Letter From Beijing

Dear H,

“In five years, the Communist regime will have disappeared,” the journalist Michael Anti (pseudonym for Zhao Jin) does not hesitate to tell me in a Beijing café. If he had to date the beginning of the end of the dictatorship, it would be July 23, 2010. That night, the bullet train from Beijing to Shanghai left the rails in Wenhzou’s train station, killing forty passengers and injuring hundreds. The government tried to hide or minimize the facts. On the Internet, any hint of the accident was censored, and those who posted about it saw their pictures and comments disappear from the screen. Such censorship proved in vain. In the hour following the catastrophe, all of China knew what had really happened, thanks to Weibo. Weibo means microblog as well as scarf (the ambivalence of Chinese ideograms): China tangled in a scarf. Managed via cell phones, microblogs, which cannot exceed 140 signs, bring together 300 million Chinese. In 2010, the year this local version of Twitter was born, there were only 60 million users. The government has greater difficulties in censoring Weibo than they do the Internet as it provides instant communication through text and pictures. Following the Wenhzou incident, at first the government denied the accident, then downplayed its importance and announced that train service would resume. Yet everyone knew the truth. According to Michael Anti, two hours later the Party surrendered, and Xinhua, the official news agency, admitted that the equipment made in China malfunctioned, interrupting train service that would resume later at lower speed.

“The Party,” comments Michael Anti, “has lost the battle for information and control over the minds of the people.” The Social Sciences Academy reveals in a published study that for 80 percent of Chinese under forty, Weibo has become the only source of information for both domestic and international news—this, from a subservient organ of the Party. Of course, Weibo also offers scams and features celebrity websites and gossip, but factual information predominates. Unable to control this new media, the government clumsily tries to challenge it. Central administrators and local governors create their own microblogs to “fight rumors,” as the Party puts it.

Michael Anti, who is still in his thirties and whose microblog attracts thousands of readers every day, belongs to the young, educated, cosmopolitan generation that is the new face of China. His education and family connections would have qualified him to become a member of the ruling class, the “upstart” class that is part of the Party system, and to build a career and a fortune. Yet this middle class, which twenty years ago constituted the political and social basis of the Party’s legitimacy, is now turning its back on the regime. Nowadays, few people join the Party, or believe in it, probably because they cannot bear its lies anymore, or its inflexibility, or its ability to rule only through constraint. “Society is changing,” Michael Anti says, “the Chinese are well informed, the economy is running out of steam, but the Party goes on with its rituals, its rules of succession, its violence, its lies, its inability to respect minorities or to adapt to a changing economic context.” This ossification being its very nature, the Party is unable to evolve, and this will bring it to its end. What will replace it, nobody knows, no one can foresee.

“Our ‘Peonies Revolution,’” says liberal philosopher Liu Junning, “will resemble the Arab Jasmine Revolutions: we know what we do not want, but we are ill prepared to take over since the Party has crushed the intermediary agencies and reduced all democratic leaders to silence.” Another characteristic of the Weibo Revolution is its absence of structure, hierarchy, or organization. I was told by Cui Weiping, an art teacher who is closely watched since signing the democratic charter drafted by Nobel Peace Prize recipient Liu Xiaobo, “A new generation is born, a self-educated generation, thanks to the Internet and Weibo.” This generation is different from the old guard of dissidents, the Wei Jinshengs, the Liu Xiaobos, who directly confronted dictatorship with democratic proclamations in the European, anti-Soviet revolutionary style. The new generation avoids direct confrontation which, since the Party and the Chinese army have superior means, only leads to violence and failure. The Weibo generation invents a new world, without leaders —it distrusts leaders—and its mottos vary depending on the circumstances. Beyond this voluntary anarchy, a few common principles appear, emphasized by Liu Junning and Michael Anti. On Weibo, people wish for a decentralized China with independent and responsible local leaders whom they would elect. People hope for a confederate China in which the rights of the minorities—Buddhist, Uighur, Taiwanese and others—are respected. The growing success of Buddhism and Christian religions, especially Protestantism, among young educated Chinese, is a factor in developing hope for a pluralistic and free China. The Dalai Lama, a devil to the Party, is a Weibo idol.

Will the power of truth (the Satyagraha, dear to Mahatma Gandhi) be enough to put an end to the Chinese Communist Party? In India, truth was enough to defeat the British colonizers because, deep inside, they shared Gandhi’s values. In a way, Gorbachev also shared Andrei Sakharov’s and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Western values, and the guilt felt by the Soviet nomenklatura played a part in its downfall. The day in 1991 when Gorbachev gave orders not to open fire on the protesting crowd of Latvian freedom fighters, the USSR was condemned because without violence communism was bound to disappear. In China, we may doubt whether the Communist apparatchiks have a similar feeling of guilt. Yet, as the dissidents point out, why do these Chinese leaders send their families to the United States to study or, often, to live? In Beijing they are called the “Just in Case,” one never knows. Leaders have misgivings about their personal destiny in China. Gorbachev never bought a just-in-case house in California. The Chinese nomenklatura do.

However, Weibo will not be enough to bring down this strong Mafia-like government, sixty million apparatchiks who control political power and the economy, even though they might have lost their power over information. The real threat, according to the 85-year-old economist Mao Yushi, who lives in Beijing and is unanimously respected even among his opponents, would be an economic crash, and it is conceivable. Growth slows because international demand is relatively stagnant. Chinese industry, whose annual growth fell from 10 to 8 percent, can no longer welcome the influx of rural workers, who leave the poverty-stricken countryside to join the industrial sector, where wages are low, but hunger and illness are less threatening. To restore the growth rate, the Communist regime has, paradoxically, turned to Keynesian economics: lowering bank interest rates and increasing employment through public works. The laws of economics apply everywhere, but in China, building a few more highways and airports turned out to be a temporary solution to unemployment and did not lead to long-lasting jobs or productive investments. Moreover, lowering interest rates has increased real estate speculation, resulting in empty apartments and office buildings in China’s cities. For the third year in a row, real estate prices are going down, ruining investors. Real estate is the piggy bank for China’s middle class, which has no other investment option since the national currency is not freely convertible to any other foreign currency. The collapse of real estate ruins local governments as well, whose main source of income is selling land for development—also a source of personal enrichment for the apparatchiks. Local banks that have generously financed these transactions are virtually bankrupt. The government has announced that the Chinese banking system could withstand a 40 percent fall in real estate values. According to Mao Yushi, that time is coming. “Those in the middle class sacrificed their freedom two generations ago,” Mao Yushi says, “but if they should lose their savings as well, they would never forgive the Party!”

Real estate is in a slump, and investments are disappearing. Will the domestic market compensate for a weakening foreign demand? The myth of the domestic market taking over is one of the many fantasies entertained in China. Currently, this domestic market is very modest since the average per capita annual income in China is $4,000, ranking the country 100th in the the world. A few Beijing billionaires do not make a domestic market—especially since they only consume non-Chinese luxury products. Therefore, innovation would be the only option. Can China achieve this development, like Japan and South Korea have succeeded in doing? We do not really see the harbingers of this change. Hacking and intellectual property infringement, which are the norm in high-tech sectors (transport, energy, biotechnology, communications) replace national innovation and inevitably condemn Chinese enterprises to second place (something understood by Japan and South Korea). Liu Junning adds that the intellectual environment for such progress is, for now, unfavorable: the social sciences are going under, and this, according to Liu, does not create optimal conditions for understanding and improving our world. As for China’s numerous engineering schools, the envy of the Western world, their academic level, Liu says, is only just sufficient for their students to pursue advanced studies in North America or Europe. Breakthrough innovations are not to be hoped for at present.

Should China change its model in order to welcome small innovative enterprises, as is the case in Japan, and eliminate big public industrial conglomerates, which are numerous and major sources of pollution? Should it turn towards developing agriculture and the processing of branded food products as well as the expansion of health care? To avoid a crash in the long term, yes. As I was answering questions from students in public administration at Beijing People’s University (Renmin), I suggested that Deng Xiaoping’s famous cat retire. In 1979, Xiaoping opened a new era, observing that the color of a cat is not a matter of concern as long as it catches mice. The time for Maoist ideology was gone, the right to enrich oneself proclaimed: wealthy entrepreneurs were encouraged and invited to join the Communist Party. The cat did its work: it saved hundreds of millions of Chinese from poverty, put China on the world map, gave birth to a host of red billionaires and to a middle class sharing Western values. This cat allowed Westerners to reduce the price of our clothes, toys, computers—sacrificing jobs in the meantime. Yet Deng’s cat is tired; it catches fewer and fewer mice; it is not creative and leaves half of the Chinese population in misery, which is unproductive. It is high time this cat retired. The students applauded, then asked me what should replace the cat. Certainly a free economy, where money would be convertible and credit granted according to economic efficiency rather than political opportunism.

When I was invited to speak at the French Institute in Beijing about the concept of crisis in the history of Western philosophy, approximately one thousand students showed up in an auditorium with a capacity of two hundred—informed by Weibo and not by the official media or the French organizers. These days anything Western attracts a crowd in Beijing. In the lively discussion that followed, the names most often quoted by the feisty audience were Locke, Jefferson, Benjamin Constant and Montesquieu. Confucius was not mentioned, nor Marx. Both had been rejected by this young educated audience as irrelevant or as approved philosophers complicit in the oppression of the Chinese people. Confucianism in China has always been the philosophy or quasi-religion of the Emperor and his bureaucracy, not of the people, who were generally Buddhist or Taoist. Because foreign visitors for centuries would meet officials rather than the ordinary people, they have reported a mistaken view that the Chinese were Confucian, whereas the people were actually more committed to a less hierarchical view of the world and very much immersed in other classic Chinese religions. It is also a common mistake among China watchers to perceive the Chinese as somewhat exotic or Oriental when, in fact, their scholars have been familiar with the West’s way of thinking and its leading authors since the early nineteenth century. One does not need to explain to a Chinese scholar what the rule of law is; he knows. A democratic revolution did take place in 1911 leading to the creation of a parliament, elections, political parties and a free media. And Marxism was a Western import after all, studied by Deng Xiaoping and Zhou Enlai when in Paris during the 1920s.

In China as elsewhere, it is important to listen to those who do not share one’s vision of the world. The conclusions Zhao Tingyang, a philosopher of the Confucian tradition, draws from Weibo and the economic despair are opposed to those of Michael Anti, Cui Weiping, Liu Junning and myself. To him, Chinese values being radically different from Western ones, the Chinese government could not be democratic or liberal. This would be useless and counterproductive. Why, Zhao asks me, side with a democracy, which in Europe and the United States proves incapable of solving a technical problem as simple as debt? We know what should be done, but democracy forbids it. An enlightened technocracy would then be preferable—the Party being, to some extent, the modern form of enlightened despotism in the Chinese tradition. I ask Zhao when Chinese despotism was ever enlightened, and he replies, “During the era of the Three Dynasties, 2,500 years ago.” This may seem long ago, yet experience shows that it is possible, whereas Westerners have no model that defines a perfect government. Moreover, according to Zhao, since Weibo takes snapshots of people’s every wish, this makes democracy more useless than ever: technocracy always knows what people want now. In Chinese philosophy (which Zhao hastily associates with Confucianism, leaving out the anarchist Lao Tzu), effectiveness would be more important than freedom, and freedom would not exist in itself, only in our relationship with others. By deduction, this best of all possible worlds would be closer than ever: tomorrow’s China, according to Zhao, would bring Confucius and microblog together.

Zhao Tingyang’s influence, I am told, is increasing. Enough to save the red nomenklatura? I doubt it, but China is even more surprising than it is worrying. To a China Weekly journalist, close to the Party, who asked me about the changes in China since my first visit in 1967, I replied, “Which China?” Every time I visit China, I discover a new one. In spite of its imperfections—tyranny, poverty, corruption—each China proves better than the last. But since for a century China has only moved from one revolution to another, we can hope that, for the first time in forty years, the next revolution may be democratic.

But this evolution of Chinese society seems to have escaped the most respected American authors writing about China: Henry Kissinger and Ezra F. Vogel.[1] Spending time in China, talking with actual Chinese, makes a stark contrast to reading their recently published books on China. Both authors are supposedly China experts: Kissinger’s book is immodestly titled On China. Ezra Vogel has written the first detailed biography of Mao’s successor, the still-influential figure of Deng Xiaoping. Should you wish to understand China today and what the Chinese are thinking, I strongly suggest that you not read these books. Neither of them seems to register the complexity of Chinese history or the recent evolution of Chinese society. Both books, however, belong to a well-represented tradition of Western China watchers who have created a simplified and utopian China deprived of the Chinese people.

Kissinger’s argument, as expressed on the very first page of his voluminous opus, is to assume that the whole history of China for the past 2,500 years is rooted in Confucian philosophy. All Chinese leaders, including Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, whom he famously met when restoring diplomatic links between Communist China and the United States, appear in his memory like Philosopher Kings. They would not make one move without referring to some ancient Confucian aphorism. They would not wage a war without, according to Kissinger, repeating some ancient tactics already devised by the Yellow Emperor, the founder of Imperial China in the twenty-seventh century B.C. Mao and Zhou would be astonished if they could read Dr. Kissinger. Not only was their personal knowledge of ancient Chinese history less pervasive than their reading of Karl Marx, but they also saw themselves as revolutionary leaders fully committed to destroying ancient China, to erasing any memory of Confucianism and to replacing it with historical materialism. It would seem that Kissinger knows better than Mao himself what his motivations would have been. Mao perceived himself as a true Marxist revolutionary, whereas Kissinger sees Mao as a true heir of the Confucian and Imperial tradition. Most probably, Kissinger has fallen victim to—or has chosen to be a willing collaborator in—a long Western sinophilic tradition, in which China as a concept is more attractive than the actual reality. This conceptual China had been invented by Western European philosophers, Voltaire and Leibniz mostly, to criticize their own political regimes and idealize the notion of a Philosopher King. Based on a utopian China, enlightened despotism was the eighteenth-century creation of these two philosophers, who both dismissed the Christian monarchs of Europe and were reluctant to support democracy. Kissinger clearly belongs, as does Ezra Vogel, to this tradition of celebrating against all odds Philosopher Kings at the helm of China in the past and present. Both authors hardly mention that Mao, with Deng at his side, had been responsible for the death of some forty million Chinese through civil war, the Cultural Revolution and organized hunger. Only Chinese died; China did not. When Deng ordered the Chinese military to “clean” Tiananmen Square in June 1989, Kissinger and Vogel (to a lesser extent) agree that the Chinese leader had “no choice.” Some 6,000 students were killed. Today, in China, it is still forbidden to mention publicly the so-called Tiananmen event. When asked by the Wall Street Journal how many Chinese Kissinger had ever met, he hesitantly gave 200 as a probable number. All of them, of course, belonged to the ruling elite.

Ezra Vogel, being a more profound scholar than Kissinger, at least does not pretend that Deng was a Confucian philosopher. He rightly defines him as a pragmatist. Vogel legitimizes all Deng’s moves by the pragmatism of the end justifying the means: no Chinese life counts, the end being the renaissance of China’s power—China as a state, distinct from the Chinese people. For Mao, Deng and their American cheerleaders, the Chinese people are perceived as an anonymous mass of interchangeable people, not as individual human beings. A final observation will underscore the gap between the real Chinese who were and tend to become again Buddhist, Taoist and Christian against the Kissingerian perception of China. This religious revival among the living Chinese and their efforts to rebuild a culture, which had been reduced to rubble by Mao and Deng, fully escapes the understanding of Vogel and Kissinger.

Beyond this cultural and religious renaissance, in spite of the ruling Party, the most striking aspect of China today is the emergence or re-emergence of a civil society. Should Vogel and Kissinger write future books, an accurate title could be On the Chinese instead of On China. They would come closer to reality instead of being the propaganda mouthpiece of the ruling Communist Party—a party which may be closer to its own demise than Kissinger thinks.


Guy Sorman

[1] ON CHINA, by Henry Kissinger. Penguin Press. $36.00. DENG XIAOPING AND THE TRANSFORMATION OF CHINA, by Ezra F. Vogel. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. $39.95.