Show Hide image

The hazards of Chinese authoritarianism revealed

"The End of the Chinese Dream: Why Chinese People Fear the Future" and "Scattered Sand: the Story of China’s Rural Migrants" reviewed.

The End of the Chinese Dream: Why Chinese People Fear the Future
Gerard Lemos
Yale University Press, 352p, £20

Scattered Sand: the Story of China’s Rural Migrants
Hsaio-Hung Pai
Verso, 316pp, £16.99

Any day now, the Chinese political system will go into spasm and produce a new leadership. The backstory of the choices will remain largely unknown, despite astonishing recent glimpses of the infighting in what increasingly resembles the world’s biggest mafia organisation.

If the past is any guide, at the climax of the Chinese Communist Party congress, scheduled for this autumn, nine middle-aged men with implausibly black hair and tightly set expressions will march on to the big stage in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People to rapturous applause. These illuminati will be the new incumbents of China’s most powerful entity, the standing committee of the politburo.

At the end of their expected two terms of office, these men and their families will be fabulously rich. They will be alert throughout to the demands of supporters and wary of attacks by rivals. They will place their allies in key posts to guard against future reversals of fortune. Much lower down their list of concerns will be what the 1.3 billion people they rule might be thinking as they watch this change of shift at the top.

A tidal wave of China-related books inundates the bookshops each year but few of them interrogate what Chinese people outside the privileged urban elites really feel about the past five decades of economic upheaval, social rupture and ideological confusion or about the ruling party and the system it upholds. This is in part because, with more than a billion subjects, even the most conscientious effort can be criticised as too small to be useful.

Equally important is the reluctance of the Chinese authorities to allow foreigners to dig around in this sensitive territory. Gerard Lemos, whose book The End of the Chinese Dream is based on an extended exercise in opinion-gathering, and Hsiao-Hung Pai, whose book Scattered Sand is the product of thorough reporting among China’s most marginalised citizens, both show what can be discovered despite official obstruction.

It is a cliché of many western accounts of China that the double-digit economic growth of the past 30 years must equate to the greatest happiness of the greatest number: 300 million people have been lifted out of poverty; China is now the world’s second-largest economy; the majority of Chinese are living in cities for the first time in history. How could this not be happiness?

The party leadership knows better. It is one of the hazards of authoritarianism that leaders may be unaware of the depth of the people’s anger until it is too late. Lower-level bureaucrats hide unpleasant truths from their boss and suppress truth-telling by others. The regime relies on old-fashioned intelligence methods – the secret police, petitions from unhappy citizens and internal reports from the party’s news agency, Xinhua, to identify dissent. With the explosion of social media, it also harvests the public mood electronically.

Until recently, the kind of qualitative research practised by Lemos was rare. In 2006, he took up a visiting professorship in Chongqing, the sprawling megalopolis in western China ruled at the time by the now disgraced Bo Xilai. His brief was to teach Chinese colleagues research techniques that might help to improve policymaking and implementation. It wasn’t straight­forward. Foreigners are not allowed to conduct surveys in China. Lemos was, however, allowed to erect a “wish tree” in various locations, an idea adapted from Chinese religious practice. He created 3,000 “leaves”, cards on which participants found four questions: who are you, what event changed your life, what is your biggest worry and what do you wish for? The responses were brief and the samples unscientific but, woven into Lemos’s narrative, they illuminate the fear of the future that lies beneath the surface of a rising China.

Lemos’s snapshots reveal people traumatised by rapid change and the loss of community and family ties, deeply anxious about the insecurities of old age and resentful of flourishing corruption and ineffective justice. Despite higher living standards, Lemos’s respondents are beset with financial woes: many are worse off than before, others worried about falling ill and facing medical bills; the young worry about failing the exams on which their job prospects and the hopes of their families depend; children worry about the devastating environmental pollution that has been the price of industrialisation. Small wonder local officials tried to bury the results.

The discontent of the middle classes, generally considered the beneficiaries of China’s economic growth, is perhaps more surprising than the unhappiness of migrant workers revealed in Pai’s account. Pai is best known in Britain for her work on the Morecambe Bay disaster in 2004 in which 23 Chinese migrant workers drowned. She followed their story back to China, then spent two years studying migration there.

The migrant workers are the most recent manifestation of a policy that has existed in various forms since the People’s Republic was founded in 1949: the exploitation of its rural population to fund development. Pai describes how rural men and women, desperate to escape poverty, have been the motor of China’s economic boom. The men build the cities and labour in lethal coal mines; the women work brutal hours in factories turning out everything from shoes to computers for export.

Migrant workers do the dirtiest and most dangerous jobs. In return, they are cheated of their wages, left with industrial diseases and denied basic rights. They exist as an underclass in China and many have been driven to suicide. They don’t show up in China’s unemployment statistics or in average income statistics. (The city of Guangzhou recently announced that it had reached a per capita average income of $10,000 per year, a figure that simply ignored 3.5 million migrant workers.)

They remain non-people. City dwellers whose homes and offices they have built treat them with contempt. They have no right of access to city health services and their children cannot attend city schools. Through their eyes, Pai exposes the brutal realities of the political system that the nine new politburo members will lead. How long it survives will depend on whether they are willing to change it.

Isabel Hilton is editor of

This article first appeared in the 24 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Lib Dem special

Flickr/Alfred Grupstra
Show Hide image

How will future videogame makers design a grand strategy game about the 21st century?

With the diminishing power of nation states, and the lack of conventional warfare, what would a 21st-century grand strategy game look like?

In the world of historical strategy games, it always seems clear how to win. Paint the map your colour. Raise your flag over the capitals of your rivals. Pave the streets of your cities with gold. Games based around statecraft in olden times will tend to have diverse objectives, they usually focus on the greatness of a nation in the traditional senses of the word: military might, technological advancement, religious and cultural hegemony. These same priorities hold up from the times of the Roman Republic to the Cold War.

Yet if games designers in the future were to look at the world of today, how would they interpret the actions of modern governments? Do the same goals as before apply or have we moved on? Are the objectives of contemporary societies different, and if so, just what would a player in a game of 21st-century grand strategy be trying to achieve?

One thing is for sure, the conventional measures of success in historical grand strategy games don’t stack up so easily in a modern setting.

War, for instance, has always been a staple part of historical games and it remains a preoccupation of contemporary society too. In the 15 years of the 21st century, Britain has invaded two countries, conducted armed interventions in three more and is even now lining up the procurement of new fighter jets, new aircraft carriers and new nuclear weapons at incredible expense. So we can safely say we do not live in a peaceful age.

But despite having all this firepower and the political will to bring it to bear at the drop of a dossier, war doesn’t seem to serve Her Majesty’s Government in the way it does in either the history books or the strategy games. There is no territory to be won and no rival great powers being thwarted – only air strikes, occupations and teetering puppet governments.

Indeed the only country whose military adventures bear any resemblance to the old-timey way of doing things is Russia, with Putin perhaps the last of the breed of world leaders who still thinks swapping out the flags on municipal buildings constitutes a legitimate redrawing of national boundaries. Given his famous distrust for technology it seems quite likely he didn’t get the tersely worded Tweet from Obama about how that kind of thing isn’t supposed to work anymore.

On the economic side of things the approaches opted for by governments today don’t fit with the historical mind set either. Nations are no longer trying to get rich for their own sake. Privatisation relinquishes the assets of the state in return for a temporary financial gain and long term loss of revenue. Deregulation and poor tax enforcement bleeds capital overseas. It is here we see perhaps the key difference between games where you play as The State itself and real countries, countries run by people who have bank balances of their own and competing party financiers to appease.

The idea of running a country for the purpose of making that country wealthier and then reinvesting that wealth back into the country by developing assets and infrastructure has gone out of the window. Simultaneously both the leftwing model of a state run for the benefit of its citizens and the rightwing ideal of a country mastering its economy to become a more powerful force on the world stage have been quietly phased out. Outsourcing and tax havens suggest that there is no longer room for patriotism in economic policy – unless you’re China, of course, but it wouldn’t be much of a game with only one nation playing it.

On a technological front there was the space race, and there have even been games built around it. But in the 21st century, the urgency and the sense of competition has been lost. Rovers on Mars, probes on comets and space stations tend to be viewed in a spirit of collective human achievement, partly because of the collaborative nature of modern space exploration, and also, I suspect, because lots of people in those fields are Star Trek fans.

The idea of going to Mars so you can stand on the surface of another planet and tell the Communists to stuff it no longer appeals as much as that whole "pushing back the scientific boundaries for the benefit of all life of Earth" deal. It is laudable, but not ideal for games built around competing with other countries.

In the 21st century grand strategy game, we wouldn’t be looking to conquer the world, we wouldn’t be looking to buy it and we wouldn’t be looking to leave it in our technological wake either. So what does that leave? What would 21st-century grand strategy look like?

It could be argued that we’ve moved beyond the era of nation states as the bodies driving world affairs, and such a game might reflect that. Maybe something more akin to a Crusader Kings game would be the way to go, with the player taking the role of an individual – a connected political blueblood, perhaps, like an oligarch, a CEO, an activist turned politician, a drugs baron or a terrorist leader. Or maybe we would play not as an individual, but as an organisation, for example the CIA, ExxonMobil, Isis, Amnesty International or the Solntsevskaya Bratva.

It may be that we never see the present day immortalised in a strategy game, at least outside of that passing phase in Civilization where everything is either settled down or exploding in nuclear fire. Perhaps we’re destined to nestle into a historically obscure crack between the tumult of the 20th century and something spectacular or horrible yet to come. It is nice to think, however, that the times we live in are at least interesting and that maybe we’ll get to see it all laid out in a game one day, if only to find out what winning the 21st century would look like.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture