Xi Jinping’s Empire of Tedium
Eighty years ago T.S. Eliot published ‘Little Gidding’, part of Four Quartets, a cycle of poems. It contains the following famous lines:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
The Xi Jinping era has been a harsh reminder that the past, in particular the history of the Chinese Communist Party, remains a vital, and unsettling, reality in Chinese life today.
Over the years, we have repeatedly pointed out that although 1978 marked a watershed moment in modern Chinese history, Deng and his comrades were unwavering when it came to the first decade of Communist Party rule: everything done under Mao from 1949 to 1958 was fundamentally correct, Deng declared.
Over the following decades willful self-deception and crude economic boosterism blinded many people to the grim underpinnings of Party rule. A Kumbaya School of hopefuls thought that they saw the future and for them, to quote Charles N. Wheeler (and, after him, Henry Ford): ‘History is more or less bunk. It’s tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present, and the only history that is worth a tinker’s damn is the history that we make today.’
Xi Jinping’s China is by no means simply repeating history, the rationale behind its policies is grounded in a draconian past. The resonances are unmistakable. That is why we believe that it is incumbent upon those who aspire to a more holistic understanding of China today to make an effort to be truly familiar with the tortuous history of Communist Party ideas, policies and statecraft starting from the late 1930s. Without such an informed background, students of China, commentators, scholars and others will repeatedly be reduced to pursuing what amounts to little more than shallow and reactive stream-of-consciousness analysis. Regardless of the dubious value of headline-grabbing pop analysis, it is part of a profitable industry.
In Watching China Watching (2018-) we have included insightful commentaries on China’s past as well as on the Soviet Union. Here we recommend China Stands Up: Ending the Western Presence, 1948-1950 by Beverly Hooper. Hooper and I were exchange students in China at around the same time in the years straddling the end of Maoist China and the murmurings of what would become the Reform Era (c.1978-2008).
Among other things, Hooper’s book outlines in detail the repertoire employed by the Party to ‘command and control’ foreign interests in China — be they investments, businesses or enterprises. In the Xi era, the suite of policies developed by the Communists to infiltrate and eventually subjugate businesses and individuals was summed up in the Sixteen-character Strategy: 降级安排，控制使用，就地消化，逐步淘汰 (‘Sideline politically unreliable people while continuing to utilise [their talents] under strict supervision. Absorb them locally with the aim of gradual elimination’). This succinct guidance, one applied for decades in dealing with everything from the business community to academics and technocrats, remains relevant when approaching Xi Jinping’s China, and in particularHong Kong, China’s ’fallen city’.
In his review of China Stands Up the historian Arthur Waldron points out that Hooper’s work was ‘China-centred’ and that she took Chinese ideology seriously. As Waldron observes, Hooper:
… argues that a tension always existed between the ‘two basic features of overall Chinese Communist policy: assertive nationalism, which included but went beyond the reaction against the imperialist past, and adherence to Marxism-Leninism’.
An awareness of that abiding tension is something that Hooper and I have long shared. In recent years, some writers have latterly noted the link between assertive Chinese nationalism and the Party’s adherence to Marxism-Leninism. They tout their insight as though it is a discovery. (For more on such ‘China-whisperers’, see New Sinology in 1964 and 2022.)
In 2023, people are still playing catch up, a situation that brings to mind the old Red Guard dictum:
— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
19 May 2023
- Prelude to a Restoration: Xi Jinping, Deng Xiaoping, Chen Yun & the Spectre of Mao Zedong, China Heritage, 20 September 2021
- You Should Look Back, China Heritage, 1 February 2022
- You Can Get Here from There — Soviet historian Stephen Kotkin on Xi Jinping’s China — Watching China Watching (XL), China Heritage, 9 May 2023
- Beverly Hooper, Foreigners Under Mao: Western Lives in China, 1949-1976, Hong Kong University Press, 2016
Ending the Western Presence
A review of China Stands Up: Ending the Western Presence, 1948-1950, by Beverly Hooper (Sydney, London, Boston: Allen and Unwin, 1986)
For Westerners in China, 1949 marked a watershed. The internationalization of commerce and culture that had begun with the wars and treaties of the mid-nineteenth century began to be reversed. Within a few years China’s Western residents, once numbering in tens of thousands, and some born there, had gone; their churches, clubs, and newspapers had closed; and their investments, worth perhaps US$1,500 million, had been abandoned or expropriated. ‘Imperialism’ was over and China, as Mao Zedong put it, had ‘stood up’.
With this volume the grand theme that transformation offers has finally received something like the treatment it deserves. Drawing on a wide range of Chinese and Western sources, including more than a dozen interviews, Dr Hooper tells, chapter by chapter and in absorbing detail, how each of the various Western presences was wound up. We learn how editors gradually found themselves able to publish less and less; how foreign residents found their freedom of movement, and ultimately their permission to remain in China, removed; how some diplomats who intended to remain and establish contact with the new government were harassed and arrested while others were simply ignored. As narrative history, it is first rate. But Dr Hooper’s book is more than a human interest story. It has far-reaching implications for our whole interpretation of the early Communist regime and Western relations with it, and this is its real importance.
This is because the events of the brief period it treats — essentially from the establishment of Communist power to the outbreak of the Korean War — are of pivotal importance to the arguments of what Dr Hooper calls the ‘if’ literature of Chinese-Western relations. She uses this term to refer to those scholars who maintain that, at least when it first came to power, the Communist regime did not seek to eliminate the Western presence root and branch, but that rather it was driven to such measures later, by the unfriendly actions of the United States and other powers — their continued ties with the Nationalists, slowness to recognize Beijing, etc.
This school suggests that if the United States and its allies had acted differently during that crucial period; if, as John Stewart Service put it, Mao’s China had been able to ‘come to power in a different way’ and not been ‘thrust into isolation by a hostile West’, then it might have developed into ‘quite a different place’ — one, for example, where in 1971 ‘Chinese-American ping-pong matches were normal occurrences instead of…world shaking events]’. The unspoken assumption of such an argument is, in Dr Hooper’s words, that ‘Communist policy, at least towards American interests’, was ‘a response to the US government’s negative attitude to the Chinese Communists’, and this is a proposition with which she disagrees profoundly.
Much of her argument depends on inferring attitudes and purposes from actions. Authors of the ‘if’ school tend to give substantial credence to various statements of Communist leaders that suggest a long-term policy of accommodation with the West, such as Mao Zedong’s assurance, given to Edgar Snow in 1936, that under Communism ‘legitimate foreign trading interests [would] enjoy more opportunities than ever before’, or Zhou Enlai’s opinion expressed in 1950 that after the Church had cleansed itself of imperialism, ‘it is possible that certain specifically approved missionaries might be allowed to come back in’.
They then find confirmation of this basically tolerant Communist approach in government actions during the months immediately following victory. Thus, having surveyed some evidence, Nancy Bernkopf Tucker maintains that in dealing with foreign churches during that period, the Communists pursued a flexible policy which ‘might conceivably have accommodated ongoing missionary contacts with China’, had it not been ‘cut short’ by the Korean War. Turning to American commerce, she asks whether the period up to that war was ‘an end or a beginning?’ Warren Tozer perhaps supplies an answer, finding in the experience of the American-owned Shanghai Power Company from May 1949 until December 1950 confirmation “that the United States, not the CP, was primarily responsible for closing the Open Door to China’.
But such arguments, according to Dr Hooper, are true neither to Communist rhetoric nor to the new government’s actions. For one thing, official statements of policy are often inconsistent and thus a poor guide to intentions. Mao may have reassured Edgar Snow, but in March of 1949 he contradicted himself, asserting that foreign economic and cultural establishments would only be ‘allowed to exist for the time being’ under ‘official supervision and control’, to be ‘dealt with…after country-wide victory’. It is, furthermore, this second approach (which the ‘if’ school ignores) that seems to fit his government’s subsequent actions.
According to Dr Hooper, the reading of the facts on which Tucker, Tozer, and others rely is partial and misleading. From her far more comprehensive inventory a quite different picture emerges, one of sustained and mounting pressure, clearly directed toward the elimination of the foreign presence, though occasionally moderated out of pragmatic considerations. Thus, in a place like Shanghai foreigners played critical roles in such things as running the trams and providing electricity. The new government could not take up such tasks immediately — so the foreigners were kept on, even forbidden to leave on occasion. But this was an adjustment, not a long-term policy. Certainly the general climate for foreign business was unfavourable: as Dr Hooper shows in case after case, enterprises were harassed with taxes and regulations, and their managers often in effect held hostage, until they ‘voluntarily’ turned over their assets to the government. The same calibrated approach was followed in the liquidation of religion: initially there was some toleration, usually of Protestants, and particularly in large cities such as Shanghai. But the preponderance of evidence, drawn from all over China, reveals unmistakably the steady pattern of increasing repression.
Nor is Dr Hooper impressed by evidence of Chinese flexibility drawn from diplomatic history. Since most writers on the topic have been Americans, who tend naturally to see their own role as pivotal, they have stressed the idea that Chinese hostility was a response to American missteps. But writing from an Australian vantage-point Dr Hooper is inclined to judge Chinese intentions by the way they treated other powers, such as Britain. London, after all, disagreed profoundly with Washington’s China policy, and broke with it sharply by becoming the first non-Communist government to recognize the PRC. If the desire had really existed, the Chinese could easily have built bridges to the West via London, and perhaps used the example of good relations with Britain to isolate and disarm their American opponents. But the Chinese never did. The British were shown the door along with the other Westerners.
Why was this? Dr Hooper’s answer is simple. The content of the Chinese revolution was not determined by foreign actions or attitudes.
The revolution was not somehow turned anti-Western in the late 1940s by errors in American diplomacy. Rather, its course was ‘fundamentally a product of broad historical and political determinants within China’.
Animated by ‘nationalistic feelings against a century of imperialist economic incursion and privilege’, it embraced a sophisticated intellectual analysis of the recent past that saw ‘imperialism’ as the root of China’s problems, and its elimination, and the reconstruction of society on the socialist model, as the cure. The Communists were not opportunists, about to be bought off by sweet foreign words, or even money. And when they got power, they put their beliefs into practice.
This judgement, with which I think few will be able to disagree, shows a sure sense of Chinese reality, derived, one is tempted to suggest, from Dr Hooper’s considerable personal experience in that country. In the writings of the ‘if’ school, one often feels that ‘China’ is an abstraction, constructed out of library sources as a foil to the America which is their real subject. Dr Hooper’s work, by contrast, is ‘China-centred’: she clearly has a genuine feel for China, and began thinking about her question as the result of experiences there.
Nevertheless, her work does not answer completely some of the issues it raises. Perhaps the most striking of these concern relations with the Soviet Union. After all, as what she takes care always to describe as the ‘Western’ presence was eliminated, a Soviet presence took its place. She provides many details in the chapter on ‘Education and Culture’: Hollywood movies were replaced, not by home-grown Chinese products, but by Soviet imports; Western residents left and new Soviet residents streamed in; official rhetoric was bitterly anti-Western but warmly pro-Soviet.
These developments might seem to cast doubt on one of the book’s most basic assertions: namely, that ‘nationalism’ was the determining force of anti-Western policy. But Dr Hooper always mentions as well the Communist Party’s intention to build a socialist China. And she argues that a tension always existed between the ‘two basic features of overall Chinese Communist policy: assertive nationalism, which included but went beyond the reaction against the imperialist past, and adherence to Marxism-Leninism’.
Dr Hooper is right to take Chinese Communist ideology seriously, and one explanation for the initial enthusiasm for things Soviet is certainly that the Chinese leaders believed in the Soviet system. But my own belief is that geopolitics must not be ignored. The USSR had certain goals for China which it intended to enforce one way or another, and in the immediate post-war period it entrenched itself in a strong military position in Asia. By virtue of this position the Soviet Union was able to enforce a certain degree of control over China — a fact which is confirmed by the speed with which China left the Soviet orbit as the military balance shifted.
Interestingly, this appraisal reintroduces the idea of Chinese policy as reaction to external pressures, though those pressures are now found in the USSR and not the West. Such an interpretation has the virtue of making it possible to see the CCP’s sporadic efforts to deal with the West as more than mere tactical moves in the game of gaining power, but rather (a little bit as the ‘if’ school sees them) as forerunners of the tilt toward the West that emerged in the 1970s. But it also rules out the possibility, on which the ‘if’ school insists, that such a tilt could have happened far earlier. During the civil war, and into the 1950s, the USSR had the military and political clout to discipline Mao and his colleagues. Had they leaned toward the West, Stalin would certainly have leaned on them. To be permitted to take power they had to convince the USSR that they would not compromise Soviet interests. Their inconclusive gestures toward the West show their understanding of the Faustian nature of this bargain.
None of these suggestions seriously undermine the validity of Dr Hooper’s basic argument. By finding the origins of Chinese policies in China — and not in Washington — she takes Chinese Communism seriously as an ideology, and its exponents seriously as persons of conviction, in a way that the ‘if’ writers — whose fundamental argument is that ‘we made them do it’ — do not. One hopes that diplomatic historians will take notice, and begin to rethink their arguments, more or less from the ground up, and along the lines she suggests. For this well-researched and engagingly written book proves its basic point, and a very important point it is for our whole understanding of post-1949 China.
- Arthur Waldron, review of Beverly Hooper, China Stands Up: Ending the Western Presence, 1948-1950, The Australian Journal of Chinese Affairs, January-July 1988 (no.19/20): 359-363