China’s Brave New World—And Other Tales for Global Times
By Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom
Indiana University Press
210 pages, $21.95
How We Should Interpret Contemporary China
Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom’s new book, China’s Brave New World, raises a very important question: how should we view contemporary China? In the world today, there is nothing more significant than the rise of China. In the next decade or two, the political direction of China will influence the fate of world peace and freedom. Nevertheless, even now, the West is still unclear on what contemporary China really is. It is true that as China opens up to the world, it is not difficult for foreigners to acquire knowledge of many tangible phenomena in China. But they still frequently fall into the trap of mistaking one piece for the whole, of seeing the tree but missing the forest, and failing to grasp China in its entirety. On one hand, Wasserstrom’s book reveals the complexity of contemporary China through a series of interesting stories. On the other hand, Wasserstrom also selects a single concept to help readers understand China as a whole.
According to Wasserstrom, even though today’s China still retains certain characteristics of the society in George Orwell’s novel 1984, it has already grown more to resemble Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Everyone knows that 1984 and Brave New World are both dystopian, anti-totalitarian classics. But the totalitarianism described in these two books is actually of two different types. The totalitarian society of 1984 is founded on ubiquitous monitoring and control and severe political persecution. In Brave New World, totalitarianism is mainly established through the fulfillment of material desires, entertainment, and indulgence. In Wasserstrom’s view, from 1989 onward, the Communist Party of China has carefully absorbed the lesson of the fall from power of communist parties in Eastern Europe and come to the conclusion that to ensure stable political power, an even more vigorous economy must be developed to give the masses even more plentiful material pleasure and entertainment.
It should be said that Wasserstrom’s description of China’s current situation is not incorrect. But there are two problems. First, prior to 1989, the Party had taken great pains to push forward economic reform, and had even begun to usher in consumer culture. In the 1980s, the Chinese economy developed rapidly, and ordinary people saw marked improvement in their material lives. However, this did not block the mounting waves of the democracy movement. Second, we know that in Huxley’s Brave New World, the reason the people wallowed In material enjoyment and entertainment was bioengineering. In the world of the novel, people were created by their rulers using modern advanced technology and bioengineering so that they knew only material pleasure and nothing about freedom and democracy. In no way are the Chinese people born without a desire for freedom and democracy. The huge scale of the 1989 democracy movement alone proves the intense desire among Chinese people to pursue freedom and democracy. From this example one can see that the reason contemporary China resembles a “Brave New World” is not that the Communist Party of China is smarter than those in Eastern Europe, or that it can better fulfill people’s material needs and better entertain them. Rather, it is because the Communist Party of China is more cold-blooded than the communist parties of Eastern Europe and more brutally suppresses the people’s resistance movements. It is not bioengineering, but rather the fear generated by forceful suppression that has caused many Chinese people to give up the fight for freedom and democracy.
True, in the book Wasserstrom correctly points to 1989 as a turning point for China and notes that China’s June Fourth massacre stunned the world. But unfortunately, Wasserstrom was unable to give a thorough account and analysis of the nature and impact of the June Fourth incident. This is a major shortcoming of the book. In my view, June Fourth is the key to understanding contemporary China. Almost all of the various phenomena of contemporary China are related to the June Fourth incident.
June Fourth Is the Key to Comprehending Contemporary China
One example is the indifference of [my] countrymen toward politics. Wasserstrom notes that because China opened up to the outside world, the works of many Western liberal thinkers have been openly published and distributed. This, in addition to the increasing spread of the Internet, has brought information and some space for expressing different political opinions. But the majority of people, including young people, show a lack of interest in political expression, to the extent that Wasserstrom asks the question, “What happens when there is public space, but no one comes?”
What I want to add is that this kind of situation is even more obvious among the Chinese abroad. Over the past twenty years, the number of Chinese people moving overseas has rapidly increased. The number of students studying abroad has also continued to rise. Even so, these people who have left behind the repression of Party rule and gone abroad where it is free also don’t show any interest in politics. They very seldom read the publications and websites of dissidents and don’t participate in related conferences and activities. In fact, this political indifference is also an expression of fear. Because the 1989 democracy movement suffered brutal suppression, many people have lost confidence in the fight for democracy. Because of this fear, they have no choice but to keep their distance from the dangerous forbidden zone. And as soon as they leave China, perhaps naturally, they no longer feel oppressed or restricted by fear. As a result, they believe they are leading free and unrestrained lives. At this time, if you remind them they are actually living in fear, many people will probably deny this.
Why don’t they read the articles that expose the crimes And mistakes of the Party? Why isn’t the post-June Fourth generation interested in finding out the truth about that incident? Because they lack courage to confront the truth. Because they know that as soon as they face this information, their hearts can no longer be at peace. Their sense of justice will prompt them to stand up and resist, and this will put them in great danger. However, if they don’t dare to resist, they will feel shame and disgrace. Thus, it’s better to turn their heads away and pretend that they see nothing and know nothing. Ignorance is bliss. Only in this way can they continue to drift along in their carefree lives.
Yes, the Chinese Communist regime has demonstrated great nimbleness when dealing with major domestic and international issues. Professor Andrew Nathan has dubbed it a “resilient authoritarianism.”What I want to point out is that the nimbleness of the Chinese Communist regime originated with June Fourth. The June Fourth massacre completely destroyed the lawfulness of the regime, and it facilitated the regime’s transformation from wielding power to wielding violence. Violence has its advantages. In casting off the whitewash of ideology, it also cast off the fetters of ideology. Since June Fourth, the Chinese Communist Party has been able to demonstrate extreme nimbleness and resilience. It can do whatever it wants as long as it serves to protect its own interests, and completely disregards the extent to which its actions contradict its own professed theories and previous actions. When Deng Xiaoping gave his speech during his 1992 Southern Tour, he openly said that it didn’t matter whether something was capitalist or socialist. The Communist Party would never again worry about contradicting itself because it no longer had a need to disguise itself in ideology. At the same time, society is brimming with cynicism. This cynicism panders to tyranny, and thus greatly lightens the pressure that the regime has to face.
In 1984, the character of O’Brien, a power-holding elite, says,
All past oligarchies have fallen from power either because they ossified or because they grew soft. Either they became stupid and arrogant, failed to adjust themselves to changing circumstances, and were overthrown, or they became liberal and cowardly, made concessions when they should have used force, and once again were overthrown.1
On the twentieth anniversary of the collapse of the international communist movement, the reason that the Chinese Communist regime still stands tall is that it has not ossified. It has been able to “move forward with the times” and dared to reform. At the same time it has not grown soft. “When they should have used force,” the Party has never been lenient or hesitant. In this sense, we must acknowledge that today’s China still most resembles Orwell’s 1984.
1. George Orwell, 1984 (New York: Penguin, 1990), 214. ^