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Chinese History & Culture

The Chinese

Jasper Becker, The Chinese. Oxford, Oxford University Press. 2002. Paper. 507 pages, including, bibliography, maps and illustrations, notes and index. USD$15. First issued by The Free Press, A Division of Simon & Schuster, in 2000.

T
he front cover describes The Chinese as “An insider’s look at the issues which affect and shape China today,” which is the least that can be said for the riches of this powerful book. Becker, formerly resident correspondent in China for the Manchester Guardian, has reported on China for BBC World Service, the Economist, and The South China Morning Post, for whom he served as Beijing Bureau Chief when the book was written.

The Los Angeles Times Book Review called it “the best available introduction to China for tourists, business executives and anyone else curious about the country.”

Becker’s journalistic skill is on display throughout this fact-filled work, with its combination of specific details, stories of representative individuals, and well-supported generalizations, always founded on a concise historical survey in each chapter.

He reports on the vast changes that have taken place in China, especially since 1978, and notes progress made in a number of areas, especially the economy. For many Chinese, the past two decades have brought much greater wealth and far wider opportunities.

Still, this reviewer found The Chinese not only informative, but deeply sobering. A wealth of detail is marshaled to support his major claim, that the reality of today’s China does not match the “false face” often presented to the public by the government and by Western media, much of it overawed by China’s stunning economic boom.

Like others before him, such Kristoff & Wudunn (China Wakes, 1994) and the Tysons (Chinese Awakenings, 1995), Becker goes beneath the surface to probe the actual situation facing Chinese people.

Becker believes that despite a strong desire for change, “the immutability of the Chinese state is perhaps its most remarkable characteristic.” Thus, the need to understand history in order to comprehend the present.

An introductory survey of China’s past supports his opening claim that the Chinese state is “probably 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.” He concurs with the common observation that most Chinese seem “willing to submit… to the orders of an authoritarian bureaucracy,” and adds that they are increasingly comfortable belonging to an expansive empire.

Indeed, “The essence of Chineseness is now often presented by the current rulers as the imperial, totalitarian state, and once gain foreigners are accused of plotting to break up China by advocating democracy.”

This darker theme recurs throughout the book, which focuses on “how each section of the country has fared during the twenty years of reform, from the poorest to the mightiest in the land.”

The first chapter, entitled “Eating Bitterness,” introduces us to the lowest stratum of Chinese society. Depending upon how you define “poor,” this class may number as few as 20 million (a government figure) to more than 300 million (the assessment of the World Bank in 1999). Beginning with the minority peoples, who live mostly in the west and southwest, Becker finds them also on the loess plateau in the north.

In many places, government policy, corruption, and a harsh environment combine to imprison multitudes in a life of bare survival. China’s ecological disaster results from soil erosion, water depletion, pollution, and the rapid urbanization and industrialization that have encroached upon the scant arable land that previously existed. Becker believes that China’s water crisis could undermine the entire nation and derail its economy. This hopeless tone characterizes many informed observers today.

Moving up one rung on the socio-economic ladder, the author introduces us to “Local despots and peasant rebels.” Once again, a historical review of the past half-century confirms the opening description of China’s age-old reality: “Harsh taxes, local despots, hopeless revolts and a peasantry powerless to fight for its interest.”

Despite a variety of increasingly desperate government measures, grain production falls below consumption; a true market cannot function; massive waste continues; and large tracts of arable land go unused.

Becker asserts that China’s 600 million peasants “constitute the largest un-enfranchised group in the world,” who form “secret underground armies, cults and millenarian sects as they have done throughout history. The state seems involved in a continual battle to crush them… So unconstrained by ethical considerations is the power wielded by some local officials that no economic system can function effectively.”

Since those lines were written, violent demonstrations have multiplied in number and grown in scale throughout the country, striking fear into the leaders in Beijing and making his words seem prophetic.

Not all peasants are poor, however. Chapter Three reminds us of Deng Xiao-Ping’s phrase, “Getting rich is glorious,” and traces the rise of the newly-rich peasants who have made money in business. Selling their land to build factories and firms, they have moved from austere living to conspicuous consumption. The process began in a few areas, notably the south, but has spread throughout the nation.

“Township and village enterprises” (TVEs for short) have transformed the face of China’s hinterland and much of the coast as well. Though they suffered a setback after the first flush of prosperity, they now form an essential aspect of the national economy.

Not without problems, however. These include rampant, massive corruption, in which local officials exploit their power over peasants to expropriate land, buy defunct state enterprises, avoid paying taxes, and generally get rich illegally. Another by-product of this rapid commercialization and industrialization is unrestrained pollution of rivers and lakes, despite sporadic government crackdowns.

Once again, we see crowds of angry citizens smoldering with resentment and erupting into violence against the local officials. Since Becker wrote, these protests have also grown in number and intensity, and now pose a major threat to public order and perhaps even to the state.

From the peasants we turn to the city-dwellers, as Becker traces the largest migration in human history. Vacillating and controversial government policies receive trenchant analysis, including a change from fostering medium-sized cities to a drive to concentrate people into fewer mega-metropolises. The reason: The rapid growth of smaller towns has taken far too much arable land out of cultivation. Even though much of China’s recent “urbanization” results from simple changes in terms, China will still have a huge urban population.

That growth will come mostly from rural migrants, for the birth rate among sophisticated urbanites has fallen below replacement level, and hundreds of schools in Shanghai lie empty. Only recently has this trend begun to reverse.

Nowhere has the impact of peasants-turned-workers been more evident than in the Special Economic Zones (SEZs) that sprang up as part Deng Xiaoping’s famous “Open door policy.” The irony of this development stands out as Becker shows how these new centers of foreign investment resemble the old “treaty ports” that were so odious to nationalistic Chinese until they were abolished in 1949.

Corruption, massive mistreatment of workers by foreign bosses, government-sponsored sex and smuggling – all hark back to the old days of colonialism. The only big difference lies in the nationality of the new capitalists, who are mostly Chinese from Hong Kong and Taiwan (with some from South Korea). Becker deflates some of the figures for foreign investment in China by pointing out that most of it comes from Overseas Chinese. He even voices the doubts of some experts about the long-term viability of such prize government projects as Shenzhen and Pudong.

While some get rich, millions of others find that their “iron rice bowl” has been shattered by China’s market reforms. The author takes us to empty factories and silent assembly lines, where laid-off workers idle their time away playing chess and reminisce about the good old days of cradle-to-grave security. Meanwhile, outside closed gates, tens of thousands protest the broken trust and corruption that have robbed them of their livelihood – yet another ominous phenomenon that has intensified since publication of The Chinese. Debt-laden State Owned enterprises (SOEs) are trapped in a triangle of bad loans and obligations that cannot be met, threatening the stability of the economy even as unemployed workers worry the Party of the workers.

Moving steadily up the economic scale, Becker next shows how countless enterprising entrepreneurs have managed to navigate myriads of regulations and cater to the whims of corrupt Party officials to amass huge, if fragile, fortunes.

In turn, Becker then explores the spheres of education, health care, intellectuals, the “secret empire” of the military, and the Communist Party. He explores legal reforms, highlights China’s environmental crisis, and tries to “read the oracle bones” to make guesses about China’s future.

Each chapter offers new and sometimes startling revelations. For example, iodine deficiency, which causes mental retardation, may affect as many as 400 million people. The government now actively encourages eugenics to “purify” the gene pool. Diseases once conquered, such as snail fever, have come back to ravage millions, especially the poor. Most health-care funds benefit “an ever narrowing class of people”: Government workers and employees of state-owned enterprises. Little money goes for preventive care, which helps explains the deteriorating health situation nationwide. Both the high cost and limited usefulness of Western medicine have reinforced the deep trust Chinese have in their own traditional healing practices, which often include resorting to witch doctors, even in this modern age.

Throughout the book, Becker finds a huge disparity between the rural and urban poor, and the ruling elite. The former have little access to education, health care, or elementary justice. The latter, composed of Party members and especially the ubiquitous and all-powerful Army, live in luxury, with little restraints on the gratification of their wants or the exercise of arbitrary authority.

“All power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” could have been the sub-title of The Chinese. The corrosive effect of such massive and systemic rottenness, despite increasingly severe government crackdowns, poses a fundamental challenge to the stability of the nation. “The scale and extent of such corruption is staggering,” he asserts, with convincing supportive evidence.

A brilliant chapter on intellectuals traces the continuities in Chinese history which so impress Becker. Despite occasional protests by a few brave dissidents, most educated people throughout China’s long history have supported the central government. They truly believe that China must be strong and powerful, and that unity of thought and a firm grip by the state are essential for social stability.

The opening paragraph of this survey of the role of intellectuals in public life deserves full quotation:

There is much to admire about Chinese intellectuals but also much that is less admirable. Many of those who joined the Communist Party have attempted to marry the most archaic and cruel gradations of Chinese political thinking with the digital era, and some still continue to justify the resulting horrors in the name of a patriotism that is often sister to an ugly racism and brother to a crude xenophobia. Equally disturbing is the deep-seated worship of power and tyrants that many Chinese, regardless of their educational level, seem to share. It is all to common in China to hear professions of admiration for Hitler, Stalin, Lenin and Mao as well as the most brutal Chinese emperors because they were strong men. A reverence for power, the scorning of moral scruples, the embrace of the dictatorship of the proletariat in preference to the values of individual liberty, even by those who became victims of Mao, all draw on a deep-rooted idolization of the state. Past horrors and mistakes do not seem to have weakened a servile belief in the ultimate benevolence of the state and a willingness to grant it unlimited powers. 245

If those words seem unduly harsh, we should note, first, that Becker does record the bravery of intellectuals who reject the notion of the omnipotent state, and second, that he provides, as usual, ample documentation for his judgment.

Another, related, theme is the unreliability of official data about almost every aspect of China’s life, including its economy. Why would anyone in such a system want the real truth to be known? From population (infant mortality, birth rates) to economic data, Becker casts doubt on the figures given to, and offered to the West by, the central government.

He presents evidence that “China now seems to be run as a collection of family businesses,” run by the “princelings,” children of the Party rulers. In even stronger language, he terms China a “kleptocracy.”

But Becker worries even more about another kind of corrosion: The horrific state of the environment, victim of decades of wanton plundering and bad government. Like many others, he wonders whether the country will be livable within a few years.

“The Secret Empire” unveils a vast military-industrial-security complex that effectively runs the country, including the Party. That prepares us for a close look at the organization that rules China. Despite repeated purges and attempts at reform, the number of paid bureaucrats, who are all party members, has continued to grow, placing a heavy burden upon the fiscal resources of the nation.

As usual, Becker shows how ancient traditions, in this case the Legalist school of government, are reflected in today’s centralized, totalitarian state. True, the party/state has loosened its grip on the day-to-day life of the populace, but absolute power resides in the hands of party leaders from the Beijing to the most remote village.

“Chinese leaders have repeatedly failed to reduce the crippling costs of the Party bureaucracy because they remain so completely dependent upon it.”

But what about the much-heralded legal reforms that have been introduced in the past few years as China has sought to gain legitimacy in the world and adhere, at least outwardly to international standards? Becker acknowledges these, but concludes that the system of incarceration without trial, beating, torture, and extensive use of the death penalty will not change “Until there is a change in the status of the Party and its officials.”

Since 1989, indeed, the secret security organizations have grown dramatically, with between 9 and 21 million members. In Beijing, perhaps one in four party/government officials work for this police-state apparatus. “The establishment of a working system of justice depends on the willingness of China’s rulers to dismantle this oppressive machinery and relinquish their privileges, power and wealth.”

And how soon will that happen? Not very soon, according to the author, for a Party that cannot police itself rules over an empire that continues to expand, to the immense pride of citizens of all classes. More than a billion people are “susceptible to the dream of restoring China’s imperial greatness,” and will not quickly oppose a government which pursues that dream and which crushes any dissent.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the success of democracy on Taiwan, China’s leaders refuse to admit the possibility of real elections for the Mainland, and seek actively to grasp that island in China’s iron grip. “China’s future is in the hands of a group who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo,” so we should not expect rapid change.

His prognosis:

“The weight of over two thousand years of history is not easily thrown aside. In all likelihood a powerful centralized state bureaucracy will continue to govern China. A tiny elite will remain in charge of the destiny of the vast majority of submissive, relatively poor and ill-educated peasants. China will remain an essentially agrarian and autarkic economy in which living standards for all but the elite will improve only slowly. Vast disparities in wealth and status, which have always existed, will increase.”

Still, the example of the Nationalist Party (KMT) in Taiwan leads Becker to a very tentative positive conclusion: “The mainland may slowly and haltingly move to reform itself along the path pioneered by the KMT. The next decade may prove to be a decisive turning-point in Chinese history.” Maybe there is hope.