China’s Inauspicious Year

China’s Inauspicious Year

China’s response to the earthquake and other calamities of 2008 challenges the West to rethink its prejudices.


Two thousand and eight was to have been an auspicious year for China. But the year has been anything but.

In January, a wave of polite demonstrations over planned urban development washed over Shanghai. Then freak snowstorms left 200,000 citizens stranded and angry over the government’s failure to deal with the emergency. Next, demonstrations and riots broke out in Lhasa, Tibet’s main city, and beyond. The flame of the Olympic torch relay was nearly doused by international protests and threats of a boycott. And now the catastrophic Sichuan earthquake has claimed as many as 80,000 lives, rendering millions homeless and raising fears of significant damage to the country’s infrastructure.

And it’s only May. No matter what happens next, 2008 is shaping up to be one of the most eventful and tragic years in recent Chinese history. And the way the Chinese people and the Communist Party leadership have risen to meet these unforeseen events challenges us in the West to rethink our often distorted view of China. Here are five lessons that are emerging:

1. China’s economics, politics and social structures are undergoing profound and rapid change.

This is obvious, but many outside critics of China continue to insist that when it comes to politics, the continuation of Communist Party is still the country’s defining characteristic.

Unquestionably, there are continuities going back to the era defined by Chairman Mao: the Party retains its monopoly on power, periodically uses draconian measures against those it deems threatening and seeks to control the media. But Mao’s cult of personality no longer prevails; the regime now presents itself as worthy of support primarily because of what it can accomplish, as opposed to the purity of its ideology; and China’s leaders are showing far more flexibility toward certain kinds of dissent.

The government’s restrained response to the “strolls” by middle-class residents of Shanghai concerned about the impact the expansion of a high-speed train would have been much more surprising thirty years ago than it was three months ago. The same goes for Prime Minister Wen Jiabao’s decision to publicly acknowledge that the government should have done more to protect travelers stranded by late January and February’s harsh winter storms.

And even the most skeptical observer needs to acknowledge the night-and-day contrasts between the current earthquake response and the cover-up that followed the Tangshan earthquake of July 1976, which hit just a few months before Mao’s death. When that earlier disaster struck, Beijing rebuffed offers of foreign aid, claimed that Mao’s ideology was all the country needed to deal with the catastrophe, and tightly controlled access to the affected area.

2. It is misleading to compare today’s China to Nazi Germany at the time of the 1936 Berlin Games or the Soviet Union at the time of the 1980 Moscow Games.

These two historical analogies, often invoked by human rights activists who call for a boycott of the Beijing Games, generate a great deal of heat but precious little light. Here are just a few places where each analogy falls apart:

Communist Party leaders in China today, like their Soviet counterparts in 1980, can be said to head a propaganda state. But Chinese journalists have shown much more independence in their coverage of many news events, including the current crisis in Sichuan, than Soviet journalists did a quarter-century ago. And Beijing now is trying much harder to court public opinion than Moscow did then (see Lesson One).

Ethnic prejudice continues to play a disturbing role in China’s policies toward Tibetans. But this prejudice has more in common with how Western empires of the past viewed and treated colonial subjects than how Hitler viewed and treated Jews. And China no longer has an adulated leader in the style of Mao, who claims his ideology is a sacred creed worth dying for (see Lesson One again).

3. When evaluating China’s response to the earthquake, avoid false analogies.

China certainly has some important things in common with a variety of partially closed societies in which one ruling party holds a monopoly on power. But it is misleading to liken it to Burma and North Korea. These may be neighboring countries with which China has historic ties and close relations. But both come much closer than does China to qualifying as totalitarian rather than simply authoritarian states.

One sign of how inept the Burma analogy is how China’s leaders responded to the earthquake. They allowed internationalist journalists into the affected areas and welcomed foreign aid. By contrast, when responding to the cyclones that hit their country, Burma’s military strongmen kept all foreign reporters out and treated offers of humanitarian aid with intense suspicion.

Like Burma but unlike China, North Korea has tried to suppress information about disasters, including large-scale famines. It is also a country where veneration of a supposedly perfect leader, Kim Jong-il, is a central feature of the political order. Looking at developments in North Korea may justly bring to mind analogies with China in the days of the horrific Great Leap Forward famine of the late 1950s and early 1960s and the Tangshan earthquake, both of which occurred when Mao’s personality cult resembled Kim Jong-il’s. But hardly the PRC today. (Again, see Lesson One.)

4. International opinion matters to China’s leaders, but what what the Chinese people think matters more.

It is true that Chinese municipal and national leaders do not need to compete in open elections. But the opinion of their own people–especially the urban middle class and Internet-savvy youths–matters a great deal. When China’s leaders perceive resentment among these groups, they tend to modify policy, as they did by tabling plans for the high-speed train line in Shanghai after the January protests. Or they make public relations gestures. Or do a combination of these two things. At such times, they act something like officials who expect to stand for re-election.

The special importance of domestic opinion was illustrated by the international uproar over the Olympic torch relay. Complaints about this ritual from the European Union and the United States only seemed to harden the government’s determination to carry on. But in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, something different happened. When some Chinese Netizens complained about the celebratory tone of state media coverage of the torch relays, the government quickly shifted gears, calling on state media to adopt a more somber tone and introduce a moment of silence to honor earthquake victims into displays of the torch at each new stop on the route. The relay became an event in which pleas for donations to support earthquake victims figured prominently. And after calls by Chinese bloggers and independent-minded journalists for the government to make even more dramatic changes to the torch plans, a three-day moratorium on the relay has been called to show respect for the suffering in Sichuan.

5. The government may manipulate public opinion, but cannot entirely control it.

There is no question that nationalistic textbooks and other state publications and pronouncements have influenced how some Chinese think about their country’s place in the world. This can spawn jingoistic flare-ups when the public feels the outside world is being unfair to China. It is also true that public opinion regarding Tibet, a region of which many residents of the PRC have only second-hand knowledge, is shaped to a large extent by official propaganda. And many Han Chinese felt a hard line was justified after widespread media coverage of Tibetan protesters in Lhasa engaging in violence.

But love of country continues to be a double-edged sword in China. During each recent nationalistic upsurge–from the 1999 anti-American agitation that followed NATO bombs hitting the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade to the recent anti-French demonstrations triggered by pro-Tibet protesters in Paris who roughed up a disabled torch carrier–the government has not so much stage-managed the outburst as scrambled to jump ahead of public sentiment and channel anger. The Party feared, in each case, that complaints about foreigners would merge with complaints about domestic issues–as occurred at many points in the twentieth century, sometimes leading to the downfall of officials or entire regimes.

There has been considerable public criticism in China of celebratory images of the torch relay as the country reels from the Sichuan earthquake. This illustrates yet again that love of country can take many forms. It also shows that Chinese audiences can be very critical consumers of state media. It is worth noting that Chinese journalists working in the competitive field of newspapers and magazines know that the earthquake story is significant for their readers. Reporters rushed to Sichuan even when the government was encouraging them to rely on images and text provided by official agencies. And some newspapers and websites continue to mix coverage that hews to official lines and that diverges from it–for example, highlighting the degree to which shoddy building practices, due to corrupt ties between construction companies and local officials, have contributed to the collapse of so many schools.

In China’s Brave New World (2007), my most recent book, I devote one chapter to taking a playful look at how baffled Mao would be by contemporary China. He’s surprised to see a Shanghai with far more skyscrapers than Manhattan, by a Beijing with scores of McDonald’s and by bookstore shelves containing translations of works by Western liberal philosophers and by reports of capitalists being welcomed into the Communist Party. The book came out less than a year ago, but I’m already wishing I could revise that chapter. There are so many things to add–such as the regime’s decision to let National Public Radio reporters file reports from earthquake-ravaged parts of Sichuan.

Given how fast China has been changing and continues to change, we too have a right to be baffled. Perhaps the biggest challenge of this very inauspicious year is for us in the West to find new ways to think about the world’s most populous country. A good first step would be to discard the cold-war lenses that have distorted our vision, and look with fresh eyes at a protean nation still in the process of being born.

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