under the titled ‘Spiritual Pollution Thirty Years On’ in The China Story Journal on 17 November 2013. Although archived on The China Story site, it is reprinted here in China Heritage as part of the series Watching China Watching.
When this comment on the Anti-Spiritual Pollution Campaign appeared, I was derided both in China and overseas by those who regarded that, given the ‘larger picture’ of China’s economic reforms, and the presumed inevitability of ongoing positive political and cultural change, the 1983 attack on Western values, humanism and non-Party controlled culture, was little more than a minor irritant. I disagreed with my critics then and again in late 1986, after student protests in Shanghai led to the Communist authorities launching a formal campaign against ‘bourgeois liberalisation’. That campaign has continued, in fits and starts, ever since.
— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
Introductory Note to the November 2013 Reprint
This year  marks the thirtieth anniversary of the Campaign to Eliminate Spiritual Pollution (清除精神污染运动), a short-lived purge that was dismissed at the time as being of little deeper significance. In fact, the campaign, which did peter out after a few months, was an extension of the attack by Deng Xiaoping et al on ‘bourgeois liberalisation’ (资产阶级自由化) first clearly articulated in March 1979 when the Xidan Democracy Wall in Beijing, a site of popular protest, was closed down. Both moves adumbrated the 1987 purge of the Party leader Hu Yaobang and various pro-Party intellectuals, as well as the post-4 June 1989 campaign against ideological desuetude.
The spirit of the campaign against Western liberal values, peaceful evolution and cultural contamination lives on. On 18 August 2013, Party General Secretary Xi Jinping spoke at a national work conference on ideology and reaffirmed the general Party line on this issues in the context of a new ‘struggle over public opinion’ (舆论斗争) and the continued contestation with the West (see Qian Gang, ‘Parsing the “public opinion struggle”‘, China Media Project, 24 September 2013). Meanwhile, beyond the confines of the Party’s ideologo-sphere, the People’s Republic is vastly different from the place where, for a time, cleaning up ‘spiritual pollution’ could actually gain some traction.
The following essay, a period piece, was written in November 1983 and published in the Australian weekly The National Times in January 1984 under the title ‘China Blames the West for “Cultural Pollution”‘.
My thanks to William Sima for locating the original published version in the Australian National Library and typing out the text. Minor corrections and stylistic changes have been made to the original. Chinese characters have been added in square brackets.
— Geremie R. Barmé
17 November 2013
Dealing with China’s ‘Spiritual Pollution’
He that will not apply new remedies must expect new evils.
—Francis Bacon, The New Atlantis
A Man Misunderstood
A short article secreted on the second page of the People’s Daily, China’s largest newspaper, in late November  would be enough to warm the metaphysics of Nancy and Ronnie Reagan, and possibly make the Festival of Light include China in their hit-list of salvation.
The article with its curious digital title ‘28 & 27’ proudly tells of the execution of twenty-eight criminals in Fuzhou city, South China. Twenty-seven of those executed began their short slide into the abyss of perdition after having watched pornographic video tapes. One particular Production Brigade in Changle District, we are told, became a seething nest of adolescent rapists, prostitutes and robbers following the screening of porn movies over a number of nights. ‘This kind of spiritual opium undermines morals, pollutes the atmosphere and poisons the minds of the young’, the paper comments in a mood of high dudgeon.
For Chinese readers the word ‘opium’ is redolent of dark and humiliating associations, and playing on this the article goes on to remind us of the valiant action of the Imperial Commissioner Lin Zexu who, some 140 years ago, destroyed British stores of opium in Canton, thereby saving a lucky few of his fellow countrymen from certain degradation. The paper continues that present-day cultural opiates and their purveyors must be wiped out in the nationalistic spirit of Commissioner Lin.
The tone, style and even the overused historical allusions of this piece are only all too familiar to readers of the Chinese press, recalling as they do the bombastic overstated diction of Cultural Revolution propaganda. The Chinese media has been awash with such stories over the last six weeks as the country enters yet another confusing period of intellectual and cultural backtracking, this time it is a new and decisive step in the Communist Party’s protracted struggle against ‘spiritual pollution’. Although generally referred to as a new political purge in the Western press, this ‘exercise in cleaning up cultural contamination’, as one skilful translator puts it, is actually an ideological snowball that was set rolling as early as March 1979, by none other than China’s new helmsman, Deng Xiaoping.
Speeches and editorials that have appeared over the weeks warn of the need for a national effort to put an end to the complaisant and permissive attitude towards ideological deviation, cultural liberalism and the popular decadence and vulgarity that have resulted from opening up to the West. The woeful decline in Party prestige and morality is being blamed partly on the ‘impure elements’ who managed to infiltrate the ranks of the Party organization during the Cultural Revolution, but on the whole, the rampant individualism and the growth of a crude and unwholesome petit-bourgeois mass culture throughout the country is seen as being Western in origin.
Writers like Kafka and Sartre who have a tremendous following among Chinese university students are being denounced, and popular music from Taiwan and Hong Kong has been labeled subversive. Although foreigners are assured that the xenophobic attacks on Western music, fashions, literature and philosophy are not meant as a negation of Western culture in its entirety, the tenor of official pronouncements amounts to nothing less than the tired old equation that, Western = bourgeois = decadent = anti-socialist. One of the most intriguing, and to my mind persistently ignored factors of the situation in China at the present is the burgeoning class of nouveau riche farmers and city dwellers born of the new government policies that give official backing to a myriad of ‘get rich quick’ schemes for the masses, and the partial introduction of a free market economy. This is a class that is fast learning about extravagant and highly un-proletarian habits of the well-to-do, and along with an ever-increasing population of young educated sophisticates, there is an insatiable demand for a rich and varied cultural life. In a buyer’s market how can you effectively legislate against consumerism? Not surprisingly, rather than pointing the finger at their own daring economic policies, the leaders of the Communist Party have opted for the familiar and oft-used tack of dumping on the bourgeois West.
Present government concern for the wrong-headed fripperies of the masses can be traced back to the end of 1978. At that time, thousands of young people, robbed of an education, a future and their ideals in the Cultural Revolution, went into the streets of China’s major cities to agitate for the resignation of certain Party leaders, a new deal for themselves and democratic reforms. Deng Xiaoping, who was then still tussling to ensure his supremacy in the government, at first encouraged these wild demonstrations. But once his major ‘leftist’ opponents had been cowed into silence not long after, Deng, a brilliant political strategist who had even outwitted the dangerously mercurial Mao Zedong, divested himself of these young supporters. Bringing an end to the Democracy Wall in Beijing, he authorized the arrest of dozens of dissidents, especially as they were becoming increasingly critical of him and threatening the delicate balance of power within the Politburo.
Certainly, Deng had been behind the call in the press for people to ‘use your brains and liberate your thinking’, but that meant cadres should shake themselves free of the Maoist line of the Cultural Revolution. The last thing he had wanted was that willful young people would start questioning the authority of the Communist Party and go so far as to call on Jimmy Carter to support the cause of human rights in China. Enough was enough, and in March 1979, Deng made a withering speech on the ‘principle of the four sticks’ [四个坚持], in which he made it obligatory for everyone in the country to stick to: the socialist road; the dictatorship of the proletariat; the leadership of the Communist Party; and, to Marxism, Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought. That speech and its catechetical formulation of the ‘four sticks’ has become the basis for the new Chinese political orthodoxy, and the present attack on ‘spiritual pollution’ and the purge of dissenting Party members stem directly from it.
It is surely with a sense of irony that we look back at those early reports on the pragmatist hero Deng Xiaoping. In 1979 and 1980, foreign leaders and journalists alike were falling over themselves in the rush to heap laurels at Deng’s feet. We admired him not so much perhaps for his open-minded humanity in guiding China out of two decades of disasters, but more out of gratitude for his willingness to let foreign capital into China once more, to open the country’s potentially vast market to Western goods.
The newspaper photographs seem to have preserved the mood of the time better than any single written report: a shot of Mao-suited bureaucrats disco-dancing with American diplomats to celebrate the normalization of relations; beauty salons in Shanghai in which women, and even men, happily consented to having their hair linked up to electrical ganglia to get a permanent wave; young demagogues in the streets of Beijing addressing crowds of Chinese and foreign reporters; slick girls in summer frocks protecting their anonymity behind foreign sunglasses with the brand labels still attached to the lenses … And behind it all loomed the ever-present figure of Deng Xiaoping, China’s elder statesman, a symbol of reason and practicality, the realistic non-ideologue who even gave his blessing to the sale of Coca Cola throughout the country. Overseas he allowed himself to be impressed by the munificence of a Tokyo supermarket and the pre-fab miracle of Japan. He traveled to America and donned a ten-gallon cowboy hat in Texas; and, finally, he gave the nod of approval to America’s king of Cold War comedy, Bob Hope, to wow Chinese audiences. In a guilt-ridden gesture of recognition, so typically American, Time magazine, the long-time champion of Taiwan, made Deng ‘Man of the Year’. You could almost hear Henry Luce turning over in his grave. China was entering a period of rapid change and many observers in the West were only too willing to believe that she wanted to be like us.
There is little question that Deng has deftly manoeuvred China away from its xenophobic, narrow and stagnant past; that he has done so with a minimum of bloodshed and with such a reassuring veneer of moderation, has possibly earned him a special place in the history of twentieth century politics. It has definitely won from him a unique position in the annals of the tangled and gory history of China. For a politician of a communist state he has been uncharacteristically discreet. Even now that he is the ultimate administrative and ideological guiding force in China he sees no need to emulate the cocky Khrushchevs and bovine Brezhnevs of the Soviet Union, pointedly foregoing all claims to lofty titles and public accolades. Be that as it may, for informed Western opinion to continue to regard Deng as a solitary voice of reason in the wilderness of Chinese newspeak, or as a capitalist in Chairman’s clothing, is surely no less a conceit than to conclude that a former head of the KGB was a closet Westernophile just because he liked listening to classical music and playing chess for relaxation.
The Film Everyone Talked About but No One Ever Saw
In early 1981, Deng Xiaoping took time out from overseeing his vast program of governmental and economic reform to put on the hat of film critic.
Over the Chinese New Year he had seen a film called Unrequited Love [苦恋]. It had just been passed by the Bureau of Cinema and was about to be publicly released. The Bureau had sent it over to the leader’s residence confident that it would provide him with a few hours of carefree holiday entertainment, and possibly earn the beleaguered film industry some much-needed praise. Their reaction to the Vice-Chairman’s suggestion that all copies of the film should be withdrawn from circulation was one of shock and disbelief. At a meeting with the political directors of the army some weeks later, Deng condemned the film in no uncertain terms and instructed the press to print a few articles criticizing the screenplay.
Unrequited Love was based on a scenario entitled The Sun and Man [太阳和人] by the army writer Bai Hua [白桦]. Bai had got the inspiration for his scenario from some interviews he had done with eccentric and multi-talented artist Huang Yongyu [黄永玉], who, by the way, visited Australia in 1981. Bai wrote a beefed up and highly dramatic version of the artist’s life during the Cultural Revolution. It was a wildly colourful exaggeration of reality for as Huang, like any other victim of political and artistic persecution will tell you, banality, not glamour and histrionics, is the trademark of evil. In the screenplay there is one poignant and explosive scene in which, after years of humiliation and anguish, the painter is given a chance to leave China. ‘But, I love my motherland!’ he protests to his daughter. ‘Sure,’ she replies bitterly, ‘but does your country love you?’
Deng was scandalized – that a film of their own making could be openly preaching treason! ‘I’ve seen the film,’ he commented in a later speech.
I don’t care what the author’s motives were. At the end of it you’re left with one overriding impression: communism and socialism aren’t any good […] I’m told that the artistic level of the film is quite high, that makes it all the more poisonous […] Just think of the effect the film would have if it were shown publicly. Some people say you can be patriotic without loving socialism; are you supposed to love an abstraction? […] I think the comrades involved on the ideological front should give a lot of thought to just why so many people support Unrequited Love.
As the army paper Liberation Daily dutifully damned the film, we in the West were told that the moderate Deng Xiaoping had consented to the campaign under pressure from the army!
In fact, for some years literary journals had been churning out brooding and sharp exposé literature about the Party and the society that made Bai Hua’s scenario look like a two-hour commercial for the Party. With their endless rounds of meetings and inspection tours Chinese leaders have little time for literature. As in the cave-dwelling years in Yan’an most of them still view cinema as their major cultural activity. Thus, as a result of Deng’s timely proscription, Unrequited Love was never released; however, the attention lavished on it by the media has made it the most famous film made in China since 1976.
One lesson writers and artists learnt from the ‘Bai Hua Incident’, as it became known, was that neither the government nor the literary establishment was eager to spark off another cultural purge. After a pro forma self-criticism Bai Hua was back at work, this time to produce an historical play that is a thinly-veiled attack on Mao’s dictatorship. The outspoken and fiery young poet, Ye Wenfu [叶文福], who had become a symbol of protest and conscience among the young, refused to admit his errors and has not been heard from since. So although 1981 acted as a warning to writers to tread more carefully, Bai Hua was living proof that the Cultural Revolution was truly over. Some writers concluded that they could continue to delve into the shadow territory of Modernism, the avant-garde and self-expression.
Just Another Thought?
And so it is that the tides of rightist bourgeois thought and ‘leftist’ economic and political backsliding have continued their ebb and flow in China over the last years. Yet even when his energies were devoted to the momentous questions of the moment Deng Xiaoping authorized and checked a volume of his own speeches and writing for publication. The Selected Writings of Deng Xiaoping appeared in bookstores throughout the country on 1 July this year, on the occasion of the sixty-second anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party. It was immediately hailed in the press as ‘a significant contemporary development of Mao Zedong Thought’, and it has been proclaimed as the guiding-light for China as the country moves into the fast-lane on the road to modernization.
The Selected Writings is by no means the first collection of Deng’s works. Some overly-zealous sycophants in Shenyang, north-east China, had produced a sample issue of a book with the unoriginal title, Quotations of Deng Xiaoping. Those concerned were sternly reprimanded for their temerity: How dare they attempt to vulgarize the spirit of Comrade Xiaoping’s policies? Truly, there is no greater mistake than doing the right thing at the wrong time.
Gone are the svelte red-plastic covers of Mao’s Selected Works with their embossed gold titles; Deng’s unpretentious volume has a sedate pale lemon cover with black lettering. A casual reading of this work, as casual a reading as is possible of a dry collection of policy speeches ranging from suggested guide-lines for a retirement scheme for the revolutionary gerontocracy to an opening address made to the Twelfth National Congress of the Communist Party of China, reveals none of the pithy philosophizing or literary panache of Mao Zedong. Although he may be lacking in flair, Deng presents a set of coherent ideas that over the next years will nurture an ideologically sound and politically trustworthy generation of hard-headed technocrats whose task is to create a uniquely Chinese and modern socialist state.
It is in the breadth of vision and daring of his policy initiatives, especially in the field of economics, that Deng shows himself to be no less a revolutionary or social experimenter than Mao. He more than any other individual has set China on a course between the poverty socialism of the Eastern Bloc and the uninhibited capitalism of the West. How things will develop after his death no one can say for sure. In the meantime, Deng has obtained a consensus in the Central Committee to clean out the Party of anything up to a third of its thirty million members so as to ensure that the chilling prophecy of Wang Hongwen [王洪文], the fourth and youngest member of the Gang of Four, does not come true. In 1975, Wang had sneered at Deng’s attempts to rationalize government policy with the words, ‘We’ll know who the real winner is in ten years time.’
The prelude to the purge of the Party is the present operation to do away with ‘spiritual pollution’. The solid little compendium of Deng’s writings may be as diminutive in size as its author, but over the last few months it has become holy writ for every citizen of the People’s Republic, and it is one’s understanding and acceptance of its contents that determines whether one has achieved true ‘oneness with the government’.
It is interesting to note that the years 1975-1982 are clearly printed in brackets under the title of The Selected Writings of Deng Xiaoping. This is presumably a sign that we can expect future updates of the Vice-Chairman’s immutable remarks.
Making the Crime Fit the Punishment
Just as his book was heading for the top of the 1983 best-seller lists in mid-summer, Deng took a holiday on the beach at Beidaihe, a resort near Tianjin. It is widely rumoured that after a much publicised swim à la Mao, pictures of which even appeared in the Australian press, his car was ambushed by a gang of young rowdies. It does not take much imagination to picture the expressions of horror on the faces of these knife-toting toughs when they discovered just who it was they were trying to mug; equally, their fate leaves little room for speculation. Similar flagrant breeches of the law affecting and even endangering important public figures had occurred before, and at the time the notorious Wang brothers were still on the loose.
Wang Zongfang [王宗方] and Wang Zongwei [王宗玮] had begun their orgy of crime and violence in the north-east of China in February. The younger of the two, Zongwei (26), had been trained as a sharp-shooter in the PLA, and when he and his brother were arrested for theft, he managed to get hold of a police gun and wipe out an entire police station with a few well-aimed shots. It was in this same month, after an alarming increase in violent crime over the last year and a half, that Peng Zhen [彭真], China’s law-maker, had authorised a law and order campaign. Yet, two months later in May a small group of corrupt cadres, a member of China’s ‘mafia’ and a model worker hijacked a passenger plane and flew it to South Korea, facilitated in their efforts by the bumbling police authorities, much to the embarrassment of the government. The Wangs continued to travel the land with seeming impunity.
Rewards of unprecedented sums of money for information leading to their capture or assistance in their arrest were offered in May. Despite a flurry of internal documents on the subject and an increased police presence in the city streets, the Wangs continued their flight south, killing everyone who questioned them or even looked at them suspiciously. Such were the rumours of their marksmanship and brutality that they were able to continue their bloody rampage for another four months, even causing a major alert in Beijing and a mood of mass hysteria in early June when someone said they had spotted them at the train station. Although they were finally tracked down and shot while resisting arrest in Jiangxi Province, South China in September, government leaders were infuriated by the disgraceful inefficiency of the police. The Wangs had managed to kill over thirty people during their seven months on the run.
But to Deng and his fellows these incidents and the epidemic of crime that was sweeping the country indicated something more basic and dangerous than more police inefficiency and corruption. Incorrect thinking, a decay of Party morals and a suffocating spiritual pollution were threatening the very foundation of the State.
Back in 1982 numerous cases of high level corruption and ‘economic malfeasance’ had been uncovered and the offenders brought to trial, yet if anything the situation has continued to deteriorate. Corruption, violence, theft, and all manner of unacceptable social behaviour are not viewed in China as inevitable social ills, but rather as a reflection of an incorrect world view, the externalization of a bourgeois mentality. Thus, while the Cultural Revolution and the anarchy lauded by Jiang Qing [江青] and her cronies are again being condemned for having set off this chain-reaction of disorder, the real culprit of China’s present ills has been positively identified as the West and her impure ways.
In August the Party ordered a massive law and order campaign that would make a decisive strike against crime throughout the country, and lay the basis for an ideological mopping up program later. The new Penal Code that had only been in force since January 1980 stipulated that criminal offenders can be sentenced to anything from three to seven years in gaol, while the most severe punishment for murderers is life imprisonment. So as to be able to deal with the exigencies of the law campaign, the Penal Code was hurriedly revised by the National People’s Congress in September, allowing the death penalty to be passed on serious criminal offenders of all types. That these post-haste revisions were made over a month after the law campaign had begun, and presumably after a considerable number of executions had already been carried out, seems to have given rise to no public outcry in China.
There is little doubt that the safety and well-being of the average citizen was gravely threatened by the mounting crime wave, and that the majority of Chinese welcomed the speedy and stern punishments meted out to criminals. However, the Chinese government’s continued predilection for the use of Blitzkrieg methods when dealing with social ills, a ‘campaign mentality’ that reveals the lack of any real system and little understanding of the concept of legality in the need for crime-prevention, continues to encourage long periods of neglect and slackness that are interspersed with spurts of uncompromising law enforcement. I daresay the draconian nature of punishments is a contributing factor in the increasingly bloody nature of even minor crimes. The exiling of hundreds of thousands of youths pronounced guilty of forming gangs and engaging in petty crime to the outlying provinces of Qinghai and Xinjiang, and the unofficial figure of over 5,000 executions in a two-month period leaves the observer with few illusions about the nature of China’s new ‘rule of law’.
Public Pollutant No. 1
During his tussle with the extreme Maoist ideologues following the Cultural Revolution, Deng Xiaoping gradually positioned a group of new and innovative theoreticians and propagandists in key media jobs. These men served the vital need to provide China’s new leaders with ideological medicine potent enough to cure the country of her post-1957 Maoist ills, as well as prescribing a method for the Party to reassess its calamitous recent history and justify its present heterodoxy. Two of the most outstanding members of this doctrinal think-tank were Hu Jiwei [胡绩伟] and Wang Ruoshui [王若水]. Until October they were the directing force behind the People’s Daily, the main news organ of the Communist Party and the most influential newspaper in China.
Wang Ruoshui was very outspoken for his tender years – a middle-aged man he is little more than a callow youth in Chinese terms. He was the first Party ideologist to offer a coherent analysis of the rule of Mao Zedong and the feudal nature of his personality cult. In recent years he has concentrated on a study of Marx’s early theories of the ‘alienation of labour’ and the prickly question of humanism. Up to November free-wheeling academic discussion and artistic debate were still the order of the day, and it was in this atmosphere of ‘letting a hundred flowers blossom and a hundred schools of thought contend’ that Wang and a number of others probed into the more sensitive areas of Marxist theory.
The Cultural Revolution had left a generation of China’s young doubting and questioning the basic tenets of socialism. Some found hope and solace in the writings of Dai Houying [戴厚英], the author of a startling novel about middle-age, a work that she uses to rediscover and determine a sense of her own humanity. Or in reading the short story writer Liu Xinwu [刘心武], who until just last year was the darling of the literary establishment. Things turned sour when he published a quirky story entitled The Black Wall in which he describes a man who paints his section of a courtyard house in Beijing completely black on the spur of the moment. Naturally, his strait-laced neighbours are scandalised; and Liu has been censured for using his popularity as a writer to extol the virtues of anti-social individualism and eccentricity.
While these and similar works made a cautious debut on the literary scene, a small number of Marxist thinkers like Wang had been making an exacting study of Marx’s writings to affirm the absolute value of the individual and the importance of individual expression in society. And, for the writers who had been edging towards a literary view in favour of artistic excellence, individual expression and intellectual honesty, it was these new ideas, couched as they were in acceptable Marxist terminology that held promise for a way out of the intellectual stagnation of the past decades towards a truly contemporary Chinese culture. It was in providing those in academe and the arts with a well-argued Marxist excuse for pursuing individual and innovative interests that Wang first fell foul of his superiors.
To talk about the unique value of the individual and ‘abstract humanity’ was bad enough, but when Wang turned his considerable intellectual powers to the study of the concept of ‘socialist alienation’ all hell broke loose. The tumescent disagreements over Marxist theory finally grew to the point of explosion on the occasion of the centenary of Marx’s death last March. Zhou Yang [周扬], the grand old man of the Chinese cultural bureaucracy – who is still known in the West by his Cultural Revolution epithet ‘the Cultural Tsar’ [文化沙皇] – chose this day to give a speech on the subject. The core message of Zhou’s address was that socialist societies also create an ‘alienation of labour’ resulting in popular disaffection from the system and certain incurable social ills. In so many words Zhou had declared that after a lifetime as a Marxist – he is now 75 – he had come to the conclusion that socialist society, like its theoretical opposite capitalist society, is fatally flawed. This theory goes a long way in identifying the reasons for China’s massive social problems – ideological dissolution, Party corruption, continued political instability, widespread disillusionment, the increased crime rate, and so forth – in fact, it goes just too far. To Party leaders Zhou’s words brought back the specters of 1957 when Chinese intellectuals had called for a limitation of Party power in the wake of the ‘Prague Spring’, as well as the uneasy spirits of the ‘Beijing Spring’ of 1979 with its demand for greater democracy.
This was nothing less than a frontal assault on the underlying principles of the State. And the backbone of the speech turned out to have been written not by the ailing Zhou Yang, but by a leading Party propagandist and theoretician, Wang Ruoshui.
In early November both Wang and his superior, Hu Jiwei [胡绩伟], were dismissed from their sensitive posts in the People’s Daily. True, they were not purged – no struggle meetings or gaol, nor have they been sent to work on a state farm as would have been the norm in the past. It is certainly a sign of the enlightened and rational atmosphere that prevails in China at the moment – an atmosphere, I hasten to add, that has in no small part resulted from a political ennui after twenty years of empty-headed fanaticism – that both of these men have been given ‘promotional chastisement’: they’ve been kicked upstairs. However, no matter how laudable this present method of using ‘calm winds and fine rains’ [和风细雨], as the poetic turn of Chinese political cliché puts it, for any creative thinker or writer worth his salt, is not a ban or caveat on his work a source of spiritual and intellectual anguish no less scarifying than actual physical punishment?
For his troubles Zhou Yang, whose Cultural Revolution self-criticisms and denunciations are weighed by the kilo, has been obliged to make a public self-denunciation in which he thanks Deng Xiaoping and Chen Yun [陈云] for their timely attack on spiritual pollution and asks for forgiveness from the people. In his hollow mea culpa Zhou acknowledges that
it was neither prudent nor sufficiently humble of me to raise the question [of alienation] in such a precipitant manner on that particular occasion. It was also quite unsuitable for me to stubbornly hold to my views even after some of the comrades in charge of theoretical and propaganda work voiced their objections. […] I did not pay enough attention to making a clear distinction between [my own] ideological view and the bourgeois concept of ‘alienation’, with the result that my comments may be distorted and used by people who are ideologically or emotionally opposed to socialism for their own ends. [My comments] may have also shaken the faith of some feeble-minded individuals in socialism, or led them to lose hope in the future of communism …
I would venture a guess that Zhou, like Wang, Hu Jiwei and many, many others, is presently making a salutary study of The Selected Writings of Deng Xiaoping.
China’s First ‘Non-Movement’
In early October a plenary meeting of the Communist Party initiated a process of Party rectification aimed at ousting undesirable elements. But before this massive ‘house-leaning’ could begin, decisive steps had to be taken to clear the cultural and intellectual air of ‘spiritual pollution’.
Spiritual what? – people in China were nearly as dumbfounded by this curious new expression as we are in the West. But in his speech at the plenum Deng Xiaoping summed up the concept in no uncertain terms:
Spiritual pollution means the dissemination of any and every type of degenerate and moribund thinking that belongs to the bourgeoisie and other exploiting classes. It is anything that encourages a lack of confidence in our socialist cause or in the leadership of the Communist Party.
When Hu Yaobang [胡耀邦], Secretary of the CPC, was grilled by a host of reporters during a state visit to Japan at the end of November, he was just as sweeping in his definition of the ‘spiritual pollution’ they want to clean up. ‘We want to eliminate the incorrect words and deeds which threaten our modernization program, especially those words and deeds that endanger our young people…’ Both Chinese leaders and the media have been at pains to point out that ‘this is not another movement’. We are repeatedly told that ‘Economic policies and the open policy to the West will not be affected,’ so that the filthy-rich international bourgeoisie do not get jumpy about their investments in China. I suspect the economic scene in China will continue to develop, basically untrammeled by these annoying ideological considerations. As to just what effect all of this is to have on the country’s shell-shocked intellectual and cultural life remains to be seen.
‘This is not another movement!’ No struggle sessions, no persecutions, no labour reform for thought-criminals. No, it is nothing like the two decades of pitiless campaigns that devastated the best minds of the most populous nation in the world and frittered away the energies of countless millions. Nevertheless, over the last eight weeks the Chinese media and Party organization, which together touch on every aspect of life in China, have been engaged in very definite propaganda warfare. The ideological and organizational ‘house-cleaning’ has just begun. Already there have been sackings, demotions, self-criticisms, the compilation of lists of films, plays and literature that are to be banned, restrictions on academic and artistic debate with writers attacking the works of other writers, and intellectuals denouncing the ideas of other intellectuals. And, above all, the Chinese are once more being enjoined to study the political thought of one man and to make themselves body and soul ‘at one with the policies of the Central Committee of the Communist Party’. No, perhaps this is not another one of those movements, this time it could just possibly be a grand success.
Most people seem to agree that things were getting out of hand. All the beguiling influences of Western thought; the alarming heresies of ‘abstract individualism’ and ‘alienation’. If left unchecked who knows where it would all end? As Zhou Yuanbing [周原冰], an outstanding Chinese expert on ethics recently pointed out,
The value of any individual is determined by society, and furthermore by the actual needs of that society. If you do not make any contribution to your society or are harmful to it, then you have no value, or may be said to be nothing more than a ‘negative’. If the notion of abstract humanity is encouraged there will be no end of strife. Why, people will start saying: workers have an intrinsic value, as do university students and cadres. This will lead to people arguing that it is inhuman to send people to work in the border regions, that to do so shows a disregard for the value of the individual. It is precisely thinking like this that has been poisoning the minds of the masses, turning them into selfish individualists. Such thinking is detrimental to our socialist cause, and will do nothing but harm to the (correct) development of one’s self.
—Guangming Daily 光明日报, 5 November 1983.
However, it may well be that I have given too much credence to the orchestrated ‘public opinion’ that fills the Chinese press these days. It is hard to imagine that a cleaning up of ‘spiritual pollution’ through a concerted propaganda effort and administrative restrictions, be it over a period of three months or even three years, will have much efficacy. For China is a country where thirty years of saturation propaganda denouncing bourgeois thinking and lifestyles, political study piled on mass movements, has completely failed to raise the average citizen’s awareness of the dangers of crass, popular commercialized culture. That a number of China’s writers and intellectuals have come to embrace their past ideological foes with enthusiasm is a phenomenon of considerable significance, and one that must be deeply disturbing for the country’s leaders.
A major source of Deng and his Party’s troubles is to be found in the very economic policies of which they are so proud. For in allowing a limited mixed economy – individual farming, small businesses and a gamut of private ‘entrepreneurs’ – the government has opened the Pandora’s Box of market forces. Consumerism; the raising of the standard of living; individual wealth; the desire to keep up with the Wangs next door – all of these are not only allowed but actively encouraged in the media. The government now recognizes and even acts to increase economic, educational and social inequalities – ‘Let one group prosper first’ is the slogan. There is no doubt that these policies have been warmly welcomed by the vast majority of Chinese; and even in the short period of their implementation they have wrought astounding changes throughout the country. However, even if one looks at all of this wearing Marxist blinkers, it appears as if these policies have liberated and now reinforce the rabid ‘small production’ mentality of the Chinese peasantry, as well as emboldening the petit-bourgeois man hidden deep in the Id of every urban dweller. To fling the doors of economics wide open and still expect to retain control of the people’s minds by using methods from the 1950s is the essential paradox of contemporary China, and the dilemma of her leaders. The Communist Party sees its main enemy in Western influences, heedless, for the moment, that China’s economic cure may well be the root-cause of her ideological disease.
The Last Word
Yet speculation is rife among ‘China watchers’ that Deng Xiaoping, the pragmatic moderate, is again under pressure from hard-liners in the army to carry out an ideological campaign. What better way to further confound these quizzical observers than by ending with a few words from the Vice-Chairman himself:
Won’t some people probably say that this is another ‘crackdown’? But in regard to such matters (dissent, opposition to the Party, bourgeois tendencies, etc.) we have never ‘let up’, so there’s no question of this being a ‘crackdown’.
— Deng Xiaoping, ‘The Present Situation and Our Duties’
(16 January 1980), Selected Writings, p.213.
Note: For those readers not up to date with New Wave bourgeois culture, the title of this article may require a word of explanation. ‘Culture Club’ is a British group that achieved international success during 1983. The lead singer, Boy George, bedecks himself with braids and ribbons, and it is his image of sexual ambivalence that seems best to sum up the yin–yang flip-flops of Chinese culture in the 1980s.
- Geremie Barmé, ‘China Blames the West for “Cultural Pollution” ’, The National Times, January 1984; reprinted online under the titled ‘Spiritual Pollution Thirty Years On’, The China Story Journal, 17 November 2013