China on My Mind
In less than two months, on October 1st, the People's Republic of China turns fifty. Mao's long march liberated a country which in a half century has gone from championing world revolution to building "socialism with Chinese characteristics." For many, that means turning the Great Wall into the Great Mall, the biggest market in the world where radical slogans still co-exist alongside admonitions like "to get rich is glorious." Forbes, the self-styled "capitalist tool" now promotes itself with ads in a style harkening back to the cultural revolution. But this time, the masses waving red books have big dollar signs plastered over them.
From the outside, China seems orderly and organized, dominated from above by its old style party apparatus while modernizing its economy from below along market principles. Inside, the country is seething with major economic dislocations, inefficient industries, serious unemployment and growing social unrest.
Oddly enough, in the last week, New York's Central Park has played host to three separate and distinct dissident streams that are riling the bureaucrats in Beijing. They offer a window into serious schisms and contradictions within one of the most important, if most poorly covered major countries in the world.
The most visible of these was the visit of Tibet's Dalai Lama, who drew 40,000 people to the Park's East Meadow August 15th to hear a lecture about inner values, compassion, peaceful change and interestingly economic inequality in the United States. While His Holiness, as he's known, only one made one veiled reference to China, the Chinese officially denounced his visit. They see him as a "splittist" and insist that China, which was independent before being "liberated" by the Red Army, is the only legitimate ruler of Tibet. The Dalai Lama heads an India based government in exile which insists otherwise. For forty years, he's sough to return to his homeland but the Chinese are unwilling to negotiate. It was partially official fears of a Kosovo style NATO "war for human rights" in Tibet that galvinized the fierce wave of protests in China that followed the bombing of Beijing's Embassy in Belgrade.
China worries about Western intervention, and in recent weeks has been talking tough, even threatening military intervention of its own in Taiwan which appears to want to be recognized a separate state, not part of China. On Tibet, even as the Dalai Lama's popularity mushrooms, China is sounding more defensive about its posture although no less strident in its claim to sovereignty. When I was in China two years ago, I heard about a TV producer who was fired when an image of the Dalai Lama inadvertently was shown in a documentary. The producer insisted he didn't know what the Dalai Lama looked like--since his image is banned in the same way that South Africa forbid the publication of any image of Nelson Mandela for years. It didn't matter. He was fired anyway.
There's a new force oin the scene which also turned up in the park that same Sunday morning, in the shadow of the Joseph Papp Shakespeare Theater. It was a mixed group of Chinese and Americans doing graceful physical exercises and meditations. They are pursuing a spiritual practice called Falun Gong or Falun Dafa, which claims 70 million adherents in China and thirty million worldwide, including inside the United States. In the last month China has outlawed Falun Gong, which is based on traditional chigong exercises that draw hundreds of thousand of Chinese to local parks each morning for an exercise regimen.
Pointing to the sudden unexpected silent assembly of ten thousand Falun Gong practitioners outside the compound housing the Chinese leadership in Beijing last April, China's President Jiang Zemin is now trying to crush what he is calling a dangerous cult. He accuses Falun Gong and its founder Li Hongzhi, now in the US, of trying to overthrow the government. As a result, its practitioners are being jailed and its books and videos burned as part of a government ordered campaign against "superstition." China has branded Falun Gong a sect, even comparing Li to the late David Koresh of Waco Texas "fame," and is demands his arrest.
Falun Gong counters that it is not-political, not a sect or even an organization and has no such agenda. Clearly the Chinese freaked out by having so many of its citizens, including Party members, loyal to an independent spiritual practice. Perhaps because of its uniquely Chinese character, the repression of Falun Gong has only triggered a mild response from the US human rights community, U.S. government and press. It seems as if op-ed pundits are more distressed by long sentences handed out to a handful of pro-democracy activists than the hundreds of thousands of Falun Gong practitioners who seem more a more like a cross section of the ordinary Chinese population.
A week earlier, as part of Central Park's showcase of world music, an even more prominent if unofficial Chinese figure was on hand: Cui Jian, (pronounced "Sway-Jen") China's legendary rock and roller. He was in the United States on the kind of tour he still has trouble mounting in China where rock and roll is viewed with suspicion. Cui Jian was one of the voices that inspired Chinese youth in period leading up to Tianamen Square. He is China's Bruce Springsteen (or is Springsteen, America's Cui Jian?) a hard rocker who is also introducing rap to his many fans among the youth. His new album is called "The Power of the Powerless" (World beat records) and is hard charging but also reflecting the disillusion of his generation: He sings of those who just want to make money labeling them "Slackers:"
The new age is here, no one is making trouble anymore You say everyone's ideals have been washed away by the times Watch TV, listen to the radio, read the paper You say the conflict of ideals is no more.
Clearly there still is a conflict of ideals, and over politics in China--a conflict which is spilling over into the United States.
You can see it continuing fight over Tibet, in the overreaction of the Chinese government towards Falun Gong, as well as in the many Falun Gong practitioners who are seeking something in their lives that the often empty struggle rhetoric of the Party no long gives them. As we learned in the 60's , there is nothing like the whack of a policeman's club on the head to politicize the non-political. Cui Jian told me that while he doesn't like Falun Gong, he worries that the government is going overboard in a counter productive way.
Cui Jian's music gives you a taste of the struggle that is yet to come in China. He closed his bi-lingual show by leading the audience in a sing along of an old Red Army song from the wars for China's independence, playing to the pride, patriotism and power of the new generation that will be remaking China in the next fifty years.
If the 20th Century was, in Henry Luce's phrase, the "American Century." the 21'st is likely to be the century of China. Its a country and culture we need to know more about. Which way it goes will effect the rest of the world. The Chinese government is determined not to emulate the devastating decline of the former Soviet Union. In that respect, as well as because of a need to feed over a billion people, its emphasis on preserving stability is understandable. But pressures for more freedom and less authoritarianism are also building.
I know. I saw them all working out in Central Park.
Danny Schechter, executive Producer of Globalvision and the Executive editor of the soon to be launched internet supersite; "The Media Channel." He is the author of the forthcoming "News Dissector: Passions, Pieces and Polemics" (l999) (www.electronpress.com)