A speech given by John Garnaut to an Australian government seminar in 2017 has just come to my attention. In it, Mr. Garnaut puts into a nutshell how China’s leaders see the world and their own country, and how they’re working to ensure their ongoing – indeed, perpetual – control of both.
Here’s a lengthy excerpt from a much longer speech. I can’t emphasize too strongly that you should click over there and read the whole thing. It explains China’s internal and geopolitical policies better than almost any other short work I’ve read. It also explains how – and why – China is using its influence in the USA to influence not just our politics, but also our culture, both internally and as they’re directed towards China.
I want to make these broad points about the historical foundations of [Chinese Communist Party] ideology, beyond the fact that it is important:
- Communism did not enjoy an immaculate conception in China. Rather, it was grafted onto an existing ideological system – the classical Chinese dynastic system.
- China had an unusual veneration for the written word and acceptance of its didactic value.
- Marxism-Leninism was interpreted to Mao and his fellow revolutionaries by a crucial intermediary: Joseph Stalin.
- Communism – as interpreted by Lenin, Stalin and Mao – is a total ideology. At the risk of being politically insensitive, it is totalitarian.
- Xi Jinping has reinvigorated ideology to an extent we have not seen since the Cultural Revolution.
I’ll hold off on the practical contemporary implications of all this until we get to the subsequent discussion.
A Dynastic Cosmology
It was clear from my work as a journalist and writer in New China – to use the party speak – that the formal ideology of communism coexists with an unofficial ideology of old China. The Founding Fathers of the PRC came to power on a promise to repudiate and destroy everything about the dark imperial past, but they never really changed the mental wallpaper.
Mao and his comrades grew up with tales of imperial China. They never stopped reading them. The Dream of Red Mansions, The Three Kingdoms – the Chinese classics are all about the rise and decay of dynasties. This is the metanarrative of Chinese literature and historiography, even today.
Mao in particular was obsessed, as Mao’s one-time secretary Li Rui explained to me. He told me: “He only slept on one third of the bed and the other two thirds of his bed was covered by books, all of which were thread-bound Chinese books, Chinese ancient books. His research was the strategies of emperors. That was how to govern this country. That was what he was most interested in.”
And the Founding Revolutionaries passed these same tales down to their children. The daughter of Mao’s leading propagandist, Hu Qiaomu, told me that her father raised his voice to her only once: when she confessed that she hadn’t finished the Dream of Red Mansions (which by the way runs to a million characters). Hu Qiaomu was furious. He told her Chairman Mao had read the book 25 times.
So this is my first observation about ideology – ideology in the broadest sense, as a coherent system of ideas and ideals: the founding families of the PRC are steeped in the Dynastic System.
. . .
Xi Jinping has exercised an unwritten aristocratic claim to power which derives from his father’s proximity to the founder of the Red Dynasty: Chairman Mao. He is the compromise representative of all the great founding families. This is the starting point for understanding the worldview of Xi Jinping and his Princeling cohort.
In the view of China’s princelings – or “Revolutionary Successors”, as they prefer to be known – China is still trapped in the cycle which had created and destroyed every dynasty that had gone before. In this tradition, when you lose political power you don’t just lost your job (while keeping your super) as you might in our rather gentrified arrangement. You lose your wealth, you lose your freedom, you probably lose your life and possibly your entire extended family. You are literally erased from history. Winners take all and losers lose everything.
With these stakes, the English idiom “life-and-death-struggle” is far too passive. In the Chinese formulation it is “You-Die, I-Live”. I must kill preemptively in order to live. Xi and his comrades in the red dynasty believe they will go the same way as the Manchus and the Mings the moment they forget.
China’s veneration of the written word
A second point, related to the first, is that China has an extraordinary veneration of the written word. Stories, histories and teachers have great moral authority. Greater than anywhere I can think of with the exception of Tsarist Russia. This may have made Russia and China culturally receptive to propaganda and the ideology transmitted by propaganda. What is more certain is that China was particularly receptive to Soviet ideology because Chinese intellectuals found meaning in Russian literature and texts earlier and more readily than they did with other Western sources. “Russian literature was our guide (daoshi) and friend,” said Lu Xun.
In classical Chinese statecraft there are two tools for gaining and maintaining control over “the mountains and the rivers”: The first is wu (weapons, violence – 武) and the second is wen (language, culture – 文).
Chinese leaders have always believed that power derives from controlling both the physical battlefield and the cultural domain. You can’t sustain physical power without discursive power. Wu and wen go hand-in-hand.
. . .
Mao’s discursive advantage was Marxist-Leninist ideology. Language was not just a tool of moral judgment. It was an instrument for shaping acceptable behaviour and a weapon for distinguishing enemies and friends. This is the subtext of Mao’s most famous poem, Snow. Communist ideology enabled him to “weaponise” culture in a way his imperial predecessors had never managed.
And it’s important to remember who was the leader of the Communist world during the entire quarter of a century in which Mao rose to absolute power.
The “Great Genius” Comrade Stalin.
Mao knew Marxist Leninist dogma was absolutely crucial to his enterprise but he personally lacked the patience to wade through it. He found a shortcut to ideological proficiency with Joseph Stalin’s Short Course on the History of the Bolsheviks, published at the end of Stalin’s Great Terror, in 1938. According to Li Rui, when interviewed by historian Li Huayu, Mao thought he’d found an “encyclopaedia of Marxism” and “acted as if he’d discovered a treasure”.
. . .
Stalin’s Short Course is a manual for perpetual struggle against a roll call of imagined dastardly enemies who are collaborating with imagined Western agents to restore bourgeois capitalism and liberalism. It is written as a chronicle of victories by Lenin and then Stalin’s “correct line” over an endless succession of ideological villains. It is perhaps instructive that many of the most “vile” internal enemies were said to have cloaked their subversive intentions in the guise of “reform”.
The practical utility of the book is that it prescribes an antidote to the calcification and putrefaction that inevitably corrodes and degrades every dictatorship.
The most original insight in Stalin’s Short Course on the History of the Bolsheviks is that the path to socialist utopia will always be obstructed by enemies who want to restore bourgeois capitalism from inside the party. These internal enemies grow more desperate and more dangerous as they grow increasingly imperilled – and as they collaborate with the spies and agents of Western liberalism.
The most important lines in the book:
“As the revolution deepens, class struggle intensifies.”
“The Party becomes strong by purging itself.”
You can imagine how this formulation was revelatory to a ruthless Chinese leader like Mao who had mastered the “You Die, I Live” world into which he had been born – a world in which you choose to either kill or be killed – and who was obsessed with how to prevent the decay which had destroyed every imperial dynasty before.
What Stalin offered Mao was not only a manual for purging his peers but also an explanation of why it was necessary. Purging his rivals was the only way a vanguard party could “purify” itself, remain true to its revolutionary nature and prevent a capitalist restoration.
Purging was the mechanism for the Chinese Communist Party to achieve ever greater “unity” with revolutionary “truth” as interpreted by Mao. It is the mechanism for preventing the process of corruption and putrefaction which inevitably sets in after the founding leaders of each dynasty leave the scene.
Crucially, Mao split with Kruschev because Kruschev split with Stalin and everything he stood for. The Sino-Soviet split was ideological – it was Mao’s claim to ideological leadership over the communist world. Marx, Lenin, Stalin, Mao. It was Mao’s claim to being Stalin’s true successor.
We hear a lot about how Xi and his peers blame Gorbachev for the collapse of the Soviet state but actually their grievances go much further back. They blame Kruschev. They blame Kruschev for breaking with Stalin. And they vow that they will never do to Mao what Kruschev did to Stalin.
Now, sixty years on, we’re seeing Xi making his claim to be the true Revolutionary Successor of Mao.
Xi’s language of “party purity”; “criticism and self-criticism”; “the mass line”; his obsession with “unity”; his attacks on elements of “hostile Western liberalism”, “constitutionalism” and other variants of ideological “subversion” – this is all Marxism-Leninism as interpreted by Stalin as interpreted by Mao.
This is the language that the Deep Red princelings spoke when they got together and occasionally when I interviewed them and crashed their gatherings in the lead up to the 18th Party Congress.
And this was how Xi spoke after the 18th Party Congress:
‘‘To dismiss the history of the Soviet Union and the Soviet Communist Party, to dismiss Lenin and Stalin, and to dismiss everything else is to engage in historic nihilism, and it confuses our thoughts and undermines the party’s organizations on all levels.’’
Today, the utopian destination has to be maintained, however absurd it seems, in order to justify the brutal means of getting there. Xi has inserted a couple of interim goals – for those who lack revolutionary patience – but the underlying Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist-Maoist logic remains the same.
This is the logic of his ever-deepening purge of peers who keep getting in the way.
. . .
The essence of Maoism and Stalinism is perpetual struggle. This is the antidote to the calcification and putrefaction that has destroyed every previous dynasty, dictatorship and empire. This is why Xi and his Red Successor peers believe that Maoism and Stalinism is still highly relevant today. Not just relevant, but existential.
Xi has set in motion a purification project – a war against the forces of counter-revolution – that has no end point because the notional utopian destination of perfect communism will always be kicked a little further down the road.
There is no policy objective in the sense that a Wall Street banker or Canberran public servant might understand it – as a little more energy market efficiency here, or compression of the Gini coefficient there. Rather, this is how you restore dynastic vigour and vitality. Politics is the ends.
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Engineers of the human soul
At my first team bonding session in this building I asked who was the world leader who described artists and authors as “engineers of the human soul”.
Was this word image the creation of Stalin, Mao or someone else?
If you’re thinking Joseph Stalin, then you’re right:
“The production of souls is more important than the production of tanks…. And therefore I raise my glass to you, writers, the engineers of the human soul”.
. . .
The quote is from Stalin’s famous speech at the home of the writer Maxim Gorky in preparation for the first Congress of the Union of Soviet Writers in October 1932 … to use the engineering language of the original Man of Steel – Joseph Stalin – literature and art are nothing more nor less than cogs in the revolutionary machine.
But, if you think the answer is Chairman Mao, then you’re also right. Mao extended Stalin’s metaphor a decade later at his famous Yan’an Forum on Literature and Art delivered in two parts in October 1942, and published (in heavily doctored form) one year later:
“[Our purpose is] to ensure that literature and art fit well into the whole revolutionary machine as a component part, that they operate as powerful weapons for uniting and educating the people and for attacking and destroying the enemy, and that they help the people fight the enemy with one heart and one mind.”
This is when Mao made plain that there is no such thing as truth, love or artistic merit except in so far as these abstract concepts can be pressed into the practical service of politics.
There’s much more at the link.
This speech is filled with nuggets of real insight that give a new perspective on China and its policies, both internal and external. I found it immensely informative. Just to take one thing from the excerpt above: if you’ve wondered why China is investing so much money into, and trying to exert so much influence over, Hollywood . . . consider it as “literature and art fit[ting] well into the whole revolutionary machine as a component part, that they operate as powerful weapons for uniting and educating the people and for attacking and destroying the enemy”. If China can dominate Hollywood, it can manipulate and “fine-tune” its movies and other output to further its policy objectives here and throughout the world. It’s not about the money at all (although that’s a nice side benefit) – it’s about control.
I can’t recommend Mr. Garnaut’s speech too highly. If you have any interest in China at all (and you should, because it’s going to be a dominant factor in the 21st century), go read the whole thing.