Peking: Trying to Make China Work

A renewed interest in private gain has little chance of improving China’s statecontrolled economy

“WE CAN’T BE fifteen minutes away from the heart of Peking,” said the California rancher’s wife in disbelief. She gazed at the donkeys, the low, shabby mud houses scattered across vegetable fields, the dirty, weatherbeaten faces staring into our car window, while we bumped our way along a country road (the main “highway” from the port city of Tianjin to China’s capital) through a permanent cloud of dust. “Isn’t this supposed to be one of their fancy big towns, this ‘Beijing?’”

I thought of the city that lay ahead of us. I knew that I would no longer be able to come to China’s defense; my own optimism about the Middle Kingdom had waned. I was already bracing myself for official lies, depressing signs that China’s goals may elude it, pleas by bright but downcast young people to help them come to the West—“for study.”

A decade of Sino-American entente has been good for U.S. policies in Asia, for America’s allies, for the West’s strategic balance with Russia, and for the many Americans and Chinese who have been able to satisfy their curiosity about each other’s countries. But I could not help asking myself, that cold, still afternoon, if the best of the affair between America and China wasn’t over. As China and the U.S. have drawn closer, interlocked in a thousand ways (eighty Chinese delegations a month visited the U.S. last year, and 100,000 Americans visited China), differences in culture and values have come to the fore.

As we drove into Peking, I realized that even the city proper is a letdown for the new visitor, and increasingly ugly to an old hand. The remaining wonderful monuments and palaces, and the graceful streets of traditional houses in gray brick with red pillars, are being choked by overpasses and oblong housing blocks with no trace of Chinese character. Inner-city chimneys belch out smoke. Buildings are poorly maintained. Except for a tiny elite, the people in the streets and shops lack flair in dress or manner.

Japanese cities hum and sparkle; Singapore takes on the feel of a European city; Taipei turns middle-class—but Chinese cities, even vaunted Peking, are left behind. They are backwaters of semi-industrialization, where neither beauty nor prosperity can be found. They are the strangled fiefdoms of a political and military elite, in which the role of the citizenry is to gaze up dumbly and humbly at the one thing that glitters—the Leviathan, the edifice of state power.

It is a small mercy that a recent courtesy drive in the name of “social public morality” has made Peking less dirty and crude. People don’t spit in the street as much. One’s chances of getting on a bus at peak hour without being knocked down have improved. Shop assistants occasionally remember not to be surly.

In Wang Fu Jing, Peking’s main shopping street, a knot of people carrying plastic bags of purchases gathered around a tall young factory worker one afternoon last November. He looked harassed. Someone had seen him spit on the sidewalk. Social pressure rose against him. With a friend of mine, also a factory worker, I watched from a distance. Two female public-health officials broke through the knot of pedestrians, pulling out their receipt books, brisk and selfsatisfied like American meter-maids.

The factory worker, remonstrating that his act was a tiny slip, never to be repeated, in a tone that grew less assertive as the crowd swelled, lost the argument. “Five mao” (about a quarter), snapped one of the hygiene-maids, as she wrote out a receipt for the fine. He handed over five grubby one-mao notes with a restrained curse. The crowd dispersed, murmuring its satisfaction.

The courtesy drive is based on that old set of values that communism was supposed to have swept into the rubbish bin of history: Confucianism. Since it became clear that the warm glow of Communist enthusiasm has vanished from the Chinese body social, the government has begun to inject Confucian moral rules (forget self, do everything for the common good, treat the elderly with kindness) in order to improve social moral health.

WHETHER OR NOT Confucianism can take fresh root, there is no doubt that a vacuum of ideals exists. No one talks about ideology anymore. The decline of Marxist belief has gone far beyond the state of affairs in the first three years after Mao’s death. From late 1976 until 1979, there was a pushing off of the mask of ideology, a busy denunciation of the evils and stupidities of late Maoism, and an exhilaration at looking at the world on its own terms rather than in terms of class analysis. In 1983, one sees on all sides boredom, cynicism, and escapism.

Students care only about their careers, and they early set about pleasing the teachers and administrators who control their future. (Jobs are “distributed”—there is virtually no individual choice.) Corruption spreads as relatives and friends help each other avoid playing by the rules, laughing at their success against a system that has made many people bitter and depressed. When the managers of a factory order component parts from another factory, they do not merely wait for the order to be fulfilled; they must arrange banquets for the second factory, and bestow gifts on the family members of its managers.

All of this seems to make China less exotic. It is as if the Chinese have joined the rest of the human race—and disappointed those who judged China morally special. Cynicism, self-interest, and corruption are less remarkable, less “Chinese,” than the ideological fanaticism that used to intrigue the visitor. China is less ennobling, and a bit less inscrutable, than in Mao’s day. But we are in no position to blame the Chinese for their loss of political faith and their new concern for individual self-protection. Under Mao, the Chinese nation “stood up”; now the individual seeks to stand up and gain his inch of space in the sun.

Communist officials feel that young people in particular have to be stretched across some framework of civic-mindedness. Hence the revival of Confucianism (though it is not called that) to promote hierarchy, filiality, care for the common good, and above all obedience.

“Two things we in the States ought to learn from this place,” said a southern conservative on a cruise ship that had just visited several Chinese ports. “Their principle ‘If you don’t work, you don’t eat,’ and their idea that if a person commits a capital crime, instead of messing around with the courts, you shoot him straightaway.” These are not the sort of lessons Americans used to extract from China, but the southern conservative, regardless of whether or not one agrees with his values, had a correct impression of China. It is a tough, cutthroat society: ruthless laws cow the individual; sentiment counts for little.

The southerner was looking not to China as an abstraction, as virtually all American observers were a decade and more ago, but to aspects of the real face of China.

INSTEAD OF POLITICS, people talk about prices, wages, and bonuses. When I first started visiting China, “Serve the People” was an admonition to selfless work for the public good. Now it’s a commercial slogan, like Avis’s “We try harder” (to get your dollar). Serve the People and do well for yourself. The slogan means keep the shops open longer hours, smile at the customer so he’ll praise you in the suggestion book and you’ll get a bonus, start a tea stall in the street that will bring you a profit.

China is a wonderful country to visitart, cuisine, history, geographic diversity, sheer organizational gigantism, all have their appeal—but many Western tourists do not like China’s new commercialism. “I took this trip because China is supposed to be different from Europe,” a Danish woman complained last November, as she gazed at the “Marco Polo” souvenir and photo shops that dot the beautiful Temple of Heaven like a rash.

The Japanese tourist industry has not thrown away all dignity like this. Nor have those of Burma and Thailand, among Asia’s less-developed countries. It is not China’s abrupt swing from politics to economics in itself that is troubling but the crudeness with which the new goals are pursued.

China as a nation grows formidable, even economically. It has the world’s sixth-largest GNP, and the annual rate of GNP growth is a respectable 4 to 5 percent. The villages in particular are doing better than they have for years, thanks to a partial dismantling of collectivism. The country is rich in oil, coal, and an array of valuable minerals. Yet the expectations of the individual are growing faster than the capacity of the system to meet them. We in the West have known for years that Taiwan, with 17 million people, has more telephones than China, which has sixty times more people; that a two-block swath of Manhattan contains more Telex machines than the whole of China. But now many of the Chinese people know these things. They resent the contrast, and expect the gap to be speedily bridged.

Per capita income is now about $350. The government is aiming—ambitiously—for $1,000 by the year 2000. By then, even that figure will be but a fraction of the per capita income of Taiwan or Singapore. The problem is that there are almost twice as many people in China as there were in 1949. Despite the growth of the Chinese economy, per capita GNP only inches ahead. In a nation where 80 percent of the people are in villages, land use per capita has gone down nearly one half since 1949.

A decade ago, when China’s stated goals were abstract (“Carry revolution to the end . . .”). who could say whether they were attainable or not? Maoism could still seem new and different; from outside the world of its values (as I was), it was very difficult to assess its chances of doing what it said it would do. Now that Peking has set a concrete goal of catching up with other countries economically, it becomes less impossible to assess China’s prospects—and clearer, alas, that a gulf will yawn between hope and performance.

The regime has learned the flaws of central planning, but cannot opt for a market economy. The bureaucrats speak of “economic autonomy,” but there is no such thing in a system where, for example, the central ministries insist on fixing prices. “Market forces” are invoked. But the Communists cannot sit back and watch the small but successful free segment of the economy eclipse the large, lagging planned segment—their political power might not survive the severe cutting back of state ownership.

“One in ten may defect,” Deng Xiaoping, China’s senior leader, said several years ago when defending a new plan to send students to study in the U.S. “That doesn’t matter.” Late in 1982, the thousandth Chinese seeking to stay on in the U.S. sent his application to the State Department. Now Deng worries. He is less confident of the students than he used to be. Urban young people are not as a group convinced that Deng’s reforms will really make China “modern” and “democratic.”

“Why is there such a lack of ability in East Europe?” Zhou Enlai asked some Australian visitors in the summer of 1971. He gave his own answer: “Because the minds of the East Europeans are not their own, they’re not independent, they’re controlled by Russia.” Zhou had a point; but what about China?

University graduates in scientific and technical jobs in Shanghai were recently given an exam, at high school level, with time to prepare, in their own subjects; 68 percent failed in math, 70 percent failed in physics, 76 percent failed in chemistry. No one familiar with Chinese industrial and bureaucratic performance would be much surprised at these figures. “Sackings in Tianjin,” shouted the headline in People’s Daily last fall. Could it be that the criteria of ability and performance are making a timid appearance in Chinese organizations? No. The big story was built on a small foundation: two workers (in a city of 7.7 million) were fired after it had been painstakingly established that they had not reported to work for eighteen months.

Performance lags because motivation is lacking. The aging Chinese leaders are losing the fruits of the young people’s talents by failing to provide incentives, give young people room to shape their own lives, and allow them to make their own mistakes and learn from them.

I was one of the Australians to whom Zhou gave his dim view of Eastern Europe. Like my companions, including Gough Whitlam, later the prime minister of Australia, I thought the Chinese premier had a good point; yet I did not apply it to China. It wasn’t only Zhou’s charm that made us suspend judgment about China’s authoritarianism. In 1971, we knew much less about conditions in China than we do today. We were just discovering the simple shape of Chinese society, after two decades of ignorance. Gathering material for my book 800,000,000, I had many interesting and even candid talks with officials, but I had very few substantial talks with people who were not dealing with me as officials. By contrast, much of my time in China in recent years has been spent listening to unofficial voices—speaking at length, in Chinese, on repeated occasions, and without being monitored by the authorities. The result is a picture of conditions that makes even the frank words of official China—and they are franker than they used to be—seem only a small part of the truth.

That evening with Zhou Enlai, too, one tended to suspend critical judgment, because the “China issue” was then one not of social philosophy but of peace and war. Fighting raged in Vietnam, Peking was not in the United Nations, Kissinger had not made his first secret trip to see Zhou, China had not been “recognized,” and fear was widespread that the U.S. and China might fight a war in or over Indochina. We focused on Peking’s view of Russia and Taiwan rather than on its view of human rights; on China-Vietnam relations more than on relations between the Chinese government and the Chinese people.

Today, we take it for granted that the U.S. is at peace in the Far East. We laugh at the idea that China could be a threat to us, and we know that the Chinese do not fear us.

IN SHANGHAI, A poster keeps turning up in offices, restaurants, homes: an artist’s impression (done under political guidance) of Shanghai’s future. It looks like a cross between an ad for a sciencefiction movie and an ideal city as drawn by a child with a bent for engineering. Planes, spaceships, helicopters, swarm overhead. Ingenious vehicles fill the numerous freeways (one sees no parking lots). Bridges and overpasses truss the place. Skyscrapers stretch into a sky that unaccountably remains a brilliant blue. The people—the few people visible amid the man-made wonders—all smile.

In Peking’s attractive Sun Yat-sen Park, I watched a Sunday crowd of citizens lining up for the privilege of having their photos taken against a Toyota as backdrop. The park authority, which means the government, provides the car, together with a display of suggested poses on or near this trophy of Japanese modernity. A fee is charged to cover the park photographer’s work and recoup the investment in the Toyota. A car that has never been driven an inch inspires the dreams of a million Chinese.

I left Sun Yat-sen Park wondering what Mao would make of the Toyotaworship, and sat on a balustrade of the Gate of Heavenly Peace with a copy of the Peking Evening News. There was a cartoon about a Chinese woman and a Japanese man who meet in a Chinese port. In the first frame she is shown in a T-shirt bearing the huge English words “KISS ME.”The Japanese man wears a T-shirt made out of a bag that had held chemical fertilizer (a product China imports from Japan). In the second frame, the Japanese jumps on the Chinese woman as if to rape her. She cries out in resistance. “But look at what’s written on your T-shirt,” says the Japanese.

The Toyota and the cartoon are symbols of two clashing forces within the Chinese psyche at present. One is left with the impression that China doesn’t know what it really wants, now that so many past goals and values have been rejected. Influential Chinese seem embarrassed about their yearning for prosperity. They fear they may look silly if they fail to bring it off. They prepare an avenue of retreat—to the quagmire of culturalistic nationalism.

“Make the past serve the present, make foreign things serve China,” it was said during Mao’s ideological dictatorship, and it is still said during Deng Xiaoping’s pragmatic dictatorship. A ton of concepts, an ounce of action. The repetition of the slogan seems to betray an inability to effect these syntheses. The Chinese mock their past as feudal refuse; the next moment they boast that no other nation has such a long and brilliant past. A balance eludes them. The same with “foreign things": they go head over heels for them; later they curse what they adored. It is the Japanese who— without preaching about the concept— quietly make “the past serve the present” (Buddhism, the kimono) and “foreign things serve Japan” (Christmas, the U.S. nuclear umbrella). China can’t do it, but talks about it.

IT IS A WELCOME improvement that China has opened its doors a bit to the outside world. When I went to China in 1964, you could count the visitors to most Chinese cities each month on the fingers of one hand. Last year, more than one million tourists came. U.S., Japanese, and European banks and firms have opened offices and even plants in Peking and Shanghai. China borrows money abroad, accepts foreign advertising, and has set up export zones in which the usual industrial rules are disregarded in order to accommodate the foreign entrepreneur. Some $3 billion worth of joint ventures between Chinese and foreign firms are in process.

Foreign books, languages, films, and TV are making a modest impact. “The main thing that’s happened since your last visit is the American film festival,” said a young friend in Tianjin. She remembered the English names of the movies as if they were the names of adored foreign boyfriends: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Shane, Singinin the Rain, Black Stallion, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? “The dancing in Singin’ in the Rain just drove us crazy.”China, “the model” for others, has become a China shopping around for ideas from others.

All this foreign influence is making the Chinese cities socially and culturally less monotone. The reverse process, as Chinese students and delegations fan out across the U.S., is heavily responsible for a demystification of China among us. Nothing has done more since 1980 to fuel my doubts about China’s prospects of meeting its chosen goals than my constant contact with young Chinese in Boston and in cities around the U.S. where I go to lecture.

Despite the new intensity of traffic between China and the rest of the world, the Chinese, especially Communist officials, are still awkward or uneasy in many of their dealings with non-Chinese. “Fang Fang" was not a good name for the export line of lipstick that Shanghai began with a flourish to try to market in the West. Nor was “White Elephant" a shrewd choice for batteries, or “Pansy” for men’s underwear. Chinese Communist business gaucherie (the capitalist Chinese of Southeast Asia, by contrast, know the Western markets quite well) is not limited to trifles. Foreign businessmen are driven mad by the Chinese bureaucracy. Lately, Chinese avarice has also infuriated many traders.

The Police Ministry views every foreign resident in China as an embryonic spy. Ordinary Chinese are routinely harassed if they have sustained contact with a foreigner. In their hearts, many Chinese oscillate between the unhealthy extremes of disdain for the foreigner and near-worship of him. Facing the West today, the Chinese are well aware that they are the weaker, backward side. But deep down they consider this a shocking, unnatural, and temporary state of affairs. The near-worship is a panicky response; the tranquil smiles are a tactic to hide the disdain.

The suspicion of the foreigner, in an era when Americans have with high hopes begun to have more contact with the Chinese than since the 1940s, is responsible for some of the current disenchantment with China. The foreign researcher is met with barely concealed anxiety when he starts asking questions. Friendship between a Chinese and a Westerner is generally assumed to proceed from an ulterior motive.

Compared with the expectations of solidarity that were common during the “days of discovery of China,”in the early 1970s, the mood today among the businessmen, diplomats, and intellectuals who deal closely with the Chinese is tinged with reluctant acknowledgment of the realism in Kipling’s line “East is East, and West is West. . . .”

THE RETURN OF Confucianism and the intensification of nationalism (in each case labeled socialism) are linked. They both replace Communist faith. And they are both called into service by China’s urgent efforts to become prosperous. Confucianism is intended to strengthen industrial and social discipline. Nationalism could provide the music, sets, and costumes for China’s fallback scenario if prosperity should fail to come. Being poor would be no obstacle to shouting for the return of Taiwan and Hong Kong to the breast of the proprietorial, if bankrupt, motherland.

But aren’t Confucianism and nationalism the creeds of Taiwan? And hasn’t Taiwan, a place of terrible repression in the early 1950s, been rendered substantially freer by twenty-five years of impressive economic growth? Yes, and the Peking leaders have pounced upon the lessons. But the GNP of China, a huge country, cannot grow at the speed of Taiwan’s. Even more important, Taiwan’s economic success has been a capitalist economic success; the decline of repression has taken place within the environment of free enterprise. So it was, too, in European history. The institutions of a free society—parliament, press, political parties, constitutions— came with capitalism. By contrast, these institutions have never sprouted and flourished under a Leninist dictatorship.

I do not see China as an exception.

Implicitly, I used to presume that China could be one. Its culture seemed capable of digesting Marxism and moving on; the enmity between China and Russia made me think China might irrevocably reject Stalinism; I felt that Chinese ingenuity might somehow push through the straitjacket of a Communist political system.

My two most recent books, The Future of China and Mao, speak of the immovability of the Leninist system, and yet it is curious that people tenaciously go on reading 800,000,000, eleven years after it was written, and embarrass me by liking it. I think this is because Americans are interested in the culture of China, not its political system. Few people want you to tell them about the repressiveness of Communist dictatorship; that is not the China that intrigues them. As I write these lines, the president of Pepsi-Cola pleads on the New York Times op-ed page for less-restricted trade with the Russians. No one has to argue for acceptance of trade with China. That is not because China is less repressive than Russia; it is because China does not threaten us, and because Americans think of China as a culture (exotic) rather than as a polity (dictatorial).

Yet, for the billion who live there, as distinct from the foreign tourist, businessman, or journalist, China is first and foremost a repressive regime. The unchanging key to all Peking’s policies is that the nation is ruled by a Leninist dictatorship that intends to remain such.

Words from the end of John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty have haunted me during my four most recent trips to China. “The worth of a State, in the long run, is the worth of the individuals composing it. . . .” Many Chinese feel themselves to be cogs in a machine of Communist power that grinds on for its own purposes. They assume an immense gulf between state and people. “A State which dwarfs its men,” Mill goes on, “in order that they may be more docile instruments in its hands even for beneficial purposes, will find that with small men no great thing can really be accomplished. . . .”

To be fair, the problem of governing an overpopulated China gripped by higher expectations than ever before in its history would be all but insoluble to any regime, Communist or not. The Nationalists have found it enormously easier to look good in ruling Taiwan than they did in ruling the mainland from 1928 to 1949. Most close students of China would probably agree that a form of authoritarianism is unavoidable in the present phase of Chinese history (one notes that of the other three Chinese societies in the world—Taiwan, Singapore, and Hong Kong—two are under one-party rule and the third is run by the British police). Still, there is a difference between an authoritarianism in which those many things that are not forbidden are permitted (Taiwan) and a totalitarianism where those few things that are not forbidden are compulsory (China).

Nice words float around Peking like balloons at a festival—democracy, rule of law, socialist morality—yet they do not touch the real issue (which events in Poland have also raised). The alternative to the Leninist system, the only goal of true political reform, in China as in Poland, is pluralism.

Political pluralism—which would mean an acknowledgment that conflict is endemic to political life, and should be allowed institutionally, and which would bring an end to the Communist Party’s monopoly of power—is further away in China than in Poland, and hardly closer than in the Mao era.

These past six years, the postmortem on China’s intermittent troubles since the late 1950s has moved its target from Mao’s widow and her three Shanghai associates (Gang of Four) to the role of Mao in the Gang’s ultra-leftism (Gang of Five?) to the system that Mao built (Leninist dictatorship of the proletariat). But the Peking leaders will abort this third stage of the probe, however logical it may be. Very few people saw off the branch they sit upon; no ruling Communist Party has ever done so. It is one thing to say (as Peking does) that “the Party has made mistakes.” It is another thing to say, as many Chinese say privately but no official would say publicly, that “the Leninist system is no good.”

It is safe, now, to lambaste the “leftism” of the Gang of Four. But it touches the Peking Communists’ nerve to write, as I did after the Gang fell, “As long as the Gang of Four are made to carry the weight of all China’s evils and conflicts, Chinese politics will not be free from its feudal overtones, its Peking opera unreality.” Politics is still theater in post-Mao China, and it will remain theater as long as there is no freedom to form an opposition, publish dissenting magazines, or even put up a wall poster denouncing Deng Xiaoping.

One guesses that China under its Leninist party will lumber on, doing well enough to avoid the collapse of its system while being unable to satisfy the people’s full economic aspirations because of the rigidities of the system. The post-Mao regime has shrewdly conciliated the farmers by giving them more economic freedom and paying them higher prices for their goods (at a cost of 6.5 percent of GNP in subsidies), and one must admit that this does more for China’s short-term stability than any number of liberal reforms would do. But pluralism will have to wait for another century. As a result, comprehensive modernization, which Mao wanted but did not know how to achieve, and which his successors now urgently summon, may not come for Deng much more than it came for Mao.

If the picture is fairly bleak, this doesn’t mean that China and the U.S. need become enemies again. One reason why the American public has been indulgent with the Peking regime—more so than with the Warsaw regime—is guilt about the excessive anti-Chinese feelings prior to 1970. Another is that Americans tend, more than most foreigners, to take Chinese theater as Chinese reality. The Chinese craftily try to hide as much as possible about their society from the foreign eye, and the tools they use (good food in an atmosphere of ritual; paternalistic hospitality; a stress upon cultural wonders as a diversion) are disarming and widely effective. Americans have also given China the benefit of many doubts because it does not threaten us as Russia does—it has virtually no severe conflict of interest with us (except over Taiwan)—and because a stable, strong China is more in American interests than a crumbling, failed China.

These truths, which Nixon grasped in 1970, are still true, and China’s shabbiness as a society does not make them less so. For some time to come, we may have to accept that China is fairly stable and repressive, useful to the U.S. and an arena of human frustration. Another bout of extreme hostility and pessimism about China would serve us ill.

IN SHANGHAI, I went to see my friend Wang, a construction worker. I like to talk with him about life in Shanghai, and about Hong Kong, where he has helatives. Climbing the tiny wooden stairs to his apartment, I found only his parents, with whom Wang and his two sisters live in one and a half decrepit rooms, sharing a kitchen and a bathroom with two other families. The father said he would tell Wang I was in town. “Come back tomorrow at noon, for our son will certainly take the day off to see you.” I drank a cup of tea, resting it on a gasping radio, 1950s vintage, then left.

The next day, Wang was waiting for me, and we went off to lunch. To take the day off, he rose at 6 A.M. and took a bus at 6:30 for the ninety-minute ride to his plant. It took an hour in the plant office to apply in person for the leave, as one must do. He caught the 10:30 bus for the return trip, and got home just in time to change and keep our appointment. Had I let him pay for our outing, as he wished to do, the cost would have been more than half his monthly wage of thirtyeight yuan (about $22).

After lunch, we went swimming at a pool in the former French Club. “As for Hong Kong,” Wang said in the privacy of the locker room, “if China ever gets control of it, the world will see the horror and chaos of another ‘Saigon 1975.’” I fell silent. Not because I doubted him. Recalling the buoyancy and prosperity of Hong Kong, I was lost in contemplating how sad it would be if the regime that grinds down Wang and millions like him should presume to reclaim Hong Kong.

—Ross Terrill