Cultural Revolutions, Great and Small

March 2012 in China was a month of power struggles – that can be safely said, because one member of the polit bureau, Bo Xilai, fell from power.

Then there was chief state councillor Wen Jiabao‘s press conference, on March 14. His remark that a historic tragedy like the cultural revolution could occur again, and that reform was therefore an urgent task, can be interpreted as anything from a call for far-reaching liberalization, to just a handful of technicalities.

According to Sinostand,

If the economy slows or abruptly halts, then the void will have to be filled somehow. That could be done through political reforms that give direct accountability to the people, or some kind of scapegoat could be used to consolidate angst in a direction away from the government. I suspect Wen Jiabao’s calls for the former are in hopes of avoiding the latter.

John Garnaut listened to Hu Dehua‘s family history. Hu Dehua is the third and youngest son of former party chairman Hu Yaobang, a reformer who was ousted by the party establishment in 1987, and died in 1989.

Garnaut mainly recorded Hu Dehua’s story, apparently. It was published by Foreign Policy, on Thursday. At times, it doesn’t seem easy to tell what is Hu’s account, and where Garnaut may be drawing either on Hu’s story, or on sources he had previously known. But Hu Dehua himself is quoted with a statement which corresponds with Sinostand’s interpretation of Wen Jiabao’s mention the Cultural Revolution.

Hu Dehua told his father how pessimistic he felt about his country’s future. Hu Yaobang agreed that the methods and ideologies of the 1987 anti-liberalization movement came straight from the Cultural Revolution. But he told his son to gain some historical perspective*), and reminded him that Chinese people were not joining in the elite power games as they had 20 years before. He called the anti-liberalization campaign a “medium-sized cultural revolution” and warned that a small cultural revolution would no doubt follow, Hu Dehua told me.

Hu Yaobang also told his son that as society developed, the middle and little cultural revolutions would gradually fade from history’s stage.

If Wen Jiabao’s reference to the Cultural Revolution wasn’t mainly meant to be merely a punch into Bo Xilai’s face – which is quite possible, too -, China’s chief state councillor doesn’t seem to believe that such a degree of societal development which would make middle and little cultural revolutions disappear has yet been reached, and he wouldn’t even rule out another big one.

But while Garnaut’s Foreign-Policy article is definitely a scoop, and while one can be pretty sure that Hu Dehua didn’t simply talk with a foreign correspondent because he felt like it, one shouldn’t think of Hu’s or Garnaut’s account as something carved in stone, either.

Hu Yaobang was largely airbrushed from official history after his purge in 1987. But because he did not publicly challenge the Communist Party, he maintained his legacy and his supporters, including all of the current and likely future party chiefs and premiers: Hu Jintao, Wen Jiabao, Xi Jinping, and Li Keqiang. All four regularly visit the Hu family home during Spring Festival. But only Wen Jiabao has publicly honored his mentor’s legacy.

The picture chosen from the Hu Yaobang family photo collection shows Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao standing next to Hu Yaobang, and it supports the message of the paragraph quoted above. But when a man is the CCP’s chairman and secretary general, where else would aspiring cadres want to stand?

I have no great doubts that the feelings of both Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao towards Hu Yaobang and his family remained friendly indeed. Wen Jiabao or one of his top officials aren’t unlikely authorizers of Hu Dehua’s meeting with  Garnaut. But that doesn’t mean that Hu Jintao or Wen Jiabao would need to see eye to eye with Hu Yaobang or Hu Dehua, on matters of liberalization. Having seen former Nazi and Communist foot soldiers sitting next to each other and having a beer in West Germany’s 1970s, I seem to understand that no matter how deep political and ideological differences may run, human feelings or even friendship may outlast totalitarianism – if those who retain some human feelings, no matter how low life may get, survive the ideologies at work.

Bo Xilai is out. If he will actually be tried – for alleged corruption, or for offense against party discipline, or whatever, will be a different question. It has been suggested that his adversaries, i. e., apparently, most of the top party leaders,  may shy away from bringing him to trial, because this would deepen the public impression that the party leadership may not be united.

But another explanation would be a fear that such a trial, too, could amount to a little or middle cultural revolution, and could even lead to a big one in the end.
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Note

*) Wang Meng (王蒙), a Chinese writer and former politician, describes similar discussions between a cadre and his son, in the late days of the Cultural Revolution, in The Butterfly (1983, partly auto-biographical). The father’s attitude in Wang’s novel is becoming more liberal, but a gulf remains between the ways the cadre and his son see their country, as the son’s lesson drawn from the Cultural Revolution is to distrust the state as a matter of principle.

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Related

» No World Outside, March 28, 2012

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8 Responses to “Cultural Revolutions, Great and Small”

  1. Dear JR, Please by all means add to the project and I’ll promote yours on Twitter, G+ and Facebook. And also some friends on Twitter ask if it’s possible to incorporate bits and pieces of Wu Renhua’s book in my posts. Unfortunately the writer Diane can’t read Chinese and I don’t have enough time to do the translation. I’m wondering if you’ll be interested to have a go. You don’t have to translate his entries everyday, or in full. Just provide summaries and choose and pick what you like. If you’re interested, here’s where you can download his book http://tinyurl.com/7ve5zmp . Catherine

  2. The book can only be “bought” behind the link (at zero dollars) – but this document is the same one, isn’t it?
    Thanks a lot for your tweet!

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