(December 3, 2010) A speech given by Probe International Fellow and noted Chinese dissident writer, Dai Qing, at the University of Toronto’s Munk Center on China’s so-called “rise” and the consequences of its “economic miracle” for the citizens of China and its environment. This speech was given on October 26, 2010.
If you looked only at China’s double-digit figures for annual GDP growth, its spectacular skyscrapers, the government’s treasure chest of foreign bonds and its monumental feats of engineering like the Three Gorges dam, it would seem unmistakable that China is a country on the “rise.”
But if you look a bit harder, you may ask yourself: is this “rise” a blessing? And at what price is China paying for its new world dominance? Dai Qing, one of China’s foremost journalists, environmentalists and investigative historians—author of more than 20 books and a Fellow at Probe International—says the country’s forests, minerals, rivers and fields are being plundered in the quest for wealth. What will be left for those that follow us, she asks. Instead of greatness, says Dai Qing, China’s “rise” rests on rotting foundations, strained by official corruption, moral bankruptcy and a social environment simmering with anger and unrest. Ultimately, Dai Qing asks: what kind of life can Chinese citizens lead in this “rising” China?
Dai Qing’s Speech:
The whole world is talking about “China’s rise.” Even the Chinese people themselves—especially officials and the official media—describe the current situation as the achievement of “a prosperous society” brought about by “the miracle of economic growth.”
We behold China’s annual GDP growth and the government’s stash of foreign bonds.
We behold skyscrapers and the Bird’s Nest Stadium.
We behold the largest dam in the world, the Three Gorges project.
Behold the country’s massive export of toys and electrical appliances.
China is also looking to space and has launched its second unmanned lunar probe.
Not so obvious, however, is that China has another very special “export:” the ideology of authoritarianism—a very special export that feeds China’s “rise” and makes China seem even more powerful.
The most attractive new faces advertising “China’s success today”—the poster children of a “rising China”—are the new rich Chinese who have emerged in China and elsewhere in the world over the past 20 years. These people are lavish, smart, and arrogant. They feel they can do anything they want, and that there is nothing they cannot do.
In China, they are known as the newborn Red Nobility. The Red Nobles are government officials and their family members, or at least those with very strong links to these government officials (former secretaries, etc.) who have their careers in China.
They are conspicuously wealthy, elite and self-confident.
Recently, netizens have coined a term for the new special elite called “Naked Officials.” These “Naked Officials” move their cash and their dear ones—wife, children, concubine—abroad, buying houses and cars for them in their new countries of residence. Meanwhile, these “Naked Officials” continue to live in China but usually have several passports in hand and are prepared to escape China at any moment to join their families (and lovers) abroad.
Is this the evidence of China’s “rise”?
We must ask a few questions about this “miracle” of growth and prosperity:
Is this “rise” like manna from heaven?
Or does it come at a cost to the Chinese people and the world? If so, what is that price?
Before answering this question, we must have a look at today’s People’s Republic of China. What kind of country is it in the modern age?
What is the nature of its “rise,” and why didn’t the “rise” occur during the Qing Dynasty in the 19th century when the Industrial Revolution brought prosperity to many countries?
Why didn’t the “rise” occur at the end of World War II, when China joined the ranks of the victors as one of the “Four Allies”?
Why didn’t the rise occur in Mao Zedong’s era, when “the People became the masters of their own country”?
And why didn’t it occur in the 1980s, when the Communist Party of China began to rethink its many errors, to relax its grip on society and to implement the policy of “reform and opening up”?
Why has China only “risen” in the past two decades, after the tanks ran over Tiananmen Square and shocked the people of China into a terrified silence at all levels of society: high-level party officials, scholars and professors, local officials and cadres, state-owned enterprise managers and workers, private business owners, and students currently in school or recently graduated. Everyone was shocked into silence.
If the ruling party could order the People’s Army to fire on the people, what else could it do? People asked what kind of “People’s Republic” are we? At this zero hour, then top leader Deng Xiaoping gave the answer—saying that, yes, 1,000 have been killed at Tiananmen, but, “I believe it would be worthwhile to kill 200,000 to buy 20 years of stability for the regime.”
The Tiananmen massacre set the stage for the Red Nobles’ political reform—only it was not the reform that the students and other demonstrators imagined but the reform that Deng Xiaoping would soon introduce. He announced this reform during his tour of southern China in 1992. In the new commercial city of Shenzhen he dismissed labels such as capitalism and socialism and declared that “development is first thing first” and “let some people get rich first.”
Deng’s declaration freed the leadership from their paralysis that had gripped the country since Tiananmen.
The ruling elite suddenly knew that as public servants they were really free to serve themselves, as long as they laid low and followed the “lie low rule”— which they describe as “use your power as soon as possible before it expires.”
But does this political system, which continues today, fit the dreams of the Newborn Red Nobles?
Let me now step back and try to explain events using a poem by Mao Zedong, written in 1973, three years before his death.
Very few of you in this room are likely to know this poem because it has never been published. Mao did not have time to arrange its publication and his Comrades in Arms would have been too scared to do so, as the poem reveals too much about the nature of Mao’s regime.
The poem deals with the political system in the Qin dynasty, the first ruling dynasty of Imperial China.
Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor and the strongest, relied on no one for his power but his own iron will. He did not rely on the authority of Confucianism. Why should he rely on someone who was only a thinker and educator? Qin did not need this kind of person to maintain order, and neither did Mao.
If some of you are here from the Confucius Institute with the Red China brand, perhaps this poem will have special meaning for you.
In the poem Mao criticizes an article by Guo written in 1948 while Chiang Kai-shek was still in power. Guo compared Chiang Kai-shek to the autocratic Emperor Qin, and praised Confucius.
Here is Mao’s poem (translated by me):
Take a break from your scolding of Qin, the first Emperor,
There are other opinions about “book burnings and elite killings.”
The Grand Dragon has died but his spirit remains still over the world
Confucius, enjoys a lofty reputation, but is nothing at all but nonsense, bullshit.
Qin System was employed by each of the dynasties in China,
Your criticism of him is not good.
Read “On Feudalism” again and again from Liu in the Tang dynasty
Don’t go back from him [Liu] to Wen, the King of Chun Qiu era.
After the Qin Dynasty in 200 BC, the “Qin system of Rule” has lived on through the iron hand and centralized rule.
The emperors in China, of every dynasty, have continued to exploit the ordinary people just as Qin did. They levied farm rents and taxes, they employed forced labour, and they used whatever means of exploitation they wanted.
At the same time, to discourage dissent, each emperor promoted his own brand of Confucianism to promote deference and maintain social order.
For two thousand years, this kind of imperial control remained the status quo.
In the early 20th century, when the last Emperor of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) was kicked out of the palace, did this usher in a new spirit of change forChina?
Okay, Chinese men cut their braids, wore Western suits, started talking about having a democracy, a republic and a Constitution. The whole society bustled with excitement.
But the country’s old centralized political and legal system remained unchanged; stubbornly stuck in the spirit world of the Chinese people, in the heart of both the rulers and the ruled alike. But now China had modern day Emperors—President, Chairman, General Secretary—one after the other.
It remained under Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government; it remained under Mao Zedong’s People’s government. The ghost of Qin—or “Grandpa Dragon” as Chairman Mao used to call him—continued to haunt the Chinese political psyche.
Chiang Kai-shek was unlucky, because not even one day of his era, from 1927 to 1949, was a day of peace (warlord war, anti-Japanese war, civil war).
Then Mao seized power. In the following 27 years before he died, China should have enjoyed many years of peace … but what actually happened?
Declassified documents, released last month, reveal that in 1950 Stalin made a deal with Mao: “I’ll manage the European side of things, you’ll be responsible for the Asian side,” Stalin is recorded as having said.
I don’t know how many high-ranking officials in the inner CCP knew about that deal. But we know that after the deal was made, Mao began to see himself as a leader, not only of China, but of the oppressed peoples of the East. It became his dream, his “responsibility,” to reach beyond China’s border.
This explains why, in the early 1950s, he resisted the advice of nearly all of his comrades and made China “pull chestnuts out of the fire”[i] for Stalin, and act as “the cat’s paw” on his behalf by becoming involved in the Korean War.
This also explains why three generations of Chinese people (born from 1910 to the 1970s) were forced to subsist at a miserable, survival standard of living, especially those farmers who lost their land and became “commune members” but in fact, were no more than farm slaves.
None of the Communist elite, from the top level in Beijing to the grassroots level in villages, dared to question Mao, their “emperor,” about his strategies, no matter how absurd they were—when he launched endless “movements”: the land reform, the capitalist reform, the Great Leap Forward, the anti-rightists’ attack on intellectuals, and the internal struggle. All of these movements lead to famine in the 1960s—a time of peace, causing more than 30 million people to die from mass starvation.
And so, by the 1970s, China’s economic situation and the livelihoods of its people were on the brink of collapse.
And then Mao Zedong died. The faction that inherited his spirit and doctrine—the Gang of Four—were purged.
Once again, the people raised the cheer of “Liberation!” But it is impossible to purge the political culture of 2,000 years of centralized imperial rule from the minds of the people at the drop of a hat.
Then Deng Xiaoping came to power and imposed the traditional way of centralized rule to stop the chaos that had emerged under Mao.
As he said to Jiang Zemin, “Chairman Mao had the final say when he was alive, and now that he’s gone, I have the last word. When you are in this position and have the final say, I can rest my heart.”
But what about the Chinese Communists—former rebels and idealists—who followed Mao in the agony of the Long March; who followed him into the so-called “Anti-Japanese War” ; who held the red flag with tears in their eyes when the People’s Republic of China was established in 1949.
What kind of “communist fighters” should they now be? And what sort of ideals should they follow now?
China began to “reform and to open its door to the world”. And the whole world responded to this news with a warm welcome. This gave China a great opportunity to integrate with the outside world and to acknowledge shared universal values—just as the Eastern European countries, and even Russia and Vietnam had done.
I must say that in the 1980s, this is generally what the situation looked like. Unfortunately, when students went to Tiananmen in 1989, the bloody suppression changed China. It completely changed the trajectory of China’s modernization, with the most visible change being in the “soul” of China’s political elite.
Before Tiananmen, during the Mao era and the “reform and opening up” of the 1980s, members of Mao’s political elite never challenged their emperor’s power. They were heavily influenced by an idealistic belief in socialism, public ownership, a planned economy and a commitment to “Serve the People”.
After “Deng Xiaoping’s Southern tour” in 1992, when he declared that “getting rich is glorious” the Communists, officials, their families and the ones around them, began to build a “power-linked capitalist system”.
To achieve this goal, the new Red China established a unique operational system. It completely marginalized the idealistic early communist supporters, replacing them with Red Technocrats pursuing practical interests.
This capitalist system, however, was not a market-driven economy. Instead, the drivers were the ones who spent the state’s assets as if those public assets were their own.
This soulless system has been the state of affairs for nearly 20 years.
Following Deng’s declaration of “development as the top priority” came Jiang Zemin’s “quietly making a big fortune.” Under the banner of “representing the interests of the people” the Red Technocrats became more and more powerful.
At first, they snatched money through special policies and channels, such as the foreign currency exchange and shortages of materials. Then they turned to making money through the sale of weapons and, thanks to the privilege of government access, the operation of projects.
These money-making opportunities are no longer enough. The Red Technocrats have since moved into banking and stock market manipulation, as well as real estate and land development—which has become the most important source of income for local government officials.
President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao are continuing along the same path laid out by Deng. Their central strategy is for “the national enterprises to advance, while the private companies give way.”
In eight years of their administration, governments at all levels have enacted administrative measures to monopolize highly profitable enterprises—in shipping, railways, electricity, energy, telecommunications, and in other major sectors.
The CEOs of China’s state-owned enterprises have personally gained through a “two accounts” policy that has ensured the protection of their monopolies by the government while they pocket the profits. The salary of a general manager in a state-run enterprise might be 100 times more than that of a worker. These bosses make up the backbone of a powerful and corrupt privileged class.
When Hu stresses that the government is “maintaining (social) stability” and “avoiding self-inflicted setbacks,” what this really means is that they are “busy making money by exploiting the people, so please do not disturb.”
What kinds of lives have the Chinese people led for the past 60 years under single-party state rule?
There is a simple saying from netizens[ii] that sums up the 60 year period of the Red Empire of the People’s Republic of China – from Mao (Zedong) to Deng (Xiaoping)to Jiang (Zemin) and then to Hu (Jintao).
This saying has spread far and wide on the Internet and it goes like this:
In the name of revolution, they justified killing.
In the name of the people, they justified nationalization.
In the name of reform, they divided the spoils of the nation.
In the name of harmony, everyone must now shut their mouths.
But not everyone shuts up. Liu Xiaobo, China’s first Nobel Peace Prize winner, refused to shut up and the ruling elite jailed him for 11 years. Ai Weiwei, China’s most bold and daring artist, and the poet Tanzuoren, also refused to shut up when they tried to expose how many children were killed by poorly constructed ‘tofu’ schools that crumbled in the May 2008 earthquake. They were beaten and put into jail for voicing their conscience.
Today, in China, communist elite interest groups have emerged. In terms of different sectors, these groups include people from all walks of life: the Party, government and military; the fields of science and technology, education and culture, medicine, healthcare … everything.
In terms of power, these groups include all levels from top to bottom: from the Communist Party Politburo Standing Committee, to the province, city, county, township, village, down to the lowest level.
In this group, everyone is trying to exploit their power for personal gain and for the benefit of their family.
Their approach is to “make the cake bigger” so they can “cut the cake” are share the pieces by ignoring either the legal system or civilian oversight.
How do they make the cake bigger? By taking the easiest, safest, and fastest way, of course: by exploiting “the vulnerable groups.”
As Qin Hui, the eminent professor of history from Qinghua University says: the secret of China’s “rise” lies in “the advantage of low human rights”—allowing for the exploitation of the rights of provincial workers, natural resources, and the environment.
In China, we have no independent trade unions, farmers’ unions, no chambers of commerce or industry associations—only countless silent workers who have no sense of rights and no channels of complaint.
We have no independent media or independent academic research. All avenues of communication—television, radio, newspapers, publishing houses, research institutes and universities are either mouthpieces of the government or subject to the party’s control and censure.
We have no independent or registered human rights or environmental NGOs, or independent foundations. Those public interest researchers and lawyers who try to be watchdogs and uphold the Chinese Constitution are themselves watched and suppressed when they try to contribute to the peaceful transition of China to a country of laws.
We have no meaningful protections for the environment.
According to the Constitution, China’s land, rivers, forests, and mineral resources are all state-owned.
In practice, this means owned by state officials. Any official who puts his hands on our resources can own it. Land grabs have become the primary means for officials, at all levels, to get rich.
Over the past 20 years, this system and China’s “rise” has led to the disastrous destruction of China’s resources and environment.
- 80% of the rivers and lakes are drying up;
- 60% of the water in seven major river systems is unsuitable for human contact;
- One third of the land is contaminated by acid rain;
- Two thirds of the grassland has become desertified and most of the forest is gone;
- Water systems and soil have been severely polluted by fertilizers and pesticides, with 40% of arable land degraded.
China has also become the world’s factory and the world’s dumping ground as well. Of the world’s 20 most polluted cities, 16 are in China.
These are the costs to our resources and our environment. But what about the cost to the people of China and the nation, as a whole?
Nowadays, the career path most people hope to follow is that of government official, which is seen as the gateway to becoming rich. The traditional Chinese work ethic has disappeared.
In China today, with a belief in neither the traditional values nor the rule of law, money has become a be-all and end-all for almost everyone.
This has become the common view.
People play games with authority. At one level, they act obsequious; at another, they are envious.
They are driven by the sense that they, too, must become rich. To become rich, they will follow the example of their superiors, even if it means tyrannizing the weak and plundering public resources.
In today’s Qin Policy, the Chinese know that they are free to do anything, as long as they remain silent about politics. They can chase money—no matter how immoral. The rulers get the lion’s share of the spoils and hand out small morsels to those who follow the rules of the game, and know enough not to challenge them.
The Qin System, as Mao said, has been employed by every dynasty in power. This system still continues but in the hands of today’s communists, it is executed with great efficiency and skill.
But, what about the environment, is it sustainable?
Friedrich Hayek once said that a tyrannical government without any restriction means only war and enslavement.
Today, because we have an authoritarian system in China, our resources, our environment and the welfare of the people are not secure.
China’s great “rise” is no rise at all. It has meant destruction for the country’s rivers, land, forests, the children of China and the nation itself.
What can we, as residents, citizens and netizens in China, do in this kind of political environment?
The only way, I think, is to tell the truth about the costs of the “rise”; to act not only as a netizen but as a true citizen with the basic right to free speech, assembly and public oversight of government; to fight the 21st century’s Qin-style dictatorship; and to insist on fighting for our constitution, and not for rebellion or revolution.
Though the battle will be long, we will not give up.
This speech was originally delivered on October 26, 2010 at the Munk Centre, University of Toronto, sponsored by the Asian Institute.
[i] In other words, let others do the work when the job gets too difficult. It is based on the fable of the monkey that asks its companion, the cat, to help remove the roasting chestnuts from the fire with its paw. While the cat did so, the monkey ate the roasted chestnuts, leaving the cat with nothing but burnt paws.
[ii] Unable to participate openly in civic matters, Chinese citizens interact with each other and express their opinions and hold debates on the Internet, hence their description as “Netizens.”
About Dai Qing:
Probe International Fellow, activist and investigative historical journalist, Dai Qing has been speaking out against the Three Gorges Dam since the 1980s. She published Yangtze! Yangtze! in 1989, a book of essays highlighting the concerns about the environmental and social effects of the dam, followed by The River Dragon has Come! in 1998. Her earlier books include Wang Shiwei and ‘Wild Lilies’ and her most recent book is In the Grasp of Buddha’s Palm: Zhang Dongsun and His Era, published in 2008.
Though Dai Qing faces constant harassment by Chinese authorities and is forbidden to publish in China, she has chosen to remain in Beijing where she continues to fight for freedom of the press, government accountability, and an open debate over the Three Gorges dam. She has been honoured with Fellowships from Harvard,Columbia, and the Australian National University, with the International PEN Award for Freedom, and the Goldman Environmental Prize.
Other Articles by Dai Qing:
- Dai Qing: The illusion of China’s rise
- Dai Qing: Liu Xia’s Grand List
- Dai Qing: People’s power
- The expensive Three Gorges flood control project
- Three Gorges project authority: a thief crying stop thief
- 1948: How Peaceful was the Liberation of Beiping?
- Dai Qing’s introduction to The Story of the Dahe Dam
- Expert who refused to sign off on Three Gorges
- Who wants this dam anyway?
- The race to salvage the Three Gorges treasure trove
- Is ‘keeping in step with the Party’ good for the environment?
- Keep the doors to China wide open
- China’s dam begins to crumble
The original announcement of this presentation:
(Oct. 19, 2010) Probe International fellow and noted Chinese journalist and dissident, Dai Qing, will be giving a speech, “China’s “Rise” and the Environment’s Decline” at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs on October 26, 2010.
October 26, 2010, 2:00 PM – 4:00 PM
Vivian and David Campbell Conference Facility,
Munk School of Global Affairs
1 Devonshire Place
The world seems in awe of China’s rise as a global economic powerhouse: a spectacular Olympics and Shanghai World Expo, rapid growth in gross domestic product, huge government foreign holdings, expanding cities and city skylines, the world’s largest dam at Three Gorges, and a new consumer might have all fed the impression of success. But what kind of “rise” is it and at what cost has China’s “rise” occurred, asks Dai Qing, China’s most famous environmentalist and investigative historical journalist. China’s natural legacy of wealth – forests, minerals, rivers and fields – have been plundered, she argues and instead of greatness, China’s rise rests on rotting foundations, strained by official corruption, moral bankruptcy and a social environment simmering with anger and unrest.
Dai Qing is a Chinese freelance journalist, environmentalist, and investigative historian who has published more than 20 books in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, Germany, UK, the US and Canada. Her 1989 book on the controversial Three Gorges dam on China’s Yangtze River, Yangtze! Yangtze!, was hailed by the Far Eastern Economic Review as a “watershed event in post-1949 Chinese politics, representing the first use of public lobbying by intellectuals and public figures.” Dai Qing continued her pioneering use of environmental investigative journalism in China in a 1997 follow-up book on the dam project, The River Dragon Has Come! After publicly denouncing the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, she resigned from the Chinese Communist Party and was later imprisoned for 10 months. She was a 1992 Nieman Fellow at Harvard and is the recipient of the 1992 World Association of Newspapers’ Golden Pen for Freedom Award, the 1993 Goldman Environmental Award, and the 1993 Condé Nast Traveler Environmental Award. Dai Qing was a 1998-99 Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington, D.C. She is also a Probe International Fellow, a Toronto- based environmental think-tank with whom she has collaborated since her release from prison and with whom she has written, translated and published three books, oral histories and countless articles. Probe International is the sponsor of her current trip to Toronto.
Co-sponsored by the Department of Political Science and the Department of Geography