(This post was originally published November 29, 2014.)
It is now less than one week before my stay as a visiting scholar at Wuhan University ends. As I sit in an absolutely charming cafe decorated in European style, the walls lined with antiques, I find myself reflecting on the amazing changes that China has undergone over the course of the last century. One hundred years ago, the Qing dynasty had just fallen, ending more than two millennia of imperial rule. It was replaced by a nominally democratic government, but one that had no effective control of China, which descended into decades of chaos and civil war. Eighty years ago, the Nationalists united the country, and all but eliminated the Communists, who were forced to retreat on the infamous Long March, which left them decimated. Two years later, the Japanese invaded China, in what was effectively the beginning of World War II.
By the end of WWII (or the “War of Anti-Japanese Resistance” as it is often called here), the Nationalists were themselves decimated, while the Communists had rebuilt their strength behind the lines in China’s hinterlands. Consequently, a little over sixty years ago, the Communists swept to victory and established the People’s Republic of China. Mao Zedong launched the Great Leap Forward, a radical (and largely unscientific) effort to boost economic growth and farm production. The results were disastrous. We may never know how many people starved to death in the resulting famine, but 10 million deaths would be a conservative estimate. Among those who had the courage to challenge Mao’s policies was Deng Xiaoping. In response, Mao launched the Cultural Revolution. Students were encouraged to drop out of school and join the RedGuards, to root out any vestiges of “feudalism” or “bourgeois thinking” in society. The Red Guards acted with all the judiciousness of the Salem Witch Trials, and all the kindness of the Inquisition. Universities were closed down, professors were publicly humiliated, and intellectuals were sent to the countryside for “reform through labor,” or simply tortured. (My first week here, I met a charming old professor, who showed me the scars where Red Guards had driven nails into his hands to try to ellicit a false confession that he was a spy for the West.)
Forty years ago, Mao died and Deng Xiaoping (who had been one of those “rusticated” to the countryside for his opposition to Mao) assumed power. Deng ended the Cultural Revolution, opened up China to the West, and allowed moderate capitalist reforms. I was part of the generation of students who became fascinated by China during this period. (In all honesty, the Kung-fu craze in the US also helped “inspire” me.) China’s economy boomed, and soon intellectuals (especially young college students) felt emboldened to express their views and call for greater democracy. This led, twenty-five years ago, to the Tiananmen “Incident.” However, most Chinese don’t think about this much anymore, and if they do, their views would surprise most Americans. As a cabbie told me on an earlier visit, “Well, of course we supported the students, but they really didn’t give the government any choice, did they?” (As they say on Twitter, “reposting does not indicate endorsement.”)
China today is a place where you can say anything you want about any topic — as long as you don’t say it on the internet, in the press, on the airwaves, or in a public protest. China has a booming capitalist economy that is generating home-grown billionaires — and students are required to study Marxism-Leninism-Maozedong Thought under college professors who say, without blinking, that China is on the road to communism. And they invited this white guy to Wuhan, to teach about Western philosophy — and the importance of free public debate.