Chapter 59: The Bad, the Good, & Same of Communist China

The Bad: Repression of human rights

It’s easy to vilify the rule of the Communist regime in China. The violence, mass starvation, and destruction of culture perpetrated by the Red Chinese government have etched a negative image in the Western mind. China has a military dictatorship that has usurped the freedom of the populace. Red China is a Communist police state where the Chinese have very few rights. It is a very rigid society, where dissent is not tolerated. Due to their takeover of peaceful Tibet combined with the international lobbying of the Dalai Lama China is also viewed as a political megalith that wants to engulf all those small nations that surround her. These are just a few of the commonly evoked images. It would be hard to argue against the content of these statements.

As recently as February 2009 human rights advocate Huang Qi was imprisoned for requesting an investigation into local corruption that might have led for the deaths of hundreds of children when their school collapsed in an earthquake. As the surrounding buildings survived many parents suspect that shoddy construction was partially responsible. Huang was charged with the “illegal possession of state secrets”. As the secrets can’t be revealed this charge is impossible to defend. The court will probably sentence Huang to 3 years in jail, the second time he has been imprisoned. The first time he spoke out against the suspicious death of a member of the banned Falun Gong pro-democracy movement while in custody. Since Mao’s reign the government uses the charge of “illegal possession of state secrets” anytime it wants to imprison someone who is challenging government practices. It is impossible to defend against and carries a mandatory prison sentence. In most of the Western democracies this restriction of individual rights is considered outrageous and unjustified under any circumstance.

Coincidently within a few days China’s human rights record was reviewed by the United Nations. They, of course, denied the existence of secret prisons, summary executions, media censorship and the use of torture to extract confessions. However China’s officials began by stating that they had made great progress in lifting their 1.3 billion citizens out of poverty, but that they had a long way to go to protect their rights, and that they were well aware of the challenges they faced. Certain nations, such as Sri Lanka, who had also restricted human rights to establish social stability, defended China’s actions, pointing out that they had increased longevity, literacy, and improved living standards. Human rights are always balanced by the need for social stability. However the line between the two is always ambiguous.

Further what with its book burning during China’s Cultural Revolution, its cultural domination of peaceful Buddhist Tibet, its suppression of Taoism, not to mention the massacre of the students of Tiananmen square, the Red Chinese government has deeply offended the literati of any country.

Harsh measures to stabilize & modernize China

Let’s put the ordeals of the 20th century Chinese in perspective by reviewing the context that motivated their radical decisions.

With the book burnings during China’s Cultural Revolution, its cultural domination of peaceful Buddhist Tibet, its suppression of Taoism, not to mention the massacre of the students of Tiananmen Square, the Red Chinese government deeply offended the literati of every country. However, as with everything else about China, the intellectual repression has a historical precedent. The First Emperor of Ch’in also burned books and executed scholars. Actually scholar purges and book burnings have been quite regular throughout Chinese history. The literati tend to regularly speak up against perceived injustice and regularly bear the expected consequences. Many of the emperors consider these purges necessary for the good of the society and empire. The First Emperor burned books and buried scholars in order that the standardization he had attempted would be carried out effectively. Mao burned books and purged and relocated scholars because they were disrupting his social programs, which he thought were necessary for the good of the country. He was not engaging in these literary purges to increase his personal wealth and pleasure. He was doing it to preserve social stability. He was applying metal to wood. He was applying yi, self-rectification to the society as a whole. Mao put Chinese culture and society through a period of social adjustment, as did the First Emperor, from which they can never return. On the bright side most times of repression and scholarly purges, i.e. periods of social adjustment, were followed by times of greater tolerance.

Just as the legalism in the reign of the First Emperor was a necessary response to the chaos of the Warring States Period, so was the rigidity of the Red Chinese government a balance to the preceding era of warlords and imperialism. During the previous era, beggars were omnipresent, millions were starving to death in drought years. Half the population, the women had their feet broken and bound in their youth so that they could only hobble around. At most 10% of the population could read, perhaps as few as 1%. Most of the population was addicted to opium.

In contrast there are no more beggars in Communist China, as everyone is accounted for. Although their rights are restricted the peasantry has food, and starvation is a thing of the past. Even though still socially subservient the women no longer have their feet bound and are an active part of the work force. Although reading material is severely limited by Western standards, universal education is the standard, with literacy approaching Western levels. Furthermore drug trafficking has disappeared under the Communist repression. The opium addiction that was widespread during the preceding Ching dynasty is non-existent.

Compared to the West the rights of the Chinese are quite limited. However the quality of life for the majority has improved qualitatively from what it had been. Half the population, who could only hobble around and were illiterate, can now walk normally and also read. While excruciatingly poor in comparison to Europeans and Americans eighty percent or more of the population now has regular meals and clothing, compared with the social instability and widespread suffering which preceded the Communist regime.

Although the standard of living is qualitatively better for a large majority of the population, it is far worse for the one to five percent of the population that were literate males. These officials, landlords and businessman, who previously had the potential to become fabulously wealthy and powerful and were probably more free than the Western working class, suddenly lost their freedom to get rich off the labor of the majority.

However as is normal in Chinese politics, this period of social adjustment just goes on for decades, not for centuries. Even now, as the Red Chinese government heads past its half-century mark, Western imperialism makes its mark through contact with Hong Kong. International business is drooling over China’s enormous market. Things are changing rapidly and will continue to do so. The profit motive is becoming big in China.

The Good & Bad of abandoning the Confucian Classics

The Communist regime also employed harsh measures in their deliberate dismantling of the Three Doctrines, beginning with Confucianism. Modern military technology, manifested especially through Japanese militarism, forced China to come to grips with science for self-preservation. During the late Ching dynasty government officials realized that the traditional curricula of the scholarly class based upon the Confucian classics was inadequate to give China the necessary technological background to compete and survive in the global politics of the 20th century. As such the Manchus abandoned the traditional ju [Confucian] training.

At its worst ju training degenerates into a rigid backwards-looking style of scholarship, which values tradition at the expense of progress, especially technology. This Chinese tendency to adhere to form at the expense of novelty was probably in the genetics of the Mongol race, selected for by the tribe’s ability to survive the extreme conditions of the Ice Age in Siberia. This could be part of the cultural genetics of the Mongol race, and is certainly part of the tao of China, which many times, is at odds with the tao of Heaven. Moving into the 20th century was one of those times. Suddenly adherence to the old aristocratic forms, which had worked for so well for so long, was leading to disaster, as the situations that had spawned them were now obsolete.

However, as always in any case of longevity, there was a reason that the ‘Confucian’ Classics were so successful in generating an effective official bureaucracy for the Chinese. It was not just because it stressed cultural continuity and preservation of antiquated forms for the sake of tradition. The reason that the Classics worked was because the philosophy of Confucius and Mencius connected to the Duke of Chou’s leadership spoke of effective and responsible leadership which values its people and selects its leaders through exams that test ability rather than through one’s heredity gene pool.[1] Responsible leadership has been a part of Chinese tradition from their earliest legends on down to Mao Zedong.

Many of their leaders have made big mistakes, including Mao. However frequently their intentions were to run a good government, not power and greed. The First Emperor of Ch’in would fall under this category. He was attempting to be a good ruler. He read pounds of documents every day to exhibit this intent. If his megalomania moved him to burn books and scholars for social stability it doesn’t take away from his intent. Similarly although Mao’s policies have been far too repressive by most Western standards, it was not for personal gain that he was making these moves. More often it was for the good of the country. Mao did not amass a great personal fortune, nor lead a fancy life. He dressed like the rest of the Chinese in gray cotton and lived a relatively austere life. He was not like the Mexican presidents who amass a huge fortune and then retire, hobnobbing with the wealthy.

Although the study of the Chinese Classics by the Chinese scholar-officials [the ju class] instilled a tradition of responsible leadership, the information was backward-looking and outdated. In the attempt to modernize China the Communist regime abandoned these teachings, which had been one of the backbones of the tao of China culture. Needless to say this move undermined the Chinese sense of tradition.

The Good & Bad of Religious intolerance

Just like the freedom to make profits was severely restricted in the early decades of Communism in China, so was the freedom of religion. In early Red China, 100% of the Chinese everywhere, whether rich or poor, male or female, could no longer worship in traditional ways. Unfortunately and fortunately.

Mao stressed that setting up the government was only ‘the first step in a long march.’ Indeed they had very few traditions to fall back upon. In attempting to join the modern industrial world, they had to junk the outdated Confucian exams. Further in becoming ‘modern’ they attacked religion as the ‘opiate of the people’. This meant that both Buddhist and Taoist institutions came under attack by the Communist establishment.

To understand Mao’s relationship to Taoism, let us talk a little about Chinese temples. The Chinese were incredibly aware environmentally. They have a word feng-shui, which has to do with balancing their entire environment according to certain principles based upon yin-yang theory.

“The modern town and country planning expert, Professor Abercrombie, credited feng-shui, with producing ‘one of the most elaborate landscapes which has ever existed, a landscape which had to preserve certain spiritual values and also to fulfill the practical purpose of supporting a dense population.[i]

These temples, Taoist in orientation, were the center of their communities, physically, politically, and spiritually. At the center of the city was the Taoist temple, which served as a civic center, assembly hall, and religious center. The Taoist priests who served in the temple had an enormous prestige in the community.

During the period of European influence many Taoist temples were destroyed as they were in competition with Christianity. The period of European influence extended from the last century of the Manchu dynasty through to when the Communists took over. When the Communists took over they accelerated the destruction of the Taoist temples.

Basically Chinese Communism is an extension of Confucianism. It is a religion of the state. Taoism, as previously seen, is a religion of the individual. Mao wisely saw that the Taoists were the biggest threat to his Communist state and thoroughly destroyed institutional Taoism by destroying their temples. Mao consciously understood these local temples represented the head and body of the community and as such the seat of local resistance. Hence in order to establish the supremacy of the state, he needed to eradicate these pockets of local resistance by destroying their head, these Taoist temples.

In literature the temple symbolized the body of man. The concept of ‘sweeping the temple’ is the same as cleaning out the mind of distracting influences. In the Monkey book Tripitaka makes a vow to sweep out any pagoda that he sees. In one case this leads to the arousal of the temple demons, with the resulting battle to regain control. Hence sweeping out the temple can mean emptying the mind, but most likely first there must be a battle with the demons that have set up shop. They have a life of their own which seeks preservation. Hence the pursuit of emptiness requires an incredible battle to succeed – the battle of preexisting notions. To bring China into the 20th century the Communist regime felt it had to sweep the temple of these preexisting notions that prevented their populace from moving forward.

In terms of human rights, the positive aspects that are unique to the Communist regime are the increased involvement of women in all areas of public life in China and the general literacy of the population. The uniquely negative aspect of Red Chinese experience is its repudiation of all the Chinese philosophical traditions. The Confucian Classics have been abandoned. Following the tolerant Christian example, the Red Chinese destroyed all the Taoist temples, as Taoism was based in superstition and was preventing China’s forward progress. Similarly Buddhism was persecuted as an opiate of the masses. To enable modernization the Three Doctrines that sustained the Chinese for so many millennia have been banned or suppressed during the Communist regime, presumably for the greater good, and replaced by Communist ideology.

As we move into the 21st century this is a gross generalization. Limited religious freedom is now allowed again as the government has stabilized and a new generation is looking forward rather than backward for inspiration – for better or worse.

Red China – part of dynastic tradition, not democratic

In the study of Chinese dynastic history, many patterns repeat themselves. While some elements of the Communist government are unique, there are many elements that remain the same.

Mao thoroughly understood the strength in maintaining the continuity of the Chinese dynastic tradition. He even announced the beginning of his Communist dynasty at the Gate of Heavenly Peace in Beijing, where dynasties were always announced. Further he located his capital in Beijing where the imperial capital had been for over 500 years, since early in the Ming dynasty. Hence Mao was consciously setting up another dynasty. His dynasty differed from the others because leadership was not hereditary but determined by an elite Communist council. Mao was the Chairman not the Emperor.

The government is centralized behind an elite group, just like it has always been. China has not moved towards a representative form of government hoped for by Sun Zhongshan, but has instead remained an autocracy. The Red Chinese government rules in an identical style to its predecessors with the few making the decisions for the many. In Chinese history we’ve seen an increasing amount of centralization throughout the centuries. While the Shang dynasty was only a kingdom with limited influence beyond its borders, the following Chou dynasty increased its influence by setting up a feudal situation where it was dependent upon the support of other mini-kingdoms for its strength. This dynasty fragmented and then the First Emperor of Ch’in destroyed the feudal system with its hereditary privileges, centralizing power behind he and his armies. The Han dynasty still had to rely upon the power of other warlords to maintain its collective strength. This situation continued more or less through to the Sung dynasty when the First Emperor of the Sung demilitarized the aristocracy to focus more power in the hands of the imperial government. From this point on the autocratic power of the Emperor has continued to grow due to military, transportation and communication advances. The Emperor’s army has been increasingly dominant over the native population. They have been able to travel faster with better communications. Because of these types of ‘progress’ the central government has been able to dominate larger populations more effectively. Under this form of government when there have been good Emperors, everything runs relatively smoothly, while when there are bad emperors the administration breaks down.

There is virtually no evidence of any kind of democratic tradition in China. If any country in the West was suddenly placed under a Chinese style government there would be massive protests and revolts because it would be so different from the relative freedom that we are used to. However for the Chinese, this is the way governments have operated for four thousand years. The governments have been more or less tolerant but always autocratic, with power centralized in the hands of one man or woman. The previous Manchu government, while autocratic, would have been considered more tolerant than the Red Chinese in the sense that they tolerated and even encouraged traditional Chinese forms of philosophy and religion. While the Manchu government was more tolerant, it was also more chaotic. Overall a greater percentage of the population of China was suffering physically under the more tolerant Manchu regime than under the less tolerant Communist dynasty. Thus once again the peasantry is happier with less freedom and more social stability than they are with more freedom and more suffering. It is hard to enjoy freedom if there is no food.[ii]

Imperial Precedents for strategies of Chinese Communism

Intellectual repression

Although the intellectual intolerance of the Communist government has not been the norm, it has certainly been a recurring theme in Chinese history, many times for the same reasons. The feeling was that allowing dissent would undermine the state, a traditional feeling in all military governments west or east.

Closed society

The closed society of Red China is another aspect that is not unique. Beginning with the Ming dynasty in the late 1300’s the Chinese society has been consciously closed to Western influence. Hence for nearly 600 years the Chinese society has been and continues to be closed to the West. The fact that the modern Chinese are shielded from Western influences is certainly nothing new. It was only prior to the Ming in the Yuan, T’ang, and Han dynasties that China had been open to external ideas and influences. These dynasties encouraged merchants from all over the world to do business in Chinese cities establishing a cosmopolitan atmosphere, not seen since until the late 20th century with the opening of Communist China to the West.

Imperial/peasant alliance

The alliance between the central government and the peasantry against business is also not unique to the Communist experience. There have certainly been socialist reformers in Chinese history. In fact as we’ve tried to establish it has been part of their historical pattern that the imperial government would side with the peasantry against the business class. So again in the Red China, the central government sides with the peasantry, attempting to keep the business class from exploiting them. Again as we become separated from the original revolution the business interests inevitably begin to rise in importance.

Land redistribution

The land redistribution of the Communists is certainly nothing new. The First Emperor of the Ch’in attacked the privileged classes because they were threatening his empire, seizing and redistributing their land, sending the aristocracy to work the fields. Wu Ti, one the strongest emperors of the Han dynasty seized land and redistributed it to weaken the aristocracy and strengthen his peasant base. In the middle of the prosperous Han dynasty Wang Mang unsuccessfully attempted to take on the privileged classes to aid the peasantry and strengthen the central government. The First Emperor of the Sung demilitarized the aristocracy and seized their land in order to consolidate power and stabilize society. The First Emperor of the Ming, a peasant himself, confiscated the property of the rich and redistributed it to the poor. Hence the Communist redistribution of property has a 2000-year Chinese tradition based upon strengthening the central government and the peasantry at the expense of the privileged classes.

It is quite evident that the Red Chinese government is a link in the long chain of the Chinese dynastic tradition. As such Western style democracy is only a remote possibility. Although the Communist government has severely limited personal freedoms in the religious, political and cultural sphere, this has increased the personal security of a vast majority of their enormous population. Plus at least some of the repression was necessary to break outmoded traditions that repressed women and discouraged literacy. From a millennia long perspective this was an essential rectification of the social fabric that is needed from time to time to purify corrupted forms. Human rights have suffered so that everyone could survive.

Austerely real, the Communist regime in China has actively suppressed all supernatural speculation based upon the existence of divinity. As their main impetus to political success has been their ability to deal with mass starvation, they don’t want to talk about freedom quite yet. The Communist Party, while repudiating Confucius, is firmly based in the super rational ju tradition, which is focused upon the real task of feeding a large population, rather than providing a mentally stimulating atmosphere. While based in the peasantry it is founded in starvation. Religious freedom does not create food no matter how hard you believe. Under the harsh realties of mass starvation freedom of speech, religion, travel, occupation, reading material, and family have been suppressed. Good or bad? For you to decide. Me, I’d rather have food.

[1] The Europeans have tended to rely upon gene pool for leadership all the way through to WWII, which was the ultimate war of gene pool. In World War II, the German Aryans, Italians, and Japanese attempted to establish that their respective races had the superior gene pool, which deserved to rule the world. The many other races of the world, especially multi-racial America joined together to stand against this ultimate racist statement and put it down, proved it wrong, for the time being, at least.

[i]The New View of Atlantis by John Mitchell, Harper & Row 1983, p.59

[ii]In the West starvation has not been part of our life experience. Even during the Great Depression, people, while poor, generally were not starving to death. The Western democracies, while providing more or less in public benefits, have, at the minimum, set up some kind of public assistance so that no one starves to death. This has not always been possible in China. Sometimes due to human or natural problems there just has not been enough food to feed everyone.

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