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AFTERWORD While China Cracks BY STEVEN G. KELLMAN THE LONE STAR STATE, large enough in girth and spirit to let El Paso mind its own minutes, sprawls across two time zones. But carpet weavers in Kashgar, two thousand miles west of Beijing, have to get up pretty early in the morning to keep pace with the rest of their country. Though the People’s Republic of China occupies sixty lines of longitude, all clocks must conform to those in the capital. When a new dawn breaks over the Great Hall of the People, the western provinces are still in the dark. China is awakening to new realities, and old oppressions. The Goddess of Democracy effigy that animated activists in 1989 has long since vanished from Tiananmen Square. A short walk away, a more potent symbol persiststhe largest McDonald’s franchise on earth. American catsup is spreading across Cathay, and if the East is still red, it is merely so in tooth and claw, not Marxist hostility to market enterprises. China, which already leads all but twelve other nations in the volume of exports and all but ten in the volume of imports, is bustling with business. Competition is keen among vendors of silk jogging suits and Great Wall T-shirts. But where, asks an American visitor, is the marketplace of ideas? “Writers are no longer punished for expressing themselves,” insists a cultural commissar, deputy chairman of the Art and Literary Association in one of China’s central provinces. “Of course, they must act responsibly.” A poet and screenwriter, he, like other authors, suffered persecution during the Cultural Revolution. Now, twenty-five years later, he celebrates his giant nation’s freedom to write. “China treats writers well if they do well.” Harry Wu evidently did not do well. On June 19, five days after I arrived in Shanghai on a summer Fulbright grant, he was seized while trying to re-enter China. After nineteen years in Chinese labor camps, Wu had found refuge in the United States. But he found no relief from the compulsion to bear witness to terror in the land he had left behind. Wu, as the world now knows, was Steven G. Kellman teaches comparative liter ature at the University of Texas, San Antonio. arrested at the Xinjiang border with Khazakhstan, en route to expose what he calls the Chinese Gulag. In a testament intended for dissemination in the event of his detention and published by The New Yorker, Wu declares: “China’s Laogai, or reform through labor, is the concept that underlies the largest concentration-camp system in human history, and it is the cornerstone of the Chinese Communist dictatorship.” China is a treasure trove for scholars and a tourist’s Shangri-la. But while I reveled in Taoik temples, terra cotta warriors, and sauted snow peas, I wondered what my feelings might have been had I held a Fulbright to Germany sixty years ago. Might I have marveled. at the country’s extraordinary economic rebound, but ignored the suffering that can not be calculated in resurgent Deutsche Marks? Efficient new refrigerator factories in the Middle Kingdom left me cold. I became something of a scold, forever reminding Chinese hosts and American companions that the largest nation on earth was starving for freedom. Wei Jingsheng, a dissident essayist whose sole iniquity is temerity, has been incarcerated for more than fifteen years. Tong Yi was recently sentenced to three years of confinement for the crime of being his translator. Imprisoned for four years for involvement in the 1978-81 Democracy Wall Movement, Zhang Jingsheng received additional sentences for editing a heretic journal, making an anti-government speech, and composing popular protest songs about prison life. Seeking to sanitize Beijing in preparation for September’s Fourth World Conference on Women, authorities reported executing more than ten troublemakers and imprisoning many more, including Christian activists Gao Feng and Liu Fengzang. Even if Pharaonic Egypt, Stalinist Russia, Nazi Germany, and despotic Han dynasties did outdo contemporary China in the magnitude of concentration-camp culture, attention must be paid to Wu. Scrupulously courteous in responding to the foreign devil who dares doubt their specious freedom, my Chinese hosts maintained that the enormity of their population poses special problems and grants special dispensations. A developing nation of 1.2 billion people cannot afford to be too fastidious about “western” concepts of human rights. Brecht’s slogan “Grub before Art” has been transmogrified by post-Maoists into a policy of rice first, human rights last. The statement of principles adopted by the United Nationson whose Security Council China sits as a permanent memberis called the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Freedom vs. sustenance is a bogus dilemma; when information is embargoed and discussion suppressed, economic decisions are disastrous and millions more perish. I am haunted by the culture and the cruelty of China, which invented both the printing press and gunpowder. At Anhui University, a talk on Chinese history concluded with 1949, and the professor refused any questions about sequels. Expatiating on minority nationalities, another estimable lecturer declared that the Tibetans, Mongolians, Uigurs, and other non-Hans enjoy total cultural autonomy. A third expert expounded on centuries of oppression and degradation of women, but proclaimed that sexual equality has now been achieved in China. Played on sheng rather than balalaika, the melody was new, but I encountered the same lyrics during a Fulbright in the Brezhnev Soviet Union. During the dreariest days of Kremlin orthodoxy, imaginative literature, often in samizdat, sustained the Russian spirit. But in China, when I asked the brightest graduate students to name their favorite living Chinese authors, they were unable to name any living Chinese authors. Poetry and fiction do not count for much amid the emporial grandeur of either China or the United States. At a Confucian temple in Nanjing, a professional travel guide was unable to answer a question about the .I Ching, because he was unfamiliar with that classic text. When I asked a Chinese poet to name his favorite foreign authors, he cited Walt Whitman and Jack London, but had not read any contemporary Americans. During my visit, Forrest Gump, America’s cinematic ode to ignorance, was a hit in Beijing. Across from Tiananmen Square, the numbers that flash on a large neon sign signify neither traffic fatalities nor the national debt; they are counting down the seconds until midnight, June 30, 1997, when Hong Kong reverts to Chinese control. What will that mean to the lives of billions? Who, without fear, will be able to say?El THE TEXAS OBSERVER 23