Are the Chinese hard-wired for authoritarian government? Is there a cultural barrier to democracy? Ian Buruma spends more space than warranted in answering these questions with a resounding no.
In his view, there is far too much inclination on the part of Chinese political leaders and their Western apologists to assume that the Middle Kingdom is ill-suited to democracy and that chaos is the most likely result of representative government. In dozens of interviews with Chinese dissidents around the world, including those still residing in China, “Bad Elements” makes a persuasive case that the yearning for accountable government based on the rule of law applied equally to all is not an alien desire to many Chinese. He writes, “. . . Chinese culture is not some monolithic barrier to building democratic institutions.” This is hardly a startling or original insight and thus one wonders why so much of the book sets out to prove what is a common point of view.
Fortunately, Buruma also turns his considerable talents to more challenging questions. He wants to know what makes people risk everything for their political principles. How could someone intentionally put themselves in danger of prolonged incarceration and torture, knowing they risked never seeing their children grow up and that the struggle most likely would be in vain? What did it mean to go through hell and how did they muster the “. . . courage to choose prison or torture rather than submit to the servility, the double-talk, the evasions and dishonesties of life in a dictatorship. I knew that many of these people were flawed, wrongheaded, and perhaps intolerant in their own ways, but I admired their sheer cussedness. I was haunted by the idea of tyranny . . .”
Buruma candidly admits that he is not up to such sacrifice and even backed out of a politically controversial lecture so as not to jeopardize a visa to Singapore where he planned to conduct interviews. The bad elements in China, however, laid their lives on the line, and it is fascinating to try to understand what makes them tick. But, in the end, it is perhaps too ambitious a question and one that is not satisfactorily answered.
Perhaps there are too many interviews and too large a cast of characters, because the thumbnail sketches of the various interviewees are more cleverly crafted than penetrating. The first third of the book concentrates on the Tiananmen Square dissidents who sought refuge in the United States. This is a dismal kaleidoscope of often noisome individuals living in dreary circumstances. He reports that, “I found almost no one with anything good to say about anyone else.” They were largely unprepared for what lay in store for them, drawing on an “ill-fitting quilt of traditional Chinese idealism and romantic individualism, inspired by fantasies of Western-style freedom . . .”
Dissidents who remain committed to the cause are shown to be irrelevant losers and terminal schemers unable to get on with their lives, whereas those who have turned the page are shown to be brassy careerists cashing in on their notoriety while abandoning the cause. Readers are led to sympathize with their struggle and suffering without forgetting how bloody-minded they have become, something along the lines of a respectful dislike. These exiles are gossips, back-stabbers and paranoid megalomaniacs, tearing each other apart despite a shared agenda. There are no heroes among them and one feels relief when the book shifts to Singapore.
Singapore is described as a Chinese Disneyland with capital punishment, a Potemkin democracy where dissent is not tolerated. Lee Kuan Yew is credited with Sinifying the Raj, imbuing “. . . the most authoritarian aspects of British colonial rule with an autocratic Chinese spirit.” In Buruma’s view the leaders of China and Singapore are united in their distrust of sharing real power with the people. He wryly notes that here the third degree is given an original twist, as one prominent dissident endured “. . . being forced to stand naked in a freezing room with the air-conditioning going full blast — a peculiarly Singaporean method of torture: a modern luxury turned into a torment.” Demonstrating that even Singapore’s officials have a sense of irony, he was released and placed under house arrest adjacent to a theme park, apparently not as an added attraction. Not surprisingly the author finds little to admire in a country that seemingly equates dissidence with leprosy, lamenting “. . . the sheer waste of talent and enterprise where there is no room between conformity and marginality.”
The author is not a dispassionate observer of events and many passages seethe with disdain for the current government of China. He writes, “It is hard not to feel enraged by the sheer hypocrisy and mendaciousness of Communist Party rule in China — and of their proxies in Hong Kong.”
For Buruma, contemporary China represents the pitfalls of capitalism without the benefits of democracy and the rule of law. He evokes unforgettably the miasma of corruption, pollution and spiritual anomie that envelops contemporary China, a country that emerges from these pages as unsurpassed for sheer mendacity, avarice and xenophobia. In his view, the culture of duplicity intrinsic to China remains a huge and perhaps insurmountable obstacle to progress of any sort. Having crisscrossed China between 1996-2001, he reports that “There was an unmistakable stink of political, social and moral decay in the People’s Republic, the smell of a dynasty at the end of its tether.”
Readers are confronted with a revealing and interesting montage of what passes for life in contemporary China, one that most Chinese will resent. There is the corrosive Sinification of Tibet and the helplessness of Tibetans in the face of a massive Han invasion. He writes about the gutting of democracy in Hong Kong, the stench of economic development run amok in the special economic zones and the flowering of democracy in Taiwan. There are haunting images of a tawdry and seedy “modernization” juxtaposed against images of villagers yearning for just such a future. Based on these impressions, one wonders if the party leaders Buruma is so eager to show the door might actually succeed in hanging on if they can guarantee a karaoke system in every hovel.
To what extent can the acts of courage and self-sacrifice of the dissidents be tied to religious faith? Why are so many of them Christian? He argues that, “It is not Christianity per se that leads to activism but the other way around. To be an activist with total dedication to the cause, it helps to have absolute faith.” Paradoxically, many dissidents found in the church a “version of their Maoist dream,” something to replace a shattered faith in an all encompassing ideology. Knowing how shredded their legitimacy is in the eyes of a betrayed people, party leaders reveal how vulnerable they feel by adopting extreme measures against Falun Gong. Buruma is convincing in suggesting that “. . . the increasing popularity of many faiths in China is a kind of revenge, against the oppressive dogmas of a morally and politically bankrupt state, but also against the little mandarins who are paid to impose them. It is a case of village China hitting back.”
This is a dark and unrelentingly savage portrait of China. The author endured a lot of trying experiences, difficult travel, dreary places and unpleasant people in order to write “Bad Elements,” and settles quite a few scores in its pages. Commenting on one of his Chinese traveling companions, he scathingly writes, “. . . Cindy still had the village girl’s habit of transforming every public place into a rubbish dump: Within 15 minutes on the plane, and later on the train, our seats were soaked with spilled water and covered in poppy seeds, bits of used tissue paper, and so on. What she did to our seats, other people were doing to China’s streets, rivers and lakes. And what individuals do, factories do on a much larger scale.”
“Bad Elements” is not Buruma at his best; in a book focusing on democracy one would expect more on the vexing question of what it is, especially since he is so assertive about what it is not. However, it is intelligent and often rewarding reportage on what ails China and what some people are doing to save it, or at least themselves, before the deluge. His elegant writing, wry humor and keen observation make this a good read, and one that conveys the fear, sacrifices, frustrations and sense of injustice felt by the Chinese who are trying to make a difference. One can only share his hopes that the dissidents will enjoy a measure of success, and, unfortunately, also his doubts that they will.