How times have changed. Hollywood may continue to exercise a powerful influence over our imaginations, but we all now know that America is dying and that the Chinese are our new overlords. Time, then, for the television documentarists to bring in the big academic guns to make sense of it all. Niall Ferguson’s recent three-part Channel 4 series China: Triumph and Turmoil attempts to understand the economic, political and social development of China. Ferguson's presentation is characteristically breezy and engaging; yet his analysis is undermined by its one-sided argumentation and its tendentious understanding of Chinese history.
Throughout the three episodes of the documentary, Ferguson consistently refers to Chinese people in the third person plural. Indeed, a nationalist and antagonistic ‘them’ versus ‘us’ framework structures Ferguson’s narrative and underpins the kinds of questions he asks. How do the Chinese think? What has kept ‘their’ society together for so long? Why do ‘they’ admire Mao? And how might all of this one day become ‘our’ problem? As these questions suggest, Ferguson assumes that nationality is the only category through which it is possible to distinguish the peoples of the world. But is it not possible that a worker in the UK has more in common with a worker in China than she does with her British boss? Such questions do not occur to Ferguson, who, as a self-confessed academic 'on the side of the bourgeoisie', tends to interpret geopolitical issues in terms of competing nation states and economies, rather than classes. There's also a good deal of cultural stereotyping going on here. The scene in which Ferguson scratches his head over the intricacies of the infamously arcane eight-legged essay, for example, put me in mind of the mock xenophobia of Karl Pilkington in Ricky's Gervais's An Idiot Abroad (these Chinese, you see, are just so darned inscrutable...).
Exploring the forces that have held China together as a nation over the past two thousand years, Ferguson finds the answer in autocracy. From China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, to the present, Chinese rulers have sought to stave off the threat of dòng luàn (turmoil) with the iron fist of repression. Yet autocracy, Ferguson believes, is antithetical to the smooth functioning of ‘free market’ democratic capitalism and the liberties it supposedly underwrites. Indeed, like an ideological Cold Warrior from the 1950s, Ferguson worries that the ‘individual freedom’ supposedly enjoyed in the West (you really do need to get out of that ivory tower, Niall) has too often been denied to Chinese people by their dictatorial leaders.
Ferguson is, of course, quite right to worry about the lack of freedom (not to mention outright oppression) experienced by ordinary people in China. But he does not explain how the existence of two or three almost identical political parties – the democratic façade of Western capitalist states – constitutes a political advance over China’s one-party system. And he overlooks the simple fact that the reproduction of the profit system depends precisely on autocracy: no democratic polity would last a day unless it was safeguarded by a dictatorship equipped with an arsenal of ideological and repressive apparatuses of surveillance and control.
The other elephant - or perhaps giant panda - in the room is the exploitative nature of capitalism. Whatever freedom capitalism may have brought to the ruling classes of the West, the economies of capitalist states are based on wage slavery and imperialist wars (such as the recent invasion of Iraq, which was endorsed by Ferguson). In fact, it is only by ending wage slavery that the majority of human beings will be able to enjoy the freedom Ferguson extols.
In the second episode (‘Maostalgia’), Ferguson meets groups of Chinese citizens dedicated to the celebration of Chairman Mao. The professor is perplexed. Visiting a restaurant whose patrons indulge in songs and dances with a Cultural Revolution theme, he turns in open-mouthed astonishment to the camera, noting breathlessly that:
"I’ve never seen anything crazier than that in my life. It’s just surreal. It’s as if you walked into a German restaurant and saw everybody standing on the chairs singing the Horst Wessel Song and waving swastikas! Or if you went into a restaurant in Moscow and everybody was dressed up as Stalin or gulag guards […] Just take a look at this madness!"
Ferguson refers repeatedly to the ‘airbrushed’ nature of official history in China. ‘In the case of Mao’, he notes disapprovingly, ‘there’s a huge difference between the man and the myth’. Ferguson has a point here. It is perhaps surprising that the man responsible for so much chaos and death and who spoke of 'painting portraits on the blank canvas of the people' should be feted as a hero of the people. But while many older Chinese people have little nostalgia for Maoism, Mao is a useful channel for nationalist ideology in contemporary China. The official line in China is that Mao was '70% right and 30% wrong' (the Great Helmsman dropped the ball with the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution) and the Chinese leadership understands that presenting a continuity between contemporary and Mao-era China helps to bind the Chinese people to their nation and their leadership - and papers over the appalling and widening gap between rich and poor. In recent years, even Chiang Kai-shek, Mao's arch enemy and once an officially reviled figure, had been rehabilitated as a national hero for his role in resisting the Japanese.
In any case, one needn’t travel to China to find such a dichotomy between reputation and reality. After all, in the land of Ferguson’s birth, Winston Churchill – a racist warmonger and a mass murderer – is today revered by many, including the overwhelming majority of the British ruling class, as a hero. Airbrushing is a something of a feature of capitalist propaganda and is hardly exclusive to China.
Ferguson cannot understand why nobody he meets in China is prepared to acknowledge the contradiction inherent in their belief that Mao, whom he calls a ‘hardline Communist’, is the father of capitalist China – and his incomprehension on this point reveals profound historical and political confusions. Ferguson believes that China was – and to a certain extent remains – ‘communist’ and that Maoism represented a disastrous departure from capitalism. In fact, however, Maoism arose only after the proletarian movement of the 1920s had been drowned in the blood of the Shanghai working class. The Maoist 'communism’ which Ferguson believes underpinned the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution was nothing of the sort (you don't become a communist just by calling yourself one, any more than I can become Paris Hilton simply by changing my name to hers). The working class played no part whatsoever in Mao's 'revolution'. Rather, Maoism was a variant of Stalinism which concretised itself as a form of state capitalism (Ferguson himself acknowledges that Mao replaced the old ruling class with a new one). The notion that Mao's totalitarianism had something to do with communism is as laughable as it is mythical, however much it has become a commonplace of bourgeois historiography.
Ferguson’s is a simple but effective strategy of attributing the horrors of China’s capitalist past to ‘communism’. This is, appropriately enough, a version of the ‘No True Scotsman’ fallacy: capitalism, Ferguson asserts, brings freedom – so if Maoism led to catastrophe, well, then it must have been something else. And that’s not all. While Ferguson busily denounces the madness of Maoism, he says almost nothing about the horrors of capitalism – both East and West – today. That looks like airbrushing to me, Niall.
In the third episode, Ferguson turns to the military situation, worrying that the growing military power of the Chinese state and the increasing nationalism of the Chinese population might be exploited by the Chinese in the event of a slowdown in domestic growth. Again, so far as it goes, this is a reasonable point to make and it is one that has been echoed by Marxist commentators on China. In fact, nationalist sentiment in China is regularly stoked in the media - as, for example, in the ongoing multilateral dispute over the Spratly Islands. But it is important to put this into geopolitical perspective: it is the US - not China - that has by far the largest and most belligerent military presence in the world and the US is currently increasing its activity in the Pacific as part of its 'return to Asia' policy.
Ferguson also takes a look at cyber-activism among Chinese nationalists and meets the members of the notorious anti-CNN group, whose work raises concerns about Sinophobia in Western media. The points raised by activists such as anti-CNN are haughtily dismissed by Ferguson; but they are rooted in reality. Anti-Chinese sentiment is a widespread feature of Western media coverage of China, as the reporting of the Tibet protests and the Olympic flame incidents in 2008 attests. In fact, Ferguson's own documentary is itself just the latest in a growing number of rather one-sided media representations of China - representations which, taken together, reflect a huge nervousness among Western elites about the global economic influence and growing military might of China.