Boris Smus

interaction engineering

The Fall and Rise of China (audio)

Inspired by the Three Body Problem's best part, that is, the beginning of the book set in Cultural Revolution China, I realized that I know nothing about Chinese history. Perhaps, I thought, something like this might help? It's about 24 hours worth of material, and I took detailed notes in an attempt to retain it better. The lectures are excellent, and I highly recommend listening. One complaint was that I felt like the lecture lost a bit of steam and became increasingly speculative as we approached the present day, but perhaps this is inherent in any attempt to subject the recent past to a historical treatment.

Before Communism

Before the mid 19th century, China was largely isolated from the west. Chinese society was modelled on Confucian ideals. The highest officials were selected based on their ability to memorize profound lines from great teachings of Confucius and his disciples. The entrance exam was known as the 8 legged essay and super arcane. China called itself the Middle Kingdom, and was surrounded by weaker states that paid it tribute. China had no equals, and submitted to nobody.

The Manchu dynasty began its decline in the early 19th century, as a result of population explosion, bad harvests, an opioid epidemic, and a trade deficit with the west. Its exports of porcelain started to pale compared to cheap European textiles flooding its market. (This is in some ways, an interesting reversal from today's situation.)

China tried to curtail opium imports, and this led to the two Opium Wars with Britain, who refused to stop the trade. China was badly outgunned by the west, and stood no chance militarily. The Manchu dynasty continued to decline and made successions to Britain, giving it a "small island" (Hong Kong) as part of the military tribute. It wasn’t until the late 19th century that China had decided to institute a foreign affairs department. Before that they only had a minister of barbarians, whose occupants had notoriously short lived careers, lasting no more than a year before being removed and punished for ineptitude.

In the late 19th century, China tried to modernize itself by sending its best and brightest to study abroad in the west. The emphasis was on acquiring military technology alone, while keeping Chinese traditions alive. This proved futile, the lecturer suggesting that technology is a symptom of deeper structures of European civilization like their government, economy, humanism, and legal systems. This tension between European tech and Chinese tradition was never fully resolved, and many powerful Chinese elite were opposed to anything from the west (Mathematics? Ha!) despite their clear instrumental benefit. This is in stark contrast with Japan that seemed to be able to reconcile its traditions with modern technology.

The boxer rebellion in 1899 was a reactionary move against a loss of tradition in China and increasing European influence. They were sponsored by the xenophobic Empress Cixi who took power in a coup. The boxers targeted a German controlled area in China threatened 4000 europeans stationed there. In retaliation a joint force of Japanese Russians and Europeans quashed the boxers and killed many thousands, and led to nasty anti Chinese sentiment from the German kaiser. Reparations were also imposed by the western victors. And China returned to a conservative status quo.

Seeds of revolution (Sun Yat-sen)

Sun Yat-sen was the first to integrate the need for Chinese self determination without western intervention and the overthrow of the Manchu dynasty. He came up with a three pronged platform: nationalism, democracy and people's livelihood (land to the tiller). Later this became official policy of Republic of China (Taiwan) and still remain credo of Nationalist party in Taiwan. His reputation skyrocketed after a failed Chinese assassination attempt in Europe. Gained many followers in the Chinese diaspora in America, France and the rest of Europe. He organized multiple revolutionary uprisings in south China. This encouraged over 200 peasant uprisings against the Manchu.

By 1910, Sun Yat-sen's relative was inaugurated as prime minister of the republic (Kuomintang/KMT aka Guómíndǎng/GMD). He shared power with Yuan Shikai, a conservative monarchist who declared himself Emperor. Yuan decided to assassinate the PM and bribed the rest of the GMD to quit. Sun Yat-sen was exiled to Japan, where he married again (interestingly, without divorcing his existing wife). Meanwhile Yuan Sha Kai attempted to return China to traditional, Confucian values. He extended presidential terms to 10 years and allowed him to name successors.

By WW1, the European powers were distracted by the war in Europe and Japan decided to take advantage of the situation. Japan demanded extremely unfavorable terms (21 demands) of China and Yuan Shikai had no ability to oppose it. These demands were leaked to the public and a patriotic backlash ensued. This eventually lead to Multiple Chinese provinces declaring secession. The leader himself died unexpectedly, suspected poisoning. This led to a power vacuum and an age of warlords ruling different parts of China. (The Good Earth is a famous book about this period.)

After WW1 ended, European powers sided with Japan as thanks for its involvement in the war against Germany. As a reward, parts of China were doled out to Japan. This led to student and intellectual protests and ultimately sparked a golden age in Chinese literature: colloquial and far more accessible books led to increased literacy and spread of ideas. This included the works of Marx Engel and Lenin.

Early Chinese Communism and Mao vs. Chiang

Communist reading groups started to show up, which is how Mao Zedong arrived to the scene. The Soviet Cominterm wanted to influence China and found Sun Yat-sen willing to embrace their ideology and abandon his western facing position (wow). In return he received soviet training and a bunch of radicalized followers. Chiang Kai-shek emerged from one of these training camps as Sun Yat-sen's lieutenant. Sun died from liver cancer but the party survived, with the right wing taking power.

Chiang Kai-shek successfully united multiple Chinese contingents from the communist party under a right wing platform and successfully took care of the warlord problem with the help of the Soviets. Soon a left wing faction emerged to oppose CKS's autocratic tendencies. CKS made pacts with European and mafia leaders and ultimately abandoned communism as a key tenet of their platform, thus departeing from Sun Yat-sen's anti imperialism. Chiang's forces conquered Shanghai with their allies but the Communist left was not happy. This also alienated the Soviet cominterm.

Meanwhile Mao and other communist leftists that splintered from CKS took control of rural parts of China. Left wing communist rebellions known as Autumn Harvest Uprisings were quashed by CKS nationalists. Mao wrote an essay that promoted communism not through workers revolution but through an agrarian revolution. This was frowned upon by the Soviets who expected industry to lead. Mao established rules for Chinese Red Army soldiers that made them blend in with villagers and farmers. By late 1928 Mao's forces were being forced to retreat further but his political platform was maturing.

In the 1920s, Japan reformed, implemented western policies and retracted it's 21 demands. Still it's military thrived and Japan remained a threat to China, with significant resource interests in Manchuria. The longer they waited the more time CKS had to consolidate power and resist more effectively, and by 1931 Japan controlled all of Manchuria in the NE and placed the son of Cixi as ruler of that region.

Meanwhile in the south west, Maoists were another threat for Chiang Kai-shek. Not willing to fight on two fronts, he decided to tackle the communists first, letting Japan continue its expansions. Eventually Maoists were cornered and had to retreat, starting the [Long March][lm], a retreat over 5,000 mi, ending up in Yenan. In 1936 CKS wanted to pursue the Maoists again but the general assigned to the task was a communist sympathizer and refused to comply, since he wanted revenge on Japan. CKS confronted him near Yenan but was kidnapped and coerced into alying with the communists to form a united front against Japan, just in time for WW2.

(Interestingly the Chinese Communist Party came into its own as a result of the Japanese invasion in WW2. This is somewhat analogous to the Soviet Communist come to power after WW1.)

(Also interesting is that Stalin was forced to stop helping the Chinese and withdraw because of the non-aggression pact with Hitler, and thus Japan.)

CKS was still busy chasing communists when Japan attacked, starting WW2. First Japanese forces took Shanghai at huge GMD losses. Next was the massacre of Nanjing which came at a huge civilian cost. Japanese commands pursued a scorched earth policy against the civilians. This led to a deep popular resentment against Japan. As the Chinese continue to struggle, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and forced US neutrality to end. Still the nationalists suffered huge losses at the hands of the Japanese, their attention also divided by internal strife against Maoists. Ultimately the CCP gained territory and influence while CKS flirted with the US.

After Japan's defeat in 1945, America had hoped for a united Chinese government and so tried to get Mao and Chiang and now to form a coalition. Diplomacy failed out and instead they clashed in Manchuria. Just as Chiang Kai-shek planned to take over Yenan again for the third time, Mao Zedong's PLA was amassing guerilla forces to confront the nationalists in Manchuria, who were busy pushing back the defeated Japanese and salvaging scrap metal from their former bases. Gaining victory against ill prepared former warlords in the nationalist army, the PLA proceeded to take Manchuria and marched west to capture Beijing, cross the Yanzhee with the help of local ferrymen, and on to Shanghai. By 1949, Mao had won, and Chiang fled to Taiwan. (I need a map of maos advance here, but the article on the Chinese Civil War probably covers most of the material in more detail.)

Mao's China

The Chinese Communists made it very clear that they would side with Soviets not the west, having been burned over the last decade by western influence. Mao has a great quote about how there is only the two options and no middle ground. (I failed to find it.) Meanwhile the policy of the CCP was to forgive those that admitted to their mistakes but brutally punish those who did not. What followed was a purge of nationalist and other non-believers characteristic of most revolutions. Intellectuals were forced to go through an official process of Thought Reform which included written confession. This may have been revised multiple times until deemed sufficiently ernest.

When Mao visited Stalin in Moscow, Stalin showed his disdain for Mao and lack of faith in Mao's ability to succeed. Stalin took a week to meet with him in person. He gave Mao some loans earmarked for Russian military equipment, but relatively small amounts compared to what he gave Eastern European allies. In addition, the loans had to be repaid with 1% yearly interest. Stalin set up joint stock companies in North China giving Russia partial control in industry.

In 1950 Joseph Stalin's and Chairman Mao's friendship was tested. The Korea’s were at war. Initially Stalin backed Chairman Kim's North Korea against South Korea. But when Truman decided to back South Korea he withdrew, seeking to avoid direct confrontation. Eventually Mao assembled a volunteer army and pushed the American troops back into South Korea. This back-and-forth lasted three years and a total of 1 million Chinese died.

Domestically since 1950 China was destined to follow the Soviets, Also adopting five-year plans, and forcing its peasantry into collective farming. Collectivization basically failed due to the free rider problem, across the board in all Soviet bloc countries. China was no exception. Mao also acquired all private enterprises making them state owned. These reforms were celebrated by senior communists at the 8th CCP congress in 1959, but Mao wasn't satisfied.

By then, Mao had been consolidating power in the party. He was now a larger than life hero. At the same time, Khruschev dismantled Stalin's cult of personality, and opened the Soviets up to the Chinese. The Soviets helped China open aircraft factories and even shared plans for a nuclear weapon. Initially friendly with Khruschev, relations went south when Mao was unsatisfied with Khruschev's "revisionist" tendencies, especially enraged when Khrustchev suggested that it was possible to achieve socialism through parliamentary means, directly contradicting Lenin.

Let one thousand flowers bloom (jk)

To try to address shortcomings in the Chinese communist system, Mao decided to "let one thousand flowers bloom". What this meant was that intellectuals we are now free to express themselves however they wanted. Mao quickly changed his mind when increasingly hostile letters started to be published against the Communist system in China and against them chairman himself. In response, he began systematic purges for dissenting intellectuals. It remains unclear whether this was deliberate provocation. As a result, Mao revised his initial invitation to intellectuals: your art writing and work in general should serve the proletariat. Mao wanted to distinguish good thinking "flowers" from bad thinking sabotage he called "weeds".

Great Leap Forward (jk)

To accelerate the advent of communism in 1959 Mao instituted the "Great Leap Forward", which included many different reforms, Most of which had no experts overseeing them. By 1962 it was clear that most had failed spectacularly, and with tragic consequences:

  • To out compete great Britain in steel production, peasants built backyard furnaces to melt down their metal. "Металлолом". The resulting iron and was of low-quality and so useless.
  • A war against nature was declared. Large water management projects were attempted but many ultimately failed. [One dam][banqiao] that was constructed in this period, collapsed during rainy season and 200,000 people died (!).
  • Misguided attempts to control pests were instituted. Millions of Sparrows were killed by peasants. But this led to an overpopulation of mosquitoes and other harmful bugs.
  • New policies forced farms to collectivize much quicker than initially planned and into much larger collectives of 20000 each. The larger the collective the less incentive for each individual to work. Production dropped but ideological fervor skyrocketed. Mid-level managers reported record food growth and increased quotas, as well as grain exports to the Soviets. 30 million farmers died in the famine that ensued.

Meanwhile Mao himself was oblivious to any problem. He was getting busy with young peasant girls during his village visits. But his party took note of the problems. One party member, Peng Dehuai, was purged for his direct disagreement with Mao's Great Leap Forward. Two senior party members, [Liu Shaoqi][liu] and [Deng Xiaoping][deng] took the reigns for a time and took to a more calculated strategy, quietly undoing the Great Leap Forward. Needless to say Mao was not happy and began labeling everyone opposing him "mini-Khruschevs" and revisionists.

Cultural Revolution

(Find the subversive painting with three red flags and silhouettes of Mao and Stalin in the background. Also more about the three family village writing group.)

Mao now had to deal with more backlash against his policies during the Great Leap Forward. He retreated to his villa in Guangzhou and set his propagandists to work. Impressionable students prone to extreme thought were an easy target. Mao's new sycophantic defense mister compiled a book of Mao quotes. Known as the famous Little Red Book, it became the basis for a new socialist education program. Leftist ideologues spurred on students calling themselves Red Guards, wearing green military uniforms, armed with the Little Red Book to commit violence against dissenting professors and fellow students in the name of ideological purity and conformity with Mao’s thought. Liu and Deng issued bureaucratic investigations into the worst offenders, but when Mao returned, he allowed the students to rebel against those "in power" whenever they wanted as long as they were aligned with his ideology. This cart Blanche also prevented the army from intervening in any way, to such an extent that brazen students raided PLA warehouses and pilfered weapons. Student groups competed with one another for purity, with those descended from intellectuals trying to prove that they too can be good ideologues despite their “low” birth. Now armed with modern weapons, they clashed violently with other factions. Mao fanned the flames by closing down schools and universities for months, meeting with heads of Red Guard factions, and becoming an honorary member. This student led fervor began expanding into the general population, and soon the workplace was similarly violent, unproductive, dysfunctional.

(The far left's tendency to fight and demonize and generalize against those in positions of power is unchanged.)

Jiang Qing was Mao’s fourth wife and also known as Madame Mao. She was formerly a B movie actress, but now had political ambitions of her own. One of the terms of their marriage was that she could not hold political office. Instead, she began a concerted effort to heavily censor all media behind the scenes. Everything was banned by default. The only content available to the Chinese people had to be in service of the leftist communist ideal. Only 8 operas were allowed to run, all new and revolutionary. Women were forbidden to wear jewelry, a strict plain-military dress code was effectively forced on all. Madame Mao herself resided in her villa, banned works hanging on her walls, decorated in jewlery, enjoying luxuries from the west.

As violence of the Cultural Revolution escalated, even the Chairman himself could not curtail it through his direct pleas. Finally, he lifted the army’s ban on intervention and the PLA quickly and violently quashed the student rebels. To solve the student problem, Mao invented the Countryside Movement which conveniently involved shipping 17 million students to learn the way of the village as an antidote to bourgeoisie thought. Tho rusticated and "educated" students became known as the Lost Generation since they never received a modern education and were unable to move back to cities until much later.

Soviet Union and US relations

In 1969, tensions between China and the Soviet Union were peaking. China had recently demonstrated her nuclear capabilities in a small scale test. Meanwhile, Brezhnev had outlined a new, more aggressive Soviet foreign policy, the Brezhnev doctrine, which stated that the when a socialist country becomes more capitalistic, other socialist countries should intervene. This happened in Czechoslovakia, which set a dangerous precedent for Soviet intervention in China. In addition to the two countries were vying for leadership of the eastern bloc. China was completely outclassed in this regard having had several orders of magnitude less money to spend on the cause.

Nervous about China's access to nuclear weapons, the Soviets were amassing troops along the Sino-Soviet border. Meanwhile Mao decided to take advantage of the opportunity and began playing off the Soviets against the Americans. Nixon and Kissinger were interested in having disunity among the Communist bloc, so allying with China, the weaker of the two potential leaders made sense as a way to counteract Soviet power and aggression. To kick off detente, the American national ping-pong team visited China. Although they were crushed by the Chinese, the players built up a friendly rapport. This was publicized on TV, which led to a warming of relations. Ultimately the culmination of this phase was Nixon’s own visit to China. This was not without tension on both sides. Some hard-core leftists are opposed to Mao's sudden change of heart. In America many were still loyal to Taiwan and Chiang Kai-shek as the only China that’s valid and were opposed to warming relations with any communist country. Interestingly, China only joined the UN and became a member of the security council in 1971. Previously the only China in the UN was Taiwan.

US China relations got stuck for a while and actually were set back by Nixon’s Watergate scandal. His successor President Ford was largely ineffectual in general. It wasn’t until President Carter when in 1978 US China relations began to normalize in earnest. Many reasons why this happened, one is was the return of Deng Xiaoping, who was unequivocally a reformer and not bound by Mel’s shadow. Another was the growing hostility between the US and Soviet and a change of heart in there a balance of power between the two superpowers. It is now clear that the US sided with China as the underdog in order to weaken the Soviet bloc.

Mao's successor and the Gang of Four

By 1970 Mao is getting old and frail, and the CCP needed a successor. He originally designated Lee Biao, a fervent leftist. But he was opposed to thawing relations with the American imperialists and was removed in an airplane "accident". Mao also had designs for Ding Xiaoping, by now a very experienced and proven administrator. But Madame Mao and her "Shanghai Clique" was opposed and undermined his rise because he was too pragmatic and not ideological enough, and was well known for pulling back some of the reforms during the great leap forward. Another candidate, the premier [Zhou Enlai][zhou] was credited with thawing US-China relations and received great press around the world. This triggered Mao's jealousy. Zhou was subjected to struggle sessions courtesy of Madame Mao. He died in 1976 from a cancer that Mao refused to treat with western medicine. Chinese citizens were prohibited from paying him regards by Madame Mao, but thousands did anyway, some writing angry notes comparing her to the Dowager Cixi. Madame Mao had the protesters removed with force, and then used the opportunity to blame Ding Xiaoping for the protests. She made an appointment to see her ailing husband, who signed off on a request to remove him from his political and military posts.

Finally, Mao had a specific heir apparent selected in his will “with you in power I rest easy”, an unknown CCP member [Hua Guofeng][hua]. Madame Mao attempted to alter Mao's will to write herself in instead. Upon Mao's death, a coalition of moderate CCP members discovered this and put Madame Mao and her henchmen under arrest. They were called the Gang of Four. Meanwhile Hua Guoattempted to ride on Mao's coattails and milk Mao's high praise for everything it could offer. Still, he quietly began undoing leftist trends and modernizing the country:

  • Admissions into college were no longer political but based on standardized tests.
  • Once called revisionist by Mao, he introduced incentive-based wage systems to reward performance.
  • He opened up to china's intellectuals. Called for spirited discussions.

As various leftist policies were being undone, all prior ills were blamed on the Gang of Four. This became the scapegoat for the Chinese people as they dealt with the cognitive dissonance of such a quick shift in thinking.

Deng Xiaoping managed to get back to power patiently and strategically. It helped that his predecessor was not charismatic, deferring too much to Mao. He was ridiculed for his unquestioning attitude: "whatever Mao said we will say and whatever Mao did we will do" became derisively known as the Two Whatevers. Deng slowly took over, eventually holding high ranks across the party's bureaucracy, as well as the informal but influential position of Paramount Leader.

Deng's reforms

Deng continued in the same vein as Hua, but his reforms were even more progressive and western facing. Suddenly the Chinese people gained a lot more economic freedom. Small businesses were allowed to thrive and compete with government entities. Special economic zones were designated. Personal rewards were granted to reward high performing employees, the result of which was an increase in productivity across-the-board.

Some attempts were also made to reform the political system and institute some western policies. This led to an increase in dissent and opposing voices. Ultimately Deng decided to roll back many political changes he originally proposed. (I found it interesting to learn about the Paramount Leader being so open to clearly changing his mind, without much protestation from the public.) In his own words, he "crossed the river by feeling the stones", trying new ideas, and sticking to them only if they work.

Although he departed significantly from Mao's doctrine, Deng was very careful to not fully blame Mao for all of the shortcomings of the previous decades.

The late 80s

By the late 80s, the success of various policies began to yield diminishing returns. Many of the formerly prosperous village dwellers suddenly found that their salaries were declining and were forced to migrate back in the cities. This was also a time of huge corruption within the party, and inequality skyrocketed. This led to student unrest and ultimately the demonstration in Tiananmen Square.

Many reformist ideas were floating around but no new ones really got implemented. Deng Xiaoping was deterred from giving in to too many liberal demands, citing the events of Poland as an example to avoid. Poland was inching towards capitalism as a result of a weak government that was giving in to too many popular demands. And so, Deng Xiaoping walked a fine line. He wanted his reforms to stick but also wanted to ensure that there was order. During Deng's tenure as Paramount Leader, he appointed various high level positions who were officially in charge, yet Deng retained higher level control throughout. This also enabled him to retain a balance of power between western oriented reformers and Mao oriented conservatives.

It was a turbulent time for international communism. East Germany fell quickly follower by the Soviet Union. By 1989 the conservative left was starting to gather steam and attempted to turn back Deng's western facing reforms. At 84, and fighting for his life, Deng embarked on a southern tour, visiting special economic zones and offering congratulations to a booming economy as well as warnings about a leftist threat that might undo it all. In a tense few weeks, as his health was ailing and the bureaucrats were vying for power, the tour wasn't even publicized by the state run media. Eventually Deng emerged victorious and the politburo officially declared that the left posed a higher threat to China than did the right.

Deng successfully divorced markets from capitalism, and encouraged economic reform while slowing political reform, in a gamble where he bet that Chinese people cared more about their material wealth than their political freedom.

Meanwhile during the "roaring 90s", GDP doubled, foreign investment increased 7x, coastal cities and stock market exchanges flourished. Meanwhile the farmers and country dwellers suffered. Eventually the uncontrolled market blew up and consumer goods increased in price 15x. As many as 100 million peasants moved to cities. Corruption soared: party members and cadres were immune to prosecution, as was the army which managed to get half its revenue from market investments. A spiritual crisis loomed for the youth and an economic crisis for the elderly. This was the origin of "Free Tibet" and the Falun Gong as well. Jiang Zemin was appointed to be the General Secretary and promptly made many moderating changes, introducing economic regulations and also joining the WTO which is widely lauded as a big reason for China's Economic Miracle. Deng Xiaoping died in 1996, aged 92 from Parkinson's.

With the economic changes came an increase in Chinese nationalism. Things seem to escalate with the US but the two countries were able to maintain good relations. In terms of greater China, Hong Kong transitioned peacefully in 1997 as per the British contract dating back to the Opium wars. Taiwan is a different, more complicated story. Chiang Kai-shek's son took over for him when he died, and continued center-right politics. More recently, a rift has formed between ethnic Chinese who fled the communists from the mainland and ethnic Taiwanese. An ethnic Taiwanese president succeeded the GMD and pushed for independence but the US, fearing war with Chana succeeded in reigning in his idealism. The issue remains unresolved.

Wrapping up

Holy moly, this is quite a long summary. I sure hope that writing it helps me remember better... Anyways, where was I? Ah yes, during the last few segments, the lecturer continues on to discuss some specific issues in modern China: the Internet, the Beijing Olympics of 2008. He highlights a spotty human rights record, as well as Chinese monetary support for a wide variety of odious regimes including Zimbabwe and Syria.

Overall a great introduction to modern China. Check it out.