When you exit the Tiananman West subway station in Beijing and walk north for ten minutes you arrive at an intersection. If you go left and proceed one hundred meters you reach a gate of Zhongnanhai, the compound where the top Chinese leaders live and work, just to the west Forbidden City. If, instead, you turn right at the intersection and walk one hundred meters, as I have done for much of the past year, you arrive at the west gate of the Forbidden City, home to the First Historical Archives of China, which holds a vast collection of material from the Qing Dynasty.
So much of Chinese politics takes places within the walls of Zhongnanhai. The factions, interests, personalities, jealousies all exist behind the veil. We know they exist and can speculate about them but we are always on flimsy foundations.
When the veil gets lifted, even just a little, and we can move from those flimsy foundations to firmer ground, it is important to pay attention. Perhaps one of the most significant pieces of this calendar year, and one that give us tremendous insight into the current political climate comes from Joe Esherick, professor emeritus of history at University of California San Diego, and the description of his back and forth with censors regarding changes to the Chinese-language version of his book Ancestral Leaves: A Family Journey Through Chinese History. As Esherick relates, there were a number of objections to his statements about various ethnic, religious and political issues.
However, the most interesting pushback from the censors came with Esherick’s treatment “of the era of economic reforms that followed Mao’s death in 1976 and took off under Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s.” In the text he created a sharp distinction, characterizing the Reform of Opening period after the death of Mao as the moment that laid the groundwork for the Chinese economy today where “a vibrant, often corrupt crony capitalism” drives the economic growth at a feverish pace.” This line did not go over well; the censor insisted that it could not be included. Esherick realized he was unlikely to win this battle because “the sharp distinction I was making between the two eras of Chinese socialism was exactly the opposite of the message of continuity that the current regime of Xi Jinping has mandated.” That is a very significant sentence.
In studying history our first inclination is to mark change and discontinuities. Then, after the passage of time allows for new perspectives and as more research materials become available historians focus more on continuities. Just because something changed does not mean that everything changed. Our understanding of the history of 20th century China follows this pattern.
First, let’s look at the Xinhai Revolution and the end of the Qing Dynasty in 1912. As Michael Gasster noted in a article from long ago, historians went back and forth on the importance and meaning of this event that ended centuries of imperial rule in China: first it was “the revolution, then ‘no revolution,’ then ‘something of a revolution,’ and now back to ‘not much of a revolution’ and one of ‘paltry achievements.’” [i] In a more recent analysis, Rana Mitter, historian at Oxford University, observes that the Xinhai Revolution “has achieved the most historically unusual of results: its meaning has become less, and not more obvious as time has time gone on.”[ii] Except that the result is perhaps not that unusual. We are inclined to see discontinuities before continuities. Continuities, which come later, render earlier judgments less certain.
A similar dynamic is at work with the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949. The creation of the PRC was first seen as a rupture, a break, a divide, from the era of rule by the Guomindang (GMD). The GMD and the CCP, conventional wisdom held, were vastly different in terms of organization, economic programs and political beliefs. Given the Cold War context, the inability for scholars to do research in mainland China and the division between history and political science (historians stuck to researching the period before 1949), the 1949 divide in Chinese history was an accepted fact.
The current view is much different. As Joe Esherick argued in an important article in 1995, there are in fact significant “continuities between the Guomindang and the CCP” and that “Guomindang rule was as much the precursor of the Chinese Revolution as its political enemy.”[iii] He went on to write that 1949 was a watershed event but not an “unbridgeable chasm.” A lot of scholarship in the last twenty years supports this position and looks at the continuities between the GMD and CCP. One of the best examples is research that examines the origins of the state enterprise system and the danwei work unit in the in the 1930s and 1940s.
One of the next frontiers of Chinese history, then, is thinking more about continuities across 1976. At the moment, it looks very much like the 1949 divide, especially in terms of disciplinary boundaries: historians stay in the period before Mao’s death and the period after 1976 is the domain of political scientists. That will change. Perhaps the most important intellectual effort in this direction comes from Professor Elizabeth Perry Mao’s Invisible Hand: The Political Foundations of Adaptive Governance in China. In fact, looking for continuities in Chinese economics, politics, society and culture before and after 1976 is an area ripe for more active cooperation between historians and political scientists.
Strangely, the official party narrative about the continuities across 1976 is somewhat ahead of scholarly trends that still emphasize discontinuities but only because—and this is crucial— of perceived political necessity. That was the impetus for the censor’s insistence that Professor Esherick take out the line about the sharp contrast before and after the death of Mao in 1976. The academic community will likely arrive at a similar view that moves beyond seeing 1976 as an abrupt divide but the process will be slower and based on uncovering new materials and weighing the evidence rather than due to the prevailing political atmosphere.
[i] Michael Gasster, “Comments of Authors Reviewed,” in Modern China Vol. 2, No. 2 (April 1976): 207.
[ii] Rana Mitter, “1911: The Unanchored Revolution,” The China Quarterly 208 (December 2011), 1020.
[iii] Joe Escherick, “Ten Theses on the Chinese,” Modern China, Vol. 21, No. 1, (Jan., 1995), 47.