Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are still two cups at my table.

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Monday, April 30, 2007

The China You Don't Hear Much About

Below is an excerpt from an article about China and it's position in the 21st century. If you click on the title of this post, you'll be directed to the entire article, which is very thought provoking and well worth reading. My own opinion is that the greatest obstacle standing in the way of China becoming a dominant power in the world is ... China herself.

The Empire of Lies
Guy Sorman

The twenty-first century will not belong to China.

The Western press is full of stories these days on China’s arrival as a superpower, some even heralding, or warning, that the future may belong to her. Western political and business delegations stream into Beijing, confident of China’s economy, which continues to grow rapidly. Investment pours in. Crowning China’s new status, Beijing will host the 2008 Summer Olympics.

But China’s success is, at least in part, a mirage. True, 200 million of her subjects, fortunate to be working for an expanding global market, increasingly enjoy a middle-class standard of living. The remaining 1 billion, however, remain among the poorest and most exploited people in the world, lacking even minimal rights and public services. Popular discontent simmers, especially in the countryside, where it often flares into violent confrontation with Communist Party authorities. China’s economic “miracle” is rotting from within.

The Party’s primary concern is not improving the lives of the downtrodden; it seeks power more than it seeks social development. It expends extraordinary energy in suppressing Chinese freedoms—the media operate under suffocating censorship, and political opposition can result in expulsion or prison—even as it tries to seduce the West, which has conferred greater legitimacy on it than do the Chinese themselves.

The West’s tendency to misread China dates back to the seventeenth century, when French and Italian Jesuit travelers formed stereotypes that clutter our minds even today. We learned then—or thought we learned—that the Chinese were not like us. They had no religion, and the notion of freedom was alien to them. They naturally gravitated toward enlightened despotism, as embodied by the philosopher-emperor. Such misconceptions link up across time: Voltaire sang the praises of the Mandarins, wishing a similar elite class could rule Europe; leftist intellectuals in the sixties and seventies celebrated the heroism of Mao Zedong; and today’s business elites happily go along with the Communist propaganda that democracy and free speech are contrary to the Chinese ethos.

Yet with enough patience and will, one can plunge into the real China. Since 1967, I have visited the country regularly, and I spent all of 2005 and part of 2006 traveling through her teeming cities as well as her innermost recesses, where few Westerners go. I make no claim to know China fully, an impossibly ambitious task. I merely want to record the words and impressions of some exceptional Chinese men and women, who mostly suffer in silence, raising when they can the demand for a free nation—a “normal” nation.

Before the totalitarian reign of Mao Zedong and his immediate successors, never in human history had an entire nation been under such intense surveillance. The Chinese not only had to speak alike; they had to think alike. The Communist Party regulated every aspect of private life. In the sixties, it even sought to anesthetize all feeling, commanding hundreds of millions of Chinese to repeat mindlessly the slogan of the day; one of Mao’s sayings would have to preface any “personal conversation.” A few second-rate books were the only permissible reading material, and eight revolutionary operas provided the sole entertainment. Placed everywhere—city squares, railway stations, factories, and offices—Party loudspeakers blared martial music from dawn to dusk, making it physically impossible for people to speak or think. The state imprisoned and killed untold numbers of its subjects.

Things have obviously changed, much for the better. China is no longer totalitarian. Yet the 60-million-member Communist Party, if subtler, remains cruel and omnipresent. When I met Madam Ding Zilin at the Golden Carp CafĂ©, I had to lean in close to listen. In Beijing, true privacy is only possible in such a public place. Ding Zilin felt that the security agents who shadow her every movement wouldn’t be able to record her confidences above the noisy laughter and the clamor of the waitresses moving to and fro.

It had taken me several months and many intermediaries before I could finally meet with this self-effacing, frail 75-year-old, branded an enemy of China by the Party—a label it gives to anyone with the temerity to oppose the regime. Until June 3, 1989, she was just another conformist professor at the University of Beijing. But on that fateful night, the police came to her apartment and dumped the bullet-riddled body of her 17-year-old son, Jiang Jielian. The boy had gone, out of curiosity, to Tiananmen Square to watch pro-democracy student demonstrators seek a dialogue with the authorities. The world knows how Deng Xiaoping reacted: he ordered a massacre that cost 3,000 their lives, many of them barely adults. Ding Zilin was one of the few parents to recover the body of a child lost at Tiananmen. Most disappeared without a trace, their families never learning for sure whether they were dead or alive.

In the massacre’s aftermath, Ding Zilin and her husband, also an academic, drew up a list of victims, to remember the dead and missing and to help parents come to terms with their loss. Both professors swiftly lost their jobs. Every time Ding Zilin tried to contact a victim’s relations, security agents harassed her and the families, telling them never to speak of June 3. Some families found themselves stripped of everything simply for acknowledging publicly that their children had vanished at Tiananmen Square. For them, Ding Zilin tried to raise money from overseas Chinese. The Party accused her of smuggling and threw her behind bars.

Now she’s on probation. If a foreigner tries to meet with her, government thugs will often stop her from leaving the house, at times for days on end. She nevertheless persists in her struggle, heading an association of families of Tiananmen victims that has managed to collect 600 names of those gone or known to be dead, publishing them in a Hong Kong brochure, with photos when available—an incomplete memorial that illumines the Chinese regime’s brutality and deceit.

Eighteen years later, the massacre is still a taboo subject in China, as Mao Yushi also discovered. In 2004, the internationally esteemed economist sent a polite petition, signed by 100 fellow intellectuals, to the Chinese government, asking it to apologize for Tiananmen and thereby help bury the tragic past. He, too, lost his university position and wound up under house arrest. I met him at his home on a rainy day; plastic bowls collected the water leaking through his crumbling roof—his refusal to play along with the Party has had material consequences. “I had forgotten the present leadership is the same as in 1989 or its immediate successors: they can’t confess,” he tells me.

The Communist Party is no less mendacious when it comes to China’s AIDS epidemic. The problem is gravest in the province of Henan, where vast numbers of poor peasants contracted AIDS during the nineties from selling their blood plasma (a trade generally controlled by Party members) and then having the blood, sans plasma but pooled with that of other donors, reinfused, absent HIV tests—a recipe for massive contamination. The AIDS sufferers of Henan are now dying in the hundreds of thousands, trapped in their impoverished villages with no one to care for them.

The government’s initial reaction was to deny any problem, isolate AIDS-affected areas, and let the sick die (a pattern that initially repeated itself when SARS broke out in the country).

Police barred entry to the contaminated villages, and new maps of Henan appeared without the villages, as if they had vanished into thin air. But after the international press became aware of the growing crisis, the Party banned the blood trade (though it enforced the prohibition fitfully) and in 2000 at last officially acknowledged the existence of AIDS on Chinese soil.

Despite all its pious declarations in the subsequent years, though, the government continues more to obfuscate than to help. When Bill Clinton visited Henan in 2005 to distribute AIDS medicine provided by his foundation, for example, the Party prevented him from visiting the worst-off villages. Instead, in the Henan capital city of Zengzhou, he posed with several Party-selected AIDS orphans as the cameras clicked away. It was an elaborate public-relations charade: “China, with the West’s help, was tackling AIDS!” The world saw a smiling Clinton, but not the real tragedy of Henan.

Had Hu Jia been the guide, a far grimmer picture would have emerged. Only 30, he is already in poor health, carrying on his bony shoulders the weight of multiple forms of subversion. He is a democrat and a practicing Buddhist, a follower of the Dalai Lama who favors Tibetan independence. In 2004, he gave up his medical studies to look after Henan’s sick. He has brought them clothes collected in Beijing, a little money, and some food.

Months after Clinton’s photo op, Hu Jia and I traveled to one of the Henan villages that the former president had to miss: Nandawu, home to 3,500 residents. A police checkpoint guarded the entryway, but foreigners could get past it easily by hiding under a tarpaulin on a tractor-trailer. Once inside, there was no danger: the police feared AIDS too much to go in. I shall never forget what I then saw. The disease had struck at least 80 percent of Nandawu’s families; in every house, in every hovel we entered, an invalid lay dying. Most of the sufferers had no medicine. One woman was putting a drip on her sick husband, bedridden for two years and covered with sores. She was clumsy and hurt him. What did the bottle contain? She didn’t know. The label said glucose. Why was she doing this? “I saw in the hospital and on television that sick people had to be put on the drip.”

Soon, only orphans would be left in Nandawu. No school will take them in—teachers refuse to accept these children. A charity run by a young Beijing democrat, Li Dan, tried to open a school for AIDS orphans, but the authorities shut it down. The orphans are a painful reminder of a story that the Party wants to erase from public memory, Li Dan said.

For as long as my guide Hu Jia worked alone to help the sick, the Party let him be. But then he began to distribute pamphlets, put up posters, and question the Henan government. Worse still, he urged the victims to form an organization. The Party will sometimes put up with isolated dissent, but the moment an “unauthorized” association forms, the boot comes down. Several months ago, the government placed Hu Jia under house arrest in Beijing. It is only thanks to his wife that he can communicate with the outside world. When he tries to post a message on the Internet, the Propaganda Department’s screening software immediately deletes it.

So far, the young Beijing writer Yu Jie, a leading liberal voice in China, has avoided Hu Jia’s fate, experiencing nothing worse than interrogation in a police station. This despite writing in a Hong Kong magazine of the truth about Mao Zedong, whose murderous reign is another taboo subject in China: “It is inconceivable that the Olympic Games, one of the high points of civilization, be held in Beijing as long as the body of the assassin lies in the heart of the city.” (Mao’s mausoleum still occupies Beijing’s central square.) Yu Jie’s words spread like wildfire on the Internet, where his romantic but typically apolitical writings have attracted a large readership.

With his writer’s pince-nez and baby face, Yu Jie may not seem much of a threat to the authorities; he is a lone intellectual with no organization. But the Party’s lenience probably has more to do with his relations with American Christian churches. Yu Jie and his beautiful wife are among China’s newly converted evangelicals, some 40 million of whom now congregate in “house churches”—private prayer and Bible study groups, discreetly supported by American churches and unfettered by any government control. The Chinese authorities don’t want any U.S. Christian protest movements to tarnish the 2008 Olympics, so for now, it serves their interests to keep their hands off Yu Jie. He acknowledges the point: “Until the games, I am safe. After the games, who knows?”

In general, however, and especially outside Beijing, the Party ruthlessly polices non-sanctioned religious movements, haunted by the memory of past Chinese dynasties overthrown by mystical upsurges. The authorities have decimated Falun Gong, a Buddhist sect whose master lives in exile in the U.S. The group’s members languish in prison or in reeducation centers.

Today’s dissidents and their compatriots don’t seem very threatening. None promotes the overthrow of the government. They aren’t comparable to Chinese dissidents in exile, such as Wuer Kaixi, leader of the 1989 Tiananmen revolt, or Wei Jinsheng, hero of the 1979 Democracy Wall, political men with no following left in China. So why does the Party expend so much time and energy trying to keep them in check? Because it recognizes that their activity, however limited in scope and seemingly harmless, is a sign of the desire for freedom and truth among the people—a desire that ultimately threatens the leadership’s future.

By looking at conventional forms of political protest alone, one might miss a deeper current of dissidence. Mass culture highlights the growing tension between Communist Party ideology and popular sentiment. The reach of popular Western, Japanese, and South Korean culture extends throughout Chinese society and may well rock it to the core. China is now home to 123 million Internet users, well over 30 million of them bloggers, for instance. Internet-savvy students play a cat-and-mouse game with the censors to access foreign information sites, though it’s personal success, not political causes, that tends to drive this young jet set.

And like everybody else, the Chinese love to watch TV, despite pervasive censorship and the propaganda broadcast on it in China. One of their favorite shows is a local version of the U.S. hit American Idol called Super Girl, broadcast by a Hunan satellite channel and produced by a private firm. In 2005, the winner of this amateur singing contest was Miss Li, a lanky 20-year-old with a punk hairdo, sporting jeans and a black T-shirt—a fashion inspired by South Korean pop bands. Miss Li won democratically with nearly 4 million votes, text-messaged by viewers using their cell phones from home. Over 400 million Chinese viewers—more than the combined populations of the United States and England—watched the finale.

An unexceptional story—except that it happened in China, and the Communist Party, taken by surprise, condemned Miss Li for not singing in Chinese but in English and Spanish and for wearing clothes that didn’t conform to the anodyne official dress code laid down by the national television station. A columnist in China Daily, the Party’s mouthpiece, interpreted her victory as a popular uprising against the established order, concluding that “Miss Li has been elected but the people have made a bad choice. This is what happens when people are unprepared for democracy.”

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