‘To understand China we need to grasp three things: history, homeland and harmony’

21 SEPTEMBER 2020

‘To understand China we need to grasp three things: history, homeland and harmony’

Professor Stan Grant says ‘China has told us how they see the world and their place in it, how that is rooted in history, homeland and harmony, and now the rest of the world must ask whether – or how – we can live with it.’

By Professor Stan Grant Jnr, Vice-Chancellor’s Chair of Australian-Indigenous Belonging at Charles Sturt University.

As Australia-China relations continue to plummet and talk of a new Cold War intensifies, how much do we really know of a nation that is set to define the 21st century?

We know that China is an authoritarian country ruled by the Communist Party and rejects liberal democratic values of free speech, rule of law and democracy.

Yet it is also an indispensable nation, on track to be the world's biggest economy. Right now, most analysis of China veers between hawkish predictions of war, containing China, de-coupling or finding some diplomatic accommodation.

But we have surely dropped the delusion that China will become like us: that economic freedom will lead to political freedom.

While ever the Communist Party is in power, its trajectory is set.

To understand China we need to grasp three things: history, homeland and harmony.

And we need to see these things through modern China's three most powerful leaders: Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping and Xi Jinping.

The Party and homeland become inseparable

Mao was the Communist revolutionary leader who saw his mission as reviving a fallen, humiliated nation.

After seizing power in 1949, after a Civil War against US backed Nationalists, Mao Zedong famously spoke to the Chinese People, and told them that they had "stood up".

China, he said, had fallen behind the world because of "oppression and exploitation by foreign imperialists". China, he said, "will no longer be a nation subject to insult and humiliation".

"Let the domestic and foreign reactionaries tremble before us," Mao said.

Deng Xiaoping came to power in 1978, two years after Mao's death. He, too, had been shaped by a hatred of foreign occupation.

Deng's biographer, Ezra Vogel, describes how Deng as a young man travelled to France and, during a layover in Shanghai, "saw white people treating Chinese, in their own country, as if they were slaves".

Working in France he saw how "European imperialists were humiliating China ... and Chinese workers were treated worse than local workers".

Living abroad, Deng Xiaoping discovered Marxism and became a hardened Communist. From the humiliation of history, Deng dreamed of the revival of his homeland.

By the time he came to power, he was prepared to reckon with the failings of the Party, particularly Chairman Mao's failed Great Leap Forward — a fast-track to high production and modernisation — that had triggered the Great Famine of 1958-1962.

Upwards of 40 million people died in those few years.

Chinese journalist, Yang Jisheng, in his book Tombstone describes how starving people ate bark from trees, droppings from birds and rats and, most horrifyingly, the bodies of their dead children just to survive.

Deng conceded that the Party had let down the people. He described China's system of government as "backward" and said "if we can't grow faster than the capitalist countries then we can't show the superiority of our system".

Deng Xiaoping launched an economic revolution to open up his homeland, but at the same time double down on Communist Party power.

The Party and the homeland would be inseparable.

An extension of the past

Before Xi Jinping took power in 2012, he visited migrant Chinese workers in Mexico and told them: "There are some bored foreigners with full stomachs, who have nothing better to do than point fingers at us."

He had learnt well the lessons of history. Xi reminds Chinese people of the "hundred years of humiliation" by foreign powers stretching back to the Opium Wars of the mid-19th century.

Xi is determined to complete the rejuvenation of China and return the nation to the apex of global power.

To history and homeland, Xi has added harmony. He speaks of the "harmonious society". It is an idea he has inherited from his predecessor, Hu Jintao, but where Hu spoke of harmony as political reform and social justice, Xi means stability.

In the name of harmony, he has cracked down on dissent, jailed dissidents, rivals, lawyers and journalists and enacted harsh new laws to stop protests in Hong Kong and locked up a million ethnic Uighur Muslims in what human rights groups have called re-education — or brainwashing — camps.

It is harmony by force.

Xi is reaching back to Mao, who sought to define the real people from the enemies of the people, those Chinese he called "the running dogs" of the imperialists.

Mao spoke of freedom and democracy but it was "freedom with leadership" and "democracy under centralised guidance".

Xi Jinping is often described as China's most powerful leader since Mao; some analysts see him as a break from past Communist Party bosses taking the country on a more dangerous authoritarian path.

Yet Xi is an extension of the past. Xi is a party princeling, the son of one of Mao's revolutionary lieutenants.

He sings from the Mao song sheet. He embraces Deng Xiaoping's vision for the homeland and the Party

Diplomacy begins with understanding

Let's not think that Xi is any more brutal than his predecessors.

Mao is responsible for the deaths of tens of millions and while Deng is remembered as a reformer, he is also the man who ordered his soldiers to shoot their own people protesting for democracy in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Xi is everything his party and the ghosts of leaders past have made him.

Yes, he is more assertive — even aggressive — but China is also more powerful. This is always how Mao and Deng saw their country's future.

The Party is what it has always been. It is we in the West who are constantly surprised.

China's most dominant leaders — Mao, Deng and Xi — have told us how they see the world and China's place in it, how that is rooted in history, homeland and harmony.

That's where diplomacy begins: with a clear understanding of what we are dealing with.

The question then, is whether – or how – we can live with it.

This article was originally published by ABC News on Sunday 21 September.

Media Note:

To arrange interviews with Professor Stan Grant, contact Charles Sturt Media on news@csu.edu.au


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