China Power

Does China Have a Soul?

Recent Features

China Power

Does China Have a Soul?

If China is to navigate the rough waters ahead it will need to show that it is about more than its GDP numbers.

The New York Review of Books blog has posted an Ian Johnson interview with Zhang Ping (who writes under the name Chang Ping), one of China’s most daring writers whom the Communist Party previously hounded out of reporting from China.

The piece is worth reading for both the interviewee and the interviewer. 

Inspired by Liu Binyan to become a journalist, Chang Ping has a career that shares many similarities with that of his role model. But there’s one major difference. Liu, with his journalistic exposes of the inept Communist Party political, economic, social, and moral management of China, inspired a generation of disaffected youth to carry the intellectual flame. 

By the late1990s, when Chang Ping came into prominence at Southern Weekend, a Guangzhou-based newspaper famed for its investigative journalism, the Party had begun to buy out China’s intellectual class so successfully that it could easily persecute those who couldn’t be bought out – individuals such as He Qinglian, Ai Weiwei, and Chang Ping. 

Chang Ping now lives in Germany, but is attempting to start a new media organization to effect change in China.  Unfortunately, as was the case with Liu and He, Chinese intellectuals tend to fade away once in exile. 

For China watchers, Johnson needs no introduction, as he’s the most intellectual of Western reporters working in China today.  In much of his recent reporting, Johnson spends a lot of time sipping tea with exiled Chinese writers or meditating with Daoist masters. And I think he does so because he seeks enlightenment on a question that must gnaw at all China watchers: Does China have a soul? 

This question must sound embarrassingly racist or, given China’s economic trajectory, increasingly irrelevant. But it’s also China’s most important question because the flip side of this question is: Does China have a future?

We are often blind to these questions because we are so focused on economic data, which we faithfully believe to reveal the reality of China to us. But GDP growth, consumer spending, and stock market ups and downs don’t tell us the level of individual happiness or the strength of social cohesion. Economic data may tell us that China is more prosperous and powerful today than at any time in its history, and that’s true. But what’s also true, if you crisscross China talking to elderly Chinese, is that China was more honest and happy back in the Mao Zedong days than it is today.

It’s obvious from his reporting that Johnson would rather trust his own eyes than economic data. He’s interested in China’s intellectual and spiritual state – or what Chang Ping calls “the civic spirit” – because that’s what reveals a nation’s “emotional intelligence,” China’s ability to absorb the shock of the inevitable economic downturn, and China’s will to hold together when the economic glue fades.  

The United States is facing a tough economic storm now, but no one doubts that the American people share “civic spirit” and are all invested in the nation’s democratic soul, as is so eloquently outlined in Jefferson’s “Declaration of Independence” and Abraham Lincoln’s speeches. And that’s why most can be confident that this current recession will only make America leaner and stronger in the end. 

On the other hand, the European Union has no unifying ideas and values, and that’s why the possibility of a Greek default, no matter its impact economically, could begin the process of the EU’s political death. 

Within the Party’s inner sanctums, the nation’s soul is very much a concern.  Consider President Hu Jintao’s speech calling for China to expand its cultural power both abroad and at home: The Communist Party is desperate for a unifying vision to unite the Chinese people for the economic tough times ahead.

Ironically, a nation’s soul and cultural unity comes from the same poets and philosophers, its thinkers and writers (individuals such as Liu, He, Ai Weiwei, and Chang Ping) that the Communist Party has persecuted. The United States soft power – its vision of individual freedom and empowerment that animates both Disney movies and Special Forces troops operating in the world’s most far-flung corners – developed its power and force through generations of open and honest and vigorous debate over its soul.  

Does China have a soul?  We’ll only know once the China edifice starts crumbling. If it doesn’t have a soul, then China may very well fall into the abyss. If it does, whether it be a previously hidden intellectual or religious tradition, it will naturally rise to the challenge.

Johnson is now scouring China for what could save the Communist Party, or what could possibly come after the Party and ultimately save China. And that’s why his reporting, while neither trendy nor topical, is certainly urgent and necessary.