HAS HU JINTAO READ BALZAC?
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:
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?