Courtesy Reuters

The mood in China as the 1980s begin, and a post-Mao policy line is consolidated, is one of cautious hopefulness. There is a fervent desire for progress, blended with an acute awareness of the limits on future possibilities. Of all the differences since the great but oppressive Mao Zedong was embalmed in 1976, there are four which stand out.

First, people high and low see economic growth as China's highest priority. In the factories the slogans are about output, product quality and competitions between teams of workers: the conversations in the canteens are about pay packets and what to spend them on. Some private enterprise is returning to the cities, to provide much desired special products and services, and to alleviate an increasingly serious unemployment problem. The spirit of industry has been galvanized by the assertion from on high that profit and market response are the only valid measures of industrial performance.

In most of the countryside political and bureaucratic pressures on the farmers have been eased, to spur them to grow more by growing what they want to grow. In town and village alike, hard work and initiative (as well as birth control) are being rewarded in cash; one-sixth of an industrial wage can hinge on a bonus, and one-fourth of a farm income can come from private cultivation. Even the young urban dissidents are part of the age of economics. They have been selling their leaflets—unlike dissidents in the rest of the Marxist world, who tend to give their literature away; even Wei Jingsheng, the outspoken young editor who was jailed for "counterrevolutionary activity" last year, said at his trial: "We publish our magazines for the purpose of . . . making China more prosperous and powerful."

One cannot but recall how Mao in 1965 reminded André Malraux of Soviet Premier Aleksei Kosygin's remark, "Communism means the raising of living standards," and then sneeringly dismissed it: "and swimming is a way of putting on a pair of trunks." "Politics in command," which was Mao's update of Confucian social moralism, has given way to "production in command." The government tells the citizens to work hard and to reach for material rewards; "politics in command" effectively discounted both.

The traditional materialism of the Chinese has reappeared, then, as the shackles of an overplanned economy have been pulled back a little. Under Mao, China as a nation stood up. In these post-Mao years the Chinese individual is trying to stand up and claim a place in the sun.

A second change is nothing less than the castration of Marxism. One aspect is theoretical: class struggle is no longer talked about or believed in. A practical aspect follows: the tentacles of ideology have been untwined from one realm after another of Chinese life.

People may go to the opera or watch an evening of television without hearing any Marxist message. In the schools the running battle between "red" and "expert" has been won resoundingly by professionals who say education means the learning of expertise or else it means nothing. Even topics such as management science and the analysis of World War II's nature and causes have been approached without Marxism as the compass. The mask of ideology has been pulled back from the face of Chinese civilization. Indeed, this is true visually: the decline of slogans and banners frees the eye to notice more of the architecture, social ways, harmonies and chaos of Chinese daily life.

The change here, to borrow terms from political science, looks like a de-escalation from totalitarianism (where nothing is value-free) to authoritarianism (where the power of the state is not coincident with the sovereignty of an ideology). A 1961 speech of Zhou Enlai, resurrected in 1979, sums up the new line: scientists, writers and other professionals don't have to be interested in politics, the former Premier said, as long as they do their work well and do not actively oppose socialism.

The political process itself is taking on a post-ideological flavor. No figure is being built up—as Hua Guofeng was during 1977—as a Red Emperor in Mao's image. Premier (and Communist Party Chairman) Hua is now merely termed "China's most senior leader." Budgets are published; differences of opinion are recorded in a relaxed way; long speeches are given without any quote from Marx, Lenin or Mao. Politics as a near-religious ritual, in which a demigod above tossed out the Word to adoring masses below, is being replaced by politics as a pedestrian adjustment of interests.

"Seek truth from facts" is now said by Beijing to be the essence of Marxism. Mao, during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, told the Red Guards that "It is right to rebel" was Marxism's summation. Karl Marx might have found shortcomings in both formulations; yet the change from one to the other is enormous in its implications. An ideological crisis that had been building up in China for some years, caused by a ritualistic continuance of applying class categories to realities that have little to do with class, has been largely diffused. The year 1979 was perhaps the first since the Liberation of 1949 in which no class-related political campaign was in progress whatsoever. One cannot but note that this de-emphasis of ideology has undermined some of the logic of China's denunciation of Soviet society.

A third point—again noticeable from the top of society to the grass roots—is a determination to replace the arbitrariness of the late Mao era with some steps toward a government of laws rather than a government of men. It is in this context that we should see both the "Democracy Wall" phenomenon of 1978-79 and the spate of legislation introduced by the government during 1979; the two are linked in an ambiguous way.

When Wei Jingsheng railed against "the elevation of leaders to the position of deities," Deng and others in the Politburo knew what he meant, for they themselves suffered in the 1960s from the whims of Emperor Mao. Mao's senior victims, hardly less than the poster-writers and editors of private magazines, appreciate the attractiveness of a steady period under law.

The urban dissident movement speaks of "democracy"; but to few Chinese does the word connote the Western idea of a periodic choice at elections between competing parties. The center of gravity of the concerns of the dissident movement is constitutionalism: fixed rules which permit the citizen to know where he stands; accountability of officials to those rules. A few bold spirits have asked for the replacement of a Marxist system by a Western-type democratic system. At the other extreme are posters which detail personal grievances. But the vast majority of posters and articles in the unauthorized magazines demand adherence to the Constitution and other laws, due process, and a less stifling mental atmosphere in which criticism is not subject to overnight redefinition as "counterrevolution."

So far the constituency of sympathy within the government for the dissidents has been important, and 1979 was a year of notable, if flawed, steps toward constitutionalism-within-Marxism. Rules and regulations are in. The political gymnastics of tossing halos or dunce caps on the heads of supporters or foes is happily out. "Everyone is equal before the law" was one of the new-style official Communist Party slogans for the celebration last October of the 30th anniversary of the People's Republic of China.

A fourth major change—the only one bearing directly on foreign policy—is a wider opening of the door to non-Chinese ideas and presence. This is not the same as the pro-Western tilt of Chinese foreign policy (which Mao himself wrought as he turned against Russia). New is the level of openness to international economic forces, and to foreign cultural influences.

Foreign trade has more than doubled since Mao died. Beijing is borrowing abroad. Export zones, foreign advertising, foreign bank offices, joint ventures have all suddenly come into existence. Chinese in city parks come up to tourists to practice their foreign language skills, declaring that "foreigners are no longer considered enemies," and the urban bookstores and theaters are dizzily cosmopolitan by past standards. A senior British official in the Hong Kong government shook his head and mused, "Can this really be the same country?" as he compared dealing with China in 1979 with the same enterprise in the 1960s.

China, for so long its own world, seems to be holding out its hand for an indefinite season of give and take with the rest of the world. For years the PRC leaders, including Mao, looked abroad for technique (and during the 1950s would have liked more of it than the West was then interested in offering). But the post-Mao leadership is also looking outside China for some of the ideas for China's development. Self-reliance as a philosophy, as distinct from self-reliance as the mother of certain necessities, has just about died in its tracks.1 The Chinese are now so eclectic in their approach to modernization—even recently drawing some ideas from South Korea and Bulgaria—that people who have spoken of a "Chinese model" should rethink the matter.


The Chinese tend to exaggerate, and it needs stressing that many things have not changed since the death of Mao and the fall of the so-called Gang of Four ultra-leftists. In some ways the new mood of frankness and realism brings into sharper relief fundamental facts which still stand in the path of change.

China is still a vast, poor, agricultural country. Some of the current restiveness is due to an awareness of the gap between the living standards of China and those of other countries which the Chinese people hear about through overseas Chinese and other channels. Yet no Chinese government, however brilliant, dedicated or capitalist-minded, could possibly bring the per capita Gross National Product (GNP) of the more than one billion Chinese people to US$1,000 by the year 2000.

In the dialogue which dissatisfied young Chinese, some of them returned from study abroad, are starting to have with foreigners, there is an insistent stress by them on two sober realities: the backwardness of rural China and the unbudgability of one-party dictatorship. In comparative historical perspective we are justified in saying that the second reality is heavily dependent on the first. As one young Beijing resident put it in a recent letter, "With the bulk of the population backward, there can be no genuine democracy for all."

For all the switch to production as top priority, the Chinese have not turned overnight into economic animals. It does not seem to an observer that the average Chinese laborer in 1980 works as hard as his counterpart in Hong Kong or Japan or Singapore. Despite a stress on merit in the rhetoric, the dead hand of seniority still has many an institution in its grip, and sons can still inherit factory jobs from their fathers. A high official in an important Beijing organization greeted his visitor with a wave of his arm toward a honeycomb of corridors. "Our organization, like so many in China, has too many people—and very few of them are really trained and capable." In some respects the ideological relaxation is bringing to the fore a disturbing underlying slovenliness and couldn't-care-less attitude in parts of Chinese society.

Even more important, resistance exists to the age of economics. It comes from figures at the center and in the leadership of certain provinces who sympathize with the fallen ultra-leftists, from some of the alienated young "1960s generation," from some rural leaders who see advanced industry, not agriculture, as modernization's beneficiary, and from some lower level officials all over the nation who for one reason or another have a vested interest in upholding Maoism.

As for China's international economic involvement, there has been a tendency to overstate its dimensions and the degree to which it is likely to shape tomorrow's China. China's foreign trade is still small, and in per capita terms staggeringly so (US$25). The main task of the Chinese economy must continue to be to produce food (from seven percent of the world's cultivated land) for its own people (22 percent of the world's population). For all the talk and anxiety about China going into debt, Beijing's policies toward borrowing are extremely cautious. The same modesty is evident in China's involvement in the international movement of persons; the total number of foreign students the PRC, with one billion people, has abroad in all countries is less than the number Hong Kong, with five million people, has in the United States alone.

In a word, only a small tip of the vast Chinese iceberg touches international waters. China's modernization will not, like South Korea's and Taiwan's and Singapore's, hinge heavily on international factors.

Nor has there been any change in the hyper-nationalism and the military-mindedness of China's outlook. China has become very pro-Western, but not very internationalist, or notably devoted to a vision of a peaceful world.

There is a heavy-handed self-righteousness about China's absolute, take-it-or-leave-it hostility toward Vietnam, which makes it very difficult even to discuss the matter with Chinese officials. If one feels that China as the much larger country should have been able to find political-diplomatic means of keeping Sino-Vietnamese tensions within bounds, there is little sign on the Chinese side of self-doubt, or of awareness of the ultimate futility of using military force to express anger toward a truculent small nation.

China spends perhaps as much as nine percent of its GNP on defense—its military bill is much larger than West Germany's and several times larger than Japan's—which is a great deal for a backward society determined to improve quickly its standard of living. Doubts as to this priority may well grow among the Chinese. Yet for some time to come China, which has not forgotten its century of humiliation before foreign assault, is going to seem an old-fashioned nation in the absoluteness of its nationalism, in its maintenance of a siege mentality, and in its hearty confidence that wars can be fought and won. It was symptomatic that during the Sino-American summit in Washington after normalization, President Carter stressed "peace" when analyzing the new relationship, while Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping stressed "defense."

There was an aspect of anti-war dissent to Wei Jingsheng's challenge—his passing on of casualty figures from the China-Vietnam clash to a British journalist greatly angered certain Chinese authorities. Yet in no major nation does a strong anti-war movement seem less possible than in China.

Behind this old-fashioned belief in the verities of nationalism and the acceptability of using force lies a fundamental point of social experience: despite the new cosmopolitanism of urban China, the overall gap between China and "non-China" is still relatively vast. Chinese schools do little to promote internationalist values. Marriage between a Chinese and a non-Chinese is almost unheard of. From deep within China the outside world is perceived—if at all—only as an abstraction for China to match and surpass.

The sense of identity with people of other nationalities, which is the source of any feeling of international obligation, is not very strong among the hills and rivers of China. The knitting together of peoples through direct experience of each other's way of life, which is the basis for any hope we can have for international order, is not a process in which the Chinese are to the fore.


All in all there is a dappled character to the current Chinese scene. One hears many Delphic utterances from on high. Positions are taken whose apparent implications are shied away from. Wise and even exciting policies are introduced though the justifications offered for them ("cleaning up the mess left by the Gang of Four") do not always convince. Beijing bristles with promises and good intentions, yet one senses a number of painful trade-offs just around the corner.

A key statement of basic purpose in the post-Mao era is a vow to "create a political atmosphere in which both centralism and democracy will reign, discipline and freedom, unity of purpose and a universal feeling of satisfaction and high spirits." Each pair of values embodies a contradiction; Beijing is trying to contain it, "walking on two legs" with a gingerly care that suggests at times a lack of full confidence in either leg.

Judicial organs are to be "independent"; yet also under the supervision of the Communist Party. Ultra-leftism was a disaster; but "bourgeois" institutions would be just as bad. You may speak up and say what you wish; however if your views are "counterrevolutionary" you will be arrested.2 Skepticism is good because "blind faith" has led China into disasters; but not skepticism toward "scientific truths." The Chinese people must "emancipate their minds"; but this "definitely does not mean doing things according to one's own whims." Liu Shaoqi, the former head of state who was purged in 1968, has just been rehabilitated; yet the man who purged him, Mao Zedong, will not be directly blamed for the deed. Officially it is said that contact between Chinese and foreigners is a good thing; yet some Chinese experience bullying and surveillance after mixing with foreigners.

The young Beijing resident referred to above wrote in his letter that "Some people are beginning to question the virtues of socialism"; yet even he felt the need to tack on a qualification: "not the genuine Marxist socialism." If the Chinese twin ideas of yin and yang did not exist they would need to be invented to describe the present hospitality toward thesis and antithesis alike.

The Politburo seems determined to maintain a knife-edge balance. Is it out of a wise prudence, taking into account both the hopes and the limits on future possibilities; or is it a sign that incompatibles are wrestling beneath the surface of Chinese politics?

The prospects for political stability hinge on many factors, including the performance of the economy, how fast the social tensions of modernity develop and how much longer Deng stays fit and alive. Perhaps the most important clue, though, comes from an accurate explanation of the changes in China during the late 1970s.

One explanation is the official Chinese line that the Gang of Four held "a portion of the power" for "about a decade," and that now they have fallen and so ultra-leftism is dead, and things are better. There is some truth in this analysis, but not the whole truth. The Gang was a cohesive force only briefly; Mao's wife and her Shanghai associates were not the giant-killers in the 1960s that it is now convenient to say they were; above all they owed their "portion of the power" to Mao and all fell within weeks of Mao's death. The Gang of Four was not an independent force for very long if at all.3

Or it can be asserted that the politics of this vast land of one billion people are subject to a law of swing of the pendulum. There was the steady period of the First Five Year Plan; the Great Leap Forward; a retreat to moderate policies in the early 1960s; the utopian lunge into the Cultural Revolution; a return to pragmatism after 1969; and so on. It is true that there is in China—as in many other countries—a structural tendency to zigzag between innovation and consolidation. Yet each burst of leftist assertiveness in the PRC's history can be traced to the will of the man Mao Zedong. If people as mediocre as one or two of the Gang of Four could capture "a portion of the power" one may well expect extremists to do this repeatedly. If there is a law of swing of the pendulum, then today's pragmatism will bring on tomorrow's ideological zeal.

But the real explanation for the changes in China over recent years is the absence of Mao. After the great helmsman died, certain pressures that had been building up for years found fulfillment: pressures for an end to patriarchalism; for some intellectual experimentation free from the inhibiting shadow of a political figure who came to monopolize the mental space of the nation; for a more serious focus on economic tasks, instead of endless political hoopla; for more relaxed dealings with the international marketplace of products and ideas.

A permanent change has occurred, a shift, irreversible I believe for years, in the direction of a demythologizing of politics. So in the upper reaches of the political system, at least, the prospects for a steady period are good.

Conflicts there will be. There are still wisps of ultra-leftism even at senior levels—voices which mention "class enemies," talk a lot about the dictatorship of the proletariat, fail to denounce the Cultural Revolution, replace "seek truth from facts" with the milder "use practice as the criterion to measure truth"—and even when philosophical differences do not arise there are differences about how to allocate resources, or how to slice up the pie of production.

Yet the conflicts will not be handled as morality plays in the style of the late Mao. No single figure today embodies both doctrine (jiao) and power (zheng) as Mao, the revolution's architect, did; the two drift apart and a leader may lose power without it having to be said that he has lost truth as well. During 1978 and 1979 the Politburo has shown a readiness to live with differences, and to see them in single-issue terms, rather than as an encounter between darkness and light.

The way the legacy of Mao himself is being handled sets the tone. He is still honored; yet almost all of his large initiatives from the late 1950s until his death have been gently deplored. "Chairman Mao's Policy Has Come Back" was the headline on a recent article that reported the dismantling of Mao's rural policies of limiting private plots and private markets. Many fine policies are now said to have been "undermined during the Cultural Revolution." To say by the Cultural Revolution, which would be more candid, would point a finger at Mao; "during" allows the convenient inference that the Gang of Four made a mess of Mao's basically sound Cultural Revolution.

All this creates a disturbing gap between what is said and the implications of what is said, and intolerable strains may result. Perhaps Chinese political culture can no longer sustain ritual and indirection in its time-honored way. Perhaps the years 1976-79 were only a Chinese equivalent to the years 1953-56 in Russia, a prelude to a coming vicious dethronement. I doubt it. The Chinese way in these matters, for all the recent changes, is not the same as the Soviet way. Nor does China have a Lenin to fall back upon, as Moscow did, if it were to denounce Mao as Khrushchev denounced Stalin. Mao, as the Stalin and Lenin (and Marx) of the Chinese Revolution, is probably an indispensable symbol of the PRC's legitimacy.

In Chinese conditions, the double policy of praising Mao while burying him seems a better solution than sudden root-and-branch denunciation. Partial criticism (Deng has said Mao was 70 percent right and 30 percent wrong) works to prevent the kind of bottling up of resentment that occurred in the Soviet Union from 1953 until 1956, and it minimizes the chances of a pro-Mao backlash by Mao loyalists.

The near future will necessarily bring a resolution of some policy issues which now sit on a knife-edge. How much inequality will Beijing allow—between a worker and his boss, between city wages and those in the surrounding countryside, between levels in prosperous Manchuria and those in a poor province like Shanxi? Now that class struggle is said to be a thing of the past, when will the slippery, ultimately class-derived term "counterrevolutionary" be replaced by terms which concretely define what is unacceptable behavior under the rule, not of ideology, but of law? In every sphere of Chinese life there are such issues, which will soon have to be clarified by reference not merely to the settled, comfortable myths of a receding past but to new realities.

An acid test for "socialist legality" will be whether the members of the Gang of Four are accorded due process, despite the passions their case arouses and the political usefulness of caricaturing them as the incarnation of evil, when their trial takes place soon. It is not a good sign that a senior judge, after assuring a visitor of the regained independence of China's judicial organs, answered a question about the trial of the ultra-leftist quartet (which he expects to take place during 1980) by saying that "the disposition of the Gang of Four case will really be up to the Party leaders."

And the year 1980 may well reveal whether Deng can really remain the driving force without holding the top Party and state posts; or whether Hua, given structural realities and the deeply ingrained habit of rural Chinese to think of politics in terms of a leader—be he emperor or chairman—may rapidly show that a paper tiger can turn into a real tiger. There were signs during 1979 that Hua was growing in stature within the Politburo and the nation, though Deng's associates continue to rise on all sides of Hua in the upper reaches of the Communist Party hierarchy.

The prospects for the urban dissident movement are excellent so far as survival goes, but poor for success in bringing about basic change in China's political system. Mao's passing makes patriarchal ways unpopular and hard to defend. Part of the government is happy to see a bold vanguard pushing for more "socialist legality." And a social development—the rise of a quasi-middle class (based on access to knowledge rather than on relation to property)—is the root cause of the dissident movement. So we have as yet probably seen only the beginning of political dissent in China.

On the other hand, the dissident movement inevitably comes into conflict with even the more liberal-minded members of the Politburo. When Deng calls the dissidents "anarchists," we are reminded that he himself is an authoritarian. The Vice Premier is not so much opposed to Mao's arbitrariness that he favors an independent judiciary and full equality before the law, or is prepared to forfeit the reserve weapon of calling troublemakers "counterrevolutionaries," much less to dismantle the one-party system. Moreover, modernization in some respects requires more discipline, law and order, and centralization than China knew under Mao.

In the excitement of Beijing's liberalizations, one should recall that many of the measures are no more than a return to the legal, economic and political policies of the 1950s, and that the 1950s saw China set in place large portions of the Stalinist system. Above all, the "Democracy Wall" phenomenon is limited in being an urban growth in a nation of peasants. China cannot have a political system—I suppose it would not be "democratic" for it to do so—tailored only to the desires of an aspiring urban middle class, which is far removed from the earthbound 80 percent who till the fields.

The voices of those who seek to go "too far" toward democracy, and away from one-party dictatorship, will go on being heard; "Democracy Wall" is more modest in 1980 than it was, and it has been moved out of Beijing's heart, but it still exists. But those voices are likely to be heeded only when one part of the Politburo finds them useful as a weapon against a more conservative part. And only their "centrist," constitutionalist demands seem likely to have any success; not their "extreme," democratic demands.


For the economy, the passing of Mao carries much less significance and the picture, hinging on many variables, looks uncertain. It will take much more than the absence of Mao to achieve the ambitious goals of China's four modernizations. For all the recent loosening up, the strengths and weaknesses of the Chinese economy are pretty much what they have long been. The country has vast natural resources, an able and increasingly educated work force, a substantial industrial base, and a populace whose consumer demands are kept within firm limits.

On the negative side, one notes a shortage of capital, a massive population which it is the main task of the economy simply to feed, an inability to raise the present proportion of cultivated land (11 percent) except at exorbitant cost, weak transportation and other infrastructures, and the bureaucratic rigidities of a planning system that is still basically Marxist.

Productivity went up in 1978 and 1979, due to incentives, technological improvements and a better spirit in the nation generally, and China's credit-worthiness abroad has risen high; these are recent positive developments. Expectations have also soared, however, and Beijing's new liberal economic planners may be sowing the seeds of a serious inflation problem.

Still, economic results have been good since the new policies have been given a chance. For 1978, grain output was up seven percent over 1977, industrial output 13 percent, and foreign trade 30 percent. Although these figures will not quite be matched for 1979, when the full results are assembled in April, China may well expect a six percent rate of growth of GNP over the coming years, which is high for such a populous agricultural country, and which would see the size of the Chinese economy double in about 12 years.

Broadly, China, already the world's sixth largest economy, is in absolute terms becoming a formidable economic force in Asia, but the life of the average Chinese is going to remain austere by the standards of Asia (not to speak of the West). One may wonder whether the undoubted stoicism and potential for discipline of the Chinese people will be sufficient, in changing times, for this contradiction to be borne without dissatisfaction that will eventually produce its own new phase of political radicalism.

It is hard, in the face of many variables, and with China's new policies still in their infancy, to make firm projections as to possible social dislocations ahead. But certain trends and factors can be weighed. As ideological tensions subside, sociological tensions are bound to intensify, some of them as a result of the very successes of modernization.

Dissatisfied youth: As many as 30 million high school graduates find themselves in the countryside, where they do not wish to be. Together with many others in the towns, they form a "lost generation" which missed out on proper training during the political distractions of the 1960s, and feels resentful of the "post-Mao generation" which sails past it as expertise wins out over redness. The general problem will not go away, for China has 210 million young people in primary and high schools and only one million in tertiary schools, and will not for decades be able to much modify this acutely tapered educational pyramid. One also notes that half the 35 million members of the Communist Party joined during the Cultural Revolution; perhaps the values of that period have not really disappeared without a trace.

There is such a generation gap in China today that the leftist dissatisfied youth could well be found one day struggling alongside those, like Wei Jingsheng, who seem rightist, on the common ground of opposition to privilege and frustration at not being able to set foot on any upward path. The crime, the aping of the West, the romanticism in artistic circles—all making a significant appearance among urban young people—cannot be catalogued in terms of Left or Right. Nor is the feeling that some young people are indulgent, naïve and impatient confined to hard-nosed bureaucrats and Maoist remnants; liberal officials and intellectuals, who suffered for their nonconformity during the 1960s, are often sharply critical of "these arrogant youth with too high expectations," to quote an academician who spent the 1960s in prison. Some day a new burst of political radicalism may arise among disgruntled and/or idealistic educated youth.

Regional assertiveness: The loosening up of the economic planning process, the growth of the "frontier" areas of western China, the go-ahead given to Shanghai and other advanced industrial bastions to do their own thing and not fear that they may be blamed if they move out ahead of the rest of the nation, are all going to result in new conflicts of interest and outlook in the China of tomorrow. In particular, one watches for two developments: a growing gap between minority races and the Han peoples who have been set in their midst to lead the industrial and mineral development of the southwest, west and northwest; and possible anxiety among the Mandarins of north China as south China, with its cultural links to the overseas Chinese, spearheads China's economic involvement in Asia, and Canton develops some of the traits of a Southeast Asian city.

City-village tensions: No other major nation, unless it be India, suffers from a greater gulf between urban and rural life than does China, and the current modernization policies will widen it. That farmers were paid sharply higher prices for their grain and pigs in 1979 does not alter the fact that purchasing power (not to speak of access to knowledge and culture) is far greater in the 192 cities where 80 million Chinese live than it is in the villages where 800 million live. The specter of unemployment, moreover, hangs much more over rural China than it does over urban China. While the communes are ideal rag-bags for the underemployed, the mopping up of surplus labor can only be done at a cost to rural living standards. There are too many variables for one to predict some sporadic peasant revolt, 10 to 15 years from now, against the urban, modernizing, seaboard part of China, but of all the dangers facing China this may be the greatest.

Additional strains loom, from traffic problems to environmental threats, from the coming age imbalance of the Chinese population once the present policy of one-child families yields its fruits, to the social injustices and corruptions that will inevitably attend the unlocking of wages and prices after decades of stability. And yet there is some cause for optimism regarding China's social stability.

Because China's population is so vast, because the rate of economic growth must of necessity be well short of breakneck, and because the commitment to egalitarianism is still strong compared with most Third World countries, the way of life of most of the Chinese people is not going to be sharply transformed in the 1980s. This may prove frustrating to many Chinese but it also means a reduced chance of drastic social dislocations.

And recall that Chinese society enjoys great cohesion based on three powerful factors. There is a bone-deep nationalism that holds the Chinese together over and above agreement or disagreement as to the merits of communist rule. Cultural confidence—even the sobered Chinese of today have no real inferiority complex toward anyone—and cultural particularity are forces for stability in a modernization process. They should enable the Chinese to engage in post-Mao eclecticism without going too far and losing their moorings. Chinese civilization has long paid special attention to the very social modes which become of crucial importance during periods of economic change. China is still Confucian enough to encompass all economic mechanisms and formal state structures with informal social networks that express family and civic morality.

A final factor making for cohesion as the nation develops is the strongly secular character of China, even rural China. For most of China's history its major religions have been functional and accommodating. And its lesser religions, such as Islam, have too few adherents to swing weight in the nation as a whole. One cannot expect to see in China what has appeared in Iran and to greater or lesser degree in many parts of the developing world: a religion-based backlash movement reasserting traditional values against modernity's intrusions.

Even though China's social future may not be very Maoist, then, it will be rooted in long-tested Chinese verities. The dislocations of modernization will be softened by the ingenious resources of Chinese civilization.


In foreign and domestic policy alike, China seems to have moved out of the pristine (and often inconsequential) world of black and white choices. More enmeshed with the real world, seriously bent on economic development without diversions, Beijing paradoxically finds its options narrowing as technical issues and the manipulation of complex balances dominate its heavy agenda.

One sees a China, after 30 years of its Marxist dynasty, at a moment of great hopefulness internally; yet involved in the tricky side effects of a massive switch of emphasis from politics to economics; aware of how fundamental some of its unresolved problems are and how much smaller its purse is than its shopping list; open to the West and its ways as the PRC has never been before; experiencing internationally the limits of power and the burdens of success; gaining influence and at the same time losing its moral exceptionalism; finding (both at home and abroad) that the weight of Nature (man's selfishness, sheer biological momentum, race distrust) is often greater than the persuasions of Nurture (the ideas put into children's heads, international revolutionary solidarity, schemes of reason and morality); having to accept that while an elite was prepared to die for communism, the masses do not always seem prepared to work for communism; discovering that if making a revolution is not like a dinner party (as Mao said), neither is modernizing a land of one billion people, and neither is the cut and thrust of dissent as one generation ridicules the sacred values of another.

There is a hint of Sun Yat-senism in the air of Beijing; in both the pragmatic modernizing zeal of the Honolulu-educated organizer, and also in his sometimes unrealistic blending of incompatibles. As Maoism recedes the historical goals of the Chinese Revolution in its larger sense, first stated by Sun, are reasserting themselves: to lift the Chinese masses out of backwardness; to catch up with the West; to make China a great world power as befits a great civilization.

From the American side (and that of quite a few other nations) the approach to China is today marked by a welcome new realism. "Normalization" has proved something of an anticlimax, in many good ways and one or two not so good. We see a China less exotic and more quotidian than we used to. Its uniqueness does not seem clear-cut after all; China takes its place as part of our age, grappling soberly, like other nations, with issues of growth and justice at home and with the anarchy of a fragmenting world.

China is much closer to the West than six months ago (Mao's own split with Russia was the real starting point of an evolution that the Afghanistan crisis has brought to a new peak), and in some ways China promises to be a staunch partner in the containment of a U.S.S.R. whose intentions it has perhaps read more accurately than the West has. Yet whether we and the Chinese can actually do things together, rather than merely analyze a crumbling world in largely similar terms, is yet to be proved. The possibilities of it, from the Chinese side, and the limits, will stem from the domestic realities which my pages have probed.

It is well to be realistic, for the Chinese have become more realistic about themselves. In the long term Beijing cares deeply about the changing world political map; yet for some years it would like to focus on domestic development. Our new friend is more nationally minded than we are, less inclined to be an international do-gooder; a ponderous land stirring only slowly from a siege mentality, not yet possessed of many positive ideas about a safer and healthier world, or resources to spare in the quest for it. China is with us, but any "joint" international responsibilities will be ours much more than China's. The Chinese are trying to solve China's problems, and given the dimensions of these, they can hardly be expected to solve many of the world's problems.

1 Three years ago I wrote in these pages of the signs of such a trend in "China and the World: Self-Reliance or Interdependence?", Foreign Affairs, January 1977.

2 A counterrevolutionary "thought" is no concern of the law, a senior judge told a visitor, but a counterrevolutionary "public statement" is considered to be the equivalent of a counterrevolutionary "deed."

3 One worker at the New China News Agency privately expressed his disgust to a visitor that a draft article on Peng Dehuai, who fell foul of Mao in 1959 and died in 1974, had stated that the former Defense Minister "was persecuted and harried to death by the Gang of Four." The worker protested to his boss about the absurdity of the phrase. As a result the anachronistic reference to the Gang of Four was cut out of the article.

  • Ross Terrill, author of 800,000,000: The Real China, Flowers On An Iron Tree, The Future of China, and other books, has been a frequent visitor to China, first in 1964 and most recently in 1980. He has just completed a biography of Mao Zedong (Harper & Row). Copyright (c) Ross Terrill.
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