Three Gorges Probe

In search of the new China

November 10, 1999

The Middle Kingdom has seen great advances and horrible setbacks. Where is it heading now?

Scenario 1 PLACE: China; TIME: 2020; SETTING: The border of Yunnan and Sichuan

The parliamentary delegation from the province of Yunnan, a vigorous group of elegantly dressed thirtysomething men and women, is aboard the early-morning shuttle to Chengdu, in neighboring Sichuan. They are taking advantage of a recess in the national Parliament in Beijing to discuss a roster of shared local concerns: the need for additional testing of the purity of river water that flows between the two provinces; the possibility of giving more money to flourishing church and prayer groups; the use of provincial budget surpluses to place more disadvantaged children from minority tribal groups in their magnet school programs; and the exchange of artworks between their museums.


The officers from the provisional Yunnan military government, crowded in the back of an ancient truck, are finally allowed to proceed to Chengdu after hours of bickering with the surly Sichuan guards. Their orders are to cut a deal with the People’s Military Government of Sichuan: In exchange for a massive amount of raw opium, the Sichuanese will agree to extradite a group of religious dissidents and democracy activists from Yunnan who have sought sanctuary across the border. As their truck lurches forward, they glance indifferently at the crowds of bullock carts and pedestrians milling around the concrete road blocks. A brackish river winds along the side of the rutted road, its banks lined with dead fish and old tin cans. On the walls of the guard post, tattered posters of naked women flap in the breeze.

Either scenario is possible for China. History, that often shrouded muse, lends support to both projections. In the first third of this century, China held elections for provincial assemblies and a national Parliament, established a judicial system and supreme court, and encouraged noncoercive land reform. Yet at much the same time, local militarists were forming armies drawn from bandits and landless farm laborers. These created unstable, harsh regimes that controlled entire provinces. Any coherent attempt at national politics was thwarted by deals among military power brokers, often working in tandem with foreigners.

History, though, won’t tell the whole story. Whatever scenarios we create for the future must take into account certain basic facts about today’s China: the Communist Party’s determination to hold on to power, a population of 1.3 billion, a highly educated technical elite, scarce arable land, serious air and water pollution, ebullient entrepreneurship, outdated and inefficient state-controlled industries, resentment of past exploitation by both the Western powers and the Japanese, and resurgent nationalism.

Should we be scared or encouraged by this mix, and how strongly should history inform our decisions? Despite the many dark periods in China’s recent past, I tend to be on the optimistic side. The past 20 years of the People’s Republic have seen important developments, especially in the diversification of the economy, the extraordinary growth of real income for much of the population, and increased openness to foreign investment, technology, and culture. (For more data on China’s progress, see the next article.) One has to be in China only a few days to see the incredible intellectual and creative activity now possible, and the frankness of private political discussion. Compared with the 1960s and 1970s, the range of what is allowed has increased enormously. The government does not infiltrate the home or neighborhood in the way that it used to; children are no longer encouraged, for example, to turn in their parents for politically incorrect remarks. The definition of what the state considers suspect is considerably narrower than it was even ten years ago. And improvements in communications are making the state’s hold on what people think ever frailer.

Though the Communist government has resisted any public expression of belief in democracy, and the whole world still remembers the images of the violent crackdown of 1989, reinforced now by the equally clumsy (though less violent) attempt to suppress the Falun Gong sect, even in political terms there has been real progress. For several years there have been regular elections to administrative posts at the local level. In some of these, non-Communist candidates were voted into office. The government sometimes voided those elections, but the seeds of popular choice are being sown. In cases such as the Three Gorges Dam project–one of China’s most beautiful valleys is set to be dammed to create power–there has been sustained criticism of the government’s plans by private individuals and even by the normally docile delegates to the National People’s Congress. There is absolutely no inherent reason that the Chinese cannot develop democratic institutions on a wider and more influential scale should they choose to, and if they feel they are the best way to harness their potential for growth and excellence.

China is rich in possibilities, good and bad; it is possible for observers to look at important aspects of the place and come to widely varying conclusions about how they will evolve. For example, provincial identities are strong in China, and most provinces are large enough to be independent countries. Pessimists look at this structure and argue that as Beijing’s control declines, fragmentation and internal warfare could ensue. But one can also argue that the strength and self-consciousness of the provinces constitute excellent building blocks for a federal democratic structure. Vibrant provincial economies could greatly strengthen the country by developing their own programs for growth and reform, and intelligently using their own resources free from the stranglehold of Beijing. Already provincial governments have taken the lead in major infrastructure investments, such as airport construction, and are increasingly creative in encouraging the export of local products.

Similarly, the specter of uncontrollable militarists hangs heavy over China’s past. Pessimists note that it is conceivable they could surface again. But optimists are on surer ground that it is not likely. As China’s military forces have grown in technological sophistication over the past 30 years, so has the central disbursement of funds. The escalating costs of modern warfare make any serious bid for localized military autonomy very difficult indeed.

In other areas, too, I find the optimistic scenario more plausible. Though the number of people working on the land has shrunk dramatically since the 1980s, agricultural productivity is higher than ever. Millions of farm families are flourishing as they learn to grow crops intensively for specialized local and urban markets–and send family members to work in village enterprises. These changes in rural land holdings, and the shifting of much farm work to women and children, have led to the emergence of a vast floating population of tens of millions of Chinese migrant workers, with obvious potential for making trouble. But there is a positive side even to this: When these workers find urban employment, they pump revenue back home, into the poorer areas where it is desperately needed. And their labor is essential to the cities.

Even China’s edgy nationalism could take a turn for the better. A vast amount of China’s cultural heritage was destroyed this century by war and by Communist government policies. But in many areas this legacy is being reconstructed or reinvented with a passionate attention to detail and historical accuracy by craftsmen whose skills are every bit as fine as their vanished forebears’. A prime example I have seen recently is the Judge Bao memorial temple in Hefei. There local craftsmen, under expert scholarly supervision and working to 11th-century specifications, have rebuilt an aesthetically flawless replica of the old site, carving every stone and shaping every pillar from indigenous materials.

By restoring a sense of pride in its past, China is developing the possibility of a less strident and culturally richer form of nationalism. And it has a core of world-class university students–patriotic, sophisticated, and unafraid of world ideas–who are likely to present a more confident face of China to the world.

China has real problems that cannot be wished away. But I believe the first, more hopeful scenario is also the more likely one. It may come only after many bitter years, following the collapse of the Communist Party as an organizing force–an event that could be traumatic in itself. Or it may become possible gradually and peacefully–as so much positive change has already happened. The largest hope I have for China in the coming century is that the Chinese people will at last be allowed to speak for themselves within an institutional structure that protects them when they do so. This is not an impossible dream.

JONATHAN SPENCE teaches modern Chinese history at Yale University. His latest book, a biography of Mao Zedong, will be published this fall.

Categories: Three Gorges Probe

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