Thor's China Diary

In the land of the blind

the one-eyed man is king

@2 April 2000

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The boy was a little distracted. His father must spend the next 8 months in confinement five days a week at a special Communist Party college for high officials. The bait is advanced training and examination for high office. The reality .. well I'm not privvy to it, and if the lad  knew he was not saying. One would hope for China's sake that such exercises were for genuinely useful knowlege. One suspects something less salubrious - indoctrination, the weeding out of independent thinking... Chinese leadership at all levels needs reform and open thinking, not the fossilization of some imagined past and present glory.

It is a matter of great interest to me to grasp what Chinese people of all kinds understand about their own recent history. Thirty years ago this country experienced one of the greatest cultural and human tragedies in recorded knowledge. Thirty to eighty million people (by some specialist's figures - no one really knows) died - murdered, beaten or (mostly) starved to death. For every one dead of famine, another ten must have had their mental & physical health undermined. My enquiries have elicited a variety of answers.

The response from many of my students strikes me as almost surreal. Their elders seem to have constructed some myth of a golden age when they themselves gloriously sacrificed all for the nation. They heroically marched off into the countryside to teach the peasants how to grow rice. None of these heroes, it would seem, were rounded up in trucks at gunpoint and shipped to terrified exile in Xinjiang. Heavens no, none of them died. The money grubbing younger generation should rever these elder saints, say my righteous 22 year old students. Somewhere out there is a holacaust that a nation forgot. One is eerily reminded of a younger generation in Japan who are taught nothing about Japan's imperial recent past.

Older folk, the forty somethings, speak of a dark and chaotic time, their childhood. But their recollections are all personal, and none of my respondents of this vintage admit to having the faintest inkling of the magnitude of the disaster, or of the culpability of those really responsible. None seem to have been led to ask what in the Chinese cultural design allowed a mad old man to unleash such chaos, and why he found so many willing agents in destruction.

I asked the boy, a very bright teenager. His knowledge on the topic was scanty, hazy and utterly inaccurate. He had heard of Red Guards, but had no idea that they were children of his own age. He knew nothing of the betrayal of parents, the murder of teachers, the extent of cultural vandalism He knew that many of his own social class had missed ten years of educational and vocational opportunity, but thought that most behaviour of the time had been motivated by high ideals, although "ineffectual" (his word). The death by starvation of tens of millions of his countrymen was not even within his imagination.

Today I also asked a highly intelligent woman in her mid thirties. Her feelings about the period had a more acute sense of personal loss than the boy (to whom it was merely ancient reported knowledge). Her father, later a teacher, missed tertiary education; her grandfather, a land and factory owner before 1949, was sent to the countryside. Her mother was unable to get more than six years of schooling. Yet she herself had no serious grasp of the national scale of events that took place; no clear understanding that a whole civilization collapsed; and again no real knowledge of mass starvation.

After World War II in Germany it was pretty hard to find anyone had been a Nazi. After's China's self-inflicted holacaust, it is damned hard to find anyone who was a Red Guard, and impossible to find anyone who accepts a measure of responsibility for what happened. How convenient that that "Gang of Four" was able to mislead poor uncle Mao and force 20% of the world's population to massacre its own soul. What we have instead is a mixture of national amnesia, and a population absolutely ignorant about what happens a kilometre down the road, past and present. (This week a district in Wuhan privatized part of the water supply - a 1st for China. Not one of my 250 postgraduates had the slightest inkling: the media is a white noise machine to this day).

Before the USSR collapsed, the outside world could only guess at its weakness. In the event, the brittle, hollowed out shell of that empire simply imploded. I don't think that China is quite that fragile at the moment. But I do think that the ruling apparatus, The Party,  is vastly more fragile than either outsiders or most Chinese themselves believe. However, The Party Leaders themselves constantly act as if they have a very nasty tiger by the tail (and maybe they have). This ruling elite gives every sign of being afraid of  "the masses", not to mention their own 60 million strong "rank and file". Thinking middle class people are apt to agree that "the masses" are thoroughly disallusioned with the ruling elite. It is really a crisis of expectations. Fifty years of slogans & heroic promises are wearing a little thin as tens of millions lose their jobs. Mr Zhen's family and Mr Chen's family watch their magic TV box every night. Their compatriots watch 360 million magic TV boxes, and what they see is a world of luxury somewhere out there in electron land which makes them very envious indeed. Envy is not the stuff of happiness. A survey of 22 countries (South China Morning Post, 15 April 2000), has just ranked Chinese the second least happy people in the world (9% content), only ahead of Russians (3% content), with Americans coming in first (46% content), Indians second !!! (37% content), and a global average of 24% of people content with their lot.

"The masses" still have a (rapidly declining) hope that their version of Santa Clause, "the State", will come to the rescue, as its propaganda has endlessly promised. But of course, "the State" is simply unable to fill such an economic black hole. The middle classes may know enough to be simply cynical, and therefore open to corruption.

It gives me no pleasure to make these observations. Wall to wall television, fast highway and rail services between major cities, and the explosive growth of telephony (but with deliberately higher rural charges, much less widespread in the villages), all combine to give an impression of order, cohesion and purpose across a vast territory. The Leaders, as they are called without irony here, are almost certainly their own first victims in this game of illusions. Step off the highway for a minute. As my acquaintances say matter of factly, it is now very very difficult to find a single official in any arm of the bureaucratic jungle who is NOT corrupt.

Even universities, which used to be "pure" (a friend's description) are now rotten to the core. Regardless of entrance examination marks, the parents of many students now have to BRIBE university admission officials from university presidents down to obtain admission for their children. And regardless of examination marks, many otherwise qualified students are excluded to make way to the corruptly enrolled. Upon graduation, parents may feel driven to bribe personnel officers or managers to obtain employment for their offspring. ...

Well, bribery might be a polite way to put it. A few weeks ago a deputy provincial governor (in Jiangxi) became a sacrificial offering to the public campaign against corruption. He was shot. His guanxi must have run out, because everyone knows there are bigger fish in that bathtub. The really interesting thing for me though was that it was publicly proclaimed that he had bought his job. This was accepted without comment. I began to enquire about the quaint custom of buying jobs. Now I learn that both in business and government it is very common indeed. My friends differ a little on the details, some claiming it to be all-pervasive, while others saying that higher posts tend to be more publicly scrutinized, so less liable to hanky-panky; ( I would have thought that a vice provincial governor was pretty high..).

The drill seems to be that you pay a courtesy call on the gent who has power to promote you. The guanxi, the cultivation of friendship, is still essential (and blood relations are even more potent). However, upon leaving your host, if it is a fairly low ranking official post, you leave 20-30 thousand yuan on the table. Higher up the ladder the price is, of course, higher, if the job is open to purchase at all. In the old days (a few years ago) you'd arrange to have a new TV set etc. delivered, but cash is so much more convenient, so nowadays it is all very practical. In a university, you might actually need some talent to offer, but if two candidates are level-pegging, a cash contribution might make all the difference in certain departments. I have absolutely no personal knowledge about this aspect of life in the PLA and other disciplined forces. It is a fairly universal rule around the world though that such organizations both reflect and influence the wider polity, so it is difficult to be optimistic about their purity here.

The fate of administrations sinking into irretrievable corruption seems to be one of the few certain lessons in the historical process. There comes a time when the slogan campaigns ring hollow even to the gullible, where fear loses its power to numb, amd where the egg-shell of supreme authority becomes a crazed net of contradictions. In such a condition, one major stressful event can trigger collapse. A Taiwan invasion, for example, might be a trigger like that. There is ample evidence that corruption is one of the major concerns of the general Chinese public. Maybe they have a little historical memory after all. It was irretrievable corruption that finally destroyed the Kuomintang, and any number of dynasties before them.

In my early twenties I was convinced that some nut case in America or Russia would probably blow us all away with nuclear exuberance. Well, we are still around, older if not wiser. Predictions in the short term are apt to be rash. Life, modern life in an industrial society is a complex thing. Rotten as the social structure in China seems to an incomer like me, daily life by all accounts is incomparably more prosperous and various than it was twenty years ago. This must mean a great deal to many Chinese people, whatever their complaints and television-fuelled envy. There are other things which bind as well. The urban middle class is rapidly acquiring major personal investments in real estate for example. Their personal prosperity is thus solidified in a few square meters of some apartment block, and it is known worldwide that such an investment greatly restrains any passion for revolution, revolt or blood in the streets. This suggests that change, when it comes, is more likely to be incremental, in a sense almost subversive, rather than violent -- unless there is some major catastrophe like military adventurism, or somehow, organized resistance from an underclass of unemployed workers and peasants suffering extreme hardship. Maybe that is why the price of telephone calls is kept inflated in those rural villages. Can't have folk talking to each other ...

"In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king" copyrighted to Thor May 2000; all rights reserved
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