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CHINA. Hangzhou. A young couple sit next to the famous West Lake. 2009 (Sean Gallagher Photography)
CHINA. Hangzhou. A young couple sit next to the famous West Lake. 2009 (Sean Gallagher Photography)

China

Mao's revolution at 60: He wouldn't recognize it Add to ...

Business took off in 1996 after Beijing launched a privatization campaign and Mr. Yang was allowed to go it alone without a state partner. His company now employs 12 people, and produces 9,000 boxes of Little Fuzzy Brains a year for sale across the country and occasionally for export.

"If there was no reform and opening, this business would be impossible. We'd still be selling underground, in a secret way," Mr. Yang said.

With his children grown and successful - and affluent enough to send his grandchildren to expensive universities - Mr. Yang is an optimist about where China is now headed. But instead of celebrating on Oct. 1, he says he'll be at his desk.

Like many in this country, where tens of millions are now lifting themselves out of poverty, it's as if he's still trying to make up for all the money he could have made had his early years gone differently.

For all China's recent economic progress, this still nominally socialist state has only rudimentary public health care and just the barest of pension programs, forcing people like Mr. Yang to worry about money at a time when someone like him in the West might be retired and enjoying his success. "I'd like to take the day off, but there's no time. I need to make more money. I need to save for my retirement."

The bestselling novel Brothers begins during the Cultural Revolution when one of the two main characters is caught trying to catch a glimpse of women's bottoms inside the public latrine. In those puritanical times, the character, then a teenage boy, is marched through the town and he and his family are publicly shamed. By the end of the novel, set amid the anything-goes capitalism of today's China, the same character owns a gold-plated toilet seat and hosts a beauty contests for virgins.

The book was criticized in some circles for its vulgarity, but Yu Hua, the Hangzhou-born author of Brothers, says he used graphic and sexual scenes to both capture the wild changes China has gone through in the past six decades and to shock readers into contemplating subjects - such as recent history and today's political system - that are often not discussed. The tactic worked: The novel sold more than one million copies inside China ("Not including fakes," Mr. Yu added proudly), while many others downloaded the book over the Internet, or directly onto their mobile phones.

"Many of my readers were shocked. But after the shock, they realized that yes, life really is like this," the 49-year-old said, sipping an espresso in the lobby of a Beijing hotel.

Like his characters, Mr. Yu came of age during the Cultural Revolution. Later, while studying at Beijing University, he joined the student-led pro-democracy demonstrations on Tiananmen Square. Mr. Yu argues that the military crackdown on those demonstrations - ordered by Mr. Deng - was the most important moment in the past 60 years since it led to today's awkward hybrid of a relatively open market economy with a tightly controlled, one-party political system. It was only this year that Mr. Yu acknowledged publicly for the first time that he had taken part in the Tiananmen protests.

"Before 1989, China's economic and political reforms were both developing. The political reforms were not moving as fast as the economic ones, but they were happening. After 1989, political reform completely stopped," he said. "This caused the social polarization and wide corruption in our society."

As critical as he is of the China's political system, Mr. Yu acknowledges that the fact that Brothers was published at all inside China is yet another sign of how far things have come since the madness of the Mao era.

"There's a lot for China to be proud of. People are richer, we enjoy more freedom," he conceded after some prodding. "For example, I'm talking to you right now, and I don't think I will get in a lot of trouble afterward, maybe just a warning. But if we had this conversation 30 years ago, I would be arrested right away."

Mr. Yu adds some more caveats. China's breakneck economic growth of recent decades is unsustainable, he says, and the rapidly expanding gap between largely urban upper and middle classes and the predominantly rural poor will cause major problems. Like Mr. Zhuang, the dissident lawyer, he worries that the collective amnesia induced by the Communist Party about its past crimes will leave the door open for a slide back into extremism.

But there's one point on which Mr. Yu and Mr. Zhuang agree with optimists such as Mr. Yang and Ms. Wu: The country is heading somewhere completely new that couldn't have been predicted when Mao proclaimed the People's Republic back in 1949.

Mr. Yu chuckled at the thought. "If Chairman Mao were alive today and he saw what China has changed to, I think he'd request that his portrait be taken down from Tiananmen Square."

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