BEIJING–As we approached the outskirts of the city, I felt a little like Indiana Jones at the entrance to the Temple of Doom. I was, after all, not only a fellow at the famously right-wing capitalist Heritage Foundation, but chairman of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation and the last secretary of the Committee of One Million (Against the Admission of Red China to the United Nations).
Although invited by the Chinese Association for International Understanding–run by the international liaison department of the Chinese Communist party’s central committee–to lecture on the origins of modern American conservatism, I wondered: What if I were too free market or too anti-Communist in my remarks? In anticipation of possible incarceration, I had secured (only half-jokingly) promises from my Heritage colleagues as well as my students at Catholic University to launch a global “Free Lee!” campaign if I suddenly disappeared into the laogai.
But the audiences at People’s University in Beijing and Fudan University in Shanghai could not have been more polite or eager to learn all they could about American conservatism, although I quickly discovered they already knew an astonishing amount. Is U.S. conservatism Lockean or Burkean in its origins? asked one earnest scholar. Are Vice President Cheney and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld traditional or neoconservatives? When I presented a copy of my book, The Conservative Revolution, to our host at the conclusion of an elegant ten-course dinner, he thanked me, adding casually that he had already read it.
The familiarity with things conservative was flattering, the intelligence of the scholars and experts striking. Equally impressive, in a “developing” country, were the hundreds of giant cranes and soaring skyscrapers in Shanghai and Beijing, the all-day traffic jams equaling those of Bangkok and Los Angeles, the winning of the right to host the 2008 Olympics and the 2010 World Expo, and the reported annual per capita income of the top fifth of China’s urban population at around $5,000 for a family of three. That puts about 40 million people on the road to the “middle class.” There is no disputing that China is a big country in a big hurry to become an economic powerhouse.
And yet, while the Forbidden City–the former residence of the Chinese emperors–is no longer closed to Beijing visitors, there are many things in the People’s Republic of China that are not open to discussion, regardless of what Premier Wen Jiabao suggests. In preparation for his visit to the United States, he began quoting the Declaration of Independence to Western journalists and pledging to “develop democracy,” protect human rights and improve China’s legal system. But in his conversations with President Bush and other U.S. officials, we can be certain Premier Wen will avoid discussing the following facts.
The millions who died under Mao Zedong’s rule. Mao is revered in China as the Long March leader who united the country and eliminated the warlords. But his role as the instigator of the Great Leap Forward, during which an estimated 30 million Chinese died of starvation, and the Cultural Revolution, which resulted in the deaths of at least one million people, is rarely mentioned.
Deng Xiaoping’s role in the Tiananmen Square Massacre. Deng is lauded as the wise author of China’s economic liberalization. Unacknowledged is his sharp order to the People’s Liberation Army to snuff out the 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square and the lives of several thousand students and others. Crushed beneath that PLA onslaught was the symbol of the demonstrators’ dreams–the 30-foot-high, gleaming-white Goddess of Democracy.
Labor Camps. Despite the personal testimony of dissidents Wei Jingsheng, Harry Wu, and other former prisoners, Chinese officials dismiss the laogai, a national network of labor camps, in which as many as ten million prisoners, many of them political, are forced to produce goods some of which are then sold to the West.
And then there is “Stainless Steel Mouse,” a 22-year-old Chinese student who has been in prison for over a year, and never charged, because she expressed herself too freely on the Internet. Chinese authorities would rather talk about China’s first astronaut, Yang Liwei, than Stainless Steel Mouse, but which is the truer symbol of the “new” China that the Communist regime is attempting to build?
A prominent Chinese academic told me–during my nine-day visit to Beijing and Shanghai–that China has achieved a degree of economic and social progress unprecedented in its 4,000-year history. (But what about the “floating population” of 100 million people mostly from the countryside who are searching desperately for jobs?) Political pluralism, he insisted, was “not far away”–there is village voting and the counties will follow. (But doesn’t the party pick the opposition candidates?) He quoted a popular slogan in southern China–”Big Society, Little Government.” Yet most of the skyscrapers in Beijing and Shanghai are joint ventures with Chinese government agencies and state corporations, including the People’s Liberation Army.
Taiwan came up in every conversation. The island is Chinese, not Taiwanese, declared the professor or the party official or the student, and belonged to China as surely as any other province. When I pointed out that Taiwan had never been under PRC control, the almost fierce response was that Taiwan was a matter of “sovereignty.” Furthermore, the United States ought to stop violating the Three Communiques with its arms sales to Taiwan–although, I noted, such sales are required under the Taiwan Relations Act.
My visit to mainland China was the culmination of a long-held desire, inspired by my mentor, Dr. Walter Judd, who had been a medical missionary in China in the 1920s and 1930s and had often remarked that the Chinese were the strongest people he had ever known and were destined for greatness if they were represented by a government that truly represented their interests. And what governs in China today?
As I stood in the middle of a tranquil Tiananmen Square on a crisp Sunday morning and watched the kites flying overhead and the hawkers selling gloves and caps and regarded the giant outdoor portrait of Mao Zedong benevolently overlooking the square, I could not help thinking that it was as though Mao had never died and the Goddess of Democracy had never existed.
–Lee Edwards is Distinguished Fellow in Conservative Thought at the Heritage Foundation.