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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.

And yet there are Chinese who dream of liberty and democracy; and in doing so they have suffered not only in China itself but in other ethnic Chinese communities. In Singapore, Buruma entered a world somewhat like a miniature People’s Republic of China, afflicted by the paranoia, instilled by Lee Kwan Yew, that it is surrounded by enemies and beset within by “misguided losers” and dangerous subversives “who would plunge the land into chaos and darkness.” Singapore, he found, despite its glitter and prosperity, is in some ways more frightening than China because its small size makes life easy for the security services.

Chia Thye Poh, now sixty-four, spent twenty-three years in Singapore prisons, usually with no one to talk to except his interrogators. His crime was to persist in running for election against Lee’s ruling party. Elected to Parliament, he resigned when Lee violated its procedures. Never charged with anything, Chia “simply disappeared from sight.” He was pressed repeatedly to sign a statement admitting he was a Communist; had he signed he would have been set free. He refused: “It wasn’t true.” During his final two years he was the sole prisoner in a guard house on Sentosa Island, now Singapore’s best-known theme park.

The question is, why should governments in authoritarian societies like Singapore go to so much trouble to suppress a relatively very small number of dissidents? Buruma’s convincing answer is:

Intimidation in an authoritarian state works in insidious ways…. Fear gnaws away at people until it manifests itself in unthinking reflex responses…. Singapore can feel like a boarding school run by a terrifying headmaster…. You never know when (or even why) you might be punished.

In Singapore, where he met a few others like Chia, he “felt something of the loneliness of being a dissenter,…of being on the edge of society, always hounded, ridiculed, and made to feel small and pointless in a place one had fought all one’s life to improve.”

Taiwan is still the only place on Chinese soil ever to legitimately elect a government. In 1999 it peacefully replaced its predecessor, the Kuomintang, which had ruled the island since 1945. The history of Taiwan leading up to its present democracy was violent and bloody. In 1947 there was an uprising that the Nationalists from the mainland, who in 1945 had liberated the island from fifty years of Japanese rule but treated it like a possession to be looted, put down with great ferocity, slaughtering over 20,000 people. This 1947 “incident”—a term also still used officially to describe the Tiananmen crackdown—could not even be discussed for years. It is only recently that the massacre was recognized as a historic crime, and statues, paintings, poems, and other memorials to it were allowed to appear throughout Taiwan. The same may happen someday in Beijing about Tiananmen.

It is the 1947 massacre and the subsequent decades of Leninist-derived Kuomintang rule that make so many Taiwanese dislike mainlanders and yearn for full independence. Many of the present leaders, including President Chen Shui-bian and Vice President Annette Lu, served years in prison and lost members of their families and close friends to assassination at the hands of the Nationalist government. Ian Buruma met Huang Hua, “an obscure university librarian,” who had been imprisoned many times between 1963 and 1986, including ten years on Green Island, which I remember from my student years as a place mentioned only in frightened whispers. Buruma writes that Huang’s “story of a lifetime of sacrifice dropped into a casual conversation was typical of many I heard in Taiwan, but it was the kind of story one would like to blast into the ears of all those who say that ‘the Chinese’ don’t care about politics.” He notes that like the post-Tiananmen exiles, “many of Taiwan’s political activists escaped Kuomintang persecution for years by living in the US. They, too, were as impotent and as easily dismissed as irrelevant and quixotic as the mainland dissidents are today.” The Taiwanese eventually brought about their own liberation, belatedly encouraged by the Americans, who for years had propped up the Nationalist government. It was the determination of those native Taiwanese patriots, and the gradual recognition of their rights by Chiang Kai-shek’s son and successor, Chiang Ching-kuo, that created China’s first democracy, with its capital in Taipei.

Buruma observes that the myth of one China is barely recognized in Taiwan. In his inaugural speech in May 2000, President Chen emphasized the centuries of Taiwan’s separate evolution. “By looking away from China and the weight of its ‘ancient history,’” Buruma writes, “Taiwanese are freed from the awful burden of having to carry its destiny.” He met Ben Wei, now sixty and a leader of the free Taiwan movement for decades, who spent many years in exile in the US. Like many of his generation he is a Christian. “From the very beginning I had hoped to build a nation that was different from China,” he told Buruma. The Christian patriots, he said, believed that all men are equal and should choose their own political systems. “That would certainly be different from Chinese society,” as Ben Wei said. “For we believe in freedom and individu-alism.” When Buruma reminded him that Chiang Kai-shek, too, had been a Christian, Ben Wei replied, “Well, he had a right to claim he was a Christian. But he killed so many people in an un-Christian way.”

Hong Kong, Buruma points out, would not have become the supremely prosperous place it now is had it not been ceded to Britain as a result of the first Opium War in the early 1840s. It did not escape colonialism but in the course of its separate development it escaped the mainland’s civil wars and the horrors of Communist rule. Hong Kong’s separate development also gave its inhabitants a growing taste for British civil liberties, and for many of them—although not the China-connected tycoons—a longing for democracy, which the British denied them and Beijing will not permit, although so far it has meddled little in the free press and the rule of law, which Britain inspired. The battles with colonial Britain for increments of liberty—such as more directly elected seats in the Legislative Council—were fought over the years by a small band of usually middle-class professionals.

Brave and indefatigable as they were, the Hong Kong democrats, unlike dissidents in Singapore, Taiwan, and of course China itself, never had to face persecution. Unless they crossed into China. The most extraordinary man Buruma met in Hong Kong was Lau San-ching. The son of poor immigrants, he went to Hong Kong University, where some of his fellow students were ardent Maoists. Some are now in government; “Lau thinks they had been groomed for this task all along.” A Trotskyist, who quixotically wanted “real socialism” in Hong Kong as well as in China, Lau felt that he would be shirking his responsibilities if he ignored the struggles for democracy on the mainland. After several trips over the border carrying publications back and forth, Lau was arrested on the mainland in 1981. He spent a decade in jail, including three long periods alone in total darkness. While Lau, who never confessed to “counterrevolutionary crimes,” spent ten years in jail, his old schoolmates—Beijing’s “proxies in Hong Kong”—now advise tycoons on how to get rich in China. “Patriotism, Lau said, with the sweetest of smiles, is the nightmare for each new generation of Chinese.”

Finding dissidents to talk to once he was inside China was Buruma’s hardest task. Most of the more important ones were either in the US, where he met them, or in Chinese prisons. He did find some, such as the lawyer for the disabled, Zhou Litai. Zhou embodies the dilemma of living in a “skewed, even unhinged” society where almost any kind of commerce is encouraged but where thinking, speech, initiative, or organized expression that varies from the official dogma is stifled. The person in China who recently analyzed this most perceptively is the journalist and economist He Qinglian, who has published some of the most acute criticism of the regime’s economic policies. Until she got into difficulties, partly because her mentor and protector Liu Ji, an adviser to President Jiang, lost his position, she was a phenomenally successful writer; her book, The Pitfalls of Modernization, sold hundreds of thousands of copies.4The essence of He’s argument, Buruma writes, is that “China’s capitalism is a dangerous hybrid of politics and criminality.” In the present situation, “the environment was being systematically wrecked, national resources were plundered, and masses of people were turned into beggars or slaves.” This will continue, she warns, without democratic institutions.

By the time Mr. Buruma saw her, she had been demoted at the paper where she worked and effectively silenced. Did she consider living abroad like Wei Jingsheng, Mr. Buruma asked. She replied she would stay because “our voices in China are already so few. If I leave, that would mean one critic less.” By this July, however, He Qinglian had left and is now at the University of Chicago. “Now the regime changes strategy, charging intellectuals as foreign spies,” she has said. This is a hard charge to deal with, “because under the propaganda of nationalism, people hate people working as foreign spies.”5

Of course there is much talk in China about matters the Party would prefer to remain unmentioned: Taiwan, the Falun Gong, high-level corruption, even the leaders themselves. Much of it is on the Internet, which many thousands of Chinese follow closely. The regime tracks criticism from Web site to Web site, from server to server, closing sites down, erecting “fire-walls,” occasionally arresting dissidents who use the Internet for “counterrevolutionary crimes” such as discussing Tiananmen. The paradox, as Buruma suggests, is that while Beijing wants all of China to be wired for the Internet, and insists that all Chinese are part of a great family, it goes to great lengths to stop people from communicating with one another. Buruma writes that even though much of the material on China on the Internet is wacky or even insane, “the myth of one China, where people live in harmony and dissent is denounced as ‘anti-Chinese,’ has been shattered by the electronic revolution.” On the chattering Internet, at least, China already “exists as a pluralist society, not only in Taiwan and Hong Kong, but in cyberspace.”6

But, as Buruma says, this pluralism will not evolve into a force that can bring down the Party and erect a democracy until the “reformers, liberals, radicals, religious believers, activists, philosophers, leftists or conservatives …make common cause. For if they do not, the regime will exploit their differences”—including, he might have said, among those in American exile—“and stay in power.” Mr. Buruma doesn’t put much store in China’s intellectuals, who are “so frightened of disorder,” joining together to bring down the regime. I agree with him that if there is a revolt it is more likely to be “an orgy of raw emotion” arising from farmers, enraged at arbitrary taxes, and from the millions of the unemployed from the “rust-belt cities of the northeast,” of whose disorders we can read almost weekly even in the official press.

Some sections in Bad Elements slide away from the subject of “rebels.” Buruma spent a few days of his mainland journey in a “provincial dump” with “sleazy charm” and a yet smaller county town with a boring but hospitable family, some Christians, some Maoist. This was an unusual and instructive adventure, but none of these people were rebels; they wanted to survive, while quietly holding on to their convictions. In Lhasa, Buruma’s experienced eye observed how Tibetan culture has been buried by Chinese chauvinism, and he heard from a few discontented Tibetans how awful life is under the occupiers. But there, too, he met no “rebels,” no one who risked defying the Chinese. There are such people in Tibet, monks and nuns usually, but they are increasingly hard to meet without risking instant arrest both for them and the visitor. Many are already in prison. He would have found exiled rebels in Dharamsala, the Dalai Lama’s headquarters in northern India.

Buruma refers to the Shenzhen lawyer Zhou Litai as “a lonely hero, sacrificing, fighting against all the odds, but limited in the end to putting bandages on the wounds of a fatally flawed system.” I’m not sure after reading Bad Elements, however, that the system is “fatally flawed.” In the long run of Chinese history, of course, Communist rule, which began in 1949, is but a moment, but whereas virtually all the other Communist regimes are gone, and the demise of many of them coincided with Tiananmen in 1989, China’s remains, and it is routinely described as the next superpower.7

Kang Zhengguo, the Yale teacher who was interrogated last year during a visit home, says, “The naively optimistic intellectuals recurrently hope that China will turn a corner…. But then it always emerges that nothing fundamentally changes and we start all over again.”8

This is appalling—but true. Because of Ian Buruma’s tenacity in getting the story and his eloquence in telling it, we read in Bad Elements of repressiveness against people of conscience so savage it is difficult to imagine. Anything connected to the Tiananmen demonstrations is especially dangerous. In Beijing Buruma found Su Bingxian, whose twenty-one-year-old son was shot dead on the night of June 3–4, 1989. Her experience, he writes, is “the story of China’s modern fate.” An early Communist, her father was arrested by the Chiang Kai-shek government in the late 1920s, and joined Mao in the caves of Yan’an before the Communist victory in 1949. In the 1950s he defended a fellow writer from Party attacks and was arrested and tortured. During the Cultural Revolution he was treated even more brutally, but died still believing in the Party. His wife, Su’s mother, was forced to denounce him and nearly starved to death doing hard labor.

After Su’s son was killed in 1989 he was buried near his grandfather. In 1992 the police ordered Su to remove her son’s ashes from the cemetery. “Too many graves marked with the same date”—June 4, 1989—“would not do,” Buruma writes. “People might start asking questions. Silence had to reign even among the dead.”

  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).

  4. 4

    See the review by Liu Binyan and Perry Link in The New York Review, October 8, 1998.

  5. 5

    Reuters, July 3, 2001.

  6. 6

    President Jiang Zemin recently told the editors of The New York Times that while the Internet is good for communication it contains “unhealthy” things. Since that interview The New York Times, unlike other major American papers, is no longer blocked on the Internet in China.

  7. 7

    According to a UPI report of August 29, 2000, in an interview with the Washington Times, deputy secretary of defense Paul Wolfowitz said: “I would say overall we’re concerned about the direction of Chinese policy, and the developments we see there.”

  8. 8

    Arrested in China,” p. 8.

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