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10-08-2015, 22:48


To the outside observer, since the Communist takeover of power on the mainland, China has projected an image of almost constant turmoil and rapid change. That portrayal is not an inaccurate one, for Chinese society has undergone a number of major transformations since the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in the fall of 1949. Even in the relatively stable 1980s, many a prudent China watcher undoubtedly wondered whether the prosperous and tolerant conditions of the era of Deng Xiaoping would long endure. An extended period of political instability and domestic violence is hardly unusual in the years following a major revolutionary upsurge. Similar conditions existed in late-eighteenth-century France after the revolt that overthrew the ancient regime and in Russia after the Bolshevik seizure of power in 1917. In both cases, pragmatists in the pursuit of national wealth and power clashed with radicals who were determined to create a utopian society. In the end, the former were victorious, in a process sometimes known as the “routinization of the revolution.” “The revolution,” it has been astutely observed, “eats its own.” A similar course of events has been taking place in China since the Communist ascent to power. Radical elements grew restive at what they perceived as a relapse into feudal habits by “capitalist roaders” within the party and launched the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. What was distinctive about the Chinese case was that the movement was led by Mao Zedong himself, who risked the destruction of the very organization that had brought him to power in the first place—the Communist Party. Clearly, much about the Chinese Revolution cannot be explained without an understanding of the complex personality of its great leader. With the death of Mao in 1976, the virulent phase of the revolution appeared to be at an end, and a more stable era of economic development is under way. Yet the Communist Party remains in power. Why has communism survived in China, albeit in a substantially altered form, when it collapsed in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union? One of the primary reasons is probably cultural. Although the doctrine of Marxism-Leninism originated in Europe, many of its main precepts, such as the primacy of the community over the individual and the denial of the concept of private property, run counter to the trends in Western civilization. This inherent conflict is especially evident in the societies of Central and Western Europe, which were strongly influenced by Enlightenment philosophy and the Industrial Revolution. These forces were weaker in the countries farther to the east, but both had begun to penetrate tsarist Russia by the end of the nineteenth century. By contrast, Marxism-Leninism found a more receptive climate in China and other countries in the region influenced by Confucian tradition. In its political culture, the Communist system exhibits many of the same characteristics as traditional Confucianism—a single truth, an elite governing class, and an emphasis on obedience to the community and its governing representatives— while feudal attitudes regarding female inferiority, loyalty to the family, and bureaucratic arrogance are hard to break. On the surface, China today bears a number of uncanny similarities to the China of the past. Yet these similarities should not blind us to the real changes that are taking place in the China of today, which is fundamentally different from that of the late Qing or even the early republic. Literacy rates and the standard of living, on balance, are far higher; the pressures of outside powers are less threatening; and China has entered the opening stages of its own industrial and technological revolution. For many Chinese, independent talk radio and the Internet are a greater source of news and views than the official media. Where Sun Yatsen, Chiang Kai-shek, and even Mao Zedong broke their lances on the rocks of centuries of tradition, poverty, and ignorance, China’s present leaders rule a country much more aware of the world and its place in it.