Friday, October 2, 2009

1 October: 60th Anniversary of the Chinese Revolution

Well, at least someone still knows how to arrange a good military parade (though what Mao or Lenin would make of red miniskirts and white boots is an interesting topic for speculation).

The 60th anniversary of the Chinese Revolution has attracted modest comment here in the "West," which is too bad in some ways and a welcome sign in others. Some of us can still remember when the People's Republic was "Red China" and inspired almost paranoid fear in Americans. And even just three decades ago, the arrival of scholars and students from the People's Republic at American universities was a tremendous novelty.

What is perhaps most intriguing is that so little of the commentary has had to do with the overall history of the revolution and socialism. These news stories are generally not the place to go if one is seeking a broad overview of Chinese history in the past six decades. Communism seems to come into play almost exclusively with regard to the disastrous Cultural Revolution (obligatory but briefest of references, of course) or recent reforms. And, although almost every report duly cites some statistics about the recent consumer revolution (world's largest auto market, highest numbers of internet and cell phone users; okay, so they can't get access to significant portions of that internet) almost none talks seriously or substantively about the greater and earlier transformation, from agrarian semi-"feudal" regime to modern industrial state. (BBC at least offered some statistics that spanned most of the regime's history)

Much of the commentary has, understandably, focused on the contemporary question of where China stands between its former or nominal socialism and its current engagement in the international economy as crucial producer and consumer alike. It is telling that the market in Mao memorabilia—the free market, that is—took off only in the 1990s, i.e. precisely when the nation most clearly began to distance itself from his legacy. As one California retailer explained: “There are not a lot of Chinese people, especially people over 40, who are interested in this stuff,” said Ms. Edison, whose parents and grandparents survived the Cultural Revolution. “For them, it is a sore reminder of two lost generations.”

Almost needless to say, the now megalomaniacally renamed "History" (formerly: History Channel) had no time to truck in such trivialities, being preoccupied with the need to pump out more pap about "Pawn Stars" and gangs (and the connection to history would be . . . what?). On the other hand, who can blame these people? After all, why bother with the formerly urgent debate about socialist utopia vs. dystopia when you can talk about other fantasy lands such as Atlantis?

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A selection of commentary:

Associated Press (via NPR): "Communist China marks 60 years with tanks, kitsch"
• BBC, "China's lucky generation" (on people born after the Cultural Revolution)
• BBC, "Communist China Marks 60th Year"
Spiegel: "Marching in Lockstep into the Future: China Celebrates 60th Anniversary of Communist Rule" (concludes that the military parade and slogans are throwback and, if not entirely a sign of regression, "the characteristics on show on Thursday were not particularly attractive")

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