Inside China's hard drive

In a farewell letter, our longtime Beijing correspondent tells what's behind China's global ambitions and gives insights into where the country might be going. 

Carlos Barria/Reuters
A man looks at the Pudong financial district of Shanghai in November, 2013.

By the time I moved to Beijing in 2006, I had been this news organization’s Europe correspondent for seven years. As a European, I felt that the beat was familiar: I did not find events there hard to understand. I needed a challenge, to be baffled. China seemed like an ideal destination. It certainly was. But now, as I leave Beijing, 10 years seems a long time to stay baffled.

China has been the most complex, confusing, and contradictory nation that I have encountered in my four decades of reporting from dozens of countries on five continents. The government ranges from hermetically sealed to deliberately opaque. (As I prepared to leave, tea-leaf-reading pundits puzzled over the fleeting appearance on a government-run website of an open letter calling on President Xi Jinping to resign. Did this portend a deadly power struggle at the pinnacle of the state? Or was it simply an anonymous prank?) 

Beijing also behaves simultaneously with both high-handed self-confidence – barging its way around the South China Sea in the face of international opprobrium – and as if the slightest tremor could bring the collapse of the Communist Party. Last year the police detained five women for more than a month to stop them from organizing a protest against groping on public transport. The demonstration was deemed subversive – a threat to the state.

Meanwhile, the Chinese people delight in evading or flouting the rigid controls that officialdom attempts to impose on them. I have lost count of the number of times that a nod, a wink, and a smile were all it took to circumvent a bureaucratic rule.

As a foreign journalist I have been accused by some, such as a senior government official, of being a foreign spy, and welcomed by others, such as peasant farmers about to lose their land to avaricious developers, as their last best hope for justice. But amid all the contradictions, 10 years on I continue to be inspired by the optimism and energy that ordinary Chinese display in such wholesale quantities. Even if their ambitions are often crassly materialistic, who am I to judge?

They have their eyes firmly fixed on the future, confident in a way that I have never before seen on such a scale.

For nearly 20 years, before being posted to Beijing, I had reported from parts of the world where people are accustomed to looking back over their shoulders. 

In Argentina, where I lived at the end of the 1980s, nostalgia for a vanished Golden Age has become a national ideology. In the Middle East, where I went next, historical enmities and resentments with their roots in the distant past still poison relationships today.

In Europe, efforts to forge a prosperous common future are faltering: Europeans of my generation tend to believe that the Continent’s best days are behind it, that their children’s lives will be harder and less affluent than their own. That attitude is virtually unknown in China.

People’s disregard for the past is sometimes simple ignorance, of course. Schools teach a very partial version of China’s modern history. But it seems to go deeper than that.

I recall going to Tsinghua University, in the western reaches of Beijing, to talk to an architectural historian about how the Chinese view old things. The government had just passed a law to prevent people from stealing stones from the Great Wall of China, or driving vehicles along it, or otherwise disrespecting one of the world’s great cultural relics.

I was surprised that people cared so little for such a monument. But Lu Zhou, the historian, was not. The trouble that archaeologists and conservationists have in China, he explained, was that “the traditional Chinese view is to prefer things looking fresh.”

Behind the neglect that the Great Wall and other historical structures have suffered, Professor Lu told me, was a cultural issue. “In Europe, cathedrals are monuments, but for the Chinese, temples are more like clothes,” he said. “We wear them, then take them off or throw them away. For us, function is more important than history.”

Aly Song/Reuters
Graduates pose for pictures near a statue of former Chinese leader Mao Zedong at a university in Shanghai, China.

Rather than dwell on history, most ordinary Chinese, I found, would rather dream of the opportunities that the future offers.

And they do more than dream. More than a quarter of a billion of them have boarded buses and trains, turning their backs on lives of rural poverty to travel hundreds or thousands of miles to city jobs.

One of those hundreds of millions is Qi Xuewu, who was earning a comfortable living as a hairdresser in an upscale salon in the coastal city of Shenzhen when I met him. From his fashionably cut locks to his patent-leather loafers, he was the very model of a modern young man.

His background as a cotton farmer in the western province of Xinjiang, toiling in the fields beside his father, was a distant memory. “My parents just lived to survive,” he told me. “My generation can think bigger thoughts, and I am lucky to have been born at this special time.”

Mr. Qi said that he and most of his friends would likely stay in Shenzhen, however much they missed their families, “because this is where we can achieve our dreams.” It is that sense of the possibilities that life holds, multiplied by the hundreds of millions, that energizes China and has exhilarated me.

Shrinking economic growth rates over the past year or so have not undercut that sense of ambition. But the government appears to be girding itself to deal harshly with dissatisfaction should it ever threaten to erupt in unrest. 

In the most concerted and savage attack on independent thinkers in nearly three decades, the police have been rounding up and threatening, prosecuting, or simply “disappearing” a host of people – lawyers, human rights defenders, workers’ rights activists, publishers, journalists, and other civil society actors.

Anybody who dares voice criticism of government policy, or could one day channel popular anger, or might be part of a network of like-minded people is suspect. In China, only the ruling Communist Party is allowed to network.

Mr. Xi, it seems, has learned a lesson from the collapse of the Soviet Union. If your economic policy risks feeding discontent, it is unwise to permit your citizens the political freedom to express that sentiment. So every fragile shoot of dissent must be stamped down.

Jason Lee/Reuters/File
Police removed a petitioner outside the court where the trial of disgraced Chinese politician Bo Xilai was being held in 2013, a reminder of China’s intolerance for protests of any kind.

Will the Chinese economy founder? It is hard to make accurate predictions when neither I nor anybody else even knows what China’s real growth rate is. (The official figure is universally derided as fictional.) But it seems clear that the economy will not go on creating jobs as explosively as it has done for the past 30 years and that even a shrinking labor force may leave China with too many workers. What the social and political consequences of that would be is uncertain.

•     •     •

Xi has also learned his own lessons from China’s past. Early in his term of office, he insisted that people should be as proud of the 30 years of Mao Zedong’s rule as they are of the subsequent 30 years of reform and greater openness.

He was harking back to the righteous revolutionary days, when the official corruption that has rotted the Communist Party and government was unknown. Many older Chinese are nostalgic for those days, but they remember the dark side of their history, too.

Bi ayi, a woman in her 60s who cooked for my family, once asked about a felt-like wall hanging in our kitchen. When my wife explained it had been made from woven tree bark, Bi ayi smiled ruefully. “I remember eating that stuff,” she said. “We were lucky; our mother knew which kind of trees had edible bark.”

For Bi ayi’s children, it is literally incredible that little more than 50 years ago some 30 million people died of famine during Mao’s Great Leap Forward. They were not taught about it at school, and nobody talks about it. Neither would they recognize the tightly closed society of their mother’s childhood.

The press and Internet are censored, certainly. But foreigners are everywhere in China today – the last time I was stared at, as if an oddity, was in a small town in central China in 2011. And people are intensely curious about the outside world, which they are now free to visit if they have the money.

Nearly 70 million of them went to the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai for a glimpse of foreign cultures. I sang there with my choir in a series of spontaneous concerts that quickly drew huge audiences and endless requests for photographs together.

I wonder whether these younger Chinese, better educated and better informed than their parents and grandparents, will be so easily seduced by the current official campaign to curdle widespread patriotic pride into an ugly nationalism.

For the past couple of years, the Chinese government has been pushing an increasingly nationalist line in the state media, whipping up anti-Japanese sentiment, in particular, but also blaming “hostile foreign forces” for a multitude of sins.

Foreign nongovernmental organizations and local groups funded by outsiders are under suspicion. Foreign businessmen complain that, although China is too big a market for them to ignore, the welcome they are given is not as warm as it once was, and the rules are increasingly tilted in favor of Chinese competitors. Foreign reporters – a particular concern of mine as a three-term president of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China – have found their freedom to work more and more circumscribed.

This approach runs counter to the “reform and opening” policy instigated by Deng Xiaoping that has fueled China’s phenomenal economic growth and modernization for the past 35 years. But the China that was once a poor country, desperate for foreign investment to develop its economy, is now investing abroad itself in a bigger and bigger way.

In little more than a decade, Chinese investments in other countries have shot up from almost nothing to more than $100 billion a year. By the end of this decade, China is expected to be one of the biggest exporters of capital in the world.

That trend ties the country into the world economy even more tightly, but on different terms. The international influence that the Chinese government will be able to exert through such foreign investment will be all the greater because most of the firms “going out” are closely linked to the state.

The signs at the moment are that this state, with Xi’s hand on the tiller, is increasingly authoritarian, centralized, and intolerant of divergent viewpoints. As far as Xi is concerned, this is nobody’s business but his, but Western governments are beginning to express their concerns.

In a series of private letters and public statements recently, the United States and its principal allies have complained about what they call unacceptable Chinese behavior. In March, in a statement to the United Nations Human Rights Council, they described recent arrests and abductions of Chinese dissidents outside mainland China as “out of step with the expectations of the international community, and a challenge to the rules-based international order.”

China is indeed challenging that order. Beijing believes that its weight in the world gives it the right to modify the rules that Western nations have set. But the way it is going about that – for example, pressing its wide-reaching sovereignty claims in the South China Sea by building artificial islands and stationing missile batteries on them – bodes ill for the Chinese government’s declared goal of being a friend to all and a threat to none.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Peter Ford, the Monitor’s Beijing bureau chief, works with interpreter Maple Chan as he interviews Puder, a community health worker in Tsoke, China, about a free health clinic.

For 10 years, traveling in China and around Asia, I have explored these issues and pondered their implications. My work has provided just the intellectual and personal challenge that I was seeking when I first arrived here. But I have a confession to make.

My most memorable moment in China had nothing to do with weighty questions of society or state. It was a uniquely Chinese moment of visceral exuberance and extravagance. At midnight on the eve of the recent Chinese New Year, as fireworks exploded all around me on the banks of the imperial Houhai lake in Beijing, I uncoiled my bandoleer of firecrackers. Ten thousand tiny tubes of gunpowder, wrapped in red tissue paper, stretched along the road like a giant fish bone.

I lit the fuse, stepped back, and for the next 85 seconds gave myself up to the deafening delights of pyrotechnics. In a complicated country, simple pleasures are still the best. 

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