The Chinese Reassessment of Socialism 1976-1992

The Chinese Reassessment of Socialism 1976-1992

The Chinese Reassessment of Socialism 1976-1992

The Chinese Reassessment of Socialism 1976-1992


A momentous debate has been unfolding in China over the last fifteen years, only intermittently in public view, concerning the merits of socialism as a philosophy of social justice and as a program for national development. Just as Deng Xiaoping's better advertised experiment with market- based reforms has challenged Marxist-Leninist dogma on economic policy, the years since the death of Mao Zedong have seen a profound reexamination of a more basic question: to what extent are the root problems of the system due to Chinese socialism and Marxism generally? Here Yan Sun gathers a remarkable group of primary materials, drawn from an unusual range of sources, to present the most systematic and comprehensive study of post-Mao reappraisal of China's socialist theory and practice. Rejecting an assumption often made in the West, that Chinese socialist thought has little bearing on politics and policymaking, Sun takes the arguments of the post-Mao era seriously on their own terms. She identifies the major factions in the debate, reveals the interplay among official and unofficial forces, and charts the development of the debate from an initially parochial concern with problems raised by Chinese practice to a grand critique of the theory of socialism itself. She concludes with an enlightening comparison of the reassessments undertaken by Deng Xiaoping with those of Gorbachev, linking them to the divergent outcomes of reform and revolution in their respective countries.


My former classmates and mentors at the School of Foreign Affairs in Beijing will be quite surprised that I have written a book on Chinese politics and socialism. While studying there I was known for having little interest or capability in the required politics classes. One politics instructor even admonished me that if I could not master Marxist analytical tools, I would never be able to write analytical reports on world affairs. She insisted that I would see the empirical relevance of such tools once I left school.

Their relevance actually became apparent to me, however, even before I left that school. in 1984, during a special political report session, a report by Deng Liqun was read to us. the report criticized a couple of little-known graduate students who had presented papers challenging Marx's theory of cognition at a recent academic conference in Guilin. the gist of their challenge was that whereas Marx would say that the moon existed before and without one's seeing it, they argued that the moon did not exist for them if they could not see it or if they chose to close their eyes. Deng warned us that graduate students, with their typical active minds, should guard against such dangerous discussions. Deng's report seemed to me to be focusing on a ridiculous piece of trivia, but it also set me thinking: Why was an obscure argument taken so seriously?

The campaign against spiritual pollution also occurred while I was attending that school. While I and most of my classmates barely noticed the campaign, our Canadian instructor took it rather badly, to our puzzlement. Even though we assured her that we were used to such irrelevant campaigns and did not take them seriously, our instructor decided to return home. When another political campaign swept China in late 1986, I was studying at Johns Hopkins University. Even from a distance, this time I could not help but notice it. the question again came to my mind: Why were those “bourgeois liberals” and their ideas taken so seriously? After all, most people would not even notice them if they were not singled out in campaign criticisms.

But what finally set my mind on the topic of this study was an article that I read for a course for which I was serving as a teaching assistant at Johns Hopkins. Discussing post-Mao Chinese pragmatism, the article flatly says that even China's foremost thinkers and writers only complain about the problems of their system; they do not analyze or know how to analyze the deeper causes. Because they do no soul searching, they do not truly learn from the past. Having just witnessed the flourishing of ideas . . .

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