“Mao’s Legacy”: Kremlin Astrology continues to Matter

Another day in history is upon us – the May 16 Notification, of 1966. It is widely  seen as the starting point of the “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution”, forty-five years ago, although, upon its initial release, there was some confusion as to what the May 16 Notification actually meant amongst Party members*).

And once again, we are being inundated with a flood of news articles, suggesting that China were “split” about Mao.

Zhong Nan Hai Compound, western wall

Zhong Nan Hai Compound, western wall (Wikimedia Commons, click picture for source)

Hardly any of them suggest that there were an open debate. But many articles seem to suggest that there was some transparency, and a way to assess the consequences of contributions to such a discussion in China through that kind of transparency.

Which is true – but in a way rarely mentioned – or observed – in such articles. They seem to take Chinese scholarly – or propagandistic – artwork for information, and the real source of information – coverage on the decisions arrived at by China’s nine full-time dictators – as something too boring to deal with.

Jürgen Domes and Marie-Luise Näth offered some context in “China after the Cultural Revolution”. It’s an old book, from 1975 (in German) or 1977 (in English). But it may be able to inform us better than most of the “real-time” news articles of these days. This is how it starts:

The process of political decision-making in the PRC does not take place in a framework of open discussion before a well-informed public. This makes it alsmost inpenetrable even to the Chinese-speaking foreign observer. Consequently, a different set of rules has to apply for a study of this and similar political systems than for the description and analysis of open societies.

In this context, “Kremlin-astrology”  shouldn’t be rejected, according to the authors. Domes and Näth suggested that without that somewhat derided practise, there would be no way of understanding political events in the (then Brezhnev-led) USSR, nor of events in China: This is true for China at least to the same extent as it is for the Soviet Union.

That was in the mid-1970s. But it is still true.

Domes and Näth listed several ways of gathering information, and pointed out that

Experience has shown that a clear scale of importance can be drawn up for the data content of the various sources. At the top there are the provincial radio broadcasts that are copy-taped outside the country, and which include articles taken from the provincial press. This is where the leadership speaks directly to the people. This is where details are made public that are seldom mentioned by central organs like the central Peking Radio; the daily newspaper Jen-min jih-pao (People’s Daily; JMJP) and the monthly theoretical Communist Party journal Hung-ch’i (HC). These sources are only of secondary value in terms of the value of their data. Third in importance are the reports in foreign languages put out by the PRC. The data-content of these sources is reduced considerably because of the propaganda interest of the media. Finally, there are travellers’ reports, the reports from Peking correspondents of the foreign news media, and remarks made by refugees from China. This scale does not include the internal communications of the Chinese leadership, which only rarely get abroad. These, of course, are particularly valuable, but they are not regularly available to us and cannot therefore offer a complete picture.

We don’t need to listen to provincial shortwave radio stations anymore to look behind the People’s Daily or Peking Radio. On China National Radio (CNR, 中央人民广播电台 – China’s central radio station with a number of topical channels), we may listen to FM when in China, or online (or still on shortwave) when outside China. Moreover, we can read provincial papers online, too. In addition, even those of us who don’t speak or read Chinese can make use of many translations – also online, nearly real-time, and quite various, such as the China Media Project‘s website, Danwei, China Digital Times, etc.. And former SCMP editor-in-chief Willy Lam might take us on a tour of Chongqing, to look at how princeling business and some kind of “Maoism” seem to go hand in hand in that place.

Given these changes in the range of Chinese sources on offer, I’m wondering where Domes and Näth would put the English-language Global Times these days, in their old scale-of-importance ranking. I’m almost chucking up when seeing how even international broadcasters handle China’s official English-speaking media as actual “Chinese press”.

And I’m wondering where Domes and Näth would rank most of the reports from Peking correspondents of the foreign news media.

To engage in some Kremlin-astrology (or Zhongnanhai astrology) of our own, we can’t avoid the most boring sources that are available in China. That’s to say, leaders’ speeches to their people. By putting speeches by Wen Jiabao, Wu Bangguo, and Hu Jintao together, and by reading resolutions and decisions the politbureau actually arrived at, I began to feel in April that I could put together a picture of the ways China is going to take, for the coming ten years. From what I can see, the “divide” between “Maoists” and “liberals” in Chinese politics is neither decided, nor will it play a great role in shaping the coming decade anyway.

Granted – my pasttime astrology can’t count as something scientific. The time I can spend on it is limited, and to read a Chinese article still takes more time for me than to read an English-language equivalent. I’m following my hunches by doing that, rather than acting out of scientific ambition, and am only realizing now that Domes and Näth offered a guide some thirty-five years ago.

If our media’s correspondents would take such an approach into consideration, I would probably stop blogging, because my main motivation to read Chinese sources is the near-absence of serious Zhongnanhai astrology in our press. I’m blogging, because our medias’ coverage of China usually bores me. And I’m reading “bridge blogs” because they help to fill some of the resulting gaps our regular press leaves behind.



*) Wikipedia, referring to Mao’s Last Revolution (2006) by Roderick MacFarquhar and Michael Schoenhals, p. 41


» Rare Essay humbles Mao, CMP, April 28, 2011
» Three Educationals: Truthfulness is Everything, April 8, 2011
» “World Media Summit”: Be more Xinhua, October 10, 2009

4 Comments to ““Mao’s Legacy”: Kremlin Astrology continues to Matter”

  1. JR For reading the runes, CMP does a tremendous job, even if it is areaders task to wade through the verbose allusive ( translated) writing style of party ideologists and public intellectuals. David Brandurski deserves a major reward.

    I would also add The Diplomat and discard Danwei into the garbage bin of the much over rated.

    “From what I can see, the “divide” between “Maoists” and “liberals” in Chinese politics is neither decided, nor will it play a great role in shaping the coming decade anyway.”

    Agree, since all sides and the Hu ville centre are rusted on to the idea of the CPC maintaining a total monopoly of State power.

    Bo is the dude to watch for many reasons, including his faux Mao retroism. I view him as a modern warlord in an Armani suit and a master of burearcratic manouvre.

    Finally, its great to see the grannies beginning to obtain fruitful employment as block/surveillance wardens and neighbourhood busybodies again.

    This truly is a nation state treading water, and without any long-term political agenda other than staying in power. Not that there is much critical mass push back from what passes as civil society. Again, how the economy, employment creation, housing, wages and inflation will be the determining factors. My mantra.


  2. and discard Danwei into the garbage bin of the much over rated

    You’ve never been a man of compromise, KT, have you? 😉 Danwei may be quoted too often, and CMP too rarely, in the internatonal press. I guess journalists don’t seek advice from academic temples too often – their neglicence of a more methodological kremlin astrology maybe evidence for that, too.

    But I do like the Danwei website, too, and hope its current “hiatus” will be over soon. Especially under the aspect of South-African relations with China, I’ve found information there – or from there, as Goldkorn writes for South African papers once in a while – which aren’t available elsewhere, neither in Chinese, nor in English. Stuff like “Nixon in China”, too. I also like the calm way in which they cover China-related news.

    Yeah, those neighborhood-committee grannies. They’ll know much more than we’ll ever know. Seen some greyish chengguan once in a while, too. They might be less violent than the younger ones, though.

    Those guys just don’t understaaand China. Why should they do away either with “Mao Zedong Thought”, or the “Three Represents”? Our position has always been consistent!

    Again, how the economy, employment creation, housing, wages and inflation will be the determining factors.

    All that, and b>water, KT…
    Have a nice weekend!


  3. Have to admit that I haven’t read anything on Danwei in ages, if it weren’t for their hook-up with the Guardian, I wouldn’t even know that they still existed.


  4. Given that a certain Shaun Reign has regular “Forbes” entries, how can a reader take offense from Danwei‘s hookup with the Guardian? Goldkorn’s commentary is usually very reasonable, and his posts inform about China, rather than acting as another China Daily.

    Which is probably why there’s a Forbes-Reign and a Guardian-Danwei hookup, rather than vice versa.
    That said, a true newspaper should rely on its own correspondents, rather than on blogs. It has become noticeable that newspapers are saving on their infrastructure. The Economist is a noteworthy exception, as is the BBC, in the field of radio and television.

    Above all, never ask an expert when China is the issue.


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