Today's Discouraging-News-Out-of-China Report

This morning I talked with Brian Lehrer of WNYC in New York, who had just returned from his first trip to China. As I told him, it's always thrilling for me when outsiders have an immersion in the China-of-this-moment and get a sense of how high its stakes are, how strong both the encouraging and the discouraging signals are, and how hard it is to know which trends and forces will prevail.

The discussion started with a look back at the debate Minxin Pei and Eric Li had about China's future -- bright or dim -- at last summer's Aspen Ideas Festival, and ended up with what I increasingly think of as the central contradiction and challenge for this next generation of the country's leaders. The contradiction is this:

  • China's system must change, so that its now too-suspicious, too-controlling political institutions relax to meet the demands of an increasingly sophisticated economy run by increasingly urbane, educated people;
  • China's system can't change, because of all the entrenched interests with something to lose.

Both statements are true now; both can't simultaneously remain true in the long run; but which will give way to the other no one can say for sure. Thus the stakes and the fascination in daily and weekly tracking of movements toward further opening or further closing. Today, unfortunately, three discouraging signs:

1) Liu Xia, whose husband Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Peace Prize two years ago, told visiting AP journalists about the hardship she has suffered under house arrest since the time of his award. Here's one of the AP photos of Liu Xia:


The story is full of heartbreaking details about Liu Xia's detention in more or less unconcealed retribution for her husband's having "embarrassed" the government by receiving the Nobel prize. (He himself is serving an 11-year prison sentence.) For instance:

"We live in such an absurd place," she said. "It is so absurd. I felt I was a person emotionally prepared to respond to the consequences of Liu Xiaobo winning the prize. But after he won the prize, I really never imagined that after he won, I would not be able to leave my home. This is too absurd. I think Kafka could not have written anything more absurd and unbelievable than this."

yan_postcard.jpg2) China's latest Nobel prize winner, Mo Yan (right, official Nobel photo), who is in Sweden to receive the award for literature, used the occasion to say that censorship was "necessary" for a country at China's stage of development, and dodged attempts to get him to say anything in support of his imprisoned Nobelist countryman Liu Xiaobo.

As a writer, Mo Yan is obviously talented. As a public figure, he will forever be diminished by the stands he is taking, and avoiding, now.

3) Chen Guangcheng, whom I interviewed for the magazine this fall, is himself now beyond the reach of Chinese law. Not so his family members still in China, including a nephew who was recently sent to prison for three years. The obvious reason was retribution; the stated reason was that he had "assaulted" the police officers who broke into his house after Chen's escape.

Chen himself issued a video and statement this past weekend, also about the contradiction China faces. He addresses Xi Jinping and China's new leaders directly and states the choice they face in these stark terms:

"The whole nation is watching you. Whether you follow the mandate of heaven and the will of the people and carry out reform or you hijack the government and protect the privileged [i.e. those in power] foretells whether our motherland will go through a peaceful or a violent transition."

The system must change, and it can't change. Discuss -- and observe, and hope.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


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