Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Mandate of Heaven

Orville Schell's The Mandate of Heaven: The Legacy of Tiananmen Square and the Next Generation of China's Leaders was published in 1995. Most books I've read about contemporary China more than five years old feel dated. This book, written more than fifteen years ago, does not have that problem. In fact, with Liu Xiaobo winning the Nobel Peace Prize a few weeks ago, The Mandate of Heaven is astonishingly relevant to present-day discussions about China.

Weighing in at more than 450 pages, Schell covers a lot in this book. It is split into five meaty sections: The Square, Three Routes to Exile, Dead Time, The Second Channel, and The Boom. Through these five sections, Schell lays out, in exhaustive detail, what happened in Tiananmen Square in 1989, the consequences of such events, the malaise China faced from '89 to '92, the counter-cultures that arose in response to putting down the protests, and, finally, the economic boom orchestrated by Deng Xiaoping and his "Southern Tour."

Prior to reading The Mandate of Heaven, I had a general knowledge of the student protests in 1989. Now, my understanding of those events is many times deeper.

There are several passages I want to highlight from this book. Questions raised in The Mandate of Heaven about how China is ruled are as important as ever right now.

The meaning of the title of the book is laid out on page 21:
And finally, it was through Tiananmen Gate that with awesome pomp and ceremony the emperor himself passed whenever he left the Forbidden City to travel the empire or make his annual pilgrimage to the Temple of Heaven, where he performed rituals to protect the dynasty from losing the favor of heaven.

An emperor's ability to rule was said to reflect the cosmic sanction bestowed on his reign by tianming (天命), or the "mandate of heaven," which Chinese believed was signified by peace and harmony with his realm. Traditional political philosophers held that moral legitimacy was a vital component of tianming and that if the moral bonds between ruler and ruled were irrevocably violated, the all-embracing forces of "heaven" from which an emperor drew his "mandate" to rule as "the son of heaven" would be withheld and his dynasty would collapse.
天命, as described by Schell, sounds a lot like the English word "legitimacy." In the spring of 1989, after the death of Hu Yaobang, students in Beijing were not impressed with the "cosmic sanction" the CCP was maintaining. Legitimacy was what was in question during those protests.

As the protests grew both in numbers and passion, splits within the leaders of the Party widened. There is one particular passage on page 113 that put the dilemma in stark terms:
On May 17 the leadership struggle erupted again at a late-night emergency session of the Politburo at Deng's house where Zhao Ziyang was accused of sowing division within the Party and an appeal made by him to visit the students was voted down. When a declaration of martial law was formally endorsed, Deng was reported to have told Zhao, "I have the army behind me."

"But I have the people behind me," countered Zhao.

"In that case, you have nothing," Deng replied.
Maybe I shouldn't have been surprised, but Deng's coldness and bluntness here hit me hard.

What happened a couple weeks later will live in infamy forever.

The CCP survived a tremendous challenge to its legitimacy in 1989. It also succeeded in building an economic powerhouse in the subsequent decades. Many in western democracies now see China as quickly surpassing the West. In many ways it is. But I think that many of the fault lines brought to light in 1989 have not been resolved.

The past few weeks have been turbulent. Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Peace Prize. A prominent group of Party elders wrote an open letter calling for the Party to guarantee the rights granted in its constitution. Premier Wen Jiabao's interview with CNN was harmonized.

Several weeks ago, I wrote my review of The China Fantasy through the lens of recent discussions of political reform. With all of this recent controversy, I believe that this topic of legitimacy and political reform is worth highlighting again.

Schell presents ideas being bandied about almost twenty years ago that sound remarkably like the ones being discussed today. From page 408:
And there were other signs that seemed to suggest political relaxation. In July 1992, the relatively liberal Politburo Standing Committee member in charge of propaganda, Li Ruihuan, gave a speech that sounded more as if it had been delivered by a New Age California guru than by the propaganda boss of a Communist party. "The establishment of wholesome human relations is a basic requirement in the construction of a socialist ethic," gushed Li. "The cardinal principle for government lies in comforting the people, and the most important task in comforting people is to discern their hardships." Li then took a swipe at those who had fallen "under the influence of 'leftist' ideology" and used the pretext of class struggle to persecute people, thereby "seriously distorting human relations and causing unnecessary tension." That August, when the French paper Le Figaro interviewed Li, he became the first leader in some time to publicly link economic and political reform: "the two should go hand in hand, in order to improve speech, participation, and control." When the NCNA chimed in a few days later, it was even more emphatic. "The matter has become clear: The development and the reform of the political system. If reform of the political system drags on for a long time, reform of the economic system will be subject to a bigger restraint."
Continuing to page 412:
Whether such signs of relaxation were just so much cosmetic image polishing aimed at enhancing China's chances of assuring renewed MFN status and winning its bid for the 2000 summer Olympic Games or part of an ineluctable trend toward greater political liberalization was still not clear. But even the ambiguity came as a relief, and many Chinese allowed themselves to be soothed by cautious optimism. Perhaps, they reasoned, if political confrontation with the government could be avoided while Deng's economic reforms took deeper root and the country gathered a new sense of dignity and self-confidence, aspects of a civil society, of which gray culture was a harbinger, might mature and slowly nudge the Party into accepting more openness and political pluralism. The hope of many of those who allowed themselves to be encouraged by such optimism was that since the Party was obviously not about to relinquish political control voluntarily, free markets provided the best available goad toward greater democracy. But few had forgotten that for Deng, development and political stability, not democracy, were the primary goals. He might allow a certain vague promise of political liberalization to be lofted about, but for him the ideal was still authoritarian politics combined with economics. While there was no doubt by 1994 that life in Chinese society was in many ways becoming increasingly relaxed, there were few signs that the Party was any more prepared to tolerate real challenges to its political hegemony. Each time manifestations of even moderate political opposition arose, the Party moved to suppress then with a familiar thoroughness.
And then to page 414:
As momentous as economic changes were, China was still a one-party state. And as reform efforts in the past had repeatedly proven, it would be no easy task for a country as deeply rooted in the traditions of authoritarianism and Big Leader cultism as China to change politically, especially when the ruling leadership viewed such changes not just as a challenge to its power, but as an invitation to disorder. Deng was caught between the two conflicting sets of political purposes that Tiananmen Square symbolically represented: the tradition of broadly based liberal reforms first called for by the May Fourth generation, and the tradition of stubborn conservatism that since the failure of the Hundred Days Reform in 1898 had rejected almost all fundamental change. His solution was to adopt aspects of each side of this contradiction, and to goad one side of society into radical change while leaving the other frozen in place. In this sense he was much more in the tradition of those nineteenth-century reformers who had imagined that China could borrow technology and management techniques from abroad without affecting the existing society's culture and values, or political "essence." Now as then, such an effort depended on something of a split personality. For Deng, the contradiction manifested itself as an attempt to separate politics and economics in a way that led some observers to refer to his experiment as "laissez-faire Stalinism," "Confucian-Leninism," or "gulag capitalism." Such a bastardization might temporarily give the appearance of stability, but it was difficult to imagine how a system with such internal inconsistencies could long contain itself, especially when it was in such a dynamic state of unbalanced change.
The Mandate of Heaven is a monster of a book. I've had a hard time reviewing it; no blog post/review can do it justice. Schell is a China hand's China hand. His understanding of and insights into China jump out at the reader. I can't recommend this book highly enough.

1 comment:

Hopfrog said...

I think we in the west sometimes have a fuzzier view of Deng due to his 'westernesque' policies. Pretty cold statement, and sadly, prophetic.