China is often depicted in extremes. But in figuring out how much
China has changed or how much it has stayed the same, the trick may
be simply to refuse to choose between those two options.
Is the most surprising thing about China how much it's changed in
recent decades - or how little?
Those with only a casual interest in the country can easily feel
that they have to pick between these two options - and that doing so
isn't simple. Not when the sound bites about and punditry on China
is shaped by a sort of bipolar disorder, toggling continually (and
sometimes swiftly) between accounts stressing the dizzying pace of
change (cue photo of Shanghai skyscrapers) and reports highlighting
the stubborn hold of old ways (cue shot of the giant portrait of
Chairman Mao by Tiananmen Square).
When the Chinese economy makes headlines, the emphasis is likely
to be on breaks with the past. No surprise there. While Mao was
alive, who thought capitalists would be welcomed into the Communist
Party and Big Macs sold in Beijing?
If political issues rather than economic ones are the focus of
the China story du jour, though, the emphasis is likely to be on how
deeply China remains stuck in old ruts. Here, again, the logic is
obvious, and not just because Party Congresses and National Day
parades can give someone who has been following Chinese events for
years a sense of deja vu.
Consider the case of dissent, as exemplified by the treatment of
Liu Xiaobo, a scholar and human rights activist who was sentenced to
11 years in prison on trumped-up charges of "subversion" last
Christmas. He had already been imprisoned for participating in the
Tiananmen protests of 1989. So his latest incarceration immediately
brings to mind the fact that the government still clings to the "Big
Lie" narrative that treats the Tiananmen struggle as a
"counterrevolutionary riot" that was handled with restraint, rather
than what it was: a popular upheaval crushed by a massacre.
In addition, Mr. Liu's latest incarceration has disturbing echoes
that go back to the Democracy Wall Movement of the late 1970s. He
drew the ire of the state most recently through helping to draft and
circulate "Charter 08," a bold online call for increased civil
liberties. While inspired by the Czech Charter 77 movement
associated with Vaclav Havel, Charter 08 also fits into the same
indigenous tradition of calls for change as a poster demanding
greater political freedoms that earned Wei Jingsheng, a Democracy
Wall leader, a 15-year prison term 30 years ago.
Some Chinese bloggers, noting the parallels between the treatment
of Mr. …