Jianying Zha – The Tide Players of China
I had the pleasure this week of attending a discussion with Jianying Zha at the bi-annual Adelaide Writers Week.
Jianying Zha is a Chinese writer and media critic who lives between Beijing and New York. She has been published in the New Yorker, New York Times, Dushu and Wanxiang. She is also the China representative of the India China Institute at The New School. Jianying Zha has published two books in English: China Pop (1995) and Tide Players (2011).
Zha is attending Adelaide to speak at Writers Week, an event held every two years in Adelaide to coincide with the Adelaide Festival. At this festival Zha was promoting her new book “Tide Players: The Movers and Shakers of a Rising China.” This hub is a review of her interview to the audience on Thursday 8 March 2012 in relation to her work.
The title of the book ‘Tide Players’ refers to the 11th century invention of the tradition of individuals who surf the tide at the ‘bore’ where life was risked for greater glory. According to Zha the leading players in China are driving the emergence of this nation...and China needs brave, risky people to lead them into a new future.
I am about to read the book, so look out for a future hub on the review of Tide Players, but Zha spent a little bit of time talking about the players:
· A tycoon that had come from nothing to become a billionaire and how he is spending this wealth to avenge his mother’s death
· Property developers who built the Soho buildings in Beijing and how they are known as the ‘Trumps’ of Beijing
· The challenges that a university professor is experiencing
· An enemy of the state – a profile on her dissident brother and the monthly visit to the No. 2 prison in Beijing
Zha wanted to focus on entrepreneurs, people who went from nothing to something, people that who under Mao were persecuted or poor and how they managed their transition into who they are today. She also wanted the perspective of the intellectuals, like her brother, the elite universities and the dissidents and how they push the envelope of change. In essence, combining a mix of politics and culture.
Focus on the Human
In the post Tiananmen Square incident many intellectuals left China, Zha included. The Government also changed, prior to the incident there was a cultural renaissance in China and new Chinese icons. The State changed this focus in the 90s to business and making money. Basically the focus went from culture to business.
In China Zha recommends that one steers clear from Government, culture and politics and focuses on the human. An example of this is the businessman who wants to avenge his mother’s death. This billionaire made his money in a Best Buy type business, but when he was a child his mother was executed by the State due to her ideals. Eventually the children got ¥1000 compensation, so he spent ¥500 to get married and invested the other ¥500 in a business. Now that he has made his fortune he is spending the money to clear his mother’s name. This is a human story and is a reflection of the modern China.
Another human story is the tensions between the reformers in China. Some will not compromise (the dissidents) whereas others are willing to compromise through a balancing act. It’s really a story of forced or radical change with others who think evolutionary change is more sustainable. Dissidents do exist in China, many in anonymity, especially via the web. The web allows people to force change and the State is finding that it must become for transparent due to this medium. According to Zha, Chinese want democracy, but they are not willing to fight or die for it. They want a better life, but understand that the society needs time to develop and create change that is sustainable.
The focus for China is to lift 600 million people out of poverty. Human rights need to be priority #1. Once people are lifted out of poverty then people want more, the middle class will rise and they will want change. Chinese are able to travel freely around the country, to foreign countries and they can use the web. They see the freedoms that other people have and this will cause a natural change over time. This will eventually lead to more openness.
Zha’s position is that China needs democracy tomorrow, not democracy today. We need patience.
Q&A Session – How does China view Australia?
The Chinese really appreciated Rudd and that he spoke Chinese, it was showed on State TV. There is a close trading relationship and Chinese are now immigrating to Australia. While Australia is viewed positively, knowledge is lacking.
Q&A Session – Impact of the 12.7% in Military Spend
China recently said that they will increase military spend by 12.7% (still less than a quarter of total USA spend) with a focus on internal enemies. Zha says that the State remains concerned about internal enemies and that the nation could implode with riots or protests at any time. Extra resources in this area will help to keep the peace. Since 2008 there has been an internal enemy’s focus as there was also an increase in protests, mainly in areas of land grab, corruption and political reform. With the advent of the web this is now getting a wider audience both within and out of China. Also there has been an increased focus in part due to the Arab Spring.
Q&A Session – Books & Media Censorship
Zha was asked how the State views books such as Mao’s Last Dancer. Zha said that as long as the ‘bad guys’ are from the Cultural Revolution (which the current Government has distanced itself from) and it doesn’t involve Mao (but it’s OK if it was his wife as she was one of the bad guys) then it’s all OK!
Q&A Session – Citizen’s Freedom
The average Chinese citizen is growing freedom every day. They can move cities, they can go anywhere in China or visit other countries, read what they like & surf the net. More and more freedoms are available. Back in the Cultural Revolution you had to get permission to marry someone and even in the 80s you couldn’t hold hands in public. Today you can embrace in public (kiss even!), go to nightclubs, drink and be a normal world citizen. The people without freedoms are the dissidents and journalists who are controlled. Depending on who you are may mean that you can’t go to city or a region that is experiencing problems such as protests and riots. The key here is to understand that personal freedom is increasing, but don’t cross the State,
Q&A Session – Critical Thinking
The Chinese education system isn’t renown for critical thinking. I’ve attended a Chinese lecture and the lecturer sits at the front of the class and speaks for 90 minutes without stopping and then leaves...not a lot a time to become critical! So, the system doesn’t allow for critical thinking, rather it wants students to conform. There are, however, a lot of liberal teachers who will give their version of events along with the web that is changing the way the young Chinese think.
Adelaide Writer’s Week
It was a pleasure to hear Jianying Zha speak at the Writers Week and to hear her thoughts into the modern China. What I heard was nothing new, but a reinforcement of what I had learned during my study tour to China in 2010 and from authors such as Marina Zhang (China 2.0: The Transformation of an Emerging Superpower…and the New Opportunities).
The key points for me is that China will become a democracy in the future, but through an evolutionary sustainable process, not a radical change and that the players in China today are risk takers that are willing to be brave to forge the new China.
Look out for a future hub on the review of Jianying Zha “Tide Players: The Movers and Shakers of a Rising China” (2011, The New Press, New York).