The End of the Chinese Dream
As China charges headlong into the modern world it is hard to know what its people think about their new lives. This is a problem for their leaders. Without the democratic feedback mechanisms that we take for granted in the west—free elections, relatively free media and rule of law/separation of powers—how do they know how to steer the ship of state to deliver enough of what people want to justify the party’s continuing monopoly on political power?
Actually, they are getting better at listening, as I discovered on my first trip to China at the end of last year. I spent (thanks to the Institute for Strategic Dialogue) a week with a group of journalists in the old capital city of Nanjing, now a would-be mega city of 8m. It looks, at least in the centre, much like a western city, a city—like other rich parts of China—that has exchanged the bicycle for the Lexus in a generation, without bothering with a Trabant stage.
One of the Chinese academics who accompanied us on our trips around the city’s schools, hospitals, banks, factories and universities (Nanjing wants to be the Boston of China) admitted to me that he had been a democracy activist at the time of the Tiananmen Square crisis in 1989. But to my surprise he did not go on to denounce his former self; instead he said that Tiananmen had been a great success. It had stopped short of plunging the country into a new civil war but had made the party more open and responsive, partly to avoid a repetition of the crisis.
I put this view at a press conference to Yang Weize, the suave Communist party boss for Nanjing, who declined to respond directly (Tiananmen is still a taboo subject in public) but recycled the formulas about western style democracy not being suited to China: ‘Just look at Taiwan!’.
By chance, just before we arrived in Nanjing, Yang had sacked the city mayor, Ji Jianye, for corruption. As corruption is widely agreed to be endemic, any moves against it tend to be seen less as progress towards the rule of law, as argued at the press conference by Yang, than as expressions of political factionalism (the rule of men). There was certainly not much due process in evidence in the Ji case. Yang described him as ‘a malignant tumour’ before any sort of trial had provided evidence of guilt.
While that represents old style politics, I also found plenty of evidence for the new spirit of controlled openness—given a huge technological shove by the internet and social media—and of the constantly shifting battle lines between the openness and the control.
A book that deftly captures this fluidity (and one I wish I had read before my trip) is Gerard Lemos’s The End of the Chinese Dream. Lemos, a British academic, weaves the story of modern China around a sometimes thrilling tale of his own exploits in carrying out opinion surveys of ordinary people in the giant conurbation of Chongqing and then smuggling the results out of China.
Chongqing is China’s fourth most important city with a population of 30m and lying close to the infamous Three Gorges Dam, about 900 miles to the west of Shanghai. It was briefly world famous for having Bo Xilai, the now disgraced leftist and anti-corruption champion, as its party boss.
After a chance conversation with a senior official in the Chongqing government about the inability of officials to resolve local disputes, Lemos proposes to him that in three districts of the city they should erect traditional Chinese wish trees: trees upon which people attach written wishes which according to tradition are blown up to heaven.
The offer is accepted and after various ups and downs with the authorities a fascinating insight into the hopes and fears of about 1500 ordinary Chinese people is acquired. Like people everywhere they turn out to want a combination of prosperity and security and believe they are not getting it. Although many of them acknowledge that life is improving, the dominant impression is one of trauma and loss created by a bewildering pace of change.
The wish tree messages tell of farmers who have lost their land and now feel worthless and factory workers who have lost their jobs and no longer get free health care. Everyone resents the one child policy (which apart from creating a rapidly ageing society means that one man in five will not have a female partner by the mid-2020s). They also resent the costs of education and the high pressure exam system that will decide whether your child has a good life or not.
Lemos’s story is insightful and entertaining but it also has a glass half-empty bias. Until very recently no one in China even dared to have a dream so intent were they on mere survival, yet now the dream is already declared to be over. The big reductions in Chinese poverty are mentioned only in passing, as is the fact that 60 per cent of the population expect their children to do better than them (a higher figure than contemporary Britain).
The shift to a more competitive and individualistic society creates greater wealth and opportunity, but also greater anxiety and a sharper distinction between winners and losers. This is mainly the story of the losers.
Moreover, the Lemos assumption of a voiceless people feels dated. When an estimated 500m are on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, do you really need wish trees? Of course the battle between openness and control still rages and newspapers and bloggers operate most of the time in a grey zone.
An example of that grey zone was being played out while I was in Nanjing. A regional paper in Hunan made a front page appeal for the release from custody of one of its reporters, after his arrest following his corruption allegations about a local company. He was not released but rather proceeded to confess on national television to fabricating the articles.
The young Chinese journalists in my group were more or less evenly (and openly) divided between those who assumed the original stories were true and that this was a forced confession, and those who accepted the confession narrative. That division surely represents progress.
China is an economic giant but socially and politically an insecure adolescent. One measure of insecurity is the fact that, according to one Chinese journalist, there are around 2m officials working full time on monitoring and controlling the internet and social media. The authorities know they cannot stop it but they can prevent it becoming the source of destabilising anti-system movements.
It is a game of cat and mouse and the mice often win. The sentencing of Bo Xilai took place while I was in China and any tweets that mentioned his name were blocked. But the political tweeters interested in the story just changed his name to the Chinese word for tomato and carried on.
David Goodhart is Director of Demos and Editor-in-Chief of Demos Quarterly.