China offers US a lesson in ‘pure’ politics

Columnist and Columnist

The People’s Republic of China’s past may help shine light on the United States of America’s present political culture that seems to demand ideological purity among its policies and personal purity among its policy makers.

While it’s a bit cliché to say that American political culture is more divided and extreme ideologically than ever before, it should be pointed out that objective Congressional members are indeed divided ideologically to an extent that’s unprecedented in recent history.

And while it’s harder to prove with scientific certainty that all other aspects of the American body politic are just as plagued by calls for “partisan purity,” it’s also hard to deny that assumption if you follow politics to even the slightest degree.

At this point you may be asking what China could offer America in regards to this issue.

To which I would say that the administrations of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping can serve as interesting case studies to illuminate, and perhaps propose solutions to, our current political problems.

In regards to Mao, despite the way in which he is currently venerated for his perceived achievements in China, he nonetheless did pursue a policy that perpetrated grave disservices against the Chinese people.

This policy could best be summed up by the Maoist slogan of “Better Red than Expert.”

As the wording of the slogan suggests, ideological purity (being “Red”) was prioritized over expertise in a given subject (economics, public administration, etc.).

As one could easily imagine, this led to many qualified public servants being dismissed or simply not hired at all for not being “Red” enough, along with many good policies being overlooked and shunned for not fitting neatly into the Maoist narrative.

And in their place, only “pure” public officials and “pure” policies were allowed to remain, regardless of their credentials or practical implications.

All this came to a macabre climax called the Cultural Revolution, perhaps summed up best by Chinese-American playwright David Hwang in the following dialogue from “M. Butterfly”: “[Mao] handed over the reins of state to those with minds like his. And children ruled the Middle Kingdom with complete caprice. The doctrine of the Cultural Revolution implied continuous anarchy.”

And it is from that anarchy of ideology trumping and trampling everything in the name of “purity” that American should draw an important lesson.

I’m not saying that America will soon suffer from roving gangs in Red Guard garb, hosting images and shouting slogans of Reagan or F.D.R., but what I am saying is that the cost is so high that Americans should fear going anywhere near the direction of ideological convictions trumping practical and pragmatic policies.

And while the U.S. should fear the specter of the Chinese slogan “Better Red than Expert,” I think that it would be best to embrace a Chinese slogan that came shortly after it: “It doesn’t matter if the cat is black or white; what matters is how well it catches mice.”

The above was stated by Deng Xiaoping, who led the PRC after Mao, and it’s worthy of close consideration.

This more pragmatic view of politics, in which the credentials and practical implications in regards to serving the needs of the state are prioritized over ideological purity, ensured greater prosperity and stability in China.

And while there have been shifts too much one way or another from time to time, for the most part the Middle Kingdom has kept to the Middle Way between extremes in partisanship.

It has been this policy of being more accepting of “impurities” in politics, politicians, and policy that has led China to its current state of ever increasing prosperity and prestige. While post-Deng China is not without its own problems (the ever growing gap between the poor and the wealthy being among them) it is best to keep in mind that it is at least without the mass starvation and riots that were hallmarks of Mao’s China.

It is that victory of pragmatism over “purity” that American politics needs to appropriate at this time, lest it slip into a darker future.

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