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REVIEW: Paper Tiger – Inside the Real China

In R.Richardson, Reviews, Uncategorized on October 4, 2016 at 12:31 pm

THE REAL CHINA:

“Paper Tiger – Inside the Real China”, by Xu Zhiyuan (published by Head Zeus and translated by Nicky Harman and Michelle Deeter. Reviewed by RUTH RICHARDSON 

“Paper Tiger” is a phrase coined by Mao Zedong  which originally referred to American imperialism. He said, “In appearance it is very powerful but in reality it is nothing to be afraid of; it is a paper tigchairman_mao1949er.”

Xu Zhiyuan uses the phrase as the title of his book of essays, but with slightly different connotations. He believes that China gives the appearance of a transformation into the 21st Century, but “under the bright shiny service lies a political and social crisis.”

Xu is a journalist in his 30s and much of his writing is published outside China. He writes of the contradictions of modern China, the dominance of consumer values above any real commitment to social justice. He paints a picture of the elite who live and work inside air-conditioned blocks covered in one-way mirror glass. Salaries in the financial companies are huge and financiers’ “whirlwind  lifestyle takes them to New York one day and Paris the next”.  But, says Xu, they are unwilling to transform their wealth into wider social improvements.

RELATIONSHIP WITH FATHER:
An interesting essay concerns Xu’s relationship with his father, now in his sixties, who has lived through the Cultural Revolution and seen China’s huge economic boom. “Don’t let your tongue run away with you,” he advises. Xu’s  father always cared about his son’s future, but he worries that journalism will get his son into trouble. He is afraid that voices of dissent will disturb the peace.

“It is difficult,” writes Xu, “for him to believe that an individual’s right to enjoy free speech is just as important as his right to an adequate standard of living.”

EDUCATION: THE WAY IT’S DONE:
I was particularly interested in Xu’s essay on education. Unsurprisingly he is critical of the strict discipline and the exam-orientated regime. The one aim is to gain pupils places at top universities. Linchuan Number One  school, which Xu visits, has 14,000 students. Their curriculum comprises maths, science and formulaic essay writing.

Rows of bookshops near the school’s entrance are full of revision materials; there is no poetry, nothing reflecting  China’s cultural heritage. The school’s library is no longer in use and Xu sees thick layers of dust piling up on the books. When we read what amazing results Chinese school children achieve, we would do well to ponder on how they come about.

FREEDOM TO CRITICISE:
Xu does not call for the overthrow of the existing regime in China, but he wants more freedom to be able to criticise it. The media should be able to expose injustices  and call corrupt officials to account. Xu writes, “We will only have security, democracy and individual freedoms if everyone fights for them. Freedoms that are bestowed never really belong to us.”

Most essays deal with China under its previous leader, Hu Jintao, but in 2012 Xi Jinping took office. Most observers feel that under him a stricter regime has been imposd, and academics, lawyers and journalists are under more pressure to toe the line. It will be interesting to read Xu Zhiyuan’s observations on the current regime. I am sure that he will not be easily silenced.

Ruth Richardson

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