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胡錦濤讀過巴爾扎克?

HAS HU JINTAO READ BALZAC?

TOM PLATE

Who is Hu, really?

This question about the maximum leader of China Hu Jintao comes to mindafter viewing the marvelous movie “Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress.” It is easily one of the best movies of the year. In some ways it may also be one of the most important.

Here is an extremely fast summary.  It’s a story about resourceful young people in a rural village during China’s profoundly awful Cultural Revolution (1968-1978). In order to survive the incredible grim reality of this period in China’s tortured history, they uncover a hidden cache of forbidden Western literature and read each other stories to keep their spirits up. These stories save them from despair and hopelessness. Balzac’s stories in particular inspire the heroine – the “little seamstress,” the gorgeous granddaughter of the local tailor – eventually to plot her escape from the confining backwater village and pursue new dreams. What made her leave? Confides the seamstress: “Balzac.”

On one level, of course, the movie can be viewed as a contemporary parable about China today. Will this vast nation ever be able to escape its Mao legacy? Will globalization’s pressures, which have the general effect of pushing cultures to open up, work to pry open China enough so that more of its people can realize their dreams, not just economic but cultural, humanistic, and even political? In effect, is their new leader the kind of man who could read Balzac – or Dostoevsky, or whomever – and find his heart opened, his mind expanded and his life changed?

This major question about China’s leader, Hu Jintao, who begins a 2 week long official visit to North America on Monday, September 5, in Seattle, is in a sense the number-one question about China.  We understand from fragmentary reports from the mainland that the country is undergoing a measure of turmoil. Many in the countryside feel cut out of the rising wealth enjoyed in many of China’s coastal areas. Official corruption, especially at the mid-levels, remains rampant. From time to time the central government in Beijing finds it necessary to stir up the always-dangerous brew of ultra-nationalism to focus people’s minds on problems other than their own (whether on Taiwan or Japan).

But underneath the seemingly seamless surface of China is a roiling political culture hosting a significant and substantive debate about the nation’s future. Two key groups include what might be called the “liberals” versus the “new left.” The former more or less align themselves with the norms of economic growth, the market economy and
further globalization. They accept as inevitable that many will be left behind in poverty even as much of the nation moves forward.

The “new left,” by contrast, argues for more of an emphasis on economic justice, not just economic growth at any price. They view a complete divorce from the redistributionist ideals of Communist Marxism as callous and immoral.

Chinese “new left” reformer Wang Hui put the matter this way to “Global Viewpoints” contributing editor Jehangir Pocha in Beijing earlier this year: “Today China is caught between the two extremes of misguided socialism and crony capitalism, and suffering from the worst of both systems.  We have to find an alternate way. This is the great mission of our generation.”

Many scholars, including UCLA’s Wang Chaohua, editor of the superb book on China’s intellectual scene One China, Many Paths, regard Tsinghua University Prof. Wang Hui’s essay in 1997 in the Chinese journal Tianya as the seminal first shot on what has evolved into the great internal debate on China’s future.

The issue that the West needs to try to figure out is where Hu Jintao’s heart and soul stands on the great issue dividing China. This is the effort to find some kind of magical balance or historic synthesis between unfettered capitalism, which has been so much the healthy engine of the country’s re-emergence as a major economic power, and a reformed socialist conscience, which seeks to answer issues of injustice that pure capitalism conveniently avoids.

Occasionally we hear seemingly sincere expressions of concern fromBeijing about cruelly disparate income distribution -- the growing but not easily quantifiable gap between the relatively affluent and the relatively impoverished.  But at other times we witness dispiriting crackdowns on dissent, we hear about this or that arrest of a journalist, and the foolish ratcheting up of old hatreds, such as the vile anti-Japanese protests on the mainland earlier this year.

If anything, Hu himself, who later next week will meet with President Bush at the White House for serious talks, remains a huge mystery.  The real man has much more of himself to reveal before the world will know in which direction China is headed.  One way of putting it is this: Has Hu read his Balzac? And, if he has, did it make any difference in his life?

 
 

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