The butality in Tibet is no surprise. Communist China will never change.

JOHN FRASER April 7 2008


The butality in Tibet is no surprise. Communist China will never change.

JOHN FRASER April 7 2008



The butality in Tibet is no surprise. Communist China will never change.


It’s always the same questions, whether it is about Tibetan protests, or democracy activists, or Falun Gong demonstrators, or whatever: why does China overreact so badly? Why does the government care so much about such small and insignificant groups? Why does China never get it, never seem to understand what our inevitable reaction in the West will be?

And the answer, too, is always the same, or at least it will be so long as the Chinese Communist party controls the country: China overreacts, cares so much, and never “gets it” because it can’t do anything else. Because it lacks the confidence of its own people, the party’s endurance is based on never underestimating the power of small but dedicated protest groups. Because the party knows from its own successful experience 60 years ago that a small but dedicated protest group can take over and control an entire country, it can never let its guard down. Not once. Not ever.

This reality never seems to penetrate over here. Over here, Falun Gong

is just a weird group of exercise and “I-cando-it” enthusiasts. Over there, it’s different. Falun Gong, unchecked, could replace the Communist party. Over here, we wonder why no one in Beijing is negotiating with the pacifist Dalai Lama, who offers the best hope of a fair and workable compromise. Over there, it’s different. Tibetan monks, unchecked, could replace party cadres as moral leaders in at least three major areas of China. Against such a threat, the bleatings of the West are merely ripples in an ocean. If it comes down to a choice of appearing “weak” to such groups or brutal to outsiders, the Communist authorities would not hesitate to choose resolute repression, regardless of the moral or economic costs, regardless of world opinion, regardless—if it comes to that—of the 2008 Olympics. Nothing will be allowed to diminish or otherwise threaten its power base.

If we never quite get all this straight in our heads in the West, it is partly because we hope for the best when it comes to China and the 1.3 billion Chinese. Our affection and concern for this vast population is sincere, albeit mixed with a dash of greed and a dollop of fear over what a China out of control would be like. The affection seems to be more profound for China and the Chinese than it ever has been for India and the Indians, the other population billionaire, and this despite the fact that India is a democracy and its people—for all the acknowledged inequities in their complicated and often tumultuous society—have a far greater moral call on our support.

I suppose the greed factor isn’t just a dash. Today the Chinese economy—a nasty but happy union of the worst of rampant capitalism and Communist suppression of rights—is so hopelessly interlinked with ours that it is generally thought we cannot afford a major altercation. But that isn’t really the case. The altercations will come regardless of interconnectedness, regardless of our naïveté. They came with the Tiananmen massacre and it didn’t take all that long for economic reality to reassert itself. The Tibetan protests will be ruthlessly and efficiently eliminated for the moment, but—barring something on the scale of Tiananmen—it will not lead to a boycott of the Olympics.

Communist officials know this too. They have experience. They know exactly how long it took for the West’s economic horizons to see beyond the massacre and get back to business. Even during the height of the xenophobic Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), with chaos reigning supreme throughout much of the country, the authorities of the day knew that the only real threats

to their power were all homegrown. They worry about outside reaction only inasmuch as it affects the master plan, which—I’m sorry to report—we are not privy to.

once experienced a stunningly emblematic lesson in the penchant of many perfectly decent people in the West to ignore the evidence before their eyes. My wife, Elizabeth MacCallum, and I, thanks to a posting in China at the end of the 1970s, occasionally get asked to tag along on tours of China in return for a few humble lectures about our experiences when we lived there (1976-79).


Each time we go, either on a tour or on a private visit, we are assured that “everything has changed,” and each time we leave, we agree that the sights and sounds are indeed much changed but that, actually, everything is still the same. Take for example what happened to the busload of happy Americans on their way to Beijing from the port city of Tianjin.

We had all been travelling on the MV Pearl of the Orient up the coast of China, docking at Tianjin for four days so that the 300 or so

passengers could visit the Chinese capital. I was in the lead bus, a beautifully equipped, state-of-the-art vehicle. By this juncture, over a week into the junket, I wasn’t utterly in love with the clientele, but this may have had more to do with visceral jealousy. I was never able to draw more than 30 or 40 people to my talks, and they decreased every time I spoke about human rights and the absence of democracy in China. My main competition, however, never had less than 100, and often double that figure. Elizabeth and I dubbed her the Shopping Queen: “Ladies: Shanghai will be the shopping experience of a lifetime but you should plan your strategies now...” Eventually, I got the message and would hold back on the history of repression in China because it was quite clear the clientele didn’t like it. It wasn’t nice. At every port we stopped at, there was a band to greet us as well as wave upon wave of adorable Chinese tots singing our praises to the skies. It was much the same when we arrived at Tienjin, which has served Beijing as its principal port since time immemorial. As our bus hurtled along its way toward the capital, the roadsides seemed bustling with the great Chinese reality of impromptu markets, kids playing pickup soccer, old men at card games, endless meandering bicycles going who-knowswhere. I could sense the consensus on the bus, and even agreed with it up to a point: the country was poor, for sure, but with what resilience and vivacity did the Chinese people go about living in it.

Suddenly we heard the approaching sound of several Public Security Bureau klaxons. Well, I knew they were the sirens of the PSB, but the rest of the bus didn’t and probably assumed it was an ambulance. The two guides aboard from the Luxingshi (the government’s tourism authority) knew, though. They had gone pale with anticipated anxiety.

The sirens grew louder and the bus passengers began to notice that the sides of the road were jammed with people standing still, seemingly waiting to wave us through. As it turned out, we were not the attraction, merely a diversion prior to the headline act that came along soon enough.

Two motorcycle PSB officers wheeled directly in front of our bus and we were


ordered to stop and pull over as much as possible to the side. The bus driver tried to argue that he had important foreign guests aboard, but this didn’t cut any ice. The passengers were now vaguely aware something ominous was about to happen, and heaven knows what was going through their minds. Maybe they thought they were going to be held up for ransom. Never underestimate the power of Hollywood to dominate our imaginations. My wife and I knew exactly what it was, however, and Hollywood had not yet conjured up the ensuing scene.

Within a minute more police vans and a police truck went slowly by our bus. The truck had to go slowly because it was wide and the passage beside us was very tight, with just a few inches of leeway on either side. It contained eight uniformed PSB officers. Then the most important truck arrived, also wide, inching its way beside us but then coming to a clunking stop as it hit the bus’s side-view mirror. Standing unsteadily at the back of the open truck were five condemned men, each with large placards hanging from their necks with the Chinese callig-

raphy for their names prominently written in black, along with a huge red “X” painted over each one, the unsubtle clue to what was about to happen to them.

Each of the condemned men also had an armed PSB officer beside them, holding on to them either by the shoulder or at the neck. The prisoners’ hands were tied behind their backs and they clearly had been beaten up. For the passengers on the right side of the bus, there was only a window glass and less than a foot distance between them and the condemned men. Never before and never again, probably, would they have such a close encounter with the Chinese justice system. One of the condemned looked up, almost disinterestedly. One eye was so bloodied it was completely shut, but with the other eye he and I made contact for a couple of seconds. As I write this on Good Friday, I can see his face so clearly that it unshrouds him and makes my soul shiver.

“They are about to be executed, aren’t they?” a passenger asked after the truck finally made it past us and we were rolling again. The travel guides suddenly seemed to be nowhere so I stood up. I could see people wanted more information now, and it wasn’t about the shopping treats in store for them at the next stop. “What do they execute people for in China?”

“For murder,” I replied. “For rape. For ‘serious economic crimes.’ And for political dissidence. I don’t know what these men did, but their execution will be in a public arena and their wives and children or their parents will be sent the used bullet casing and are obliged to repay the government— ‘the people’—for the cost of wasting good ammunition.”

The rest of the trip to Beijing was very quiet, but less than 24 hours later they were all back to shopping their brains out.

There are, in theory, credible arguments made by apologists for Communist China that such a complex and overpopulated nation needs a tough, resolute government to keep control, that Western concepts of democracy are illsuited for a country with such particular challenges to meet. This argument is allied to the importance, which nearly all knowledgeable observers hold, that it is totally counterproductive to isolate China.

Ignoring for the moment that in its periodic acts of brutal repression, it is not the world that is isolating China, but China that is isolating itself from the world, it is probably important to understand where the extraordinary arc of progress and economic expansion that has been such a feature of Communist China over the past two decades is rooted. Some of those roots are a tribute to the Chinese people’s industriousness and desire to improve their lot now that the government’s all-pervasive, Maoist control of their lives has been gradually lifted. One of the most extraordinary achievements of Chairman Mao Zedong was that he transformed one of the most hard-working and profit-directed societies into a nation of remittance men, willing themselves to override their entrepreneurial DNA and hitch it to the famous “iron rice bowl” of guaranteed minimal daily gruel in return for slavish support of Chairman Mao and his gang of Communist monsters. Since this “iron rice bowl” offer was backed up with the entire vast apparatus

of police, army, re-education centres and prison factories and farms, it wasn’t surprising that so many people bought into it, or bought into it enough to survive.

But the sturdiest roots, alas, are still lodged deep in the murky slime of the Maoist authoritarian past, and that is what best informs us on how to evaluate the reaction to Tibetan discontent.

Everyone, it seems, has a stake in forgetting the worst of the authoritarian past, and the forgetting has been very effective—here and there. It is similar, in kind, to the scenario of Robert Harris’s clever potboiler,

Fatherland, set in a post-Second World War Germany that never lost the war but settled for a truce with the Anglo-American “sphere” and managed to keep the wraps on the Holocaust. No atonement for this fictional Germany, no “peace and reconciliation” program, no coming to terms, just strange, dark no-go areas of history and unexplained mysteries about the missing Jews of Europe, about which there isn’t that much interest anyway.

Some of the no-go areas of contemporary Chinese history are widely known to outside scholars and—presumably—to many high party officials, although in Fatherland, the Holocaust cover-up was immeasurably aided by the fact that secondand third-generation Nazi officials were mostly oblivious to the history. Ignorance is the greatest but-


tress official forgetfulness has in its arsenal, and that works to the Chinese Communist party’s advantage as well. In China, it is not so much the millions who died in various kinds of factional fights and administrationcondoned famines and “class struggles” that haunt today’s embrace by the West. Horrid though the reality of this human catastrophe has been, and horrendous as it also was for the common economic and social good of the Chinese people, it is in the end merely symptomatic of the larger and more pervasive evil.

It is the entire mantra of the Communist party’s creed, its justification to control the lives of 1.3 billion people, that is bound up in the failure to come to terms with the horrendous past. The Communists know that to make proper amends for their cosmic misdeeds would mean first accepting they had no right to control people’s lives. This is simply not going to happen. When you have a gruesome gauleiter like Zhang Qingli, first secretary of the Communist party in the “Autonomous Region of Tibet,” telling the Tibetan people that the Communist party is “like a parent” to them and that “it is always considerate about what the children need,” and then segues into a studiously inflammatory claim that the “Central Party Committee is the real Buddha for Tibetans,” you get a wee glimpse into the sick spiritual territory the party has always staked out for itself along with all its dubious claims of its “inalienable rights” to guide the masses.

It is not wise to make predictions about China. It’s safe enough to say that population issues will not go away, or that the one child per family policy will cause demographic issues down the road. However, most, if not all, of the signal events of the past seven decades—you can start with the unlikely success of the “tiny clique of bandits” who came to power in 1949, and move on smartly through the Cultural Revolution and the arrest of Mao Zedong’s wife along with her colleagues in the so-called “Gang of Four” to Tiananmen and the extraordinary and still surging economic powerhouse of today—were unpredicted by even the most astute observers. That’s why, despite retrospective scrambling, Western journalists really did not foresee the degree of Tibetan resentment that would bring about the clashes that have so dismayed people on the eve of the Olympics.

Our world has changed so dramatically in the past few years alone that we can scarcely remember what reality was last year, let alone during the last decade or century. The Chinese Communist party is counting on that hazy, lazy memory. It offers its ruling elite the best chance of surviving, sclerotic though the system is. What we must do in the West, in Canada, is never forget we are dealing with butchers and monsters who are themselves merely the latest generation of butchers and monsters.

However profitable our transplanted factories are, however low the basic wages of Chinese workers (especially compared to Canadian wages), however wonderful we rightly regard Chinese culture and Chinese ingenuity as being, we must not forget the full reality in the hodgepodge of compromises we make to do business and keep the peace. That reality means that we have sufficient hope in the Chinese people that we will not abandon our own values and their

best dreams, that we understand what the Belgian sinologist Pierre Ryckmans (writing under the pen name Simon Leys) meant when he told us “we are all Chinese,” that when we say we will not boycott the Olympics we do not at the same time shut up about what we know is wrong.

In short, we are called upon to be witnesses, and as witnesses we can make a difference. We can assist the Chinese people in uprooting the evil that the Chinese Communist party is still mired in. If we don’t, the turmoil

will return, again and again. That, at least, is a reasonably safe prediction, and the one that the Chinese Communist party doesn’t want to hear. M

John Fraser is the author of three Chinarelated books: The Chinese: Portrait of a People; Stolen China; and China Hands (with Charles Taylor). He was posted to the Globe and Mail’s Beijing bureau from 1976’79 and is now Master of Massey College at the University of Toronto.