Two weeks after the massacre on Tienanmen Square, Deng Xiaoping delivered a major address to the Communist Party faithful in which he expressed no regret for that event. On the contrary, he made it clearer than ever that Western-style democracy was not in the cards for China. “Only socialism can save China, and only socialism can develop China,” he said.
Having now quelled the immediate threat to its authority, the Party’s focus shifted toward inculcating its preferred interpretation of the events on Tienanmen Square at every level of public discourse. Predictably enough, it accused foreign elements of cynically manipulating the naïve students. By thus turning the protests into an elaborate foreign conspiracy, the Party mustered the xenophobia which always serves authoritarian leaders so well, while the real, home-grown objections of the protesters to its rule got conveniently lost in the shuffle. Already that same summer an exhibition was opened at the Museum of Chinese History in Beijing, explaining how the people’s soldiers had resolutely quashed the imperialist “counter-revolution.” It displayed the burnt-out remnants of tanks, armored personnel carriers, and trucks as proof that it was the protestors who had really been the violent ones, while the army had acted only in forbearing self-defense. All government employees in the capital were required to visit the exhibition. Likewise, all university students in the country were required to undergo six weeks of political “reeducation,” followed by a six-week stint of duty in the People’s Liberation Army. In just one of many echoes of the end of the Hundred Flowers period, university noticeboards and newspapers were filled with the cringing confessions of the more outspoken student activists, who claimed now to have seen the error of their ways and begged for forgiveness. This the state deigned to grant to all but the most hardened, unrepentant traitors to their people.
Thus during that astounding autumn of 1989, while in the West the Berlin Wall was coming down and the Cold War was ending for good and ever, Beijing was hosting grand military parades and Chinese officials were rounding up and destroying offensive media of all stripes, from Cui Jian’s album to River Elegy videotapes. Su Xiaokang, the head writer of River Elegy, was arrested for “inciting counter-revolutionary propaganda.” With so much good news to celebrate on its very doorstep, the West lacked the bandwidth to pay attention to what was going on in far-off China.
Which was exactly what Deng Xiaoping had been hoping for; after all, his deep concern about how the outside world would react to a crackdown did much to explain why it had taken him so long to send the soldiers in in the first place. As it happened, though, even in the immediate aftermath of the massacre the world’s response was more restrained than he might have feared. Although the United States did revoke China’s Most Favored Nation trade status and the World Bank and Japan suspended loan packages worth some $8 billion, these measures proved short-lived. Already in June of 1990, the United States agreed to restore China’s trade status in return for a political sop in the form of the release into American exile of Su Xiaokang and another prominent activist. The following month, the international loan packages were also reinstated. It seemed that there were just too many benefits to doing business in China for anyone to stand on principle for very long; as an ancient Chinese proverb said, “Money will get the devil to grind the mill.” By October of 1990, when Beijing hosted a very successful edition of the Asian Games that closed with the spectacle of 10,000 dancers in traditional dress tumbling in lockstep choreography, it was easy to forget that the protests and massacre had ever happened at all.
Eighteen months later, China’s first McDonald’s opened at one of the entryways to Tienanmen Square, just steps away from where the famous “Tank Man” photo had been snapped. Now, though, the crowd that gathered here had hamburgers rather than human rights on its mind. “I want to be the first Chinese in Beijing to taste a Big Mac!” gushed one young man, as starry-eyed in his way as any placard-waving protestor of the recent past. Jan Wong, who was a reporter on the scene, writes how he then
raced to one of the 29 cash registers and ordered a Big Mac and a hot chocolate. He struggled with the white plastic lid. “How do you open this?” he wondered out loud. Before anyone could stop him, he plunged in the straw provided by an overzealous server and took a sip, scalding his tongue. Gamely, he took a bite of his Big Mac. “It’s delicious,” he said.
The chairman of the new Chinese branch of McDonald’s declared that “this is not just a restaurant opening, but the culmination of the fruits of labor between two partners who share the same vision and values.” The rest of the world could only shake its head in wonder at how much China had changed since the days of the Cultural Revolution.
Still, the notion of “shared vision and values” with the country that had given birth to fast-food culture was a bit of a stretch. Deng Xiaoping had never lost his faith that it was possible to bring the economic benefits of capitalism to China without importing the political freedom that the Western world had always considered to be capitalism’s handmaid (or vice versa). He liked to call his governing philosophy “capitalist tools in socialist hands.” With his 90th birthday rapidly approaching and the Communist Party’s political and economic policy now thoroughly redrawn in his own pragmatic image rather than the rigidly ideological one of Mao Zedong, he began to step away from the day-to-day business of state. As he did so, control gradually devolved to one Jiang Zemin, an ally who had held the title of General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party since 1989. From now on, the heretofore rather opaque power structure of the Party would be clarified, with the General Secretary post always coinciding with the title of President of China, combining in one man the nation’s undisputed supreme leader and head of state. Deng Xiaoping would die in 1998, presumably at peace in the knowledge that he, much more so than Mao, was the real architect of the modern incarnation of China that surrounded him on his deathbed.
Deng’s version of the state was premised on a bargain between the government and the people that was never stated explicitly, but was nevertheless understood by everyone who was a part of this nation that had for thousands of years made an art form out of conveying just such things as this without actually saying them out loud. You can enjoy a considerable degree of economic self-determination and quite possibly a personal prosperity the likes of which your parents could never have imagined, the Party said to the people, as long as you recognize where your freedom ends and our authority begins. Or, to put it in terms an English speaker would readily grasp: “Don’t rock the boat and you’ll get along fine.” And it must be said that, with the country’s economy still growing by anywhere from seven to fifteen percent each year, this struck many Chinese as a perfectly sensible bargain that was well worth making. For if the previous couple of centuries had taught ordinary Chinese anything, it was an aversion to the fractious chaos that had made the lives of so many of their forefathers miserable and short. Now, by contrast, the country was stable and peaceful, and growing palpably richer by the year. Wasn’t that more than enough? Surely it was better than the tumult of yet more revolutions in the name of fuzzy ideals.
The biggest global economic and cultural story of the 1990s was the rise of digital technology, and with it the rise of a digital virtual existence for humanity to compete with its flesh-and-blood reality. This was the wave which China rode to ever greater heights. As the world’s hunger for digital hardware exploded, China built more and more factories to churn out computers and mobile phones — later smartphones and tablets — in the hundreds of millions. Much of this activity was still directed from Taiwan, whose own microchip industry was also going gangbusters. Already by 1992, chips and all that attended them had made the average Taiwanese richer than the average Spaniard or Greek, to say nothing of the average mainland Chinese.
Yet even as it remained an indispensable middleman between mainland China and the West, the question of Taiwan’s status seemed to be the one issue that could cause the Chinese Communist government to let slip the mask of a sober, dependable, pragmatic partner in the global economy, the one issue that could cause General Secretary Jiang Zemin to start raving against the outside world like Chairman Mao in his heyday. In June of 1995, as part of the run-up to the island’s first democratic elections, Taiwan’s President Lee Teng-hui was allowed to come to the United States and deliver an address at Cornell University. “We are here to stay!” he affirmed by way of conclusion. Jiang responded with months of furious military “drills” in the Taiwan Strait, firing off cruise missiles that passed alarmingly close to Taipei and conducting a full-scale invasion dress rehearsal on the nearby mainland, involving tens of thousands of soldiers and much of the Chinese navy and air force. It was the most dramatic, provocative show of Chinese conventional-military strength since the Korean War. American President Bill Clinton was alarmed enough by it to send two aircraft carriers to the scene to signal the United States’s ongoing determination to defend Taiwan if push came to shove.
More Chinese missiles were fired in March of 1996, when President Lee finally delivered on the promises he had making for years and conducted a free and fair election on Taiwan; Lee himself, the man a grateful populace now nicknamed “Mr. Democracy,” won 54 percent of the vote and got to stay in office. The elections were a watershed moment in the forging of a separate Taiwanese identity — exactly the thing that Jiang Zemin was desperately trying to prevent with his bloviating displays of strength. In the past, the Taiwanese themselves had always considered it a given that they would be reunited with the mainland sooner or later, albeit hopefully not until the latter’s system of government had been changed into one more to their liking by one means or another. Now, though, reunification began to seem less attractive than permanent independence, especially among the young. If you asked many of them about their ethnicity, they preferred to say “Taiwanese” rather than “Chinese.” They thought the mainland old-fashioned and painfully dull, mired in outdated dogma, while they were building one of the most dynamic, high-tech societies on earth. They had no doubt that their island rightfully belonged to the democratic family of nations, even if said family for complicated reasons couldn’t quite acknowledge its membership in the same way it did other nations. And the Taiwanese also recognized, implicitly if not always explicitly, that the best way to protect themselves from the looming giant to their west that was bent on stamping out their new democracy and assimilating them was to make themselves invaluable to the rest of the world in economic terms; this was perhaps the real cause of the constant sense of frisson that clung to the business life of Taiwan. All of this was and has remained a festering thorn in the eye of Communist China, for Taiwan’s thriving reality is a living negation of the Communist Party’s oft-repeated claims that democracy makes a poor fit with Chinese culture, even as Taiwan’s independent existence is also a daily reminder of the limits of China’s admittedly considerable geopolitical power.
But other ethnically Chinese territories outside of the direct control of Beijing were not as lucky as Taiwan. The British colony of Hong Kong, which had come to be alongside the opium trade and become an official Crown possession after the first Opium War in 1842, had never lost the capitalist impulse that had given birth to it. It was one of East Asia’s foremost banking and financial centers throughout the twentieth century, another place for Chinese and Westerners to come together to find exciting new ways of making money. In the 1990s, the city of 6 million was as vibrant and exciting a multicultural melting pot as could be found anywhere on the planet, its sweaty streets teeming with crowds from all nations and walks of life. It was also one of the world’s foremost movie-making centers. Films like Wong Kar-wai’s Chungking Express — easily one of your humble author’s top ten movies of all time — captured the bracing colors, sounds, and rhythms of life in the city brilliantly, becoming international art-house sensations in the process. “Hong Kong people are always hurrying somewhere,” wrote one cultural critic. “Even when they’re in the middle of one meeting, they’re already thinking about the route to get to the next.”
Yet there was a poison pill lurking behind and perchance driving the city’s manic hustle and bustle. In 1898, Britain had “persuaded” the decrepit Qing dynasty to grant it a 99-year lease on what came to be called the “New Territories” of Hong Kong, an enlargement of the original colony encompassing a swath of the adjacent mainland and some other, smaller islands. That lease was due to expire soon, and China had made it clear that it did not intend to renew it; it wanted the New Territories back, thank you very much. Yet it would be practically infeasible for Britain to cede back to China the New Territories whilst retaining the old city and island of Hong Kong, so interconnected and co-dependent had the two areas become. So, Britain made the hard decision to give it all back. A complicated negotiation about the terms of the handover stretched out over several years during the early Deng Xiaoping era, resulting at last in a 1985 agreement that went under the banner of “One Country, Two Systems.” From July 1, 1997, Hong Kong would nominally become a part of China again, but China would allow it to govern itself under its current semi-democratic system for at least the following 50 years. Still, even in the best case that China abode strictly by the letter and spirit of the agreement — something that by no means struck everyone as certain — Hong Kong would literally be living on borrowed time after the handover, even more so than it had been before it.
The big day seemed weirdly anticlimactic when it finally arrived, as these things so often do. British Prime Minister Tony Blair came to Hong Kong personally for the occasion, looking sober; Jiang Zemin was there as well, looking and sounding smugly triumphant. There were scattered protests in the city, but they were relatively restrained, given that the handover had long since become a fait accompli. The speakers droned on through a stormy evening; the Chinese state media called the rain that was pouring down on their pavilion the “washing away of the century-long humiliation due to colonialism.” Chris Patton, the last colonial governor, called for “celebration, not sorrow”: “Hong Kong people are to run Hong Kong. That is the promise. And that is the unshakeable destiny.” Crown Prince Charles of Britain was gracious if melancholy about this latest stage of the British Empire’s slow dismantling: “We shall not forget you, and we shall watch with closest interest as you embark on this new era of your history.” At midnight, “God Save the Queen” was played one last time, the British Union Jack was lowered, and a red flag went up in its place to the sprightlier strains of “March of the Volunteers,” China’s national anthem.
The next morning dawned hot and humid as usual, and life went on pretty much unchanged for the city’s people. But everyone went about their business with nagging doubts about how long it would remain so. Taiwan at least had a military of its own to defend itself, however outmatched it might be; Hong Kong had only promises from Beijing, which everyone knew that neither Britain nor anyone else would be willing to go to war over if worst came to worst. Hong Kong’s best hope lay in the fact that it was very, very rich, that China’s leaders wanted it to stay that way for their own benefit, and that they might be accordingly reluctant to mess with the formula that had made it so. And for a good two decades, that hope would largely come true.
Another, similar handover occurred two years later, when Portugal gave back to China its colony of Macau, which it had held onto since the Ming era. The terms were almost identical with those that had governed Hong Kong’s change in status: “One Country, Two Systems,” for at least the next 50 years. A city less than ten percent the size of Hong Kong, Macau was already forging a new identity as an East Asian tourist mecca, one of the few places in the region where casino gambling was legal; its annual gambling receipts today are seven times those of Las Vegas, making it one of the richest cities in the world on a per-capita basis.
Thus by the turn of the millennium, China had regained all of the territory it had lost during the pre-Communist time of humiliation, with the one exasperating exception of Taiwan. But it was facing another sort of challenge to its borders, one ironically part and parcel of the same digital revolution that was keeping its factories humming. Digital activists had long seen the Internet, with its ethos of absolutely free information exchange, as the ultimate antidote to authoritarianism. They gloated that countries like China were caught between a rock and a hard place. To reject the Internet was to cut themselves off from the global economy. Yet to embrace it was to give their people unfettered access to news and opinions, something a repressive government could not possibly survive.
Nevertheless, China embraced the Internet with gusto during the late 1990s and early 2000s, outwardly unperturbed by its potential for fomenting dissent. Tens of thousands of workers were deployed to bind the country’s seventeen largest cities together with more than 5300 miles (8600 kilometers) of state-of-the-art fiber-optic cable. “The Internet [in China] was wildly successful beyond anybody’s imagination,” says Michael Robinson, one of the American engineers who earned good money helping China to build out its telecommunications infrastructure. “You couldn’t believe how quickly it took off and how profitable it was. There was definitely an alignment of political will and profit motive to expand Internet access throughout the country as rapidly as possible.”
In 1998, President Clinton dropped in on an Internet café in Shanghai as part of a state visit. “I had an incredible experience,” he said afterward. “Even if [people] didn’t have a computer at home, they could come to the café, buy a cup of coffee, rent a little time, and access the Internet.” Nine years after the Tienanmen Square massacre had put paid to earlier predictions of this sort, he took it as a given that this exposure to a whole world’s worth of thought and information would eventually lead to Chinese democracy. For any attempt by the Chinese government to control the Internet, he laughed, would be “sort of like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall.”
Before Clinton had even left China, a disgruntled citizen named Wang Youcai decided to find out if he was correct. He sent emails to all of his contacts in cyberspace announcing the formation of a dissident party, the China Democracy Party. At one o’clock the next morning, the police showed up to take him away. He was sentenced to eleven years in prison for “fomenting opposition against the government.” China, he had learned at a horrible personal price, was still every inch an authoritarian state.
It has only gradually become clear how the Chinese government managed to square the circle of the open Internet. It was accomplished with the active assistance of many of the American companies that made the dot.com boom happen, the very same companies that in their home country were preaching the techie gospel that information ought to be free. Every year during its Internet build-up, China purchased millions upon millions of dollars worth of routers — the backbone of the Internet — from Cisco Systems, the leading manufacturer of same. These came complete with filtering capabilities, originally designed for Cisco’s corporate customers, who would prefer that their employees not spend their working hours browsing sports and porn sites. The Chinese government first ensured that all Internet traffic moving into China passed through the same few Cisco-managed gateways. And then? “All China did,” notes Michael Robinson, “was turn on those switches for the entire country.” The system would come to be known as “the Great Firewall.”
By 2005, a team of Harvard researchers could conclude that “China operates the most extensive, technologically sophisticated, and broad-reaching system of Internet filtering in the world.” It automatically binned traffic from a whole range of foreign sites deemed objectionable, from Amnesty International to the Catholic Church to all manner of risque sites. (The Communist Party did have some things in common with the censors of corporate America…) Then it conducted more granular scans of everything else that attempted to cross the virtual border, looking for phrases like “human rights,” “democracy,” and “Taiwanese independence.” When it opted not to allow something through, it didn’t send a blaring warning about forbidden content to the user’s screen; it merely sent an innocuous error message, as if the webpage in question didn’t exist at all. In this sense, the Great Firewall epitomized the Party’s more low-key methods of social control of the post-Tienanmen Square era. And yet the hammers always remained ready to fall on folks like Wang Youcai who dared to speak their minds too openly from within China, thanks to automated algorithms and armies of human censors who constantly scoured the Chinese Internet that lay behind the Great Firewall for objectionable content. The state police were only as far away as the phones sitting on these censors’ desks. Just as in the real world, Chinese in the virtual world could freely enjoy all the benefits of thriving e-commerce and social networks, as long as they recognized where the limits lay.
The Great Firewall of China was a fitting metaphor for the Communist Party’s guiding ethos: let the good stuff in but keep the bad stuff out; do business with the democratic world but stay apart from it. In addition to Cisco, many other American tech giants of the recent past and present — Yahoo!, Microsoft, Google, just to name a few — agreed to collude with the censorship regime in return for access to the fastest-growing consumer marketplace in the world. Law professor Peter Yu put an ominous spin on the new digital reality in 2005: “The question is no longer how the Internet will affect China. It is how China will affect the Internet.”
Indeed, in both the virtual and the physical realm, China had more clout by that point than it had enjoyed in centuries. It was now being widely discussed as an emerging superpower, potentially the great geopolitical rival that the United States had lacked since the collapse of the Soviet Union. It had gone from being a recipient of foreign aid to a major donor, and was already using its largess to cultivate relationships and soft power throughout the developing world. Rather than just a place to make things cheaply in the eyes of the Western world, China’s growing wealth had made it a hotly competitive international marketplace, the home of a leisure class eager to flaunt its newfound affluence. Foreign cars ranging from Fords to Ferraris showed up on its streets, along with Nikes on the people’s feet and Rolexes on their wrists. Store display windows overflowed with foreign chocolates, pianos, shampoos, tampons, and Jacuzzis. Avon recruited tens of thousands of Chinese women to sell its cosmetics and lotions to friends and neighbors.
And yet China continued to export far more than it imported; factories for the production of the goods that the rest of the world craved continued to sprout like toadstools after a rain. In 2002, the year that Jiang Zemin resigned as General Secretary in favor of another technocrat named Hu Jintao, China exported goods worth $30 billion more than it imported; by 2008, that figure would be $300 billion, including a $170 billion trade imbalance with the United States alone. Some 70 percent of the non-perishable goods found on the shelves of the American discount-store chain Wal-Mart now came from China, whose gross national product was a gob-smacking fifteen times as large as it had been in 1988. China’s economic rise on the wings of globalization had been the most rapid in the history of the world. As Jan Wong writes, it had “telescoped the Industrial Revolution and a century of development into a couple of decades.”
China’s rise was greeted with mixed feelings by many outsiders, and not only for reasons of economic nationalism. The often miserable conditions under which tens of millions of people toiled in Chinese factories came to light from time to time despite the best efforts of the local authorities; one report claimed that 140,000 people died in work-related accidents in 2002 alone. The reality was that, despite all the Communist Party’s claims of a classless society, China was home to an underclass of migrants and poor that its government was happy to exploit in the interest of keeping the supply of computers, phones, televisions, refrigerators, clothing, and sneakers flowing. As much as ten percent of the population was still malnourished. Not for them was the tantalizing promise of an urban middle-class lifestyle — the same lifestyle that kept the more fortunate citizens from agitating for more political freedom. The multinational corporations that benefited from the exploitation generally reacted only when shamed into doing so by journalistic exposés, and even then did so in neither a protracted nor a thorough fashion. Ditto the Western consumers who had come to take cheap Chinese-manufactured goods for granted.
Another casualty of the economic expansion was the environment. All of those factories were driven by coal- and oil-fired power plants, belching black smoke day and night, with devastating effects on the health of both the land and its inhabitants. Rivers were reduced to toxic sludge by the untreated industrial waste that was dumped into them, while cities were coated in a brown haze that stung the eyes and turned white clothing gray. Sailors who plied the Fen River near the city of Linfen found that the sulfur spewed by a local factory was so corrosive that it turned their barges’ canvas sails into dangling rags in a matter of months. Of course, the environmental damage wasn’t confined to China: sulfur dioxide unleashed from Chinese smokestacks fell as acid rain all over East Asia. By 2010, China alone accounted for more than a quarter of the world’s total CO2 emissions; a Chinese steel mill at that point still released three times as much carbon dioxide for every ton of steel it produced as did a German one. By no means were these things the fault of China alone; they were driven as much by the outside greed for cheap, disposable gadgets, toys, and clothes as they were by the shortsightedness of the country’s own leaders. But regardless, they did much to plunge our planet into the thoroughgoing environmental crisis in which it is now mired.
China built, built, and built, then built some more, until it was consuming 40 percent of the entire world’s cement and steel. In some places, buildings that were just five years old were demolished to make room for still bigger, higher ones. A violent earthquake which struck the province of Sichuan in 2008 revealed the dark underbelly of this drive to build more and faster: thousands upon thousands of buildings collapsed thanks to shoddy workmanship, costing a staggering 87,000 people their lives. Even in this go-go modern era, China still had a tragic knack for playing host to humanitarian disasters the likes of which the Western world could scarcely imagine.
The system that drove all of this development was bafflingly baroque to anyone but the insiders who knew how to play the game. China had ostensibly embraced private enterprise, but business and government were still intertwined to an extraordinary degree, with the lines separating public from private funds blurry at best. What the Communist Party celebrated as a unique new economic model, combining the best features of capitalism and communism, could look to outsiders like nothing more than run-of-the-mill corruption. But because the everyday Chinese people were industrious, because exports were booming, and because the banks always seemed to have more money to lend to any project that fell into trouble, the country got away with it, for the time being at any rate.
In 2008, Beijing hosted the Summer Olympics for the first time ever. The Communist Party pulled out all the stops for what was widely billed as 21st-century China’s coming-out party. New sporting complexes designed by prominent international architects went up all along a five-mile (eight-kilometer) Olympic boulevard, while new subways and roads were laid down throughout the city; the final bill for the urban facelift came to $40 billion. Watching 15,000 dancers twirl inside the new National Stadium during the Opening Ceremonies, most of the visitors and television viewers were willing to give China the benefit of the doubt, were willing to accept it as the ultra-modern, dynamic, fast-growing state it portrayed itself to be. And indeed, it really was all of these things in many respects; more people in China had it better now than they ever had before. But it was also still a deeply authoritarian state, with a circle of leaders who lived in profound fear of what could spring from the very prosperity they had so cleverly unleashed.
“The country was a thoroughly entrenched dictatorship with a sprawling security apparatus,” writes historian Frank Dikötter. “Yet a medley of foreign pundits, ranging from university professors to respected politicians, announced the imminent arrival of political reform.” And why not? Decades of conventional wisdom said that the link between economic prosperity and political freedom was unbreakable, that the more of the one a people had the more it would demand of the other. Even someone as deeply immersed in Chinese culture as Jan Wong could write that “the Chinese Communist Party is terminally ill,” thanks to the country’s burgeoning middle class. She and the many others like her dismissed the possibility that China’s government had found a way to even partially sever the link between prosperity and freedom. And yet, far from being the government’s downfall, digital technology especially was proving an unprecedentedly fine-grained means of social control. Those who dared to defy the Party were no longer paraded before the public in fetters like the Gang of Four had once been. The government had learned to apply a softer touch. Dissidents were first given nothing more than a quiet talking-to. Then, if they persisted, they quietly disappeared, into prisons whose locations, conditions, and even existence belonged to the sphere of rumor rather than fact. Through it all, the Party maintained its painted-on smile, maintained that only it knew what was best for the people and that it was diligently keeping them safe and secure, with enough bread and circuses for all.
Just three weeks after the Beijing Olympics ended, the American investment giant Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy, touching off the worst global financial crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s. China, however, weathered the storm much better than most, thanks to the largest single government stimulus package in the history of the world to that point. General Secretary Hu Jintao crowed about this latest demonstration of the superiority of the Chinese system, which was able to bring resources to bear instantly to aid the people, without wasting time on messy public debates and diluting compromises. In the wake of the crisis, China rocketed past its twentieth-century tormentor Japan to become the second largest economy in the world.
The Great Recession, as it has come to be known, marked the last nail in the coffin of the era of post-Cold War triumphalism in the democratic West. It spawned a thoroughgoing crisis of confidence in the extant global order all over the Americas and Europe that would in turn spawn populist backlashes, demagogic leaders, and isolationist sentiments in the decade to come. China, richer, stronger, and more self-confident than ever before, seemed poised to surge into the gaps thus opened up, to dominate the new century the way the United States had the last one. And it had a leader waiting in the wings who was its strongest-willed since Deng Xiaoping, one determined to turn Deng’s China, Incorporated, into a full-fledged modern Chinese empire to rival the most storied dynasties of its imperial past.
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(A full listing of print and online sources used will follow the final article in this series.)
8 Comments for "Chapter 27: China, Incorporated"
“The current 99-year lease on the island, which the British government had signed with the decrepit Qing dynasty back in 1898, was soon to run out”
That’s not correct. The island of Hong Kong itself, along with the immediately adjacent Kowloon Peninsula, had been ceded by China (in 1842 and 1860 respectively); they were British territory, and Britain had no obligation whatsoever to cede them back. The lease in question applied only to the New Territories, a much larger area on both the mainland and various islands. It was because of the practical infeasibility of retaining just the older regions (New Territories contained roughly half of the population and most of the factories of the entire Hong Kong territory) together with Chinese insistence (and outright threats of military invasion) that the Brits agreed to return them as well.
“A complicated negotiation about the terms of the handover stretched out over more than a decade”
Negotiations started in 1982, the final treaty was signed in 1984 and ratified in 1985, so hardly more than a decade.
I got curious about how that 140k figure for fatal work-related accidents compared. There’s a 2009 paper by Hämäläinen, Saarela, and Takala giving a worldwide figure of almost 360k for that year (vs 351k in 2001 and 345k in 1998). Their estimated stats for China, however, are 73.5k fatal occupational accidents in 1998, 90k in 2001, and 97k in 2003, about 2/3 of the figure you got which isn’t sourced yet; the authors consider it a plausible lower bound.
They go on to calculate an occupational fatality rate of 13.2 in a thousand workers for 2003, which is certainly not _good_, the more so given all the communism and a 1998 rate around 10.4 (what happened there?), but deserves context: western Europe in aggregate reached 2.6 in a thousand that year, the US 5.0, Russia 8.7, Hong Kong and Macau 8.6 and 9.1, India 9.9. China fits in between Egypt at 12.8 and Brazil at 16.1, and there are some 50 countries where more than 20 workers per thousand died on the job in 2003, including several other southeast Asian states both communist and extremely not. It’s not so much that work in China is notably immiserating as that work in the global South more generally is dangerous.
For what it’s worth, the figure of 140,000 deaths comes from a New York Times article by Joseph Kahn, from the April 7 2003 edition: https://www.nytimes.com/2003/04/07/world/china-s-workers-risk-limbs-in-export-drive.html. I now see that the year being referred to is 2002 rather than 2003, so thanks for that!
You refered to Jan Wong as “he” in one paragraph and as as “she” in another, so I am confused if Jan is a man or a woman.
Also, although english is not my native language, isn’t “Films like Wong Kar-wai’s Chungking Express —” should be Wong Kar-Wai’s?
I learned a lot in this spectacular series Jimmy, thanks for that.
One final aside: what are the other nine movies in your all time top ten?
The “he” refers to the young man she was observing. I added a “then,” which will hopefully make that clearer. I believe that the “wai” in Wong Kar-wai is not usually capitalized.
As far as movies… oh, geez. I more meant that if I was to make a list, this film would definitely be on it, not that I have a list sitting here and yep, there it is on it. 😉 For what it’s worth, my two favorite movies are probably 2001: A Space Odyssey and Lost in Translation.
> Nine years after the Tienanmen Square massacre had put paid to earlier predictions of this sort
As an American, I had to look up what “put paid to” meant. Perhaps you’re fine with that — your particular style of writing is a part of your appeal, after all. But it’s not something most Americans will immediately understand.
(Also, this whole series is just such a wonderfully descriptive — and accidentally timely — perspective on one of the most important regions of the world! Thanks for writing it.)
Thanks, but in this case I’m pretty comfortable with the text as-is. 😉