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The Old Man’s New China

The Communist Party of China has regularly warned Western observers like Merle Goldman not to interfere in China’s internal affairs. China, it says, has its own culturally distinctive ideas on topics like freedom, democracy, and human rights. So how could Goldman write a book about China called Sowing the Seeds of Democracy and dedicate it to her four children “who may someday see democracy flower in China”? Isn’t this cultural imperialism? Who invited her to tell China what to do?

Goldman does not take up these questions, but she has written a history whose solidity and detail in effect answer them. She shows, year by year and event by event, from the late 1970s to about 1990, how members of a Chinese intellectual and political elite themselves were striving for a fairer and more humane government, which, partly for want of a better word, they called “democracy.”

She selects about three dozen figures for careful study. Among them are the soft-spoken Wang Ruoshui, former deputy editor of the People’s Daily and a thinker equally serious about both Marxism and humanism, who dared to make the heterodox argument that “alienation” could happen in socialist as well as capitalist societies; Bai Hua, a writer whose assertion that patriotism and love of the Communist Party need not be the same thing brought him the stigma (or, as some saw it, honor) of being the only person in the Deng Xiaoping era to have a nationwide criticism campaign aimed at him; and Fang Lizhi, the astrophysicist whose faith in scientific method led him to reject Marxism and Maoism, and whose conviction that a citizen has the duty to speak the truth publicly quickly made him a hero among students and a villain to the top leadership of the Party. Fang Lizhi avoided prison only by taking refuge in the American embassy in Beijing and then going into exile in the US.

Some of the subjects—for example the indomitable writer Liu Binyan, who was expelled from the Communist Party in 1957 for telling too much truth in his stories, rehabilitated after Mao’s death, and expelled again in 1987 for basically the same offense—appear in one of Goldman’s two earlier books.1 The three books are similar in style, chronologically consecutive, and together make a comprehensive and shrewdly analytical history of the battles that have taken place over dissenting thought in Communist China during five decades beginning with the 1940s.

This long story includes some foreign influences—from Hungarian “Petofi Clubs” to the Statue of Liberty—but, as Goldman shows, the influences were ones that Chinese thinkers eagerly sought. No force was used. Moreover Goldman’s references to China’s history of “principled literati,” who were willing to confront abusive or wrong-headed kings and emperors during the 2,500 years before the modern century, further make it clear that the kind of dissenter she describes is no Western import, even if some of his or her ideas are.

Allison Jernow’s Don’t Force Us to Lie, a pamphlet aimed at drawing Western attention to the plight of Chinese journalists, might indeed be called interventionist, but only on behalf of people who want and badly need friends. It is well known that Chinese journalists are not free to publish what they learn. The reverse problem—of being forced to publish what they know is false—is less widely appreciated, and it is illustrated in Jernow’s book. If you are an editor ordered against your will to criticize Fang Lizhi, you can choose to reprint a criticism that has been published elsewhere. This device not only distances you a bit from the distasteful act, but will also be noticed and understood by at least some of your readers. Alternatively, you can publish your required lies on your last page, or use a different size of type for them. Don’t Force Us to Lie also includes chapters on the problems of foreign journalists working in China and of Hong Kong journalists facing 1997, when Hong Kong will revert to China. These chapters make it clear that international solidarity among journalists who must deal with the Chinese government is based on more than just sympathy.

Both accounts end around 1990, when China’s public mood was significantly different from what it is today. In her introduction to Jernow’s book, the Sinologist Anne Thurston observes that “China is a nation of moods, and the swings in mood are wide and dramatic.” Indeed, Chinese people seem recently to have changed direction like a school of fish, dropping talk of politics in favor of talk about money. By chance I was in Beijing in March while the National People’s Congress (NPC) was in session, and when Secretary of State Warren Christopher publicly quarreled over human rights with his Chinese counterparts. On the streets of Beijing, no one seemed to notice his presence. During the student protests five years ago, when the NPC was also meeting and a prominent foreign guest (Mikhail Gorbachev) was in town, the entire city had seemed to reverberate with excitement over these high political events. Posters were displayed even in the smallest alleyways. But in 1994 talk was about prices, wages, bonuses, stocks, currencies, inflation, second jobs, kickbacks, bribery—in one way or another, about money.

What caused the change, and how deep is it? In China a large shift in public attention of this sort is, first, more than an ordinary fad. Not found in Chinese populations outside the People’s Republic, sudden, society-wide change is a legacy of the Mao years, when one large-scale ideological campaign after another was tightly managed from the top. Now the top is much less given to issuing commands, but it still sends the key signals, and, within limits, the public remains willing to swerve in response. The person most responsible for the latest turn is Deng Xiaoping, who, characteristically putting the interests of his political regime foremost, has selected his moves with considerable acumen.

Immediately after the Tiananmen massacre the popularity of the Deng government seemed unsalvageably low. The blood on its hands was only part of its problem; to many it had also seemed hopelessly incompetent and corrupt throughout the later 1980s, when reforms seemed to be grinding toward a standstill. But in the years since the massacre Deng has made two basic moves, and both have worked. This is not to say that his regime is now popular, but it has made remarkable progress at least toward regaining the neutral if lackluster image it had in the mid-1980s.

Deng’s first move, symbolized in his famous “southern tour” of special economic zones in February 1992, was to give a signal to the Chinese people that making money is fine. Deng had to go south to deliver this message because of high-level conservative opposition in Beijing. But he correctly perceived that the Chinese people—including many 1989 protesters, for whom “democracy” had meant basically “our fair share of wealth” (no corruption, no rise in inflation, etc.)—would respond enthusiastically. Deng’s price for the green light on money-making was continued repression of speech and other political rights. But to many Chinese, “Shut up and I’ll let you get rich” seemed as good a deal as one could expect. After all, economic freedom is better than no freedom at all, and freedoms aside, who can argue against making more money?

Deng’s second move was to stimulate Chinese nationalism and to channel it toward support of his regime. He and his generation of Communist leaders had played this card several times before. During World War II, they made decisive gains in their popular appeal by their willingness to resist the Japanese while their rivals in the Nationalist government equivocated. In the early 1960s, as China struggled to its feet after its colossal Mao-made famine, in which between 20 and 40 million people died, the regime sought to exculpate itself by, among other means, blaming the Russians. The famine, it was said, had been caused by Soviet demands that China pay debts it had incurred during the Korean War. What’s more, in 1959 Russian advisers had walked out on major projects, carrying indispensable blueprints with them. The Russians, so the line went, are revisionists anyway; now we Chinese, under the “great, glorious, and correct” Communist Party, are the sole exemplars of true socialism.

During the early 1990s, the Deng regime sought to position itself as the worldwide representative of Chineseness. The old Communist objections to traditional Chinese culture have nearly disappeared; even claims about mystical Chinese essences, for example in the martial arts or in herbal medicine, appear in government tourist brochures and as advertised parts of the training of Chinese Olympians. Shared Chineseness has also been an important component in the trust that has been important to the boom in business across the Taiwan straits. As much as it can, the Beijing government presents itself as the guardian of pan-Chinese economic interests, including China’s entry into the emerging World Trade Organization and maintenance of the low-tariff treatment on exports to the US, known as Most Favored Nation trading status.

But the clearest example of Deng’s success in identifying his regime with Chinese national pride was his bid to become host to the 2000 AD summer Olympic games in Beijing. This set up a situation in which Deng could not lose: either Beijing would get the games, and the Deng government would benefit from the pride that Chinese everywhere would feel; or it would not, and Chinese popular resentment would be directed at foreign countries and human rights groups whose “bullying” could be blamed for the failure. An American who was on the campus of Beijing University the night when the decision to award the Olympics to Australia was announced reports that some students were so angry that they wanted to march on the US Embassy in protest. Barely four years earlier, students on the same campus had headed to the US Embassy for protection from their own rulers. Mr. Deng’s savvy had brought powerful results.

But might the Olympics affair have been just a piece of good luck for Deng? Why should we say it was part of a strategy conceived in advance? We can do so because the bid was conspicuously advertised inside China many months in advance. The propaganda department of the Communist Party of China has never given things away free. If the regime had thought it would, on the whole, suffer from being rejected, news of the gamble would, as much as possible, have been sealed off from the Chinese people until, and only if, a happy result had been achieved. The purpose of the advance publicity was precisely to leave time for popular feeling to build momentum. The regime does not do such things when it doubts a positive outcome.


Astute though Deng has been, his success in rebuilding public acceptance of his government is still highly tenuous. His main problems are not with popular notions about democracy but in the household finances of ordinary Chinese. One of Maoism’s enduring legacies in the Chinese popular mind is the principle of egalitarianism: if you have more than I do, there had better be a good reason or I have the right to rebel. But as China’s wealth leaps forward at a 13 percent annual rate, the inequality of its distribution increases even faster.

  1. 1

    Literary Dissent in Communist China (Harvard University Press, 1967) and China’s Intellectuals: Advise and Dissent (Harvard University Press, 1981).

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