Recently in the Chinese city of Chongqing, a local school teacher who drove me around spoke of the people's desire to have a comfortable life. We saw billboards advertising apartments with swimming pools, gardens and modern kitchens. "People here don't want any more Cultural Revolutions or wars," she said with a shrug. "We like these material things."
A China focused on moneymaking has lowered the temperature of the official ideology, but Beijing goes on locking up and harassing some of its brightest sons and daughters. Dissent has became stronger, more visible and more frequent than it was in Mao's day. Yet it still mostly takes the form of "petitioning the court," a common practice in dynastic China. A writer, filmmaker, scholar or religious figure who questions the basics of socialism is the rare exception. Mostly he or she will end up in a labor camp, or in silent passivity in a shuttered apartment. Beijing is even worried about Chinese intellectuals, writers and other artists who have left China. It is suspicious of their success -- so much so that it denigrates them wherever they may live.
Yang Jianli, a resident of Boston and an acquaintance of mine who holds PhDs from Berkeley and Harvard, was detained on a visit to China last summer; Beijing gives no word of his fate. Wang Bingzhang, a mild-mannered pro-democracy intellectual based in New York, has just been sentenced to life imprisonment for "collecting and selling state secrets" and "violent terrorist activities." This is the first time Beijing has convicted a dissident for terrorism.
China's 1.3 billion citizens are to be trusted with their money, but not with their minds. "Do what you please," runs the saying, "as long as you please the Communist Party." What future for China, then, does the moneymaking offer?
Jiang Zemin, who retired as president this month but remains military chief, and the new president, fellow engineer Hu Jintao, have taken account of public opinion on some issues, which has made China a more relaxed place. But as Fu Zhengyuan, a Chinese exile living in California, wrote in his book "Autocratic Tradition and Chinese Politics," "the fact that the shepherd may take notice of the baying of his sheep does not make sheep participants in decision making." Nor may they bay in a discordant key.
The method of stifling an independent voice, or of belittling one who has fled from China, hasn't changed much over the years: First, instruct an influential person to write an article saying that X, despite all appearances, is anti-socialist or anti-China. Next, intimidate anyone connected with media outlets that might allow X to have his say.
A curtain of silence probably then envelops X, and the party-state's aim is achieved.
This method is effective, as professor Perry Link of Princeton University wrote recently, because Beijing uses "an essentially psychological control system that relies primarily on self-censorship." The party-state's pressure usually does not come as handcuffs or an arrest warrant. "It involves fear of such happenings," Link said.
In 2000, when the Beijing Publishing Group decided to put out a Chinese translation of "Waiting," a novel that the Chinese-born writer Ha Jin, who left that country in 1989, had already published in English in New York, the control system swung into operation. The attack dog, primed for her task by cultural officials, was Liu Yiqing of Beijing University.
The thrust of her attack was less the content of the novel than irritation at the success in the United States and Europe of a Chinese who did not see himself as a nationalist. Liu criticized Ha's motives as well as the novel. She said the writer, who now teaches at Boston University, was "cursing his own compatriots." He was a "tool used by the American media to vilify China." His novel stressed China's "backwardness."
Chinese journalists were quietly told not to write anything about Ha or his works. In New York, the author had won the National Book Award -- not an everyday occurrence for a Chinese-born writer -- but China's press ignored this and other honors. Said Ha: "My book is not about politics. It's about the human heart, about human flaws and the sinister nature of time."
"Waiting" did finally appear in Chinese in Beijing last year, with two sentences cut to avoid political offense. "The novel went through a lot of difficulty with the Chinese authorities," Ha told me, "and gave me many heartbreaks, so I cannot feel any excitement over its publication in China at all."
Jiang Wen, a well-known Beijing actor and film director, won the Grand Prix at the Cannes film festival in 2000 for his movie "Devils on the Doorstep," set during the Japan-China war of the 1930s and '40s. But the Chinese public could not see the film. Part of Jiang's problem was similar to Ha's: Foreigners saluted him as a Chinese artist, which intensified the Chinese government's view of him as an unreliable grumbler.
Jiang's film was not banned; nor was it authorized. The Film Bureau, which must approve everything seen on China's screens, murmured that the film had "lots of problems." The bureau spokesman's only concrete statement was a claim to artistic global extra-territoriality. The film "was shown at a film festival abroad without prior approval, which is a clear violation." A Chinese, even in Cannes, is not outside the constraints of the socialist household, a stifling concept based on the word jia, which means "family" and also connotes "country."
Some film people in Beijing obtained a copy of the original report made on Jiang's film by the state's Film Censorship Committee. "The Japanese military anthem is played many times throughout the film," complained the bureaucrats. "This signifies the strength of the Japanese military and severely hurts the feelings of the Chinese people."
"It's all too much like a Hitchcock thriller," said Jiang of his experiences with the party-state. "There's terror all around me, but I can't see what's going on." The Chinese masses are permitted to see many Hollywood films, including scenes as racy as the two in "Devils on the Doorstep" for which Jiang was criticized by the authorities. But Hollywood directors, unlike Jiang, are not assumed to be part of the socialist jia.
In 2000, Gao Xingjian, a Chinese-born citizen of France, won the Nobel Prize for Literature. He is the first author of Chinese descent to receive the honor. Beijing dismissed the choice as politically motivated.
Gao's writing, said the Chinese party-state, is "very, very average." Gao had been harassed in China, and his work suppressed. In 1989 he moved to Paris.
How could Gao, an aesthetic, apolitical man, offend the Chinese party-state and draw such a sour response on winning the Nobel? Because he has no time for patriotism and is simply an individual. "Chinese people are too confined by their own culture," Gao told an interviewer for the Australian, a newspaper in Sydney, where his major work, "Soul Mountain," was translated into English and published. "As far as I'm concerned, Chinese culture in general is meaningless."
In fact Gao is as Chinese as Hu Jintao, but he does not see Chinese culture as holistic, and he refuses the patriotism-socialism link. "Too much emphasis on identity can become talk without real meaning and it can easily lead to nationalism," the slim, cerebral Gao told the newspaper. "There is only one identity that is beyond doubt and that is that you are an individual."
A single accepted doctrine, a single accepted view of history, is anathema to Gao. "There have been too many lies told over the past 100 years," observes this free spirit, "including the lies concealed within ideology." Gao is under no illusion that the decline of ideology since the Mao years, when he grew up, has brought freedom to China. He remarked in the 2000 interview that "China remains an authoritarian state, and I don't plan on returning while I'm alive . . . . I have my own personal China; I don't need to go there."
Ha left China around the same time that Gao did. Jiang may well leave China before long. What Beijing feels about these diverse artists -- but dares not say -- is that they fail to behave like docile members of the Chinese household.
Does socialism still have pull a quarter-century after Mao's death?
In truth it has little. Ideology has declined; people in Chongqing can pursue a comfortable material life. But, for the Leninist party-state, a worn Marxist belief system still has the crucial function of maintaining authority. In tacit acknowledgment of the weakness of its belief system, the party-state, to stave off death, adds the gaudy mask of nationalism.
Economic growth and patriotic feeling together take away some of the sting of repression.
Basically, the regime remains paternalistic, a project run from the top, and the party-state, practicing not the rule of law but rule by law, moves the goal posts halfway through a game. The communist party-state still wants uniformity of thought, hierarchy and dull obedience. To make this point, it deals harshly with straight-out political dissenters -- those whose democratic message is inescapably anti-communist.
Wang Bingzhang's life sentence for "terrorism," handed down on Feb. 10, brings a new twist to China's repression. Beijing's partnership with President Bush in the war on terrorism provides, in the Communist Party's view, implied support for a crackdown. Calling pro-democracy activists terrorists is a neat way of turning a struggle against a lack of freedom into a tool of dictatorship.
Thus, Beijing, having lost its Leninist brother states in Moscow and East Europe in 1990-91, pioneers a new kind of authoritarianism, which co-opts everything yet is cynical about everything. Maybe it is stable in the short term, but it seems too hollow inside to endure for long.