Is a Chinese Civil Society Possible?


The political stability required in the run-up to the 17th Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Congress next March and then the 2008 Olympics helps explain the present tightening in China of controls on the media, academics and journalists critical of Party and Government. However, the ban on public comment and discussion about the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) during last week’s 40th anniversary on 16 May, reflects a deeper malaise facing China.

While Chinese President Hu Jintao reshuffles local and central functionaries to make way for changes at the top of the Party and Government (to be announced next year), the ban on examining the Cultural Revolution reflects the Communist Party’s fear of opening old wounds and unleashing calls for reform that would threaten the political power it currently enjoys — power that it holds, at least in part, by the monopoly the Party exercises over the interpretation of history.

Social science professor Ding Xueling of Hong Kong’s University of Science and Technology, a former Red Guard, is quoted in the South China Morning Post, as saying that former leader Deng Xiaoping and former Vice Premier Wan Li, (both ‘revolutionary immortals’) admitted that if China had had a mechanism of checks and balances, the Cultural Revolution would not have occurred. Professor Ding observed that the Government has done little to promote such a mechanism in the intervening years. He sees this is a significant failure: not having learned from the Cultural Revolution.

The CCP repudiated the Cultural Revolution in 1981. The Party’s public position is that the Cultural Revolution was a decade of catastrophe attributed to the mistaken leadership of Mao Zedong who was misled by Lin Biao (Chief of the Army) and Jiang Qing (Mao’s wife) and her associates, the Gang of Four. However, the real view of the Party, according to Professor Ding, is that the Cultural Revolution was a problem of too much popular participation in politics.

The CCP is therefore loathe to allow free discussion about the Cultural Revolution or democratisation, nor is the rule of law likely to develop. Ironically, those policies are likely to increase calls for political reform rather than allay them, as people are denied redress during social conflicts.

China is undergoing the largest transition to urbanisation ever in human history. Village land is being expropriated by cadres or degraded without compensation. Urban apartment owners suing developers who renege on contracts aren’t getting adequate redress. Villagers are in constant turmoil and exercise their ancient right to protest local government decisions to higher authorities but resolution of these disputes seems inadequate. China’s recent membership of the WTO and burgeoning economic growth mean the regulation of business is breaking down, and corruption is having a similar effect on the tax system.

Song Yongyi an expert on the Cultural Revolution who is based at the University of California, Los Angeles, reports for the South China Morning Post that academic estimates of the death toll from the Cultural Revolution is 3 million, and that 200 million of the then Chinese population of 600 million were affected. Economic losses during that time were estimated by the semi-official Hong Kong New China News Agency in 1991 at 500 billion yuan — equal to the total capital investment on the mainland between 1949 and 1978.

Thanks to Sharon Raggett

The legacy of an unexamined Cultural Revolution is the collapse of trust between friends, family and colleagues, and pervasive social cynicism fuelled by corruption and increasing social inequality. It also means that the younger generation do not know what happened, that Mao is still revered and his era is seen nostalgically as egalitarian. And these memories of Mao are used by those who oppose the direction of the current economic reforms as well as the internal Party reforms.

Chinese political and social life may still be susceptible to the demagogy that disfigured China in the Cultural Revolution. Some commentators, and many contemporary Chinese artists, see the current consumption boom and the wholesale destruction of the heritage of the built urban environment as redolent of the national hysteria that was manipulated during that previous decade of catastrophe.

In the absence of a public and freely informed historical discussion about Chinese history in general, and the Cultural Revolution in particular, the CCP announced earlier this year that it is funding a revival of Marxism. Reported as pledging unlimited funds to the revival of Marxism to turn China into the global centre for its study, the party established the Marxism Theory and Construction Project and a new Academy of Marxism last year to modernise communist ideology.

A civil society requires equitable access to food, housing, education and health care, security, the rule of law, freedom of speech and of association, toleration in the public domain where history, society and values can be debated, and a democratic form of representative government. China will not be a civil society in the foreseeable future.

Whether the CCP can contain the social pressures unleashed by the nearly 30 years of spectacular but uneven economic development that have followed the turbulent decade of the Cultural Revolution is a moot point. Economists don’t see how China can fail, but political scientists don’t see how it can succeed.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.