Brendan McGetrick
Recent works and current obsessions

Ian Buruma, Writer

For the book MAD Dinner, I interviewed Ian Buruma, a renowned author and educator. Buruma’s interests are wide but this discussion dealt with politics in China exclusively. We talked about how the teachings of Confucius and Mencius are manipulated to justify authoritarianism, the Chinese city as a theme park, and what happened to the leaders of the 1989 protest movement.

Let’s begin by talking a little about your experiences in China. I know you were a student of Chinese literature and history in the ’70s. How has the relationship evolved since then?

I didn’t spend much time in the ’70s in China, partly because it wasn’t so easily accessible, and I got more interested in Japan and Japanese theatre and cinema, and so on. I went to China for the first time in 1982, on a trip through China to Tibet. Then I moved to Hong Kong, where I worked for the Far Eastern Economic Review, and did travel to China quite a few times.

But I really got very interested around ’88, ’89 with the political movements and student movements, and so on. Then I got interested in the whole world of dissidents – in the People’s Republic, but also in the rest of the Chinese speaking world, Singapore and Hong Kong and so on. So, I was very interested in describing China through the eyes of the dissidents – people who opposed the orthodoxy, whether it was communist orthodoxy or authoritarianism in Taiwan or Confucian authoritarianism in Singapore, and I eventually wrote a book about it.

That was very much how I saw it then, and I’m still interested in the politics in China, much more so than I was in the ’70s, because communist dogma and fights within the communist movement over ideology never really interested me very much. What I find fascinating about China now is this combination of political authoritarianism and relative economic liberalism, which is something that the Soviets, of course, never attempted, and I do think that there’s a tradition in Chinese history that supports this approach, and the great question is whether it’s really stable or whether the whole thing will collapse.

In talking with a government official for this book, she argued that the spread of the free market influence and values has, in a way, led to greater public participation. In her case this took the form of suing and lodging complaints with the planning bureau if, for instance, a green area was allowed to be paved over and developed. Her belief was that the free market, by fostering feelings of private ownership and appreciation for value was making people feel more invested in society and the decisions the government makes.

It’s difficult, because it is of course true that the more private property the more people feel that they have a stake in protecting certain qualities of life and so on, and it’s also true that people have more individual freedoms now to live the lives that they choose. They’ve become bolder in asserting their rights. The problem is that, if it isn’t accompanied by political freedoms, in the end you’re always going to hit a brick wall, because as long as the communist party is above the law, either at the national or local level, as long as the party or its rulers can always overrule a court and have its lawyers arrested and so on, it’s very difficult to make any sort of protest stick. So I think there has to be political liberalization as well as economic liberalization to give any kind of public participation, if it’s in opposition to the state or the power holders, any teeth.

Just to elaborate on what I said earlier about forms of authoritarianism in the Chinese speaking world, a common, and I think willful misinterpretation of the Confucian tradition that you hear in Singapore and other places where they talk about “Asian values” and so on is that it is the responsibility of the state to make sure that there is order, security, and that everybody gets fed, and the idea of loyal opposition, that people can oppose the government’s legitimacy, is a sort of western, democratic idea that the Chinese neither need nor desire. This is a misinterpretation of the Confucian tradition, because it is true that Mencius and Confucius said that it’s the responsibility of the rulers to make sure that there is security and enough food, but Mencius in particular also made it very clear that people also had the right to rebel if there were abuses of power. That right to rebel, in a modern context, can only mean that there has to be a certain amount of democracy, and it isn’t true that that’s against Chinese tradition.

Although, as you’ve said, it is present in other places like Singapore, do think perhaps the scale at which this idea of non-democratic liberalization is being applied successfully in China will make it a model to be emulated by other developing countries in the future?

It’s true that it is an inspiration to people who see merit in this model, but I think that it’s vulnerable, because the political legitimacy of the rulers and the stability of the system is entirely staked on economic growth. Essentially what has happened is the urban, educated middle class, who have the most to gain at the moment from this system, has been bought off. And the deal is a simple one: they are guaranteed the stable conditions and economic conditions to become more prosperous, and in exchange for that they are politically acquiescent – they won’t join any kind of opposition against the government. That deal will work as long as everybody, at least in the urban middle class, feels that they really are getting richer all the time, but there is no system in history that can guarantee that in the long term. There are going to be economic downturns, even crises. And, as soon as that middle class that has been bought off feels that they’re no longer benefiting economically, then the whole deal collapses, and then you can get great political instability. In a democracy, even in a democracy as flawed as the one, say, in India, this can be handled, because there are elections, there are ways to protest, there is a free press and so on, but in an authoritarian system, it’s very difficult to see how such political crises can be successfully negotiated without violence.

Our commitment, of course, is to avoiding that kind of violent outcome. Where then would see change coming from?

The government has done one very clever thing – it has expanded individual freedom, but it still cracks down on any kind of organized form of dissent, whether it’s religious or cultural or political. That makes it relatively easy to crack down on demonstrations, protests, and so on as they happen all the time, because it can be localized. It’s not organized on a wide scale. As soon as that changes, things could change very quickly. Now, how that’s going to change, I don’t know, because the communist party will resist all such attempts. One possibility would be if members of a disaffected middle class, either because of economic hard times or another reason, were to give leadership to the massive forms of unrest that already exist, among workers and peasants and so on. Then you could get political change very quickly. Now, how positive that change would be is another matter, but it could happen.

What role can architecture play – as an interface with the public, and a way, to a certain extent, to choreograph life – in advocating change and improvement within the current system?

It’s difficult, because, so far, if you look at the way it’s being done in Beijing, particularly with the Olympics looming, it’s had the opposite effect. This is not to say that great buildings can’t be built, but architecture has been an instrument of the rulers to impose a certain vision on the city that is not always welcomed by the people who actually live there. I don’t think that local inhabitants have been successful in protecting their local environment when the local government has decided that their houses have to be razed to make room for another stadium or a broader boulevard, and so on.

The architecture of the grand projects, which is very much the architecture of China at the moment, fits perfectly with the kind of authoritarianism that they have. Authoritarian governments like massive projects: they like stadiums, they like broad boulevards, they like huge squares where you can have mass demonstrations and so on. And so the Olympics and the attitude of the Chinese communist party dovetail perfectly. They have exactly the same ethos in a way – the ethos of mass spectacle and high-minded slogans. And I don’t think that that helps democratize the country.

How do you see the idiosyncrasies of China’s political economy manifest in its urban life outside of the capital?

The problem, I think, in China is that the difference between the cities is becoming narrower and narrower. You can certainly see this in the development of architecture: in the same way that all provincial towns in Japan are beginning to look like a shrunken version of Tokyo, the same kind of architecture is being imposed everywhere in China – from Lhasa to Chengdu to wherever – and local differences are being wiped out. You get generic Chinese cities that don’t look like anything much in Europe, they are recognizably modern Chinese, but that are very uniform and standardized.

In your book Bad Elements, you describe Shenzhen by saying that “nihilism filled the vacuum of exhausted idealism.” Shenzhen is a model city in some ways, so it is perhaps instructive to look at it in some detail. Could you expand on that observation a bit?

What I meant is that people, after Maoism, were very tired of ideology, of believing fervently in anything, because the belief in Maoism had led to such extreme violence and destruction. And so a society where all you needed to be believe in was getting richer and living in a nicer house and having a good time was extremely attractive, and very understandably so. That’s what I think I meant by nihilism: a sort of ideal of not having to believe in anything.

In past you’ve used the image of the theme park as a metaphor for thinking about East Asian cities. Can you expand on that idea in relation to what you’ve been saying about China’s cities?

The theme park, not only in East Asia, but in America too, is a benign form of totalitarianism. People who dream of building theme parks are usually very authoritarian personalities whose sense of utopia is to have a world that they can perfectly control. And I think Disneyland is a very good example of it. Everything is utterly controlled by the theme park designers and the theme park operators. Everything, including culture and including the past. So, you get a sort of theme park version of foreign cultures and the American past in Disneyland, and it’s all controlled to the smallest detail. Nothing is left to chance or to spontaneity.

It appeals to a large number of people, partly because there are fun rides and so on, but also because, even with group tours when you’re bussed around with people from your own country and everything is organized and you can eat the food you’re used to, even then things can still go wrong, unexpected things happen. In a theme park, you can visit the past, you can visit all the countries of the world, all the exotic places, without, as it where, leaving home. And so, I think the traditional ideal of Confucian bureaucrats to control society as much as they possibly can and reduce individual choice as much as they possibly can is perfectly replicated in a modern form in the function of theme parks.

What do you think is the relationship between the authentic and inauthentic in this context?

It’s a complicated issue, because authenticity does not necessarily mean the same thing in the Chinese context that it might do in the European one. For example, famous, traditional sites – temples, palaces, shrines and so on – are not necessarily represented by the actual building that’s there. It’s the place, and so both in China and Japan, as well as Korea, famous ancient buildings have often been replaced by newer versions over time, and people still regard it as an ancient place.

And so you’re taken to see an old pagoda in China, and you find that it’s entirely made of concrete, but people would still say that it’s ancient, partly because the site itself is. You find a similar phenomenon in art history, where it’s not considered inauthentic for a classical Chinese painter to work in the style of a painter who painted two or three hundred years before, and the individualism of the painter is a more subtle thing.

The fact, for example, that it’s become fairly common in modern Chinese cities to demolish old pagodas and temples and build new ones, either in the same place or even in other places, does not bother many Chinese as much as it might a European, because that’s the way it always was done. Also, in history it’s happened quite a few times that an old capital city was abandoned and a new one was simply built somewhere else. So, the past is perhaps transmitted in a different way than what we’re used to in Europe. Buildings were not erected for eternity in China. They were renewable, replaceable, and so on.

Another issue that we’re interested in is the notion of utopia. You’ve written in the past on the role China has played as a utopia in the minds of Europeans, tell us more about how that has worked.

It’s quite an old idea. Since the days of Marco Polo, people knew that there was a very rich and unknown and exotic world out there. The role fulfilled by exotic places is that it can be used as a kind of counter-model or criticism of the status quo in the world that you live in.

Shangri La, the idea of Tibet, for example, as this sort of spiritual paradise is a very old idea, which already existed in India long before the westerners discovered it. Simply because it was inaccessible and far away, you could imagine an ideal, utopian world, and you could imagine it easily, because there was no way that you could prove those fantasies false.

In the case of China, the best example of this is the way it was used by Enlightenment thinkers like Voltaire, who used the Chinese model as a way to criticize the power of the church in western societies. Their utopian idea was a society ruled on the basis of reason, where you had an elite of educated people, sort of philosopher kings, who could manage a society entirely on a rational basis. Their fantasy of China – because they’d only heard vaguely of Confucianism, the Confucian examination system, which produced a bureaucratic elite, entirely on the basis of merit and education – seemed to them a perfect counter-model to the society, which, especially in France in the 18th century, was still run by an absolute monarchy and a very powerful church. So it was a sort of anti-clerical fantasy.

In a sense, that attitude can also be seen in the 1960s and ’70s, when European and American Maoists saw Maoist China as an ideal counter-model of perfect equality to the capitalist system with its vast differences between the rich and the poor and so on. And again, because China was far away, and you didn’t have to see what it was really like, it was easy to fantasize about it as a utopia.

Do you hear echoes of that idea today when, for instance, polls show that the average European feels that China would be a better world leader than America?

When people say that, that’s simply a form of anti-Americanism. There are not that many other great powers in the world at the moment, and Russia isn’t particularly popular, so China would seem to be the ideal counterweight to the power of the US. But I think that has less to do with what people actually think of China, because they don’t know all that much about it, than what they think they know about the United States.

Originally published in MAD Dinner (Actar, 2007)