Reframing China’s revolution
JOHN GARNAUT BEIJING
September 26, 2009
Seeing red: A rehearsal this week of celebrations to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People?s Republic of China, at a stadium in Shenyang. Photo: Reuters
IN MARCH 1949, on the outskirts of Beijing, a lone and slightly drunk Red Army soldier straightened his back, raised his hand in salute and shouted until the veins in his temple seemed ready to explode. “I’m with the 28th Army. I’m with the Mountain Pagoda Regiment in this military parade. I represent the soldiers of the Red Army. The living and the dead. I salute you, Chairman Mao.”
And the great military strategist, soon to become the beloved Red Sun of the Chinese nation and one of history’s most notorious dictators to the outside world, slowly raised his hand in reply and fought back tears.
The soldiers of the Mountain Pagoda regiment who were lined up on either side had just fought the last, and one of the most heroic, battles of North China – Liaoshen – and swept down from the bitter cold of Manchuria and over the Great Wall. The Red Army had been reborn from a ragtag gaggle of Long March survivors to win the hearts of millions of peasants, push back the Japanese, defeat the Nationalists and stare down a nuclear-armed United States. Now it was on the brink of unifying the great nation of China for the first time in more than a century.
After watching this scene in the new film Founding of a Republic, seen by hundreds of thousands of Chinese movie-goers this week, it is possible to understand why a large proportion of this country’s 1.3 billion people will pause on October 1, China’s National Day, and salute the founding of New China.
“The Chinese people have stood up!” says the film as it shows Chairman Mao on the eve of founding the People’s Republic.
To many outsiders, Thursday’s mass military parade in Tiananmen Square will be strange if not bizarre. It is a spectacle to celebrate 60 years of Communist Party rule and yet the proletariat have been instructed to stay home and watch it on TV. Chang’an Avenue and Tiananmen Square will be cordoned off and adjacent hotels “booked” by order of the Public Security Bureau. “It’s a precaution against snipers, and also Free Tibet flags,” a Chinese security source told The Age.
Migrant workers and possible political trouble-makers have been stopped at the municipal border. Mosquitoes and rats have been strategically eradicated. And the Communist Party intends even to defeat the weather. ”It is the first time in Chinese history that artificial weather modification on such a large scale has been attempted,” Cui Lianqing, an air force meteorologist, told the Global Times newspaper this week.
Eighteen cloud-seeding aircraft and 48 fog-dispersal vehicles are standing by to ensure nothing rains on China’s new-generation tanks, intercontinental ballistic missiles and President Hu Jintao’s new model Red Flag convertible.
China’s recent outpouring of patriotic films, documentaries and symbolism is as much about airbrushing history as celebrating it. Typically, the official narrative covers select highlights of the Long March, the anti-Japanese War, the 1949 liberation and then awkwardly fast-forwards to 1978 when Deng Xiaoping heralded the era of “opening and reform”.
Founding of a Republic is a superbly shot historical drama, and is destined to become the country’s greatest box-office hit. Co-directed by Han Sanping, it features almost every film star from greater China that you can care to think of (they all donated their services ). But it is first and foremost a work of sophisticated propaganda conceived by the Beijing Municipal People’s Political Consultative Conference.
The film shows an easy, almost slapstick scene where the party’s top leaders enter a mud-brick auditorium in Xibaipo, near Beijing, for the 2nd Plenary Session of 7th Party Congress. Mao and his fellow revolutionaries are smiling and relaxed, easy in each other’s friendship, as they are throughout the film. Mao is avuncular and magnanimous, even to his foes. And yet over the following 25 years he managed to purge all but three of his 10 senior companions featured in that scene.
In 1959 the heroic general Peng Dehuai gently warned Mao that his Great Leap Forward was a mistake. Peng was purged and Mao ignored his advice, at the cost of more than 30 million people who starved to death in three years of economic chaos. In 1969, during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, Mao’s hand-picked successor Liu Shaoqi died of pneumonia in his prison cell. Lin Biao, the master strategist of the Manchurian campaigns who replaced Liu Shaoqi as Mao’s successor, was declared a traitor after mysteriously dying in a plane crash in Mongolia in 1971. Deng Xiaoping was twice purged and his son remains disabled after being tortured and forced out of a fourth-storey window.
Founding of a Republic depicts Mao inviting democrats and capitalists into one happy coalition government. But it conveniently ends before Mao outgrew his need for them. Millions of democrats and entrepreneurs were sidelined, purged and murdered. There is, however, one “value” that links the Communist Party’s various incarnations: a commitment to uniting China and keeping it that way. It is instructive that Chiang Kai-shek, Mao’s Kuomintang foe who retreated to Taiwan, is portrayed as a patriotic and even noble figure – at a time when Beijing is patiently wooing the renegade island towards reunification.
“Unifying mainland China was the major pledge they successfully fulfilled,” says Geremie Barme, professor of Chinese history at the Australian National University. “Various undertakings they made prior to 1949 to bring democracy, freedom of speech and equality to the peoples of China were cynically betrayed.”
But most viewers won’t be focusing on what the film embellishes or glosses over. ”I don’t think Chinese viewers will be watching this and thinking Liu Shaoqi died a horrible death and that Mao’s actually so busy scheming that he has no time to think sensibly about policy,” says Anne-Marie Brady, an expert on Chinese propaganda at the University of Canterbury. “They’re going to get caught up in the drama and walk out with a good feeling about China, like they’re supposed to have.”
And the fact that the Communist Party tore up most of its promises and was responsible for three decades of turmoil and suffering does not mean the party and Chinese people don’t have much to be proud of. Most of those achievements have been crammed into the past 30 years. On the global stage China has fulfilled the pledge that Mao made but could not deliver in his lifetime: to build a nation of wealth and power. The evidence is everywhere, from China leading the world out of economic crisis to President Hu Jintao this week breathing new life into global climate change negotiations.
China’s achievements are multiplied when broken down into smaller pieces. In 1949, primary and secondary education was a privilege for fewer than one in five Chinese children but now it is almost universal. More than a quarter of a billion people have been lifted above the World Bank’s poverty line. And fewer Chinese have to go to sleep on an empty stomach.
One person who is well qualified to add up the balance sheet is Stephen Fitzgerald, Australia’s first ambassador to China. He points to three
achievements in the People’s Republic’s first three decades – among myriad and well-documented disasters – that laid down foundations for successes that have followed.
“They were the destruction of the feudal system, the creation of a universal education system and thirdly, but equally important, the laying down the principle of equality for women,” he says.
The Leninist structure of the Communist Party has largely remained unchanged and yet the party has shown itself capable of adapting from its origins as an underground militia army, to a party of revolution and most recently a party of economic reform. Fitzgerald predicts it will also adapt to the complexities of modern economics, global leadership and pluralistic society.
“There’s not going to be any sudden leap into a democratic system, it’s going to be the internal evolution of the party together with the development of a civil society,” he says. “Of course it is constrained at the moment, every now and then it gets hit on the head, but it is growing.”
He says China is on course to be “the single most important external factor for Australia”, and that its “influence in domestic Australia is also going to be profound”.
Huang Jing, a political analyst at the National University of Singapore, says last week’s Fourth Plenum of the 17th Congress showed that the party’s internal democratic transition has already begun. He says each Chinese leader is weaker than the last – and this is leading to an “unprecedented, institutionalised bargaining process” within the party.
“Compromises become possible and necessary,” he says. “Before it was impossible to compromise: either you win or you die.”
Nicholas Bequelin, at Human Rights Watch Asia, is well versed in China’s darker side. He says the party still crushes all forms of organised dissent. China’s institutions of governance are evolving but not fast enough to prevent massive unrest, particularly in western China.
”There are many different futures China’s boiling in the pot today,” says Bequelin. ”Some of them are very encouraging: the rule of law, the harmonious society program. But you also have this harder-edge China, this nationalist attitude, a rise in xenophobia, criminalisation of segments of society – these are things that could unravel.”
On Thursday, President Hu will be drawing on the Party’s tradition of the grand military parade as depicted in Founding of a Republic in 1949. His challenge is to give credible meaning to the ritual. What was honourable about the People’s Liberation Army in 1949 that remains recognisable today? And what is it that the Communist Party of 60 years ago stood for that modern Chinese people want to honour? The easiest answer is the one that President Hu wants most to highlight: “The Chinese people have stood up.”
John Garnaut is China correspondent.