Jeffrey Wasserstrom: Pay No Attention to the Party Behind the Curtain





Jeffrey Wasserstrom is co-editor, with Angilee Shah, of Chinese Characters: Profiles of Fast-Changing Lives in a Fast-Changing Lands, which will be published next month by the University of California Press. He will join other contributors to the volume, including Dissent author Megan Shank, for a book launch event at New York’s Asia Society on September 17 (details here).

As Britain basks in the glow of its successful Olympics, the thought that comes to this China specialist’s mind is, what a difference four years makes. There is a striking contrast indeed, where China is concerned, between the largely positive international chatter about that country in mid-2008, as the Beijing Games concluded, and the largely negative buzz about it now.

The change in China’s fortunes has little to do with medal counts or world records. Still, a look back to the Beijing Games helps place then-and-now contrasts into sharp relief.

Plenty of criticisms were leveled at China’s leaders just before the 2008 Olympics over issues such as repression in Tibet, and the Games were hardly free of controversy either, thanks to complaints about everything from parts of the opening ceremonies being faked (for example, the fireworks that looked like footprints in the sky being doctored digital effects) to underage gymnasts competing on the Chinese team. And yet, overall, a lot of things went right for the Party four years ago. As a result, a good number of international observers came away from China’s first Olympics seeing the country much as its leaders desperately want it to be seen: as a country that is respectful of its past yet surging toward a prosperous future; that is no longer poor, chaotic, isolated, with leaders prone to ideological extremism, personality cult rule, and factional infighting.

The “Bird’s Nest” and other new arenas looked great on television, fostering the notion that China can build things quickly and well, an idea further buttressed by headlines in the following years about new high speed trains going into operation. Even the weather cooperated four years ago, in part, the Party claimed, because of the skillful use it made of sci-fi methods to hasten or delay rainfall as needed. Most important of all, the 2008 opening ceremonies, while not without critics complaining about such things as a bait-and-switch technique that had us see one girl singing while hearing another one’s voice, was an eye-popping spectacle and left the impression on many viewers that the Party was striving to convey. The extravaganza began with a quote from Confucius, back in favor by 2008 after being denigrated by the Party as recently as the 1970s, and ended with a symbolic nod to China’s space program. It contained no direct allusions to the Mao years (1949-1976) or indeed any twentieth-century event, but red flags filled the stadium and Hu Jintao presided over the event, so no one could forget that the Party was running the show and, as the quote from Confucius put it, taking pleasure in welcoming friends from afar. The gala wowed a big crowd of eyewitnesses, which included top world leaders such as Vladimir Putin and George W. Bush, and was watched on screens all over the world.

Flash forward to 2012 and we find many contrasts.

The biggest recent Chinese weather story, for example, is the devastating floods that hit Beijing last month. These not only cost people their lives but also undermined the state media’s already tenuous credibility, since rumors flew early on that the loss of life was being grossly underreported.

Similarly, the big infrastructure story this summer has not been about impressive structures but rather the inability of the capital’s sewers to handle the water from torrential rains. This led some Chinese bloggers to mock the authorities for spending too much on showy buildings and too little on the basic things that matter to most people. In doing so, as in questioning the reliability of state media reports on the flood, these bloggers picked up on themes that figured centrally in the important flurry of online commentary triggered a year ago by a high-speed train crash and clumsy government efforts to cover up what had gone wrong.

And when it comes to China’s relations with foreign countries, the focus now is not on its ability to play the gracious host but on Beijing’s proclivity to act like a regional hegemon in disputes over small islands claimed by more than one country.

The most striking difference between four years ago and today, however, has to do with the carefully scripted Chinese dramas enacted while each of the last two Summer Games were being televised. Whereas in August 2008, we had Zhang Yimou’s cast-of-thousands spectacle staged out in the open in China’s capital, last week there were quick and dirty proceedings in a provincial courtroom—something that might best be described, oxymoronically, as a highly secretive show trial, with only a small handful of foreign observers allowed to watch the proceedings in person.

The goal of this drama was to prove that Gu Kailai, who had once been lionized as a successful lawyer and businesswoman and is the wife of the recently purged Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai, was a vile if pitiable individual. According to official reports, she has confessed to the crime of conspiring with one of her employees to poison Neil Heywood, a mysterious Englishman whom she had once viewed as a trusted helper of her family but supposedly later came to fear posed a danger to her son.

The trial, like earlier events involving Bo and members of his family, have led some commentators inside and outside of China to question the notion that Chinese politics has really undergone a sea change since the 1970s. In criticizing Bo, other Chinese leaders have claimed that his efforts to build a personal following were too similar for comfort to things that Mao had done during the Cultural Revolution decade (1966-1976). In the eyes of some, though, it is the way Bo has been attacked and Gu has been turned into a scapegoat that bring to mind the infighting and intrigue of an earlier era.

What are we to make of the contrasting global chatter on China in 2008 and 2012? Surely it is partly due to the many ways that the country has changed in the in the last four years, some of which I have written about in this publication. To cite just one shift, upticks in online complaints and protests relating to environmental concerns show that there are more Chinese citizens now questioning the government’s claim that the existence of faster trains (that may be dangerous) and more goods on supermarket shelves (that may be unsafe to eat) are sufficient proof that the quality of life is steadily improving.

There are two other factors, though, that contribute to the dramatic shift from 2008 to 2012.

One of these is the enduring tendency in the West to swing between viewing China in either an overly admiring or overly disparaging way. Perry Anderson, writing in the London Review of Books in 2010, referred to this as the competing pulls of Sinomania and Sinophobia. Anderson stressed the distorting effects of both kinds of emotionally charged views of China. He also notes that sometimes Sinomania and Sinophobia can become intertwined. He cites as an example the seemingly phobic (from its title) but actually largely admiring (in its approach) When China Rules the World, which sold well when the afterglow of the Beijing Games was still strong. Similarly, looking back, we can see that even in some commentaries praising China in 2008, there was an undercurrent of anxiety, a sense that there was something disturbing about all those drummers moving in lockstep in the opening ceremony—that what we were seeing on our screens was too good to be true, that all those new buildings could be symbols of a bubble economy.

In 2008 many viewers around the world were dazzled, as the Chinese government hoped they would be, by a ready-for-primetime Beijing that seemed as magical as the Emerald City had to Dorothy when she first encountered it. In 2012, however, as Geremie Barmé put it in an Australian ABC television interview on Bo’s fall and Gu’s trial, we have gotten a “Wizard of Oz moment,” a chance to glimpse things that we were not supposed to know existed. Beijing is proving to be a different place than the one that looked so good on television four years ago. It turns out to have sewers that don’t operate the way that they should. And it turns out to contain leaders who, all talk of harmony aside, are not immune to the kind of factional divides and rough-and-tumble score-settling that we were told were part of the old New China of Mao but not the sleek PRC 2.0 of today.



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