The Most Effective Kind of Education

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 6:29 am Print

While there are many historical problems worthy of exploring in the study of history, I personably believe that one of the most important is an attempt to understand the process by which humans come to accept violence as legitimate. History has no monopoly on this, it is a deeply interdisciplinary issue. A second related, and equally interdisciplinary issue is to better understand the many different reasons why someone comes to accept some or all of the claims made by the institutions of power. This too, as a question of trust, is ultimately tied to legitimacy.

Like most movements aspiring to power, the Communist Party of China was also deeply interested in these questions, especially, of course, the latter. In looking through internal reports of the Treason Elimination Department (锄奸部) in Shandong from the 1930s and 1940s, I am fascinated by their emphasis on measuring and reporting not merely the elimination of the treason in question, but in the response to that elimination by the people. How did the masses respond? How many people were “mobilized” (发动) by public trial x or execution y?

I recently came across yet another source which has helped me think about, and continue to be puzzled about the two issues I opened with.

Last week I read the memoir of Sam Ginsbourg, a Russian Jew born in Siberia, but raised in Harbin, Vladivostok, and Shanghai. I’m mostly interested in Ginsbourg as a source of background information on his older brother Mark Gayn (Mark changed his name after moving to the United States), one of the most important journalists and first hand sources reporting on the complex political events of occupation Japan and Korea in the early aftermath of World War II.

Though I may post more on Mark some other time, Sam is also a very interesting figure. In 1947, as the Chinese Civil war was heating up, he travelled from Shanghai to Communist occupied Yantai (Chefoo), in Shandong province. He became a passionate supporter of Communism and a Chinese citizen in 1953. Ginsbourg took up a career in Shandong as a professor of Russian language and, whenever his card was up in political movements, as a bourgeois intellectual or Russian spy.

At least half of his memoir My First Sixty Years in China, published in 1982, deals with the long history of Communist political movements he experienced. In most cases, and especially during the Cultural Revolution, Ginsbourg found himself among the targets for attack. His own suffering and the ridiculousness of the accusations made against him and some of those close to him are described, albeit in a somewhat muted tone. Although I only skimmed through some of his encounters, it appears that he didn’t fare too badly. He wasn’t killed, and he doesn’t seem to have been severely beaten or subjected to long periods in labor camps. “On the whole,” he says, “the movements were a necessary political and ideological foundation for rapid economic growth.”1

His closing chapter is set up as a response to a visiting American academic who tries to get him to express regret for having moved to the liberated areas in 1947 and stayed through the tumultuous decades that followed. I am not too surprised to see him defend his home, his friends, and his entire way of life in those pages, rejecting the outsider’s arrogance and looking forward with great optimism at the future. All that was missing were the cute baby chickens shown in final scene of the movie To Live (活着).

More jarring however, was Ginsbourg’s display of that characteristic disconnect between what Ginsbourg himself experienced, and acts of violence he witnessed against those he did not know personally. Whereas he knows he was not himself a Russian spy, and that the President of Shandong University was probably not guilty of the many reactionary crimes he was accused of when he was purged, he doesn’t seem able to extend the same sort of skepticism to many other cases.

We see this when he describes a realization he has as he watched, in 1950, two “reactionaries” being delivered to the execution ground.

I reflected with satisfaction how far I had come since the autumn of 1947, when I had felt shock at the sight of a woman landlord being dragged to execution. Not an iota of pity or perturbation stirred me in 1950. I felt nothing but hatred for the two who were in the truck.”2

Later at Qingdao stadium (From Brazzaville to Kabul, from Pyongyang to Kigali, stadiums serve well for executions when you want to maximize impact) with, he claims, 50,000 in attendance, he watched the trial of two “ringleaders” of a secret religious society.

The woman – the abbess of a monastery – had caused the death of several ‘believers’, cheating hundreds of others of large sums of money and committed other crimes. The old man had raped sixty nuns of his nunnery, some of whom had died.

After the trial the two of them were led, or rather dragged, around the track of the stadium for everybody to see. As they rounded the huge arena, a roar of shouts followed them until they were hauled onto trucks and driven off.

The movement taught me and, I believe, others – who like myself had been born and had grown up in towns, especially those coming from well-to-do families – how horrible were the crimes that had been committed and were still being committed against the common people, how deep was the popular hatred toward the evildoers and how just the deserts. It was the best, the most practical, the most effective kind of education; and I have always thought myself lucky to have gone through it.3

Is it possible the two “ringleaders” were in fact murderers and rapists? It is certainly possible. For example, my own reading of reports from the period suggests that the Party often capitalized on the huge anger felt by local villagers against an infamous bandit or local puppet military commander. Punishing real evildoers is not just good justice, it is good politics. And yet it is just as possible that, like so many thousands of victims of the campaigns against religious organizations and secret societies in the late 1940s and early 1950s, these two leaders of religious societies had committed only the crime of leading an organization targeted by the party for complete liquidation or full co-optation. Accusing the leaders of outlandish and horrific crimes is the fastest way to demoralize and discredit such an organization, setting into motion a wave of self-criticisms and struggle sessions for other members who might then emerge cleansed of their crime of association – at least until the next movement needed a target.

Writing his memoir towards the end of his long life in China, Sam Ginsbourg wrote about that encounter and his realization at that moment without adding a word of doubt or reflection from the perspective of someone who had been a far more fortunate victim of criminal accusations. It seems that, indeed, it was a most effective kind of education.

  1. Sam Ginsbourg, My First Sixty Years in China (Beijing: Foreign Language Press Beijing, 1982), 247. []
  2. Ibid., 209. []
  3. Ibid., 210. []


Sino-Soviet Nuclear Collaboration Revisionism?

In a review of Thomas C. Reed, and Danny B. Stillman‘s new book, The Nuclear Express: A Political History of the Bomb and its Proliferation, William Broad writes that

Moscow freely shared its atomic thefts with Mao Zedong, China’s leader. The book says that Klaus Fuchs, a Soviet spy in the Manhattan Project who was eventually caught and, in 1959, released from jail, did likewise. Upon gaining his freedom, the authors say, Fuchs gave the mastermind of Mao’s weapons program a detailed tutorial on the Nagasaki bomb. A half-decade later, China surprised the world with its first blast.

This doesn’t jibe with what I remember about the relationship at all. Perhaps I’m overreacting to the word “freely,” but there was considerable resistance on the Soviet side to full cooperation with the development of Chinese atomic bomb and missile technology.1 In most accounts that I’ve read, that foot-dragging was a significant element in the ultimate break between the two powers, and the Chinese had to work from the bits and pieces the Soviets gave them2 combined with knowledge gleaned by Chinese who studied in the US and France.

This doesn’t seriously call into question the basic thesis of the book, which is that nuclear weapons technology spreads by diffusion — usually with some element of theft, subversion or treason3 — and that China has been a major proliferator in the post-Mao era.4 Reed and Stillman assert that

China in 1982 made a policy decision to flood the developing world with atomic know-how. Its identified clients include Algeria, Pakistan and North Korea. Alarmingly, the authors say one of China’s bombs was created as an “export design” that nearly “anybody could build.” The blueprint for the simple plan has traveled from Pakistan to Libya and, the authors say, Iran.

That puts China square in the middle of one of the most important and troubling trends of the last quarter-century.

  1. See, for example, Sergei Goncharenko, “Sino-Soviet Military Cooperation,”, Brothers in Arms: the Rise and Fall of the Sino-Soviet Alliance, 1945-1963, ed. Odd Arne Westad, Stanford University Press, 1998, pp. 141-164. []
  2. See, for example, Ji Qiang, “The scientists making the atomic bombs” [PDF], pp. 130-132, which describes Soviet help in the 1950s but that aid quietly disappears from the narrative around ’59. []
  3. This isn’t a new idea; I’ve been telling my students for years that the United States is the only nation to have actually invented the atomic bomb. But their level of detail and access to new sources sounds pretty substantial. []
  4. The French are the other major nexus, having aided the Chinese and provided the Israelis with most of their technology, and Israel has gone on to share it with others, most notably South Africa. []


Asian History Carnival #3

Welcome to the third Asian History Carnival!

It’s traditional for blog carnivals to have some kind of internal organization…. Heh.



ASPAC Notes: Demographics and States

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 6:32 am Print

Historian of Empires Niall Ferguson [via Ralph Luker] recently wrote:

Since 1989, the Russian mortality rate has risen from below 11 per 1,000 to more than 15 per 1,000 – nearly double the American rate. For adult males, the mortality rate is three times higher. Average male life expectancy at birth is below 60, roughly the same as in Bangladesh. A 20-year-old Russian man has a less than 50/50 chance of reaching the age of 65.

Exacerbating the demographic effects of increased mortality has been a steep decline in the fertility rate, from 2.19 births per woman in the mid-1980s to a nadir of 1.17 in 1999. Because of these trends, the United Nations projects that Russia’s population will decline from 146 million in 2000 to 101 million in 2050. By that time the population of Egypt will be larger.

This echoes what Kyle Hatcher told us in his ASPAC paper (panel 1) on Chinese migrants to the Russian Far East (RFE). Like so many nations with declining populations (and the RFE is declining faster, I suspect, than the rest of Russia), immigration could be a key component of economic and social revitalization. But Russia, like so many of the nations struggling with this issue, is unaccustomed to integrating immigrants. Mr. Hatcher’s work involved surveying Russians about their attitudes towards Chinese immigrants, and what he found is not good news.

Russian attitudes towards Chinese immigrants are terrible. They are viewed as untrustworthy, insular and territorially aggressive. They are considered a drain on the economy, taking jobs away from locals and putting very little back into local businesses. Russian immigration laws have been steadily tightening over the last few years, making casual labor migration across the border more difficult (and likely expanding illegal migration). This is fueled in large part, Hatcher found, by a vicious and shameless press, which plays up stories of Chinese crimes, overestimates the numbers of legal and illegal Chinese immigrants, and regularly cites anti-Chinese nationalistic scholars and politicians.

In fact, Chinese work at jobs in the RFE that Russians won’t do, even tough unemployment among ethnic Russians is very high. And Chinese buy most of their goods from Russian-owned businesses who make no effort to cater specifically to Chinese tastes. China has shown little interest in the RFE territory, and even if it had, the numbers of immigrants (at best guess) is well below the levels at which rational observers would consider it a threat of separtism, etc. Chinese immigration offers the RFE’s primary extraction industries (logging, fishing, furs, mining) and decaying mercantile economy their best chance of revitalization, but Chinese are not welcome.

For obvious economic reasons, many Chinese have gone to the RFE (the numbers are in the tens of thousands, at least), but legal and social restrictions make it impossible for the numbers to be large enough to make up Russia’s demographic and economic and institutional weaknesses. The starkly different social and economic conditions on either side of the Russia-China border call the concept of this as a “region” into question; I’ve never entirely bought the argument that Russia was an “Asian Power” just because it had some Pacific Rim beachfront. Interestingly, Chinese labor in the RFE had a “heyday” in the early 20th century, but was pushed out by increasingly nationalistic positions, culminating in the almost total removal of Chinese from the RFE at the time of the Sino-Soviet split in the late ’50s.

Needless to say, Russia’s post-Soviet collapse is of great concern to China (and, as Niall Ferguson points out in the essay cited above, the Chinese model of economic development without political liberalization is very intriguing, if unreachable, to many Russians) and the continuing decline and instability of the northern Pacific region has to be counted as a problem that will have to be addressed at some point in the future.

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