Authors: Evan Osnos
The author and publisher have provided this e-book to you for your personal use only. You may not make this e-book publicly available in any way.Copyright infringement is against the law. If you believe the copy of this e-book you are reading infringes on the author's copyright, please notify the publisher at:us.macmillanusa.com/piracy.
who lived it all
Part I: Fortune
Â Â 1. Unfettered
Â Â 2. The Call
Â Â 3. Baptized in Civilization
Â Â 4. Appetites of the Mind
Â Â 5. No Longer a Slave
Â Â 6. Cutthroat
Â Â 7. Acquired Taste
Part II: Truth
Â Â 8. Dancing in Shackles
Â Â 9. Liberty Leading the People
10. Miracles and Magic Engines
11. A Chorus of Soloists
12. The Art of Resistance
13. Seven Sentences
14. The Germ in the Henhouse
16. Lightning Storm
17. All That Glitters
18. The Hard Truth
Part III: Faith
19. The Spiritual Void
20. Passing By
22. Culture Wars
23. True Believers
24. Breaking Out
Notes on Sources
A Note About the Author
Why should I be like everyone else, just because I was born to a poor family?
âMichael Zhang, teacher
The commander of a mighty army can be captured, but the aspiration of an ordinary man can never be seized.
Whenever a new idea sweeps across Chinaâa new fashion, a philosophy, a way of lifeâthe Chinese describe it as a “fever.” In the first years after the country opened to the world, people contracted “Western Business Suit Fever” and “Jean-Paul Sartre Fever” and “Private Telephone Fever.” It was difficult to predict when or where a fever would ignite, or what it would leave behind.
In the village of Xiajia (population 1,564) there was a fever for the American cop showHunter, better known in China asExpert Detective Heng Te. When the show appeared on Chinese television in 1990, the villagers of Xiajia started to gather to watch Det. Sgt. Rick Hunter of the Los Angeles Police Department go undercover with his partner, Det. Sgt. Dee Dee McCall. And the villagers of Xiajia came to expect that Det. Sgt. Rick Hunter would always find at least two occasions to utter his trademark phrase, “Works for me”âthough, in Chinese, he came across as a religious man, because “Works for me” was mistranslated as “Whatever God wants.” The fever passed from one person to the next, and it affected each in a different way. Some months later, when the police in Xiajia tried to search the home of a local farmer, the man told them to come back when they had a warrantâa word he had learned fromExpert Detective Heng Te.
When I moved to China in 2005, I was accustomed to hearing the story of China's metamorphosis told in vast, sweeping strokes involving one-sixth of humanity and great pivots of politics and economics. But, up close, the deepest changes were intimate and perceptual, buried in daily rhythms in ways that were easy to overlook. The greatest fever of all was aspiration, a belief in the sheer possibility to remake a life. Some who tried succeeded; many others did not. More remarkable was that they defied a history that told them never to try. Lu Xun, China's most celebrated modern author, once wrote, “Hope is like a path in the countryside: originally there was no path, but once people begin to pass, a way appears.”
I lived in China for eight years, and I watched this age of ambition take shape. Above all, it is a time of plentyâthe crest of a transformation one hundred times the scale, and ten times the speed, of the first Industrial Revolution, which created modern Britain. The Chinese people no longer want for foodâthe average citizen eats six times as much meat as in 1976âbut this is a ravenous era of a different kind, a period when people have awoken with a hunger for new sensations, ideas, and respect. China is the world's largest consumer of energy, movies, beer, and platinum; it is building more high-speed railroads and airports than the rest of the world combined.
For some of its citizens, China's boom has created stupendous fortune: China is the world's fastest-growing source of new billionaires. Several of the new plutocrats have been among the world's most dedicated thieves; others have been holders of high public office. Some have been both. For most of the Chinese people, however, the boom has not produced vast wealth; it has permitted the first halting steps out of poverty. The rewards created by China's rise have been wildly inconsistent but fundamentally profound: it is one of the broadest gains in human well-being in the modern age. In 1978, the average Chinese income was $200; by 2014, it was $6,000. By almost every measure, the Chinese people have achieved longer, healthier, more educated lives.
Living in Beijing in these moments, I found that confidence in one's ideas, especially about China's future, seems to vary inversely with the time one spends on the ground. The complexities blunt the impulse to impose a simple logic on them. To find order in the changes, we seek refuge, of a kind, in statistics: in my years in China, the number of airline passengers doubled; cell phone sales tripled; the length of the Beijing subway quadrupled. But I was less impressed by those numbers than by a drama that I could not quantify: two generations ago, visitors to China marveled most at the sameness of it all. To outsiders, Chairman Mao was the “Emperor of the Blue Ants,” as one memorable book title had itâa secular god in a land of matching cotton suits and “production teams.” Stereotypes about the Chinese as collectivist, inscrutable drones endured in part because China's politics helped sustain them; official China reminded its guests that it was a nation of work units and communes and uncountable sacrifice.
But in the China that I encountered, the national narrative, once an ensemble performance, is splintering into a billion storiesâstories of flesh and blood, of idiosyncrasies and solitary struggles. It is a time when the ties between the world's two most powerful countries, China and the United States, can be tested by the aspirations of a lone peasant lawyer who chose the day and the hour in which to alter his fate. It is the age of the changeling, when the daughter of a farmer can propel herself from the assembly line to the boardroom so fast that she never has time to shed the manners and anxieties of the village. It is a moment when the individual became a gale force in political, economic, and private life, so central to the self-image of a rising generation that a coal miner's son can grow up to believe that nothing matters more to him than seeing his name on the cover of a book.
Viewed one way, the greatest beneficiary of the age of ambition is the Chinese Communist Party. In 2011 the Party celebrated its ninetieth birthdayâa milestone unimaginable at the end of the Cold War. In the years after the Soviet Union collapsed, Chinese leaders studied that history and vowed never to suffer the same fate. When Arab dictatorships fell in 2011, China's endured. To survive, the Chinese Communist Party shed its scripture but held fast to its saints; it abandoned Marx's theories but retained Mao's portrait on the Gate of Heavenly Peace, peering down on Tiananmen Square.
The Party no longer promises equality or an end to toil. It promises only prosperity, pride, and strength. And for a while, that was enough. But over time the people have come to want more, and perhaps nothing more ardently than information. New technology has stirred a fugitive political culture; things once secret are now known; people once alone are now connected. And the more the Party has tried to prevent its people from receiving unfiltered ideas, the more they have stepped forward to demand them.
China today is riven by contradictions. It is the world's largest buyer of Louis Vuitton, second only to the United States in its purchases of Rolls-Royces and Lamborghinis, yet ruled by a Marxist-Leninist party that seeks to ban the wordluxuryfrom billboards. The difference in life expectancy and income between China's wealthiest cities and its poorest provinces is the difference between New York and Ghana. China has two of the world's most valuable Internet companies, and more people online than the United States, even as it redoubles its investment in history's largest effort to censor human expression. China has never been more pluralistic, urban, and prosperous, yet it is the only country in the world with a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in prison.
Sometimes China is compared to the Japan of the 1980s, when a hundred square feet in downtown Tokyo sold for a million dollars, and tycoons were sipping cocktails over ice cubes shipped from Antarctica. By 1991, Japan was in the largest deflation of assets in the modern history of capitalism. But the similarities run thin; when Japan's bubble burst, it was a mature, developed economy; but China, even overheated, remains a poor country in which the average person earns as much as a Japanese citizen in 1970. At other moments, China's goose-stepping soldiers, its defectors and its dissidents, recall the Soviet Union or even Nazi Germany. But those comparisons are unsatisfying. Chinese leaders do not threaten to “bury” America, the way Khrushchev did, and even China's fiercest nationalists do not seek imperial conquest or ethnic cleansing.
China reminds me most of America at its own moment of transformationâthe period that Mark Twain and Charles Warner named the Gilded Age, when “every man has his dream, his pet scheme.” The United States emerged from the Civil War on its way to making more steel than Britain, Germany, and France combined. In 1850, America had fewer than twenty millionaires; by 1900 it had forty thousand, some as bumptious and proud as James Gordon Bennett, who bought a restaurant in Monte Carlo after he was refused a seat by the window. As in China, the dawn of American fortune was accompanied by spectacular treachery. “Our method of doing business,” said the railway man Charles Francis Adams, Jr., a grandson and great-grandson of presidents, “is founded upon lying, cheating and stealing.” Eventually, F. Scott Fitzgerald gave us the slippery tale of James Gatz of North Dakota, who catapulted himself into a new world, in doomed pursuit of love and fortune. When I stood in the light of a new Chinese skyline, I sometimes thought of Gatsby's New Yorkâ“always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world.”
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
In the early years of the twenty-first century, China encompasses two universes: the world's newest superpower and the world's largest authoritarian state. Some days, I spent the morning with a new tycoon and the evening with a dissident under house arrest. It was easy to see them as representing the new China and the old, distinct realms of economics and politics. But eventually I concluded that they were one and the same, and the contrast was an unstable state of nature.
This book is an account of the collision of two forces: aspiration and authoritarianism. Forty years ago the Chinese people had virtually no access to fortune, truth, or faithâthree things denied them by politics and poverty. They had no chance to build a business or indulge their desires, no power to challenge propaganda and censorship, no way to find moral inspiration outside the Party. Within a generation, they had gained access to all threeâand they want more. The Chinese people have taken control of freedoms that used to be governed almost entirely by othersâdecisions about where they work and travel and whom they marry. But as those liberties have expanded, the Communist Party has taken only halting steps to accommodate them. The Communist Party's commitment to controlâto ordain not only who leads the country but also how many teeth a train attendant shows when she smilesâcontradicts the riot of life outside. The longer I lived in China, the more I sensed that the Chinese people have outpaced the political system that nurtured their rise. The Party has unleashed the greatest expansion of human potential in world historyâand spawned, perhaps, the greatest threat to its own survival.
This is a work of nonfiction, based on eight years of conversations. In my research, I gravitated most of all to the striversâthe men and women who were trying to elbow their way from one realm to another, not just in economic terms, but in matters of politics, ideas, and the spirit. I came to know many of them when I was writing stories in theChicago Tribuneand, later,The New Yorker. I followed them as their lives evolved and veered in and out of my own. For an American writing abroad, it is tempting to envy China's strengths where America feels weak, and to judge the country harshly where it grates against my values. But I have tried, above all, to describe Chinese lives on their own terms.
I have used real names, except in several cases that I have noted, in which I obscured an identity because of political sensitivities. All the dialogue is based on the accounts of one or more people present. Part I begins at the earliest moments of the boom; I introduce several men and women who were swept up in China's rise from poverty, and describe the risks they took and the ideas that animated them. The more that people succeeded in their economic lives, the more they demanded to know about the world around them, and in part II, I describe the rebellion against propaganda and censorship. In the final part, those pursuits converge in the search for a new moral foundation, as men and women on the bottom rung of the middle class set out in search of what to believe.
The story of China in the twenty-first century is often told as a contest between East and West, between state capitalism and the free market. But in the foreground there is a more immediate competition: the struggle to define the idea of China. Understanding China requires not only measuring the light and heat thrown off by its incandescent new power, but also examining the source of its energyâthe men and women at the center of China's becoming.
May 16, 1979
Under a sliver of moon, on an island off the coast of China, a twenty-six-year-old army captain slipped away from his post and headed for the water's edge. He moved as calmly as possible, over the pine scrub to a ledge overlooking the shore. If his plan were discovered, he would be disgraced and executed.
Capt. Lin Zhengyi was a model soldier, one of the most celebrated young officers in the army of Taiwan, the island province ruled by opponents of the Chinese Communist Party. For three decades Taiwan had defied Communist control, and Captain Lin was a symbol of that resistance: in college, he had been a star student who'd given up a placid civilian life to join the military, a decision so rare that Taiwan's future president made a point to shake his hand, and the picture was splashed all over the newspapers, turning Lin into a poster boy for the “Holy Counterattack,” the dream of retaking mainland China.
Lin Zhengyi (pronounced “Jung-yee”) stood nearly six feet tall, with ramrod posture, a broad, flat nose, and jug ears that protruded from the rim of his hat. His devotion had earned him the assignment to the most sensitive place on the front line: the tiny island of Quemoy, known in Mandarin as Jinmen, barely one mile, across the water, from the rocky coast of mainland China.
But Captain Lin had a secret so dangerous to him and his family that he did not dare reveal it even to his wife, who was home with their son and pregnant with their second child. Captain Lin had awoken to a sense of history gathering around him. After thirty years of turmoil, China was appealing to the people of Taiwan to reunify the “great Motherland.” Any soldier who tried to defect to the mainland would be shot on sight. The few who tried were exceedingly rare, though the consequences were vivid; the most recent case had occurred less than a month ago. But Lin had heard his calling. China would prosper again, he believed. And he would prosper with it.
In the darkness he found the sandy path that could lead him safely down a hill laden with land mines. The wind off the sea had bent the gnarled island pines. The water, a brilliant crystal green by day, was now an endless black mass, surging and withdrawing with the waves. To ward off an invasion, the beaches had been fitted with long metal spears that protruded from the sand to face the sea.
Just before the captain left the tree line for the dash to shore, he loosened the laces of his shoes and stepped barefoot onto the soil and stone. He was ready to abandon his fellow soldiers, his family, and his name.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Virtually everyone else who had tried to swim those waters had headed in the opposite direction. In 1979, mainland China was a place to flee.
In the eighteenth century, imperial China controlled one-third of the world's wealth; its most advanced cities were as prosperous and commercialized as Great Britain and the Netherlands. But in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, China was crippled by invasion, civil war, and political upheaval. After taking power in 1949, the Communist Party conducted a “land reform” campaign that grouped China's small family farms into collectives, and led to the killing of millions of landlords and perceived enemies. In 1958, Chairman Mao launched the Great Leap Forward, attempting to vault his country past Britain in just fifteen years. Some advisers told him it was impossible, but he ignored and humiliated them; the head of the national technology commission jumped out a window. The propagandists hailed one fantastical harvest after another, calling them “Sputnik harvests,” on par with the success of the Soviet satellite. But the numbers were fiction, and as starvation spread, many who complained were tortured or killed. The Party barred people from traveling to find food. Mao's Great Leap Forward resulted in the world's worst famine, which killed between thirty and forty-five million people, more than World War I. By the time Captain Lin defected from Taiwan, the People's Republic was poorer than North Korea; its per capita income was one-third that of sub-Saharan Africa.
Deng Xiaoping had been China's paramount leader for less than six months. At seventy-five, he was a persuasive but plainspoken statesman, and a survivorârepeatedly purged from the leadership by Chairman Mao, twice rehabilitated. In the years since, he has often been described as the sole architect of the boom that followed, but that view is the handiwork of Party historians. Deng understood the limitations of his knowledge. On matters of the economy, his shrewdest move was to unite with Chen Yun, a fellow Party patriarch who was so skeptical of the West that he greeted the idea of reform by rereading Lenin'sImperialism; and with Zhao Ziyang, a younger, progressive Party boss whose efforts to reduce poverty had spawned a saying among peasants: “If you want to eat, look for Ziyang.”
When change came, it came from below. The previous winter, in the inland village of Xiaogang, the local farmers had been so impoverished by Mao's economic vision that they had stopped tilling their communal land and had resorted to begging. In desperation, eighteen farmers divided up the land and began to farm it separately; they set their own schedules, and whatever they sold beyond the quota required by the state, they sold at the market and reaped the profits. They signed a secret pact to protect one another's families in the event of arrest.
By the following year, they were earning nearly twenty times as much income as before. When the experiment was discovered, some apparatchiks accused them of “digging up the cornerstone of socialism,” but wiser leaders allowed their scheme to continue, and eventually expanded it to eight hundred million farmers around the country. The return of “household” farming, as it was known, spread so fast that a farmer compared it to a germ in a henhouse. “When one family's chicken catches the disease, the whole village catches it. When one village has it, the whole county will be infected.”
Deng and the other leaders squabbled constantly, but the combination of Deng's charisma, Chen's hesitation to move too fast, and Zhao's competence was startlingly successful. The model they created endured for decades: a “birdcage economy,” as Chen Yun called it, airy enough to let the market thrive but not so free as to let it escape. As young revolutionaries, the elders had overseen the execution of landlords, the seizure of factories, and the creation of people's communes. But now they preserved their power by turning the revolution upside down: permitting private enterprise and opening a window to the outside world even if it allowed, as Deng put it, “a few flies” to get in. China's reforms had no blueprint. The strategy, as Chen Yun put it, was to move without losing controlâto “cross the river by feeling for the stones.” (Deng, inevitably, received credit for the expression.)
In 1979 the Party announced that it would no longer tag people as “landlords” and “rich peasants,” and later Deng Xiaoping removed the final stigma: “Let some people get rich first,” he said, “and gradually all the people should get rich together.” The Party extended the economic experiment. Officially, private businesses were permitted to hire no more than eight employeesâMarx had believed that firms with more than eight workers were exploitativeâbut eventually small enterprises began popping up so fast that Deng Xiaoping told a Yugoslav delegation that it was “as if a strange army had appeared suddenly from nowhere.” He did not take credit. “This is not the achievement of our central government,” he said.
All over the country, people were exiting the collective farms that had dominated their lives. When they talked about it, they said they had beensongbangâ“unfettered”âa term more often used for a liberated prisoner or an animal. They began to talk of politics and democracy. But Deng Xiaoping had his limits. In March 1979, not long before Lin Zhengyi embarked on his adventure to the mainland, Deng spoke to a group of senior officials and demanded, “Can we tolerate this kind of freedom of speech which flagrantly contravenes the principles of our constitution?” The Party would never embrace “individualist democracy.” It would have economic freedom but political control. For China to thrive, there must be limits on “emancipating the mind.”
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
When change began to take hold on the mainland, Lin Zhengyi watched it from afar. He was born in 1952, three years after Taiwan and the mainland had embarked on the ideological and political standoff that would endure for decades. After losing China's civil war to the Communists in 1949, the Nationalist Party fled to the island of Taiwan, where it declared martial law over the islands and prepared, in theory, for the day that it might return to power over China. Life in Taiwan was harsh and circumscribed. Lin grew up in the lush river delta town of Yilan, in a remote corner of Taiwan's main island. His family was descended from earlier migrants from the mainland. The arriving Nationalist forces viewed the earlier migrants as low-class and politically unreliable, and they were subject to widespread discrimination in jobs and education.
His father, Lin Huoshu, ran a barbershop, and his mother took in laundry from the neighbors. The family lived in a shanty on the edge of town. But the father taught his children about ancient Chinese science and statecraft, about a civilization once so advanced that it started printing books four hundred years before Gutenberg. He read aloud from the old booksâThe Three Kingdoms,Journey to the Westâand he drilled into his children the dream of China's revival. He named his fourth child Zhengyi because it meant “justice.”
As a boy, Lin wondered why, despite China's glorious history, his family could barely feed itself. His older brother did not ask their mother if they would have lunch, because it was an uncomfortable question, Lin recalled. “He would lean on the stove. If it was warm, that means we had lunch.” Otherwise, they went hungry. For Lin, the experience fostered a highly pragmatic streak. He came to view issues of human dignity primarily through the lenses of history and economics.
In his teens, he gravitated to tales about engineeringâthe exploits of ancient Chinese leaders such as Li Bing, a governor in the third centuryB.C.E., in today's Sichuan Province, who set out to control deadly floods by devoting eight years to digging a water channel through a mountain. He relied on thousands of workers, who heated the rocks with hay fires and cooled them with water to make them crack. The result was an irrigation system so vast and durable that it is often compared to the wonders of the world; it transformed one of the country's poorest stretches into a region so fertile that it is known today as the “Land of Heaven.”
Lin was the most promising of the sons, and in 1971 he won a coveted seat at National Taiwan University, to study irrigation. To pay his tuition, his three brothers left school and worked in their father's barber-shop. Lin entered college just as the campus was roiling with debate over the future of Taiwan and mainland China. For years, young people in Taiwan had been taught that the mainland was run by “Communist bandits” and “demons.” The Nationalist Party used this threat to justify martial law, and it committed widespread human rights abuses against political opponents and Communist sympathizers.
But as Lin arrived on campus, Taiwan's status was eroding. In July 1971, U.S. president Richard Nixon announced his visit to Beijing. The mainland was gaining influence. In October the United Nations voted to take away Taiwan's seat at the UN General Assembly and give it to the People's Republic, acknowledging that government as the lawful representative of the Chinese people. In this climate, Lin Zhengyi found his voice. He became president of the freshman class and emerged as one of Taiwan's most ardent young activists. At a student rally called “Fight the Communist Bandits Sneaking into the United Nations,” he took the microphone and appealed for an island-wide protest, an idea so radical in the era of martial law that even his fellow activists couldn't bring themselves to support it. At another event, he vowed to go on a hunger strike, until the dean talked him out of it.
When he announced that he was transferring to a military academy, he told reporters, “If my decision to join the military can arouse nationalism in every youthÂ â¦ then its impact will be immeasurable.” He had practical reasons as well: at the military academy he could study for free and receive a stipend.
At a friend's house one day during college, Lin met a young woman named Chen Yunying, an activist who was studying literature at National Chengchi University. After they graduated, they married and had a son. Lin spent two years studying for an MBA and then he was assigned to lead a company on the island of Quemoy, known during the Cold War as the “lighthouse of the free world,” because it was the final spit of land before the Communist shoreline. The two sides had once shelled each other so ferociously that Taiwan's military honeycombed the island with bunkers, underground restaurants, and a hospital carved so deep into the mountain that it was designed to survive a nuclear strike.
By the time Lin arrived in 1978, the war was more psychological than physical. The armies still shelled each other, but only on schedule: the mainland fired on odd-numbered days; Taiwan returned fire the rest of the week. Mostly they dueled with propaganda. They blasted each other with enormous, high-powered speakers, and they dropped leaflets from hot-air balloons. They floated softball-sized glass containers to the opposing shores packed with bundles of goods intended to lure defectors with glimpses of prosperity. Taiwan sent pinups and miniature newspapers describing the outside world, clean underwear, pop music cassettes, instructions on how to build a simple radio, and promises of gold coins and glory for anyone willing to defect. The mainland replied with liquor, tea, sweet melons, and pamphlets with photos of smiling Taiwanese diplomats and scientists who had defected to the mainlandâor, as the Party put it, “traded darkness for light.”
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
In December 1978, Jimmy Carter announced that the United States was officially recognizing the Communist government in Beijing, and severing formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan. The news buried any remaining hope that the island might regain control of the mainland. In Taiwan, as a correspondent put it, people were “as nervous as a cat trying to cross a busy road with the traffic getting worse by the moment.” On New Year's Day 1979, the Beijing government announced that it was ending its military bombardment of Quemoy, and broadcast an appeal to the people of Taiwan that “the bright futureÂ â¦ belongs to us and to you. The reunification of the motherland is the sacred mission that history has handed to our generation.” It boasted that “construction is going ahead vigorously on the motherland.”
On February 16, Lin was reassigned even closer to the mainland; he was put in charge of a tiny command post on a lonesome, windswept outcropping called Mount Ma, known among the soldiers as “the front line of the universe.” It was a prestigious post, but, according to military investigators, Lin resented the assignment because he was marooned on the outer islands when he could be teaching at the military academy, or taking the exam for senior military office. His post was a favorite stop for political grandees who wanted to be photographed on the front line with the young patriots in uniform. In April he took a leave to see family and friends; one night, he told an old college classmate, Zhang Jiasheng, that he believed Taiwan could prosper only if the mainland thrived.
When he returned to Mount Ma, Lin was so close to the mainland that he could see the faces of People's Liberation Army soldiers through his binoculars. His thinking had already begun to take a sharp turn. Although Taiwan and the Communists were enemies, ordinary people considered them two halves of the same clan, with a shared history and destiny. As in the American Civil War, some families were physically divided. In one case, a man sent by his mother to go shopping on the mainland just before the Communists cut off boat traffic did not get home for forty years.
In the first years after the separation, some soldiers had tried to swim to the mainland, but fierce currents swirled around the islands, and the defectors washed back up, exhausted, and were arrested as traitors. To deter others, the army destroyed most of the island's fishing boats, and the few that remained were required to lock up their oars at night. Over the years, anything that might be turned into a flotation deviceâa basketball, a bicycle tireâhad to be registered, like a weapon, and the army conducted spot checks around the island, knocking on doors and demanding to see that all balls and inner tubes were accounted for.
Earlier in the spring of 1979, a soldier had made the rare attempt to defect, but he, too, was caught. Lin was undeterred. He believed his plan was better, but he wanted to minimize the effects on his commanding officers. He was scheduled to move from one command to another in May; he believed that if he defected at the time of the transition, senior officers could plausibly blame each other for missing the clues and avoid much blame. What's more, spring on the island was the season of fog, when the humid air met the cold water of the sea and draped the shoreline in a curtain of gray, a shroud that just might be heavy enough to conceal a figure slipping into the waves.
With each spring day, the currents were growing, and by summer they would be strong enough to push a man back to shore, no matter how hard he fought against the waves. If Lin was going to swim to mainland China, he had to go immediately.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
On the morning of May 16 he was at his command post. He asked the company secretary Liao Zhenzhu for the latest tide chart. High tide would come at four o'clock in the afternoon and then begin to withdraw.
That night, after sunset, Lin attended a meeting at battalion headquarters and returned to Mount Ma for dinner. At 8:30 a company secretary named Tung Chin-yao visited his table to say he was going over to the battalion headquarters to pick up a new soldier. Tung returned an hour later, but Lin was no longer in the dining hall.
He wasn't in the barracks, either. At 10:50 p.m., two captains from the division recorded his absence in the log and organized a search party. By midnight, commanders had launched a full-scale search of the islandâa Thunderbolt Operation, as they called itâinvolving a hundred thousand people, including soldiers and civilians, men, women, and children. They tore open farmers' storehouses and probed the ponds with bamboo poles. Then searchers found the first clue: at the end of the mine-laden trail, from Mount Ma to the shore, were his sneakers, stenciled with the characters for “Company Commander.” They searched his room and discovered that items were missing: a canteen, a compass, a first-aid kit, the company flag, and a life jacket.
By then, Lin was far ahead of them. From the command post, he had to cross just three hundred yards to reach the gray-brown boulders on the shore. From there, he slid into the waves. He had calculated that he needed to enter the water before low tide at 10:00 p.m., so that the force of the sea would draw him away from the land. He had taken one other crucial step: According to military investigators, two days before he swam, Lin inspected the sentry posts along the coast, and he addressed the young recruits assigned to watch the horizon. He told them an odd joke: if, at night, you see swimmers who show no signs of attacking, don't bother to shoot; they're probably just “water spirits,” and if you shoot, you'll tempt them into retribution. Superstitions about omens and spirits thrived in Taiwan, and an offhand comment from a commander might have been just enough to make a nervous teenager think twice before raising the alarm over a mysterious flutter on the night sea.
In the water, Lin swam hard and fast. The current tugged at him, but soon he was clear of the shallows and alone on the black depths, enveloped in water and sky. He needed only to make it to the middle of the channel, and then the rising tide would carry him the rest of the way.
He swam freestyle until he was exhausted, and then floated on his back to regain energy. After three hours, with his legs throbbing and numb with cold, he was nearing land. It was the easternmost edge of Chinese soilâHorn Islet. It was just sixty acres of sand and palmetto scrub, home to nothing but Chinese guard posts and artillery guns. The shore, he knew, was laced with land mines. He reached into his clothing, where, sealed in a plastic bag, he had stowed a flashlight. His frozen fingers fumbled with the button. He flicked it on and signaled to Chinese troops, who began to mass on the shore.
Lin reached the shallows. He had much to look forward to: the Communist pamphlets had promised a hero's welcome and rewards of gold and cash. But in the darkness, a lone Chinese soldier waded into the water, edged toward Lin Zhengyi, and placed him under arrest.
Every journey into China begins with a story of gravitational pull. The American writer John Hersey, who was born to missionaries in Tianjin, named it “the Call.”
In my first year of college, I wandered into an introductory class on modern Chinese politics: revolution and civil war; the tragic, protean force of Chairman Mao; the fall and rise of Deng Xiaoping, who led China out of seclusion and into the world. Only five years had passed since the 1989 democracy demonstrations at Tiananmen Square, when students, barely older than I was, built a tent city in the very citadel of Party power, a mini-state-within-a-state, alive with impulsive idealism. On television, they looked torn between East and West; they had shag haircuts and boom boxes and quotes from Patrick Henry, but they sang the Internationale and knelt to deliver their demands to men who were still buttoned up in Mao suits. A student protester told a reporter, “I don't know exactly what we want, but we want more of it.” Their movement ended in bloodshed on the night of June 3â4, when official loudspeakers blared, “This is not the West; it is China,” and the Politburo turned the People's Liberation Army on their people for the first time since the revolution. The Party was proud of suppressing the challenge but aware of the damage to its image, and in the years that followed, the Party scrubbed those events so systematically from its history that only the ghostliest outline has remained.
Once I became interested in China, I flew to Beijing in 1996 to spend half a year studying Mandarin. The city stunned me. Cameras had failed to convey how much closer it was, in spirit and geography, to the windswept plains of Mongolia than to the neon lights of Hong Kong. Beijing smelled of coal and garlic and work-stained wool and cheap tobacco. In a claptrap taxi, with the windows sealed and the heat cranked up, the smell stuck to the roof of your mouth. Beijing was cradled by mountains, high on the North China plain, and in the winter the wind that rose in the land of Genghis Khan whistled down and lashed your face.
Beijing was a clanging, unglamorous place. One of the nicest buildings in town was the Jianguo Hotel, which the architect proudly described as a perfect replica of a Holiday Inn in Palo Alto, California. China's national economy was smaller than that of Italy. The countryside felt near: most nights, I ate in a Muslim neighborhood known as Xinjiang Village, which belonged to the Uighurs, an ethnic group from far western China. Their tiny gray-brick restaurants had jittery sheep tied out front, and the animals vanished in the kitchens, one by one, at dinner-time. After the crowds thinned out each day, the waiters and cooks climbed on the tables and went to sleep.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
The Internet had reached China two years earlier, but there were just five telephone lines for every hundred people. I had brought a modem from the United States, and plugged it into my dorm room wall; the machine let out a sharppop!and never stirred again.
When I visited Tiananmen Square for the first time, I stood in the center and saw, on three sides, Mao's mausoleum, the Great Hall of the People, and the Gate of Heavenly Peace. There was no trace of the demonstrations, of course, and nothing in the square had changed since Mao's remains were embalmed in a glass case in 1977. As a foreigner, I found it tempting to look at the Stalinist monuments built by the Party and conclude that the Party was doomed. That summer,The New York Timesran a piece headlinedTHE LONG MARCH TO IRRELEVANCE, in which it observed that “the once-omnipresent party has almost no presence at all.”
One side of the square was dedicated to the future: a giant digital clock, fifty feet tall and thirty feet long, counted down the seconds until, as it read across the top, “The Chinese Government Regains Sovereignty over Hong Kong.” In less than a year, Great Britain was scheduled to return the islands of Hong Kong, which it had controlled ever since China's defeat in the First Opium War in 1842. The Chinese bitterly resented the history of invasion, of being, as they put it, “cut up like a melon” by foreign powers, so the return of Hong Kong was to be a symbolic restoration of Chinese dignity. Underneath the clock, Chinese tourists were taking photos, and the local paper carried stories about couples who stood at the base of it to take their wedding photos.
The return of Hong Kong fed a burst of patriotism. After nearly two decades of reform and Westernization, Chinese writers were pushing back against Hollywood, McDonald's, and American values. A best seller that summer was entitledChina Can Say No.Written by a group of young intellectuals, it decried China's “infatuation with America,” which, they argued, had suppressed the national imagination with a diet of visas, foreign aid, and advertising. If China didn't resist this “cultural strangulation,” it would become “a slave,” extending the history of humiliating foreign incursions. The Chinese government, wary of volatile, fast-spreading ideas even when they were supportive, eventually pulled the book off the shelves, but not before a raft of knockoffs sought to exploit the same mood:Why China Can Say No,China Still Can Say No, andChina Should Always Say No. I was there that fall when China celebrated its National Day on October 1. An editorial in thePeople's Daily, the flagship of the state-run media, reminded people, “Patriotism requires us to love the socialist system.”
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Two years later, I returned to China to study at Beijing Normal University. Most of what I knew about the school was from the history of 1989, when it was one of China's most active campuses during the Tiananmen Square demonstrations; there were days when 90 percent of the student body marched to the square to protest. But by the time I arrived, the most urgent priority for practically everyone I met that summer was a pent-up desire to consume. It's hard to overstate how large a change this was. In the heyday of socialism, there had been a movie calledMust Never Forget, which told the story of a man whose lust for a new wool suit drives him insane. Now there was a Chinese magazine called theGuide to Purchasing Upscale Goods, with features such as “After the Divorce, Who Gets the House?” An article on beverages had an entry called “Men Who Choose Club Soda,” which explained that they were known to have “strong self-respect, ideals, and ambitions, and a low tolerance for mediocrity.”
The government was offering its people a bargain: prosperity in exchange for loyalty. Chairman Mao had railed against bourgeois indulgences, but now Chinese leaders were actively promoting the pursuit of the good life. The first winter after the democracy demonstrations, work units in Beijing gave employees overcoats, blankets, Coke, instant coffee, and extra meat. There was a new government slogan around town: “Borrow Money to Realize Your Dreams.”
People were still adjusting to the idea of a life outside of labor. Only two years had passed since China reduced the workweek from six days to five. Then it had redrawn the old socialist calendar to create something previously unimaginable: three weeks of vacation. Chinese academics greeted it with a new genre called “leisure studies,” dedicated to this “important stage in the social evolution of mankind.” One weekend, I joined Chinese classmates on a trip to Inner Mongolia. The train was overcrowded, and the ventilation system inhaled diesel exhaust and exhaled it into the cabins. But nobody complained, because it was a small pleasure simply to be on the move.
After college, I went to work as a newspaper reporter in Chicago, New York, and the Middle East, and in 2005 theChicago Tribuneasked if I wanted to return to China. I packed up an apartment in Cairo, and landed in Beijing on an airless night in June. China still had a quarter of a billion people living on less than $1.25 a day. The fact that this population, nearly the size of the United States, was often left out of descriptions of the new China was a mistake, but it was an understandable one, given the scale and pace of change going on around it. The city was unrecognizable to me. I went looking for the night stalls and the sheep of Xinjiang Village, but they had been swept away in a bout of beautification. Income had begun to soar at a rate never experienced in a big country. The last time I had been in China, per capita income was three thousand dollars a yearâequivalent to the United States in 1872. The United States took fifty-five years to get to seven thousand dollars. China did it in ten.
Every six hours, the People's Republic was exporting as much as it did in the calendar year 1978, just before Captain Lin Zhengyi swam to the mainland. Economics led me to Lin's front door. I was tracking down academics, trying to unravel what was driving China's changes. By that point, Lin was a prominent economist in his late fifties with a gray brush cut, thick eyebrows, and wire-rim glasses that slipped down his nose. I knew nothing of his background. When I mentioned his name to another economist, he suggested that Lin's own path might tell me more about the engine of China's boom than my stack of books could.
When I first asked Lin about it, he said politely, “This is an old story.” He rarely spoke about his defection. I understood, though my curiosity lingered. After our first meeting, I visited Lin many times; we'd catch up on his latest writings, and eventually he resigned himself to my questions about his past. I collected documents about his case, and I visited the shoreline where he started his swim. When he left Taiwan, he said, he had simply wanted to “evaporate.”
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
In the hope of finding the China that I recognized, I clung at first to the countryside. It was the China of literature and ink paintings. One month, I did nothing but walk and hitch rides beside the rivers of Sichuan Province. I slept in small towns that felt half-abandoned, because the call of the city had swept away everyone who was not too old or too young to feel its pull. The village ancients liked to joke that, when they died, there would be nobody strong enough to carry their casket.
But if there was a time when Chinese cities felt like exceptions, like islands in a sea of impoverished countryside, this was less true all the time. China was building the square-foot equivalent of Rome every two weeks. (In 2012 the country became, for the first time, more urban than rural.) I began to sense something charged about entering an instant city, with its miles of unlined, untrammeled black asphalt, flanked by buildings with nobody yet inside. The endless churn was the only constant. When a Chinese friend asked which American cities to visit on his next trip to the United States, I suggested New York, and he responded as tactfully as he could, “Every time I go, it looks the same.” In Beijing, I never passed up an invitation, because places, and people, vanished before you had a chance to see them again.
When I went looking for somewhere to live, there were advertisements for Merlin Champagne Town and Venice Water Townhouses and Moonriver Resort Condo. I chose the Global Trade Mansion. It was an outcropping in a sea of construction, and whoever had built it had installed soundproof windows, since it would be surrounded, for the foreseeable future, by constant noise. I was on the twenty-second floor, and in the mornings before work, I studied Chinese beside the window, peering down on a small army of workers in orange hard hats moving beneath a restless crane. At night, another shift took their place, and the light from the welders' torches flared in the windows. The Global Trade Mansion seemed as good a place as any to figure out what the Communist Party meant by “socialism with Chinese characteristics.”
Nine years after theTimeshad heralded the Communist Party's long march to irrelevance, the Party was richer and larger than ever, with eighty million membersâone in every twelve adultsâand no organized opposition. It was opening Party cells inside even the most Westernized technology companies and hedge funds. China was a high-functioning dictatorshipâa dictatorship without a dictator. The government answered to the Party; the Party appointed CEOs and Catholic bishops and newspaper editors. It advised judges how to decide sensitive court cases, and it directed the nation's military generals. At the lowest levels, the Party felt like a professional network. A talented young journalist I knew in Beijing told me that she became a Party member in college because it doubled the number of jobs available, and because one of her favorite professors had pleaded with her to help fill a quota for female recruits.
When I arrived, the Party was freshening itself up with what it called the “Educational Campaign to Maintain the Advanced Nature of the Chinese Communist Party.” This was upbeat by Party standards. Unlike the public denunciations and confrontations of the 1960s and '70s, the Party was encouraging people to celebrate their “Red birthday” (the anniversary of the day they joined), and every member was expected to write a two-thousand-word self-evaluation. The market sensed an opportunity, and soon there were websites offering to sell “model” self-evaluations. They came drafted with the requisite apologies, such as “I didn't pay enough attention to establishing a scientific worldview.” My journalist friend who joined the Party while in college tried to write her own self-evaluation, but when she read it aloud at the monthly meeting, she was criticized for failing to include the approved phrases, so she went back to the standard list.
In the seven years I had been gone, the language had changed. The word for “comrade,”tongzhi, had been wryly adopted by gays and lesbians to describe one other. I was in line at the bank one afternoon when an old man, peering ahead impatiently, said, “Tongzhi, let's hurry up!” and two teenagers cracked up. The word for waitresses and shopgirls,xiaojie, had been repurposed to refer mostly to prostitutes. And the new kind ofxiaojiewere suddenly everywhere in a country overrun with cash-rich new entrepreneurs on business trips.
But the change that startled me most surrounded the word for “ambition,”ye xinâliterally, “wild heart.” In Chinese, a wild heart had always carried the suggestion of savage abandon and absurd expectationsâa toad who dreams of devouring a swan, as an old saying had it. More than two thousand years ago, a collection of political advice called theHuainanzihad warned rulers to “keep powerful positions out of the hands of the ambitious, just as one keeps sharp tools out of the hands of the foolish.” But suddenly I was seeing references to “wild hearts” everywhereâon television talk shows and in the self-help aisles. Bookstores carried titles such asGreat Wild Hearts: The Ups and Downs of Pioneering Entrepreneurial HeroesandHow to Have a Wild Heart in Your Twenties.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
When the summer heat began to break, I set off to see a man I had read about named Chen Guangcheng. Chen was the youngest of five brothers in a peasant family in the village of Dongshigu, which had a population of five hundred. A childhood illness had left him blind, and he received no schooling until he was seventeen years old. His family read literature and adventure novels to him. He listened to the radio, and he took inspiration from his father, who had been illiterate until adulthood, when he went to school and earned a job as a teacher.
Chen studied massage and acupunctureâvirtually the only education available to the blind in Chinaâbut he was more interested in the law, and he applied to audit legal courses. His father gave him a copy ofThe Law Protecting the Disabled, and he asked his parents and siblings to read it to him repeatedly. Chen discovered that his family was not receiving the tax breaks that it deserved. Chen ventured to Beijing to file his grievance, and to everyone's astonishment, he won. Not long after that, he married a woman he heard speaking on a radio call-in show. Her parents, like most in China, did not approve of her marrying a blind man, but she did it anyway.
In Dongshigu village, where people grew wheat, soybeans, and peanuts, the masseur knew about the law, so people turned to him for help. In one case, he prevented local leaders from gaining control of land and renting it back to peasants at higher prices. In another, he closed a paper mill that was polluting the local river. When a reporter visited him, he said, “The most important thing is for ordinary people to know that they have the right” to complain. Chen was an oddity in the world of Chinese politics, not only because of the circumstances of his life but because he was a new kind of activist, something more ambiguous than a conventional dissident.
When I heard about him in 2005, he was collecting accounts of women forced to undergo abortions and sterilizations after defying China's one-child policy. When they refused or fled, the local government locked up their parents and siblings in an attempt to force the women out of hiding. When Chen helped the women file a suit, local officials locked him in his house.
One day in late summer, I took a plane to Shandong, and then one taxi after another until I reached Dongshigu village. It was a drowsy afternoon by the time I reached the narrow dirt road into town. I left the cab and continued up the sloping path on foot. Chen lived in a single-story farmhouse, with a weeping willow over the front gate and flowering vines that reached up the home's stone walls. There were faded red paper holiday banners hung beside the gate. Just before I reached it, a pair of men blocked my path. One was lean and bony, with red chapped cheeks; the other was stout and smiling.
“He's not home,” the stout man said. He smiled and stepped close enough that I could smell the remnants of his lunch.
“I think he might be,” I said. “He's expecting me.”
Even if Chen was home, he said, Chen did not want any visitors. Other men began to arrive, in groups of two and three. One took my wrist and walked me back toward the taxi. A police car pulled up, and the officers asked for my passport. I was not permitted to be there, they said. They gave me a choice: I could go to the station with them “to rest for a while,” as they put it, or I could leave town.
The stout fellow was no longer smiling. He wanted to know where I had heard about the blind man in Dongshigu village. “From the Internet,” I said. He blinked back at me, and from his expression, I sensed that the Internet meant as much to him as if I'd said I had been led there by fairies. He opened the door of the taxi and pressed me toward it.
I slumped back into the cab, and we inched out of town, trailed by the police. The taxi driver was curious about the fuss. I explained that Chen was collecting complaints about abuses of the one-child policy, and the driver said he knew of another place nearby where people had similar complaints. He took me to a town called Nigou, where we pulled up beside a line of shops on the main street. There was a fertilizer store on the first floor, and above it, a fenced-in window. When I got out of the taxi and stood beneath the window, a woman stepped to the inside of the fence and peered down at me.
I asked why she was there. “We cannot leave. We have no freedom,” she said. She was calm. She said that local family-planning officials had locked her there, above the fertilizer store, because her daughter-in-law would not agree to a forced sterilization or pay the fees for having too many children, the equivalent of about a year's income.
I peered up at the woman and asked, “How long have you been there?”
“Three weeks,” she said.
“How many of you are up there?”
“Fifteen,” she said.
It was an odd arrangement for an interview. I was standing beneath the window, and she was looking down through the fence. I looked up and down the block, where people were going about their lives. There was a hair salon on one side and a fruit stand on the other.
The local family-planning office occupied a storefront across the street. I walked in and asked about the people detained above the fertilizer store. A man behind a desk named Wan Zhendong, the head of the office's statistics department, said he knew nothing about any detention center, adding that people who complain about being detained are usually trying to avoid paying fines for having too many children. “The policy,” Wan said, “is accepted by ninety-nine-point-nine percent of the people here.”
Once I returned to Beijing, I called Chen Guangcheng, the blind masseur. Every time I dialed, the line was dead. I didn't get through for months. A lawyer named Teng Biao wasn't surprised when I described the scene in Nigou. People were beginning to call these detention centers “black jails.” It was difficult to figure out how many there were or where they were located. You had to look for them, town by town. “It is very hard for people there to get information to lawyers and the media,” he told me. “The local authorities will try their best to make sure nobody knows about it.”
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
The Internet was largely a mystery in Dongshigu village, but no longer in Beijing. Initially, the Chinese government had regarded the Internet as an opportunity: the country had arrived late to the Industrial Revolution, and Chinese leaders hoped that the information revolution could help the country close the gap with the West. But the enthusiasm cooled. In 2001, President Jiang Zemin identified the Internet as a “political, ideological, and cultural battlefield.” The week I returned from Shandong, the Ministry of Public Security expanded a list of information officially “prohibited” from the Web. Whenever possible, the government liked to organize the world by category, and it had already banned a list of nine types of information, including “rumors” and anything that “damages the credibility” of the state. Now it expanded the list from nine to eleven, including “information inciting illegal assemblies” and “information concerning activities of illegal civic associations.”
The scale of available information was soaring. At the beginning of 2005, China had about one million bloggers; by the end, this figure had quadrupled, and the government ordered Internet companies to set up a system of “self-discipline” to censor and monitor the way people used the Web. Bit by bit, the Party was erecting what came to be known as the Great Firewallâa vast digital barricade that prevented Chinese users from seeing newspaper stories critical of China's top leaders or reports from human rights groups; eventually, it blocked social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook. Unlike the physical Great Wall, the digital version grew or shrank to meet new challenges or convey a sense of openness. Often, I didn't know something was off-limits until I typed it in and received an error code such as HTTP 404âthe page cannot be found.
The Party grew more determined to punish those who tried to undermine its control of information. The previous year, 2004, a journalist named Shi Tao, who worked at Contemporary Business News in Hunan Province, attended a staff meeting in which an editor relayed the latest instructions about what subjects could not be published around the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests. That night, Shi logged on to his e-mail account ([email protected]) and sent a summary of the Party document to an editor of Democracy Forum, a pro-democracy website based in New York. Two days later, the Beijing State Security Bureau contacted Yahoo! China and asked for the name behind the account, the contents of the e-mail, and the locations from which the e-mail was accessed. Yahoo! complied, and on November 23, 2004, Shi Tao was arrested and later charged with “leaking state secrets.” His trial lasted two hours; he was found guilty and sentenced to ten years.
The case was the clearest demonstration of the force with which the government would seek to maintain control over an uncertain new challenge. When human rights groups criticized Yahoo! for handing over the information, the company's cofounder Jerry Yang replied, “If you want to do business there you have to comply.” Members of the U.S. Congress took note. At a subcommittee hearing on the Internet in China, Rep. Chris Smith, a Republican from New Jersey, wondered, “If the secret police a half century ago asked where Anne Frank was hiding, would the correct answer be to hand over the information in order to comply with local laws?” Yahoo! held firm, and when Shi Tao's mother sued the company for exposing her son to harm, Yahoo! filed a motion to dismiss.
Over time, the pressure on the company became unbearable. In the fall of 2007, Rep. Tom Lantos, the only Holocaust survivor to have served in Congress, called Yang and other Internet executives before the House Foreign Relations Committee and said, “Morally you are pygmies.” Shi Tao's mother gave tearful testimony, and when it was over, Yang bowed to her three times and said, “I want to personally apologize.” Yahoo! settled with her family, but the son remained in jail. Inside China, the message was indelible: the Internet would never be a domain of free expression.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
The Global Trade Mansion was too quiet and too expensive, and I needed more chances to practice Chinese: When I called my landlord to suggest that he keep the security deposit as my final month's rent, I mistakenly told him to keep the security deposit as my final month's “menstruation.”
Large parts of the city had been demolished and rebuilt in preparation for the 2008 Olympics. The Beijing-born author Zha Jianying, who returned to the capital after studying in the United States, quoted a friend describing the city as a place where it was becoming impossible to find a place “to hang up one's birdcage.” The few surviving sections of old Beijing consisted mostly of tiny alleyways lined by single-story homes of gray brick, wood, and tile. The arrangement had remained more or less the same for seven centuries, when sections of the city were laid out under the Yuan dynasty, which gave these streets the namehutong, a Mongolian term that came to mean “alley” in Chinese. The Mongols had designed thehutongto uniform widths of twelve or twenty-four paces. In 1980 the city had six thousandhutong; over the years, all but a few hundred were leveled to make way for office buildings and apartment complexes. Only one of the city's forty-four princely palaces had survived intact.
I asked around and found a one-story house for rent at No. 45 Caochang Bei Xiang. Most people in these old homes used a communal public toilet around the corner from my front door. But this house had been fitted with indoor plumbing, and renovated to comprise four modern rooms surrounding a small courtyard that contained a date tree and a persimmon tree. When I reported my new address to theChicago Tribune's driver, Old Zhang, he did not approve. “You're going the wrong direction,” he said. “You should be moving from the ground into an apartment up in the air, not the other way around.”
The walls of the house were porous; when it rained, the ceiling leaked, and when the winter overwhelmed the heating, I wore a ski hat around the house. Underfoot, there was a steady traffic of mice and beetles and geckos, and now and then I had to wallop a scorpion with a magazine. But it was a relief to live with the windows open, and I loved it. Across the alley, my neighbor kept a pigeon coop on his roof, as a hobby. He attached wooden pipettes to the birds' feet so they whistled as they flew in great circles above our heads.
The window above my desk was filled with a view of Beijing's ancient Drum Tower, a soaring wooden pavilion built in 1272. For hundreds of years the Drum Tower, and its neighbor the Bell Tower, kept time for the people of the city, telling them when to sleep and when to rise. They were the tallest buildings for miles around. The Drum Tower contained twenty-four giant leather-covered drums, large enough that their thundering could be heard in the farthest reaches of the capital.
Chinese emperors were obsessed with controlling the passing of the seasons and the hours of the day. In the spring, the emperor decreed the precise moment when members of the court could change out of their furs and into their silk; in the fall, the emperor decreed the right moment for the raking of leaves. Controlling time was so closely associated with imperial power that when foreign armies invaded Beijing in 1900, they made a point to climb the Drum Tower and slash the leather drums with bayonets. For a while, the Chinese renamed it the Realizing Humiliation Tower.
BAPTIZED IN CIVILIZATION
The soldiers hauled Lin Zhengyi from the water and onto the beach. It was the dead of night, May 16, 1979. They suspected he was a spy; they had never encountered a soldier who had swum from Taiwan.
Back in Taiwan, Lin's commanders didn't know what to think. They suspected he had tried to defect, but had he succeeded, the loudspeakers across the water, they thought, would be gloating about his arrival. Perhaps he had drowned. Or perhaps he had been a mainland spy all along. Regardless, the abrupt disappearance of one of Taiwan's most celebrated soldiers was humiliating. The army classified Lin as missing, then dead, and awarded his wife, Chen, the equivalent of thirty thousand dollars in benefits. She was pregnant and alone, raising their three-year-old son. To protect her from retaliation, Lin had told her nothing of his plans. At the family shrine, Lin's parents added a memorial tablet inscribed with his name.
On the mainland, Lin was held in custody and questioned for three months. Once he had persuaded them that he was not a spy, he was released and allowed to travel. In a country where most people were still reeling from the Cultural Revolution, he regarded Mao's legacy with the passion of the convert, and he made a pilgrimage to Yan'an, the wartime headquarters of the Communist Party, “to be educated,” he told me.
He also went to Sichuan to see the ancient dam built by his hero Li Bing. From a ledge overlooking the roiling waters, he peered into the channel, which was often described as a symbol of how far China had fallen in the two thousand years since the dam was built. But Lin took it as a source of inspiration to do something bold. “I think that if we do something, we can change the fate of people, change the fate of the nation for a thousand years.”
The exhilaration of defection was tempered by the shameful fact that he had left his family behind. “I love my wife. I love my children. I love my family. I feel responsibility for them,” he told me. “As an intellectual, I also feel strongly my responsibility for the culture and the prosperity in China. If I have a strong belief in what is right, then I need to follow that.”
In the months after he arrived, contacting his wife was out of the question. Taiwan's military government was undoubtedly monitoring her for clues about Lin's fate. He remembered a cousin who was studying in Tokyo and he wrote him a letter: “You are now the only relative I can contact. But you must be careful. Don't give the Nationalists any evidence they could use against you. I have a message to pass along, but you must deliver it verbally, and leave no traces.” Lin asked him to buy birthday presents for Chen and the children, and to sign them “Fangfang,” his family nickname. In his letter, Lin confessed, “Even though a man must have great aspirations, and be aware of his duties beyond emotions and attachments to family, I am more and more homesick by the day.” He worried about his parents, his son, and his newborn daughter. Of his son, he said, “Xiao Long is three years old now, the age when he most needs a father, but he only has his mother. Xiao Lin has never even laid eyes on her fatherÂ â¦ To all of them, words cannot express my apology.” He remained bitter that Taiwan's government had assigned him tasks that were more about propaganda than advancement. “The Nationalists were only using me, never nurturing me,” he wrote. He gushed about the changes under way in China in the early months of the economic boom unleashed by Deng: “Almost everyone has enough food and clothing these daysÂ â¦ Things are flying ahead in leaps of progress. People are full of vitality and confidence. I truly believe that China's future is bright. Someday you'll be proud to be Chinese, to stand up in the world with your head held high and your chest puffed out.”
But once the novelty wore off, life for defectors was hard. Huang Zhi-cheng, a Taiwanese pilot who landed his plane on the mainland in 1981, recalled, “At first, it's hello, hello, and then they leave you to fend for yourself.”
Lin applied to study economics at People's University in Beijing and was rejected. His official file, thedang'an, contained every suspicion ever raised about his political history. For Lin, defection would always be a cause for suspicion; in the language of the day, people said he had “origins unclear.” After the rejection, he applied to Peking University. Dong Wenjun, an administrator, worried that Lin might turn out to be a spy, but ultimately decided, as he put it later, that there was “no intelligence to be gathered in the economics department anyway.” Lin was accepted.
Lin told his classmates that he was a student from Singapore. In return for his defection, he had asked the People's Liberation Army not to publicize his story for propaganda purposes. He had seen the brochures that washed up in Quemoy, heralding defectors, but he didn't want to be featured that way. He gave up the name Lin Zhengyi. From now on he would be Lin Yifu, which meant “a persistent man on a long journey.”
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
In his office one afternoon, I mentioned to Lin that people in Taiwan speculated that he had given military secrets to the People's Liberation Army, to prove that he was trustworthy. He had heard this, too. He laughed wearily. “That's nonsense,” he said. “I didn't come with anything other than what I wore.” He noted that by the time he fled, China was calling for reunification, and a junior officer's secrets would have been of limited use. He disputed the military investigators' reports that he'd defected partly out of professional frustration, and that he had misled the sentries in order to conceal his departure. He framed his swim as an act of idealism. “I still believe that my friends in Taiwan had the same aspiration to make a contribution to China. I respect their aspiration. This is just the way I think I can contribute to China's history. It was my personal choice.”
It was, by mainland Chinese standards, a radical act: historically, personal choice was a low priority for the Chinese, for reasons both modern and ancient, including, in the beginning, the land itself. Richard Nisbett, a psychologist at the University of Michigan who studies cultural differences in how people see the world, found that in ancient China, fertile plains and rivers lent themselves to rice farming that required irrigation and compelled people “to cultivate the land in concert with one another.” By contrast, the ancient Greeks, who lived amid mountains and coastlines, relied on herding, trading, and fishing, and they were able to be more independent. In that history, Nisbett saw the makings of Greek ideas about personal freedom, individuality, and objective thought.
The sense that an individual was embedded in larger forces ran through Chinese art, politics, and society. The philosopher Xunzi, in the third centuryB.C.E., believed that only social rituals and models could control individual “wayward” appetites, just as steam and pressure could straighten a warped slab of wood. One of China's most famous classical paintings, an eleventh-century scroll by Fan Kuan entitledTravelers Among Mountains and Streams, is often called China's Mona Lisa. But compared to Leonardo's full-frame portrait, Fan Kuan's work depicts a tiny figure of a horseman enveloped by vast, misty mountains. In imperial Chinese law, the courts considered not only motive but also the damage to the social order, so a defendant received a harsher sentence if he murdered someone of a higher social rank than someone of a lower rank. Punishment was collective: judges sentenced not just the guilty individual but also family members, neighbors, and community leaders.
Liang Qichao, one of China's leading reformers of the early twentieth century, hailed the importance of the individual in national development, but renounced that view after he visited San Francisco's Chinatown in 1903 and concluded that the competition between separate Chinese clans and families was preventing Chinese people from prospering. “If we were to adopt a democratic system of government now,” he wrote, “it would be nothing less than committing national suicide.”
He dreamed of what he called a Chinese Cromwell, “to carry out harsh rule, and with iron and fire to forge and temper our countrymen for twenty, thirty, even fifty years. After that we can give them the books of Rousseau and tell them about the deeds of Washington.” Sun Yat-sen, the revolutionary who became president after the fall of the empire in 1911, concluded that China was weak because its people were a “sheet of loose sand.” His prescription? “The individual should not have too much liberty,” he said, “but the nation should have complete liberty.” He encouraged people to think of the government as a “great automobile” and its leaders as essential “chauffeurs and mechanics” who require a free hand to operate.
China had always had poets, writers, and revolutionariesâwhom the authors Geremie BarmÃ© and Linda Jaivin have called the “unbound feet” of Chinese historyâbut Chairman Mao was determined to enshrine the idea that “the individual is subordinate to the organization.” The Party, he declared, must “eradicate all tendencies towards disunity.” It organized people into work units and collective farms. Without a letter from yourdanwei(“work unit”), you couldn't get married or divorced, you couldn't buy a plane ticket or stay in a hotel, or, for that matter, visit anotherdanwei. Most days, you lived, worked, shopped, and studied within its confines. To identify and correct individualistic thinking, Mao relied on propaganda and educationâ“Thought Reform,” as he called it, which became known colloquially asxinao, or “mind-cleansing.” (In 1950, a CIA officer who learned of it coined the termbrainwashing.)
To enliven its message, the Party promoted models of sacrifice. In 1959, newspapers highlighted a soldier named Lei Feng who was five feet tall and called himself a “tiny screw” in the revolutionary machine. He appeared in a traveling photo exhibition, with images such as “Shoveling Manure to Help the Liaoning People's Commune” and “Lei Feng Darning Socks.” After the army announced that the young soldier had died in an accident (struck by a falling telephone pole), Chairman Mao advised people to “learn from Comrade Lei Feng,” and for decades to come, local museums displayed replicas of his sandals, his toothbrush, and other effectsâlike the bones of saints.
The pressure to conform was profound. A doctor who was terrorized during the Cultural Revolutionâexiled to the western desert, where his wife committed suicideâlater said, “To survive in China you must reveal nothing to others. Or it could be used against youÂ â¦ That's why I've come to think the deepest part of the self is best left unclear. Like mist and clouds in a Chinese landscape painting, hide the private part behind your social persona. Let your public self be like rice in a dinner: bland and inconspicuous, taking on the flavors of its surroundings while giving off no flavor of its own.”
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
As change gathered speed in the 1980s, Chinese leaders warned that the nation must cross the river by “feeling for the stones.” In reality, many people swept into the current of China's transformation found they had no choice but to plunge in and swim as fast as possible, with only the vaguest sense of what might lie on the other side.
On paper, China remained suspicious of the individual; even after reforms were under way, the 1980 edition of the country's authoritative dictionary,The Sea of Words, definedindividualismas “the heart of the Bourgeois worldview, behavior that benefits oneself at the expense of others.” And nothing was more abhorrent to the Communist Party than the language of Thatcherist free-market fundamentalism. But China was enacting some of its most basic ideas: the retreat of public services, hostility to trade unions, national and military pride.
All over China, people were embarking on journeys, joining the largest migration in human history. China's extraordinary growth relied on a combination of abundant cheap labor and a surge of investment in factories and infrastructureâa recipe that uncorked economic energy stored up during the years of turmoil under Mao. Party leader Zhao Ziyang surrounded himself with economists who sought to emulate the growth of South Korea and Japan. To thrive, they had to be flexible. Wu Jinglian, a researcher in a state think tank, had begun his career as an orthodox socialist who persuaded his high school to give up teaching English and Western economics. But during the Cultural Revolution, his wife, the director of a kindergarten, was labeled a “capitalist roader” because her father had been a general in the Nationalist Army; Red Guards shaved half of her head. Wu himself was tagged an “antirevolutionary” and sent off to “reform through labor.” “I experienced a drastic change in ideology,” he told me. By the eighties, Wu was a leading expert on the free market, even though that term was too controversial to utter. Wu had to call it “the commodity economy.”
Beginning in 1980, China designated special economic zones, which used tax advantages to attract foreign investment, technology, and links to customers abroad. The zones needed workers. Since the fifties, the Party had controlled where people lived by dividing households into two types: rural and urban. The distinction ordained where you were born, schooled, employed, and, most likely, buried. With few exceptions, only the Public Security Bureau could change your household registration, orhukou.But new machines and fertilizers demanded fewer hands in the fields, and in 1985 the government officially permitted rural people to live and work temporarily in cities. In the next eight years, the number of rural migrants reached a hundred million. In 1992, Deng Xiaoping let it be known that prosperity was paramount: “Development,” he said, after visiting a refrigerator factory that had expanded sixteenfold in seven years, “is the only hard truth.” Between 1993 and 2005, state-owned enterprises cut more than seventy-three million jobs, sending another flood of workers off to find a new source of income. Chinese leaders kept their currency undervalued, which made exports cheap, and these soared. In 1999, China's exports had been less than a third of America's. A decade later, China was the world's largest exporter.
Autonomy was creeping into daily life. In Mao's day, it had been considered immoral to take a second job, because spare time belonged to the state. By the nineties, so many people were moonlighting that there was a boom in the business of printing business cards. The state media, which had once encouraged everyone to be “a rustless screw” in the machine, now acknowledged the new reality of competition: “You must rely on yourself,” theHebei Economic Dailywrote. “Blaze your own path, and fight.” People made money in whatever ways they could. In poor areas, door-to-door blood buyers offered to help cover the cost of taxes and school fees. Jing Jun, a Harvard-trained anthropologist, found that people were donating so often that they ran up against physical limits. “So the blood contractors would hang people upside down by their feet against a wall to make the blood flow down into the arms,” he wrote. (The business proved disastrous; by the mid-nineties, the blood collectors had caused China's worst outbreak of HIV. An estimated fifty-seven thousand people were infected.)
The language of the individual filtered out through movies and fashions and music. Jia Zhangke, a filmmaker, recalled to me that when he was growing up in Shanxi coal country in the eighties, he would ride the bus for four hours just to buy a cassette of mushy pop ballads by Deng Lijun, a Taiwanese star so popular that Lin Yifu's military unit on Quemoy had played her music over the radio to attract defectors. Since she had the same surname as Deng Xiaoping, the soldiers on the mainland joked that they listed to Old Deng all day and Young Deng all night. “Before that, the songs we sang were âWe Are the Heirs of Communism' and âWe Workers Have Power.' It was always âwe,'” Jia told me. “But in Deng Lijun's song âThe Moon Represents My Heart,' it was about âme.'Myheart. And of course we loved it!”
Companies reinforced that message. China Mobile sold cell phone service aimed at people under twenty-five, using the slogan “My Turf, My Decision.” Even in rural areas, where things changed slowly, people spoke of themselves in different ways. Mette Halskov Hansen, a Norwegian sinologist who spent four years in a countryside school, found that teachers were trying to prepare their students for a world in which survival required “self-reliance, self-promotion, and the self-made individual.” Hansen watched a pep rally in 2008 in which students recited a pledge: “Ever since God created all things on earth, there has not been one person like me. My eyes and my ears, my brain and my soul, all are exceptional. Nobody speaks or behaves like me, no one before me and no one will after me. I am the biggest miracle of nature!”
The desire to leaveâto “go out,” as it was knownâswept through villages. It didn't necessarily engulf the men and women who were most successful or confident. On the contrary, it often settled on the misfitsâthe restless, the willful, the unblessed. On the day the teenager Gong Hainan was seized by the desire to leave, her mother and her father hesitated. She was their only daughter, and they were country people with no knowledge of the city. But once their daughter had an idea in her mind, she drove it like a mule. “They had no choice but to agree,” Gong told me.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Gong Hainan was born at the foot of a mountain in the village of Waduangang, in Hunan, the home province of Chairman Mao. Her parents met under benighted circumstances. During the Cultural Revolution, they were paired with each other because they shared a political affliction: their families had been classified as “well-off peasants.” A village matchmaker put them together. Gong's family raised peanuts and cotton and chickens and pigs. She was the elder of two children, and she was small and sickly. She had narrow shoulders and thin lips, and her face at rest carried a wary expression. In the hierarchy of village life, this did her no favors. The local boys wanted girls with plump cheeks, and lips in the shape of a rosebud. “If anyone ever liked me, I have yet to hear about it,” Gong told me years later, when we got to know each other in Beijing.
But even as a child, Gong had a restless energy. When her neighbors began to open tiny businesses, Gong badgered her parents to let her join the trend. They laughed. “We have three neighbors, and a mountain behind us. Who is going to shop here?” they asked. Undeterred, Gong enlisted her little brother, Haibin, into a business proposition: They would buy ice pops and resell them door-to-door. After one day of lugging a thirty-pound Styrofoam cooler around the rutted village paths, her brother quit. “I could've beaten him half to death and he wouldn't go out again,” she said. But Gong made a map of the village that identified which parents were known to cave in to their kids' demands, and she charted the optimal route. Soon she was selling two boxes a day. “Whatever you're doing,” she concluded, “you have to be strategic.”
There was something different about her generation, the young men and women born in the seventies. You could hear it in their speech, their comfort with saying “I” and “me,” where their parents would have used the plural: “our work unit” and “our family.” (Older Chinese took to calling her cohort thewo yi daiâthe “Me Generation.”)
When Gong was sixteen, her test scores earned her a place at the top local high school, a transformative moment for a farming family. Shortly before school was to start, she was riding into town on a tractor-taxi, on her way to restock her ice pop supply, when the tractor plunged into a ditch. The other passengers were thrown clear, but she had been sitting on the front bench. Her right leg was crushed, and her nose was nearly severed. She would recover, but when she got out of the hospital, wearing a hip cast, she discovered that a rural school could not accommodate a student unable to walk. The school suggested she withdraw.
Gong's mother, Jiang Xiaoyuan, would have none of it. She moved into the dorm and carried her daughter on her backâup and down the stairs to the classrooms, back and forth to the toilet. (Gong trained herself to use the bathroom no more than twice a day.) While Gong was in class, her mother hustled outside to the street to sell fruit from baskets to make extra money. I wondered if the story was a metaphor, until I met her mother. “There was one especially tall building, the laboratory, and her class was up on the fourth floor,” Jiang said, scowling at the memory of it. Gong had never seriously considered an alternative. “School was the only way out,” Jiang told me. “We never wanted for her to work in the fields like us.”
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Gong's medical bills plunged her parents into debt. “My accident made a mess of the family,” she said. It was 1994, and China's epic labor migration was gathering. In 1978, nearly 80 percent of the Chinese population had been working on a farm; by 1994 this figure had fallen to less than 50 percent. Gong dropped out of the elite local high school and set off for the factories on the coast.
As migration grew, the government tried to manage the course of the flood. One slogan urged rural people to find work close to home: “Leave the Land, but Not the Countryside! Enter the Factories, but Not the Cities!” The state officially named the new migrants the “floating population”âa term that shared Chinese characters with the words for hooligans and stray dogs. Police blamed crime on what they called “Triple Withouts”âmigrants without a home, a job, or a reliable source of income. Cities sought to limit the number of new arrivals. In Beijing, the local government barred various categories of people, including “beggars and buskers, fortune tellers and other people engaged in feudal superstitious activities.” If they were found, they would be sent home. Beijing offered official “green cards” to parcel out access to public schools and housing, but it set the standards so high that only 1 percent of the new migrants qualified. Shanghai published a handbook calledThe Guide to Entering Shanghai: For Brothers and Sisters Who Come to Shanghai to Work, in which the opening chapter was entitled “Do Not Blindly Come to Shanghai for Work.”
Still, they came. By 2007, 135 million rural migrants were living in the cities, and the “floating population” became known by the government as the “outside population.” The State Council ordered governments to improve insurance and workplace-injury protections, and to ensure the migrants were “baptized in civilization,” as the Party press liked to put it.
In the city of Zhuhai, Gong found work on an assembly line making Panasonic televisions. She soldered two wires together, two thousand times a day, and sent money back to her family. If she finished early, the foreman raised her quota for the next day. The factory had an in-house newspaper, and after a few months Gong wrote a piece of spectacular propaganda entitled “I Love Panasonic, I Love My Home.” It had the desired effect; she was taken off the assembly line and promoted to editor. She'd found a kind of contentment in her job. Then one day a former classmate visited and spent the weekend regaling her with news of their old friends rising up through college and moving to exotic new places. In the confines of the factory, she'd come to see herself as a success; she worked with her mind, not her fingers. Yet hearing about what she was missing was shattering.
She cursed her decision to drop out of school. “It was weak and naÃ¯ve,” she said. China's economy was rising on all sides of her, and she was trapped in the basement. Factories making televisions and clothes needed uncomplaining workers with no promise of job security or training or progress. Migrants like her were earning just half of what regular residents of Guangdong were earning, and the gap was widening. If she stayed in Guangdong, she could look forward to a life of second-class health care and education. She would have to pay five or six times what local parents paid to educate a child with a localhukou. More than three-quarters of all women who died in childbirth in the province were migrants with no access to prenatal care.
In the electronics businesses, assembly-line bosses preferred female employees, because they were more conscientious about detail work. The only men in her factory were security guards and truck loaders and cooks. “If I ever wanted to settle down, those were going to be my choices,” Gong said. She knew the dangers of going back to the village. It was 1995, and already the income gap between the countryside and the city in China was wider than anywhere else in the world except Zimbabwe and South Africa. She had to get to a city. She said, “I decided to go back to school.”
“Everyone in the village was against the idea,” she went on. “They said, âYou're a twenty-one-year-old woman. Go and get married!'” In the village hierarchy, the only person who ranked lower than a young woman was a young woman who had something better in mind for her future. But her parents supported her decision, and the school allowed her to reenroll in the eleventh grade. She scored the highest rank in the county on the national college entrance test, and earned a coveted spot at Peking University, where Chairman Mao, who arrived as a twenty-four-year-old in the capital, once said, “Beijing is like a crucible in which one cannot but be transformed.”
Before she enrolled, she, like Lin Yifu, changed her given name. She became Haiyan, a reference to the small, hardy seabird in an old revolutionary poem by Maxim Gorky, “The Song of the Storm Petrel.” It was one of Lenin's favorites. She cared nothing about the revolution, but she loved the image of a bird that turns to face the stormâ“one free soul,” as Gorky put it, that “floats unharmed above the chaos.”
At Peking University, Gong studied Chinese literature and went on to Fudan University, in Shanghai, for a master's degree in journalism. By her second year, she had gained a sense of professional momentum. But something was lacking: a love life.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Of all the upheavals in Chinese life, there was none more intimate than the opportunity to choose one's mate. For centuries, village matchmakers and parents paired off young people of comparable social and economic statusâof “family doors of equal size”âwith minimal participation from the bride and groom.
Confucius has exhaustive advice about justice and duty, but he mentions emotion,qing, only once in theAnalects, a record of his teachings. Love stories didn't become popular in China until the twentieth century. While European protagonists occasionally found happiness, Chinese lovers typically succumbed to forces beyond their control: meddling parents, disease, miscommunication. The stories were categorized so that readers knew which doom to expect: Tragic Love, Bitter Love, Miserable Love, Wronged Love, and Chaste Love. A sixth genre, Joyous Love, was not as successful. (The tendency to see love as a problem endured. In the 1990s, the researchers Fred Rothbaum and Billy Yuk-Piu Tsang analyzed the lyrics of eighty Chinese and American pop songs and discovered that the Chinese songs made many more references to suffering and “negative expectations”âa sense that if destiny did not ordain a relationship, it could not be salvaged.)
In China, romance had a political side: In 1919, when Chinese students demonstrated for what they called Mr. Democracy and Mr. Science, they also demanded an end to arranged marriage. They called it “the freedom of love,” and from then on it was tied to a sense of individual autonomy. Mao outlawed arranged marriages and concubines, and established a woman's right to divorce, but the system left little room for desire. Dating that did not lead to the altar was “hooliganism,” and sex was so stigmatized in the Maoist period that doctors met couples who struggled to conceive because they lacked a firm grasp of the mechanics. When the magazinePopular Filmsran a photo of Cinderella kissing a prince, readers wrote in to denounce it. “I heard the masses of workers, peasants, and soldiers condemning you for being so shameless!” one wrote.
Though arranged marriages were banned in 1950, factory bosses and Communist cadres still did much of the matchmaking, and when a young intellectual named Yan Yunxiang was sent down from Beijing to the village of Xiajia, in China's northeast, in 1970, he found an abundance of miserable love. Local women had so little say in whom they married that there was a village tradition of sobbing when you left home on your wedding day. It wasn't until the eighties that the village elders began to relinquish control over local marriages. Yan Yunxiang eventually became an anthropologist and continued to visit the village over the years. He attended a wedding where the bride was marrying for love, and she confided to Yan that she was too happy to sob. She rubbed hot pepper on her handkerchief in order to summon the tears that her parents' generation expected.
In the heyday of socialism, every man in Yan's village wanted to be seen aslaoshi, “frank and simple”; the worst thing a bachelor could be wasfengliu, “rebellious and romantic.” But all of a sudden, thelaoshimen were known as dowdy and gullible, and everyone wanted to be asfengliuas Leonardo DiCaprio aboard theTitanic, in the most popular pirated movie of the day.
In much of the world, marriage is in decline; the proportion of married American adults has dropped to 51 percent, the lowest ever recorded. But in China, even as rates of divorce have climbed, so much of the culture revolves around family and offspring that 98 percent of the female population eventually marriesâone of the highest levels in the world. (China has neither civil unions nor laws against discrimination, and it remains a very hard place to be gay.)
The sudden freedom had its problems. China had few bars or churches, and no coed softball, for example, so pockets of society were left to improvise. Factory towns organized “friend-making clubs” for assembly-line workers; Beijing traffic radio, 103.9, set aside a half hour on Sundays for taxi drivers to advertise themselves; and CCTV-7, the military channel, organized a dating show for grunts. But those practices merely reinforced existing barriers, and for vast numbers of people, the collision of love, choice, and money was a bewildering new problem.
China's one-child policy had exerted unexpected forces on marriage. By promoting the use of condoms on an unprecedented scale, it delinked sex from reproduction and spurred a mini sexual revolution. But it also heightened competition: When sonogram technology spread in China in the 1980s, couples aborted female fetuses in order to wait for a boy. As a result, China has twenty-four million men who will be of marrying age by 2020 but unable to find a spouseâ“bare branches” on the family tree, as they're known in Chinese. Women were barraged with warnings in the Chinese press that if they were still single at thirty, they would be considered “leftover women.”
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
“In China's marriage market,” Gong explained to me one day, “there are three species trying to survive: men, women, and women with graduate degrees.” She discovered, while studying for her master's degree, that Chinese men were wary of women who'd surpassed them in education. And in Shanghai, she said, “I didn't know a soul in the city. My parents had an elementary school education. I could never be interested in the kinds of people they had access to.”
Men and women with differenthukourarely married; this frustrated her. “Even though âfree love and marriage' was written into the law, we don't actually have the freedom to choose,” she told me. In 2003 the Internet had just sixty-nine million users (5 percent of the population), but it was growing at 30 percent a year. That fall, a Web portal called Sohu reported that the most-searched-for name on its site, once “Mao Zedong,” was now “Mu Zi Mei,” a sex blogger. When Mu Zi Mei posted an audio recording of one of her assignations, demand crashed her server. (To those who gasped, she replied, “I express my freedom through sex.”)
Gong Haiyan paid five hundred yuan (about sixty dollars at the time) to an early online dating service. She selected twelve men and sent them messages. When she got no response and complained to the company, she was told, “Look at yourselfâyou're ugly, and you go after these high-quality men? No wonder you got no replies.” She tracked down one of the bachelors and learned that he hadn't even registered with the site. The photograph, the vitals, the contact infoâall had been cobbled together from other online sites. China had mastered the fake Polo shirt, and now it was turning to the counterfeit date. “I wasn't thinking about being an entrepreneurâI was just so angry,” Gong said. “I wanted a site for people who were in the same position I was in.”
She mapped out a simple design on Front Page, the website software. She named her business Love21.cn. To sell ads, she hired her brother Haibin, who'd taken some computer classes after dropping out of high school. She signed up her friends, and other customers followed. A software developer agreed to invest the equivalent of fifteen thousand dollars. (Later, he met his wife on the site.) Gong used the money to expand, and she discovered that there was more demand than she had imagined. In remote areas, where computer scanners were still hard to come by, customers began to send photographs by post. People were signing up at a rate of nearly two thousand a day.
Gong was nothing like the other Web entrepreneurs I knew in China. For one thing, the top ranks of Chinese technology were dominated by men. And unlike others who glimpsed the potential of the Internet in China, she didn't speak fluent English. She didn't even have a degree in computer science. She still had a trace of the countryside about her. She spoke at high volume, except before crowds, when her voice trembled. She was five feet three, still with narrow shoulders, and when she talked about her business, I got the feeling that she was talking about herself. “We're not like you foreigners, who make friends easily in a bar or go traveling and chat up a stranger,” she told me. “This is not about messing around for fun. Our membership has a very clear goal: to get married.”
In her spare time, she wrote. The Internet was taking off as a forum for all kinds of ideas, and she carved out a reputation for herself as the “Little Dragon Lady,” an advice columnist who was attuned to the problems of the People's Republic. She flipped through messages from anguished bachelors, concerned parents, and anxious bridesâmany of them current or former members of her dating service.
Often, her advice read like an argument against China's ancient pieties. If your mother-in-law sees you as “nothing but a baby-maker” and your husband won't help, she told one new wife, forget the husband, “get some courage, and get out of that family.” In the case of a newly rich couple, in which the husband had taken to sleeping around, she applauded the wife for not becoming a “blubbering, feeble, pitiful creature,” and advised her to make him sign a contract that would cost him all his assets if he cheated again. Above all, Gong framed the search for love as a matter of self-reliance. Heaven, she wrote, “will never throw you a meat pie.”
APPETITES OF THE MIND
Not long after Gong Haiyan launched her business, a posting caught her eye: “Seeking a wife, 1.62 meters tall, above-average looks, graduate degree.”
The seeker was a postdoc, studying fruit flies. He liked to exercise, and he attached a jokey photograph of himself flexing his triceps in front of his lab bench. “He had the whole package,” Gong told me. Then she looked at his requirements and discovered, “I didn't meet a single one.” She decided to answer him anyway, in a pose of high confidence. “Your announcement is not well written,” she wrote. “Even if someone meets all those requirements, she'll think you're picky.”
The man's name was Guo Jianzeng, and he was embarrassed. “I've never written anything like this, and I don't quite know what I'm doing,” he replied. Gong volunteered to polish his announcement. “After polishing,” she told me, “I could think of exactly four girls in the world who met the criteria, including me.”
Guo Jianzeng was thirty-three and shy. When they met, his phone had eight numbers stored in it. He was not a born romanticâhis first gift to her was a replacement for a pair of broken spectaclesâand he was not rich; he had less than four thousand dollars to his name. But Gong asked him to take an IQ test. She was surprised when he beat her score by five points. She was also moved by the way he cared for his widowed father. On their second date, he proposed marriage to her on the subway.
She rode sidesaddle on the back of his bicycle to the Ministry of Civil Affairs, where they paid nine yuan for a marriage certificate. The ceremony took ten minutes. Instead of a wedding ring, he bought her a laptop. They rented a speck of an apartment for a hundred dollars a month and shared a bathroom with an elderly neighbor.
By 2006, Gong's dating site had a million registered users; the following year, venture capitalists invested. She began to charge a fee (about thirty cents) for sending or receiving a message. By her seventh year in business, the site had fifty-six million registered users and was ranked first in China in time spent online and in the number of unique visitors. It was China's largest online dating service. She dropped the name Love21.cn and adopted something grander: Jiayuan (“Beautiful Destiny”). She gave it a tagline that suited her disposition: “The Serious Dating Website.”
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
I was at her office one morning when Gong slipped into a conference room for an orientation meeting with new employees. It was just before the Chinese New Year holiday. Single men and women across the country would be returning home to visit relativesâand would be interrogated relentlessly about marriage prospects. For some, the pressure would be unbearable. Afterward, Jiayuan's enrollment experienced a surge similar to the New Year's boom at fitness clubs in America.
Speaking before groups, even small ones, still made her nervous, and she carried her notes on a typewritten page. Before she spoke, the employees heard from the chief operating officer, a soft-spoken man named Fang Qingyuan, who told them, “Don't bother looking for favoritism or nepotism here. Work hard, and your success will be clear in your results. Don't bother kissing ass.”
When it was Gong's turn, she took a seat at the head of the conference table and informed the new hires that they were now in “the happiness business.” She did not smile. She rarely did when she talked about the happiness business. She focused instead on “price/performance ratios” and “information asymmetry.” She was in office attire: glasses, ponytail, no makeup, and a pink Adidas jacket with a ragged left cuff. The young men and women before her were joining a staff of nearly five hundred. Your customers, she told them, will be virtually indistinguishable from you: migrants, alone in the city, separated from love by “three towering mountains”âno money, no time, and no connections. The goal was simple: give people choices.
In China, people had yet to acclimate to the proliferation of choices. In the local press, Gong was often described as “China's No. 1 matchmaker,” even though her business was a rebuke to the very idea of matchmaking. Despite the name of her company, Beautiful Destiny, she projected nothing more plainly than her belief that destiny was obsolete. “Chinese people still put their faith in destiny,” she told the new employees. “They say, âOh, I'll get used to whatever happens.' But they don't need to do that anymore! Desire can lead them now. We're giving people the freedom of love.”
After so many years without much say in one of life's great decisions, people seemed to be making up for lost time. I read an online personal ad by a graduate student named Lin Yu in which she itemized her expectations for her future husband:
Never married; master's degree or more; not from Wuhan; no rural registration; no only children; no smokers; no alcoholics; no gamblers; taller than one hundred and seventy-two centimeters; ready for at least a year of dating before marriage; sporty; parents who are still together; annual salary over fifty thousand yuan; age between twenty-six and thirty-two; willing to guarantee eating four dinners at home each week; track record of at least two ex-girlfriends, but no more than four; no Virgos. No Capricorns.
The greatest difference between Internet dating in America and in China was conceptual: in America, it had the power to expand your universe of potential mates; in China, a nation of 1.3 billion people, online dating promised to do the opposite. “I once watched a twenty-three-year-old woman search for dates in Beijing, where there are four hundred thousand male users,” Lu Tao, Gong's chief engineer, told me. “She narrowed it down by blood type and height and zodiac sign and everything else until she had a pool of eighty-three men.” (A Chinese banker told me that he used Jiayuan to filter for a single criterion, height, which provided him with a list of gangly fashion models.)
When I signed on to Jiayuan to get a sense of Gong's business, I answered thirty-five multiple-choice questions. The Communist Party had spent decades promoting conformity, but the questionnaire left little doubt that, now, a man was expected to be able to define himself as precisely as possible. After height, weight, income, and other vitals, I was asked to describe my hair, first by color (black, blond, brunet, hazel, gray, red, silver, highlights, bald, or other) and then by style (long-straight, long-curly, medium-long, short, very short, bald, or other). For the shape of my face, I had nine choices, including as oval as a “duck egg” or as narrow as a “sunflower seed.” For a moment, I wondered whether a “national character face” was the choice for patriots, but then I realized that it was for those with a lantern jaw in the shape of the Chinese character for “nation”:.
I was asked to indicate my “most attractive feature,” for which I had seventeen options, including my laugh, my eyebrows, and my feet. For “religious faith,” I had sixteen choices; for variety's sake, I checked “Shamanism.” For a question about “Life Skills,” I worked my way through twenty-four options, including home renovations and business negotiations. By the time I was done, I had been asked for my views on vacation destinations, reading material, prenuptial agreements, smoking, pets, personal space, household chores, and retirement plans. Then I reached a question that asked me to choose from a list of labels with which to describe myself:
Â Â 1. A dutiful son
Â Â 2. A cool guy
Â Â 3. Responsible
Â Â 4. A penny-pinching family man
Â Â 5. Honest and straightforward
Â Â 6. A perceptive man
Â Â 7. A career-driven man
Â Â 8. Wise and farsighted
Â Â 9. An unsightly man
10. A humorous man
11. A travel lover
12. A solitary shut-in man
17. A handsome devil
18. Steady, staid, sedate
A page later, I was asked to choose the best description of my personal aesthetic. I thought back to the era of the “blue ants” and then examined the options:
1. I am gentle and urbane.
2. I am a cowboy from the Wild West.
3. I am graceful and sunny.
4. I am handsome and suave.
5. I am mature and charming.
6. I am tall and muscular.
7. I am simple and unadorned.
8. I am reserved and cool.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Gong Haiyan had good timing in entering the business of choice. The Chinese were spending more and more of their lives choosing. When private income began to climb in the eighties, shoppers moved in herds, surging after the same products as their neighbors with a force that became known as “tidal wave consumption.”
In the village of Xiajia, the unofficial center of town moved from the headquarters of the Communist Party to the village's one and only shop. Young people began to speak admiringly of the quality they calledgexing, “individuality.” The young men in town started buying gel for their hair and cowhide loafers. They drove to the village store rather than walking, a distance of only about three hundred yards. Families rearranged their houses so that couples no longer shared a communal bed with grandparents and children, and the generations started sleeping in separate rooms. The local Communist Party secretary gave up calling himself a “rustless screw in the revolutionary machine” and said plainly, “Why am I doing this job? Simpleâmoney.”
Now that the state had phased out the direct assignment of jobs, it had to shepherd college graduates through the unfamiliar experience of choosing a profession. The new job market (and marriage market) created demand for new clothes and health clubs and cosmetics and razors and shaving cream. In 2005, Chinese television broadcast the firstAmerican Idolâstyle programâtheMongolian Cow Sour Yogurt Super Girl Contest. Its success spawned a new genre known as “choice shows,” in which contestants could choose or be chosen by one another and the audience.
Shopping, or at least browsing, became a principal hobby. The average Chinese citizen was dedicating almost ten hours a week to shopping, while the average American spent less than four. That was partly because the process was less efficient in Chinaâpublic transportation, cost comparisonsâand partly because it was a novel form of entertainment. A study of advertising found that the average person in Shanghai saw three times as many advertisements in a typical day as a consumer in London. The market was flooded with new brands seeking to distinguish themselves, and Chinese consumers were relatively comfortable with bold efforts to get their attention. Ads were so abundant that fashion magazines ran up against physical constraints: editors of the Chinese edition ofCosmopolitanonce had to split an issue into two volumes because a single magazine was too thick to handle.
My cell phone was barraged by spam offering a vast range of consumption choices. “Attention aspiring horseback riders,” read a message from Beijing's “largest indoor equestrian arena.” In a single morning, I received word of a “giant hundred-year-old building made with English craftsmanship” and a “palace-level baroque villa with fifty-four thousand square meters of private gardens.” Most of the messages sold counterfeit receipts to help people file false expense reports. I liked to imagine the archetypal Chinese man of the moment, waking each morning in a giant English building and mounting his horse to cross his private garden, on the way to buy some fake receipts.
Western companies raced to add choices they hoped would appeal to Chinese tastes. Wrigley created cucumber-mint-flavored gum; HÃ¤agen-Dazs sold mooncakes. Not every angle succeeded: Kraft tried, and failed, to make a Ritz cracker flavored with fish boiled in spicy Sichuan peppercorn oil. The toy company Mattel opened a six-story Barbie megastore in downtown Shanghai, with a spa and a cocktail barâonly to discover that Chinese parents did not approve of Barbie's study habits. Home Depot found that the last thing the sons and daughters of farmers and laborers wanted was DIY.
Some of the choices that Chinese consumers made did not translate easily to outsiders. A brand of stylish eyeglass frames appeared on the market, named “Helen Keller.” Reporters asked the company why it had chosen to advertise its eyeglasses with the world's most famous blind person. The company replied that Chinese schools teach the story of Helen Keller primarily as an icon of fortitude, and sure enough, sales of the frames were brisk. Helen Keller glasses were selling under the slogan “You see the world, and the world sees you.”
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Money and love had always been linked more explicitly in China than in the West, but the finances were simpler when almost everyone was broke. By tradition, a Chinese bride's parents paid a dowry, and the groom's parents paid a larger sum, known as the “bride wealth.” Under Mao, this exchange was usually made in grain, but in the 1980s, couples came to expect “three rounds and a sound”: a bicycle, a wristwatch, a sewing machine, and a radio. Or, in some cases, “thirty legs”: a bed, a table, and a set of chairs. In much of China, the custom persisted (in cash), but the financial stakes were growing.
The greatest shock to the marriage tradition came from an unlikely source: in 1997 the State Council restored the right for people to buy and sell their homes. Under socialism, employers had assigned city workers to indistinguishable concrete housing blocks. When the government restored the market, Chinese bureaucrats didn't even have an official translation for the wordmortgage. Before long, the world's largest accumulation of real estate wealth was under way.
Traditionally, young Chinese couples moved in with the groom's parents, but by the twenty-first century less than half of them stayed very long, and the economists Shang-Jin Wei and Xiaobo Zhang discovered that parents with sons were building ever larger and more expensive houses for their offspring, to attract better matchesâa real estate phenomenon that became known as the “mother-in-law syndrome.” Newspapers encouraged it with headlines such asA HOUSE IS MAN'S DIGNITY. In some villages, a real estate arms race began, as families sought to outdo one another by building extra floors, which sat empty until they could afford to furnish them. Between 2003 and 2011, home prices in Beijing, Shanghai, and other big cities rose by up to 800 percent.
The age of ambition sorted people not by their pasts, but by their futures. In the socialist era, the Chinese had evaluated the “political reliability” of parents and ancestors, but now men and women evaluated each other based on their potential, especially their earning potential. But it was becoming clear that, in the new marriage market, general expectations and reality did not coincide: only 10 percent of the men in Gong's dating service owned a home, but in an outside survey, nearly 70 percent of the women polled said they would not marry a man without one. The precise details of housing were so central to the prospect of romance that I was asked to choose from the following options:
1. I do not own a home.
2. I will buy a home when necessary.
3. I already own a home.
4. I rent with others.
5. I rent alone.
6. I live with my parents.
7. I live with friends and relatives.
8. I live in the dorm of my work unit.
Of all the questions, this was the most important. “If you're a man who rents or shares a place with roommates, you're almost out of the game from the beginning,” Gong told me. Men who had a good answer did not bother with subtlety: in their singles ads, they adopted a new phrase:chefang jibei, which meant “car-and-home-equipped.”
The pressure to keep up created a kind of language inflation. A few years earlier, a “triple without” was a migrant worker without shelter, a job, or a source of income. By the time I started hanging around Gong Haiyan's office, a “triple without” referred to a man without his own house, car, or nest egg. If a triple without got married, it was called a “naked wedding.” In 2011 this was the title of a Chinese miniseries about a privileged young bride who married her working-class husband over the objections of her parents, and moved in with his family. It became the most popular show in China. If it had been a novel in the 1930s, it would have been listed under Tragic Love: by the series' end, the couple had divorced. Another popular program was a “choice show” calledIf You Are the One, in which single young men and women evaluated each other. On screen, pop-up bubbles indicated if the man was car-and-home-equipped. In one episode, a Triple Without offered a woman a ride on his bicycle, but she brushed it off, saying, “I'd rather cry in a BMW than smile on a bicycle.” That line was too much for the censors. They soon restructured the show by adding a matronly cohost who counseled virtue and restraint.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Once or twice a week, Gong's company held singles mixers, and one night I filed into a ballroom in Beijing with three hundred carefully groomed men and women. They had been issued battery-powered blinking lights, in the shape of puckered lips, to be pinned to their clothing. An emcee bounded onstage and summoned the crowd's attention. “Please put your hand over your heart and repeat after meÂ â¦ âI swear that I do not come here with any deceptive or ill intent.'”
Twelve women assembled onstage in a game show setup, each holding a red wand with a heart-shaped light on top: on, interested; off, not interested. It was a lineup of accomplished people: engineers, graduate students, and bankers in their late twenties and early thirties.
One by one, men took the stage to be questioned, but in the exchanges, I sensed the gulf of expectation. A barrel-chested bank employee in a cotton sweater attracted considerable interest until he said that he would be stuck in the office six and a half days a week. Next up was a physics professor in a tweed jacket, who generated little excitement by describing his life's ambition as “no marvelous accomplishment, just nothing I'll regret.” Last came a laconic criminal lawyer with a fondness for hiking, who was doing well until he informed the panelists that he would place a heavy emphasis on “obedience.” Lights blinked off. He left the stage alone.
The New Year holiday, days away, loomed like a deadline. That evening, I met a man named Wang Jingbing, a thirty-year-old with a friendly national-character face, who was bracing for the encounter with his family. “They will give me pressure. That's the reason I came here tonight,” he told me as we sat along one wall. After college, Wang had become a salesman, exporting napkins and other paper products. The work had left an imprint on his English vocabulary; when he described a bad date, he would say he'd been “returned.” The singles events baffled his relatives in the countryside. “My sister doesn't agree with my coming here,” he told me. “She said, âYou'll never find a girl here.'” What did he think? “I have to follow my heart. My sister had a different educational background and life experience, so we have different ideas.”
His sister, who never studied beyond junior high school, still lived in their home village, where she sold soda and noodles out of a storefront. When she was twenty, she married a man she'd been introduced to by relatives; he was from a neighboring village. Wang, by contrast, had studied English at Shandong University and migrated to Beijing for work. By the time we met, he had been in the capital for five years. He was on the verge of climbing out of the working class. As we chatted, I filled out his questionnaire in my mind:1. A dutiful sonÂ â¦ 4. A penny-pinching family manÂ â¦ 14. Gutsy.
Wang had told himself he would attend at least one mixer a week until he found someone. “To tell you the truth, yesterday I was returned by a girl because she said I'm not as tall as she hoped,” he said. I asked him if he agreed with the idea that he should have a house and a car before he marries. “Yes, because a house and a car are the signs of civility,” he said. “A woman marrying a man is partly marrying his house and his car. I'm a renter, so I feel a lot of pressure.” He was quiet for a moment, and said, “But I have potential, you know? In my opinion, to buy a house and a car will take me about five more years. Five more years.”
NO LONGER A SLAVE
When Deng Xiaoping declared that it was time to “let some people get rich first,” he didn't saywhichpeople. It was up to them to figure it out.
Before that, the Party's first and most enduring target had been the tyranny of class. Mao dismantled four million private businesses, nationalized assets, and flattened society so thoroughly that China's income inequality fell to the lowest level in the socialist world. Students were taught that the bourgeoisie and other “class enemies” were “blood suckers” and “vermin.” The zeal reached its greatest intensity during the Cultural Revolution, when the military went so far as to eliminate rank, until this created chaos on the battlefield and soldiers had to identify one another by the number of pockets on their uniforms. (Officers had two more than enlisted men.) Any effort to improve one's lot was not only pointless but dangerous. The Party banned competitive sports, and athletes who had won medals in the past found themselves accused, retroactively, of “trophy mania”âthe crime of pursuing victory instead of mass fitness. People took to saying, “You'll earn less building rockets than you'll earn selling eggs.”
But nowadays one of the running themes in the local papers was the dream tobaishou qijia, to build a “bare-handed” fortune. Over lunch, I liked to spread out the pages on the kitchen table and read about street food vendors who became fast-food barons and other first-generation tycoons. There was nothing uniquely Chinese about rags-to-riches tales, but they had become central to China's self-image. The Chinese now talked about them the way that Americans mythologized garage start-ups in Silicon Valley. The first to make good on Deng's declaration became known as thexianfu quntiâthe “Got Rich First Crowd.” Despite the new reverence for bare-handed fortunes, China had spent so many decades railing against landlords and “capitalist roaders” that most of the Got Rich First Crowd chose to remain ciphers. “A man getting famous is like a pig fattening up,” they liked to say, and whenForbespublished its list of China's richest people in 2002, it illustrated their secrecy with a photograph of men and women wearing paper bags on their heads. Lottery winners were so worried about attention that Chinese newspapers published photos of the winners picking up their oversize checks while disguised in hoods and sunglasses.
For the Communist Party, the return of class presented an opportunity: the Party came to believe that co-opting those with property would buttress it against agitation toward democracy. Officials took to quoting the ancient sage Mencius, who said, “Those with a constant livelihood have a constant heart, those lacking a constant livelihood lack a constant heart.” But relying on prosperity to ensure a “constant heart” posed a problem that would grow into the Chinese Communist Party's essential paradox: How could the heirs of Marx and Lenin, the rulers of the People's Republic, who had risen to power denouncing bourgeois values and inequality, baldly embrace the new moneyed class? How could it retain its ideological claim to rule?
This, however, was a time of self-creation, and so it was for the Party as well. The task fell to the president and general secretary of the Party, Jiang Zemin. At the Party's most important meeting, in 2002, he executed a major rhetorical contortion: he couldn't bring himself to use the termmiddle class, but he declared that, from then on, the Party would dedicate itself to the success of the “New Middle-Income Stratum.” The New Middle-Income Stratum was everywhere, hailed by apparatchiks and enshrined in new slogans. An author at China's Police Academy described the New Middle-Income Stratum as “the moral force behind civilized manners. It is the force necessary to eliminate privilege and curb poverty. It is everything.”
At the same meeting, the Party also made an important change to its constitution: it stopped calling itself a “revolutionary party” and started calling itself the “Party in Power.” China's rulers had altered their reason for being; by becoming the Party in Power, the former rebels who'd spent decades lambasting their enemies as “counterrevolutionaries” turned themselves into such ardent defenders of the status quo that even the wordrevolutionwas now problematic. The Museum of Revolutionary History, beside Tiananmen Square, lost its name and was absorbed into the National Museum of China. In 2004, the prime minister, Wen Jiabao, said, “Unity and stability are really more important than anything else.”
If the change struck ordinary Chinese as hypocritical, they didn't have much choice but to accept it. What's more, people had been so deprived for so long that they had little love for the old dogma. The Party and the people were now facing in opposite directions: Chinese society was becoming more diverse, raucous, and freewheeling, and the Party was becoming more homogenous, buttoned-down, and conservative.
In October 2007, I filed into the Great Hall of the People to watch the opening of the Seventeenth National Congress of the Communist Partyâthe most hallowed event on the political calendar, a week of speeches and ceremonies convened once every five years. Officially, the Congress would decide the leadership of the People's Republic. (In fact, those decisions had been reached already in private.) Onstage, the president and general secretary of the Party, Hu Jintao, stepped to the lectern. Like many of his peers at the top of the Party, he was an engineer by training, a technocrat who had imbibed the belief that “development is the only hard truth.” At sixty-five, he was such a muted, affectless presence that his citizens had nicknamed him Wooden Face. This was only partly his fault: After the horrors of the Cultural Revolution, the Party had dedicated itself to preventing its leaders from developing a cult of personality. It succeeded. When Hu was younger, his official biography had included the fact that he enjoyed ballroom dancing; but once he reached the top of the Party, that detail, the only color about his likes or dislikes, was removed.
Hu looked out over a sea of two thousand loyal delegates. It was a tableau of conformity, bathed in the color of communism: a wall-to-wall red carpet, red drapes, and an enormous red star shining down from the ceiling. Behind him, rows of VIP officials were seated in hierarchical order, many of them wearing red ties, just as he was. The choreography was flawless: every few minutes, a team of young women carrying thermoses of hot water passed through the rows of VIPs, pouring tea with the precision of synchronized swimmers. Hu spoke for two and a half hours in a vocabulary removed from the language of the public. He spoke of “socialist harmonious society” and the “scientific outlook on development” and, as always, “Marxist-Leninism.” He vowed to permit only incremental political change. The Party, he said, must remain “the core” that “coordinates the efforts of all quarters.”
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Outside the Great Hall, China embraced the return of class. In 1998 a local publisher translated Paul Fussell's 1982 cultural satire,Class: A Guide Through the American Status System, which makes such observations as “the more violent the body contact of the sports you watch, the lower the class.” In Chinese, the satire fell away, and the book sold briskly as a field guide for the new world. “Just having money will not win you universal acclaim, respect, or appreciation,” the translator wrote in the introduction. “What your consumption reveals about you is the more critical issue.”
David Brooks's bookBobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got Therewas translated into Chinese in 2002, and it became a best seller. It describes a distant worldâone of American bourgeois bohemians, who mix sixties counterculture with Reagan-era economicsâbut, in China, it captured the strivers' self-perception, and “Bobos,” or “bubozu,” became one of the year's most-searched-for terms on the Chinese Internet. Soon there werebubozubars,bubozubook clubs, and a laptop with ads that promised to give thebubozu“a jazzy sense of romance.” Then the Chinese press tired of thebubozuand moved on to DINKâding ke, in Mandarinâ“Double Income, No Kids,” followed by a succession of other new labels and identities: netizens, property kings, mortgage slaves. A popular Chinese essay by an anonymous author carved out an archetype of the young white-collar class, the men and women who
sip cappuccino, date online, have a DINK family, take subways and taxis, fly economy, stay in nice hotels, go to pubs, make long phone calls, listen to the blues, work overtime, go out at night, celebrate Christmas, have one-night-standsÂ â¦ keepThe Great GatsbyandPride and Prejudiceon their nightstands. They live for love, manners, culture, art, and experience.
In the age of ambition, life sped up. Under socialism, there had rarely been any reason to rush. Except for Mao's fantasies of leaping forward, people worked at the pace of the bureaucracy and the seasons. Moving faster or more efficiently, taking greater risks, would add little to the dinner table. Like the imperial court in the days of the Drum Tower, the socialist central planners decided when to turn on the central heating in the fall and when to turn it off in the spring. But all of a sudden, China was gripped by a sense that the country was running late. He Zhaofa, a sociologist at Sun Yat-sen University, published a manifesto in favor of speed, reporting that, in Japan, pedestrians were walking at an average speed of 1.6 meters per second. He criticized his fellow Chinese. “Even American women in high heels walk faster than young Chinese men.” He called on his countrymen to adopt an urgent appreciation of every second. “The nation that wastes time,” he wrote, “will be abandoned by time itself.”
Some of the strivers achieved extraordinary fortune before they knew exactly what to do with it. In 2010, China was experiencing “Foreign IPO Fever,” and in May of the following year, the dating entrepreneur Gong Haiyan took her company public on the NASDAQ. By the end of the day, her shares were worth more than seventy-seven million dollars. Her husband left his job researching fruit flies.
She invited me over for dinner. They had bought a place in the suburbs north of Beijing. The sun was setting as we pulled off the highway. We passed a Pet Spa and a compound called Chateau de la Vie, and turned into a lush gated community that evoked New Jersey more than Hunan. Her house was beige stucco with Tuscan details. Her two-year-old daughter, in pajamas, bounded out the front door and hugged her mother's legs. Gong's husband ushered us to the dining room, where her parents and her grandmother, who lived with them, were sitting down.
I was struck by the presence of four generations of women in the house. Gong's grandmother, who was ninety-four, had been brutalized during the Cultural Revolution because she was classified as a well-off peasant. She was born just after China ended the practice of foot binding, and while we ate I made a mental inventory of all the drama that she had survived in China's twentieth century, on the way to her granddaughter's mansion in the suburbs. “Women used to say, âIf you want clothes on your back and food to eat, get married,'” Gong said, poking at her rice with her chopsticks. “As long as you had the most basic requirements, I'd marry you. But not anymore. Now I can live a good life, an independent life. I can be picky. If there's anything I don't like about you, well, you're out of luck.”
For years, the family had bounced between rented apartments, six people in two bedrooms. Now they were in a home sandwiched between European diplomats and Arab businessmen. Nine months after they moved in, the walls of the villa were still bare and white. They had yet to buy any art or decorations, but those would come. A moped was parked in the front hall, in the village tradition, to protect the bike from thieves, though I didn't expect Gong's neighbors posed much of a threat. It looked as if the family had packed up its belongings from a farmhouse in Hunan and unloaded them at a CEO's villa in Beijing.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
The age of ambition demanded new skills and knowledge. To help rookie entrepreneurs navigate the heavy toasting that comes with building a business in China, a night school called the Weiliang Institute of Interpersonal Relations, in the city of Harbin, offered a “drinking strategy” course. (One tip: after a toast, discreetly spit the liquor into your tea.) What could not be learned could be bought: Zhang Dazhong, a home electronics tycoon, employed a three-member “reading staff” to summarize the books he wished he had read.
Long before Westerners were reading about the habits of hard-driving “tiger moms,” the most popular Chinese parenting guide wasHarvard Girl, in which a mother named Zhang Xinwu documented how she got her daughter into the Ivy League. The regimen had begun before birth, when Zhang forced herself to eat a high-nutrition diet, though it made her sick. By eighteen months, Zhang was helping her daughter memorize Tang dynasty poems. In primary school, Zhang took her to study in noisy settings to hone her concentration, and kept her on a schedule: for every twenty minutes of studying, five minutes of running stairs. To build fortitude, Zhang had her daughter clench ice cubes in her hands for fifteen minutes at a time. It was easy to see it as absurd, but for a population still fighting its way out of poverty, virtually any sacrifice sounded reasonable.
Nobody coveted the cultural capital of an elite education more assiduously than members of the Got Rich First Crowd. Many of them had come from nothing, and they knew that urban intellectuals considered them rubes. The size of China's population made college admissions so brutally competitive that people compared it to “ten thousand horses crossing a river on a single log.” To create more opportunities, the government doubled the number of colleges and universities, in just ten years, to 2,409. Even so, only one in every four aspiring college students was able to earn a place.
An American education carried extra cachet, and Got Rich First parents channeled their anxieties into their children. In the fall of 2008, I had lunch with a woman named Cheung Yan, better known to the public as the Queen of Trash. Every year, theHurun Report, a Shanghai magazine, released a ranking of China's richest people. In the 2006 list, Cheung was the first woman to rank number one. She was the founder of Nine Dragons Paper, China's largest paper manufacturer, and had earned her nickname by conquering an obscure niche that tuned global trade to peak efficiency: she bought mountains of filthy American wastepaper, hauled it to China at cheap rates, recycled it into cardboard boxes bearing goods marked “Made in China,” and sold those goods to America. The 2006 rich list estimated her fortune at $3.4 billion. The following year, Cheung's wealth ballooned further, to more than $10 billion, and the magazine calculated that she was the richest self-made woman in the world, ahead of Oprah and J. K. Rowling.
Cheung, and her husband, Liu Ming Chung, a former dentist who worked as her company's CEO, met me in the managers' cafeteria at the largest paper mill in the world, one of Cheung's factories in the southern city of Dongguan. At fifty-two, Cheung was an unreconstructed factory boss. She spoke no English, and her Chinese carried a heavy Manchurian accent. She was barely five feet tall; in conversation, she was propelled by bursts of exuberance and impatience, as if she were channeling China's industrial id. “The market waits for no one,” she said. “If I don't develop today, if I wait for a year, or two or three years, to develop, I will have nothing for the market, and I will miss the opportunity. And we will just be ordinary, like any other factory!”
As we ate, she didn't want to talk about business; they wanted to talk about their two sons. The older one was in New York, getting a master's degree in engineering at Columbia. The younger boy was at a prep school in California, and at one point mid-meal, her assistant passed her a copy of a college recommendation a teacher had written on her son's behalf. Cheung examined it and handed it back.
“His GPA is four-point-zero to four-point-three,” she told me. Then, with the pride of an autodidact, she added, “His head is full of American education. He needs to accept some Chinese education as well. Otherwise, he'll be out of balance.”
When I'd arrived in China in 2005, there were only sixty-five Chinese students in American private high schools, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Five years later, there were nearly seven thousand. I stopped being surprised when Communist Party grandees told me their offspring were at Taft or Andover. (Eventually, a group of elite Chinese parents cut out the commute and sent their kids to a lavish new prep school in Beijing. They hired former headmasters of Choate and Hotchkiss to run it.)
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Of all the pathways to self-creation, nothing galvanized people as broadly as the study of English. “English fever” settled on waiters, CEOs, and professors, and elevated the language into a defining measure of life's potentialâa force strong enough to transform your rÃ©sumÃ©, help attract a spouse, or vault you out of a village. Men and women on Gong's dating site often included their English proficiency in descriptions of themselves, alongside mention of cars and houses. Every college freshman had to meet a minimal level of English comprehension, and it was the only foreign language tested. In a novel calledEnglish, the author, Wang Gang, a teacher in a rural school, says, “If I rearranged the words in the [English] dictionary, the entire world would open up before me.”
This was a sharp reversal from the past. In nineteenth-century China, English was held in contempt as the language of the middlemen who dealt with foreign traders. “These men are generally frivolous rascals and loafers in the cities and are despised in their villages and communities,” the reformist scholar Feng Guifen wrote in 1861. But Feng knew that China needed English for diplomatic purposes, and he called for the creation of special language schools. “There are many brilliant people in China; there must be some who can learn from the barbarians and surpass them,” he wrote. Mao favored Russian for the country, and he expelled so many English teachers that, by the sixties, China had fewer than a thousand high school English teachers nationwide. After Deng opened China's doors to the world, English fever took hold. Eighty-two percent of those polled in 2008 thought it was vital to learn English. (In America, 11 percent thought it was vital to learn Chinese.) By 2008 an estimated 200 million to 350 million Chinese were studying English. China's largest English school system, New Oriental, was traded on the New York Stock Exchange.
I wanted to meet a man named Li Yang, China's most popular English teacher and perhaps the world's only language instructor known to bring students to tears of excitement. Li was the head teacher and editor in chief of his own company, Li Yang Crazy English. His students recited his biography with the consistency of an incantation: he grew up the son of Party propagandists whose harsh discipline left him too shy to answer the telephone; he nearly flunked out of college but then he prepared for an English exam by reading aloud and found that the louder he read, the bolder he felt and the better he spoke; he became a campus celebrity and turned it into an empire. In the two decades since he began teaching, he had appeared in person before millions of Chinese adults and children.
In the spring of 2008, I visited him when he was overseeing an intensive daylong seminar at a small college on the outskirts of Beijing. He arrived accompanied by his photographer and his personal assistant. He stepped into a classroom and shouted, “Hello, everyone!” The students applauded. Li wore a dove-gray turtleneck and a charcoal-colored car coat. He was thirty-eight years old, and his black hair was set off by a faint silver streak.
Li peered at the students and called them to their feet. They were doctors in their thirties and forties, selected by Beijing hospitals to work at the following summer's Olympic Games. But like millions of English learners in China, they had almost no confidence speaking the language that they had spent years studying by textbook. Li had made his name with an ESL technique that a Hong Kong newspaper called English as a Shouted Language. Shouting, Li argued, was the way to unleash what he called the “international muscles.” Li stood before the students, his right arm raised in the manner of a tent revivalist, and launched them into English at the top of their lungs. “I!” he thundered. “I!” they thundered back.
“Tem! Per! Ture!”
“Tem! Per! Ture!”
One by one, the doctors tried it out. A woman in stylish black glasses said, “I would like to take your temperature.” Li gave a theatrical shake of his head and made her do it again. Her cheeks flushed, and in a sudden burst, she bellowed,“I would like to take your temperature!”Then came a thickset man in a military uniform who needed no encouragementâ“I would like to take your temperature!”âfollowed by a tiny woman, who let out a paint-peeling scream. Around the room we went, each voice a bit more confident than the one before. I wondered how a patient might react, but before I could ask, Li was out the door, and on to another group in the adjoining classroom.
Li routinely taught in arenas, to classes of ten thousand people or more. The most ardent fans paid for a “diamond degree” ticket, which included bonus small-group sessions with the great man. The list price was $250 a dayâmore than a full month's wages for the average Chinese worker. Students thronged him for autographs. On occasion, they sent love letters, wrapped around undergarments.
There was another widespread view of Li's work. “The jury is still out on whether he actually helps people learn English,” Bob Adamson, an English-language specialist at the Hong Kong Institute of Education, told me. Li's patented brand of shouting occupied a specific register: to my ear, it was not quite the shriek reserved for alerting someone to an oncoming truck, but it was more urgent than a summons to the dinner table. He favored flamboyantly patriotic slogans such as “Conquer English to Make China Stronger!” On his website, he declared, “America, England, Japanâthey don't want China to be big and powerful! What they want most is for China's youth to have long hair, wear bizarre clothes, drink soda, listen to Western music, have no fighting spirit, love pleasure and comfort! The more China's youth degenerated, the happier they are!” Wang Shuo, one of China's most influential novelists, was put off by Li's nationalist rhetoric. “I have seen this kind of agitation,” he wrote. “It's a kind of old witchcraft: Summon a big crowd of people, get them excited with words, and create a sense of power strong enough to topple mountains and overturn the seas.” Wang went on: “I believe that Li Yang loves the country. But act this way and your patriotism, I fear, will become the same shit as racism.”
But I started spending time around his students and found that they regarded him less as a language teacher than as a testament to the promise of self-transformation. Li gave classes in the Forbidden City and atop the Great Wall. His name appeared on the cover of more than a hundred books, videos, audio boxed sets, and software packages. Most of Li's products bore one of his portraits: rimless glasses, a commanding grin, an archetypal Chinese citizen for the twenty-first century. In conversation, Li was grandiose, comparing his fame to Oprah's and claiming that he had sold “billions of copies” of his books. (The truth was hardly worth embroidering: one of his publishers estimated to me that his book sales were in the millions.) A columnist in the state-runChina Dailypronounced Li a “demagogue.” TheSouth China Morning Postasked whether Crazy English was becoming “one of those cults where the leaders insist on being treated like deities.” (Cultis a dangerous word in China, where the spiritual group Falun Gong was given that label in 1999, and the government has rounded up its followers ever since.)
When I asked Li about theSouth China Morning Postpiece, he said, “I was pissed off.” He had no interest in being worshipped, he said. His motivations were nothing more than mercenary. “The secret of success,” he said, “is to have them continuously paying. That's the conclusion I've reached.” For all his students' devotion, his goal was simple: “How can we make them pay again and again and again?”
Li's cosmology tied the ability to speak English to personal strength, and personal strength to national power. It was a combination that produced intense, sometimes desperate, adoration. A student named Feng Tao told me about the time he realized he had enough cash for tuition to one of Li's lectures but not enough for the train fare to get there. “I went and sold blood,” he said. Collect a crowd of those fans, and the atmosphere could be overwhelming. Li's wife, an American named Kim Lee, told me, “There have been times when I've had to run in, or ask someone bigger, a guy, to go pull my daughter out of a crowd that is just pushing so much that I'm scared.” She said, “Those aren't like a âWow, he's famous' moment. Those are like an âOh God, this is out-of-control famous' moment.”
Kim Lee struck me as an oasis of normalcy in the world of Crazy English. “I'm just a mom who came into a bizarre life by happenstance,” she said, laughing. She was a teacher in Florida when she met Li Yang during a trip to China with the Miami teachers' union in 1999. They married four years later, had two children, and she started teaching beside Li onstage. Her dry wit and all-American looks were the perfect foil to her husband's style: an American Alice Kramden to his Chinese Ralph. At first, she had been baffled by Li's antics and nationalist fire-breathing, but when she noticed how students responded, she was taken with his ability to connect with them. She said, “This guy is really passionate about what he's doing, and as a teacher, how can you not be moved by that?”
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
A few weeks after the class in Beijing, I attended Li's most anticipated event of the year: the Crazy English Intensive Winter Training Camp. That weekend, China was hit with its worst winter weather in half a century. The blizzards coincided with the travel weekend for Lunar New Year, the most important family holiday in the Chinese calendar. The havoc was unprecedented; in Guangzhou, hundreds of thousands of travelers were left stranded in the streets around the train station. Somehow, seven hundred adults and children managed to make it to a college campus in the southern city of Conghua. A ten-year-old boy told me that he had traveled by car for four days, with his older brother at the wheel.
At the English camp, supervisors dressed in camouflage and used megaphones; they escorted students in formation around the campus. Li's face could be seen everywhere, on oversize posters accompanied by English phrases. Above the stairs to the cafeteria:HAVE YOU THOUGHT ABOUT WHETHER YOU DESERVE THE MEAL? Along the plaza where students lined up before lectures:NEVER LET YOUR COUNTRY DOWN!Above the doorway leading into the arena:AT LEAST ONCE IN YOUR LIFE, YOU SHOULD EXPERIENCE TOTAL CRAZINESS.
Shortly before nine o'clock on opening day, the students filed into the arena. It was unheated and frigid, like their dormitories. (The previous night, I had slept in a full set of clothes and a hat.) Li associated the ability to speak English with physical toughness based on his fundamental principle: the gap between the English-speaking world and the non-English-speaking world was so profound that any act of hard work or humiliation was worth the effort. He ordered his students “to love losing face.” In a video for middle and high school students, he said, “You have to make a lot of mistakes. You have to be laughed at by a lot of people. But that doesn't matter, because your future is totally different from other people's futures.”
A long red-carpeted catwalk cut through the center of the crowd, and after a burst of firecrackers, Li bounded onstage. He carried a cordless microphone and paced back and forth on the catwalk, his feet shoulder height to the seated crowd staring up at him.
“One-sixth of the world's population speaks Chinese. Why are we studying English?” he asked. He turned and gestured to a row of foreign teachers seated glumly behind him. “Because we pity them for not being able to speak Chinese!” The crowd roared.
For the next four hours, in numbing cold, Li swooped from hectoring to inspiring; he preened for the camera; he mocked Chinese speakers with fancy college degrees. The crowd was rapt. In the days afterward, students would run together at dawn, shouting English. On the final night, they walked on a bed of hot coals. Between classes, the campus was scattered with learners muttering like rabbinical students, Li's books pressed to their faces, their lips racing.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
One afternoon, I wandered outside for some fresh air. By the door, I met Zhang Zhiming, a slim, inquisitive twenty-three-year-old with a plume of hair in the front that made him look like Tintin. He preferred to use the name Michael, and he told me he had studied Crazy English for five years. He was the son of a retired coal miner and couldn't afford a ticket to the camp, so the previous year he had worked as a camp security guard and strained to hear as much as he could from the sidelines. This year, he was promoted to teaching assistant at the camp and was receiving a small stipend.
“Usually when I see Li Yang, I feel a little nervous,” Michael told me as we sat outside in the sun. “He is a superman.”
Michael's enthusiasm was infectious. “When I didn't know about Crazy English, I was a very shy Chinese person,” he said. “I couldn't say anything. I was very timid. Now I am very confident. I can speak to anyone in public, and I can inspire people to speak together.”
Michael's older brother had worked for Li as an assistant. The brother never learned much English, but Michael began spending as much as eight hours a day on the language, listening over and over to a tape of Li's voice, which sounded to him “like music.”
His favorite book wasLi Yang Standard American Pronunciation Bible, which helped him hone his vowels and punch up his consonants. Eventually, he got a job teaching at an English school, with the hope that someday he might open a school of his own. I met scores of Li Yang students that winter, and I always asked them what purpose English had served in their lives. A hog farmer wanted to be able to greet his American buyers; a finance worker, studying during his vacation, wanted to get an edge in the office. Michael had no doubts about what English might do for him. A few years earlier, his brother got involved in a direct-sales network, pushing health drinks and potions. Schemes such as these, known in Mandarin as “rats' societies,” proliferated in China's era of surging growth, fueled by get-rich-quick dreams and a population adrift between ideological faiths.
“He always wanted me to be involved in that,” Michael went on, and I tried to picture him extolling the benefits of a health tonic with the same passion that he now expressed about English. “I spent half a year doing this business, and I gained nothing.” Michael's brother eventually made it to the United States to try to earn money to repay his creditors. He was working as a waiter in New York, Michael said, and until he returned, it would be up to Michael to support their parents.
As Michael talked, the vigor in his voice faded. His brother wanted him to go to America, too. “He has big dreams,” he said. “But I don't really want to go there, because I want to have my own business. If you are a worker, you can't be a rich man. You can't buy a house, buy a car, support a family.”
Michael stared at his feet and said, “I have no choice. This is life. I should always keep smiling. But actually I feel I'm under a lot of pressure. Sometimes I want to cry. But I'm a man.”
He stopped. The air was silent except for a warm wind that carried a trace of Li's voice, booming in the stadium behind us.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
A few weeks later, Michael invited me for lunch at the apartment he shared with his parents in Guangzhou. It was in a cluster of modern high-rises on Gold Panning Road. When Michael met me at the gate, he was in a good mood. “I got promoted to teaching supervisor,” he said. “I got a raise.” The family's apartment consisted of a living room, two small bedrooms, and a kitchen. His parents were cooking, and the air smelled of ginger. Michael and his father shared a bunk bed in one room, and his mother and his older sister occupied the other. Michael's room was cluttered with English study books and an overfilled desk. English felt tangible, like a third, and messy, roommate. He rooted around in a box to show me the homemade vocabulary cards he carried, just as Li Yang once did. He pulled out a card marked “Occupations: Astronomer, Baker, Barber, Barkeeper, Biologist, Blue-Collar Worker, Boss/Superior, Botanistâ¦”
When Michael was a child, the family lived in a coal mining town called Mine Number Five. His parents, who had survived the harshest years of poverty and political turmoil, had only “one goal in life,” Michael said: “to pass the days normally.” But Michael was desperate to get out of Mine Number Five. In a passage he used for language practice, he wrote:
I couldn't stand eating steamed bread, leftover greens, and sweet potatoes every day. I couldn't stand wearing the same patched clothes year after year, when I was laughed at by my classmates. I couldn't stand walking one hour on foot to get to that old shabby school.
With the help of loans from the coal mine boss and others, Michael went to college, where English became his obsession. In his journal, he wrote, “Some nights I can't even sleep, I want to wake up so badly and practice English.” He watched American movies and emulated the booming voice of Mufasa, the father lion in the animated filmThe Lion King. Mufasa was voiced by James Earl Jones, and on campus, the young Chinese man who sounded a bit like Darth Vader did not go unnoticed. “He was like a little weed,” his friend Hobson told me.
In college, Michael worked at a local radio station, at KFC, as a dishwasher, but even with the loan from the coal mine boss, tuition was expensive, and Michael dropped out after two years to study Crazy English full time. He had absorbed the promise of self-creation more thoroughly than anyone I had met. He took to calling himself a “born-again English speaker.” In his journal, he stopped dwelling on his frustration. “The growth of a tree depends on the climate, but I make my own weather. I control my own fate,” he wrote, adding, “You can't change the starting point of your life, but with study and hard work, you can change the endpoint!” His bookshelves were heavy with business how-to books and self-help guides. He had picked up a salesman's habit of peppering his comments with ingratiating questions such as “Can you believe it?”
As we sat in his bedroom, he decided to play some recordings he'd been making for his students, as models of pronunciation. He clicked on a recording called “What Is English?” He had layered the sounds of waves and seagulls into the background and recorded it with a girl named Isabell, the two trading sentences as they went: “English is a piece of cake.I can totally conquer English. I will use English.I will learn English. I will live in English.I am no longer a slave to English. I am its master.I believe English will become my faithful servant and lifelong friendâ¦”
It went on for another minute, and while Michael listened intently, my eyes settled on a small handwritten Chinese sign taped to the wall at the foot of his bed:THE PAST DOES NOT EQUAL THE FUTURE. BELIEVE IN YOURSELF. CREATE MIRACLES.
The age of ambition swept inland from China's coast, reversing the route of migration; it moved from the cities to the factory towns, and from the factory towns to the villages. As it reached people who had long waited for a chance to escape their origins, the pursuit of fortune intensified into magical thinking. Farmers in remote villages embarked on audacious inventions, earning the nickname “Peasant da Vincis.” Some ideas were grimly pragmaticâa man with kidney disease built his own dialysis machine out of kitchen goods and medical parts, including clothespins and a secondhand blood pump. But more often, the inventors were animated by a pervasive sense of possibility: They built race cars and robots, and a grandfather named Wu Shuzai built a wooden helicopter. His neighbors said his helicopter looked like a chicken coop, but Wu kept at it in the hope, as he put it, that he might “fly it out of this mountain and see the world.”
Yet, for all the talk of Peasant da Vincis and bare-handed fortunes, it was becoming clear that the Got Rich First Crowd was pulling ahead far faster than others could catch up. By 2007 the top 10 percent of urban Chinese were earning 9.2 times as much as the bottom tenth, up from 8.9 times the previous year. Public protests, often staged by workers angry about unpaid wages or by farmers whose land had been seized for development, soared to 87,000 in 2005, up from 11,000 a decade earlier. The more that people became aware of the widening gap, the more desperate they became. Michael, the English teacher, concluded that he needed to work a greater portion of each day, so he decided to limit himself to four hours of sleep a night. “Money, I can make. But time, I can't make,” he told me.
The race to catch up inspired creativity, but occasionally with disastrous results. Wang Guiping, a tailor in the Yangtze River Delta, joined his neighbors in the new business of chemical production, telling another villager that it would “put my son in a good school and make us city people.” At night, while his family slept, the tailor, who had a ninth-grade education, experimented with the help of a chemistry book and found that he could disguise a solvent as a more expensive variety and save the difference in cost. “Before selling it, I drank some,” he recalled later. “It burned my stomach a bit, but nothing too strong.” He found other cheap substitutes for chemical components, and his profits rose. But his concoctions turned out to be poison, and when they ended up in cough syrup in 2006, they killed fourteen people at a hospital in Guangdong, and the tailor went to jail. China closed down more than four hundred small-time medicine makers that year; in all, their tainted products had killed hundreds of people, some as far away as Panama.
The race to catch up affected each person in a different way. A fifty-year-old former barber named Siu Yun Ping found that it stirred his appetite for risk. In the summer of 2007 he began making regular visits from his village in Hong Kong to the city of Macau, the only Chinese territory where it is legal to gamble in a casino. Macau sits on a horn of rocky coastline where the Pearl River washes into the South China Sea. It's about a third the size of Manhattan, covering a tropical peninsula and a pair of islands that look, on a map, like crumbs flaking off the mainland. Chairman Mao banned gambling in China long ago, but it endures in Macau because of a historical wrinkle: for nearly five hundred years, the city was a Portuguese colony, and when it returned to Chinese control, in 1999, it was entitled to retain some of the flamboyantly libertine traditions that led W. H. Auden to christen it “a weed from Catholic Europe.” The infusion of China's new riches triggered an unprecedented surge in construction; by 2007, when Siu began to visit, Macau's casino revenues had surpassed those of Las Vegas, until then the world's largest gambling town. Within a few more years, the quantity of money passing through Macau would exceed that of Las Vegas six times over.
Siu Yun Ping had known little good fortune. He grew up in a tin-roofed hut in a squatters' settlement on the mudflats of rural Hong Kong. The year he was born, a fatal flood swept through his neighborhood; subsequent years brought drought, then typhoons. “It was as though the gods wished to destroy us by driving us mad,” a local official wrote in his memoirs about the period. Siu had five siblings, and his education ended in primary school. Before he was a barber, he found employment as a tailor and construction worker. Gambling was technically illegal in Hong Kong, but as in many Chinese communities, it was a low-key fixture of life, and by the age of nine, Siu was pushing his way into the crowd to watch local card games. At thirteen, he was playing for small stakes, and an underground gambling den hired him to hang around and keep an eye on the players' hands. “I'm good at observing people's movements,” he told me. “Whenever I saw someone cheating, I told the boss.”
As an adult, he continued to play cards, though with little success. He was an unglamorous presenceâtrim and wiry, with plump cheeks, bushy hair, and the fast, watchful eyes of a man accustomed to looking out for himself. He married at nineteen, had three children, divorced, and married again. Around his home village, Fuk Hing, which means “Celebrating Fortune,” he was known by a nickname that he did not much care for: Lang Tou Ping, or Inveterate Gambler Ping.
While working as a barber, he befriended a skinny local teenager named Wong Kam-ming. Wong had grown up in the same district as Siu, one of the poorest places in Hong Kong, and had also dropped out of school to find work. They occasionally met for supper at a cafÃ© where Wong worked for his mother. Siu was trying to become a small-town developer, building and selling houses among the paddy fields near his village, and Wong opened his own restaurant. They became even closer after Wong began working on the side in Macau, as a “junket agent,” recruiting gamblers, giving them lines of credit, and earning commissions on how much they bet. One of the people he recruited was Siu.
Once or twice a week, Siu boarded the public ferry for the trip across the rolling gray waters of the Pearl River estuary. Seventy thousand people went to Macau each day to try their luck, more than half of them from mainland China. Siu had no illusions about whether his habit was in his favor. “Out of every ten people who gamble, maybe three will win,” he said. “And when those three keep on gambling, only one will win.” He played baccarat, the Chinese gamblers' favorite. (It offered slightly better odds than the alternatives and was easy to master.) Thepunto bancostyle, favored in Macau, involved no skill; the result was determined as soon as the cards were dealt.
In August of 2007, within weeks of beginning his regular trips, Siu hit a hot streak. Some days, he won thousands of dollars. Others, he took home hundreds of thousands. With Wong's recommendation, he was invited into opulent VIP rooms, which were open only to the biggest bettors, and he became a regular on the high rollers' helicopter trips across the water. The more Siu played, the more Wong earned in commissions and tips. As winter approached, Siu's success set in motion a chain of events that showed why, in China's new landscape of money and power, Macau is a place where it is easy to get into troubleâwhether you are a former barber in Hong Kong or one of the richest men in America.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Gambling towns are shrines to self-invention. Las Vegas was a desert outpost bedeviled by sandstorms and flash floodsâa land that “the Lord had forgotten,” in the view of nineteenth-century Mormon missionaries, who abandoned itâbefore it grew into the city that now attracts more people each year than Mecca. Hal Rothman, the late historian of the American West, wrote that Las Vegas posed the same question to every visitor: “What do you want to be, and what will you pay to be it?”
The ferry to Macau is greeted by a crowd of touts. When I arrived on a fall afternoon, a young woman handed me a Chinese advertisement for “USA Direct,” which offered a toll-free number for Mandarin speakers to buy American real estate at cut-rate prices. My phone buzzed. It was an automated message from a casino:
The City of Dreams congratulates the lucky winner of the “$1-to-Get-Rich, Rich, Rich” Giveaway on the grand prize of $11,562,812 Hong Kong Dollars! Climb abroad the Fortune Express. The next millionaire could be you.
With a population of just half a million, Macau feels like China amplified and miniaturized. It is animated by the same combination of ambition, risk, and self-creation, but the sheer volume of money and people passing through distilled the mixture into an extract so potent that it can seem to be either the city's greatest strength or its greatest liability. Macau used to manufacture fireworks, toys, and plastic flowers, but once the casinos arrived, the factories vanished. The average citizen now earns more than the average European. Construction is ceaseless. When I checked into a hotel, the scene outside reminded me of my first months in China, with welders' torches flashing against the windows twenty-four hours a day.
Even by China's standards, the speed of Macau's growth was breathtaking. In 2010, high rollers in Macau wagered about six hundred billion dollars, roughly the amount of cash withdrawn from all the ATMs in America in a year. But even all that cash changing hands on the tables was only part of the picture. “The growth of gambling in Macau, fueled by money from mainland Chinese gamblers and the growth of U.S.-owned casinos, has been accompanied by widespread corruption, organized crime, and money laundering,” according to the 2011 annual report by the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China. The place had become the “Macau Laundry Service,” as U.S. diplomats put it in an internal cable in 2009. David Asher, who was a State Department senior adviser for East Asian and Pacific affairs in the Bush administration, told me it had “gone from being out of a James Bond movie to being out ofThe Bourne Identity.”
In 2005 the FBI infiltrated a smuggling ring involving a Macau citizen named Jyimin Horng, by posing as representatives of Colombian FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia) guerrillas. When an FBI agent named Jack Garcia asked for weapons, Horng sent him a catalogue; Garcia ordered antitank missiles, grenade launchers, submachine guns, and AK-47s. To lure Horng and others to the United States for arrest, the agency staged a mock wedding for a male and a female agent involved in the sting. Horng and other guests received elegant invitations to a celebration aboard a yacht moored off Cape May, New Jersey. “I was the best man,” Garcia told me. “We picked them up for the bachelor party and drove them straight to the FBI office.” Fifty-nine people were arrested. Based on that case and on other information, the Treasury Department blacklisted Banco Delta Asia, in Macau, for participating in money laundering with links to the North Korean regime, charges the bank denied.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Games of chance had been a part of Chinese history since the Xia dynasty (2000â1500B.C.E.). “The government often imposed rules against them, and yet officials themselves were the ones who gambled the most,” Desmond Lam, a marketing professor at the University of Macau, told me. “They would get stripped of their titles, caned, jailed, exiled, but we still see the trend across the dynasties.” Lam studied Chinese attitudes toward risk. He and I were taking a walking tour of the City of Dreams, a casino complex that uses the promotional tagline “Sign Up, Play, Change Your Life.” After six years of studies and surveys, Lam views each gambling table as a “microscopic battle,” a standoff between science and faith. On one side is the casino, which can reliably calculate its advantage to two decimal points. On the other is a collection of Chinese beliefs about fate and superstition, which, Lam says, “people know are irrational but are part of the culture.” He ticked off some received wisdom: To improve the odds, wear red underwear and switch on all the lights before leaving home. To prevent a losing streak, avoid the sight of nuns and monks when traveling to the casino. Never use the main entrance. Always find a side door.
Intrigue, of one kind or another, had clung to Macau since the city's founding myths, which described an act of elegant deception: In 1564, or so the story went, local Chinese fishermen sought the help of a visiting Portuguese fleet for a battle against pirates; the Portuguese disguised their cannon inside Chinese boats and waylaid the bandits at sea. In gratitude, the Chinese granted permission to the Portuguese to stay on the peninsula. Macau became a vital stop between India and Japan, but eventually nearby Hong Kong built a better port, and Macau had to find alternative specialties: opium, prostitution, and gambling. When the Dutch-born writer Hendrik de Leeuw visited in the 1930s for his bookCities of Sin, he included Macau as home to “all the riffraff of the world, the drunken shipmasters; the flotsam of the sea, the derelicts, and more shameless, beautiful, savage women than any port in the world. It is a hell.”
For most of its history, Macau looked as much Mediterranean as Chinese, with baroque Catholic churches and rows of cafÃ©s shaded by drooping palms, where old Ã©migrÃ©s sippedcafe da manhÃ£over theJornal Tribuna. But by the time I arrived, it had a touch of the Persian Gulf: air-conditioned luxury hotels and high-rises, with sports cars idling in the sunshine. Government tax revenue in Macau was often more than double the budget, and like Kuwait, Macau distributed checks to its residents under a program named the Wealth Partaking Scheme. Unemployment was below 3 percent. “What Las Vegas did in seventy-five years, we are doing in fifteen,” Paulo Azevedo, the publisher ofMacau Businessand other local magazines, told me when we met for a drink. That pace had left the city short of many things: taxis, roads, housing, medical services. “For dental, I have to go to Thailand,” Azevedo said. One month, Macau came close to running out of coins. The casinos had reordered the rhythms of life and work, in ways that were not universally celebrated. Au Kam San, a member of Macau's Legislative Assembly, who worked as a high school teacher, had students who told him, “I can go get a job in a casino right now and earn more than my teacher.”
A short drive from the ferry, the Las Vegas tycoon Steve Wynn had a complex with two hotels, where the Louis Vuitton store was said to generate more sales per square foot than any other Louis Vuitton store worldwide. Walking past a tank of luminescent jellyfish, which required a specially designed curtain to sleep at night, the casino PR person who was showing me around told me that Chinese clientele demanded a heightened level of luxury because “everyone is a president or a chairman.” We stopped into the complex's newest Michelin-starred restaurant, which had an in-house poet who wrote a personal verse for every VIP. I asked a waitress why there was a tiny white leather stool beside each table, and she said, “That's for your handbag.”
A generation ago, families buried their jewels in the backyard to avoid political persecution. By 2012, China had surpassed the United States as the world's largest consumer of luxury goods. Though the Chinese had no nostalgia for the days of deprivation, they wondered how single-minded acquisitiveness might be changing them. A joke making the rounds described a man on a Beijing street corner who is sideswiped by a sports car, which tears his arm off. He gazes in horror at the wound and cries, “My watch!”
Macau always reminded me of the American Gilded Age. Matthew Josephson, author ofThe Robber Barons, describes how Americans acclimated to sudden fortune in the 1870s. One man, he writes, “had little holes bored into his teeth, into which a tooth expert inserted twin rows of diamonds; when he walked abroad his smile flashed and sparkled in the sunlight.” The American political system at the time was subject to criticisms similar to those facing China's political system today: corruption, lack of rule of law, weakness in the face of corporate monopolies. When strikes and demonstrations raged across the United States in the 1870s and '80s, they were met with force. Give the strikers “a rifle diet for a few days,” suggested Thomas Scott of the Pennsylvania Railroad, “and see how they like that kind of bread.” Europeans liked to say that America had gone from barbarism to decadence without the usual interval of civilization.
Macau afforded China's new moneyed class the chance to indulge. In designing his casino, Steve Wynn celebrated Chinese superstitions about the path to fortune: when the hotel designers realized that the number of private rooms in the spa was fourâan unfortunate number, because it sounds, in Chinese, like “death”âthey installed a line of fake doors across the hall to suggest a total of eight, a word in Chinese that sounds like “get rich.” In Las Vegas, Wynn had made his name pushing luxury over campâPicassos over Wayne Newtonâbut his hotel in Macau still used what casino designers called the “wow feature.” Once an hour, tourists gathered in the lobby to watch a hole open in the floor. A giant animatronic dragon climbed out, coiling into the air, red eyes blazing, smoke pouring from its nostrils.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
The City of Dreams smells of perfume, cigarettes, and rug shampoo. Chinese gamblers rarely drink when money is on the line, and the low, festive hum is broken now and then by the sound of someone pounding the table in delight or anguish, or exhorting the cards to obey. One night, I settled into the scrum around a baccarat game in which a slim man with heavy eyebrows and a red face shining with sweat was performing “the squeeze”: slowly peeling up the edge of his card, while the man beside him shouted “Blow! Blow!” to wish away the high numbers that would make him lose. When the slim man had peeled enough to see the digit, his face twisted in disgust and he tossed the card across the table.
“Americans tend to see themselves in control of their fate, while Chinese see fate as something external,” Lam, the professor, said. “To alter fate, the Chinese feel they need to do things to acquire more luck.” In surveys, Chinese casino gamblers tend to view bets as investments and investments as bets. The stock market and real estate, in the Chinese view, are scarcely different from a casino. The behavioral scientists Elke Weber and Christopher Hsee have compared Chinese and American approaches to financial risk. In a series of experiments, they found that Chinese investors overwhelmingly described themselves as more cautious than Americans. But when they were testedâwith a series of hypothetical financial decisionsâthe stereotype proved wrong, and the Chinese were found to take consistently larger risks than Americans of comparable wealth.
I had come to expect that Chinese friends would make financial decisions that I found uncomfortably risky: launching businesses with their savings, moving across the country without the assurance of a job. One explanation, which Weber and Hsee call “the cushion hypothesis,” is that traditionally large Chinese family networks afford people confidence that they can turn to others for help if their risk-taking does not succeed. Another theory is more specific to the boom years. “The economic reforms undertaken by Deng Xiaoping were a gamble in themselves,” Ricardo Siu, a business professor at the University of Macau, told me. “So people got the idea that taking a risk is not just okay; it has utility.” For those who have come from poverty to the middle class, he added, “the thinking may be, If I lose half my money, well, I've lived through that. I won't be poor again. And in several years I can earn it back. But if I win? I'm a millionaire!”
China's prevailing approach to risk reminded me of Lin Yifu, the defector from Taiwan, who had placed his bet on the new China. Though his journey was more dramatic than most, his decision had something in common with that facing any migrant who sets off in search of better prospectsâGong Haiyan and her online dating business, or the students at Crazy English, or, for that matter, the European immigrants who came to America during the Gilded Age.What do you want to be, and what will you pay to be it?
In the case of Inveterate Gambler Ping, success and risk-taking drew attention. Four months into Siu's streak, a gossip column in theApple Daily, a popular Hong Kong paper, took note of a “mysterious” figure making the rounds in Macau, said to be amassing a fortune as large as 150 million dollars. “Is he extremely lucky or does he have the genuine magic touch?” the paper asked in January 2008. The next day, a member of Hong Kong's legislature, Chim Pui-chung, a devoted gambler, told the paper that he had heard people hailing the new high roller as the “God of Gamblers,” borrowed from the title of a Hong Kong movie starring Chow Yun-fat. Professional gamblers had a name for guys like that: “shooting stars,” because they came out of nowhere, and usually vanished just as fast.
A hot streak of that scale was guaranteed to attract suspicion. Casinos know that their advantage in baccarat (about 1.15 percent) ordains that the chances of winning all but evaporate for a gambler after thirty thousand hands. A dedicated player might draw a thousand hands in a weekend and come out ahead, but after seven months almost nobody should be going home a winner. Not long after the article appeared dubbing Siu the God of Gamblers, his twenty-year-old son received a series of anonymous threatening phone calls. Then one night someone slipped into Celebrating Fortune village and set part of the family house on fire. Finally, Siu's friend Wong Kam-ming, who had introduced him to the VIP rooms, received an angry call. The man on the other end demanded a meeting to discuss the question of Inveterate Gambler Ping's having cheated.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
For years nobody embodied the spirit of Macau more than Stanley Ho, a tall, elegant tycoon who dated starlets and dancers, excelled at the tango into his eighties, and was chauffeured around Hong Kong in a Rolls-Royce with the license plate HK-1. After his father lost the family fortune in the stock market, Ho got his start during the Second World War with a trading company in Macau. “By the end of the war, I'd earned over a million dollarsâhaving started with just ten,” he said later. He expanded into airlines, real estate, and shipping, and in 1962 he and his associates took over Macau's casinos, gaining a monopoly that lasted forty years and made him one of Asia's richest men. Foreign governments suspected Ho of being too cozy with Chinese organized crime. He denied it, but regulators thwarted his family's efforts to run casinos in the United States and Australia. In keeping with the spirit of his city, he was nonjudgmental in his choice of business partners; he ran horse racing under the Shah of Iran, a gambling boat under Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines, and an island casino under Kim Jong-il. Intelligence agents were desperate to cultivate Ho for his connections, but the late Dan Grove, a retired FBI agent who served in Hong Kong, told me, “Nobody ever got past first base.”
Stanley Ho's Macau monopoly expired in 2002, and foreign competitors surged in to obtain licenses. The first new casino to open was the Sands Macao, backed by Sheldon Adelson, of Las Vegas, whomForbesranked as the ninth-richest person in the United States. Adelson was Stanley Ho's physical oppositeâsmall and heavy, with electric red hair. The son of a cabdriver from Lithuania, Adelson grew up in Boston's Dorchester neighborhood and ran a spate of businessesâpackaging toiletries for hotels, selling a chemical spray to clear ice from windshieldsâbefore his big break, in 1979, when he launched COMDEX, a computer trade show. He later bought the old Sands hotel in Las Vegas, created America's largest privately owned convention center, and enriched himself by pairing casinos with exhibition centers. Adelson had coveted Macau as a gateway to 1.3 billion Chinese nationals, and he successfully courted Chinese leaders in Beijing by emphasizing his influence in Republican politics. (He was the single largest individual donor in the 2012 presidential campaign.) In May 2004, he opened his first casino and then embarked on an idea that he described as coming to him in a dream: to replicate the Las Vegas Strip on a stretch of open sea between two islands in Macau. His company constructed a landfill out of three million cubic meters of sand and opened the $2.4 billion Venetian Macao, a supersize replica of the Las Vegas Venetian, with the largest casino floor in the world. He told people that he hoped Macau would someday allow him to overtake Bill Gates and Warren Buffett in wealth.
Unlike Las Vegas, where most of the profits came from coins fed into slot machines, three-quarters of the revenue in Macau was derived from enormous bets made in VIP rooms, where high rollers played around the clock. Casinos relied on Chinese companies known as “junkets,” which existed to solve some of the practical problems of running a casino in Macauânamely, that Chinese law barred them from trying to collect gambling debts in the People's Republic. Working through junket operators was a legal bypass around this problem, because the operators could recruit rich customers from across China, issue them credit, and then handle the complicated business of collection. The system was especially attractive to customers who needed to get large quantities of cash out of China. If a corrupt official or executive wanted to hide the proceeds, a junket was a way to hand over cash on one side of the border and recover it on the other, in chips that could then be played and cashed out in clean foreign currency. (Another option was to smuggle it by hand across Macau's relaxed borders, a practice known in laundering circles as “smurfing,” named for the fictional blue characters, a reference to the army of small-time couriers involved.)
While the junket industry had many law-abiding members, it had been, for decades, susceptible to the involvement of organized crime. In China, organized crime groups known as “triads” grew out of nineteenth-century political societies; the termtriadis believed to have originated when three groups merged into a powerful organization. They became involved in loan-sharking and prostitution, and made their presence felt at Macau's casinos, but in recent years triads had become more business-oriented. They set aside squabbles over drugs and petty crime in order to pursue new criminal opportunities associated with a more prosperous People's Republic, including money laundering, financial fraud, and gambling. Gangsters were becoming “gray entrepreneurs,” as criminologists put it, and it was growing more difficult to distinguish between triads that had gone into business and businesses that were acting as triads. Men who were once known in the local papers by their nicknames, as reputed triad bosses, reinvented themselves as executives in the gaming industry.
Macau was proving to be especially attractive to corrupt Chinese officials. It played a recurring role in the downfall of Party cadres, who headed to Macau with public funds and returned empty-handed. There was the pair of Party officials named Zhang and Zhang, from Chongqing, who lost more than $12 million at the casinos in 2004. A former Party chief in Jiangsu lost $18 million. A bureaucrat from Chongqing stood out not for scale but for speed: he managed to lose a quarter of a million dollars in just forty-eight hours. So many officials were arrested for squandering public funds in Macau that, by 2009, scholars calculated how much the average official might lose at the gambling tables before getting caught: $3.3 million.
To find untapped millionaires, the junket agents took to scouring the business press, looking for new faces. A thirty-nine-year-old junket agent told me, “Nowadays, in Macau, if a person doesn't gamble at least a few hundred thousand dollars, then he isn't even a real customer.” What happens if a customer doesn't pay up? “We go to the city where he is and call him up. Then, if necessary, we wait there for a couple of days. Just to put some pressure on him.”
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
A few weeks after Siu Yun Ping's house was set on fire, a group of young men were summoned to a meeting in a parking lot on the outskirts of Hong Kong. The meeting had been called by See Wah-lun, a midlevel captain in one of China's most famous triads, the Wo Hop To.
The triad captain was a thickset man of thirty. He told his men about a plan to extort Siu. As one of them later described it in court, “A boss wanted a man to return some money.” The boss was Cheung Chi-tai, a gang leader who was well known to Hong Kong police and U.S. authorities. In the words of a Hong Kong judge, Verina Bokhary, Cheung could “have a say in things” in a VIP room at the Sands Macao, one of the places where Siu had made his baccarat fortune. Once he was suspected of cheating, Cheung's men tried to claw back his winnings.
See Wah-lun unveiled a straightforward plot: they would send Siu a message by ambushing his friend Wong, pinning his car between two others, and then hustling him over to a nearby village, where they had supplied a secluded, run-down building with gloves, hoods, knives, and extendable police batons. The plan was to break Wong's legs and hands. But then See called his guys back: the plan was being upgraded to murder, to guarantee that Siu would know they were serious and would hand over his winnings.
But when See Wah-lun gave his gang the assignment, his men balked. One of the recruits asked, “Do we have to be that serious?”
See was taken aback. “The boss tells you to do it, are you not going to do it?” he said.
Another of the chosen assassins complained that he was supposed to be a guest at a wedding that evening. A third, Lau Ming-yee, didn't like being asked to do the job gratis. “If you are not going to pay someone, then how would that someone help you?” he said later.
Lau was especially uncomfortable because he was acquainted with the intended victim; in his mid-twenties and the son of farmers, Lau had worked as a teahouse delivery boy, crisscrossing the neighborhood in his gold-painted Toyota. He occasionally dropped off food at Wong's village. “Everyone was shocked by the idea of killing anybody, never mind somebody some of us knew,” Lau said.
When See outlined Lau's role in the murder, Lau hesitated. The boss was incensed. “What the fuck do you have to think about?” he said.
Under pressure, Lau capitulated; he told the boss he would help out with the murder. But his heart wasn't in it. He had joined the Wo Hop To as a teenager, a small-time soldier under See's command, and it wasn't much of a living. Over the years, he'd worked at a newsstand and an Internet cafÃ©. He had a girlfriend now, she was pregnant, and he had enough trouble trying to find five-hundred-plus dollars to repair a truck he had hit with his Toyota.
For the hitman Lau Ming-yee, everything about this job stank, and in the predawn hours on the day of the planned attack, he phoned a cop he knew and offered a tip. The two met near a local shrine called the Temple Under a Big Tree, and Lau told him everythingâabout the murder plot, about the God of Gambling, about the safe house and the hoods and knives. Later, in court, Lau explained, “I am the father of a child and I want to be a responsible man.” He had gamed out his options. A plea bargain might mean jail time, but he calculated that he would be out before it matteredâ“before my child understands everything.”
Within hours, the police arrested five men. They went to trial that fall, and Lau testified against them. They maintained their innocence, but all were convicted of conspiracy to commit grievous bodily harm and acting as members of a triad. See, the ringleader, was sentenced on additional charges of conspiring to commit murder and recruiting others to carry it out. The five men were sentenced to jail for up to fourteen years. (Lau received immunity for his cooperation.) During the investigation, police also briefly detained Cheung Chi-tai, the triad leader, but he didn't spend long in custody. According to John Haynes, See's defense attorney, Cheung “called his lawyer and refused to answer any questions, and as a result he escaped being charged with anything.” At sentencing, Haynes lamented that the “small potatoes” were going to jail while the “big bossÂ â¦ now sits comfortably, free from any charges, in Macau.”
Siu and his friend Wong testified at the trial, and they were asked to estimate how much Siu had amassed during his five-month winning streak. It was a complicated question, because high rollers in Macau often make side bets many times larger than the chips on the table. (In a side bet, a player and a junket agent secretly agree that every hundred-dollar chip is worth a thousand or ten thousand, and then they settle their wins and losses in private.) In total, Siu the barber estimated that he had won the equivalent of thirteen million U.S. dollars. Wong put the figure far higher: at seventy-seven million dollars.
The notion that a former barber had won as much as seventy-seven million dollars, and outlasted the mobsters charged with getting it back, attracted the attention of members of the Hong Kong press. For a while they pursued the God of Gamblers as a minor curiosity, though he declined interviews. A year after the trial, the Hong Kong magazineNextpublished an article alleging that Siu had cheated by finding a way to manipulate the system. The article claimed that he had paid off an underling who recorded players' ups and downs, in order to boost his wins and minimize his losses. The casino hadn't detected the fraud, the magazine surmised, because many of Siu's wagers were “side bets” off the books, and besides, the junkets hadn't dreamt that a no-name gambler might take the extraordinary risk of trying to buy off a staff member. Siu never responded to the article. In any case, local reporters discovered, he had disappeared.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
The God of Gamblers vanished from the local crime pages. Then, in the fall of 2010, a former executive at the Sands Macao, Steve Jacobs, filed a wrongful-termination lawsuit that made a range of accusations against Sheldon Adelson. Jacobs said that he and Adelson had discussed the God of Gamblers case, and the allegation that triads were involved with Sands casinos; over Jacobs's objections, he said, Adelson still sought to “aggressively grow the junket business.” Jacobs's suit also accused the Sands of hiring a Macau legislator in a way that could put the casino at risk of violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which bars companies from bribing foreign officials. The casino company denied all the accusations and said that Jacobs was the one who had failed to distance the company from the triad boss.
But the U.S. government took notice of the suit: the Department of Justice and the Securities and Exchange Commission launched investigations of the Sands for potential violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. Adelson vehemently denied any wrongdoing. “When the smoke clears, I am absolutelyânot one hundred percent but one thousand percentâpositive that there won't be any fire below it,” he said. “They want to get all my e-mails. I don't have a computer. And I don't use e-mails. I'm not an e-mail type of person.”
Adelson and his peers were discovering that doing business on the frontier of China's boom was risky in ways they had not anticipated. They were discovering just how much their fortunes now hinged on the behavior of othersâof Communist Party cadres, Chinese triads, and even a barber with a dream of beating the house. The files of the God of Gamblers case could be read as a string of accidents: Siu's run at the baccarat table; Wong's luck to be assigned an assassin with a conscience; Adelson's misfortune that reporters covered an obscure murder plot involving his casino. But viewed another way, the tale depended as little on luck as a casino does. It was, rather, about the fierce collision of self-interests, a fable of China in its own Gilded Age.
In its excesses, its plots, its moral flexibility, Macau opened a window on the anxious new era in the People's Republic. In China, in the days of nearly universal poverty, there had been hardly anything to steal, and little reason to consider the moral pressures exerted by the prospect of sudden fortune. But China's combination of new wealth and opaque government was proving to be almost perfectly engineered for abuse.
By 2007, when Siu Yun-Ping hit his streak in Macau, the China scholar Minxin Pei noted that nearly half of all Chinese provinces had sent their chief of transportation to jail. Pei calculated that corruption of one kind or another was costing China 3 percent of its gross domestic productâmore than the national budget for education.
For the Chinese government, Macau's roguish success posed a dilemma: how much should it be allowed to continue? China could have brought Macau's boom to an end by fiatâcitizens needed a special permit to go to the city, and China opened and closed the flow of visitors at willâbut cracking down on Macau posed political problems. Macau was a place where China's winnersâthose who built bare-handed fortunes, the members of the new Middle-Income Stratumâcould go to indulge in the gains of their prosperity. So long as they didn't concern themselves with the state's inner workings, the state did not overly concern itself with theirs. On a flight between Macau and Beijing, I sat beside a former military officer who now owned real estate and a string of factories. He told me that he visited Macau once a month “to let off steam” and he spent much of that particular flight scrutinizing his latest acquisition: a twelve-thousand-dollar Vertu cell phone, encased in alligator skin and equipped with a button that connected him to a full-time concierge.
For the moment, the leaders of Macau, like their brethren in Beijing, saw no reason to change. When I contacted Manuel Joaquim das Neves, Macau's top casino regulator, he said, “Macau is not Las Vegas,” and it took me a moment to realize that he was invoking Vegas as a standard of prim moral constraint. “Macau has attracted more than twenty billion dollars in foreign investment in the casino industry alone,” he went on. “In short, the public interest has been well served.” It was a point of view consistent with the way the Party talked about its success in China: “Development is the only hard truth,” Deng had said, and for many people, that view was correct.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Four years after Siu hit his hot streak, I got word through a friend in Hong Kong that he might be back in his old neighborhood, not far from the dismantled squatters' camps where he grew up. He was said to have worked out a deal for protection from another triad, the Wo Shing Wo. I took the train out to look for him. His neighborhood lay in a lush river delta framed by green hills on the horizon. The summer heat had broken, and construction seemed to be under way everywhere, as old villages were being converted into enclaves of villas and cul-de-sacs with names such as the Prestige, Sky Blue, and Full Silver Garden.
I found Siu at a construction site near a scrap metal yard, surrounded by marshy fields of water chestnuts and lilies, crosshatched by footpaths. He was in the real estate business, as he'd always wanted to be, and was building fourteen houses whose modern design, heavy on stainless steel and black granite, would have looked at home in Sacramento or Atlanta. When it was finished, the complex would be called the Pinnacle. Siu was wearing a droopy yellow golf shirt, jeans, and muddy sneakers. He seemed subdued, and his voice was raspy. He was barely distinguishable from his crewâtanned, bony middle-aged men from across the Chinese countryside. I arrived around quitting time to find one of them naked, giving himself a bird bath from a bucket of soapy water. When I introduced myself, Siu did not look overjoyed. But I explained that I'd been interested in him for a long time, I'd retraced his path, and I was curious, most of all, about why he took the risks he did. He agreed to talk to me. We settled into folding chairs beside a line of drying laundry and gazed out over the unfinished houses.
I asked where he had gone when he was on the run, and he smiled. “All over China,” he said. “I drove by myself. Sometimes I stayed in five-star hotels, and sometimes I stayed in tiny places. I liked Inner Mongolia the best. After a while, I went up to the mountains of Jiangxi and stayed there for eight months. When it began to snow, I nearly froze. I went down from the mountains and came home.”
I asked if he had cheated at baccarat. “The reporters just listened to rumors from people who wanted their money back,” he said. “Everybody says I was playing tricks at the table. It's not true. I wasn't. When I gambled, there must have been ten people with their eyes on me at any time. How am I supposed to play tricks?”
His denial left open a range of possibilities for manipulating the game. A lawyer for one of the defendants suggested to me that Siu might have been recruited as a minor player in a larger con, and then realized he could turn the caper toward his own benefit. It occurred to me that, if this was true, it meant Siu had allowed everyone else to project their ambitions on to him, before his own desire to get rich prevailed. But, the lawyer, added, “There is so much cheating going on. How can you ever know the truth?”
I asked Siu if he thought the triads were still after him, and he said, “I'm in my mid-fifties, and I'll live to be, what, seventy? So I've got only another decade or so. What do I have to lose? I'm not afraid.” He fell silent for a moment, then flashed a weird smile and said, “Besides, if they come for me, I can go for them, too.”
He'd stopped going to Macau because of his children, he said. “I don't want them to gamble. Two of them have bachelor's degrees, one has a master's. They don't swear. They're good kids.” He went on, “You have to be highly sensitive to be a good gambler. I don't recommend it to everybody. Everyone called me Inveterate Gambler Ping. But I never liked that, because I was never addicted. I gambled because I knew I could win.”
As night fell, Siu offered me a lift back to the train station in his black Lexus SUV, parked in the dirt beside us. It was buffed to a shine so bright that it glowed in the streetlightsâthe only visible sign of his fortune. The sky was purple with twilight. “There used to be a helicopter taking me to the Venetian anytime I wanted to go,” Siu said. “Now I'm getting my feet dirty. Real estate is even more lucrative. It's better than gambling or drugs or anything.” He nodded toward the new houses in progress. “It costs a few million to build one of these, and then I can sell it for ten million.”
Once the Got Rich First Crowd had the trappings of fortuneâa child in the Ivy League, a reading team to stay up on new booksâthey wanted the habits of mind. The men and women who had struggled to reach the top of China's Industrial Revolution craved the chance to extend their exercise of choice to a wider world, to matters of taste, art, and the good lifeâto see, at last, what they had been missing.
In May 1942, Chairman Mao, in his talks on the future of art and literature, said, “There is, in fact, no such thing as art for art's sake, art that stands above classes, art that is detached from or independent of politics.” For Mao, culture was a “weapon for uniting and educating the people and for crushing and destroying the enemy.” The Party would make sure that art, literature, and other expressions of taste adhered to what it later called thezhuxuanluâ“the central melody”âof Chinese society, the Party's distilled understanding of values, priorities, and desires.
The People's Republic became known for paintings of apple-cheeked peasants, films of determined soldiers, and poems about soaring heroism. The style was called “revolutionary realism combined with revolutionary romanticism,” and it was shaped by the Party's belief, as culture czar Zhou Yang put it, that “today's ideal is tomorrow's reality.” In some cases, artists who focused too much on unflattering facts about the present were accused of “writing about reality,” and punished for it.
After Mao died in 1976, the first group of avant-garde artists to step forward named themselves the “Stars,” as a rebuttal to what the member Ma Desheng called the “drab uniformity” of what had come before, as a way “to emphasize our individuality.” When their first exhibition was excluded from the national museum in 1979, they hung their work on the fence outside and staged a march beneath the slogan “We Demand Political Democracy and Artistic Freedom.” For much of the nineties, authorities arrested performance artists for appearing in the nude, shut down experimental shows, and bulldozed underground artists' villages.
But the influx of money transformed the relationship between artists and the government. By 2006, Chinese painters such as Zhang Xiaogang were selling pieces for close to a million dollars, and a younger generation of artists, raised in the boom years, let it be known that they were tired of addressing authoritarianism and politics. Like artists elsewhere, they trained their sights on consumerism, culture, and sex, and they encountered a new generation of speculators and collectors.
Li Suqiao, a curator and collector in Beijing, told me, “I say to my friends, âInstead of gambling four thousand dollars on a round of golf, you can get a work of art.'” We were at a gallery called New Millennium, and Li had a yellow sweater tied around his neck. At forty-four years old, he had been collecting for five years, after making money in the petroleum industry. He estimated that he spent about two hundred thousand dollars a year on work by young artists. “I have friends who live in villas north of Beijing, and when it comes time to decorate, they'll spend one hundred thousand renminbi on a couch, and one hundred renminbi on a print to hang above it. Sometimes they don't care about the price; they just care about the measurements.” As far as Li was concerned, the avant-garde “has nothing do with politics.” He said, “Chinese collectors are more interested in current things than in memory and tragedy.”
The Party discovered that the best way to deprive Chinese art of its rebellious energy was to embrace it: in 2006, after years of threatening to demolish Factory 798, a former military electronics plant in Beijing that had been turned into a cluster of galleries and studios, the municipal government designated it as a “creative industry area,” and tour buses filled the streets around it.
The commercial art market ballooned. Hundreds of contemporary art museums were built across the country. Artists who had lived hand to mouth now sold their work around the world and built dachas beside the Great Wall. The artist Ai Weiwei opened his own restaurant, where he could hold court late into the evening with friends and critics and hangers-on. For Ai Weiwei, the national pursuit of fortune became a subject itself. He commissioned a series of colossal crystal chandeliers that mocked China's new aesthetics. He hung one inside a rusty scaffolding, a cartoon of China's new disparities.
In his first two decades as an artist, Ai Weiwei had produced a fitful, if influential, stream of work: while gambling and trading antiques, he created installations, photographs, furniture, paintings, books, and films. He had been a member of the early avant-garde group the Stars, and he helped establish experimental artist communities on the edge of the capital. Though he had no training as an architect, he founded one of China's most sought-after architecture practices, before moving on to other obsessions.
InThe New York Times, in 2004, Holland Cotter called him an “artist whose role has been the stimulating, mold-breaking one of scholar-clown.” Now, in his early fifties, he had found a rich new vein in China's aspirations. For his contribution to Documenta 12, in 2007, he arranged an expedition to send a thousand and one ordinary Chinese citizens to the site of the festival, in Kassel, Germany. He named the projectFairytale, a reference both to Kassel, which was the home of the Brothers Grimm, and to the allure that the outside world had always held for generations of Chinese who were never able to see it.
To recruit travelers, Ai Weiwei turned to the Web with more intensity, and it revealed a vast world he had never known. He realized that “the Internet could be a very powerful tool,” he told me. He raised money from foundations and others for the air travel, and his office designed every detail of the experience, down to matching suitcases, bracelets, and dormitory-style living spaces outfitted with a thousand and one restored wooden chairs from the Qing dynasty. It was social sculpture on a Chinese scale, and the logistics would have staggered Joseph Beuys, the German conceptualist who declared that “everyone is an artist.” Yet, to Chen Danqing, a painter and social critic, the project carried a special resonance in China, where validation from the West, including visas, once carried near-mythic value. “For the past hundred years, we were always the ones waiting for the Americans or the Europeans or whomever to call our names.You. Come.”
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Chinese attitudes toward Western culture were a mix of pity, envy, and resentment: pity for the barbarians outside the Middle Kingdom, envy for their strength, and resentment for their incursions into China. “Chinese have never looked at foreigners as human beings,” Lu Xun wrote. “We either look up to them as gods or down on them as wild animals.”
In 1877, when the Qing dynasty was decaying and Western powers were rising, Chinese reformers dispatched a young scholar named Yan Fu to England to investigate the source of British naval power. He concluded that Britain's strength lay not in its weapons but in its ideas, and he returned to China with a trunkful of books by Herbert Spencer, Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, Charles Darwin, and other Western thinkers. His translations were not perfectânatural selectiontook on a harsher edge asnatural eliminationâbut their impact was vast. To Yan and others, evolution was not simply biology; it was political science. Liang Qichao, one of China's leading reformers, concluded that China must “make itself one of the fittest.” Admiring the West too zealously was a liability; when activists in the early twentieth century embraced European notions of the individual, they were mocked as “fake foreign devils.” Until the final years of Mao's reign, when he established ties with the United States, admiring the West was a punishable offense.
But by the eighties, the West was increasingly seen as a place of possibility and self-creation. A popular soap opera on Chinese television calledInto Europetold the story of a penniless man from Fujian who arrives in Paris wearing a tattered T-shirt and, within months, becomes a real estate developer. In the climactic scene, he faces a French audience and asks, “What will be different on the new map of Paris two years from now?” He tears away a cloth covering an architectural model and declares, “The beautiful banks of the Seine will be full of Oriental splendor: the Chinatown Investment and Trade Center!” In the show, the French crowd bursts into applause.
The ambivalence in the Chinese view of the West did not go away; it deepened. Young Chinese were growing up watching the NBA and Hollywood movies, while bookstore shelves carried titles such asChina Can Say No, the bestselling polemic during my first visit to China. The combination could be confounding. When three researchers asked Chinese high school students, in 2007, for the first five words that came to mind when they thought of America, their answers suggested a kaleidoscopic portrait:
Bill Gates, Microsoft, the N.B.A., Hollywood, George W. Bush, Presidential Elections, Democracy, War in Iraq, War in Afghanistan, 9/11, Bin Laden, Harvard, Yale, McDonald's, Hawaii, Police Officer to the World, Oil, Overbearing-ness, Hegemony, Taiwan
When I arrived in China, the closest that most Chinese people would ever come to setting foot in the West was “World Park,” a Disney-style attraction on the edge of the capital, where tourists could climb miniature Egyptian pyramids, behold a scale model of the Eiffel Tower, and stroll through an ersatz Manhattan. But as people had more money to spend, they explored more ways to spend it. When the Chinese travel industry surveyed the public on its dream destinations, no place scored higher than Europe. Asked what they liked about it, the Chinese put “culture” at the top of the list. (On the negative side, respondents complained of “arrogance” and “poor-quality Chinese food.”)
Local newspapers grew dense with ads for exotic holiday travel. It began to feel as if everyone were getting away, and I decided to join them. China's travel agents competed by carving out tours that conformed less to Western notions of a grand tour than to the likes and dislikes of their customers. I scanned some deals online: “Big Plazas, Big Windmills, Big Gorges” was a four-day bus tour that emphasized photogenic countryside in the Netherlands and Luxembourg; “Visit the New and Yearn for the Past in Eastern Europe” had a certain Cold War charm, but I wasn't sure I needed that in February.
I chose the “Classic European,” a popular bus tour that would traverse five countries in ten days. Payment was due up front. Airfare, hotels, meals, insurance, and assorted charges came to the equivalent in yuan of about $2,200. In addition, every Chinese member of the tour was required to put up a bond amounting to $7,600âmore than two years' salary for the average workerâto prevent anyone from disappearing before the flight home. I was the thirty-eighth and final member of the group. We would depart the next morning at dawn.
I was told to proceed to Door No. 25 of Terminal 2 at Shanghai's Pudong International Airport, where I found a slim forty-three-year-old man with floppy, parted hair. He wore a gray tweed overcoat and rectangular glasses. He introduced himself as Li Xingshun, our guide. To identify us in crowds, each of us received a canary-yellow lapel badge bearing a cartoon dragon with smoke curling from its nostrils, striding in hiking boots above our group's motto: “The Dragon Soars for Ten Thousand Li.” (Aliis about a third of a mile.)
We settled into coach on an Air China nonstop flight to Frankfurt, and I opened a Chinese packet of “Outbound Group Advice,” which we'd been urged to read carefully. The specificity of the instructions suggested a history of unpleasant surprises: “Don't travel with knockoffs of European goods, because customs inspectors will seize them and penalize you.” There was an intense focus on staying safe in Europe. “You will see Gypsies begging beside the road, but do not give them any money. If they crowd around and ask to see your purse, yell for the guide.” Conversing with strangers was discouraged. “If someone asks you to help take a photo of him, watch out: this is a prime opportunity for thieves.”
I had been in and out of Europe over the years, but the instructions put it in a new light, and I was oddly reassured to be traveling with three dozen others and a guide. The notes concluded with a piece of Confucius-style advice that framed our trip as a test of character: “He who can bear hardship will carry on.”
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
We landed in Frankfurt in heavy fog and gathered in the terminal as a full group. We ranged in age from six-year-old Lu Keyi to his seventy-year-old grandfather, Liu Gongsheng, a retired mining engineer, who was escorting his wife, Huang Xueqing, in her wheelchair. Just about everyone belonged to the New Middle-Income Stratum: a high school science teacher, an interior decorator, a real estate executive, a set designer for a television station, a gaggle of university students. There was nothing of the countryside about my companionsâthe rare glimpse of a horse grazing in a French pasture the next day sent everyone scrambling for camerasâand yet they had only begun to be at home in the wider world. With few exceptions, this was everybody's first trip out of Asia. Li introduced me, the lone non-Chinese member of the group, and everyone offered a hearty welcome. Ten-year-old Liu Yifeng, who had a bowl cut and wore a black sweatshirt covered in white stars, smiled up at me and asked, “Do all foreigners have noses that big?”
We boarded a gold-colored coach, where I took a window seat and was joined by a tall, rangy eighteen-year-old in a black puffy vest and wire-frame glasses. He had dark bangs that dipped beneath the rim of his spectacles and a suggestion of whiskers on his upper lip. He introduced himself as Xu Nuo; in Chinese, the name means “promise,” which he liked to use as an English name. Promise was a freshman at Shanghai Normal University, where he studied economics. His parents were seated across the aisle. I asked him why his family had chosen to travel rather than visit relatives over the holiday. “That's the tradition, but Chinese people are getting wealthier,” he said. “Besides, we're too busy to travel the rest of the year.” We spoke in Chinese, but when he was surprised, he'd say, “Oh, my Lady Gaga!,” an English expression he'd picked up at school.
In the front row of the bus, Li Xingshun stood facing the group with a microphone in hand, a posture he would retain for most of our waking hours in the days ahead. In the life of a Chinese tourist, guides play an especially prominent role: interpreter, raconteur, and field marshal, with a duty to relay more than facts; as a Chinese guidebook put it, the guide should “express approval or disapproval, praise or opposition, pleasure or contempt.” Li projected a calm, seasoned air. He often referred to himself in the third person, “Guide Li,” and he prided himself on efficiency. “Everyone, our watches should be synchronized. It is now seven-sixteen p.m.” He implored us to be five minutes early for every departure. “We flew all the way here,” he said. “Let's make the most of it.”
Guide Li outlined the plan: we would be spending many hours on the bus, during which he would deliver lectures on history and culture, so as not to waste precious minutes at the sights, when we could be taking photographs. He informed us that French scientists had determined that the optimal length of a tour guide's lecture is seventy-five minutes. “Before Guide Li was aware of that, the longest speech I ever gave on a bus was four hours,” he added.
Li urged us to soak our feet in hot water before bedâhe said it would help with jet lagâand to eat extra fruit in order to balance the European infusion of bread and cheese into our diets. Since it was the New Year's holiday, there would be many other Chinese visitors, and we must be vigilant not to board the wrong bus at rest stops. He introduced our driver, Petr PÃcha, a phlegmatic former trucker and hockey player from the Czech Republic, who waved wearily to us from the well of the driver's seat. (“For six or seven years, I drove Japanese tourists all the time,” he told me later. “Now it's all Chinese.”) Guide Li had something else to say about the schedule: “In China, we think of bus drivers as superhumans who can work twenty-four hours straight, no matter how late we want them to drive. But in Europe, unless there's weather or traffic, they're only allowed to drive for twelve hours!”
He explained that every driver carries a card that must be inserted into a slot in the dashboard; too many hours, and the driver could be punished. “We might think you could just make a fake card or manipulate the recordsâno big deal,” Li said. “But, if you get caught, the fine starts at eighty-eight hundred euros, and they take away your license! That's the way Europe is: on the surface, it appears to rely on everyone's self-discipline, but behind it all there are strict laws.”
We were approaching the hotelâa Best Western in Luxembourgâbut first Li briefed us on breakfast. A typical Chinese breakfast consists of a bowl of congee (a rice porridge), a deep-fried cruller, and perhaps a basket of pork buns. In Europe, he warned, in his most tactful voice, “Throughout our trip, breakfast will rarely be more than bread, cold ham, milk, and coffee.” The bus was silent for a moment.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
We never saw Luxembourg in the daylight. We were out of the Best Western by dawn and were soon back on the Autobahn. Li asked us to make sure we hadn't left anything behind in the hotel, because some of his older travelers used to have a habit of hiding cash in the toilet tank or the ventilation ducts. “The worst case I've had was a guest who sewed money into the hem of the curtains,” he told us.
We headed for our first stop: the modest German city of Trier. Though it was not a household name for most first-time visitors to Europe, Trier has been unusually popular with Chinese tourists ever since Communist Party delegations began arriving, decades ago, to see the birthplace of Karl Marx. My Chinese guidebook, written by a retired diplomat, described it as the “Mecca of the Chinese people.”
We descended from the bus onto a tidy side street lined with peaked-roofed, pastel-colored buildings. The cobblestones were silvery with rain, and Li donned a forest-green felt outback hat and pointed us ahead as he started walking at a brisk pace. We reached No. 10 BrÃ¼ckenstrasse, a handsome three-story white house with green shutters. “This is where Marx lived. Now it's a museum,” Li said. We tried the door, but it was locked. Things were slow in the winter, and the museum wouldn't be open for another hour and a half, so Li said that we'd be experiencing Marx's house only from the outside. “The sooner we finish here, the sooner we get to Paris,” he had said. Beside the front door was a brass plaque with Marx's leonine head in profile. The building next door was a fast-food restaurant called Dolce Vita.
Li urged us to stay as long as we wanted, but he also suggested a stop at the supermarket on the corner to buy fruit for the ride ahead. We milled around awkwardly in front of Marx's house, snapping photographs and dodging cars, until one of the kids pleaded, “I want to go to the supermarket,” and tugged his mother toward the bright storefront. I stood beside Wang Zhenyu, a tall man in his fifties, and we looked up at Marx's head. “Not many people in America know about him, right?” Wang asked.
“More than you might think,” I said. I mentioned that I'd expected to see more Chinese visitors.
Wang laughed. “Young people no longer know anything about all that,” he said.
Wang was thin and angular with the bearing of a self-made man. He had grown up in the eastern commercial city of Wuxi and had been assigned the job of carpenter, until economic reforms took hold and he went into business for himself. He now ran a small clothing factory that specialized in the production of wash-and-wear men's trousers. He didn't speak English, but when he was building his business he'd decided he needed a catchy, international name, so he'd called the company Ge-rui-te, a made-up word formed by the Chinese characters that he thought sounded most like the English wordgreat.
Wang was an enthusiastic tourist. “I used to be so busy but now I want to travel,” he said. “I always had to buy land, build factories, fix up my house. But now my daughter's grown and working. I only need to save up for the dowry, which is manageable.” I asked why he and his wife had chosen Europe. “Our thinking is, go to the farthest places first, while we still have the energy,” he said. Wang and I were among the last to arrive at the supermarket. Our group had lingered in the Mecca of the Chinese People for eleven minutes.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Until recently, Chinese people had abundant reasons not to see the world as a place for pleasure. Traveling in ancient China was arduous. As a proverb put it, “You can be comfortable at home for a thousand days, or step out the door and run right into trouble.” Confucius threw guilt into the mix: “While your parents are alive, it is better not to travel far away.” Nevertheless, ancient Buddhist monks visited India, and Zheng He, a fifteenth-century eunuch, famously sailed the emperor's fleet as far as Africa, to “set eyes on barbarian regions.”
Over the centuries, Chinese migrants settled around the world, but poverty stood in the way of leisure travel, and Mao considered tourism antisocialist. It wasn't until 1978, after his death, that most Chinese gained approval to go abroad for anything other than work or study. First they were permitted to visit relatives in Hong Kong, and later, to tour Thailand, Singapore, and Malaysia. The government remained acutely wary of the outside world. In 1996, my first year in Beijing, it reformed migration laws to make it easier for Chinese to go abroad, though the rules still required people to be “politically reliable” and explicitly excluded anyone found to be “highly individualistic, corrupt, degenerate, or immoral.” The next year, the government cleared the way for travelers to venture to other countries in a “planned, organized, and controlled manner.” China doled out approvals with an eye to geopolitics. Vanuatu became an approved destination only after it agreed not to give diplomatic recognition to Taiwan.
When government departments began sending people abroad, they sought to prepare the pioneers for every eventuality. A 2002 guidebook calledThe Latest Must-Read for Personnel Going Abroadwarned that, beyond Chinese borders, “foreign intelligence agencies and other enemy forces” wage a “battle for hearts and minds” using “reactionary propaganda to topple the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party.” If a traveler on official business encountered a journalist, the authors offered a strategy: “Answer in a simple way; avoid the truth and emphasize the empty.”
Eighty percent of first-time Chinese travelers were traveling in groups, and they earned a reputation as passionate, if occasionally overwhelming, guests. At a Malaysian casino hotel in 2005, some three hundred Chinese visitors were issued meal coupons bearing cartoon pig faces. The hotel said that the illustrations were simply to differentiate Chinese guests from Muslims, who don't eat pork, but the Chinese tourists took offense and staged a sit-in, singing the national anthem. In some cases, first-time travelers left mixed impressions on their hosts, and after a few incidents the Beijing government published a handbook,The Chinese Citizens' Guide to Civilized Behavior Abroad, which had a list of rules, including:
3. Protect the natural environment. Do not trample on green areas; do not pick the flowers and fruit; do not chase, grab, feed or throw things at animals.
6. Respect people's rights. Do not force foreigners to take pictures with you; do not sneeze in the direction of others.
Nobody in our group was inclined to throw things at animals. The more I read, the more I wondered if the authors ofThe Chinese Citizens' Guide to Civilized Behavior Abroadhadn't been outclassed by the citizens. Most countries begin to send large numbers of tourists overseas only after the average citizen has a disposable income of five thousand dollars. But when China's urban residents were still at half that level, travel agents made such travel affordable by booking tickets in bulk and bargaining mercilessly for hotels in distant suburbs. “Every route is largely determined by the plane tickets,” Li explained to me. Wherever the cheapest flights were on a given day, Chinese tours saw opportunity. That was why our route resembled the Big Dipper: it started in Germany and looped through Luxembourg and into Paris, before a long southerly swoop through France, over the Alps, and down into Italy as far as Rome. It might have ended there, but instead it did an about-face and doubled back to Milan.
Europe, initially, was an afterthought. In 2000, more Chinese tourists visited tiny Macau than visited all the countries of Europe combined. But the opportunities did not go unnoticed. Accor, the French hotel group, began adding Chinese television channels and Mandarin-speaking staff. Other hotels moved beds away from windows, as dictated by feng shui. The more the Chinese went to Europe, the cheaper tours became. By 2009 a British travel industry report had concluded that “Europe” was such a successful “single, unified” brand in China that individual countries would be wise to put aside pride and delay promoting “sub-brands” such as France or Italy. Europe was less a region on the map than a state of mind, and bundling as many countries as possible into a single week appealed to workers with precious few opportunities to travel. “In China, if you can get ten things for a hundred dollars, that's still better than getting one thing for a hundred dollars,” Guide Li said.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
I strolled back to the bus from Marx's house with a young couple from Shanghai: Guo Yanjin, a relaxed twenty-nine-year-old who called herself Karen and worked in the finance department of an auto parts company, and her husband, Gu Xiaojie, an administrative clerk in the department of environmental sanitation, who went by the English name Handy. He had an easy charm and the build of an American football playerâsix feet tall and barrel-chested. His sweater was maroon and bore an appliquÃ© of a golf bag, but when I asked if he was a golfer, he laughed. “Golf is a rich man's game,” he said.
Handy and Karen had saved up for months for this trip and had also received a boost from their parents. Guide Li had urged us not to ruin our vacations by worrying too much about moneyâhe suggested that we pretend the price tags were in yuan instead of eurosâbut Handy and Karen kept an eye on every cent. Within a few days, they could tell me exactly how much we'd spent on each bottle of water in five countries.
Back on the gold bus, rolling west across the wintry scrub of Champagne-Ardenne, Li wanted to add an important exception to his demands for efficiency. “We have to get used to the fact that Europeans sometimes move slowly,” he said. When shopping in China, he went on, “we're accustomed to three of us putting our items on the counter at the same time, and then the old lady gives change to three people without making a mistake. Europeans don't do that.” He continued, “I'm not saying that they're stupid. If they were, they wouldn't have developed all this technology, which requires very subtle calculations. They just deal with math in a different way.”
He ended with some advice: “Let them do things their way, because if we're rushing, then they'll feel rushed, and that will put them in a bad mood, and then we'll think that they're discriminating against us, which is not necessarily the case.”
At times, Guide Li marveled at Europe's high standard of livingâbombarding us with statistics on the price of Bordeaux wines or the average height of a Dutchmanâbut if there was ever a time when Chinese visitors marveled at Europe's economy, this was not that time. Li made a great show of acting out a Mediterranean lifestyle: “Wake up slowly, brush teeth, make a cup of espresso, take in the aroma.” The crowd laughed. “With a pace like that, how can their economies keep growing? It's impossible.” He added, “In this world, only when you have diligent, hardworking people will the nation's economy grow.”
I dozed off, and awoke on the outskirts of Paris. We followed the Seine west and passed the MusÃ©e d'Orsay just as the sun bore through the clouds. Li shouted, “Feel the openness of the city!” Cameras whirred, and he pointed out that central Paris had no skyscrapers. At a dock beside the Pont de l'Alma, we boarded a double-decker boat, and as it chugged upriver, I chatted with Zhu Zhongming, a forty-six-year-old accountant who was traveling with his wife and daughter. He had grown up in Shanghai and had ventured into real estate just as the local market was surging. “Whenever you bought something, you could make a ton of money,” he said. He was charismatic, with large, dimpled cheeks framing a permanent mischievous smile, and he'd been going abroad since 2004, so others in the group deferred to him. The boat reached Pont de Sully, and turned slowly against the whitecaps on the Seine to head back downriver.
Zhu said that Chinese interest in Europe was motivated in part by a need to understand their own history: “When Europe was ruling the world, China was strong as well. So why did we fall behind? We've been thinking about that ever since,” he said. Indeed, the question of why a mighty civilization slumped in the fifteenth century runs like a central nerve through China's analysis of its past and its prospects for the future. Zhu offered an explanation: “Once we were invaded, we didn't respond quickly enough.” It was a narrative of victimhood and decline that I'd often heard in China. (Historians also tend to blame the stifling effects of bureaucracy and authoritarianism, among other factors.) But Zhu did not trace all China's troubles to foreign invaders. “We cast aside our three core ideasâBuddhism, Taoism, and Confucianismâand that was a mistake. We were taught Marxist revolutionary ideas from 1949 to 1978.” He paused and watched his wife and daughter snapping photographs at the boat's railing, an orange sun sinking behind the buildings. “We spent thirty years on what we now know was a disaster,” he said.
The boat docked, and we headed to dinner, walking through the crowds amid the din of the city for the first time. We passed a young couple in a doorway making out. Karen hugged Handy's arm, their heads swiveling. We followed Li into a small Chinese storefront, down a flight of stairs, and into a hot, claustrophobic hallway flanked by windowless rooms jammed with Chinese diners. It was a hive of activity invisible from the streetâa parallel Paris. There were no empty seats, so Li motioned for us to continue out the back door, where we turned left and entered a second restaurant, also Chinese. Down another staircase, into another windowless room, where dishes arrived: braised pork, bok choy, egg-drop soup, spicy chicken.
Twenty minutes later, we climbed the stairs out into the night, hustling after Li to the Galeries Lafayette, the ten-story department store on the Boulevard Haussmann. The store appeared happily poised for an onslaught from the East: it was decked in red bunting and cartoon bunnies for the Year of the Rabbit. We received Chinese-language welcome cards promising happiness, longevity, and a 10 percent discount.
The next day, at the Louvre, we picked up another Chinese-speaking guide, a hummingbird of a woman, who shouted, “We have lots to see in ninety minutes, so we need to pick up our feet!” She darted ahead beneath a furled purple umbrella, which she used as a rallying flag, and without breaking stride, she taught us some French using Chinese sounds:bonjourcould be approximated by pronouncing the Chinese charactersbenandzhu, which mean, fittingly, “to chase someone.” We raced after her through the turnstile, and Wang Zhenyu, the pants manufacturer, tried out his new French on the security guard: “Ben zhu,ben zhu!”
The guide advised us to focus most on thesan bao(“the three treasures”): the Winged Victory of Samothrace, the Venus de Milo, and theMona Lisa. We crowded around each in turn, flanked by other Chinese tour groups as identifiable as rival armies: red pins for the U-Tour travel agency, orange windbreakers for the students from Shenzhen. We'd been going nonstop since before dawn, but the air was charged with diligent curiosity. When we discovered that the elevators were a long detour from our route, I wondered how Huang Xueqing, in her wheelchair, would get to see much of the museum. Then I saw that her relatives hoisted her chair while she hobbled up and down each marble stairway, and rolled her in front of the masterpieces.
By nightfall, another day of touring Europe's sights had kindled a sense of appreciation, albeit with a competitive streak. While we waited for tables, at a Chinese restaurant, Zhu brought up the Zhou dynasty (1046â256B.C.E.), the era that produced Confucius, Lao-tzu, and other pillars of Chinese thought. “Back then, we were damn good!” Zhu told a group of us. His wife, Wang Jianxin, rolled her eyes. “Here we go again,” she said. Her husband was wearing a recently purchased Eiffel Tower baseball cap with blinking battery-powered lights. He turned to me in search of a fresh audience. “Really, during the Zhou dynasty we were practically the same as ancient Rome or Egypt!”
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
In the middle of a seven-hour drive from Paris to the Alps, my seatmate Promise rooted around in his backpack and pulled out a crumpled edition ofThe Wall Street Journalthat he'd picked up at the hotel in Luxembourg. He studied each page in silence and elbowed me for help when he came across a headline related to China:EU FINDS HUAWEI GOT STATE SUPPORT. The story said that European trade officials believed that the big Chinese technology company Huawei was receiving unfairly cheap loans from state banks. “Does the American Constitution prevent companies from receiving government support?” Promise asked. I asked Promise if he used Facebook, which was officially blocked in China but reachable with some tinkering. “It's too much of a hassle to get to it,” he said. Instead, he used Renren, a Chinese version, which, like other domestic sites, censored any sensitive political discussion. I asked what he knew about Facebook's being blocked. “It has something to do with politics,” he said, and paused. “But the truth is I don't really know.”
This kind of remove among urbane Chinese students was familiar. They lived with unprecedented access to technology and information, but also with the Great Firewall, the vast infrastructure of digital filters and human censors that blocked politically objectionable content from reaching computers in China. Many young Chinese regarded the notion of the firewall as insulting, but the barriers were just large enough to keep many people from bothering to get around them. The information about the outside world that filtered through was erratic: Promise could talk to me at length about the latest Sophie Marceau film or the merits of various Swiss race car drivers, but the news of Chinese leaders accruing large private fortunes had not reached him. So many foreign ideas were flooding China at once that people made sense of them partly by grouping the world into manageable pieces. In Beijing, a Chinese dining guide called Dianping offered eighteen separate categories of Chinese cuisine, but everything outside of Asia (Italian, Moroccan, Brazilian) was grouped under one heading: “Western Food.”
That night, we stayed in the Swiss town of Interlaken, where Guide Li had promised us “truly clean air,” a treat for residents of any large Chinese city. I stepped outside to look around town with Zheng Dao and her daughter, Li Cheng, a nineteen-year-old art major. We strolled past luxury watch shops, a casino, and the HÃ¶hematte, a vast green where locals put on yodeling and Swiss wrestling events. Midway through the trip, the daughter was politely unmoved. “Other than different buildings, the Seine didn't look all that different from the Huangpu,” she said. “Subway? We have a subway. You name it, we've got it.” She laughed.
As Li Cheng walked on ahead with friends, her mother told me that she wanted her daughter to see differences between China and the West that ran deeper than “hardware.” Our guide had mocked Europe's stately pace, but Zheng said her countrymen had come to believe that “if you don't elbow your way on to everything you'll be last.” A car paused for us at a crosswalk, and Zheng drew a contrast: “Drivers at home think, âI can't pause. Otherwise, I'll never get anywhere,'” she said.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
By the final days of the trip, the advice and efficiency that had been so reassuring in the beginning were wearing thin. On the bus, people asked if we could stop at a Western restaurant; we had been in Europe for a week and had yet to sit down to a lunch or a dinner that was not Chinese. (Nearly half of all Chinese tourists in one market survey reported eating no more than one “European-style” meal on a trip to the West.) But Li warned us that Western food can take too long to serve, and if we ate it too fast, it would give us indigestion. “Save it for your next trip,” he said, and everyone consented. In Milan, he reminded us again to be on guard against thieves, but Handy the sanitation specialist was dubious. “Italy is not as chaotic as they made it seem,” he said. “It sounded really terrifying.”
I had begun to wonder how much longer tours like this might endure. Solo tourism was already growing in popularity among young people, and even in the course of our time together my fellow tourists had wearied of hustling so much. In Milan, we had thirty minutes on our own, so Karen and Handy and I stepped into the cool interior of the Duomo. Handy peered up at soaring sheets of brilliant stained glass. “That looks exhausting,” he said. “But it's beautiful.”
The Italian papers were full of news that Prime Minister Berlusconi was about to be charged with sleeping with a teenager. Guide Li was diplomatic. “What a unique man he is!” he said. The drive across Italy that day had put him in a reflective mood about life at home. “You might wonder now and then whether it would be good to promote democracy,” he said. “Of course, there are benefits: people enjoy freedom of speech and the freedom to elect politicians. But doesn't the one-party system have its benefits, too?” He pointed out the window to the highway and said that it had taken decades for Italy to build it, because of local opposition. “If this were China, it would be done in six months! And that's the only way to keep the economy growing.” Li was so boosterish that I might have taken him for a government spokesman, except that his comments were familiar from my day-to-day conversations in Beijing. “Analysts overseas can never understand why the Chinese economy has grown so fast,” he said. “Yes, it's a one-party state, but the administrators are selected from among the elites, and elites picked from one-point-three billion people might as well be called super-elites.”
Li's portrait of the West contained at least one feature of unalloyed admiration. He mentioned a Western friend who had quit his job to go backpacking and find his calling in life. “Would our parents accept that? Of course not! They'd point a finger and say, âYou're a waste!'” he said. But in Europe, “young people are allowed to pursue what they want to pursue.”
He went on: “Our Chinese ancestors left us so many things, but why do we find it so difficult to discover new things? It's because our education system has too many constraints.” Our group was even more attentive than usual. At the very moment that American parents were wondering if they had something to learn from China's hard-nosed “tiger mothers,” Chinese parents were trying to restore creativity to the country's desiccated education system. One mother, Zeng Liping, told me that teachers had frowned upon her bringing her sixth grader to Europe. “Before every school vacation, the teachers tell them, âDon't go out. Stay at home and study, because very soon you'll be taking the exam to get into middle school.'” But Zeng had made her peace with being out of step. She had quit a stable job as an art teacher and put her savings into starting her own fashion label. “My bosses all said, âWhat a shame that you're leaving a good workplace.' But I've proved to myself that I made the right choice.”
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
In Rome the next day, we stopped at the Trevi Fountain and strolled up to the vast splendor of St. Peter's Square. Zhu said the scale reminded him of Beijing. “It's just like the old days, when Chinese people used to go to Beijing just to catch a glimpse of the Communist Party.” He laughed.
We wandered down the block and sat down on a windowsill to rest. Zhu lit a cigarette. He'd been thinking about the varying fortunes of great powers. I asked if he believed American politicians who say they have no objections to China's rise. He shook his head. “No way. They'll let us grow, but they'll try to limit it. Everyone I know thinks that.” Ultimately, he said, in the politest way he could think of, Americans would need to adjust to a weaker position in the world, just as China once did. “You are so used to being on top, but you will drop to second place. It won't be immediatelyâit'll take twenty or thirty yearsâbut our GDP will eventually surpass yours.” I was struck that, for all his travels, Zhu saw an enduring philosophical divide between China and the West: “two different ways of thinking,” as he put it. “We will use their tools and learn their methods. But fundamentally, China will always maintain its own way,” he said.
His sentiment didn't inspire much optimism about China's future alongside the West. On some level, it was hard to argue with him; the prospect that a richer China would naturally become a more Western, democratic China was no longer as convincing to me as it had been in my student days, when I was drawn to Beijing by the tragic potential of Tiananmen Square. The China that I inhabited now was, by turns, inspiring and maddening, home to both Bare-Handed Fortunes and black jails, a fierce curiosity about the world and a defensive pride in China's new place in it. My busmates had answered the call to go West, but if they struggled to make sense of what they found, I could sympathize; I was struggling to make sense of a land “unfettered” but subject to the Party in Power.
If it was naÃ¯ve to imagine that China's opening would simply draw it closer to the West, it was also naÃ¯ve, perhaps, to dismiss the power of more subtle changes. Modern Chinese travel, like the modern Chinese state, was predicated on the fragile promise that it would impose order on a chaotic world, by shepherding its citizens and keeping them safe from threats that could include Western thieves, Western cuisine, and Western culture. In the flesh, the West that our group encountered was, indeed, more Europe than “Europe”âunkempt and unglamorous in ways they hadn't expected. And yet, behind the prosperity gospel about Chinese one-party efficiency, my busmates caught unredacted flickers of insight, glimpses of humaneness and openness and a world once forbidden. By declaring, in effect, an end to the revolution, the Party in Power had hoped that its people would now step beyond politics and get on with living. But it would never be that easy.
When Promise finally put down his wilted copy ofThe Wall Street Journal, there were no trumpets. He said simply, “When I read a foreign newspaper, I see lots of things I don't know about.” On this first trip, there was much they would never see, but mile by mile, they were discovering how to see it at all.
DANCING IN SHACKLES
The most intriguing building in Beijing was not celebrated for its architecture. Facing the Avenue of Eternal Peace, next door to China's equivalent of the White House, was a modern, three-story green office block with a pagoda roof that perched on top like a toupee. What impressed me was that the building did not, on paper at least, exist. It had no address, no sign, and it appeared on no public charts of the Party structure. The first time I asked what it was, the guard said, “I can't tell you that. It's a government organ.” Over time, I came to think of it as, simply, the Department.
Every capital has its secret departments, but the odd thing about this one and its aversion to publicity was that it was the Central Publicity Department. The “Publicity” in the title was for English purposes; the Chinese name was the Central Propaganda Department, and it was one of the People's Republic's most powerful and secretive organizationsâa government agency with the power to fire editors, silence professors, ban books, and recut movies. By the time I settled in China, the Department, and its offices across the country, had control over two thousand newspapers and eight thousand magazines; every film and television program, every textbook, amusement park, video game, bowling club, and beauty pageant was subject to its scrutiny. The propagandists decided what ads could go on every billboard from the Himalayas to the Yellow Sea. They administered the largest fund for the social sciences, which gave them veto power over scholarly research that did not, for instance, heed their ban on the use of certain words to describe China's political system. (One of the banned words wasjiquanzhuyiâ“totalitarianism.”) The Department had a breadth of authority over the realm of ideas in China that Anne-Marie Brady, a scholar who studied it, compared to the “Vatican's influence over the Catholic world.”
Orwell wrote that political prose, in any country, is intended to “give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” During the Truman era, Secretary of State Dean Acheson pruned and massaged his facts until they were, in his words, “clearer than truth.” But no country has devoted more time and care to the art of propaganda than China, where the emperor Qin Shi Huang governed, in the third centuryB.C.E., with a policy he called “Keep the Masses Ignorant and They Will Follow.” Mao sanctified propaganda and censorship as essential parts of Thought Work, and he relied on them to reframe the Long March as a strategic triumph, not a crushing defeat. Five year after Mao died, his heirs' final act of devotion was to issue an official declaration on Mao's tumultuous reign. They said it was 70 percent correct and 30 percent wrongâan imponderable calculation that would be studied by schoolchildren for decades to come.
The Department almost disappeared. In 1989 the uprising at Tiananmen Square convinced some Party leaders that propaganda was growing impotent in the modern age. But Deng Xiaoping disagreed, and he made a fateful decisionâthe Party's future survival, he declared, would rest, more than ever before, on two pillars: prosperity and propaganda. Of China's young people who took to the square, he said, “It will take years, not just a couple of months, of education to change their thinking.” But the Soviet approach to propaganda had failed them. Deng and his men urgently needed a new approach, and they found it in the holy land of public relations, America, and in a new, if unlikely, role model: Walter Lippmann, a leading American columnist for much of the twentieth century. They overlooked his early anticommunism and hailed his efforts to prevent mass rule and to sway U.S. public opinion to enter World War I. They studied and cited Lippmann's belief in the power of pictures to, in his words, “magnify emotion while undermining critical thought,” and they adopted his view that good PR can create a “group mind” and “manufacture consent” for the ruling elite.
To sculpt propaganda for the emerging middle class, they embraced another father of American PR, the late political scientist Harold Lasswell, who wrote, in 1927, “If the mass will be free of chains of iron, it must accept its chains of silver.” Party image makers who began their careers denouncing capitalist stooges now studied the success of Coca-Cola, observing, as one Chinese propaganda textbook put it, that Coke proved that “if you have a good image, any problem can be solved.” To learn the art of modern spin, the Communist Party studied the masters: a five-day seminar for top propaganda officials made case studies out of Tony Blair's response to mad cow disease and the Bush administration's handling of the U.S. media after 9/11.
In 2004 the Department created a Bureau of Public Opinion, which commissioned surveys and research to measure the pulse of the public without the niceties of voting. Instead of withering away, the world of Thought Work grew in scale and sophistication, until it encompassed, by one estimate, a propaganda officer for every one hundred Chinese citizens. The era of thundering loudspeakers and mimeographed pamphlets was over. Like any competitive enterprise, the Department now measured its effectiveness in page hits and prime-time viewership. It created big-budget advertising campaigns with the help of famous filmmakers such as Zhang Yimou, and it submerged people in a gauzy emotional message that aimed, as one propaganda chief put it, to reach “into their ears, into their heads, and into their hearts.” It was more important than ever, Party scholars pointed out, to “make their thinking conform with the dominant ideology, thereby standardizing people's behavior.”
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Nothing consumed more of the Department's attention than the press. “Never again,” President Jiang Zemin vowed after Tiananmen, “would China's newspapers, radio, and television be permitted to become a battle-front for bourgeois liberalism.” China, Jiang said, would never succumb to what he called “so-called glasnost.” Journalists were still expected to “sing as one voice,” and the Department would help them do so by issuing a vast and evolving list of words that must and must not appear in the news. Some rules never changed: Any mention of Taiwan's laws was to refer to them as “so-called laws,” while China's political system was so unique that reporters were never to type the phrase “according to international practice” when drawing comparisons to Beijing. When it came to the economy, they were not to dwell on bad news during the holidays, or on issues that the government classified as “unsolvable,” such as the fragility of Chinese banks or the political influence of the wealthy. The most ardently forbidden subject was Tiananmen itself; no mention of the 1989 protests or the bloodshed appear in Chinese textbooks; when the government discusses the events of that year, it describes them as “chaos” or “turmoil” organized by a handful of “black hands.”
Journalists had little choice but to heed those instructions to such a degree that, even as China became more diverse and clamorous, the world of the news was an oasis of calmâa realm of breathtaking sameness. Newspapers on opposite sides of the country often carried identical headlines, in identical font. In May 2008, when a powerful earthquake struck the province of Sichuan, papers across the country proclaimed in near-perfect unison that the earthquake had “tugged at the heartstrings of the Chinese Communist Party.” The next morning, I rounded up the local papers and marveled at their consistency.
One of the few Chinese news sites that had anything different to say was a magazine calledCaijing. While the state news service, Xinhua, was hailing the People's Liberation Army for its rescue efforts,Caijingâthe name means “finance and economics”âwas ferreting out estimates of the numbers of dead and wounded and reporting that “many disaster victims have yet to receive any relief supplies at all.” I wondered whyCaijing's writing was different, and I sensed that it might have something to do with the person in charge, a woman named Hu Shuli, who had made her name divining the boundaries of free expression in China. I asked to come see her. I wanted to know how you negotiate with a building that does not exist.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
I heard Hu Shuli before I saw her. I was waiting in her office off the newsroom ofCaijing, a sleek and open gray-brick space on the nineteenth floor of the Prime Tower, in downtown Beijing, when I heard an urgent click-clack of heels down the hallway. She approached the door and then kept on going, sweeping into the newsroom spouting a series of decrees and ideas, before spinning around and heading back in my direction. In advance of my visit, Qian Gang, an editor whom she had known for years, had warned me that Hu moved at a pace “as sudden and rash as a gust of wind.”
In her mid-fifties, Hu Shuli was five feet two and slim, with a pixie haircut and a wardrobe of color-coordinated outfits. She was so voluble and pugnacious that she seemed like “a female Godfather,” one of her reporters thought upon their first meeting. Another of her colleagues compared the experience of chatting with her to being on the receiving end of machine-gun fire. Wang Lang, an old friend of Hu's and an editor atEconomic Daily, a state-run newspaper, repeatedly declined her offers to work together, because, he told me, “keeping some distance is better for our friendship.” Depending on the point of view, being with her was either thrilling or unnerving. Her boss, Wang Boming, the chairman ofCaijing's parent company, SEEC Media Group, told me, half-jokingly, “I'm afraid of her.”
In the world of “news workers,” as journalists are known in Party-speak, Hu Shuli had a singular profile. She was an incurable muckraker, but had cultivated first-name familiarity with some of China's most powerful Party leaders. Since 1998, when Hu establishedCaijing, with two computers and a borrowed conference room, she had guided the magazine with near-perfect pitch for how much candor and provocation the Department would tolerate. This meant deciding what to cover (rampant corporate fraud, case after case of political corruption), but also what not to cover (Falun Gong, the Tiananmen Square anniversaries, and many other things). Hu had endured as editor long after other tenacious Chinese journalists had been imprisoned or silenced. She was often described in the Chinese and foreign press as “the most dangerous woman in China,” though she downplayed it, saying that she was just “a woodpecker,” forever hammering at a tree, trying not to knock it down but to make it grow straighter.
Caijinghad the glossy feel and design ofFortune. It was heavy with advertising, for Cartier watches, Chinese credit cards, Mercedes SUVs. The writing could be purposefully dense. But China's propaganda officials were more likely to clamp down on television and mass-market newspapers, which had audiences in the millions, than they were on a magazine that sold only two hundred thousand copies, even if those copies went to many of China's most important offices in government, finance, and academia, giving the magazine extraordinary influence. It had a pair of websites, in Chinese and English, that together attracted about 3.2 million unique visitors every month. Hu wrote a widely quoted column for the print edition and the Web. Every year, she hosted a conference that drew the economic leadership of the Communist Party.
Hu's brio stood out in an industry in which truth often succumbed to political priorities. Not long after the earthquake, Xinhua, the state news service, published a story on its website, detailing how China's Shenzhou VII rocket made its thirtieth orbit of the earth. The story had plenty of gripping detailâ“The dispatcher's firm voice broke the silence on the ship.” Unfortunately, the rocket had yet to be launchedâthe news service later apologized for posting a “draft.”
But failing to put politics before truth could be hazardous. When Reporters Without Borders ranked countries by press freedom in 2008, the year of the earthquake, China ranked 167th out of 173 countriesâbehind Iran and ahead of Vietnam. Article 35 of the Chinese constitution guaranteed freedom of speech and the press, but regulations gave the government broad powers to imprison editors and writers for “harming national interests” and other offenses. There were twenty-eight reporters in Chinese jails, more than in any other country. (In 2009, Iran overtook China in this, for the first time in ten years.)
In the face of those risks, I saw in Hu Shuli's magazine the first Chinese publication with the ambition to become a world-class news organization. “It's different from everything you see in China,” an economist named Andy Xie told me. “Its existence, in a way, is a miracle.”
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
The first time I visited Hu Shuli at home, I was sure that I was lost. Unlike many of the reporters and editors on her staff, she did not live in one of Beijing's new residential high-rises. She and her husband lived in an old-fashioned concrete housing block, in a three-bedroom apartment with a view of an overgrown garden. The neighborhood was China's old-media stronghold, home to the headquarters of the state radio and to China's film and television censors. In the 1950s, when the building was a privileged residence for Party cadres, the government assigned space in it to Hu's father.
She came from impeccable Communist stock. Her grandfather Hu Zhongchi was a famous translator and editor, and his brother ran a prominent publishing house; Hu's mother, Hu Lingsheng, was a senior editor atWorkers' Dailyin Beijing. Her father, Cao Qifeng, was an underground Communist before taking a post in a trade union. But from a young age, Hu Shuli had instincts that worried her mother. “I always spoke about what I was thinking,” she explained.
The Cultural Revolution engulfed China when she was thirteen, and her classes were suspended. Her family suffered: As a prominent editor, Hu's mother was criticized at her newspaper and placed under house arrest. Her father was shunted into a backroom job. Hu became a Red Guard, with others her age, and they traveled the country proclaiming their love for the “reddest of red suns,” Mao Zedong. As the movement descended into violence, Hu Shuli sought refuge in books, trying to maintain a semblance of an education. “It was a very confusing time, because we lost all values,” she said. A month before her sixteenth birthday, she was sent to the countryside to experience the rural revolution. What she found there astonished her.
“It was ridiculous,” she recalled. Farmers had no reason to work. “They just wanted to stay lying in the field, sometimes for two hours. I said, âShould we start work?' They said, âHow can you think that?'” She went on: “Ten years later, I realized everything was wrong.”
For many in her generation, the rustication campaign was a revelation. Another young believer sent to the countryside, Wu Si, recalled to me his first day at an iron foundry. “We'd always been taught to believe that âthe proletariat is a selfless class,' and we believed in it completely,” he told me. A few hours after his arrival, a fellow worker approached him and said, “That's enough. You can stop [working] now.”
Wu was puzzled. “I don't have anything else to do, so I might as well keep working.”
The comrade whispered some advice. “People won't be too happy about that.”
If Wu worked a full day, quotas would go up for everyone. He put down his tools. Soon he learned other secrets of survival in the state-owned factoriesâhow to swipe parts from the storeroom, how to build lamps for sale on the black market. For Wu, who would later become a prominent writer and editor, it introduced him to the world of parallel realities. “One narrative was public,” he told me, “and one was real.”
When colleges resumed classes, in 1978, Hu Shuli secured a seat at People's University in Beijing. The journalism department was hardly her first choice, but it was the best that the school offered. After graduation, she joinedWorkers' Daily, and was assigned, in 1985, to a bureau in the coastal city of Xiamen, which had been designated as a laboratory for the growth of a free market. She was a natural networkerâshe had a regular bridge game with the mayorâand her interviewees included a promising young cadre in city government whose openness to the free market had earned him the nickname the God of Wealth. His name was Xi Jinping, and years later he would become the president of China.
In 1987, Hu won a fellowship from the World Press Institute to spend five months in America. The experience changed her sense of what was possible. Her paper,Workers' Daily, was four pages long, but every town she visited in the United States seemed to have a paper ten or twenty times as long. One evening in Minnesota, she said, “I spent the whole night reading the St. PaulPioneer Press.” She returned to China, and in the spring of 1989 the Tiananmen Square movement electrified the Beijing press. Many journalists, including Hu, joined the demonstrations. As soldiers cracked down on the night of June 3, Hu recalls, “I went to the street, then went back to the office and said, âWe should cover this.'” But the decision had already come down: “We weren't going to publish a word about it.” Many reporters who had spoken out were fired or banished to the provinces. Her husband, Miao Di, a film professor, thought that Hu might get arrested, but in the end she was suspended for eighteen months.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
After her suspension, Hu became the international editor atChina Business Times, one of the country's first national papers dedicated to covering the new frontiers of the economy. In 1992, she stumbled on a small group of Chinese financiers who had trained overseas and returned home to build the Chinese stock markets. Many of them were the children of powerful Chinese leaders. The group called itself the Stock Exchange Executive Council, and in 1992 it rented a cluster of rooms at Beijing's Chongwenmen Hotel. The members pulled out the beds and set up an office. At one desk was Gao Xiqing, who had earned a law degree at Duke and worked at Richard Nixon's law firm in New York before returning to China. At another was Wang Boming, the son of a former ambassador and vice foreign minister; Wang had studied finance at Columbia and worked as an economist in the research department of the New York Stock Exchange. They enlisted the support of rising stars in the Party, such as Wang Qishan, who was the son-in-law of a vice-premier, and Zhou Xiaochuan, a reform-minded political scion.
She began hanging around and ended up with a string of scoops and, eventually, an incomparable Rolodex of names destined for China's highest offices. (Wang Qishan reached the Standing Committee of the Politburo; Gao Xiqing became head of China's sovereign wealth fund; Zhou Xiaochuan ran China's central bank.) Later, many people in Beijing whispered that these connections protected Hu, but she insisted that outsiders overestimated her proximity to power. “I don't know their birthdays,” she said, of high-ranking officials. “I'm a journalist, and they treat me as a journalist.”
In 1998, Hu received a phone call from Wang Boming, one of the hotel room financiers. He was starting a magazine and wanted her to run it. She had two conditions: Wang would not use her pages to promote his other businesses, and he would give her a budget of a quarter of a million dollars (substantial in those days) to pay salaries that were high enough to prevent reporters from taking bribes. Wang agreed. It was no charity: he and his reform-minded allies in the government believed that, as China's economy modernized, it could no longer rely on the tottering state-run press. People could no longer afford to be uninformed.
“You need the media to play its function to disclose the facts to the public and, in a sense, help the government detect evils,” Wang told me one morning in his large, cluttered office downstairs fromCaijing's headquarters. He was a chain-smoker with a thick brush of gray-flecked black hair, Ferragamo eyeglasses, and a garrulous sense of humor. For all his Party pedigree, his years abroad had altered his understanding of the value of truth. “When I was studying in the States, I needed to make some money to pay my tuition, so I was working for a newspaper in ChinatownâtheChina Daily News,” he said. Even as a cub reporter, he relished the chance to follow a trail wherever it led. He laughed. Being a reporter had made him feel like “a king without a crown.”
Hu Shuli wasted no time following the trail; her inaugural issue had an explosive cover story revealing that small-time investors had lost millions when a real estate company called Qiong Min Yuan went bust, even though insiders had been tipped off in time to unload their shares. Regulators were incensed; they accused Hu of flouting the restrictions handed down by the Department, and her bosses had to calm the censors by making self-criticisms. But the defining moment inCaijing's rise came when a reporter named Cao Haili, visiting Hong Kong in the spring of 2003, noticed that every person on the train platform seemed to be wearing a surgical mask. What the hell is that about? she thought, and alerted Hu. The Chinese press had been running reports that health officials had contained the spread of a mysterious new virus called SARS. In fact, the epidemic was growing. Newspaper editors in Guangdong Province had been ordered to publish nothing but reassuring stories about the virus.
But Hu Shuli realized those restrictions did not extend to editors outside the province, and she exploited the opening. “I bought a lot of books about breathing diseases, infections, and viruses,” she said, and her staff began pointing out errors in government statements. Over the course of a month,Caijingproduced a series of indispensable reports, and they were planning yet another when the Department put an end to it.
From its headquarters on the Avenue of Eternal Peace, the Department issued a daily stream of directives to editors that outlined the latest dos and don'ts. By definition, these reports were secretâthe public was not allowed to learn what it couldn't learnâand when I arrived in 2005, it was less than three months after reporter Shi Tao was sentenced to ten years in prison for describing the contents of a propaganda directive. To prevent further leaks, censors now preferred to deliver instructions orally. Leaders at the headquarters of state television had a special red telephone for this purpose. Other news organizations received instructions at meetings that reporters called “going to class.”
For decades the censors had skillfully suppressed unwelcome news (epidemics, natural disasters, civil unrest), but technology and travel were making this increasingly difficult. When the cover-up of the SARS virus became known, Jiao Guobiao, a journalism professor at Peking University, ignored the taboo against acknowledging the Department's invisible authority and wrote, “The Central Propaganda Department is the only dead spot in China that does not operate by rules and regulations; it is a dark empire in which the rays of law do not shine.” The university fired him for it.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
When I joined Hu Shuli one afternoon, she was running late for an unusual appointment: she had decided that her top editors needed new clothes, and she had summoned a tailor. As Hu and her reporters grew in prominence, they were spending more and more time in front of crowds or overseas. She was sick of seeing her staff in sack suits and stained short-sleeve button-downs. She offered her editors a deal: buy one new suit and the magazine would pay for another. A pudgy, heavy-lidded tailor carried an armful of suits into a conference room, and the staff filed in for a fitting.
“Doesn't it look baggy here?” Hu said, tugging at the underarm of an elegant gray pin-striped jacket being fitted to Wang Shuo, her thirty-seven-year-old managing editor. With his boss prodding at his midsection, he wore an expression of bemused tolerance that I had seen several times on a dog in a bathtub.
“It is rather tight already,” Wang protested.
“He feels tight already,” the tailor said.
“Hold on!” Hu said. “Think about the James Bond suit in the movies. Make it like that!”
The change implied by Hu's flamboyant internationalism ran deeper than aesthetics. A well-meaning American professor once advised her, “If you stay in China as a journalist, you will never really join the international mainstream.” She was determined to prove him wrong, even if it meant working the angles within the Chinese system.
If a magazine like hers broke the rules, the Department gave it a warning known as a yellow card, as in soccer. Three yellow cards in one year, and she could be shut down. The Department wasn't reading stories before publication; on the contrary, it was up to editors themselves to guess how far they could go and compute the risk of wandering past an ill-defined limit. That was a specific kind of pressure, which China scholar Perry Link once compared to living beneath an “anaconda coiled in an overhead chandelier.” “Normally, the great snake doesn't move,” he wrote. “It doesn't have to. It feels no need to be clear about its prohibitions. Its silent constant message is âYou yourself decide,' after which, more often than not, everyone in its shadows makes his or her large and small adjustmentsâall quite ânaturally.'”
Over the years, Hu learned to live beneath the anaconda by treating China's government as a living, breathing organism; she constantly measured its moods and sensitivities. Wang Feng, one of her deputies, told me, “You can feel her making adjustments. For example, at Monday's editorial conference she might aim at something, and the editors and reporters go ahead and do it. And by Wednesday's editorial conference she will say, âYou know what? I've got more information on this and we should not say that. Maybe we should aim lower.'”
In January 2007, Hu Shuli got her first lesson in going too far. The cover story “Whose Luneng?” described a group of investors who paid a pittance for 92 percent of a ten-billion-dollar conglomerate, with assets ranging from power plants to a sports club. A tangle of overlapping boards and shareholders hid the identity of the new owners, and nearly half of the purchasing capital came from an untraceable source. WhenCaijingattempted to publish a brief follow-up, authorities banned the magazine from newsstands, and Hu's staff was left to tear up printed copies by hand. “Everybody felt humiliated,” a former editor said. Hu called it her “largest disaster.” (The story had come too close to implicating the children of senior Party leadersâa taboo that trumped even reformists' desire for a more open press.)
In her office one afternoon, I asked Hu why she thought other publications had been punished whileCaijinghad not. “We never say a word in a very emotional or casual way, like âYou lied,'” she said. “We try to analyze the system and saywhya good idea or a good wish cannot become reality.” When I posed the same question to Cheng Yizhong, a former editor in chief of theSouthern Metropolis Daily, one of China's liveliest papers, who spent five months in jail for angering authorities, he saw it differently. He drew a distinction between his campaign for limiting police powers and Hu's focus on raising government performance. “Caijing's topics haven't affected the fundamental ruling system, so it is relatively safe,” he said, adding, “I am not criticizing Hu Shuli, but in some waysCaijingis just serving a more powerful or relatively better interest group.”
For all her skepticism and intensity, she used the language of loyal opposition. “Some argue that pushing forward with political reform will be destabilizing,” she wrote in a 2007 column. “Yet, in fact, maintaining the status quo without any reform creates a hotbed for social turbulence.” In other words, political reform was the way to consolidate power, not lose it.
Her approach appealed to reformers in the government who genuinely wanted to solve problems but didn't want to give up power to do so. Some Chinese journalists said that Hu's greatest skill was playing interest groups against one another, whether by amplifying the central government's effort to round up corrupt mayors or by letting one wing of the government thwart a rival wing's agenda. Allow the most powerful group to endure, the theory went, and you could do real, even profitable, journalism. Hu saw censorship as a matter of negotiation; when propaganda officials raged, she tried not to argue. She promised to improve, to pay more attention, to avoid that mistake in the future. “In Chinese, we say that you can bore a hole in a stone by the steady dripping of water,” her friend Qian Gang told me. Other journalists preferred a noisier metaphor: they called it “dancing in shackles.”
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
When I asked Hu about the 2008 earthquake, we were in her office, and it was getting late. The afternoon shadows slanted into her windows, and the subject of the disaster, and its epic loss of life, made her pause. She had received the news by text message while hosting a ceremony for scholarship recipients at a hotel in the mountains west of Beijing. She leaned over to her friend Qian Gang, who had covered previous quakes, and asked him for a rough prediction of the damage. He looked at his watch and realized that schools were in session. The casualties among students would be enormous.
Reporting on a disaster of that scale could be politically hazardous. When the country had suffered a previous enormous quake, in 1976, the government silenced news of the death toll for three years. Now, in 2008, Hu Shuli set off for downtown Beijing, working the phone and e-mailing from the car, shouting to her staff to rent a satellite phone and get a crew to Sichuan. Within the hour, the firstCaijingjournalist was on a flight to the quake zone, followed by nine more. They arrived to discover that many government offices had survived, but hundreds of school buildings had collapsed into piles of concrete and rebar. The buildings had gone up during a surge of funding in the nineties, when a demographic bulge in school-age children required new space. But so much money had been siphoned off that designs that called for steel had, in some cases, been built with bamboo instead.
Thousands of children were trapped or dead in the rubble; nobody could even say for sure how many. The Department swiftly banned coverage of the construction problems at the schools. Several Chinese newspapers reported on them anyway, and were punished. But Hu read the mood differently; she calculated that her magazine's status as a business publication could give it the excuse of simply policing the use of public funds. Its success and bravado had also become self-reinforcing: the magazine had gone so far already that conservative branches of the government could no longer be sure which other officials supported it.
Besides, she was a businesswoman and she had to think about competition; the Internet was expanding, and she had to keep up. She thought that a story could be published if it carried the right tone and facts. “If it's not absolutely forbidden,” she said, “we do it.” On June 9,Caijingpublished a twelve-page investigative report on the earthquake, including the school collapses. It was cool and definitive. According to the report, heedless economic growth, squandered public funds, and rampant neglect of construction standards had led to disaster. In a way that had rarely been articulated before, the report peeled away a layer of mythology that usually clung to China's pursuit of fortune: the boom years were bringing poor stretches of the countryside into a new era, but the costs of that rise were becoming clear. The story detailed how local cadres had cut corners, but it stopped short of assigning responsibility by name. She was called in for criticism but was not punished.
From her perch, straddling the line between the inside and the outside, she had made a judgment call; if she dwelled on the names of specific corrupt officials, it might score a point for accountability, but the scoop would leave her vulnerable to retribution. She told me, “We try not to give any excuses to the cadres who don't want to get criticized.” Ultimately, she said, the important question was not “which person didn't use good-quality bricks fifteen years ago” but something deeper. “We need further reform,” she said. “We need checks and balances. We need transparency. We say it this way. No simple words. No slogans.” It was a game of a certain, subtle kind, and she had won that round. She would not win others yet to come.
LIBERTY LEADING THE PEOPLE
That spring, official China was counting down to the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing with the fervor of a state religion. The Party assembled another giant clock beside Tiananmen Square, to tick off the seconds until the games began, and the capital was decked in a slogan that called for unity above all: “One World, One Dream.”
I stepped out my front door one morning and found two city workers slathering cement on the redbrick outer wall of my bedroom. Large swaths of the city were being demolished or refurbished to create a clean, modern backdrop for the games. The workers had laid down a smooth bed of cement and were using a ruler and plumb line to carve crisp lines and corners. It took me a moment to realize that they were drawing the suggestion of fake new bricks on top of real old bricks. Facing my front door, on the alley wall, a faded bit of Cultural Revolutionâera graffiti declared, in five blocky characters,LONG LIVE CHAIRMAN MAO! With two swipes of the trowel, the Great Helmsman vanished behind the cement.
The urge for perfection extended to the medal race. Sports officials had vowed to pick up more gold than ever before, under a long-term plan they called “The General Outline for Winning Honor at the Olympics, 2001â2010.” The plan included the 119 Project, a campaign to win more gold medals in the summer's most competitive eventsâa list that by China's calculation totaled 119 medals. No variable was left to chance: When organizers searched for a young girl to sing a solo in the opening ceremony, they could not find the optimum combination of voice and aesthetics, so they created a composite, by training one child to lip-sync to the voice of another. A Chinese pork supplier said it was producing specially pampered pigs, to ensure that hormone-fed meat would not cause Chinese athletes to fail their doping testsâbut it caused Chinese citizens to begin wondering about their own pork, and the Beijing Olympic Committee had to issue a “Clarification on Olympic Pig-Related Reports,” denouncing the pork story as an “exaggerated falsehood.”
The more single-minded the Olympic organizers became, the more they encountered things beyond their control. The Olympic torch relay, which China called the Journey of Harmony, would traverse six continents, reach the summit of Mount Everest, and encompass 21,888 runners, more than any previous relay. The Chinese press called the torch the Sacred Flame, and said that once it was lit in Olympia, Greece, it would not be extinguished for five months, until it reached Beijing. At night or on airplanes, when the torch could not be carried, the flame would be kept alight in a set of lanterns.
On March 10, shortly before the Journey of Harmony was to begin, several hundred monks in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, conducted a march to demand the release of Tibetans detained for celebrating the U.S. government's awarding of the Congressional Gold Medal to the Dalai Lama. Dozens of monks were arrested, and on March 14 a demonstration to protest their detention turned into the worst riots in Tibet since the 1980s; eleven Han civilians and a Tibetan were burned to death after hiding in buildings set on fire by rioters, and a policeman and six civilians died from beatings or other causes, according to the government. The Dalai Lama called for calm, but the Chinese government said the riot had been “premeditated, masterminded and incited by the Dalai clique.” Security forces moved in with armored vehicles to control the city, and the authorities began a roundup of suspects, leading to hundreds of arrests. Tibetan exile groups alleged that eighty Tibetans were killed in the crackdown in Lhasa and elsewhere, a claim that China denied.
As the torch passed through London, Paris, and San Francisco, protests against the crackdown in Tibet grew so clamorous that organizers had to extinguish the flame or reroute the path to avoid angry crowds. Chinese citizens, especially students abroad, responded to the criticism with rare fury. When the torch reached South Korea, Chinese and rival protesters fought in the streets. Inside China, thousands demonstrated in front of outlets of Carrefour, a French supermarket chain, in retaliation for what they considered France's sympathy for pro-Tibetan activists. Charles Zhang, who holds a PhD from MIT and is the CEO of Sohu, a leading Chinese Web portal, called for a boycott of French products “to make the thoroughly biased French media and public feel losses and pain.”
State-run media revived language from another age. When U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi denounced China's management of Tibet, Xinhua called her “disgusting.” The magazineOutlook Weeklywarned that “domestic and foreign hostile forces have made the Beijing Olympics a focus for infiltration and sabotage.” The Communist Party secretary in Tibet called the Dalai Lama “a wolf wrapped in a monk's robe; a monster with a human face, but the heart of a beast.” In the anonymity of the Web, decorum deteriorated. “People who fart through the mouth will get shit stuffed down their throats by me!” one commentator wrote, in a forum hosted by a state newspaper. “Someone give me a gun! Show no mercy to the enemy!” wrote another. The comments were an embarrassment to many Chinese, but they were difficult to ignore among foreign journalists who had begun receiving threats. An anonymous letter to my fax machine in Beijing warned, “Clarify the facts on ChinaÂ â¦ or you and your loved ones will wish you were dead.”
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
As the protests grew, I began trolling the Chinese Web for the most inventive expressions of patriotism. On the morning of April 15, a short video entitled2008 China Stand Up!appeared on Sina, the Chinese Web portal. The video's origin was a mystery: it had no host, no narrator, and no signature except the initials CTGZ.
It was a homespun documentary, and it opened with a Technicolor portrait of Chairman Mao, sunbeams radiating from his head. Out of silence came an orchestral piece, thundering with drums, as a black screen flashed, in Chinese and English, one of Mao's mantras: “Imperialism will never abandon its intention to destroy us.” Then a cut to present-day photographs and news footage, and a sprint through conspiracies and betrayalsâthe “farces, schemes, and disasters” confronting China today: the sinking Chinese stock market (the work of foreign speculators who “wildly manipulated” Chinese stock prices and lured rookie investors to lose their fortunes); the dawn of a global “currency war,” in which the West intended to “make Chinese people foot the bill” for America's financial woes.
A cut, then, to another front: rioters looting stores and brawling in Lhasa. Words flashed across the scenes: “So-called peaceful protest!” A montage of foreign press clippings critical of Chinaâall of them “ignoring the truth” and “speaking with one distorted voice.” The screen filled with the logos of CNN, the BBC, and other news organizations, which gave way to a portrait of Joseph Goebbels. The orchestra and the rhetoric climbed toward a final sequence: “Obviously, there is a scheme behind the scenes to encircle China. A new Cold War!” A cut to pictures of Paris and protesters trying to wrest the Olympic torch from its official carrier, forcing guards to fend them off. The film ended with the image of a Chinese flag, aglow in the sunlight, and a solemn promise: “We will stand up and hold together always as one family in harmony!”
The video by CTGZ, which was just over six minutes long, captured the mood of nationalism in the air, and in its first week and a half online, it drew more than a million hits and tens of thousands of favorable comments. It rose to the site's fourth-most-popular rating. (A television blooper clip of a yawning news anchor was number one.) The film was attracting, on average, two clicks per second, and it became a manifesto for a self-styled vanguard in defense of China's honor, a patriotic swath of society that the Chinese call thefen qing, “the angry youth.”
I was struck that nineteen years after the demonstrations at Tiananmen Square, China's young elite had risen again, not in pursuit of liberal democracy but in defense of China's name. Nicholas Negroponte, the founder of MIT's Media Laboratory and one of the early ideologists of the Internet, had predicted that the global reach of the Web would transform the way we think about ourselves as countries. The state, he predicted, will evaporate “like a mothball, which goes from solid to gas directly,” and “there will be no more room for nationalism than there is for smallpox.” In China, things had gone differently. I was curious about CTGZ. The screen name was connected to an e-mail address. It belonged to a twenty-eight-year-old graduate student in Shanghai named Tang Jie, and this was his first video. He invited me down for a visit.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
The campus of Fudan University, a top Chinese school, radiates from a pair of thirty-story steel-and-glass towers that could pass for a corporate headquarters. I met Tang Jie at the front gate. He wore a powder-blue oxford shirt, khakis, and black dress shoes. He had bright hazel eyes, rounded baby-face features, and a dusting of a goatee and mustache on his chin and upper lip. As I stepped out of a cab, he bounded over to welcome me and tried to pay my taxi fare.
As we walked across campus, Tang admitted he was glad to have a break from his dissertation, which was on Western philosophy. He specialized in phenomenologyâspecifically, in the concept of “intersubjectivity,” as theorized by Edmund Husserl, the German philosopher who influenced Sartre, among others. In addition to Chinese, Tang read English and German easily, but he spoke them infrequently, so at times he swerved, apologetically, among languages. He was working on Latin and ancient Greek. He was so self-effacing and soft-spoken that his voice sometimes dropped to a whisper. There was a seriousness about him; he laughed sparingly, as if he were conserving energy. For fun, he listened to classical Chinese music, though he also enjoyed screwball comedies by the Hong Kong star Stephen Chow. Tang was proudly unhip. Unlike Michael Zhang from Crazy English, Tang had not adopted an English name. The screen name CTGZ was an adaptation of two obscure terms from classical poetry:changtingandgongzi, which together translated as a “noble son in the pavilion.” In contrast to other elite Chinese students, Tang had never joined the Communist Party, for fear that it would impugn his objectivity as a scholar.
Tang had invited some friends to join us for lunch, at Fat Brothers Sichuan Restaurant, and afterward we all climbed the stairs to his room. He lived alone in a sixth-floor walk-up, a studio of less than seventy-five square feet that could have been mistaken for a library storage room occupied by a fastidious squatter. Books covered every surface, and great mounds listed from the shelves above his desk. His collections encompassed, more or less, the span of human thought: Plato leaned against Lao-tzu, Wittgenstein, Bacon, Fustel de Coulanges, Heidegger, the Koran. When Tang wanted to widen his bed by a few inches, he laid plywood across the frame and propped up the edges with piles of books. Eventually books overflowed the room, and they stood outside his front door in a wall of cardboard boxes.
Tang slumped into his desk chair. I asked if he had any idea that his video would be so popular. He smiled. “It appears I have expressed a common feeling, a shared view,” he said.
Next to him sat Liu Chengguang, a cheerful, broad-faced PhD student in political science who had recently translated into Chinese a lecture on the subject of “Manliness” by the conservative Harvard professor Harvey Mansfield. Sprawled on the bed, wearing a gray sweatshirt, was Xiong Wenchi, who had earned a PhD in political science before taking a teaching job. And to Tang's left sat Zeng Kewei, a lean and stylish banker who had picked up a master's degree in Western philosophy before going into finance. Each of them was in his twenties, the first in his family to go to college, and had been drawn to the study of Western thought. I asked them why.
“China was backward throughout its modern history, so we were always seeking the reasons for why the West grew strong,” Liu said. “We learned from the West. All of us who are educated have this dream: grow strong by learning from the West.”
Like the Chinese travelers I knew, and the members of Ai Weiwei'sFairytale, the young men around me regarded the temptations of the West with a combination of admiration and anxiety. It was a confusing time: they were protesting CNN at the same time that an English study program was running ads in China with the slogan “After a month, you'll be able to understand CNN!”
Tang and his friends were so gracious, so thankful that I'd come to listen to them, that I began to wonder if China's anger that spring should be viewed as an aberration. They implored me not to make that mistake.
“We've been studying Western history for so long, we understand it well,” Zeng said. “We think our love for China, our support for the government and the benefits of this country, is not a spontaneous reaction. It has developed after giving the matter much thought.”
In fact, their view of China's direction, if not their vitriol, was consistent with the Chinese mainstream. Almost nine out of ten Chinese approved of the way things were going in their countryâthe highest share of any of the twenty-four countries surveyed that spring by the Pew Research Center. (In the United States, by comparison, just two out of ten voiced such approval.) It was hard to know precisely how common the more assertive strain of patriotism was, but scholars pointed to a Chinese petition against Japan's membership in the UN Security Council. At last count, it had attracted more than forty million signatures, roughly the population of Spain. I asked Tang to show me how he had made his film. He turned to face the screen of his Lenovo desktop PC. “Do you know Movie Maker?” he asked, referring to a video-editing program. I pleaded ignorance and asked if he'd learned from a book. He glanced at me pityingly. He'd learned it on the fly from the Help menu. “We must thank Bill Gates,” he said.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
One month before Tang Jie made his Internet video debut, China surpassed the United States to become the world's largest user of the Internet. It had 238 million people online; it was still only 16 percent of the population, but each day, nearly a quarter of a million Chinese citizens were going online for the first time, and it was transforming the way ideas whipped around the country. The most vibrant online communities grew to millions of registered members, putting them among China's largest organizations outside the Communist Party.
In a nation divided by dialect, geography, and class, the Web allowed people to find each other in unprecedented ways. A group of Chinese volunteers came together and began translating every word ofThe Economistmagazine each week and offering it free to readers. Explaining their goal, the translators wrote, “In the Internet age, the greatest force is not avarice or love or violence, but devotion to an interest.” They were young and unabashedly utopian in their faith in technology. “The Web will link you with like-minded people, and release unimaginable energy,” they wrote. To avoid the censors, the group was overtly self-censoring. “If the article involves any sensitive topics,” they told newcomers, “and you're not sure whether it's permitted, please don't risk it.” That self-censorship contained a kind of self-governance: Sites recruited volunteers to remove material that would get the site into trouble. They were known as “forum hosts,” and if users thought they were too tough or too lax, they could replace them, a process that became known as “impeachment.”
Among the most zealous early users of the Web were Chinese nationalists. In the spring of 1999, when a NATO aircraft, using American intelligence, mistakenly dropped three bombs on the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, the Chinese Web found its voice. Chinese patriotic hackers plastered the home page of the U.S. embassy in Beijing with the slogan “Down with the Barbarians!” and they caused the White House Web site to crash under a deluge of angry e-mail. “The Internet is Western,” one commentator wrote, “butÂ â¦ we Chinese can use it to tell the people of the world that China cannot be insulted!” For many, nationalism provided what one young patriot called “our first taste of the sacred rights of freedom of speech.”
Like others his age, Tang Jie lived largely online. When the riots erupted in Lhasa in March, he followed the news closely on American and European news sites, in addition to China's official media. He had no hesitation about tunneling under the government firewall. He used a proxy serverâa digital way station overseas that connected a user with a blocked website. He watched television exclusively online, because it had more variety and he didn't have a TV in his room. He also received foreign news clips from Chinese students abroad, a population that has grown by nearly two-thirds in the previous decade to some sixty-seven thousand people. Tang was baffled that foreigners might imagine that people of his generation were somehow unwise to the distortions of censorship. “Because we are in such a system, we are always asking ourselves whether we are brainwashed,” he said. “We are always eager to get other information from different channels.” Then he added, “But when you are in a so-called free system you never think about whether you are brainwashed.”
All spring, news and opinions about Tibet were swirling on Fudan's electronic bulletin board system, or BBS. In technology terms, the BBS was an antiqueâa simple forum with multiple threads of conversationâbut Twitter and its Chinese counterparts had yet to take root, and for many Chinese, bulletin boards provided the first experience of entering a digital roomful of strangers and speaking up. On the Fudan BBS, Tang read a range of foreign press clippings deemed by Chinese Web users to be misleading or unfair. A photograph onCNN.com, for instance, had been cropped around military trucks bearing down on unarmed protesters. But an uncropped version showed a crowd of demonstrators lurking nearby, including someone with an arm cocked, hurling something at the trucks. To Tang, the cropping looked like a deliberate distortion.
“It was a joke,” he said bitterly. That photograph and others crisscrossed China by e-mail, scrawled with criticism, while people added more examples from theTimesof London, Fox News, German television, and French radio. It was a range of news organizations, and to those inclined to see it as such, it smacked of a conspiracy. It shocked people such as Tang who had put their faith in the Western press, but more important, it offended them: Tang thought that he was living in the moment of greatest prosperity and openness in his country's modern history, and yet the world still seemed to view China with suspicion. As if he needed confirmation, Jack Cafferty, a CNN commentator, called China “the same bunch of goons and thugs they've been for the last fifty years,” a quote that rippled across the front pages in China and for which CNN later apologized. Like many of his peers, Tang couldn't figure out why foreigners were so agitated about Tibetâan impoverished backwater, as he saw it, that China had tried for decades to civilize. Boycotting the Beijing Games in the name of Tibet seemed as logical to him as shunning the Salt Lake City Olympics to protest America's treatment of the Cherokee.
He scoured YouTube in search of a rebuttal, a clarification of the Chinese perspective, but found nothing in English except pro-Tibet videos. He was already busyâunder contract from a publisher for a Chinese translation of Leibniz'sDiscourse on Metaphysicsand other essaysâbut he couldn't shake the idea of speaking up on China's behalf.
“I thought, okay, I'll make something,” he said.
Before Tang could start, however, he was obligated to go home for a few days. His mother had told him to be back for the harvest season. She needed his help in the fields, digging up bamboo shoots.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Tang was the youngest of four siblings from a farming family near the eastern city of Hangzhou. Neither his mother nor his father could read or write. Until the fourth grade, Tang had no name. He went by Little Four, after his place in the family order. When that became impractical, his father began calling him Tang Jie, an abbreviated homage to his favorite comedian, Tang Jiezhong.
Tang was bookish, and in a large, boisterous household he said little. He took to science fiction. “I can tell you everything about all those movies, likeStar Wars,” he told me. He was a good though not a spectacular student, but he showed a precocious interest in ideas. “He wasn't like other kids, who spent their pocket money on foodâhe saved all his money to buy books,” his older sister Tang Xiaoling told me. None of his siblings had studied past the eighth grade, and they regarded him as an admirable outlier. “If he had questions that he couldn't figure out, then he couldn't sleep,” his sister said. “For us, if we didn't get it, we just gave up.”
In high school, Tang improved his grades and had some success at science fairs as an inventor, but he found the sciences too remote from his daily concerns. He happened upon a Chinese translation of a fanciful Norwegian novel,Sophie's World, by the philosophy teacher Jostein Gaarder, in which a teenage girl encounters the history of great thinkers. “It was then that I discovered philosophy,” Tang said.
Patriotism was not an overt presence in his house, but it was all around him. To prevent a recurrence of Tiananmen, the Party had redoubled its commitment to Thought Work directed at China's young people. When Tang Jie was in primary school, president Jiang Zemin sent a letter to the Education Ministry calling for a new approach to explaining China's history “even to the kids in kindergarten,” the president wrote. The new approach emphasized thebainian guochiâthe “century of national humiliation”âan arc of events extending from China's defeat in the Opium Wars of the mid-nineteenth century to the Japanese occupation of Chinese soil during World War II.
By focusing on “patriotic education,” the Party explained, it would “boost the nation's spirit” and “enhance cohesion.” Students were taught to “never forget national humiliation.” The National People's Congress approved a holiday called National Humiliation Day, and textbooks were rewritten.The Practical Dictionary of Patriotic Educationincluded a 355-page section on the details of China's humiliations. Nationalism helped the Party smooth over the paradox of being a socialist vanguard of a free-market economy. The new textbooks transformed the explanation of China's suffering to deemphasize the role of “class enemies” and to emphasize the role of foreign invaders. In the Mao years, China had whitewashed its defeats, but now students took field trips to places where China had suffered atrocities. To appeal to young men, the Communist Youth League invested in the development of patriotic video games such asResistance War Online, in which users took on the role of Red Army soldiers machine-gunning Japanese invaders.
Emotion and policy became harder to separate. When Chinese diplomats denounced the actions of another government, they often said it “hurt the feelings of the Chinese people.” They invoked this idea with increasing frequency; one journalist, Fang Kecheng, counted up those occasions and found that China's feelings were hurt only three times between 1949 and 1978, but by the eighties and nineties it was happening an average of five times each year.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
When Tang reached Fudan, he met Wan Manlu, a reserved PhD student in Chinese literature and linguistics. They sat side by side at a dinner with friends but barely spoke. Later, Tang hunted down her screen name (gracelittle) and sent her a private message on Fudan's bulletin board. They worked up to a first date: an experimental opera based on “Regret for the Past,” a Chinese story.
Their relationship developed in part on the basis of a shared frustration with China's unbridled Westernization. When I met Wan, she told me, “Chinese tradition has many good things, but we've ditched them. I feel there have to be people to carry them on.” She came from a middle-class home, and Tang's humble roots and old-fashioned values impressed her. “Most of my generation has a smooth, happy life, including me,” she said. “I feel like our character lacks something. For example, love for the country or the perseverance you get from overcoming hardship. Those virtuesâI don't see them in myself and many people my age.” Of Tang Jie, she said, “From that kind of background, with nobody educated in his family, nobody helping him with his schoolwork, with great family pressure, it's not easy for him to get where he is today.”
After we met, I started going back and forth to Shanghai to spend time with Tang Jie. He was part of a group of students devoted to a charismatic thirty-nine-year-old Fudan philosophy professor named Ding Yun. Professor Ding was a translator of Leo Strauss, the political philosopher whose admirers include Harvey Mansfield and other neoconservatives. In America at that time, Leo Strauss was receiving renewed attention because his arguments against tyranny had been popular among neoconservative architects of the Iraq War. One of Strauss's former students at the University of Chicago, Abram Shulsky, had run the Pentagon's Office of Special Plans before the Iraq invasion; another former student was Paul Wolfowitz, then deputy secretary of defense.
Professor Ding had close-cropped hair and stylish rectangular glasses and favored the loose-fitting long-sleeve shirt of a Tang dynasty scholar. “During the nineteen-eighties and nineties, most intellectuals had a negative opinion of China's traditional culture,” he told me. In the early years of reform, the wordconservativehad still been tantamount toreactionary, but times had changed; he was teaching a Straussian appreciation for the universality of the classics and encouraging his students to revive ancient Chinese thought. He and other scholars were thriving amid a new vein of conservatism that ran counter to China's drive for integration with the world. Professor Ding had watched with satisfaction as Tang Jie and other students developed an appetite for the classics and pushed back against the onslaught of Westernization.
Tang told me, “The fact is we are very Westernized. Now we started reading ancient Chinese books and we rediscovered the ancient China.” The young neoconservatives in Shanghai invited Harvey Mansfield to dinner when he passed through Shanghai. They “are acutely aware that their country, whose resurgence they feel and admire, has no principle to guide it,” Mansfield wrote in an e-mail to me after his visit. “Some of them seeÂ â¦ that liberalism in the West has lost its belief in itself, and they turn to Leo Strauss for conservatism that is based on principle, on ânatural right.' This conservatism is distinct from a status-quo conservatism, because they are not satisfied with a country that has only a status quo and not a principle.”
This renewed pride affected the way Tang and his peers viewed the economy. They believed the world profited from China but blocked its attempts to invest abroad. Tang's friend Zeng ticked off examples of Chinese companies that had tried to invest in America. “Huawei's bid to buy 3Com was rejected,” he said. “CNOOC's bid to buy into Unocal and Lenovo's purchase of part of IBM caused political repercussions. If it's not a market argument, it's a political argument. We think the world is a free marketâ”
Before he could finish, Tang jumped in. “This is what you, America, taught us,” he said. “We opened our market, but when we try to buy your companies, we hit political obstacles. It's not fair.”
Their view, which was popular in China across ideological lines, had some validity: American politicians invoked national security concerns, with varying degrees of credibility, to oppose Chinese direct investment. But Tang's view, infused with a sense of victimhood, also obscured some evidence to the contrary: China had succeeded in other deals abroadâits sovereign wealth fund had stakes in the Blackstone Group and in Morgan Stanleyâand though China had taken steps to open its markets to foreigners, it remained equally inclined to reject an American attempt to buy an asset as sensitive as a Chinese oil company.
Tang's belief that the United States would seek to obstruct China's riseâ“a new Cold War”âextended beyond economics to broader American policy. Disparate issues of relatively minor importance to Americans, such as support for Taiwan and Washington's calls to raise the value of the yuan, had metastasized in China into a feeling of strategic containment.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Tang stayed at his family's farm for five days before he could return to Shanghai and finish his movie. He scoured the Web for photographs, choosing some that were evocativeâa man raising his arm in a sea of Chinese flags reminded him of Delacroix'sLiberty Leading the Peopleâand others that embodied the political moment: a wheelchair-bound Chinese amputee carrying the Olympic flame in Paris, for instance, fending off a protester who was trying to snatch it away.
For a sound track, he typed “solemn music” into Baidu, a Chinese search engine, and scanned the results. He landed on a piece by Vangelis, a Yanni-style pop composer from Greece who was best known for his score for the movieChariots of Fire. Tang's favorite Vangelis track was from a Gerard Depardieu film about Christopher Columbus called1492: Conquest of Paradise. He watched a few seconds of Depardieu standing manfully on the deck of a tall ship coursing across the Atlantic. Perfect, Tang thought: “It was a time of globalization.”
He collected mistakes from the foreign pressâpolicemen in Nepal identified in a caption as Chinese; Tibetans being arrested in India, not Tibetâand he typed a message: “Stand up to give our voice to the world!” Some title screens in English were full of mistakes, because he was hurrying, but he was anxious to release the video. He posted it to Sina and sent a note to the Fudan bulletin board. The video began to climb in popularity, and its success raised his spirits. He had discovered that he was not alone in his quest to project his notion of the truth. All over China, people were watching the video and forwarding it and cheering him on.
Professor Ding rejoiced at what his student had achieved. “We used to think they were just a postmodern, Occidentalized generation,” Ding said. “Of course, I thought the students I knew were very good, but the wider generation? I was not very pleased. To see the content of Tang Jie's video, and the scale of its popularity among the youth, made me very happy. Very happy.”
Not everyone was as pleased. Young patriots were so polarizing in China that some people, by changing the intonation in Chinese, pronounced “angry youth” as “shit youth.” If the activists thought that they were defending China's image abroad, there was little sign of success. After weeks of patriotic rhetoric emanating from China, a poll sponsored by theFinancial Timesshowed that Europeans were ranking China as the greatest threat to global stability, surpassing America. But the eruption of the angry youth had been most disconcerting to those interested in furthering democracy. By age and education, Tang and his peers inherited a long legacy of activism that stretched from 1919, when nationalist demonstrators demanded “Mr. Democracy” and “Mr. Science,” to 1989, when students flooded Tiananmen Square and erected a sculpture inspired by the Statue of Liberty. We were one year away from the twentieth anniversary of that movement, but my experiences with Tang Jie and his friends made clear that prosperity, computers, and Westernization had not pushed China's elite toward democracy in the way that outsiders had expected after Tiananmen. Rather, prosperity and the strength of the Party had persuaded more than a few to postpone idealism as long as life for them kept improving.
The students in 1989 were rebelling against corruption and abuses of power. “Nowadays, these issues haven't disappeared but have worsened,” Li Datong, a liberal newspaper editor, told me despairingly one afternoon, as the protests expanded. “However, the current young generation turns a blind eye to it. I've never seen them respond to these major domestic issues. Rather, they take a utilitarian, opportunistic approach.”
One caricature of young Chinese held that they knew virtually nothing about the crackdown at Tiananmen Squareâknown in Chinese as “the June Fourth Incident”âbecause the authorities had purged it from the nation's official history. That wasn't the full story. In fact, anyone who took a few steps to get on a proxy server could discover as much about Tiananmen as he chose to learn. And yet many young Chinese had adopted the Party's message that the 1989 movement was misguided and naÃ¯ve. “We accept all the values of human rights, of democracy,” Tang Jie told me. “We accept that. The issue is how to realize it.”
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
I met dozens of urbane students and young professionals that spring, and we often got to talking about Tiananmen Square. In a typical conversation, one college senior asked me whether she should interpret the killing of protesters at Kent State in 1970 as a fair measure of American freedom. Liu Yang, a graduate student in environmental engineering, said, “June Fourth could not and should not succeed at that time. If June Fourth had succeeded, China would be worse and worse, not better.”
Liu, who was twenty-six, had once considered himself a liberal. As a teenager, he and his friends happily criticized the Communist Party. “In the 1990s, I thought that the Chinese government is not good enough. Maybe we need to set up a better government,” he told me. “The problem is that we didn't know what a good government would be. So we let the Chinese Communist Party stay in place. The other problem is we didn't have the power to get them out. They have the army!”
When Liu got out of college, he found a good job as an engineer at an oil services company. He was earning more money in a month than his parents, retired laborers living on a pension, had earned in a year. Eventually he saved enough money that, with scholarships, he was able to enroll in a PhD program at Stanford. He had little interest in the patriotic pageantry of the Olympics until he saw the fracas around the torch in Paris. “We were furious,” he said, and when the torch came to San Francisco, he and other Chinese students surged toward the relay route to support it.
I was in San Francisco later that spring, and Liu and I arranged to meet at a Starbucks near his dorm, in Palo Alto. He arrived on his mountain bike, wearing a Nautica fleece pullover and jeans. The date, we both knew, happened to be June 4, nineteen years since soldiers put down the Tiananmen uprising. The overseas Chinese students' bulletin board had been alive all afternoon with discussions of the anniversary. Liu mentioned the famous photograph of an unknown man standing in front of a tankâthe most provocative image in modern Chinese history.
“We really acknowledge him. We really think he was brave,” Liu told me. But of that generation, he said, “They fought for China, to make the country better. And there were some faults of the government. But finally, we must admit that the Chinese government had to use any way it could to put down that event.”
Sitting in the cool quiet of a California night, sipping his coffee, Liu said that he was not willing to risk all that his generation enjoyed at home in order to hasten the liberties he had come to know in America. “Do you live on democracy?” he asked me. “You eat bread, you drink coffee. All these are not brought by democracy. Indian guys have democracy, and some African countries have democracy, but they can't feed their own people.
“Chinese people have begun to think, âOne part is the good life, another part is democracy,'” Liu went on. “If democracy can really give you the good life, that's good. But without democracy, if we can still have the good life, why should we choose democracy?”
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
When the Olympic torch finally returned to China, in May, for the last leg to Beijing, the Chinese seemed determined to make up for its woes abroad. Crowds overflowed along the torch's route. One afternoon, Tang Jie and I set off to watch the torch traverse a suburb of Shanghai.
At the time, the country was still in a state of shock following the earthquake in Sichuan. It was the worst disaster in three decades, but it also produced a rare moment of national unity. Donations poured in, revealing the positive side of the patriotism that had erupted weeks earlier. But the burst of nationalism that spring had contained a spirit of violence that anyone old enough to remember the Red Guardsâor the rise of skinheads in Europeâcould not casually dismiss. At Duke University, Grace Wang, a Chinese freshman, tried to mediate between pro-Tibet and pro-China protesters on campus. But online she was branded a “traitor to the race.” People ferreted out her mother's address, in the seaside city of Qingdao, and vandalized their home. Nothing came of the threats to foreign journalists. No blood was shed. After the chaos around the torch in Paris, the Chinese efforts to boycott the French chain Carrefour fizzled. China's leaders, awakening to their deteriorating image abroad, ultimately reined in the students with a call for only “rational patriotism.”
In the cab on the way to see the torch, I sensed that Tang Jie was uneasy about how fierce the conflict had become. “We do not want any violence,” he told me. What he wanted was to persuade his peers in China that finding the truth of the world around them was no longer simply a matter of accepting what they were told by the media, foreign or domestic. “We aren't limited to only two choices. We have our own media, too. We now have people with cameras and recordings. They have the truth.” He believed his generation had learned something vital that spring. “Now they know: I must use my own brain.”
From far away, it was easy to trivialize China's young nationalists as the pawns of the state, but up close, that image was less persuasive. The government treated online patriots warily because it sensed that they placed their pride in the Chinese nation, not necessarily in the Party. Their passion could swerve in unpredictable ways. After a nationalist website was shut down by censors in 2004, one commentator wrote, “Our government is as weak as sheep!” The government permitted nationalism to grow at some moments but strained to control it at others. The following spring, when Japan approved a new textbook that critics claimed glossed over its wartime atrocities, patriots in Beijing drafted protest plans and broadcast them via chat rooms, bulletin boards, and text messages. As many as ten thousand demonstrators took to the streets, hurling paint and bottles at the Japanese embassy. Despite government warnings to stop, thousands more marched in Shanghai the following weekâone of China's largest demonstrations in yearsâand vandalized the Japanese consulate. At one point, Shanghai police cut off cell phone service in downtown Shanghai to prevent the crowd from organizing.
Xu Wu, a professor at Arizona State University, studied the rise of online nationalism. “Up to now, the Chinese government has been able to keep a grip on it,” he told me. “But I call it the âvirtual Tiananmen Square.' They don't need to go there. They can do the same thing online and sometimes be even more damaging.”
As Tang Jie and I approached the torch-relay route, he gazed across the crowd and said, “Look at the people. Everyone thinks this is their own Olympics.” Vendors were selling T-shirts, headbands, and Chinese flags. Tang told me to wait until the torch passed, because hawkers would cut the prices in half. He was carrying a small plastic bag and fished around in it for a bright red scarf of the kind that Chinese children wear to signal membership in the Young Pioneers, a kind of socialist Boy Scouts. He tied it around his neck and grinned. He offered one to a passing teenager, who politely declined.
The air was stagnant and thick beneath a canopy of haze, but the mood was exuberant. Time was ticking down to the torch's arrival, and the town was coming out for a look: a man in a dark suit, sweating and smoothing his hair; a construction worker in an orange helmet and farmers' galoshes; a bellboy in a uniform with so many gold buttons and epaulets that he looked like an admiral. Some of the younger spectators were wearing T-shirts inspired by China's recent troubles: “Anti-Riot & Explore the Truth” read a popular English message. All around us, people strained for a better view. A woman hung off a lamppost. A young man in a red headband climbed a tree.
The crowd's enthusiasm brightened Tang's mood, reminding him that China's future belonged to him and to those around him. “When I stand here, I can feel, deeply, the common emotion of Chinese youth,” he said. “We are self-confident.”
Police blocked the road. A frisson swept through the crowd. People surged toward the curb, straining to see over one another's heads. But Tang Jie hung back. He was a patient man.
MIRACLES AND MAGIC ENGINES
Lin Yifu, the soldier who defected by swimming from Quemoy, was studying at Peking University in 1980 when the University of Chicago economist Theodore Schultz visited Beijing to deliver a speech. Lin was assigned to translate because he spoke English from his years in Taiwan. Schultz, who had recently won the Nobel, was impressed; he returned to Chicago and helped arrange a scholarship. Lin Yifu would, again, be a first: the first Chinese student since the Cultural Revolution to study for an American PhD in economics. If that wasn't enough to make him stand out, he was choosing to go to Chicago, the crucible of free-market thought. In 1982, Lin arrived in the United States, and it allowed him to reunite with his wife and children, who went there, too. Since his defection, he and his wife, Chen Yunying, had maintained occasional secret contact. She even sent him a poem that included the line “I understand you, I understand what you did.” Once in America, Chen studied for a doctorate at George Washington University.
While in Chicago, Lin embarked on the study of China's rebirth that would captivate him for decades, and his conclusions would prove controversial. After receiving their PhDs, Lin and his wife returned to Beijing in 1987, where he confronted a delicate problem. As a returnee from America, how was he supposed to explain Milton Friedman to socialists?
“I went to all the meetings and I didn't say anything,” he told me. Eventually, he found his voice. “They were surprised, because I said words in terms similar to theirs, in a language they can understand,” he said. For instance, when, in the late nineties, Chinese warehouses filled up with unsold televisions, refrigerators, and other consumer goods, many economists blamed low income for the problem, but Lin disagreed. “People didn't have the infrastructure for consuming those kinds of products,” he said. He became one of the most vocal advocates of heavy investment in rural electricity, running water, and roads, a proposal embraced by the Party in a package of reforms that it rolled out under the slogan “The New Socialist Countryside.”
The end of the Cold War, and the crackdown at Tiananmen Square, shook the Chinese establishment politically and economically. Zhao Ziyang, the reformist member of Deng Xiaoping's original economic brain trust, was blamed for not suppressing the demonstrations earlier; think tanks that he had created were dissolved, and several economists went to jail for supporting the protests. Zhao was put under house arrest, where he lived for fifteen years, hitting golf balls into a net in his yard and tape-recording a secret memoir, until his death. The Chinese government effaced him from the official history of the nation's success.
In economic terms, it was a reckoning point: in the two years after Tiananmen, economic growth slumped more dramatically than at any time since 1976; Deng saw his successes slipping away, and he put China's economists back to work. Reform resumed, but to prevent a repeat of Tiananmen, the Party offered its people the essential bargain: greater freedom in economic activities in exchange for less freedom in political life. It had the makings of a paradox: the Party was sparking individual ambition and self-creation in one half of life and suppressing those tendencies in the other. As an economic strategy, the approach put China at odds with the dominant economists in the West who recommended that the collapsing Soviet bloc undertake “shock therapy”: cut spending, privatize state-owned companies, and open borders to foreign trade and investment, a recipe that became known as the Washington Consensus.
In 1994, in a small office borrowed from the geography department at Peking University, Lin and four other economists founded the China Center for Economic Research, a think tank designed to attract foreign-trained Chinese scholars. He worked like a man possessed, often hunched over his desk until 1:00 or 2:00 a.m., and back the next morning by 8:00. Among colleagues, he was known as furiously driven and, on some level, unreachable. Over the years, he wrote eighteen books and dozens of papers, and he told his students, “My ambition is to die at my desk.” His research center expanded, and as it did, Lin acquired an influential voice, becoming an adviser on the government's five-year plans and other projects. He was not a member of the innermost circle of Party decision-makingâhe could never beâbut it was a remarkable trajectory for a migrant once suspected of being a Taiwanese spy.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Year by year, Lin was becoming increasingly critical of the mainstream Western viewâwhich had promoted shock therapy reforms in the former Soviet Unionâand he became ever more convinced that the key to China's rise was the fusion of the market and strong government. In the decade after the Soviet collapse, much of Eastern Europe that had raced to the free market encountered unemployment, stagnation, and political instability, which weakened support for the shock-therapy approach. At the same time, in the 1990s, China's economy, a hybrid that fit into neither end of the spectrum, began to surge. It had unchecked capitalism in some areas and heavy government control in others. The focus on growth was relentless. Whenever the Party faced a choice between growth or the environment, growth won; between social security and growth, growth won. The costs of transformation were harsh. Health insurance and retirement funds evaporated; environmental pollution ravaged the landscape; urban real estate developers demolished large sections of cities to put up new housing. Public discontent grew, but the Party used force and the steady march of prosperity to keep discontent at bay.
Yet, the measurements were clear: In 1949 the average life expectancy was thirty-six, and the literacy rate was 20 percent. By 2012, life expectancy was seventy-five, and the literacy rate was above 90 percent. Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs wrote, “China is likely to be the first of the great poverty-stricken countries of the twentieth century to end poverty in the twenty-first century.” When China formulated a stimulus plan to combat the effects of the global financial crisis in 2008, so many new airports and highways had been built already that the planners could not immediately decide what else to build.
Lin was forming opinions about the role that political reform plays in economic success, and it was not a position that endeared him to Chinese liberals who called for democratization. He publishedThe China Miracle, a book coauthored with Fang Cai and Zhou Li that zeroed in on the disarray produced by the collapse of the Soviet Union, and concluded, “The more radical the reform, the more violent will be the destructive social conflicts, and opposition to reform.” Lin promoted China's “tinkering gradualist approach.” In a lecture at Cambridge University in the fall of 2007, he pointed to “the failure of the Washington Consensus reforms.” He joked that the shock therapy policies ordained by the IMF seemed more like “shock without therapy,” and were destined to lead to “economic chaos.” He reminded people that the proponents of the Washington Consensus had warned that China's slow-reform approach would be, in his words, “the worst possible transition strategy,” doomed to “result in unavoidable economic collapse.” He had become China's most prominent evangelist for its own story of prosperity.
In November 2007, Lin received a phone call from the World Bank, which provides loans and expertise to combat poverty. Its president, Robert Zoellick, was coming to Beijing and wanted to hear Lin's take on China's economy. They met in Zoellick's hotel room, and two months later, the Bank called and offered Lin the job of chief economist. It was another first: he would be the first Chinese citizenâthe first of any developing country, in factâto serve in a post previously occupied only by high-profile Westerners, including the Nobel laureate and Columbia professor Joseph Stiglitz and the former treasury secretary and head of President Obama's National Economic Council Lawrence Summers.
Chairman Mao had considered the World Bank a tool of imperialist aggression, but now China was its third-largest shareholder and openly determined to acquire a greater say in international economic institutions. In June 2008, Lin and his wife moved to Washington, D.C. Everything he brought fit in two suitcases. They rented a house on the edge of Georgetown, with a patio where Lin could write in the open air. They put a treadmill in the kitchen. On business trips, when colleagues went out to socialize, he went up to his hotel room and worked late into the night.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
When I visited Lin in Washington, on a broiling August afternoon, I found him in a roomy corner office on the fourth floor of the World Bank headquarters, a thirteen-story edifice a few blocks from the White House. He pushed back from his desk. He was at work, as always, on a paper. “How can a developing country catch up to developed countries?” he asked. It was the polarizing question at the center of his life's work, and he was now in a position to act on his answer. “We see a lot of failures and only a few successes,” he said. Lin had a staff of almost three hundred economists and other researchers, whose work helped the Bank and the governments of poor countries decide on strategies for raising income levels, a subject that had been riven for decades by ideological debate.
Within weeks of his arrival, the planet was hit by the most serious financial crisis since the Great Depression. The crisis posed a conundrum for Lin: Officials from the United States, Europe, and the IMF called on China to raise the value of its currency, to boost the buying power of Chinese consumers and make products from other countries relatively cheaper. Sen. Charles Schumer, Democrat from New York, told reporters, “China's currency manipulation is like a boot to the throat of our recovery.” But Lin saw the issue very differently. Forcing China to raise its currency “won't help this imbalance and can deter the global recovery,” he told an audience in Hong Kong, arguing that such a move would only depress U.S. consumer demand, because raising the value of the currency would make Chinese exports more expensive, and it would not help the U.S. economy, because Americans don't produce many of the things they buy from China.
The financial crisis was fundamentally altering the formula at the heart of China's boom: demand from America and Europe for Chinese exports was slumping, so, to ward off a slowdown, the government in Beijing tilted the balance toward investment. It pumped public money into railways, roads, ports, and property. The government lowered real estate taxes and urged the banks to lend, and the surge in loans in 2009 was larger than India's entire GDP. Among government officials, the construction craze unleashed vast ambitions: the city of Wuhan planned to build 140 miles of new subway lines in the seven years that New York City set aside to build 2 miles of the Second Avenue subway.
The recession also gave Lin an opportunity to implement his vision. Not long before that, Chinese intellectuals and officials were reluctant to hold up the country's experience as an alternative to the Western way of doing things, for fear that it would fuel rivalry or distract from the fact that most Chinese people are still very poor. While Western countries struggled, China suffered far less damage. A Western diplomat in Beijing told me, “One lesson of the crisis is that we economists should all be humbler. I think we have to accept the possibility that China may become something close to a fully developed economic state without substantial political reform.” When World Bank officials visited Beijing to celebrate thirty years since China resumed its Bank membership, Zoellick praised China's reductions in poverty and said, “We, and the world, have much to learn from this.”
At the Bank, Lin churned out a series of papers intended to “revisit” the understanding of how poor countries get rich, much if it anathema to the Washington Consensus that prevailed in the 1990s. Writing with the Cameroonian economist CÃ©lestin Monga, he argued that governments must “regain center stage.” Industrial policy, in which governments seek to support certain sectors, known to critics as “picking winners,” has a bad name in the West, he said, and for good reason: it has failed far more often than it has succeeded. But he argued that the only thing worse wasnothaving an industrial policy. He pointed to a recent study of thirteen fast-growing economies. “In all the successful countries, the governments play a very proactive role,” he told me. He argued for a “soft” industrial policy in which a clamorous free market produced new industries and firms, and the government spotted the best prospects and helped them grow by giving them tax breaks and building infrastructure such as the ports and highways going up all over the Chinese mainland. It was the marriage of Chicago and Beijing: to rise out of poverty, he and Monga wrote, markets were “indispensable,” but government would be “equally indispensable.”
He used his perch at the World Bank to argue that China's approach had fundamental strengths that other countries could emulate. When he visited developing countries, he made a point to say they reminded him of China three decades ago. “Can other developing countries achieve a performance similar to that achieved by China over the past three decades?” he asked in a speech he called “The China Miracle Demystified.” “The answer is clearly yes.” He advised poor countries that if they want to get richer, they needed to delay political reform or fall victim to the chaos of postâSoviet Russia. He argued for the virtues of being free not from repression but “from the fear of poverty and hunger, of which I hold vivid childhood memories.” When he wrote in his own name, not on behalf of the Bank, he was even more strident: he dismissed the “optimistic, and perhaps naÃ¯ve, argument put forward by some scholars that democraciesÂ â¦ are more likely to undertake economic reforms.” He quoted Deng Xiaoping, who once said, “The United States brags about its political system, but the president says one thing during the election, something else when he takes office, something else at midterm, and something else when he leaves.”
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
On a warm night in Beijing, a couple of months later, Lin was back in the Chinese capital for several days, and he took a chauffeur-driven black Audi sedan across town to a reception in honor of the tenth anniversary of an MBA program that he had cofounded. It was held in a traditional Chinese courtyard, shaded by wisteria and crab apple trees, which had once been home to the Empress Dowager Cixi. For this evening, however, it had been done up with a red carpet and klieg lights worthy of a fashion show. Wine was flowing, and a hundred or so guestsâmostly middle-aged couples, former students and colleaguesâwere in a festive mood by the time Lin walked in with his wife, who was by now a leading expert on special education in China and a member of the National People's Congress. When the couple arrived, the well-heeled crowd cheered, and guests swarmed them, taking turns giddily posing for photographs with Lin. A television crew moved in for an interview. A teenager requested an autograph. Lin reached a quiet table, but then a guest buttonholed him with news of an exciting opportunity in the golf course construction business. Lin's facial expression was polite but desperate, and the hosts hustled him and his wife off to the refuge of a private area, where he prepared to give a speech.
Lin stepped up to the stage and peered out over the guests. He began by noting the “earth-shaking transformations” in China's economy over the past decade, and he declared, “The next ten or fifteen years are going to be even more spectacular.” The crowd applauded. He pointed out that when the Beijing International Executive MBA program began, in 2000, China had fewer than a dozen companies in the Fortune Global 500, while America had nearly two hundred. “I believe that by 2025, when the Chinese economy has become the largest in the world, and shares the stage with America, the Chinese economy will make up twenty percent of the global economy,” he said. “There will probably be one hundred Chinese companies in the Fortune 500.” He ended with an exhortation: “I hope that as you build China's economy you will also help to build a better, more harmonious society in China.”
“Harmonious society” was not a phrase that all Chinese intellectuals were quick to use. It was the slogan favored by President Hu Jintao to signify the goal of a fair and stable society, but Hu's critics had come to use it as a byword for repression and the silencing of dissent. (A website that got shut down was said to have been “harmonized.”) Lin meant it in positive terms, which was consistent with his enduring faith in the power of government. In 1999, Yang Xiaokai, a prominent liberal economist, gave a lecture arguing that “without political reform there is no fairness, which leads to public dissatisfaction.” Yang was asking if China could become a strong country without democracy. But, in a response, Lin pointed to China's economic lead over India, writing, “Whether it's the pace or quality of economic growth, China is doing better than India.” In Lin's view, China was already becoming a strong country without democracy, and he saw little evidence for making a change. When I asked Lin about the debate, he said that he and Yang, who died in 2004, were good friends but disagreed. “He thought that if China wants to be successful, China needs to adopt the British- or U.S.-style constitution first,” he said. “I take a different view: I think that we do not know what kind of governance structure is the best in the world.”
As Lin's prominence grew, his life was clouded by an extraordinary fact: more than three decades after his swim, he still faced an arrest warrant, issued by the Ministry of Defense in Taiwan for “defecting to the enemy.” After so many years, much of the Taiwanese public had come to view his success with hometown pride, and prominent Taiwanese politicians had asked the military to drop the case, but the minister of defense reiterated that if Lin stepped back on Taiwanese soil, he would be arrested and would face military charges of treason.
His older brother, Lin Wang-sung, told reporters, “I don't understand why people regard him as a villain. My brother just wanted to pursue his ambitions.” When Lin's father died, in 2002, Lin's family asked for permission for him to attend the funeral, but the military rejected the request, saying he “should bear disgrace throughout his life.” He had no choice but to watch the funeral from Beijing via videoconference. He built an altar inside his office and knelt before it. In a eulogy read aloud, he wrote, “When mother was dying, I couldn't be there to help. When father was bedridden, there was still no route home. I can't send them off on the road to the afterworldÂ â¦ How great the sin of being unfilial! May the heavens punish me!”
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Lin had thrived in the People's Republic by becoming its most ardent economic spokesman. For those who departed from that view, China was becoming a more difficult place to be. A few days after watching Lin's speech about the bright economic future, I went to see Wu Jinglian, who had emerged as one of China's leading economic advisers in the decade after reform began. He was now close to eighty years old, a gnomish man with lively eyes peering out from beneath a thatch of white hair. He worked from a tiny office on the fringe of the city. He remained an official adviser to China's cabinet, but he sounded more like a gadfly. “It's entirely obvious that the biggest problem China faces right now is corruption,” he told me. “Corruption is the reason for the gap between rich and poor. Where did this corruption come from? From the fact that government continues to control too many resources.”
In a furious stream of essays and books, Wu pointed to crony capitalism and the gap between rich and poor as evidence that China's economic model had run up against the limit of what was possible without the government's permitting greater political openness to mediate competing demands. In recent years, he had gone so far as to argue that China needed to adopt a Western-style democracy, and nationalists had blasted him for apostasy. At one point, the debate turned personal: thePeople's Dailypublished Internet rumors that Wu was being investigated for spying for the United States. The claim was absurdâthe cabinet eventually put out a statement supporting Wu and disputing the chargeâbut the prominence of the attack made it clear that his critique had inflamed powerful people with access to thePeople's Daily.
I asked Wu if things had settled down. He sighed. “A month or so ago there was an item on a website saying that someone had knocked me unconscious with a brick, but I had survived,” he said. There was no truth to the item, and I asked him what he made of it. “It was giving people the hint to use violence,” he said. The item was signed “The China Association for the Elimination of Traitors.” Wu had no idea who was behind the effort to demonize him, but the various suspects were proliferating: The right-wing nationalist fringe? Powerful figures opposed to reform?
In China, the financial stakes had grown so large that even arcane economic debates became laced with a sense of intense opposition. Wu had recently argued for allowing China's currency to rise in value, and then he read the reaction online. “One of the commentators on that article mentioned where I live and the fact that security is lax,” he said. He gave a weak laugh. “Writing that would be against the law in America. In China, no one cares.”
As the debate widened, words once benign took on a political edge. Lin Yifu liked to describe the economic boom as the “China miracle,” but the liberal writer and critic Liu Xiaobo took issue with the phrase; he wrote that all he could see was “the âmiracle' of systemic corruption, the âmiracle' of an unjust society, the âmiracle' of moral decline, and the âmiracle' of a squandered future.” The boom was becoming “a robber baron's paradise,” he wrote. “Only with money can the Party maintain control of China's major cities, co-opt elites, satisfy the drive of many to get rich overnight and crush the resistance of any nascent rival group. Only with money can the Party wheel and deal with Western powers; only with money can it buy off rogue states and purchase diplomatic support.”
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
At fifty-one, Liu Xiaobo was as lean and bony as a greyhound, with short hair that narrowed to a widow's peak. He was a chain-smoker with a wry, knowing sense of humor. He had grown up in Manchuria. When he was eleven, his school shut down for the Cultural Revolutionâa “temporary emancipation,” he called itâand the taste of independence launched him on a life of unconventional thinking. He earned a PhD in literature at Beijing Normal University but did not excel at the genuflections required to thrive in Chinese academia. He believes that Chinese writers “can't write creatively because their very lives don't belong to them.” He was not much kinder about Western sinologists, observing that “ninety-eight percent are useless.” He did not set out to offend, but he did not shy away from it. “Perhaps my personality means I will crash into brick walls wherever I go,” he wrote to the scholar Geremie BarmÃ©. “I can accept it all, even if in the end I crack my skull open.”
Liu was the author of seventeen books and hundreds of poems, articles, and essays. Much of his work was fiercely political, and that came with a price: by the spring of 2008, he had served three jail terms, beginning with a conviction for “counterrevolutionary propaganda and incitement” for his role in the demonstrations at Tiananmen Square. He rejected the charges but embraced the label of “black hand,” saying it was a “medal of honor” and one of the few things he could keep with him behind bars. In a jailhouse poem, he wrote, “Besides a lie / I own nothing.”
Over the years, Liu Xiaobo stopped drawing sharp distinctions between prisons, detention centers, and labor camps. “When I was in prison, I was kept in a small pen with a wall,” he told me by phone, during a spell under house arrest. “Since leaving prison, I'm simply kept in a bigger pen that has no wall.” While he was in a labor camp in 1996, on charges of “disturbing social order,” he married his longtime companion, the artist Liu Xia. Camp guards double-checked that the bride knew what she was doing. “Right!” she replied. “That âenemy of the state'! I want to marry him!”
When he was released in 1999, after three years away, he returned to their apartment and discovered that it now contained a computer. “A friend had given it to my wife,” he recalled in an essay, “and she was already using it to learn typing and go online. She showed me how to use it, and practically every friend who came by to see us in the next few days kept urging me to get on the computer. I tried it a few times, but composing sentences in front of a machine just felt wrong. I avoided it, and kept on writing with a fountain pen.”