Chineseby Jasper Becker
In The Chinese,/i>
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China's 1.25 billion people comprise nearly a quarter of the world's population. More people live in China than in North America, the European Union, and the former Soviet countries combined. But what do we really know about these millions of people? And what is the future of their frequently misunderstood, increasingly powerful country?
In The Chinese, Jasper Becker, China's premier resident western correspondent, strips the country of its myths and captures the Chinese as they really live. For nearly two decades Becker has lived in China, and reported from areas where western journalists are forbidden. His award-winning Hungry Ghosts, hailed for its brutal honesty in the west, was banned in China.
Here Becker is more candid still, reporting from all over the country: from the tiny, crowded homes of the swollen megalopolises of the southeast rim to a vast, secret network of thousands of defense bunkers in the northwest. He exposes Chinese society in layers from the bottom upward: from remote, illiterate peasants; to the rising classes of businessmen; to local despots; to the twenty grades of Party apparatchiks; to the dominant, comparatively small caste of party leaders who are often ignorant of the people they rule.
Becker lets the Chinese speak for themselves, in voices that are rich and moving. We meet such characters as Nian Guangjiu, an aspiring entrepreneur who sold melon seeds, and was arrested for "corruption," "misuse of public funds," and "hooliganism" over the course of his career, before finally being named in 1998 as one of ninety-six "Heroes of Reform"; and Li Xiaohua, the first man in China to buy a Ferrari, who was arrested for peddling watches before a hair-restoring potion made him a millionaire. He met his wife, the daughter of a senior general, when she took pity on him because he could not afford bus fare.
We also learn a great deal about the magnitude -- and the false face -- of China's vaunted economic boom. In the Guangdong province we meet Mrs. Qin, a member of the Zhuang people, just one of China's fifty-five identified ethnic minorities. Half of the children in her province are malnourished; ninety percent have chronic worm infections.
Institutionalized crime, Becker shows, is one result of this breathtaking poverty, and smuggling in China is big business; a sting in Hainan -- one of China's "special economic zones" -- revealed a single shadow company that had illegally imported 89,000 luxury cars and 3 million televisions. Another in Zhan Jiang involved the Party chief and 600 other officials. Becker reports from Shaashen, Mao's birthplace, where the failure of a plan to attract tourists forced residents and local police to invest in prostitution instead.
Long regarded apprehensively as our Next Great Enemy, Becker's China is both something very different and much greater than the stereotype suggests. The Chinese is the hidden story of the people of the world's largest nation. Not since Hedrick Smith's The Russians has a nation so poorly understood and so vital to the future been so fascinatingly laid bare.
Times Literary Supplement
"Highly engaging."Arrow Augerot, The Washington Times
"A superb book for anyone who wants to be updated on contemporary China."Foreign Affairs
"Becker is particularly well suited to write this account, having spent more than a decade reporting from China's sprawling cities and its remotest hinterlands.... Whether it is a loutish police officer in a Hunan brothel or an impoverished peasant in the southwest, Becker shows most people are ready to speak the truth. Their voices go a long way toward mapping out the challenges that lie ahead."Dexter Roberts, Business Week
"In this ambitious work, Becker, a veteran chronicler of China, explores the impact that a quarter-century of economic reform has had upon the Chinese people.... He succeeds admirably."Publishers Weekly (starred review)
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Through the Open Door
The Chinese state is probably the oldest functioning organization in the world, dating back more than 2,000 years. It is also possibly the most successful in history, controlling more people and more territory, and for longer periods, and exercising a tighter grip over its subjects than any other comparable government in the last two millennia.
At the beginning of the twenty-first century the People's Republic of China governs the destiny of close to 1.3 billion people, or 21.6 per cent of the world's population, making it the most populous country on earth. In describing the different groups who comprise this vast population, this book aims to provide a broad overview of the current state of China.
At the base of the social pyramid are the peasantry who constitute around a billion people, more than the combined populations of the United States of America and the European Union. The book starts with them, probably the largest single identifiable group ever to have existed at any point in recorded history. But they are not uniform and the first chapter describes the very poorest of them, the 100 million who struggle to farm patches of stony soil in remote uplands.
The final chapter describes the apex of the pyramid, the tiny group of self-selecting rulers who live in the pavilions scattered among the gardens and lakes of what was once the imperial palace in the Forbidden City in Beijing. In between, the book looks at other groups, some defined by geography, some by economic or political status.
Many chapters draw on my own travels around China during ten years as a resident reporter. Yet much of China remains hidden. For one thing it is too big to be knowable. I have been to Shandong province a number of times but it has a population of 90 million, bigger than any European country. And China is secretive. Few foreigners, if any, have ever attended or at least reported on a meeting of a Chinese Communist Party (CCP) cell, let alone a session of the ruling Politburo. It is equally rare to be able to interview an officer in the People's Liberation Army (PLA) although it has a membership greater than the population of dozens of UN member states.
Intense secrecy and manipulation of information have long been regarded as an essential part of successful government and diplomacy, and though, as Marxists, China's Communist rulers have embraced concepts of modern 'scientific' government and so gather huge quantities of data, this has not made it any easier to understand the country.
The information travels up through the bureaucracy, and every layer revises it to conform to the targets set by its superiors. The central government constantly complains about the false statistics it receives but it is equally guilty of putting out false or deliberately distorted information. And not only is the present unclear but the past often changes too. The central state controls the archives and strives to ensure a monopoly over the reporting and recording of history. Although its verdicts on past events change frequently, this is never a cause of much shame or embarrassment.
Foreign scholars and outside agencies such as the United Nations or the World Bank are put under enormous pressure not to challenge Chinese statistical claims and rarely do. Many experts prefer co-operation to conflict, but anyone who spends time working in China eventually comes to doubt even basic facts.
How many people are there in China? One American ambassador, Admiral Joseph Prueher, remarked that he could not even find this out but he was told it was anywhere between 1,250 million and 1,300 million. Therefore, a population almost the size of Britain's may or may not exist. How much arable land is there to feed them? Official statistics say 95 million hectares (234 million acres), but satellite surveys suggest 140 million hectares (345 million acres).
Some experts, particularly economists, tend to argue that even if the reported facts, such as economic growth rates, are overstated they do at least represent a reliable trend. I doubt that. I suspect but can rarely demonstrate that many figures are simply made up to suit the propaganda needs of the day. It is this cloud of uncertainty surrounding so much in China that explains why so many books are written about the country.
Yet compared to most periods in its history, China may now be said to be more open and less mysterious than it has ever been. Even so, greater access has done nothing to clarify Western perceptions of China, which have ranged from wonder to disgust, from hope to fear one book on my shelves, written by another journalist in the 1930s, is entitled China:The Pity of It.> In the past century and a half, since the restrictions on foreigners roaming around China were first lifted, Western visitors have been both fascinated and saddened by the romantic ruins of old Cathay, a dead but once glorious civilization like that of Greece, Rome or Egypt. Yet within the same period, the modernization of China has also led to a hysterical fear of China as a nuclear-armed global power bent on spreading Communist revolution. Even within the last twenty-five years writers have sincerely and convincingly portrayed China as either an oriental Utopia or a Communist hell. Between these extremes, visitors have dreamed of the vast profits to be won from selling to 'John Chinaman', a dream that still provides the dynamic for the West's relations with China.
By contrast, the Chinese state continues to feel threatened by outsiders seeking to win the loyalty of its subjects, just as it did over a century ago. Buddhism, Islam and Christianity have won many converts in China and continue to do so, but rarely with the support of the state.
China is big enough to permit many views. Precisely because the country eludes generalization, some observers have tended to grasp at straws, too willing to convert a trend into a prophecy many people are buying cars, so eventually half a billion will own cars; some groups want democracy, soon everyone will. And, perhaps frustrated by the sheer scale of the country and its apparently cyclical rather than linear history, many reporters tend to finish their tours saddened and disappointed. When Deng Xiaoping came to power in 1979 and spread the word that 'to get rich is glorious', the Chinese were presented as striving to learn how to become a capitalist democracy. Two decades later, it is clear that China is still far from becoming more like America or Europe.
This desire for change, and a belief that change for the better is possible, also exists within China the name 'New China' is given to innumerable buildings, roads and institutions and it dates from the latter half of the nineteenth century when repeated military defeats at the hands of more technologically advanced Western countries convinced reformers that China had lost its way and was in decline.
The same belief in the need for change fuelled the Chinese Communists' attempt under Mao Zedong to transform the country through a planned programme of social engineering on an unprecedented scale. Society would be altered, culture renewed and Chinese man remodelled to function in a new scientific, rational, model world. The state ran everything and the Party was 'always correct, great and glorious'. The attempt failed. China did not advance very far, and Mao's vision cost the lives of perhaps 75 million Chinese. It is therefore not surprising that a sense of failure also permeates the way in which the Chinese perceive themselves.
A new 'new' China has emerged since 1979 and in some areas the state has disengaged itself from its citizens' lives so that the new China seems to be functioning much like the old, pre-Communist China. Still, through all the upheavals and revolutions of the past century, China has held together, and the state and its bureaucrats continue to issue regulations and levy taxes.
Recent books have portrayed China as the next superpower, the new evil empire or as descending into chaos and civil war. As I was writing this book, a letter from a reader appeared in the South China Morning Post, declaring that: 'History shows that no country as large as China can hold together for long. Different political, ethnic and religious elements split such countries apart before long: look what happened to the Roman Empire or the USSR.'
Yet the immutability of the Chinese state is perhaps its most remarkable characteristic. The Roman Empire is no more but the Chinese state goes on much as before. In recent years the leading stories on China in Western newspapers have carried headlines such as these: 'Bureaucracy cut by half to save central government expenditure'; 'Honest officials praised in propaganda campaign'; 'Anti-corruption campaign nets top official'; 'Tough campaign launched to stop piracy and smuggling in southern coastal waters'; 'Beijing orders crackdown on subversive sect'; 'Government critics arrested and anti-government books burned'; 'New taxes levied to expand education'; 'Army generals rotated to ensure loyalty to centre'; 'Army suppresses rebellion by minority peoples in far west'. Exact parallels could be drawn from the reigns of any one of the 157 Chinese emperors. Only in China can one interview an official charged with civil service reforms who, in describing those reforms, recalls how officials of the Han dynasty (206 BC-AD 220) dealt with the problem of nepotism.
To understand the role of history in contemporary China, it is necessary first to look briefly at that history.
The Chinese bureaucratic state traces its origins directly back to the first Emperor of China, known as Qinshi Huangdi. Born in 259 BC, and therefore a contemporary of Hannibal, he became king of the state of Qin at the age of 13. Thirty-eight years later, Qinshi Huangdi had conquered all neighbouring states and had created what became known as the 'Middle Kingdom'. The word China stems from Qin, which was originally a small, impoverished state on the fringes of the Chinese world.
The Qin state lay in western China in what is now the province of Shaanxi, centred in the valley of the Wei River, a tributary of the Yellow River (Huang He) which is held to be the original birthplace of Chinese culture and the homeland of the Han people, as the Chinese now refer to themselves. The First Emperor established his capital in Xi'an, now the provincial capital of Shaanxi, and it is not far from there that his huge necropolis guarded by an army of terracotta warriors can be found. The Yellow River region, especially its upper reaches, is now regarded as denuded and backward, and the loess plateau through which the river winds is one of the poorest regions in China. Yet as well as Xi'an, the capitals of several later Chinese dynasties were established along its banks, at Luoyang and Kaifeng.
The success of the Qin state is attributed to the Legalist political system established in the time of Qinshi Huangdi's grandfather by his chancellor Lord Shang. Together they created an austere totalitarian society in which everyone informed on each other. As in Sparta, a centralized military bureaucracy enforced a harsh legal code, and the entire population was mobilized into 'productive occupations', either military service, farming or manufacturing this state had little use for merchants or intellectuals. Above all, however, in contrast to its neighbours, the Qin state destroyed the privileges of the feudal land-owning aristocracy. Everything was owned by the state and administered by a bureaucracy according to laws issued by the Emperor who enforced obedience through fear and terror. The laws and regulations were written down, and to enter the bureaucracy candidates had to pass written exams. Although the state encouraged education it also banned all books other than those it approved and forbade free discussion, public meetings and indeed any organization that was independent of the state.
During Qinshi Huangdi's reign, his prime minister Li Si took further steps to create an efficient totalitarian state by nationalizing land and ensuring a grain surplus. A key responsibility of the civilian bureaucracy was, and still is, to guard against floods by building dykes, to levy a grain tax on the harvest, and to store and distribute the surplus to feed the urban population and, above all, the army.
Under Qinshi Huangdi this efficient and highly organized state conquered its larger and more sophisticated rivals and succeeded in 'unifying' China. The boundaries of the state were smaller than those of today's China but included the heartlands where the vast majority of China's population still lives. These comprise the two biggest river valley systems in eastern Asia, that of the Yellow River and the Yangtze, including the Sichuan plain upstream, the vast North China plain that stretches south from Beijing and, richest of all, the land of rivers, canals and lakes between the two great rivers.
In the conquered lands all traces of the inhabitants' original culture, language and ethnicity were expunged. The territory was divided into thirty-four administrative units, just as today China is divided into thirty-four units, each ruled by appointed plenipotentiaries. Weights and measures were standardized as was the width of axles on vehicles so that carts and chariots could follow the same ruts on the imperial roads. In his eleven years in power, the First Emperor also established a single currency and a single script with 3,000 characters, the basis of today's writing system. Equally important, he 'unified' people's thoughts, as the current government might put it, by famously burning all books apart from Legalist works. Recalcitrant scholars were branded and sent to build the Great Wall and the most influential, some 460, were buried alive.
Prior to the Qin conquests, there had been a period in China when 'a hundred schools of thought contended' including that of Confucius (551-479 BC). He favoured the old rural aristocracy and a style of government that exuded a sense of benevolence and mutual respect between classes. A gentleman, a superior man, had to act according to a code of conduct, to observe a sense of noblesse oblige towards the lower orders. In the Qin state, however, power was everything, and while everyone had duties few had rights. Religion played its part, for the Emperor was regarded as the Son of Heaven who interceded on behalf of the people, but there was no organized church in the sense that there was in medieval Europe. The explicit goal of any treatise on government was, and still remains, how to establish 'a rich and powerful country'.
The Qin empire ended in a rebellion by Liu Bang, a minor official who in 208 BC led a revolt by former aristocrats who wished to re-establish the former kingdoms. The founder of the Han dynasty, which was to endure for 400 years, Liu Bang retained the unified state with its centralized bureaucracy, the Qin penal code and the Legalist political system. However, the worst excesses of the Qin system were modified and its harsh morality softened by the adoption of Confucianism. The Han dynasty made a knowledge of Confucian texts the cornerstone of government recruitment but beneath this veneer, Legalism remained the basis of Chinese government right up until the twentieth century. Even the Mongols and Manchus, who at one time or another conquered China and ruled its people, retained the same political system.
Today Chinese society is still not unlike that of the Han dynasty. Then, out of every hundred people, eighty or ninety were peasants in the countryside. That is still the case today. Then a peasant was obliged to give a month of his labour free for work on state projects such as building dykes or roads and to be ready for military conscription. Today, China's peasants must fulfil the same obligations, and, like their ancestors, they farm the land but do not own it and cannot leave it without permission. In Han times in each county absolute power was concentrated in the hands of the magistrate, who dispensed justice and issued orders on all aspects of administration, just as a Party secretary does today. The magistrate's work was subject to inspection tours by his superiors and after a fixed number of years he was rotated to another position. He lived in a 'yamen' where all civil offices responsible for taxes, education, the army, the police, justice and civil engineering were based. The same is true today.
In contemporary China, just as in the Han dynasty, out of every hundred people, ten might live in an urban area, usually a county town. The number of large cities, as then, is limited by the problem of obtaining and transporting regular supplies of surplus food. In 1999, out of a population of 1,300 million, some 300 million were classified as having urban residency permits but only about 60 million lived in big cities.
As in the Han dynasty too, only a small part of the population has access to higher education and goes on to form the core of the bureaucracy. In the Han dynasty, the imperial academy in the capital at Xi'an trained about 30,000 students a year, although of course many more people were literate. About half a million men held degrees in imperial times out of a population of between 50 and 100 million. These days perhaps 2 per cent of the population has a university degree although literacy rates are supposed to be very high.
The ratio of bureaucrats to the population has not changed much either. Although around 36 million people are employed directly in the government administration and some 58 million are CCP members, only a few of these are not clerks, teachers or pen-pushers of some kind. The real size of the ruling élite, from county magistrates upwards, is thought to be no more than 4 million. Officials are now termed ganbu, or in English, cadres, from the Communist term taken from the French cadre or official. As in imperial times, bureaucrats are ranked in over twenty grades.
The First Emperor's imperial system, with its civil service and ideological examinations, was only formally dissolved in 1911 when the Manchu empire collapsed. Before then the power, wealth and durability of the imperial state over so many centuries inspired neighbouring peoples in Japan, Korea, Vietnam and other parts of south-east Asia to copy it. These countries functioned as tightly run bureaucratic states for many centuries before they came into close contact with the Western world, and it is perhaps this characteristic, this willingness of the population to submit itself to the orders of an authoritarian bureaucracy, that has enabled them to adapt and modernize in recent years and to emerge as industrial powers while the rest of the developing world has lagged behind. Most countries in Africa, the Middle East and South America lack such a legacy.
The legitimacy of the Chinese state has survived invasions, civil wars, natural catastrophes and many periods in which China was not united or when its rulers were weak or favoured some creed such as Buddhism, Daoism or, more recently, Marxism-Leninism. Indeed, some argue that the Communist state, despite its claims to be modern and scientific, was embraced precisely because it corresponded to ancient notions of how a successful state should be run. Even the catastrophic mistakes of Chairman Mao have not been enough to destroy its foundations and result in either the break-up of the state or the adoption of another form of government.
If the Chinese are far more tolerant of the exigencies of the state and its servants than Westerners, they are also far more comfortable with the idea of living within an empire. Although the last Chinese dynasty, the Qing, is now generally held in low esteem, the expansionist policies of its Manchu rulers are still much applauded. The current territorial demands of the Chinese government are based on what the Qing armies, who conquered China in 1644, achieved, when China reached its greatest territorial limits and when the Chinese state was at its apogee.
This history of expansion can be traced back to the Han dynasty's attempt to expand the territory of the First Emperor's state southwards. The southern coastal states of what are still called Zhejiang and Fujian were occupied by the Emperor Wudi (141-87 BC) who moved their populations inland. Then in 111 BC, he defeated and absorbed the independent kingdom of Nanyue, what is now the provinces of Guangdong and Guangxi and part of northern Vietnam. His successors continued to shift the state's centre of gravity southwards until by about AD 600, the Yangtze rather than the Yellow River is thought to have constituted the economic and political heartland of the state. When nomads such as the Jurchens or Mongols invaded and established states in the north, part of the population, and particularly the élite, fled southwards, accentuating this trend.
In the mountainous provinces of Fujian, Guangdong, Guangxi, Guizhou and Yunnan, Han Chinese now dominate the towns in the valleys and the delta regions, while what are called ethnic minorities races such as the Miao (Hmong), the Dai (Thai) and the Zhuang tend to live in the mountains and are still considered poor and backward. Some emigrants from northern China, known as Hakka or guest people, still retain a separate identity, culture and language in the south.
Current research into the genetic make-up of the population of China has concluded that the populations of northern and southern China are quite distinct and that, genetically, northern Chinese are closer to Caucasians than they are to southern Chinese. The difference also emerges in language. Dialects such as Cantonese might equally well be classified as separate languages for they are incomprehensible to northern Chinese. Modern standard Chinese is based on the Chinese spoken in Beijing, supposedly that used by imperial court officials or Mandarins.
The imperial tradition held that the peoples of conquered territories voluntarily submitted to absorption within the empire and to the adoption of the culture and language of their rulers. Whatever language or dialect was spoken, all were required to write using the same standard Chinese characters. This sinification policy continues today: great efforts are made to ensure that schoolchildren, whatever their race, are taught in standard Chinese.
More distant regions of south-east Asia, despite being repeatedly invaded by Chinese armies, including those of the Mongols and the Manchus, remained outside the empire. Countries such as Vietnam, Laos, Burma, Cambodia and Thailand retained their separate identities but operated within China's sphere of influence, submitting tribute and copying some Chinese institutions. In more recent years, these countries have also been settled by Han Chinese migrants trying to escape the restrictions of first imperial and then Communist China. In the north, Korea too was repeatedly annexed, most recently by the Manchus, but retained its independence and monarchy.
The principal danger to China has always come from the north and the north-west, and to stabilize these regions successive dynasties either attempted forced settlement to colonize them or built walls to keep out their indigenous inhabitants. The First Emperor built the Great Wall to keep his subjects in and keep the nomads of the steppes out. However, the biggest period of wall building took place during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) whose rulers largely rejected any notions of 'peaceful coexistence' with the barbarian tribes in the northern grasslands. In other periods attempts were made to colonize the Gansu corridor, through which successive waves of invaders entered China, and the provinces of what are now Qinghai and Xinjiang.
In 1644, Manchu nomads crossed the Great Wall from Manchuria and established the Qing dynasty, a highly authoritarian, neo-Confucian regime. Although they expelled all Chinese from Manchuria, their legacy is the addition of territories that are now the three northernmost provinces of China Liaoning, Jilin and Heilongjiang. However, large-scale exploitation and settlement of these regions only took place in the final decades of the Qing dynasty with the advent of the railway.
Various Mongol tribes were junior partners in the conquest of China, and Mongolian lands fell under the domination of the Manchu court. Although, as with Manchuria, Chinese settlement of Mongolia was forbidden until the end of the nineteenth century, Mongol chieftains regarded themselves as vassals of the Manchu emperor. The dispatch of Manchu armies to Xinjiang also ensured the loyalty of the western Mongols, and Tibet fell under the sway of the Emperor when Manchu forces crossed the vast Tibetan plateau in the late eighteenth century.
In the reign of the Manchu emperor Qianlong (1736-95), when China reached its furthest limits, its wealth and stability triggered a huge increase in the population which rose from 143 million in 1741 to 432 million in 1851. But in Qianlong's reign, the seeds of the Qing dynasty's downfall were also sown. Western powers began to make their presence felt. In 1793 Qianlong received and rejected the embassy of Lord Macartney who proposed state-to-state diplomatic relations and free trade between Britain and China. Foreign traders remained confined to a small strip of land outside Canton (now Guangzhou). However, increasing pressure by British merchants to open up China to foreign trade eventually resulted in the First Opium War (1840-2) and the humiliation of China by a foreign power.
Thereafter China was steadily forced to grant further concessions to foreigners and to open its doors to the West. Peace treaties, now known by the Chinese as 'unequal treaties', at the conclusion of the First Opium War and a second war that broke out in 1858, ceded the island of Hong Kong and the peninsula of Kowloon to Britain, provided for the establishment of treaty ports within China, and permitted the opening of foreign embassies in Beijing.
In 1850, China was shaken by the outbreak of the Taiping Rebellion, led by Hong Xiuchuan who proclaimed himself the brother of Jesus Christ. In the protracted war that followed, 20 million Chinese lost their lives. Uprisings in many other parts of the empire by Muslims and tribes in Yunnan and Guizhou in the south further sapped the strength of the empire, and corruption became rife. Still, the empire held together, despite the shortage of tax revenues and the growing inferiority of its armies. However, in 1894, the Japanese inflicted a crushing defeat on the Chinese army and navy over Korea and at last the Emperor Guangxu asked a group of scholars to modernize the country by following the Japanese and Russian models. The so-called Hundred Days Reform movement of 1898 ended when the Empress Dowager Cixi imprisoned the Emperor and had some of the reformers executed. Thereafter, reformers fled abroad and sought support among the overseas Chinese and the growing number of students studying abroad who formed 'Revive China' groups. Among those fleeing was Sun Yat-sen, the father of the Republican movement in China.
An attempt by the Empress Dowager Cixi in 1900 to use another rebellion, that of the Boxers, to expel foreigners from China failed, and in retaliation Western powers and Japan imposed heavy reparations on China. Tentative reforms, including the abolition of the civil service exams in 1905, were then made but by now the Qing dynasty had, in the eyes of many, lost its mandate to rule. In 1911, following an uprising that began in Wuhan, the young emperor was forced to abdicate and a republic was declared.
After the fall of the last imperial dynasty the debate about how to create a modern Western state intensified and the merits of Westernization, science, technology, democracy, and the rule of law were hotly debated, a debate that culminated in the May Fourth movement of 1919. The date refers to student protests in Beijing over a decision at Versailles at the end of the First World War to give Germany's concessions in China to Japan, but the term is more widely used to describe a movement to modernize Chinese culture. This included writing in the vernacular and abandoning the use of ancient Chinese which was as hard for the majority of people to understand as Latin would be today in the West. The two slogans of the movement democracy and science are still high on the agenda eighty years later.
At the end of the nineteenth century China had been in grave danger of being dismembered by the colonial powers including Japan, and after the collapse of the imperial system Mongolia, Tibet, Yunnan and other vassal states broke away, declaring themselves no longer bound to China. In the rest of the country, in the absence of control at the centre, warlords now held sway. In imperial China loyalty to the ruling dynasty had bound the multiracial empire together. However under the Manchu Qing dynasty Han Chinese were treated as a subject people and forced to wear a pigtail or queue. When Sun Yat-sen returned to China in 1911 and was elected as the first President of the Republic of China he articulated a new nationalism intended to revive the Chinese race. A race which had once been the most advanced had degenerated. Sun believed that it must be revived or face extinction in what he regarded as a global struggle for racial superiority. This belief in the need to regenerate China in the face of a foreign threat to the Chinese race still has many adherents both on the mainland and in Taiwan. At the same time, however, many Chinese were being educated at foreign-run schools within China or had been sent abroad to learn Western methods. The new nationalism and the desire to learn from abroad coexisted uneasily.
The biggest split among Chinese modernizers of the period emerged over what political institutions were best suited to this newly regenerated state. Chiang Kai-shek, who succeeded Sun Yat-sen as the head of the Nationalist Party (the Kuomintang, or KMT), though he became increasingly dictatorial, nevertheless attempted to adopt many of the elements of a modern liberal Western state. These reforms, although derided by many for their often considerable shortcomings, were astonishing in the context of Chinese history. The crushing hand of the central state was lifted. For the first time in thousands of years there came into being in China independent schools and universities, a free media, an independent judiciary, independent trade unions, competing political parties and a capitalist system of competitive enterprise, and for the first time the Chinese enjoyed freedom of movement within the country and the freedom of assembly.
While these new institutions were often corrupt or inadequate, the credibility of the whole endeavour, which some called 'complete Westernization', was undermined by the encroachments of the Japanese. In 1931 the Japanese army occupied Manchuria and created the state of Manchukuo with Pu Yi, the last Qing emperor, as its puppet head. In 1937 it then invaded the rest of China. By the end of the 1930s, the Japanese had occupied Beijing, taken control of Shanghai and massacred the inhabitants of Nanjing, the KMT capital, and the KMT was forced to set up a temporary capital in Chongqing, on the upper reaches of the Yangtze.
While Chiang Kai-shek had chosen to adopt one model from the West, other Chinese were inspired by the collapse of imperial Russia and by the new Communist government that had seized power there. The Chinese Communist Party was founded in 1921 in Shanghai by a small group of intellectuals. At first it existed as an offshoot of the Kuomintang but in 1927 it split away after trying to foment uprisings among Shanghai's working class.
The Communist movement, supported by Moscow, offered an alternative vision. China was weak not because of the shortcomings of the Chinese race but because of the existence of class conflict between the rich and the poor. The ruling classes, capitalists, landlords and even the wealthy peasantry had to be destroyed before an egalitarian Utopia could be built. After Chiang Kai-shek crushed the Party in urban areas in a sudden campaign in 1927, it took refuge in rural China.
As Chiang Kai-shek sought to re-establish control, the Communists set up a number of soviets or mini-states in mountainous areas, often straddling the borders of different provinces. In 1934 Chiang's forces encircled the largest, on the borders of Jiangxi and Fujian provinces, forcing the Communists to break out and embark on what became known as the Long March. Traversing some of China's poorest and most remote regions, and harried by the armies of Chiang and local warlords, the Communists finally found safety in Yan'an, a poverty-stricken area in the heartland of the old Qin kingdom on the loess plateau. From there, now led by Mao Zedong, they succeeded in capturing Chiang and, holding him hostage in Xi'an, forced him to agree to a united effort to fight the Japanese. Thanks to the Japanese threat, therefore, the Communists now received aid and survived.
In Yan'an Mao established his control over the CCP and developed his political philosophy. In many public statements, it appeared to be liberal, advocating the right of minorities to secede, endorsing free elections and democracy, supporting trade unions and labour rights, promoting the freedom of intellectuals and so on. In reality, Mao's kingdom in Yan'an was closely modelled on that of Stalin's Soviet Union. Mao created a personality cult around himself and wielded absolute power through a series of persecution campaigns.
With the defeat of Japan at the end of the Second World War, the civil war in China between the Kuomintang and the Communists intensified. The KMT was defeated and fled to Taiwan, and in October 1949, Mao announced the founding of the People's Republic of China.
In the light of what followed, many Chinese intellectuals believe that Mao and his followers had always despised the liberties of Republican China and intended to establish a totalitarian state, copying the Soviet model down to the smallest detail but also attempting to recreate the system of Qinshi Huangdi, the First Emperor. Mao openly admired him and reportedly spent as much time studying imperial tracts on government as those on Marxist dogma. Separating the strands of twentieth-century totalitarianism from China's own totalitarian legacy is not easy. Some Chinese, even now, prefer to draw some sort of comfort from the fact that at least Mao was a homegrown tyrant.
After 1949 Mao set about creating a minutely organized and centralized bureaucratic state in which officials commanded all resources and could intervene in every aspect of life. At the same time a determined effort was made to destroy the 'four olds', that is everything linked to the past.
The history of the Mao era can, at one level, be depicted as a series of political campaigns by Mao to assert and maintain absolute power. In 1956 the Hundred Flowers campaign was launched to encourage free speech under the 2,000-year-old slogan, 'Let a hundred flowers blossom and a hundred schools of thought contend'. Those unwise enough to do so fell victim to the Anti-Rightist campaign the following year, when over half a million intellectuals were punished. In 1958, in an attempt to create a socialist Utopia, Mao instituted the Great Leap Forward, in which the peasantry were stripped of their possessions and amalgamated into giant communes. The famine that resulted led to the death through starvation of over 30 million people. In the wake of the Great Leap Forward, which ended in 1961, the Party split into two factions, one of which advocated limited concessions to the peasants that helped end the famine. Deng Xiaoping was among that faction's adherents.
In order to restore his prestige, in 1966 Mao embarked on the Cultural Revolution, attacking his critics among the leadership, dismantling the bureaucracy, persecuting intellectuals and encouraging young Red Guards to roam free. After his death in 1976, an attempt by the Gang of Four, who included Mao's widow Jiang Qing, to seize power was thwarted and Deng Xiaoping, disgraced during the Cultural Revolution, was rehabilitated. In 1979 he established full control of the Party at the Third Plenum of the Eleventh Party Congress and embarked on a programme of reform.
Mao had ruled as a semi-divine being beyond any law. Much like Qinshi Huangdi, he moved from villa to villa in secret, rarely meeting his subjects or administering the bureaucracy which served him. Most of the institutions first established in the 1950s, including the organs of the CCP, were subsequently ignored or partially disbanded during the Cultural Revolution. This ten-year period is often referred to in China as 'the ten years of chaos' but a faction of the Party remained in control throughout and the People's Liberation Army ran most of the country's institutions. China in the 1970s was a heavily militarized state, and returning the country to civilian rule has been a lengthy process.
Deng Xiaoping's reforms revived many of the issues debated in the first half of the century. Mao had done his utmost to destroy China's traditional culture, the glue which had bound the imperial state together. In place of a shared culture, China now defines itself in strident nationalist and racist terms but the search for wealth, modernity and national strength goes on. There has been a renewed effort to create durable political and legal institutions that will enable the Chinese to absorb modern technology and the elements of a capitalist market economy. Political reform, however, has been slow.
In 1989, the split within the Party between those who wished to modernize the political system and those who feared this would result in the downfall of the Communist totalitarian state emerged into the open. For over two months, students calling for democracy led street protests in almost every city in China. The spark was the unexpected death of the Communist Party General Secretary, Hu Yaobang, a liberal who had been dismissed by the Party's revolutionary gerontocracy. The students who occupied Tiananmen Square in Beijing backed his successor, Zhao Ziyang, who was also pushing forward a programme of political reform. Though these were the biggest political protests in Chinese history, the Communist Party decisively crushed the movement by sending an army to occupy Beijing. Troops backed by hundreds of tanks and armoured vehicles invaded the capital on the night of 3/4 June and fought the demonstrators for control. Since then the Party has remained in power, operating a totalitarian police state, while its sister parties in eastern Europe were swept from power when the Iron Curtain fell later that year. The essence of Chineseness is now often presented by the current rulers as the imperial, totalitarian state, and once again foreigners are accused of plotting to break up China by advocating democracy.
The pages that follow, however, do not concentrate on politics or ideology, or the prospects for radical change. Instead they look at how each section of society has fared during the twenty years of reform, from the poorest to the mightiest in the land. The wealthiest live, as they always have, in the big cities and along the coast and rivers. The poorest are to be found in the mountains that drop like a series of steps from the Himalayas in the west to the eastern seaboard. We start, though, in the beautiful limestone mountains of south-west China.
Copyright © 2001 by Jasper Becker
Meet the Author
Jasper Becker was the resident correspondent in China for the Manchester Guardian from 1985 to 1990. He has since reported on Chinese affairs for BBC World Service, as well as for the Economist, and is now Beijing Bureau Chief for the South China Morning Post. His book Hungry Ghosts: Mao's Secret Famine was the winner of the Dutch PIOOM award for human rights.
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Without being any kind of scholar, I find this book very comprehendable, in a very palatable style. I find it to be well indexed,etc., as if the author took great care to facilitate learning about his subject(s). I'd say, the author has managed to enlighten and facsinate, without the use of 'stump speech' style, and appears to treat all parties fairly, by presenting the dillemnas involved. The relatively laymens terms used for the economic matters, allows for an ease in glimpsing some of those aspects, including some rather outrageous shennanigans worthy of a 'Rogues Gallery'. It brings to life for me, a people, their country and their ways, which has always been a bit of a mystery for me. To facilitate the pronounciation of Chinese names, I found it helpful to overcome that block, by refering to a computer dictionary as a bit of a guide.
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