Category Archives: China

Wordcatcher Tales: getihu, baochan daohu

I learned a few new Chinese terms from reading Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century, by Christian Caryl (Basic Books, 2014).

个体户 (traditional 個體戶) getihu (‘individual-body-enterprise’) – Even during the heyday of collectivization, Communist China allowed very limited small-scale entrepreneurship. The term for such businesses translates literally as ‘individual’ (个 ge, used as a counter for individual items) + ‘body’ (体 ti, also ‘form, style; system’) + ‘door’ (户 hu, also ‘household, family; [bank] account; type of professional’).

包产到户 (traditional 包産到戸) baochan daohu (‘assure-production reach-household’) – The method used to abolish China’s disastrously underperforming collective farms was to reassign production quotas down to the level of individual households. The term for production quota is baochan, composed of 包 ‘wrap; envelope; include; take full responsibility for; assure, guarantee’ + 产 ‘give birth to; produce’ (or ‘product[ion]’). The reassignment of responsibility to households was conveyed by adding the modifier 到户 daohu, from 到 dao ‘arrive, reach’ + 户 hu ‘door; household, family’.

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Numerology of 1979

From Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century, by Christian Caryl (Basic Books, 2014), Kindle Loc. 4676-4704:

Many of the events of 1979 are linked with the mysterious power of anniversaries. The Communist Party in Poland feared the incendiary potential of the nine-hundredth anniversary of the martyrdom of a saint. The thirtieth anniversary of the Communist takeover in China was shrewdly exploited by Deng Xiaoping and his colleagues to reinforce the sense of a new beginning. The forty-day Islamic mourning cycle proved a crucial dynamic for the revolution in Iran—as did the millennial expectations of Khomeini’s followers, whose habit of referring to him as the “imam” fanned a longing for the realm of justice promised by the reappearance of the Hidden Imam. Indeed, the Islamic calendar itself was one of the many issues that fueled the discontent of Iranian believers. The shah’s decision to introduce a new, non-Islamic calendar in the mid-1970s served as yet another bit of evidence to good Shiites that the monarch was an enemy of their religion—and gave Khomeini’s supporters yet another potent argument.

In the Julian calendar of the West, 1979 is not an especially evocative date. But this was not true for Muslims. In the Islamic calendar, which is based on the phases of the moon and takes as its start the Prophet’s exile from Mecca in 622, the Western month of November 1979 coincides with the dawning of the new year of 1400. According to certain traditions, that is the year that the Mahdi, the Islamic messiah, is supposed to reveal himself to the faithful and usher in a new age of eternal justice. For Iranians, this is the moment when historical time and the forces of eternity coincide, and this apocalyptic expectation fueled the fervor with which Khomeini was greeted as the country’s new savior. Some demonstrators wondered whether he might, indeed, turn out to be the Imam of the Age himself; some of the faithful even claimed to have seen his face on the moon.

In the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a group of provincial zealots came up with a particularly fateful reading of the Mahdi myth. Like the majority of Saudis, they were not Shiite but Sunni, and they hailed from a remote corner of the kingdom that had largely missed out on the new prosperity. In November 1979, as pilgrims were arriving for the annual hajj, the obligatory pilgrimage to Mecca, heavily armed members of the group took over the al-Masjid al-Haram, the Grand Mosque, and took thousands of pilgrims from around the world hostage. They then announced that one of their leaders, a young man named Abdullah Hamid Mohammed al-Qahtani, was the Mahdi, the long-prophesied redeemer of Islam. All Muslims, they said, were religiously obligated to obey his commands. The Saudi authorities declined to do this and immediately set about the task of clearing the mosque. It took them weeks, covertly assisted by a team of commandos lent to the kingdom by the French government, to kill or capture the hostage takers. In the end, according to official Saudi figures, 270 people—hostages, hostage takers, and members of the assault force—lost their lives. Foreign diplomats who managed to get access to local hospitals concluded that the actual death toll was much higher, closer to 1,000.

The leader of the group, Juhayman al-Otaibi, was captured and executed a few weeks after the end of the siege. But his ideas would prove prophetic. He had categorically denounced the corruption of the Saudi regime and rejected the presence of infidel foreigners in a country that was supposed to be the undefiled home to Mecca and Medina, two of the three most holy places in Islam. (The third is the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.) A subsequent generation of Saudi radicals—Osama bin Laden among them—would not forget.

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Democracy Wall as Proto-Internet, 1978

From Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century, by Christian Caryl (Basic Books, 2014), Kindle Loc. 2721-2761:

Most of these malcontents were incapable of articulating their demands. But someone was prepared to do it for them. In September 1978, the editors of a magazine called China Youth, which had been prohibited from publishing during the Cultural Revolution, decided to relaunch it. They decided to mark its return in style by publishing some poems commemorating the Tiananmen Incident of 1976. Party censors intervened and thwarted the editors from going ahead with their plans. The frustrated literati refused to give up, so they resorted to a time-honored technique of Chinese mass communication: the dazibao, or “big-character poster.” They decided to print the poems in poster form and paste them up in a public place. They needed a venue where a big audience was ensured, so they opted for a spot that other unrecognized writers had been using for a few months. This was a long stretch of brick wall under a row of leafless sycamore trees next to a bus depot in Xidan, a spot in downtown Beijing, just a few blocks from the Jingxi Hotel, that tens of thousands of commuters passed through every day.

China Youth’s decision to use the site dramatically boosted its notoriety. Crowds of readers quickly formed. To everyone’s surprise, the authorities declined to interfere. Posters proliferated. Soon people were coming from all over China to take a look. Crowds gathered, eager to experience the heady atmosphere of a place where a myriad of views competed for attention.

This was Xidan Democracy Wall. Young Chinese described it as their version of Speaker’s Corner in London’s Hyde Park. For a few weeks in the winter of 1978–1979, it would become a key strategic asset in the battle for China’s soul.

At some point in late November, a poster appeared on the wall criticizing Mao by name. No one could recall such a thing ever happening before. The author of the poster, who called himself Work Permit Number 0538 (and gave the address of the motor repair shop where he worked), wrote: “In 1976 after the Tiananmen Incident, the Gang of Four made use of the prestige and power of Chairman Mao’s mistaken judgment on class struggle and launched an all-out attack on the cause of revolution in China.” During the Cultural Revolution, one man had been sentenced to fifteen years in a labor camp for absentmindedly scratching his back with a copy of the Little Red Book during a mass meeting. Now everyone waited to see what would happen to the author of this shocking text. Would he be shot? Surely, at least, the poster itself would be torn down. But two days later it was still there.

The posters that followed pushed the boundaries even further. One wondered how the all-knowing Mao had failed to notice that his own wife, Jiang Qing, was actually a “traitor.” Another called on the party leadership to observe the rule of law. Another demanded the rehabilitation of party leaders who had been purged by Mao in the early 1960s. Not all of the provocations were political. “Why can’t the national economy catch up with the one in Taiwan?” one poster asked. “How can the United States, a capitalist country only 200 years old, be the most developed in the world?”

By now the wall was besieged by visitors, day and night. People read, expostulated, and listened “with an openness unprecedented in the history of the People’s Republic.” Some visitors spoke their messages through bullhorns. The foreign correspondents and diplomats who came to see what was going on found themselves besieged by curious locals. During the years of the Cultural Revolution, ordinary Chinese had done whatever they could to avoid even the most cursory contact with citizens of other countries. Now, liberated by the air of candor around the wall, they peppered the foreigners with questions. Roger Garside, a Chinese-speaking British diplomat who wrote one of the most vivid accounts of the early reform period in China, recalled the scene:

They bombarded me with questions on democracy and human rights: “Can you really criticize your Prime Minister? Who owns the newspapers in Britain? How do they decide their editorial policy? How is the BBC controlled? How are elections organized?”

Some were by no means ignorant but wanted to check out the information they had acquired one way or another; others were simply thirsty for knowledge.

In Garside’s description, Democracy Wall functioned like a sort of proto-Internet: posters with derivative content were quickly papered over, while those that had something new or powerful to say were left uncovered. Readers wrote comments on some of the posters with ballpoint pens; when a popular one was torn by accident, visitors quickly glued it back together. Some of the texts were written on scraps of paper torn from notebooks, while others were composed on sheets of paper three feet high with brush and ink. Some authors used paper in pink or green to attract attention.

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Hua Guofeng and the Two Whatevers, 1977

From Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century, by Christian Caryl (Basic Books, 2014), Kindle Loc. 2594-2619:

In the wake of Mao’s death, the colorless Hua surprised everyone with a sudden show of initiative. Allying himself with two established party elders, Army Marshal Ye Jianying and veteran functionary Li Xiannian, Hua engineered the arrest of the Gang of Four. It was a startling gambit even by the Byzantine standards of twentieth-century Communist conspiracies. Hua had started by splitting off one of the Gang’s key allies, a man by the name of Wang Dongxing, who had risen with the Gang’s help to become the head of the party’s Praetorian Guard, the 8341 Special Regiment, which provided for the security of top officials. Hua and Wang arranged for two of the Gang’s leaders to be called to a special session of the Politburo. They were arrested at gunpoint as they stepped into the room. Jiang Qing, Mao’s widow and the Gang’s leader, was taken into custody in her bedroom; one of her personal servants is said to have spat on her as she was led away. Under orders from Hua, the People’s Liberation Army quickly moved to disarm the heavily armed militias and the powerful media machine that Jiang’s faction had built up over the years. The Cultural Revolution was finally coming to an end.

Yet what was Hua offering in its place? This was not immediately clear. Hua certainly understood that the country could no longer afford permanent revolution. Adopting a strategy originally envisioned by Zhou Enlai, he declared that China should push ahead with “the Four Modernizations” (science and technology, industry, national defense, and agriculture). He moved to restore the economy’s animal spirits by ordering a huge surge of investment in industry and agriculture. Like Gierek in Poland, Hua seemed to believe that part of the solution involved taking big foreign loans for flagship projects; also like Gierek, he seemed to have few concrete ideas about how these loans would be paid back.

Hua’s program did result in tangible growth. But it also led to big budget deficits and scandalous waste, since it failed to tackle many of the serious problems of management and organization bequeathed by Maoist excess. Hua had the right idea, but he was still, in essence, relying on mobilization and slogans rather than substantive economic policy. Some of his critics belittled the program as another Great Leap Forward, a utopian exercise with little practical foundation. Hua, for example, urged a rapid increase in the output of steel, which duly materialized. But to what end? What, precisely, was the underlying economic strategy?

Hua had eliminated the Gang of Four. He tried to revive the economy. But he seemed hesitant to put an end to the broader legacy of the Cultural Revolution. In February 1977, a few months after Mao’s death, Hua’s supporters published a statement containing a conspicuous quote: “We will resolutely uphold whatever policy and decisions Chairman Mao made, and unswervingly follow whatever instructions Chairman Mao gave.” This credo came to be known as the “the two whatevers,” and its adherents, “the Whateverists.” Like many factional nicknames, this one contained a large grain of truth. Hua’s legitimacy stemmed from the fact that he was Mao’s chosen successor. That counted for a lot. But it also limited his freedom of maneuver. He could not chip away at the memory of the Great Helmsman without undermining himself.

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Quoting Mao Against Mao, 1978

From Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century, by Christian Caryl (Basic Books, 2014), Kindle Loc. 2656-2682:

In May 1978, the prominent national newspaper Guangming Daily published an article with the innocuous title “Practice Is the Sole Criterion for Judging Truth.” The piece was quickly picked up by a series of other publications, including the leading army newspaper. The title sounds dull enough, but it went off like a bomb. The article, collectively authored by a team of academics working under the direction of rising party reformer Hu Yaobang, argued that Communist ideology was not the only yardstick for determining what was true. If Marxism was indeed a scientific theory, as it claimed to be, its findings ought to be tested through experiment: apply them to reality and see if they worked. Marx had said that the social and political prescriptions derived from his theory had to be subjected to constant empirical testing to make sure that they coincided with the dictates of historical materialism. And just to be sure that everyone got the point, the authors of the article undergirded their argument with a slogan from Mao himself—the one they used as the article’s title.

They were, in short, using Mao’s own words to undermine the central Maoist postulate of the Cultural Revolution, namely, the idea that the imperative of “revolution” overrode all else, including professional expertise, scientific knowledge, or economic efficiency. To many Chinese, the article’s paean to pragmatism sounded like a healthy dose of common sense after years of hysteria. Yet this was exactly what the Whateverists did not want to allow. After all, during the Cultural Revolution, Mao and his adepts had followed a rather different principle: for them it was revolutionary zeal, directed against the entrenched establishment, that had become the decisive litmus test for the correctness of policy. It was this same mind-set that had led to the persecution of countless engineers, managers, scholars, and scientists on the grounds of insufficient “class consciousness”—with devastating consequences for the Chinese economy.

Prioritizing “practice,” as the authors of the new article demanded, thus represented an implicit challenge to those who considered themselves to be the keepers of the chairman’s flame. If this new argument won the day, unwavering loyalty to Maoist slogans would no longer be the deciding factor in career advancement or political struggle. Professional skill, managerial competence, or scholarly acumen would come to the forefront. Deng, who does not appear to have been directly involved in the publication of that article, was quick to see its uses in his reckoning with Hua. Since his return to the center of party life, Deng had already been putting a different Mao quote at the center of his speeches: “Seek truth from facts.” This, of course, was a dig at Hua and his adherents, who continued to stress that truth was whatever Mao had said it was. Among the things that Deng had learned from his long years of involvement in party intrigues was the importance of defining the terms of debate. He now set out to deploy his “good,” pragmatic Mao against the “bad,” doctrinaire one of the Cultural Revolutionaries. Would the party cling to the Mao celebrated by the Gang of Four, inflexible, rigid, and dogmatic? Or would Chinese Communists reach back to the earlier version of Mao that was now held up high by Deng and his friends—a Mao who had (allegedly) celebrated the virtues of practicality and sober realism?

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1979, A Turning Point

From Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century, by Christian Caryl (Basic Books, 2014), Kindle Loc. 236-279:

These five stories—rich in event and grand personalities—would be worth telling in themselves. But do they really have that much to do with each other? Surely, Britain’s first female prime minister has nothing in common with Iranian Shiism’s leading militant cleric. And what could possibly unite the bishop of Rome, the budding Islamists of Afghanistan, and the leader of the Chinese Communist Party? The fact that they lived through the same historical inflection point, one might argue, does not mean that their stories are linked. Coincidence is not correlation.

In fact, though, they have much more in common than at first meets the eye. The forces unleashed in 1979 marked the beginning of the end of the great socialist utopias that had dominated so much of the twentieth century. These five stories—the Iranian Revolution, the start of the Afghan jihad, Thatcher’s election victory, the pope’s first Polish pilgrimage, and the launch of China’s economic reforms—deflected the course of history in a radically new direction. It was in 1979 that the twin forces of markets and religion, discounted for so long, came back with a vengeance.

Not all of the historical figures whose fates converged that year necessarily thought of themselves as conservatives, and none of them tried to turn back the clock to some hallowed status quo ante. This is precisely because they were all reacting, in their own ways, to a long period of revolutionary fervor that expressed itself in movements ranging from social democracy to Maoism—and it is striking that they were all variously denounced by their enemies on the Left as “reactionaries,” “obscurantists,” “feudalists,” “counterrevolutionaries,” or “capitalist roaders” who aimed above all to defy the march of progress.

There was a grain of truth to these accusations. The protagonists of 1979 were, in their own ways, participants in a great backlash against revolutionary overreach. Deng Xiaoping rejected the excesses of Mao’s Cultural Revolution in favor of pragmatic economic development—a move that, despite Deng’s disclaimers, entailed a gradual restoration of capitalist institutions. Khomeini’s vision of an Islamic state was fueled by his violent repudiation of the shah’s state-led modernization program (known as the “White Revolution”) as well as the Marxist ideas that dominated Iran’s powerful leftist opposition movements. (The shah, indeed, denounced the Shiite clerics as the “black reaction” in contrast to the “red reaction” of the Marxists.) Afghanistan’s Islamic insurgents took up arms against the Moscow-sponsored government in Kabul. John Paul II used Christian faith as the basis for a moral crusade against the godless materialism of the Soviet system. And Margaret Thatcher aimed to roll back the social democratic consensus that had taken hold in Great Britain after World War II.

At the same time, it was easy to underestimate just how much these leaders had actually absorbed from their opponents on the utopian Left. A conservative can be defined as someone who wants to defend or restore the old order; a counterrevolutionary, by contrast, is a conservative who has learned from the revolution. John Paul II, who had spent most of his adult life under the Communist system, knew the Marxist classics intimately and devoted considerable intellectual and pastoral effort to countering their arguments—knowledge that helped him to shape his program of moral and cultural resistance. (It also left him with an intense interest in the politics of the working class that informed his patronage of the Solidarity movement—as well as feeding a deep skepticism about Western-style capitalism.) Khomeini and his clerical allies appropriated Marxist rhetoric and ideas wherever they could, forging a new brand of religious militancy that railed against colonialism and inequality; socialist notions of nationalization and state management later played a large role in the Islamist government’s postrevolutionary economic policy. (One historian describes the resulting synthesis as “revolutionary traditionalism.”) Afghanistan’s jihadists borrowed from the Communist playbook by building revolutionary political parties and comprehensive ideological systems to go with them. Margaret Thatcher, who studied at Oxford when Marxism was the reigning political fashion, fused her conservative instincts with a most unconservative penchant for crusading rhetoric, ideological aggression, and programmatic litmus tests. It was precisely for this reason that many of the Conservative Party comrades-in-arms who accompanied her into government in 1979 questioned just how “conservative” she really was. As for Deng Xiaoping, he insisted on maintaining the institutional supremacy of the Communist Party even as he charted a course away from central planning and toward state capitalism. Cold War historian Odd Arne Westad describes Deng’s reform program as “a counterrevolution in economics and political orientation the likes of which the world had never seen.”

It was entirely in keeping with this spirit that Thatcher proudly reported to a Conservative Party rally in April 1979 that her political opponents had dubbed her a reactionary. “Well,” she declared, “there’s a lot to react against!” It was, indeed, precisely this peculiar spirit of defiance that gave the year its transformative power. The decisions of these leaders decisively defined the world in which we live—one in which communist and socialist thought has faded, markets dominate economic thinking, and politicized religion looms large. Like it or not, we of the twenty-first century still live in the shadow of 1979.

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Ice as Alternative Currency in North Korea

From The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story, by Hyeonseo Lee (William Collins, 2015), Kindle Loc. 2689-2705:

On one occasion, my mother called me with an alarming question. Normally we spoke on the weekends, but this time her call came during the day while I was at work. She sounded excited.

‘I’ve got a few kilos of ice.’

‘What?’ I sank down in my seat, out of sight of my colleagues.

She wanted to know if I had connections in China who could sell it.

Ice, or crystal methamphetamine, had long replaced heroin in North Korea as the foreign-currency earner of choice for the state. It’s a synthetic drug that is not dependent on crops, as heroin is, and can be manufactured to a high purity in state labs. Most of the addicts in China were getting high on crystal meth made in North Korea. Like the opium of the past, crystal meth, though just as illegal, had become an alternative currency in North Korea, and given as gifts and bribes.

‘Omma.’ My voice was a furious whisper. ‘Do you know what that is? It’s highly illegal.’

‘Well, lots of things are illegal.’

In her world, the law was upside down. People had to break the law to live. The prohibition on drug-dealing, a serious crime in most countries, is not viewed in the same way – as protective of society – by North Koreans. It is viewed as a risk, like unauthorized parking. If you can get away with it, where’s the harm? In North Korea the only laws that truly matter, and for which extreme penalties are imposed if they are broken, touch on loyalty to the Kim dynasty. This is well understood by all North Koreans. To my mother, the legality of the ice was a trifling matter. It was just another product to trade.

She said one of the big local traders brought it to the house because he knew I was in China and wondered if I could sell it there.

‘Give it back to him. Never get involved. There are bad people in that trade, and they won’t care if you’re caught.’

She never asked me again.

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