Letter from China

By Xueqin, Jiang | The Nation, March 4, 2002 | Go to article overview

Letter from China


Xueqin, Jiang, The Nation


Causing the raising of an eyebrow is an easy enough feat nowadays in China. Last July, in a speech to commemorate the eightieth anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party, President Jiang Zemin lifted restrictions on China's capitalists that kept them from becoming party members. After the September 11 attacks, China enthusiastically welcomed Bush's war on terrorism. And in December, China finally entered the World Trade Organization.

To most American eyes these are liberal and cosmopolitan steps forward: an increasingly open Chinese society embracing the free market and international norms. But recent events provide a reminder that there is a different view out there--one President George W. Bush is unlikely to experience when he visits China on February 21-22. It is a view that was made concrete and bloody when five independent bombings--the latest in a string of explosions that have been escalating since the early 1990s--hit Chinese cities shortly after China's WTO entry. Several people were killed in these incidents, two of them at McDonald's. It is probably not an accident that the bombers selected Western multinationals patronized by wealthy Chinese.

The government has yet to offer an explanation for the bombings, and it's easy to see why: The Communist Party will never acknowledge that the vast majority of the Chinese people are disgruntled. I spent the latter part of 2001 traveling around China talking to workers and peasants, and discovered that contrary to Western perceptions that the common people are benefiting from the free market, the Chinese see their government and the nation's elite as conspiring to sell them out to imperialists, a k a the Americans. Frustration with the government's economic policies is now entwined with rapidly expanding anti-Western sentiment.

For many, China's workers' paradise has become a workers' hell. More than half of state workers--a daunting 70 million, according to reliable government sources--have been laid off, with more to come as the WTO reaches further into China. Socialism is dead; unable to school an only child or cure sick parents, workers constantly complain about corruption, crime and inequality. Little wonder that the rabidly xenophobic Mao Zedong is increasingly popular. In ordinary Chinese homes, where Mao's gleaming portrait hangs in the living room like an altar, workers gather to discuss his virtues. Once again chanting "Long live Chairman Mao," they see foreign investors stealing China's wealth, China's rich mingling freely with expatriate businessmen and China's elite sending their children and cash to the United States. Meanwhile, the media are infatuated with the wealthy, workers' leaders and sympathizers are jailed, and the Communist Party is now conducting a systemic attack on socialists who do not adhere to the party line. In a state where workers have no rights, no capital and no voice, they still have one innate power--the power of violence.

This is a society whose fabric is ripping, whose psychology is brittle to the point of cracking. Numbers tell a part of the story. China's official urban unemployment rate is now close to 5 percent, or about 7 million. Western scholars believe the urban unemployment rate to be approximately 25 percent, but the real figure may be more than twice that. Per capita income is $900, but that's misleading: Most Chinese survive on $200 a year, while recent statistics reveal that there are already 1.2 million households with investments reaching at least $100,000. Experts believe that last year's official economic growth rate of 7.3 percent is wildly overstated, and even where there is growth few jobs are being created in traditional industries.

To give blood and flesh to these numbers, last July I visited Zhengzhou, the capital of central Henan province. Once a proud industrial city, it is now an urban wasteland replete with dirty streets, overwhelming pollution, daily protests outside government offices and the unemployed rummaging through garbage for dinner.

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