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The People and the Bamboozle
on February 11, 2012
China is a paradox: hard-charging capitalist country and communist stronghold. There's a Wild West mentality now, with every man, woman, and child for him or herself, and at the same time still tied closely to the one-party state, a political system that brooks no dissent. Yu Hua, a best-selling novelist in China, dissects his country through the prism of his own life in China in Ten Words, and sees the contradictions as having more in common with the country's past than the average outside observer would see. It's obviously an uncomfortable truth: his book cannot be published in China, even though he lives in Beijing and continues to be popular as a novelist.
Hua centers his argument around ten themes, his ten words. They range from, at the beginning of the book, "people" and "leader" to the two final words, "copycat" and "bamboozle." "People" is a signal word in modern China: after all, it's officially the People's Republic of China. But "the people," when Yu Hua was growing up (he was born in 1960, during the disastrous Great Leap Forward) had a very different meaning than it does now. He dwells on what he considers the major turning point for China: the role of the Chinese people in the Tiananmen Square in 1989, and how, once that movement for political freedom was crushed, economic freedom was the only freedom available.
What Hua shows again and again, often through personal anecdotes from his childhood and news accounts of contemporary times, are the startling parallels between the Maoist past and the capitalist present. Many of his stories revolve around the Cultural Revolution, which started when he was six, and only petered out in his later teenage years. It was a time of denigration of past values ("to rebel is justified," Mao told them repeatedly): teachers were scorned; tradition was viewed with deep suspicion; everyone, even family members, were suspect. We've read many accounts of communities turning on themselves during this period, of scores being settled brutally.
What's revealing is how the same themes repeat now, as the profit motive makes people treat their fellow Chinese without compunction (think of the horrific working conditions for the former peasants making our iPhones). Corruption is endemic; cynicism is the rule. And just as in the Cultural Revolution, those who rise quickly to the top of the heap are often quickly swept away, and lose everything.
"Why, when discussing China today, do I always return to the Cultural Revolution? That's because these two eras are so interrelated: even though the state of society now is very different from then, some psychological elements remain strikingly similar. After participating in one mass movement during the Cultural Revolution, for example, we are now engaged in another: economic development," he writes.
That's made very clear in the final chapters. It's open season now for copycats: nothing is sacred, from the products people buy to quotes in the newspaper--often completely made up, shamelessly. Even Mao: the Great Helmsman inspires an impersonation contest held on national TV: the winner is a woman. Hua wonders, upon seeing one of his pirated books for sale on the sidewalk near his home, when someone else will start publishing as Hua.
It's all part of the big bamboozle, or huyou. Hua details one corrupt practice after another, often citing very recent examples that he's heard of or read about. It's not just businessmen on the make; the bamboozle permeates society. And, Hua says, all this bamboozling leads to no good end: we are heir to our actions. His is a warning to China, but the fact that his book won't be read there--at least, not officially--is not a good sign that the country will come to terms with the structural weakness in its foundation.
China in Ten Words is a very personal book, and eminently readable. As a novelist, Hua knows how to tell stories, and it is those stories that pack much more of a punch than a merely political or historical tome might have. Hua tells us how he got started as a writer: being part of the writers' union seemed a lot cushier than his job as a 21-year-old high-school educated dentist, yanking teeth eight hours a day in a small, nowheresville town.
With persistence and determination he makes the leap to the better life, and at the same time, he's telling us about how China has changed: it used to be you were told where you'd work, and that would be that. In other words, some of the changes China has undergone are certainly positive (millions no longer in dire poverty, for starters). The question is, can the country resolve its inherent contradictions without the upheaval it's historically put itself through? Hua doesn't have the answer, but he's not optimistic.