The two faces of China
Eugene Robinson (December 1, 2011)
Don’t hold your breath waiting for any kind of Occupy Beijing movement to
set up camp. Visitors to Tiananmen Square must pass through airport-style
security checkpoints, and nobody is likely to try smuggling in a protest
sign, much less a tent. The vast, wind-whipped plaza is a quiet place.
China’s leaders intend to keep it that way.
Walk away from the square in any direction, however, and soon you find
yourself amid a raucous riot of commerce. Whatever you’ve read about the
speed and scale of development here, you have no idea until you see it with
your own eyes. The contrast between China’s uninhibited economic life and
its repressed political life could not be more stark.
The iconic portrait of Chairman Mao that looks out over Tiananmen seems
anachronistic. At least in the urban centers, today’s China has abandoned
communism in favor of a kind of hyper-capitalism. Even officials acknow-
-ledge Mao’s mistakes, especially the ruinous Cultural Revolution.
Yet Mao’s portrait remains. The government has essentially rebranded him
as a nationalist who put a definitive end to centuries of imperial deca-
-dence and foreign domination, elevating a sovereign China to its rightful
status as a great power.
“We have been very candid,” said Hong Lei, the spokesman for the Foreign
Ministry. “We admit that he made serious problems for the country. But we
never give a 100 percent disavowal of Chairman Mao’s accomplishments.”
And in any event, Hong said, the way to look at China’s evolution is that
the country has moved into a new phase of the transformation Mao’s revo-
-lution began. Never mind that China is speeding down a road Mao never would
It makes sense that a government seeking to maintain the monopoly of power
that Mao established would want to keep the chairman’s legacy alive. But
many of the sightseers at Tiananmen on Thursday afternoon were recent
arrivals from the hinterlands — among millions of migrants who leave the
countryside to flock to China’s cities this year — and they seemed to gaze
upon Mao’s visage with a sense of awe, not of irony. It was a reminder
that, for all the sophistication of the big cities, most of China remains
rural and poor.
Living in a communist country without communism requires a finely tuned
sense of what is permissible and what is not. Journalists acknowledge
that they practice self-censorship and, when necessary, toe the party line.
A businessman will reach the brink of explicitly denouncing a government
policy but not take the leap, instead lapsing into awkward silence.
Commentators know they can criticize officials by name for incompetence
or corruption, but only up to a certain level; an expert on the Chinese
media said that such attacks against the president, the premier or other
top-rank officials would be unthinkable.
“We have a red line,” said Hong. “No media can violate the basic laws
and constitution.” He said this meant that “the basic political system
should be kept. You cannot overthrow the government.”
To me, there’s an obvious difference between criticizing any official,
even a head of state, and advocating a revolution. A Chinese journalist
might see the distinction, too — but might be ill-advised to assert it.
Still, history does matter. I had dinner one night at the home of Hao Jiang
Tian, an acclaimed opera singer who performs at the Metropolitan Opera and
other great venues around the world. He is in his 50s, and it was
fascinating — and harrowing — to hear him and several of his
contemporaries describe how they survived the years of the Cultural
They were of high-school age, but instead of continuing their educations
they were sent to menial jobs in construction, forced to join the army or
banished to toil in the countryside. They were hungry, exhausted, always
fearful. When the nightmarish upheaval finally ended, they had to rebuild
their lives from scratch.
I heard these stories while we sat around a table groaning with exquisite
food. Tian’s large and elegant apartment is in a new high-rise — all the
high-rises in Beijing are new — that has the distinction of being one of
the city’s few“green” buildings, making innovative use of geothermal
energy. Among our company were two prominent architects, who also live in
the building, and a famous artist.
No, China isn’t free. But yes, it has changed.