Conflicting emotions surrounding 70th anniversary of Chinese Communist Party
It's a difficult time to be Chinese.
70 years ago, Mao Zedong conquered all under heaven, driving the last remnants of General Chiang’s forces onto a barren island known as Taiwan. In the following years, chaos ensued as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution devoured the mainland, decimating the population and destroying the culture.
In Mao’s military-style Great Leap Forward, impossible agricultural goals led to overblown reports that covered poor results, widespread collectivization of land and goods diminished the peasantry’s productivity and hasty industrialization plans transformed useful farm tools into useless waste metal. All this converged into a great famine between 1958 and 1961 that was unprecedented in Chinese history. After the newly elected Chairman Liu Shaoqi ended the famine, a humiliated and envious Mao unleashed the Cultural Revolution. Across the country, well-off peasants, landed gentry and old-school intellectuals were rounded up and shot. In schools and universities, teachers were beaten to death by students, and these students were then sent off to icy frontiers to labor the land. Cities were transformed into battlefields and communities were torn apart as family members turned each other in. As culture itself was the main target, books and paintings were burned, statues and monuments were torn down and temples and palaces were razed to the ground. The newly excavated tomb of the Wanli Emperor (1563-1620) was sacked, and the emperor’s 346 years old corpse was paraded and destroyed. All over China, entire towns and villages were wiped off from the face of the earth.
When China emerged in 1978, two years after Mao’s death, it was a barren universe devastated by poverty and ignorance, in which ordinary people’s lives were nasty, brutish and short. Only under Deng Xiaoping’s capitalist reforms was China able to rebuild its perverted economy, repair its broken social fabric and regain some semblance of its former cultural self. Although recovery came quickly with a 40-year economic boom, the harm has already been done and the bloody scars remain there to be seen even today.
Now, 70 years later, Mao’s China celebrates the anniversary of its birth with full stately pomp and widespread national euphoria. This is a China that views itself as fully recovered from its hellish past and embraces the leadership of General Secretary Xi Jinping, who has promised to actively seek for his country “a place under the sun.” However, this is also a China increasingly troubled by persisting domestic deadlocks and rising international tensions. As Beijing celebrates with an extra-extravagant Soviet-style parade, flaunting its economic achievement and military might, one certain city in the south finds itself deeply stuck in a quagmire of protests, while one certain country across the ocean becomes even more determined in having a Cold-War style interstate showdown.
In this particular moment, it is indeed awkward and tricky to be a Chinese citizen, not to mention a Chinese student studying abroad in that certain country across the ocean.
Over the last few weeks, I have witnessed a virtual flood of “patriotic” passion on Chinese social media, especially in WeChat, where one could attach a pretty little red flag to their profile photo to express their unwavering love for “le patrie.” Even my most apolitical and cynical friends joined in the euphoric celebrations, re-posting official patriotic phrases that express gratitude to our great party and state. When I asked them what they were celebrating, they replied “the birth of China.”
This made me ask myself: what exactly is China? The civilization and country that has existed on a certain part of Earth for multiple millennia and still exists, or “le régime actuel” that currently rules the most part of that part of Earth? The amazing culture, rich history and fantastic people that constitute this civilization, or the small group of Nomenklatura that claim to represent the greatest common good of this country? If we’re talking about national origins, I prefer to trace mine to the mystic dynasties of ancient antiquity, namely the Xia, Shang and Zhou. Honestly speaking, I find it ironic that we Chinese people like to talk about how we boast a history surpassing 3000 years, especially in comparison with the United States’ 243 years of existence, while we also do not hesitate to equate our country and people with its current regime. Somewhat cynically, we muzzle the difference between national origins and a particular incident that happened shortly after the Second World War.
Furthermore, what are we celebrating, exactly? Personally, I find it extremely difficult to celebrate the founding of a regime that spent its first 30 years of existence systematically destroying its own country and culture. To be honest, I was in more of a festive spirit last year, during the 40th anniversary of Deng’s reform and opening up, despite it also being twisted into a demonstration of party power. My fellow compatriots like to argue that Mao united China and partially built our industrial foundation. But after 1945, unity was coming anyway, and the country really didn’t need another heavenly mandated leader to finish the job; moreover, everything that was built during the 1950s under Mao was then destroyed in the 1960s under Mao. What, then, are we celebrating? The 70th anniversary of the commencement of a new wave of unimaginable suffering for the Chinese people? Of the initiation of a systematic shattering of Chinese culture? Of the scarring of a whole generation, many of whom are still alive today? Of the start of one of the darkest 30 years in all of Chinese history?
The answer to this question is perhaps more troubling than the question itself. My own guess is that this celebration has more to do with present politics than history. Billions of Chinese live in an age where our somewhat strengthened country, under the leadership of a seemingly strong and determined General Secretary, is starting to strive for “a place under the sun,” and this brings a kind of simple and naïve excitement to the ordinary Chinese, who grew up in a cultural atmosphere of obsessive national self-victimization. For years, we Chinese people have obsessively flaunted our victimhood under the British and the Japanese during the late 19th and early 20th century and used this as a defense for our infamous national hyper-sensitivity. In short, we play the victimhood game on a national level. Now, we use our past victimhood as a reason for our present chauvinism, going from a traumatized low-self-esteem victim to an anxiety-ridden narcissistic bully. I’m a proud Chinese, but I must say that the way we’re doing it now is not the right way to be a proud Chinese; it is the right way to be seen as obnoxious and silly, and as a proud Chinese I am veritably furious that we allow ourselves to be seen as such.
To end this piece on a reflective note, I have recently realized a somewhat ironic fact: from my most cynical friends to my most patriotic ones, a great many Chinese youth who so fervently celebrate this 70th anniversary and profess to “love their country” seem to be more or less apathetic to Chinese culture and history, not to mention present politics. Ask a typical Chinese youth and they’ll tell you their interest lies more in making money, enjoying consumer culture and having a peaceful (apparently the adjective we Chinese adore the most) life, rather than, say, contributing to civil society, pursuing intellectual self-realization or just doing something meaningful for the betterment of others and all the suffering that’s ravaging the world. Simply put, they could not care less about what is actually going on. Moreover, many Chinese I know seem to think that, apart from themselves, the rest of the population that constitutes their compatriots are simply too stupid to be trusted with any sort of democratic power. This is truly ironic, because the fact is that people don’t get ready for democracy, they get ready through democracy. To those of my fellow citizens who say that Americans have demonstrated in 2016 that even their country is not really democratic enough, I say that democracy is not a perfect state that we’re either in or not in; it’s a perfect ideal around which we orient our always imperfect actions. A true patriot of any nation would acknowledge these axiomatic facts. We Chinese adore and abuse the word “patriot,” but how many really reflect on what the word truly means? What kind of “patriot” knows little to nothing about his own culture and history? What kind of “patriot” takes pride in not bothering to have an opinion about politics and cynically distrusts his fellow citizens? What kind of “patriot” believes that it is best if his country never manifests a democratic civil society?