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Making It Big in China

Chien-Min Chung/In Pictures/Corbis
Real estate developer Pan Shiyi, Beijing, December 2004

Nor is it true, as stated by Zha, that publishers are daring. Not only Mao: The Untold Story is taboo. No mainland publisher would touch Yang Jisheng’s sweeping expose of the famine, which had to be published in Hong Kong three years ago. Nor can we imagine the publication in China of one of the best books on the Cultural Revolution, Yang Su’s Collective Killings in Rural China During the Cultural Revolution.2

As for the “blank spots” in China’s history, here is how Ian Johnson recently described the new National Museum in Beijing. If visitors’

interests run to the Cultural Revolution that tore the country apart from 1966 to 1976 and resulted in millions of deaths, they will have to search a back corner of the two-million-square-foot museum, which will complete its opening this month, for a single photograph and three lines of text that are the only reference to that era…. One tradition has remained firmly in place: China will not confront its own history. The museum is less the product of extensive research, discovery or creativity than the most prominent symbol of the Communist Party’s efforts to control the narrative of history and suppress alternative points of view, even those that exist within the governing elite.

Artists and scholars scrambled to adapt to the marketplace,” Zha writes. She approves of the two “star intellectuals” who have written Gaobie Gem (Farewell, Revolution), which argues that “attempts to bring about radical change have always resulted in either disaster or in tyranny.” Zha claims that a new Chinese generation, “reared on the pop culture of consumerism, shied away from politics.” This, she says, is where her brother went wrong.

When Jianguo and his comrades formed the China Democracy Party in 1998, they not only failed to grasp the limits of the government’s tolerance, they failed to take the measure of the national mood…. They had, in short, lost their way in the new era.

Jianguo is the very model of a “hardheaded” dissident. Zha loves him and visited him in prison, and she tells us what a good fellow the warden was. But she thinks Jianguo wasted his life fighting for causes—he was once a fervent Maoist—a conviction she also holds about all militant dissidents. She admires Liu Xiaobo for writing about some of the faults of the Tiananmen leaders, of whom he was one, which fits in with her general view that in China there is a ray of hope, made brighter by all the excellent people she mentions—lawyers, authors, publishers—who, contrary to what she writes, are now disappearing. “Prison, staged trials, or the lonely road of exile are always there, awaiting the last hardheaded troublemakers standing.” These last six—disgraceful—words do not describe the fate of many Chinese.

Nonetheless, there is much to learn from this book. Most of the people with whom Zha feels at home, or so it appears in Tide Players, are the super-rich or at least people who are much richer than they used to be; even university professors now have holiday homes and rent out properties they have bought. But there is also the artist Chen Danqing, who, at a Peking University conference, astounded the audience by mentioning Tiananmen. There was applause from the students present. Not a single mainland scholar applauded. Chen, who holds an American passport, told Zha that the academics remained silent because

they don’t like themselves—they don’t like the circumstances that made them not say what I said…. All of us are pitiable. We have to make a living off this bowl of rice…. My students have a certain contempt for their teachers, because they’ve watched them behave like cowards and hypocrites.

But Zha sees herself as “a cautious optimist when contemplating China’s future,” a future, she emphasizes, in which “common sense and decency, moderation and restraint…are…being discussed more and more.” She gives us no reason to believe that China’s rural poor, about whom every indicator shows that they have remained poor, discuss decency, moderation, and restraint. Nor do the tens of millions of rural migrants who live miserably in cities where they struggle to find work. She writes that “there are several Vietnams in China’s vast interior, figuratively speaking, that are still poor,” but they don’t figure in her book.

She has an explanation for China’s condition:

Totalitarian culture—top-down rule; primacy of the collective over the individual; a sophisticated, self-serving mammoth bureaucracy; a subservient, fatalistic attitude toward officials and politics; lack of public spirit—has existed in China for two thousand years and has formed certain deeply ingrained mind-sets and habits…. It still endures as the most tenacious obstacle in China’s path toward true democracy.

This may end: “A swelling rank of people from all walks of life offers a ray of hope but faces a long, tough road ahead.” Every day in China she sees “noble courage and idealism—or just common decency” among “civil rights lawyers and NGO workers, investigative journalists and scholars, young bloggers and retired Party officials, wealthy entrepreneurs and small business men, student volunteers and lone artists.” In Mao’s Invisible Hand,3 edited by Sebastian Heilmann and Elizabeth J. Perry, Nara Dillon says of such groups:

Since few, if any, of China’s new voluntary associations and nonprofits are truly autonomous from the state, characterizing them as a civil society seems premature. Indeed, many question whether China has ever had anything approaching a civil society.

Zha devotes her longest chapter to the writer and sometime culture minister Wang Meng. Many intellectuals, she says, despise Wang for his ultra-caution. This, quoted by Zha, is what he wrote about Mao and the Cultural Revolution:

This was a people’s carnival, Mao Zedong’s poetic rhapsody…. Mao Zedong let the young people liberate themselves to the extreme for a time, got rid of all ropes and rules. It excited all of mankind, the entire world. It was a little cruel. But is all that obedience and rigidity not cruel to life and to youth?

He told Zha, “My view on the Communist Party…. I support it not because it’s that good, but because it would be worse without it.”

Zha may not know of the good deed done by Wang just after June 4, 1989. His friend (and mine) Yang Xianyi, the translator of much Chinese literature into English, had gone to both the BBC and the Voice of America after the Tiananmen killings and condemned the government and the Party, of which he was a member, as fascists. He resigned from the Party. Ordinarily this would have brought the full weight of official reprisal down upon him. But Wang, who had recently resigned as minister of culture, protected Yang, first by parking his car outside his friend’s door to indicate that he was not in trouble. The two men then sat inside Yang’s flat and discussed literature. Yang Xianyi was never arrested.

Zha knows both Wang Meng and Liu Xiaobo: “The fact that the two men have, in different ways, both moved toward the center surely says a great deal about where China is today.” Where is that? Wang Meng continues his life as a writer. Liu Xiaobo is enduring over nine more years in prison for calling for peaceful change.

Zha says that “the younger generation”—none of whom she interviews here—“is…showing signs of renewed interest in culture, historical memory, and social activism.” Where are these signs? According to The New York Times,

Li Fan, director of the World and China Institute, a nongovernmental group in Beijing that studies political reform, said electoral democracy would threaten the benefits entrepreneurial elites enjoy under the current system. “Those who have prospered from economic reform have no interest in sharing power or the spoils of prosperity with those beneath them.”

But, Zha insists, more and more Chinese,

in the face of cheerful indifference, jaded apathy, fearful compromise, cynical swagger, and pure evil, acts of noble courage and idealism—or just common decency—continue to rear their [sic] head and surge forward…. I like to keep them cradled around my heart as lights that sparkle and inspire in moments of soul-eroding pessimism.

Unfortunately, such people are absent from Zha’s book. The picture Jianying Zha offers us of China today is profoundly limited and seems groundlessly optimistic. It is worth keeping in mind the comment of Liu Xiaobo:

The post-Tiananmen generation…is not very interested in things like deep thought, noble character, incorruptible and well-ordered government, humane values, or transcendent moral concerns…. Their main goals are to become an official, get rich, or go abroad.
  1. 2

    Cambridge University Press, 2011. 

  2. 3

    Harvard University Press, 2011. 

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