Taking readers to the front lines in this war, John Gittings' The Changing Face of China, From Mao to Market looks at China's progression from 1949 till early 2005. As a journalist covering China from near and far for 30 years, Gittings saw it happen, from the insane Cultural Revolution to the 1989 Tiananmen Square riots and beyond.
The Communists sought to create something of a children's summer camp for China, where all shared from the same pot and filled each other's lives with useful activity. But when campfire spirit faded, central planners conscripted the people into a grim self-improvement army, which sounds like what we imagine North Korea to be today. Conscription works, and works wonders, but only when all must face deadly threats. When the collective imperative springs only from a will to improve, support fades unless improvement comes fast.
Failing to deliver such joys, Communist cadres brutally enforced their ideals, transforming their once-willing horses into sullen oxen, driven only by the lash and fodder, no longer engaged in the spirit of the enterprise. Then came the Cultural Revolution to terrify the sullen and re-educate the open apostates. At last the truth dawned, but unlike the Soviet Union, the truth in China was not openly acknowledged. Instead, changes were made without calling a spade a spade, if only to avoid destroying what had been achieved: a national unity not known since the emperor's day in 1911.
Gittings' book will disappoint readers seeking a balanced work of the period. It is a triumph of postmodernism, where the mood of the moment trumps all. Huge acts of mass murder are casually accepted early in the book, such as the destruction of the bourgeoisie, not to mention the staggering killings in the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. These are passed over with equanimity, but not so the much smaller death toll in 1989, which is reported with suppressed outrage. Given this unequal treatment, his forebodings of environmental disasters to come can be taken lightly, as ecological dread is the current opium of the intellectuals just as brutal socialist idealism was 30 years ago.
Even then, a forensic reading of Gittings' account of Tiananmen Square might lead one to conclude there was plenty of blame on the student side. Doing a little reverse engineering on his occasionally craftily written but otherwise indifferent prose, one emerges with a different picture than the one he wishes readers to take away. For example, he says, "some soldiers were rescued by students from being beaten to death." If the students were blocking the soldiers, who were the most likely killers?
Regarding the suppression of the bourgeoisie in the early days, it seems they posed no menace to the government and yet they were removed without much ado from Gittings. Not so with the students in 1989 who had been warned again and again to clear Beijing's central square. Even when the shooting began, the crowds defied the authorities for hours. Had the PLA not shot at them, what would have happened? Could China have descended into chaos? Such considerations, alive at the time in government circles, little concern the author.
At the capitalist turning point in China's modern history, Gittings seems to lose interest. The last third of the book appears as if newspaper clippings were cobbled together to get the job done. It is almost as if he would prefer China to remain poor, but wholesomely singing campfire songs. In the depths of theoretical bickering over what is socialism vis-?-vis communism, he is at his best. But when the markets boom, he drags his feet as any bitter party cadre might, seeing the red dream die. Or worse, seeing it better executed by the likes of Cola-Cola, Carrefour and HSBC.
The Changing Face of China, From Mao to Market, by John Gittings, Published by Oxford University Press, List price: US$19.80.