China Steps Out, with Joshua Eisenman

Nov 2, 2018

In this illuminating conversation, China scholar Joshua Eisenman discusses his two latest books: "Red China's Green Revolution," which overturns the conventional wisdom (both in China and abroad) that Chairman Mao's commune system was a failure; and a co-edited volume "China Steps Out," which explains why for China (unlike the United States), developing regions are a cornerstone of its foreign policy.

Podcast music: Blindhead and Mick Lexington.

DEVIN STEWART: Hi, I'm Devin Stewart here at Carnegie Council in New York City, and today I'm speaking with Joshua Eisenman. He is a professor at the University of Texas in Austin. He is also the author of two new books on China.

Josh, great to see you again.

JOSH EISENMAN: It's great to be here, Devin.

DEVIN STEWART: You are here, just as a reminder, as part of our ongoing Information Warfare project and series. We'll get to that a little later, but first we want to talk about your two new books. It looks like a lot of work went into them. There are hundreds of pages of research in here.

Let's talk about the first one, which I think was based on your Ph.D. dissertation. It's called Red China's Green Revolution: Technological Innovation, Institutional Change, and Economic Development Under the Commune. You always have to have a long list of things that make it sound very academic. This book is the result of a lot of research you did in China on the ground, fieldwork, and it's basically flipping the mainstream narrative or the mainstream understanding about the commune system under Mao Zedong. First, tell us what is the mainstream view about Mao's commune farming system, and what did you find that was different?

JOSH EISENMAN: Again, it's great to be here, Devin. You're right. This took seven years of my life, and I went to a dozen agricultural universities in China to collect the agricultural data, which has never been had before.

Most of what we do surrounding the Maoist era is about very grassroots stuff or very national level stuff, but what I did here is I attacked this from the provincial and county levels, so from the middle of the system. By collecting all this data I was able to ask an important question, which is: Was the commune productive? The general view is, no, it wasn't. That's why it was replaced. The commune was a failure.

DEVIN STEWART: The general view is that the Mao commune system was kind of a disaster.

JOSH EISENMAN: Yes. Right, that it failed and therefore was replaced.

DEVIN STEWART: Under Deng Xiaoping.

JOSH EISENMAN: Under Deng Xiaoping, that this was a V-shaped recovery. China was collapsing, and then in rides Deng Xiaoping on a white horse, institutes what's called "reform and opening up," which essentially begins in the agricultural sector.


JOSH EISENMAN: 1978, 1979, that's the period of time. There's the famous Third Plenum in December of 1978 where these things start moving forward.

DEVIN STEWART: So you investigated whether that's true.

JOSH EISENMAN: Yes. I wanted to collect the data to determine whether or not the commune system was productive or was not productive. There was a reason for this. It's because we know that China added during the commune era about 300 million people—the size of the United States—but we know of no famine after the Great Leap Forward. Food insecurity, yes, but after 1961 we know of no mass famine.

So the system existed for 22 years after the Great Leap Forward, but it's painted in the literature as the Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution, but the fact is that over 22 years this system changed. Like any system it evolved, and it evolved in ways that made it far more productive at the end than it was at the beginning.

DEVIN STEWART: First of all, you are basically solving a puzzle. You're solving a mystery. You went into China. You suspected maybe the mainstream narrative might have been a little flawed. Can you tell our listeners and the readers of the transcripts of these interviews how did you go about doing this? Was it a little bit like Indiana Jones? Was there a sense of adventure there?


DEVIN STEWART: Chutzpah, okay. That's technical.

JOSH EISENMAN: It's a technical word, yes. And there was definitely some Indiana Jones. There were times when I was [hums theme from Indiana Jones movies].

DEVIN STEWART: Did you have a whip?

JOSH EISENMAN: I didn't. I had a fedora, but I never wore it.

All joking aside, the way that I did this was I was a visiting professor at NYU Shanghai for a year. I was teaching the students there. I was doing fieldwork for my dissertation at the same time. So I would offer to universities that I would come and give a talk about my research, and I would have the opportunity to sit down with their experts who study things like fertilizers and seed varieties and things that are pretty mundane, not politically sensitive at all. I would spend hours with them just listening to them tell me about the evolution of fertilizer development in China, for instance. Kind of like watching paint dry. Often these people who are experts and scholars in their field have very strong accents. Their Mandarin sometimes wasn't very clear.

DEVIN STEWART: These interviews were in Chinese.

JOSH EISENMAN: These interviews were in Mandarin, yes, and I would do my best to listen to everything they said, get as much as I could from them, and then as I was leaving I would pull what I call a "Columbo," and say: "Just one more thing, sir. Do you happen to have any data on these issues?"

Many of them—not always—if they had some data, they would share it if they were kind enough. Basically that's where I got the data from.

DEVIN STEWART: How did you get that data? Was it like an iPhone photograph? How did you actually collect it?

JOSH EISENMAN: How I collected it was that next to Chinese universities are photocopy shops.

DEVIN STEWART: So you went old school.

JOSH EISENMAN: I just photocopied them.

DEVIN STEWART: They were okay with that?

JOSH EISENMAN: This is data about agricultural productivity. This isn't the nuclear launch codes. It's old data. I also had no political ax to grind, and I wasn't dishonest with people. I told them I was using the data for my dissertation, and I did.

DEVIN STEWART: But doesn't it contradict the historical narrative that the Chinese Communist Party wants to sell?

JOSH EISENMAN: What's interesting is, and on the first page of the first chapter of the book I quote Xi Jinping because in 2013 Xi Jinping changed the way that people look at the commune. Up until that time, the general view was the commune was a failure, so we got rid of it.

But under Xi Jinping he has suggested, in fact, in many cases forced, people to recognize the contribution of the people who worked under the commune. In fact, this is a lost generation of people who had never really been given the credit they deserved for all the hard work that they put in.

DEVIN STEWART: Does Xi Jinping thank you in his speech?

JOSH EISENMAN: I doubt Xi Jinping knows who I am or cares.


JOSH EISENMAN: He might. My view is, if he reads this book, he would appreciate it, but then again far be it for me to know what Xi Jinping is thinking.

DEVIN STEWART: But you're saying that the communes were a success in some ways, right? But you're not a Mao Zedong cheerleader.

JOSH EISENMAN: No. What the commune did was it modernized Chinese agriculture. Prior to the commune, China was a society of illiterates for 5,000 years. The only people who were literate were the literati, the elites.

But it's under the Maoist system that massive resources are channeled into primary education, and actually on a more or less but not entirely egalitarian basis such that young girls maybe for the first time had a name and were actually educated and literate, and not only literate in terms of reading words but also literate in terms of numbers. Every commune had an accountant, and not only that, every team—and every commune had dozens of teams—had to have a team accountant, which means that double-book accounting starts with the commune in many ways. The fact that people knew how to conduct basic accounting, this begins under the commune. So number literacy, word literacy, and also understanding that they had a role to play in the modernization of their country.

Prior to the commune, people thought: That's a big issue for big people, for elites to worry about. I'm just going to do my thing. But under the commune and under Maoism, modernization became something that everybody was expected to be engaged in, women, men, old, young, everybody. In fact, this is what they had. They had work teams which included an old peasant, an expert, and then a young student because the whole idea was to transmit ideas at the grassroots level.

However, the commune was not a liberal institution. You could not leave. There was the hukou system, the residency permit. You couldn't leave. It was not a liberal system. You couldn't worship another god other than Mao Zedong. There was no religious freedom. There was no freedom to dress as you wanted, to wear the hairstyles you wanted. In terms of our liberal values, it had a long way to go. But in terms of producing a lot of bad-tasting grain and thin pigs, undoubtedly.



DEVIN STEWART: Did you interview people who were around back then?


DEVIN STEWART: I'm curious about what their recollection of, what was it like back then? Do they have fond memories?

JOSH EISENMAN: It's funny. You'll never see more Mao posters than if you go into the countryside into an old peasant's home. You'll see a poster of Mao in many of them.

What was interesting is that many of these people who worked in the communes at very low levels, again they didn't speak Mandarin. Most of them speak the local dialect. They could write and read, but they spoke the local dialect. I interviewed them often through their kids.

What was very interesting was to see this eruption of argument between the kids and the parents because the word "eight" in Chinese, Ba, doesn't sound like Qi, which is seven. There's a distinction there that even in dialects you can hear. So often the kids would listen to their parents and translate the 1970s as the 1980s for me.

I would say: "Wait a minute. I could have sworn, I thought I heard him say "1970s."

Then they would turn, and then maybe you'd get an argument because the kids were raised in the Deng Xiaoping era. They were told that the Maoist system was a failure, and the adults were not. So they have personal experience.

Let me give you one example. There was a guy who was translating for his parents, and the father was recounting the story of when he heard about Lin Biao's death, which was in 1971. He said that he had heard about it at the local market. Under Deng Xiaoping though, markets just didn't exist in Maoist China, but they did. Rural markets existed throughout the Mao era except the Great Leap Forward. So the child, who was about 40, about my age, basically did not translate the part about hearing it at the market.

Somebody I was with told me that that was said, so I asked, and this started a debate between the father and the son. At one point the father got very angry and was like: "Look. You were standing next to me while we were selling tomatoes. I know exactly how old you were. I know exactly what happened. I was there. You weren't. Don't tell me where I heard about Lin Biao's death."

In another similar event, the child challenged their parent about when the irrigation networks were created. They said, "No, it had to be done in the 1980s."

The father said: "No, me and your uncle built it with our own damn hands, and let me take you out and show you what we did because I worked on it." We trounced down to the field, and he was indicating those areas of the irrigation networks that he and his brother had done.

What was interesting that I hadn't expected was this generational divide between the people educated under Mao and the people educated under Deng and the difference that they see in the role of the commune.

DEVIN STEWART: Different realities altogether.

JOSH EISENMAN: Definitely.

DEVIN STEWART: There was a case about recollections in the United States about 9/11, where were you on 9/11, and they go back and interview people 10 years later, and their memories are completely different. Even in one of the most memorable episodes of your life, over time your own memory changes. That's a universal phenomenon.

JOSH EISENMAN: That's why we went for the data.

DEVIN STEWART: Right. True. Good point.

JOSH EISENMAN: In this book in the introduction I say that, that systematic data was always prefaced above impressionistic data unless we didn't have systematic data. So if you want to know about Maoist worship rituals, you don't have systematic data, so you have to interview people. But when it came to the productivity of oil crops, that I've got data on, and I'm much more confident in that than I am in impressionistic accounts.

DEVIN STEWART: Your other big book that just came out is called China Steps Out: Beijing's Major Power Engagement with the Developing World. It's an edited volume, and you and Eric Heginbotham are the two editors of the volume.

Maybe you just want to give us the big picture on this book first. Then we've got these cool five themes in China's relations with the developing world on page 15, and you can tell me about them. This is good stuff.

JOSH EISENMAN: I think that maybe the important thing to say is that this is a redux of a book we did 10 years ago.

DEVIN STEWART: That was with Derek?

JOSH EISENMAN: It was with Eric Heginbotham and Derek Mitchell. Derek Mitchell wrote a chapter in this book as well. He was going to be on it as an editor, but he was the ambassador to Myanmar at the time, and he obviously couldn't write a book.

DEVIN STEWART: He was busy.

JOSH EISENMAN: He's a busy guy. But he did end up contributing a chapter to this book.

But in many ways what the previous book does and what this book does is it identifies how important to China the developing world is. To China developing regions are a cornerstone of its foreign policy. For us, who are educated in international relations (IR) theory at places like Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), shouldn't a major power only care about major power relations? A major power that cares about its relations with small countries is anathema to realism.

So in many ways what this book does is it explains China's strategy to the regions of the developing world. It also has the data. Just like the other book, it's based on data, and all of the authors were forced to use the same data, all International Monetary Fund (IMF) data. So this is not a pick-and-choose-from-the-press-accounts-you-like data set. Everybody, every data point in this book is connected to the data sets, so it makes comparisons between regions possible.

In many ways that's what Eric and I did. In the introduction and the conclusion we compared and contrasted among the regions of Africa, Latin America, Middle East, Central Asia, etc., and we made comparisons and drew themes together.

DEVIN STEWART: Before we get to the themes, just real quick, it sounds like a thing that you were implying in there is that China is different compared to what realism would predict, that the developing world is particularly important to the Chinese view of the world and foreign policy. Can you briefly just tell why that's the case?

JOSH EISENMAN: Also China's view of itself, I would say it's also important.

A lot of times we think of U.S. engagement in places like Afghanistan or Angola, and it's very much tied to the Cold War. It's tied to opposing Soviet promulgation of their ideology, things like that. But for the Chinese, from the inception of the country they have viewed themselves as a developing country, viewed themselves as an important leader of the developing world. This dates back to the Bandung Conference.

So there is this idea that China is the biggest and most important developing country and therefore must have good and close relations, and the external legitimation of the regime is in many ways how many foreigners come to kowtow in Beijing on the 7:00 news. Every night you'll see a foreigner from a different country coming and paying respects to the Chinese leadership.

In a place where you don't have elections to legitimize the Party, external legitimacy becomes all the more important. That's one reason they're so tough on Taiwan and their legitimacy because external legitimacy is in many ways the only legitimacy of the current regime. So their relations with African countries and countries throughout the developing world many times are rooted in their desire to gain external legitimacy for their political regime and for their economic policies and strategy, and that's one reason why it's so important for them.

DEVIN STEWART: Right. That's great, Josh.

Looking at those five themes—you're holding the book right now—tell us which strike you as the most important to our listeners.

JOSH EISENMAN: I would say that the important thing for us to understand is that China pursues a comprehensive engagement strategy, which means it's engaging countries on the bilateral level, which are the basis of its relations; on a regional level, and that regional level also takes place through an organization that China established itself.

China established the Forum on China Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), which [happened] in September. They created the forum. It's a region-to-country forum. They have the same thing in Latin America, in the Middle East, and in other places.

DEVIN STEWART: That was recently in The New York Times. China's presence is really growing heavily in South America, Latin America.

JOSH EISENMAN: Particularly in Latin America it's alarming to the United States—Monroe Doctrine, etc.

DEVIN STEWART: Monroe Doctrine. They don't even mention that in the newspapers. I'm like: "What is this? This is too dorky for them? Too wonky?" Actually, I think I tweeted: "What happened to the Monroe Doctrine?"

What are some of the other themes that strike you as important?

JOSH EISENMAN: I would say that the final comprehensive is the international level—the UN, the World Trade Organization (WTO). You've got these three levels of interaction going simultaneously intentionally, and that is multi-layered and self-supporting.

Another important issue is money. I think that a lot of people still talk about Chinese "investment," but in reality Chinese investment is dead. It's not all dead, but the lion's share of it is. So it's important for us to talk about financing and different types of financing. I think that's important.

The final thing I'll say is Chinese political influence, particularly on the party-to-party level. We see this to some degree in the United States, but in Africa in particular where I just visited it's a very important theme. China is cultivating and just hosted last month a dialogue with African political parties in Tanzania. It is regularly and increasingly holding dialogues with African political parties both bilaterally and multilaterally, training cadres in China, dozens, hundreds of them, every year.

DEVIN STEWART: What does that mean, "cadre"?

JOSH EISENMAN: Cadre are party members, party leaders of African parties. In many ways, they're trying to increase the connectivity and the affinity between the two parties, but from the African side and interviewing Africans they're very interested in capacity building, understanding how the Communist Party of China was able to build the kind of capacity—

DEVIN STEWART: Are the Chinese primarily working with socialist and communist parties in Africa?

JOSH EISENMAN: That's an excellent question; not any longer. In fact, it was one of the communist parties in Africa that, it was very interesting to hear them because they seemed to suggest that the Chinese Communist Party was a revisionist party, but then the Chinese Communist Party laughs at them for being too adherent to "old" Marxism. So there is this debate among the two communist parties about—

DEVIN STEWART: Which country was that?

JOSH EISENMAN: I'd rather not say because it was an interview that the person asked me not to. Suffice it to say this was a longstanding and important communist party on the continent, and they were really interesting in the way they described the interactions where they say, "Well, we don't know that what you're talking about is communism."

And the Communist Party of China saying, "Well, you're just not with the times," that "Marxism has evolved into this, and you're back in the 1960s."

DEVIN STEWART: What were the bones of contention there? What differentiates a modern revisionist Marxist communist party compared to an old school, old-fashioned one? What are the differences that they see?

JOSH EISENMAN: At the very heart of it is the bonds that unite. The "Workers of the world, unite!" theme is an internationalist theme. It's a theme that the Communist International (Comintern) promulgated, that Maoism promulgated, that "We are workers; we're in this together." It's a classist ideology, and what China is promulgating now is a nationalist ideology: "We Chinese are in it together. Those are our islands, that's our border." The difference is in terms of how you adhere your country together and what principles you promulgate.

DEVIN STEWART: That's why called China something like a "National Socialist" party.

JOSH EISENMAN: In the previous podcast, which I'm happy to say was one of the top-10 podcasts of last year


JOSH EISENMAN: —we discussed Chinese National Socialism and the details of it. I would say that Chinese National Socialism since that podcast has only become more so. Actually what's interesting is that while people used to laugh at me when I would say that Chinese is a fascist or National Socialist country, they're not really laughing anymore. Now they're more like, "Ugh." They're groaning.

I'm not trying to say I'm the only one who saw this happening. Madeleine Albright has a book come out called Fascism: A Warning. I haven't read it yet. I don't know if it deals with this issue.

DEVIN STEWART: I've read reviews.

JOSH EISENMAN: But people are now noticing. One famous China scholar—and I won't say who he was—said: "Socialism bounded by nationalism ain't that different from National Socialism."

DEVIN STEWART: Sure, which is dangerous, historically at least. It's not inherently dangerous, but history says that there could be some problems there.

Josh, since this series is part of our Information Warfare series and your case study and your specialty is really China in Africa—you wrote a whole book, a giant one, like a thousand pages—

JOSH EISENMAN: Four hundred, but yes.

DEVIN STEWART: —it looks really heavy, called China and Africa: A Century of Engagement. What did you learn about China's dealings in Africa—diplomatically, economically, business enterprise, technology transfer, whatever—about the way China does political influence operations in Africa and elsewhere? What did you see on the ground there in Africa?

JOSH EISENMAN: I should begin by saying that I was in Africa with Ambassador David Shinn. We were in five different countries, South Africa, Namibia, Ethiopia, Djibouti, and Ghana. We were there because we're doing a new book on China-Africa political and military relations, the first book ever on this topic.

DEVIN STEWART: So you never rest or sleep or anything.


Because we're doing this new book, we were very interested in this issue of political influence and political relations. So I can say as I did before that cadre training is a very important part of what they're doing. Other types of training—Xinhua training African journalists, we see this quite a lot. There is an interesting increasing military diplomacy going on between the People's Liberation Army (PLA) and African militaries.

But in African countries we also saw contributions, the Communist Party of China giving chairs, cell phones, laptops, televisions, copier machines to African political parties in order to cultivate goodwill with them.

DEVIN STEWART: Were those seen as gifts or ways to endear themselves with Africans, or were they also ways to surveil these political parties?

JOSH EISENMAN: I'm not an expert on cyberwarfare. I did not receive my laptop from the Communist Party of China.

Let's put it this way: The Foreign Ministry of Ghana, the building was built by the Communist Party of China. A lot of the defense buildings are as well. In Angola as well, the Foreign Ministry was built by the Communist Party of China.


JOSH EISENMAN: The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the regional institution of West Africa, they have a new headquarters being built. Guess who's building it? The Communist Party.

DEVIN STEWART: I would have never guessed.

JOSH EISENMAN: We were at the African Union (AU) headquarters. Guess who built that? The Communist Party of China.

DEVIN STEWART: This sounds like potentially at least a lot of information gathering.

JOSH EISENMAN: You saw the Le Monde story on the AU headquarters, right? Le Monde reports—and I have no way to independently verify, and we did ask this question in AU, and people would not answer the question—that the Communist Party of China or others have tapped the AU headquarters that they built and that every night at 2:00 a.m. or something there was a mass download to Shanghai. Again, I have no way to independently verify these reports, but I do know that there were checks that were done after the story came out. What the results were I can't speak to.

But yes, there is increasing concern among Africans about this, especially when speaking to Americans, who banned Huawei from being involved in America for this very reason. It's Huawei, ZTE, and others who are wiring these building.

It's hard. As an American you can't step out of who you are when you're interviewing somebody. Devin, you know that as well as anyone, that who you are affects the nature of the interview. So you just try to help people feel as comfortable as they can to express their views.

DEVIN STEWART: Talking about—we have time for a couple more points here, Josh—the gifts, the construction of the buildings, the training of the cadres, training journalists, all that stuff, I think maybe the most benign thing is that China is able to make friends and probably gather a lot of information.

What in addition are they trying to do? Some of these podcasts have been devoted to "What is the Chinese message?" and it's basically something like, "Please don't think bad things about China." What is your opinion about what China is trying to do with these types of initiatives, these campaigns, and operations?

JOSH EISENMAN: Whenever you think about China, the most important thing to remember is that the Communist Party of China wants to rule China. Everything goes back to that, and that's why I mention legitimacy from the beginning. Getting these parties to accept that not only is the Communist Party of China the legitimate rulers of China, but that "they also have a good method that we ourselves should follow" is a validation of that. The primary thing they want is not only that you don't think bad about them, that in fact they'd like you to think good about them. They brought China out of a period of backwardness and a period of lack of development and then they developed China. In fact, my first book talks about how they did that.

But what we're dealing with now is a very different kind of China than the Mao era as we said a moment ago with regard to the way they're perceived by African political parties that are more on the left.

DEVIN STEWART: Josh, thank you very much for talking with us today. Before we go, though, what's your assessment of Xi Jinping, his political strength? How is he doing?

There have been a lot of headlines about how the trade war between the United States and China is actually making Xi Jinping a little bit more vulnerable than one would have thought, say, one or two years ago when he was looking invincible. What's your assessment?

JOSH EISENMAN: I think Xi Jinping's going to be just fine, in the short term anyway. The rumors of his demise have been greatly exaggerated, shall we say. There is no viable alternative to Xi Jinping. Nobody's going to pull Bo Xilai out of jail. In the absence of an alternative, the man's going to remain the leader of China.

DEVIN STEWART: That's by design.

JOSH EISENMAN: It's by design, right. I find it very difficult to imagine him being overthrown. What we see here is more pushback.

Actually, I wrote in an article a few years ago in Foreign Affairs that that is very typical of China, that you have a policy on the top, and on the bottom you have pushback. It's so ingrained that there would be such pushback.

What's interesting is that it has actually been so long until it actually happened. To some degree that shows the condition that China was in when he took over, that people were able to tolerate so much before they pushed back in a very meaningful way. But I don't see any chance of him necessarily falling from power.

But I do see an interesting contradiction emerging that's worth our listeners paying attention to, leaving them with this thought then. One Belt, One Road (OBOR) is enshrined in China's Party Constitution. To oppose it is necessarily violating Party discipline.

DEVIN STEWART: Which is kind of treason.

JOSH EISENMAN: Pretty much. "Treason" is a nebulous word, but it's certainly a violation of Party discipline, and it's certainly problematic for you politically. But OBOR is by definition an ambitious strategy, and a lot of what Xi Jinping is being criticized for is over-excess, overreach, over-ambition, a lack of modesty.

How do you achieve One Belt, One Road and be modest about it? Is it even possible? My sense is that that is going to be a tension going forward. How does he achieve his goals because he's sensitive either way? If he doesn't achieve the goals, they'll attack him for not achieving the goals. If he overstretches, he'll be attacked for overstretch.

He's in a tough position, and so I would say listeners should pay attention to this contradiction. Watch how it emerges. See whether or not he gets criticized more for not achieving the grandiose ambitions of OBOR, or does he get criticized for having the grandiose ambitions? But either way, it's this important kind of political litmus test that I think we should watch.

DEVIN STEWART: Thank you so much, Josh. Josh Eisenman is a professor at the University of Texas and the author of two new books and many others and more to come. Thanks so much, Josh.

JOSH EISENMAN: Thanks, Devin.

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