Sunday, August 16, 2009

Chen Yun

I've begun reading Prisoner of the State at last. The person who has impressed me the most so far in it--and I'm only about halfway through--is Chen Yun. He comes across as one of the more principled characters with whom Zhao Ziyang tangles.

Comrade Chen is famous for resisting the excesses of Maoist economics, arguing for light, consumer-oriented goods when the country was going all out for steel (at least that's what I recall from history textbooks... someone correct me if I'm wrong). But he clearly wasn't a market zealot. Throughout Prisoner of the State, which is centered on the 1980s, Chen calls for restraint, blocking lucrative deals with foreign companies but grudgingly going along with other of Zhao's schemes when the logic of reform is inescapable.

In other words, Chen really meant what he said to Mao and to Deng alike: private enterprise has its role, but it is a secondary role to government. Agree with him or disagree with him, Chen kept true to his own experience and instincts, at a time when it paid off big time to toe the prevailing line. And when it was dangerous not to do so.

In contrast, I find myself repeatedly uncomfortable with Zhao's market fever. Of course, the market must have felt refreshingly bold only a little over a decade after the Cultural Revolution. But was ceding a large section of Hainan to a private developer, as Zhao tried to do, really so visionary?

Some people are revered by later generations not because they were always right, but because they took the right stand at a crucial moment. Zhao certainly did this when he refused to assent to the martial law declaration in 1989. For that he deserves all our respect.

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