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The Empire of Lies
The twenty-first century will not belong to China.
The Western press is full of stories these days on Chinas 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 Chinas economy, which continues to grow rapidly. Investment pours in. Crowning Chinas new status, Beijing will host the 2008 Summer Olympics.
But Chinas 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. Chinas economic miracle is rotting from within.
The Partys 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 freedomsthe media operate under suffocating censorship, and political opposition can result in expulsion or prisoneven as it tries to seduce the West, which has conferred greater legitimacy on it than do the Chinese themselves.
The Wests 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 thenor thought we learnedthat 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 todays 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 nationa 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 Maos 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 everywherecity squares, railway stations, factories, and officesParty 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 Café, 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 wouldnt 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 Partya 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 massacres 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 victims 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 shes 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 availablean incomplete memorial that illumines the Chinese regimes 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 roofhis 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 cant confess, he tells me.
The Communist Party is no less mendacious when it comes to Chinas 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 testsa 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 governments 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 Wests 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 Henans sick. He has brought them clothes collected in Beijing, a little money, and some food.
Months after Clintons 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 Nandawus 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 didnt 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 inteachers 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 Departments screening software immediately deletes it.
So far, the young Beijing writer Yu Jie, a leading liberal voice in China, has avoided Hu Jias 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. (Maos mausoleum still occupies Beijings central square.) Yu Jies words spread like wildfire on the Internet, where his romantic but typically apolitical writings have attracted a large readership.
With his writers 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 Partys lenience probably has more to do with his relations with American Christian churches. Yu Jie and his beautiful wife are among Chinas newly converted evangelicals, some 40 million of whom now congregate in house churchesprivate prayer and Bible study groups, discreetly supported by American churches and unfettered by any government control. The Chinese authorities dont 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 groups members languish in prison or in reeducation centers.
Todays dissidents and their compatriots dont seem very threatening. None promotes the overthrow of the government. They arent 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 peoplea desire that ultimately threatens the leaderships 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 its 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-shirta 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 viewersmore than the combined populations of the United States and Englandwatched the finale.
An unexceptional storyexcept 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 didnt conform to the anodyne official dress code laid down by the national television station. A columnist in China Daily, the Partys 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.
Another sign of the desire for freedom, particularly worrisome to the authorities, is the explosion of peasant revolts in the Chinese countryside. The countryside is an immense universe, immutable and mysterious even for Chinese city dwellers, who go there only to honor the tombs of ancestors. Traveling to a village is like taking a journey in time; old China emerges, and modernity seemingly slips away. It also is to encounter Chinas communication problem: peasants, unfamiliar with the national language, speak only in regional dialectsthough television, the great linguistic and cultural leveler, is making the country more homogeneous by the day.
Ive been to many Chinese villages, and everywhere I have encountered the peasantrys feelings of helplessness and anger when dealing with the Communist authorities. When in late 2006, I reached one village in the heart of the Shaanxi Province, after a 40-hour journey from Beijing by train, car, and tractor, I saw no trace of the uprising that had taken place a month earlier. Alerted by a text message sent from the village, the Hong Kong press had reported a violent clash between the peasants and the police, leaving people injured and missingor even dead, with the authorities spiriting away the bodies. I stayed in the house of a taciturn widow, who kept feeding me fresh walnut kernelsideal, she said, for those doing intellectual work. The kernel looks like the brain; traditional Chinese medicine bases itself on such morphological approximations.
I pieced together the very ordinary reasons that had provoked the uprising from bits of information divulged by the children rather than the adults. The village had a dilapidated school, without heating, chalk, or teacher. In principle, schooling is compulsory and free, but the Party secretary, the village kingpin, made parents pay for the heating and chalk. Then a teacher came from the city. He held that his government wages werent commensurate with his status and demanded extra money from the parents. Half of the parents, members of the most prosperous clan, agreed to pay; the other half, belonging to the poorer clan, refused. A skirmish erupted between the two clans, and the teacher fled. The Party secretary tried to intervene and was lynched, the Party office plundered. Then the police roared in with batons and guns. The school has reopened, the teacher replaced with a villager who knows how to read and write but nothing more than that, he admits.
The government puts the number of what it calls these illegal or mass incidentsand theyre occurring in the industrial suburbs, tooat 60,000 a year, doubtless underreporting them. Some experts think that the true figure is upward of 150,000 a year, and increasing.
The uprisings are really mutinies, sporadic and unpremeditated. They express peasant families despair over the bleak future that awaits them and their children. Emigration from the countryside might be a way out, but its not easy to find a permanent job in the city. All kinds of permits are necessary, and the only way to get them is to bribe bureaucrats. The lot of the peasant migrantand China now has 200 million of themis to move from work site to work site, earning a pittance when payment is forthcoming at all. The migrants usually dont receive permission to bring their families with them, and even if they could, obtaining accommodation and schooling for their children would be virtually impossible. The fate of Chinese citizens often depends on where they come from. Someone born in Shanghai is an aristocrat, with the right to housing and schooling in Shanghai. Someone born in a village, however, can only go to the village school, at least until a university admits hima rare feat for a peasant. An American scholar, Feiling Wang, had come to China to study this system of discrimination, which few in the West know about, but the government expelled him.
The widow who was my hostess finally decided to open up a little. Her husband had left years ago to look for work in the east, never to return. Shed like to know what happened to him, but whom could she ask? The villagers had no one to turn tocertainly not the Party secretary. He doesnt speak to us, she says. He comes from the city. He doesnt understand our dialect and looks down on us.
The lack of medical facilities is another common cause of peasant complaint. The district hospital is five hours away by bus, and admission requires a payment of 600 yuans, a small fortune for a farmerand thats before the doctors fees and medicine costs. When we are sick, we dont bother about treatment, my hostess says. Yet we would like to relieve the suffering of our elders.
Villagers often told me that it wasnt the local Party secretary whom they most hated but rather the family-planning agents. To ensure the proper implementation of Chinas single-child policy (in some provinces, the limit is two children, if the first is a girl), the agents keep close watch on childbearing women, often subjecting them to horrific violence. In 2005, a family-planning squad targeted the city of Linyi and its surrounding rural area, in the Shandong Province, because the population had far exceeded the Partys child quota. The agents kidnapped 17,000 women, forcing abortions on those who were pregnantin some cases, immersing seven- to eight-month-old fetuses in boiling waterand sterilizing those who werent. The agents tortured the Linyi men until they revealed the hiding places of their daughters and wives.
This nightmarish episode, admitted to by the Beijing government, would have gone unnoticed if not for yet another text message sent to a Hong Kong journalist, which ultimately led to the American presss picking up the story. The man responsible for the Linyi revelations an act of true courage and heroismis a young peasant, blind since childhood: Chen Guangcheng, a self-taught barefoot lawyer. I met him at his farm near Linyi, where the Party had recently confined him. Chen told me that the law on family planning technically prohibits coercion (though, of course, it is widespread); what happened to the Linyi women was thus illegal. In complaining about the abuses, Chen used only legal means. Nevertheless, early this year, he received a 51-month prison sentence for inciting a mob to disrupt traffic in Linyi. The trial, like the charges themselves, mocked the rule of law.
Chinas draconian single-child policy may have slashed Chinas population growth (though not by as much as the official statistics say), but the preference for boys has led to widespread female feticide and gender imbalance on an unprecedented scale120 boys are born for every 100 girls. The disparity will be an inevitable source of teenage violence, as the boys compete for a limited number of available girls. Forcible birth control will also give rise to an increasingly elderly population. What will old parents do with no children to look after them? A poor country like China is totally unprepared to deal with the looming crisis.
Will Chinas surging economic growth, described by some in the West as a miracle, put an end to the discontent rumbling throughout the country? Economic development in China is not a miracle but an unmitigated disaster, says the house-confined economist Mao Yushi, a supporter of free markets. Isnt he happy with the countrys spectacular 10 percent annual growth rate? Maybeif he were certain that the figure was accurate. But with the Communist Party providing the statistics, truthfulness is anything but assured.
Doing his own calculations, adjusting for what he believes are fudged numbers, Mao Yushi arrives at a growth rate of about 8 percent per year. Thats a healthy rate, due principally to the shift of the idle or unproductive peasant population to industry, but as I point out to him, its no more than Japan and South Korea achieved during their take-off phases. Correct, Mao replies. So it can hardly be called a miracle. Moreover, the 8 percent doesnt take into account the vast environmental destruction caused by Chinas rapid development.
Mao Yushi acknowledges that no development could take place without a large-scale shift to urban life and damage to the natural environment. But he questions the governments unchecked savagery. The current growth rate isnt sustainable, he believes: natural bottlenecksscarcity of energy, raw materials, waterwill get in the way. China can import energy and raw materials, true, but water, which isnt readily importable, could soon become a massive problem. The Chinese government doesnt view purification plants as useful investments; already, hundreds of millions of Chinese lack access to drinking water, with many dying as a result.
Many goods that China produces are worthless, Mao Yushi reminds meespecially those made by public companies. About 100,000 such Chinese enterprises continue to run in the old Maoist style, churning out substandard products because theyve got to hit the targets that the Party sets and provide employment to those the Party cannot dismiss, not because theyre responding to any market demand. Most public-sector firms dont even have real accounting procedures, so theres no way of ascertaining profitability. China is not a market economy, Mao says bluntly.
The Party gives the banks lists of people to whom loans should go, and the rationale is frequently political or personal, not economic. Indeed, in many cases, banks are not to ask for repayment. That investment decisions obey political considerations and not the law of the market is the Chinese economys central flaw, responsible at least in part, Mao Yushi believes, for the large number of empty office buildings and infrequently used new airports and an unemployment rate likely closer to 20 percent than to the officially acknowledged 3.5 percent.
Unemployment doesnt just affect the impoverished migrants, excluded from the government statistics (which is one reason why the official unemployment rate is so low). Two-thirds of Chinas degree-holding engineers cant find work commensurate with their qualifications even three years after they finish university. Their unemployment reflects the primitive nature of Chinas development, based on the massive deployment of unskilled labor, not on encouraging the enrichment of human capital, as in Japan, South Korea, and the other Asian tigers during their rise to prosperity. Is it any wonder, then, that so many of Chinas engineers leave for the United States and Canada?
Still, hasnt growth created an independent middle class that will push for, and eventually obtain, greater political freedom? Many in the West think so, looking to the South Korean example, but Mao Yushi isnt convinced. What exists in China, he argues, is a class of parvenus, newcomers whose purchasing power depends on their proximity to the Party rather than their education or entrepreneurial achievements. Except for a handful of genuine businessmen, the parvenus work in the military, public administration, or state enterprises, or for firms ostensibly private but, in fact, owned by the Party. The Party picks up the tab for almost all their imported luxury cars, two-thirds of their mobile phones, and three-quarters of their restaurant bills, as well as their call girls, their study trips abroad, and their lavish spending at Las Vegas casinos. And it can withdraw these advantages at any time.
In March, the Chinese government announced, to much fanfare in the Western press, that it would begin to introduce individual property rights. We should understand that this reform will benefit only the parvenus, not the peasants, whose tilled land will still belong to the state. But the parvenus will now be able to transmit to their children what they have acquired thanks to their Party connectionsone more reason that they will be unlikely to push for the democratization of the regime that secures their status.
Madam Mao Yushi interrupts us to serve the ritual tea, an ordeal because Ive never quite learned how to sip the boiling beverage without swallowing the green leaves floating on the surface. Through the window, I glimpse the plainclothes policemen pacing outside the run-down apartment building where the nearly 80-year-old Mao and his wife live. The agents let me in without asking questions. I must have had my photograph taken. I run no real risk, though, since Im FrenchChina and France currently enjoy warm relations. Its the Chinese who must fear the government, not the foreign visitor. Whenever I meet free spirits like Mao Yushi, I wonder if Im making life difficult for them. He tells me not to worry: a little international recognition can spare the dissenter more violent reprisals.
Beijing is not impervious to criticism abroad. China desperately needs international legitimacy. Were Western consumers and investors to turn away, the Chinese economy would collapse, leading in all probability to the fall of the Party. Thus, the Propaganda Department, helped by a plethora of public-relations consultants and politically articulate emissaries, does all it can to woo foreign critics. The ham-handed methods of Maoist China are a thing of the past.
Do you dare deny Chinas success story, her social stability, economic growth, cultural renaissance, and international restraint? Yan Yfan (a pseudonym) asks me, back in Paris. A scholar on the payroll of a Beijing foundation, an extension of the Party, he has the assignment to handle my case. I respond that political and religious oppression, censorship, entrenched rural poverty, family-planning excesses, and rampant corruption are just as real as economic growth in todays China. What you are saying is true, but affects only a minority yet to benefit from reforms, he asserts.
Yet nothing guarantees that this so-called minority1 billion people!will integrate with modern China. It is just as possible that the minority will remain poor, since it has no say in determining its fate, even as Party members get richer. Yan Yfan underscores my fundamental error: You dont have any confidence in the Partys ability to resolve the pertinent issues you have raised. Hes right; I dont.
One must tread cautiously when trying to predict Chinas future. Over the last century, China has never ceased to surprise with her dramatic U-turns. China scholar Andrew Nathan suggests various scenarios: a revolution (but not necessarily a democratic one); economic bankruptcy (with a military dictatorship taking over); gradual liberalization (unlikely); or the maintenance of the status quo. I think the status quo will prevail, at least for now, for the Chinese people fear new political violence.
Of course, a fifth scenario is possible, the one that cant be predicted. But those in the West who think that the future belongs to China should think again.