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

By James Fallows

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:

LiuXia.jpg

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."
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