Interesting times: the stakes are very high in China's latest gamble

Jean-Pierre Lehmann
18 June 2002

Fantasy figures
"Piao Xing" (1997), Oil on canvas by Li Dapeng born in 1963 in Hebei Province. Please see link

“We really cannot afford to fuck up this time.” These were the parting words from a close Chinese friend after a fascinating and moving dinner in Beijing on 4 June 2002, the thirteenth anniversary of the Tienanmen massacre. There were two Chinese couples, each with an eight-year-old daughter, and my wife and myself.

Though China is becoming more pluralistic, like any dictatorship it remains paranoid and unpredictable. So, to disguise the identities of my dinner companions I shall call them Mr A and family, and Mr B and family.

A and B, both approaching 50, have known each other for years. Both spent their early adolescence in the countryside, sent down with their families from the cities where they were born and raised during the Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s. Their first occupation was that of farmers. When the Cultural Revolution ended, Mao died and Deng Xiaoping introduced his programme of reforms in the late 1970s, they were rehabilitated.

Both entered university – one to study literature, the other economics – when the criterion for admission changed. Under the Cultural Revolution, as the slogan had it, it was “better to be red than expert”. All who attended university in the 1960s and early 1970s, unless they have undergone remedial courses subsequently, are the pretty useless members of the lost generation. A and B mark the beginning of the new generation.

Two friends, two experiences

After having completed their undergraduate studies, both were sent to a top-notch American Ivy League university to do postgraduate work. They returned to China in the mid 1980s, and took on junior academic posts. They became active in the political ferment that was sweeping across urban China, especially university campuses, which culminated in the massacre referred to in the West as Tienanmen and in China as 4 June.

B, more radical than A, went underground and fled. He made it to Hong Kong, then to France, where he was granted a French passport. His girlfriend was able to join him some eighteen months later. They married in France and then left for the US, where both obtained posts in the Chinese departments of leading American universities. Their daughter was born in the US and now all three have American citizenship. As well as being a professor, B is an author and has published a historical novel that has not yet been translated from Chinese into any foreign language, cannot be sold in China, but is doing well in Taiwan.

This was the first time the B family had returned to China since their escape. For their daughter, it was, of course, the first time in her life. The daughter speaks English, but also Chinese, as that is the language spoken at home; she attends a Chinese Sunday school. The B family does not intend to return to live in China. When discussion turned to the property boom in Beijing and how more and more couples from the emerging middle classes are buying their own homes and apartments, I asked B if he was not tempted. He responded, chuckling, that he could not afford it.

This was not the first time A and B had seen each other since June 4th 1989. A goes quite frequently to the US, often with his family, and they have kept up close contact with B, as well as with other friends from the 4 June diaspora. The one thing that virtually all their circle of friends has in common, whether the exiles or those who stayed, is that they have been quite successful. They are part of an intellectual elite.

A managed to stay. Apart from those who fled the country, no academic lost his job after 4 June. Of course, it was necessary to lie low for a while. For A, the experience of June 4th was something like war or an invasion – though perpetrated not by foreigners, but by Chinese. Maybe, he says, the period after 4 June was a bit like what French intellectuals experienced under the Vichy regime during the Second World War. In any case, within a couple of years the Chinese economic locomotive was back at full throttle and Deng intensified his economic reform programme. In the ensuing decade, the pace of change has been mind-boggling.

gods of wealth
The gods of wealth enter the home from everywhere. Wealth, treasures, and peace beckon, New Year Prin, 1993. Taken, with gracious permission of the author, from Stefan Landsberger's Chinese Propaganda Poster Pages.

China’s economy has been the world’s fastest growing economy undergoing structural change and development simultaneously. The private sector especially has boomed. Poverty has been eradicated on a scale totally unprecedented in the annals of history. China’s competitive advantage lies not only in shoes, bicycles, toys and textiles, but increasingly in high-tech products such as semiconductors, electronics, automotive parts and computers. Domestic consumption is booming. In a society not long ago sartorially homogenised in drab Mao suits, today every form of dress and hairdo can be seen in the streets of Beijing, Tianjin, Guangzhou, Shanghai or Xiamen. For eating, Beijing and Shanghai offer as much diversity as New York or Paris. What has occurred in the last decade is arguably the most spectacular ‘revolution’ the world has ever witnessed.

In the early 21st century, China’s entry into the limelight of the world stage will proceed like a parade. It is increasingly a central global business hub. It has joined the World Trade Organisation (WTO). It is by far Asia’s biggest tourist destination. It is the venue of numerous international conferences. In 2002, China’s football team played in the soccer World Cup for the first time. Equally important, Chinese fans were able to fly to South Korea to cheer their team. Another first this year was that China had a candidate in the Miss Universe contest (Miss Shanghai won third place!). There will be many more spectacular changes between now and the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

As one of the architects of economic reform, A has been very much part of this revolution. He remains, however, very cautious. What has taken place during the last decade is, in many respects, simply the result of “taking off the lid on the Chinese
entrepreneurial pressure cooker”. What Mao stifled, Deng ‘un-stifled’ and Jiang Zemin has continued in the same vein.

What has occurred in the last decade is arguably the most spectacular revolution the world has ever witnessed.

Today, China has one of the developing world’s most business-friendly governments. It is far easier to set up a business in communist China than it is in democratic India. This explains the difference in the GDP growth rates of the two countries and, much more starkly, the difference in foreign direct investments (FDI) generated by the Overseas Chinese to China and that of the non-resident Indians (NRI) to India: the former is in the tens of billions of Euros, the latter hardly reaches four billion.

But, but, but. For one thing, A warns, outside capitalist booming enclaves such as Shanghai, Beijing and Tianjin, China remains poor and backward. China’s entry into the WTO will further weaken the state-owned enterprises (SOEs), whose share of the GDP is rapidly declining, but whose share of the urban labour force remains high. Also, entry into the WTO will especially affect agriculture, still the source of employment for 70% of the labour force. Over the next few decades, China is expected to see the urbanisation of about 400 million peasants! Jobs will need to be created. Already there is a good deal of social unrest. It could degenerate. The first decade has been spectacular; the next five decades need to be equally so.

map of china
West on Top: one of the first European Maps of China, 1584. Click for whole pdf image

Equally imperative and urgent, argues A, is institutional and governmental reform. The Chinese Communist Party is fundamentally a ruling elite with extensive vested interests intent on self-preservation. It is a relatively broad church, encompassing a spectrum extending from hard-line conservatives to liberals. The decision recently to open its ranks to wealthy entrepreneurs is interesting, and will no doubt be seen as a milestone, though it is not yet clear a milestone to what? In any case, the challenges lying ahead are formidable. There will be the need to manage, on the one hand, internal pressures and dynamics, and on the other its external visibility and growing regional and international role.

A fuck up would indeed be extremely costly, though on the basis of precedence it cannot be entirely dismissed.

China in the mirror of history

Beijing is probably the world’s most impressive capital. The razzamatazz of the early 21st century notwithstanding, one is frequently, indeed incessantly, reminded of China’s 8000 years of history. There are other great cities in China, but Beijing can be said to represent Rome, Madrid, Paris, Vienna, Berlin, St Petersburg and London all rolled into one. There can be absolutely no doubt of China’s gloriously illustrious distant past. On the other hand, its more recent past – the last two hundred years or so – has been a series of unmitigated disasters. In a nutshell, China’s great problem has been its inability, at least until recently, to carry out reform in order to adjust to modern times.

From the late 1700s until 1949 China was in a state of constant endemic peasant rebellions and frequent civil wars as well as incessant foreign wars, invasions and humiliations.

For the Middle Kingdom, the centre of civilisation, the great shock of the early 19th century was that it was no longer calling the shots. When the Western powers arrived, propelled by the industrial revolution, China’s ruling class, composed of the Emperor and literate mandarinate, above all sought to preserve Chinese culture, traditions and, needless to say, their privileges and prerogatives. In the meantime, however, internal social, demographic and economic conditions were rapidly deteriorating. From the late 1700s until 1949, China was in a state of constant endemic peasant rebellions and frequent civil wars. It was also subjected to an incessant series of foreign wars, invasions and humiliations, culminating in the horrific violations perpetrated by the Japanese from 1937 to 1945.

Revisiting the Summer Palace in Beijing is instructive on three fronts. The first is simply a reminder, yet again, of the immense majesty and eclecticism of China’s classical architecture. The power and the glory are manifest, but so is the capacity to capture an extraordinary degree of serenity, notably in the somewhat out-of-the-way Temple of Harmonious Pleasures. The second is a forceful reminder of the barbaric brutality of Western imperialism in China. As every schoolchild in China knows, in the course of the Second Opium Wars, in 1860 Anglo-French troops invaded Beijing and sacked, indeed totally destroyed, the Summer Palace. This remains, to my knowledge, the most heinous act of wanton cultural vandalism in the modern era.

Among the more flagrant displays of extreme luxury at the restored Summer Palace is the entirely marble boat moored at the lakeshore.

The third is equally instructive. The Empress Dowager, furious at the destruction of the Summer Palace, was determined to have it restored. To the lasting gratitude of art historians and lovers, tourists, and possibly Beijingese, she succeeded in doing so, at least to a considerable extent. But it cost a fortune. Among the more flagrant displays of extreme luxury is the entirely marble boat moored at the lakeshore. For the marble boat to float, however, the Chinese Imperial Navy had to sink. In fact, short on funds, the Empress Dowager had the money that was supposed to be allocated to the modernisation of China’s navy embezzled. When war broke out with Japan in 1894, shortly after the completed restoration of the Summer Palace, the Chinese navy was lacking in vessels and ammunition. Japan, which in stark contrast to China had very successfully adjusted to modern times since the late 1860s, won an easy victory.

The first attempt at reform occurred after the Opium Wars in the 1860s. In an effort to ‘learn from the West’, among other measures taken was to send Chinese students abroad to study. Within a short time, however, the political mood and power in Beijing changed. Thus, the returned students, rather than being hailed as heroes and promoted to positions of responsibility, were disgraced.

Three years after the humiliating defeat Japan imposed on China in 1895, a major effort at reform from within – reform of the Empire and the underlying Confucianist doctrine – was launched, led by modernising intellectuals K’ang Yuwei and Liang Ch’i-ch’ao under the auspices of the Emperor Kuang-hsü. Had the numerous edicts that the Emperor passed been enacted, the effect would have been to modernise the Chinese imperial system and lay the basis for industrialisation. Fearing the loss of their prerogatives, reactionary court forces rallied round the Empress Dowager, the Emperor was placed under palace arrest, Kang and Liang fled to Japan, and a number of other reformers were executed.

British Marines

Two years later, in 1900, the xenophobic millenarian Boxer Uprising erupted, resulting once again in the invasion and humiliation of China by Western and Japanese troops. The Imperial Court was forced to accept terms and conditions for changes imposed by the victorious allies. In the ensuing decade, a number of reforms were instituted, albeit in a rather piecemeal fashion. As evocatively recounted in the Bertolucci film, The Last Emperor, the last decade of the Empire was one of disintegrating, indeed putrid, decay.

Finally, in 1911 the imperial dynasty was overthrown and the imperial system eradicated, under a revolution led by Sun Yat Sen, who founded the Kuomintang (KMT or Nationalist Party). Sun was from a modest peasant background, he spent many years living in exile in the West, in Hong Kong and in Japan, he became a Christian, and he obtained a degree in (Western) medicine. He was thus, in virtually all respects, the antithesis of the traditional imperial elite. He established what he termed his Three Principles of the People – nationalism, democracy and people’s livelihood – and sought to modernise and industrialise China, while restoring the sovereignty which had been so extensively constrained by Japan and the Western powers. Sun referred to China as a poly-colony, arguing that while it had not been colonised by any single power, as Britain in India or the Netherlands in Indonesia, it was instead exploited by all imperial powers, under a system of imperialist carve-up known as spheres of influence – a sort of imperialist gang bang.

In the First World War, China joined the allies in the hope that victory would allow it a voice in determining its destiny. In the Treaty of Versailles, however, China was betrayed by the victorious powers in a series of backroom deals whereby Japan (which in this war had also been on the side of the allies) was ceded the spheres of influence that had been hitherto held by Germany. It is with the uprisings, struggles and movements that broke out after the betrayal of Versailles that the history of contemporary China really begins. It was, however, no less turbulent than the preceding decades.

On 4 May 1919, a major demonstration broke out at the recently established Beijing University, violently opposed to the conditions of Versailles, but equally determined to establish in China a modern, industrialised republican society. Known as the 4 May Movement, it was here that the intellectual foundations for modern Chinese political thought were laid. Two years later, in 1921, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was founded.

Nanjing massacre
Nanjing massacre, 1937. Japanese soldiers use live victims for bayonet practice.

During the three decades from 1919 to 1949, as China continued its quest for establishing a modern and viable state, it suffered from a number of major handicaps. These included:

  • Japan. From 1915 onwards Japan was determined both to carve out new colonies in China to add to its prizes of Taiwan and Korea, and to subjugate China to Japanese economic and military interests and ambitions.Finally, in 1931, it invaded Manchuria and then, from 1937 onward, launched a brutal war that left millions dead and was characterised by an orgy of rape, torture, executions, humiliations and biological experimentation and warfare.
  • Economic chaos. Hyperinflation, spiralling foreign debt, balance of payments deficits.
  • External dependence. Though by the end of the First World War, Japan was the principal antagonist, China was subjected to imperialistic constraints by all foreign powers. China was for all practical purposes not an independent state. Foreign sovereignty extended well into Chinese territory, through the system of extraterritoriality, whereby foreign courts had custody over any of their citizens accused of a crime in China, or in case of litigation between a Chinese and a foreigner, and the foreign settlements, whereby foreigners policed the districts in Chinese cities where they resided. (The story that the main park in the Shanghai foreign settlement had signs reading No dogs or Chinese allowed is, apparently, not true, but still quite evocative of the atmosphere of apartheid that prevailed within China’s own boundaries.)
  • Political anarchy. The collapse of the Empire resulted in the outbreak of warlordism and the exertion of centrifugal forces that tore the country apart. The Republic, headed by Chiang Kai-shek, after the death of Sun Yat Sen, never gained legitimacy or respect, partly because of its inability to contain both internal chaos and foreign imperialist interventions, and also because of its own major deficiencies, including widespread corruption.
  • Protracted civil war. The CCP, in part because of instructions from Moscow, initially established an alliance with the KMT. But in 1927 in Shanghai, where the party had established its headquarters, the KMT suddenly turned on the CCP, killed a good number of its members and caused the rest to flee into the countryside. Although the CCP and the KMT reunited briefly to fight against the Japanese, in essence for the ensuing twenty-two years the country was in a state of civil war between the CCP and the KMT.
  • Widespread poverty. Both as a consequence and a cause of the political chaos, in the early 20th century China was one of the world’s poorest countries. There was everything you care to associate with poverty – hunger, disease, crime, prostitution – on a huge scale.

The ambiguities of ‘liberation’

Portraits of 'Chairment Mao'

"Chairmen Mao" (1989), Laser prints, collage and acrylic on paper by Zhang Hongtu (b.1943).

It is important always to remember that the Chinese refer to the communist victory of 1949 as the liberation, not as the revolution. When Mao proclaimed victory in Beijing in October 1949, he announced that “the Chinese people have stood up” and that “never will China be humiliated again”. The liberation consisted of being liberated both from feudalism – servitude under landlords and other enemies of the people – and from imperialism. Although very soon after Mao died, in 1976, the country under the new leadership of Deng Xiaoping underwent a radical change of economic policy, Mao is still – officially at least – venerated.

painting of a couple on a dancefloor

It is difficult to know exactly what the Chinese think of Mao. Queues to visit his mummified body in the mausoleum in Tienanmen are invariably long, but this may not mean very much. In 1985, when I was briefly teaching at Sun Yat Sen University in Guangzhou, I was invited by my students to a disco. I am not much of a disco-goer, even seventeen years ago, but this was too great an opportunity to miss – especially at the time. To my utter astonishment, when I arrived at the place where the disco was being held – an abandoned warehouse – amidst young women and men dressed in jeans and gravitating to the sounds of Tom Jones, against the wall lay a huge portrait of Mao Zedong. When I asked one of the students what he was doing there, he simply replied that Mao was the founder of the modern Chinese nation!

Most of the young people I speak to today about Mao say they have no feelings one way or another, they are indifferent – past history. So much has happened in these intervening seventeen years. The older generations are more ambivalent. My own feeling is that whatever happens in the future – and for my part I am reasonably optimistic – Mao will never be subjected to anything comparable to what happened to Stalin after his death. Mao is, directly and indirectly, responsible for millions of deaths. We know – or at least we are told – from biographies published recently in the West that he was a lecherous and quite mercurial old bastard, capable of the most Machiavellian political acts. But, in the context of Chinese history, Mao has one very important redeeming feature. Unlike other political leaders, who lied, schemed and did not deliver, Mao kept his promise: after 1949 China was never humiliated again!

Mao has one very important redeeming feature. Unlike other political leaders who lied, schemed and did not deliver, Mao kept his promise: after 1949 China was never humiliated again.

This is not the place to engage in speculation on the Maoist era. It is, however, very important to note in passing that when Mao proclaimed the Liberation in 1949, his intention was to resume relations, albeit on a new footing, with the Western powers and the US in particular. Throughout the decades from 1927 to 1949 relations with Moscow in general and Stalin in particular had been fraught. Stalin backed Chiang Kai-shek, partly because he did not expect Mao to win. Had the US not been engulfed in McCarthyist hysteria, had a new working relationship been established between Washington and Beijing, things might have turned out very differently.

The fact of the matter remains that, from the very beginning, Washington condemned and totally ostracised Beijing, in favour of the government in exile set up in Taipei, Taiwan, by Chiang Kai-shek – whose top American military adviser, Joseph Stilwell, contemptuously referred him to as the peanut. In seeking foreign assistance to rebuild a truly devastated China, Mao was forced, according to his own jargon, to lean on one side, i.e. to turn to Moscow.

On the plus side of the balance sheet, China under Mao regained power and dignity, emerged as the leader of Third World countries and as an inspiration for movements of national liberation throughout the world. By the 1970s, it was leaders of foreign powers who came to Beijing to pay homage – Richard Nixon, Edward Heath, Kakuei Tanaka, George Pompidou – and not Mao who had to seek an audience abroad. Mao also unified the nation and carried out important social policy reforms.

propaganda poster for family planning
Propaganda posters employed in the 'one child'-campaign, which started in 1979. Image reproduced with kind permission of Prof. Stefan Landsberger

Prominent among the social groups benefiting from liberation were women. China had throughout its history been a highly phallocratic society. This changed quite dramatically. Most importantly, a major literary reform was carried out, radically simplifying the writing system, which, among other significant things, paved the way for fundamental educational reform. One major advantage China has, in comparison, for example, to democratic India, is a high level of education and the virtual eradication of illiteracy.

The good news is inspiring; the bad news, however, is devastating. While the word pragmatism has been used to define Chinese policy since the reforms instituted by Deng Xiaoping in 1978, the best way to describe Maoism is as the antithesis of pragmatism. His fanaticism accounts for the terrible brutalities and uncertainties the poor people of China were subjected to throughout his years of power. The Great Leap Forward of 1958 – as a result of which some 20 million people are estimated to have died of famine – and the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution launched in 1966 – during which several million more died and many more were traumatised – are the two best known cases of outrageous Maoist excess.

One major advantage China has in comparison to democratic India is a high level of education and the virtual eradication of illiteracy.

Though Mao had indeed liberated China, the turbulence, brutalities and experimentation continued.

Deng’s economic revolution

When the Chinese political leadership is asked what it wants, the answer is almost invariably: stability and growth. But this combination seems impossible to achieve, at least for the foreseeable future.

When Mao died, and following a succession tussle of some two years, Deng Xiaoping – purged during the Cultural Revolution – took over the leadership. He died in 1997, the year Hong Kong was returned to China. While maintaining the Maoist legitimacy and the supreme authority of the CCP, in fact Deng proceeded initially in a highly systematic fashion to undo what Mao had done to the Chinese economy. Agriculture was de-collectivised, individual incentives and the market were restored. Rural areas were also encouraged to establish their own enterprises. It is estimated that in the first five years of these reforms in the countryside, about 160 million people were lifted out of poverty. This was Deng’s first radical and highly successful act.

When the Chinese political leadership is asked what it wants, the answer is almost invariably: stability and growth. But this combination seems impossible to achieve, at least for the foreseeable future.

The second was to open China to the outside world for trade and investment. In the early to mid 1980s, a series of special economic zones (SEZs) were established where foreigners were invited to invest. By far the most successful, indeed amazing, was Shenzhen, which grew within ten years from a village of 20,000 to an industrial metropolis of two million. The most successful part of this successful initiative was to woo rich Overseas Chinese investors. In particular, from the early to mid 1980s, Hong Kong capital was massively transferred to investment at sites in the Pearl River delta. This laid the initial foundations for China’s successful export policies. In 1986, China applied to join the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). Although the negotiating process of accession ultimately lasted sixteen years, by far the longest period of negotiation any country has ever been subjected to, China steadfastly pursued its policy of engagement with the world economic community.

Deng’s third radical act was to reform the urban industrial areas and especially to begin the process of dismantling the SOEs. The most remarkable success has been the astonishing transformation of Shanghai. Shanghai, the most international, dynamic and decadent city of China in the first half of the 20th century, was brutally punished and purged in the early Mao period. It was a hotbed of radical Maoism. Today, it is a hotbed of cosmopolitanism and capitalism.

The fourth act was to take off the lid on the Chinese entrepreneurial pressure cooker.

Though it has now been some twenty years since the Dengist revolution was launched, and in many respects it has been amazingly successful, it is important to realise that the Chinese have been to many places and seen many things before. There have been many false dawns; reform has been a moveable feast. Twenty years of prosperity – enjoyed not by all, but certainly by many – is indeed great. But it is too early to say that it is permanent.

In particular, the avowed goal of stability and growth is elusive. Growth will most likely continue to be generated through a Schumpeterian process of creative destruction, especially through the of SOEs and the radical reform of the country’s beleaguered financial institutions. Both the reform programme and the application of commitments entered into by accession to the WTO will bring this about. However, the ramifications of all this, both in respect to the urban and especially the rural areas, are going to be anything but stability-inducing.

Another means of generating growth will be to open up the country more and more to foreign investment, foreign management practices and innovative technologies, especially those related to information and communication. However, this carries two risks. Firstly, foreign investment and globalisation in general do play a significant role in creating wealth, but not in its distribution. Inequalities, already acute, are likely to increase. Secondly, more openness to the outside results in greater spiritual pollution. It is not just ideas of democracy that concern conservative Chinese elites, but also the evolution of lifestyles that are compatible neither with Confucianism or Maoism. This is especially visible in relations between the sexes among the younger generations. Unmarried couples living together are becoming an increasing phenomenon of the urban landscape.

The question of governance

I have never met an economist who is pessimistic about China, and I have never met a political scientist who is optimistic about China.

China also still has significant external tensions. Its relations with Japan are poor, something all the more alarming in light of Japan’s seemingly irreversible decline. The Asian neighbourhood in general is geopolitically highly tense. Relations with Taiwan have certainly evolved a great deal, but remain potentially explosive. And the same, albeit for obviously different reasons, can be said about relations with the United States.

There is also, indeed especially, the whole question of governance. Is it possible to have an open economy, an increasingly open society, and a closed political system? As the Chinese become increasingly educated and middle class, they will increasingly chafe at the totalitarian government leash. This seems to be a universal phenomenon and there is no reason why China should be an exception. To say that the government is producing the goods is not enough. The military dictatorships of South Korea and Taiwan were also producing increased prosperity, yet they were overthrown by the educated middle classes they created. In both cases, the political transition occurred reasonably smoothly.

China is a far more complex and especially a much huger kettle of fish. De Gaulle was fond of saying that governing a nation that produces over three hundred different types of cheese is difficult. China’s challenge is not just governing 1.26 billion people, but also the fact that Chinese tend to be highly individualistic and often argumentative. They are emphatically not 1.26 billion sheep!

Thus, while growth should be fine, stability is another matter. I wrote a number of years ago that while I had never met an economist who was pessimistic about China, I had never met a political scientist who was optimistic about China! This premise still tends to hold now. Looking at Chinese history, looking at the explosive combustion caused by growth and all the social dislocations that occur, looking at the archaic, nepotistic and corrupt political system, there is every reason to be gloomy.

I remain optimistic nevertheless. Why? My instincts as a father and a grandfather, rather than my intellect as an academic, make me reach this conclusion. For the first time in centuries, Chinese parents can genuinely believe that their children can hope for a much better life than they themselves have experienced. Not everybody is getting an equal size of the pie, far from it, but the pie is getting bigger and bigger.

The next few decades will see China on a very rough ride indeed. Political evolution towards greater pluralism is inevitable. There will be resistance and there will be conflict.

What strikes one in more and more parts of China are the great improvements in the quality of life. The contrasts with the drab, austere, fanatical and turbulent Maoist years are enormous. The world of classical music is one vivid illustration. Greater numbers of Chinese are attending concerts and buying from an enormous choice of CDs – whether legitimate or pirated! More young Chinese are able to learn to play the piano, the violin, the clarinet. (During the cultural revolution, as anyone over fifty will recall, there was the three-anti campaign: anti-Confucius, anti-Lin Biao – Mao’s erstwhile deputy who allegedly became a traitor – and … anti-Beethoven!)

The next few decades will see China on a very rough ride indeed. Political evolution towards greater pluralism is inevitable. There will be resistance and there will be conflict. But ultimately the future of China will be bright, primarily because parents see the prospects and will seek to avoid, at every cost, a fuck up.

The A and B families in 2010

Under this cautiously optimistic, but potentially perfectly realistic, scenario, the A and B families will continue to see each other a good deal. Not only will A continue to travel to the US, but the B family will have more and more incentives and opportunities to return to China. Something special about the Chinese universe is the size, diversity, intellectual and material wealth of the Chinese diaspora. To get where they want to go, the more progressive Chinese leaders realise that they are going to need all the able people they can muster. Members of the Chinese diaspora tend to remain emotionally closely attached to their homeland and to keep their Chinese identity. Drawing on these resources is a fantastic advantage not only for the development of China, but also for the globalisation of China.

Street view

Yuexiu Beilu, 1999. Photograph by Chen Shaoxiong born in 1962 in Guangdong province

B’s novels will be published and distributed in China and he will no doubt often be invited to return to give lectures. Already Chinese universities are setting up posts where special conditions are provided to entice the diaspora’s best and brightest to return for periods of, for example, sabbatical leave or on a part-time basis. B has admitted he was already looking into this option. This would also allow B’s daughter to further develop her Chinese-ness and to integrate to a greater degree her ancestral environment. So the B family will be American, but also an integral part of China’s sphere in the 21st century.

In the summer of 2010, the A family will be renting a house in Cape Cod, next to that of the B family. In the autumn, B will be moving with his family to the university in Beijing for the semester, which his daughter will be spending at the university that has an exchange programme with her US East Coast Ivy League College. Daughter A will be making the trip in the opposite direction for the 2011 spring term.

If there is no fuck up, what a great, great world it will be, for China, of course, but also through China, for the rest of the planet!

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