Wanting to buy the four Chinese classic novels: Journey to the west, A Romance of Three Kingdoms, Water Margin and The Red Chamber, I asked to be taken to a bookstore. I was told about a large bookstore in Si Ma Tou, one of the major roads in the centre which goes from the northern side of the lake to… I don’t know where. Anyway, it was full of shops. I had been told about the bookshop’s supply of books in English. What there turned out to be was a small shelf of scholastic editions of British classics for schoolchildren. After looking around a bit my host sister made the vain attempt to take me to the library, which was devoid of books in English as well. I was annoyed.
I had expected a more dystopian image of communist rule which in some ways was what I had been fed in Tiananmen Square, but the truth is that Chinese citizens have very few physical restrictions. The distance between me and Beijing certainly played a role in creating a very relaxed, almost sleepy, but free environment. Once I even had lunch with an off-duty police officer who was a friend of my host family. He was chatting and joking and wanted to know about Italian football; he was not a suspicious Soviet-style guard questioning me for subversive thinking. Armed with a good VPN, any Western tourist will feel like they’re in a safe, well-developed nation, with friendly people.
From my experience, what I found that China was lacking was something far more subtle. In a generation from now things are likely to be vastly different and the one-party hold on Chinese politics may have even capitulated. What I found absent in the people around me was a very basic curiosity in the outside world and a willingness, rather than a capability, to critically assess their situation and lifestyle. What I found also surprising was the general feeling of satisfaction people seem to enjoy. The Chinese are happy about the world they live in! It occurred to me that the economic growth enjoyed by the country in recent decades has allowed people like my host family to become wealthy businessmen, owning two cars, five flat-screen TV, and the permit to have a second son (who must have been conceived when the one-child policy was still in place). One or both of the parents, possibly the mother, must have come from far more modest backgrounds as I realized when meeting the grandmother, an old lady selling street-food, sitting on a step. Economic growth is clearly a strong way of pleasing the masses.
This is the true nature, I believe, of the enormous influence the party still holds on the country. The people have simply grown uninterested in certain aspects of daily life. Who needs to be able to read the Independent if you have two cars. There’s no risk in selling George Orwell in a bookshop if no one is interested in buying it. What selling George Orwell will do is attract western expats who in turn pump wealth into the state. Certain people, such as possibly my guide in Beijing, are likely to be aware of the restrictions on thought accepted by the population, but he is part of a well-educated minority. And this is the point: the people, for now, accept these limitations. Embracing them even, so much so that the government needn’t enforce them.
This is certainly a narrow explanation of a large phenomenon, which of course, is fed by other important cultural factors as well. Chinese society, for example, is highly hierarchical in all aspects of daily life, from school to work, something which perhaps can be traced back to Confucius, who predicated obedience to maintain social order. I was struck, for example, by the uncritical approach my host brother has to homework: something must be done because someone more powerful than me has told me to and he’s the one giving out diplomas or wages. Forget the ethical and personal implications.
But there are also elements which suggest that the tide could be turning and the People’s Party’s hold on Chinese politics could be coming to a close. China now hosts over a billion people, most of whom are literate and classifiable as middle-class. Many believe it’s only a matter of time before the well-educated, if partisanly educated, people this country has bred will start exploring different intellectual landscapes. To a great extent this is already happening, as show the flocks of Chinese tourists who flood European cultural capitals, . Perhaps it will not happen in a dramatic, fall of the Berlin Wall style event. Perhaps it will keep happening as a series of small concessions by the party which will which eventually lead to a complex hybrid system. But if China keeps going down this unpredictable path, it will happen. Xi Jingping is the odd one out in this context; “The new Mao” he is even beginning to be dubbed. But even if Xi will not step aside, he is not immortal. Perhaps during his lifetime, or after his death, the Chinese Communist machine, which has been creaking for some time now, will finally crack.