As Xi Jinping comes calling, a close examination of China’s effort to educate its students and lead well-funded research platforms—from a state that sent poets to jail for subjectivism to Jack Ma’s Alibaba
Keerthik Sasidharan | 10 Oct, 2019
Chinese President Xi Jinping (Photo: Getty Images)
In October 1949, a poet and literary theorist called Hu Feng (1902-1985) wrote what has by now become a famous poem in Chinese literary history, Time Has Begun, to commemorate the birth of the People’s Republic of China. The poem itself is around 4,600 lines long and comprises five songs where the underlying theme is a birth of a new historical epoch and imponderable presence of Mao, who was described in it as the ‘accommodating’ and ‘boundless’ leader. Unlike other authoritarian leaders, such as Stalin, who promised a new utopia built of steel and industrialisation, and Hitler, who offered up a poisonous soufflé of messianism and madness as intergalactic glory, according to this poem, what Mao offered up was himself. In Hu’s rendering, Mao was both down-to-earth, agrarian by instincts, and thus extraordinary. More than being the great helmsman that he was to become or the military leader who won the war against the Kuomintang of China (or the Nationalist Party)—Mao was the one who brought disparate groups of Chinese people together, the locus of this new-found state who watched over them, expectantly, proudly. (He is looking at you, He is listening to you, He is cheering out to you, For the motherland, For the future.)
Perhaps in a fitting denouement that authoritarian regimes reserve for its sycophants, in a few years, Hu was sent off to prison for the ostensible crime of questioning the sclerotic conformism that had set in amidst the new regime’s literary ethos. But even well before his incarceration, Hu’s poem (itself an historic document, of sorts) was formally banned and never published in its entirety till the 1980s, when Hu was released. The reasons for the poem’s ban—despite its sycophantic content and emancipatory promises—are less than clear even to this day. Two of the reasons inferred from Hu’s letters by Ruth YY Hung, a professor of English in Hong Kong who studied the poetic histories of Time Has Begun, were ‘literary subjectivism’ and ‘usage of free verse’. By literary subjectivism, the crime meant experimentation with form, a retelling of the revolution from a variety of perspectives and usage of hierarchies in metaphors (for example, Mao was the sea, the other revolutionaries were the rivers that flew into it!). And by using free verse, as opposed to a ‘national verse’ form (traditional style), Hu had unwittingly (or knowingly) chosen sides in the great poetic wars of Party intellectuals.
It is the latter infraction—the ostensible crime of having used unapproved poetic meters and forms—that reveals not just the absurd lengths to which Maoist, and Communist, governments of the 1930s-60s went about to educate the mind, but also the womb of its authoritarianism that births more strident forms of the same. Every government, including liberal governments—at least since the administrator Thomas Macaulay in England and the historian Leopold von Ranke in Germany in modern times—believes that the state has a pedagogic role to play in not just the actual curricula but also in what sort of citizen must emerge at the end after the long years of publicly-financed or subsidised education. But it is the extraordinary commingling of state-sanctioned violence, the conceits of official ideologies, and a hyper-controlled pedagogical routine—a marriage of threat of violence to the body and real violence to the mind—which births an authoritarian citizenry that within a generation or two entirely in sync with the official ideologies of the regime. This we know from the purges of counterrevolutionaries for the crime of writing less than obsequiously about Stalin in 1930s’ USSR to the Khmer Rouge’s murderous social re-education marches. The need of authoritarian governments to control the minds of its citizens remains an astonishingly constant feature. But unlike most of these authoritarian governments, where China differs most fundamentally is the ordered manner in which it has allowed its citizens to open their minds to the rest of the world (under the watchful gaze of the state), in a balancing act that has no historical rival. To an extent, this mental glasnost in the Chinese state’s pedagogical programmes began with Deng Xiaoping’s December 13th, 1978 speech where the great wily old fox (Mao’s description of Deng: “a needle wrapped in a ball of cotton”) explicitly called for “emancipating the mind” at a Party conference.
When Xi Jinping arrives in India this week, nearly two weeks after the 70th anniversary celebration of the People’s Republic of China, he arrives as a leader of a geopolitical colossus which inspires fear and admiration amidst the comity of nations. He also arrives as a leader of a nation that has travelled through its own torturous history where it no longer needs to worry about wrongly used rhyme and meter but rather is aggressively open to learning, borrowing and even pilfering from the world’s reservoir of knowledge for its own benefit. It is this change in civilizational attitudes that is often little studied by all those who seek to become the ‘next China’. As a state, China’s accomplishments are many. Yet to most outsiders, it still is a political system whose inner workings are opaque even as the Communist Party increasingly makes choreographed noises about transparency. It is not a secret that the ambitions of the Chinese state remain singularly dedicated to the survival of an inner coterie and a coral reef of mayors and senior party functionaries who wrap around the entire country. But unlike other authoritarian regimes, the citizens of the mainland China overwhelmingly endorse this model—a technocratic dictatorship dedicated to ‘socialist market economy’—in large parts because of the extraordinary change in living standards they have experienced within two generations. The irony however is that while much attention is paid to Chinese sprawling roads and gleaming infrastructure, few outsiders bother to study the inner logic of a vast education-industrial complex which identifies, nurtures, grows, and ultimately, for a select few, forges their talent in the fires of fierce competition. The result of this system that winnows up talent ruthlessly has been the emergence of a society brim with engineers, technicians and technologists of extraordinary quality—both men and women—of which an increasing critical mass are also leaders and entrepreneurs.
It is this ability to reinvent a society after the insanities of Mao’s Cultural Revolution or The Great Leap Forward that disemboweled independent thinking in Chinese society that is both fascinating and perplexing for outsiders. What allowed for this intellectual flexibility amidst its political elite? One answer—and in ways articulated by intellectuals like Liang Qichao and Sun Yat-Sen in early 20th century—has been that the madness of Mao which destroyed, almost in toto, the old China set stage for Deng Xiaoping’s new visions. As John Fairbank, the pater familias of China studies in America, writes: ‘In the old society teachers were venerated by students, women were submissive to their husbands, and age was deferred to by youth. Breaking down such a system took a long time because one had to change one’s basic values and assumptions accepted in childhood. The times called for a leader of violent willpower, a man so determined to smash the old bureaucratic establishment that he would stop at nothing.’ To other set of scholars, such as Elizabeth Perry at Harvard, Mao’s gargantuan experiments led to the development of a generation of leaders who were forced to become pragmatic, who saw survival as a ‘process of ceaseless change, tension management, continual experimentation, and ad-hoc adjustment.’ When one asks what set stage for this transformation—from a state that sent poets to jail for subjectivism to Jack Ma’s Alibaba—much lip service is paid to the literacy campaigns undertaken by the Mao-led Communists who, unlike India’s abysmal record in the post-Independence era, successfully implemented relatively better quality mass education. There is much truth to this, but it was the Deng Xiaoping-era that really set stage of the present. In a 1978 meeting with scientists, Deng declared: “Backwardness must be recognised before it can be changed.” And in case anybody had doubts where this policy was headed, he added: “one must learn from those who are more advanced before one can catch up with and surpass them…”
By 2019, what makes China’s story special is the state’s ability to scale its institutions and supply technical professionals to complement its manufacturing base, including its China 2025 programme that focuses on ten key areas of growth. To further this larger goal of “catching up” with the West, there is now also a global recruitment drive to hire foreign professionals and make China attractive to their research careers. Numerous instances abound of Indian post-doctorates in America, who specialise in technical fields, who are offered globally competitive salaries to relocate to China. And to sweeten the deal, they are also offered low-interest loans to lease apartments for 99 years near or in world-class Chinese university campuses. The only mandate, a mandate not from heaven but close enough for many scholars, is to educate Chinese students and lead well-funded vast research platforms. The outcome of such policies however also goes beyond simple statistics or policy pragmatics. It increasingly also speaks to changes in how the Chinese people think of themselves.
The rise of the PRC coincided with the genesis of peasant revolutionary literature, which began with a 1943 publication of a short story titled ‘Little Blackie Gets Married’, by an unknown author called Zhao Shuli (1906-1970). The plot was about the search for love amidst the rigidities of feudalism and superstition. According to Hui Jiang, who teaches at Peking University, this short story sold nearly 40,000 copies and exceeded the sales of Lu Xun, who was to pre-Maoist China what Bharatiyar was to Tamil, or Bankim to Bengali—an amalgam of revolutionary promise and individual emancipation amidst tradition. In contrast to Xun’s writings, however, Zhao’s simple short story was bereft of any subtleties of sentiment and was brim with prescriptive attitudes about culture and vice (‘superstition, female eroticism and official corruption’). Add to it the bathos of resentment that an émigré from the provinces reserves for the perfumed classes of the metropoles, it tapped into the zeitgeist of 1940s’ China. In retrospect, Zhao can be understood as a society’s own self-image of sorts, a reflection of how the Chinese thought about themselves, what mattered to them. By the end of the Mao era in the 1970s, the peasant literature and its preening socialism had well begun to wane. The unimaginable horrors, and evolving dynamics of Deng-led China, had brought to front a call to return to an older tradition wherein literature and education was a personal exploration and not a premeditated large scale means to transform consciousness. But the talons of state policy were never far away. In the 1980s, when Deng Xiaoping sent out Chinese students to the West for the first time to be educated and return home to help with state-building, what was expected of them was clear. Students were to study sciences, to learn business, and even learn techniques for political management. But what he didn’t want them studying was economics or other disciplines that had nothing to do with physical transformation of societies itself. Learn how to do, produce, and run machines, but don’t theorise and speculate needlessly—those were Deng’s instructions. Behind this exhortation was also the reality of meagre foreign exchange reserves in the China of the 1980s that were spend on a select few students.
By 2019, the ideological grandchildren of Deng Xiaoping—a majority of them from China’s burgeoning middle class—pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to earn degrees from American Ivy League colleges. From 860 students studying outside China in 1978 to 608,400 in 2017 (last available data), with every passing year, Chinese students head out into the world to study and learn. They study technical fields—statistics, physics, engineering—as well as subjects that Deng would have deemed of marginal value. But now the parents of these students pay for it. It is this history of progressive intellectual freedoms, from a state that found poetic meters potentially counterrevolutionary to the present day valorisation of scientific knowledge as the means to glory that is relatively understudied and under-appreciated. The peasant literature aesthetic has been replaced by the exciting and stirring Chinese science fiction of Cixin Liu, particularly for the young, as a means of entertainment, a morality class, charting out ambitions, and locating the hierarchies within society. He who stands at the cutting-edge of science is deemed society’s most heroic. It is this metamorphosis, this privileging of science and technology as means to escape poverty, within two generations, courtesy political will and flexible bureaucracies, that China offers as a lesson for the world. To be dazzled by China’s bridges and airports is natural, but its true riches are the vast intellectual and technical capital it has amassed over the last forty years.