China’s Age of Malaise

Source: The New Yorker (10/23/23
China’s Age of Malaise
Party officials are vanishing, young workers are “lying flat,” and entrepreneurs are fleeing the country. What does China’s inner turmoil mean for the world?
By Evan Osnos

Twenty-five years ago, China’s writer of the moment was a man named Wang Xiaobo. Wang had endured the Cultural Revolution, but unlike most of his peers, who turned the experience into earnest tales of trauma, he was an ironist, in the vein of Kurt Vonnegut, with a piercing eye for the intrusion of politics into private life. In his novella “Golden Age,” two young lovers confess to the bourgeois crime of extramarital sex—“We committed epic friendship in the mountain, breathing wet steamy breath.” They are summoned to account for their failure of revolutionary propriety, but the local apparatchiks prove to be less interested in Marx than in the prurient details of their “epic friendship.”

Wang’s fiction and essays celebrated personal dignity over conformity, and embraced foreign ideas—from Twain, Calvino, Russell—as a complement to the Chinese perspective. In “The Pleasure of Thinking,” the title essay in a collection newly released in English, he recalls his time on a commune where the only sanctioned reading was Mao’s Little Red Book. To him, that stricture implied an unbearable lie: “if the ultimate truth has already been discovered, then the only thing left for humanity to do would be to judge everything based on this truth.” Long after his death, of a heart attack, at the age of forty-four, Wang’s views still circulate among fans like a secret handshake. His widow, the sociologist Li Yinhe, once told me, “I know a lesbian couple who met for the first time when they went to pay their respects at his grave site.” She added, “There are plenty of people with minds like this.”

How did Wang become a literary icon in a country famed for its constraint? It helped that he was adroit at crafting narratives just oblique enough to elude the censors. But the political context was also crucial. After the crackdown at Tiananmen Square, in 1989, the Communist Party had risked falling into oblivion, behind its comrades in Moscow. It survived by offering the Chinese people a grand but pragmatic bargain: personal space in return for political loyalty. The Party leader Deng Xiaoping broke with the orthodoxy of the Mao era; he called for “courageous experiments” to insure that China would not be like “a woman with bound feet.” Soon, new N.G.O.s were lobbying for the rights of women and ethnic minorities, and foreign investors were funding startups, including Alibaba and Tencent, that grew into some of the wealthiest companies on earth. Young people were trying on new identities; I met a Chinese band that played only American rock, though their repertoire was so limited that they sang “Hotel California” twice a night. Above all, the Party sought to project confidence: Deng’s successor, Jiang Zemin, visited the New York Stock Exchange, in 1997, rang the opening bell, and boomed, in English, “I wish you good trading!” [READ THE FULL ESSAY HERE]

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