The Importance of Being Stubborn

By Salil Tripathi

China's past has not been kind to its people. Regimes have claimed mandates from heaven, not from people, and mass upheavals are typical when regimes change. Understandably, many Chinese consider the phrase, 'may you live in interesting times,' a curse. The incumbent Communist Party has argued that without authoritarian rule China would descend into chaos and instability. Many Chinese, and many Western experts on China, nod vigorously. Chinese students are taught early that their ancient unity must never be threatened by bad elements fomenting chaos. Western-style democracy could disintegrate China -- just look at what happened to poor Mikhail Gorbachev's Soviet Union!

This unidimensional view, of course, is ahistorical. As Ian Buruma notes in his new book, "Bad Elements: Chinese Rebels from Los Angeles to Beijing" (Weidenfeld and Nicholson, £20; Random House $27.95) it ignores "thousands of years of disorder."  Yet, questioning the Party's wisdom is deemed anti-national. Fearing break-up of China, its apologists argue that China is not ready for democracy. It is possible that a regime change in China won't be peaceful. But the stability is illusory; when it falls apart, as it must, the result could be much worse.

Yet, instead of nurturing dissenting voices who could provide leadership to a pluralistic China in future, Beijing prefers to snuff them out. That's not surprising; what's surprising is the tenacity with which such mavericks continue to sprout from that fertile soil, like bamboo shoots after the year's first rain. The State responds brutally, uprooting them; they emerge again, each season, growing taller.

In this inspiring study of human spirit, Mr. Buruma brings his exceptional gift of observation, perspicacity, and analysis to create a haunting, tragic portrait of the Chinese who think differently, who defy authority; who go to the Democracy Wall and compare Deng with Mao and spend 18 years in jail; who refuse to bend even after years of solitary confinement in the most inhumane conditions; who use the Internet to send subversive emails to hundreds of thousands of users across China and beyond, creating the freest Chinese society, alas only in cyberspace; who walk to the tank at Tiananmen Square and plead that the soldiers should return.

So far, the regime has responded in character. The repression continues, the tanks have rained bullets on the unarmed, and whenever a Western leader is about to visit China, one or two of the rebels are released, ostensibly to get medical treatment overseas, never to return. A stubborn few manage to get past immigration officials and return, to continue to fight this heroic battle against the Chinese State. Pitilessly, the State hunts them down, and tosses them thousands of miles away, to western laboratories and universities, from where they dream of a free China, but their effectiveness in the mother country greatly diminished.

Freedom is gained, but influence lost. Mr. Buruma cogently describes it thus: "If they remain in China, the absence of freedom forces writers and scientists to lie, and once they lie, their work is worthless. If they choose silence, there is no work at all. Or they risk the silence of prison." Exile, however, makes them irrelevant. "Now I am finally free to talk, but there is no one for me to talk to," Li Shuxian says poignantly.

By expelling the bad elements, Beijing has undermined their effectiveness. The dissidents, too, have not been united. They question each other's zige, or qualifications, heap abuses on one another (spies, sexual perverts and thieves are some of the milder epithets), and behave boorishly. They are unpleasant and difficult. But if they were 'reasonable' men and women, they'd have been obedient apparatchiks getting rich in Shenzhen or Suzhou. It is precisely because they are stubborn that they are able to live by their ideals and remain as perpetual thorns in the Chinese officials' flesh. However unpleasant they might be, "they deserve respect," Mr. Buruma writes, "not just because of their suffering, but because they chose to face the consequences of speaking out in circumstances that are hard for us even to imagine." We must remember that people like Wei Jing Sheng have had the courage to opt for prison or torture rather than accepting with servility daily indignities and submitting to the life of lies millions of Chinese are forced to lead. "I know that many of these people were flawed, wrongheaded, and perhaps intolerant in their own ways, but I admired their sheer cussedness," Mr. Buruma says.

When the stories of these dissidents are recounted individually, they appear to be just that: individual acts of heroism, like that student facing the tank at Tiananmen. Yet, Mr. Buruma relentlessly accumulates the experiences of dozens of individuals, and succeeds in showing us the harrowing reality of it all: the whole is greater, and worse, than the sum of the parts. What of the thousands whose stories we will never know? If these are tips of iceberg, then China is the Titanic.

And just as the dissidents are tips of icebergs, Beijing-bound businessmen are ostriches, burying their heads in sand, becoming inviting targets for corruption, intimidation, and abduction. Yet, such is the presumed importance of China as an investment destination -- some 80% of investments earmarked for emerging markets end up in China -- that most Western political leaders turn a blind eye to the abuses of the regime. No matter that few companies active in China have made profits; no matter that few businessmen in China can say that their time, and money, are well-spent in the piracy capital of the world. In fact, in John Lanchester's new novel, Fragrant Harbor (Faber, London, £16.99) we come face to face with the corrupt underbelly of Chinese capitalism as experienced by one of the narrators, Matthew Ho. Yet, we are asked to accept the assertion -- that a China that integrates with the world economy will inevitably turn more democratic. Mr. Buruma's book is a landmark precisely because it refutes that assertion; it makes us realize there's nothing in China's record to demonstrate that a market-driven China will also be a fairer China.

Mr. Buruma comes to the center from the periphery. He begins his journeys in the West, meeting the Tiananmen alumni, some of whom have moved on to become venture capitalists and investment bankers, before moving to Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore, before entering China itself. The journeys through China's "near abroad" -- Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore -- in fact, add value to the book. The chapter on Taiwan demonstrates that it is possible for a real democracy to take root on "Chinese" soil. Likewise, in an astutely painted portrait of Singapore, Mr. Buruma says: "Singapore can feel like a boarding school run by a terrifying headmaster, who is constantly drawing up arbitrary rules while warning of the dire consequences of infringement. You never know when, or even why, you might be punished." It is the kind of society China would like to be, as the New York Times correspondents Nicholas Kristoff and Sheryll WuDunn argued in their book, "China Wakes". But replicating Singapore across China is impossible: Singapore itself tried, in Suzhou, and got shanghaied.

In Hong Kong, Mr. Buruma meets not only Martin Lee and Emily Lau, but also businessmen who parrot the Beijing mantra, that China is not ready for democracy. Earlier in the book, Mr. Buruma has revealed moving instances of ordinary Chinese -- taxi drivers and hawker stall attendants -- who sneak up to a known dissident and salute him, offering him money, a pat, some encouragement.

During my time in East Asia, I remember several heads of investment banks in Hong Kong telling me that the dissidents had lost the plot by being so stubborn about freedom. These bankers moved around in different circles from us journalists. Mr. Buruma is too elegant a writer to put it crudely, but the issue must be raised: why is the dissident accused of being stubborn, not the State? What makes the Government's stubbornness acceptable, and what makes Western governments kowtow to the little emperors of the Middle Kingdom?

It is the promise of 1.2 billion consumers, which brings fortune seekers, like Dawn Stone in Mr. Lanchester's novel, to China. But as Chris Patten showed during his brief tenure as Hong Kong's last Viceroy, it is possible to stare back, and treat China as a normal country. By interpreting China as it is, by looking at it through the eyes of dissidents who show us what could be, Mr. Buruma reveals that China can indeed be a normal country, if only the rest of us learn to treat it as such.

Mr. Tripathi is a writer based in London. From 1991 to 1998 he reported on economics and politics out of Singapore, Hong Kong, Indonesia, and Malaysia. He is working on a novel set in Southeast Asia.