Please, please pity my two small grandsons. Winter is setting in in Chengdu, China, where they live, and they have no winter clothing.
That is, they have winter clothing but it is not in Chengdu. It has been sitting on a dock in Shanghai for months.
Many years ago I was a Baltimore Sun correspondent based in the old Soviet Union. Hardly anything astonished us foreign reporters more than the rickety building infrastructure housing projects, government buildings, factories. In a country that had nuclear-tipped rockets to terrify half the world, the elevators didn’t work.
I remember a hotel in Baku, Azerbaijan, in 1978 a Soviet republic. There, the elevators actually did work, but not the call buttons.
So a middle-aged woman was stationed in the elevator, and more middle-aged women on each floor. A phone line had been rigged to connect the woman in the elevator with the floor monitors. Whenever a hotel guest on, say, the fourth floor stepped to the elevator and pushed the button, the middle-aged woman on that floor phoned the middle-aged woman in the elevator.
“Four,” she said. And the elevator lady guided her vessel to the fourth floor.
We correspondents stared at each other, aghast. This is how the world’s second-mightiest superpower operates its elevators. And we are supposed to believe the rocket force works?
China today is very different from the old Soviet Union. For one thing, the elevators in my son’s building work perfectly.
(They also offer huge merriment to English-reading visitors. According to the rules, persons who must be accompanied on the elevator include children under 7, blind people, pregnant women, mental defectives and psychopaths. Also forbidden is “scampering and gamboling.” Good luck with that! My grandsons, ages 6 and 4, are consummate scamperers and gambolers.)
All right, I couldn’t resist that. But the serious point is that my son and his family moved from Seattle to Chengdu in April. They packed summer clothes and a few toys in their suitcases. They packed winter clothes, Halloween costumes and most cookwear in a sea shipment.
Seven months later, that shipment is still in Shanghai. All the paperwork, customs approvals, stamps, chops, etc., has been executed. The shipment is still in Shanghai because for some reason, the proper container is not available to forward it to Chengdu, and no one knows when the proper container may be available.
Can you imagine a shipment sitting in New York harbor for months because no one can figure out how to get it to Denver? Sitting in Busan because there is no way to move it to Daejeon?
Please, tell me again that the 21st century belongs to the Chinese.
A popular theory after the collapse of the Soviet Union was that liberal democracy - contested elections, independent courts, freedom of speech and press - would gradually triumph everywhere. The spectacular transformation of South Korea and other Asian “tigers” that exited from dictatorship seemed to confirm this theory.
Now we are having second thoughts. Messy politics in the United States and Europe seems incapable of dealing with the problems of those regions. Perhaps China - dictatorial China - is showing us the future.
China, where living standards and the quality of health, education, infrastructure have risen spectacularly over the last two decades.
China, whose efficiency in cutting red tape causes American entrepreneurs to say that it is often a better place to do business than the United States.
As China’s leadership gathered last week in the Great Hall of the People to formalize its transfer of power, the machinery of Communist Party and government seemed to outward appearances to be functioning smoothly.
What a shock it was, then, to read a headline in The International Herald Tribune (Nov. 1): “Can China be described as fascist?”
That was the word proposed by Hu Deping, son of a former Chinese leader, Hu Yaobang, before a group of business people and environmentalists in 2005, as reported by Didi Kirsten Tatlow: “No matter how authoritarian this society is, even fascist, the people of this country still want justice. One thing they want is profit, and the other is justice.”
Again, this was seven years ago. Is it merely a smear to bring out a loaded word to tar China with?
Well, there is the one-party system. “Everything in the State, nothing outside the State, nothing against the State,” was the motto of the Italian Fascists. That certainly describes the attitude of a Chinese leadership that cannot tolerate dissent or criticism.
The slogan also describes China’s miracle economy, marvel of the world. The government owns vast sectors of the Chinese economy, which means that political leaders control this wealth. But the leaders are accountable not to stockholders or voters, but only to the continuance of their own power.
The conflict of interest is obvious. The leaders have the opportunity to get rich. So they get rich.
The New York Times on Oct. 25 reported that relatives of the Chinese Premier, Wen Jiabao, whose official biography describes his childhood as “extremely poor,” control assets worth at least $2.7 billion - yes, billion.
Wen’s 90-year-old mother, a retired schoolteacher, holds an interest in a Chinese financial services company worth $120 million, as of five years ago. Other prosperous relatives of Wen include his son, daughter, younger brother and brother-in-law.
In Korea, we have seen this pattern many times - wives, sons, brothers of leading political figures becoming mysteriously rich. What is more natural, if you are in a position to do so, than to look out for your nearest and dearest?
And if the Big Guy doesn’t look out, the little guys will. Recent presidential history in the United States features stories of brothers Donald Nixon, Billy Carter and others - even a few shirttail Obama relatives - on the make.
But it is not only Big Guys. All over regional China big frogs in little puddles are exploiting the impunity of government officials in a one-party system. Farmer Yi’s land is confiscated to build a resort hotel controlled by - surprise! - Governor Wu. Farmer Yi is resentful; Governor Wu is, as they say on the Internet, laughing out loud.
As Hu Deping said seven years ago, “People want justice.”
This is China’s Achilles’ heel. How did China react to The New York Times article about the extraordinary good fortune of Prime Minister Wen’s many relatives? It blocked access to the Times’ English and Chinese Web sites - and to blogs mentioning the Times or Premier Wen.
Of course. If the people can be prevented from learning about it, it is the same as if it never happened.
It’s astonishing, all the information that the Chinese government thinks it can block out. In Chengdu, where my son’s family lives, the U.S. consulate posted air-quality measurements on its Web site. Turns out that it’s quite smoggy in Chengdu.
Seeking to reassure my son, a Chinese official minimized the problem. “It’s no more than the equivalent of smoking six cigarettes a week,” he said.
Right, said my son. And do I want my small sons smoking a cigarette a day, except Sunday?
The government in Beijing took a more direct approach, insisting that providing information about the air quality of Chinese cities was “a violation of diplomatic protocol.”
But of course people do find out. In Chengdu, they find out by breathing. Throughout the country, they find out about the leaders’ wealth by gossiping.
Blocking truthful information is not the act of a confident leadership that will dominate the 21st century. It displays the insecurity of a frightened leadership. And an insecure regime sooner or later is an instable regime.
China may very well dominate the 21st century, but not the China we see today. With its huge resources of population and the social organization that dictatorship has wrought, it is in a leading position. But it will not come into its own until it gains the confidence to embrace - “with Chinese characteristics,” in the mantra of the regime - the possibility that 1.3 billion Chinese deserve better than a government that looks out for itself first.
For now, good luck, Mr. Xi Jinping, the newly sworn president of China. And since you have the advantage of being a dictator, could you please, please, get coats and sweaters from Shanghai Port to my grandsons in Chengdu?
* The author is former chief editor of the Korea JoongAng Daily.
by Harold Piper