China: Alive in the Bitter Sea
From the Center of the Earth: The Search for the Truth about China
Our relations with China are notoriously subject to swings of opinion. Idealization and disillusion, euphoria and cynicism, follow each other as though our national psychology were regulated by some manic-depressive clock. The current trend toward disillusion about the quality of life in China is no doubt part of a cycle, swinging back from the overblown enthusiasm of the early Maoist revolution of the 1950s. But the new disillusion may also represent a new fact of life, that the Chinese people are in an unprecedented quagmire created by history as well as by the Maoist revolution. Since their hard fate affects ours, it is a time for understanding and for thinking twice. Disillusion could become a reciprocal process.
In the summer of 1943 when wartime propaganda and censorship had built up in the US a better-than-life image of Chiang Kai-shek’s Free China, three writers whose names began with B—Pearl Buck, Hanson Baldwin, and T.A. Bisson—punctured the rosy-hued balloon by reporting Kuomintang China’s actual fatigue, corruption, demoralization, and disunity. The “three Bs,” though denounced in Chungking as saboteurs, struck a blow for realism: they asked Americans to face the reality of China’s problems, while Chiang Kaishek told his officials to see less of Americans. Now come two more Bs—Fox Butterfield and Richard Bernstein—asking us again to face unpleasant facts.
Again, as forty years ago, we are caught in the Sino-American cultural gap. Muckraking, now called investigative reporting, is a public service to Americans, who need their daily muck to feel healthily democratic. But it is seen as an unfriendly if not treasonous disservice to the established order in China, which has normally maintained itself there partly by looking good. Since both the United States and China seem to be becoming less governable, no matter what ideologies they cling to, the shortfall in China between ideal and reality is poignant news in America, while to have it talked about may be considered bad news by the government in China. Yet Peking is committed to “seek truth from facts.” We all confront the usual problem, what is true, on balance?
Butterfield and Bernstein both start by examining the special status accorded foreigners in China, and the journalist’s need to break out of the polite cocoon of interesting bus trips and succulent dinners that makes tourism to China such a success. Both reporters have the special merit of being academically trained Sinologists and historians as well as first-rate journalists. Unlike travelers disoriented by culture shock, they can share the Chinese habit of viewing the present against the long sweep of the past.
They also represent the first wave of Chinese-speaking American correspondents to be stationed in Peking after the normalization of 1979. By that time modern-minded victims of Mao’s decade of cultural revolution (1966-1976) at last felt free to tell their stories of mindless victimization by adolescent Red Guards and Maoists. Both authors report case histories with names changed and identities masked, but the horror stories are in tune with much recent reporting. Most appalling is the way patriotic Chinese in the United States who went back to help build a new China were eventually suspected, accused, condemned, imprisoned, and put out of action because of their “bourgeois” (i.e., American) taint.
Fox Butterfield sets forth a vast amount of hard-won detail on the current regime and society. He began his Chinese studies in 1958 and went on to work for his PhD, partly in Taiwan. But there in 1969 he became a stringer for The New York Times and then spent ten years learning to be their top correspondent on China before opening their Peking bureau in 1979. Butterfield’s self-assurance and attractiveness during twenty months in Peking helped him to accumulate data and personal testimony in meticulous detail. Alive in the Bitter Sea (Ku-hai yu-sheng) is a Buddhist adage about survival in suffering. Different chapters deal with the complex hierarchies of rank and special privilege, the use of personal connections to get ahead or even along in the world, the social and circumstantial restraints on love and marriage, hopelessness among young people, lack of incentives and efficiency in industry, the control of information, and a great deal more. It is the most comprehensive report available.
Richard Bernstein had seven years of basic training in Chinese studies (1966-1973) before joining Time and reporting from Hong Kong and the mainland. His thoughtful essays make a shorter book but an eloquent and perceptive one. His explorations of life especially in Szechwan and in Peking are laced with people and incidents, usually viewed in historical context. The daily lives of individual Chinese he finds drab, dull, and woefully restricted. Every time he went to look at the Great Wall, says Bernstein, he thought of the labor that originally went into it. When the First Emperor built it 2,200 years ago, he threw China’s abundant manpower at the problem of defense, much as we Americans throw money at ours today. So in 1958 Chairman Mao, who admired the First Emperor, attacked the problem of industrialization by also throwing China’s manpower at it. He got mixed results.
Both books reflect the current Chinese backlash against the disaster of Mao’s last decade. The great helmsman steered China backward and onto the rocks. Mao in his seventies had a nostalgic yen for the simplicity of his years in Yenan. He really hated bureaucrats and intellectuals. In the 1960s, when China, like the United States today, badly needed more constructive and better government, not less, Mao’s version of “get the government off our backs” was to “bombard the headquarters” and “drag out the capitalist roaders.” In the turmoil created by the fanatical Red Guards, who felt themselves to be morally in the majority, some aspects of administration even ground to a halt.
No one called it Maoconomics, but the great helmsman’s guerrilla mentality had some Reaganomic overtones. His distrust of central administration led him, for example, to flout the economic law of comparative advantage. Instead of some provinces producing China’s cotton and others rice, Mao wanted all provinces to be potential guerrilla bases self-sufficient in food supply. As a result, production of cotton and rice declined. He also broke up the central statistical service and gave its functions back to the provinces, creating a statistical shambles. Mao’s atavism, to be sure, was less amiable than Mr. Reagan’s. He also had no way to surrender power.
Disillusion with Mao, which these reporters pass on to us from the Chinese scene, seems to be only the top layer of something more fundamental. Behind the fanatical destructiveness of Mao’s revolution gone astray in the late 1960s there lies a deeper problem that the Chinese people now have to live with: in sociological terms, the authoritarian state has taken over the society. Before this century Chinese governments tried primarily to stay in power and so maintained themselves by a combination of indoctrination, surveillance, and intimidation. But in the old days this was largely at the superficial level of the official establishment. It left the peasant masses in the villages under the leadership of the big extended families, the local elite. There was a rough balance between the centralized despotism of the ruling dynasty at Peking and the dispersed village communities held together by the dutiful bonds of the Confucian family system. From official life one could escape into the rural scene.
Modern times have seen this central/local balance destroyed. Rule by a dynastic family has given way to Party dictatorship, which has brought modernized indoctrination, surveillance, and intimidation into every village and every urban family. Partly through telecommunications, the peasant masses mobilized for revolution have been manipulated in political movements from the top down faster than means could be found to represent them from the bottom up. Mao’s mass line, that the Party must listen to the people, is still based on paternal authoritarianism. The officials still know best. For instance, they will not arrest you unless they already know you are guilty. When the able Canadian reporter John Burns was arrested by the agents in the car that always followed his car, the Peking police at headquarters said to him, “Why are you here? Think it over and tell us.” After several hours left alone in detention he worked it out. “I looked at a map while driving and so took my eyes off the road, contrary to regulations.” “That’s right,” they said. “Now you may go.”
Butterfield describes the pervasive control system maintained at the three levels of work unit, street committee, and discussion group. The work unit dominates the individual as fully as the old family system ever could. It arranges food and clothing rations, housing, marriage, schooling, medical service, and recreation. It also controls correspondence and travel, while the street committee watches all behavior and contact, searches living quarters at will, and monitors marital relations to stop quarrels and unauthorized pregnancies. You can find privacy best by walking through a crowd. Meanwhile your particular work is assigned you for the rest of your working life. Transfer to different work is difficult; and husbands and wives may be assigned to different cities. All wives work as well as housekeep. You express yourself freely only to one other person at a time, not if a third person is present, for the testimony of two witnesses can convict you of treasonous dissent. This is an unprecedented degree of collectivism such as the Chinese people have not experienced before.
This penetration of China’s body politic by the old official despotism in a more intensive form has been compounded by a second great new fact: the appalling overcrowding of daily life by a doubling of the population since 1949. The material progress owing to electric water pumps, better seeds, afforestation, combining strip fields into bigger ones, bringing literacy and public health to the villages, and so on—all so promising in the 1950s—has all been eaten up by the disastrous increase of numbers. Many one-time economies of the revolution have been achieved but overpopulation now imprisons the entire people in an inescapable competition to grab one’s own bit of turf and security. People are mean to each other. Inadequate housing condemns them to more crowded living than ever before. A room of one’s own is impossible. Marriages may be postponed because of lack of space for another couple to live in. The modern revolution in sexual selfexpression is sadly inhibited. Standing in line to shop will waste hours every day. Too many people on every job destroys the work ethic. People pollution reduces productivity per person and so leaves the country condemned to poverty.
This crowding has intensified the evils of bureaucratism and favoritism. The Cultural Revolution left the Communist Party swollen with ill-educated people who joined up as opportunists and careerists, not warriors, and now they clutter the administration with incompetent time-servers. Mao’s crusade created exactly what he feared—a regime of cynical bureaucrats jealous of their special privileges. More than ever, one gets ahead in China through personal connections, going through the “back door.” Self-serving sycophancy and corruption go hand in hand because success is measured not in money but in perquisites of housing, transportation, servants, special stores, and special schooling.
What perspectives can offset this disillusioned view? We know that peasant life generally has been a brutal sauve qui peut. Conditions in the countryside may be better than they used to be, and still be brutal for urban intellectuals sent down to the villages. Again, we know that early industrialization with its pollution, city growth, and labor exploitation has been a grim time for most peoples. Mao’s revolution by its very success in bringing literacy and telecommunications to the great mass of people has roused hopes and expectations not easily fulfilled. Moreover, revolutions naturally exhaust themselves. It is thirty-three years since Mao came to power. And too, Butterfield and Bernstein found their friends and informants chiefly among city intellectuals most likely to be distressed. In generalizing about a billion people, many caveats are in order. Yet the disillusion, stress, and unhappiness among educated Chinese come through in these books as facts seen and felt at first hand, part of a widespread mood that cannot be exorcized simply by understanding its causes.
China’s mood has close practical implications for us. It can affect American policy and our relations. For Americans who espouse human rights as a secular religion, China has always presented a major problem. For a century from 1844 to 1943 we enjoyed the privileges of the British-devised unequal treaties, which gave Americans in China the protection of American law. This extraterritoriality, now regarded in China as simple imperialism, must be recognized in retrospect as an American demand to enjoy in China our own type of civil liberties—legal rights to personal freedom, property-holding, and self-expression even by missionaries—which represented the liberal creed.
The current picture of the Chinese state and society dominating the individual highlights China’s lack of such a legal-liberal tradition. Chinese victimized by Mao’s revolution could not appeal to a sanction higher than the moral judgment of the masses allegedly represented by the Party organizers. The whole Chinese educated elite could thus be targeted as oppressors hated by Mao and his followers, partly, I suggest, because in time past the examination system had associated the educated with the rulers. Thus Mao’s class struggle, once unleashed, could set out like a jacquerie to destroy the very people most needed to bring China into the modern world.
Before we conclude that we face a struggle between American and Chinese systems of social order, let us remember, as our missionaries learned during the century of treaty privileges in China, that good and bad are scattered about in both societies and neither one has a monopoly of rectitude, sense, or efficiency. Today’s leader Deng Xiaoping was intended to be a principal victim of the Cultural Revolution and is now a principal survivor. We can expect Mr. Deng and his managerial colleagues to take constructive steps and mount reform programs just as Confucian reformers did repeatedly in the old days.
Meanwhile we have helmsman trouble ourselves. If by downgrading our esteem for the People’s Republic we seem to condone Mr. Reagan’s campaign rhetoric about upgrading relations with Taiwan, we can create trouble no one needs. At present the Deng Xiaoping regime sees the great need for intellectual skills such as exchanges with America can provide. Butterfield and Bernstein met many Chinese eager to escape abroad from the boring conformity of Chinese life. But the American example conveyed by TV and word of mouth can inspire both discontent with Chinese life and a backlash against America. We could, with our usual inadvertence, fill again the role of national enemy. Mao’s activation in politics of formerly inert rural masses roused an anti-intellectual, anti-foreign fanaticism that still lies somewhere below the surface. Peking has to steer its course with one eye on the mass of people and Party activists who were taught from childhood to see America as the great imperialist enemy.
Perhaps the most irksome thought to the Chinese patriot today is the realization that under Mao the Chinese people did stand up, free to make their own revolution, and then brought disaster upon themselves. This is humiliating. Blaming the Gang of Four is of course a fig leaf. The Chinese people followed Mao, and Mao blew it. But as with all great men it will appear in time that Mao led by keeping out in front of his followers. They are left to confront the paradox: China was great, now it is poor. Why? Who was the culprit?
In these circumstances we can draw at least one conclusion. For Mr. Reagan to “upgrade” Taiwan and undo the Nixon-Carter normalization which set up official relations only with Peking, and only unofficial relations with Taiwan, would play into the hands of Deng Xiaoping’s latent opposition. Taiwan is doing well, not damaged by Carter’s normalization with Peking. The regime there of course acclaims Mr. Reagan’s out-of-date sentiments and claims still to be the “sovereign Republic of China,” still defiant in the civil war that ended in fact in 1949. It conducts a wide-ranging public relations campaign focused especially on American state and city leaders. Delegations, paid guests, conferences, and official visits build bonds of friendship. Over 17,000 students come here from Taiwan yearly, compared with half that number from the PRC. We try to be friends with all Chinese and enjoy, sometimes naïvely, our warm relations with the People’s Republic as well as with Taiwan. But Taiwan’s inside track with Reaganite Republicans inspires a Peking counter-attack. It is not at all strange that Peking feels it has to make an issue of our arming Taiwan.
These trends if not halted could unexpectedly produce big disillusionment on both sides, mutual and reciprocal. If life in China has become as grim as Butterfield and Bernstein tell us, we should watch our step. China’s masses are not necessarily rational and may be a sleeping monster. And that may be precisely how they feel about us, too.