The staggering magnificence of China

It is almost beyond belief: China is in its blossom and no sight could be more gorgeous. As you walk the streets of its capital, there is a wonderful mood of joy and optimism, even invincibility. The restaurants are crowded, and smiling, well-dressed people seem to be everywhere. Who would believe that not that many years ago this nation was suffering from seemingly insurmountable upheavals and crises, political, social and economic –all swept away by a focused, strong and determined leadership the likes of which the nation (and the world) had never seen before?

Yes, people who were here just 10 years ago and who are returning for the first time are calling it a miracle, and indeed it is. This is an engine that simply cannot be slowed, let alone stopped. And it all came about thanks to the vision of one man and one party that knew exactly where China should go and how it should get there. From an isolated and humiliated nation, China has emerged as a true superpower.

The transition hasn’t been easy nor has it always been gentle. The truth is, to keep the momentum going and achieve its high goals, the government has had to be strict. At times, protestors have been dealt with harshly, and many were imprisoned. But when you have an entire nation to watch over, it is simply impractical and impossible to allow dissent and criticism to get in the way. And the Chinese people agree. This is their day in the sun, and they have expressed a sincere love of their government, a love that is utterly without precedent. They have simply never known such success, such glory.

Some on the outside have complained about the persecution of “unfriendly” religious groups, and even acts of violence against them. That cannot be denied, but I’m sure it will improve. Many Chinese see these groups as dangeorus cults, and are only too happy to see them dealt with firmly and efficiently. But these are little things, far overshadowed by the greatness of the economy and all of the benefits it brings.

Some have also said that government spending is behind much of the prosperity. This is true to a certain extent, but other nations have dipped into the state coffers before, and as the economy grows the debts will be paid. The massive spending is worthwhile and will bear results.

As proof of just how high China’s star has soared, the country has been chosen to host the Olympics! Can you believe it, looking back at the relative chaos of 20 years ago? How fast and how explosive this growth has been! The Olympics – this gives China and its regime a patina of respectability and validation like nothing else could. It is a sign of international respect and has elevated national pride to new pinnacles.

Possibly the most extraordinary aspect of the new China is the sheer irrepressible optimism of the people. They are boisterous and proud. They can do anything, they can even help make China a master of the world! They know about the criticisms of the government, the charges of suppression, but it’s water off a duck’s back.

Now is a very, very good time to be Chinese, and they respect the rules. China is a country of laws. You understand and respect the need to not call for changes in the government or to stir up trouble. Yes, the government is everywhere and watches everything, but it’s a tiny price to pay for its pulling China up by its bootstraps. And as long as you mind your own affairs and leave the government free to do its vital busines, your prosperity will continue.

So let’s give China in the year 2003 all of the praise and recognition it deserves.

But wait a minute. There is one big lie in the tribute above: It is not about China and it has nothing to do with the year 2003.

It is all about Nazi Germany in the year 1936. Every word. Go back and see. Just substitute Germany for China and Germans for Chinese.

So what’s Richard’s point? Only to point out the irony of how something that seemed so picture-perfect in 1936 not long afterward was perceived as something very different. Some of us who are critical of right-wing regimes tend to allow the glare of China’s successes to blind us to the inequities and iniquities inherent to any police state. I was blinded about it myself for some years. I am not drawing any direct comparisons of the CCP to the Nazis, tempting though it may be. The CCP is at least showing dramatic signs of continuing reform. But there are still interesting historical parallels.

Meanwhile, I want to see China continue to grow and prosper, because I care a lot about the people there. Looking at all that prosperity and success, it is so easy to forget that it’s a country still in the iron grip of tyranny. You wouldn’t know that from the smiling faces and jubilant mood in Beijing and Shanghai. But it is.

UPDATED 6:14pm Singapore time

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Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.

The Discussion: 13 Comments

too bad not many chinese sees the later part of the story. i’ve been reading “hungry ghost” and suddenly i realize the word “bad” is so empty. if you talk to city people in china, they will tell you they know things in the country side are bad.. some could be really bad.. but most of them still have no idea what it has been like. that book would suprise anyone in china. but books like that are of course banned.

banning those is a way to secure stability many argue.. but somehow it strikes me as a way to avoid some urgent problems by misinforming the rest of the country.

December 20, 2003 @ 12:18 am | Comment

Kevin, you miss my point. When I said they have respect for the rules, I am referring to the tacitly accepted rule that you do NOT speak out against the government and demand reform. I was not at all referring to obeying traffic rules or environmental safety rules, etc. — we all know how the Chinese are about those things.

I was also being a little tongue in cheek, when I reinforce the point in the very next sentence with the line, “China is a country of laws.” That’s a direct quote from the Nicholas Kristof story (below), and it is ironic in the extreme.

Lastly, I never say the Chinese are like the Germans. That would be quite silly. I am looking at historic parallels in terms of economics and society, politics, etc.

December 20, 2003 @ 8:34 am | Comment

oh my.
you were making me sick and i was wondering what your point was… well made.
your relentless accountability amazes me. great post, richard.

December 20, 2003 @ 2:34 am | Comment

“Now is a very, very good time to be Chinese, and they respect the rules”

This comment about “respecting the rules” is clearly *not* true, and I suspect is a large part of the reason that mainland China is manifestly *not* Nazi Germany. The inherent chaos in Chinese society makes me dubious that the totalitarian frame implied by the message really fits.
And the other critical point is that the society is *not* motivated by a charismatic leader with messianic goals. If someone like Mao had the current economy of China behind him, it would indeed be a frightening sight to behold, but I don’t think anyone would call Hu Jintao or Wen Jiabao charismatic leaders in that mold. They’re riding a tiger all right, and may end up inside it, but their goals are far more prosaic than those of the German leaders of the 1930s.

Historical analogies have their place, but remember that the U.S. involvement in Vietman was the result of people trying to avoid “another Munich” and Deng Xiaoping’s response to the Tiananmen demonstrations in 1989 was based on his personal experience with the youthful Red Guards of the Cultural Revolution. So the use of analogies can be hazardous to your health.

December 20, 2003 @ 5:01 am | Comment

Fair enough. I hadn’t read the Kristof article when I read your post, so I missed that irony (I thought it was part of the Deutschland Uber Alles analogy).

I’ve always feared (and still do) that Chinese chauvinism would be a problem if and when the economy really falls into tatters in China.

At some point in the 1990s a social compact took hold in China, in which there’s a broad sphere a freedom (social, sexual, artistic) that compares pretty well to, say, much of the U.S. in the 1950s, and a set of topics (political) that are firmly off limits. I had visited Beijing a couple of times before this took hold, and the change in students was quite remarkable. The late 1980s was a time of real intellectual ferment, with many students feeling a need to decide the political course of their country. That changed, and it’s a real loss.

At the same time, it’s easy to over-estimate both the perceived and actual influence that, say, Americans have over their government. I know that you haven’t lived in the U.S. for the last 4 years, but I was impressed in 2000 with the number of people who expressed sentiments like this one from Dave Winer of scripting.com :

This is the first morning since the election that my point of view hasn’t shifted. After this is over if anyone tells me that my vote matters, I’m going to laugh. I’m laughing right now.

Just do the math. Let’s say it’s not a close election. Clearly, in that case, my vote doesn’t matter, the outcome would be the same whether or not I voted. Suppose it is a close election. Then it’s going to court and a judge is going to decide. In that case my vote doesn’t count. As they say in math, QED.

The only remaining question is if the judge is impartial or is a partisan. How could the judge be impartial?

(I don’t agree with this, by the way, although it does remind me of this passage from Chuangzi:

“Granting that you and I argue. If you get the better of me, and not
I of you, are you necessarily right and I wrong? Or if I get the better of
you and not you of me, am I necessarily right and you wrong? Or are we both
partly right and partly wrong? Or are we both wholly right and wholly
wrong? You and I cannot know this, and consequently we all live in darkness.

“Whom shall I ask as arbiter between us? If I ask someone who takes
your view, he will side with you. How can such a one arbitrate between us?
If I ask someone who takes my view, he will side with me. How can such a one
arbitrate between us? If I ask someone who differs from both of us, he will
be equally unable to decide between us, since he differs from both of us.
And if I ask someone who agrees with both of us, he will be equally unable to
decide between us, since he agrees with both of us. ”

In other words, we’re all screwed.

Thanks for the weblog — I really enjoy it.

December 21, 2003 @ 3:00 am | Comment

Great comment, Kevin. I respect Dave Winer, and his point is well taken. Ever since the election, I’ve felt there’s been a tectonic shift in the way America operates. It’s almost as though there was a putsch, as if a US version of the Gang of Four grabbed control. Luckily though, there’s evidence that America still works. I read with joy yesterday how the courts are rejecting Bush’s policy on the Guantanamo bay prisoners, a policy that epitomized the collapse of our supposed unalienable rights.

Absolutely right on the new freedoms in China, and they aer increasing. The only area where it’s as repressive as the old days is politics. When I read of young people being sentenced to 10 years in prison for posting an essay on the Internet or for blowing the whistle on corrupt officials, I literally feel sick, and wonder why there isn’t more of an outcry against the hypocrisy of placing sanctions on Cuba and not China.

December 21, 2003 @ 2:33 pm | Comment

Damn Right ! Point well made!

All emerging economic powers made sure they hosted the Olympics as sign of their new-found status and stature.

Japan, S. Korea and now, China..

For myself, I would prefer Freedom and Civil rights, Democracy, Secularism -Separation of church and state and all those little laws that make Judiciary exert independence, press effectively playing the 4th estate…. Over extravagant Economic riches.

December 21, 2003 @ 6:32 pm | Comment

A more ready analogy – although obviously flawed – would be to compare how Russia and China have fared with their experiments at openness. Chinese take a long view and also expect great changes in the natural course of things, and there is the ‘face’ issue, which I imagine would make the CCP want to adapt and survive rather than ossify and perish. In some unfinished dream-vision of this the CCP becomes ‘China’ and elections within the CCP are as free and diverse as anywhere else. This might require a re-thinking of the nation state, but that seems to be a trend all over the world.
[Only just found the site, hence the year-late reply]

December 13, 2004 @ 8:39 am | Comment

Paul, thanks for the comment. About the worldwide trend toward free elections — I believe the trend exists, but see no evidence it has taken any hold whatever in China. At least not yet.

December 13, 2004 @ 8:57 am | Comment

Thanks for caring about China. I am one of those who live here.

January 23, 2005 @ 8:20 am | Comment

That’s a very good article Richard.

I wanted to vomit at first, but thankfully I kept reading.

I enjoy hearing and reading from those who see things in such a way because some, including myself, tend to get caught up on the negative aspects of China and that’s unfortunate.

I’m trying to take a more positive view of China with regards to how her emergence on the world stage will affect the global community, but progress is slow.

I may disagree with you at the most fundamental levels on domestic politics, but I like your open views on China.

Keep it up.

Gordon

April 20, 2005 @ 12:34 am | Comment

Richard, an excellent piece on an excellent site.

My eyes poped with delighted amazement at the twist at the end.

December 6, 2005 @ 10:07 pm | Comment

This is a great post! The first half gives me the creeps until I read the comparison with Nazi Germany in 1936.. This is great writing.

But you owe China a little apology here, 5 years after your post, we are nowhere near WWIII :-)

October 6, 2008 @ 7:49 am | Comment

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