China Wakes: The Struggle for the Soul of a Rising Power
Mandate of Heaven: A New Generation of Entrepreneurs, Dissidents, Bohemians, and Technocrats Lays Claim to China's Future
“Be sure to prevent any contact between the barbarians and the population,” the Emperor Qianlong ordered in 1793. This is one of the many pointed epigraphs in China Wakes, and it shows what Chinese rulers knew for centuries: that, for the emperors, it was dangerous for their own people to know about other worlds. It might cause them to doubt, and doubt in China led to disbelief, which could lead to luan, disorder, which is what Chinese rulers today also say is the main enemy.
Soon after the 1989 killings, a Chinese friend of Orville Schell’s referred cynically to the official explanations of critical events such as the Tiananmen killings which many people, and particularly students, were forced to study. (The Tiananmen account was written by Peking Party secretary Chen Xitong, now under house arrest for his deep involvement in the capital’s extensive corruption.) “Perhaps you foreigners don’t understand,” a young woman told Schell, “but we know that they are lying to us, and they know that we are lying to them. In fact, everybody knows that everyone is lying to everyone else. So you might say the system is working just as it’s supposed to.”
Despite such cynicism, the wish to find out the truth is a very strong one in China today. The writer Dai Qing told Perry Link of Princeton, “There is a tremendous thirst for this [truth] in China. You foreigners, with your free press, will find it hard to understand this great thirst…. To appreciate why Chinese readers can be so interested in one little article, you should imagine living in a dark room with all the shades drawn. If one shade goes up—just a crack—the light that enters is suddenly very interesting. Everyone will rush to look.”1
When Deng Xiaoping’s daughter, Rong, told The New York Times in January that her father, like any normal old man, would eventually die, this apparently so upset the leadership that before long she was obliged to tell an Australian journalist that she may have spoken unclearly, and that really, for a man of his age, her father’s health was not bad. She did not, however, repudiate the rest of the earlier interview, which contained one small and two large allegations threatening President Jiang Zemin, who, in 1989, was designated a “core leader” by Deng and by the rest of the Peking coalition. The statements have to do with the truth.
The small one was that during the Cultural Revolution, Rong’s brother Pufang, after unbearable torment by anti-Deng Red Guards, had written a suicide note and jumped from a window. He was permanently paralyzed from the waist down. For years, even the most skeptical Chinese believed the official story that Pufang had been thrown from a window. This new version was a signal from Ms. Deng that she was telling the truth.
Then came the two sizable threats. One was Rong’s admission that both her father and Mao Zedong were “hot-headed,” and that because of their…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.