Strange Journey

Everything old is new again as China reinvents itself for the twenty-first century.

Edward Burtynsky

Mai Kailan shyly loosens her cardigan, revealing the bruises running across her back and along both arms. Their purple garishness makes them look more painful than they are now, eleven days after the pummelling she received at the hands of Public Security Bureau officials who arrested her in Beijing and then put her on a plane out of her native land, seemingly forever, with her Canadian passport, acquired a decade ago, as her only security. The gentle grandmother is a follower of Falun Gong who had looked for trouble by bringing solace to the beleaguered sect in the Chinese capital. Betrayed by an informer within hours of her arrival from Vancouver in 2003, Mai Kailan had spent two terrifying days and nights in a Beijing lockup somewhere near the Drum Tower before she was sent packing. Although officials in China now claim the sect and its leadership have been “resolutely smashed,” the smashing continues.

So let’s suppose that this is the year 2009. The country with the richest supply of natural resources has forged a special relationship with the most populous country in the world—which also happens to have the fastest-growing economy. China’s vast state-owned Minmetals Corporation has had a majority share in Noranda Incorporated. now for close to four years. In 2004, Noranda was Canada’s largest mining company with 15,000 employees and operations in seventeen countries. Now Min-Nor Metals Incorporated is in thirty-four countries, and its employees number over 280,000. In Canada, it offers annual reports in three languages and French isn’t the second one. At its Canadian head office in Vancouver, a banner festooned across the entrance welcomes in the Year of the Pig with the bold statement, in both English and Chinese: Canadian-Chinese Friendship is As Close As Lips and Teeth.

A lot of territory had to be covered before the deal was complete. Minority shareholders in Falconbridge Inc., the Canadian nickel producer, that is 60-percent owned by Noranda, overcame their fears of a fall in shareholder value. The acute shortage of natural resources in China, and the surfeit in Canada, answered most questions.

Apart from a bit of predictable caterwauling from human-rights activists, there was never really a problem. Human-rights causes aren’t what they used to be. The prime minister was all for the sale, and most Canadians were dazzled at the prospect of a new era dawning—one they could scarcely imagine even five years ago, one in which their country was given the chance to reduce its utter dependency on the United States market and move forward into the land of 1.3 billion people.

The other concern at the time was whether the Canada Investment Act would be deployed to hobble any agreement between Noranda and Minmetals, and it is true the New Democratic Party tried to goad the old Martin government into using it to quash the sale. Thanks to the twentieth-century Mulroney administration, which created the act as a weak sister to the contentious Foreign Investment Review Agency, the ndp whining came to no avail. Here was irony! The right-of-centre business community and Martin’s minister for international trade, Jim Peterson, were all for the deal with Communist China, while the left-of-centre ndp fought it hammer and sickle.

So we’re sitting pretty here, then, in January 2009, because the Noranda deal was the pacesetter that led to China’s takeover of a number of major resource-based companies. Abitibi, Petro-Canada, Inco: the shopping list was long, and doesn’t include the special water-plant operations that are involved in bulk sales to China, or the joint-venture deals that revived the steel industry in Hamilton. No wonder a delegation from Nova Scotia went to Beijing last year to see if the Chinese would like to help reopen some of Cape Breton’s coal mines.

That’s the new Canada: where there’s a need, we have the wherewithal. Hewers of wood and drawers of water we began in the seventeenth century. Hewers of wood and drawers of water we continue to be in the twenty-first, at least while supplies last.

At the dawn of 2005, the People’s Republic of China is in the midst of a strange sequence of events. It is the fifteenth straight year since the slaughter in Tiananmen Square left almost 2,600 dead, and nothing horrific has happened. Nothing catastrophic, ideologically convulsive or unnervingly eerie. Fifteen years of economic growth is significant because, in China, despite three millennia of recorded and culturally cohesive history, it has simply never happened. Not once. The closest it got was eleven years under the rule of the Guomindang Party leading up to the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in the 1930s, and even this period was afflicted with warlords and Communist bandits. Still, these were the first spurts of economic dynamism since the mid-nineteenth century, eventually blown away by Guomindang corruption, Japanese adventurism, and Western indifference.

Chairman Mao’s China convulsed almost automatically just about every decade right up to the Tiananmen protests. Proclaimed from the high rostrum of the Forbidden City in 1949, the People’s Republic was hurled into the insane Great Leap Forward, and the brutal purge, charmingly known as the Hundred Flowers Campaign. (“Let a hundred flowers bloom,” said the Great Helmsman, “and let a hundred schools of thought contend.”)

No sooner had more pragmatic officials got the country patched together in the wake of the dreadful famine Mao’s economic tinkering had caused when he launched the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in 1966. This was a cruel power play disguised as an ideological corrective by a disgruntled, sidelined leader. By Mao’s reckoning it was a brilliant success: he regained full power, punished those who had tried to correct the disasters of the Great Leap Forward, and set old China on a course of perpetual revolution. For New China, it was catastrophic: production collapsed on all fronts, two generations of young people had their future permanently blighted, and the patriotism of those who supported Mao for the good of the nation was squandered.

Mao died in 1976, but not before he heard the shouts for democracy through the closed windows of his official residence in Zhongnanhai, just off Tiananmen Square. Throughout the late 1970s the country seethed with new possibilities as it staggered through the remnants of Maoism—represented by the short-lived, almost comical rule of Chairman Hua Guofeng—to the defining arrival of Deng Xiaoping, who, by 1980, had set China on the course we know today.

Except that in 1989 in Tiananmen Square, it looked as if it was all going to come crashing down. That repression of young democracy activists still reverberates. Visiting travellers are asked if they know whether or not Tiananmen actually happened. One is often told everything has changed in China, and many things have, but much also endures, including Orwellian Newspeak and denials. Tiananmen is never officially referred to, and therefore never happened. It was merely a counterrevolutionary “incident.”

Slaughter or “incident,” Tiananmen provided a lesson of sorts. Both the regime and the populace seemed to take stock of each other, and within fairly short order most buckled down to an upbeat, capitalist-driven “dialectic socialism.” At least this held out the hope of a better material life. And because the government made a relative success of its new economic zones sprinkled across the country and launched a massive campaign to build infrastructure, China’s workforce has finally been given a chance.

Now that the entire world is experiencing its power and scope, it is amazing that this vast army of workers, numbering more than 700 million, was held back for so long. It is China’s most potent weapon—arguably more threatening than the country’s nuclear arsenal or its tentative ventures into outer space. Fifteen years of economic growth, with the former British colony of Hong Kong successfully absorbed back into the motherland: this stability and achievement is what is fuelling all the tantalizing intangibles of the future.

The most striking difference between Canada and China then and now is that, in 1968, two years into the Cultural Revolution, grain production fell to such low levels that the fertile paddies of Sichuan Province, traditionally a net exporter of rice, were lying fallow as the country imported grain via the Canadian Wheat Board. Today, it may be Canada’s wheat fields that the Chinese will want to buy next.

I have been back to China four eventful times since reluctantly leaving the Globe and Mail’s bureau in 1979. The most recent trip was spent largely in Beijing and Shanghai. To an old China hand, whose affection for the country and its long-suffering people never lessens with the passage of time, the transformation of Shanghai into the most vibrant city on the face of the globe brings unalloyed happiness. It presents images of a China that once could only be dreamed about. Shanghai was always intriguing, but during the bleak years of Maoism it was pitiful to behold: the population dragged down about as low, morally and economically, as it was possible to go.

Today Shanghai is the symbol of the miracle of rejuvenated China, and even if you still have huge gripes about the regime and its remaining capacity for random, or pointedly directed, brutality and injustice, it is impossible to walk around the city without a smile. Life is bustling and people are busy as they have not been in living memory—giving purpose and hope to the whole economic experiment.

The scenes outside railway stations in Beijing and Shanghai, and especially the huge interior cities like Wuhan or Guangzhou, are the dark side. Here are hundreds of thousands of migrant workers, who are no longer protected by Chairman Mao’s philosophy of the “iron rice bowl,” by which no peasant would be allowed to fall below subsistence. This is the raw population, by some estimates as high as 100 million, who provide cheap labour as they move about the land, or stay put in front of railway stations as a reminder that if things go badly for too long there is a large floating population ready to run riot—an urban nightmare that must keep civic officials awake at night.

Certainly, it is not clear how the present leadership would handle the next bad turn, whether it comes in the wake of an economic downturn, or worker rebellions against the grossness of their exploitation. In Mao’s time, regional unrest could be successfully isolated, unless Mao himself wanted it to spread, as he did during the Cultural Revolution. In 1967 and 1968, the worker riots in Wuhan and agricultural slowdowns in Sichuan occurred without international or national scrutiny. These days, that kind of containment cannot be guaranteed.

Not that Communist officials in Beijing are obtuse. The slow, methodical wearing down of freedom of expression and legal protections in Hong Kong are signs of the leadership’s relentless determination. Tibet continues to be ruthlessly governed, and the capital, Lhasa, is being overwhelmed by Han Chinese immigrants, who have utterly marginalized the native population—a tragedy the world simply doesn’t want to deal with, which is its own tragedy.

On the other hand (there’s always the other hand in China), the lessons learned by Beijing during the sars crisis in 2003 showed that old dogs can learn new tricks. The regime discovered how the rapid spread of information in the globalized economy can spell disaster. It has handled subsequent health scares well. But its continuing persecution of doctors and health officials trying to warn of widespread aids infections suggests there is still a long way to go. Even here, though, there’s improvement. Instead of execution, irritating critics merely face severe questioning or short prison terms. In China, you take progress wherever you can find it.

There was a lovely image being projected a few months ago about how contemporary China viewed itself and its relationship with the rest of the world. Typically, it came with a slogan. The party leadership always loved a good slogan, right back to the days when Chairman Mao modestly dreamed up “Sailing the seas depends upon the Helmsman.” In this case, it was “Peaceful Rise (Heping Jueqi).” As Robert L. Suettinger put it in the China Leadership Monitor, “the idea of China’s peaceful rise . . . as a responsible, non-threatening global power” looked set to become the official doctrine for the decade to come. It was the mantra of Communist Party General Secretary Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, and was cited in important foreign-policy speeches.

Promulgating such notions through elaborate propaganda campaigns is old stuff in New China. That notorious “Hundred Flowers Campaign,” for example, was designed to allow freedom of expression, but was “adjusted” to ensnare (and imprison) anyone foolish enough to take the slogan seriously. “Peaceful Rise” seemed exactly the sort of soothing foreign-policy objective designed to cool international concerns about the intentions of this emerging superpower. But recently, wily old former President Jiang Zemin and his cronies on the politburo have been downplaying it. Welcome to the freaky world of China-watching, in which the Delphic utterances of the leadership are picked apart by Western analysts, much as witch doctors inspect the feathers and dung of chickens for portents and prognostications.

The consensus among today’s China watchers is that “Peaceful Rise” has fallen victim to internal rivalries and concern about Taiwan and its reintegration to the mainland—especially with the re-election of the hawkish Bush regime. In any event, if you want to know the most pertinent reason the party general secretary (ideology) and the premier (government) have bowed to the president, just look at Jiang Zemin’s titles and responsibilities. For fifteen years he was chairman of the Central Military Commission in addition to being General Secretary of the Communist Party until 2002. And throughout his rise to power, he made sure his back was covered by the military. Ideology and government are all very well, but the People’s Liberation Army, as ever, still rules. That should be remembered.

So let’s do another projection for the year 2009. Let’s suppose that the Noranda deal didn’t happen, that the government of Canada took too many opinion polls and discovered that the populace was uneasy about Canadians getting into bed with a Chinese company reported to use forced labour, or dealing with a government that dispatched trade-union agitators to prison and condoned widespread corruption. And don’t assume human rights and business ethics were the sole issues as the debate unfolded. The whole notion of negotiating away our natural resources to an insatiable land entered the national debate, along with an undeniable undertone of xenophobic distaste, which ripped apart Canadians’ smug sense of their society as profoundly tolerant.

As the debate over the sale of Noranda heated up, the first signs of the bursting of the Chinese economic boom occurred. As with all major events in China, there was little warning. The exposure of corruption in Jiangsu province, for example, where a joint venture with a Japanese automobile manufacturer allowed local government officials to pocket tens of millions of Chinese yuans, led to rioting in the provincial capital of Nanjing.

At the same time, the growing gulf between the new affluence in the coastal provinces and abject poverty in the interior saw massive arrests of worker and peasant agitators, as well as the rise of traditional protest societies. These “China-first” sects reminded Western historians of the Boxer rebel groups, which so inflamed the final years of the Qing Dynasty in the early 1900s.

It was the moral dilemma of dealing with a corrupt and brutal regime that really did in the Noranda deal. In umbrage, the Chinese moved all their potential economic investment muscle out of the Canadian market, and no amount of appealing to the spirit of Comrade Norman Bethune by the prime minister could change their minds. The Canadian communist doctor, so lauded by Chairman Mao during the Cultural Revolution, was finally laid to rest as a talisman of Canadian-Chinese friendship nearly seven decades after his death.

But the tale didn’t end there. Downturn, as it tends to do, reversed into upswing. By 2007, the Chinese economic miracle was humming again and they moved their investments to Australia and the European Community, which took them up with alacrity. Crackdowns on dissenters lessened as more jobs opened up, and the first attempt at relatively free elections were held in Hong Kong and the New Economic Zone surrounding it.

The face of the resource industry had changed in Canada by 2008. Americans continued to gobble up the oil and gas business, symbolized in 2004 by the increasing foreign ownership of Calgary-based Petro-Canada. Closures and unprofitable operations in desperate need of modernization plagued the industry and its international prominence shrank. At the same time, nickel and gold discoveries in the Pacific Rim made a joke of Canada’s reluctance to deal with Beijing, since it was Chinese investment that developed the Pacific-based industry that has so outpaced the Canadian performance.

In March 2009, Prime Minister Pierre Pettigrew announced the next election. And in order to beat the curse of successive minority Liberal governments, the leader of the Conservative Party, Bernard Lord, appeared to have caught the public imagination with his promise to lead Canada out of economic stagnation by patching up old quarrels and reopening old markets, especially in China.

Projecting such things is always fun, and almost always foolhardy. What brings dramatic change into the world is not the expected, but the wholly unexpected. Things are going along as planned, and then boom, Pearl Harbor is bombed, the Berlin Wall falls, or planes crash into the World Trade Center.

Our memory hole is very shallow. No one seems to remember much further back than a year or so. When Mao launched the Cultural Revolution, for example, no one in the West even dreamed such a nightmare could be unleashed, let alone understand the extent of the damage it could cause. Many intellectuals in the West actually thought it was, or might be, a good thing. The Chinese were taken to be somehow different from us thanks to the size of their population and distinctive history. People in the West would seriously argue that they didn’t (and couldn’t) understand democracy or justice as we did. In this way the Chinese were conspicuously dehumanized, and their genius in dealing with authoritarian strictures ignored.

When the Cultural Revolution was transformed into dull but ordered dictatorship in the early 1970s, all projections into the future imagined a disciplined proletariat ruled by a leadership committed to basic ideological certitudes like “the iron rice bowl.” Even in 1979, at the end of my posting, if I had projected what has in fact happened over the past quarter-century, I would have been dismissed as a raving idiot.

Today, the post-Deng Xiaoping leadership in China is pragmatic and opaque. It was ever thus in modern China. If you’re an “old hand” you invariably get told after you’ve been away that everything has changed, and then you go back and everything looks different and changed, but you find out nothing much has changed, or rather, much has endured.

I remember in the 1970s reading Alain Peyrefitte’s magically prescient Quand la Chine S’Éveiller, le Monde Tremblera (from an even more prescient quote of Napoleon’s, “When China awakens, the world will tremble”). This morphed into his later seminal work, The Immobile Empire, which recorded in minute detail Lord Macartney’s famous eighteenth-century journey from Britain to China, which ushered in the fateful and, for China, disastrous century of contact with the West. All along on his trip, Lord Macartney was met with exquisite politeness and excruciating delays and obfuscations. Yet he was dazzled by what he was allowed to see. You could do worse even now than take the account of Lord Macartney’s voyage and use it as a philosophical guide to contemporary China.

If the dynamo that is the Chinese economy is in the “who’d’ve thought” category, our response to it has been catch-as-catch-can. We actually haven’t a real clue what riding on this tiger is going to be like, but it looks pretty clear that we want to take the chance. Too many business operations now depend on cheap labour and stringent working conditions in China to consider returning to more expensive environments. What will Western corporations do if and when Chinese workers comprehend their exploitation and start doing something to correct the situation? Will widespread unrest end in another Tiananmen Square slaughter? If so, it is not exactly clear where the next pool of cheap labour is going to come from. Robots perhaps. And they’ll be made in China too.

There is actually a useful and, hopefully, parallel scenario here. Useful, particularly because it involves China. The other China. Taiwan. The ostracized China. The China we don’t like to think about because it presents such sticky problems. It’s the free China, with a population slightly less than Canada’s. It’s a China that in the 1950s exported cheap products all over the industrialized world.

When the defeated Guomindang forces of Generalissimo Chiang Kaishek fled from the victorious People’s Liberation Army to Taiwan in 1949, they ushered in a reign of terror on the native Formosan population that has never properly been atoned for. Much the same could be said of the Communists on the mainland. Consolidation in both Chinas led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands and imprisonment of many millions. These figures aren’t exaggerations, but the inevitable epidemiological consequence of such a vast population. These are dirty family secrets on both sides of the Straits of Taiwan, but they may help the rest of the world figure out how to deal with the new economic dynamo, China.

Taiwan, or the Republic of China as it titles itself, was a crucial component in the American strategy to contain the Communists in the decades following 1949. During this tense period, the mainland regime rattled its firepower and showered the world with colourful abuse (“running dogs,” “comprador capitalists,” “lickspittle of the imperialists,”) and reserved for the island fortress, its Guomindang “army of occupation,” and “puppet” legislature that purported to speak for the whole of China.

At the same time, though, something quite miraculous was going on—something the world barely took notice of, and which took the Communist regime on the mainland quite by surprise. The people of Taiwan simply set about doing what Chinese populations do best: working together within the traditional ties of community and trying to make a profit in business, while ensuring their children were as well educated as possible.

Bit by bit, the small businesses of Taiwan reached out, and the wider world bought into the miracle. All this was dwarfed by the growth of the Japanese economy during the same period, but Taiwan quietly developed business laws to reassure foreign firms their investments were legally protected.

Capitalism, then, led directly and indirectly to improving legal security in the business world, and that led to improving the power and scope of the elected legislature and the independence of the courts. And then, one fine day in 2000 the ruling Guomindang Party found itself democratically voted out of power.

It was one of the most surprising turnabouts in modern Far East history, as the democratic factor stealthily defeated in succession: absolutism, authoritarianism, paternalism, partial voting enfranchisement, free local elections though rigged national elections—but it was hardly noticed. Taiwan is always portrayed in the context of the potential trouble it represents to world peace and stability vis-à-vis the mainland—never for its own sake.

Taiwan now represents the greatest possible hope for similar progress on the mainland. Cutting China out of world markets cuts off our own noses. But ignoring human-rights abuses is also foolish (and impossible, considering the strong human-rights imperatives of many people throughout the West). The Taiwan example suggests that China be allowed to work towards democracy one step at a time. Many new business laws have already been enacted and, so far as one can tell, are being enforced reasonably well. Fraud and corruption are still stalking the land, but then fraud and corruption are not exactly unknown in the West, and are part of the challenge of any free and democratic society.

And there is this terrible, even frightening irony. The great model of Taiwan is also the flashpoint for huge instability in the world. The Communist regime will not countenance any sort of Taiwanese talk of independence, and yet the Taiwanese people, while pragmatic, are clearly restive under the baleful gaze of the autocratic and corrupt Communist motherland. If you are a contemporary regional and global flashpoint, it means no one can quite predict what “incident” might escalate into widespread catastrophe, and neither Taiwan nor China itself can live in a state other than one of suspense and tension.

On the other hand, Chairman Mao would always sum up his mind-numbing National Day orations by saying, “The Chinese people are a great people and will surmount their problems and meet their challenges.” In this, at least, the old bugger was right. There is a longing throughout China to succeed, to make a better life for the next generation, to partake in world events at a level worthy of its population, its extraordinary history and its new ambitions. Canada has a real chance to make a difference here, but only if we enter this new world with eyes wide open, and retain a coherent sense of our own values and our place in the world.

Mai Kailan, whose name has been changed here to protect her family in China, can’t go back until the current regime, or the attitude to Falun Gong, changes. A seemingly harmless sect that encourages clean living and decent thoughts through mental and physical exercises, it has been demonized beyond recognition. The question often asked in the West is, “Why would Chinese authorities waste so much energy and good will by persecuting such an insignificant group?” The answer is easy. The Communist Party of China once had far fewer followers than Falun Gong has today and remembers what a small group of fanatics with a powerful idea can accomplish. The persecution is a reality and a cautionary warning to all of us, both those who love China and want to see it take its proper democratic place in the world, and those who merely want to do business. This should be our slogan: “Take nothing for granted.”

And this one too: “Dare to take a chance.”

Photograph by Edward Burtynsky
John Fraser