China’s shadow

Simon Winchester is the author of, most recently, "The Man Who Loved China."

Jiuquan, a small town in the gritty deserts of northwestern China, was a place once moderately celebrated around the world as the birthplace of that most singular vegetable, rhubarb. But, along with the profound changes that have engulfed modern China, this remote and half-forgotten town has lately taken a very different direction from its botanical beginnings. It has become instead -- and largely because of its splendid isolation -- the main launch center for China’s ever-swelling armada of space rockets.

And at the entrance to its interplanetary complex there is currently a billboard, half in English, that bristles with pride at the community’s makeover. In very large letters at its base there is written a slogan that Western visitors may find more than a little chilling. It proclaims, and without apparent fear of contradiction or challenge: “Without Haste. Without Fear. We Will Conquer the World.”

It is a sentiment well worth bearing in mind the next time you go -- as all visitors to Beijing should -- to see China’s daily national flag-raising ceremony in Tiananmen Square. This event takes place in precisely the location where the tragedy of two decades ago happened. And it is everything that what these days is referred to as merely “the incident” was not. It is precise, disciplined, impeccably choreographed and hugely impressive.

The reverent crowds that show up in the chill before sunrise to watch do not seem to be aware at all that 20 years ago the pavement on which they stand was soaked in blood, that crushed bicycles and injured demonstrators lay all about, that trucks filled with soldiers careered wildly along the grand avenues, rifles blazing in all directions, and that the square was ringed with tanks and armored cars -- all directed at a few thousand defenseless young campaigners for freedom and democracy.


Today’s only connection with that gruesome past -- personified by the soldiers of the goose-stepping honor guard who strut out from beneath the portrait of Mao Tse-tung toward the flag podium like giant automatons -- is that, on one level, the ceremony is a reminder of the raw and ever-present power of the Chinese state. The very power -- patient, measured and implacable -- that is suggested by the proclamation on the faraway space center billboard.

A question that troubles so many of the world’s China-watchers, and quite reasonably, is this: Will that raw power ever be directed again toward the very people it is supposed to protect? Could there be another Tiananmen massacre? Would the government ever again risk bringing a firestorm of critical wrath down on the country that, in the last 20 years, has vaulted into the front row of the world’s nations.

It is a difficult subject to discuss in China itself. It is said still to cause grave dissent among the ruling elite, and former dissidents are still subject to arrest -- a student leader, who had lived in the U.S. since 1993 and was trying to visit his ailing parents in China, was picked up in Hong Kong late last year and remains behind bars. But, generally, it is a non-topic in the media and has been essentially written out of the country’s history.

Bringing it up among young Chinese, many of whom weren’t born when the killings occurred, one becomes aware of what it must be like to live in a society in which information is so rigidly controlled. Most have only the vaguest idea that the tragedy ever occurred. It took several minutes of tactful prompting to remind Daisy, a 21-year-old Beijing sophomore, of what had happened -- and when the penny dropped, she blushed to the roots of her hair, began to stammer and gestured at the back of the taxi driver’s head. “We would be in great trouble if he knew what we were talking about. I know now -- the ‘incident’ in the square. It is something that we know of, but we don’t talk about it. Never.”

I had much the same reaction from a student at Shanghai’s Fudan University named Frederick. “This is a subject that we are afraid to talk about. When we try to do so, China suddenly feels like North Korea, a place that is terribly secretive and paranoid. Normally China ... isn’t paranoid. It is a very free country, though I know Americans cannot imagine it being so. It is free, as long as you don’t discuss certain things. And ‘the incident’ is one of them. The people who got into trouble, what happened to them? We don’t know. We will never know. We are told not to care. There is no information.”

And of those who died? I asked. “Some died, I know. Not many, probably. But we just don’t know.”

They are free as long as they don’t discuss certain things. That is the key, the cleverly engineered way in which the Chinese government manages its population and that ensures, in my view, that, no, Tiananmen will never happen again.

Because to people like Daisy and Frederick, and even to those generations that have a more vivid recollection of the events of 1989, today’s China offers up sufficient freedom for most to live a remarkably content life. Materially, most urban and educated Chinese are in clover; and most Chinese I know seem perfectly willing to accept some curbs on their liberty -- not even setting a particularly high value on those liberties, as once they did. They read of what they believe are the consequences of unfettered freedoms in the West -- violence, corruption, drugs, anomie -- and count themselves lucky that their society suffers so few of them.


Cynics will say that they have sold their liberties for a mess of pottage. But others will say -- and Daisy and Frederick did say -- that the corollary to China’s growing economic well-being and contentment is the soaring condition of the country when compared with the rest of the world. A keen sense of national pride -- something the Olympics did much to nurture -- has the Chinese people in its unyielding grip.

And that, students of realpolitik argue, could lead to what truly matters: that though China’s power will not again need to be directed at its own people, might it instead -- for the first time in China’s history -- be directed beyond its borders?

For what did the signboard in Jiuquan mean? Precisely what ambition did the slogan “We Shall Conquer the World” truly signify?

Local officials explained to me that it did not mean military conquest; China wasn’t about to invade a neighbor, wasn’t going to make threats or commence a program of assertion, expansion or hegemonistic swagger. The slogan merely suggested, and mildly, that China might offer the world another way -- an alternative to the cultural influence of McDonald’s, Exxon Mobil and General Foods -- a reminder that Confucian ideals, for instance, matter too.


Others are less sure the intent is so innocent. There is talk of China acquiring an aircraft carrier. American sailors have recently felt the lash of Chinese anger after straying into contested waters north of the Philippines. Chinese anti-piracy patrols off Somalia have been a great success. There is a growing impression that the Chinese government is beginning to turn its face to the world beyond and look the rest of us in the eye.

As it may need to. China’s immense and ever-growing economy demands raw materials from abroad, secure trade routes, alliances, partnerships and treaties.

Now, with an almost cast-iron guarantee of domestic tranquillity at home, how best can China, in a fickle and dangerous world, guarantee a lasting peace abroad? I suspect that China will work that out, without haste. And I imagine China will accomplish it, without fear. Just as it has so adroitly managed to achieve what will most probably be a lasting peace at home.