Chapter 3. Baptized in Civilization

The pressure to conform was profound. A doctor who was terrorized during the Cultural Revolution-exiled to the western desert, where his wife committed suicide-later said, “To survive in China you must reveal nothing to others. Or it could be used against you … That’s why I’ve come to think the deepest part of the self is best left unclear. Like mist and clouds in a Chinese landscape painting, hide the private part behind your social persona. Let your public self be like rice in a dinner: bland and inconspicuous, taking on the flavors of its surroundings while giving off no flavor of its own.”

On paper, China remained suspicious of the individual; even after reforms were under way, the 1980 edition of the country’s authoritative dictionary, The Sea of Words, definedindividualism as “the heart of the Bourgeois worldview, behavior that benefits oneself at the expense of others.” And nothing was more abhorrent to the Communist Party than the language of Thatcherist free-market fundamentalism. But China was enacting some of its most basic ideas: the retreat of public services, hostility to trade unions, national and military pride.


The language of the individual filtered out through movies and fashions and music. Jia Zhangke, a filmmaker, recalled to me that when he was growing up in Shanxi coal country in the eighties, he would ride the bus for four hours just to buy a cassette of mushy pop ballads by Deng Lijun, a Taiwanese star so popular that Lin Yifu’s military unit on Quemoy had played her music over the radio to attract defectors. Since she had the same surname as Deng Xiaoping, the soldiers on the mainland joked that they listed to Old Deng all day and Young Deng all night. “Before that, the songs we sang were ‘We Are the Heirs of Communism’ and ‘We Workers Have Power.’ It was always ‘we,'” Jia told me. “But in Deng Lijun’s song ‘The Moon Represents My Heart,’ it was about ‘me.’ My heart. And of course we loved it!”


Before she enrolled, she, like Lin Yifu, changed her given name. She became Haiyan, a reference to the small, hardy seabird in an old revolutionary poem by Maxim Gorky, “The Song of the Storm Petrel.” It was one of Lenin’s favorites. She cared nothing about the revolution, but she loved the image of a bird that turns to face the storm-“one free soul,” as Gorky put it, that “floats unharmed above the chaos.”


Above all, Gong framed the search for love as a matter of self-reliance. Heaven, she wrote, “will never throw you a meat pie.”

Chapter 4 Appetites of the mind

In China, people had yet to acclimate to the proliferation of choices. In the local press, Gong was often described as “China’s No. 1 matchmaker,” even though her business was a rebuke to the very idea of matchmaking. Despite the name of her company, Beautiful Destiny, she projected nothing more plainly than her belief that destiny was obsolete. “Chinese people still put their faith in destiny,” she told the new employees. “They say, ‘Oh, I’ll get used to whatever happens.’ But they don’t need to do that anymore! Desire can lead them now. We’re giving people the freedom of love.”


In 2005, Chinese television broadcast the fist American Idol-style program – the Mongolian Cow Sour Yogurt Super Girl Contest. Its success spawned a new genre known as ‘choice shows,” in which contestants could choose or be chosen by one another and the audience.


Ads were so abundant that fashion magazines ran up against physical constraints: editors of the Chinese edition of Cosmopolitan once had to split an issue into two volumes because a single magazine was too thick to handle.


Money and love had always been linked more explicitly in China than in the West, but the finances were simpler when almost everyone was broke.

Traditionally, young Chinese couples moved in with the groom’s parents, but by the twenty-first century less than half of them stayed very long, and the economists Shang-Jin Wei and Xiaobo Zhang discovered that parents with sons were building ever larger and more expensive houses for their offspring, to attract better matches – a real estate phenomenon that became known as the “mother-in-law syndrome.”

Chapter 5 No longer a slave

Then the Chinese press tired of the bubozu and moved on to DINK-ding ke, in Mandarin-“Double Income, No Kids,” followed by a succession of other new labels and identities: netizens, property kings, mortgage slaves. A popular Chinese essay by an anonymous author carved out an archetype of the young white-collar class, the men and women who sip cappuccino, date online, have a DINK family, take subways and taxis, fly economy, stay in nice hotels, go to pubs, make long phone calls, listen to the blues, work overtime, go out at night, celebrate Christmas, have one-night-stands … keep The Great Gatsby and Pride and Prejudice on their nightstands. They live for love, manners, culture, art, and experience.

Chapter 6 Cutthroat

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.

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