Last year the People’s Republic of China did two momentous things. It sent some of its leaders nipping around the world wearing Western-style suits. Its effective leader, Deng Xiaoping, also mentioned that a few of Karl Marx’s ideas were out of date. This proved to be an irresistible combination, and a lot of people from Ronald Reagan to Margaret Thatcher pronounced themselves entranced by the new Chinese. Reagan even referred to them as the “so-called” Communists —which, coming from a so-called right winger, is only appropriate.
On the other side of the ledger, the Chinese also played host to the most important Soviet visitor Peking has seen for 15 years. First Deputy Minister Ivan Arkhipov went through the ritual Chinese ceremonies that occur whenever a new foreign leader hits town, including toasts and references to a positive exchange of views. This time the press release lingo from the two enemies was even warmer than usual, with the Chinese saying that there was “no doubt” that relations were considerably warmed by the visit and Arkhipov talking enthusiastically about “the great changes” of Premier Deng. The visit took place in the last few days of 1984, which may have explained how changes that were evil the week before were now “great.” One can almost hear the voice of Big Brother: Oceania is not at war with Eurasia. Oceania is at war with Eastasia and always has been.
Part of this newly discovered friendship may be due to China’s new nuclear strength—which, in spite of attempts by Canada’s peace movement to convince otherwise, reinforces the old adage that peace and friendship are best maintained through strength. Last October the Chinese paraded their CSS-4 ICBMS that can now target cities in North America. They have also deployed CSS3s, which could strike the western Soviet Union and targets in Eastern Europe. A report by the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency said that the Soviets no longer had a first-strike capacity against the Chinese because the Chinese had hidden their nuclear arsenal so well.
The excitement of the new China was dimmed a bit by a report released by Amnesty International, which had the poor taste to remark that new-look Deng was still doing some old-look things. Last year he presided over the executions of several thousand people in
his anticrime 'drive. It was-not clear of what crimes the people executed were guilty, since a few dozen misdemeanors are now punished by the death penalty-including the crime of speaking one’s own mind. China, being very much China, declined to give exact statistics on the executions or arrests, although it claimed that about 70,000 people had been handed over to police by local residents while 120,000 other lawbreakers handed themselves in voluntarily. China’s public security ministry had one of its rare press conferences to justify the crackdown with the observation that “in a country like ours with one billion people it is good to have some people executed so as to educate the others.”
It is difficult to see why any of the developments in China should be so encouraging to liberals in the West. By now, about the only people around who believe Marxist economics have any practical value whatsoever are the
Western Communists and Western fellow travellers, the women’s movement, Pierre Trudeau, progressive Roman Catholic bishops, Canada’s Anglican primate—and, of course, the United Church. Anyone who has actually tried the system knows that it is hopeless. What is particularly hopeful about China acknowledging this? It is the totalitarian philosophy of Marx that oppresses, not the economics. Premier Deng would prefer chateaubriand to macaroni. He would prefer to be the dictator of a rich power rather than a poor one. Marxism has shown itself incapable of producing wealth—hence Deng’s derision of the slogan of the Red Guard, “Better to have socialist weeds than capitalist flowers.” Deng wants flowers.
What Deng most clearly does not want is liberty. The fetching title of his new book is Building Socialism with Chinese Characteristics. All that his “new” approach to Marx has done is to get rid of the inefficient baggage of orthodox socialist thinking—the religion of totalitarianism remains. Socialist slogans will be kept to justify arbitrary measures, but can be brought in
line with modern needs. Deng has lost patience with the fundamentalists in his church.
Of course, there may be a slightly more diabolical side to this updating of Marx. If you loosen the reins a little, internal enemies of the Chinese regime may be tempted to reveal themselves, which makes it easier to purge them. After all, Mao was letting a thousand flowers bloom just before the Cultural Revolution pruned them. Or perhaps this new nod to capitalism comes from taking a leaf out of Lenin’s book.When he decided that he needed money and help from the West, Lenin launched his New Economic Policy in the early 1920s. The West was enchanted then, too. The sinking Soviet economy was saved with aid from the free world.
All one can say to the West is be careful. China teaches us two important lessons, and though we may have learned one I don’t think we have quite learned the other. The first lesson is the emptiness of that great Communist myth according to which war and tension between countries is solely the result of the contradictions of capitalism. According to this philosophy, by eliminating capitalism an era of international peace would be ushered in because socialist countries, having no greed, would not use international tensions to distract attention from domestic problems. Since Afghanistan, Hungary and Poland all had Communist governments at the time of Soviet invasions, people who might have been deceived by this particular bit of Marxist flimflam can now see that whatever it is that causes international tensions it is not capitalism.
The second lesson is that should the need arise, two totalitarian countries can bury the hatchet temporarily as easily as two rival gang bosses on Chicago’s south side during prohibition. They can make a Mafia peace as easily as they can make a Mafia war because they don’t have to take popular feelings into account. If there is a Politburo decision that for the time being the party line is peace with the Soviet Union then overnight it is peace with the Soviet Union. There is no dissension. Friend or foe can be designated by executive order.
This does not mean that Canada should sever contacts with China. But it does mean that any euphoria about Deng’s new suit—of clothes or ideas—is premature. The enemy is totalitarianism, and that is alive and well in the People’s Republic of China.
‘Two totalitarian countries can bury the hatchet as easily as two rival gang bosses on Chicago's south side'
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