As China Booms On, What Does Xiao Wu Think?

Modernization sinks days and dreams of Democracy Wall

WHENEVER I think of China, I wonder how Xiao Wu is doing. I didn't know him for more than a couple of years, but to remember him and his wife is to recall the cataclysmic changes China has been through and its still-unfulfilled democratic promise.

My wife and I met the Wus when we were new to Beijing in 1979. It was the season when armies of bicycling commuters, bundled in fur caps and padded blue and khakhi garments, leaned against the chill winds whipping in from the Gobi Desert. Deng Xiaoping had come to power the year before, and appeared for a while to support the democracy movement, its chief symbol a stretch of brick wall near the Xidan bus station that became known as Democracy Wall. Here citizens brought hand-written lists of grievances or mounted the soapbox in Hyde Park style. As Mr. Deng consolidated his power, he turned on the still-fragile movement and imprisoned its nascent leaders, the most charismatic of whom was Wei Jingsheng, advocate of ``democracy - the fifth modernization.'' (Deng had advocated four modernizations - agriculture, industry, defense, science.)

The Wus weren't Democracy Wall types. As teenagers, both Xiao Wu and Xiao Fei had been enthusiastic Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution - Mao Zedong's quixotic, 10-year effort to revitalize the Communist Party by enlisting the young to turn against the old under the slogan, ``It's good to rebel!''

Both youngsters left for the Mongolian wilds determined to ``educate'' the peasants, only to find that, when it came to growing food, the peasants were far better educated than they. It was years before either of them saw Beijing again. They felt cheated of the education they would have received but for Mao's folly; they were hungry to know more about the world beyond China and devoured anything we could give them - principally books on Western art.

In those days, contact between Chinese and foreigners was strictly controlled. My wife and I, who spoke imperfect Chinese, had to don khakhi and ride the bus to a stop where Xiao Wu waited for us. The Wus had one room without kitchen or bath; the greatest luxury they could offer us was steaming cocoa, bought through Xiao Wu's father's connections and boiled on a hot plate.

If Xiao Wu didn't believe in soapbox democracy, he nevertheless hoped for a slow evolution away from one-party rule and toward participatory government through a gradually expanding electorate. He joined one of eight non-communist puppet parties authorized by the government. His wife joined another. Both hoped for independence from the Communists.

It was a naive expectation - but many young Chinese who lacked the courage or, as some would say, the effrontery, to publicly proclaim themselves democrats, did associate themselves with the fairly widespread hope that, as economic reforms proceeded, political reforms would as well - first at the local level, then at the provincial and national levels.

We talked about these hopes often in the Wus' small room, with space for little more than a double bed. We also had many discussiions about impressionism, surrealism, and abstract impressionism. To paint a nude in those days, was to make a political statement, the meaning of which artists debated endlessly.

Our contact with the Wus came to an abrupt end when China went through one of its periodic campaigns against ``spiritual pollution.'' The authorities warned the young couple that they had been under observation and that they should break off all contacts with foreigners. So much for the precautions my wife and I had taken to look Chinese.

When the pro-democracy demonstrations took place in Tiananmen Square, some 10 years after Democracy Wall and Wei Jingsheng's advocacy of the fifth modernization, we no longer lived in China.

But I had a chance to visit the country a couple of years ago; I was flabbergasted by the economic development that had taken place. Beijing's streets were still clogged with cyclists, but they had to thread their away through battalions of cars, trucks, and buses. Towering office buildings cluttered the landscape, and an upstart MacDonald's stood cheek-by-jowl with Peking Duck restaurants hundreds of years old.

The four modernizations Deng had promoted were being achieved, and a chilling question assailed me: What if China's economic development continues without ever making room for the fifth modernization? What if China becomes a mighty economic power, dominant militarily in Asia as well, but with stunted democratic growth?

Democracy may not seem like a discipline, but it is. There are no short cuts to acquiring it. China seems in danger of becoming an economic and political superpower lacking that essential discipline.

Wherever you may be, Xiao Wu, what do you think?

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