Backward Glance

Far from introspecting, China at 50 celebrates its dated icons, reaffirms the age-old socialist rhetoric
Backward Glance

LIKE anyone who’s just turned 50, China’s beginning to fray at the edges, get touchy over criticism and glorify the past instead of pondering the future.

We all saw the birthday pictures: the forceful march past, the elaborate floats, the silk flags, the yawning cadres. We heard about disgruntled Beijing residents who shrugged at the pageantry and raised an eyebrow to the blue skies as authorities told factories to stop belching. Perhaps they were reassured by the display of nuclear weaponry, the fighter bombers, their government putting its fist where its mouth was. There’s something touching, one supposes, about troops that wear out three pairs of boots each in rehearsals and get psychological boosts from their doctors.

On China’s 50th birthday, President Jiang Zemin decked in his best Mao jacket rolled by in papal form, standing inside a Red Flag limousine. He turned his head just a little to shout at the troops: "Comrades, are you well?" An odd thing to say, perhaps, but it felt like a question thrown to the country.

How well, exactly, is China?

The politics has always been murky. China-watchers still sift through symbols and assign interpretations: a float cradling a portrait of rosy-cheeked Jiang drove by Tiananmen Square. "Jiang Elevated to Mao Status", Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post declared in a banner headline.

It took two short years. It would be a mistake to underestimate him. Deng himself, if one should believe the float, was relegated to the rank of "great farmer". How surprising, to see the children in bright green waving handfuls of wheat around a portrait of the diminutive man. Rumours on Prime Minister Zhu Rongji’s status moved markets. (He must have annoyed a string of very important people; the man is direct). Mao punched the air with socialism. Deng roamed China touting economic freedoms. Jiang, determined to find his niche among the greats, has picked on Taiwan. An astute choice. Still a deeply emotive issue in China, across generations, it speaks to the heart of China: its unity. It’s a dangling remainder, waiting to join the motherland, or be joined. China will not hesitate to use force, the message was sent loud and clear as bombers screeched over the Square.

It did not help that the Kuomintang and Chiang Kai-Shek scooped up the country’s best classical art, the country’s best cooks and thumbed their noses as they boarded the boats 50 years ago—a cultural betrayal felt as political subversion. Those who are closest to you stab the worst wounds.

But China is insecure at 50. It growled when Taiwan’s Lee Teng-Hui, at his saucy best, talked of state-to-state ties this summer. As usual, Beijing used the Hong Kong media, slipping in side swipes and threats of war into the weekend editions here.

Aging China’s boundaries have weakened, it is harder to hold things together. In the west, the Muslims are agitating. In small pockets, to be sure, but the problem has simmered enough to be a sore for Beijing.

Tibet’s an old tale. So what if American media moghuls have grovelled in a most satisfying manner at China’s feet (Ted Turner recently referred to the Dalai Lama as ‘that shuffling monk in Gucci shoes’) and battalions of foreign businessmen gathered in Shanghai to kowtow just before D-day.

a pesky group of youngsters have been demanding to legally register an opposition party. Opposition party to the Chinese Communist Party (ccp)! The group kept sprouting, across the nation. Beijing swatted them down, locked them up and swatted harder and wilder as the birthday bash approached. The venerable ccp won’t stoop to debate.

Corruption, nibbling away at the edges of the Party—and its coffers—is an uncomfortable issue. How powerful, really, is the central government? Will muscular southern provinces one day put their foot down when Beijing comes knocking for taxes?

There are no theoretical models for the agony of a socialist economy grasping towards a marketplace and a bottomline, but the irate, laid-off workers are real enough and they don’t come with instructions.

Falun Gong seemed harmless: breathing exercises, meditation, a dash of Buddhism. But the practitioners bred like mosquitoes across the country. Worse, they appeared organised. They had a website. They gathered to demand recognition in startling numbers, at short notice. China’s history has legions of shadowy underground movements toppling governments.

No wonder security was tight around Tiananmen Square on October 1. At the peak of its power, China must remain watchful. No wonder Jiang Zemin vowed the "complete unification of the motherland" as he addressed the country. He sounded lonesome for the old days.

Thank goodness for Hong Kong: an obedient child amongst an unruly brood, it has quietly done Beijing’s bidding at every step. It has even whinged for the central government to step in and beat up its internal rivals like the Court of Final Appeal. There has never been any doubt that Hong Kong would belong to China on China’s terms.

And thank goodness for Macau, returning to the fold this December. The Portuguese are unlikely to kick up a fuss. Macau has a whiff of pure nostalgia for them, but the enclave is not an economic powerhouse. Who could be sorry to lose a quiet spit of land where sad-eyed gamblers toss dice and triads occasionally hold shoot-outs?

Fifty-year-old nations look back with such nostalgia, but being older, they may not articulate doubt. "Practice has proved that socialism is the only way to save and develop China," Jiang intoned in his speech. He meant, of course: "Modern China has only ever practised socialism and since that’s fallen apart, what on earth will save us?"

Jiang suggested, helpfully, that China hold high the great banner of Marxism, Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought and Deng Xiaoping Theory and march bravely towards sublime objectives. Whatever. That sort of pounding rhetoric no longer holds much weight. It’s boring, besides.

At 50, China boasts a fractured past (who doesn’t after five decades), but it can say, for all intents and purposes, that it sits in the world’s boardroom. Socialism fed the country’s people, a matter of pride. Indeed, as China correctly insists, a human right. India has yet to match that: at the website where you click to feed a hungry person, on the map, countries darken at a hunger death. India pulses an unforgivable number of times. Socialism has also educated a huge number. China’s literacy rate is nearly at 80 per cent, doubling from the 40 per cent it used to be in 1949.

Still, China is changing. Deep cracks run through what used to be an equitable society. They say couples who live together for years begin to look alike: could China and India be developing some remarkably similar features?

Mercifully, the uniform grey blanket of socialism thrown over the country and over its best minds has served its purpose and lies in tatters. The rigidity of thought demanded by such a system leaves little for the next generation.

"I think this China will be remembered for its politicians, not its culture," said one mainland Chinese professor of literature. History will remember the line-up of men in Mao suits. Civilisation may not. Modern China has spawned a scattering of good writers. The world knows and loves film director Zhang Yimou. But it is only in the past few years that the gloom of the Cultural Revolution is lifting. Socialism is functional, not aesthetic.

Mercifully, a whole crew of fresh young writers and painters is beavering away. Documentaries and feature films by youthful Chinese directors, tinged with a most un-Chinese sarcasm, are creeping into the world’s film festivals.

It would be tragic if all modern China left behind were a string of joint ventures, and faucet factories lined with gleaming bathroom tiles, particularly from the country that produced Song dynasty ceramics and Tang poetry.

Jiang should certainly hark to China’s past. But why stop at socialism? He should go further back, to the Tang dynasty and remember a time of enlightenment, a time when China was open to new ideas. So much so, that an Arab dhow could sail up the Pearl River and Arab traders be welcomed and given permission to build a mosque at the river’s edge.

With that attitude, it could be just the beginning for a scratchy 50-year-old.

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