Orville Schell

A 30-year veteran of reporting on China discusses Deng’s counterrevolution.

Image: John Harding

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Communist Party General Secretary Jiang Zemin’s scheduled visit to Washington, D.C., this fall will be the first time a Chinese head of state has come to the White House since 1985. Few American observers are better positioned to put the historic sojourn in perspective than Orville Schell. Schell started writing and reporting on China in the early 1960s. His grandfather was a visiting doctor there, and Schell has visited the country scores of times — most recently to observe the British handover of Hong Kong. Schell has written nine books on China, and most recently co-produced an award-winning “Frontline” documentary called “Gate of Heavenly Peace” about the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989.

In 1996, Schell took over as dean of the University of California Graduate School of Journalism in Berkeley. On the eve of Jiang’s visit, Schell shares his thoughts on potential Chinese flash points, such as Tibet and Hong Kong, and on America’s sometimes inspired, sometimes naive, and sometimes hypocritical relationship with the world’s most populous nation.

Q: What’s the state of China today?

A: China is in between so many different kinds of systems, ideologies, transitions. It doesn’t know if it’s Marxist or Leninist, capitalist or democratic. It doesn’t know, after a decade of emphasizing economic self-reliance, whether it’s now in the world market system. China once said, “Put politics in command.” Now it says, “We have to escape politics; they’re destabilizing and disruptive.” China’s been on every side of so many issues over the last 30 or 40 years. There’s a profound identity crisis in China.

Q: Is it easier to draw conclusions about specific areas or events there? For example, Tibet.

A: Tibet in certain ways has replaced China as the land on which people in the West can project their own fantasies. It’s everything that the West is not. It’s a society that’s built on religion and matters of the spirit rather than on secular society and materialism — a place that’s very isolated. And then, of course, China came along in the ’50s and it was a collision of utterly dissimilar worlds — communist, Marxist materialism colliding with Buddhism. But that made it almost more interesting for the West, because this place of spirituality and mysticism had become the little guy beaten up by the big bad guy.

Q: Is that a proper construction, in your view?

A: China has done some monstrous things to Tibet. But China’s also brought a certain measure of development — roads, power, buildings (even if they’re ugly), a certain amount of education, medicine. Lhasa is quite a drab city as a result, but Tibet was a feudal society completely cut off from the outside world. The Dalai Lama himself says Tibet can’t survive without some affiliations with a large country like China, and he has sort of backed off the idea of independence and says he is now interested in autonomy.

Q: Do you see China’s major flash points — Tibet, Hong Kong, Taiwan — as related problems for the leadership in Beijing?

A: Well, as goes Hong Kong, I think in a way, so will go Taiwan. If the leadership’s support of “one country, two systems” doesn’t work out with Hong Kong, there is certainly little chance of reintegrating Taiwan peacefully back into one China. Of course, China’s record doesn’t make one particularly sanguine about Hong Kong…but if it is able to keep its hands off, it would be a great victory for China. It would show that it’s maturing and could be trusted and that there is some hope for a federation of places like Taiwan, Tibet, and Hong Kong that weren’t under the thumb of Beijing all the time. But I’m not certain that Deng Xiaoping’s successors will adhere to “one country, two systems” if Hong Kong starts to, say, attack the Beijing leadership or print subversive publications or allow labor unions that compete with the Communist Party.

Q: Hasn’t a sea change already occurred since you first went to China?

A: When I first went there, there wasn’t a single merchant on any street, no stalls, no private business, nothing. Deng had an utterly profound effect — every bit as profound as Mao’s initial revolution, which in economic terms, Deng undid. Deng is the counterrevolutionary par excellence in history.

Q: Will Deng’s successors retrench?

A: Some of these people fought for almost 50 years for the Marxist revolution, and I, think it’s very naive for Westerners to assume that that experience, that mind-set, that whole ideology just simply vanished with Deng’s reforms.

Q: So is the country in a transitional phase?

A: China is always “in transition.” Deng was always dying. And now Jiang is always consolidating his power, although actually I think he’s done a reasonable job on that score. It’s just that the nature of the system in China is such that it’s asystemic. There is no system in China for choosing leaders, except they get in the back room and they slug it out, and one day you wake up and somebody’s gone.

Q: This is a country of more than 1 billion, with Communist Party membership around 50 million, and only a relative handful of leaders directing policy, right?

A: In a Leninist organization, the professional revolutionaries are always the minority. But they’re no longer exclusively party members. They’re now using their positions both in the party and in the government to make money.

Q: How has the military evolved?

A: The military has set up enterprises of its own both in and outside of China that have, in essence, turned large sectors of the military into entrepreneurial bases rather than military bases. Anything from whorehouses to nightclubs to factories to overseas construction to investment companies and real estate deals.

Q: And what is happening with U.S. business interests in China?

A: The presumption is if you can get in bed with somebody in the government as an American business, you can buy protection and a ticket to a good commercial future. This is one reason why the so-called red-chip stocks on the Hong Kong market, which are Chinese companies listed in Hong Kong, have just been skyrocketing.

Q: How do you view American commercial ties there?

A: Many people see them as supporting a sclerotic Leninist government, and that by doing business with the Beijing government you are prolonging its ability to survive. Other people see them as the best way toward peaceful evolution. Singapore is Beijing’s model of how you reform economically and join the world marketplace in terms of creating a free market without having to loosen up politically.

Q: Don’t the Chinese argue that they’re just protecting their culture against Western missionary zeal?

A: I just take a very dubious view of this notion that Asian values somehow end up on the side of authoritarianism. Confucius did believe in obedience to authority and hierarchy and this sort of thing, but, on the other hand, he was not inherently anti-democratic and certainly was not anti-humanist; Confucianism certainly does not provide textual justification for oppressing people without due process, torturing them, and suspending their political rights.

Q: So, is China ready for democracy?

A: No. It will not spring forth like Athena out of the head of Zeus any time soon. Still, it’s not too soon to imagine that China could be a more humane government, a government that is based more on the rule of law.

Q: Does America’s moral hectoring help?

A: We have had a long evangelical tradition in Christianity and capitalism, which can be unrealistic. But it is important that the U.S. continue to speak out and trade and carry on normal diplomatic relations — that it not be humiliating or insulting. I’m not in favor of blanket trade sanctions, but there are other kinds of punitive actions that some people think we ought to take — like denying them exchanges, not letting certain Chinese leaders come to the U.S., doing various kinds of sanctions because they sell missiles to Pakistan or nuclear technology to Iran, maybe put some conditions on admission to the World Trade Organization. I’m very leery of such steps, but I feel strongly that the U.S. should not be intimidated into rhetorical silence.

Q: When Jiang visits President Clinton this fall, what would you push for?

A: I’d suggest that they start discussing some sort of solution that would allow the Dalai Lama to go home as a cultural and religious leader and that they would discuss some new prescriptions for Tibetan autonomy. I would suggest they push for renunciation of the use of force in the Taiwan Straits. If Beijing could make some demonstration that they wouldn’t interfere in Taiwan and Hong Kong in the elections that are slated now for spring, that would be very important. And let some political prisoners go. But I don’t think that Jiang Zemin is this strong and able to act unilaterally.

Q: A bevy of former U.S. government officials have become a de facto Chinese-American commercial cabinet, acting as intermediaries for business interests on both sides — Henry Kissinger and Alexander Haig from GOP administrations, former Secretary of State Cyrus Vance from a Democratic administration. How do you feel about that?

A: It has a destructive effect on policy. I mean, it used to be that people left government and retired. Now they go into business. It’s particularly dangerous when people doing business in China become sort of the representatives of the Chinese government in Washington, because the Chinese government has them wrapped around its finger.


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