Iwas born in 1925 in northeast China and grew up in Harbin, a city greatly influenced by Russian culture. My father had lived in Russia for many years, and on his return to China became a Russian interpreter in a railway office. This Russian-oriented family background was a formative influence in my early life. I began to develop a serious interest in Marxism at the age of fourteen through a reading group organized by Communists. I participated in the underground resistance movement against Japan when I was eighteen, and subsequently became a Communist Party member in 1944. I worked as a journalist from 1951, but was condemned as an anti-Party/socialist rightist in 1957 for advocating freedom of the press and the right to criticize, and for exposing in my writings the dark side of society. After being expelled from the Party, I became a pariah, living a simple, modest existence for twentytwo years without any political rights. I was officially rehabilitated in 1979
First, China’s historical trajectory is very different from that of either the Soviet Union or the other East European countries. For more than two decades prior to the seizure of power in 1949 the Chinese Communists had heroically resisted the ruling landlord class and the bureaucratic bourgeoisie, and opposed the occupation of the country by Japan, in tenacious military struggles. Their credit for this and their achievements in the first few years of the People’s Republic—the elimination of unemployment and inflation, as well as such longstanding social problems as widespread opium addiction, prostitution and banditry—contrasted sharply with the corrupt and incompetent Guomindang regime. Selfless and principled service on the part of Communist officials further strengthened the image of the Communist Party as the ‘great liberator’ of the people. By 1953, the restoration and reconstruction of the national economy, and the rural cooperative movement, which was a big step forward in land reform, had proved very successful. Meanwhile, the social position of poor peasants and workers—who made up the majority of the population—was radically transformed through the priority given to them and their children in education, employment and political preferment; they also benefited from the welfare system for state employees, including free medical care. These changes established conditions that, to this day, serve to legitimize the Communist Party’s grip on power.
Secondly, China’s current stability is testimony to the regime’s effective screening of information and its system of ideological control, which filter out much of what has really happened in the last forty years. Scattered reports or dispersed protests never come together: they remain fragmentary and contingent—disconnected events that fail to cohere into any form of systematic understanding or become public knowledge. The political system has prevented the emergence of any organized opposition inside or outside the Party, leaving no room for an alternative. It is very difficult to challenge a totalitarian power in a country that lacks a democratic tradition and an independent intelligentsia.
Thirdly, we should bear in mind China’s considerable economic success. Although the 1989 democracy movement arose in direct response to a perceived increase in corruption and social inequality, it is nevertheless the case that the remarkable improvement in living
To respond first to the question about the regime’s legitimacy. As early as the mid 1970s, Communism, as represented by the ‘Gang of Four’, had lost its legitimacy. The reforms carried out after the death of Mao gave the Party a chance to recover some credit. For many people, however, the crackdown on the student movement of 1989 marked the end of Communist legitimacy. Yet the collapse of Communism in the former Soviet Union has done the Chinese regime a great service. Afraid of chaos, the breakup of the country, and the economic hardship that characterizes the current situation in the former Soviet empire, the Chinese people are now giving the Communist government another chance.
Nevertheless, it has to be said that the old image of a benign Communism is long gone in China as well. All other factors aside, knowledge of the great tragedies and failures for which the Communist Party was responsible has become increasingly widespread—events such as the famine of 1960–62 that cost millions of lives; the waste of the so-called ‘third-line’ and other barely functioning industries, which drew sweat and toil from the workers; the endless political campaigns that produced numerous injustices; the inhuman conditions of the labour camps that incarcerated innocent people. The execution of young dissidents was even more flagrant, as many had been inspired by Marxism. Of course, public attitudes toward the Party vary greatly—between different generations, occupations and professions, vested interests, and so on.
I do not think the pusillanimity and subservience of China’s intellectuals can be justified. Most of us joined the Party when and because it led the struggle for the liberation of the exploited and the oppressed and for national independence. But past achievements cannot compensate for its recent mistakes and crimes. The lack of a critical faculty among many intellectuals is a fundamental failing of our cultural tradition.