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Inside the Whale

Ian Buruma is a powerful storyteller and much of his story about Chinese rebels is very sad. This sadness persists throughout his long journey, starting in the United States, where he met most of the well-known dissident Chinese exiles, and ending in Lhasa, and he stopped frequently to meet more of them in Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong, and finally China itself. Just over the border from Hong Kong, in Longgang, near Shenzhen, Mr. Buruma found Zhou Litai. Short, stocky, with a “bad haircut” and “dressed only in shorts and plastic sandals,” Zhou was surrounded in his small apartment by seventeen men with missing limbs or hands, or with terrible burn scars. Some, “barely out of their teens, were sleeping snugly together, like puppies in a basket.” Zhou is the only lawyer in Shenzhen, and one of the few in all China to take up the cases of people injured in industrial accidents, of whom there are 20,000 in the Shenzhen area every year. Zhou is not a political activist, Buruma makes clear; he just believes in the rule of law.

Some dissidents demand democracy; others, like the Yale scholar Kang Zhengguo, writing recently in these pages, call only for freedom to talk, write, and read.1 The regime responds that without the Party’s authoritarian rule China would descend into “chaos” and “instability.” This view is bolstered by some foreign China-watchers, who regret the state’s violence but fear that without a tough government China could break up. Many Chinese and some foreigners assert as well that Chinese are not ready for democracy; Beijing regularly condemns “the Western model” and stresses that human rights in China means supplying people with food, clothing, and shelter. To the notion that Chinese culture is a “monolithic barrier to building democratic institutions,” Buruma replies that the experience of Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, Thailand, India, and many other countries shows that “democracy is relatively indifferent to culture.” He recognizes that bringing the government in Beijing down in a sudden convulsion could result in horrible disorder. The Chinese dilemma, he suggests, is that clinging to the illusion of stability could result in something worse.

Bad Elements is the best book yet written on China’s dissidents—and there have been other excellent books and reports on this subject. What makes it the best is Ian Buruma’s clarity and his penetration to the heart of large questions. As readers of The New York Review know, Buruma is a polymath who, in addition to knowing a lot about China, writes on northern European painting, Japanese politics, Dutch architecture, and the decline of the Tory Party, among many other subjects. Because of his considerable knowledge of East and Southeast Asia, and his linguistic ability, he was able to comprehend fully—and fairly—the lives of Chinese dissidents within and beyond China’s borders. He shows that some dissidents (all of them exiles from China) exhibit selfishness, indulge in damaging gossip, both true and untrue, about one another, and even regret their past heroism. They get involved in complex schemes to make money on Wall Street and in the cyber world. Others become Christians, either mainstream or born-again.

Buruma feels that the best way to understand Chinese dissidents is

to describe people who had the courage to choose prison or torture rather than submit to the servility, the double-talk, the evasions and dishonesties of life in a dictatorship. I knew that many of these people were flawed, wrongheaded, and perhaps intolerant in their own ways, but I admired their sheer cussedness.

Furthermore, as a youngish European, haunted by tyrannies he had never experienced, Buruma knows that he was “never put to the test.”

Of all his portraits, that of Wei Jingsheng, the best-known exiled dissident, is the most probing and informative. The author of boldly stated leaflets and wall posters in 1978 at Beijing’s Democracy Wall (now buried under a bank) in which he called for democracy and attacked Deng Xiaoping as no better than Mao, Wei was jailed twice, for eighteen years in all, with a brief period of freedom in 1993 after fourteen and a half years. He was freed during his second long sentence in November 1997 as a bargaining chip used by President Jiang Zemin to secure a welcome in Washington as elaborate as that given Deng Xiaoping in 1979.

One often hears criticism of Mr. Wei for his irritating habits—reckless driving, smoking everywhere he goes, and observing that no foreigner can know China. He insists that Hong Kong has been overwhelmed by the mainland, although he has never been there, and that Tibet, where he has also never been, has always been Chinese. He denigrates other dissidents, especially Xu Wenli, the founder of China’s tiny Democracy Party, who together with most of his colleagues has spent much of his life in jail. According to Wei, when Xu is eventually released he will “go to America, where he would use his dissident credentials to undermine Wei.”

Ian Buruma spent many hours in the US with dissidents like Wei, and he describes their petty disagreements, gossip, backbiting, and efforts to make new lives for themselves far from China. Chai Ling, who describes herself as “chief commander” during Tiananmen (although I cannot recall this term being used during the six or so weeks of demonstrations), now speaks like the rising business executive she has become since going to Princeton and the Harvard Business School. Buruma writes,

When I asked her to go over some of the events in 1989, she asked me why I wanted to know “about all that old stuff, all that garbage.” What was needed was to “find some space and build a beautiful new life.” What was wanted was “closure” for Tiananmen…. From being an icon of history, Chai had moved into a world where all history is bunk.

What Buruma observes about Chai Ling and another former student leader, Li Lu—who claims to have been the deputy commander in chief at Tiananmen and now makes financial deals in New York—is how adaptable they have turned out to be. Growing up in China, where language can mean anything the Party deems it to mean, these exiles possess, Buruma writes, a “facility for rhetoric or a talent for lying to survive. It breeds a cynicism, so that no one is assumed to hold an opinion without ulterior—usually sinister—motives.” Some exiles insist that others lack zige, or qualifications, to speak for reform in China, and dismiss them as gangsters or spies corrupted by money, power, and sex. The most common denigrating label is “liar.” As Buruma acutely notes, in Chinese society slander is a major weapon of official persecution:

Lying trickles down from the top to the rest of society. Survivors develop a facility for it…. Chinese themselves are the first to state how “double-faced” they are as a people…as though a habit of duplicity were a sign of superior sophistication.

Some American China specialists would agree with this description. They often write dismissingly about the exiles and some of their unfortunate characteristics—egoism, petty tyranny, and double-dealing—as they were revealed during the Tiananmen events themselves. “It is amazing,” Buruma writes, “how many disillusioned foreign fans, experts, and groupies the overseas dissidents leave in their wake.”

But he does not himself morally judge these survivors of Chinese persecution and terror. They once faced the consequences of speaking out in a society where such speech can be a capital crime. Experts in torture and interrogation tried to break the bodies and minds of those who fell into their hands. In the case of Chai Ling and Li Lu, there was every likelihood on the night of June 4 that they would be killed by the army. As for Wei Jingsheng, after 1980 he

was locked up in stinking death cells, interrogated day and night for months, had his teeth smashed and his health wrecked, and when he staged a hunger strike in desperation, he was hung upside down, his mouth wrenched open with a steel clamp and hot gruel pumped into his stomach through a plastic hose.

One of his colleagues, Liu Qing, also now in exile, who published the transcripts of Wei’s first trial,

was forced to spend four years sitting absolutely still on a tiny stool made of hard rope that cut through his buttocks…. And while he sat, privileged criminals (“trustees”) were ordered to surround him in shifts, to beat him if he so much as moved. To come out of that without going mad, you may have to be stubborn to the point of madness.

Some of these rebels who have been driven nearly mad never give up. Buruma recalls President Jiang’s state visit to London in October 1999. The Foreign Office had told the police that Jiang didn’t want to see any demonstrations. The Queen and Jiang were passing along in the royal carriage when there was a scuffle in the crowd and the police were seen dragging a man away. It was Wei. “He had tried to draw Jiang’s presidential eye to a large white sheet of paper held in his hand that read RELEASE ALL POLITICAL PRISONERS.”

As he traveled from New York to California and across the Pacific to Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and China, interviewing exiles, ex–political prisoners, and those in danger of being arrested or re-arrested at any moment, Buruma was fascinated by the ways that “modern Chinese nationalism, like all forms of mystical nationalism, is based on a myth—the myth of ‘China’ itself.” It is a myth, he found, with an enduring but always unique presence in the minds of the Chinese he encountered inside and outside the mainland. This myth, he concludes, “rests on a confusion of culture and race.” It has several components. One is China’s great age, splendor, and superiority to all its neighbors, if not to every other country. This is the China to which foreign students like Buruma (and myself) were first exposed in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, and about which young Chinese still learn.

But from primary school on, Chinese also learn about the humiliation of China at the hands of foreigners, above all the British and their opium trade in the nineteenth century, and the Japanese in the late 1930s and early 1940s. All Chinese are told that their country’s vast and ancient unity must never again be threatened—as it also was during the Cultural Revolution—by “chaos” or “disorder.” That is the principal appeal of the Communists against “Western democracy,” which they say could lead China into the disasters of post-Gorbachev Russia.2

This dogma, which is associated with something loosely called “Confucianism,” has become an orthodoxy that even many dissidents cling to; but it ignores, as Buruma correctly observes, “thousands of years of conflict and disorder.” To question the need for “harmony” is always called unpatriotic, anti-Chinese, and “un-Chinese” by the leaders in Beijing, and even by many non-Communist Chinese.3 The belief in this myth makes it possible for many Chinese who despise communism to “know” that the United States bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade two years ago was not an accident; it was a deliberate and humiliating attack on China. Most of the Chinese I met during a term’s stay at Harvard two years ago did not doubt this.

  1. 1

    Arrested in China,” The New York Review, September 20, 2001, p. 8.

  2. 2

    Buruma discussed the China–Russia comparison in the The New York Times Magazine, September 2, 2001. He suggests that “the poor, inefficient Russians” may be stumbling toward political reform while China “could easily explode one day.”

  3. 3

    The English historian William Jenner suggests “the dreary possibility that China is caught in a prison from which there is no obvious escape, a prison of history…. Both as a literary creation and as the accumulated consequences of the past…almost every dynasty won power by methods which were, by strict Confucian standards, shady; hence the extreme sensitivity to anything that may show the founders of one’s own dynasty as gangsters.” William Jenner, The Tyranny of History: The Roots of China’s Crisis (Allen Lane/Penguin, 1992), pp. 1, 10. For the racial dimension of the China myth see Frank Dikötter, The Discourse of Race in Modern China (London: Hurst, 1992).

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