Perry Link: China: From Famine to Oslo

In the New York Review of Books, Perry Link writes an essay in which he discusses the books, Ruyan@sars.come (So it was@sars.come) by Hu Fayun and Mubei (Tombstone) by Yang Jisheng, and the recent Nobel award ceremony which honored imprisoned dissident Liu Xiaobo:

Today’s “rising China,” which from the outside can seem to exude strength and confidence, inwardly lives with an unsure view of itself. People sense, even if they do not want to talk about it, that their country’s current system is grounded partly in fraud, cannot be relied upon to treat people fairly, and might not hold up. Insecurity, the new national mood, extends from laid-off migrant laborers to the men at the top of the Communist Party. The socialist slogans that the government touts are widely seen as mere panoply that covers a lawless crony capitalism in which officials themselves are primary players. This incongruity has been in place for many years and no longer fools anyone. People take it as normal, but that very normality makes cynicism the public ideology. Many people turn to materialism—whether in property or investment—in search of value, but often cannot feel secure there, either; even if they gain a bit of wealth, they do not know when it might disappear or be wrested away.

One stopgap that top leaders have used has been to stoke national pride. They have staged an Olympics and a World’s Fair. They arrange to broadcast throughout China that the Dalai Lama is a “wolf” who would “split the motherland.” Such tactics have had some success. Chauvinist sentiment, especially among the upwardly mobile urban young, is easy to provoke, and is sometimes loudly expressed.

Yet in quieter settings, Chinese people continue to make decisions that reflect their lack of confidence in China’s future. Farmers from Fujian province still pay “snakeheads” tens of thousands of dollars to smuggle one person to Sydney, London, or New York. Of the approximately 145,000 Chinese students who go abroad each year for study, only about 25–30 percent return to live in China (and of these, some keep foreign passports tucked away). Even leaders of the Communist Party send their children—and large amounts of their money—to places like Vancouver and Los Angeles.


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