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Il suo lavoro

Riproponiamo attraverso questo sito i testi che Angela Pascucci scriveva per il manifesto, perché riteniamo che abbiano una diversa longevità rispetto ai classici articoli di giornale; tutti i pezzi che selezioneremo hanno un valore storico e documentaristico, e alcuni sono ad oggi perfettamente attuali, nonostante gli anni trascorsi dalla loro stesura.

Come una delle tante megalopoli cinesi, anche questo sito è un cantiere, un work in progress, sempre in fieri. Un piccolo cantiere di storia contemporanea. Vi pubblicheremo a cadenza quindicinale due o tre interventi di Angela, scelti in base al tema o al periodo in cui furono composti.

Chi è interessato a questo progetto, può iscriversi alla nostra newsletter e riceverà automaticamente gli aggiornamenti.

Inoltre, tradurremo in inglese i testi che ci paiono più interessanti dal punto di vista storico, giornalistico e sinologico, in modo da renderli accessibili anche ai lettori non italiani.

Negli ultimi anni della sua vita Angela si era attivata per realizzare un blog, o un sito, che archiviasse tutto il suo lavoro, passato e futuro. La malattia non le ha permesso di andare oltre le prime fasi preliminari; ci proviamo noi, ora, convinti dell’assoluto valore della sua visione.

Il team che lavorerà a questo blog è composto da: Gaia Perini (Coordinatore), Federico Picerni (Ricercatore), Vincenzo Naso (Consulente), Giulia Dakli (web manager).

Angela Pascucci: Power and Society in China

[Afterword to Angela Pascucci's second book, published in Italian in 2013; translated by Mike Watson]

There are times and places in which history erupts into human lives with such an explosive force that every single individual finds himself in his own way to be a complete representation and protagonist of that process, regardless of the will, the power, the social role that belongs to him. This happens above all in the moment of revolutions and great transformations that reinvent entire countries. This is what is happening in China, and in the lives of the Chinese that this book gives testimony to.

The great transformation that their lives reflect and testify to has been unfolding for over a thirty year period, one that has most fully catapulted the People's Republic into the world, with such impetus that not only has a country the size of an empire changed, but the world itself could no longer be the same.

In truth, universal karma, or the spirit of history, as you prefer, had already reserved for China a 20th century that, from beginning to end, did not give the Chinese a moment's respite, as if they had to pay the price of more than 2000 years of empire perceived from the outside as an immobile cosmogony in eternal reproduction of itself. And the debate is open as to how much the roots of the last thirty years sink into that land troubled by the sudden end of the empire, by a civil war, by an atrocious conflict with the enemy invader and by a near permanent revolution. A century of singular “modernity”, ultimately. Such that the image of a sudden passage from the Middle Ages to contemporaneity that some attribute to China does not hold true.

But there is no doubt that, having arrived without breath at the end of the ‘70s, the Chinese have been urged on by the accelerated vortex of another story that has not spared even the most remote and isolated recesses of the ancient ‘Middle Kingdom’ . The centrifugal force of that vortex has broken down the characteristics of the whole of society, throwing them vehemently into an orbit of uncontrollable change that has left the Chinese people shattered, divided and disconnected, a huge handful of grains of sand inside an hourglass turned by events at full speed.

The writer Yu Hua, in his “China in Ten Words” indicates a turning point precisely in the events of Tiananmen Square. That epic and tragic event constituted, he writes, “the last and definitive outpouring of a political passion that had sedimented itself during the Cultural Revolution, after which the passion for money has taken its place.” With the race for the enrichment of the ‘90s, Yu still continues, “brand new terms have come down from the sky: internet surfers, stockbrokers, fund holders, celebrity fans, unemployed workers, migrant farmers etc. Words that are breaking up, dismembering, a term now as faded as ‘the people,’” which, he writes, “in Chinese reality seems an empty term (...) a company of convenience that, to be listed on the stock market, is filled with different contents depending on the period”. [1]

An open construction site that defies comprehension

The debate is also open as to the characteristics assumed today by China, whose unprecedented mutation, in terms of size and speed, continues to bundle together paradoxical contradictions: a single so-called communist party, and a savage capitalism; omnipresence of the state and unregulated individualism; a pervasive public surveillance system and a melting pot of 570 million internet users; growth in wealth and profound inequalities of income, strong social, economic and environmental conflicts together with maintenance of the state-party system; disillusionment, discontent, if not disdain, towards China’s rulers and the corruption that pervades them, and strong identification with the power of the nation. The second world economy, by now close to becoming the first, is a hircocervus, a hybrid that challenges all categories of interpretation and continues to defy all expectations, above all that the free market would inevitably lead to democracy in the Western sense. And we should reflect on that prediction, now that Western democracy is reeling under the blows of an out-of-control economism and of profit above all, which has emptied politics of any sense. In this, the People's Republic is not a foreign land, and even more today it appears as a mirror that magnifies a model, which is also ours, to a great extent, taking it to its extreme limits.

So, China affects us deeply, but, failing to clearly observe even ourselves, we can hardly decipher what is ultimately the most accomplished fruit of modernity.

In 2011 the American journal “Boundary 2”, published by Duke University, dedicated its spring issue to a critical reflection on China over the last thirty years. [2] In the introduction one of the curators, Q.S. Tong, wrote, in relation to the problem posed by a reading of the Chinese phenomenon: “Thirty years after the reform China emerges as a place of paradoxes, inconsistencies and discontinuities, an example of what, in a different context, Jurgen Habermas has defined the 'new darkness' of our time. The language we have is increasingly inadequate and ineffective for an analytical description of China’s current conditions, especially the socio-political model of development”.

Whoever observes China today and has to describe it is therefore faced with an epistemological problem that is not easy to solve due to the singularity of the subject, long a mixed blessing for Western theories. A sociologist as attentive to Chinese phenomena as Jean-Louis Rocca, asserts that “China, more than any other country, poses a problem to its scholars,” cautioning against the rigidity of the two interpretations still prevalent today. One is defined by the sociologist as “cultural essentialism” and leads to the observation of an irreducible diversity for which “the Chinese” are not like us. The other instead insists “on the universalism of historical and social paths” to which even China cannot escape. It considers economic development to be a powerful and primary influence that “will gradually converge towards a common model - modernity - characterized by the presence of a regulated market, a form of elective democracy and the triumph of individualism.” In this framework, “what we need to highlight and analyze are the transitional mechanisms that will lead to it and the blocks that will make it difficult or chaotic.” The conclusion of this reading is that “the Chinese are like us, they simply need more time to realize the universal being.” [3] The oscillation between the two approaches, according to the French sociologist, is not new and has unfolded throughout history in different forms. And today it continues. Rocca dismantles both hypotheses of interpretation: there are no shortcuts and we can approach the complexity of the subject only with a constant, careful and rigorous study focused on society and its dynamics so as to bring out the real in all its variety.

A huge undertaking. In fact, the China construction site is still open, just like the real building sites that continue to change the physiognomy of its cities at a fast pace, forcing the Chinese into a continuous elaboration of life strategies in order to ride the changes and avoid being thrown out of the saddle. Observing them is a fascinating job for a journalist who, not needing to account for methodologies and scientific conclusions, can remain faithful to the task of describing what happens, even going along with this freedom and listening to the stories that the Chinese make of their lives. As happens in this book. They are lives of “resistance” because one cannot simply passively undergo the fastest and most radical transformation of human history, suffering the loss of oneself and hope in the ability to build one's own future. And then here we find those who confront it, head on or indirectly; who move in its folds and who try to determine its currents; who oppose and fight and who bend their heads but try to move forward anyway.

Myths, reality, narratives

One of the questions that most often comes up is whether the Chinese leadership will be able to cope with the conflicts, the problems, that one day will be called the contradictions, of the chosen development model. The myth of the “transition”, which until now seemed to legitimize the rulers’ “blood and tears” decisions, wears thin, and the modernization that nonetheless progresses does not meet the growing expectations of an ever-larger part of the Chinese people. Will the current Chinese political structure explode? Some, unwisely, wish that it would, working in the shadows for this to happen. But so far the forecasts of collapse “ala the USSR” have been denied. And the perception of instability until now contradicted is an integral part of the Chinese puzzle.

The interviews contained in this book do not prefigure scenarios of war or collapse, nor does anyone wish them. The collected voices expose the difficulty of living, the intolerance that grows towards the most intolerable aspects of existence, the uncertainty and anxiety of being unable to overcome the factors that put the sustainability of life itself at risk for a percentage of the country’s children, the intense effort to understand what is happening, the will to act to determine positive outcomes towards greater social justice and substantial respect for rights, despite the frustration induced by failure. Varied sentiments yet all expressed in the awareness that it will take time, a strong commitment, and a change of course, for China to become less ruthless and mean towards a proportion of its children and its elite more honest in its rhetorical statements on equality and socialism. A serious ideological falsification that masks the substantial cynicism of the (non) political dialectic.

These experiences confirm what authoritative observers say when they list the reasons for the substantial grip that the Chinese Party-State has: an economy that is still running despite the crisis; an undeniable increase in wealth, even if unevenly distributed, which still feeds the dream of social climbing; the government’s ability to manage one of the world’s most impressive control and surveillance systems, capable not only of censoring the media and the internet but also of manipulating and preventing the most dangerous opposition and criticism; the capacity for change and resilience of a Communist Party that has profoundly revised its ideological assumptions and modified its class composition without losing legitimacy or yielding a yard of land to political reform in the Western sense; the dexterity of the apparatus, of security and its opposite, in managing the intensification of protests, clashes, strikes, revolts, and confining them to a locality so as to preserve central government from discredit, in a game of banks and alliances worthy of Machiavelli, that prevents wider and subversive coalitions or agreements. They are aided in this by an upper-middle bourgeois class in constant, albeit slow, expansion that far from being a progressive component is rather conservative and linked to the status quo guaranteed by the regime. Only to then literally escape from the country, taking up citizenship elsewhere and taking with them, not always lawfully, their wealth.

The last, but by no means least, element: if the CCP is still in power it is not only due to a successful combination of brutal force, economic growth and appeals to nationalism but also thanks to the ability to tell legitimizing stories that a large number of Chinese people find persuasive, such as that which states that the continuity of its government is better than the uncertain alternatives. This has been attested to, and not recently, by the diligent observer Jeffrey Wasserstrom. After more than twenty years, the collapse of the USSR remains in the background as a “memento mori” which, terrorizing and still conditioning the nomenclature, pushes many Chinese people towards the belief that it is better “the known world of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics than venturing into the uncertain terrain of post-communist chaos.” [4] Another narrative is added to this narrative: that the party-state, thanks to its vast array of tools, not only has the adequate technical capacity for economic governance, but also the political ability to preserve peace and stability. It also enjoys an international prestige that has canceled out the century of humiliation inflicted by the West and returned China to the place that it has always held in the history of the world.

The planned changing of the guard

In this context, the institutionalized and agreed change of leadership every ten years remains one of the most surprising instruments of government and, until proven otherwise, the most effective in guaranteeing the continuity of the Party-State. Following the gathering of the last interviews and reports for this book, little more than a year has passed in which we have seen the faces change, in the true sense, of the highest Chinese leaders, together with most of the party and government cadres. Since November 2012 the Fifth Generation of leaders has taken the place of the Fourth. Chief of chiefs Hu Jintao has been replaced as the CCP secretary head of the Military Commission and the state president by Xi Jinping, aged 59. In March, on the occasion of the National People's Congress, Premier Wen Jiabao will officially cede his Premiership to Li Keqiang, 57. The majority of the members of the Standing Committee, the sancta sanctorum of power, and of the Politburo have changed. The Central Committee itself has been renewed by two thirds. It was Deng Xiaoping who wanted the change agreed at the top, after the Tiananmen incident in 1989 brought the CCP to the brink of a lethal rift. In his intentions, the mechanism, imposing an internal orchestration, should have prevented conflicts for the succession that put at risk the cohesion of the Party, therefore guaranteeing greater institutional stability. Once again on this occasion the transition, the second since the rules have been in force, went smoothly; even if preceded by a nerve-wracking year that has put strain on the internal grip of the CCP, revealing well-hidden fissures.

The storm that had been approaching had only one name, Bo Xilai, head of the Party in Chongqing, a municipality with special status. A controversial and much talked about character who the Western media labeled in a contradictory way: on the one hand, a nostalgic Maoist who tried to revive the glories of the cultural revolution, on the other a modern Western politician who had thrown the gauntlet to the establishment of the Party, openly appealing to entry into the Standing Committee, not via internal bargaining but through the vox populi. This combination seemed like a plain and simple provocation in the eyes of a nomenclature that fears political discourse, especially when it is expressed in the form of the left. Moreover, a very heated discussion was opened among the variegated Chinese left, on what credentials could be attributed to Bo Xilai, whose effective management of power and whose reforms, immediately defined the “Chongqing model,” presented more than one ambiguity.

Certainly, the question was discussed, even in the secret halls of power in Beijing, and certainly not via abstract hypotheses. The bolt that incinerated Bo, depriving him of all his highest offices, suddenly struck him unexpectedly in March 2012, at the end of the work of the People's Congress in which the rising star had participated, issuing bold statements.

Initially accused of wanting to revive the nefarious spirit of the Cultural Revolution, therefore an all-political attack, Bo was later torn to pieces, humanly and politically, by a criminal past: the murder of a dubious British businessman, Neil Heywood, plotted and carried out by Bo's wife, Gu Kailai, with the collusion of ex-police chief Wang Lijun. A crime that the head of the CCP in Chongqing would later try to cover up.

A dark and confusing plot, worthy of post-modern and post-revolutionary times, in which for the first time a leading role was assigned to the big cauldron of the web, from which revelations and news emerged even before they were spread by the official media, as if someone on the inside wanted to throw them into the media arena so as to direct public opinion. The judicial conclusion of the story is still incomplete today. Gu Kailai pleaded her guilt and was given a suspended death sentence for two years while Wang Lijun was given a 15-year sentence for corruption, defection and abuse of power. On the other hand, any trace of Bo Xilai was lost. After his expulsion from the Party, which handed him over to ordinary justice, he awaited trial himself. Unofficial sources describe him as a man physically destroyed but not yet tamed, who refused to cooperate in the investigation and started a hunger strike that led to his hospitalization. [5] If so, Bo behaved in contrast to other leaders before him, who running up against the cleanups that the Party occasionally enacts in order to rid itself of its most uncomfortable corrupt elements, accepted the purge with their heads down.

The CCP, however, has once again emerged unscathed from the storm, a sign of its ability to keep the ship intact and to maintain its course even in the worst situations. It was the left who emerged with bloodied noses, both inside the Party and in the wider country, which like it or not found itself tied to Bo's cart as it fell into the precipice. The case can therefore be considered closed, even if the trial of the former head of the CCP in Chongqing remains inconvenient, for a newly established leadership that has yet to consolidate its power. The "princeling" Xi Jinping had no qualms about taking out the “prince” Bo, a sign that the powerful faction in which the sons of the powerful red aristocracy are gathered is no longer a cohesive and meaningful power base, if it ever was.

A further indication that even the traditional categories of “princelings”, “members the Youth League”, “reformers”, “conservatives”, are no longer able to represent the internal dynamics of the CCP, and its concrete ties and alliances with the great powers, particularly economic, of the country and its future strategies of government.

The “dream” of the new leaders

The new leadership has provided few clues as to what it is made of and what future it holds in store for the country. Even those few have seemed, however, significant to the haruspices who scrutinize the bowels of the obscure Chinese political world. Xi Jinping wanted immediately to ward off the image of his predecessor Hu Jintao. If the latter was perennially devoid of expression, embalmed in a double breasted suit, the simulacrum of an atonal authority without personality, his successor has unleashed an external informality and a personal exhibitionism. This captivating image has been accompanied by a series of edicts that has eliminated any pomp and excess from officialdom and banished red carpets, limousines, flowers, toasts, and expensive missions abroad. A “war on formalism and bureaucracy,” the official Xinhua agency said in an editorial.

Each change of the guard, on the other hand, has so far intercepted the air of the times in the sense of grasping the most exasperated problems and the worst failures produced by the previous phase so as to try to dampen the consequences. But the Fourth Generation, which continued to produce record growth rates even during the global economic crisis, leaves a balance of failed failures and promises, and a legacy that is difficult to manage: record income inequality, which according to some data would far surpass that of the USA, while equalling that of South Africa; the tragic environmental degradation, underlying an extraordinary increase in tumors that has become the primary cause of death in the country; the corruption that pervades the system right to the leadership and which has been denounced by leaders as the main danger for the survival of the Party; the structural imbalance of an economy whose axis of development should be radically changed; a speculative real estate bubble that, if it erupts, could lead to the bankruptcy of many local governments.

The exit of Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao was one of the quickest and least lamented. And their successors did not take long to occupy the scene.

One of the first slogans, “the Chinese dream,” launched by the same Xi Jinping, has aroused curiosity and surprise, also for its assonance with the American imaginary. A less distant leadership, with a human face and yet strong, perhaps even once again charismatic; this seems to be the new brand sold to the Chinese as they put aside their malaise and accumulated distrust and put faith in the policies which the new rulers are preparing. Nevermind those who wished to take this introduction seriously, only to be later disappointed. Like the Southern Weekly magazine that published a New Year editorial, expressing hope for the realization of the Chinese “constitutional dream.”

Among the clues sown by Xi Jinping is his much publicized “journey to the south,” a reminiscence and celebration of another historical journey: that made in 1992 by Deng Xiaoping who, with his tour of Guangdong and the special economic zones of the south, aimed to revive the course of reforms so as to put the Tiananmen massacre in the past. It followed a brutal and overwhelming decade, the effects of which were well described by Yu Hua in the passage cited above. The first decisions and proposals for reform by the new leaders appear to aim at retracing the pragmatic, unconventional, de-ideologicized, authoritarian, and in some ways inhumane path of the first architect of reforms.

It marked a turning point and even today there is a strong perception, even outside the country, that an important, different chapter is opening up in the history of the People's Republic. An impression that reconfirms the dexterity of the Chinese party-state in creating expectations of change and of a better future that keep the Chinese bound, with their dreams.

Edoarda Masi, whose intellectual rigor constituted a model for me and shaped my way of observing China, was very critical of the Chinese present, in which she saw at work, as with everywhere else in the world, “the same process of destruction - of nations, of people, of things and of the intelligence of things - without the beginning of a new road to get rid of the monster, which is presented as untouchable.” However, she recognized the extreme vitality, the harbinger of hope, of this huge country and asked herself whether it “will not be able to tell us anything other than what we already know?” [6]

The question presents itself with ever greater urgency, yet remains unanswered.

  • 1 Yu Hua, La Cina in dieci parole, Feltrinelli Serie Bianca, 2012. (The quotation has been translated into English by Mike Watson)

  • 2 C.S. Tong and Jiwei Ci, China after 30 years of Reform: Critical Reflections, in “Boundary 2”, ed. Online, 38, I, Spring 2011

  • 3 Jean-Louis Rocca, La società cinese, Il Mulino Universale Paperbacks, 2011

  • 4 Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom, Beijing’s New Legitimacy Crisis, in “Far Eastern Economic Review”, vol.168 n.1, December 2004.

  • 5 “China’s Bo Xilai not cooperating on probe, been on hunger strike: sources”, Reuters, 21/2/2013

  • 6 Edoarda Masi, Paradigmi in salsa cinese, “il Manifesto”, 2/9/2008


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