There Is Great Disorder Under Heaven, and the Situation is Excellent


When a neoconservative magazine publishes a piece about China, you usually know what to expect: anxieties about the growing challenge to American power, exaggerated expectations of conflict down the road, a call for Washington to stand tall against the threat. There's a little bit of that in Gordon Chang's essay in the December Commentary—he even dredges up the spyplane collision of early 2001, responding to one of W.'s rare deft acts of diplomacy with a complaint about "an American apology that should never have been given"—but mostly it's an excellent overview of the transformation of Chinese society from below:

There were few disturbances in the years immediately following Tiananmen. But the event irrevocably changed the People's Republic. By the end of the 1990's, Chinese society was turbulent once more as individual protests, both in the countryside and the city, began attracting tens of thousands of participants. In early 2002, two of them—one by oil workers in Daqing in the northeast and the other by factory hands in nearby Liaoyang—may have reached the 100,000 mark. In late 2004, in China's southwest, about 100,000 peasants protested the seizure without compensation of land to build a hydroelectric plant in Sichuan province.

Protests have not only become bigger in size; they are now more numerous. In 1994, there were 10,000 such "mass incidents"; by 2003 there were 58,000; in 2004 and 2005 there were 74,000 and 87,000 respectively. This is according to official statistics, which undoubtedly undercount. According to the legal activist Jerome Cohen, a truer figure for the last year may be 150,000.

Virtually every segment in society (except, of course, senior Communist leaders and wealthy entrepreneurs) is participating in these public demonstrations. Almost anything, whether or not it is a genuine grievance, can trigger a sit-in, demonstration, or riot against party officials, village bosses, tax collectors, factory owners, or township cadres.

China's reforms of the '80s were driven by a subtler form of people power:

We now know Deng as a reformer, and we credit him and the Communist party for debating, then planning, and finally executing the startling transformation of Chinese society. Yet the truth is that reform progressed more by disobedience than by design. Deng began his tenure in adherence to orthodox Communist economics, by trying to implement a ten-year plan. But his early failure to meet the plan's goals forced him to back away and permit individual initiative, at first under strict rules. Peasants on large collective farms, for example, were allowed to form "work groups" to tend designated plots, but it was specifically prohibited for just one family to make up a "work group." The prohibition did not last: in clear violation of central rules, families started to till their own plots, and local officials looked the other way.

Subterfuge on the farm was followed by subterfuge in towns and cities. Although private industry was strictly forbidden, entrepreneurs flourished by running their businesses as "red hat" collectives: private companies operating under the guise of state ownership. Such defiance would once have been unthinkable. By Deng's time, frustrated bureaucrats and countless individuals, including some of the poorest and most desperate citizens in China, were ready to take the next step—ignoring central-government decrees and building large private businesses that now account for at least 40 percent of the Chinese economy. This became China's "economic miracle," brought to fruition even as government officials remained holed up in their offices in Beijing, preparing meticulously detailed five-year plans.

The most nuanced segment of the story—and the most surprising section to see in a right-wing magazine—asks whether any of this is a byproduct of Mao's Cultural Revolution. Without whitewashing the terrible crimes committed during the period, Chang nonetheless argues that

Paradoxically, it was Mao himself, the great enslaver, who in his own way taught the Chinese people to think and act for themselves….The Cultural Revolution may have been Mao's idea of ruining his enemies, but it became a frenzy that destroyed the fabric of society. As government broke down, its functions taken over by revolutionary committees and "people's communes," the strict restraints and repressive mechanisms of the state dissolved. People no longer had to wait for someone to instruct them what to do—Mao had told them they had "the right to rebel." For the radical young, this was a time of essentially unrestrained passion. In one magnificent stroke, the Great Helmsman had delegitimized almost all forms of authority.

Read the whole thing here.

[Via Harry Siegel, who has also written the most gloriously convoluted sentence I expect to encounter today: "Where else but in Russia would a real estate boom in an area previously protected by development by a proposed but never built Lenin-topped Palace of Soviets in place of the razed Christ the Savior Cathedral gentrify at such a fast and furious pace that a celebrity plastic surgeon stabbed to death by roller skaters in an apparent roll-by contract killing warrants only a passing mention?"]