While the history of Chinese communism is complex, a little polishing makes the parallels with contemporary Australian political life shine through.
A few years ago, I was walking down Eastern Avenue with a senior journalist from a major Chinese news organisation when we were approached by a couple of Socialist Alternative (SA) leafleteers.
The SA was fighting on two fronts that day: a command team approached us to profess global proletarian revolution while the rest stayed put, locked in a heated Marx-war with the socialist group Resistance, who were camped nearby.
The journalist, who we’ll call Wang Peng, smiled and took a raggedy-edged black and white flier. He declined a copy of the Green Left Weekly. As we walked away, he turned to me and asked, “Now imagine – what would it be like if they had guns?”
That, he said, was what it had been like to live through the Chinese Cultural Revolution – a crippling period in China’s modern history which has its 46th anniversary this week.
At the time I thought Wang’s comment was a bit unfair, but as I followed media coverage of the Australian federal budget this past week I couldn’t get his words out of my head. Prime Minister Gillard is engaged in a fearsome pseudo-Maoist campaign of wealth redistribution. She wants to “Smash the rich, save the base” according to The Australian’s May 9 front page splash.
While the history of Chinese communism is complex, a little polishing makes the parallels with contemporary Australian political life shine through.
Take Kevin Rudd. Add some weight, make him a little more Chinese, ignore his politics. He could be Australia’s Mao Zedong. Both men won bitter factional struggles to take power with a popular mandate, both led to victory parties that had been lost in the wilderness for more than a decade, both were able to capitalise on progressive political undercurrents, and they both relied on the support of the youth.
Before the rise of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and Rudd Labor Party (RLP), an ugly brand of nationalism dominated the political landscapes of both our nations. And we both paid kickbacks to regimes we were supposed to be at war with. The powerful forces of parochialism and xenophobia were overcome in the early stages of the leadership transition, but emerged again to be adroitly subsumed into the policies of the ruling parties.
Before the Chinese communist leadership, China was ruled by the Kuomintang (KMT). They fought waves of Japanese forces seeking to conquer their homeland and enslave their people, before reaching a compromise deal that destabilised the party politically. All the while, they were under intense domestic pressure from increasingly organised guerrilla attacks by the Mao-led Red Army as it tried to install a communist leadership.
Meanwhile, in the future, the Howard Liberal Party (HLP) fought a war of attrition against the Afghani Hazaras colonising our shores in deadly terror-boats, while struggling to neutralise the increasingly effective guerrilla tactics of GetUp! – part of a global network that shared intelligence and resources with activist organisations around the world.
Mao Zedong came to power after assuming leadership of the Red Army in 1934. That year, he beat an extraordinary year-long military retreat that circled the Chinese countryside and saved his troops from annihilation by the KMT army, commanded by General Chiang Kai-shek. The success of this twelve-and-a-half thousand kilometre “Long March” allowed the CCP to regroup, and to later overthrow the nationalists. A cult of personality developed around General Mao – one which would ignite the Cultural Revolution when he was dethroned three decades later.
Similarly, the Australian Labor Party had to survive the extraordinary hardship of being led by Simon Crean, Mark Latham and Kim Beazley. Out of the quagmire popped Kevin Rudd in a clever factional deal. By jump-starting the battery in the light on the hill, Rudd became more than just the ALP’s leader – for many not familiar with its internal workings, he was the figurehead of a party reinvigorated.
Skip forward a few years through a Chinese civil war fought with only marginally more intensity than the 2007 federal election, and the Red Army, with the support of China’s rural poor, had overthrown the Kuomintang. Chiang fled with the lion’s share of China’s gold reserves to go and colonise Taiwan: establishing an independent, democratic Chinese state, or a rebel provincial colony, depending which side of the Strait you’re standing on.
Howard retired to play golf and go on a speaking tour, fleeing politics with a large superannuation payout. Both he and Chiang owe their continued existence to the United States of America.
Also, there was a guy named Li Zongren who was a bit like the KMT’s Peter Costello. He played second fiddle to Chiang most of the time, and then nobody listened to him when he tried to take power, so he had a cry and went to live in America where he spent his days spreading rumours he was planning a comeback.
In 1949, the Chinese Communist Party took the reins and founded the People’s Republic of China (PRC), in keeping with a time-honoured tradition of mislabelling military dictatorships. Mao ushered in a new era of peace and harmony which lasted all of several weeks. Opium, child marriage and foot binding were all banned, along with religion, so it wasn’t all bad. Shortly after this came “land reform”, a euphemism for the public beating, humiliation, torture and murder of wealthy peasants and landowners, and the redistribution of their wealth. Which I guess is kind of like the Carbon Tax.
The Red Army was rebranded the People’s Liberation Army to give Chinese Communism a consistent corporate identity. They climbed the Tibetan plateau to smash the tyranny of Tibet’s feudal system and replace it with the tyranny of China’s communist system. Many Tibetans were unimpressed.
Then it came time to implement “socialism with Chinese characteristics”. China faced severe rural-urban inequality (and still does), so the “Chinese characteristics” part was about making the rural poor feel a bit better about themselves and their inherent revolutionary wisdom by painting them riding on tractors in the sun, while at the same time using them as the actual fuel that powered China’s growth. This included implementing a hukou, or residence visa, system that stopped them all from moving to the cities and clogging up the streets with cabbage and sadness.
In Australia, Rudd began to shore up his own base by rolling back WorkChoices, and acknowledge the importance of the union movement which, total membership having declined two thirds since Gough Whitlam was around, had about as much clout as a Chinese tractor-driver. Like any ALP leader, Rudd’s position lay in the hands of the Movement, but he failed to actually roll back many of the things that had gutted Australia’s unions during the Howard years: the ban on secondary boycotts, restrictions on workplace lock-outs and union officials right of entry onto worksites, and prohibitive fines for ‘illegal’ workplace striking.
Back to Mao; in the 1950s now, which means it’s time for the first experiments in agricultural collectivisation. After ever-larger co-operative farms yielded mixed results, 1956 hit China with a significant famine. Enter China’s first Premier, a popular intellectual and moderate named Zhou Enlai. Picture a Chinese Lindsay Tanner. Then add the “this is just a hobby” air of Malcolm Turnbull, the political savvy of Bill Shorten; the charm of both, and the smugness of neither.
Zhou suggested to Mao that collectivisation may not have been the best move in a country plagued by the tyranny of distance and its associated communicative and logistical issues.
Mao responded by launching the “Hundred Flowers” campaign, which was, at first, as lovely as it sounds. Scholars, intellectuals and apparatchiks were encouraged to voice new ideas about how to transition to a modern communist society, and were even invited to criticise the leadership. “A hundred flowers bloom, a hundred schools of thought contend” was the catchcry, and the fragrance wafted across the land.
There were a lot of slogans like that actually. Maoism is in many ways the Tony Abbott of Marxism. Unreconstructed, slightly unhinged, and based almost exclusively on pithy maxims – “serve the people”, “to rebel is justified”, “smash the four olds”.
The hundred flowers period would have been China’s 2020 Summit, if Kevin Rudd had waited until shortly after the summit ended to murder more than half a million people who had disagreed with him. That was what Mao did. It was the political equivalent of telling your friends that hide and seek is over and they can come out now, and then when they do, putting them up against a wall and shooting them in the head.
So that’s a point against.
It was now 1958, and with the non-believers and “capitalist roaders” purged, Mao, at the sprightly age of 64, launched China’s second Five Year Plan: the Great Leap Forward. This was supposed to be the masterstroke that would turn an agrarian society into a modern communist one. The Chinese communist equivalent of the baby bonus.
Tragically this turned out as not so much a “leap forward” as a “series of catastrophic central planning failures and policy disasters which led to the starving deaths of thirty million people”. The equivalent of one and a half Australias died between 1958 and 1961. To put that in News Limited terms, it equates to roughly one Rudd economic stimulus package. Maybe throw in the Emissions Trading Scheme as well.
One of the main causes of the Great Leap Forward disaster was botched and shonky bookkeeping – since everyone was too scared to report they had not met agricultural quotas, the central government had no grasp of how bad the numbers really were. Fearful co-op leaders would send their quotas of grain to the cities without leaving any for their own flocks. China’s grain exports actually increased by around 50 per cent during the period, while the countryside starved.
Both leaders were weakened; Rudd fatally, Mao temporarily.
In 1959, Mao’s main detractor, the moderate Liu Shaoqi, was named Chairman of the PRC. Mao remained President but his role was largely ceremonial, just like when Rudd joined the ALP’s 2010 election campaign. Mao took a back seat for a few years to plot the Chinese Cultural Revolution: history’s most violent and destructive comeback tour.
This is where the narrative splits.
Would they storm Parliament House? Or would they start taking pot-shots at Resistance, or the Evangelical Union, all similarly armed?…We may never know the answer but it’s certainly what happened in China. Student groups spent as much time fighting each other as they did actual revolutionary enemies, in a Lord of the Flies style violence-orgy.
In 1966, Mao went rogue. He launched a decade-long class war that used his cult of personality to target the people he held responsible for deposing him. When Rudd was deposed in June 2010, he spent a few years crying down the phone at political journalists. If Rudd had been Mao Zedong, he’d have rallied the bases whose hard work had installed him in the first place; used the 2007 defeat of Howard to claim there was no ALP without him; called on GetUp!, on Young Labor groups, on every youth activist organisation regardless of colour or creed to unite, pick up whatever they could find – clubs, spears, rifles, grenades and improvised explosives and wage war on the anti-democratic forces within the government, the faceless men who had removed their head of state and were threatening to derail the country.
So, a missed opportunity for Kevin.
Which brings us back to Wang Peng, and to that nice bit of shade under the tree outside Fisher Library. Take your average Socialist Alternative agitator. Take that same intensity, that rigid determination, but give them clubs, spears, rifles, grenades and improvised explosives. Imagine they, and everyone else in every other University of Sydney collective, group or club, had an educational history that consisted solely of reading over and over again a far more militant version of the Green Left Weekly. Take them and tell them everything in their world is corrupt, and that they need to smash all of the things so that they can be rebuilt. Would they march all the way to Canberra and storm Parliament House? Or would they start taking pot-shots at Resistance, or the Evangelical Union, all similarly armed?
Sadly, we may never know the answer. But it’s certainly what happened in China. Student groups spent as much time fighting each other as they did actual revolutionary enemies, in a Lord of the Flies style violence-orgy.
Now imagine Rudd-in-exile took certain ideas about our national character and warped, changed and altered them in order to create the kind of chaos that would see him back in power.
We’re an egalitarian society. We’re “true blue”.
You are walking past Manning wearing a brand new crimson hoodie you just picked up at General Pants. ‘Swag’, you think to yourself immediately before being beaten to death by a splinter group from the EU Blue Faction, who yesterday decided that anyone wearing crimson is an enemy of the True Blue Revolution.
Before you black out you see three of your lecturers on the grassy knoll, surrounded. They are getting dirt shoved into their mouths as they, too, are savagely beaten. A chant rings out around the campus: “Build the Education Revolution! Build the Education Revolution!”
Say you somehow survive the wrath of the EU Blues, as they’re now called. You are told that bourgeois intellectuals like yourself need to be re-educated through gruelling physical labour, or, worse, by taking a job as a union organiser in the Pilbara.
The idea of forcing that spoilt idiot who wants to work “in fashion”, despite being enrolled in a full-fee paying Media and Communications degree, to go to Western Australia and dig holes in the ground with their hands might sound appealing at first, but on a large scale it was a disaster, logistically and socially. And that was before the chaos even spread to the workers, and the army.
The Cultural Revolution did immeasurable damage. For ten years, China was a nation at war with itself: with its history and culture and its very identity. The boundaries between revolutionary martyr and evil revisionist were so porous that there were barely even really “sides” to the conflict, just anarchy and bloodshed. The Tibetans and other ethnic minorities had most of their shit wrecked, and anyone who thought it wasn’t a great idea to destroy scrolls and temples millennia-old were themselves beaten, tortured and killed. And that’s without even going into the “struggle sessions” and the summary execution of elders and community leaders. Or the suicides. And all the while with slogans ringing out across China. “Smash the four olds.” “To rebel is justified.”
The Cultural Revolution was ended by Mao’s death, of natural causes, on September 9, 1976. By then, much of China’s five thousand-year-history lay in ruins. Estimates of the death toll vary widely – conservatively it is pegged between one and two million, though some estimates put it as high as 20 million people.
So the lesson, I guess, is next time you hear someone equate a health care program, or a failure to deliver a one per cent company tax break, with some of the twentieth century’s most intense experiments in the bounds of human misery, they’re full of shit.