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A short story by Yaxue Cao
(Originally published in the September, 2007, issue of Boulevard, an American literary quarterly.)
Six-Peace Restaurant stood at the end of a narrow road that had been built, apparently, for the Compound across the street, because the asphalt surface reached only to the front gate of the Compound, and beyond that, the road turned to dirt, leading to a field of debris and overgrown weeds. Across the field on the east, you could see the towers of the Asian Games Village where the new cityscape was unfolding. The restaurant adjoined a bicycle repair shop on one side and a hair salon on the other. It had about twenty tables, and was the only restaurant at this corner of the city’s northern outskirts, not counting a couple of tiny eateries in the outdoor free market at the entrance of the road.
I started going there, a book tucked under my arm, for lunch around two in the afternoons soon after I had moved to the Compound. At that time of day, the restaurant had few customers and sometimes none, and I liked to sit at the last table by the window. The owner was also the chef, a man in his mid-thirties, my age, slim, tall and erect. I read Proust while eating, his tentacles spreading themselves deep and wide the way the roots of a giant tree do. From time to time, I emerged from reading to watch the street scene (the sun was high and glaring, the din of life dropped a few decibels, but the two young soldiers guarding the gate of the Compound were meticulously upright as always) or the owner who was busy in the front (it was an endless chore to operate a restaurant, and the owner didn’t seem to have a helper, at least I hadn’t seen one). Perhaps because I was a woman and alone, the owner was extraordinarily polite to me every time I ordered or paid my bill and left. But I could tell he was a shy man. One day, he asked, while getting me change, why he hadn’t seen me in the area before. I said I had just moved into the Compound. My answer didn’t satisfy him. He went on asking, “Do you come from … the south…?” At this point, I told him I had just returned from the United States. “No wonder,” he said, smiling, “you look different.” Then he started apologizing for the homeliness of his dishes. I said my taste was simple and homely dishes were the best. I asked his last name, and he said Shang.
“Why come back?” Mr. Shang sighed when he saw me again. “How wonderful America is!”
Having exchanged names, Mr. Shang and I were on more familiar ground now. Halfway into my meal, he strolled to the back of the dining room and sat down two tables across from me. I pushed Proust aside.
I had been back for only a couple of weeks, and had been asked the same question several times already. My family asked, my college friends, whom I had not seen yet, asked over the phone, now even a stranger like Mr. Shang wanted to know. I should have prepared a standard answer, so I wouldn’t be at a loss again as I was then. But on the other hand, I didn’t want to answer. I had sensed, from people’s sighs or their pauses, some sort of reproach, as though I had done something stupid, or I was a loser, and had grown a little resistant to their inquiries.
“America is great, isn’t it?” He asked.
“Sure,” I said. “It’s a developed country after all.”
“I bet it’s not as dirty as here.”
I followed Mr. Shang’s line of sight and saw, outside the window, a small van had just hurled by, a cloud of dust swirling in its wake.
“Yeah, it’s very clean over there,” I said. “Not much dust, and the air is fresh.”
“Where did their dirt go? Don’t they have any?” Mr. Shang was bewildered.
“Dirt is everywhere on Earth,” I laughed. “Except that in America, wherever roads and buildings are not, there are lawns, natural vegetation or trees to hold the dirt.”
Mr. Shang looked like he had just heard some bizarre theory. Then he too laughed, “Of course, of course.”
He went back to his work in the front.
He was a Beijingese. One could tell from his accent. But otherwise he was rather atypical of a Beijing man. He was not glib as many of them were, and far from being caddish, he reminded me of a gentler, cultured kind that the bamboo groves and limpid streams of the south traditionally had produced. He was as busy as any restaurateurs, but he looked neither overly shrewd nor hyperactive as many of them were. This somehow gave me the impression that he was doing an unsuitable job in an unsuitable place.
I had not expected to see a city beyond my recognition. But that was exactly what happened. When I stepped off the plane and into the brand-new, spotless international airport, I thought, for a moment, I had somehow circled back to America. The airport I remembered resembled a country bus station, only bigger, more upscale and more complex. I could still recall the stench coming out of the toilets. Outside the airport, the taxi turned onto a new highway lined with meticulously ordered poplar trees. The flickering sunlight on the leaves evoked something familiar, but I couldn’t recall the old road anymore. Soon the skyline of the city came into sight. Before I could figure out where I was, the taxi had merged into an endless river of cars under the shadow of skyscrapers. I asked the driver where we were, he said, nonchalantly, “The Third Beltway East.” “Was there a Third Beltway?” I asked hesitantly. “Oh there was, but it’s completely different now,” the driver said. It dawned on me then that I had come back to a strange place. “You are not Beijingese, are you?” The driver asked. “I lived here before and left in 1990.” “That was six years ago!” The driver exclaimed, “it’s totally different now!”
The next day and a half, I visited my sister and a friend of mine, and rode through more streets that I didn’t recognize. The city did not become any more real. Instead, I grew more bewildered. The next evening I passed by the Gate of Heavenly Peace (or Tiananmen) and for the first time felt I had really arrived in Beijing.
A few days after moving into the vacant apartment my sister had in the Compound, I found an email service provider in the yellow pages called chinaonline. The next day I took my laptop with me heading to the Friendship Hotel, where the provider had its office, to install software. The streets now were filled with yellow mini-taxi and white mini-buses. Even outside the Fourth Beltway, where I was living now, I could get a mini-bus as soon as I reached the main road, a few minutes walk from the Compound. As new as I was to the city, I was already growing accustomed to the howling of ticket men hanging half their bodies outside the bus window beckoning passengers. I had already seen a lot of new buildings with ornate styles, such as faux Chinese palatial designs or imitations of Western grandeur. And I kept seeing more every time I went out. From the billboards on top of the buildings, another life enticed: a luxury car accelerating on an immaculate road in the midst of a breathlessly beautiful mountain forest; the Marlboro man on his horse at the edge of a cliff; a warmly lit chamber and sparkling chandelier; a dewy, red rose.
On the Third Beltway North, I transferred to another mini-bus whose destination was the Friendship Hotel. Before, when the municipal buses were the only transportation, they were always packed like cattle cars. Now, with the mini-buses, everybody had a seat. I sat comfortably in the back of the sparsely occupied bus as it turned onto the avenue leading from the Zoo to the university district, looking forward to see a part of the city I had traveled most and been most familiar with during my college years. But it soon became clear to me that, even here, I couldn’t recognize anything but the proper names. After a while, even those names started receding from familiarity.
Presently, the ticket man jumped off the bus and disappeared for about ten minutes to attend his own business while the bus and passengers waited. While he was gone, a middle-aged woman got on and sat in the seat right next to the door where the ticket man had been. He came back, seeing his seat had been taken, shook his head in disbelief and launched a torrent of invective.
“You fucking idiot! Are you blind? There are so many empty seats around and you, stupid bitch, had to take mine? …”
The woman quickly got up and moved to a seat across the aisle. Apart from her, there were only two other passengers—a man in the front holding a computer monitor on his lap and myself, in the back.
“Look at you! You imbecile from the province!” The ticket man continued still standing, still pointing his finger at the woman. “Have you ever been to Beijing? Have you, stupid?”
The woman said nothing, her head turning away toward the window.
“I’m going to give you a lesson today,” the man went on. “Listen, this seat belongs to me, your great-uncle! If I haven’t beaten you up, that’s because I’m merciful. Understand?”
I fidgeted in my seat, and could hardly stand it any more. The man with a monitor sat motionlessly like a rock.
“Anybody off?” The driver called out.
The door opened, and the woman bolted out. Then the man with the monitor got up and hurried off too.
I took out my sunglasses and put them on.
The bus moved a little bit further down the road and then stopped.
“Hey! You! Where are you going?” The driver turned around and shouted at me.
“The Friendship Hotel,” I said.
“There’s construction ahead, it’s hard to go through. You can get off here,” the driver said.
The ticket man was absorbed, counting money. I said nothing.
“Hey, did you hear me?” the driver called again, looking at me from the rear-view mirror.
“I bought a ticket for Friendship Hotel, and I will not get off until I am there.”
“It’s not too far from here. You get off, make a right turn ahead, you walk a little bit, then you are there,” said the driver.
“No. Take me to the Friendship Hotel before I get off.”
“Why are you so stubborn? All I’m saying is that it’s hard to get through,” said the driver.
“I bought a ticket for Friendship Hotel, I get off at Friendship Hotel.”
The driver stepped on the gas, mumbling something. The ticket man had stopping midway from counting money and stared at me without saying a word. I could see him, but he couldn’t see me behind the sunglasses.
I was triumphant when I got off at the hotel.
Then I felt an urge to go back to look for that woman. I wanted to find her. I wanted to ask her name, where she came from and what she was doing in Beijing. I wanted to sit down and have a chat with her. I wanted to apologize for not having helped her, and I was ashamed of myself. But as I looked at the piles of dirt on the road, the traffic jam and the crowded skywalk behind me, I knew I would never see her again.
On my way back from the Friendship Hotel, I saw Luxurious View Villas again off the Fourth Beltway—a cluster of cream-yellow, two-story single houses. They looked like they had just been finished, and there was no sign of life yet. But I could imagine the swift-footed few, who made their fortune before anyone else did or ever would, would soon begin their new life there, safeguarded by the solid black iron fence around.
Six-peace restaurant was again empty. On that particular day, I felt like have a bowl of noodles with pickle sauce, asking Mr. Shang if he had pickles. He said yes. I asked if I could go to the kitchen with him to see what kind of pickled vegetables he had. He said, “Come and see.”
I didn’t expect Mr. Shang to have the kind of pickle I used to eat in my childhood. I just wanted to make sure it was not the sweetened kind the southerners made. It was not. It was made of large bok choy that I had had before and was pretty good. Mr. Shang began to prepare the ingredients for my sauce, and I watched beside him.
“You have lived in America for so long and you still like to eat such things?” Mr. Shang said.
“You always like what you ate when you were little,” I said. “It’s like your second nature.”
“Did you eat Chinese food or Western food?”
“Both. But I prefer Chinese, if I have a choice.”
“What are Chinese restaurants like over there?”
“Terrible. Awful. The same everywhere.”
“So you cook for yourself? You don’t look like you can cook.”
“Well, you can never tell.”
“Did you drink coffee or tea?”
“I drink tea.”
“Coffee is a fad in Beijing right now.”
“I like tea better.”
“Are Americans very polite?”
“You can say so.”
Then I remembered my fright just moments ago when I had been crossing the street and a pick-up truck had sped toward me.
“In America,” I said, “especially in small towns where life is slow, if a driver sees you crossing the street, he would stop at a comfortable distance from you and let you cross.”
Mr. Shang looked at me in disbelief. I felt like I had just pulled a magic trick. After a while Mr. Shang said, “How do they do so well but not us?”
Before I said anything, he added, “The Chinese are wicked.”
I thought of the incident on the bus.
“You don’t know how bad the Chinese are these days,” he emphasized, as though trying to convince me.
“But you are not wicked,” I teased.
“China will never be as good as America,” he sighed.
By now, the meat shreds had been stir-fried, pickle was added in, and the water was boiling on another burner for noodles.
“I’m going to wait outside,” I said. As I was leaving, I saw, on the wall behind the kitchen door, a large poster of Marilyn Monroe, in which she smiled radiantly like a wide-open blossom and her breasts, barely contained in an embroidered bra, erect, full, and high. I would never have expected to see her in Mr. Shang’s dim kitchen, on a smoky wall and among the chaos of pans, bowls and dishes. It was a strange feeling.
Back at my seat, I wondered if I should tell Mr. Shang, when he asked me about America again, that I had once been robbed at gunpoint, that a debt collector had harassed me for over two years for money I had already paid. I would have been scared to death by his threats if I didn’t know I was innocent. Also, that professor and translator of Wang Wei, the Tang poet, who didn’t speak one word of Chinese. I worried that the America I had described (the grass and trees, the houses, the clean air and polite people), like the billboards on the streets of Beijing, had become a seducing mirage for Mr. Shang.
Take Monroe for instance. I didn’t know what goddess she was to Mr. Shang. For me, she was a girl named Norma Jeane and she would not be too different from any other girl on the street. In Hollywood, she became Marilyn Monroe, her red lips were forever open, and her eyes expectant, enticing and provocative. Her body was forever posing. She was desired by powerful men, including a President, but died lonely in her bed at the age of 36, holding the telephone receiver……Whatever she had been saying, it couldn’t have been pretty.
Mr. Shang brought my noodles, then sat down two tables across from mine, the same place he had sat down last time. One didn’t see many Chinese men as discreet as Mr. Shang.
“America has a good rule of law, doesn’t it?” He asked.
“Right. People are in general law-bidding.”
“How wonderful,” he said softly, as if to himself.
“What are their police like?”
“They are nice and friendly.”
All of a sudden, I was tired of talking about America with Mr. Shang. Even the few things I had wanted to say, I didn’t want to anymore. What does it matter? I thought. Would it make Mr. Shang’s understand America better?
“Why would you choose to open a restaurant here?” I changed the subject. What I didn’t say was, how could you make money if there were no customers?
Mr. Shang said he used to have a restaurant near The Gate of Broad Peace in the south side of the city, and moved here about a year ago. “Make a right turn at the end of the dirt road,” he said, “and walk for about five minutes, it would be around the Forth Beltway.” He had moved here for its proximity to the new beltway and the Compound. Besides, the rent was very cheap.
I didn’t know there was a shortcut to the Forth Beltway.
“I’ll hold on for another year and see,” he said.
“I like your plaque,” I said. It was a black, rectangular, wooden plague placed at a slight angle over the door, overlooking customers walking into the restaurant. The four characters of “Six Peace Restaurant” were of the gentle, smooth kai style.
“The name sounds like one of those old, traditional names from the southern side of the city,” I said. “What are the six peaces anyway?”
“The peace of the people, the peace of family, the peace of business….” Mr. Shang itemized. “Well, there is really no such thing as six peaces. I picked six simply for its euphonious sound.”
The girl from the hair salon came out with a chair, and sat down in a shady spot on the borderline between the restaurant and the salon.
“Xiao Qin is out again for fresh air,” Mr. Shang commented. “Looks like she’s idle now. She is very able, very tough, for a twenty-something. She is all by herself but does pretty good business.”
I was due for a haircut a long time ago, but every time I saw the name of the shop—Salon of Rome, I hesitated and never went in.
My brother was in Beijing for business, taking my nephew with him to meet me. He left the boy to me and went about his affairs. The last time I saw my nephew, he was a six-year-old and came with his father to see me out of the country. Now he was twelve, standing bashfully and quietly in front of me. I was just as clueless. “Have you been to the Palace of Restfulness?” I asked him and got no answer. “How about we go and row a boat there?” He smiled and nodded and off we went. On our way, I tried to start a conversation with him, but whatever I said, his replies always came shorter than I expected—a few words, at most one short sentence. I tried in vain to search for the little boy from six years ago who had enthusiastically shown me his model cars, but I knew that, with long absence, I had become irreversibly an outsider with whom he had nothing in common.
At the intersection near my old college, traffic came to a complete standstill where a sea of cars, buses and minibuses were jammed side by side. While our driver inched along gingerly and diligently with every opportunity, I looked in vain for traces of my recollections. The small department store, its exterior and interior, the two restaurants, the bicycle streams, or the look of the tiles on the sidewalks. Nothing remained. Then I had a glance of the dilapidated red-brick, residential buildings of the Academy of Sciences. They were still there, blocked by buildings with glass façades. An argument erupted outside the window. Three men, who had just jumped off the minibus next to ours, were shouting. They must be the driver, the ticket man and a friend of theirs.
“Get out! Get out!” They demanded of our driver.
“Don’t you know how to drive a fucking bus?”
“You bumped our side-view mirror, do you see?”
“Get out! There are police ahead. Let’s talk to the police!”
Our driver didn’t get out. Nor did I hear him saying a word—I happened to be sitting behind him.
Those three yelled in turn and together.
I couldn’t stand it anymore and, pulling the window open, started yelling at them.
“Look at yourselves, you three men! How petty you are! Is this all you can do? Stupid! Shameless! Despicable!”
Dumbfounded, the three men stopped. They froze for a few seconds, and then turned around and went back to their bus. I was dumbfounded too, not knowing what I had just done. The episode ended just like that.
I sat down. The compartment was dead quiet. A few moments later there came a buzz of indignation. Nasty people. Hooligans. Making trouble out of nothing. The passengers spoke under their breath, though there was no way those three, back in their bus, could hear them. I looked at my nephew. He was looking ahead expressionlessly.
The traffic started moving. Our bus turned at the intersection. As soon as it did, the driver pulled up to the curb. “No, no, no, I have to give them money,” I heard him saying to himself. “Why,” I said, “you did not damage their mirror, you barely touched it!” “You don’t know,” he said while jumping off, “I ran this route with them everyday, if I don’t give them some money, they are going to give me a hard time later.”
The driver disappeared for a while and then returned and started the bus without a word.
When I got off at the Palace of Restfulness, all of a sudden I was scared and kept thinking that the three men were going to follow me and teach me a lesson. My nephew and I entered the Palace grounds, rented a boat, and rowed off the shore quickly and onto the Lake of Great Brightness. Only then was I relieved and sure I hadn’t been tailed. My fear was gone all right, but the day had been ruined. There was no way I could enjoy the sun, the water, the white marble Bridge of Seventeen Arches, as well as the willow trees on the shore, with the twelve-year-old boy.
Until now, the boy had not said a single word. We sat face to face on each end of the little boat, and he seemed to be avoiding my eyes. Suddenly I was vexed.
Why isn’t he saying anything, or showing something? I thought. What does he think of the incident? Is he shy or he didn’t register it at all? Did I scare him? He probably didn’t expect his aunt to be such a shrew. Does he think I am dumb, and I did something unwise? After all, nobody else says anything, and why would you? Perhaps he resents the fact that my behavior could have brought him harm.
What exactly do I expect him to show? Praise? My train of thought continued. The idea had barely surfaced before I hurriedly cut myself off.
I only wanted to see something on his face, anything, so I would know how to speak to him next. But now I had to shut up.
Off our stern, a plastic soda bottle and a discolored food wrapper floated on the water. My nephew had been glancing at them for a while. “Let’s go over there and pick up the trash,” he said, “it’s not good to litter the lake.”
He rowed the boat over and collected the trash. “My teacher said we need to build environmental awareness and we have to develop social ethics,” he said.
I wanted to ask him whether his teacher said anything about people. But instead, I asked him, “What is social ethics?”
“It’s not to litter, not to spit everywhere,” he said.
I said nothing.
“My dad said you were very good at composition, but it’s my worst subject, so my dad told me to learn a few tricks from you.”
“Tricks? What tricks?” I scoffed.
“Oh! I know! I can write about collecting trash on the Lake of Great Brightness! From there, I can write about the importance of social ethics and the importance of protecting environment.”
What about the earlier incident? I insisted in my mind. But from his expression, nothing out of the ordinary seemed to have happened.
On our way back, we stopped at the new Double Peace Shopping Center. I insisted on buying a couple of things for my nephew. At the junior department, he picked a pair of pants and a jersey top. I was surprised to find that he had fine taste for clothes, both the style and the color were very up to date even by American standards.
Back around 4 o’clock, we met Mr. Shang’s wife and daughter outside the restaurant. Mr. Shang was standing while his daughter, about ten years old, hung on his back, and the father and daughter were laughing together. Mrs. Shang sat on a stool, speaking vividly. Both mother and daughter were very pretty. The mother, lively and trendy, had on light make-up; the daughter resembled her father with his eyes, his tall and straight posture. I had known that Mr. Shang was a married man, but this was the only time I had seen his family.
Next time I came to the restaurant, Mr. Shang was sending off the last batch of his lunch customers. The mother and daughter flashed like a sunbeam and then disappeared. I complimented Mr. Shang on his beautiful wife and daughter, and he was happy. “I don’t see them here often,” I said. Small restaurants like Mr. Shang’s were often family run where everybody worked, and Mr. Shang’s case was unusual.
He said his wife had her own job and his daughter went to school and studied piano and dance after school.
“Besides,” he said, “I don’t want them to hang around a greasy place like this”
That’s probably the real reason, I thought.
“What’s your daughter’s name?” I asked.
“Meng Na.” [“Dreamy and Lithe”]
“What do you think? Do you think it’s a good name?” Mr. Shang asked eagerly. He must be the one who named her.
“It’s pretty,” I said, except that it sounded illusory and vulnerable too.
“People talk about nomenology a lot these days. Do you know anything about it?”
“No,” I said. “What is it?”
“To count the strokes of your name and to see whether the number is auspicious,” he said. “I’m going to find someone to check my daughter’s name.”
Mr. Shang became contemplative. I changed the subject. “Perhaps your wife and daughter could visit you more often to at least give you some company.”
Mr. Shang stood up from where he had been sitting. “Of course I would like to see them as much as possible,” he said. “But you have no idea what China is like.”
There was something else. I stopped eating and waited.
“They live in a secret place. I don’t let them come here often,” he said, leaning forward on his elbows. “The restaurant I had at The Gate of Broad Peace had been very prosperous. It was about the same size as this one, but full of customers all day long. My neighbor was an electronics store, selling smuggled goods. They wanted to expand and offered my landlord higher rent for my space. The landlord had been happy with me, didn’t want me to go, and besides, he raised my rent too. But those people were local thugs, and the landlord wouldn’t dare say no to them. He told them it was up to me. And I said no to them. After a while, just when I thought the whole thing was over, police raided my restaurant and detained me for ‘forging documents.’ They kept me for a month and then released me. By then my restaurant was part of the electronics shop. I didn’t want to give up. I sued them. One evening as I was walking down the street, four men jumped me and beat me. They threatened me. They threatened my wife and daughter. Then I withdrew the suit and moved here.”
Mr. Shang finished his story. I was speechless.
“Now it’s over,” he said, “I sleep here with a kitchen knife under my pillow.”
“They won’t bother you anymore, will they?” I mumbled. I didn’t know he spent the nights in the restaurant.
“As long as my daughter and wife are fine, I’m not afraid of them,” he said stiffly.
The day before I invited friends for dinner, I finally went to Salon of Rome to get a haircut. It was a small room, about thirty square meters, divided into two sections by a cotton curtain. The curtain was drawn, showing only a corner of what looked like a folding bed. It must be where Xiao Qin slept. The front was for business, with a barber’s chair, a sink, a mirror, a hood drier, and a sofa for customers to sit on as they waited. No one was waiting while I was there. Off the sofa, at the corner behind the door, was a little stand, and on its top, there were a few cosmetics bottles, an electric heater for boiling water and a bowl with a red plastic lid. I felt a little uncomfortable when I sat down in the barber’s chair, but I didn’t know whether it had to do with the place or the girl who worked there. Xiao Qing was skillful and seemed to understand my request perfectly. I relaxed to the crisp sound of scissors. Since I had known her name, I felt I knew her. I asked where her family lived. “Family?” She replied in a strong retort as though she was surprised by such a question. “You mean my parents?” She asked. “Yeah,” I answered, surprised by her tone, for I had assumed that, being so young, she was probably unmarried. “They live a little bit north of here,” she said coolly. “Do you go home often?” I asked. “No,” she said.
I thought I would have liked to chat a little more with her but in the end I sat through my session saying nothing more. I really didn’t know what to think about girls like her. I felt that any of my words would be like an arrow shot in the wrong direction, embarrassing and irrelevant.
While I was paying for the haircut, Xiao Qin cleaned the floor briskly. No one was waiting, and, as I walked out, Xiao Qin stepped outside too with a chair and sat down, legs crossed, browsing a fashion magazine. When I crossed the street, I could sense that she was watching me from behind, mockery in her eyes. I didn’t know why I thought so.
I decided to invite my college friends for dinner on a Saturday evening at the Six-Peace Restaurant. Mr. Shang was a pretty good chef, as a matter of fact, and I ordered a few special dishes not on his menu in advance. It was the first time I had dinner there. It was surprisingly busy, and for the first time I saw waitresses there. There were three or four of them, all girls. Mr. Shang, working in the kitchen, was nowhere to be seen. Nor were his wife or daughter. I knew I wouldn’t see them here, but I couldn’t help expecting to. Their absence was, to me, a wound on the little place.
Mr. Shang had set a large table for us at the corner where I always sat. My friends had all come. It had been ten years since we had seen one another. But, after a burst of screaming and laughing, we seemed to have immediately gone back to where we had left off. Li, my bunkmate, was still an army officer working in the same military academy, but she had gained quite a bit of weight, and her plump cheeks were flushed pink. My other roommate Deng now worked in a Hong Kong market research company. Lan from the next door room still worked in the same government agency and, according to Deng, had risen straight up to middle management. Hearing this, Lan gave Deng a good shove on the shoulder. I was not surprised at all by Lan’s success because I had always said she was the perfect material for Chinese officialdom, but I was surprised to find that she smoked non-stop and the earnestness of the Secretary of the Youth League was replaced by certain vagueness. The person who had changed the least was Yun, still as self-effacing as she had always been, listening more than speaking. She still worked in that municipal institute for adult education in an old-town alley, married a colleague, and had twin boys who were already going to elementary school.
About myself and my return I had said nothing. At first this verbal vacuum was as conspicuous as a black hole in our midst, and as embarrassing. But after a while it was engulfed by our merriment.
Li was just as talkative as in the old days. Words and laughter rolled off her tongue, round and fast, while her hands gestured rapidly and forcefully. I was surprised to find that Li, a avid fan of Agatha Christie, was now a converted Buddhist. When I asked her in disbelief, she stopped abruptly in the middle of a roar of laughter, and said solemnly, “Right. Right. That’s right. I belong to Buddha now.” Then, without transition, she went back to a tale of a love triangle and murder in the Academy that she had been recounting.
I recalled her affair with a married officer when she had first arrived there more than ten years ago. Because of it, she was sent away to a lower unit for a year “to reflect on it.” What happened next I didn’t know. She had married someone else since and had a daughter. She seemed very happy.
“Cheers for the mystery novel called Life,” I said to Lan next to me.
Lan and I were the only two at the table who drank, and we were sharing a bottle of Great Wall white wine. In the old days the group liked to gather, in the evenings or on weekends, in the big office where Yun lived temporarily, and without exception Lan and I drank a bottle of wine together. Our empty bottles lined up under Yun’s single bed hidden at one corner, causing her colleagues to think, for a while, she was an alcoholic, which amounted to being bad and corrupt for a woman. Yun used to say she very much liked to be perceived so, and it would be even better if she really could drink. Lan still had her previous, if not larger, capacity, but I started feeling dizzy after the first glass.
Deng complained about her job incessantly. “The capitalists exploit you mercilessly,” She said, “asking you to work overtime everyday as though they own you.”
“Stop grousing about it,” Lan interjected. “You never say you make more money than anyone else does and you take a taxi to work everyday.”
I had noticed the difference between Deng and the others. Her clothes and her demeanor reminded me of the American bank clerks.
I told her I had brought her a CD of Grieg’s serenades with the melody she used to hum on it. I said I had bought two wrong discs before I had found that melody.
“My goodness! Get out of here!” Deng cried, her eyes wide-open and sparkling. “How can you still remember?”
“Well, you hummed it all the time,” I said. “It’s hard not to remember.”
Li beckoned the waitress who had taken our order.
“Where is my tofu vegetable soup?” She asked.
The girl looked blank—she had forgotten the special vegetarian order. She apologized profusely and was about to go to mend her mistake when Li stopped her.
“Forget about it!” she huffed. “You don’t know how to serve, do you? Who wants the soup halfway through a meal? Forget about it!”
The girl apologized again.
Hastily, I told the girl to go about her business and not to worry about the soup anymore.
As the girl passed behind Yun, the latter pulled her arm and said softly, “Don’t mind it. It’s not a problem.” The girl relaxed somewhat.
When Yun turned around, our eyes met.
Yun and I had never been really close, either in college or after. We didn’t seem to have too much to say to one another, but then, there wasn’t much that needed to be said.
“You are back so suddenly,” Yun said quietly. “Homesick?”
I nodded vaguely.
“If you want to come back, then come back,” Yun said. “After all, it’s other people’s country there.”
I kept quiet.
“I saw that your boxes were still unopened. I can give you a hand,” she said. She had made the same offer already when she had visited earlier and met me in my apartment.
“Thanks,” I said. “But it won’t be necessary, really.”
“Well, you know where to find me when you need help,” she said. “Anyway, it’s so nice to have you back.”
“It’s nice to see all of you again,” I said. “So many years have passed and so fast.”
Except for necessities, I had not unpacked all my belongings from the two gigantic suitcases, neither had I open any of those ten some boxes of books that had arrived for a while.
It had been such a relief the day I had finished packing in the apartment in Bloomington and shipped those boxes to China. The wood floor at the graduate dorm room in that old, two-story limestone building was once again as empty as when I had first moved in, reflecting sharply the afternoon light from the window. I had moved too many times, and I didn’t want ever to move again. After this time, I would finally settle down in one place, a place I could say was mine, there I would build a home for myself, settle down the way dust settles on the ground, and begin the life that had never really begun.
But now I was at a loss. The will to take things out and display them in the new place had left me. I had dawdled many days away.
My friends and I bid each other good-bye outside the restaurant, and I turned around to go back to the Compound. Even at night, the two soldiers guarding the gate stood as erect as ever, except their faces, under the glaring lights from above, were shadowed under the brim of their caps. A black sedan glided out of the gate, and the soldiers stood to attention and saluted sharply. The Compound consisted of two four-story, soviet style office buildings and ten some residential buildings of the same era. I had moved in for three months but, apart from the guards and the old women coming back from the market with bundles of fresh vegetables, I had not the least idea who lived there and what they did. Entering the gate, I kept walking on the main, north-bound avenue. The building I lived in was at the end of it. The further I walked the darker it got. Nearing the end, there was only faint light from the windows of people’s homes.
Nothing seemed right. It had become clear to me tonight. I saw something I had not thought of before: I had become a stranger, an outsider. Life had moved on and things had been rearranged while I was gone, the way chairs around a table were, and mine had been taken away.
A truck hurled passed me from behind, barely a foot away from me.
I was enraged. “Fuck you! Son of bitch! You almost ran me over, you fucking savage!”
The truck raced toward the brick wall ahead and pulled up abruptly at the dead end of the road. I had turned left around the corner of my building, walking toward the third entrance.
“Who was it?” I heard a man’s gruff voice.
“Let’s get out and take a look,” a woman said toughly.
Then I heard two people jumping out of the driver’s cabin and running in my direction. I realized they were after me. I started running. They were only about ten yards behind me and running faster.
Turning into the dark stairwell, I rushed up the steps. Those two had arrived at the entrance just as I raced to the second floor. Their shouting pierced the night. Shaking, I opened my door on the second floor, darted in, and slammed the door. My heart raced.
They were still down there, swearing, cursing. I didn’t dare to turn on the light lest they find out where I lived. After a minute or two, I heard them walking away, still cursing.
My legs gave way, and I slid down to the floor. Anger and humiliation thumped in my chest, smashing and tearing it.
By Zhang Dajun
The appeal of a revolution is gaining momentum.
Many in China are fighting for freedom. People with different worldviews have their own perspectives on how best to achieve this goal. These people fall into two groups. The first favors a gradual and linear transition from tyranny to freedom. The other sees no way other than overthrowing the regime. It’s a race between “evolution” and “revolution.”
This race between “evolution” and “revolution” has raged on for centuries. In China’s case, not more than a few years ago, the great majority of freedom fighters in China hoped for a smooth transition from dictatorship to democracy. Now, increasing numbers of thinkers, activists, and lawyers call for a more radical approach. Why has there been a change of heart and mind? And what does such a change mean?
The Communist regime’s pretense of “benevolent authoritarianism,” characterized by its program of “reform and an open-door policy,” has lost its appeal as it becomes more ruthless in dealing with the economy, foreign policy, and human rights. The Communist Party’s core beliefs are back in vogue. Economic reform measures are rolled back, militaristic attitudes are strengthened, and abuses of human rights multiply and intensify. To many in China, this backward move signifies the death of a gradual evolution, which used to be dearly cherished by broad segments of China’s intellectual class and civil society.
This assessment of the attitudes and policy choices of the Communist regime inevitably leads to a sobering recalculation on the part of freedom fighters in China. This means that those seeking change have to lower their political expectations and raise the political stakes. They understand that—as long as the Communist party remains—there can hardly be genuine freedom. The win-win supposition inherent in the first evolutionary approach is doomed. Hence, fighting for freedom has become a revolutionary zero-sum game.
It is also interesting to note the role of demographics in this political divide. People below the age of 40 tend to favor revolution while those above 40 are likely to stick to a more cautious route. There are two main reasons for this divergence.
First, this demographic gap can be ascribed to the different experiences between young and old. There has not been significant reform during the young generation’s adult lives. The tenets of the reigns of Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao ensured stability and maintained the status quo. In other words, the young can be excused for their lack of enthusiasm for top-down, evolutionary, politics. The older generation witnessed and was excited by rapid political developments in the 1980s. Their youth was memorable partly because of the Communist party’s reform programs. This memory left in their hearts the hope for a more benign government.
The second reason for this is economic or social. The old have benefited from the Chinese government’s economic reforms more than the young have. Though in varying degrees, the older generation has been socially and economically established. Many of them have their own houses and cars. Their living standards have risen steadily. Furthermore, their childhood during the Maoist era was harsh. As a result, they believe incremental improvement can be achieved or is in order. On the contrary, the young, while not raised in poverty, are less able to appreciate the progress that has been made. The inflexibility of the system deters them from achieving the social and economic successes which have been taken for granted by the older generations.
Chinese society is changing, not just intellectually, but also politically, socially, and economically. As the Communist regime’s militancy in domestic and foreign policies continues, it is hard not to foresee the “gradual” radicalization of the Chinese opposition. It is time to prepare for a more volatile and perhaps more violent China.
Zhang Dajun (张大军) has an MBA from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and worked for several transnational corporations. In recent years, he has worked with the Transition Institute (传知行研究所) in Beijing, held forums on citizenry and social advocacy, and translated works about democratic transitions. His tweets (@ZhangDajun) about Chinese political and social affairs are popular and enlightening. He now lives in Arlington, Virginia. The author wrote the article in English.
By Zhao Chu Published: June 18, 2013
It is a zero-sum game between the economic operation of the power players and the people waking up to claim their civil rights.
May 4th in China is Youth Day. This May, several cities saw environmental protests that have become common over the last few years: some residents in Kunming marched to protest the Anning PX (paraxylene) Project, Chengdu residents opposed the Pengzhou Petrochemical Project, and residents of the Songjiang district in Shanghai protested the construction of a battery factory. Aside from what was sporadically heard on the Chinese Internet where these events were censored, there were reports that an industrial storage facility in Huangdao, Qingdao, exploded on the night of May 4th.
What all these events have in common is that the social protests and confrontations over environmental protection are no longer limited to small and medium-sized cities as they were in the past. They are happening in tier one and tier two cities with dense populations and have enormous impact. Also, they are happening more frequently across China. In reality, starting from the Shanghai Fire in 2010, struggles in connection with social safety and environmental protection have become a common form of social movement. The confrontation between the government and the people over PX projects is, in essence, the people demonstrating an awakening sense of civil rights and directly resisting authoritarian power in contemporary Chinese society. As such, people who are interested in China’s transformation toward democracy and freedom should pay particular attention to this contest.
The fact that some of the tier one and two cities are still constructing large-scale petrochemical projects — as if it’s nothing serious — shows that local authorities in China have learned absolutely nothing constructive from the anti-PX protests between the government and the people in Xiamen, Dalian, Shifang and Ningbo over the last few years although they drew wide attention. These are in addition to the incident in which dead pigs floated down the Huangpu River and a new avian flu that stoked widespread fear. The forceful and ruthless implementation of these projects proves that power holders all over China believe that, as long as they are ready with enough methods of suppression, as long as they prohibit more thoroughly the spread of information on the Internet and in the media, and as long as they control society even more strictly, then these projects can all proceed without worry. To put it plainly, on important issues about peoples’ livelihoods and social interests, the government predicates its policymaking and implementation on the simple arrogance of “If I have guns, why should I worry about them?”
By the principles of market economics, government should withdraw from economic policymaking and operations to the greatest extent possible; it should be content to act in the role of an impartial facilitator. In addition, such functions are not just about capital and profit. First of all, if a city’s government is a government for all people, then the opinions, wishes and interests of the local residents are precisely what the government should consider first. But in case after case across China, what we see is the exact opposite. Because local powers forcibly control the land necessary for construction, and because the direct, as well as derived, profits from land are the main goals of their economic and fiscal policies, the first thing they think about in policymaking and implementation is to cooperate with external capital, and not to serve as an impartial broker considering local interests. This is the main reason that confrontation over environmental issues, once touched off, often becomes an intense conflict, for these are two kinds of interest that can in no way be reconciled.
To analyze why Chinese local governments are willing to take on the enormous risk of wide popular discontent and mass protests to pursue these large-scale projects, one must understand the unspoken rules of how local power in China makes money these days. With construction projects by powerful state trusts or the so-called “new state-owned enterprises,” local governments have the strong political desire to please those in the central government who granted them power in the first place; even more directly, in land acquisition, project financing, infrastructure construction, and equipment purchasing over the course of these projects, local power and the “central SOEs” are locked in a partnership to make money. This is not just a desktop game to satisfy local fiscal needs. From beginning to end, public property is embezzled through webs of interpersonal relationships, and they act in collusion to siphon profits in astronomical proportions. This, and this alone, is at the core of the relationship between central and local government that is unique to China, and it is also the driving force behind interactions from top to bottom.
It’s understood then that, in China, large construction projects provide all kinds of opportunities for hidden plays by various power players. Even if we consider nothing else but just the issue of development, we can see plainly the convergence of the direct interests of national SOEs and the local authorities, since politics and economics are identical at China’s highest level of power. Given the systemic characteristics of vertical power-granting from top to bottom, it is neither realistic, nor possible, for local governments to resist external capital that comes in the name of the country’s overall development in favor of the wishes and interests of local residents. Whatever lofty declarations are made, it is actually the basic, realistic thinking of political science that is at work. If you look at the resumes of the new team of national leadership or promotions and job adjustments of party and government officials at other levels, you will find, in either the realm of politics or that of economics, clan-forming and factionalized power structures. Officials can switch roles between the two realms according to the needs of power and interest distribution, as we have seen in the job switches of members in the Li Peng clan.
In addition, local officials are required to “defend territory” (for the “emperor”) and to “maintain stability.” Since power is granted from top to bottom, local residents have no effective ways to constrain the power of local authorities. Without systemic constraints, self-organized “strolls” by residents, or mass protests known internally in the government as an “outbreak of trouble,” is quite possibly the only tool the local residents have to engage the government. For local government though, its performance has for a long time been assessed by two big targets — GDP and the absence of political disturbance. So we can see that, on the one hand, mass protests have in fact been inevitably bred by the present system where power lacks constraints, and on the other hand, they are what the system must severely suppress. Under the current system, this is a knot that cannot be untied, because the true significance of these conflicts is not economic or industrial; it is political, and it is a zero-sum game between the economic operation of power and the people waking up to claim their civil rights.
In this game where the government sides with capital and holds the same point of view, it is impossible for the government to maintain the confidence and trust of the people in this battle that has no arbitrator. On a playing field without a referee, it is impossible to have fairness, let alone, in this contest between people’s basic desire for a better life and the absolute will of power, the referee, in fact, is the side that is breaking the rules. As for the actions on the ground of residents in various cities, it is the protesters who have shown a high level of self-restraint, rationality, and respect for law and humanity, because they understand very well the arbitrary and brutal nature of state power in China. People are deeply aware that, in China, exercising one’s natural rights is as dangerous an endeavor as “stroking a tiger’s whiskers and asking it for its fur.” But regardless of the goodwill they strive to show, the government still responds, consistently, with the same brutality and arrogance.
China is not alone in building PX projects, and the average person does not really possess the exact knowledge of the potential hazards of the chemical industry. But, if one understands a little bit about the circumstances that I discuss here, one ought to understand that the real driving force against these projects is not a scientific debate about the chemical industry, but rather, the antagonism toward a government that the people do not trust, are suspicious of, and have few means of influence concerning their most vital interests. Too many lessons in both history and the present reality tell them that the government’s wonderful description of economic development is not at all reliable. In fact, the things it pushes with the best arguments are often the most worrisome. Thus, even if residents are possibly wrong in their scientific opinions of these PX projects, in their perception of ultimate harm or interest, the urban residents in these cities are absolutely right if you know just a bit of Chinese contemporary history. Look at the current situation of China’s environment, food, drinking water, etc. So long as a person has a bit of reason and conscience, I believe that no one would doubt this point.
The problem is, after so many intense confrontations have occurred, do those in power still not know about the absence of trust in their governance and that this mistrust is a result of the system itself? They know it very well, given the meticulous information control measures they take and the overwhelming force they deploy each time there is a conflict. But if one wants to break free from this kind of confrontation where the outcome will be tragedy, what is needed? Of course what is needed is an independent judiciary that the people trust and a system where the people can rightfully, safely, and clearly utter their voices as well as appeal to public opinion and the rule of law. But this is precisely what the regime does not allow, and it doesn’t even want to make the faintest promise of a false hope. Because of this hopelessness, what is a normal expression of popular concern takes on the tragic feeling of a final showdown, and that is something worth watching.
Public trust is the basic characteristic of state power. It is something impossible to obtain by power wielders flaunting individual moral goals. It can only come from the premise of the system. And the construction of any system is of course not merely about the economy and the livelihood of the people; it is comprehensive and political. Some of my friends tend to underestimate these environment-related struggles, failing to see this significance.
On the other hand, theories that imagine the contemporary Chinese political opposition movements from the template of 19th and 20th century revolutions in the history of China and foreign countries have intrinsic faults. First of all, in the age of economic globalization and social digitalization, groundbreaking social revolutions are decentralized, and there will never again be movements like the French Revolution in 1789 or the Bolshevik revolution in Russia. Secondly, local power’s demand for a representative system in these struggles is one of the most powerful driving forces for democratic transition. If you have doubts about the motivation of local power in the modern liberal democracy, you only need to look back at the Yunnan mine protection movement and the Sichuan railway rights protection movement 100 years ago, and you will understand why the central authorities today have to support the suppression of anti-PX protests even at the expense of the Party’s moral standing and its image. It was in exactly these circumstances that Duan Fang (端方) was ordered to reinforce Sichuan with troops.
In short, through this year’s turbulent May 4th environmental struggles across China and the government’s extra severe suppression, people should clearly see a basic reality, that is, on the eve of enormous change, today’s China no longer has the so-called “localized incident.” Rather, any odd spark could trigger a final eruption of the volcano. Friends who are aspiring to the cause of change should not be the least bit hazy about this.
Zhao Chu (赵楚) is a Shanghai-based independent commentator and a long time researcher on international strategy, global military and social issues in China.
(Translated by Jack)
By Xu Zhiyong
China’s rights movement through the work of Gong Meng.
April 25, 2003, as SARS emptied out the streets in Beijing, I sat in front of my computer reading about the Sun Zhigang (孙志刚) coverage, tears quietly welling up in my eyes. Over the second half of 2002, I had started to investigate the laws concerning custody and repatriation (of migrant populations), and knew what Sun had gone through. Following Sun’s tragedy, Yu Jiang (俞江), Teng Biao (滕彪) and I proposed a constitutional review of the case. We mailed our recommendation on May 14 because, on the 13th, the propaganda department of the government banned further “hype” about Sun’s case. Headlines like “Three PhDs Request Constitutional Review” gave the media new fodder, and our action was a part of the public opinion campaign.
More than a month later, while I was interviewing a boy who had been given aid in a room in Tianjin’s Custody and Repatriation Center, I turned my head and saw CCTV’s Evening News announcing the abolition of the Custody and Repatriation system.
For many, that was a moment of joy and hope, and it became a symbol of the “new politics” of Hu and Wen. That night, the three of us talked on the phone, thankful for the moment but also full of regret – we were afraid the constitutional review we had hoped for was not going to happen. And it didn’t.
We moved on in 2003, registering a public interest organization. We represented Sun Dawu’s (孙大午) case, and we promoted the election of the People’s Congress. Starting from the Sun Zhigang case, we focused on individual cases that had wide significance for the defense of civil rights and the push for system building. Many people referred to 2003 as the start of what would be known as citizens’ rights movement.
Ten years on, Sun Zhigang has become taboo for media coverage; Teng Biao and I have become dissidents of this country; Dingjia Xi, Zhao Changqing, Dong Yuan, and many other brave citizens have been locked up in prison. A media friend asked me the other day: How do you evaluate this past decade, have we progressed or regressed? Suddenly I feel that this is a rather complex question to answer, and it prompted me to think about the path we have come along.
In July 2003, the Southern Metropolis Daily was first, and then repeatedly, investigated by Guangzhou’s judiciary and law enforcement system as a result of its vigorous reporting on the Sun Zhigang case. By the end of the year, the investigation “found” that there had been procedural violations when the paper’s management distributed a bonus of RMB 580,000 a few years back, and its general manager Yu Huafeng (喻华峰) was arrested on charges of graft and bribery. Our entire team got involved in the case, and I was one of the defense lawyers. It was also our first encounter with the stability maintenance. Our website was closed down, and the third meeting with netizens to spread the truth was “harmonized.” The day the “Sunshine Constitutionalism” website (阳光宪政网) was shut down, I wrote We Are Still Sincere:
“Perhaps we will face more difficulties even after constitutionalism is realized. We know very well that, there is the shadow of 2000 years of autocracy on this land, and the road to constitutionalism is bound to be long and arduous. But the endeavor for justice must be made by someone, and that’s why we are making it. …We are a group of Chinese citizens who take up this responsibility…… We are not just critics; we are also builders.”
In the second half of 2004, I was in the United States to study its constitution and elections, experiencing firsthand how an ordinary voter participated in politics as a grassroots volunteer for a presidential candidate. In the meantime, Guo Yushan and Teng Biao hosted the people’s representative election forum in our office in Huaqing Jiayuan (华清嘉园, a residential neighborhood in Beijing’s university district). In September, when Peking University’s “yi ta hu tu” bbs (一蹋糊涂) was shut down, Teng Biao, Yu Jiang and I co-authored a letter of protest while the students staged a lawn assembly to demonstrate in Jing Yuan (静园). Our action drew attention from “the relevant organ” and we were forced to suspend the use of the office. In March 2005, six private organizations for public service were shut down without being given any reasons, including the research center we had registered as well as Mr. Mao Yushi’s Unirule Institute of Economics (天则经济研究所). What I heard was that these NGOs caused someone to fear a “color revolution.” I asked the local director of Industry and Commerce why, and he said it was an order from his superiors. We gave up without bringing a lawsuit. In June, we registered Gong Meng, or the Open Constitution Initiative.
2005 was a year full of moving moments. In April, I lived in a petitioners’ village, and witnessed too much unwarranted suffering. At the hutong where the State Bureau of Letters and Calls was located, many petitioners were beaten, and my pants were covered with footprints after I passed through that alleyway packed with petitioners and those sent by local governments to intercept them. In May, we prayed for Christian Cai Zhuohua in a church in Poshang village, located next to the Party School of the Central Committee of the CCP, who had been arrested for printing Bibles. In July, Teng Biao and I visited a small town in Yulin, Shaanxi province, in an attempt to rescue lawyer Zhu Jiuhu who had been thrown in prison for his involvement in the case of a private oilfield development in northern Shaanxi. There we witnessed how greedy and domineering the regional government was and how utterly helpless the local private enterprises were. In October, lawyer Li Fangping and I were beaten by guards at Dongshigu village when we tried to visit Chen Guangcheng. That day, Chen Guangcheng broke through the line of guards, and, in the midst of over a hundred villagers and guards pushing one another, we hugged each other in a tight embrace. At the end of 2005, Asia Weekly (《亚洲周刊》) in Hong Kong named China’s human rights lawyers as their people of the year, and it marked the emergence, for the first time, of a citizen group outside the existing structure that had the ability to take sustained actions.
This group of rights lawyers was dealt a blow in the summer of 2006 as Chen Guangcheng and Gao Zhisheng were imprisoned. The rights movement dropped to its lowest point since 2003. For all these years, I had been feeling guilty for their imprisonment. I was Gao Zhisheng’s representative in his firm’s penalty hearing, and I was a member of the defense team as well as the coordinator of support actions in Chen Guangcheng’s case, but I was unable to help either of them. By September, circumstances improved, and it was again election time for the district/county-level People’s Congress. We sent letters to a few hundred of Property Management Committee directors in residential neighborhoods, to NGOs, and to more than a thousand lawyers, to encourage them to become candidates. We organized teams of volunteers to help various candidates design and distribute their posters and organize election gatherings for them. Thanks to the support of faculties and students at Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications, where I was employed, thanks to my election team led by Jin Huaiyu and Gu Xin, and also thanks to the University’s party secretary Zhang Shulin who openly supported the election, I was elected the people’s representative to Haidian District’s People’s Congress.
In 2007, we provided legal assistance to victims of illegal brick kilns in Shanxi province in administrative compensation suits, but to no avail. (In fact, lots of the cases we have provided legal assistance to have gone nowhere, such as the robbery case of Chen Guoqing and three others in Chengde. The four innocent men have served 19 years already, and in the 9 years when we have been representing them, we have made countless petitions, each in vain.) What was most shocking to me, in my first trip to the black brick kilns, was that the brickyard didn’t have encircling walls and it was right next to a village, less than one hundred meters away from the nearest house. Because of the fear from living under ruthless violence, because of the corrupt government that didn’t do its job, and because of the numbness commonly found in the Chinese countryside, all the Chen Xiaojuns were openly enslaved in a land that had lost its sense of right and wrong, good and evil. So big is this land of injustice that those who are underprivileged and powerless may never see an end to their suffering in their lifetimes.
A lot of things happened in 2008. Apart from the Olympics, there were the March 14 Unrest in Tibet, Wenchuan Earthquake, the poisonous milk powder scandal, and more. In August, we sent an investigative team to Tibet to find out about the economic and social causes of the March 14 unrest. In September, we organized a team of lawyers to provide legal assistance to child victims of the melamine-tainted milk formula. In the first stage, it took us three month of work to push the government to announce a compensation plan, but for many victims, the compensation fell far short of the harm they had suffered. In some cases, parents had spent close to RMB 100,000 on surgery for their sickened children alone, but were only compensated with RMB 30,000. Peng Jian, Li Xiongbing, Li Fangping and over 100 other pro bono lawyers continued to bring cases to the Supreme Court as well as to a few hundred local courts, but all in all, they succeeded in getting only ten cases filed, and of the ten cases, only two were tried and none received a verdict. The lawyers did everything they could, all the way to suing the largest shareholder of SanLu Group in a Hong Kong court. By September 2011 when the project concluded, we had fought for, and secured, compensation for more than 200 child victims in addition to the government’s compensation plan. The biggest single compensation was RMB 350,000, thanks to a court in Zhejiang that forced Yili Group to make concessions by insisting on a trial. The largest compensation settlement from a single source was almost the result of “blackmailing” a company. We had discovered falsehood in the company’s advertisement, and we sued them as consumers. Haidian Court in Beijing accepted the filing, and we told the company’s CEO quite frankly, when he came to Beijing to negotiate with us, that all we wanted was for his company to compensate the 50 or so victims of its brand. The CEO was moved by our sincerity and decency. Right around the time when Gong Meng was raising money to pay for the government fine on a trumped-up charge meant to destroy the organization, Lin Zhengzheng in the south sent a reparation of RMB one million yuan to the victims.
No matter how we upheld our conscience and our sense of justice, the regime was intuitively hostile to any entity that existed independently outside its grip. By 2009, our team had grown considerably, our office in Huajie Building became busier than ever, and we had provided legal services in the dog culling incident in Hanzhong, Shaanxi, the Green Dam uproar, and the Deng Yujiao case. In July, Gong Meng, the not-for-profit, public interest organization was fined for “tax evasion,” and Zhuang Lu (the accountant) and I were arrested. But thankfully, we live in a time when technology gives us room for expression, when NGOs for public interest mushroomed after the Wenchuan earthquake, and, more importantly, when people have elevated moral standards. The arrest upset many ordinary citizens, and in four days Gong Meng received more than RMB 400,000 in donations in a fundraising campaign to pay for the fine. Jiang Ping and Mao Yushi of the older generation made appeals in support of us. Hong Kong high school student Zheng Yongxin wrote an open letter to Wen Jiabao, and friends we had never known we had protested with T-shirts, pins and postcards. Confronted by powerful waves of support, the authorities retreated. We moved forward.
In a routine meeting at the end of 2009, Wang Gongquan, one of our members, proposed a new initiative: campaign to abolish the household registration, or hukou, requirement for children to take college entrance exams where they live. We had been pushing for hukou reform, and with this initiative we found a new focal point. We had the four parents, who had made the initial call for help, work as volunteers with our team to collect signatures. Two years later, we collected more than 100,000 signatures, and organized petitions in front of the Ministry of Education on the last Thursday every month. We also mobilized several thousand people’s representatives to submit proposals; we organized panel discussions of experts; we researched and drafted a plan for children living with their parents without a local hukou to take college entrance exams where they live, not where their hukous were; and we organized the “new Beijingers” to plant trees in parks. Two-and-a-half years on, we made a breakthrough when the Ministry of Education adopted a policy allowing youth to take the national entrance exams where they currently live, not where their hukous are. By the end of the year, 29 provinces and municipalities implemented, or promised to implement, the policy. However, the Ministry of Education’s policy was met with obstacles in Beijing and Shanghai where tens of thousands of parent volunteers had worked the hardest to push for the policy, but in the end were denied of its benefits. I am deeply sorry for them. They’ve strived for three years under the slogan “abolish hukou restrictions for the national college exams by 2012,” but as they themselves put it, they “succeeded in liberating all of China except for ourselves!” We need to continue the fight against the last two fortresses.
From the abolition of the Custody and Repatriation System, triggered by the Sun Zhigang case, that allowed millions upon millions of new immigrants to move away from home without fear of being captured and repatriated, to the equal education movement that enabled millions of children to attend schools where their parents work and live, we have labored for ten years to break the hukou segregation and to fight for the freedom and equality of new immigrants.
After the trumped-up “tax evasion” case in 2009, we registered a new company although Gong Meng was still a legal entity. Regardless, such a name ceased to mean much any longer, for it was far from enough to have a small group of brave citizens. The pursuit of democracy and constitutionalism requires broad participation by as many people as possible. We gave up on the name Gong Meng, and began to use a name that’s not a name–Citizen. “Citizen” is the common identity of all who are pro-democracy, and it serves as an open platform that belongs to every citizen who shares the same aspiration for democracy and constitutionalism.
In May 2012, we began to promote the “New Citizens’ Movement” in which we became real citizens working and moving forward together. We have been holding same-city dinner gatherings (同城聚会) across China to meet, and exchange views with, each other; we push for democracy and rule of law through legal assistance and civil actions such as demanding that officials disclose personal assets. Through these collective activities, we want to grow to be a healthy force outside the existing structure and to help eventually transition China peacefully toward a constitutional civilization. It is a movement for social change, but more importantly, it is a political movement for democratic constitutionalism. We don’t shun politics; in a jungle-like society where power is uninhibited and corruption rife, conscience is politics. We strive to tread out a new path for the Chinese nation, a path toward liberty, justice and love. Fear and hatred are the foundation on which tyranny has thrived, but overthrowing tyranny doesn’t necessarily mean the disappearance of its foundation. Until we dispel the fear and hatred that cloud over the deepest recesses of our hearts, we will not have a free and democratic China.
We have been the opposition throughout the last ten years. We oppose authoritarianism, we oppose autocratic culture, and we oppose lies, false accusations, and unscrupulousness whether they are on the part of the power holders or anyone else. We have been pious builders promoting social progress and building rule of law and civil society rationally. In the Investigation on the Mechanism of Letters and Calls in China that we issued, we pointed out that the authoritarian system was the root of the petition problem, and recommended judiciary independence and initiation of political reform through direct election on the county level. In our Report on the Investigation over the Truth about the Death of Qian Yunhui, we published our findings that Qian’s death was a traffic accident despite overwhelming public opinion that believed otherwise, and criticized the unfair land policies that were the underlying causes of the incident. In our Legal Opinions Concerning Compensation for Personal Injury in the High-Speed Train Accident on July 23rd, we criticized the government for offering too little compensation, of RMB 500,000, and recommended compensation over RMB 900,000. Public opinion forced the government to quickly accept our recommendation. In the equal education movement that fought against hukou segregation, our Plan for Children Living with Parents without Local Hukou to Take the National College Entrance Exam Locally has been accepted by most provinces and cities. Just before the ten citizens were arrested in Beijing, we had been preparing to draft a law concerning publishing officials’ personal assets. We are a group of responsible citizens. We oppose for the sake of building.
For ten years we have persevered to build the foundation, next to the decaying palace of the dictatorship, for a lasting democracy and constitutionalism. In our fight for freedom over the last ten years, it has become a commonplace for many of us to lose our own freedom fighting for freedom of strangers. We are proud to be living in this era. From the “citizens’ rights movement” to the “new citizens’ movement,” we have been walking on the same road, the road of conscience, the road toward liberty, justice and love.
The last ten years have been years of progress. With the fireworks of the Olympics, China continued to mix with the world; new immigrants have settled down; high-speed trains have compressed time and space; the remotest villages began to have rudimentary social security coverage; and internet and communication technologies connect different civilizations. Over the last ten years, the goodness in human nature has been reviving in China, the market economy has been deconstructing totalitarianism, and an independent spirit has been sprouting bit by bit. Public opinion condemns barbaric demolition; ten thousand people came out to lay flowers at the site of a fire disaster in Shanghai. The “Red Cross” might be dead, but the conscience is growing. Over these ten years, the new contended with the old, but the old does not just go away: the custody and repatriation policy was gone, but there have been black jails. The Criminal Procedure Law was amended, but the little bit of judiciary independence was taken away. The Electoral Law of the National People’s Congress and Local People’s Congresses was amended, but during the 2011 election, the media as a whole was forced to keep their mouths shut. The gap between the rich and the poor has continued to widen, graft and privilege are more rampant than ever, and the chasm between the government and the people is growing ever greater and deeper.
Entering 2013, China bid goodbye to the ten years of “raising no havoc” (Hu Jintao’s watchword) and arrived at the threshold of change. At the moment, the ten citizens have been arrested for advocating disclosure of officials’ assets, and the Citizen’s community in general is being dealt a new round of persecution. But on the other hand, more and more docile subjects are stepping out to become real citizens. I firmly believe that, after 2000 years of suppression and over 100 years of suffering, this is the time when the Chinese nation will be reborn for liberty, justice and love. We have chosen a beautiful road worthy to be the pursuit of a lifetime. We’ll not turn away from it no matter how trying it is ahead. It is a new road, long and arduous, but it’s the only road leading to a bright future.
Citizen Xu Zhiyong
May 16, 2013
(A translation by China Change.)
By Mo Zhixu, published: June 4, 2013
By all means, the student movement in the spring of 1989, from its emergence to its development, was a surprise. It started with the sudden death of Hu Yaobang (胡耀邦), the reform-minded CCP General Secretary who had recently been taken down by Deng Xiaoping, China’s real ruler at the time. It escalated when People’s Daily published the editorial entitled “We Must Take an Unwavering Stand against Unrest” on April 26, and climaxed with the controversial hunger strike in Tian’anmen Square. Before April 15, 1989, no one had seen such a magnificent student movement coming, let alone its cruel and bloody ending. Today, looking back 24 years later, some things have changed forever and will never be repeated, but a certain logic is continuing at work, and the June 4th movement and its tragic outcome are still important factors in China’s core problems and they have never gone away.
The Unrepeatable Student Movement
China in 1989 was still under the tight, omnipresent grip of the totalitarian system. In the cities, the work unit-based structure was barely beginning to loosen. In the countryside, much of the rural population remained isolated from the urban areas and was still living in abject poverty although the so-called household contract responsibility system with remunerations linked to output had been widely implemented. Most members of China’s intelligentsia worked in the system and under the control of the units that employed them. Private businessmen and employees of foreign or joint enterprises were only emerging and few in number. There was no social class in Chinese society that could have started a movement, if it wasn’t for that generation of college students who seemed to have arrived on the scene out of nowhere.
College students in the mid 1980s were known for being “decadent.” They were not as earnest as those classes who came immediately before them; they were content with 60 points in their course work, and they refused to be held to lofty “ideals.” In daily life, many of them found their pursuit in Ma Jong, love affairs, dancing, and the TOEFL. Before April 15, 1989, if someone predicted that this generation of college students would contribute the most inspiring movement against the regime, it would be regarded as the talk of idiots.
Looking back after all these years, we might be able to see better some of the positive qualities of college students around that time. First of all, they were no longer beholden to the bankrupt communist ideology; instead, they depended more on their common sense to make judgments, and common sense served them well enough to take a stand against the despotism around them. Secondly, college students in China at the time had a strong sense of elitism and an elevated sense of self-importance due to the extreme selectiveness of college entrance policies and the high expectations placed on them by the society at large following the bleak 10-year hiatus of the Cultural Revolution.
Finally, among the juniors, seniors, graduate students and young faculty, the memory of the student demonstrations at the end of 1986 was still fresh which resulted in, among a slew of expulsions from the party, the resignation of Party Secretary Hu Yaobang. All of these together made up the campus climate in the spring of 1989.
Almost all have changed these days. Colleges are much more accessible, young people no longer have the same kind of elitist sense of self, and commercialism has pretty much washed off idealism. The new totalitarian system, veiled under “market forces,” globalization and information technology, has become less repulsive than before, not to mention that the authorities over the years have taken measures to cleanse and control college campuses because of the student movement in 1989. Today’s university campus is no longer the place where free thinking is bred. However you look at it, a student movement similar to the one in 1989 is all but impossible.
The Distant Echo of a Mass Movement
The protagonists of the June 4th movement were college students, although in Beijing there was wide participation by the general public, especially after May 19 when martial law was announced. But overall, across China, whether it was workers, farmers, the educated class, or the emerging private businessmen, none of these groups participated enthusiastically. This had little to do with moral choice, and was determined by the level of totalitarian control and the social structure at the time.
But 24 years on, the circumstances have changed a great deal. In today’s China, while a student-led democratic movement is unlikely, the possibility of large-scale mass movement clearly has heightened. After 1989, especially from 1992 onward, the Chinese communist party chose quick and sweeping market-oriented reforms. Today, even though the party/state still keeps its grip on key economic sectors, maintains the system of units in education, science, culture and health care with some degree of commercialization, and continues to strengthen its social control arms on all levels, it has inevitably lost direct control over the majority of the society. The market economy has created millions and millions of migrant workers as well as new social groups such as private entrepreneurs, small businessmen, professionals and the self-employed who are only faintly associated with the system. In addition, market reform has created a large number of people whose interests have been hurt, such as laid-off factory workers, farmers who have lost their land to development, and city dwellers whose properties have been subject to forced demolition.
Unlike in 1989, these blocks of the populations are no longer bound by work units or collectively-owned farmland. They make their livelihood through their own efforts, and, with the help of Internet and market-oriented new media, these groups have grown to be aware of their interests and their sense of self. Meanwhile, as the new totalitarian system strengthens and perfects itself, the system is more direct in squeezing those who participate in the free market, but has established neither institutions nor rights guarantees to mitigate such exploitation. This has inevitably created resistance, even rising opposition, against the system. As for those whose interest has been harmed time and again, the antagonism against the system is even stronger.
On the other hand, market reform has given these groups economic resources, the ability to gain information, and all sorts of interconnectedness. Following the arrival and the spread of the Internet and cellphones in particular, the general public is able, fairly freely, to issue information and express opinions with more and more convenient communication tools. The combination of the convenience to express and the antagonism against the system has pushed the ever-growing volume of online criticism, and it has also brought about all forms of rights defence and resistance. These include the lasting struggle to defend ownership rights by petitioners and the struggle against deprivation of interest such as happens in forced relocation or demolition. There have been large-scale demonstrations against pollution such as those in Shenfang (什邡) and Kunming (昆明), and there are also sudden breakouts of mass events such as those in Zengcheng (增城) and Shaxi (沙溪). It all goes to show that, with a large population that is not under direct control by the government but equipped with relatively free communication, the relationship between the system and society has changed fundamentally from 1989. When society begins to rid itself of the absolute control of the party/state, a sudden, large-scale convergence of people across the social spectrum is no longer impossible.
What Is Ahead
Of course, the system is not going to let it be. The so-called stability maintenance was born precisely in 1989, and its purpose was to prevent a similar social movement from happening again as the government sought to release the economic energy through market reform. The core mechanism of stability maintenance is to reduce the possibility of large-scale gathering by controlling the activists. Since 2004, fearing a color revolution, the stability maintenance system has been further strengthened, and, in the spring of 2010, it reached new heights, spurred by the Arab revolution. Stability maintenance by way of grid management is still busily developing.
So far this strategy has been working. Assemblies with a pure political purpose have all but disappeared, and the recent arrests of ten citizens in Beijing who advocated public disclosure of officials’ personal wealth are evidence that the stability maintenance system is showing no sign of relenting. But since this strategy puts almost all of its force on activists, it will have a hard time to control a much broader base of society members. From the anti-PX protest in Xiamen in 2007 to the anti-PX protest in Kunming in 2013, we can reach the conclusion that, as long as people amass enough will power, they will assemble, let alone gather for a spontaneous protest.
Looking ahead, the antagonism against the system will only grow as the system steps up exploiting citizens. At the same time, political opposition will continue to be scattered but persevere, forming alliances based on similar ideas. With the continuous presence of the potential for sudden mass gatherings, the two could very well converge at the right turn of events. When that happens, a movement, broader than that in 1989, will arrive. However, the stability maintenance apparatus is not giving up easily. On the one hand, through measures such as internet real-name registration and the “seven no talks,” it suppresses dissent and opposition to gain more support; on the other, it will adopt a uniform social credit code and other measures to exert direct control over citizens. It will be a long and arduous contest, and there is no telling when those forces will meet.
It will not be pretty, because its roots can be traced right back to the day of June 4th, 1989. As long as the rulers of China don’t have the courage to produce a real political solution for political reconciliation, as has happened in Myanmar, then it is not unthinkable for a massive social movement to erupt not too far into the future.
Mo Zhixu (莫之许) is a Beijing-based dissident intellectual and a participant in the June 4th movement.
When the number of dead pigs over Huangpu River reached 6,000 a few days ago, I tweeted, puzzled by the lack of public outcry in Shanghai, “Shanghaiers, how many dead pigs do there have to be before you go to the streets to protest? Can you give us a number?” Now the number has more than doubled, and the Shanghaiers are still cool as a cucumber.
I’m not the only one who is puzzled. A Chinese tweep who also lives in the US asked the day before yesterday, “Why is there no discussion about the dead pigs? In the face of serious pollution, large protests have erupted in small cities, but in Beijing and Shanghai, there has been nothing but dead silence. Someone in Shanghai called for a mass walk, but it has come to nothing. Sure, government control is a factor, but in small cities, there is control too” (@liberty8964). He wanted to have a discussion. A Chinese journalist in Canada joined in, “Still I’m bewildered. Because of tight control? But we are talking about drinking water!” (@liangyanr)
It’s somewhat a consensus among China watchers that mass revolt in China will happen when the interest of the broad population is undercut and their lives take a considerable turn for the worse. The projected scenarios include worsening inflation, a real estate collapse, environmental pollution, etc. I also hold such a view, and that’s why I am puzzled by the total inaction in Shanghai with regard to the dead pig event that’s making international headlines and that, water quality aside, obviously poses public health risks and affects everyone in Shanghai, a city of 20 million residents.
So I asked around for opinions on Twitter and through emails. “‘Inaction’ is very normal,” replied my nephew Youfang, a system biologist living in Chicago, who went to graduate school in Shanghai and worked there for several years. “It would be extraordinary if the dead pig incident leads to large-scale street demonstrations.” He went on to give me four reasons.
“First of all, the dead pigs didn’t originate in Shanghai, but from Jiaxing, Zhejiang. The Shanghai municipal government has taken measures to pull out, and dispose of, the pig carcasses. Although the public is suspicious of the government’s claim that the ‘water quality is unaffected,’ it doesn’t have a clear target to protest against because, after all, the municipal government is not the culprit.”
Twitter user @ahrism confirmed Youfang’s view: “I spoke to my childhood friend in Shanghai who also worked in Shanghai media before, and she said, even though everyone felt sick in the stomach, but since it affected only a part of Shanghai and the municipal government seems to be doing a good job dealing with it, who do we turn against?”
Only a part of Shanghai is affected? The exiled economist @HeQinglian, whom we translated before, and another twitter user @shengzhaozhang point out that, in Shanghai, only 20% of the drinking water is taken from Huangpu River and it supplies the outlying suburbs of Songjiang, Jinshan, Fengxian and Minxing on the south side of Shanghai and the rest of the city gets its water from Yangtze River.
Ms. He also points out the difference between the struggle of an individual family whose property is being demolished, or a village for that matter such as Wukan, and that of a large metropolitan area. “Shanghaiers’ inaction in the dead pig event can be explained with ‘the logic of collective action’ as explained by the American economist Mancur Olson in his book The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups in 1965.” Instead of being the driver, everybody wants to take a ride with it.
While in smaller cities people can come together to protest against pollution, @fightcensorship and I agreed, it is considerably harder, if not outright impossible for that to happen in big metropolitan areas, given that people living in large cities lack the kind of close ties existing in a village or a community in small cities, and, without modern forms of organization, which the Party fears the most and clamps down on the hardest, it’s inconceivable for residents in large cities like Shanghai to take collective actions.
“The second reason,” my nephew continues, “has to do with the timing of the event. It occurred during the Two Meetings. In a sensitive time like this, media coverage on ‘bad news’ is minimal and probably not telling the whole truth either.”
Government control on media coverage of the incident is confirmed by an edict (Chinese) issued by the Party’s propaganda department that singled out two Shanghai media outlets Dongfang Daily (《东方早报》) and Dragon TV (东方卫视) for “hyping” the dead pig event over Huangpu River.
“In the forbidding political environment in mainland China,” Youfang wrote, making his third point, “people have little appetite to take it to street even when they are very unhappy. Nowadays, the government takes strict, elaborate control to prevent possible eruption of mass events; anything slightly out of the ordinary would draw attention from the government, or the state security police. A couple of years ago, a young woman from my neighborhood protested in the People’s Square with a sign about something that happened to her, and she has been put under surveillance ever since. Unless under extreme circumstances, people do not want to confront the government by taking it to the streets. Meanwhile, Shanghaiers care more about making money. People talk more about real estate and money when they are together than anything else. Even when venting discontent for the government or the system, they are more resigned than indignant. Those with means would rather emigrate and leave the country.”
Radio Free Asia reported (Chinese) that Shanghai poet Pang Ting (潘婷) posted questions for Shanghai municipal government on Weibo, and her posts were repeatedly deleted. On March 14, she posted a call for mass walk on March 23, and after that post, her account was canceled altogether.
RFA also reported (Chinese) that a Shanghai lawyer and a college student requested, respectively, the municipal government to publish water information at the six water intake points and nine water plants, but we have not heard any follow-up news on that.
“Finally,” Youfang wrote, “many people may not even feel it’s a big deal to have dead pigs floating down the Huangpu River, and their logic goes like this: The Huangpu River is very polluted to begin with. Upstream, god knows what stuff—sewage, industrial waste and whatnot—has been discharged into the river, several thousand dead pigs probably wouldn’t make it much worse, and it will be gone after a while……”
“In China,” Youfang continues, “the public is misled in many of their ideas. For example, the Chinese public cries out loud about GMO foods but remains indifferent to air and water pollutions. In any case, most Chinese care only about themselves and their own businesses, and have little regard for the interest of the greater population. But over the last few years, I have seen many good changes through social media, though it takes time, perhaps several generations, to change the character of a people.”
As I was wrapping up this post, a Twitter user (@wayinfinite) joined the conversation, saying “Nobody beats Shanghaiers in putting up with things. If Shanghaiers ever go on the street, that would be big, bigger than Beijingers taking to the street, so big it will change the regime. When Shanghaiers cannot bear it anymore, that would mean no one in China can bear it anymore.”
“Oh really,” I hit the “reply” button, “I’m going to take a nap now. Wake me up when Shanghai sinks to the bottom of the sea.”