»  National Review

September 17th, 2001

  China: A Reality Check


This summer I spent six weeks in China with my family, travelling all over the country, visiting with friends, relatives and ex-students. (My wife is mainland-Chinese with a large extended family, and I taught college in China in the early 1980s.) We mainly stayed in the homes of these people: in Beijing, in the Manchurian city of Changchun, in Xi'an, Chongqing, Wuhan, Shanghai, Shenzhen and Hong Kong.

For me the trip was a useful reality check. I have been writing about China for twenty years: two novels and countless articles in the press. Most of this has been based on remote observation, though: since leaving China in 1983, I have visited the country only at long intervals, and briefly, and have depended on media reports, academic journals, books, and conversations with friends and relatives recently out of China. To sit down at leisure with Chinese people in an intimate way in their own country, and discuss their feelings about that country, its government, and the outside world, has been instructive and thought-provoking. The editors of National Review asked me to give a summary of my impressions, as they relate to this magazine's longstanding interest in helping to promote constitutional government and rational economics in China.

I should preface my remarks with some qualifications. As can be seen from the itinerary above, we spent most of our time in large cities, and aside from some random interactions with people like cab drivers and auto mechanics, all the people we spoke to are urban Chinese of the middle or lower-middle classes. I have nothing to tell you about the Chinese countryside, where 70 per cent of China's people live, and where incomes are stagnating while taxes soar; nor about the industrial working classes, on which China's near future may very well depend. (Perhaps no foreign event made a deeper impression on the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party than the Solidarity movement in Poland during the 1980s. It is clear from their actions then and since that the rise of such a movement in China is the Party's principal nightmare.)

Bearing in mind these limitations, what are my main impressions about the mood of the Chinese people? How do they feel about their government? How strong is their desire for political reform?

I am bound to say that I left China in a pessimistic mood. So far as I could see, while the level of discontent in China is in some places, and on some topics, very high, it is nowhere near high enough to threaten the dictatorship. Speaking most generally, in fact, I found the Chinese pretty well contented with their lives. Hardly anyone voices warm admiration of the current national leadership, and one often hears expressions of disgust about some particular incident of corruption or incompetence; but people give the Communists much credit for the great improvements in living standards this past two decades. The horrors of the Mao years, though not forgotten, have been considerably repressed. Mao knew, as every successful totalitarian despot knows, that it is important to get everyone involved in the beatings and killings and denunciations. Then everyone shares the guilt, and the few who are sufficiently sure of their own righteousness to make accusations against others are, if anything, resented by the majority. The Party's propaganda organs have become skilled at putting the best possible face on past events, glossing them with fictions and excuses (there is an excellent example further down this article); and these inventions fall on a receptive public — or, in the case of the younger generation, a perfectly ignorant one.

The apparatus of terror is still intact, of course, and the "fear factor" is an important one in Chinese life. I had a pleasantly free-wheeling discussion about the Falun Gong with some relatives in a private room we hired at a restaurant. Thus encouraged, a day or two later I asked another relative, who had not been present, what he thought of the movement. This, however, was at an ordinary table in the public area of a different, and rather crowded, restaurant. The poor man nearly jumped out of his skin. "For goodness sake be careful!" he hissed, flicking nervous glances to left and right. "Don't you know it's a banned organization?" Anyone who has lived in a communist country can tell of similar things, and China is still a communist country.

However, the fear factor is not the only, perhaps not even the main, determinant of China's current tranquility, and to over-estimate it is to misunderstand both the temper of the Chinese people and the great success of the Communist Party these past few years. By way of illustrating what I mean, here is the concentrated essence of many arguments I have had with thoughtful Chinese people. It begins with me urging the necessity of democratic reform, while Anonymous ("Wu Ming" in Chinese, identified as "WM" in the dialogue below) insists that while he is no supporter of the Communist Party …

WM: … an authoritarian party like the CP is a necessary crutch while we go through the present stage of modernization. Look at Taiwan. They were under authoritarian rule until the late eighties, when the economy took off. Then they moved to political reform. Same in South Korea. We're nowhere near that point yet.
JD: False comparison. Agitation for democratic reform didn't suddenly begin in those countries once they got rich. The two things developed together. And Taiwan had a strong basis of opposition from the beginning — from 1947, when there were mass riots against the Chiang Kai-shek government. That opposition was bound to work its way through to become an organized political party in time. China has no equivalent basis. If you are ever to get rid of the Communists, you must develop one.
WM: I never said political modernization has to follow precisely the path Taiwan followed. I'm only telling you that it can't get underway until our society reaches a certain level of maturity. We haven't reached that level yet. As you yourself know, we Chinese are a difficult and fractious nation, violent in our passions. Representative democracy was invented by the English, a famously cold people. We need an iron hand, at least until we have sufficient wealth and leisure to attend to these things in an orderly way. And who are you to tell us "we must develop" a democratic opposition? Easy for you to say from the comfort of New York! Do you know what this regime is like? Do you know the things they do to those they perceive as opposition?
JD: Yes, I know. But you can't get, or keep, liberty without martyrs. Look at Chen Shui-bian's wife. [Chen Shui-bian is the current President of Taiwan. In 1985, when he was working for political reform in the island, goons from the governing dictatorship organized a traffic "accident" that left his wife paralyzed from the chest downwards.] I'm sorry if it sounds callous or arrogant, but you know it's true.
WM: Perhaps so, but it's not really the central point. Sure, the fear factor counts. But it's not the main factor in China today, you can see that. The main factor is, that we are all aware of the great progress we've made this past twenty years — yes, under the leadership of the Communists. And we don't want to endanger that. It's not just fear, it's prudence. Look, consider the stakes for us. Suppose you are wrong. Suppose democratic reform, now or soon, does not make us a Taiwan? Suppose it makes us a Russia? Or an Indonesia? Or a Nigeria? Or some corrupt form of "democracy" controlled by military and financial interests, like in South America. Or suppose that, after democratic reform, the big decisions that we all know must be made — closing the State-Owned Enterprises, lifting restrictions on free movement of labor — can't be made because they are unpopular? Your program sounds fine in theory, but you see what a gamble it is for us? Contrariwise, suppose you are right. What do we have to lose by failing to reform? Only a few decades, that's all. See, we have too much to lose if you are wrong, and too little to gain if you are right. That's why, from a practical point of view, you are wrong even if you are right, and the CP is right even though they are wrong!
JD: And the higher principles of political life? Liberty? Justice? Constitutional government? Do they count for nothing in China?
WM: For very little, at the present time. Those things have no roots in our country, you know that. It's not as if we had them and then lost them. We have never had them. And Chinese people of the present day can remember all too well the chaos and the physical hardships of the recent past. They are glad for the relative comfort, security and prosperity of their lives today. They are glad to see their country's voice being listened to with respect in world councils. They are glad to see our national rights being asserted, after they were trampled on for 200 years. Sure, we know the Communists are corrupt, cynical, and cruel; but we give them credit for getting at least some things right — things that matter to us ordinary Chinese, in our everyday lives. And a nation must be governed, you know. If the Communists don't do it, who will do it? The dissidents you admire so much? Who can't even agree among themselves on what day of the week it is? Who have never run anything bigger than a student debating club? Please. Do you think it's easy to govern a country like China?

It is very difficult to counter arguments like these — arguments presented not by sneering Party shills, but by decent, reflective middle-class people very much like oneself. Wu Ming lives in a pleasant air-conditioned apartment. His daughter is doing well in school, and plays piano beautifully. His company is expanding, and he himself just got a big raise. His wife has passed a test for an advanced professional qualification, which will mean a promotion at her job. This year he will take his family on vacation to a new mountain resort that's just opened up. He dreams of buying a car, perhaps four or five years from now, and of attending the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Sure, he knows about the scandals, the cruelties, the corruption and the oppression. An elderly woman in the next town, who tried to stick up a Falun Gong poster, was arrested and beaten. He knows about that, and thinks it's disgraceful. But he also knows that if he stays well clear of such things, busies himself with his job and his family life, the authorities won't bother him.

The Communist Party, of course, understands how Wu Ming feels, and pitches its propaganda very skillfully into his hopes and fears. The parlous state of the former Soviet Union is very well advertised in the Chinese media. So are any disorders or misfortunes that occur in Asian countries that have embraced political liberalization. "See, this is what happens when you experiment with democracy," is the implied message. The propaganda factor, along with the fear factor and the prudence factor, is of key importance in understanding current Chinese attitudes towards their own society and the outside world. Information is no longer as strictly controlled as it once was. A curious, ingenious and persistent Chinese person can, with very little danger, learn many things the Communist Party does not want him to know. Alas, very few Chinese people have the time or inclination to make the necessary effort. They take their information from the official media, supplemented by rumor and "political education" in the schools. As a result, much of what they believe is false. They have the utmost difficulty in grasping this, though, since everyone else they know believes the same things.

Take, for example, the terrible famine of 1959-61 — the Mao famine, to give it its proper name. This was the greatest human calamity of the twentieth century, excepting only WWII. Somewhere between 25 and 30 million people died. The causes of the famine are not in serious dispute. The policies of the Chinese Communist Party, under the leadership of Mao Tse-tung, brought about the whole disaster, and then prolonged it unnecessarily. British Sinologist Jasper Becker has written a fine book, Hungry Ghosts, setting out the details. For the Communist Party of today, the famine presents a serious image problem. They can hardly pretend it didn't happen. Everybody in China knows it happened: any Chinese person over the age of thirty can tell you a famine story, either from his own experience or transmitted from older family members. The task for the government's propaganda department has been to absolve the Party of all responsibility, to place the blame for the catastrophe elsewhere, preferably on foreigners. This has now been done, with total success. Ask a Chinese person about the causes of the famine and you will hear the following tale.

After Liberation [i.e. the Communist takeover in 1949] Chairman Mao asked the Russians to help us reconstruct. Soon, however, he saw that they did not really want to help us, they wanted to dominate us. So he asked them to leave. The Russians demanded immediate repayment of all their loans, and repatriation of, or payment for, all the equipment they had installed. They threatened war if this was not done. To spare the nation this war, and to save the national honor, Chairman Mao called on the people to make great sacrifices. Unfortunately, this came at a time of adverse weather conditions …

Needless to say, there is not a shred of truth in this account. (Although any year is a bad year somewhere in China, overall weather conditions during the famine years were not in any way unusual.) It is, however, believed by all Chinese people, and even appears now in high-school history textbooks. Note that the fable not only absolves Mao and his party of all guilt, it even presents the whole ghastly incident as a triumph of national integrity!

And that last point — bringing in the matter of national honor — is the stroke of true genius in this little propaganda master-work. I have written before in these pages about the atavistic imperialism of the Chinese ("Communist, Nationalist and Dangerous," NR 4/30/01). Probably there is no greater service a Chinese government could perform for the peace of the world than to wean the Chinese people away from these poisonous pre-modern attitudes. To the contrary, the policy of the present dictatorship is to nurture and strengthen them. One thing you can never get Chinese people to talk about at all is the "national question" — that is, the question of China's borders. It is simply not an issue for any Chinese person. If you try to raise it, they just look puzzled. Taiwan? "What's the difficulty? Hong Kong and Macau came back to the Motherland with no problems." Tibet? Turkestan? Inner Mongolia? "Always part of China. Everybody knows that." All argument is useless here. They wave it away with a laugh. Foreigners believe such weird things! But then, what can foreigners know about China?

In fact, one of the more depressing things about China, if you are a person with a deep interest in the country and its history, is how little the Chinese themselves know. Any foreigner who makes an effort to do so can easily become better-informed about recent Chinese history than the Chinese are. Talking to young relatives in Changchun, for example, I was surprised to find that they had never heard of Gao Gang, the great Manchurian warlord of the early 1950s. With the support of Stalin, who did not like Mao Tse-tung, Gao declared Manchuria an autonomous state under Soviet protection and actually issued his own currency at one point. He was an old Party war-horse, had in fact been in charge of the base at Yan'an when Mao arrived there with his battered, exhausted troops at the end of the Long March. "If not for me, Mao would be nothing," Gao boasted. "He came to me a beggar in rags!" A wiser man would not have said this. Stalin's death left Gao naked to his enemies. Out-maneuvered at a Party meeting in 1954, he disappeared. The official version is that he committed suicide. ("His last act of anti-Party betrayal," hisses the communist encyclopedia.) Well, I happened to be in China during a great gush of movies and TV documentaries to celebrate the Party's 80th anniversary. Gao did not appear in any that I saw. Other inconvenient figures in the history of the Party — like Zhao Ziyang, who took the wrong side in the 1989 disturbances, and Hua Guo-feng, Mao's designated successor — have also been airbrushed out.

The histories of the conquered territories are even more inaccessible, and no Chinese person knows any true facts about them. Nobody outside China who has examined the matter could possibly believe that "Tibet has always been a part of China." That, however, is of no importance. Everybody inside China believes it, and that is sufficient for a Chinese person, who in any case is aware — the Communists remind him of it endlessly — that maleficent foreigners are forever plotting to weaken and dismember the Motherland by trickery and the sowing of falsehoods. Life in China has a peculiarly claustrophobic quality to it, which every foreigner feels after a few weeks in the country. This is the root of the well-known phenomenon called "China fatigue," in which foreigners who start out with the best will in the world towards China and her people end up hating the place. An acquaintance of mine, who for some years served as the Beijing office manager of a large international investment bank, suffered badly from China fatigue, and had to take a long vacation twice a year, "or else I'd start breaking things." China really is — still is — a world within the world, to whose inhabitants the lands Beyond the Wall are, fundamentally, of very little interest. I found it very difficult, even in those big cities, to get Western newspapers and magazines. Even airport newsstands do not sell them. (The only exception I found was the new Pudong Airport in Shanghai.) Nor do bookstores; nor do any but the grandest hotels.

My feeling, as I have made plain, is that the present dictatorship is more firmly established than I thought before I went to China. The urban middle classes, who are supposed to be the driving force behind political reform, do not like the Communists very much, but they do not mind them very much, either. The propaganda of the Communist Party, even at its most mendacious, has been very successful, and overwhelming numbers of Chinese people believe what the Party wants them to believe. Where economics and propaganda fail them, the Communists can still rely on fear. Everyone knows what they are capable of. From this point of view, the events of 1989 greatly strengthened the dictatorship, as of course they were intended to. I cannot see any reason why the Communists should not go on ruling China and her imperial possessions indefinitely.

It is, of course, possible that the stability I saw is all an illusion. My visit was brief, and restricted in the ways I have described. Some other observers, with perhaps better claims to understanding, detect tremendous tensions beneath the surface of Chinese life. Gordon Chang, who has lived in China for twenty years, argues in his new book The Coming Collapse of China that the nation's economy is all make-believe, and that China's entry into the World Trade Organization next year will bring it all crashing down. He calls China "a lake of gasoline." Well, I heard some bitter grumbling, especially from the lower ranks of Chinese society, but I cannot truthfully say that I smelt gasoline. It seems to me, so far as it is possible to know anything about such matters, that China's rulers are well aware of the dangers inherent in WTO accession, and are preparing for them in their own way. That, I think, is what lies behind the current wave of repression. When you know there are some bumps in the road ahead, you want everything on the truck strapped down tight.

I think the Communists may well ride out present dangers, and maintain sufficient public support, or at least indifference, to see them safely through WTO accession and forward to a triumphant and well-organized Olympic spectacular that will further cement their hold on the nation. Prognostications about China are always hazardous, and risk making one look a fool in five or ten years' time, but I see no great changes in China's near future. As a lover of liberty, justice and truth, I say this sadly, in frustration; but also, thinking of my Chinese friends and relatives, with much sympathetic understanding.