New York Times



March 26, 1999

While We Were Sleeping:
China's post-Tiananmen party line

Thanghai -- Visiting Shanghai is always a useful reminder of how frozen perceptions of China are in America today, and how far reality has moved here. To listen to some of the talk in Congress, one would think that nothing has changed in China since Tiananmen Square. To talk to Chinese is to understand that a "New Deal" has been forged in the past decade between the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese people. It is a messy, cynical, pragmatic deal, but it is the central political reality of China today, and it explains why America is winning here, not losing.

While Tiananmen marked the end of the student-led democracy movement in China, it also marked the end of the Chinese Communist dictatorship as we knew it. While China's leaders may have feigned indifference to the outside world, it's clear now that they realized that they almost lost it all in 1989, and that they needed a new bargain with their people in order to survive.

That new deal is as follows: We the Communist Party will remove ourselves from people's lives as never before. You can work where you want, live where you want, wear what you want, study abroad if you want, get from the Internet most of what you want and start a business if you want. In return, the Party will insist on only two things - that you dare not challenge its authority and that you have only one child.

This new deal, and the flourishing of personal freedoms it delivered, helps explain some of the internal stability of the past decade. In 1989, many Chinese who took to the streets at Tiananmen, or passively supported it, came from homes with a bare light bulb swinging from the ceiling, no TV, no phone, one Mao outfit and no prospects to improve their lives. That is simply not the case today.

I participated in a seminar at Shanghai's Fudan University, and was particularly struck by one professor who said: "We need a country in the world, like America, that has a dream to be perfect. And when America is telling China that it is violating basic human rights, we should admit that we have human rights problems. But today's China is better than yesterday's China. We have a way to improve. We feel our lives are better today, and we are not wrong."

Indeed, the combination of rising incomes, rising opportunities and greater personal freedom has enabled the Communist Party to rule today not only by repression, but with the passive assent of China's silent majority. The Party has bought itself some time.

But how much? That will depend in part on the Government's ability to keep incomes and opportunities rising. If it stumbles it is going to have to share power sooner. But it will also depend on a new factor the information revolution that is sweeping China. At the university and elite levels the Internet is now pervasive, and at the mass level there has been an entertainment revolution in the past two years, with the spread of cheap video compact-disk players. Virtually every Hollywood film has been pirated here and they are now being viewed everywhere in China. As a result, the gap between the Communist Party and the rest of China is now growing wider and wider. The Party is frozen and the country is running away from it.

Graham Earnshaw, who runs a booming Shanghai business designing Web pages, has been in China for more than 20 years. He remarked to me: "I was recently out visiting the Hope Group, which is a major grain company and the largest private company in China. I was meeting with the chairman and there were two other people sitting there. I asked him about the company's relationship with the Communist Party. He pointed to the two guys sitting there and said, 'They are both Communist Party members, and my aim is to make them millionaires in two years.' "

No one knows how the political transition is going to happen here. But I do know that everything from American contract law to accounting standards to cultural messages is now winning here more each day. We should keep hammering China on human rights and international norms. The Chinese leadership needs to hear that. But what is driving change here is the educational, commercial, entertainment and Internet interactions between millions of Chinese and the outside world, and that must never be aborted.

In Russia, the Communist Party tried to privatize Russian society and it failed. In China -- if we are lucky -- the Chinese people will privatize the Communist Party.

Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company



August 27, 1999

Whose Web Site Is This?

TAIPEI, Taiwan -- You just knew something like this would happen. China, unable so far to occupy Taiwan on land, has done it in cyberspace. The Internet address was recently claimed and registered by, an Internet portal that is partially owned by China's state-run Xinhua news agency. According to The Asian Wall Street Journal, several hundred Taiwanese professors and lawmakers have petitioned the Taiwan government to reclaim the domain name by taking the Nasdaq-traded to court in the U.S. for misrepresentation.

One country, two Web sites. Not good.

This cyberdrama, though, is a perfect illustration of how all-consuming is the identity struggle between China and Taiwan -- a struggle that has made both states crazy. On one side, it has blinded the Taiwanese to their own strength. This remarkable country so clearly has the winds of history at its back. At a time when China is facing the huge task of modernizing a nation of 1.2 billion people, and could implode under the strain, Taiwan has already arrived. It has Asia's most dynamic economy. It is Silicon Valley's most feared competitor. And it is a thriving free-market democracy. As long as it can avoid provoking a war with China, Taiwan has everything going for it. But tell that to people here and all they will tell you is that China just beat them out of diplomatic relations with Tonga!

But if Taiwan can't see its strength, China can't see its weakness. China is so caught up in the principle that Taiwan is its renegade province that it has completely forgotten that Beijing has to court the Taiwanese people if it wants to win them back by anything other than force.

Beijing needs to try a strategy on Taiwan that it's never really tried before: a charm offensive. I know it's unlikely, but charming Taiwan would surely get Beijing a lot more than its present overture, which is: "Marry me or die." That is, without a doubt, history's worst pickup line.

"The way they talk to us about unification is like a traditional Chinese arranged marriage," said Antonio Chiang, publisher of The Taipei Times. "The father just tells the daughter, 'You will marry your cousin.' There is no love, no dating, no coffee. Look, we're a free country here. If people were attracted to China, there is no way the government could stop it. But they have not made their system attractive to us."

For now, the Chinese idea of a charm offensive is to suggest that the recent declaration by Taiwan's President, Lee Teng-hui, that Taiwan and China should deal with each other as two separate "states" is a formulation that only Mr. Lee believes in -- not the Taiwanese people. The fact is, Mr. Lee was following the public mood here, not leading it.

"Today the average Taiwanese has negative feelings toward China," said Bikhim Hsiao, 28, a pro-independence activist. "The word China means threats and squeezing Taiwan's international space. If the mainland wants us to unify with them, they should tell us the benefits. Look what the latest fad is here -- it's a Japanese doll called 'Hello Kitty' that McDonald's uses as a promotion. People stand in line all night at McDonald's to get them. A Japanese doll! The Japanese colonized us for 50 years, but Japan has a more favorable image here today than China."

Given the history, any overture by Beijing would be greeted here with suspicion. But if China were to speak about coming together with Taiwan in some sort of loose commonwealth, before unification, or if China were to let Taiwan have an observer seat at something as utterly innocuous as the annual World Health Assembly, it would have a big impact. Every poll shows that when China is less threatening, people here identify more as "Chinese"; when it is more threatening they identify as "Taiwanese." The longing for some kind of unity still exists, but it is buried under layers of scar tissue, and China has to decide whether to add to those layers or start peeling them away.

"If there were a soft sell for a change, a soft-pedaling . . . I think it would make a difference," Taiwan's Vice President, Lien Chan, said to me. "Why don't we start by having the two of us -- governments or non-governmental organizations -- study together how we establish a peace zone in the Taiwan Strait?"

Another Taiwanese politician was more blunt: "I could get [China's President] Jiang Zemin elected President here -- easy -- if they would just try a different approach."

Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company