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(The Friends of the Columbia University Libraries sponsored a December 7, 2011 lecture by Seymour Topping, Emeritus Professor of International Journalism, on "China Faces the United States From Mao in Yenan to Korea, Vietnam, and Challenges today." Professor Topping discussed how the root experiences of the Chinese leadership, which he observed in Yenan, Mao's remote headquarters in the 1940s, influences their current behavior, policies, and intentions.)
By Seymour Topping
There may be something of a microcosm of the future China in the development of Chongqing, the gateway city to Western China which I revisited last December to lecture at Southwest and Chongqing universities. A municipality of about 32 million, Chongqing has been described as the fastest growing city on the planet. The current growth is at about 16.5 percent nearly twice the average for China. Two of its principal engines for growth are American joint ventures. One is a plant run by Hewlett Packard which produces millions of laptop computers and the other is a Ford Motor Company plant, the company’s largest production facility outside of Detroit.
Chongqing is governed by Bo Xilai, a member of the Party’s Politburo. His Yenan roots are very much in evidence. He is one of the very influential princelings, son of a revolutionary hero, Bo Yibo. Father and son were purged by Jiang Qing during the Cultural Revolution but later rehabilitated by the Party. Bo Xilai’s son and daughter are students at Harvard University. Bo is regarded a leading candidate to become a member of the ruling nine-member Standing Committee of the Politburo at the Party Congress. Seven members of the Committee will be stepping down then including President Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, the prime minister. Bo’s performance in Chongqing has been commended by Vice President Xi Jinping, also a princeling, who is thought to be in line to succeed Hu Jintao, as State President and Party chief.
Bo has gained popularity with his welfare programs for poor peasants, low income urbanites and migrant workers. He first drew national attention in 2009 by cracking down toughly on official corruption, a critical problem in China, and in wiping out the municipality’s notorious Mafia-type organized crime elements. These moves were applauded generally but some lawyers complained of failure to observe due process. Bo also launched a Red Culture Campaign in which he reinstituted teaching of some of Mao Zedong’s precepts in the schools. He sent out thirteen million text messages to mobile phone users bearing quotes from Mao emphasizing concern for the masses and citizen conscientiousness. His resurrection of Maoism did evoke some uneasiness. There is mixed feelings among the Chinese about Mao. He is revered for unifying China and laying down the foundation for emergence of the new China. But there are also memories of Mao’s political purges in which hundreds of thousands were imprisoned or executed.
When Audrey, my wife and journalist partner, and I interviewed him, Bo spent much of the two hours describing his program of low income housing and his policy of sending his subordinates out to the countryside to live there for a time with peasants so as to become familiar with their problems. Last year his municipality built public housing for half a million low-income families. Bo envisions Chongqing as becoming one of the world’s foremost cloud computing centers. The city’s plants now produce about 100 million computers annually. As for automobiles, some 936,000 cars were exported from Chongqing between January and March of this year.
Bo is eager to attract more American investment, but he has not hesitated to move against what he deems exploitation. Earlier this year he shut down ten Walmart stores for a couple of weeks and fined the company more than $400,000 for labeling ordinary pork as organic pork.
When President Obama spoke last month in Honolulu at a business forum, prior to a meeting with President Hu Jintao, he said the United States should be rooting for growth of the Chinese economy, which is a stimulus to the American economy. But he also said that China must play by the rules. He cited manipulation of Chinese currency exchange rates and violation of American intellectual property rights, such as copyrights, patents, and innovations. Microsoft, as an example, is now hesitant about expanding in China since about 95 percent of the usage of its software is exploited unpaid. President Hu has been reassuring American businessmen that China does take protecting property rights seriously. China has its own complaints. Criticism is being voiced of the political imbroglio in Washington, which has impeded solution of the debt crisis. With its huge reserve of Treasury notes, and continuing purchase of them with gains from its favorable trade balance, China has more than a small stake in American economic stability.
At the Communist party school in Yenan, and in party schools today throughout China, the narrative has been kept very much alive of how China suffered a century of humiliation by Japan and the European powers. Some fifteen million Chinese died as a consequence of the Japanese forays into China begun in 1931. In the Opium Wars of the 1840s, Britain forced open the China ports so that British merchants could peddle the drug freely. Britain, France, Germany, and Portugal compelled imperial China to grant extraterritorial enclaves on the China coast and in Peking. Citing that humiliation Beijing adheres uncompromisingly to the principle China must resist foreign interference in its internal affairs. This is at the root of Beijing’s undiminished anger at American involvement with Taiwan. It is also at the root of Beijing’s indignant rejections as interference in China’s internal affairs of American and other foreign complaints about human rights abuses. It was entirely predictable that there would be a burst of outrage by Beijing about the Norwegian Committee award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo, the imprisoned dissident critic of the authoritarian rule of the Communist Party.
Seymour Topping is the former managing editor of the New York Times, the author of On the Front Lines of the Cold War, An American Correspondents Journal from The Chinese Civil War to the Cuban Missile Crisis and Vietnam and the Chairman of the World Policy Journal editorial board.
[Photo courtesy of Ford APA]