Numbers, grades, and exams in Beijing

It’s not important whether the cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice.

Deng Xiao Ping, 1962 

China is not what it used to be. The skyscrapers and consumption of luxury goods are evident, while alleys and bicycles disappear. But no, the Middle Kingdom retains its soul; its millennial culture is immutable. The relationships with foreigners, aesthetics, and body language prove this. This is the mother of all contradictions: an introverted country that has opened itself to globalization and owes its ascent to industrial advancement while maintaining a farming mentality. Progress is at the heart of the dispute; its value changes with respect to the current zeitgeist. It is the cause and effect of the incessant Chinese dialectic between the search for balance and the impossibility of maintaining it. Progress betters society, but it doesn’t have to deny its connotations; it can assimilate external contributions, but doesn’t need to threaten solitude. The yin and yang of politics have oscillated between these conceptual extremes in the visible representation of the pendulum. Progress was chased, hindered, coaxed, criticized, and disguised with propagandistic masks. It crossed Chinese history with uncertain consequences, caused by a nonlinear period of history where the successive reneged the former. It’s the same Chinese narrative that trusts judgment to numbers. As always, the legitimacy to rule depends first on the Mandate from Heaven and then on prosaic results. An emperor remains in power as long as the silos are full of grain and the price of prosperity is on his side. Progress is legitimate when it contributes to abundance otherwise tradition is preferred. Combining the two frequently antagonistic concepts is the most difficult objective for Beijing. When it succeeds, the government gets good grades and remains at the helm, despite the weather being increasing stormy and the exams never-ending.

a) The GDP’s dictatorship. If progress could coincide with production, no other country in the world would be as advanced as China. Over the last 35 years, the Chinese GDP has grown with an annual median reaching nearly 10%. No other country in history has been able to achieve such objectives; China is unparalleled for its speed, duration, and dimensions. China still seems like a stranger to the question that has been tormenting academics: is the GDP a measure of wealth, progress, and happiness? The answer has been essentially, yes. Those who regret the past forget the struggle; they don’t remember the empty windows, the unacceptable public washrooms, hand plows, illiteracy, and endemic diseases. Those lulled in conservatism appease immobility, social disparities, and foot binding. We learn from Beijing that here’s nothing exotic in suffering. The low houses without utilities, the bike traffic, and the harshness of daily labor are not romantic concepts. It is not possible to indulge underdevelopment; it should only be defeated. In order to do so, progress is an unequivocal objective: homes, schools, hospitals, roads, cars, restaurants, tablets, and smart phones. People need to run instead of pedal, invest rather than save, and demolish in order to reconstruct. All of this began with the four modernizations. In the mid- 1970s, China was afflicted by poverty and backwardness. The former needed to be defeated quickly, the second over a longer term. Mao’s tactics proved ineffective for progress, at least in a material sense. China was immersed in the Cultural Revolution’s ideological fanaticism that put the integrity of principles before material results. The idea of progress was not contested, but the instruments for achieving it were subjected to merciless criticisms, the prices to pay in order to achieve it. The touchstone was social equality, defeating the wealthy bureaucrats, and “serving the populace.” Progress needed to coincide with the construction of a socialist society, and could not disregard the competition workers and farmers posed to economic policies. Hundreds of millions of people were mobilized—starting with the “Great Leap Forward”—toward a voluntary concept of progress. If the people’s march was invincible, the steel could be produced in “homemade blast furnaces,” nurses with the correct political affiliation could substitute doctors, and grandparents and children banged pots and pans to scare birds that threatened their harvests. With the calmness of distance, history confirms that these experiments were disastrous. The leaders of the CPC were well aware of this fact at the time. Behind the hagiographies of the revolutionary Red Guard’s mass rallies, the eternal “struggle between the two lines” harbored clamorous upheaval. The official revisionist position, the CPC’s temporarily defeated “right wing,” knew that the economy has its own laws, that underdevelopment can’t be defeated with proclamations, and that flags need to be transformed into programs. It wasn’t time for empty slogans anymore that simplified excessively: the “Three Anti” (1951) and “Five Anti” (1952) campaigns against corruption, waste, bureaucracy, tax evasion, and industrial espionage. The attempt to recover intellectual forces to the socialist cause was short-lived after the repression that followed the Maoist rallying cry, “may one hundred flowers bloom, and 100 schools of thought contend.” They had to wait until Mao’s death in 1976 for a more accountable and certainly more tangible concept of progress to prevail. Modernizations in the sciences, industry, agriculture, and the military freed productive forces, projecting the country to today’s records. The Chinese government—who changed its name but not its politics—steered an epochal change. It reneged the past’s policies but not its symbols, nor its history. The utopia of egalitarianism ended with Jang Qing (Mao’s wife) and the Gang of Four’s trial; they were incapable of interpreting the reason behind development. In 2014, the wealth China produces at purchasing power parity is the greatest in the world. If this is progress, there are no doubts: the GDP’s dictatorship is better than the proletariat’s. Economics exam: China passes.

b) The shadow of the past. If progress were measured by technical awareness and scientific discoveries, China would have a lot of titles to claim throughout its millennial history. Together, they are the cause and effect of the economic stature in which the Middle Kingdom has excelled for a long time. It was the most populous, prosperous, and powerful country for many centuries. The artistic disciplines, social organization, and agricultural methods were the most modern and profitable. Popular culture bequeaths Chinese scholarly works with pride. China illustrates its dominion over the natural world through the Four Great Inventions: paper, the printing press, gun powder, and the compass. Their repercussions on society were immense. Karl Marx places them in the passage between the great inventions that created bourgeois society. Gun powder swept away the knights, the compass discovered the global market and founded the colonies, and the printing press was the instrument of Protestantism and the regeneration of science in general, the most powerful lever for creating intellectual prerequisites (Economic Manuscripts 1861-1863). In any case, China did not gain an advantage from its technological progress. It never armed its cannons, it didn’t navigate to conquer, and didn’t print books to convert foreigners. On the contrary, it suffered opium, bullets, and the Bible. During the “Century of Humiliation” (the Opium Wars and WWII), the nation was invaded and semi-colonized, causing a wound that never healed and is now fueling the entire society’s desire for redemption. Resentment and nationalism have been gestating for a long time. In China Against the World, Julia Lovell writes: “On September 26, 1792, King George the III sent the first English commercial envoy to China, a group of 700 people including diplomats, business men, scientists, painters, a watchmaker, a gardener, five German musicians, two Chinese priests living in Naples, and a pilot. Crammed on board three solid ships, those men brought with them the most extraordinary products of the west’s recent scientific progress—a telescope, watches, barometer, and, naturally, an aerostatic balloon—all things that should have stupefied Emperor Qian Long and inspired him to commence trading with the west, convincing him that he and his 313 million subjects needed British technological wonders.” After a year of travel, the delegation was granted access to the imperial court. Behind the rhetoric of international harmony, London was only interested in restoring its trade deficit with Beijing. It continued to import tea, ceramics, and silk paying in silver, but it wasn’t able to sell anything. The emperor did not change his mind about China’s cultural superiority; he contemptuously refused the offerings and arrogantly proclaimed: “We are not giving any importance to these ingenious objects, we have no need for your country’s products.” He resent the “toys” to Europe, but simultaneously lost the appointment with history and only postponed China’s reckoning with progress. This took the form of military aggression and the poppy that afflicted China for decades. A crumbling, corrupt, and reactionary empire refused the symbols of progress and scientific discoveries that could have helped it avoid its undoing. While the Old Continent grew in the dynamism of scientific realizations, geographic discoveries, and the industrial revolution, China continued to cultivate its past. Regression was inevitable. The agrarian economy could not produce sufficient wealth, the conservation of production methods could not free energy, and classical culture could not stimulate social change. The Five Confucian Relationships symbolized this, between father and son, elder and younger brother, ruler and subject, husband and wife, and between friends. The affirmation of progress, the bourgeois, and capitalism imposed a very different social dynamic from the other side of the world. History’s long shadow was never lifted. Even in immeasurably different political situations, the Chinese identity, autarky, and nationalism remained fundamental. The need to preserve them from foreign contagion frequently prevailed, both in the imperial refusal and the Maoist quote, “count on your own strength.” The reluctance toward invading colonialists shares similarities—cultural even before political—with the distancing of soviet engineers in 1959 on the eve of the Great Leap Forward. The world would have to wait for Deng’s turning point in 1978 for China to open to the outside, when China understood that technological progress—certainly not moral or cultural—could be imported. At that moment, China recognized its delay and adjusted itself, resulting in the extraordinary results it imposes on the world today. Science exam: China fails.
c) The impossibility of being normal. Progress also has socio-political connotations, to which China cannot be exempt. China can no longer be considered an “historic exception,” because otherwise it would transgress too closely in the justification and conflict, rather than favor analysis and judgment. Valid values exist in every country, and they are the same values inserted into the universal declaration of human rights. 25 years after Tian An Men, China has not changed its political system. It has disappointed expectations, and has postponed sine die what it has announced many times, which is the launch of democratic reforms, although they would be approached with caution and with respect for Chinese characteristics. Tanks sealed the country, building a consensus with material progress and by prohibiting change with censure and repression. Many aspirations revealed themselves to be naïve: it’s not true that material progress would plant the seeds of democracy, at least not in the medium-term. China has demonstrated that the dominant train of thought—the conjunction between economic development and political democracy—isn’t always validated by facts. It demolished the idea that it’s possible to create wealth with only parliamentary institutions, and that a multiparty system is the base for proper political discourse. For this reason, China’s ascent creates confusion. It undermines fundamental liberal arrogance and reduces its credo to an option, certainly not an obligatory requisite. Political democracy can be an ingredient, but not the recipe for progress. There’s no need for other parties to represent new social classes. The only one in power, the CPC, can absorb any instance, nullifying differences. The Three Represents theory supports this. Elaborated by the ex-president, Jiang Ze Min, it’s the latest theoretical contribution approved by the party. It claims that the organization need not safeguard only the workers’ interests (laborers and farmers, according to tradition), but alsp grow the aspirations of all Chinese people. Therefore, it addresses the country’s three dominant strengths: production, culture, and the majority of the world’s population. Their success is desirable because it coincides with the success of the whole country. If the ruling party encompasses everyone, it avoids contradictions, harmonizes dissent, and renders alternatives impracticable. It’s not wise to find other roads if the existing is globally comprehensive. Rhetoric helps the party, just like the insistence on material progress. Propaganda has not decreased. Social networks amplify their message, and when they contest it, they’re punished. After the founding father’s charisma, the collective icon of the eight immortals shines. They were the leaders that built the country and preserved its integrity, protecting political unity from the temptation to reform. They modernized the economy without renovating policy. For this reason, China is breaking records today but not setting an example. It commands respect, but not admiration; it inspires research but not imitation. China is not a universal model, and most importantly, it doesn’t aspire to be one. A current of international sympathy prevailed over the resistance to its success. Now, this heritage is disappearing when China needs it most, fully inserted in globalization. The fear of provoking instability is Beijing’s mantra, and has desensitized it to any request for democratic progress. The heroic years of anti-Japanese resistance and civil war had taught China that it was based on discontinuity, the denunciation of a feudal past, and criticizing its dominant cultural traditions. Instead, today a theory regarding history’s linear progress is emerging from Beijing, where every event can be explained and renewed to the point of never calling the leaders into questions. Deng Xiao Ping spent several years in prison for sacrificing identity to progress. Today, his heirs have ambitions that will not be relegated to history. Civics exam: China fails.