Professor Joel Andreas: “I’ve never seen a people as contentious and confident as the Chinese”

By Yilin Wang
This interview was conducted in 2016.
It was subsequently published in the Blue Net China magazine, Vol.1

Professor Joel Andreas of the Sociology Department at Hopkins, with his research focus on the transitions to and from socialism in China, has paid visits to numerous cities around China. He is particularly interested in the Chinese Cultural Revolution. After conducting in-depth research at Tsinghua University in Beijing, he wrote a book on this topic, Rise of the Red Engineers: The Cultural Revolution and the Origins of China’s New Class. The book was published by Stanford University Press and a Chinese edition will be published this year in Hong Kong.

“I’ve never seen a people as contentious and confident as the Chinese.”

You’ve been to various cities in China for quite a few times. Is there anything special about China during these trips that impressed or intrigued you the most? 

A: During my recent visits to China, I had a good time interviewing people in many industrial cities including Zhengzhou, Luoyang, and Wuhan. I especially loved to learn about history during the Mao era, so I met lots of interesting people, mostly folks who worked in factories during that time. Before that, I also spent lots of time interviewing people in Tsinghua University in Beijing, and I discovered some very interesting differences between Chinese universities and US universities, and between the students and faculty at universities there and here. 

Tsinghua University and Beijing University have been at the center of politics in the country, and that’s something we don’t see in the United States. That was true before 1949, during the Mao era, and it’s still true today. The situation is a little more diffuse in the US. 

Students in China are more politically-oriented. I was impressed because Tsinghua is an engineering school, but students there were very concerned about politics. They were SURPRISINGLY CONTENTIOUS. They have a lot of ideas about what they think the state should be doing. Chinese care about that more than people in many other countries. One thing that struck me the most was Chinese’s attitude towards police. In China you see people shouting at the police. At first I was surprised, because you don’t see that so much in the U.S.; people are more scared of the police.

Maybe it’s because Chinese has had a strong central government for long, so Chinese people had a lot to say under their relatively limited freedom? 

A: Right. The Chinese state has been very strong, trying to intervene in people’s lives. That was especially true during the Mao era. Today the state is more remote, but it still plays a central role. So, people have lots of grievances and expectations towards the state. 

In the city I live in, there was a huge protest because of the Diaoyu Island issue. People destroyed everything in sight that was made in Japan. So how do you view Chinese people’s contentious actions like this? 

A: Well they are very political. When I say contentious, it’s mostly targeting economic rights and well-being, taxes and wages and all. Diaoyu island…that’s a nationalist issue. Chinese people see themselves as part of a big country, a country that has been abused and suppressed by the imperialism. They are very nationalistic. Nationalism isn’t very…well, attractive, especially in big countries. People in the US are also very nationalist, and it’s often very ugly because it involves abusing other countries. They think “we are the most powerful country in the world, don’t tell us what to do.” In China, many people have had a chip on their shoulder because they felt like they have not been recognized. In the US it’s even uglier because the US has never been abused in the way China has. 

In the US people tend to see the country as the center of the world, even though they don’t know much about the rest of the world. You go to other countries, and they know a lot more about the rest of the world and they know they are not the center of the world. But China was the first place I’ve been to where people also think they are the center of the world. For a long time China was the center of the world, at least the East Asian world. Today even though they know they are not the most technologically advanced, nevertheless they have the sense that Chinese culture is superior. 

“The result of the Cultural Revolution was in fact a backlash.”

What attracted you to the research on Chinese society in particular, instead of any other country?

A: I was really interested in socialism as a system and the communist revolutions in the 20th century. I think the Cultural Revolution in China was the most extreme example in some ways. There was no other country like it. I was interested in Cuba, too, but Cuba is small. It couldn’t really determine anything itself. It was too dependent on Soviet Union, and so much of its trajectory was determined by the Cold War between US and USSR because it’s so close to the US and so small. But China is so big. It can go its own way. It can determine its own destiny. 

I’m particularly interested in the Cultural Revolution. All the contradictions of socialism, and all of the problems with pursuing the original goals of socialism came to the forefront during the Cultural Revolution. Mao was trying to level class differences so everything and everyone was absolutely flat: no privileges. He tried to deal with the privileges of the Communist party leaders, their abuse of power, their separating themselves off as a privileged bureaucratic class. That’s obviously one of the central problems of socialism, and that’s what the Cultural Revolution was about. I was interested in socialism, and China became particularly interesting because all the contradictions and problems of socialism came to the fore in this extraordinary fashion.

In what way does the Cultural Revolution shape China today?

A: It has had a huge impact. The Communist Party attempted to build a socialist society, eliminating class differences. I think when the Communist Party came to power, really that’s what it was all about. That’s why they made the revolution. Both the Communists and the Nationalists wanted to develop the country and kick out the imperialists, but that wasn’t the main thing the Communists were trying to do. The main thing they were trying to do was to do away with class differences, the big differences between the wealthy and the poor. And they actually believed in this: the leaders of the Communist Party and most of the members of the Communist Party and the peasants who joined the revolution. That’s what they wanted to do. And I think they tried to do it. They tried to do it more than most of the other communist parties that came to power, and you can see it in the Cultural Revolution, because Mao was really insistent that there were all these privileges they hadn’t done away with yet. So it was a very radical period and it led to factional struggles because it was directed against the Communist cadres—they became the target. So, of course, they fought back, and they had plenty of power to do so with lots of people that supported them. It led to a very sharp, very ugly conflict. And the factions ended up, like in most political struggles, developing a lot of instrumental types of alliances that tried to come to power. 

I think the main result afterwards, was actually a backlash, especially among two groups. The two groups that were under attack were the Communist Party officials and the intellectuals, because these were the two most privileged sectors of society. I think what the Cultural Revolution did in the end was to cause a backlash. [The Communist officials and the intellectuals] both ended up deciding that we are not interested in this whole thing of trying to level class differences. Both groups suffered greatly [during the Cultural Revolution] and after that they wanted nothing to do with the whole idea of egalitarianism, or leveling class differences, or trying to raise the workers’ and peasants’ status in the society. And that was really the end of the Communist project in China. 

Some of the ideas of not just the Cultural Revolution, but the whole Communist project— ideas about egalitarianism, “everyone should be equal”, “workers and peasants should have high status”—still exist [among many people] in China. But the Cultural Revolution promoted these ideas to an extreme extent, which ended up causing a huge backlash against these ideas. 

“China is still faced with economic insecurity.”

Decades have passed since the Cultural Revolution. What do you consider the most noteworthy social problem confronting China today? 

A: Economic insecurity. People were poor in the past, both in the city and the countryside. But once you had a job, you had a life-time employment. Now people don’t have that kind of guarantee. Now, some people are doing very very well while others aren’t, leading to economic polarization. 

But is this an inevitable result from the rapid economic development of China?

A: I don’t think it’s inevitable. It’s the way capitalism works, but I don’t think things necessarily have to work that way. You don’t HAVE TO have some people working crazy long hours and others having a hard time finding work. But you have to organize things in another way. 

So is it like, the economic transformation is the most important transformation taking place in China today?

A: Yes, definitely. Based on adopting capitalist principles, every aspect of China is now being revolutionized. At first, [in the 1990s] the biggest changes were the urban changes, developing new ways of organizing enterprises. The basic principle switched from guaranteeing people’s employment to making profits. And of course, the introduction of foreign capital. Now the big transition is in the countryside, related to the commercialization of agriculture, the introduction of capitalism into agriculture and all. 

What’s the biggest obstacle? Population?

A: China developed a huge population over the centuries because it was economically successful and it made full use of the land. But with the capitalist system now, capitalist enterprises are concerned about maximizing profits, about using labor as efficiently as possible, about minimizing labor costs, and they don’t need that much population. In the Mao era it was about trying to keep people employed. But for the capitalist enterprises now, you can’t just tell them to hire people anymore. 

China did try to deal with this problem with the “one-child” policy. But a few weeks ago the news came out that China now is facing the “aging population problem”. What do you think of this problem?

A: Personally I think they went too extreme in the 80s, doing the “one-child” policy. 

Many non-Chinese students are now interested in doing research on Chinese society. Do you have any advice for the students pursuing a career on China-related study?  

A: There is still lots of room in this field and lots of things to do. By doing these things we might find lots of ways to make great impact on the world. China and the US are two very powerful countries, and I strongly encourage everybody to explore China. It would be good for them personally and for the world. 

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