By David Bandurski — In a CMP-sponsored lecture at the University of Hong Kong last week, Lu Yuegang talked about the role of journalists in documenting the facts of history, and how, in an open society, people must be free to seek historical truth. But as Chinese web users put one up on the scoreboard last month by exposing the South China tiger hoax, did China’s public miss an opportunity to re-visit a critical moment in PRC history?
That’s exactly what Li Gongming (李公明) suggested when he wrote last month in Southern Metropolis Daily, a commercial spin-off of Guangdong’s official Nanfang Daily, that “the writings of various scholars in recent days reflecting back on Russia’s ‘October Revolution’ actually should have drawn more attention from the public.”
[ABOVE: An image from Guangdong’s Tongzhou Gongjin, November 2007, of Soviet leaders, with the headline, “1917-2007: Here We Soul-Search History”.]
Attention to the anniversary had, in Li’s view, been disappointingly scant. “In contrast to the ‘South China Tiger’ affair, which has bubbled with activity all along, attention to the 90th anniversary of the October Revolution has languished. But while the former is all about public opinion in pursuit of the truth, the latter is in fact provides us with a historical case of much deeper importance for this kind of factual pursuit.”
But seriously now, who cares about the October Revolution?
Well, China’s Communist Party used to care, and care very much — and that’s precisely what made this year’s 90th anniversary (which should, numerically speaking, have been a whopper) so interesting.
The anniversary of Russia’s October Revolution, the 1917 coup d-etat that brought the Bolsheviks to power, once loomed large on China’s social and political calendar. The gunshots of that event, as Mao Zedong once said, brought Marxism-Leninism to China — and that was cause for celebration, for a real honest-to-goodness holiday, or jieri (节日).
[ABOVE: Front page of the November 7, 1957, edition of the official People’s Daily.]
But the hold of ideology has progressively weakened in China since the launch of economic reforms more than three decades ago. By the time the revolution’s 70th anniversary arrived on November 7, 1987 — the revolution happened in October of the Julian calendar, hence the “October Revolution” — the day no longer merited distinction as a holiday.
Not surprisingly, this year’s 90th anniversary passed without fanfare. No official celebrations were planned. No top officials stepped out to commemorate the event. The anniversary barely merited mention in the official People’s Daily, where decades ago it would have commanded the front page.
A lone article in the back pages of People’s Daily on November 23 this year announced that “the World Socialism Research Center and Marxism Research Academy of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and other units” had held a discussion forum in Beijing on ‘”The October Revolution and the Contemporary Socialist Road.” The subtitle of the event was: “Studying the Spirit of the Party’s 17th National Congress, Commemorating the 90th Anniversary of the October Revolution.'”
“Those at the meeting believe,” said the article, lamely parroting Mao’s famous saying, “that the ‘gunshots of the October Revolution brought Marxism-Leninism to China.’”
In closing, the article invoked Hu Jintao’s recent political report to the 17th National Congress, saying the party must “press ahead on the road to Socialism with Chinese characteristics” (坚定不移地走中国特色社会主义道路).
Most interesting about this year’s anniversary, however, was the extent to which it WAS covered by non-party media, particularly in more outspoken Guangdong.
Back at Southern Metropolis Daily, Li Gongming wrote that today “there is already an objective and impartial reckoning of the October Revolution among historians internationally . . . and we can say that these historical truths are beyond a shadow of a doubt, unlike the smoke of the South China tiger affair.”
The problem, said Li, was that many people in China were still covering up the truth about the October Revolution and its implications for contemporary Chinese politics as well as history:
The problem now is that more than a few people are still keeping mum about the facts of history, still protecting those myths instilled in us for so long. It seems that determining the fact or fiction of a tiger isn’t too difficult, but letting everyone recognize clearly the fact or fiction of that tiger is not so easy. Why is it that even when the truth has been spoken, falsehood can still obstruct everyone’s vision? We’ve all heard this saying before about lies – that if they are repeated a thousand times they become truth. Jin Yan tells us that hundreds of thousands of copies of the mythical Soviet work “The October Revolution” were printed . . .
For more than a half century these historical materials as broad as the open sea, plus an even vaster volume of ordinary reading material and children’s books, works of art, all were inculcating historical lies. And this raises another question: how is it that lies can survive for so long?
Then comes the fundamental issue at hand, the way the Soviet Union failed by not instituting socialist democratic reforms (with China’s own failure presumably the subtext):
In fact, as early as 1918, not long after [the Bolshevik’s] had come to power, [Rosa] Luxemburg issued a warning to Lenin: “Without general elections, without unrestricted freedom of press and assembly, without a free struggle of opinion, life dies out in every public institution, becomes a mere semblance of life, in which only the bureaucracy remains as the active element.” [NOTE: The rest of Luxemburg’s quote, as often cited, goes: “Public life gradually falls asleep, a few dozen party leaders of inexhaustible energy and boundless experience direct and rule. Such conditions must inevitably cause a brutalization of public life: attempted assassinations, shootings of hostages, etc.”]
A feature article by Wang Kang (王康) in Southern Weekend called “Redemption, Tragedy and Inspiration”, running over 13,000 words, said that “whether you support or oppose it, no one can deny the earth-shaking importance Russia’s October Revolution had for human destiny in the twentieth century … “
[ABOVE: Front page of the November 8 edition of Guangdong’s Southern Weekend, picturing an October Revolution commemoration ceremony in Moscow.]
Wang’s article took an in-depth look at the October Revolution and its significance for world history. The article, which took a centrist position stripped of official ideology, contrasted the hopes of Marx and Engels for the “liberation of mankind” with the failures of the Soviet system, including the evils of Stalinism, over-concentration of power and cults of personality.
The article concluded:
Not only did the October Revolution fail to achieve its beautiful ideals, but in the end was not able to build a modern society of a higher order than that of Western capitalist societies.
The tragedy of this revolution was the material, spiritual, humanitarian and institutional gap that separated their [revolutionary] ideals from the historical conditions and the moral and spiritual force they had rallied.
The most important modifier in the above passage was “institutional”, the “institutional gap” (制度上的鸿沟), the recognition that the Soviet Union had failed to create an adequate political system to ensure the “liberation of mankind”.
Of course, these criticisms of the Soviet Union can apply as well to contemporary history in China, a fact of which writers like Wang Kang are doubtless well aware. It was, after all, Deng Xiaoping who broached the issue of “party-government separation” in the 1980s to resolve the problem of over-concentration of power (权力过分集中), which was seen as having directly caused such calamities as the Cultural Revolution.
The publication that seems to have offered the most in-depth exploration of the institutional implications of the October Revolution is Tongzhou Gongjin (同舟共进), a monthly magazine published by the executive committee of Guangdong’s Political Consultative Conference.
Tongzhou Gongjin‘s November issue was star-studded with leading Chinese thinkers, including Xie Tao (谢韬), the scholar whose call for democracy earlier this year touched off a debate over political reform in China, and Gao Fang (高放), one of China’s leading experts on Marxist history.
“The October Revolution had an immense impact on the lives of people of my generation,” begins Xie Tao, who was born in December 1921, just four years after the revolution:
The buffeting winds of decades, the various difficulties and hardships, gropings and desires [we have endured], the joys of work and the pain of error, all are directly or indirectly connected with it.
In a later section, Xie Tao explores the question of institutional weakness, drawing on the words of Chinese Communist Party founder Chen Duxiu (陈独秀):”‘If we don’t seek out weaknesses in the system and learn from these, merely shutting our eyes and opposing Stalin, then we will never see with clarity. When one Stalin falls, numerous others will emerge in Russia and elsewhere.”
Xie Tao writes:
Why was the Soviet-style path of socialism unable, after the end of the Second World War, to compete with capitalist countries? What happened to the “superiority of socialism”? This question of course has deep institutional and theoretical roots. My feeling is that this was due to inherent weaknesses in the Soviet system.
Simply speaking, the Soviet system was characterized by: a high level of concentration of power and the economy, the application of force to promote economic development, and reliance on force to restrain normal thought [and discourse].
In another essay in Tongzhou Gongjin, Cao Lin (曹林), an editor at China Youth Daily, picks up on the institutional threads of earlier articles (such as Xie’s) dealing with democratic socialism. In the piece, “Who Says Ordinary People Can’t Compete with Officials?”, Cao writes directly about the virtues of competitive electoral politics, drawing on recent regulations passed in some areas of China that establish acceptable ratios of party cadres in local people’s congresses.
Xinjiang, for example, reportedly passed a regulation on September 19 this year saying that at least 75 percent of delegates to city and district-level congresses in the autonomous region must be workers, farmers, intellectuals or other “ordinary” people (NOT, that is, party officials).
But why, asks Cao, do we need quotas of this sort when free, competitive elections would do the trick?:
If an industrial worker can represent the interests of farmers after being elected as a delegate, if he can submit proposals that reflect the interests of farmers, then farmers can put their votes in for this worker. In the same way, if a cadre can win an election on a pro-business platform, then he can earn the votes of business people . . . If its a competitive election, then having more cadres isn’t a problem — the presence of cadres would indicate that they had greater trust among voters. If elections are the result of competition, there’s not way you can control ratios, and there’s no need to do so, because competition ensures delegates speak for the interests [of others] and not for their own interests . . .
. . . In this way, there’s fundamentally no need to limit the ratio of cadres [in people’s congresses]. Who says ordinary people can’t beat out officials?