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International Socialism, Summer 1995


Charlie Hore

Bookwatch: China since Mao


From International Socialism 2:67, Summer 1995.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Since Mao Zedong died in 1976, China has changed out of all recognition. Throughout the 1980s the Chinese economy grew at an average annual rate of over 10 percent – one of the highest growth rates anywhere in the world. Parts of the Chinese countryside, in particular the areas of Guangdong province close to Hong Kong, have experienced what amounts to a full scale industrial revolution. And a large part of this growth has been fuelled by China’s reintegration into the world market – China is now the eleventh biggest trading nation in the world.

Under Mao the economy had stagnated, and many of the gains that had been made since 1949 were wiped out, first in the Great Leap Forward of the late 1950s, and then in the Cultural Revolution. Far and away the best book to read on Mao’s economic strategy and why it necessarily failed is Nigel Harris’s The Mandate of Heaven [1], an excellent socialist analysis of the limitations of state capitalism. Most other books written on contemporary China in the 1960s and 1970s are marred either by uncritical repetition of state propaganda, or a simple inability to get any hard facts. The works of Simon Leys are some of the very few exceptions, giving a devastating account of the Cultural Revolution, and the intellectual and spiritual poverty of official culture in the 1970s. [2]

The new leadership that took over in 1978 shared Mao’s aim of building a strong industrial economy capable of competing with the rest of the world. They junked Mao’s economic strategy for the simple reason that it had failed to deliver the goods. Their new strategy of the ‘four modernisations’, introduced by Deng Xiaoping in 1978, had essentially two strands: reducing direct state control over the economy in favour of ‘market socialism’, and taking China back into the world market to gain export markets and state of the art technology.

In the villages the communal fields were broken up, and each family was given plots of land to plant as they saw fit. A certain proportion of the crop had to be sold to the state, and taxes paid in cash or crops – everything else they produced was theirs to consume or sell on the open market. In the cities day to day control of the factories was devolved to the managers and local officials. After meeting state quotas and paying taxes, they could sell the rest of their output on the free market.

The scale of this strategy’s early successes can be seen by the results of the sixth Five Year Plan (1981–1985). The plan called for average annual increases of 4 percent in both industrial and agricultural output – the actual growth was 12.6 percent in industry, and 8 percent in agriculture. [3] This growth led to probably the largest changes in everyday life in China’s history. Living standards soared in the early 1980s – average incomes doubled in both the cities and the countryside, while there was a boom in both food consumption and the availability of consumer goods.

The new leaders also admitted that the Cultural Revolution had been a disaster and dismantled many of the state controls which had characterised life under Mao. In part this was a necessary part of the market reforms, but it was also done to win back a measure of popular support for the ruling class. The political liberalisation was substantial, and quickly created political problems for the ruling class that have plagued them ever since, as intellectuals in particular have tried to push back the new boundaries of what was permissible.

The first challenge to the new rules began as soon as Deng Xiaoping had won the leadership of the ruling class. Oppositionists began to put up posters on a wall in Beijing (quickly labelled ‘Democracy Wall’) and produce magazines to sell to the crowds who flocked there. The activists were mostly ex-Red Guards, who found a mass base among the youth who had been sent to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution. [4]

The movement’s dynamic eventually led it into open opposition to Deng Xiaoping, and it was finally destroyed in a law and order crackdown in 1983. The movement was important both because it showed very early the limitations of Deng’s reforms, and because it has remained the reference point for opposition since then. The best history of the movement, with substantial extracts from its writings, is David S.G. Goodman’s Beijing Street Voices. But Wild Lilies, Poisonous Weeds, edited by Gregor Benton, remains the best anthology of the movement’s writings. Andrew Nathan’s Chinese Democracy places the movement in the context of earlier protest movements, and gives an excellent account of its subsequent influence. [5]

Important as Democracy Wall was, it was undoubtedly a minority voice. The early success of the economic reforms made Deng Xiaoping’s government probably the most popular in China since Mao took power in 1949. But by 1985 the new economic strategy was running into substantial problems, as it became clearer that the market was failing to deliver what had been promised. By 1988 raging inflation, growing rural unemployment and rampant corruption among state officials and managers had created a powder keg which was to explode in the Tiananmen Square revolt of 1989.

Since 1989 the economy has recovered from the (state induced) recession of the late 1980s, but is once again wracked with inflation, unemployment and overheating. The last two years have seen a series of riots and attacks on local officials spread across the countryside, while strikes are becoming more and more common in the cities. With Deng Xiaoping due to take his place in the deepest circle of hell any time now, the Chinese ruling class has never faced a more uncertain future.

The evolution of China’s reforms since 1978 has been covered in depth in previous issues of International Socialism, and in my The Road to Tiananmen Square [6], but they have also been covered in a wealth of other works. These break down into three broad categories: Western journalism, Western academic studies and writings from within China. I intend to look at each of these categories in turn, before discussing the revolt of 1989 and the literature it has produced.

Journalistic works

This is the shortest section, but the best place to start if you don’t know much about China. In the early years of the reforms much the best coverage of the changes in China came from journalistic works. Two early works that capture the scale of the changes and the expectations they aroused are Orville Schell’s To Get Rich is Glorious and Roger Garside’s Coming Alive: China After Mao. [7]

The two most important works, however, are Lynn Pan’s The New Chinese Revolution and John Gittings’s China Changes Face. [8] Both books are comprehensive surveys of the changes in China’s economy and society during the 1980s, informed by a far deeper knowledge of China than most other writers, and both were written after the first bloom of naive enthusiasm for Deng Xiaoping had worn off, giving them critical insights into the contradictions that the economic reforms were beginning to produce.

Orville Schell’s Discos and Democracy [9] focused on the growth of political opposition and the fragmentation of official ideology, in the student protest of 1985–86. In many ways that year was a turning point as inflation began to wipe out increased wages, official corruption became more and more blatant, and the logic of the market led the economy into the beginnings of crisis.

Academic works

The two best general surveys of the reforms of the 1980s and their initial results are collections of essays – Reforming the Revolution: China in Transition and a two volume work Transforming China’s Economy in the Eighties. [10] The second volume of this is especially useful as it focuses on industry and the cities, a major gap in most of the literature.

The more detailed surveys of the results of the reforms have tended to concentrate overwhelmingly on the countryside. The land reforms of the late 1970s were followed by an upsurge in industrialisation in many villages. By 1985 village industries employed some 70 million people and produced 19 percent of China’s total industrial output. [11]

Zhu Ling’s Rural Reform and Peasant Income in China is an excellent, if dense, survey of the changes in peasant income and the growth of inequality, based on a survey of three very different villages in the central province of Henan. China’s Peasants by Shulamith and Jack Potter, is a similar survey of a village in Guangdong, particularly useful for giving an account of change in the village since 1949. Both give a vivid picture of the hopes aroused by the economic reforms and the ways in which they have been frustrated. [12]

One of the few attempts to provide a national picture is State and Peasant in Contemporary China by Jean C. Oi, though her reliance on interviews with refugees in Hong Kong means the study is skewed towards the southern coastal regions. The most critical account of the rural reforms is William Hinton’s The Great Reversal. Hinton is an unrepentant Maoist, who sees the reforms as a betrayal of socialism, but his deep knowledge of the Chinese countryside gives him a sharp eye for the reforms’ adverse effects. [13]

Margery Wolf’s Revolution Postponed [14] is a sharply critical account of how women’s lives have changed for the worse since the reforms were introduced. She is particularly sharp on the coercion used to enforce the one child policy which began in 1979, and her insistence on talking to women workers in the cities makes this one of the best books on the changes in workers’ lives. There are good accounts of workers’ lives in two collections of essays, Chinese Society on the Eve of Tiananmen and State and Society in China [15], both of which document the rise in living standards in the early 1980s, and how that was wiped out by inflation after 1986. Significantly, both were written after 1989, when workers’ prominence in the Tiananmen rising brought them to the forefront of researchers’ interests.

One of the very few detailed studies of city life is Sex, Death and Hierarchy in a Chinese City by William Jankowiak [16], though because it’s set in the Inner Mongolian capital of Hohhot, hardly a typical Chinese city, it’s difficult to know how far one can generalise from his findings. The book is also useful for being one of the few to document the oppression of national minorities inside China – although there is a substantial literature on Tibet [17], little has so far been written on other minorities.

Lastly, the ability to do proper research inside China has produced some fascinating re-evaluations of Chinese history. Anne F Thurston’s Enemies of the People [18], for instance, is a comparative account of the Cultural Revolution drawn from interviews with some 200 intellectuals, which makes it one of the most interesting Western books on the period.

Most importantly, a number of important studies on workers’ lives and working class organisation in pre-revolutionary China have appeared, full of valuable insights into both everyday life and the activities of revolutionaries in the 1920s. [19] These are contradictory works, whose perspective is a mixture of E.P. Thompson influenced ‘history from below’ and feminist theories which focus on divisions among the working classes. Despite a certain theoretical incoherence they contain a wealth of detail about workers’ organisation and the clashes in workers’ lives between tradition and the pressures of the modern world.

Chinese works

Throughout the 1960s and most of the 1970s Westerners knew about China only through Western writing. The Chinese writing that was translated was unbelievably dull and cliché ridden propaganda, which read as though it had been assembled by committee. From 1978 onwards that situation was transformed. Deng Xiaoping’s reforms, and particularly the open denunciation of the Cultural Revolution, released a pent up stream of poems, short stories, memoirs and other writings. Even after the suppression of the Democracy Wall, there was a far greater freedom to publish than before. Furthermore, firstly people with families abroad and then students were allowed to leave the country – most of the works translated into English have come from people who have left China and no longer have to worry about official retribution.

The most widely read book about the Cultural Revolution is undoubtedly Jung Chang’s Wild Swans. Although it’s well worth reading, both for its harrowing picture of the Cultural Revolution and (perhaps more importantly) for its insights into the loyalties of her parents’ generation to Mao, its runaway success is primarily a triumph of marketing, for there are many other equally compelling accounts of the Cultural Revolution in translation [20] – and even these represent only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the literature in Chinese.

Most contemporary translated Chinese fiction is simply personal memoirs written in novel form: useful for a sense of life during the Cultural Revolution, but with little literary merit. There are important exceptions to this. Lu Wenfu’s The Gourmet and Other Stories is a gently satirical collection of stories about everyday city life, while Wang Anyi’s Baotown is a simply sketched slice of life in a remote village. [21]

Zhang Xianliang’s Half of Man is Woman, based on his years in a labour camp, is by contrast a violent, surrealistic and (by Chinese standards) sexually explicit novel. His style can be both dense and rambling at the same time, but it’s worth persevering. Mo Yan’s Red Sorghum (on which the film of the same name was based), is an even more violent and earthy story of the war against Japan. His is an important perspective because he was born into a peasant family, and only began to write while he was in the army. Most writing on rural China comes from intellectuals whose resentment at being sent to the villages is mixed with a disdain for peasant labour. Mo Yan, by contrast, understands the villages from inside, and can thus depict the vitality as well as the degradation of peasant life. [22]

For all the vitality of contemporary Chinese writing, it is important to remember that the voices of the vast majority of Chinese – the peasantry and the working class – are almost entirely absent. Two books do something to remedy this. He Liyi’s Mr China’s Son [23] is a classic work about peasant life today. A teacher who was sent to a labour camp and returned to his village in 1962, he relearnt English from the radio and wrote his memoirs in English. Although he describes the labour camp, the bulk of the book is an inside view of everyday village life in the remote south west.

Chinese Lives [24] was produced by two Chinese journalists, inspired by Studs Terkel’s ‘oral histories’, who simply talked to people on the streets about their everyday lives and wrote down what they said as they said it. This produced a fresh and lively mosaic of ordinary people’s immediate concerns and ambitions capturing, as few other books have done, both enthusiasm for the reforms and frustration at the pace of change.

Finally, although this is a review of books it is important to mention the renaissance of Chinese cinema over the last 10 years, beginning with Chen Kauge’s Yellow Earth, from Tian Zhuangzhuang’s bleak and savage Horse Thief to Zhang Yinou’s violent Red Sorghum. A reported new generation of film makers seems to have been stifled by post Tiananmen censorship.

Tiananmen and after

Tiananmen Square was the most important movement of opposition since 1949 for three linked reasons: it brought millions of people onto the streets in opposition to the ruling class as a whole, rather than in support of one faction against another; it produced independent working class organisations for the first time since 1927; and when Li Peng declared martial law, opposition became open rebellion as millions of workers manned barricades to keep the army out of Beijing. Although the explosion caught everyone by surprise, seeming to come out of nowhere, it was a product both of the economic reforms’ successes, and of the agitation of a minority of intellectuals over several years.

It was the growing gap between rich and poor that above all pulled millions of workers into the streets behind the students. But that student movement had been stirring for several years under the influence of a number of ‘unofficial’ intellectuals. Though often labelled ‘dissidents’ by the Western media, the term was inappropriate. Most were Communist Party members, and all saw themselves as working for reform from above.

All of them equally saw that the government would not listen unless it was made to, and thus pressed for action from below to bring about reform from above. It was that side of their ideas that above all attracted a mass student audience. For good accounts both of their ideas and of their influence, see Andrew Nathan’s Chinese Democracy, Orville Schell’s Discos and Democracy and Perry Link’s Evening Chats in Beijing. Fang Lizhi’s Breaking Down the Great Wall of China is a good representative account of their ideas in their own words. [25]

The two best general histories of the Tiananmen Square rebellion (although they only discuss events in Beijing) are Orville Schell’s Mandate of Heaven and Black Hands of Beijing by George Black and Robin Munro. The second of these is particularly interesting both for its account of the growing gap between the reformist intellectuals and the mood on the streets, and for one of the most detailed accounts of workers’ organisations and their activities. Cries for Democracy is a valuable collection of translations of the movement’s wall posters and leaflets. [26]

Li Lu’s Moving the Mountain and Shen Tong’s Almost a Revolution [27] are two valuable memoirs from leaders of the students in Tiananmen Square, though they should be read more for their insights into what the students believed they were fighting for than as definitive histories. My Tiananmen Square and After in International Socialism 44 contained invaluable eyewitness accounts of the rebellion, and in particular of the organisation of the barricades on the outskirts of Beijing.

Although the movement began in Beijing, and its dynamic was always determined by events in Beijing, it was far more widespread than any previous opposition movement. In this sense, there is as yet no good history of the movement. The Pro-Democracy Protests in China [28] is, as far as I know, the only book to concentrate on what happened outside Beijing, though its account is limited by the accidents of where the various authors happened to be. It is, however, particularly sharp on the different aspirations of the intellectual leadership and the workers who were drawn into the struggle. It also illustrates something that went practically unreported in the West at the time – the sheer scale and anger of the protests across China after the 4 June massacre.

Although the movement had the potential to topple China’s rulers, the lack of any coherent leadership meant it was never able to realise that potential. But the massacre of 4 June demonstrated that the ruling class was unable to regain control except through brute force, and had nothing else to offer the Chinese people. That remains true today.

Their political crisis is rooted above all in the success of the economic reforms since 1978. The Chinese economy has expanded out of all recognition, but in the process the ruling class has lost control of both the pace and the direction of the economy. For the last ten years they have zigzagged from austerity packages to expansion and back again, depending on whether they faced overheating or recession. Yet each zigzag diminishes their power, as local officials and managers find new ways around the controls imposed from Beijing. What the experience of the reforms demonstrates is that, while the market can expand the economy, it cannot do so in a way that benefits the majority of the population.

While few academic works on China after Tiananmen will go so far, all reflect a sense of crisis for which there is no obvious solution. China in the Nineties is a useful collection of articles tracing the roots of the crisis, while a more recent collection, China Deconstructs, illustrates the growing inequalities between different regions of China, and the loss of control by Beijing over economic development in China’s provinces. Although it concludes (probably correctly) that the chances of China breaking up as a state are small, the fact that the question can be asked at all shows the depth of the problem. [29]

One key component of the crisis is the growing unwillingness of China’s population to passively accept its effects. The last few years have seen an enormous increase both in strikes among urban workers and in demonstrations, riots and attacks on state officials across the countryside. In 1989 the ruling class could at least take comfort from the fact that the countryside kept quiet – in any future upheaval, they cannot take that for granted. Elizabeth Croll’s From Heaven to Earth [30], a detailed study of the gains and losses of the reforms in the countryside, shows how that growing peasant defiance is based on the antagonism between peasants and officials and the fragility of the gains that most peasants have made.

Academic and even journalistic publishing tends to lag two or three years behind events, which is why the listing of books since Tiananmen is so sparse. One exception to this is the excellent China Briefing [31] series published annually, useful more as a snapshot of recent events than as in depth analysis, but the most up to date information you can get in book form. Otherwise, for the latest developments the Far Eastern Economic Review, Business Week and the Wall Street Journal all carry good reports of current events in China today. Precisely because these publications reflect Western capitalists’ fears for their investments and export prospects, they follow unrest among workers and peasants closely.

If the number of books I’ve listed seems daunting, it should be remembered that I’ve only skimmed the surface of a vast literature. Despite that a number of topics remain uncovered. There are as yet, for instance, no good books on corruption among officials and managers, or on the growth of the ‘floating population’ (illegal migrants and travelling traders) in China’s cities. Out of everything I’ve listed, I’d recommend four books to start with: Jung Chang’s Wild Swans, John Gittings’s China Changes Face, Margery Wolf’s Revolution Postponed and Li Lu’s Moving the Mountain.

But the first book that any socialist should read about China was written 40 years before any of these. Harold Isaacs’ The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution [32] is one of the classics of socialist history, a passionate and inspiring account of how Chinese workers and peasants rose up against their oppressors between 1925 and 1927, and how that revolution was betrayed by Stalin. Mao’s victory was built on their defeat, yet the re-emergence of independent workers’ organisation in 1989 opened the way for the rediscovery of that revolutionary tradition and the rebirth of the power that can put an end forever to the poverty and inequality imposed by the market.


The best books on a subject aren’t always the ones that remain in print. For some reason this seems to be especially true of contemporary China. Books that are still in print are marked by *.

1. N. Harris, The Mandate of Heaven (Quartet 1978).

2. See for instance The Chairman’s New Clothes (Allison and Busby 1977), one of the best histories of the Cultural Revolution, and Chinese Shadows (Penguin 1978) and Broken Images (Allison and Busby 1979). All are out of print, but they remain some of the most essential books on modern China.

3. C. MacKerras and A. Yorke (eds.), The Cambridge Handbook of Contemporary China (Cambridge University Press 1991), p. 156*. This is a very useful source of facts and figures up to the mid-1980s.

4. In the late 1980s and early 1970s between 12 and 18 million young people were sent to the countryside from China’s towns and cities – that is up to 10 percent of the urban population. For powerful descriptions of the alienation and deprivation this caused, see Jung Changes Wild Swans (Flamingo 1991)* or Chen Kaige’s film King of the Children.

5. D.S.G. Goodman (ed.), Beijing Street Voices (Marion Boyars 1981); G. Benton (ed.), Wild Lilies, Poisonous Weeds (Pluto 1982); A. Nathan, Chinese Democracy (I.B. Tauris 1986).

6. See G. Gorton, China since the Cultural Revolution, International Socialism 23; G. Gorton, China’s “Market Socialism” – Can it Work?, International Socialism 34; C. Hore, China: Tiananmen Square and After, International Socialism 44*; C. Harman, Where is Capitalism Going? (part 2), International Socialism 60*; C. Hore, The Road to Tiananmen Square (Bookmarks 1991).

7. O. Schell, To Get Rich is Glorious: China in the 1980s (Mentor 1986); R. Garside, Coming Alive: China after Mao (Mentor 1982).

8. L. Pan, The New Chinese Revolution (Sphere 1988); J. Gittings, China Changes Face (Oxford University Press 1989).

9. O. Schell, Discos and Democracy (Pantheon1988).

10. R. Benewick and P. Wingrove (eds.), Reforming the Revolution: China in Transition (Macmillan 1988)*; S. Feuchtwang, A. Hussain and T. Pairault, Transforming China’s Economy in the 1980s (Zed 1988).

11. J. Gittings, op. cit., p. 140.

12. Zhu Ling, Rural Reform and Peasant Income in China (Macmillan 1991)*; S.H. and J.M. Potter, China’s Peasants (Cambridge University Press 1990)*.

13. J.C. Oi, State and Peasant in Contemporary China (University of California Press 1989)*; W. Hinton, The Great Reversal, (Monthly Review, New York 1990)*.

14. M. Wolf, Revolution Postponed (Methuen 1987).

15. D. Davis and E. Vogel (eds.), Chinese Society on the Eve of Tiananmen (Harvard University Press 1990)*; A.L. Rosenbaum (ed.), State and Society in China (Westview Press 1992)*.

16. W. Jankowiak, Sex, Death and Hierarchy in a Chinese City (Columbia University Press 1993)*.

17. See for instance, A.T. Grunfeld, The Making of Modern Tibet (Zed 1987).

18. A.F. Thurston, Enemies of the People (Harvard University Press 1988).

19. See for instance G. Hershatter, The Workers of Tianjin 1900-1949 (Stanford University Press 1986)*; E. Honig, Sisters and Strangers (Stanford University Press 1986)* about women textile workers in Shanghai; E. Perry, Shanghai on Strike (Stanford University Press 1993)*; J. Stockard, Daughters of the Canton Delta (Stanford University Press 1989)* about marriage patterns among women silk workers in Guangdong; D. Strand, Rickshaw Beijing (University of California Press 1989)*.

20. See for instance Liang Heng and J. Shapiro, Son of the Revolution (Fontana 1983); Nien Cheng, Life and Death in Shanghai (Grafton 1986; reissued by Harper Collins 1995)*; Luo Ziping, A Generation Lost (Avon Books 1990); Gao Yuan, Born Red (Stanford University Press 1987)*; Yue Daiyun and C. Wakeman, To the Storm (University of California Press 1987)*.

21. Lu Wenfu, The Gourmet and Other Stories (Readers International 1987); Wang Anyi, Baotown, (Viking 1989)*.

22. Zhang Xianliang, Half of Man is Woman (Viking 1988); Mo Yan, Red Sorghum, (Minerva 1994)*. He has also published a collection of equally vivid and earthy short stories, Explosions (Renditions 1991)

23. He Liyi, Mr China’s Son (Westview Press 1993)*.

24. Zhang Xinxin and Sang Ye (eds.), Chinese Lives (Penguin 1986).

25. P. Link, Evening Chats in Beijing (W.W. Norton 1993)*; Fang Lizhi, Breaking Down the Great Wall of China (W.W. Norton 1992).*

26. O. Schell, Mandate of Heaven (Little, Brown 1995)*; G. Black and R. Munro, Black Hands of Beijing (John Wiley 1993)*; Han Minzhu (ed.), Cries for Democracy (Princeton University Press 1990).*

27. Li Lu, Moving the Mountain (Pan 1990); Shen Tong, Almost a Revolution (Harper Perennial 1991).

28. J. Unger (ed.), The Pro-Democracy Protests in China (M.E. Sharpe, Armonk 1991).*

29. D.S.G. Goodman and G. Segal (eds.), China in the Nineties (Oxford University Press 1991); D.S.G. Goodman and G. Segal (eds.), China Deconstructs (Routledge 1994).*

30. E. Croll, From Heaven to Earth (Routledge 1994).*

31. The most recent is China Briefing 1994 (Westview Press).*

32. H. Isaacs, The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution (Stanford University Press 1961).*

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