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Keeping up with the New China

Discos and Democracy: China in the Throes of Reform

by Orville Schell
Pantheon, 384 pp., $19.95

Seeds of Fire: Chinese Voices of Conscience

edited by Geremie Barmé, edited by John Minford
Hill and Wang, 491 pp., $25.00

Peking Story: The Last Days of Old China

by David Kidd
Clarkson N. Potter/A Griffin Paperback, 207 pp., $11.95

Behind the Wall: A Journey Through China

by Colin Thubron
The Atlantic Monthly Press, 307 pp., $18.95

The Chinese modernization effort of recent years is on so titanic a scale that it is hard to grasp. Can China switch from a command economy to a free market in goods, capital, people, and even ideas? If so, can Party dictatorship survive? A period of railway and city building, typical of the nineteenth century, coincides with a flowering of postindustrial electronic technology. Issues of the Renaissance and Enlightenment in the West compete with a reappraisal of China’s own values. Change is headlong; China’s development is stretched thin. Wang Yang-ming’s unity of theory and practice, so admired since the sixteenth century, is hard to find. No wonder Deng Xiaoping’s reforms confuse us as well as people in China.

As we emerge from our obsession with the cold war we find it useful to help the development of our erstwhile antagonists Russia and China, much as we found it useful to help German and Japanese reconstruction after World War II. But in China our understanding of the forces at work is confused by the size of the problems and their speed of change. Some sage must have remarked that it is harder to understand friends than enemies, particularly when the friends are pursuing revolution in the name of reform. The four books under review illustrate different kinds of first-person, nonacademic approaches to the Chinese happening. They are short on statistics, long on personal impressions.

Orville Schell’s talent has steadily matured pari passu with the revival of Chinese-American contact since the early 1970s. At first, when China’s intellectuals were still downtrodden and American observers were regarded as intruders, Schell could do little more than exchange furtive generalities in dark corners with alienated riders of mopeds. This enabled him to report on the marginal misfits in a still closed society as in his book “Watch out for the Foreign Guests!” But as Deng Xiaoping and his colleagues began to profit from their experience as victims of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, they took the path of opening China to the world’s trade and investment as well as to its people and ideas. On his repeated visits to China Schell found more and more friends to talk to. He was able to read the new press and magazines and finally to interview some of the more prominent and influential Chinese about vital issues. Where his earlier books, though always amusing, seemed sometimes superficial, in Discos and Democracy he has gotten inside the Chinese reformer’s situation. The result is first-rate reporting.

Schell’s main characters are three: first, the innovative entrepreneurs who are riding the tidal wave of foreign imports and influences; second, the hard-line Maoists of the old guard who try to save the communist order they built up. Third are the straight-talking critics—mainly writers—who assert the basic truths of the situation as the only possible basis for China’s reconstruction.

After 1978 Deng’s switch to an Open Door policy let in the flood tide of importations—electronic gadgets and other consumer goods, joint ventures of foreign and Chinese firms, Western-trained lawyers, special ports and economic zones where the new international style hotels could meet the foreigners’ special needs and segregate them from Chinese citizens. Schell reports the opening of stock exchanges in the major cities, fashion shows and fancy shops from Paris, and the limo-izing of the capital, which now has 14,000 taxis compared with New York City’s 11,000. He finds that installations to collect tourist dollars do not stop with high-rise hotels and Cadillacs. Near the Ming tombs east of Peking there opened in August 1986 the eighteen-hole, seventy-two-par Beijing International Golf Club managed by the local Changping Country Economic Relations and Trade Corporation and the Japan Golf Association. Ingenuity in the tourist trade knows no bounds. Schell visited the North China International Shooting Academy near Beijing in 1987. Organized under the State Council’s Ministry of Machine Industry, it offered the recreation of firing all sorts of rifles, submachine guns, antiaircraft guns, and even antitank rocket launchers. It was patronized mainly by Japanese, although Japan’s shooting in China fifty years ago had not been for recreation.

After a generation of living with Mao’s slogans “serve the people” and “class struggle,” the Chinese have turned back to the family and private consumerism. This trend has taken odd forms. In 1986 Schell noted that the Fourth National Invitational Body-Building Tournament convened in the Special Economic Zone near Hong Kong. Among 228 competitors, fifty-seven were women. According to the international rules of this new movement, women body builders can wear anything they like in private but must wear only bikinis in public. Three hundred members of the press attended and there was an audience of six thousand persons. The contestants were featured in the pages of a number of new body-building magazines. Meanwhile the craze for disco dancing permeated the cities, and its gyrations tended to leave the more sedate practice of tai chi exercise behind. Schell concludes that Mao destroyed too much:

So culturally enfeebled and idealistically bankrupt had China become as a result of its repeated attack on itself that there was virtually no homegrown force short of massive control and oppression to stand in the way of the unimpeded progress of Western pop phenomena like disco.

China’s absorption of Western pop culture has gone along with the invasion of imported American TV shows and a rapid conversion to advertising. In June 1987 the Beijing ‘87 International Advertising and Marketing Congress was held in the Great Hall of the People sponsored by the China National Advertising Association for Foreign Economic Relations and Trade. Top executives from all the advanced countries in the advertising world were among the seven hundred foreign delegates invited. In fact 869 persons accepted even though the registration fee was raised from $950 to $1,680. Western commercials had previously been accepted on Chinese TV under joint venture arrangements between Chinese and American companies. “Whereas in 1980 there had been less than ten staterun Chinese advertising agency offices in all of China, by 1987 there were close to seven thousand.” Advertisements were soon plastered all over the cities, on envelopes, walls, chimneys, trees, buses, boats, trains, planes, and the tops of buildings. Moreover, owing to competition to please the public, public relations departments began to be set up on a vast scale, for example in three hundred factories in Shanghai alone in 1987. PR after all is the Western institutional equivalent of guanxi (connections). Confucianism had in fact been the world’s first PR system. Rediscovered, PR is in China to stay.

This frenetic fad for modernity was accompanied by rampant corruption through personal deals. To get things done, some entrepreneurs made covert payments to officials at every level. One can understand why the hard-line conservative reformers of the Chinese Communist party who had grown up in the Maoist era felt that China was selling out to foreign cultural values that would destroy China’s identity and old-time morality. In the mid-1980s the old guard in the Party mounted campaigns against “spiritual pollution” and “bourgeois liberalization.” These campaigns alarmed intellectuals and liberals generally by recalling Mao’s Cultural Revolution, but in the rush of events they petered out. Yet the conservative reformers’ concern must be understood as a basic ingredient in China’s groping for modernity. It was not too long ago that by custom Chinese peasant women when in public walked several paces behind their husbands. The Three Bonds that subordinated women to men, juniors to seniors, and subjects to the emperor had expressed the essence of the imperial Confucianism that fostered the old Chinese social order. The Three Bonds knit the superficial government and the basic village community into a social continuum in which duties were prescribed for all persons in all situations. From this age-old point of view, body-building contests could only be the rough equivalent of, say, mass copulation on the stage of Lincoln Center—far too extreme, not in good taste.

Maoist thought had tried to supplant Confucianism, but now both ideologies were on the defensive. Early in the reform movement Deng Xiaoping and his colleagues tried to hold the line by establishing the Four Cardinal Principles: to support socialism, the people’s democratic dictatorship, the leadership of the Communist party, and Mao’s thought. This was more than a jumble of slogans. To understand the Chinese reformers’ predicament we must accept two large truisms: first, that political power in a democracy may come or be engineered from the bottom up, but in China it still comes from the top down. One obeys one’s superiors. The Chinese Communist party dictatorship is historically the successor to two thousand years of sweet-talking despotism by dynastic ruling families.

The second truism is that power in a democracy may be legitimized by law, but in China it is legitimized by morality. The cardinal principle of upholding Marxism, Leninism, and Mao Tse-tung thought is the historical successor to two thousand years of didactic Confucian teaching. Both Confucius and Mao gave primacy to correctness of thought and attitude, not to due process of law. In China even today adherence to orthodoxy will save the citizen from trouble, but he cannot rely for protection on legal procedure. Immorality is antisocial and should be punished, but unfortunately for the citizen, the reigning orthodoxy can change overnight, and what was moral yesterday may be immoral today. Attorney General Meese’s claim to have been “vindicated” because not actually indicted seems to us outrageous as excessive legalism. It is no more acceptable in America than Mao’s excessive moralism was in China when he punished loyal critics as morally depraved “rightists.”

Schell’s third set of protagonists are the intellectuals who speak out and assert that a state-imposed orthodoxy can only hold China back. Schell devotes considerable space to the sagas of the physicist Fang Lizhi, the investigative reporter Liu Binyan,1 and the iconoclastic essayist Wang Ruowang. These three and a few others have become exemplars of writers and speakers who assert that Marxism and Mao are out of date and have fostered cruelty and injustice. Worse, these critics persist in seeking to put their truth into print. They are protagonists in the old, old drama of the central authority versus the questioning or dissident scholar. One of Liu Binyan’s essays is on “a second kind of loyalty,” suggesting that China needs to recognize the usefulness of a loyal opposition instead of, in Lucian Pye’s phrase, the old “feigned compliance.”2 Ever since the Anti-Rightist movement of 1957 marked Mao’s early attack on the revolutionary leadership, there had been many thousands of cases of moral censure. They reached a height during the Cultural Revolution of 1966–1976. The noteworthy aspect of this confrontation in the 1980s has been the Chinese intellectuals’ disenchantment with the morality of Marxism-Maoism. Maoism had largely shattered Confucianism but now proved backward itself. For a people accustomed to orthodoxy, what could be believed? The slogan of the 1920s, “Science and Democracy,” was revived.

  1. 1

    An interview with Liu Binyan appeared in The New York Review of Books January 19, 1989, and an article by Fang Lizhi in the February 2, 1989, issue.

  2. 2

    See Lucian Pye, The Mandarin and the Cadre: China’s Political Cultures (University of Michigan Center for Chinese Studies, 1988), p. 31.

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