China’s Sordid UnderBelly

An interesting and very valid op-ed in today’s DNA 

Books on China generally fall into two categories: the love-fest variety or the hate and tell-all kind. Guy Sorman’s belongs to the second category. The blurb tells us that Sorman travelled, “far removed from the usual circuit” in China for a year to collect the material for this book and that his objective was to record the views of those in China who are “disenchanted with the….system”. The book is meant to warn guileless travellers and other innocents from falling into the trap of accepting the Chinese Communist Party’s account of China’s achievements. Very rarely do blurbs serve as authentic menu cards for what follows, but in this case it is annoyingly accurate, establishing at once Sorman’s politics, his subjects, and his sympathies.

In twelve chapters suggestively titled ‘The Dissenters’, ‘The Mystics’, ‘The Dispossessed’, ‘The Downtrodden’, ‘Shadows of Democracy’ and ‘The Savage State’, among others, Sorman sets out to unravel the lie that is China. His argument is simple: the world, which has been overawed by the myths surrounding China since the Jesuits’ first adulatory tales four centuries ago, must treat it as a “normal” country or face the threat posed by an authoritarian, militarily strong state that builds its strengths on the trade and economic opportunities afforded by a tolerant West. The contemporary myth about China as a potential global power, in particular, needs to be examined and the best way to do so is by looking at its sordid underbelly.

Thus, contrary to the generally held opinion, economic reforms have not transformed China into a global powerhouse. China, we are informed, is still a poor nation and not in danger of “submerging” the rest of the world. More importantly, all is definitely not well in Deng’s “socialist market economy”. There is a groundswell of dissent against the authoritarian Communist Party, ranging from protests in its factories to frustrations voiced by its intellectuals and ordinary people. The leaders of the Party are corrupt, any attempt to discuss such things as AIDs, religion and democracy is seen as a threat to the regime and those committed enough to do so are either exiled or marginalised by the system. From the litany of the Party’s misdemeanors that Sorman’s book chronicles in the voices of not “all the Chinese, but a few exceptional Chinese”, the title of the book could well have been “The Great Cover-up”.

Each chapter in the book starts off with a personalised account by a Chinese critic but falls quickly into the abyss of journalistic reportage. Authenticity and hearsay make a strange mix, for not much of what Sorman tells us is actually new. In fact, most of the evidence for Sorman’s thesis is actually available in the public domain: the 100 million migrant workers from the rural areas, the excesses of China’s family planning policy, the hidden story of the AIDs epidemic, the mess-up over the SARs outbreak, rural poverty, and the Party’s fear of its own demise have been pretty much recorded by none other than China’s official think tanks. Obviously, however, the Party and Sorman have different solutions for the problems that beset China.

While the Party feels that economic development and bringing 70 million people out of absolute poverty counts for something, Sorman, not surprisingly, given his political antecedents, puts his money on regime change. For the moment the Party’s dominance and the world’s reliance on the Chinese economy undermine hopes for political change in China through perhaps another revolution, a critical economic decline or gradual political change. However, this can be accomplished, Sorman argues, because China’s dependence on the West for its economic growth makes it vulnerable to pressure from Western governments.

Those of us who live in democracies, and prefer to do so, would do well to remember that pressures for democratic change and human rights are a double-edged sword and have often been a cynical device for restructuring global relations. Hence, if we are predisposed to place ourselves on Sorman’s side, it would also bear recalling the manner in which the same critiques of the erstwhile USSR were used by the West to reduce Russia to a regional and underdeveloped nation.

If the demise of the USSR helped anyone, it is the United States, which became the world’s preeminent power. The consequences of this event are evident in Iraq for one. In Europe and the US, neo-liberals are not particularly well known for looking out for the dispossessed. The election of one of their own set the streets of France ablaze, little tribute to their sympathies for the underdog. Their genius lies in transferring their angst over the miserable of the earth to potential rivals or countries which have a potential for resource extraction. Sorman’s book nestles securely within the realm of neo-liberal hopes.

The writer is professor, Chinese Studies, at Delhi University.A fine imbalance: Young girls, aged five to seven, survive by performing acrobatics in the streets for over 12 hours a day in Changchun of Jilin province, China. Around 135 million Chinese, or 10 per cent of the population, live below the poverty line