Revelations of a China watcher. Interview with John King Fairbank

FOR some 60 years, John King Fairbank has had a front-row seat watching, as he puts it, ``one of the most dramatic stories of all time'' unfold. It is the story of the Chinese social revolution, begun at the turn of the last century - long before strange Western notions such as nationalism or nationhood had ever occurred to the people of the Middle Kingdom - and is now propelling a newly modern nation into the next century.

Professor Fairbank, who this fall published ``The Great Chinese Revolution: 1800-1985'' (Harper & Row, New York) is well qualified to comment on the status of the revolution.

Known as the dean of China studies in this country, he joined Harvard's faculty in 1936 and now has a Harvard research center named after him. The first time he went to China (as a Rhodes scholar in 1932), Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek was at the height of his power, and Mao Tse-tung and his fellow communists had not yet begun their 6,000-mile retreat called the Long March (1934-35). One of his more recent visits was in 1972, when he was one of the first Americans to visit China after President Nixon's historic eight-day trip.

In an interview with the Monitor, Fairbank was both reflective and matter-of-fact as he tackled questions on the nature of the Chinese system and its future prospects. He indicates that traditional Chinese ways of thinking are very much alive today, exerting every bit as much influence on China's development as are Deng Xiaoping's reforms, the world economy, and superpower politics. There is much the Chinese want to learn from us, he says, but there is also a great deal about Western civilization that they are eager to keep at arm's length.

Some excerpts from the interview:

Do you think Deng Xiaoping will be able to lock in the economic reforms he instituted? Is the social revolution you write about now moving at a healthy clip, or will Politburo member Chen Yun and his fellow critics be able to undermine the reforms?

Chen Yun and Deng are not on opposite sides. They're merely arguing about speed, the speed of change. Chen was part of the group including Deng and [former President] Liu Shaoqi and others who wanted to build up materially. And Mao was trying to do something different - mass mobilization, exhortation, idealism, and lacking material incentives, and it didn't work out. Chen was also one of the early critics of [Mao's] Cultural Revolution.

Deng's reforms are trying to combine material growth with social change in a sensible way - social change, of course, comes from material growth. The social revolution issue under Mao was whether you could get the peasantry into upper-class life - get them educated and participating. Mao tried to do it sort of wholesale and pro forma, with everybody copying his words, and Deng faces a situation where providing the incentives for individual enterprise, he's helping a lot of people get better off and they'll be able to express themselves a little more easily. At the same time, he's creating a wider gap between rich and poor. And the collective institutions, the local clinics, and that kind of thing are taking a beating sometimes. It's a test of the common sense and willingness of the Chinese people to help one another and not grab everything for themselves.... One hopes they're more patriotic now and have more of a sense of doing it for the community.

Do you think there will be a power struggle? Can Deng avoid that?

Power struggle is going on all the time. It's like our politics.

Are Deng's reforms actually part of the 1800-1985 social revolution you discuss in your book?

[The reforms] will have social consequences, and social change will come with them.... As to the revolution, that is a conscious effort to bring the peasant up in the world. In a way, they've passed beyond that. After some 30 years [since the communists took power], that revolution has taken a different form. The peasants are now part of the whole scene. They're not just inert, being exploited, taxed.

In your book you seem to be talking about the stalemate China keeps arriving at between Western-style modernization and the Chinese sense of cultural superiority.

I'm not sure there has to be a stalemate of that type. Chinese material circumstances, technology, are advancing - and that's inevitable - and cultural values are also being retained and modified, which is also inevitable. And they affect each other. But it's two aspects of the historical process. It's not ``either, or.'' If you take the Chinese sense of superiority as a cultural value, that leads in modern times to a strong sense of nationalistic pride as an incentive for modernization.

How do you think China has learned from the 19th century, when there was a period of retrenchment back to conservatism and Confucian values?

Chinese backwardness and slowness to pick up outside technology is a multi-causal situation, and one of the factors is size. It's very hard to reach peasants in Sichuan. The province used to have 50 million people, now it has 100 million. In such a large mass, Western contact was rather superficial. So that was a factor of slowness. And the sense of superiority and defensiveness - xenophobia - was also a factor making them slow. And I think that in the 19th century they missed the boat several times and in the 20th century also they've been held back by their own concerns. Overseas Chinese are leaders in this [effort to modernize], and American Chinese are joining in.

On corruption. In your book you say that modern philosophers see in Confucianism a constant moral tension: One must try to do the right thing in a chaotic social environment that makes it all but impossible. In loosening up Chinese society, is Deng creating an even more chaotic environment without the mitigating influence of a strong Confucian ethic or of Maoist-style moralism?

I think the ethic is there - both in communist theorizing and in residual Confucianism, in just being a Chinese feeling about China. And the chaos is also there, because the Chinese are like that. They don't normally march to one drum. They believe there ought to be one drum, and they hope it'll maintain unity so there won't be a lot of warfare, but the individual finds many ways to avoid marching. Now that used to be centered in the family.... The family system was so central because it was both the thing that survived and the medium for survival. One of the observations since the Cultural Revolution is that when the Maoist mobilization led to various kinds of disaster, people became very disillusioned with it and fell back on their family relations and revived dependence on the family.

Are you saying that, although they don't view pluralism the way we do, an appreciation for pluralism is definitely there?

Pluralism is a tricky term. It's a political term, mainly, and it means a plurality of interests and, in the expression of them, some kind of balance. And we like to think that activity under law provides a chance for pluralistic competition and so forth. In that meaning, we mislead ourselves if we apply it too easily to China. We're always taking our own vocabulary and applying it over there and it doesn't work out. They don't have a legal system superior to everything else.

The [Communist] Party is trying to reassert itself, and it has a considerable problem - how to maintain its authority. In the Cultural Revolution, Mao got the party into management [running the country]. Then when he attacked the party, it blew the thing apart. The mobilization approach [such as the effort to mobilize the masses during the Cultural Revolution] puts the emphasis on the party, and [Deng's economic] development approach puts it on administration - on people selected by examination, by their skills, expertise [rather than on political correctness]. The party is being trained now to leave the administration alone.

Instead, the party [its leaders are now saying] should consider overall policy. Well, that's trying to restrict the party to a final say, and building up that institutional structure is not very easy. The tendency is for the Chinese to follow the orders of the people in power, and pluralism comes in when you say that the party is in power as regards policy, whatever that is, and the administration is in power as regards management. So there's some division of activity.

Does that ambiguity leave the door open to corruption?

I don't know whether that does, but corruption is built into the system because of the concern for individual connections - friendship, contacts, ``You help me, I'll help you.''

Do you think China has lost something under Deng, in trying to switch from rule by ethics to rule by law? Is there anything filling the vacuum left by the denunciation of Maoist moralism and the ``feudalism'' of pre-'49 Confucian China?

I don't think they've switched. They are putting in law because it's useful and needed for contracts and foreign relations, but they've by no means tried to make it supreme. And leadership has to depend not only on legitimacy through law and due process, but also through good moral posture, ethical aims, and worthy motives - that kind of thing. I think there's no problem particularly about whether Deng's reforms will succeed. Nobody knows just exactly what their success would be.... They will go on because modern life is going along, and the potentialities of the modern period are now there, they've been realized. But after the Deng period, you'll still find China has enormous problems and is slowed down by them - whether they are conditions or personality problems or social institutions.

So you're saying that the Chinese ethical system is still there and always will be?

I think so. They [ethics] are modified slowly. They're trying to build up the modern institutions that are needed to keep a society going. We've had to build them up, and we lead lives entirely different from two centuries ago, needless to say....

Why have the Chinese been so slow to develop?

They're very much inward looking. They're China-centered. We're sort of world-centered. We're expansion-centered. We're the most expansive people.

We expand all over the place and call that normal. The Chinese are not expansive in that way. They're concerned about putting it all together where they are.

The Chinese are extremely conscious of being Chinese. They're very proud of it. It's the center of civilization.

How can the Chinese appreciate Western technology and still see us as barbarians?

These are ideas that are passing. They know they don't like some of our moral standards and activities. They think they're counter-productive and bad for the community. They would simply use the technology to improve their situation.

On democracy. In your book, you say that part of the ongoing social revolution is the problem of how to bring the peasantry into fuller participation in the national life. Do you think that is one of Peking's goals? I'm sure I read ``participation'' differently from the way a Chinese would. Is that participation simply to the end of economic development - trying to bring the average Chinese peasant into the fray?

No, I think it's not just expediency. There is a Chinese idea of egalitarianism, and it's something that they will, I hope, be able to build on.... Of course, we think that's the test of whether you've gotten anywhere - whether the individual can survive decently.

Chinese egalitarianism is in the villages among the farmers. They have a strong sense of justice and share and share alike - that kind of thing. They're very conscious of someone who is getting ahead by dirty work and so forth. And one of the mysteries of the old China was how they were able to maintain this Confucian idea of the upper class running everything, which was very elitist, and at the same time maintain in the village a strong sense that people are equal. The egalitarianism among the peasantry was not a subject of great discourse and theory-writing and so on, but it seemed to be there. You could see it any time you looked at the peasantry. And the elitism is very much talked about and written up by all the scholars. So those are two motifs in the Chinese inheritance, and they can be dynamic elements in whatever mixture they now work out.

What is Chinese-style political participation?

``Participation'' is a neutral term - it can be helpful or not. In the Chinese form, a peer group works out a consensus as to who are the superior people - who should be on the committee, who should be elected. They don't do it by single ballot so much as by discussion. The Chinese are in the transition of trying to set up institutions - councils, assemblies at the local level, and so on - and gradually work out a procedure that will be acceptable to establish local authority.

It's not just a rubber-stamp procedure.

Right. But of course, our predisposition is to say that the individual fights off dictation from above. Their predisposition is to say that authority is there because we need authority and those in authority know better, and why should we stand up against them at our own cost? What do we gain from that?... So it's going to be a slow process for them to have a very lively democratic process in our sense, with representative government.

I think that just as the press is our recent development and extremely important, it's an informal part of the political structure, and they are in that, too. The press in China is going to be extremely important. They're beginning to catch on to the idea of investigative reporting and the duty of the journalist to get the facts straight. That's something of modernization that ties us together a little bit. We're far apart, but the principle that we're both moving toward is very similar.

But can the press have much freedom to investigate when the party controls it?

With modern communications, it's pretty hard to suppress information.... Modern political institutions have to allow for the pervasive information nexus in which the institutions are functioning. This is a modern situation all over the world, even in Russia.

By informal communication, gossip, the spread of news and opinion is one of the most marked things about the modernization period. So on that score, we have points of similarity with the Chinese. They find that they can build on the old idea of the scholar having the duty to speak up, disclose evil, admonish, and so on.

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