The place had become the “Macau Laundry Service,” as U.S. diplomats put it in an internal cable in 2009. David Asher, who was a State Department senior adviser for East Asian and Pacific affairs in the Bush administration, told me it had “gone from being out of a James Bond movie to being out of The Bourne Identity.”
While the junket industry had many law-abiding members, it had been, for decades, susceptible to the involvement of organized crime. In China, organized crime groups known as “triads” grew out of nineteenth-century political societies; the term triad is believed to have originated when three groups merged into a powerful organization. They became involved in loan-sharking and prostitution, and made their presence felt at Macau’s casinos, but in recent years triads had become more business-oriented. They set aside squabbles over drugs and petty crime in order to pursue new criminal opportunities associated with a more prosperous People’s Republic, including money laundering, financial fraud, and gambling. Gangsters were becoming “gray entrepreneurs,” as criminologists put it, and it was growing more difficult to distinguish between triads that had gone into business and businesses that were acting as triads. Men who were once known in the local papers by their nicknames, as reputed triad bosses, reinvented themselves as executives in the gaming industry.
Macau was proving to be especially attractive to corrupt Chinese officials. It played a recurring role in the downfall of Party cadres, who headed to Macau with public funds and returned empty-handed. There was the pair of Party officials named Zhang and Zhang, from Chongqing, who lost more than $12 million at the casinos in 2004. A former Party chief in Jiangsu lost $18 million. A bureaucrat from Chongqing stood out not for scale but for speed: he managed to lose a quarter of a million dollars in just forty-eight hours. So many officials were arrested for squandering public funds in Macau that, by 2009, scholars calculated how much the average official might lose at the gambling tables before getting caught: $3.3 million.
Chapter 9 Liberty leading the people
Nicholas Negroponte, the founder of MIT’s Media Laboratory and one of the early ideologists of the Internet, had predicted that the global reach of the Web would transform the way we think about ourselves as countries. The state, he predicted, will evaporate “like a mothball, which goes from solid to gas directly,” and “there will be no more room for nationalism than there is for smallpox.” In China, things had gone differently.
In the early years of reform, the word conservative had still been tantamount toreactionary, but times had changed; he was teaching a Straussian appreciation for the universality of the classics and encouraging his students to revive ancient Chinese thought. He and other scholars were thriving amid a new vein of conservatism that ran counter to China’s drive for integration with the world. Professor Ding had watched with satisfaction as Tang Jie and other students developed an appetite for the classics and pushed back against the onslaught of Westernization.
Tang told me, “The fact is we are very Westernized. Now we started reading ancient Chinese books and we rediscovered the ancient China.” The young neoconservatives in Shanghai invited Harvey Mansfield to dinner when he passed through Shanghai. They “are acutely aware that their country, whose resurgence they feel and admire, has no principle to guide it,” Mansfield wrote in an e-mail to me after his visit. “Some of them see … that liberalism in the West has lost its belief in itself, and they turn to Leo Strauss for conservatism that is based on principle, on ‘natural right.’ This conservatism is distinct from a status-quo conservatism, because they are not satisfied with a country that has only a status quo and not a principle.”
Chapter 17 All that glitters
For foreign business people, the fate of the Englishman was discomfiting. It reminded them that even as China grew and developed, gangland habits lingered beneath the surface of Chinese commerce and politics, and occasionally burst through. A British scrap metal trader named Anil Srivastav told me about a testy negotiation he was having over a load of metals. “These people came in and dragged me out. I shouted ‘Help!’ but nobody looked,” he said. “They put me in this van and drove me off.” He was later released, but not before thinking, “I’ve only seen these things in movies.”
Chapter 18 The Hard Truth
In China the affairs of state had always been kept out of view of the public, and been unveiled only at the end as a fait accompli. But now the uncooked ingredients-the deals, the feuds, the peccadillos, the betrayals-were tumbling into the open air to be judged and evaluated. People were assessing whether the values of the system now on display lived up to their own moral aspirations. By 2012 a Chinese person was going online for the first time every two seconds-still, barely half the population was using the Web. Before he went to prison, Liu Xiaobo pointed out that his inspiration, Havel’s Charter 77, had appeared more than two decades before the political system around it evolved in the way its authors envisioned. In Havel’s view, the key to life under a Communist Party was the maintenance of a double life-the willingness to say one thing in public and another in private, because of fear or interest or a combination of the two. Eventually that double life became untenable.
In China, the double life was eroding. The reality of extreme inequality was now inescapable: one part of China lived in a different material universe from the rest of the country. This was true in many countries, of course, including my own, but in China it was especially deeply felt; the nation was just one generation removed from bitter sacrifices in the name of egalitarianism. Moreover, the gap between the society’s meritocratic myth and its oligarchic reality was becoming clear and measurable. In 2012 a team of political scientists (Victor Shih, Christopher Adolph, and Mingxing Liu) challenged one of the essential shibboleths surrounding China’s rise: the Party had always maintained that its ruthless devotion to development-“the hard truth,” as Deng put it-ensured meritocracy because it rewarded cadres who made the shrewdest economic decisions. But the researchers found no evidence to support this; on the contrary, Chinese officials with good economic track records were no more likely to be promoted than those who performed poorly. What mattered most was their connections with senior leaders.
Chapter 19 The Spiritual Void
Mao’s Cultural Revolution destroyed China’s old belief systems, but Deng’s economic revolution could not rebuild them. The relentless pursuit of fortune had relieved the deprivation in China’s past, but it had failed to define the ultimate purpose of the nation and the individual. The truth now lay in plain view: the Communist Party presided over a land of untamed capitalism, graft, and rampant inequality. In sprinting ahead, China had bounded past whatever barriers once held back the forces of corruption and moral disregard. There was a hole in Chinese life that people named thejingshen kongxu-“the spiritual void”-and something was going to fill it.