Old China, New China: Perception vs. Reality

I want to request any readers who come here for commentary on China to go read this post as soon as you can. I don’t know how I missed it when Stephen wrote it more than a week ago.

As I read it, I began to highlight paragraphs I wanted to include here, and then I realized that would be fruitless; you simply need to read the entire post. It’s beautifully written, and manages to build up to its climax in a way that leaves the reader speechless.

UPDATE: For those of you unable to read the post in China thanks to the government’s paranoia, here it is in full:
China like Beijing a Conjuror’s Trick

She calls it a “city of the future”, a

“…vast ‘Star Trek’ city of huge glass domes, mirrored skyscrapers reflecting the sun in a thousand directions, neatly gardened boulevards, and mammoth expressways that circle the city, some of them 10 lanes wide and all with traffic that seemingly never sleeps.”

But unlike so many of our politicians and captains of our industries, journalist Georgie Ann Geyer can see past this facade that is modern day Beijing.

In her article “China’s Communist party Governs In Name Only” journalist Georgie Anne Parker recounts a recent trip back to Beijing, a city she first reported from 21 years ago as a correspondent/columnist and which she has has visited several times since, the last over 10 years ago.

Parker talks about the new Beijing, it sensuousness, it’s color, it’s embrace of everything new. Of how, in a resort city she visited there are pictures of “smiling Mao Tse-tungs, Chou En-lais and Deng Xiaopings, all telling visitors in Chinese lettering to please enjoy themselves in China.”

But this new Beijing, this new China does not fool her as it does others. She rightly points out that

“It was easy in the “old days,” she says, ” when I first came here, to feel and see how repressive it truly was.”

Something that the world seems blind to but Geyer sees

“One of the tricks of this complex new order is that the sheen and glitziness of the cities make it easy for foreigners to think everything has changed. ”

“Yet underneath that seductive surface, no one seems to care too much about the old concepts of human rights”

Now the endless line of foreign dignitaries and captains of industry jostling for position to sup at the table of this emerging world economy are greeted by an illusion. An illusion of breathtaking change that they either actually believe goes right through the fabric of Chinese society or perhaps “choose” to believe it in an attempt to assuage their own consciences as they line their country’s or company’s pockets.

Behind this facade that is the “New China” remains the” old China.” The China of cruel repression, of false imprisonment and death. As the glass skyscrapers of the new China catch and reflect the light so a person can not easily see inside so to does the new China attempt to hide itself behind the “sheen”, as Geyer puts it, of modernity. But it is but glass and despite the glare it can be seen through if one wants to.

Only 15 years last month the Tiananmen Square massacre occurred. The world was justifiably outraged. The European Union slapped on an arms embargo the Australian prime minister of the the time even cried at the news.

Five years ago this month the persecution of the Falun Gong began which has according to some sources seen the deaths of up to 5,000 people and the torture and incarceration of up to 30,000. The world initially took notice but despite the persecution continuing unabated the world no longer seems to care.

Seven weeks ago China, without one skerrick of concern for international opinion, kidnapped and held incommunicado Dr Jiang Yanyong a man of international prominence. The world for all intents and purposes ignored it.

22 days ago the Chinese government executed an Uygur for “subversion” and separatist activities, the third to be executed within ten months despite not a shred of evidence that there has been one “terrorist” type incident carried out by the Uygurs since 1998. The politicians and the captains of industry response? They do not care of this death or the others.

Ten days ago the Chinese arrested 100 underground Church leaders holding a meeting in Xinjiang. Were they plotting to overthrow the government to warrant such a heavy handed response from Beijing? No, they were meeting to discuss some strategies to convert Uygur muslims to Christianity.

We see what we want to see, we believe what we want to believe.

Magician’s tricks are truly magic if we want to believe them to be so or are correctly seen as just sleight of hand if we do not. In China’s magic act we seem to want to choose to believe the conjuror.

We have given China the Olympics supposedly a movement that mirrors the highest and purest ideals of humanity. What have we got in return? 12 pieces of silver for selling our souls.

The Discussion: 18 Comments

Nothing I have read surprise me, for that is China.

While I do not support those cruel incidents I have read, I know why they happened, for that is China.

Tian An Men tragedy? Most Chinese could have tell that would inevitably occur, and they had unfortunately been proven right, for that is China – in Chinese culture when young people chose to conduct in-your-face confrontation with very senior people who were/are in power, the outcome was predictable.

Wrong, immoral, undemocratic, uncivilised, criminal? Such words would not have saved the unnecessary tragedy of that confrontation. for that is China.

Organized religious movements like Falun Gong, Christianity or Islam with the potential of mass (political?) support? If one knows Chinese history, one would be able to predict Chinese authorities would/will never ever allow such movements, for these would challenge the authority in Beijing. Human rights, freedom of religion? Use of the former word is useless insofar as the central authority is concerned – the latter may be tolerated on an individual basis for it does not then contitute an alternative political power – for that is China.

Sanitization of dissent? Particularly so with the 2008 Olympic Games approaching. Heavy-handed? Not suprising for that is China!

I think it’s very naive to consider China as anything but a country ruled by an authoritarian govt. I have written in another thread “J’accuse – The Other Evil Empire” how I perceive China today, and why people, particularly western people, must put the entire Chinese domestic events in its historical context.

There is a (mainly western) unrealistic and somewhat impractical inclination to evaluate a country that has had more than 5,000 years of authoritarian rule (monarchial, republican and communist) to switch to Westminster parliamentary high gear overnight.

The other side of the coin is that the Chinese people themselves may not be ready for western styled democracy. Look at India, the world’s largest democracy since 1947. Has evil and inequality disappeared or diminished? Far from it for these nefarious forces are very much at work in Gandhi’s homeland.

When a country has a high level of illiteracy and a feudalistic past (or a caste system as in India), democracy will find it difficult to gain any meaningful foothold during the short term. Furthermore, Chinese authorities fear religious movements gaining unnatural support from the supertitious masses – China’s history has experienced several such religious movements to its tragic consequences.

I am not suggesting we stop criticising but I am saying, put the entire picture in context and compare it with the 200 plus years of US history, which started with a clean slate, and its progress in achieving true human rights and freedom, and democracy.

August 8, 2004 @ 5:24 am | Comment

Unfortunately, I can’t read the post you mentioned here in China, I mean I can’t get into the site. I guess it’s blocked by China’s firewall.

August 8, 2004 @ 8:11 am | Comment

I hear everything you say, and I have tempered my attitude toward China quite drastically since writing the J’accuse post. I revised it considerably and wrote about it at length here.

The one point where I strongly disagree is that the Chinese may not be ready for free elections. That’s an argument that can be used to keep them repressed forever. I’ve discussed it many times on this site.

I steered people to the China Letter post for this reason: It contrasts the rather breathless opinions a visitor can have at first glance with a scalding dose of reality. I love China and wish I could go back. But there’s no getting around the fact that it still meets the classic definition of a police state, and that the law is ignored when it behooves the government to do so. In this discussion, I’m not arguing about why China is this way or whether it’s right or wrong or how the tradition of authoritarian rule starting with the first emperor made it this way — I’m just making the point that it’s very easy to go to China and have an impression that is strikingly different from what to many there is a far harsher reality.

I treid to make this point in an earlier post that I hope you’ll take a moment to read. The point of that post is how appearances and reality can be starkly different, and how easy it is to reach drastically wrong conclusions about the health of a country, especially when it’s under authoritarian rule. (Read the post twice; once you see the twist, you can go back and understand every point I was trying to make.)

August 8, 2004 @ 11:16 am | Comment


I too hear what you say, and do not generally disagree at all. I am not bedazzled by the current gloss of China, knowing that all beneath the pretty picture there is a police state, which can be terribly nasty. And I believe only the most gullible would ever believe that because of the current pretty ‘picture’ China has become a benign giant with a liberal govt. Your message is accepted and generally agreed to.

My disagreement is reflected in what Ms Parker has written – let’s take a re-look at a core extract of her piece:

“We have given China the Olympics supposedly a movement that mirrors the highest and purest ideals of humanity. What have we got in return? 12 pieces of silver for selling our souls.”

Is Ms Parker saying that all countries that have held, or are going to hold the Olympic Games must be or were/are lily-white? [BTW, I thought it was 30 pieces?]

If we really look back into history, even the ancient Greeks who gathered to honour Zeus with the Games, weren’t exactly lily-white, only laying down their arms to propitiate the Gods at the event. I believe that is the thrust of the Games, the true objective – to seek and promote peace through sports. This ancient call has recently been reminded to us, with an appeal for 16 days of world peace during the Athen Games.

Ms Parker (may I say in her bias?) has decided to assign the event a more moralistic objective.

As for the rest of her article, I do not disagree with her observations as discussed earlier. I have only reservations with her moralistic conclusions.

If we were to heed Ms Parker’s ‘disagreement’ with today’s China, do we then ostracise her until she coughs up the required moral standards? Or, do we reprimand her for daring to modernise and develop without a concurrent development of human rights? Do we demand that western diplomats and captains of industry continuously harass her? Do we tell the Olympic Committee to withdraw the Games from Beijing until her conduct ‘mirrors the highest and purest ideals of humanity’? The last may spelt the death of the Olympics because who can afford to hold the Games are hardly those who would have this pure strain of humanity that Ms Parker demands.

Already we see thousands of Chinese flying overseas each year as tourists or staying abroad as students – compare this relative laxity of control (improved human rights?) to those years under Mao and the hard core communists, where the bamboo curtain was in fact of razor-sharp barbed wires, designed to keep Chinese in rather than foreigners out.

I believe there is a need to engage China and keep her in the world’s mainstream activities. Continuous exposure to and the need to keep abreast with the world will bring about favourable political evolution. It may not be as fast as Ms Parker wants, but it will be a whole lot better than Mao’s crazy xenophobic days.

I disagree with your disagreement with my contention that the Chinese people may not be quite ready for western style democracy. Richard, you are a good and an idealistic man and I admire and respect you for this, but I know how some Chinese viewed the democratic process (and I am not even talking about China).

For example, some years ago I persuaded my Mum and relatives to vote for a liberal party (yes, I am a leftie), putting before them all the political points why they should – they nodded their heads sagely and told me to my immense delight they agreed with my assessment. Then the very next moment they dropped a bombshell by informing they were voting for the other bloke!!! Why, I screamed? Because the village headman told them he was voting for that idiot, and they would follow him! Imagine my chagrin and frustration! Needless to say, there were some furious yelling and angry comments in my house that day, but they stuck to their perceived need to follow the village headman.

Now, that’s Chinese for you (and Indian as well). Yes, you may have some sophisticated and politically aware people who would vote in accordance with their personal choice, but the multitudes would vote on what the headman (or religious leader) tells them to – would this be democracy? When you talk about ‘some’ Chinese, there’s a hell of a lot of Chinese, and the voting consequences can be fairly dramatic. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know why movements like the Falun Gong is a no-no as far as the Chinese authorities are concerned.

August 8, 2004 @ 8:14 pm | Comment

Jackie, I think you’ve confused what Ms. Parker is saying with what the author of the post Stephen Sullivan is saying. Parker is in awe; Stephen is saying, hold on a second.

About elections: I’ve debated this too many times. I can’t prove the people of China are ready. But the anecdote that your mother didn’t listen to her heart but to a local official doesn’t convince me the Chinese shouldn’t be trusted to vote. A lot of Americans vote based on asinine politcal ads they see on TV. Should the vote be taken away from all of us? China may not be a developed country yet, but its people are bright and industrious, and we saw in 1989, when millions of people demonstrated for more rights, that these things matter to them. I have never heard this argument raised before, that they shouldn’t vote bnecause they’ll all vote as local officials tell them. China hands I trust very much believe the Chinese would vote in huge numbers, and take it very seriously, even the poor and the uneducated.

Got to run, will return.

August 8, 2004 @ 8:27 pm | Comment


You’re right – I wrongly identified the author of what I thought to be criticism of China ‘above and beyond’. I stand corrected on the result of my inexcusable, hasty and perfunctory scan of the article. My unreserved apologies to Ms Parker (Geyser) (Sorry Ma’am). All criticism misdirected at her now diverted to/directed at the author, Stephen Sullivan.

As for Americans voting for a person based on asinine ads, at least they were exercising a choice, misguided no doubt but nonetheless a choice. My Mum’s case was no choice but an obligation – silly but typically Chinese – to “give face” to the head man (I would have love to give him one in the face), hence my personal reservations.

Look, it’s only my opinion based on my personal experience in a country outside China. You have lived in China and you probably know about the conditions in China more than I do. But I have my doubts that a people, largely uneducated about democratic rights and the secrecy of the ballot, supertitious and obligated to “give face” to someone senior or in authority, will be able to work the system as it has been meant to work. Perhaps in another few more years with a systematic programme of education on the democratic process (by NGOs), but now ……. ???

Let me finish off with a real story about Chinese understanding of one of the pillars of democracy, the secrecy of the voting system. During an election, Parties A and B were providing transportation to the voters as a service (last chance for ‘hearts and minds’ stuff). My neighbour, a very senior Chinese lady was marshalled by supporters of Party A to a shiny Mercedes Benz to take her to the polling station 2 miles away. Lady showed extreme signs of stress and became highly agitated as they led her to the Party A’s car. At the door she was absolutely panic strickened, and finally blurted out, “But I want to vote for Party B, not your Party!”

Needless to say, that was the end of a free ride in the shiny Mercs. She didn’t understand the concept of secret balloting. She thought travelling in Party A’s car required her to vote for Party A, or that she would be taken to Party A’s booth.

OK, that one may be humourous but there have been other cases of such lack of understanding of democracy in action. Even in Singapore where you live(d) many of those (so-called?) “sophisticated” Sings still vote along ethnic lines, Teochews (Chiuchows) voting for Teochews, Hokkiens (Fujians) voting for Hokkiens, etc , without any idea of what the candidates or their parties stand for.

August 8, 2004 @ 11:28 pm | Comment

On the issue of how ready China is for democracy, I think the issue is how does China become ready? I think “you’re not ready for democracy, so we’re not giving it to you” is a circular argument – a country can only become a real, mature democracy by first becoming an immature/imperfect democracy and going through a (possibly painful) learning process.

I’m sure that the problems Jacky highlights are real, and I don’t think anyone would suggest that, if there were democratic elections next year in China it would solve all the countries problems, and it would suddenly become “the land of the free”.

But then again, so what? The first few elections would only be democratic in name (with the CCP-sponsored candidates winning with little or no competition), but with each iteration the concepts of democracy would become more deeply embedded in the country.

So I agree with Jacky, that China isn’t ready, and because of this also agree with Richard that they should be given democracy sooner rather than later.

August 9, 2004 @ 4:32 am | Comment

I sincerely hope you all got to hear Rob Gifford on NPR today as he gave his 6th broadcast on his trip through China. This time he interviewed a truck driver somewhere in the Gobi Desert who never went past high school. The fellow says politics is now the hottest topic in China, and that he believes no reform of any consequence can come until there are multiple parties and voting for all. This is a truck driver, not an academic. Gifford says he is hearing this longing for reform throughout China.

I’ll buy David’s compromise — even though many may not be “ready” for democracy (whatever that means), let’s give them a taste anyway and let them vote. Having them wait forever isn’t acceptable.

August 9, 2004 @ 12:49 pm | Comment

This is a difficult question, but I believe that writer David said it well: the “not ready” argument is simply a circular logic trap. Without the opportunity to vote, experience with voting can never develop.

Likewise, the task of developing confidential, reliable voting systems whose results can be trusted (no small concern in China) will take a good deal of effort.

And there are plenty of other important components for a truly democratic system. Citizens need the kind of information that comes from a free press in order to make informed choices, and an open and just legal system to insure their wishes are carried out. The political system will need new mechanisms for dealing with multi-party power-sharing.

All of this cannot be implemented overnight for some sort of instant democracy on that wonderful day when someone decides that the Chinese people are at last “ready to vote”. The voters and the systems will have to develop together.

August 9, 2004 @ 3:57 pm | Comment

i agree with shanghai slim that other aspects are also important… and i would maybe even say more important… than voting, at least initially. i feel like before any kind of free democratic process began in china, it would be necessary to establish a free press. without a free press, any illusion of democracy would be completely fake. over the last 2 years in china, i have constantly hoped to see some developments telling me that a free press was closer. But, with the exception of the SARS-era, every morning when i go out and look at the papers on the streets, i can’t find a single hint of greater openness, and only feeling like we are getting further away…

August 9, 2004 @ 7:36 pm | Comment

this morning walking to work, i saw a poster on a wall with a big smiling chinese face on it and it said: “this is a quote that I can believe in: yi bu pa ku, er bu pa si (Do not fear hardship, Do not fear death).” it’s an old lei feng army quote…has anyone else seen these posters in shanghai? i am curious about where this poster came from and what its purpose is…

August 9, 2004 @ 7:39 pm | Comment

I’m late, I internet disconnected for 1.5 days.
Thank you,richard, for posting the article for those who(like me) don’t have access to the site you mentioned.

August 10, 2004 @ 4:11 am | Comment

I definitely agree that they should be given the chance to vote.

There’s going to be a need to develop the legal frameworks for it, though. There’s no way to just snap one’s fingers (not that I’m accusing anyone here of saying that) and get democracy. There needs to be the legal frameworks in place before we even dream of a vote meaning anything at all.

I want China to have democracy. But I’ll settle for seeing some basic constitutional separation of powers, a judiciary with backbone enough to stand up and tell the government when it’s violating its citizens rights, things like that. Democracy will have to be built on the framework of constitutional respect for rights and individuals…

It’s going to have be some kind of massive, multiple-pronged transformation, that’s all I’m saying: we may not even get an imperfect democracy until we have some measure of “rule of law” and constitutional separation of powers. Or maybe the creation of an imperfect democracy will somehow fuel the creation of a society based on the rule of law. I don’t really know, and I’m probably blathering.

August 10, 2004 @ 4:55 am | Comment

To a Chinese, the following words from Ms. Parker is a little arrogant,

“We have given China the Olympics supposedly a movement that mirrors the highest and purest ideals of humanity. What have we got in return? 12 pieces of silver for selling our souls.”

Who are “we”? Does it mean Americans or Europeans? When the Olympics committe voted for hosting 2008 Olympics, many western countries didn’t vote for Beijing. So, strictly speaking, it isn’t “we” who gave Beijing the Olympics. So what’s the disappointment?


August 10, 2004 @ 3:13 pm | Comment

It’s too bad I had to copy this from Stephen Sullivan’s site to let people in China read it. If you saw it in its original format, it might be clearer that Ms. Parker did not say those things. They are the editorial comments of Mr. Sullivan.

I believe what Stephen’s saying is that in giving China the Olympics, the Olympics Committee was making a statement that China was advancing and reforming and thus worthy of the honor. Stephen’s saying China really hasn’t done much that merits such a prize as the Olympics.

August 10, 2004 @ 4:20 pm | Comment

Dear Richard

I have just revisted this to see you had quite a to and fro.

I am glad that it generated some debate and sorry that Ms Parker got accused of my sentiments though I am sure her article tried to get a similar point across.

Essentially I agree with most of the comments. I think we are attacking the same problem just in different ways.

Yes we need to engage China. Yes we need to bring her, at her speed, into the international community, yes we need to trade with her, yes we hope for democracy but again at her pace not ours.

But people are dying and that is what we choose to forget in our debates about China. People are dying for their religion, for their beliefs and that Richard and all the other posters is an indisputable fact.

Until we stop kidding ourselves we are not helping China or its wonderful peoples.

September 10, 2004 @ 6:02 am | Comment

Thanks Steve. Beautifully said.

September 10, 2004 @ 7:00 am | Comment

Can anyone help me in these two questions?

1) What impact are China and India having one the global economy and culture today?

2) Why you consider that democracy and a free economy does or does not prevail in China and India today.

I have already read all the posts here, and I found some useful information for #2. However, I still do not understand why democracy and free economy will find it difficult in China and India.
PLEASE help me.

November 28, 2004 @ 5:59 pm | Comment

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