Understanding China IV: Stability

By Kuhn, Robert Lawrence | Chief Executive (U.S.), March/April 2009 | Go to article overview
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Understanding China IV: Stability


Kuhn, Robert Lawrence, Chief Executive (U.S.)


Addressing inequality, both within national borders and across them, is critical for a peaceful and prosperous future.

To understand China, if Pride, Responsibility and Vision are the first three guiding principles (see previous issues), Stability must surely be the fourth. If one appreciates just these four overarching ideas and can recognize their countless expressions, one already knows a good deal about what drives this nation and informs its leaders.

Stability is the watchword, and a good part of the bred-in-the-bone reason can be traced directly to the Cultural Revolution, that devastating decade (1966-1976) when political madness manufactured social turmoil and delivered personal torment, when self-inflicted national mutilation turned the entire country inward against itself, pitting students against teachers, children against parents and friend against friend. To understand China, one must understand the Cultural Revolution.

Initiated by Mao Zedong in the twilightof his mercurial career, the Cultural Revolution was his sad and vainglorious attempt to re-revolutionize China and reaffinn his own potency and preeminence. Begun as an effort to expunge alleged capitalists from the Communist Party, it nearly destroyed the country. Energized by fundamentalist fervor, adherents concocted a Mao-centered personality cult. Universities were closed; intellectuals and professionals were exiled to farms; children were urged to denounce their parents; and young Red Guards, waving their little red books of Mao's quotations, stood in judgment over anyone they deemed counterrevolutionary, who was virtually everyone in authority.

An entire generation was lost. It is impossible to overstate the hovering presence of the Cultural Revolution-the accusations, denunciations, castigations, humiliations. I have not met a single educated person over 50 years old who was not emotionally scarred by the experience.

China's leaders will never allow such colossal chaos to happen again. They describe the kind of political reform that, while not advocating Western-style democracy, does provide for increasing transparency in government, collective decision making that makes dictatorship impossible, increasing powers of the National People's Congress and the like. These trends of political reform, they say, will continue until "China develops its own kind of democracy consistent with the historical, cultural, economic and social needs of 1.3 billion Chinese people."

Most Westerners assume that if one rejects communist-style central planning, men one must espouse Westernstyle democracy. Such reasoning seems naive to many Chinese, even to those who seek fundamental change in the political system. Many Chinese intellectuals believe, quite in accord with government policy, that collective rights are more important than individual rights, and that improving the standard of living for all citizens is a superior good to allowing greater freedom of speech for some citizens.

Thus, the fourth and final theme needed to understand China is the desire for stability. Actually it is more than desire; it is obsession- a deep-seated need for social order and an almost paranoid fear of turmoil and chaos. This is the legacy of the Cultural Revolution: The nightmare memories are seared in the collective national soul, and a recurrence must be prevented.

Nothing good can happen without stability. No economic growth. No social progress. Stability is essential. This is what one continually hears in China.

"Class struggle," the classic epitome of Marxist ideology and frenzied goal of Mao Zedong's politics, has returned as a core concern of China's leaders, but neither Karl nor Mao would recognize its current incarnations. In recent talks with China's leaders, I find them now using the emotionally burdened term in two novel ways, both reflecting concern for stability.

Thirty years ago, when Mao's death mercüully ended the Cultural Revolution, there were no classes in China everyone was equal, equally poor.

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