The Ghost of China’s Grim History

by Eric Margolis

Recently by Eric Margolis: Thirteen Days That Shook the World – and Nearly Ended It

China’s current 18th Party Congress may prove even more important that America’s just-fought election whose outcome was perfectly predictable.

Both nations maintained the political status quo. The Republican Party, as I’ve been saying in recent columns, is headed for irrelevance unless it can change its membership, end religious fundamentalism, and stop getting women angry at it.

China’s once-in-a-decade change of Communist Party leadership was rather more important than the US election: it will determine the course of the world’s most populous nation whose economy is set to overtake America’s before the decade is over.

My big questions about these ultra-boring party snoozfests and their droning speeches is how do the 2,000 delegates stay awake? Falling asleep means a one-way ticket to the “Lao Gai,” China’s gulag. Maybe delegates sit on thumbtacks.

While the United States and Europe are in an economic mess and crippled by debt, China’s long march out of dire poverty continues apace. During the past ten years of outgoing President Hu Jintao’s leadership, China’s economy has grown 400%. China is well on the way to becoming a modern nation with growing military power and technology.

I cannot look at today’s China without vividly recalling my first trip there in 1975, a year before the Red Emperor, Chairman Mao, died. China looked like a vast concentration camp. A few gangs of Red Guards still rampaged. Everyone wore dirty green or blue quilted outfits. A few bluish fluorescent feeble lights lit the grim scene of fear, poverty and depression.

On my twice-yearly visits to China, I marvel at the change: it’s as if some wizard waved a magic wand and from the ground sprouted skyscrapers, high-speed trains, and giant factories. Where, I keep wondering, did all the money come from? Maybe Chinese, like East Europeans, buried all their gold in the ground when the Communists took power and only dug it up when the coast was clear.

The wizard, of course, was Mao’s successor, Deng Xiaoping who was, in my humble view, a greater and certainly more effective revolutionary than Mao. Deng broke the power of China’s crackpot leftists and released his nation’s vast productive power.

Under Dengs’s inspired leadership, China finally managed to escape the chain of its past two centuries. Until the early 1800’s, China, with 400 million people, was the world’s leading economic power, but a military midget. An increasingly corrupt, feckless Manchu (Qing) Dynasty presided over China’s decay.

In 1839, the British pounced on prostrate China, waging two opium wars that caused tens of millions to become drug addicts. Britain seized Hong Kong. France, Russia, and Japan fed like wolves on helpless China. Many of the greatest fortunes in today’s Britain were based on the narcotics trade.

In 1850, a farmer declared himself the younger brother of Jesus Christ and launched the frightful Taiping Rebellion that in 14 years led to 20 million deaths. In 1894, Japan seized Korea and Taiwan from China and humiliated the Imperial armies and fleets.

China’s calamitous 19th century engendered the even more bloody 20th century: 1920’s civil wars; the Japanese invasion of 1937; a fight to the death between Mao’s Communist and the Nationalists of Chiang Kai-shek. In 1958, Mao’s Great Leap Forward, a crazy attempt to modernize the economy, wrecked China and caused 30-60 million peasants to starve. Mao’s equally daft Cultural Revolution almost finished off China.

Seen in the retrospective of this grim history, China’s rise to become the world’s second most important power is even more miraculous. The deep-seated fear of chaos and government weakness underlies much of China’s current political thinking and allows acceptance of authoritarian rule and lack of human rights taken for granted in many other nations. Chairman Mao used to read himself to sleep late at night poring over the history of China’s wars between rival kingdoms and peasant uprisings, which he termed China’s curse.

Nearly all dictatorships make use of this argument; so do too many democracies. There are other choices: look at the way Imperial Japan gave way to a democratic system, however flawed. China can take this same road, but it will take a long time for it to develop democratic confidence and a nation under law.