Thursday, August 7, 2008

China still in the clutches of a dictatorship

By Greg Sheridan

I share Greg Sheridan's very positive regard for the Chinese people

IN 1985 I had simultaneously one of the most exquisite and disturbing experiences of my life. I was appointed this newspaper's first correspondent in Beijing. Although I benefited from the kindness of many Westerners in Beijing, I was determined to avoid the charmed but sickly isolated circles of the expat community, epitomised forever for me, no doubt unfairly, by the imitation English pub in the grounds of the British embassy.

I was determined to talk to as many Chinese as I possibly could, to interview every Chinese who would agree to talk to me, and to make as many Chinese friends as possible.

This afforded me many delicious and strange experiences. One day I went to see the head of the rapturously named Marxism Leninism Mao Zedong Thought Institute. He was a lucid but confusing man. He told me that Mao had made big mistakes from the early 1950s onwards. Indeed Mao virtually didn't have any orthodox Mao thoughts in his head from the mid-1950s. He also told me China was on the road to democracy and would never have a mass campaign or purge again. At the end of our discussion, he asked me not to use his name in the newspaper; after all, he didn't want to get into trouble in the next mass campaign or purge.

Despite its contradictions and mysteries, Beijing in 1985 was an optimistic city. The comprehensive physical transformation of the city was just beginning. Rivers of bicycles rather than cars flowed through the streets. The tiny courtyard houses in the endless hutongs or laneways were still intact. Above all there was a sense of limitless possibility about how far Chinese reform, especially political reform, could go.

This overall spirit of optimism did lead of course to occasional stellar moments in the great Australian fatuousness about China. Peter Abeles told us in a press conference how China would eventually become more liberal than Western societies such as Australia. I know eventually is a long time but I think the great capitalist roader meant nearer than several lifetimes. Nonetheless, though Abeles's optimism was extreme, it was representative.

Most of all, in my time in Beijing I fell in love with Chinese culture, especially the scroll paintings, and the great power of absence, space and understatement in classical Chinese art. Most of the books I read about China, it is true, were by Westerners, but I made delighted acquaintance with the stories of Lu Xun, in some ways China's George Orwell.

I was lucky to fall in with a group of Chinese artists who took me under their wing. They wanted me to write technical art criticism about their work, which I was wholly unequipped to do. What I found fascinating were the stories they told me of the politics of their institutions and of their city.

But here's where a Chinese contradiction defeated me. I knew that I was under surveillance. During my first week in the city I had got hopelessly lost and was rescued by a dapper Chinese bureaucrat who spoke flawless English as he pulled up in a car beside me and offered me a lift back to my hotel, which, mysteriously, he already knew the name of.

My contradiction was this. I loved Chinese culture but if I wrote about what my friends at the top of Chinese culture were telling me, they would surely get into terrible trouble. Meanwhile I came to detest Chinese politics which was then, like now, the politics of a dictatorship.

This is not an inalienable condition of Chinese civilisation, as the demonstrators at Tiananmen in 1989, the stories of Lu Xun and the sporadic, much concealed but widespread protests and complaints within China today attest.

My attitude to China hasn't changed much since 1985. I still love its culture but detest its politics. After the Tiananmen massacre in 1989, there was for a little while a renewed sense of counterfactual optimism. If the Communist Party had to resort to murdering its people in large numbers in the central square, surely its days were numbered. In fact that analysis has so far proved absolutely wrong. The party has undoubtedly managed the Chinese economy well and lifted the living standards of hundreds of millions of people. It deserves a lot of credit for that. But it has shown it is still perfectly willing to imprison or kill its people if they pose a threat to its rule.

Apart from its effective economic management, the party has relied on an increasingly ugly nationalism to give it a measure of political and ideological legitimacy with its people. It appears to be using the Olympic Games in part for this purpose.

The Olympic movement, which is exposed as increasingly vainglorious, money-grubbing and cynical, has either connived in this or not bothered to make much effort to change it. I agree with Andrew Bolt's argument in the Melbourne Herald Sun this week that Australia's obsession with sport has been overwhelmingly good for us: clean, healthy, good fun and much better than any of the alternatives. But the Olympic movement's creepy demands for ever more taxpayer funds so that, East Germany-like, we can sustain some nonsensical version of national pride dependent on a medal tally, strikes me as a very long distance from any Olympic ideal worth knowing about.

Kevin Rudd and Foreign Minister Stephen Smith were admirably straightforward and morally right to talk about China's human rights failures yesterday. Both, however, also felt compelled to argue what they surely know is not true, that hosting the Olympics has improved the human rights situation in China.

This directly contradicts the assessments of Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and every other independent observer who has seriously looked at the evidence. Even The Economist magazine, sensibly a great friend of Chinese commerce, made the judgment this week that the Olympic Games have slowed China's political modernisation and made the human rights situation worse.

Amnesty International points to many things the Chinese Government has done against human rights specifically because it is hosting the Games: arresting dissidents, arresting petitioners to the central Government, increasing the numbers in labour camps. Human Rights Watch points to evictions and demolitions for Olympics infrastructure, silencing of Chinese citizens expressing concerns about Beijing's failure to live up to human rights promises, and increased media restrictions.

Both organisations list numerous dissidents sentenced to harsh terms of imprisonment for innocent political activism.

I can't really get past the view I formed in 1985. While China's culture remains a vast treasure house of human achievement, its politics remain detestable.,25197,24139287-7583,00.html

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