AAS Annual Meeting

China and Inner Asia Session 168

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Session 168: Rethinking the Revolution in Postsocialist Political Discourse

Organizer: Aminda M. Smith, Michigan State University, USA

Chair: Alexander C. Cook, University of California, Berkeley, USA

Discussant: Fabio Lanza, University of Arizona, USA

As suggested by recent debates over the place of Mao Zedong in Chinese textbooks, the relationship between Communism and China’s current economic system, and the future of the PRC’s ruling party, scholars and pundits are deeply divided over the nature of the connections between the early revolutionary period (1930s-1960s) and contemporary Chinese politics, economics, and society. At a time of increasing inequality and social activism—as seen in the recent strike wave--academics, policy makers, bloggers, and others, in China and abroad, are all intensely interested in a central question: How relevant is the revolution to the twenty-first century People’s Republic? Our panelists contend, however, that this ahistorical question is unlikely to lead to a satisfying answer. Regardless of the position taken by any individual partisan, the very terms of the debate decontextualize its subject, suggesting that ‘the revolution’ encompassed a reasonably stable set of meanings and values whose significations have remained more or less constant over at least several decades. Our panel investigates the contradictions of postsocialist political discourse through short papers on three separate moments, each of which has shaped contemporary understandings of revolution: 1950s ideological rehabilitation, Maoist and post-Maoist democratic rituals, and the transformation of the theoretical role of the peasant during the early reform movement. Our discussants will consider the apparent continuities and discontinuities between the revolutionary and contemporary periods. As a whole our panel explores the ways in which “revolution” came to be stabilized as a coherent and discrete category that can meaningfully be described as either relevant or irrelevant.

Reeducation and Postsocialism: Communist Thought Reform in the Market Economy
Aminda M. Smith, Michigan State University, USA

In 1950 the Chinese Communists celebrated their successes in the ideological rehabilitation of beggars, prostitutes, and other members of the elements déclassés. The theory informing these thought reform efforts was that of revolution as a whole: The pre-revolutionary “Old Society” had so devastated the Chinese nation that only radical change could save it. More specifically, so the argument went, the Old Society had forced many “members of the laboring masses” into “inappropriate occupations” while simultaneously corrupting their minds. Reeducation centers operated on the principle that, as the revolution worked to repair the economic devastation wrought by previous regimes, intensive ideological education remedied the epistemological violence inflicted by the Old Society. The theory and practice of thought reform relied entirely on the conceptual categories of the revolution. In the twenty-first century, Reeducation-through-Labor institutions still intern thousands of prostitutes, vagrants, and petty thieves, and reeducators continue to laud the efficacy of methods that use revolutionary concepts like “raising consciousness” and “speaking bitterness.” Yet the “Old Society” is a slightly old-fashioned term for a world that purportedly disappeared decades ago, and policy makers blame the resurgence of the lumpen-proletariat on the very economic development the Party works so hard to foster. This paper uses first-hand accounts from reeducators and their detainees to explore the ways individuals make sense of this strange hybrid context. What kinds of subjectivities are engendered when Communist Party cadres and post-socialist citizens use theories and practices grounded in a critique of capitalism to contemplate the “social problems” of the government-endorsed market economy.

Looking like a Democracy: The Evolution of “Democratic Rituals” from Mao to Hu-Wen
Yu Liu, , China

The difficulty of diagnosing the nature of the Maoist politics lies in its ambiguous position between mass mobilization and mass repression. It was a regime exercising chilling terror; yet, different from many other former communist regimes, it was also a regime inventing and practicing rich “democratic rituals”. This article will examine three questions surrounding the issue of practicing “democratic rituals” in the PRC: 1) What democratic rituals did the CCP invent in its early era and how did they evolve under Mao? 2) How did such rituals function in terms of legitimizing the “proletarian dictatorship”? 3) To what extent is the contemporary CCP still practicing “democratic rituals” to maintain popular support and to what extent is it effective? I will argue, using the cognitive dissonance theory in social psychology, that the institutionalization of “democratic rituals” was essential in generating legitimacy for the CCP in the revolutionary China, and the contemporary CCP still manages to carry on some elements of this tradition although less and less effective in doing so.

State, Market and Peasant: The End of Peasant Revolution
Alexander F. Day, Occidental College, USA

In the early reform period, Chinese intellectuals transformed the peasant from a dynamic and revolutionary subject into a dependent object of modernization, a shift that was fundamental to changing the meaning of revolution for the contemporary moment. The historical agency of the peasant as a revolutionary subject—a central component of Maoist and dialectical understandings of the peasant—was contested by reform-period intellectuals, and the peasant increasingly was seen in a one-sided manner as backwards, ignorant, and the cause of China’s troubled politics. While earlier CCP theories of the peasant continued as an important point of reference, they were transformed within this new context, leading to the end of a dialectical understanding of the peasant and the redefinition of the continuation of the revolution in the post-1949 period as a populist error. This presentation looks at two different categories—the Asiatic Mode of Production and agrarian socialism—which allowed intellectuals to rethink the question of peasant agency, repositioning it from a form of revolutionary class agency to that of individual, entrepreneurial peasant households or even citizen farmers. As seen in this redefinition of the peasant, it was through a transformation of the relationship between the state and society that “revolution” came to take on a more distinct and limited meaning. Ironically, the liberal critique of state dominance and the CCP’s new more-Leninist understanding of the state that emerged during the reform period mirrored each other, both cordoning revolution safely in the past.