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
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.