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Clif's Book World

Adventures from reading books captured within short reviews.

The Fall and Rise of China

The Fall and Rise of China - Richard Baum The decline of China began in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries when the opium trade shifted their trade balance into negative territory. (Why do I have this ominous feeling that China is currently getting their revenge?) Indeed, many people predict that the 21st Century will be the Chinese Century.

Given China’s prominence in the world today I figured that this was a good time to listen to these 48 lectures. The course progresses with all the drama of a great story. From time to time Professor Baum shares from his personal experiences of travels in China. His engaging and occasionally humorous style is always interesting.

The treatment of China by the Western powers during 19th Century has been likened unto "sharing among thieves." In the first half of the 20th Century Japan demonstrated that even a country that's not part of Christendom can behave badly. Japan was simply trying to do what the colonial powers had been doing all around the world for hundreds of years. (The arrogance of the colonial mindset is beyond belief!) It can be convincingly argued that if Japan hadn't invaded China (1937-45) that Chiang Kai-shek would have been able to completely wipe out Mao's People's Liberation Army (PLA). But of course, that's not the way history played out.

The communist takeover of China in 1949 was within my lifetime, but I was too young at the time to know what was going on. So I'm glad to finally have the story told to me in detail. I was astounded to learn that, according the Chinese government’s own numbers, they executed 710,000 people in the early years of 1949-53. (Some historians believe the number of deaths range between 2 million and 5 million. In addition, at least 1.5 million people, perhaps as many as 4 to 6 million, were sent to "reform through labor" camps where many perished.)

Then I learned that there were 1 million Chinese killed in the Korean War. Then I learned that an estimated 35 million died from famine caused by the Great Leap Forward. And then I learned about the mass insanity during the Cultural Revolution when it's estimated between 3/4 to 1 million were killed and approximately an equal number maimed and crippled. A million here, a million there, after awhile one becomes desensitized to the numbers. It's amazing that China has been able to recover from this history as well as they have.

Some of the weird consequences of the misapplied incentives and social expectations of this era appear to be potential fodder for an absurdist comedy. It was instead a tragedy of huge scale and almost beyond belief. The Chinese have experienced considerable cognitive dissidence in their recent history (e.g. Mao is always correct while his many mistakes are obvious). It's fascinating to hear examples of Chinese "right thinking" struggling to change, sometimes turning on a dime, other times slowly changing in face of much controversy.

The following is a quotation of Professor Baum's regarding the insanity of the Cultural Revolution:
"How to explain all this madness? In numerous memoirs and reminiscences of the events of this period, former red guards have acknowledged the brutality of their own behavior, yet without being able to satisfactorily explain how the boundaries of conventional civility had been so easily breeched. Clearly, peer group pressure and absence of adult supervision were important factors. Much as they had been key factors in William Golding’s account of adolescent brutality in his vivid novel, Lord of the Flies. In the case of the Red Guards mass hysteria was an additional factor. A psychological contagion had been induced by the student’s frenzied devotion to Chairman Mao. In giving vent to their most destructive impulses, they truly believed they were acting on behalf of their living deity. In such a hyper charged atmosphere the license to defy authority interacted with immature youthful absolutism and over active teenage hormones to create an explosive and potentially deadly mix."

The worst rampages of the Cultural Revolution continued from 1966 to 1969. It was finally brought to an official end with the government sending, within a 6 month time period in 1969, 10 million Red Guard youths to the rural areas. They were duped into accepting the one-way trip with slogans about the patriotism of working with the peasants. They only did what they understood Chairman Mao wanted them to do, and they were rewarded with their potentially educated futures being taken away from them and replaced with a future of working among the peasants. These 10 million are now referred to by some as China's lost generation. (Some of these 10 million trickled back into the cities during the next two decades and ended up being successful entrepreneurs.) The power struggles and political instability between 1969 and the arrest of the Gang of Four in 1976 are now also widely regarded as part of the Revolution.

As the narrative moves into the post-Mao opening up of China, Professor Baum's personal involvement with China enhances the lectures with interesting little stories of encounters with Chinese people and politicians. It is these stories that make these lectures among the most interesting that I've ever heard. I think anybody who is interested in foreign affairs will find these lectures of interest.

These lectures were published in 2010 and thus are able to comment on the 2008 Olympic Games and other recent events. The award of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo occurred after these lectures were recorded, so there are no comments on that incident.