China's Blue Collar Blues

Top-down economic reform in China has triggered protest from its victims -- a classic Marxist proletariat
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CHINA'S native chroniclers have long thought that Chinese history moves in circles. Anniversaries resonate with eerie significance, promising opportunities to celebrate progress but also reminding everyone of the possibility of repetition. Divining China's future direction at the start of the twenty-first century must begin with a reading of its anniversaries at the end of the twentieth. And China has seldom experienced a year so replete with the contradictions of overlapping, politically potent anniversaries as 1999.

For China 1999 was the eightieth anniversary of the May Fourth movement, when the Chinese intelligentsia first advocated the adoption of Western science and democracy. But it was also the fiftieth anniversary of the establishment of communism in China. And the twentieth anniversary of the beginning of the era of economic reform under Deng Xiaoping. And the tenth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square democracy movement and massacre.


Which anniversary means the most to China now? The May Fourth movement and the Tiananmen movement suggest that China is heading toward democracy, if haltingly. The massacre revives the grim spectacle of China as a fascist juggernaut. Deng's reforms herald economic freedom and the victory of business over ideology. But it may well be the anniversary of the establishment of communism that has circled back most unexpectedly.

Tiananmen was commemorated last June at Harvard University, where the democracy movement's most influential student leaders -- Wang Dan, Shen Tong, Chai Ling, Wu'er Kaixi, and a dozen of their fellows -- were reunited, over dinner, for the first time since 1989. The centerpiece of all the events was a stirring speech by Coretta Scott King; remarks followed from Representative Nancy Pelosi, of California, and emissaries of Vaclav Havel and the Dalai Lama. Pelosi declared the movement to be at a turning point, with victory over the Communist regime in sight.

The message was bold and inspiring, but the reality is more complicated. Pelosi has been the dissidents' stalwart ally since 1989, when she first championed their cause in Congress, but since then her influence on this issue has waned on Capitol Hill. So has the clout of the dissidents themselves. During the 1992 presidential campaign they basked in Bill Clinton's good will, but today they must settle for a presidential candidate with more dubious prospects -- Gary Bauer was the only other politician to join Pelosi at the Harvard events.

The dissidents, all exiles, are not just at a loss for new American political patronage; they have also become estranged from their own generation in China and from their Chinese successors at American universities. After Bauer and Pelosi left the Harvard events, a furious discussion in Chinese erupted among the dissidents, led by a woman who had just arrived from Beijing. "For ten years since Tiananmen I've fought to keep the movement alive underground in China," she complained bitterly. "But the only thing our classmates want to do now is make money. They're only interested in business!" At Harvard a few weeks earlier a public meeting of Tiananmen leaders had been marred by a volley of angry questions that a younger Chinese Harvard student aimed at Wang Dan. He blamed the students of 1989 for creating a bloodbath and setting democracy in China back, not moving it ahead.

China experts friendly to the Tiananmen dissidents have begun to admit that the movement is of questionable significance for China today. An especially pessimistic assessment came from Chantal de Rudder, a senior editor at Le Nouvel Observateur, in Paris, who had befriended the student leaders in Beijing in 1989. De Rudder had just returned from a long stay in China, so I asked her at the Harvard dinner what she made of Pelosi's optimism about the democracy movement. "In China now there is no nostalgia for 1989," she replied. "Even liberal intellectuals in China have done well by the economic reforms. They don't want to upset stability. They want gradualism." Casting an eye over the assembled dissidents, De Rudder shook her head sadly. "These activists are doing what they can, but it doesn't mean a lot. For the moment they have no influence in China."

Around the corner from where the anniversary dinner was held are the offices of the nation's most distinguished institute for Chinese studies, Harvard's Fairbank Center for East Asian Research. The center is named for the late John King Fairbank, widely admired as the father of Chinese studies in the United States. The director of the Fairbank Center, Elizabeth Perry, a professor of government at Harvard, considers herself a friend to China but harbors no illusions about the regime. Her specialty is Chinese popular protest from the nineteenth century to the present day. Perry's work suggests that resistance to the Communist regime today often has less to do with advocating an American-style political system than with reviving communism.


is a contributing editor and the acting managing editor of magazine, at Harvard University. His essays and reviews have appeared in and


The Atlantic Monthly; February 2000; China's Blue Collar Blues - 00.02 (Part Two); Volume 285, No. 2; page 20-33.

WHILE the Tiananmen generation reflects on the past promise of democracy, a new generation of Chinese students, both at home and abroad, is looking ahead to the overwhelming challenges facing China in its risky bid to move toward a market-based economic system. Unlike their predecessors, these young Chinese tend to favor working within the limits set by the regime. Like their predecessors, they are dreamers -- but they're keeping at least one eye open. They know that in the short term the crux of China's future is those 24 million excess workers. To their credit, though many of them are studying in the United States, they are keen to return to China and make a difference.

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Trevor Corson is author of the worldwide pop-science bestseller The Secret Life of Lobsters and the highly acclaimed The Story of Sushi. His website is TrevorCorson.com. More

Trevor Corson is the author of the worldwide pop-science bestseller The Secret Life of Lobsters and the highly acclaimed The Story of Sushi: An Unlikely Saga of Raw Fish and Rice.

He spent two years studying philosophy in China, another three years in Japan living in temples and studying Buddhism, and two more years working as a commercial lobsterman off the Maine coast.

He has been an award-winning magazine editor and has written about food, religion, foreign affairs, and a wide variety of other topics for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe, and the Atlantic, where The Secret Life of Lobsters began as an essay that was included in The Best American Science Writing.

As one of the leading authorities on sushi in the West, Trevor serves as the only "Sushi Concierge" in the United States, hosting dinner classes in New York and Washington D.C. and educational dining events for organizations, corporations, and private groups. He is also a consultant to sushi restaurants, working to bring a more authentic Japanese experience to Western diners.

Trevor is a frequent public speaker and his work has been featured on CBS Sunday Morning, ABC World News with Charles Gibson, NPR's All Things Considered and Talk of the Nation, as well as numerous local television and radio programs; he also appears as a judge on the Food Network's hit TV show Iron Chef America. His website is TrevorCorson.com.
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