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The Chinese Debate about Soviet Socialism, 1978-1985
By Gilbert Rozman
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 1987 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
When Chinese write about the Soviet Union — its history, its recent conditions, and its prospects for reform — they are not engaged in some obscure academic controversy. They are, in fact, at the behest of China's leaders, consciously contributing to an ongoing national debate that has potentially far-reaching consequences for redirecting both the domestic and the foreign policies of the People's Republic. Discussions of the Soviet Union are of such importance because China's communist leaders have continuously measured their country against the yardstick of their neighbor to the north; their worldview has been intimately related to their view of Soviet socialism, and their foreign policy has taken shape in the shadow of Soviet relations. Even when Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping have doubted the benefits of close links with Moscow, statements by them and others close to them about the Soviet Union have served as a critical guide to the Chinese people.
In three separate periods, three contrasting images of the USSR have taken hold. In the 1950s the Soviet Union was "big brother," whose example should be followed. Through almost the entire two decades of the 1960s and 1970s, the Soviet Union became synonymous with "revisionism," the dreaded fate that China must avoid at all costs. Finally, in the 1980s, such extremes were avoided. The Soviet Union came to represent the common starting point for socialism, from which China and other socialist countries (the Soviet Union included) must shift, in steps, through carefully planned reforms. This recent, third image has produced by far the most interesting scholarship, which is the subject of our study. Even now, in the second half of the 1980s, Chinese authorities and academic specialists continue to be obsessed with the country whose military power, communist ideology, and program for building a socialist economy have left an indelible imprint on their own. Soviet socialism looms very large above its socialist neighbor in East Asia.
Unlike the monochromatic criticisms leveled against Moscow in the Maoist era, a well-informed, up-to-date literature now explores the twists and turns of Soviet policy and the fundamental turning points of Soviet history. The burning question that initially smoldered within these writings at the end of the 1970s and the start of the 1980s was "what is Soviet socialism?" This one question led to numerous others. Is Soviet socialism really socialism? Is it what Marx, Engels, or Lenin conceived of in their classics about communism? Is it specifically a product of Stalin's rule, and, if so, did alternatives exist no less socialist in nature? Was Mao correct in arguing that Moscow turned away from the essence of socialism under the successive leadership of Khrushchev and Brezhnev?
By 1981 attention was shifting to the relevance of Soviet socialism for Chinese socialism. Chinese specialists were simultaneously reexamining many periods of Soviet history to uncover the implications for China's new economic reform and continued adherence to socialism. Do the NEP and the moderate approach to socialism taken by Lenin in his last years establish a model of value for present-day China? Is Stalin's model, which had been influential during China's First Five-Year Plan, of continued importance as a guide for domestic policy? Does the contemporary Soviet system under Brezhnev's leadership offer much that China should borrow? Whatever the answers proposed to these questions, all Chinese sources ruled out the two extremes: China must not copy the Soviet Union uncritically, and it must not repeat the error of trying to become self-reliant without borrowing from other socialist countries.
Recently Chinese have been asking what they should make of the Andropov-Gorbachev reform spirit of the 1980s. A few harsh critics of Soviet policies, whose views in recent years are stated with great circumspection, may wonder if recent reforms are stoking the embers of a socialist system that had been allowed to fade to a flicker. Many others who are more positive in their assessments see the Soviet reforms as consistent with a powerful reform wind that is blowing across the socialist world. Still others contend that as of 1983, 1984, or even 1985, the reforms were too hesitant to revitalize the Soviet system. Perhaps no other question is as important as the concern about whether the new Soviet reform agenda will again demonstrate the superiority of a socialist system.
Under Deng Xiaoping's leadership, China's leading circles have been genuinely curious about the nature of the Soviet system and the meaning of the Soviet experiences for socialism in China. No less a goal than to find their own roots — and in the process to figure out how much to nourish them and how much to try to move away from them — is what Chinese are striving for.
Studies in China of the Soviet Union are important for at least four reasons. First, more than perceptions of any other society, views of this country are informative about the evolving worldview of China's leadership and its community of foreign affairs specialists. They provide valuable insight into China's official understanding of the past, present, and future of socialism as well as into the struggle between the socialist and capitalist systems in the twentieth century. This literature may be one of the best places to turn to understand Chinese thinking that will help decide in the decades ahead the balance between the Soviet bloc and the American-led Western and Japanese bloc. It is here that we can gain a general impression of the battle for the minds of the Chinese people as well as the debate within the minds of their leaders.
Second, perhaps more than any other subject discussed in publications appearing in China, views of the Soviet Union and of Marxist-Leninist ideology that developed in that country reveal differences of opinion on issues critical to the balance between reform and orthodoxy in China. Why else would Chinese publications on the Soviet Union be less accessible to foreigners than those on any other country? It is not a coincidence that the most open clash between orthodoxy and reform in the first half of the 1980s — the campaign against spiritual pollution — centered on writings about the history of Marxism. Divergence in thinking about Soviet Marxism and its application are central to the battle over how far reforms should take China away from the old Soviet model of socialism.
Third, writings on the Soviet Union in Chinese are of direct value for specialists on the Soviet Union because, among other reasons, of the shared frame of reference that attunes Chinese researchers to mistakes by Soviet leaders and to the problems of Soviet socialist reforms. Increasingly China's experts are taking a wide-ranging, comparative perspective on socialism as well as following closely the most recent reform currents in Moscow. Their studies contribute to international awareness of the nature of the Soviet Union.
Fourth, this subject offers background material valuable for understanding and predicting the course of Sino-Soviet relations. Foreign relations should be examined against the backdrop of mutual perceptions. Important changes in bilateral relations during the first half of the 1980s can be related to what Chinese have been writing about the Soviet Union for domestic readers.
Given these wide and varied implications, it is understandable that Chinese writings on the Soviet Union do not simply reflect the evolving realities of Soviet life. They serve many objectives and are of potential value to researchers who study Chinese domestic conditions, Soviet domestic conditions, and international relations.
Changes in Chinese perceptions appear to reflect three powerful historical forces, each of which has been in considerable flux during the years 1978 to 1985. On the most fundamental level, they reflect China's domestic needs. Changes in China's ideology and reform program have steered Soviet studies along a new course, which remains carefully guided by awareness of China's own priorities and alternatives. On the next level, Chinese attitudes about the Soviet Union have not failed to take into account the development of China's foreign relations — above all, bilateral ties between the two giant communist-led nations, but also, the overall international environment including Chinese and Soviet relations with third parties such as the United States and Vietnam. Finally, Chinese attitudes have also been deeply affected by changes in actual conditions inside the Soviet Union; the rapid succession in the 1980s of four Soviet leaders, two of whom have launched substantial reform programs, have given Chinese specialists ample opportunity to highlight new trends on the Soviet scene.
Attention to political landmarks over the past decade can guide our search for how and why Chinese perceptions of the Soviet Union have changed. First, in September and October 1976 came Mao's death and the downfall of the radical faction known as the "Gang of Four." Intense, personal hostility between Chinese and Soviet leaders now stood a better chance of being reduced. Second, in December 1978 there occurred the decisive Third Plenum of the Eleventh Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, which under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping launched a massive reform program. The leftist line of opposing most post-Stalin reforms in the Soviet Union could now be replaced by appreciation for reforms in a socialist system. Third, in the fall of 1982 came the beginning of Sino-Soviet negotiations aimed at normalization and, shortly afterwards, the death of Brezhnev and his replacement by Andropov. Chinese could now more closely identify Moscow's new reform agenda with their own reforms and predict improvements in relations. Fourth, in the winter of 1984-1985 a warm reception was given to Ivan V. Arkhipov, the first Vice-Chairman of the USSR Council of Ministers, and then, at the time of the replacement of Chernenko by Gorbachev, signals from China heard around the world announced the acceptance of the Soviet Union as a fellow socialist country. There was no longer any doubt that two socialist neighbors with some nostalgic memories were working to resolve their serious differences.
Old leaders (except Deng Xiaoping, who led the 1963 delegation to Moscow but presumably was acting under Mao's instructions) who were personally identified with poisoned relations were gone, China had entered a reform era, the Chinese and Soviets had sat down to discuss their differences, and the Soviet Union, more hesitantly to be sure, had begun its own reform program. These were the fundamental historical forces that steered Chinese scholarship on the Soviet Union in a new direction. In turn, that scholarship, arising out of the needs of China's reforms and reporting on Soviet reforms, shaped perceptions in China that could influence the development of Sino-Soviet relations.
The Chinese Worldview
Economic growth is the key to satisfying the official aspirations of China's current leadership. These leaders seek prosperity for their people and national strength to protect the interests of their country. With a flourishing economy the Chinese people can overcome the malaise wrought by the Cultural Revolution, and China can assume its rightful place among the rich and powerful nations of the world. Without it China will be doomed to backwardness — its people poor and ignorant and its leaders unable to defend against the hegemonistic ambitions of the two superpowers. Modern history, in this view, proves that economic growth is the most pressing need and the basic precondition from which other blessings flow. It is both the immediate goal of socialism and the means to achieving socialism in its other dimensions.
Chinese draw their lessons largely from the experience of their own country. Their deepest impressions are of a weak and divided country suffering humiliations one after another in the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century. While roundly condemning rapacious foreign states, including Russia, for their imperialist behavior, the Chinese also find fault with their own country's internal shortcomings. Internal divisions and backwardness "invited" aggression.
There are limits on the form this debate over what went wrong in Chinese history can take. By 1984 a brief discussion on the Asiatic Mode of Production had been quieted. As one review commentary phrased it, on this subject "there were previously two points of view." The first opinion, which was widespread, held that the Asiatic, the ancient, and the feudal modes of production were three different social forms of the same stage of social development. The second opinion, which seems scarcely distinguishable, held that the three types were parallel; Marx did not refer to one type coming before or after another. In any case, the review adds, the recent consensus is that the three types are variations of the same feudal, economic form. They have some commonalities and some peculiarities that are qualitative differences, but they are not basically different with regard to such important indicators as the level of development of the forces of production and the extent of the division of labor. The review fails to mention any recent differences of opinions. It leaves the clear impression that the Asiatic Mode of Production theme has ceased to be a subject of controversy and, even more, does not provide any answers to questions about modern China or the Soviet Union. In short, it is sufficient to treat China as a feudal society.
Much more attention has centered on the prolongation of feudal society. The discussion on Chinese feudalism incorporates such themes as the role of the state, the demographic structure, Confucian theory, family and kinship relations, the impact of foreign elements, the relationship between the landlord class and the middle peasants, the development of market relations among the people, the success of the peasants in developing their material and spiritual resources, and the independence of cities. Increasingly, comparisons with Western Europe (albeit not systematic ones) are introduced to explain China's slow development, but studies of Russia rarely mention these themes, and Russia is not included in the comparative study of feudalism.
In the eyes of modern Chinese, Chinese feudalism suffered from at least three pervasive weaknesses that proved to be the cause of modern backwardness. First, the Confucian ideology held back the advancement of science and receptivity to modern knowledge. The people were burdened with a way of thinking, and an educational tradition, not at all conducive to a modern transformation, even by feudal standards. Chinese needed to liberate their thinking, which occurred to an appreciable degree only at the time of the May Fourth Movement from 1919. Second, Chinese historians insist that China's social structure was unusually stagnant. Many explanations have been offered for historical stagnation. For the most part, they point to the social class system, with its fluid forms of exploitation, and to the slow development of the bourgeoisie. Finally, China's retardation is also deemed to have been a failure of its political system, beginning with poor leadership at the top by the alien Manchu rulers before 1912 and the dissolute and insufficiently anti-imperialist warlords and Guomindang in the following decades. Looking back to these experiences before 1949, Chinese communists find, almost exclusively, negative examples to be avoided. In their view, successful modernization requires, most of all, the repudiation of a country's feudal and colonial (or, in the case of China, semi-colonial) heritage.
Feudalism still figures importantly in explanations of the present. In the view of China's leaders, it persists as an obstructionist legacy in the minds of the people and even of many of the country's leaders. Much that has gone wrong in the People's Republic is associated with remnants of feudalism. In recent years, these errors are largely attributed to leaders and officials, whose abuse of the people and mistaken policies somehow stemmed from their feudal ways of thinking. Without the impact of capitalism and its democratic aspects, China (and the Soviet Union as well, as we learn in Chapter Six) was burdened with a despotic political heritage. The prevailing message is that more must be done to provide people with a scientific education and with information about the modernized world in order to eradicate these vestiges of a 2,000-year era in China's history. Marxist-Leninist education as well as modern scientific knowledge are weapons in the battle against negative traditions in such fields as politics and education. They can show the way out of feudalism and its legacy.
Excerpted from The Chinese Debate about Soviet Socialism, 1978-1985 by Gilbert Rozman. Copyright © 1987 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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