Wednesday, April 10, 2002
Book review: Bad Elements by Ian Buruma. The recommendation came from John Derbyshire (his review of the book is here). The book is a survey of the Chinese dissidents. The author starts off at the periphery: the dissidents in exile in the United States. He then moves progressively towards the center: through Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong, the Special Economic Zones of the south, Tibet and finally Beijing.
It is a depressing story, though written relatively lightly, with the detached reason of a journalist, not the passion of an activist. As expected, the Tiananmen veterans are thoroughly unlikeable. We interviewed one of them for a job here at the firm where I work, actually, and she came across as a horrible Stepford yuppie. It is wrong to hate someone for success, but there is something distressing about anyone who could put behind them a history like these kids had. It seems to mock what their comrades died for for them to even want to do so. Didn't they understand when they began their protests that they were defining their lives by these actions? It seems, at least in some cases, not.
The older dissidents are more damaged people, easier to love if not to like, and familiar to those who have studied the dissidents of Eastern Europe. And yet there is still something fundamentally different about them, something they lack that men like Czeslaw Milosz, Adam Michnik, or Alexandr Solzhenitsyn had. When these men stood against Communism, they stood on firmer, lower ground than the regime they criticized. They could understand the regime they fought as a rupture in their nation's history, and could refute it with older truths - feudal traditions of freedom, or Christian witness, or a volkische identity prior to and stronger than identification with any one regime. These Chinese dissidents don't seem to have any such ground to stand on. Many of them have turned to Christianity, but it is a strangely pragmatic turn; there is little sense that they have been called. And, besides, at this point in history Christianity is still foreign in China; it is not an indigenous ground on which to stand.
None of these dissidents are properly anti-Communists, because none of them see Communism as a tragic and unnecessary detour in Chinese history. Most of them see the Party as irredeemable (though not all; Buruma interviews more than a couple of reform Communists among the dissidents, in China but also in exile), but none of them articulate a China to be reconnected to - even one dredged up from a thousand years ago, or more - that is true, against which Communism is false. This is not true of the dissidents of Poland or the Soviet Union or the rest of the European Communist world. They all knew there was a truth about themselves - not merely as individuals but as part of a nation - that Communism mocked and denied, and this recognition made Communism fundamentally untrue, and not merely a failure.
The man who comes closest to being rooted in this way is a peasant in Sichuan, the uncle of a slatternly and thoroughly unpleasant woman who escorts Buruma to the countryside so he can meet her mother, a house Christian (i.e. member of an unapproved church). This uncle dislikes the Communists for taxing him too much for things he doesn't want or need, praises Mao for treating people with equality, but admits that Mao had his bad side and caused many millions of deaths in the Great Leap Forward. And he asks Buruma whether Jesus was a democrat. He is like something out of Tolstoy: a wise man of the soil unable to understand that honesty is death in this China. His truth is the simplest of all, that of a man who perceives reality directly. This may be the strongest truth there is, but it is limited. He is a character out of Tolstoy; he is not Tolstoy.
Buruma paints a picture of a China strained to the breaking point by repression, a China lacking only the catalyst to cause it to explode. I wonder whether he got a skewed picture by talking to so many dissidents. But even if not, I cannot view with equanimity the prospect of revolution in the Middle Kingdom. A revolution is not a break but a recurrence; all revolutions justify themselves as restorations of something old and lost, or else the collapse into utter barbarism. The latter is, in fact, what happened with the revolutions of 1789, 1917 and 1949, and for that reason they were all failures. Successful revolutions - 1688, 1776, 1870 (that's the Italian Risorgimento, which will stand in for various other successful European national revolutions in the 19th century), 1947 (that's Israel and India), and 1991 - were all about the creation of the new by reconnecting to the old: old liberties long trampled, old nations long obscured. The students of Tiananmen challenged the Party leadership by saying they had betrayed Mao's vision; 1949, then, was the truth they stood on in fomenting their revolution. But 1949 is quicksand. If China is to have another revolution, to what will they return? To listen to most of Buruma's dissidents, to another dynasty founded on little more than the pragmatic need for order.