China’s Crisis

Mark Elvin

  • The Dragon’s Brood: Conversations with Young Chinese by David Rice
    HarperCollins, 294 pp, £16.99, April 1992, ISBN 0 246 13809 2
  • Time for telling truth is running out by Vera Schwarcz
    Yale, 256 pp, £20.00, April 1992, ISBN 0 300 05009 7
  • The Tyranny of History: The Roots of China’s Crisis by W.F.J. Jenner
    Allen Lane, 255 pp, £18.99, March 1992, ISBN 0 7139 9060 0
  • Beyond the Chinese Face: Insights from Psychology by Michael Harris Bond
    Oxford, 125 pp, £8.95, February 1992, ISBN 0 19 585116 1
  • Chinese Communism by Dick Wilson and Matthew Grenier
    Paladin, 190 pp, £5.99, May 1992, ISBN 0 586 09024 X

In less than a hundred years, the Chinese have lost two systems of belief. During the first quarter of the present century they rejected Confucianism or, more precisely, scriptural Confucianism as opposed to habits of mind often given the ‘Confucian’ label. And at the beginning of the last quarter of this century, Maoist Communism ceased to be credible. It is not surprising, therefore, that a complex confusion about morals, world-views and the purposes of life now reigns in the thinking stratum of Chinese society, especially among the young. David Rice’s Dragon’s Brood is a marvellously fresh and immediate evocation of this confusion at what one might call the first level of perception – that of the serious visit. Rice is innocent of any real knowledge of Chinese culture or Chinese history, and has to work through an interpreter, but he has a good journalist’s sense of the core of a human character, and a gift for asking questions. He has not been deceived by the usual stage props, and he persuades his informants to say blunt, even brutal, things. ‘I could tell people enjoyed seeing the men killed,’ says one of a political execution. ‘In all our institutions, never forget there is a double tier of existence – one written down, and the other one, the things that really happen,’ says another. Above all, Rice presents conflicting views and avoids peddling a single line of interpretation. In spite of its apparent superficiality, his book achieves real depth.

China first appears in his pages as an emotional black hole. The author’s Chinese friends tell him, for example, that ‘envy, or rather the fear of envy ... is poisoning China.’ And that ‘the deterioration lies everywhere – in the culture, in the people who carry that culture.’ ‘The crux’ is how to make use ‘of the talents of our people here at home. There is a ... drive ... to learn and improve, but the energy has dissipated in internal attrition.’ ‘We have lost our spirit of enquiry, our spirit of freedom.’ ‘What we say is not real.’ ‘People simply do not trust each other any more.’ ‘With a billion people around you, you cannot be close to any of them.’ The leaders ‘think that China is their property ... No one has the right to speak or express different opinions.’ ‘You have to be paralysed and cynical if you want to survive.’ ‘The young generation are dying the whole time ... They’ve given up on everything ... Ninety-nine per cent of my friends have died like that.’ ‘The individuals of our ruling class’ have made ‘society sacrifice itself for them’. ‘We feel pain every minute of the day’ – at the lack of democracy – ‘and it’s worse than the pain of hunger. Democracy here is on the same level [of necessity] as the food we eat.’ And, on Tiananmen: ‘The young student leaders wanted prominence for themselves: their personal ambitions were detrimental to the movement as a whole.’ So the quotations pile up. Enough, one would think, to persuade anyone who still harbours illusions about the place that there is something seriously wrong.

A closer look, however, shows a multitude of sprouts of hope. There is defiance: the Chinese ‘are not slaves, as the Government wants them to be’. There are escape routes: ‘During the last forty years what we suffered most was the loss of normal emotional human life. That’s why music about love has become so popular.’ Rice himself comments on the youngest generation of adults that ‘a sense of beauty has not yet been beaten out of them,’ and that ‘seemingly against all reason, there are young Chinese who devote themselves to caring for others ... Generosity is alive and well in China, and so is sheer downright goodness.’ Rice noted ‘caring attitudes’ particularly in the medical and teaching professions. One of his informants declared to him, unconsciously echoing the old ideal of the Three Imperishable Things (one’s virtue, achievements and teachings), that ‘I will do worthwhile things, so that even after I die the world will know that this man used to exist.’

The pseudo-sophisticated belief that the Chinese care little about individual or human rights, however difficult these may be to realise in a Chinese context, should not survive a reading of these pages. ‘In my first year at university I felt I was surrounded by people in chains. But occasionally I would read Sartre. I was struck by his theory that to exist in this world means to have thoughts by yourself, and to act according to those thoughts ... And this is what we younger people are doing.’ After Tiananmen, ‘there’s a new solidarity ... betrayal is out.’

Rice’s analyses of Chinese society – or, more exactly, of the urban society of China, because he hardly seems to have ventured into the countryside – are anecdotal, but not lacking in perception. Thus China does not have one ‘generation gap’ he argues, but at least three. The four demographic bands are 1. the Old Guard who made the revolution, 2. the Red Generation, reared under a confidently established Communism, 3. the Grey Generation of the so-called Cultural Revolution, who lost education, health and hope, and 4. the Hopeful Generation of present-day youth. Between each of these there is a gulf in values and perceptions. Again, in the Chinese world, according to one of his informants, there are four ways to get on. There is the Red Way: joining the Party, ‘even if you don’t believe in any of it’, so as to acquire power and privilege. There is the Black Way: becoming an intellectual in the hope of changing things in the longer run. There is the Yellow Way: making money through business. And there is the Green Way: going abroad, especially to the USA (whose green card, entitling the bearer to residence, gives this Way its colour). As Rice himself notes, the relative absence of goods has meant that those with money to spend have used it disproportionately on food and entertainment. One acquaintance told him, ‘dancing, banqueting, having a good time – that’s all there is.’ I should add, however, that a colleague who has recently examined food consumption patterns in Mainland China and Taiwan tells me that this imbalance is now more and more a feature of the past.

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