The Next Great Leap

Saturday, October 30, 1999

Nanchang—Four hundred years ago in this city, the Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci—the man who introduced China to Western mathematics, astronomy, and art—completed his first work in Chinese, the classic On Friendship. But such fame as Nanchang retains is as a communist footnote, the site of a hotel-cum-museum whence sprang the People’s Liberation Army. In the more prosperous regions along the South China coast, Red Guards have long given way to Rolex and Christian Dior. In these parts, however, fashion lags and the Mao pendants hanging from the taxi mirrors suggest the same sort of pride Hoosiers of a certain age take in John Dillinger.

In its own day Nanchang was a center of Chinese learning and poetry, but you don’t have to spend too much time here to recognize that its own day was some time ago. Although not completely bereft of the Western influences most visibly on display in, say, Beijing and Shanghai—the glossy Leonardo di Caprio posters dominating the sidewalk markets, for example—unmistakable signs of the province’s second-rate status abound. The not-quite-as-fashionable young women. The PLA museum, where the explanation cards still wax indignant about “landlords” and “rightist deviationists.” Even the foreign brand names that pepper the main shopping street incline to Hong Kong rather than Paris or Milan: Giordano, Bossini, Fairwood.

Indeed, I never would have come except to collect our second daughter, Margaret Mei-sze. In a dreary provincial office four flights above street level, a government functionary enters the room, seats himself at a small desk, and pulls out the official stamp that constitutes his power. After answering a few questions about our income and endeavoring to impress on the notary our abiding gratitude to the Chinese people, the man writes our names in the ledger and we receive our papers—complete with the chop bearing the familiar red star. The staff is relaxed and friendly, without a trace of the surliness that generally constitutes the face of Chinese officialdom. As we return to our seats and the next couple takes its place in front of the table, an unknown band practicing on the sidewalk below suddenly delivers itself of a rousing edition of the “Ode to Joy.” I look down at my beautiful new daughter and at the tears streaming down my wife’s face.

What an apt metaphor for today’s China, the omnipresent shoddiness punctuated by moments of beauty and exhilaration. For me it is a relatively new feeling, and a long time in coming. When I lived in Hong Kong in the mid-1980s I loathed going into China, the glowing reports of which I could never square with firsthand experience of a Chinese toilet or train.

And so I well understand the welter of conflicting emotions brought about by news of China’s theft of U.S. nuclear secrets, its continued bullying of dissenters at home, and the Third World pique we saw most vividly portrayed in the photograph of the forlorn American ambassador James Sasser staring out through the broken glass after Chinese students—responding to NATO’s bombing of China’s Belgrade embassy—were permitted to throw rocks and Molotov cocktails at the U.S. embassy. In the decade since Deng Xiaoping sent the tanks rumbling into Tiananmen Square, although the battle lines have hardened, they have been twisted out of ideological coherence. In The Clash of Civilizations Samuel Huntington asks whether modernization must always equal Westernization, a particularly embarrassing question for a Chinese leadership that joined the party when communism was itself thought to be the future.

Difficult as modernization is on its own, in China’s case it is further complicated by the way in which it finds itself brushing against all the raw nerves of American politics, whether they be trade, human rights, religion, abortion, national security, or even the integrity of a U.S. presidential election. And today the battle for China’s soul continues to be contested by a human rights community that thinks the answer lies in congressional legislation and a claque of equally naive businesspeople who believe they could manage everyone if only the busybodies would just butt out.

The evidence, as even the State Department reports concede, inclines to the Friedmanite view. Today Asian Communists no longer boast, à la Khrushchev, of “burying” capitalism. To the contrary, they now recognize that development has forced them into a damned-if-they-do and damned-if-they-don’t situation: between the risk of a South Korea if they open up and the certainty of a North Korea if they don’t. As much as intellectuals would like to believe otherwise, it is not just the Wall Street Journal and the BBC that have their salutary effects. A Chinese I met in Guangzhou once confided to me that the most revolutionary things he ever saw on TV were the reruns of the American cop shows like Hawaii Five-O and NYPD Blue beamed in from neighboring Hong Kong, allowing millions of ordinary mainlanders to watch American police officers reading the Miranda warning to those they arrest.

The accumulation of little experiences such as this has left me with intimations of a Chinese people increasingly gaining a life of their own. I have felt it. At a 1998 speech at Fudan University in Shanghai, students listen politely as I relate what lessons the Hong Kong 150-year liberal experiment might teach China about the concerns that so bedevil the mainland: efficiency, corruption, opportunity. Almost immediately a young woman raises her hand. Like virtually everyone else there she first apologized for her poor language skills but then delivered her question in perfect English. “What you say is very good,” she states. “But in China we have an obstacle called the Communist Party.” When American bombs accidentally struck the Chinese embassy in Belgrade weeks before the tenth anniversary of the June 4 massacres, party chieftains were clearly pleased to see students throwing rocks at the U.S. embassy rather than at the Great Hall of the People. In the long run, however, Chinese officials know that, much as they might resent it, they need America if they are to modernize. And they know too that however much it may be possible to whip up resentment against Uncle Sam, the endemic corruption and favoritism that plagues the system today is likely to be a more potent incitement to protest. Indeed, it was just this corruption that helped bring down the Kuomintang in 1949.

The key question is not simply whether the reality of today’s China is good or bad but compared to what? To an American idea of what we would like China to be? To what we might reasonably hope for? To what it was twenty years ago? Five years ago? Even for someone whose first trip to China did not come until 1988, the changes are striking. On that first visit, a holiday with my brother and a college friend, we stayed at the Beijing Hotel just off Tiananmen Square. There we were charged an extortionist rate for the meanest of accommodations; the main boulevards were so bereft of cars they looked like airport runways; even the pandas in the Beijing Zoo looked run-down and pathetic.

Today there are fifty-one McDonald’s restaurants in Beijing alone, accompanied by Kentucky Fried Chicken and, now, Starbucks. Stylish prostitutes ply their trade at the disco in the basement of the Great Wall Sheraton. People on the streets are better dressed, better fed, and (most underappreciated) better informed than they’ve ever been. In Beijing in January 1998, a man in a Pittsburgh Pirates hat was selling Internet service outside the Trader’s Hotel. In my room I watched the breaking Monica Lewinsky scandal and the pope’s visit to Cuba on CNN. A look at the satellite dishes dotting Chinese city rooftops confirms that I cannot have been alone.

I know, I know. Measuring progress by the number of McDonald’s and prostitutes. It makes for good sound bites; witness Huntington’s aside about confusing the Magna Carta with the “Magna Mac” or Gary Bauer’s warning about selling out American ideals “in hopes of selling a few billion Big Macs.” In general, however, attitudes toward McDonald’s are a fairly good indicator of attitudes toward development. At tidy little conferences in America, it is easy to conceive of a China that gets openness without burgers. In the messy realities of a modernizing dictatorship, however, the arrival of a McDonald’s heralds a margin of opportunity that wasn’t there before, not least in the disposable income it assumes.

The churches too are more relaxed. In the pews where I have knelt, people are suspect of sudden changes, which experience has taught them may be preludes to large reversals. After mass at the South Church in Beijing in 1988, the congregation dispersed quickly, reluctant to be seen talking to foreigners. Today, however, up to three-quarters of the Catholic bishops in the government’s patriotic association have secretly reconciled themselves with the Vatican. Of course, there remain many Christians harassed for their faith, and the thaw is purely tactical in intent. But it has its effects. Outside the French-built church in Nanchang, an old lady sitting on a bench peeling vegetables motions me over. She admires my new daughter and asks if I think the pope will come to China. Pointing to her own granddaughter, she says things will be better for her. In China, she says, things move slowly.

Surely the point is not that opening markets is the same as opening China but that in doing the former the Chinese are making the kind of control Chinese knew in their worst days impossible. In a nation where the main lever of government control has been the work unit—in A Mother’s Ordeal, Steven Mosher recounts how factory doctors and nurses kept track of the menses of their female workers on large chalkboards, the better to prevent any deviation from the one-child policy—liberalization and a floating population of perhaps between 80 and 130 million workers is fast making the work unit a relic of the past. The government and paperwork just can’t keep up.

I recall a Taiwanese manager at a Pepsi plant who told me about a junior Chinese manager of his who had to be fired when his wife got pregnant with their second child. Inasmuch as the authorities caught up with the man, the implication was that the couple were forced to abort. A few years after this, the New York Times carried a piece about a small town in Sichuan province where newfound affluence meant that families could get around the one-child rule by paying a fine. Is this freedom? Obviously not. Is it better? The Times concluded that “economic growth is eroding the old system of control over ordinary people’s lives, creating loopholes large and small.” What that poor Pepsi manager and his wife would have given for that loophole.

The delusion of both right and left is the notion that we can come up with some legal blueprint for China and sell or bully Beijing into adopting it and—presto—China is free. Stirring declarations of rights and justice will always enjoy the dramatic advantage, but for those who have to live under these regimes priorities are typically different. In one of Beijing’s most exclusive apartment blocs, a seventy-year-old man puts it this way: “The West always considers who is in jail and looks at the release [of dissidents]. For Chinese, we don’t see it as important. What we look to see is whether the public consensus affects decision making.” He pauses, and refills a glass tumbler of tea leaves with hot water. “The idea that we should expect the sudden arrival of freedom is simplistic. Look at Russia.”

The man’s name is Mao Yushi, and he is no party hack. He is instead a retired member of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences who in 1957 was purged as a rightist. Although rehabilitated in the 1980s Mao declined the invitation to rejoin the party. About two years back he became something of an icon among reform-minded Chinese for an article entitled “Liberalism, Equal Status, and Human Rights,” the gist of which was that what China needs most is equality before the law. What makes him most intriguing, however, is that Mao is a fan of Friedrich Hayek. Not only did he commission a Chinese translation of Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty, he subsequently organized a conference to discuss the work.

Mao himself (no relation) is no Hayek expert, he warns me. But clearly he has the basics down. And he notes with some irony that this is by no means the first Chinese translation of Hayek. He knows of at least two: The Road to Serfdom, in 1962, and The Fatal Conceit, in 1991. These previous translations, however, were done secretly and meant only for the eyes of high government, party, and military officials—to help them recognize bourgeois thought when they saw it. “Full of poison,” says the Chinese addendum to The Road to Serfdom, just in case there is any doubt. For Hayek, liberal progress was less the result of legislation than evolution, akin to the common law, where legislation is the ratification of what society has already learned rather than some advance guard for new rights. He called this spontaneous order, and even in China it might be found for those who care to look.

In America “Doonesbury” and the like spend much time on the conditions of Nike factories, and the factory I visited across from Hong Kong in Guangzhou (Canton) looks the part: concrete, crowded, monotonous. But talks with workers reveal a clear hierarchy. At the top of the pyramid are the Hong Kong or Taiwanese managers, who run the China-based ventures for the multinationals. In the middle are local Cantonese, who have moved up to lower management or better-paying skilled work. At the bottom, the grunt work tends to be done by the 10 million desperate immigrants from outside provinces, not infrequently women.

None of this is coincidence. In two decades the part of China most open to outside influences has “graduated” the local Cantonese to the point where they no longer are grateful for the sweatshop jobs. And in moving from sewing machines and bicycles to video recorders and refrigerators, millions upon millions of Chinese now have come to take a long-suppressed upward mobility for granted. And yet the argument persists that it will all come without any social and political consequences.

Take my friend Daisy (not her real name), a Shanghainese. The apartment she showed me—she has since moved, twice—was on the third floor of some kind of factory, with a shared kitchen that looked like a back alley. But inside was a kind of oasis, with new Japanese appliances such as a JVC color television and Mitsubishi air conditioner. According to Li Conguhua, author of China: The Consumer Revolution, Shanghai’s consumers now enjoy a living standard comparable to that of the Taiwanese in 1969. When she speaks about the government, it is in the tone of a D.C. resident complaining about the Bureau of Motor Vehicles. There is none of the desperation I used to sense in Chinese I’d met; when I was living in Washington ten years ago, one fellow called me collect from Shanghai begging me to find him an American girl to marry so he could emigrate. Daisy’s only request is for more Willa Cather novels.

Or take He Qi. An artist in Nanjing, the former southern capital infamous for the Japanese “rape” during World War II but also at one time a center of Chinese Protestantism, He Qi was sent down to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution because his father was a mathematician. To get out of manual labor, he started drawing revolutionary images and likenesses of Mao. One day he stumbled across an old Life magazine or some such, with a photo of Raphael’s Madonna. “I was captivated by her smile.” He became obsessed. “By day I painted Mao but at night I returned to the Madonna,” he says, carefully unwrapping a copy, done on old newsprint, that he had sent to his sister.


China’s leaders face a catch-22 situation—risking becoming another South Korea if they open up and the certainty of becoming another North Korea if they don’t.


In America it is easy to poke fun at these modest freedoms: to buy a hamburger, to choose an apartment, to paint a Nativity. But it is easy because we can do all these things without thinking, and we have no experience of not being able to do them. Occasionally the government flexes its muscles, as if to remind people that what the party giveth the party can jolly well taketh away. “Kill the chicken to frighten the monkey,” the saying goes, and in March the authorities jailed a Shanghai businessman named Lin Lai for providing 30,000 e-mail addresses in China to an on-line dissident group outside the country. But the accusation itself suggests the impossibility of the party being able to control all messages in a country where there are already some 6 million people getting and sending e-mail.

Nor is the challenge to the state machinery confined to tomorrow’s technology; some of it is yesterday’s. As the recent State Department country report for China noted, in 1998 “the government’s human rights record deteriorated sharply” over the year before. But the cracks in the state cement continue to widen. In 1989, those of us in Hong Kong could communicate with the mainland via fax machines; the South China Morning Post even printed a page designed to be faxed into China. Today there are not only more fax machines and web sites but more telephones. In 1996, when we flew to Nanjing to adopt our eldest daughter, Grace, there were no public phones to speak of. But two years later I found the city now has public phones that accept widely available prepaid cards, from which anyone could dial up New York or Paris or Singapore with no record on their home bill. This will not prevent Jiang Zemin and his government from thuggish behavior when they sense a threat to their power, but it will force an accountability.

This is not the China you read about, the one locking up dissidents, persecuting Christians, aborting their babies simply because they are girls. Nor is this the China clamping down on Hong Kong, testing a missile launch against Taiwan, simulating a war exercise against the U.S. fleet, stealing nuclear secrets, or menacing its neighbors in the Spratlys. All of those things are true. And no one with any regard for liberty could wish a China controlled by the existing regime, much less an Asia dominated by it. What is true, however, is not the whole story. As one China-born missionary told me when I asked about conflicting reports of church-state relations, “Whatever you read about China is undoubtedly true for some part of China.”

None of this is to say that America shouldn’t be firm with China, since the hard old men in Beijing are acutely sensitive to criticism. Yet we also ought to recognize that a country where the Golden Arches now look across Tiananmen Square near the balcony whence Mao once addressed throngs of Red Guards, where several million now have e-mail and access to foreign web pages, where Christianity can no longer be dismissed as a foreign import, that such a China exhibits possibilities lacking only a few years ago and that ought to be encouraged and pushed. The truth is something the party needs to fear, not us.

The Clinton administration has demonstrated that commerce is no substitute for a foreign policy, especially when it comes at the expense of American credibility. But in the process of enriching both our countries, trade has proved the most effective means of expanding the margin of the possible. “We have never valued ingenious articles,” the emperor Qianlong wrote to George III, “nor do we have the slightest need of your country’s manufacturers.” Two centuries later Mao would advance much the same argument. Looking out at the Chinese people today, at their traffic jams, their cellular phones, their credit cards, it is impossible to say of today’s Chinese that they are uninterested in what the rest of the world has to offer. The papers tell us of a leadership whose spots have not changed much in the twenty years since Deng Xiaoping opened China’s door, and the papers may well be right. What has changed is the China around them.