The Rice-Sprout Song

A few days before I left China, a friend handed me two books by Eileen Chang, an author who for a long time had been on my list but who I never actually got around to reading. I read one of them, The Rice-Sprout Song, on my flight home from China nearly a month ago, and a day hasn’t gone by that I haven’t thought about it at least once. Although it came out in 1955 and there’s no need for yet another review, I had to put down a few thoughts.

The Rice-Sprout Song is set in China’s countryside during the early days of Mao’s tyranny, when “land reform” promised the rural poor great hope that would soon lead to the horrors of collectivization, famine and death on a scale that was until then unimaginable. It’s a desolate book about a terrible subject we all know about but have, in all likelihood, never truly experienced, hunger. Its metaphor for hunger is the watery gruel the poor eat for every meal as they slowly starve.

That this was Chang’s first English novel is extraordinary, it is so perfectly crafted, its characters so real and the language assured and perfect. The book has two heroes, a “model worker” in the village, Gold Root, and his wife Moon Scent. After many pages of bleakness, we detect the first hints of joy in Gold Root’s longing for Moon Scent, who has gone to work in Shanghai as a maid. He misses her so intensely he travels to Shanghai, his first time out of the countryside, to spend a few days with her, a sad event marked by Gold Root’s sense of isolation and awkwardness, his crushing poverty contrasted by “bejeweled ladies going to parties in their shiny silk gowns and high-heeled gold shoes.”

Chang tells how a cadre from the city is sent down to their village to live exactly as the peasants do and learn from them, and soon he, too, is starving. Only he has the resources to go to a nearby town and stuff himself with tea-boiled eggs, as he denies the hunger in his reports. He notes to himself that anyone who suggests there is truth to the whispers that the poor are starving will immediately be labeled a nationalist spy and put to death. Gold Root and Moon Scent are both doomed, victims of the insanity that grew out of Mao’s policies. Gold Root is outraged that officials deny that the peasants are starving to death. He will soon pay for his insistence on speaking the truth, dragging Moon Scent down with him.

The oddest character in the book is the village’s leading official, Comrade Wong, a jovial, likable man. Chang devotes many pages to humanizing him, telling how he met his beloved wife and how she left him, describing his loneliness and his knowledge that he will never rise from being a low-level functionary. We think Wong is a good man – and he probably is. But when the day comes that he meets with the starving peasants and tells them each must donate a pig as a gift to the army and prepare rice dumplings for the soldiers, we hate him with a passion. Gold Root cries out that they are literally starving, they have nothing. Wong beams with a wide smile and insists that surely they can accommodate this modest request for their country’s brave soldiers. It is the high point of the book and it marks Gold Root’s descent from “Model Worker” to an outraged, infuriated rebel clamoring for justice. Of course, he will soon be labeled a reactionary, and will be shot to death in the ensuing violence.

The words of my Chinese teacher in Beijing kept coming back to me as I read this book: her telling me how her family grew up hungry, and how no matter what the Chinese government did today, she and all other Chinese would feel unending gratitude that the days of hunger were over. Nothing matters when you are hungry; only food. Today, the Chinese people are no longer starving, and that shift, from starvation to having enough food on the table, was a seismic one. For anyone seeking to understand how the Chinese people can accept a government that censors, steals, enriches itself from the poverty of its people and thinks nothing of their human rights, I suggest they read this book. It doesn’t touch on any of these topics per se, but it shows you all too vividly what life was like not so long ago (and Chang’s account deals with China prior to the great famine; the horror was only just beginning). And then you look at China today, my teacher’s China. No matter what we think of the government, hundreds of millions who were starving saw their situations turn around. For some 200 million or so, their poverty stayed the same or became even worse, but for the vast majority, it was a new world: they had food. As you read The Rice-Sprout Song, it becomes clearer just why the government today is given so much latitude, whether it was the CCP that put food on the people’s tables or their own hard work once Mao’s insanities were thrown on the rubbish heap where they belonged. When you have gone from generations of hunger to having food, you’ve undergone a sea change, a miracle. There has been no other turnaround like it in the history of civilization. So I understand what my Chinese teacher was telling me, whether I agree or not.

Corrupt officials still terrorize the countryside, and perhaps they always will; the exploitation of the marginalized by the powerful is history’s oldest story. What this book does is make palpable the helplessness of China’s rural poor, placing the reader in their freezing huts as the government’s absurd decrees destroy their lives, chipping away at their dignity, ultimately killing them wholesale. In one of its most heartbreaking scenes, soldiers ransack their homes, stealing the very last bits of food they have hidden away. The peasants’ calamity is complete; they have no recourse, no hope, nothing but their hunger.

I read a number of books of China over the past few weeks and will try to put up some posts, hopefully briefer than this one, with my recommendations. In the meantime, if you’ve never read this book, which Chang wrote in English (another source of amazement), I urge you to get a copy. It can easily be read in a day or two, and it will leave you furious, anguished, dumbstruck and horrified. You’ll hear the voices of its characters in your head for a long time to come, and no matter how well you already understand the famine and Maoism and land reform, you will feel like you are right there, living the insanity. That is not a comfortable feeling, but one that will make your compassion for the Chinese people richer and deeper than ever before.


China to “save the world”?

I got tired of posting stories on whether China would come out of the crisis faster and in relative better shape than America, but the mass media still find it an irresistible topic. I follow a lot of them and they can be summarized as follows:

China’s stimulus package is working better and faster, because its government can force projects to begin and the infrastructure development program was already well underway. China is definitely looking like it’s rebounding, with high confidence and continued spending and growth (in general). There is now no question that we are seeing a new economic order, with China’s influence growing while that of the US declines – but, that does not mean China can replace the US as the world’s superpower. It can’t and it won’t, simple because it is still too poor, has too may problems (environmental, social, economic, labor, population) and, besides, much of the current euphoria is based almost entirely on government largesse. But still, it’s become a G2 kind of world, even if China is lower down the rungs than the US, and the notion that intoxicated so many Americans during the late 1990s of a world led only by the US (who was thinking of China then?) is totally out the window. China may never be a true superpower due to its staggering challenges, but its influence and its greatness (no, not moral greatness, but its ability to move markets, attract financing and shape global policies) are undeniable.

And now, you don’t need to read any more articles on China and the US and the global economic crisis again, because they are all basically a rehash of the above, some more gloomy, some more buoyant, but all just about the same. It was this brand-new article in Time that caused me to realize just how similar and predictable all of these articles are, no matter which side they take. Here’s a taste:

China faces enormous challenges — a massive shift of population from rural areas to cities, cleaning up decades of environmental degradation, continuing to provide the increase in prosperity that has underpinned political stability. Given their scale, it should surprise nobody that it is still most concerned with saving itself economically — not anyone else. Beijing is most unnerved by the prospect of labor unrest of the sort that resulted in the death on July 24 of a steel-company executive in northeast China at the hands of a mob.

But the resilience of the Chinese economy is no mirage. If Beijing can come through the global crisis without an economic meltdown of its own, its leaders’ reputation and confidence will be boosted. An economic model that survives the worst downturn since the Great Depression will have undeniable appeal in the developing world, at a time when the Washington Consensus is thoroughly shot. Beijing, before the crisis, was already rising, its global reach and influence expanding. As the rest of the world falters, that is truer than ever. China is not yet the leader of the global economy. But it’s getting there.

And there it is. China’s not there yet, may never be No. 1, getting there, shaking the world, progress can’t be denied but neither can impossible challenges, world falters while China rises, not sure it can be maintained, so many people to feed, lots of hope and construction, can’t save the world but can’t be discounted as major player, economic miracle, lots of disturbing unrest, social fissures, Party’s engineers know what they’re doing, US has better fundamentals but.. quack quack quack. It’s actually a good article, but I kept thinking, with literally every paragraph, haven’t I seen this all before?


Xu Zhiyong’s arrest: How far backwards can China go?

If I looked at the news out of China today and saw good things I’d perhaps put up positive posts, provided i felt I had anything useful to add. But looking at the news today, and over the past several days, I see really bad news, to the point of alarming. Arresting good people on trumped-up charges and holding them in secret places and giving them obscene sentences has been an ongoing topic here for many years. But usually these are isolated instances. Shi Tao. Zhao Yan. Hu Jia. Aside from the typical pre-party congress and pre-Tiananmen anniversary sweeps, we don’t often see a calculated nationwide roundup of innocent Chinese citizens the government sees as potential threats.

We’re seeing it now, and it looks like another huge leap backwards. While the Chinese media spew forth one story after another on the need for greater rule of law, fair representation, no arrests without transparent processes, etc., the government that supports these media is going in the exact opposite direction, reminding us that absolutely no one on Chinese soil is safe. As Evan Osnos in an excellent post makes clear, even the best and brightest are at risk.

Imagine, for a moment, how it might sound to turn on the news one day and hear that the head of the A.C.L.U. had vanished from his home in the predawn hours. Or, think how America might be different today if a pesky young Thurgood Marshall had been silenced using an obscure tax rule and kept out of the courts.

At around 5 A.M. on Wednesday, Chinese authorities visited the home of Xu Zhiyong, a prominent legal scholar and elected legislator in Beijing, and led him away. He has not been heard from again. Unless something changes, he is likely to stay away for a long time, with or without formal charges. Anyone with an interest in China, its economy, its place in the world, or the kind of future it will fashion, please take note: This is a big deal.

Xu might not have reached Marshall status yet, but he is as close as China gets to a public-interest icon. He teaches law at the Beijing University of Post and Telecommunications. He has also run the Open Constitution Initiative, a legal aid and research organization that worked on many of China’s path-breaking cases. He and his colleagues had investigated the Sanlu milk scandal, in which dangerous baby formula harmed children’s health, and assisted people who had been locked up by local officials in secret undeclared jails. All of those activities are emphatically consistent with the goals of the Chinese government, even if they angered the local bureaucrats who were caught in the act.

Xu has never set out to undermine one-party rule; he is enforcing rights guaranteed in the Chinese Constitution. He has enough faith in the system that he joined it: in 2003, he ran for and won a seat as a legislator in his local district assembly, one of the few independent candidates to be elected in an open, contested election. He even received the recognition, rare among activists, of being profiled last year in a Chinese newspaper. “I have taken part in politics in pursuit of a better and more civilized nation,” he said at the time.

As Osnos goes on to say, few in China have done more for the good of the general public than Xu. He urges the government to release him “before the full bureaucracy gets too much invested in holding him, but time is limited. China deserves better than this kind of behavior.”

Does it really all go back to the October beauty pageant? We just saw the 20th anniversary of the CCP’s greatest source of insecurity and paranoia, and the actions taken in the months prior seem relatively lame compared to the 60th anniversary. My own site pumped out posts about June 4 for weeks before the anniversary, and for five days following. (The ax didn’t fall until June 9 for reasons I still don’t understand and probably never will.) And the detentions at the time seemed at least explainable – the usual suspects who get detained every year. This seems different. They are going after people who are heroes to many in China. Even a defender of the rights of marginalized citizens.

This nacht und nebel approach makes China look absolutely atrocious. People like me who have tried to seek out the positive achievements the party has made in order to provide a fair picture of China today have no choice but to express deep criticism (and that’s a wonderful link).

The lives of your average citizens in China have become so much freer and more open in recent years, and criticism of the government has become so much more accepted and even expected (within the usual constraints, of course) that what we’re seeing now can only be described as a tragedy. Will they take advantage of the very small window of opportunity they still have and show that they are capable of living up to their own doctrines of rule of law? I hope so. But I seriously doubt it. With a few minor exceptions, China has consistently disappointed us when it comes to its treatment of high-profile cases of alleged “dissidents.” It’s their choice. They are on the verge of an unprecedented drop in goodwill.

Update: See this outstanding piece by Isabel Hilton on how China’s formula – “if repression doesn’t work, add more repression” – illustrates the country’s political malaise, and could ultimately lead to implosion. I am not willing to go that far (yet). But we’ll be hearing a lot more about this if China keeps adding fuel to the fire. Hilton includes a beautiful quote from Xu after the closure of his NGO:

“It’s not us causing trouble, and the tens of thousands of mass incidents every year aren’t caused by us …. On the contrary, we strive to bring into line the contradictions caused by corrupt officials, we advocate absolute nonviolence and we hope we can ameliorate some of the endless hate and conflicts in our society… do not let this country once more be dragged by those in power to a place where we are dead but not buried.

Why have we been targeted with this retribution? Because we have an awe-inspiring righteousness, because we advocate for better politics, because our dreams are too beautiful, because we as a people have never given up hope, because no matter what befalls, our hearts are always full of the sunlight of hope.

…I am a poor man, so poor that all I have left are my beliefs. Great leaders, can I give you a little bit of my belief? You should be needing these beliefs and you should, like me, have the ability to show compassion, compassion to see the restless souls disturbed by evil spirits.”

Will the “great leaders” listen? I’m skeptical.


I’m in America, my PC’s in China

Strangest thing. I noticed that although I am back in the land of the free, my Mac will not allow me to go to any blogspot or wordpress sites. It also won’t let me get to the NY Times. It automatically changes the url from to, and then it says it can’t find the server. China Digital Times opens just fine. This only happens on Safari. It’s okay using Firefox. How is that possible?