Jumping Into the Sea

“Be sure to prevent any contact between the barbarians and the population,” the Emperor Qianlong ordered in 1793. This is one of the many pointed epigraphs in China Wakes, and it shows what Chinese rulers knew for centuries: that, for the emperors, it was dangerous for their own people to know about other worlds. It might cause them to doubt, and doubt in China led to disbelief, which could lead to luan, disorder, which is what Chinese rulers today also say is the main enemy.

Soon after the 1989 killings, a Chinese friend of Orville Schell’s referred cynically to the official explanations of critical events such as the Tiananmen killings which many people, and particularly students, were forced to study. (The Tiananmen account was written by Peking Party secretary Chen Xitong, now under house arrest for his deep involvement in the capital’s extensive corruption.) “Perhaps you foreigners don’t understand,” a young woman told Schell, “but we know that they are lying to us, and they know that we are lying to them. In fact, everybody knows that everyone is lying to everyone else. So you might say the system is working just as it’s supposed to.”

* * *

Despite such cynicism, the wish to find out the truth is a very strong one in China today. The writer Dai Qing told Perry Link of Princeton, “There is a tremendous thirst for this [truth] in China. You foreigners, with your free press, will find it hard to understand this great thirst…. To appreciate why Chinese readers can be so interested in one little article, you should imagine living in a dark room with all the shades drawn. If one shade goes up—just a crack—the light that enters is suddenly very interesting. Everyone will rush to look.”1

When Deng Xiaoping’s daughter, Rong, told The New York Times in January that her father, like any normal old man, would eventually die, this apparently so upset the leadership that before long she was obliged to tell an Australian journalist that she may have spoken unclearly, and that really, for a man of his age, her father’s health was not bad. She did not, however, repudiate the rest of the earlier interview, which contained one small and two large allegations threatening President Jiang Zemin, who, in 1989, was designated a “core leader” by Deng and by the rest of the Peking coalition. The statements have to do with the truth.

The small one was that during the Cultural Revolution, Rong’s brother Pufang, after unbearable torment by anti-Deng Red Guards, had written a suicide note and jumped from a window. He was permanently paralyzed from the waist down. For years, even the most skeptical Chinese believed the official story that Pufang had been thrown from a window. This new version was a signal from Ms. Deng that she was telling the truth.

Then came the two sizable threats. One was Rong’s admission that both her father and Mao Zedong were “hot-headed,” and that because of their campaigns in the late Fifties, many innocent people had suffered. This was a reference to the Anti-Rightist movement which claimed more than 400,000 victims, “Rightists” being people who had accepted what they thought was a genuine invitation from Mao to express themselves more freely. Ms. Deng then said that although her father did not regret what had happened on June 4, 1989, after he died there could be a reconciliation with the Tiananmen activists. Such a reconciliation would mean dropping the official story that what happened in Tiananmen was a “counter-revolutionary uprising.” If the official story were discredited, so to some degree would be the reputations of Deng, Premier Li Peng, and the surviving Party grandees who banded together with Deng and Li to order the killings, and of many in the officer corps of the People’s Liberation Army. Ms. Deng has since praised President Jiang as China’s de facto leader since 1990. Her family is nevertheless the central target in Jiang’s anti-corruption drive, which in fact is a disguise for his final campaign for supreme power.

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What actually happened in Tiananmen on June 4 is the centerpiece of both China Wakes and Mandate of Heaven. Kristof and WuDunn were in Peking; Schell had left two weeks before. Kristof and WuDunn, who are married, represented The New York Times in China for five years, and their reporting of the events in the square won them a Pulitzer Prize. Unlike much of their book, which is written in a cute, gushing style, their account of events in the square is vivid but straightforward; and they leave no doubt, if any remains, that many people were killed in the square or nearby.

Kristof writes that he was standing in “the front line” in the square. “A few minutes later, the troops began shooting. At first I wondered if they were firing blanks, but then some people fell to the ground, wounded or dead….” Later, he made two visits to the Xie He hospital (“a bloody mess, with hundreds of injured lying on the floors”). On his second visit, he and WuDunn saw “hundreds of gunshot victims [who] filled every bed and lined the corridors, groaning, shouting deliriously, as their parents and wives and husbands cried over them.”

They think that between four hundred and eight hundred people were killed, most of them not in the square, and note that their estimate is lower than many others. It seems reasonable to me, and I agree with their conclusion that “even 400 is far more than the number of students killed altogether in other such protests over the last century in China.” I don’t agree, however, with their judgment that “On June 4, the Communist Party revealed itself to the public at home and abroad,” a statement that typifies the book’s weakness in historical perspective—to which I will return.

Orville Schell is a China expert and writer who has been visiting China for years and has written many books and articles about it. As it happens, he left Peking after the May 20 declaration of martial law—his description of events up to that point is comprehensive and masterful—so his account of the night of June 3-4 is broader than that in China Wakes because it is based on other people’s experiences.

Plenty of these (like my own) included seeing people killed in the square, and while Schell also says that most killing took place elsewhere, he writes that to argue about how many or exactly how to define the square proper “will only serve to distract attention from the undeniable slaughter that took place elsewhere in the city.” He puts the dead at “untold hundreds, possibly thousands,” and makes a judgment far more apt than the one in China Wakes, showing the advantage of Schell’s long experience, both in China and in studying its history. The massacre, Schell concludes, “put a violent end to the beguiling fantasy of many Chinese that their country was finally on the verge of becoming a democratic state.”

* * *

At the very end of China Wakes the authors recall the advice of their editor at The New York Times, Abe Rosenthal: “Don’t pay attention to what has been written before you. Just go out there and write what you see and hear.” They took this obscurantist advice and it shows. They were young and energetic and some of their stories tell us a lot about China. But they say repeatedly how astonished they were to find out elementary facts, for example, that Chinese women are discriminated against, that Chinese intellectuals believe that the Party, over the long run, has lied a great deal and has been very harmful, that there is enormous corruption, and that peasants are resentful. At one point Kristof describes his “excitement” in finding a single book, Mancur Olson’s The Rise and Decline of Nations, that helps to explain China’s economic “sclerosis.” I find it astonishing that they took Rosenthal’s advice, in view of their own university training, about which they tell us in detail (together with many other personal matters, including past romances, what they wear, and how Nick proposed to the “terrific” Sheryl).

It should not be necessary to say that correspondents getting ready for a long assignment such as five years in Peking should read not only the files of their own papers but also some of the principal academic and professional studies about their new post. If the authors had done this—from their footnotes it appears they did some research preparing for the book under review—and had bothered to read Fox Butterfield’s China: Alive in the Bitter Sea, about his years, beginning in 1979, reporting on China for The New York Times, they would have saved themselves and us much of their continual surprise, and they would have been able to analyze better what they have seen.

Ms. WuDunn, who visited her ancestral home, where she became angry at how her forebears treated women, says that after she had been in the country a while, “something, I decided, was wrong with the picture of Communist equality I had initially absorbed…. What ever happened to Mao’s belief in equality?” Some knowledge of the many books on women in China, Butterfield’s chapter on women, which observes that “China is still a man’s world,”2 and the studies of Mao’s coarse attitudes toward women, already a matter of published concern in his guerrilla days, would have spared her readers her account of disillusion.

Alas, Ms. WuDunn can also sound sophomoric, as when she writes, “Being groped by Minister Lin was not one of my most pleasant moments in China,” and “I decided to poke around the Chinese bedroom a bit. OK, perhaps it was partly prurience on my part.” Yet Ms. WuDunn can write perceptively. She sees that a disaster faces China if its population continues to grow at its present rate, but she hates the brutal enforcement of the one-child family policy. She and her husband also write tellingly about the millions of “missing women” in China. In Guizhou province she met a man who had no marriage license and two children. Ten officials came to his house at one o’clock in the morning to punish him for this breach of policy. They seized his washbasin and his television set, and “confiscated the coffin and funeral clothes he had prepared for his aging mother, to be used when she dies. But there was nothing he could do: ‘If you don’t let them take your things, you’ll just get beaten.’ ”

Kristof, too, cannot resist wisecracks, even when writing about Tiananmen: in a footnote he tells us, “I livened up my expense account with the following claim: ‘$81, to purchase a new Forever-brand bicycle to replace one possibly crushed by tank.’ ”

Such adolescent-sounding jibes were absent from the accounts these authors published in the Times. Rereading their stories, I found them to be models of reporting and analysis, and the same can be said for parts of China Wakes. In a passage on Peking’s investment in “human capital,” Kristof argues convincingly that “the Chinese medical system is in many ways a model for developing countries.” In mortality, live births, and life expectancy, he tells us, its health statistics are on a par with those of first world countries. Babies born in Shanghai can expect to reach 76; in New York they die at 73.8, and a Shanghai child has a better chance of learning to read than one in New York. The Chinese, Kristof says, are careful with their resources. It costs $5,000 to treat a leukemia patient, who may gain a month’s life. But $5,000 spent on vitamin A adds ten thousand years to the life expectancies of the children who get the supplement.

* * *

The authors of China Wakes seem to have difficulty interpreting what they saw in China, and this is no bad thing. They cannot make up their minds about where China is going, although they reported on much that was terrible and were attacked for this by an official at what must have been one of the gloomier goodbye dinners of all time. They express a cautiously optimistic view that sounds as if it was diplomatically tacked on to the book. “Sheryl and I began to feel that perhaps China was not such a bad place after all. Sure, we still thought our obnoxious Foreign Ministry handler, Zhao Xingmin, could best be employed as kindling. But overall we began to feel that the Middle Kingdom had real possibilities.”

The examples they give of people who, in their opinion, represent hope for China seem to me vulgar and money-crazed. One is the writer Wang Shuo. “Huh? Never heard of him?” Ms. WuDunn bouncily asks. Wang “is a Chinese version of Jack Kerouac,” she tells us, who

turns hoodlums into heroes, he colors his dialogue with curses, and he writes about sex, alienation, and failure as perfectly normal things. Wang has become one of China’s most popular, provocative, influential, and seductive writers, churning out words with a fury—novels, short stories, detective stories, film scripts, love stories, television dramas, even songs.

He told Ms. WuDunn, “I want to become famous…. I want to be mother-fucking famous till I’m dizzy.” More specifically he told her he expects to be China’s first winner of the Nobel Prize for literature. The hard-liners, according to Ms. WuDunn, can’t deal with Wang; they “fuss and harrumph, but harrumphing isn’t enough.” More and more writers like Wang Shuo, she says, are to be found in China. Why this is a good thing isn’t clear. Orville Schell, for his part, sees nothing to admire about Wang. His coarse and facile writings speak, Schell writes, for China’s liumang, young hoodlums, who are “far more estranged than the student activists of 1989.” Kristof and WuDunn admire Wang for saying things like “I can’t stand people with a sense of mission.”

Schell is uneasy about the future of China if such people are taken as models now and may perhaps become leaders later. When the Party wants to shut up a writer whom it considers dangerous it does so quickly and pays no attention to foreign protests, which are dismissed as foreign “intervention in Chinese sovereignty.” Most leading political reformists are now in jail or in exile, or they have become corrupted by the opportunities to make quick money. Schell foresees that an opposition to Party rule may emerge but that it is likely to be “a far more inchoate and potentially destabilizing urban opposition—what some China scholars have begun to describe as ‘uncivil society.’ ”

* * *

Although Kristof describes China as “a fascist country led by a Communist Party,” and as engulfed in “Market-Leninism”—which strikes me as a brilliant phrase—he and his wife believe that “the most likely scenario for China is the kind of gradual ‘peaceful evolution’ that the Chinese leadership warns against. There is a real chance that China will be able to sustain its economic miracle and create a political one as well.

This seems optimistic; we read almost daily in the Hong Kong press of a crisis among the top China leaders, and also about discontent and disorder among peasants and workers, galloping inflation, and deepening foreign doubts about whether the Chinese miracle is much of a miracle. The Hong Kong investment houses currently suing their Chinese partners in foreign courts for hundreds of millions of dollars in unpaid debts no longer are so sure about the miracle. This February, The Asian Wall Street Journal reported the collapse of investors’ faith in Tsingtao beer, “China’s most internationally recognized brand name.” Its prospects “have gone as flat as a glass of stale beer,”3 partly because of customers’ unpaid bills.

Kristof’s hopeful view is a plausible and respectable one, especially if it is taken to apply to the next ten years or so. But it seems equally likely that for some time China will continue to flounder between state control and a let-it-rip market, with some people becoming very rich and many very poor and enraged, while civic consciousness disintegrates and is replaced by the hoodlum culture of men like Wang Shuo.

* * *

Schell’s book covers much the same time in China as Kristof and WuDunn’s, from the late 1980s to early 1990s, and while he has fewer stories to tell, his analysis is usually more mature, based on many years of reporting during which he has been revising his views, from being generally pro-Mao to his present pessimism. And although Schell’s ties to China are longstanding and are deepened by having a Chinese wife, he doesn’t impose his immediate reactions to each experience on the reader. Unlike the authors of China Wakes, Schell lets us assume that he has his own discreet feelings.

A central example is his remarkable reunion in the American embassy in Peking with the famous physicists Fang Lizhi and his wife Li Shuxian. They had been model students and Party members when they married in the Fifties, but they were punished repeatedly in the purges of the late Fifties and during the Cultural Revolution. Rehabilitated after Mao’s death, they resumed their high academic posts, but during the Eighties they both spoke out with increasing boldness in favor of democracy and eventually against the Party. In this period Fang became known as “our Sakharov” to many Chinese and as a “black hand” to the authorities. After Tiananmen, when he was named as a major criminal, Fang and Shu were sheltered for a year in the American embassy before they were allowed to leave for the US.

Schell knew Fang and his wife well, and he describes his efforts to see them. First he played a cat-and-mouse game with someone he took to be a CIA man, and eventually he was allowed to meet with US Ambassador James Lilley. Lilley, he was told, was afraid the Chinese would storm the embassy to extract Fang and Shu. If this happened, then the sensitive negotiations about what to do with the celebrated physicist, who had just received the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center’s annual human rights award in absentia, might break down. When he went to Lilley’s office, Schell was ushered through a small door behind his desk

into a cavernous, windowless room in which there was a smaller, freestanding, clear-plastic-walled room glowing in the dark. This was the embassy’s bugproof and soundproof safe room…It was not until we were safely locked inside the transparent inner chamber that Lilley finally greeted me.

Schell was finally brought into a little house in the embassy compound where the CIA man “tapped on an inside door in what seemed to be a code….suddenly there were Fang Lizhi and Li Shuxian.” They lived in almost complete isolation for a year. Fang worked on his Chinese-English word processor, the CIA man brought them food and clothing, and, in his briefcase, things to read; all waste and garbage had also to be smuggled out. Fang told Schell, “I am an astrophysicist who cannot see the stars.”

* * *

This could be taken as a metaphor for what has happened in China since Tiananmen. Many Chinese have lost touch with what really matters to them, or rather they have been forced to be out of touch and are being pointed in other directions. A friend of Schell’s says that after “the Beijing massacre destroyed hopes for political reform, most of them just dropped out of politics and went into business.” As Schell puts it, “From the Party’s perspective, making money was the perfect palliative for political malaise.” Everything is expendable “except the Party’s right to rule unilaterally.”

What the Chinese call xiahai—“jumping into the sea” in order to make money—is a phrase one hears again and again about people who once seemed the hope of China: a thoughtful academic, a poet, or an exdissident. That xiahai is a form of despair, of hopelessness about social or political change, is rarely mentioned. As another of Schell’s friends told him, everyone knows the game, and part of it is that virtually anything that makes money is now admired or at least wearily accepted. Not long ago an investment corporation in Hong Kong that traded in China became the first company ever condemned, on grounds of fraud and mismanagement, to dissolution by the Hong Kong Securities and Futures Commission. Although the company is Hong Kong-based, its chairman, who was appointed to gain access to Chinese deals, was a son of Yao Yilin, a retired member of the ruling seven-member Standing Committee of the Politburo (he died in March). Young Yao has now returned to Peking. I asked a retired Peking official whether it would embarrass Yao that his company had been publicly humiliated in Hong Kong. He laughed. “Of course not. Everyone knows he got paid a lot of American dollars to front the company and that he’ll just have to stay out of Hong Kong for a while.”

In his Evening Chats in Beijing, Perry Link quotes a sociologist whose description of the situation in China seems to me the most acute of all: “We’re like a big fish that has been pulled from the water and is flopping wildly to find its way back in. In such a condition the fish never asks where the next flip or flop will bring it. It senses only that its present position is intolerable and that something else must be tried.”4

  1. Perry Link, Evening Chats in Beijing(Norton, 1992), p. 148.
  2. Fox Butterfield, China: Alive in the Bitter Sea (Times Books, 1982), p. 165.
  3. The Asian Wall Street Journal, February 13, 1995, p. 9.
  4. Evening Chats, p. 163.