The nail that sticks up gets hammered down, the Chinese teach their children. They further instruct them that the rock that stands out from the river bank gets worn away by the current. In case the child still hasn’t got the point, he will then be told that the tallest tree is the first to meet the axe. This is, in short, a culture that places a high value on conformity. To be a dissident among the Chinese requires more than just a capacity for independent thinking. It requires dogged conviction and a massive supply of sheer physical courage.
Chia was interrogated day and night, while being forced to stand naked in a freezing room with the air-conditioning going full blast …
That was not, let it be well noted, in the death camps of Mao Tse-tung or the dungeons of the Kuomintang. That was in Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore — many people’s favorite model of “Asian values,” though in practice, as Ian Buruma makes clear in Bad Elements, a vicious little despotism run by sadistic hoodlums.
Buruma’s new book is a survey of Chinese dissidents as he found them in various parts of the world between 1996 and 2001. The book is divided into three parts, in a very sensible way. The first part deals with dissidents in exile from the Chinese world altogether, mainly in the U.S.A. The second part, titled “Greater China,” covers Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong. The third part, “The Motherland,” is of course concerned with mainland China and occupied Tibet. Some of this material first saw the light of day as magazine articles. I remember reading the Tibet chapter in The New York Review of Books last year. That is not a complaint: it is good to have these pieces in book form. Buruma is a scrupulous and reliable observer of East Asia, one of the best writing today.
It is, for the most part, a melancholy line of work. The exiled dissidents fight venomously among themselves. Taiwan’s little democracy, won after some bitter and little-known struggles admirably described here, dwells in the shadow of the mainland, whose rulers detest it and will extinguish it as soon as they feel they can get away with doing so. Hong Kong clings to the freedoms it has left, and wonders how long they will last. For Singapore, see above. The surviving Tibetans grumble helplessly as what is left of their civilization is ripped out by the roots and stomped on. In metropolitan China a few brave, incorruptible souls keep the guttering flame of humanity burning for a while longer as they wait to be hustled off to exile or the camps. All in all, the picture Buruma draws is one of inspissated gloom.
The one star shining through that gloom is Wei Jingsheng. The prospects for rational government in China are so obviously null, and China is so unalterably set on its course to becoming the sick man of the 21st century, that to entertain any hope at all about China is a defiance of reality. You need to be a little bit mad. Wei Jingsheng fits that description: he is the sort of Holy Fool who turns up from time to time in history to make the rest of us wonder if, perhaps, it is we who are the fools and he the only clear-sighted one. Wei’s views have not changed one iota since he posted his manifesto on Beijing’s Democracy Wall in December 1978. That got him eighteen years in jail, before he was at last released and deported to the U.S. in 1997 ahead of a state visit by Jiang Zemin.
The communists were probably glad to get rid of him. Ian Buruma refers to these dissidents as the “awkward squad” of Chinese civilization. None is more awkward than Wei. He is disliked by most other exiles. Deliberately antisocial, he smokes incessantly, rolls up his trouser legs when he sits down, and is wont to emit loud farts in public. A holy fool indeed: yet everything he says makes perfect sense, and it is impossible to argue with his diagnosis of China’s problems, or to doubt his iron integrity. Buruma’s parting image of Wei is unforgettable, a flash of light that redeems this rather depressing book. Jiang Zemin, President of China, was on a state visit to Britain. As he bowled along to Buckingham Palace in the Queen’s state coach, “smiling vacuously”:
[S]uddenly there was a commotion … A middle-aged Chinese man in an anorak was being wrestled to the ground by British policemen, who then dragged him off … It was Wei Jingsheng. He had tried to draw Jiang’s presidential eye to a large white sheet of paper held in his hand that read release all political prisoners … The next day he was out trying to catch Jiang’s eye again, in Cambridge. And the day after that, he would be in Paris, and then in Spain or Tokyo or …
Again and again in his survey of these dissidents, Buruma returns to Wei and his matter-of-fact insights. Of those people who have not given up on China completely, some see her salvation in a spiritual revival — a surprising number of the awkward squad, both in and out of China, are devout Christians. Others, like the exiled journalist Dai Qing, believe that a long spell of benevolent dictatorship, under a morally reformed Communist Party, is needed before the Chinese people can rise to the level where they will be ready for democracy. (This is a majority view amongst educated Chinese people.) In his conclusion, Buruma notes that most of those who have anything to say about reform of China “share the assumption that good government depends more on human virtue than on democratic institutions.” He contrasts this with Wei’s clear vision that: “We can trust only those representatives who are supervised by us and responsible to us … chosen by us and not thrust upon us.” China, in short, needs democracy, and the sooner the better.