Jeffrey Wasserstrom: What's the Real Story in China?





[Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a professor of history at the University of California, Irvine, is the author of “China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know,” which is being published next week.]

Is the most surprising thing about China
how much it’s changed in recent decades – or how little?

Those with only a casual interest in the country can easily feel that they have to pick between these two options – and that doing so isn’t simple. Not when the sound bites about and punditry on China is shaped by a sort of bipolar disorder, toggling continually (and sometimes swiftly) between accounts stressing the dizzying pace of change (cue photo of Shanghai skyscrapers) and reports highlighting the stubborn hold of old ways (cue shot of the giant portrait of Chairman Mao by Tiananmen Square)....

If political issues rather than economic ones are the focus of the China story du jour, though, the emphasis is likely to be on how deeply China remains stuck in old ruts. Here, again, the logic is obvious, and not just because Party Congresses and National Day parades can give someone who has been following Chinese events for years a sense of déjà vu.

Consider the case of dissent, as exemplified by the treatment of Liu Xiaobo, a scholar and human rights activist who was sentenced to 11 years in prison on trumped-up charges of “subversion” last Christmas. He had already been imprisoned for participating in the Tiananmen protests of 1989. So his latest incarceration immediately brings to mind the fact that the government still clings to the “Big Lie” narrative that treats the Tiananmen struggle as a “counterrevolutionary riot” that was handled with restraint, rather than what it was: a popular upheaval crushed by a massacre....

Another political contrast with the past has to do with modernization. Wei insisted that China needed democracy in order to overcome obstacles to economic growth. Many protesters now, by contrast, worry about the way their quality of life is being threatened by China’s pulling-out-all-the-stops development program. Hence the rise of NIMBY (not in my backyard) protests by homeowners who want to stop noxious chemical plants from being built nearby or noisy high-speed trains from running beside their neighborhoods.

What all this suggests is that, in figuring out whether to focus on how much China has changed or how much it has stayed the same, the trick may be simply to refuse to choose. And to pay attention to the continuities in areas that seem most transformed – and the ruptures in areas that seem most resistant to transformation.


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