The high drama of two centuries of Chinese revolution

The Great Chinese Revolution: 1800-1985, by John King Fairbank. New York: Harper & Row. 400 pp. $20.95. Only a naive graduate student or a self-described ``ex-professor who is not up for tenure, and who doesn't care about reputation,'' would have the confidence and the gumption to take on the Chinese Revolution from 1800 to 1985 as John King Fairbank has.

This work is clearly the triumphant culmination of nearly a lifetime devoted to East Asian studies -- and China in particular. It deserves the praise usually held for the best academic works -- comprehensive, profound, balanced, and provocative. Yet, clearly written, witty, and entertaining, this book is destined for an audience far beyond just the Asia specialists.

Whether looked at from a historical, political, sociological, personal, or partisan perspective, the story of the Chinese Revolution over the past two centuries remains one of high drama. Though Fairbank makes a strong argument for basing his analysis in history, his work is not weighed down by the ``dead hand of the past.'' It remains throughout a lively narrative that either implicitly or explicitly helps to illuminate what is happening in China, right down to the present. Like a good historian, Fairbank is not so transfixed by the continuities of the past that he is unable to recognize the significant departures.

Into his historical analysis Fairbank weaves many important political, cultural, and economic strands. He underscores from the outset that China has not only experienced a political, social, and economic revolution, but also ``a transformation of the entire culture.'' Fairbank shows how these revolutions did not always proceed at the same pace and, at times, undermined one another.

The connection between the revolution in Chinese politics and the revolution in Chinese culture over the past 200 years can best be described as a love/hate relationship in which neither partner has ever been free of the other. Fairbank shows how China's economic revolution has been intimately intertwined with politics and culture in this love/hate affair.

By doing so, he indirectly challenges the popular conceptions of China prevalent today. He faults the West for its fixation on Deng Xiaoping's economic reforms to the exclusion of looking at what reforms are and are not taking place in Chinese politics and culture today.

Fairbank is able to criticize the People's Republic without the bitterness and soul-searching of the disillusioned -- those who finally discover China is not the utopia they had hoped for. He criticizes the Chinese Communist Party and its leadership not for failing to live up to their own propaganda, but for allowing the revolution to continue until it began devouring the people they said they would save.

Fairbank's harshest remarks go to Mao Tse-tung. The Chinese Communist Party decided in 1981 that the final verdict on Mao was 70 percent good, 30 percent bad. I suspect Fairbank's ratio would go more against the Great Helmsman.

Fairbank does not vacillate about the darker side of Mao and the CCP. Nor does he dwell on describing just how horrible the horrors were. The record, stated in a straightforward manner, is horror enough. ``The national catastrophe of the Great Leap Forward 1958-60 was directly due to Chairman Mao.'' So begins his chapter on the Great Leap Forward. ``In the end, some 20 to 30 million people lost their lives through malnutrition and famine because of the policies imposed on them by the CCP.''

In looking at the Great Leap Forward and its aftermath, Fairbank highlights a paradox that persists in Chinese politics. The Great Leap Forward was enacted precisely because the party was so united and no one dared to challenge Mao's leadership. When the Great Leap Forward turned out to be a failure, Mao lost a lot of face and a lot of power. He no longer led the party, but just one faction. Such disunity at the top led to the power struggles and power vacuum on which much of the Cultural Revolution can be blamed.

Fairbank bluntly reminds Americans who want to idealize the People's Republic: ``Let us keep in mind it remains a party dictatorship.'' The latest wave of reform may enhance and restore the power and the prestige of the party or it may threaten to split it once again, leaving factions and a power vacuum in its wake.

Those who enthusiastically embrace the term ``capitalist'' to describe changes in China's agriculture since 1979 are guilty of making a ``grievous error,'' according to Fairbank. The professor emeritus from Harvard classifies the recent changes in the countryside as the ``latest phase of statecraft, how to organize the farmers in order to improve their welfare and strengthen the state.'' He argues that what we may be seeing is hardly ``Western-style capitalism,'' but rather ``bureaucratic socialism.''

Fairbank, however, does not try to make the argument that the CCP is to blame for all the ills of the People's Republic since 1949. He calls Chiang Kai-shek's and the Nationalists' loss in the civil war a ``remarkable achievement'' in which their ``stupidity on the battlefield'' was matched by their ``incompetence behind the lines.'' He recognizes certain problems as intractable ones shared by most nations seeking to modernize. He spends much of the book reviewing the durable features of China's past -- Confucianism, the imperial exam system, the structure of the family and the village, the population that was already exploding in the 18th century. Thus, he tries to show how China's troubles may have been exacerbated because it was elevated by and loaded down with a civilization whose history could be traced back 3,000 years. ``To modernize, in short, China has had farther to go and more changes to make than most countries, simply because it has been itself for so long,'' he writes in his introduction.

This work is a welcome antidote to much that is being said about China these days. Anyone who reads ``The Great Chinese Revolution,'' even just the final section on China since 1949, will forever abandon the picture so prevalent today -- that the Chinese, if scratched, are really just 1 billion Adam Smiths.

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