The Two Faces of China

In China, Eyes Wide Open

Beijing – Even the briefest acquaintance with this smoggy, sprawling capital is basis enough to conclude that much of the campaign rhetoric we're hearing about China is unrealistic, dishonest or just dumb.

This is my first visit to China, and I plan to spend the next few columns reporting what I see and learn. I spent enough years as a foreign correspondent to know how tricky first impressions can be. The subtleties and complexities of any society are — unsurprisingly — subtle and complex.

But not all first impressions are unreliable. Some are such no-brainers that they can only deepen with experience. One thing I already know is that the way many U.S. politicians talk about China is surely wrong.

With the exception of Jon Huntsman, who served as U.S. ambassador here, all the Republican candidates seem to want to be “tough on China.” Mitt Romney apparently has decided to be the toughest, at least on the economic matters most often cited as a reason to display toughness.

“We can't just sit back and let China run all over us,” he said in one of the debates. “People say, well, you'll start a trade war. There's one going on right now, folks.”

Really? From here, it looks more like an embrace than a war. My hotel is in the chic, yuppified Chaoyang District, just up the street from an Apple store, a Starbucks, a Calvin Klein boutique and just about every luxury retailer you could possibly name. An hour's drive away, at the visitors center for the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall, the first restaurant you see is a Subway. High-status automobile brands in China include not just Porsche, Audi and Mercedes, but also Buick.

None of this remedies China's unfair policy of manipulating exchange rates or its laxity in protecting intellectual property rights. But when you walk the streets of Beijing, you see an already huge, rapidly growing consumer society that in many ways looks much like our own. I know this is an oversimplification. I know that boomtowns such as Beijing, Shanghai and others near the coast do not reflect conditions in the less-developed hinterlands.

But I also know that the U.S. and Chinese economies will be the two largest in the world through much of this century — and that they are also so codependent that talk of one country running all over the other is nonsensical.

There's a saying that if you're in debt to the bank by $1,000, the bank owns you. But if you're in debt to the bank by $1 trillion, you own the bank. The last thing Chinese officials would want is to do meaningful damage to our economy, because the more quickly we return to steady growth, the more secure China can be that all the money it has lent us will be paid back.

It goes almost without mentioning that the United States imported about $365 billion of Chinese goods last year. China also has a compelling interest in making sure the United States retains the capacity to serve as the biggest single buyer of the flood of products that Chinese factories produce.

So this is really a dispute over issues that shouldn't be addressed with chest-pounding and tough-guy threats. The solution involves negotiation and simple arithmetic — and both sides have a powerful incentive to reach an accord.

Someone should explain this to Rick Perry — though on second thought, it might not make any difference. His most quotable bit of China-bashing came in the political realm. “I happen to think that the Communist Chinese government will end up on the ash heap of history,” he said.

But this ignores the big picture. Yes, China is governed — in an authoritarian, repressive, at times shockingly brutal manner — by a regime that calls itself communist. But communism self-immolated two decades ago. Walk down any commercial street in Beijing and you see storefronts, venders and hawkers selling anything under the sun. Communism is no longer a system in China. It's just a brand name that officials haven't figured out how to ditch.

I'm aware, of course, of the shameful human rights violations that the Chinese government commits every day — and of the government's selfish, corrupt insistence on maintaining a monopoly of power. These atrocities can never be forgotten.

But I'm betting that the burgeoning middle class will find a way to cast off these shackles. The correct response would be to cheer them on.

The Two Faces of China

Don't hold your breath waiting for any kind of Occupy Beijing movement to set up camp. Visitors to Tiananmen Square must pass through airport-style security checkpoints, and nobody is likely to try smuggling in a protest sign, much less a tent. The vast, wind-whipped plaza is a quiet place. China's leaders intend to keep it that way.

Walk away from the square in any direction, however, and soon you find yourself amid a raucous riot of commerce. Whatever you've read about the speed and scale of development here, you have no idea until you see it with your own eyes. The contrast between China's uninhibited economic life and its repressed political life could not be more stark.

The iconic portrait of Chairman Mao that looks out over Tiananmen seems anachronistic. At least in the urban centers, today's China has abandoned communism in favor of a kind of hyper-capitalism. Even officials acknowledge Mao's mistakes, especially the ruinous Cultural Revolution.

Yet Mao's portrait remains. The government has essentially rebranded him as a nationalist who put a definitive end to centuries of imperial decadence and foreign domination, elevating a sovereign China to its rightful status as a great power.

“We have been very candid,” said Hong Lei, the spokesman for the Foreign Ministry. “We admit that he made serious problems for the country. But we never give a 100 percent disavowal of Chairman Mao's accomplishments.”

And in any event, Hong said, the way to look at China's evolution is that the country has now moved into a new phase of the transformation that Mao's revolution began. Never mind that China is speeding down a road Mao never would have taken.

It makes sense that a government seeking to maintain the monopoly of power that Mao established would want to keep the chairman's legacy alive. But many of the sightseers at Tiananmen on Thursday afternoon were recent arrivals from the hinterlands — among millions of migrants who leave the countryside to flock to China's cities this year — and they seemed to gaze upon Mao's visage with a sense of awe, not of irony. It was a reminder that for all the sophistication of the big cities, most of China remains rural and poor.

Living in a communist country without communism requires a finely tuned sense of what is permissible and what is not. Journalists acknowledge they practice self-censorship and, when necessary, toe the party line. A businessman will reach the brink of explicitly denouncing a government policy but not take the leap, instead lapsing into awkward silence. Commentators know they can criticize officials by name for incompetence or corruption, but only up to a certain level; an expert on the Chinese media said that such attacks against the president, the premier or other top-rank officials would be unthinkable.

“We have a red line,” said Hong. “No media can violate the basic laws and constitution.” He said this meant that “the basic political system should be kept. You cannot overthrow the government.”

To me, there's an obvious difference between criticizing any official, even a head of state, and advocating a new revolution. A Chinese journalist might see the distinction, too — but might be ill-advised to assert it.

Still, history does matter. I had dinner one night at the home of Hao Jiang Tian, an acclaimed opera singer who performs at the Metropolitan Opera and other great venues around the world. He is in his 50s, and it was fascinating — and harrowing — to hear him and several of his contemporaries describe how they survived the years of the Cultural Revolution.

They were of high-school age, but instead of being able to continue their educations they were sent to menial jobs in construction, or forced to join the army, or banished to toil in the countryside. They were hungry, exhausted, always fearful. When the nightmarish upheaval finally ended, they had to rebuild their lives from scratch.

I heard these stories while we sat around a table groaning with exquisite food. Tian's large and elegant apartment is in a new high-rise — all the high-rises in Beijing are new — that has the distinction of being one of the city's few “green” buildings, making innovative use of geothermal energy. Among our company were two prominent architects, who also live in the building, and a famous artist.

No, China isn't free. But yes, it has changed.