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By Robin Porter


The Montréal Review, June 2011


"From Mao to Market: China Reconfigured" by Robin Porter (Columbia University Press, 2011)


"Anyone looking to read a concise and sympathetic introduction to contemporary China should read Robin Porter's new book. With a light touch, he traces China's transformation from Confucianism to Marxism and now to market economics, its response to western political and scientific ideas, and its uncertain future."

- Jasper Becker, author of Hungry Ghosts: Mao's Secret Famine and The Chinese


It was late autumn 1968. Trudging through the snow along Rue de la Montagne in Montreal as the day drew to a close, I met up with an old family friend. "What are you doing now?" he said. I replied that I had just started a Masters at McGill in Chinese history, that I was hoping to be a 'China watcher'. "Are you crazy?" he said.

That autumn, the first to occur after 'May 68' as we used to call it, and with the Cultural Revolution still raging in China, a career 'watching' China seemed far more exciting than most other choices on offer. For better or for worse I had committed myself, and over the next forty years, across four continents, I undertook a journey of discovery of China, its history and culture, its people, its politics, its triumphs and its follies. This book is the result of that journey.

Entitled 'From Mao to Market' (the publisher liked the title), it is in fact an attempt to explain present-day China in the context of its past, and to help anyone out there who needs to engage with China, or who is just interested, to understand what the place is really like - where it is now, and how it got there. It isn't a text book (though it is referenced like an academic text). Rather, it offers a brief chronology in the early chapters, and then gets on with the task of digging deeper into some of the issues raised: the continuing impact of China's Confucian heritage, the troubled transition to the rule of law, the revival of science and technology since the end of the Cultural Revolution, the way Party and State interact in running China, the 'marketization' and management of China's new enterprise economy, and the prospects for democracy - the 'fifth modernization'.

In the course of this examination of the politics and culture of the new China, there is an attempt to sketch out the uneasy relationship between public policy and private goals. What is it that Chinese people actually want from life, and how do they go about achieving it amidst the particular constraints under which they live?

People's aspirations in the new China of the Twenty-first Century vary widely. New influences on their lives have ensured that this is the case. The flow of students and officials to the West and, for the most part, their subsequent return, the process of manufacture for export, involving as it does exposure to the norms in terms of quality expected by foreign consumers, the establishment in China of foreign-owned and joint-venture enterprises which employ Chinese staff, and access for some people to foreign print media and satellite television, and for all to more comprehensive coverage of the world in the Chinese press and on the internet, these are just some of the developments which have stirred up individual passions about what people want out of life. The 'four rounds' of the 1950s - the bicycle, the sewing machine, the wedding ring and the radio - to which everyone used to aspire, set in the context of acceptance of life goals determined by the Party, now seem impossibly old-fashioned.

In part, the objectives of people differ according to where they live, their level of education, and what used to be called their class background, though there are some aspirations shared by almost everyone. Thus, the peasants who make up most of the 65% of China's people who still live in rural areas, now frequently want to work for themselves, to sell their produce in free markets without hindrance, to be able to afford to employ others to do the worst of the physical work, and to be able to acquire land and property and to pass it on to their children - their male children especially. If this is not possible they want to be able to go to a nearby city, or even overseas, to hire out their labour on a construction site, and to send money back to their family to elevate their status within the village.

Officials, both in the cities and in the countryside want to be better paid, and to gain more recognition for their work. They are concerned about their status, and about the perks of office - subsidized accommodation, perhaps a car, frequent banquets with important people, and the opportunity to travel abroad from time to time.

Entrepreneurs, whether in the new private sector or among the reforming state-owned industries, want to maximize their freedom to run their firms as they see fit, increasing their profitability and benefiting themselves in the process.

Intellectuals - professionals might now be a better term to use - including teachers and professors, lawyers, doctors, nurses, linguists, writers, artists, musicians and many others, look for creative freedom to pursue their profession as they see fit, and for better pay into the bargain. They are often hopeful that their children will be able to travel abroad to study, reflecting their nagging anxiety over periodic spasms of 'orthodoxy' in China, and the value they place on ideas.

Women, who are of course subsumed in all of the above categories, as a group are still concerned that they will be given equal opportunity in the new economy, and their rights will be respected within the family and in the courts. In the rural areas the status of women may even be in decline, with land ownership and the cash economy encouraging a return to a situation in which greater value is placed on boys than on girls.

Young people, by definition a transitional group, generally nowadays are much less compliant than in earlier years, a trend observable in most countries. As the first generations emerge who are unashamedly individualistic, interested in material acquisition and in style, the Party will need to redouble its efforts to appeal to the country's youth if it is to reproduce itself over the coming decades.

Finally, national minorities in China have since 1949 survived as a result of a trade-off between linguistic and cultural rights, and real power - the latter being conceded to secure the former. In part this has been because, with few exceptions, the national minority populations are small in number. Minority leaders have also tended to accept symbolic positions in both the local administration and in central government. Tibet, and more recently Xinjiang aside, there are no real signs of national minority restlessness in China for the present, but in the future this may change.

Beyond particular considerations, all Chinese people wish to see for their children opportunities for education, a continually improving level of affluence, freedom from the threat of hunger, freedom to travel - at least within China, and greater mechanization of their personal lives both for work and for leisure. Most aspire to upward social mobility in the new and more status-conscious society. Almost all value stability very highly - freedom from 'da luan', the chaos and unpredictability of the recent past.

How people in China achieve these ambitions lies at the heart of this book - and will increasingly be important to us all.


Robin Porter is visiting professor at the Centre for East Asian Studies, University of Bristol, and has taught courses on China at universities in Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom. He first visited China in 1972, worked for Xinhua News Agency from 1979 to 1980, and was Britain's senior science diplomat in Beijing from 2002 to 2005.


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