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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 a model Communist youth. His unlicensed medical practice lost its political backing in the post-Mao era and he moved to Chicago, where he briefly studied medicine, acquired US citizenship, and began investing in publishers specializing in business and technology. In 2000, he was hired by CITIC, one of China’s most successful publishers, to bring Western business, educational, and self-help books to China. Having recently been forced out of the company, he spends his time plotting future publishing ventures and offering “unconventional” medical advice online.

Then there is Zhang Dazhong, a self-educated entrepreneur who started out working at a grocery store and making electric lamps on the side, eventually building one of China’s largest electronics retailers, which he sold in 2007 to found a venture capital firm. In 2008, he paid the single “biggest individual tax payment in the history of the People’s Republic.”

Zhang started his business with a sum paid by the government in compensation for the death of his mother, a kindergarten teacher who was executed in 1970 for having publicly criticized Mao. Zhang spent years trying to have the verdict reversed and succeeded in 1980 after he “conceded that his mother suffered mental illness when she criticized Mao.”

Since getting out of the electronics business, Zhang has decided this compromise is unacceptable and has again taken up his mother’s “rehabilitation” by hiring a filmmaker to make a documentary about her trial and execution and a lawyer to prepare an appeal. He bought one thousand copies of Jon Halliday and Jung Chang’s Mao: The Unknown Story, a “devastatingly negative” biography officially banned in mainland China but available in Hong Kong.

Yet Zhang is “cautious about political action and has no intention of doing anything radical.” He tells Zha that he has no “bone to pick with the current leadership” and is “pretty comfortable with the present pace of change.” Making clear her own vision of what is good for China, Zha praises Zhang’s “prudence” because for men like him “their very existence depends on the policies and goodwill of a regime that did not begin its rule by being nice to the propertied class.”

Zha’s two other movers and shakers are the married property tycoons Zhang Xin and Pan Shiyi. Ms. Zhang spent her teens working in Hong Kong factories before getting a scholarship to the University of Sussex and eventually working for Goldman Sachs. Pan was educated in China and left his job in the state petroleum bureaucracy to pursue real estate projects in the liberalized “special economic zones” established in southern China beginning in the 1980s. In 1994, yearning to move back to China, Zhang set up an interview with Pan, hoping to find work raising capital for his ventures. He proposed four days later. The couple has become one of China’s most successful real estate developers, building expensive luxury apartment complexes in and around Beijing.

Much is made of the tension between Pan’s business expertise and Zhang’s idealism, which she attributes to her English education:

She once wanted to be an intellectual, someone with a sense of social responsibility. But now she is viewed as a rich person, and in China today the rich are assumed to be devoid of social ethics or public spirit.

A Hong Kong critic, writes Zha, condemns the couple as “being the self-satisfied creators of a new kitsch…the lifestyles and buildings they promote are nothing but superficial, sterile trend-mongering.” Zhang herself says little to contradict this. She described her world to Zha:

It’s all a messy tangle. Many things in China are vague. Some of our clients walk in and buy a dozen apartments in one shot. You don’t know where they got the money. You just know that some Chinese have a lot of it. It’s a waste of time to try to clarify everything…. I’m not one who can fish in murky water. Pan is totally comfortable with murkiness. That’s his normal state. And I’ve learned to tolerate it.

But Zhang is shocked, she told Zha, by “how Chinese hated the new rich like her and her husband, and at how much anger and negative sentiment percolated on the Internet…. Now she seriously worries that the country is heading toward a major crisis.” Zhang and her husband “have found their faith in Bahai,” a religion persecuted in some Muslim countries that poses no threat in China.

Zhang, we learn, hired the artist Ai Weiwei, recently released after eighty-one days in prison and still willing to eloquently criticize the regime, to oversee installations on the grounds of one of her huge properties. Zha remarks of this that “his reputation as an inveterate troublemaker would have scared off most developers, but Zhang gave him a budget and promised him total freedom. Ai didn’t disappoint her.” Zha fails to mention that Ai was one of the designers of the Olympic “Bird’s Nest” stadium, and the word “troublemaker” (not hers but the Party’s) in China helps explain why earlier this year he was arrested.

None of Zha’s three super-rich examples move or shake China apart from the circles of rich entrepreneurs that they inhabit. Beijing, she writes, lifting it into a stratosphere unknown to all but a sliver of the Chinese population, is “the home of high culture, state pomp, bohemian enclaves, northern vernacular, noble plans, fantastic gossip, and tragicomedies large and small.” But this enclave has not appeared from nowhere. Some of its members gave up their democratic beliefs and accepted the Party dictatorship in Deng Xiaoping’s China, especially after Tiananmen in 1989. Zha admires Liu Xiaobo. Before his detention he wrote this of China’s new super-rich:

A number of acquaintances of mine from the days of the 1989 protests went into business and got rich after the massacre…. They speak expansively about the great affairs of the world and swear that they by no means went into business just to get rich…. They enumerate the ways in which their money-making is good for Chinese society…. Above all, they hold that a revolution done by rich people inevitably will be the least costly of revolutions, because the market has taught such people—themselves—how to make good cost-benefit calculations.

Zha has written this book because “the chance to join a community of kindred spirits to push for meaningful change and to build a more democratic, humane China was too enticing to ignore.” But she provides no evidence that her kindred spirits are much concerned about change or about building the officially named “harmonious society,” which “reflects a softer approach in both international and domestic politics.” As she describes them, they sound like the tycoons Liu Xiaobo was writing about.

Zha maintains, “On the whole, the political atmosphere in China really has eased, and people are a little less afraid.” She claims that lawyers increasingly take up human rights cases and that “scholars investigate the ‘blank spots’ of history…the great famine of 1959–62…publishers defy taboos….” She calls today’s dissidents “a small cluster of hardheaded, isolated individuals…locked up, kicked out of the country, or kept on the margins.”

What unfortunate timing for Zha and her publisher! The artist Ai Weiwei is a man who is much admired and not “isolated,” as his recent statements show. Nor can Chinese like Ai and the increasing number of other dissidents entering or risking detention count on a legal defense, although there are many brave lawyers in China. As the authority on Chinese law Jerome Cohen recently wrote:

The Chinese government’s current campaign to intimidate and suppress the country’s small number of “human rights lawyers” seems to be succeeding where previous campaigns fell short. Most of the courageous lawyers already released from incommunicado detention that lasts several days to several months remain disturbingly quiet. While in captivity, these lawyers endure humiliation, torture and endless demands to sign statements “repenting” alleged misconduct and promising “good behavior.” Harassment continues after release, where constant surveillance, isolation, threats, restrictions and searches lead some to say it is not release at all.
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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. 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. 

  2. 2

    Cambridge University Press, 2011. 

  3. 3

    Harvard University Press, 2011. 

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