Ian Buruma was visiting the island of Hainan in China in May 1998 when news arrived that General Suharto had been forced to step down as leader of Indonesia, partly as a result of massive student demonstrations.
“This is very important news for all Asian people,” said the keen young reporter for a local paper in Hainan. He was greatly excited, unusual in China when it comes to foreign news. We were sitting at the editorial office of a literary magazine. Most of the editors were there, as were some of the main writers. A young secretary passed around paper plates containing bananas and grapes. I was asked for my “foreign” view.
I could only repeat what I had read in the papers in Hong Kong. I said the Indonesian students had been inspired by the example of Tiananmen. This was received with nervous looks and polite laughter. One or two people scraped the floor with their feet. What did I think of the possibility of democratic change in China? It was not a question I relished, for I did not like to hold forth, in my imperfect Chinese, to people who knew the problems of their country better than I ever would. Still, I had to say something. So I said I saw no reason why Chinese could not handle a democracy if the Koreans, the Filipinos, the Taiwanese, the Japanese, and now, one hoped, the Indonesians could.
The usual discussion–usual among Chinese intellectuals, that is–about the peculiarities of Chinese culture ensued. It would take a long time for democracy to develop in China. China was too big. China was too poor. China was too complicated. Chinese history was too long. Chinese people needed to be more educated. They had little idea of democratic rights. If democracy came too suddenly, there might be chaos. And so on. The keen young reporter then asked me whether I could comment on a particularly “sensitive topic.” What about June 4, 1989, the Beijing Massacre? But one of the editors, the most senior person in the room, swiftly intervened, pointing out that I was a “distinguished foreign guest,” who had traveled far, so perhaps I could offer them some insights into the wider world outside China.
Later that same day, I went out on my own for a snack. Opposite my hotel was a half-finished concrete shell of a building. Much of Haikou, the main city of Hainan, was like that. The building boom of the early 1990s had come to a sudden halt, victim of the Asian financial crisis. Parts of Haikou looked as though they had been bombed. A kitchen had been improvised in one of the rooms of the half-finished building. Next door a jerry-built “beauty parlor” was a front for a brothel. A young man, his shirtless back shiny with sweat, was tossing noodles about in a large pot. After some diffidence, he wiped his hands on his trousers and came over for a chat. We were joined by two of his friends and a girl in a filmy evening gown, who worked at another “beauty parlor.” They stared at me and said nothing.
The cook had come down from a village in Sichuan with his sister, who was helping him run the food stall. But he was in debt to the businessman who paid his wages. That was the trouble with the economic reforms, he said. The rich bosses now controlled everything. I nodded, and slowly ate my noodles with garlic and squid. The chef then shifted in his seat and emptied his nose, by first blocking one nostril and snorting in a short, sharp burst, then repeating the procedure with the other nostril. His manners were far from elegant. But he was no fool. “You know,” he suddenly said, “in your country the individual has the right to control his own life. Not here in China. Everything is controlled from above. The Communist Party has complete power. That is why we have no rights here.”
The intellectuals at the literary magazine might well have shared the cook’s view. In fact, some almost certainly did. But one of the oddities in contemporary China is that it often takes a lack of education to be able to express things clearly. Or, to put it differently, it is those who live near the bottom of society who feel the lack of individual rights most keenly. That is why they generally get to the point more quickly.
SOURCE: Bad Elements: Chinese Rebels from Los Angeles to Beijing, by Ian Buruma (Vintage, 2001), pp. 232-233