China's incoherent dissidents will not cause the collapse of the systemby AC Grayling / June 20, 2002 / Leave a comment
Looming behind this book is one of the most important questions in world politics: is China’s current leadership doomed and will its end be violent? The answer given by Ian Buruma and the Chinese dissidents he interviews is optimistic and pessimistic, for it is yes to both.
Scarcely known to the outside world, the flicker of rebellion is a constant in China, almost all of it rural, and almost all occasioned by particular grievances-payment for rice harvest by vouchers instead of money, anger over corruption by local party officials, or some other exacerbation of the bitter life lived by China’s vastly numerous agricultural poor. Economic liberalisation has removed the “iron rice bowl”-lifelong job security-and those displaced have not been absorbed elsewhere in the system. While the huge army of the jobless remains a scattered mob of hungry individuals, the threat it poses is containable, but it is tinder none the less.
The exiled dissidents themselves, most living in the US, expect the collapse of party rule to be bloody because the party has no appetite for giving up power, however bad things are or will get. Therefore, they predict, it will take an axe to hack party fingers off the levers of control. One reason for this prognosis is that all Chinese are imprisoned in their views about history. The party too pores over precedents-the violent endings to almost all dynasties, the way in which successful periods were due to strong policing and tight public order. What the party leadership most feared in the summer of 1989, when students occupied Tiananmen Square and dozens of city-centres were choked with demonstrations, was “chaos,” the worst of all dirty words in the Chinese political lexicon. The sacred duty of keeping or at least restoring order trumped all other considerations-and the tanks went in.
Buruma talked to most of the Tiananmen student leaders, among them Chai Ling and Wu’er Kaixi, and many of the most senior figures among the diaspora of dissent, among them Liu Binyan, Wei Jingsheng, Harry Wu and Han Dongfang. Having heard many of these people speak in public and in private, I can vouch for the exactness of Buruma’s reporting-and yet do so with a sense of dismay, for few-the honourable exceptions are the last three named-seem to have moved on in the 13 years since Tiananmen.
The truth about China’s dissidents is that they are an incoherent, mutually recriminative and hostile scattering of individuals whose quarrels and divisions make them impotent as a political force. To begin with, party leaders in Beijing were reluctant to release dissidents whose names were known in the west and about whom a fuss was made by human rights organisations. (Dissidents whose names are not known in the west linger for years in prison camps, in their tens of thousands.) Then the party saw that letting such people go was an advantage, for they add to the Babel abroad, thus not only derailing efforts at organised opposition there, but distracting scrutiny from the human rights record in China itself. When Wei Jingsheng had outlived his usefulness as a bargaining chip in the Beijing 2000 Olympics bid, he was allowed to go-into the oblivion of itinerant dissenters.
Buruma is not as fair as he might be to Harry Wu, whom he describes as over-obsessed by his cause (and a gobbler of his food). Wu is a man whose life and health was broken by two decades in labour camps and who, since leaving China, has been an eloquent informer about the gulag of slave camps to which whole armies of Chinese have been condemned-most without trial. He is an important and courageous witness. Yet his testimony falls on deaf ears; western countries not only trade with China but admit it into the WTO, despite the fact that very few Chinese products are untouched by slave hands-from textiles, toys and tourist mementos, to soy sauce bottle labels and chopsticks. It is a chilling thought that many of the objects we use in Chinese restaurants have the stain of slavery on them, having been produced in labour camps hidden from foreign eyes in remote provinces.
But Buruma does do justice to one of the most impressive figures among the dissidents, the clear-minded, reflective Han Dongfang, the labour union organiser who now lives in Hong Kong and broadcasts into mainland China his exhortations for the proper unionisation of Chinese labour. The party fears him because it fears organisation of the workers by anyone other than themselves; after all, it was worker organisations in the 1920s and 1930s that won them their 1949 victory. Han Dongfang told me that the problem with the majority of China’s squabbling, exiled dissidents is that their desire is to take over from the party, not to turn China into a true democracy; they want to inherit the power, not share it. They are mostly middle-class city-bred graduates, for whom “democracy” means western-style elective oligarchy dominated by the educated and moneyed. The wellspring of Dongfang’s activity-which Buruma does not mention-is his concern over the appalling conditions in Chinese manufacturing and mining.
In places, this book is too long, too full of details about the hotel coffee shops where he met this or that dissident. Buruma has embedded a work of foreign-correspondent analysis in a travel book, aiming to make the former more palatable by making the whole more atmospheric; it had me hastening to the meat between the slices of white bread. But the meat is good; it is detailed and perceptive, and the anatomisations of the individuals who have been the face of China’s exiled opposition in the west is excellent.
I am not, however, persuaded, either by Buruma or by the majority of the exiles he interviewed, about the likely manner in which China’s Communist party will at last lose control. They all fear a savage event. But the Falun Gong and the exiled dissidents are not the Taiping rebels or the Boxers. China is now ineluctably part of the internet age, which means that Chinese in China now know more than they ever have about what the rest of the world is like, and what it thinks-and about their own country. The illusions are all but gone in China; and there is a time limit on military loyalty, at least lower down the ranks. In June 1989, the rulers in Zhong Nan Hai (the party leaders’ compound in the Forbidden City) were careful not to send in local troops, but used troops from distant provinces who could be counted on to be contemptuous of the capital’s pampered students.
Moreover, China is not one country, but an empire. Although the great majority of its subjects are ethnically Han, there are many languages and local differences among them. The tensions between the impoverished rural hinterlands and the runaway-rich Special Economic Zones like Shenzhen, Xiamen and Shantou are already big and growing. Provincial party bosses are powerful, and the immense but poorly trained Chinese army is organised along regional lines, an inherent threat to central control. Beijing’s remit runs patchily in many areas.
Perhaps the exiles Buruma interviewed unconsciously realise that they do not have to get their own acts together, for the unwieldy creature that is modern China is likely to collapse under the weight of its own contradictions. But I believe-unlike Buruma and the dissidents-that the end could well come with a whimper rather than a bang, returning China not to the tumults of its past dynasty-altering insurrections, but to another feature of its history: periodic disunity. There might well be bloodshed and tumult in places, but not on the apocalyptic scale Buruma fears. There is too little organisation and too much weariness deep in China’s bones for that. Bad Elements
(Weidenfeld and Nicolson, ?20)