Spreading Tinder over Dry Scrub

John Gittings

  • One China, Many Paths edited by Wang Chaohua
    Verso, 368 pp, £20.00, November 2003, ISBN 1 85984 537 1

The newsagent at the end of my lane in Shanghai always sold out of Nanfang Zhoumo (‘Southern Weekend’) within hours. For those reporting on China, this famous – and to the Communist Party leadership, maddening – investigative weekly published in Guangzhou was, and still is, essential reading. One week it might contain a serious discussion on the death penalty, the next a critique of the restrictions imposed on migrant workers, or an exposé of the penetration of the China market by US agribusiness. None of these topics is explicitly forbidden, but they are all sensitive subjects that the Communist Party prefers not to air.

Other Chinese magazines and papers also carry riveting articles, although less regularly and with less risk to their editors’ careers. There was always at least one good piece in the Xinmin Weekly, published by the Shanghai media group, whose tabloid Xinmin Evening News was also much more popular than the Party broadsheet. I remember one cover story on the computer junk trade which described Chinese peasants breathing in toxic fumes as they dismantled mountains of VDUs and motherboards shipped in from abroad. A second story exposed a mining disaster: the owner had bribed local officials to cover up the death toll and had dumped the victims’ bodies in a ditch.

Another source of ideas during my time in Shanghai between 2001 and 2003 was a new environmental group whose meetings were called ‘tea parties’ so as not to alarm the authorities. One of the first speakers was Li Changping, an outspoken campaigner against the crippling taxes imposed on poor rural communities. Li runs his own website called ‘Friends of the Farmer’, which has links to a dozen other sites concerned with China’s social and economic problems. Liang Congjie, the founder of China’s Friends of Nature (and the son of a famous architect who protested in the 1950s against the destruction of old Beijing), spoke at another tea party. Friends of Nature was one of the first Chinese NGOs – a term that would have sounded absurd only a few years ago – and such groups now deal with a range of sensitive issues from the environment to Aids.

There is far more argument and debate in China today, much of it challenging to Party orthodoxy, than the headlines of Western news stories reporting the latest ‘crackdown on dissent’ would suggest. The climate varies according to the political situation (don’t mention anything controversial – certainly not Sars – during the run-up to the annual National People’s Congress) and the choice of medium: the internet is freer than print journalism because the ‘old fellows’ at the top don’t know how to access the web. A number of subjects – anything about Tiananmen Square or the more recent suppression of the Falun Gong – remain out of bounds and those who transgress are punished harshly by the unreformed power of the ‘organs of state’.

Yet the issues which lie behind these forbidden topics – democracy versus political stability, freedom of expression against Party conformity – form part of an active debate in which thousands of intellectuals are asking the question that has preoccupied Nationalists and Communists alike for the past century: where is China heading? Very little of this debate has reached the outside world, which is much less interested than it used to be in China’s development. In the 1980s, as the country emerged from Maoism, we still asked questions about the future of Chinese socialism. Then, after the trauma of 1989, Deng Xiaoping got China moving again by declaring that isms no longer mattered, only economic reform. As China embraced the global economy and adopted the values of an emerging pan-Asian consumerist society, we stopped asking where it was heading, because the answer seemed obvious.

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