John Gittings

China through the Sliding Door; Chapter XIV
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1995 - 1998
 
A Nation of People

(a) The beggar girl

(b) The `revolutionary'

(c) The drivers

(d) The upright official

(e) The missionaries.

Without the people, Mao Zedong used to say, we are nothing. (The tragedy is that he forgot his own advice). And without the people, any attempt to understand China also means nothing. Even during the Cultural Revolution, the individual Chinese whom we met were never `faceless' as Western writers often described them - although it might be hard to read their features. Developments since then have made it easier for Chinese people to express their feelings and their personalities. Anyone pronouncing on contemporary China should bear in mind the simple fact: there are 1.2 billion Chinese and they are all individuals.

So often in my travels I have briefly chanced upon persons whose life stories I wish I had been able to learn from beginning to end. The list of them would include: the itinerant bee-keepers of Fujian, seen on the road in Shaanxi; a circus troupe in a small Zhejiang town who invited me to travel with them; the would-be entrepreneurs whom I met in railway restaurant cars as they were heading south or north to seek their fortune; all sorts of people from outside Beijing who congregated in Tiananmen Square in May-June 1989; restless junior officials drinking in cheap hotels and chafing at their empty lives; and, up and down the country, students, teachers, painters and poets, some merely marking time but many clinging to high ideals.

There are others too, more fortunate, with money and connections who aspire to a modern Asian lifestyle, eating and shopping in the new fast food restaurants and department stores of the big cities. If I have identified less with them in these pages, it is because their aspirations are more familiar, but they form the most dynamic sector now of Chinese society. Their lives and those of the parents have changed immensely in the last ten or twenty years. And when the grandparents die, so many of their life histories contain unimaginable tales of upheaval and of - often tragic - drama.

Chinese officials too are people, with their own complicated histories from the past and ambivalent views on the future. Though the bureaucratic tradition maintains its strong and deadening grip, some officials do show a sense of responsibility, an eagerness to help their nation modernise and reform itself. The other tradition of the upright official, asserting what is right even if it should offend the imperial authorities, also survives among a minority.

In the course of nearly thirty years of travel, how many of this vast nation of individuals have I got to know? If I am honest, it is only a tiny handful compared to the multitude. Yet however few they may be, they provide a small window into the huge complexity of human existence which is China. Whatever we may understand about China can only be achieved through their words, their feelings and their lives.

(a) THE BEGGAR GIRL

March 1995, Guangan, Sichuan province

Reading the walls in China opens windows to human experience which cannot easily be gauged by other means. In these post-Mao entrepreneurial times there may be no revolutionary slogans or manifestos, but there is still life, and death, in plenty.

Li Meiying, aged thirteen, has turned herself into a living wall-poster. She stands against a plain brick wall in the main street of Guangan, Deng Xiaoping's home town in Sichuan province. With silent bowed head she displays, hung around her neck, a plea for help.

It is market day in Guangan: peasants with bamboo baskets, students on their way to school, and passers-by gather to read. Hers is an everyday story of the kind of tragedy which can so easily overwhelm a Chinese family now that state employers or communes no longer provide all their needs.

Meiying - her name means `beautiful and courageous' - comes from a family of five. Her father, a rural tractor-driver, had dumped a load of sand one day and was returning home with some passengers on the back. He skidded in the rain and plunged 300 yards down a hillside: three passengers were wounded and one died. Insurance is almost unknown. He was jailed and ordered to pay compensation to the wounded and provide for the schooling of the dead man's son.

Meiying's mother sold their livestock and furniture, but it was not enough. Distraught, she has become mentally ill. She also suffers from heart trouble. The family cannot afford medicine for her. `I beg all the aunties and uncles who read this to show their generosity,' Meiying's placard concludes. `I shall never forget your kindness!'

Such a tale might arouse scepticism in cynical Beijing, but not in small-town Guangan. `It's a very sad story: you must give her some money,' the spectators urge.

Written Chinese has a visual and cultural power not easily comprehended by those used to the Western alphabet. Writ large, it conveys a graphic sense of urgency commanding attention. Writ small, it packs a surprising amount of human detail into the most laconic account. During the Cultural Revolution, most notices were ritual denunciations of officially-targeted `capitalist-roaders'. But small groups of Red Guards turned the `big character poster' to their own purpose, arguing for a genuine revolution instead of the one stage-managed by the sycophantic elite around Mao Zedong.

In 1979 and 1980, when Deng Xiaoping was challenging Mao's successors, a wider range of radical arguments appeared on Beijing's Democracy Wall. Ten years later, these blossomed in the leaflets and posters of Tiananmen Square.

Any notice soon attracts a crowd puzzling over subtle allusions. But, with politics banished from the walls, the most topical subject is now crime. The most compulsive reading remains the `execution poster', easily spotted because it carries a large tick in red ink to signify that the job has been well done. When I visited Guangan it had just completed the traditional Chinese New Year purge of those on death row. The Guangan intermediate court's proclamation listed twelve names. Their appeals to a higher court had been rejected and all were `dealt with by shooting'. The details make tawdry, pathetic, reading: six murderers, two persistent robbers, two rapists and two guilty of serious wounding. Who knows what inadequacies, frustrations and perhaps miscarriages of justice these may conceal.

In each case the court pronounced that `the crime was severe and the circumstances atrocious'. The accused were sentenced to death and - as if it mattered - to `deprivation for life of all political rights'.

Amnesty International's partial list of Chinese executions for 1993 totals 1,419. The real figure may be twice as high. The sentences are intended to deter, but the number of violent crimes is rising. Photographs of young men paraded in the streets on their way to execution have been smuggled out. Some show defiant gestures. In pre-Communist China, the boldest criminals sang snatches of opera to the waiting crowd. What do they call out today? Long live the socialist market economy?

Next to Guangan's execution poster is a more hopeful list, of high school graduates who have been successful in college entrance exams. For the spectators, many of whom are young and unemployed, they are the ones who will escape.

 

(b) THE `REVOLUTIONARY'

October 1996, London

Wang Li, who has died aged 77, had his finest day on 22 July, 1967, at the height of the Cultural Revolution. With his foot in plaster, he was greeted by almost the entire Chinese leadership at Beijing airport, after winning a fierce battle between rival Red Guard factions in the central city of Wuhan. He had scored a revolutionary victory, the banners proclaimed, against the dogs' head counter-revolutionaries.

Six weeks later, when his `ultra-left' faction was itself condemned as counter-revolutionary, Wang was denounced as a traitor against Chairman Mao. Confused? So were thousands of Red Guards who took their lead from him: famously, one group had seized control of the Foreign Ministry and stormed (setting on fire) the British charge d'affaire's office in Beijing.

Wang did not exactly have `revolution' written on his face. Nancy Milton, a foreign `polisher' of official documents at the Chinese news agency, described him as a handsome man, `stout in his khaki padded overcoat, his suave bankerly appearance seeming strangely out of place amid the admiring swarms of excited Red Guards.'

No youthful worshipper himself of the Red Sun, Wang was one of a group of` middle-aged ideologues who took Mao's side against the Communist Party bureaucracy for mixed reasons. Like many leftwing intellectuals, the ideologues were attracted by Mao's idea of building communism at full speed - even if the country was not ready for it. Joining Mao's camp also protected them from being labelled `bourgeois scholars'.

Born to a property-owning family in the central province of Jiangsu, he joined the Party in 1939 and worked his way up the national hierarchy of propaganda departments. By the early 1960s, he was helping to produce anti-Moscow polemics as part of the bitter Sino-Soviet dispute. Wang was closely connected to the mayor of Beijing, Peng Zhen. But when Peng became the first target of the Cultural Revolution in the spring of 1966, Wang made a quick switch to the Maoist camp.

The ultra-left excesses of this camp led to the first split a year later. Mao's wife Jiang Qing and her group (who were later known as the Gang of Four) gained political space by ousting Wang's clique. Wang was accused of seeking to undermine Premier Zhou Enlai: Jiang Qing had exactly the same intention but went about it more circumspectly later on.

Wang's downfall came about through two errors. Mao personally criticized his speech encouraging the Red Guards to seize the Foreign Ministry; the Chairman knew that revolution must be kept within the family. Wang also erred by sponsoring a controversial play, Madman of a New Age. Its real-life hero was a young man, Chen Lining, who had denounced Mao's main rival, the Head of State Liu Shaoqi, several years earlier when Mao and Liu were still officially on good terms. Chen had then been certified as mentally ill. Wang now claimed that the unfortunate patient was a political dissident suffering from `fascist persecution.'

Whether the claims could be substantiated or not was never discovered; but it was foolish of Wang to get involved in the theatre which was, as everyone knew, the domain of ex-film actress, Mao's wife Jiang Qing. In 1967 Wang was imprisoned. He spent the next fifteen years in jail without being charged with a crime. Outside, Mao died, others rose and fell - including eventually the Gang of Four.

Wang emerged in 1982 to rejoin his wife, filing more than 100 petitions for rehabilitation by the Party. Wang denied that he had ever encouraged violence and claimed to have been the scapegoat for the chaos which almost destroyed China in mid-1967. He also claimed to have helped Deng Xiaoping write a letter of `self-criticism' which saved him from the fate of Liu Shaoqi, who was beaten and died in prison. More recently Wang has claimed that Deng was prepared to rehabilitate him, but that other leaders objected.

He spent his last years in Shanghai where he was said to live comfortably in a a spacious house in Shanghai - with a red carpet. Wang said that he would take the secrets of his brief period of fame to his grave. They were not really so mysterious. Revolutions have a habit of getting hijacked by the ambitious and the amoral. Wang may have looked `suave', but he was out of his depth.

 

(c) THE DRIVERS

November 1996, Yanzhou, Shandong province

Sitting on a stone bench in front of Yanzhou station I look across the square. It is vast, like most such places in China. A plinth in the centre carries a rusted statue of a worker, labelled `Building the nation'. He is shown guiding the hook and tackle of a hoist, which descends from nowhere. Yanzhou, in the eastern province of Shandong, is an industrial centre - although the rural birthplace of Confucius is just down the road.

In front of the plinth there is a parked bus: it turns out to be a public lavatory. In a little booth, its custodian hands out small wadges of paper to customers in exchange for tiny sums. He also provides a public telephone service.

An idle group of waiting passengers peer at my note-taking. `Your writing is hard to read', says one, as if I were writing in Chinese. They comment, laughing, on my left-handedness, and drift away.

A beggar in cotton shoes, black felt hat and padded coat, approaches me. Suddenly he pulls back his coat to reveal that his right arm is no more than a fingered flipper attached to the shoulder. Startled, I give him a note so large that he is surprised in turn.

It is time to move off before I become an object of general interest. I walk over to a magaazine stall, with rows of periodicals displayed behind glass. The practice is to ask for one, study it carefully, then either buy or toss it back with a casual buyao - `don't want.' I am making a general collection, so cause a stir by buying a dozen different titles without reading them first.

They include a military magazine with a picture of a British UN soldier on thefront, a fashion journal, one advizing young people on how to set up home, a short story collection, several police and romance titles, and what proves to be aremarkable expose of the hardships of peasant life, part of a series called `an eye on the real China'. (Afterwards I regret not buying them all).

Some taxi drivers come up with friendly curiosity. Where am I from, where did I learn Chinese? The conversation moves quickly to another familiar topic: how `backward' China is compared to Britain. And yet China, they lament, is a nation with five thousand years of history!

I am asked how long ago England was `established as a nation' - jianguo? In this special sense, China was only `established' in 1949 when the communist revolution succeeded. England has been established for several hundred years, I loosely reply. This helps to explain why we are more `advanced'.

The conversation takes a different turn. How many wives are you alllowed im England - some disbelief that it is only one. This leads on to Aids and drugs, and a less favourable comparison between the West and China. But the balance tips again.

Is the government corrupt in England? Here in China, it's really terrible. There are laws but they are worth nothing. The ordinary people have no trust in them. And we finish on another familiar topic: China's population is far too large: its social discipline is too bad. Singapore is mentioned admiringly.

I move on, past the bus station. The most popular routes are lined up on the square, waiting for passengers from the trains. They include buses to Qufu where Confucius was born, one of China's best-known tourist destinations.

There is a trick to catching buses here. No one wishes to board one - especially the private minibuses - till it is nearly full, because it may wait for ever. A few exhausted train passengers are lured in, while people linger outside. Then the driver gets in: there is a quick rush. He cunningly moves a few feet, and switches off again.

I take out my camera to photograph the line of buses: some are grimy beyond belief. One of them has broken down and is being pushed away by hands. Husbands, sisters and children are urged to look at the Old Foreigner Taking a Picture (Old as in Honourable, I must explain).

I continue the circuit, past the plinth with the statue and the lavatory bus. I now see several large vats behind it, some empty and some full, serving an obvious purpose.

At the foot of the square is a huge department store of the type which every town in China now requires. It has lots of tinted blue glass and a dome on top.The store calls itself Nine Oceans Goods Store. There is a much smaller globe above the traffic cop at the road junction. This contains the lights and - an ingenious device widely used in China - a countdown showing the number of seconds till they will next change.

On the last side of the circuit, I pass the `Calfnia Restaurant' and the `YZBG Hotel', both in Roman lettering. California is easily recognized, but YZBG? Like many modern shop signs, this one has taken the initial letter of each word in its title (as spelled in the Chinese phonetic alphabet) to form a meaningless acronym. YZBG stands for Yan Zhou Bin Guan or Yanzhou Guest House.

Finally, the female touts outside a couple of small restaurants urge me to eat, but accept with good humour my reply that I have chihaole - `eaten well'.

It is time to enter the dim waiting hall and see whether this is a railway station with good or bad social discipline. It is good, to a fault. The smartly uniformed staff makes us line up in twos, and march on to the platform. Travelling in China can be exhausting but it is always full of surprises.

 

(d) THE UPRIGHT OFFICIAL

25 June 1998, Xian

Chinese security officials have ensured that human rights will remain a source of contention during the visit of President Bill Clinton by taking heavy-handed action against critics of the Beijing regime even as the president was on his way to Xian.

A former government official in Xian, Lin Mu, well known for his advocacy of political reform, was barred from receiving visitors today. The Guardian's attempt to pay a quiet visit to his home was frustrated by half a dozen plainclothes police.

It was a journey that quickly exposed the limits of Beijing's tolerance of dissidents. An unmarked black car stuck close to my taxi through the morning rush hour of Xian and plainclothes police were waiting at the gate as I tried to enter. Forced to leave the car, I walked quickly into the compound but was soon surrounded by a group of people tugging at my clothes and demanding to know my identity.

They were sharp-faced and agitated, wearing the anonymous uniform of loose trousers and white shirt. `You would not just walk into the house of the British prime minister, would you?' asked one accusingly.

Back at the main gate, I was shoved to one side when the distinguished ex-official I was trying to visit emerged, furious at the news of my detention. He denounced one policeman he knew by name to the gathering crowd in this side street in the city's south.

`It is my right under the constitution to entertain guests,' he shouted. `Calm down, old Lin,' another policeman said patronizingly. Mr Lin became even more furious.

I was told I had to register as a visitor before I could see a resident within the compound. On trying to register, I was told that according to unspecified `regulations', no visit could be made. The argument that Mr Lin was entitled to speak freely to a foreign journalist because China had now opened up did not impress a Mr Han - the only policeman willing to show his identity card.

`Yes, China is an open country,' he said. `But openness has its limits.'

It was a stalemate: I walked away slowly to have a late breakfast - a bowl of hot spicy noodles on a pavement stall - and consider what I had seen. For many Chinese it was an everyday incident, but it provides a sobering counterpoint to assertions that China's human rights policy will improve if the regime is left to its own devices.

Two dissidents in the Xian area were reported to have been sequestered by

the police the previous day. They were taken to separate hotels, presumably to ensure they could not be contacted by foreign journalists.

Mr Lin is a former Communist Party official who has petitioned the government urging reform. He was dismissed from the Party for supporting the student movement in 1989 but is still a free citizen. Last month Mr Lin and 11 other critics of the regime sent an open letter to the National People's Congress calling for the release of Zhao Ziyang, the Party Secretary-general who was ousted after opposing military action in Tiananmen Square. One of the men detained in Xian yesterday has also signed a letter urging Mr Clinton to meet Mr Zhao while in Beijing.

It is beginning to look as though any reference to Mr Zhao, whose job was appropriated by Jiang Zemin - now China's president - touches a highly neuralgic nerve in Beijing.

In a letter to the Communist Party leadership apparently written earlier this month, leaked to Reuters agency yesterday in Beijing, Mr Zhao called on it to admit that the massacre was `a historical mistake'. Otherwise, he argued, the incident would continue to undermine China's reputation. He welcomed the Clinton visit as a `turn for the better', but he said that relations with the West continue to be marred by the human rights issue.

The more open atmosphere of debate which has emerged this year focuses, often outspokenly, on the harmful social effects of economic reform, including corruption, widening income gaps and unemployment. But the concept of political reform is still left on the margin.

The letter takes issue with this gradualist approach. A repudiation of the Beijing massacre, it says, `would bring one hundred benefits and no harm'. It is time to give a fair appraisal and `not carry a historical burden into the next century'.

As a Party member, Mr Zhao entitled to petition the leadership: there is a long tradition going back to imperial times of exiled officials who refused to remain silent. Even some of Mao's colleagues spoke out and are now hailed for their courage.

Mr Lin belongs to the same tradition as Mr Zhao of `upright officials' who refuse to be silenced. Before the Cultural Revolution he worked for Hu Yaobang who, as Party Secretary-general in the 1980s, encouraged talk of political reform. Mr Hu was ousted by hardliners and his death sparked the 1989 democracy movement.

Last year Mr Lin issued a manifesto appealing to the leadership to tackle corruption, release political prisoners and begin a transition towards multi-party democracy. By doing so, he argued, the Party would actually win back the trust of the people, and it would `retain the status of the ruling party in future democratic elections'. The present rulers appear to have no intention of taking any such chance.

`It is only democracy and the rule of law that China can turn to,' Mr Lin wrote, `not the cult of violence or the suppression of dissent.' He said repression only aggravated social tensions, citing growing unemployment.

Most Chinese would regard the small scuffle at Mr Lin's gate yesterday as he norm. `This is just the way they behave,' said one witness with contempt. `They go their way and we go ours.'

Those responsible may be minor officials who are not used to national diplomacy. `Beijing is Beijing,' one of the policemen said, `but this is Xian.' But they are part of a countrywide policy to stifle dissent during the American President's visit. It is a paradox that Mr Lin is able to send messages and articles he outside world - although his telephone was being tapped yesterday - but still may not be interviewed in his home town.

(e) THE MISSIONARIES

June 1997, Jinggangshan, Jiangxi province

Seventy years after Mao Zedong launched the Red Army from these mountains in southern China on the path of peasant revolution, some young Chinese are adopting new ideals.

These come in a strange assortment, as I have just discovered travelling in a wide sweep through Guangdong to Jiangxi province. Many young people are too busy looking for work to set their sights higher, but others claim a sense of missionary zeal to do something `good for the nation'. The nationalist students of the 1920s would have recognized the sentiment, though it can take dubious forms today.

In a filthy third-class carriage on the new railway which passes through southern Jiangxi, I was greeted by a band of modern evangelists. Their cause was not immediately apparent, but the commitment was clear in their shining eyes and almost over-warm handshakes. The mission, they told me, was too complex to be explained here among the peanut shells and banana skins, against the noise through broken train windows. Fortunately we were heading for the same town. When we arrived late at night, their leader was met by a dozen followers, clasping his hands and vying to carry his luggage.

I extracted the truth in a long session the next day, probing the philosophy they expounded to reach, at last, a solid material basis. This took the form of a glossy pamphlet for the Futian Oxygenating Health Machine, with a cover picture of two dozen happy Westerners, including dog and baby, beaming behind a moulded plastic box with two indentations at the top. It was an electric foot massager of the kind sold in Hong Kong health shops.

The young evangelists insisted they were not just selling a product: they were engaged in `cultural communication'. They were forming a network of like-minded people `of high moral worth' to disseminate advanced market information whichwould improve the people's health and contribute to the nation's wealth. They quoted the writings of an American guru whose name I could not quite translate back from the Chinese.

It is true that they were not selling the Health Machine as such: they were selling information about it to a network of those who would then sell it. It was, in other words, a classic pyramid scheme. Members of the network paid a `premium' - a figure of 700 yuan (fifty pounds) was mentioned - before setting up their own subsidiary network. It was possible, I was told, for an individual to earn 200,000 renminbi in a month: just think how profits of this size could then be invested in successful industry for the good of the nation!

The actual gadget (if anyone buys it) is marketed for 3,900 yuan (300 pounds). The user puts his or her feet in the indentations, plugs it in, and it will then, says the brochure, `communicate oxygen to the autonomic nervous system'. It is to be found, I was told, in every three-star hotel in Japan. Did they have another product in mind to `culturally communicate' to the Chinese nation? Yes indeed. The next item to be disseminated to those of high moral worth was an electric lavatory seat.

Spooky though they were, the Futian Net display in an extreme form the connection - and confusion - between personal and public goals which characterizes this former revolutionary society. The ambivalence is often shown in answers to the standard conversational question: `What is your lixiang?' The dictionary translation of the word is `ideal', but it can also denote `ambition', and answers range uncertainly between the two.

An out-of-work graduate in English replies she is heading for Guangzhou to look for work, preferably in a firm with foreign connections: that is pure ambition. Another with a degree in physics hopes to go abroad to make money, and also `learn new ideas' which will help his country. A language student says she has no `ambition' but just wants to be a good teacher - an unfashionable ideal these days.

Around the economic zone of Shantou, in eastern Guangdong province, I came across some actual missionaries. Just 140 years after the first Presbyterians built a church in Shantou, an amazing revival is under way. Most of the 600 who turned up for the weekly bible class at Shantou West Church were in their twenties or thirties. Many rode scooters and wore brightly coloured helmets. But they were not just attending for social purposes. A visiting Hong Kong Chinese minister was envious of the congregation's commitment. `They're not content with an hour's bible class but insist on more,' he said. `In Hong Kong our young people have too many distractions.'

Out in the Shantou countryside, new churches have been built as high as block of flats. One fine example stands alone by a wooded hill, dwarfing the pagodaon the summit, and blocking the view from several dozen Chinese tombs on the hillside. Such conflicts of interest between Christian missions and local tradition led, 100 years ago, to the Boxer rebellion. Today there is still resentment, but money speaks louder. In another county town, a new church of more modern design gleams with blue reflective glass. Together with a smaller church, it baptises 100 people every year; they have a combined congregation of 2,000. The pastors of both churches are young and open-faced, too young to remember the dark years when the faithful could worship only in secret.

The missionary impulse in China today is not confined to charlatans or to the Christian Church: it infuses much of what we might regard as normal commercial activity. Perhaps the traditional contempt with which entrepreneurs were regarded still requires a higher purpose to be invoked. The impulse is so well internalized that those who invoke it may be unaware of the mental sleight of hand. This is particularly true of the overseas Chinese investors who put their money in the motherland.

The Shantou West Church has been an incidental beneficiary: the Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka-hsing gave it three million Hong Kong dollars (240,000 pounds) to rebuild on the old site. He has put up 100 times as much to build a university on the hillside overlooking Shantou, complete with swimming pools, conference centre, and a 600-bed teaching hospital. Other investments in Shantou include new ports, a power plant, and a bridge.

Mr Li, praised as a patriot by China's President Jiang Zemin, is the best known of a number of overseas Chinese tycoons who sustain much of the coastal economic boom. They are regarded as gurus as well as investors. Guangdong television portrays the superior wisdom of men such as the Indonesian Li Guihua, who is shown lecturing communist cadres on the virtues of competition and efficiency.

Li Ka-hsing is the hero of books and magazines, preaching his own religion: that success depends upon knowing when to give ground. `Why did the Yangzi become a long river?' he asks. `Because it can accept smaller rivers and can become big. If you're too powerful and reject the smaller waters, you cannot become a long river.' Such sentiments delight native Chinese entrepreneurs. They are written up in a monthly magazine called Rich People.

It is obvious - and has been for some time - that these new evangelisms have filled a gap left by the declining appeal of the Chinese Communist Party. Yet some of the Party's fifty million members still believe in making a contribution to society - though `serving the people' has given way to `making the people rich' - and they take a tough view on law and order.

The question of what will emerge out of this ideological jumble in present-day China is difficult but vital for the future. Quite a large minority seeks some sort of intellectual prop, whether fashioned from superstition, religion, business mantras or socialism turned into muscular patriotism. Perhaps none will prevail: will this mean that China evolves into a more pluralist society of ideas, or descends into universal cynicism - or will some new -ism arise to sweep the country again?