The Common Good
January-February 1997

China, Democracy, and the West

by Brett Grainger | January-February 1997

Fear and Loathing at Big Joy Farm.

Sheryl WuDunn and Joy Wong have some uncanny similarities. Both are third-generation Chinese-North American women who became interested in China only after reaching university. Both were educated in North America and married non-Chinese Westerners. Both are journalists who went to Beijing in 1988 as correspondents for major North American newspapers (WuDunn for The New York Times, Wong for the Toronto's The Globe and Mail). Both have struggled with their relationship to China and the Communist government that rules it. And both have recently written books about it.

Sure, there are some differences too. WuDunn's book, China Wakes, was written collaboratively with her husband, Nicholas Kristof (also a Times correspondent), while Joy Wong's Red China Blues is a solo effort. (Her husband is a computer guy.) Long before Wong covered the Beijing beat as a journalist, she was a believer; Red China Blues tells the tale of her fall from grace as a Maoist.

In 1972, Wong left McGill University in Montreal to become one of only two foreign students at Beijing University during the Cultural Revolution, Mao's attempt to shake up the Communist bureaucracy and return the revolutionary ardor to the hearts of the Chinese people. When it was decided that students risked becoming "bourgeois" by avoiding physical labor in the classroom, Wong and the other "worker-peasant-soldier-students" were sent to work in the grueling rice paddies at Big Joy Farm. Since all textbooks, literature, and dictionaries were burned during the Cultural Revolution, they were also commissioned with writing their own textbooks. According to Wong:

Even I would be expected to write a chapter, although I still had trouble reading and writing Chinese....Our professors were supposed to be ideologically bankrupt. The more book learning they had, the more polluted their thinking....To ensure the textbook would have the correct revolutionary spin, we would show our draft not to our teachers but to the local peasants, the motherlode of political correctness.

Given her litany of awful experiences at the hands of petty bureaucrats and party hacks, it's remarkable that Wong sustained her faith in the revolution as long as she did. By the time she arrives at Tiananmen Square to cover the ill-fated student protests of 1989, you can't believe she's been a sucker this long. At the site of the June 4 massacre, her drama finds a natural climax: Wong relates in raw, riveting detail the events leading up to that day, including experiences too personal for the objective news reports she filed for The Globe and Mail.

China Wakes, on the other hand, is much less personal memoir than travelogue. While lacking some of the gripping force of Wong's first-person confession, it may be a more friendly read for those less familiar with the major convulsions of 20th-century Chinese history. Kristof and WuDunn trade off chapters on issues ranging from the legacy of Deng Xiaoping's economic reforms to the Beijing film industry to the mistreatment of women and the mentally retarded. Indeed, when read side by side, the two books are quite complementary, and overlap is marginal.

Most Western media have depicted contemporary Chinese society in a slow spiral of decline from an earlier revolutionary period where the peasant masses, led by "The Great Helmsman" Mao, overthrew oppressive landlords and redistributed land to the peasants. In such reports, the capitalist reforms introduced by Deng are generally blamed for the steady erosion of Mao's "New Man"—the selfish urges cultivated by a capitalist economy have undercut the revolution's emphasis on the collective.

However, both Red China Blues and China Wakes challenge the veracity of any claim to a Golden Age of Maoism before Deng. According to Wong, if people acted selflessly during the Cultural Revolution, it was out of self-preservation—the fear of being sent off to places like Big Joy Farm for "thought reform through manual labor."

Laissez-faire capitalism aside, the Communist Party has adopted other policies that weakened its control. Wong points to the contradictions inherent in China's attempt to stem its burgeoning population, the official "one-child only" policy. According to scientific studies, the next generation of Chinese children is already more self-centered, less willing to share its toys, and hopelessly spoiled. By rearing a society of "little emperors" who will be less willing to make the sacrifices of their parents, the Communist Party only hastens its own demise.

"DEMOCRACY" WAS A favorite word of the foreign press during the tense days at Tiananmen Square. The students had called themselves a "democracy movement." In the West, hearts reflected on all the Chinese tea dumped into Boston harbor, on the struggle against taxation without representation. We admired these brash young freedom fighters, these straight-haired Jeffersons of the East.

But we may be flattering ourselves to think that the people of China spilled their blood for all the bells and whistles of Western-style democracy. Indeed, it is not at all apparent that the students were thinking first of our system of separation of powers and multiparty elections when they took Tiananmen.

In fact, during the months of protest that preceded the massacre, the student organization itself came to mirror the government it was attacking. As Wong writes, "They established a Lilliputian kingdom in Tiananmen Square, complete with a mini-bureaucracy with committees for sanitation, finance, and 'propaganda.'" However, as Victor Sogen Hori writes in the September-December 1994 issue of The Ecumenist, "The problem is not that the Chinese fail to understand Western democracy well, but that Westerners fail to understand Chinese democracy well."

By sending its intellectuals off to places like Big Joy Farm, Communist China upset deeply held cultural beliefs about the nature of good rulership. In the past, those best equipped to govern—who displayed the highest moral character and intelligence—were selected through years of Confucian training to serve the community in the immense imperial bureaucracy. "Viewing the manifest corruption among government officials who gained their position not through intellectual achievement but through family connection," Hori writes, "the students in modern China cannot help but be reminded that in China's past only the literati were considered to have the intellectual and moral capabilities of administering good government....[T]hey now propose returning the educated class to some position in government."

Unfortunately, Wong and to a lesser extent Kristof and WuDunn fail to make these connections with China's imperial past. Instead, as Western journalists, they tend to see the past as naive and corrupt, an impediment to Western democratic ideals concerning the individual and human rights. This approach fails to understand China on its own terms, and does not take seriously the deeper historical currents flowing under the surface of modern Communist China. It suggests that China's own ideas about democracy are illegitimate and that China must imitate the West to fulfill the dream of a democratic society.

Review of Red China Blues: My Long March From Mao to Now. By Joy Wong. Bantam Doubleday Publishing, 1996; and China Wakes: The Struggle for the Soul of a Rising Power. By Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. Vintage Books, 1994.

BRETT GRAINGER, a former Sojourners intern, is a free-lance writer and frequent contributor to Sojourners, currently living in Montreal.

Sojourners relies on the support of readers like you to sustain our message and ministry.

Like what you're reading? Get Sojourners E-Mail updates!

Sojourners Comment Community Covenant

I will express myself with civility, courtesy, and respect for every member of the Sojourners online community, especially toward those with whom I disagree, even if I feel disrespected by them. (Romans 12:17-21)

I will express my disagreements with other community members' ideas without insulting, mocking, or slandering them personally. (Matthew 5:22)

I will not exaggerate others' beliefs nor make unfounded prejudicial assumptions based on labels, categories, or stereotypes. I will always extend the benefit of the doubt. (Ephesians 4:29)

I will hold others accountable by clicking "report" on comments that violate these principles, based not on what ideas are expressed but on how they're expressed. (2 Thessalonians 3:13-15)

I understand that comments reported as abusive are reviewed by Sojourners staff and are subject to removal. Repeat offenders will be blocked from making further comments. (Proverbs 18:7)