To the Editor:
As an American who has been living in China for the last five years, I found Gary Rosen’s article simplistic [“My Short March Through China,” December 2007]. He finds the rule of China’s Communist government wanting on the basis of Western standards of liberalization, but the changes that it has brought about are in fact remarkable by any standard. We should not forget that prior to 2003, getting married in China required the permission of one’s boss. Moving from one province to another required a travel permit. All of society was controlled by the government. Disassembling this monolithic structure has been the very definition of a Herculean task, and under the circumstances China’s leaders have performed admirably.
As for Tiananmen Square, almost all of the Chinese whom I know personally—including one who was a student protester—feel today, in hindsight, that the government was essentially right to clamp down on the demonstrations. The 200 million Chinese who have escaped absolute poverty since then are often adduced: where would they be today if Tiananmen had festered into a revolution? Before automatically replying, “better off,” one should consider the nature of Chinese society. Even today, a majority of Chinese have but a rudimentary education. Democracy without an educated citizenry is a formula for tyranny of the majority. For this very reason, most educated Chinese today do not long for Western-style democracy. The 900 million poor would easily outvote the 400 million middle-class, and possibly return the country to a purer brand of Communism. Education and prosperity must precede democracy.
Dean A. Nash
To the Editor:
Gary Rosen writes: “Thinking about Yuan and her friends—cosmopolitan, English-speaking students at China’s most elite university—I find it difficult to imagine that the People’s Republic will easily contain them.” But history has shown that precisely the well-to-do elite are most easily co-opted and contained by a dictatorship. It is the disenfranchised, who cannot even hope to send their children to university or to secure them good jobs, who are the most disenchanted with the government. Of course, the government is not likely to encourage foreign journalists to speak to such people, but they are far more numerous than the jet-setting elite whom Mr. Rosen met.
To the Editor:
Gary Rosen reports that the students he met during his trip to China tended instinctively to defend their government’s response to the 1989 student demonstrations in Tiananmen Square. Many Chinese students whom I have met in graduate schools in the U.S. have been similarly defensive; several admitted that they never even believed there had been a violent suppression of protesters until fellow students who had lived in Beijing at the time told them what they themselves had witnessed.
This inability of so many Chinese to discuss the subject reasonably has made me very skeptical about how change will take place in China and in what direction it will lead. I wish I could believe that it is just government pressure or censorship that keeps people from thinking more critically about political rights, but my many conversations with Chinese students have led me to fear that their response has as much to do with the prevailing Chinese culture.
To the Editor:
Although I am ordinarily a mild-mannered, reasonably agreeable fellow, by the time I got past the fifth paragraph of Gary Rosen’s article, I lost it. How anyone, especially an American journalist, could accept such hospitality from the Chinese government and then turn around and complain of being manipulated is incomprehensible to me. What mystical spirit operated during Mr. Rosen’s junket to strip him and his colleagues of their journalistic integrity? Was all the good food and expensive linen enough to make them suppress the journalistic urge to ask incisive and informed questions? Why was there such concern for “not wishing to jeopardize our sponsors or future trips”? I could not believe that a group of American journalists could be bought so cheaply and quickly.
I was at least warmed to read that Mr. Rosen’s group spent some time talking with students in Peking University’s journalism program. The conversations he describes are similar to what I have experienced in six years teaching in an English-language program for foreign students at Guangdong University in Guangzhou. The students are marvelous, and many of the program’s graduates now work in China for Western media outlets like the Los Angeles Times and the Associated Press as well as for Chinese news organizations. Watching them all cope with the indignities of journalism in China is thrilling. Within them are the seeds of a new China (although I doubt I will see it in my lifetime), and one can only hope they will not need another Tiananmen to secure it.
Guangdong University of Foreign Studies
To the Editor:
It was refreshing to read Gary Rosen’s article about his trip to China, which shows a Western journalist who was not easily won over by the regime’s effort to project a false image of prosperity and “progressive thinking” to the outside world.
The Chinese people, from the millions of maltreated peasants, religious groups, and democrats to high-ranking party officials and prosperous entrepreneurs, know otherwise. In fact, there is growing evidence that the number of people in China who are dissatisfied with the rule of the Communist party is nearing critical mass. More than 28 million Chinese have publicly declared their withdrawals from the party and its affiliated organizations through the “Quit the CCP” movement. This is something that outsiders often fail—or, because of vested interests, refuse—to see, but reports like Gary Rosen’s help pierce through the veil.
To the Editor:
Gary Rosen’s excellent article misses one important question about China: can all the economic development and prosperity he observed abruptly end, and if so, when? The history of the Soviet Union is instructive on this score. The establishment of Communist rule in Russia was quickly followed by enormous economic devastation as the new regime seized control of land and agricultural and commercial production. To restore a semblance of normalcy, Lenin and the Communist party soon adopted a “new economic policy” that allowed for small private enterprises. The economic situation improved for a time, until Stalin in the 1930’s rolled back the reforms. Again, private property was confiscated, private enterprise was abolished, and millions of people were arrested and killed.
Something similar could easily happen in China. For now, the government is all about “good will and understanding,” but the situation could change in the blink of an eye. None of China’s new prosperity—and no one’s property—is guaranteed by the present regime, as we may find out in the event of a crisis in the Middle Kingdom.
Yury V. Kissin
Piscataway, New Jersey
To the Editor:
Confucius said that true knowledge means knowing what one knows, and what one does not know. Gary Rosen shows us how “managed” the Western journalism coming out of the People’s Republic of China is, and admirably refuses to join the ranks of the well connected instant experts now writing on China. But he is rare.
George J. Leonard
San Francisco State University
San Francisco, California
To the Editor:
Gary Rosen’s essay about China was the best I have ever read by a Westerner in terms of its accuracy and its penetrating insight. Kudos to Mr. Rosen.
Gary Rosen writes:
Dean A. Nash is rightly impressed by China’s socioeconomic progress over the past several decades, and considers me naïve for suggesting that the “monolithic structure” of Communist rule could be safely “disassembled” any faster. I have no quarrel with his stress on gradualism in reforming a country of China’s size and backwardness; I just do not see that democratization, gradual or otherwise, is any part of the Communist party’s agenda. China’s rulers have persuaded themselves that expanding economic and cultural freedoms are perfectly compatible with continued authoritarian rule. I do not think the combination can be sustained.
The brutal suppression of the 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square was both a horror to behold and a lost opportunity. Substantial elements of the Communist party had been prepared to heed the students’ call for political reform and opening, but the hard-liners won out, and today the results are clear: a rapidly modernizing China unable to cope with its growing pluralism and the varied discontents of its urban and rural populations. The choice in 1989 was not between a military crackdown and the “revolution” whose specter is invoked by Mr. Nash and other apologists for Beijing. A reformist path might have been charted in politics just as it has been in the other spheres of Chinese life. Indeed, many of the largely economic problems now facing China—corruption, environmental degradation, sub-standard manufacturing—might have been addressed more effectively in a more open, accountable political system.
Gilman Grundy and Aaron Beach are too categorical about the views of China’s educated middle class. Many of them, to be sure, have prospered under the new dispensation, and there is a strong quietist tendency in Chinese culture. As I joked to the students whom we met at Peking University, “I know it must sound to you like all we say is human rights, human rights, human rights. But to us, it sounds like all you say is stability, stability, stability.” My sense is that many of them, aware as they are of political arrangements elsewhere in the world, are embarrassed by the fact that their country is still ruled by a small, secretive coterie of bureaucrats and soldiers. They are proud of modern China—and have profited from its rise—but they know that modern nations are not run this way. When a downturn comes, as it inevitably will, I suspect that many of them will have second thoughts. Even now, as Guy Chen eloquently attests in his letter, it is not difficult to find sizable pockets of dissent and protest.
I am not sure why my article was so upsetting to Arnold Zeitlin or why he makes such nasty, unwarranted accusations against me and the other journalists on the trip. Of course we knew that the trip was sponsored by a pro-Beijing group and would present us with only a certain view of developments in China. But the opportunity to visit China and to encounter high-level Chinese officials does not come very often, and we all learned a great deal from the trip, in part because it demonstrated so effectively the insecurity and mania for control of our Communist hosts. This was a valuable lesson, and it has been reflected in all the pieces that have been written by members of our delegation. Would Mr. Zeitlin prefer that we had never visited China or written critically about the way our trip was managed?
My thanks to Yury V. Kissin, George J. Leonard, and Yanping Gui for their insights into the current situation in China and their kinds words about my piece.