Making It Big in China

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Mark Leong/Redux
Real estate developer Zhang Xin, Beijing, China, September 2009

Jianying Zha describes China as “way too big a cow for anyone to tackle in full.” Therefore, Ms. Zha says, she omits “the rural life, the small-town stories, the migrants working in huge manufacturing plants…continued poverty in parts of interior rural China, surging labor unrest in coastal factories, the injustice of the legal system, rampant corruption among local officials, ethnic tension, and environmental destruction….” These urgent matters, requiring sustained attention, include most of China’s problems and people.

So who remains? Who are China’s movers and shakers? In the US, movers and shakers are elected and nonelected government officials, big-business people, media publishers, editors, and columnists, lobbyists, NGO executives, racial and religious leaders—all fundamental to how the country functions. In China the list is short: as Ms. Zha herself makes plain, China is run at every level by the Communist Party, so much so, she observes, that the usual definition of the word “university” is meaningless there. But so is Zha’s title. Three of her six chapters focus on three very rich men and one very rich woman. Her other three subjects are Party-dominated professors; Zha’s brother, recently freed after nine years in prison for helping found the China Democracy Party; and Wang Meng, a writer and ex–culture minister, who admires Mao and fears for China if the Party no longer rules.

Zha, who now lives in the US and endured terror with her family during the Cultural Revolution, enrolled at Peking University in 1978, where, she makes clear in this book, the Party remains in control. She went to America in 1981, returned to China, wrote novellas, and worked as an assistant in the New York Times Beijing office. After participating in the Tiananmen uprising she “retreated” to the US and married. In 2003 she went back to China, where, she says, her book The Eighties, based on conversations with “a dozen of China’s leading creative minds” on the “momentous decade” before Tiananmen, “ended up at the top of the sales charts in many bookstores.” Later it was “voted [by whom?] one of the most influential books of the previous decade in China.” To her great credit she was a signer in 2008 of Charter 08, which called for an expansion of freedom in China and led to the detention of some of the signers, most famously Liu Xiaobo, this year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner, now serving an eleven-year sentence, which, Zha notes, “shocked all of us.” Who “us” is she doesn’t say.1

Do the three very rich men and one very rich woman Zha describes, part of her “community of kindred spirits,” tell us much about China’s movers and shakers? One is Sun Lizhe, who uses the term “tide player” to describe his own adaptability to China’s shifting political and economic circumstances. He was once a self-trained country doctor, praised by Mao himself as …

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  1. 1

    See Perry Link’s translation of the Charter in The New York Review, January 15, 2009, and his ” At the Nobel Ceremony: Liu Xiaobo’s Empty Chair,” NYRblog, December 13, 2010.