Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

The China Conundrum and its implications for international cyber-security – 20

Posted in business and convergent technologies by Timothy Platt on November 21, 2011

This is my 21st installment in a series on China and its complexities and challenges (see Ubiquitous Computing and Communications – everywhere all the time, postings 69 and scattered following including Posting 17.5 – a supplemental note on China’s demographics.) And I finished Posting 19 of that on two notes. One was in discussing how China’s leadership seeks to understand and to address its individual challenges and issues as if in isolation, instead of effectively addressing them as they interconnect. And the other was where I raised the specter of Deng Xiaoping as one of modern China’s most effective agents of change and both in how China’s leadership sees its world and in how it acts.

In the course of this, and with a particular focus on China’s rapidly developing population demographics time bomb, I have written about how China is shaped and influenced by the forces of its history. That means more modern influences such as the Great Helmsman, Mao Zedong but it also includes older visions and voices such as that of Confucius with his deeply held and observed approach to relationships and both interpersonally and societally.

China faces a complex of challenges of such severity as to bring the country’s future into question. I state that bluntly and in extreme form for a reason. It is not that the problems it faces cannot be dealt with, or that China is doomed to instability. It is that any real long term, comprehensive path through these problems will call for new vision and understanding and it will require new forms of action and response. And this brings me to the second point of discussion I at least made note of in Part 19: Deng Xiaoping. And I pick up on this here by taking a step further back to consider Mao and his cult of personality. But more importantly I step back to consider his Great Leap Forward and after that his Cultural Revolution.

Mao saw China as an ancient agrarian society with primitive roots, and he came to see that as a source of long term weakness. He strongly believed in strategic centralized planning and in the five year plan approach created in the Soviet Union and as later implemented in his People’s Republic of China. And Mao decided to break his China out of the rut that it historically followed with a Great Leap Forward.

This was to be a leap into industrialization and at the same time it was to be a leap into a more widely and deeply practiced form of Chinese Communism. And that combination of core requirements carried with it a mix of contradictions that could only lead to chaos and failure.

Under Mao’s vision of Communism, all would be equal with those holding to a purer form of Communist practice more equal than others. And power quickly shifted to his cadres of followers who waved their Little Red Books and who actively and even blindly enforced the Great Helmsman’s vision. Intellectuals and academics were suspect and all too often marginalized and forced into agrarian reeducation programs after being publically humiliated. The people who had the skills and experience needed to actually carry out an effective transition to China having a more industrial foundation were precisely the people who were cut out of that process and denied any voice or position in this brave new society.

To take this out of the abstract I want to at least briefly outline one example of what happened as these needs and goals collided. It was realized that China needed a much greater capacity for working in metal and that it needed a more robust metals industry, and that this included iron and steel, copper and every other resource that would be key to technical and core infrastructure advancement. So Mao and his Politburo set metals production goals that those of his country were required to meet – basically increasing overall tonnage of metals processed to new record highs every year. But this has to be done according to Mao’s vision of Communism and that meant it had to be done locally. So a seemingly endless number of local metal foundries were set up – but China’s experienced metallurgists were either undergoing forced labor reeducation or they were otherwise so marginalized as to be without voice in any of this. And the local cadres that set up and enforced these foundries did not have ores to process metal out of any more than they had metallurgical or even just general engineering training for doing this right. So in order to meet their quotas, they required that everyone in their communities bring together all of their pots and pans and other metal objects. And with no understanding of alloys or of the chemistry involved, they simply melted everything together.

The result was disastrous. The metal that they formed their quota-directed ingots into was of a chemical form and alloyed mix that made it useless. And meanwhile, every family and every business forced to give up its metal goods was forced to do without them and even where they were necessary for meeting basic household needs. And with the Cultural Revolution that path started on here in the Great Leap Forward was taken to even greater extremes.

The story of Mao’s attempt to remake China’s metallurgical industries is just one small, and by comparison minor piece to the larger puzzle of how the Great Leap Forward was actually a Great Leap Backwards, and with the loss of an entire generation of any possibility of progress of any positive sort. And his Cultural Revolution simply highlighted that nothing was actually learned from that earlier experience. And with Mao’s cult of personality no one could publically acknowledge any of that. And Mao Zedong died and even then his Little Red Book lived on. And then Deng Xiaoping and others who saw compelling need for change stepped forth. And the type and depth of change required could only come from those who had been in the system long enough to have risen to real power but who could still look at China as if enough of an outsider to that, to be able to act.

I know that I grossly oversimplify here but with the overtly incontestable failure of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution in front of everyone in China, and with the emerging story of Mao’s clay feet, and of the Gang of Four and their Cultural Revolution excesses – where that Little Red Book really came into its own, this created opportunity for change. And I stress here that the across the board excesses and failures of the Cultural Revolution dwarfed anything done in the Great Leap Forward.

Deng Xiaoping came into leadership as the quintessential insider who had proven himself and his loyalty in his rise through the single party system. He was a veteran of the Long March and of the struggle that brought Mao and Communism to power, and he was a rising star as this new order prevailed and through Mao’s successes and excesses and through his many failures and failings. But he was also the quintessential outsider in many respects, who held much greater authority then he ever did in formal title or position – making him the perfect bridge to change.

From my postings up to here, it should be evident that only some issues and approaches were ever open to discussion let alone change under Deng. And much of Mao and his approach remained in effect sacrosanct. And the basic scaffolding of Chinese culture and civilization that Mao built upon remained – and has remained intact too. Just consider Confucius in that, and there is a lot more to his teachings still deeply ingrained in China than just his four relationships (see Part 18) as previously discussed.

I would argue the case that China needs a new Deng Xiaoping coming out of the soon to happen leadership changes of late 2012 with all of the new faces that will be joining the Politburo Standing Committee, and throughout China’s national and provincial leadership. I am going to turn to that in my next series installment. Meanwhile, you can find this and related postings at Ubiquitous Computing and Communications – everywhere all the time.

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