China: Richer but Repressed

The “Totems” photography series, by Alain Delorme, offers a digitally enhanced view of Shanghai’s streets. Alain Delorme

After the fall of the other big communist powers, how has the People's Republic of China survived? More pointedly, how did China's regime emerge, seemingly all-powerful, from the 1989 Tiananmen Square killings and similar events in more than 300 other cities?

Certain anecdotes lend some clarity to the question.

British Prime Minister David Cameron and his entourage were about to enter Beijing's Great Hall of the People on Nov. 9, 2010, when a Chinese official asked them to remove red poppies from their lapels. These poppies are worn by millions of Britons every November to mark the deaths of British servicemen in battles reaching back to World War I. The official explained that such poppies would remind Chinese of the humiliations China endured during the Opium Wars of the mid- 19th century. Cameron kept his poppy where it was.

In no other country would an official have made such a request of a visiting prime minister—or been so badly briefed on the significance of the iconic red paper poppy.

In June 2011, Cameron received Premier Wen Jiabao in London and at their joint press conference quoted an aphorism attributed to Deng Xiaoping: "What difference does it make whether a cat is black or white as long as it catches mice?" He was answering a reporter's question about why Britain didn't build a high-speed bullet train itself, instead of possibly buying a Chinese version. When Cameron was asked about human-rights discussions, he replied that they were confidential.

Cameron could not have known, of course, that on July 23 a Chinese bullet train would be involved in one of the worst rail crashes in recent Chinese history, killing at least 40 people. Within eight hours, search-and-rescue efforts ended and at least one of the train cars was buried. By the end of the week, all media were ordered to avoid the issue to stop the anger and questions that had been flooding newspapers, television, and the Internet. The premier, in his role as kindly "Uncle Wen," eventually visited the scene. Asked by reporters why the crash evidence had been buried, Wen replied, "It is for the people."

What we have here are two images. There is the superdynamic China, with cash reserves that mesmerize world leaders, a nation that manufactures cheap goods to swamp Western supermarkets and department stores. The other China is the one where leaders can, in every sense, bury their problems.

Nowadays, Chinese can speak their minds—but not write what is in them without taking tremendous risks. Deep social dislocations offer little hope, unless just being richer is enough. Corruption pervades every aspect of life; bribes are required even for the humblest services. Education offers a meticulously doctored version of the past; nowadays, Chinese students at leading Western universities often refer to Tiananmen as a "riot" and comment that the government did well to put it down. At Oxford they picketed the "criminal" Dalai Lama. Many Chinese are richer than they were two decades ago, and some Westerners admire the new mega-rich. Liu Xiaobo, last year's Nobel Peace Prize winner, now serving an 11-year prison sentence, knows them: "A number of acquaintances of mine from the days of the 1989 demonstrations went into business and got rich after the massacre ... they speak expansively of the great affairs of the world and enumerate the ways in which their moneymaking is good for Chinese society."

Recent studies probe these matters. Mao's Invisible Hand, edited by Sebastian Heilmann and Elizabeth J. Perry, shows that two of Mao's "guerrilla" policies still animate his successors: endless experimentation, both local and national; and abandoning what doesn't work to zero in on what does. It was this flexibility that enabled Mao to survive and win after 30 years of struggle against Chiang Kai-shek. Throughout Mao's guerrilla decades, the study insists, lay his determination to suppress heterodoxy and deem as enemies even the most modest of critics. In The People's Republic of China at Sixty, edited by William C. Kirby, one contributor writes, "A fundamental distinction needed always to be made between 'us' or 'the people' and 'them' ... enemies of the people." The crucial question: "How to determine who is an enemy?"

Readers of serious media know that the Chinese Communist Party persecutes its enemies. The artist Ai Weiwei, an outspoken critic of the government, was detained in a secret location for 81 days on unspecified charges and was handed a $2 million tax bill. Liu Xiaobo was charged with attempting to "subvert the state" by calling for democracy and free speech, the latter almost more important because, as Liu maintained at his trial, "words should not be crimes." Beijing cowed 17 ambassadors into staying away from Liu's Nobel ceremony.

Sooner than almost anyone thinks, China's 'Renminbi Rules' slogan could become a reality outside China.

Far less notorious are the cases of Chen Guangcheng and Wang Yi. Chen, a blind self-taught lawyer, campaigned against forced sterilization and abortion. He also supported peasants in their disputes with local officials. Now under virtual house arrest with his wife, Chen has become a hero to hundreds of people from all over China who attempt to visit him. None has made it; local police and thugs invariably arrest them or beat them up. Wang, who was recently released after a year's Reform Through Labor sentence and who also remains under house arrest, was detained for "disturbing social order"—that is, investigating a dubious suicide, enforced abortions, and tainted-milk scandals. Wang remains determined: "In the past, I appealed on behalf of others and fought for their rights. From today forward, I will continue to do rights defense work and I will demand justice for myself. I do not fear jail. What I fear is remaining silent when others encounter unfairness and injustice."

Jerome Cohen, a leading authority on Chinese law, has observed that it's "open season" on lawyers and other activists "unwise enough to become involved in human rights, criminal justice, and controversial public-interest cases ... They risk informal warnings, 24/7 monitoring, interference with client and law-firm relations, loss of their right to practice, hooded abductions, beatings, torture, 'thought reform,' coerced 'confessions' and 'guarantees,' criminal prosecution, imprisonment, and incommunicado incarceration at home."

Even less well known than the depredations against Chinese human-rights champions is the assault on the country's girls. In her recent Cultivating Global Citizens: Population in the Rise of China, Harvard's Susan Greenhalgh describes how Beijing's eugenics-fueled drive to "improve" the quality of children targets "rural residents, rural migrants to the cities, women, minorities, and those with substandard bodies" as well as "deviants, such as gays, gay couples, and unmarried couples. Some 'low-quality' citizens (such as women) have been targeted for energetic, state-sponsored improvement campaigns, while others (rural people for example) have been essentially abandoned as useless to the modernization effort." The result is that in many parts of China there are 120 or more boys for every 100 girls, and recent reports have exposed—to the alarm of Western families who adopt Chinese infants—official and semiofficial abductions of baby girls to sell to eager foreign parents. Greenhalgh is not the only China specialist to point out that such policies widen the chasms between China's city and country, Han and non-Han ethnic populations, and, of course, men and women. As Xinran, an authority on population drives, has observed, even urban, well-educated women feel like failures if they become pregnant with a girl in a country where, for the most part, only single children are permitted. If the girl is lucky enough to live and be adopted abroad, a woman told Xinran, "it leaves a black hole in the mother's heart and unanswered questions in the daughter's."

The study One Country, Two Societies: Rural-Urban Inequality in Contemporary China, edited by Martin King Whyte, begins with this cataclysmic sentence: "It is now clear that the revolution led by Mao Zedong, which has conventionally been seen as dedicated to creating a more egalitarian social order, in actual practice created something very much akin to serfdom for the majority of Chinese citizens—the more than 80 percent of the population residing in rural villages who were effectively bound to the soil." To a great extent this continues. As one contributor writes, "Since the 1980s the most dynamic growth in the economy has been in urban areas and the income gap between rural and urban residents has widened once again—to levels that are unusually large compared to other societies."

Where is hope in all this? Initially signed by 300 people, Charter 08, the principal evidence against Liu Xiaobo, eventually attracted thousands of signatures and is a symbol of hope for many Chinese. The charter's words helped Liu get China's first-ever Nobel Prize and made him one of only five peace laureates ever unable to appear in Oslo for the ceremony.

Here are the some "criminal words" from the charter:

FREEDOM: Freedom is at the core of universal human values. Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, freedom of association, freedom in where to live, and the freedoms to strike, to demonstrate, and to protest, among others, are the forms that freedom takes. Without freedom, China will always remain far from civilized ideals.

HUMAN RIGHTS: Human rights are not bestowed by a state. Every person is born with inherent rights to dignity and freedom. The government exists for the protection of the human rights of its citizens.

The charter is a blaze of light. Despite what Liu calls the regime's last instrument from the Mao-era toolbag, the repression of heterodox views, we can see yet brighter shafts in simple acts: for example, the thousands of Chinese who sent money to Ai Weiwei to help him pay his punitive tax bill. A still brighter hope is the hundreds of Chinese who have tried, vainly but heroically, to reach Chen Guangcheng, the isolated but increasingly celebrated blind human-rights lawyer. This is hope with Chinese characteristics.

This essay was published in Newsweek International's Special Edition, 'Issues 2012,' on sale from December 2011-February 2012.