Media and Popular Culture in China
During his Southern Tour to the Special Economic Zones in South China in 1992 to accelerate market reforms in the aftermath of Tiananmen bloodshed, the paramount Chinese leader advised the party state, “Guard against the Right, but primarily against the Left.” How do you make sense of Deng’s warning against the leftist political thought and social force in light of China as a socialist state and a country ruled by a Communist party? How the party state’s post-1989 disciplinary power in communication and media has suppressed popular social protests and leftist perspectives?
Chinese history and culture have always been difficult to understand for western intellectuals. Although trade relationships between China and the rest of the world had gone on for centuries, there is always the perception of that the country represents the ‘other’, the Orient. This construct is noted to be in complete contrast to the Occident. Seen in light of this dichotomy, while sentiments and views expressed by Chinese leaders might appear contradictory or paradoxical to the western observer, they are not necessarily so for the Chinese people themselves. Chinese leader Deng’s statement to the party to “Guard against the Right, but primarily against the Left” can hence be interpreted to be logically and practically plausible. The rest of this essay will elaborate on this thesis.
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Ever since the communist revolution of 1945 and the rise to power of the Communist Party of China (CCP), Marxist-Leninist thought have been the backbone of much of public policy. Under the iron rule of Mao Zedong, although several millions of Chinese lost their lives through their acts of rebellion, communist ideology has been reverentially promoted both within the party and among the general public. This is not to say that there are no contradictions and countervailing tendencies within the party leadership. If anything, when one looks at the priorities of Chinese leadership during the last six decades, it is clear that their holding on to authority is of paramount importance. Whether communist principles get implemented through public policy has been secondary to monopolization of power. And since the greatest threat to power comes from popular movements, as opposed to business interests, Deng’s warning against the Left makes perfect sense. Although, the tendency to repress and subdue the public have taken new modes in recent decades, it was frequent even during the reign of Mao Zedong, the founding leader of the CCP. In 1958, Mao introduced a highly ambitious economic development program, called the Great Leap Forward, purported to propel the country into advanced industrial socialism by circumventing the intermediate stage of capitalism.
“Mao’s unrealistic enthusiasm combined with a slavishly loyal Party bureaucracy and a silenced professional class to produce the most organized and planned disaster in China’s history. Insane agricultural production targets produced famine by diverting labor from a mixed economy to imagined super-yield fields of rice that, in the end, did not produce, and to ill-designed irrigation projects. The heart of the disaster was the willingness of local Party leaders to pretend in order to please Mao and the compliance of central leaders who were afraid to stop the madness. The ensuing famine from 1959 to 1961 is the greatest single disaster in the history of the PRC and rivals the entire Japanese invasion in the scope of human suffering. Far more Chinese died under the CCP in a time of peace than during the Sino-Japanese War”. (Creek, p.39)
Hence, subordination to power and undermining of public interest is not an exclusively post-liberalization theme – its roots go back to the birth of the Communist state. In this regard, Deng was only reiterating publicly what is an accepted motto in party circles.
The spirit of communism requires that the government does not put its people under undue distress. But in the short history of CCP rule, the government has never hesitated to use violence and oppression whenever its authority is challenged. So, beyond the ideologies of Left and Right, the ideology of power has remained the dominant operant in Chinese domestic affairs. With this understanding it is easy to see that Deng’s remark was not out of line with the pattern of events in recent history. For example, following the disastrous Great Leap Forward program, the second rung leadership of the party came to the conclusion that before embarking on such large-scale projects the country needs to develop technology. But, the rational technocratic tendencies of sections of the party was seen as a push to the Right and eventually toward capitalism. Irrespective of the validity of these perceived threats to communism, Mao unleashed a slew of harsh measures to bring the party under his unitary command. The Four Modernizations policy that followed the failed Great Leap was the brain-child of the technocratic elite of the party, and as a result Mao sought to dismantle the program. This move on part of Mao was born as much of personal insecurity as any other purported logical flaws in it.
“Mao’s solution was a return to active, violent revolution. It’s tool: luan, or chaos. And it worked, for a while. The chaos of student demonstrations, mutual denunciations among Party cadres, and orchestrated purges and public trials stopped the technocratic reforms dead and tossed the Party leadership that handled them out of office, into the streets and, ultimately, sent them down to the farm to starve or reform themselves according to the Great Leap goals of faith in Mao and Mao alone” (Creek, p.40)
Repression in China has taken on an added dimension in the period of economic liberalization. As author Yuezhi Zhao notes in his book, use of brute force has been partially replaced in the last two decades by censoring of public discourse. By controlling the range of thoughts the general public is allowed to have and express, a great deal of discipline is instilled in the population. This pre-empts any need for deployment of police and the military as was usually the case during the time of Mao, and more recently during the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989.
“As the post-1989 Chinese leadership unleashed the power of the market and entrenched a pragmatic notion of socialism as economic development, they further reinforced their coercive and discursive disciplinary powers in the political, ideological, and cultural spheres. More importantly, the heightening of state censorship is a response to deepening social tensions and intensifying political, ideological, social, and cultural struggles resulting from accelerated market reforms and global reintegration.” (Yuezhi Zhao, p.49)
The period of economic reforms has seen the rise of new social tensions and issues. Inequalities in the distribution of wealth has been on the ascendency, causing distrust of public policy and increasing the propensity for popular demonstrations. The heightened restrictions within the news media and the Internet are a reflection of these growing tensions, as government agencies work overtime to curb subversive thoughts and ideas. And the cause of the Left is the most affected in this stifling atmosphere, as without the ability to communicate and organize mass movements, ideas representing an idealistic socialist society does not get necessary support. And censorship in communication within the country is part of the policy to ‘Guard against the Right, but primarily against the Left’.
Timothy Cheek, Living with Reform: China Since 1989 (Nova Scotia: Fernwood Publishing; London and New York: Zed Books, 2006). ISBN: 978-1842777237. Page: 32-53
Yuezhi Zhao, Communication in China: Political Economy, Power, and Conflict (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008). ISBN: 978-0742519664. Page: 47-57