Photo illustration by K. Banks.
When the 21st century is old enough to support a sense of historical perspective, the date 8/8/08 may well be more significant than 9/11. The Olympic Games, which begin today, mark China’s modern coming of age.
“Modern” is an important qualification. As the planet’s oldest civilization with a recognizable sense of continuity, China has seen glory before. Gunpowder, paper, printing, and the compass were all products of its ancient genius. But for much of modern history, China was a nation on the margins: misunderstood and discounted, shamelessly exploited by Western powers and brutally pillaged by the Japanese.
Chairman Mao Zedong changed that — though it takes a strong constitution to stomach the murderous nature of his achievement.
Mao brought China neither peace nor prosperity. His Soviet-inspired agricultural policies led to famine; his Cultural Revolution transformed the country into a massive concentration camp. Median estimates of the total number dead as a result of Mao’s will and whim float around 50 million — give or take 10 million. Whatever the body count, most historians agree that Mao was the greatest mass murderer of all time.
It was Mao’s perverse achievement to forge in the smithy of the ancient Chinese soul the makings of a reconstituted superpower. Whether the nation’s ascendancy is because of Mao or in spite of him is almost irrelevant. The DNA is too tight to unravel, the duality too synthesized to deconstruct. Mao, or a version of him, is China. China, in some manifestation, is Mao. Mao’s embalmed corpse on display under glass in a mausoleum in Tiananmen Square taps into the Confucian ideal of ancestor reverence, and yet also transcends it. Mao, the great helmsman, washes all other ancestors with his wake.
The cult of Mao is a form of zombie politics; it is part of the voodoo employed by the shrewd, sophisticated bureaucrats who command the Middle Kingdom. They are, by Mao’s standards, faceless. The art of ruling the world’s most populous nation is to be one of a crowd. (During the terror of the Cultural Revolution, only Mao’s favor could save one from the chaos; to survive, the individual had to melt into the mob. Its memory disciplines the masses.)
China today is a dragon with a capitalist head and a communist heart. It is a living, breathing, thriving contradiction. Because the dragon is rising (the metaphor is no less apt because it is melodramatic), its momentum tends to mask its weak spots.
All things considered, however, China has ridden its momentum to exceptional advantage. It has, from a narrow and admittedly selfish American point of view, promised much (or appeared to promise much) and given little.
The vicissitudes of domestic politics aside, when President Richard Nixon knocked on China’s door 36 years ago, America had little to lose by recognizing the reality (denied — ironically — by people like Nixon) that China was in fact Communist.
More problematic for the average American worker was China’s entry into the World Trade Organization. It is hard to see how this benefited the average American. Yes, there are lower prices for an increasingly huge number of consumer goods made in China. But that appears to come as a direct loss of American jobs with little return in terms of access to Chinese markets.