The Ideology of Occupation   January, 2019

In the last couple of weeks, two student groups were battling at Peking university, one of China’s most prestigious institutions.  These were battles of words, not fists, but all the more intense for that.

Some might dismiss the conflict as a minor student skirmish over ideology. But the Chinese government reaction suggests that there is a lot more going on – that occupation by a ruling elite can have a light touch, except when it finds itself threatened.   Existential threats, even small ones, must be put down.

To be sure, the conflict at Peking was not a contest for student body president, or a fight over which gendered pronoun to use in addressing a classmate.  It was an ideological fight over who gets to interpret Marxism, and the fight illustrates the extent to which CCP, like every dynasty before it, can be understood as an occupying force.  SupChina has the story-  One Marxist student group is backed by the Party.  The other's WeChat account is blocked

Source:  Socialist Worker - A Time of turmoil shaped Karl Marx’s ideas

One can understand this fight as that between “old” Marxists, who think the Party should be representing workers and farmers in class struggle, and “new” Marxists, who want the Party to continue its version of opening up and representing the major productive forces in the economy – like big businesses, the forces of capital, and – not coincidentally – the ruling elite.   The old Marxists are thinking first of the workers at the university – dining hall workers, cleaners, landscapers – but also the farmers left behind in the rush to modernize and make money.  The new Marxists represent the views of the university administration and CCP generally, and it is CCP that is in power in China. 

At Peking, the new Marxists, representing the Youth League and supported by faculty and the university administration, seem to have won the battle.   The social media of the old Marxists have been blocked, so they have no easy way of communicating with each other or with outside supporters, and individual students have been disappeared, expelled, beaten and arrested.   The university administration and the government have seen to it that doctrinal interpretation will remain with the rulers in power.

American campuses have long had such labor-oriented protests and disagreements, though mostly pitting students against university administration over wages and benefits for non-academic employees.  But the Peking conflict is one involving public speech, public writing, student organizing, and the fundamentals of Marxism.  A ruling elite that is willing to give superior students - the future of the Party, the literati - some leeway in discussion was finally stirred to action.   Finally, the hammer comes down.

Perry Link makes a similar point in The Anaconda in the Chandelier, which focuses on Chinese government censorship, but the analogy is the same.  What might be scarier than a big snake in a chandelier? The snake hides above, unseen and unrecognized, lying quietly until stirred, and then it can strike without warning.  Perry Link writes about elite preservation -  … repression remains an important problem, and its extent and methods are still poorly understood in the West. To appreciate it one must re-visit a dull but fundamental fact: the highest priority of the top leadership of the Communist Party remains, as in the past, not economic development, or a just society, or China’s international standing, or any other goal for the nation as a whole, but its own grip on power.

Chinese claim more than two thousand years of continuous dynastic rule, and we wonder how that could possibly be achieved.  Through dynastic changes and uprisings and invasions, why the return to the same system of governance – emperor and a small bureaucracy of literati overseeing a vast nation of farmers and traders.  The ruling house and bureaucracy - the occupying elite - was relatively small, even into late Qing times.  How could it be done?

There are several fascinating answers, but one that stands out is that the ruling elite generally kept a light touch on its occupation of the country.  By occupation, I don’t mean a military force – this is not Japan in 1930s China, or Britain in India or the US in the Philippines.  The elite needed sufficient taxes to pay for the imperial court and the bureaucracy, but beyond that, most governance and spending was local, with locally raised or extorted monies.   A single magistrate might be responsible for an area with 100,000 or more people, and his staff consisted of clerks and runners paid out of his own pocket or with fees for services provided – a fee for bringing paperwork inside the building for the review by the magistrate. 

A way of understanding this sort of occupation is Mancur Olson’s concept of the stationary bandit, described in his 1993 article  Dictatorship, Democracy, and Development.  A roving bandit sweeps in, steals what he can, and leaves.  Such a bandit is a short term profit maximizer.  A stationary bandit has incentives to steal less, so that he can remain to steal tomorrow.   A stationary bandit with dynastic pretensions is only providing for his offspring and family if he steals enough, but not too much, so the family business can be preserved.  In China, that model has worked on average for a couple of hundred years for each dynasty, before other conditions finally forced a change.   When the new rulers came in, they saw the identical incentives.   Chinese central government taxation was almost never excessive, nor were most central demands for corvee labor or restrictions on trade.  The literati, the bureaucracy, or what we might now call the “deep state,” had incentives to remain in power as well, and the two combined to do so. 

Economic historians Loren Brandt, Thomas Rawski, and Debin Ma argued in their article From Divergence to Convergence: Re-evaluating the History Behind  China's Economic Boom that the stationary bandit model works pretty well for Chinese dynasties.   It is in that sense that we can see dynasties, and now CCP, as an occupying force.  CCP must remain the only source of power, the only source of truth.  Propaganda is marketing and defense for the Party, conducted in speeches, reports, news stories, editorials, electronic and social media.  Representation of the peasants -  the workers and farmers – is fine for political speeches, but let’s not get carried away.  In other words, don’t start believing your own press releases.  The CCP is an imperial elite in power, and intends to remain so.   Students at Peking are the next generation literati.  Remember?

Kent Deng at the London School of Economics argues for a historically stable triad among the three sets of actors – emperor, literati, and peasants.  Any two of the three could align with each other to force change in the third - Development and its Deadlock in Imperial China, 221 BC-1840 AD.

In the Peking University case, we can see the ruling elite aligning with some of the literati – the best of the best in Chinese universities – against those who would advance the cause of the peasants just a bit too far.   The old Marxists in this case want to talk about class struggle and working class allies.  That is a step too far for the occupying forces.  The rhetorical concept of the new Marxists, speaking to the old Marxists,  is “The workers are living so peacefully, stop bothering them,”  “Are you really being true friends to the workers? You’re just using the workers for your own purposes!”

The new Marxists understand the rule of power retention - “In order to study Marxism, the Chinese Communist Party must be embraced; opposing the Party means opposing Marxism.”  In other words, you old Marxists, don’t look a gift horse in the mouth. 

The old Marxists aren’t really opposing the Party, but they are rocking the boat.  CCP has said many times that it will be the entity to determine what Chinese communism means.  The student old Marxists just don’t get the Lord Acton proviso – ‘power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”   It may be corrupt, but it remains in power.