“Is there a bin?” I asked, holding my empty plastic lunchbox.
“Just throw it anywhere,” suggested Xiao Zhang amiably.
It was my first visit to Beijing, some 28 years ago. Chairman Mao had died in 1976; two years later, the new Communist leadership under Deng Xiaoping declared itself in favour of economic reform and modernisation, an end to ideological extremism, and an open door to Western tourism, investment and exchange. I was in town to help negotiate a deal for a Hong Kong-based publisher. Our Chinese partner assigned Xiao Zhang, a young editor, to take me sightseeing on my time off. We had just had a picnic alongside the Spirit Way, a path lined with magnificent fifteenth-century statuary that led to the Ming imperial tombs in the shadow of the Jundu Mountains, north-west of Beijing. The sky was blue, the air crisp and clean. But the lawn on which we'd picnicked, I noticed, was strewn with litter.
Seeing me hesitate, Xiao Zhang pulled the box from my hand and chucked it off to the side with her own. We tussled over the fate of our litter with mutual embarrassment. Meiyou guanxi, she said. It doesn't matter; everyone does it. I protested that unless everyone stopped, the whole beautiful place would be covered in rubbish. She wanted to be a good host, and to show off how China was becoming modern: no multi-tiered picnic basket with dishes that had to be carried home again and washed. I wanted to be a good guest, one who could acknowledge her hospitality and China's progress without desecrating a historical site. In the end, I gave in. I spoke Mandarin, but did not know how to have this conversation.
In 2000, I stayed overnight with a friend's relatives in a small town by the Yangtze, just up past the famous gorges. I had arrived by boat in the evening and hiked up the hill through dimly lit streets to their home. On the way I nearly stepped on a dead rat and then what appeared to be human faeces. The air ponged. In the morning, I made a cup of instant coffee. I asked my host where I could dispose of the wrapper. She led me to the balcony and gestured over the side. The entire mountainside leading down towards the river was awash in plastic bags, food scraps, old pipes and machine parts, rags, oily muck, human waste, bottles, you name it: a suffocating flow, metres thick. At a window in the next building a woman brushed her teeth, nonchalantly spitting into the malodorous ooze. I pitched the packaging into the mire. I had no words at all.
The Beijing Olympics are intended to showcase China's extraordinary accomplishments in the 30 years since reform began. The Chinese economy is today the most dynamic in the world, buoyant and still growing despite the global downturn. The Chinese people enjoy greater social, cultural and sexual freedoms, job opportunities, legal protection and personal mobility than at any time since the 1949 revolution. (Some have profited spectacularly from the reforms: there are dozens, perhaps up to a hundred, US-dollar billionaires.) That these games are officially dubbed the Green Olympics is meant to highlight China's commitment to environmental responsibility, a commitment which the Communist Party went so far as to enshrine in the country's constitution last October.
Yet China's environment is in crisis. Pollution has reportedly made cancer the country's number-one cause of death. You can see the air in some places better than you can see the other side of the street; I once got something very like carbon-monoxide poisoning just from hanging around Chongqing of an afternoon. And China's environmental problems are not just atmospheric: approximately 70% of its waterways are polluted, and much of its riverine and coastal marine life is endangered. Deforestation, desertification and erosion outpace reforestation. With a population officially estimated at 1.3 billion and likely to be higher, the pressures on the land are enormous and ever growing.
It is true, as the China correspondent John Garnaut noted not long ago in the Sydney Morning Herald, that as recently as 1952 cities like London have solved what appeared at the time to be apocalyptic environmental problems. And yet, China's greenhouse-gas emissions, which are growing at roughly the same speed as its economy, have already overtaken those of the US; if the science on climate change is right, optimism doesn't have a lot of wriggle room.
The reporter's father, Professor Ross Garnaut, recently observed on the ABC's Inside Business: "The arithmetic of solving the global problem doesn't work unless China plays a substantial role from an early date." The Chinese government is not by any means uninterested in doing so. China's environmental-protection laws are, on paper, among the best in the world. The government has committed to a substantial shift away from coal-based energy to hydropower, gas, biomass, nuclear and other alternative energies over coming years, and authorities at various levels have been energetic in pursuing these options. But they will not promise to cut emissions to levels that climate-change scientists insist are necessary to halt global warming.
They cannot afford to. The consequences for China's still-developing economy, and in particular the effect such cuts would have on the 700 million people struggling to survive on less than $3 a day, would be so dramatic that they could lead to social and political upheaval. And while the Communist Party was once a specialist in just that, these days it's far more interested in stability.
China's gaping chasm between rich and poor, between coastal areas and hinterland, combined with a system of local government which is frequently corrupt, arbitrary and ineffectual, has led to all manner of injustice for the country's poorest, including the callous degradation of their natural environment and agricultural resources. That in turn has sparked a series of peasant uprisings and local rebellions, news of which the government has done its utmost to suppress. A courageous husband-and-wife team of investigative reporters, Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao, published their scarifying study of the situation in their home province of Anhui in 2003. The report was banned in China almost immediately (thereafter selling 7 million copies in pirated editions) but has been available in English since 2006 under the title Will the Boat Sink the Water? The Struggle of Peasants in 21st-Century China.
Chen and Wu had previously collaborated on a report detailing the disastrous industrial pollution of the Huai, one of China's longest rivers: the water had turned black in places; people living alongside had to keep wet towels over their faces to keep from vomiting; the health of the locals was such that the People's Liberation Army would not consider them for service. The government listened, and undertook a clean-up. But within a few years, industry took up where it had left off, polluting with impunity. In July 2004, as the veteran China correspondent John Pomfret writes in his introduction to Will the Boat Sink the Water?, a "carpet of sludge" nearly a hundred kilometres long "swept down the river, killing millions of fish and devastating wildlife". China's problems are as monumental as its potential. That the Communist Party knows its own policies are responsible for many of these problems is immaterial. It knows the risks it takes if it tries to tackle the problems at their root; it knows the risks it takes if it doesn't.
American scientists recently tracked a great cloud of chemical smoke from China's coal-burning plants. First, it drifted over Korea, and then over the Pacific. Finally, it hit the American west coast, depositing sulphur compounds, carbon and other toxic residue on mountaintops in northern California, Oregon and Washington. This was not a one-off. It has been estimated that some 15% of all air pollution in the western states of the US originates in China. Awareness that China's problems, environmental and otherwise, could soon be our own is settling over the West like a smog. It's as if we've suddenly found ourselves looking up at that mountain of garbage, fearful that one little tremor will cause the whole thing to come down on us.
Recently, Professor Jocelyn Chey gave a talk at the Sydney Institute in which she discussed the rise of China's "soft power", in particular the spread of "Confucius Institutes". Australia is a major target for China's soft-power diplomacy, being in the Asia-Pacific region and yet having close ties with Washington, and having both a large ethnic Chinese community and natural resources to which Chinese industry wants access. Officially, the Confucius Institutes, first mooted by the Communist Party in 2003, are China's answer to the Alliance Française or Goethe-Institut: centres which offer courses in language and culture, as well as seminars for people wishing to do business with China. The Chinese government injects funding and its officials are actively involved in setting the institutes' agendas.
But as Chey - a former Australian diplomat with extensive experience in China - points out, when a university agrees to host a semi-funded Confucius Institute, as the University of Melbourne, University of Western Australia and University of Adelaide already do, it might find itself subtly pressured to constrain academic discussion of such topics as repression in Tibet, the torture and imprisonment of followers of Falun Gong, pervasive internet censorship, human-rights abuses and other issues which the Chinese government deems politically sensitive. Chey dryly notes that Australia has "a long history of research and teaching of Chinese language, history and culture. The CIs will not be filling a cultural void."
Australia has been less ideological and more pragmatic than the US in its dealings with China, and thus arguably a tad more clear-eyed. Gough Whitlam's government normalised relations with Beijing in 1972, during the Cultural Revolution. If we produced Ross Terrill, whose fellow-travelling effusions on the Cultural Revolution now seem as naive and kitsch as a production of The East is Red, we also adopted Pierre Ryckmans, whose writings on Maoist China under the pen-name Simon Leys remain among the most insightful, literate and sane observations on the People's Republic's most extreme and violent era.
Yet every time the Communist Party of China acts like a communist party, it succeeds in surprising Westerners. This was never clearer than in 1989, when the Chinese leadership ordered in the troops after months of peaceful protests against corruption and for freedom of the press and democratic reform. As many as a thousand unarmed demonstrators died in the Tiananmen Square massacre of 3-4 June, run over by the tanks of the People's Liberation Army, shot with bullets fired from their AK-47s. (Mind you, no one was more surprised than the people on the streets of Beijing that night.)
The Communist Party knew what it was doing when it said no to press freedom. While the overseas media gave wide coverage to the protests, massacre and subsequent crackdown on dissent, the state-controlled Chinese media published the official version of events (a violent disturbance carried out by a small handful of rioters, a "counter-revolutionary clique"), after which discussion was efficiently shut down. As a result, there are 19-year-olds in Beijing who have no idea that around the time they were born the streets of their town were running with blood.
There are around 300 million adults under the age of 30 in China. Assuming they have heard their parents' and grandparents' stories of the Cultural Revolution and earlier economic, social, political upheavals, such as the Anti-Rightist Campaign of the 1950s and the Great Leap Forward, these must seem like ancient history, as irrelevant as grain-ration coupons and less interesting than a pirated DVD of Desperate Housewives. They have neither taken part in a Mao-style mass campaign, nor ever had the option of voting a government in or out. They are the least politically engaged generation in China since the revolution of 1949, and there's no reason to think that most are not happy with that.
At least in the cities and towns and the more prosperous parts of the countryside, the people would know one thing for certain: their lives, in material terms, have improved out of sight in the course of their lifetime. If they work hard, they too may buy nice clothes, a good TV set, look after their family, even own a car or go abroad. There are magazines and books to read, films to see, plenty of places to go to dance and shop and eat and hang out. China is strong and proud, an Olympics host and near superpower - and all this has happened under the watch of the Communist Party.
There was a moment during the protests and the counter-protests surrounding the torch relay in Canberra when even some liberal-minded Australians would have felt a disconcerting antipathy towards the young Chinese rallying round the flame. Many Australians are aware of and sympathetic to the plight of Tibet. But many would also regard China favourably. That might be due to China's fuelling of our resources boom, its attractiveness as a travel destination, the sense that it might offer a counterweight to America's global power, personal contacts with Chinese people studying or working here, or simply that it's the country that gave the world yum cha, the films of Zhang Yimou, affordable T-shirts, kung-fu and pandas. (Though it was DreamWorks that gave us Kung Fu Panda, an issue which has prompted some soul-searching in China, but that's another story.)
Yet the Chinese counter-protesters were so choreographed, they could have been synchronised swimmers. They chorused patriotic slogans and were physically aggressive towards anyone who dissented. Most unsettling of all, they seemed to flood in, busload after busload, hijacking the agenda, turning the event into a militant show of Chinese nationalism and pride. By doing that in the middle of Canberra, and on our TV screens, they inadvertently appeared to fulfil one of Australia's oldest, most inglorious fears.
"Swamp" was the verb which Labor's Jack Lang used to incite fear and rally support for the White Australia policy. As Carmen Lawrence notes in her book Fear and Politics, this policy was "one of the founding principles of the Commonwealth" and the essence of the first piece of legislation enacted by the new federal parliament, in 1901. Chinese immigration in Australia had been by then a contentious issue for almost 50 years. Lang, who favoured a policy of exclusion long after the rest of his party had abandoned it, warned that if it was not checked, Chinese immigration had the potential to "obliterate every trace of British progress and civilisation".
Given the comparative achievements of Chinese and white Australian civilisation at the time, Lang's words said far more about the speaker and the sentiment to which he appealed than about China or the Chinese. Today, we should indeed be alert to the implications of situating Confucius Institutes in our universities, or other aspects of Chinese "soft power" diplomacy or international policies which may go against our own national interest. But we need to be clear that our concerns have nothing to do with race, and everything to do with China's might and complexity.
Ever since the Venetian merchant Marco Polo published his colourful memoirs of travels in the land he called Cathay, China has served the West as a screen onto which have been projected our terrors, fantasies and desires. As the eminent Sinologist Jonathan Spence writes in the introduction to The Chan's Great Continent: China in Western Minds, "One aspect of a country's greatness is surely its capacity to attract and retain the attention of others." China has long had our attention, even if we have only ever seen what we were looking for. (Spence writes, "It is an assumption of mine that the impact of China need have little or anything to do with the literalness or precision of an actual experience.")
To missionaries, China was a vast heathen land, full of souls awaiting conversion. To the eighteenth-century Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire, the imperial Chinese court, with its Confucian theory of benevolent rule and orderly civil-service examinations, was nothing less than a model for Europe to emulate. To nineteenth- and twentieth-century trading and imperialist powers, it was a tea chest, a cabinet of curiosities and, ultimately, a melon ripe for carving. To young idealists devastated by the victory of fascism in Spain and Germany in the 1930s and drawn to the caves of Yan'an where Mao and his Red Army were holed up after the Long March, it was the scene of a new rising of the human spirit. To Cold Warriors, it was a land of brainwashed automatons, a nation of blue ants with Little Red Books. To Western writers, film-makers and artists of all eras, it is the eternal exotic. For much of the past 30 years, to international business, it has been the world's largest market, the pot of gold at the end of the multinationals' rainbow.
It has always been ridiculous to speak of China as if it were a monolith and not a place of mind-boggling diversity. Some six hours' drive from the rubbish mountain, up precipitous and mostly unsealed roads, was a tiny village where I stayed for several days. My hosts, the village noodle-makers, insisted on giving me their bedroom and sleeping on the roof. Even those villagers to whom I had not been introduced would never let me pass their homes without inviting me to sit down and share a cup of tea. They'd pull up a couple of low wooden stools and we'd chat amiably about crops and the weather while nibbling on dried melon seeds. When I thanked them, they would say, "We Chinese are very warm-hearted."
In Beijing, I visited a friend who was having trouble with a neighbour. "We Chinese like to stick our noses into other people's business," she said. Another took me to dinner and ordered, as usual, too much food. "We Chinese are too wasteful," he rued. Another asserted, "We Chinese are very clever." Yet another insisted, "We Chinese are really stupid." In a small town in the north, a man at the next table in a tiny eatery boomed out the question, "What do you think of China and the Chinese?" I answered diplomatically, as the whole room was listening by then, "China is a great country and the Chinese are very good people." "Dog farts," he shot back, and the room rippled with laughter. In my years in China, Chinese people have told me that "the Chinese" are conservative, extravagant, idealistic, materialistic, face-loving, shameless, selfish, collective-minded, individualistic, obedient and rebellious. I'm sure they're all correct.
For all the bluster of the defenders of the "sacred flame" of the Olympic torch, and for all the efforts of the Communist Party at its totalitarian best, the truth is that over the past 30 years, China has never been an yiyantang, a shop in which the stated price is the only one, or a dictatorship which successfully shuts down all dissent. Dozens of writers and journalists may languish in prisons and labour camps. Lawyers may be beaten for defending inconvenient truths. The Great Firewall of China might effectively bar open discussion of democracy, or of the treatment of ethnic minorities in China's border regions. But whatever genuine concerns outsiders have about China's future, there are Chinese people who have them too - and probably had them first.
Every day, we carry on about how the Chinese nation is going through its most dangerous period. Yet, in fact, the Chinese people lack a sense of urgency about the crises and dangers we face. Our overweening sense of self-importance, conservatism and complacency, blind optimism, propensity for idle boasting, flattery, unscrupulous behaviour, self-deceit, and trickery have the most serious consequences for the nation and our people.
He Baochuan wrote those words back in 1988. A scholar of the philosophy of science, he had worked on China's first computer in the 1960s. His In the Hills of China, blunt and forceful, was one of a number of books, articles and even television shows produced at the time on the subject of what some intellectuals daringly called "the China illness". Commonly cited symptoms included the burgeoning population, looming environmental disaster, bureaucratic incompetence, corruption and unbalanced economic development. He Baochuan's editor, Xu Yinong, commented at the time, "In the past, people have talked about Reform as being a process of ‘crossing the river by feeling for the stones'. The real worry now is that in all too many situations we simply can't find any stones."
In the Hills of China was banned, along with many other works, as part of the clampdown on dissent that followed the 1989 protests and massacre. The People's Daily and other state organs published attacks on authors like He Baochuan, accusing them of wanting to sell out China to the West. The shrill language of these attacks bore echoes of Red Guard rhetoric, and was a foretaste of the style of vilification which netizens and other self-appointed guardians of China's national honour today direct at anyone, Chinese or foreign, deemed to have insulted China's national pride, often because they have dared to address its problems.
A few months ago, when the violence in Tibet prompted worldwide protests and counter-protests, a mainland student, Grace Wang, tried to encourage dialogue between pro-Tibetan and pro-Chinese protesters at her university in the US. Web vigilantes went after her with viciousness; after her parents' details were found and published, self-styled patriots smashed the windows of their home in Qingdao and dumped faeces on their doorstep. Wang wrote in the Washington Post that her mother and father had been compelled to flee. The threats on her own life forced her to accept police protection. But she also insisted that there were people on the pro-Chinese side who had been willing to talk with the pro-Tibetans before the more strident voices drowned them out.
Jane Macartney, the Beijing correspondent for London's Times, received death threats following articles she published earlier this year on the Tibetan situation. Her attackers noted that she is a direct descendent of Lord Macartney, whose refusal in 1793 to kowtow to the Qianlong Emperor is part of the long and vexed history of the West's interaction with China. In relatively short order, beginning with the Opium Wars of the mid-nineteenth century (which Britain fought to enforce its ‘right' to export opium from the Subcontinent to China), China experienced military invasion, economic depredation, dynastic collapse, republican revolution and adventurism, warlordism, cultural upheaval, more invasion, war, civil war and Communist revolution. As the Monash University China scholar Gloria Davies so eloquently phrases it, China is "a nation that was hurt into being".
That doesn't mean we can't be friends. In his Chinese-language speech to Beijing University students earlier this year, Kevin Rudd suggested just that. But the word he used was zhengyou: a friend who will always tell the truth as he sees it, a friend who may dare to disagree. As Geremie Barmé, a professor of East Asian history at the Australian National University, explained in the Sydney Morning Herald, "Rudd's tactic was to deftly sidestep the vice-like embrace" of the Soviet model of friendship, under which "the foreigner is often expected to stomach unpalatable situations, and keep silent in the face of egregious behaviour."
The concept of the zhengyou has been around since at least the seventh-century Tang dynasty, but never before has anyone so prominently posited it as a model for non-Chinese engagement with China. The Xinhua News agency reported that "eyes lit up when [Rudd] used this expression." The lively interest displayed by the Chinese commentariat in his use of the term indicates that it has the potential to become a useful model throughout the world - though Barmé also acknowledges that "it may simply become another way for allowing pesky foreigners to let off steam."
Barmé has been theorising a new approach for Western study of China. He calls it New Sinology. "To cut our cloth to fit entrenched ways of understanding to suit the present nation-state of China, or what is deemed appropriately ‘Chinese'," he writes, "does, in the longer run, a disservice to the richness, variety and human potential of this ancient yet vibrantly modern culture sphere." He argues for China scholars in the West to move beyond the position of mere observers, and to enter - and be allowed to enter - the debates the Chinese people are having about their own situation and their future. It is, after all, a future we share.
A worker I met on a train in China a few years ago put it another way. As we travelled north, idly chatting to pass the time, and his tired wife snuggled into my side, her head on my shoulder, he smiled and said, "People are all the same, aren't they? We all have the same problems."
There is nowhere quite like The Monthly. We are told that we live in a time of diminished attention spans; a time where the 24-hour-news-cycle has produced a collective desire for hot takes and brief summaries of the news and ideas that effect us. But we don’t believe it. The need for considered, reflective, long-form journalism has never been greater, and for almost 20 years, that’s what The Monthly has offered, from some of our finest writers.
That kind of quality writing costs money, and requires the support of our readers. Your subscription to The Monthly allows us to be the home for the best, most considered, most substantial perspectives on the state of the world. It’s Australia’s only current affairs magazine, an indispensable home for cultural commentary, criticism and reviews, and home to personal and reflective essays that celebrate and elevate our humanity.
The Monthly doesn’t just comment on our culture, our society and our politics: it shapes it. And your subscription makes you part of that.
Select your digital subscription