A Letter from Beijing (travel/political essay) | Gregory McNamee

A Letter from Beijing (travel/political essay)


Cultural bridges are sometimes made of unlikely materials. One turns out to be the hoary Steppenwolf rocker-stomper “Born to be Wild,” a favorite of the Western suds, studs, and leather crowd for three decades, and now, thanks to an accident of history, a fixture at the karaoke bar of Beijing’s ritzy but decrepit Minzu Hotel.

Although I protested my unsuitability to the task, I was pressed into service there to inaugurate the song, which had just been added to the Minzu’s jukebox. I am now glad I did. There are many worse songs to sing in public, and my reward for bellowing the gritty tune before a crowd of 200 or so Chinese men and women was manifold: I was roundly applauded, offered dozens of drinks, and treated to a good-natured skewering from a Chinese standup comedian who looked eerily like Mickey Rooney’s character in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, with a dollop of Curly Howard thrown in for good measure.

I was also given an education in modern Chinese politics, for the comic had more pressing business than simply to make sport of me and my decadent Western ways. He disappeared from the stage for a few minutes, during which time a squadron of heartachingly beautiful models showed a line of clothing that melded the high style of Cheryl Tiegs’s K-Mart line with the functionality of People’s Liberation Army garb.

When he returned, the comic, now no longer smirking, was dressed in a Red Guard cadre’s uniform, vintage 1966. Above his head he hoisted an evidently well-thumbed copy of the Little Red Book. As a disco tune rose in the background, he began to sing in a high, lovely voice.

I could make out only a little of the song he performed, but it was clear it was a protest tune of some sort—clear because of the yi-er-san-se (hup-two-three-four) chorus, clear because of the discomfort that spread throughout the audience, seated within spitting distance of Tiananmen Square, as he sang. When I asked a Chinese friend to translate the lyrics, he looked at me sadly and said, “I don’t understand his dialect.”

Only the next day, having conferred with his father on the propriety of telling a foreigner about his country’s troubles, even secondhand, did my friend share with me what the comic had sung—for he, of course, had understood every word. The comic’s tune concerned a student from Beijing University who had been sent into the fields during the Cultural Revolution, full of enthusiasm for deepening the peasants’ sense of historical obligation and class allegiance, and who became disenchanted with the official corruption he saw all around him. In the end, the song’s protagonist wished simply to go home to see his family and friends, rather than rise to face still another revolutionary dawn.

My friend, who himself had been sent into the grain fields in 1967, was astonished to hear such a song sung so openly. So was his father, a cardiologist who during the Cultural Revolution was removed from his clinical practice, denounced for having been poisoned by Western ideas, and forced to carry corpses from his hospital to a nearby potter’s field for the next three years. And so was his father’s friend, also a doctor, who had been condemned to sweep the streets of Shanghai for the crime of knowing how to read English.

But that was in a different China, remembered only by those thirty-five and older, those men and women who gave me knowing nods on my daily, thoughtful strolls through Tiananmen Square. That was a China of famine and terror and unspeakable hardship, in which millions died over mere words, a far cry from the modern China of glittering skyscrapers, video CD players, and foreign joint ventures. In this new China, even the name “Cultural Revolution” has fallen out of favor. The preferred euphemism for that terrible, bloody time is now “the period of domestic turmoil.”

China is a country where such small changes in phrasing have enormous meaning, where slogans replace independent thought. One such slogan, one that I heard everywhere I traveled, is “black cat, white cat,” a reference to former premier Deng Xiaoping’s 1991 decree that the Communist Party would henceforth stop debating whether a given measure were socialist or capitalist in nature. “It doesn’t matter,” Deng said, “whether a cat is white or black. If it catches the mouse, it is a good cat.”

But evidently it does matter, for the new China is shedding socialism as quickly as it can in the apparent belief that the white capitalist cat promises to trap more mice. Socialism is dead, or very nearly so, despite the government’s apparent commitment to maintaining Deng’s program of “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” despite President Jiang Zemin’s assurance in early December 1998 that Chinese Communism was alive and well.

Instead, Pepsi signs far outnumber red flags everywhere, and all China is caught up in a frenzy of new construction and business startups. In Shanghai I wandered through a Communist Party recruiting rally that would have been utterly unpeopled save that the cadres were offering free haircuts, which drew a handful of takers. And whereas Tiananmen Square once sported monumental posters depicting Mao Zedong, Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Zhou Enlai, and other stalwarts of Chinese communism, on this past October 1—National Day, commemorating the forty-ninth anniversary of the defeat of Chang Kai Shek’s Nationalist Party—the massive plaza had only one such graphic: a poster carrying the image of Sun Yat Sen, who led the democratic revolution that overthrew the so-called last emperor in 1911. When I asked a Chinese woman what had happened to the other posters, she shrugged and said, “He’s the only one who matters now.”

In state socialism’s stead is rising the beginnings of democracy in all its messy glory—a democracy that includes the largely unknown ability to disagree. I had come to China, both this year and last, as a student of the martial arts and as a tourist first, and only incidentally as a journalist, but everywhere I traveled I was treated to little tidbits of dissent, issued by government functionaries, students, and working people alike.

Some of the comments were less than profound. For instance, one Communist Party member said to me, “The government has fun. They drink. They smoke. They go with girls. But they don’t want the people to do this. Then they lose control of the people.” But other comments carried more meaning. Said another Party member, looking at the well-dressed young people on Shanghai’s Nanjing Road, “In the ‘70s we had blue Mao suits. In the ‘80s we had business suits. In the ‘90s we have T-shirts.”

He was right; T-shirts, the uniform of neoliberalism and Pax Coca-Cola, are everywhere. But China is changing in more than just fashion. In a generation the standard of living has improved dramatically in almost every sector of society. There has been an immense reduction in poverty throughout the country. In the wake of the one-child revolution, me-first consumerism is rising, and, for the first time ever, there is plenty to consume, albeit at fearful cost to the environment.

China’s growth is astonishing; its economy is projected to surpass that of the United States and to become the world’s largest by no later than 2020. Within the country, signs of this growth are everywhere. Old wood-and-brick neighborhoods in Beijing are being bulldozed away in the name of progress, displacing hundreds and thousands of people; one such neighborhood, not far from Tiananmen Square, is now being remade into a 24-story megaplaza with shopping malls, health clubs, luxury condominiums, and four-star hotels.

Whether all this will bring democracy, whether, as the libertarians maintain, free markets truly do bring political freedom, remains to be seen.
As we Americans wait and watch, we will want to curb our impatience with the way China does things. That way is changing, to be sure, but on certain matters China will not budge.

One of them is Tibet. It is a sad fact, but a fact nonetheless, that China views Tibet as a province of the larger Chinese state, and that after an ambitious program of colonization more Han Chinese than ethnic Tibetans now live in that province. The urge to restore a free Tibet—a polite fiction in any event, inasmuch as Tibet’s people have never enjoyed democracy—is a matter of misplaced nostalgia. It is proper to deplore China’s actions in Tibet, but it is probably necessary to accept the Dalai Lama’s grim view that Tibetan culture will flourish only outside Tibet.

We can also expect that the Chinese government will not gladly listen to American lectures on human rights, as President Jiang Zemin made clear in his visit to the United States in the fall of 1997. Although he is a comparative youngster at 70, premier Zhu Rongji is not likely to reverse the gerontocracy’s way of doing things in any but the economic realm. The old men responsible for the Tiananmen Square massacre still hold sway, as they’ve made clear in recent weeks by moving once again to crush dissent and dismantle opposition political parties (with Jiang Zemin grumbling in a December 18, 1998, speech to Communist Party members, “The Western mode of political systems must never be copied”).

Even so, change is coming in the area of human and political rights as well. One small index is the importance of goods manufactured by prison labor to the Chinese economy; according to a recent Washington Post article, these goods account for only one-fifth of 1 percent of China’s gross national product, a far smaller figure than don’t-buy-Chinese-exports advocates would have it. Historically, Americans have bridled whenever foreign governments have pressured us to do things their way; we should not be surprised when the Chinese government applies the same standard to our entreaties, especially when it comes to matters of dollars and cents—or, better put, of renminyuan.

Neither, I hasten to add, must we kowtow to the Chinese state when it is clearly in the wrong, as it so often is.

But if the Chinese are not yet quite ready to declare themselves born to be wild, they are taking real steps toward liberty. The times are changing, and faster than anyone can track. Said that old cardiologist, who had suffered so much, “I think socialism is good. Communism is good. But the government has not let the people talk. Talking about what’s good or bad—that is socialism.”

Perhaps so. There is now much talk in the air in China. With that talk, socialism is slowly melting into the past, and another revolution, profound and dislocating, is in the making.

The world exists in order to be made into a book.      – Stéphane Mallarmé