By Boštjan Videmšek, Shanghai, Xian, Beijing
We were standing in the memorial room of the elite University for political studies. For the past few decades, this illustrious institution served as a breeding ground for top party bigwigs. A small frail student with jerky motions, a waxy complexion and a Hitleresque parting in his hair was telling us a lot about the university’s glorious past and even more about China’s invincible future. The student was nineteen. Even though he looked completely lost – in time and space as well as in translation – he was positively smouldering with conviction.
The student’s terrifying earnestness, along with the image of his exhausted colleagues staring into their computer screens at the university’s library, offered a fascinating contrast to what one could see in the streets of downtown Beijing. In the past decade, these streets have been turned into a battlefield for the sort of architects who specialise in skyscrapers, classy shopping centres and other such palaces of robotised communication. In China, shopping has been transformed into a very basic human need. Both for the locals and for the visitors, it has been rendered all but obligatory.
But what happened to communism?
Perhaps we should simply call it something else – global-commo-capitalism, for example. Whatever it is, we at the very least need to name it correctly: after all, it seems it is what the future holds in store for all of us. Here and now. Or, if I may borrow the official slogan of Shanghai, the trade capital of the Universe: The Future Is Now.
The Dictatorship of Choice
I asked Li Jiahua, the university’s deputy dean, how his school, the nursery for the hardliner’s hardliner, managed to adapt to the radical socio-economical change of the last twenty years. »Oh,« he replied: »We simply went with the flow. We have indeed been facing countless challenges. The ever-increasing progress of our country posed many questions. So we opened courses in economics and financial management, though the brunt of our curriculum still consists of social and political studies. We discovered much of our technology was outdated. We had to answer many questions as we went along. Yet I would like to stress that moral education still represents the very core of our institution.«
In the last twenty years, the basic profile of the students at this ideological nest underwent a rapid change, too. What used to be the submissive party-liner with a fetishistic bent for military uniforms is now the digital consumer type entirely subservient to the dictatorship of choice. The army shirts have been exchanged for designer clothes, or at least the ‘original fakes’ of the world’s most prestigious brands. The bitter redguard face has been replaced by the cosmetic smile. Love more! is one of the jingles being peddled in Beijing by one of Europe’s most respected automobile makers. The behemoth called China may have been dormant for centuries, but now it is turning into every free-market guru’s wet dream.
The mood in Beijing is best described by evoking some classic futuristic movie. Think Blade Runner spliced with The Minority Report. Swarms of young people are chaotically racing in the streets, always on the go, always in a hurry. This is only to be expected. While they are growing up, time here in China is ticking by faster than anywhere else in the world. As you negotiate your way through the swarms, you quickly find out about the only remaining rule of the pedestrian flows in Beijing: ‘ME FIRST!’ Yet even with all this perilous commotion, the young always find the time to glance at their cameras, their laptops and post-modern mobile phones – a formidable army of gizmos dispassionately recording every moment, every face and every act in this consumerist hell. With an intelligence corps of this magnitude, why would the State even need security services? In their hectic surgings, the streets of China’s richest cities are now more uniform than they had ever been. There are also many more slogans – only this time around they are phrased in the aggressive lingo of the advertising agencies, designed to plow straight through your frontal lobe and start whispering about unmet needs.
Love more! indeed.
The Chinese economy has been growing for the past thirty years. The obstacles fell by the roadside one by one. The period of growth has been so turbo-charged that, as it stands, only the United States are still in front of the rising kraken – and even the US can’t last that much longer. For thirty years, the genie of economic growth uprooted everything in its path, deftly taking advantage of all the perks of totalitarian communism. The party bosses have gotten used to posing as enlightened absolutists, but they have long become merely corporate executives in that sun-eclipsing mother of all corporations called The People’s Republic of China.
In such an environment, the workers’ rights and environmental standards are third-rate subjects at best. The human masses and what remans of nature are entirely subordinate to growth, which can be seen either as a cult or an obsessive-compulsive disorder. The future may be now, but it is also unspeakably frightening. Especially when the alluring female employees of the Center for Urban Planning in Shanghai, the capital of the future, show you 3D projections of what the city is destined to look like in a few years. In this science-fiction extravaganza, one can see all kinds of details – only the people are missing. But why be petty? The reigning Deus ex machina has a clear-cut Plan: the citizen of the future is someone who feels no pain, someone who has been socially engineered to lose both, his reflexes and his capacity for reflection.
As I ponder this, the alluring female employees are invoking carefully selected phrases. The future. Now. Harmony. A better city. A better life. The digital city. Happines. This is the newspeak of our times, which currently stands unopposed. So unopposed, in fact, that the Corporation may soon feel the need to create some flimsy enough adversary. 1984, it seems, has been delayed by about three decades, but it is coming nonetheless. The cheap classical music accompanying this breathtaking futuristic presentation couldn’t be more suitable to what is clearly an Orwellian nightmare waiting just around the corner.
The End of History 2.0
The so-called western democracies are no longer in a position to boss China around and lecture it on anything, let alone human rights. The communist party has managed to invent the greatest corporation of all time – itself. This ultra-corporation is in fact so powerful it can actually afford self-reflection and even some mild self-criticism.
Yet on every step, this criticism is strictly limited to economical subjects. It was the party macro-economist Zhao Heng who put it best when he said: »Only when we have successfully solved the questions of economy will we be ready to tackle the political issues.« This sounded like a foretaste of the Party’s coming 18-th congress. There, the rulers will need to decide whether to rein in the forces of private capital that – through their sheer efficiency and know-how – have begun to encroach on the state-run Corporation itself. The other option available to the party kingpins is to take off the last of their communist undergarments and wholly submit themselves to the free market. It will not be easy for them: either way, they will be running a tremendous risk.
Our diplomatic source, who worked in Russia, Ukraine and Democratic republic of Congo believes that the Party isn’t yet ready to cede control. It would mean a far too severe blow to stability. It would doubtlessly set off a surge of social unrest. Already, strikes and protests are taking place all over China. The week before our visit, ten thousand policemen brutally crushed a protest of factory-workers in the central part of the country, where the last model of the world’s most famous smart phone is being assembled. The net result? Due to ‘unfavourable tax policies’ and ever-dearer labour force, the western company has decided to relocate its operation to Vietnam and to Thailand. Every bottom has an additional bottom: there is always someone poorer and weaker to exploit. And so the fear of losing western clients is part of the reason why the numerous strikes and protests taking place all over China get almost no coverage at all – either here or abroad.
As I listened carefully to what the party macro-economist Heng had to say, I could slowly discern some of the other reasons for the Party’s powerplay. »We look healthy,« he told me: »But we have problems that, if unchecked, can prove very detrimental to our well-being. For a while now, our economic growth has been experiencing a slackening. The economic indicators are not as robust as they used to be. This year, the GDP will rise by about 7.6 percent. For the economy to grow in a fashion that would ensure enough new jobs, we should be growing at 8 percent. The times of double-digit growth are behind us. The greatest risk of the decline in growth is social instability and, in consequence, social unrest. This is something that needs to be avoided at all costs. You understand, this is of course something everybody, not only China, needs to worry about. Our goal is to offer additional ten million new jobs every year. In the last few years, that goal has proved to be not entirely possible. If the growth falls under the 7-percent mark, massive layoffs will be neccessary.«
I will say this about Zhao Heng: he is someone who has little use for platitudes. This sort of honesty, in China, is an entirely new phenomenon. Yet it shouldn’t lead us to unwarranted optimism. It is merely a sign of the party’s omnipotence, the unchallenged sway it holds over every aspect of Chinese society. To me, dr. Heng looked like the ideal spokesperson for the kind of brute force that can occasionally afford to show some weakness – purely for strategic reasons, of course.
»The thirty years of steep economic growth also caused a lot of collateral damage,« he continued: »We have seen a sharp increase in the difference between the rich and the poor. Most of the communal wealth is now in the hands of the upper twenty percent of the population. The working class earns – and spends – very little. The poor are desperately trying to save up some money. They are afraid that they will soon be forced to take care of their own pensions and health care, not to mention their children’s schooling. Rich people, on the other hand, are not great spenders, either. After all, most of their needs have already been met. Also, the Chinese population is rapidly growing older. Soon, our problems with a sustainable pension system will become no less acute than they are in Europe right now.«
Dr. Zhang struck me as someone who is all the time dancing his way between the basic precepts of neo-liberalism and social democracy. At the same time, he entertains no illusions about the current and future viability of the European model of the welfare state. After all, faced with their first serious crisis of identity, most of Europe’s social democracies happily jumped ship and started indulging in the sort of neo-liberal orgy they will never fully recover from.
»Trouble caused by progress can only be solved by progress!«
So: is the party finally ready to open the door for private capital – is the Great 18-th Congress primed for a spectacular surprise? Is China ready to officially adopt Inc. as part of its invincible true name?
At times, Mr. Heng sounded like a prophet; at times, he sounded like Jeffrey Sachs – Mastermind of The Schock Doctrine – at the beginning of the nineties. »The sheer scale of the incentives our state gave to our economy greatly reduced the opportunities for private investors,« he said. »Private companies do not always find it easy to get loans. In the countryside, property prices are declining – but in the cities, they are still going up! The state is selling off its land; in places, it is forced to sell at half the price. At the same time, the sale of the state-owned land often brings in almost half of the entire local budget. All in all, the land deals have proved rather lucrative for the state. In this way, the role of our government has been strengthened, and the power of the markets has been weakened. Our export has its difficulties, too. Economic conservativism is on the rise. There is no realistic chance for China’s current economic model to survive. It would only lead to prices going up, as well as to social unrest and unchecked pollution. The inevitable reform is the key, but that reform is certain to upset a lot of people. Progress always brings its own set of problems – the sort of problems that can only be solved by further progress! As soon as the economic reform has been implemented, political reform is sure to follow. Above all else, we must raise our internal consumption and ensure we can survive by ourselves.«
On a plateau abova Bin Xian, a small city in central China, the local authorities planted a number of orchards and brough over some 7000 peasants from the surrounding villages. This all happened within the framework of the ‘project of the reconstruction of the countryside’, which is a part of the project officially called ‘fighting the poverty’. This was explained to us in painstaking detail in a gloomy boardroom by a trio of local party officials. Since China’s rapid urbanisation went a long way toward impoverishing the countryside where two thirds of the population still live, I asked the official how hard his local community had been hit by the exodus to the big cities. The trio exchanged a silent glance. Then their leader sort of barked the number: »5600!« After some additional queries, I learned this was the number of people who moved away from the neighbouring villages in the last few years.
We were then taken on a tour of one of the villages, apparently the nexus of the local fight against poverty. The architecture struck me as freakishly resembling that of the South-American colonial style – just with a few more bars on the windows. Another thing I noticed was that, for some reason, considerable effort had been made to help the new houses look even older than the ones they replaced. This reminded me of the famous words by the Montenegrin general Slobodan Praljak during the devastation of Dubrovnik in 1991: »We will rebuild Dubrovnik – we will make it even prettier and older than it was!«
The village – a theme park in the vein of The Truman Show – was practically deserted. So were the nearby fields and the orchards with their unusually pink apples. We were only allowed to enter one of the ‘residential units’. The hallway was adorned with a plastic bust of Mao, some plastic flowers, a plastic stereo and a photograph (in a plastic frame) of an extraordinarily happy-seeming young couple. I very much doubted that the bedroom, where the damp had already caused most of the plaster to peel away, had seen that many scenes of conjugal bliss. The bed was a double one, but it was made in the military style, and it has seen so little use that a number of spiders had spun their webs right across the covers. Yet in this house of ghosts, we were strongly encouraged to photograph the totalitarian still-life formed by a bunch of neatly stacked pink apples and a few stalks of corn.
»Where are the residents of this house?« I asked our party-issued tour guide: »Perhaps they’re working in the fields?«
»They’re home,« he blurted: »They are resting.«
But there were no people to be seen as far as the eye could see. That was the part about my visit to the Chinese countryside that surprised me the most. The emptiness. The resounding silence. What the planners of huge projects in Beijing offices like to call collateral damage. Then the European beaureaucrats, ever so concerned about human rights, usually give them a wry look, write their reports, and then everything is forgotten.
The show must go on.
Yet the images of dehumanisation failed to subside even after we returned down to the murky valley. The city of Bin Xian, current population 350 000, is being purposefully expanded. In the most coveted big cities, there is no more room for newcomers from the countryside. At the same time, the industry in the cities like Shanghai and Beijing has become much too expensive, so the authorities are rapidly relocating it to the countryside.
This internal economic segregation is the cause of some rather bizarre developments. While the edge of Bin Xian has seen the rise of a gigantic, at least five kilometers long park crammed with cheap monuments, the downtown is filled with very young prostitutes and imported-liquor stores. In the evening hours, atrociously expensive cars kept arriving in front of the futuristic hotel where we were stationed – atrociously expensive cars inhabited by China’s entrepeneurial arrivistes. Most of them were accompanied by a certain type of ‘companion’. The rooms here offered their well-heeled guests an impressive selection of top-grade sex toys. The members of our small expedition were all wondering what precisely the party was trying to communicate to us by putting us here for the night. Love more?
To conclude this leg of the great theatrical production called our guided tour of China, our minders took us to see the great modern-looking building that served both as an orphanage and a nursing home for the elderly. Yet even this place was all but deserted. A few old men, their faces so brown they looked like they had just come in from a good week’s toil in the fields, were playing cards with a brand new deck and beaming at us as if we were a delegation of scantily clad young women come to whisk them straight to paradise. As befits a ghost building in a ghost town, the other rooms were inhabited only by silence.
I stared long and hard at the thousands of terra-cota warriors dug up some forty years ago in the vicinity of Xian. This ancient regional capital is now one of China’s fastest growing cities, a morbidly grey and unspeakably polluted ant farm where thousands of identical and identically soulless towers are springing up like mushrooms after the rain. Even here in the provinces, the future is now.
The Party – The Corporation – has its own terra-cota warriors now, it struck me: hordes and hordes and hordes of cheap labourers bringing about what the officials are so quick to dub a success-story. These new terra-cota legions are The Corporation’s most trusted shock troops on the global battlefield, both in the economic and in the political sense. Add in a brand new super-carrier or ten to shore up the security, and the future is indeed now.