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101st Year Anniversary, Mao's Cave-Dwelling Dialogue, and Historical Cycles
Different nations are preoccupied with different priorities. These priorities are foundational issues at the heart of a nation’s collective psyche and shaped by memories of the past's greatest events.
When the Communist Party of China marked its 101st year anniversary on July 1, there wasn’t much empty talk of self-congratulations. In fact, the concept of 历史周期率 Law of Historical Cycles was put front and center. What is this? Why is it so important?
Different nations are preoccupied with different priorities. These priorities are foundational issues at the heart of a nation’s collective psyche. They are built-in and shaped by memories of the past's greatest events. They define a nation’s character, affect how a nation sees the world, and set the agenda for its debates and actions.
Because each nation's history is unique, tragedies arise when one uses their own experience to understand others' priorities. For instance, the West tends to view any rising new power suspiciously, because the West experienced millennia of conflicts, aggressions, conquests, and subjugations among culturally diverse peoples. Likewise, Americans like to assume an adversarial relationship between the government and its people, which is underpinned by their unique history and constitutional framework.
So naturally, when China rises onto the stage under a unique system, the West creates a narrative based on their own experience: Behold! A new power hellbent on the subjugation of the world, to be eventually undone because of the inevitable conflict between state control versus individuals' liberties.
In fact, China never had global conquest in her DNA, and the relationship between the state and the people is so intertwined to the extent that such a dichotomy may not be meaningful at all. The West keeps making wrong-headed judgments and misguided policy proscriptions about China, because the narrative is faulty, and China simply does not share the same narratives.
So what does China care about? As shown in the following article, as a country with the longest continuous history of civilization in today’s world, one unique thing about China's history is her dynastic rises and falls. Each dynasty started with entrepreneurial leadership, but then the ruling elite became self-serving and was removed from ordinary people (something the West is no stranger to), which led to chaos, bloodshed and downfall, followed by another round. Is this tragic cycle inevitable? A crucial task for any generation of Chinese leaders is to find ways to avoid such fate and to, in Daenerys Targaryen's famous words, "break the wheel." This is indeed China's core priority.
The following article is by a popular WeChat blogger 西西弗神话 The Myth of Sisyphus. The original title is “窑洞对”，官僚主义与历史周期 Yan'an Cave Dwelling Dialogue, Bureaucratism and Historical Cycles. The Yan'an Cave Dwelling Dialogue is a famous conversation between Chairman Mao and Mr. Huang Yanpei on how to break the historical cycles. You will see that the Chinese cared very much about this conundrum. Many tools have been employed and tried to solve it, including various forms of "democracy", which, as you will see, is not an end in itself but only a means for China to deal with her own priority. Many policies and choices will be much more comprehensible from this perspective.
The translation, which was done by GRR, hasn’t been reviewed by the author. Highlights are done by GRR. Moreover, Ginger River knows that the article contains some views which not every subscriber will agree with, but he guesses exposure to some different Chinese views is at least partly what you look for.
Is there any way to compel the ruling elite to care about and protect the rights of ordinary people? Generations of politicians in China and abroad have been trying to answer the question, but there exists no perfect answer yet.
In China's history, every dynastic cycle lasts about 300 years. After corruption becomes rampant in a dynasty, a new and vibrant group will overthrow the rulers of that dynasty, thus a new ruling clique will come into being. The members of the new clique could be some "invaders" (e.g. Yuan Dynasty and Qing Dynasty), winners of internal strife in the old clique, or peasants from revolts. In the subsequent 200 to 300 years, corruption will seize control of the new ruling class due to enormous vested interests, and eventually, the ruling class will be toppled by another clique. Improper land acquisition and tax regimes are both fundamentals driving the dynastic cycle to repeat itself.
In 1940, 陈嘉庚 Tan Kah Kee, a Chinese businessman, investor, and philanthropist, visited Yan’an, a former revolutionary base of the Communist Party of China (CPC), and proposed a question to the "teacher" (the author was referring to Mao Zedong), “due to its limited natural resources and poor economy, Yan’an is not as rich in materials as Chongqing. Even if the CPC wants to be corrupt, there are no conditions. If the CPC wins the war and controls the rich lands, can it pass down its clean culture?” In 1944, Guo Moruo wrote his long essay entitled 甲申三百年祭 Commemorating the 300th Anniversary of the Jiashen Year to depict the rise and decline of Li Zicheng, a Chinese peasant rebel leader who overthrew the Ming dynasty in 1644. During the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression, Mao thought deeply about how to prevent corruption in the communist party, how to maintain the Party's purity and fight after the victory.
On the eve of the victory of the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression, two possible routes were in front of China. At the beginning of July 1945, 黄炎培 Huang Yanpei flew to Yan’an from Chongqing for a visit with the Kuomintang’s councilors including 褚辅成 Chu Fucheng, 冷遹 Leng Yu, 左舜生 Zuo Shunsheng, 傅斯年 Fu Sinian, and 章伯钧Zhang Bojun. Though Huang saw the vitality of the CPC in Yan’an, he was also worried about whether this vitality could be maintained for long. His conversation with Mao, later became the famous “窑洞对” Yan'an Cave Dwelling Dialogue.
Huang said frankly, “I am over 60 years old now. Regardless of what I have heard, I have seen with my own eyes that the rise of a nation can be prosperous while its fall can be very sudden. One person, one family, one group, one place and even one country, are almost all under the power of the historical cycle. In the early days, no one was inattentive, no one was indifferent, and everyone worked hard, probably because it was the only way to survive the hardship. Later, with the improvement of the environment, their spirit gradually became lax. For some ruling elites, they have been in power for too long, so naturally, laziness started to grow, to such an extent that the situation cannot be reversed and remedied. For others, they want their influence to grow. The expansion may result from natural development, or from ambition to build something, but their control waned eventually when they overextended and there were not enough competent officials to cope with the increasingly complicated situation. Phenomena including 'vicious forces take over politics, measures die when the policymakers are gone, officials swarm after wealth and fame' are never rare in history. And they all failed to break out of the historical cycle. I know a thing or two about the CPC and its members. I hope you can find a way out of the historical cycle. "
These words of Huang are applicable to a nation, a political party, and China. Furthermore, they apply equally to an organization or a company. Uprisings of poor people are quite common in Chinese history, and they eventually built their own regimes, such as Liu Bang of the Han Dynasty and Zhu Yuanzhang of the Ming Dynasty. However, Chinese regimes in the feudal era could never get rid of the rise and fall of the historical cycle.
Is the west not under the influence of historical cycles? Yes, they are. It's just that the hegemon today doesn't have a long enough history to experience them.
[GRR's notes: To better understand the graph above, see Chandler Nguyen's comments: "Looking at the above graph, one can’t help but wonder whether the US has passed her prime and is now in a slow decline relative to China? Well, Ray Dailo confirmed his thinking for us in his article The Big Cycle of the United States and the Dollar, Part 1. The US Empire peaked around the 1950s (in relation to other countries, not about its absolute power). Ray wrote, “At that time, the gap between the US and the rest of the world was at its greatest and the US dollar and the US world order became dominant."]
Graph from Ray Dalio's article here
After hearing what Huang said, Mao replied, "we already found the new solution to escape the historical cycle. That is democracy. Only when the people monitor the government can a lax government be avoided. Only when everyone takes responsibility will the political measures continue after the officials who made them are gone. "
However, the problem-solving democracy in the eyes of Mao is not the same as the right to vote in the West. He believes that the Western-style democracy of free voting is essentially the paralysis and domination of the bourgeoisie over the proletariat and the working masses. In his opinion, democracy is the "Mass Democracy". When the government is lax, corrupt, and away from the people, the people will have the right to revolt. And they would revolt continuously, once in every seven or eight years to supervise the government.
After the founding of the People's Republic of China, Mao's biggest concern was the "elite revisionism". He was worried that the Communist Party may move away from the general public. What he feared the most was not the civil disturbances, but that the communists may be divorced from the masses, dedicate to bureaucratism, and to form the so-called “bureaucratic elite”.
“After the victory of the revolution, when the working class and the Communist Party have become the leading class and party in the country, the leading personnel of the Party and state, beset by bureaucratism from many sides, face the great danger of using the state organs to take arbitrary actions, alienating themselves from the masses, resorting to commandism, and jeopardizing the democracy of the CPC and our country.” --《关于无产阶级专政的历史经验》On the Historical Experience of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, 1956
"New contradictions have arisen. There are hundreds of thousands of cadres in the party committees at the county level and above, and they hold in their hands the destiny of our nation. If they fail to do a good job, alienate themselves from the masses and do not work hard, then workers, peasants, and students will have good reason to disapprove of them. Therefore, we must be on guard and do not foster the bureaucratic style of work and grow into an aristocratic stratum divorced from the people." "You are afraid of the masses taking to the streets, I am not, not even if hundreds of thousands should do so... Mass Democracy can be directed against bureaucrats too. I just said that there would still be revolutions ten thousand years from now, so possibly Mass Democracy will be practiced then." -- 八届二中全会上的讲话 Speech at the Second Plenary Session of the Eighth Central Committee of the CPC, 1956
At first, the definition of "bureaucracy" by Mao includes "bureaucratic aristocracy", "vested interests", and "the privileged class". In the end, it refers to the "intra-party bourgeoisie".
Mao kept fighting against bureaucracy and elitism. Before the founding of the People’s Republic of China, he carried out the 延安整风 Rectification Movement and achieved good results. However, after the founding of the People's Republic of China, a similar movement was repeated but failed in the end. I'll talk more about that movement in detail [in later articles].
When he felt that the existing bureaucracy had repeatedly hindered his pursuit of an ideal society, and the existing state apparatus could not achieve his ideal, he launched an unprecedented mass movement [the Culture Revolution] to break the state apparatus and start a new system, no matter the costs.
History has shown us the consequences of this mass movement launched by Mao.
The government of any country is composed of bureaucrats who are elites. The greater the power a government has, the easier it is to form the bureaucratic and privileged class. In fact, the object of Mao's fight, is the system he established himself. Hence, his ultimate failure is predictable.
"The history of Six Dynasties was all about feuds and interests among big families". Even a man like Chairman Mao could only sigh for the undefeatable human nature.
The second-generation leader Deng Xiaoping was more realistic. He accepted the inevitable existence of bureaucracy and the party’s elitism. As early as 1957, he openly opposed the so-called "Mass Democracy". He guided China back to the ruling by the elite and civil servants. Before the reform and opening up, the only way for outstanding talents to get a promotion is to seek jobs in the government. Thanks to the reform and opening up, another way up is created for those talents, one besides the political channel, that is, the business channel. The economic elite class started to appear outside public sectors.
After Deng's Southern Tour in 1992 (from January 18 to February 21, 1992 Deng inspected South China's Shenzhen, Zhuhai, Guangzhou. During the tour, he delivered a series of talks and remarks which reinforced the implementation of the reform and opening-up program), political elites and economic elites cooperated to develop together. Therefore, China is called a meritocracy-ruled country by foreigners. (See The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy by Daniel A. Bell)
However, there is no shortage of critics for meritocracy in the West. Michael Young, who coined the term “meritocracy” in his 1958 book Rise of the Meritocracy, pointed out that meritocracy will silence the lower class completely.
In the book, Young pointed out that traditional British elites of the nobility had the awareness that their positions came from ancestry, so they acted in moderation, while the nouveau riche climbed up the ladder through outstanding performance at school. Thus they were presumptuous, having blind faith in the righteousness of their power (give all the credit to their effort). The new elite took advantage of the system more brazenly, and forgot about where they come from. So Young argued that the lower class lost representatives and gradually got silenced in the democratic process. The decline of the lower class finally led to the social crisis.
Meritocracy will lead to bureaucratism and move away from ordinary people, which means the social elite will lose sympathy for the general public. Extreme meritocracy will freeze the social stratification, and the upper class will remain unchanged, passing through bloodlines. Eventually, extreme meritocracy will turn into an aristocracy.
Between civilians and elites, and between the ruled and rulers, contradictions will undoubtedly exist.
Western societies have always had this problem. Ever since the Roman Republic, the direct struggle and contradictions between the ruling elites and the masses were quite intense. Roman civilians put pressure on the ruling elite through the non-violent and non-cooperative “Secessio plebis” (withdrawal of the commoners). Finally, due to the threat of foreign invasion, the Roman nobles made a compromise. They decided that commoners could elect plebeian tribunes. However, the struggle between commoners and aristocrats continued until the Roman Republic became the Roman Empire.
In the West, the right to vote began to emerge only in modern times. The right to vote was at first limited to the elite. Then, under the constant fight of the common people, the right kept expanding and eventually became universal suffrage for all. And the history of one-person, one-vote is not as long as we think, Britain achieved "every adult has the right to vote" in 1928, France in 1944, and the United States in 1965.
At present, the one-person, one-vote rule has been deeply rooted in the hearts of the Western people and cannot be abandoned again. Moreover, in the general election, as the votes of citizens are needed, the elite cannot completely ignore the interests of citizens. However, there are still many ways for the elite to protect their interests. For example, nowadays, Western elites split votes of commoners through identity politics, so that they can control the votes and politics. While in any society, commoners are the majority, they are still manipulated by elites when identity politics divide commoners into different groups.
The poor have votes in hand but cannot change the reality. The elite will buy votes from the poor by giving them some short-term benefits. However, the system has not changed in the long term. Therefore, ballots are not a perfect solution.
To be frank, meritocracy is unavoidable. All men are born equal and unequal.
Some were born with a silver spoon in the mouth, others were in destitution.
Some have IQ of 180, others 80. People are born with different endowments.
Even Albert Einstein, had he been born in a sub-Saharan African tribe, he could not have written On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies.
In addition, if a decent environment can be provided for excellent people, they can stand out and become the elite ruling class. In the essay entitled 英国大选、丐帮衰落以及西方左翼力量的困境 “the British Election, the Decline of the Begger Clang, and the Plight of the Western Left-wing Forces” [in Chinese] in 2019, I wrote the following paragraph:
"The problem of the Beggars' Sect is indeed the issue of European and American Leftists. With the cancellation of 'only those with property were permitted to vote', the political status of the left-wing politicians improved significantly. And they rose from the rebel against the ruling class to a member of the rulers. To sum up, a person's economic and social status are under constant change. As a politician, the rise of political status will bring about the rise of economic and social status. You will transform from a member of the proletariat to a member of the elite, and part of the ruling class. At that time, how can you ensure your upholding of the proletariat? How can you guarantee that you are still representing the proletariat when you drink champagne with the big names? Even Bernie Sanders, a left-wing American politician with idealism, was repeatedly asked by reporters in interviews whether he still stands up for the proletariat after becoming a millionaire through book royalties? In The Legend of the Condor Heroes, a Chinese novel of the legend genre, the 100 percent upright character Hong Qigong, chief of the Beggars' Sect, lost his true color of the proletariat after his martial arts, economic and social status all enhanced. " [GRR's notes: In the original article, the author first used Sanders as an example, which might not be familiar to the Chinese audience. Therefore, the author gave another example from Chinese popular culture, The Legend of the Condor Heroes, which GRR knows might be hard to follow for Western readers.]
This was what worried Mao and proved hard to solve.
In China, the traditional solution to this issue is morality.
China’s tradition is to govern the country by virtue. That means, we place the benefits of ordinary citizens and the lower class on the self-discipline of the ruling elite. Traditional Confucianism advocates placing the hope of political purity on the virtues of politicians, as in "only the benevolent are suitable for high positions" and "rule by virtue".
Thus, [rectification of] name is vital. [GRR's notes: from the Chinese phrase “名正言顺”, a Confucian principle that implies that giving something a proper name creates meaning and configures relations and structures within society.]
As I have mentioned before, after the reform and opening up, China has both political elites in the government and economic elites in the private sector.
In modern society, the fundamental difference between political power and economic power lies in the inheritance system.
Political power can hardly be inherited by blood now. However, economic power (wealth) can, even it may be discounted. This difference in inheritance is the cornerstone of the capitalist system and it is the foundation for money to control politics.
Political power is unstable. When people die, power will accordingly disappear. When the one in power retires, the power may also disappear. In contrast, the property that can be inherited from generation to generation is undoubtedly more stable.
In terms of inheritance mechanism, lineage inheritance is undoubtedly outdated as it fails to make full use of social productive forces. Therefore, non-lineage inheritance of political power is more advanced than lineage inheritance of economic power.
Mao was worried that intra-party elites would become the intra-party bourgeoisie. However, after the reform and opening-up, the socialist market economy was formed. Real capitalists and bourgeoisie emerge, and there are economic elites outside the government. What is the relationship between the political elite dominated by the communist party and the economic elite outside public sectors? This question, though being a major political and economic issue, has never been well answered.
In the past, this problem was more about “摸着石头过河” "crossing the river by feeling the stones". Today, this problem is becoming increasingly unavoidable.
Please allow me to quote a paragraph as the ending of this essay:
“马克思、恩格斯没有设想社会主义条件下可以搞市场经济，当然也就无法预见社会主义国家如何对待资本。列宁、斯大林虽然领导了苏联社会主义建设，但当时苏联实行的是高度集中的计划经济体制，基本上没有遇到大规模资本问题。搞社会主义市场经济是我们党的一个伟大创造。既然是社会主义市场经济，就必然会产生各种形态的资本。资本主义社会的资本和社会主义社会的资本固然有很多不同，但资本都是要追逐利润的。“合天下之众者财，理天下之财者法。”我们要探索如何在社会主义市场经济条件下发挥资本的积极作用，同时有效控制资本的消极作用。近年来，由于认识不足、监管缺位，我国一些领域出现资本无序扩张，肆意操纵，牟取暴利。这就要求规范资本行为，趋利避害，既不让“资本大鳄”恣意妄为，又要发挥资本作为生产要素的功能。这是一个不容回避的重大政治和经济问题。” -- 2021年12月《在中央经济会议上的讲话》
“Marx and Engels had not envisaged that a market economy was possible under a socialist system, and certainly could not foresee how a socialist state would deal with capital. Although Lenin and Stalin led the socialist construction of the Soviet Union, the Soviet Union practiced a highly-centralized planned economy at that time, and basically, no large-scale capital problems were encountered. The socialist market economy is a great invention of the CPC. Given that it is a socialist market economy, capital of various forms would certainly emerge. Though capital in a capitalist society and that in a socialist society certainly have many differences, capital is chasing profits everywhere. "The one thing that unites all the people in the world is wealth, the one way to manage all the wealth is law." We will explore how capital can take an active role in the socialist market economy, while curbing its negative effects. Over the recent years, due to lack of understanding and insufficient regulations, some fields in China have witnessed the unregulated expansion of capital, blatant manipulation, and profiteering. This is why behaviors of capital must be regulated to avoid harm. We shall make capital fulfill its mission as a factor of production while preventing it from going unchecked. And this is a major political and economic issue that we cannot turn away from.”
-- Xi Jinping's Speech at Central Economic Work Conference, December, 2021 (see a full-text translation of the speech by GRR)