We sat in the roast duck restaurant, an old family friend and I, talking about his first trip to China.
The veteran lawyer and businessman was impressed. The people he’d met had been “incredibly hospitable,” he said, and the construction taking place in the cities he’d visited – Beijing and Shanghai – amazed him. “We don’t do infrastructure like that anymore in North America,” he said approvingly of the many new bridges, highways, airports and railroads he’d come across.
But during his trip he’d also seen that horrifying video of a 2-year-old girl, little Yueyue, being run over twice and then ignored by 18 passersby on a market street. He wondered how that incident could have taken place in the China he’d seen and admired.
I thought of that conversation today as I read through the news headlines from the Middle Kingdom. The country launched another space module today – a step towards establishing a permanent space station – and next year envisions putting female “ taikonauts” into orbit.
Beijing, as the world’s most cash-rich government, is being called on to save the euro, and perhaps with it the world’s current financial infrastructure. And, as I wrote recently, the southern city of Shenzhen is even seeing the Communist Party take another step back from its once-omniscient role, allowing the growth of limited civil society.
That’s the China the businessman – and many others like him – see and want to see.
But the China that killed Yueyue exists in the other headlines, the one that don’t make the business pages and which are conveniently forgotten when world leaders visit Beijing. They tell of a society that allows the persecution of anyone who has a different idea about how China should progress, and where hundreds of millions make the choice (some consciously, others not) to walk by and mind their own business, even when it’s their neighbour who is being persecuted.
The machinery of repression was out again today for dissident artist Ai Weiwei, who already spent 81 days this year in secret detention under appalling conditions – and who now is being made to pay $2.4-million in taxes or face unspecified further measures. (The tax bill is based on a “confession” authorities say Mr. Ai offered during his detention, a time when not even his family knew where he was, during which he shared a tiny cell 24 hours a day with two uniformed police guards. Mr. Ai says his interrogators seemed much more interested in political comments he had made on his blog than in his design company’s bookkeeping.)
Even more dismaying is the case of Chen Guangcheng, a blind lawyer and human rights activist who recently finished four years in jail on trumped-up charges of “disrupting traffic.” Though his sentence is over, he remains under the strictest form of house arrest. He can’t leave Dongshigu village, and those who have tried to visit him there have been blocked and in many cases beaten by thugs.
His neighbours stand aside and let it happen. “These people must have known Chen Guangcheng. They might have even been his student, friends, or relatives. But in this place, at this time, no one cared about what was happening to him. These villagers treated him as if he were a stranger, or an enemy. All these villagers had gotten together to gang up against one blind man,” writer Murong Xuecun wondered after he and four friends were roughed up and prevented from seeing Mr. Chen.
As I wrote previously, it’s impossible for those of us who didn’t grow up in an authoritarian state to know how we would behave if it was us who came upon injured Yueyue lying in the road or if government thugs were harassing one of our neighbours. In China, the smart move is usually to keep your head down and mind your own business.
The Communist Party’s supporters will say that dissidents like Mr. Ai and Mr. Chen don’t matter in the big scheme of things. The argument goes that the persecution of these few is a small price to pay for ensuring the stability that allows the People’s Republic to get wealthier, to build a space program, and to experiment – a little – with civil society.
Reading that half of the headlines, it’s hard to argue that progress isn’t being made. But as little Yueyue’s case illustrated so vividly, the costs of that stability – the institutionalized injustice and indifference – are still being tallied.