Coming Alive Analysis
by Roger Garside

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Coming Alive

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

The recent history of China is filled with traumatic change, having begun with the deaths of Zhou Enlai and Mao Zedong in 1976. To record these changes, Roger Garside has written an eyewitness account of major developments in the four years that followed. Closely observing Hua Guofeng, successor to Chairman Mao Zedong, and Deng Xiaoping, architect of China’s Four Modernizations program, he follows the policy changes with narrative and political analysis. He is clearly optimistic, as the title of his book suggests, and he senses a broad popular demand for China’s liberalization and modernization designed to end Soviet-style totalitarianism.

From his vantage point as First Secretary of the British Embassy in Beijing, and with language facility and the experience of an earlier residence in China, the author has ably recorded the events, the people, and the emotions surrounding the angry crowds at Tienanmen Square, when the memorial wreaths honoring Zhou Enlai in April, 1979 were removed, and the ecstatic throng at Democracy Wall tasted freedom of expression. Garside adds a further dimension to his observations by interviewing major participants in these events, utilizing published sources where available, and making comparisons to earlier periods, particularly the Cultural Revolution, 1966-1969. The human response to the policy changes that caused these events is important to assess the effect of such changes, and Garside performs this task credibly. His achievement is particularly noteworthy considering that policy changes are not always easy to detect through the subtle techniques devised by China’s Communist system. Garside, however, has a sensitive but critical eye to detect the policy shifts often tied to the political fortunes of China’s leaders.

Garside depicts Mao Zedong as a daring leader, fearless of nuclear war, who is compared to Tamerlane, the Turkish conqueror of Central Asia. Garside’s interpretations of Mao differ little from prevailing viewpoints. Consequently, he also sees Mao as deliberately attempting to build up a cult worship as a rallying point for his revolutionary leadership but genuinely embarrassed about the excessive public adulation directed by Lin Biao, Mao’s chosen successor and later betrayer. Garside, however, does place less emphasis than Robert Jay Lifton in Revolutionary Immortality (1969) on Mao’s desire to ensure the immortality of his revolution. Garside believes that there is insufficient evidence to show that Mao was really preoccupied with this thought.

The ideological battles between the famed Gang of Four, an ultra leftist faction led by Jiang Qing, Mao’s wife, and the pragmatist resurgence led by Deng Xiaoping are recounted at length. In 1976, after six years of being away from China, Garside returned to find the nation little changed. The capital’s bleakness appeared to permeate all facets of life. Authority prevailed over individual movement and decision, politics was not discussed, libraries were largely inaccessible, the Communist Party appeared unstable and inconsistent, and few foreign ideas and contacts had penetrated China’s isolation, yet the reverence for Chairman Mao remained evident everywhere.

Before the year’s end, the scene in China began to change. The death of Zhou Enlai on January 8, 1976, brought a genuine expression of remorse to a great many Chinese. Garside saw this as a defiance of Mao’s eminence, and, in the outpouring of grief, the author sensed a deep affection for Zhou. A contrast to this episode is Garside’s account of the jubilant response to the arrest of the Gang of Four after Mao’s death, reflecting public sentiment and China’s search for relief from authoritarian rule.

Encouraged by the elimination of the Gang of Four, the reinstatement of Deng Xiaoping and his pragmatist ideology became attainable. By 1978-1979, China’s youth were at “Democracy Wall” in Beijing, determined to freely express their long-shackled opinions. The wall posters (dazibao) that carried the latest views were highly opinionated and dared to criticize Mao’s mistakes, and the last ten years of his rule were being called a “feudal fascist dictatorship.” The questioning of Mao’s thought and the elevation of “democracy” to a fifth modernization grew in direct proportion to the shrinking allegiance to socialist principles. Rallies, speeches, and demonstrations were held. The determined youth became so enthusiastic in their free expression of ideas that Garside sensed a spontaneous Cultural Revolution that could once again get out of control.

Arising from this experiment with democracy were genuine dissidents, the most notable of whom was Wei Jingsheng, leading editor of the unofficial journal, Exploration. He wrote of the failure of Communism to alleviate the inadequacies of pre-Mao China. For his heretical views, Wei was arrested on March 29, 1979, tried six months later and sentenced to fifteen years in prison. Another example of Communist retreat from democracy was the poet Huang Xiang of the Enlightenment Society, who wrote poems critical of totalitarian dictatorship on Democracy Wall and was returned to Guizhou province for “ideological rectification.”

This “crack” in Democracy Wall was inevitable. While Deng Xiaoping had no qualms about introducing some democratic practices as part of China’s westernization scheme, he had to pull back when anarchy threatened. Garside correctly notes that when essential socialist principles were questioned, the government was left with no alternative but to stop the process. While young activists protested the government’s action, Garside reports significantly that there was little complaint from the general public. The episode at Democracy Wall, however, is viewed by Garside as symptomatic of the broader transition from authoritarian Communism to a controlled “political pluralism” in which the dictatorship of the proletariat is relaxed at an orderly and moderate pace. He believes that Chinese Communism will continue to be unique and will ultimately be shaped by China’s own cultural experience. His argument is reinforced by the record of Chinese Communism to date.

Despite the limitations put upon the pace and extent of democratization by Deng and his pragmatists, Garside provides sufficient evidence that contemporary China is willing to gamble and risk change and to tolerate a broad spectrum of Western influence. In international affairs, for example, China has determinedly broken from Soviet domination and has become more closely intertwined with the United States and Japan. In domestic economic matters, China appears to be following the “Yugoslav model” by allowing some consumer preference to determine what is to be manufactured and by engaging in joint ventures with foreign companies. Most telling are the massive numbers of Chinese students sent abroad with the liberty of freely associating with their foreign hosts. In addition, Garside reports the popularity of foreign books and films, and China’s openness to tourism.

The changes that have taken place in China since Mao’s death have been enormous, and while the process is not complete, Garside sees hopeful signs that China is emerging toward modernization in a very substantial way. He is laudatory about the achievements and potential of Chinese scientists and impressed with the developing education system. He is confident that China’s new course will continue after the demise of Deng Xiaoping, because Deng has methodically placed pragmatist sympathizers (such as Zhao Ziyang, who was made Premier to replace Hua Guofeng in 1980) in key positions of authority. Reinforcing Garside’s expectation is the fact that the pragmatist ascension to power was speeded dramatically after the publication of his book. The new Party hierarchy, however, will have to overcome the lingering popular resentment of special privileges held by officials, while seeing that China’s newfound individualism does not become ruthlessly self-seeking.

Garside concludes that he has witnessed unique changes in China in which totalitarian tyranny is being replaced by a more humane system designed to free itself from the “straightjacket woven of feudalism, Marxism-Leninism, and twentieth-century technology.” Garside’s views of recent developments in China are reasonable and clearly presented, but his book largely remains centered in Beijing. To a point, this is justified: Beijing is the seat of power and the place where effective changes must begin. One cannot help but wonder, however, what is happening in other parts of China, in the distant rural and urban communes where daily routines are not likely to feel the immediate impact of a wall poster in Beijing. Nevertheless, the reader will benefit by Garside’s incisive account of the drama still being played out in China after Mao.


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

Best Sellers. XLI, May, 1981, p. 63.

Choice. XVIII, July, 1981, p. 1605.

Christian Science Monitor. LXXIII, July 8, 1981, p. 17.

The Economist. CCLXXX, July 11, 1981, p. 94.

Library Journal. CVI, March 1, 1981, p. 556.

National Review. XXXIII, February 20, 1981, p. 172.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVI, April 12, 1981, p. 9.

School Librarian. XXIX, September, 1981, p. 267.

Times Literary Supplement. July 10, 1981, p. 788.