Making Sense of the Chinese

The American Enterprise*, June 2002

Bad Elements: Chinese Rebels from Los Angeles to Beijing
By Ian Buruma
Random House, 432 pages, $27.95

There is an idea, mostly propagated by Chinese authoritarian leaders, that China is unfit for democracy. Supposedly, the poor, uneducated Chinese masses simply aren’t ready to be free. As Chinese president Jiang Zemin told the New York Times last July, democratization in China would lead to chaos.

The rulers of the repressive regime in Beijing also fan the sentiment that China–right or wrong–must be defended by Chinese everywhere, at all times. As a member of the National People’s Congress once explained, “If you’re Chinese, you should always stand with the Chinese people, not with the foreigners who attempt to weaken China.”

This idea and this sentiment often join to project a powerful myth of an orderly, strong, and unified China. Which is very convenient for the Chinese government. When it arrests democracy activists, tortures peaceful religious protestors, purges reform-minded officials, or threatens overseas Chinese academic scholars, it invokes the myth: China needs to be ruled strongly, and must not be criticized. Even to ordinary Chinese people, the myth is often an intoxicating and irresistible concept. Chinese yuppies in Beijing and Shanghai who embrace economic reform turn their backs on persecuted religious believers and political dissidents, justifying their callousness with the “need for social stability.” Overseas Chinese brand exiled dissidents “traitors” for shining a spotlight on China’s human rights abuses.

“China,” summarizes Ian Buruma in Bad Elements: Chinese Rebels from Los Angeles to Beijing, “is an orthodoxy, a dogma, which disguises politics as culture and nation as race.” Buruma tells the stories of Chinese dissidents who challenged this orthodoxy. The tales reveal “the mesmerizing force of the Chinese myth, as well as the reasons why some people are brave or mad enough to challenge it.” Through sacrifices in prison, hiding, or exile, these few men and women prove that freedom is not wholly alien to the Chinese soul.

Buruma talked to political and religious dissidents all across the Chinese speaking world. He began in America, far from the gravitational pull of the Chinese orthodoxy, and ended in Beijing, the city he calls a “monument to its lies.” He visited “other” Chinas such as Singapore and Taiwan, and went to Hong Kong, Shenzhen, and Guangzhou (vibrant economic centers on the Chinese periphery), and Lhasa in Tibet.

Some of Buruma’s subjects have been hailed as heroes, martyrs, or freedom fighters. Others are nameless. Numerous Chinese dissidents are Christians who credit Christianity with providing the strength to defy authoritarianism. Almost all criticize a depressing and debilitating spiritual vacuum in China today.

The rebels are also plagued by an unmistakable sense of cultural self loathing. Frustrated by the resilience of Chinese authoritarianism, many deride Chinese culture as “hypocritical” and “shameless.” They believe that Chinese society has robbed people of the principles necessary for refuting official lies and living freely.

Buruma is at his best when comparing renegade opinions to the jingoistic, pro-government rhetoric mouthed by nationalists in China. He meets lonely activists among Singapore’s predominantly Chinese electorate, largely content to accept political infringements in exchange for economic prosperity. He encounters plucky individuals determined to uphold Hong Kong’s freedoms in the face of China’s attempts to chip away at them. He meets triumphant Taiwanese activists who fought for democracy, defying the Chinese orthodoxy.

Unfortunately, Buruma uncovers few genuine dissenters within the Middle Kingdom itself. Inside mainland China, we encounter few important or interesting battlers (with the notable exception of liberal author He Qinglian). Buruma’s subjects are mostly people who might best be categorized as unhappy citizens.

Principled activists within China’s borders constitute the missing link in breaking down China’s current antifreedom orthodoxy. Until their battle cry is heard, all the noises made by Chinese freedom-fighters abroad, however inspirational, will ring hollow.

*The American Enterprise was the flagship publication of the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC. In 2006, the magazine was relaunched as The American.

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