Thursday, April 12, 2007

Review - The Year of the Rooster

The real dragon

Guy Sorman is a well-known French journalist who spent a year—precisely the Year of the Rooster, stretching from January 2005 to January 2006—in China, during which he built upon his earlier research on that country to pen a portrait of its society. This comprehensive—and in parts, shocking—book is a product of that year’s travels. In Sorman’s hands, China, that utopian land where communism rests lovingly with all-round development, the cynosure of all eyes, western and definitely Indian, comes through as an Orwellian nightmare worse than 1984. For here, the Big Brother not only watches, but also kills and maims.

The hustle and bustle of Beijing and Shanghai hides the stark darkness that is the fate of the Chinese countryside. With most reliable media outlets muzzled by the Party (read the Communist Party of China, referred to throughout this books as the Party, in a not-too-veiled attempt at communicating its sinister power and absolute hold over Chinese society), the news of any uprising or revolt remains hidden from the outside world. So the world gets to see what the Chinese government wants to project: a country on the move, all geared up to host the 2008 Olympics. The truth, as always, is greyer, less delightful.

Turn to page 121, and you may be forgiven for thinking you were browsing an account of the recent Nandigram massacre, whose gruesomeness shook the nation’s conscience. But no, what you are instead reading is all in a day’s work for the Party’s hired goons. In May 2005, a militia squad of the local government at Shengyou expelled a hundred peasant families who refused to give up their lands for the construction of a power plant without being compensated. When the peasants resisted, twelve were killed on the spot. Work on the power plant subsequently began. This is one of the very few incidents that actually got leaked out. Countless other injustices never make it to the international media, and so we are led to believe that peace is thriving in communist China, even as the real truth behind the Curtain, as it were, remains suppressed.

So damaging are some of Sorman’s observations that Joseph Stalin, that greatly vilified Communist villain, starts looking like a benevolent messiah. Sorman narrates the case of one Madam Feng Lanrui, one of the many intellectuals fighting for democracy in China. Sorman meets Madam Feng—an old and fragile woman gifted with an indomitable spirit—addressing a public gathering. He writes, “In the sixties had she spoken as she did, the Party would not have hesitated to send a couple of Red Guards, boys no more than fifteen or sixteen years old, to torture her and force a confession of heresy out of her. She would have been beaten till she did not declare her love for the Party; she would have had to confess that she had been against progress, against history, against China and an American agent in the bargain.” Admittedly, this period is part of the Maoist era of excesses, but the situation continues to be grim. “The executioners of yesterday have become the businessmen of today. And they want at all costs to bury the past.”

In spite of the vehemently anti-Communist leanings of the writer, democracy doesn’t exactly cover herself in glory in his book. His conversations with several Chinese intellectuals who have returned from the US lead Sorman to conclude that the Chinese don’t want democracy as much as the West would like to believe. In their view, democracy may suit diverse societies like India, but for a homogeneous country like China, it would only hasten the rise of mediocrity (this is something we Indians must accept, howsoever grudgingly). Which is why competitive examinations are routinely used as a signpost to the next generation of the Chinese leadership.

Where does this leave us, the readers? Are the Chinese satisfied with their government or not? In Sorman’s view, China is passing through a transitional phase in which the globalising aspirations of its youth are coming into direct conflict with the rigid structure of the Party. The liberalist that he is, Sorman hopes that these urges will fight it out until China sees a form of governance which is predominantly capitalist, and which would ensure that the subdued collective voice of “the one billion people of silence” finally breaks free.

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This review appeared in the Business Standard. The original link is here.

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