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China's Tangled Web in Year of Dragon

Lianchao Han

This week marks the final day the celebration of the Chinese New Year, the Year of the Dragon, a lunar calendar event that occurs once every 12 years. Dragon years have deep psychological resonance for the Chinese, as the dragon symbolizes transformation. But the trajectory of that transformation is not always for the better: the dragon has two faces, and it’s never clear which side will be revealed


During the last Dragon year, 2000, China saw tremendous economic growth and prosperity. But in perhaps the worst Dragon year in modern Chinese history, 1976, an earthquake demolished the city of Tangshan, killing and injuring nearly a million people. On the other hand, in that same year Mao Zedong, China’s long-time dictator, died, ushering in a new era for China. The outlook for the new 2012 Dragon year is unclear, but signs point to a growing struggle for freedom, in which the forces of government control and corruption will be challenged by citizens empowered through the Internet.

For me, the Year of the Dragon recalls the remote town where I grew up, Dragon Mountain, in Hunan Province. The town was named for the mountains that encircle it, which resemble a long, sleeping dragon. The most exciting time of the year for me was the Chinese New Year, when I eagerly awaited the arrival of thousands of peasants from nearby villages who would pour into town to perform their unique dragon dances.

A few dozen young men from each village would form a team to show off and compete against teams from other villages. They rolled, ran and jumped, mimicking the imagined movements that demonstrated the power and magnificence of the dragon. The performances came to a noisy, chaotic ending with teams dancing all over the town hoisting large dragon heads and long dragon bodies high above the crowd as if the dragons were flying. The thundering sound of firecrackers exploding at my feet and above my head was simultaneously deafening and dazzling.

Although one of the poorest places in China, local lore held that Dragon Mountain would be the birthplace of the ‘son of the dragon’ who would rule China. But tough times were a way of life. During a famine in the early 1960s, one entire village after another perished. Fang Zibai, a peasant who claimed to be the son of the dragon, called upon his fellow villagers to rise up against the Communist regime, and thousands followed him. Training themselves and claiming to be the ‘Army of Heaven,’ they believed no bullets could pierce them. Fang’s warriors encircled the local government, but their assault was brutally crushed by the military and Fang was captured. At the side of the beautiful river that ran down from the mountain dragon’s mouth and through the town, I was among the thousands who witnessed Fang’s public execution.

Dragon Mountain remained extremely poor until the 1980s, when economic reform began to change the region. Economic growth connected this backwater to the rest of China, ending the villagers’ isolation. Tens of thousands of people from Dragon Mountain joined migrant workers from other parts of China in booming Shenzhen and other coastal cities to work in sweat shops and factories. In 2010, this mobile work force, with rural labor from towns like Dragon Mountain, sent about $100 million back to their homes. For Dragon Mountain, these funds totaled more than 15 percent of its GDP.

When I left Dragon Mountain in 1969, the town had only about 3,000 residents. Today there are about 120,000, and its GDP has increased over 200-fold since 1949.

The residents of Dragon Mountain like to credit this phenomenal growth to Yang Zhengwu, a local school teacher and a former Red Guard leader during the Cultural Revolution. He rose up to be the party chief of Hunan Province, but was later removed from office during a corruption scandal. Yang directed resources to Dragon Mountain County, and as money poured in, buildings and highways appeared.

But just like the mythical dragon, economic growth for Dragon Mountain has had two faces. Many traditions have been replaced by new, Western-style fashions such as English names for students, pop music and bars. On the darker side, hundreds of girls from the poorer neighboring province of Sichuan have moved to Dragon Mountain, working as prostitutes in hotels, massage parlors and bath houses. In a sad demonstration of globalization, call girls and other sex workers from foreign countries like Russia have flocked to what used to be a backward, isolated community. The moral system has collapsed in Dragon Mountain, just as it has in many other areas of China.

The two aspects of the Dragon continue to show themselves. To meet the new demands placed by an expected doubling of the population, Dragon Mountain is opening a new building for its police station this year. This 15-story building will have 215,278 square feet of space, bigger than the New York Police Department’s headquarters, for the sole purpose of maintaining ‘social stability.’ The construction also removes from production about 10 acres of valuable farm land, an increasingly scarce resource in a region where there is less than a tenth of an acre per person.

Undoubtedly, the enhanced police force will be put to use soon, because the problems in Dragon Mountain mirror the problems we are seeing in other counties in China. An increasing number of farmers have had their land taken from them with little to no compensation, while retired teachers have had their pensions slashed by local authorities. The twist now is that when visits and meetings with officials lead nowhere, these aggrieved groups are finding each other and organizing through the Internet.

Today, the Dragon Mountain region has more than 1,800 Internet cafes, serving tens of thousands of people, 24 hours a day. Some residents of Dragon Mountain have pooled their money to create an online platform to defend their rights. ‘Netizens’ all over China have offered their moral support. Although the local government feels pressure, they are not ready to give in yet, and so the struggle continues.

Zhang Mingyan, a peasant leader who tried to investigate the forced demolition of a home in his village, was arrested and sentenced to a year and 10 months in prison last November for the crime of obstructing law enforcement. Villagers in Zhang’s communities have united through the Internet to demand his release. Another resident of Dragon Mountain, Yang Shifu, who lost both his legs working on a power project, managed to make a living selling plants. But land developers conspired with the local government to invalidate the lease for his land and bulldozed his 250-acre nursery. With no chance of justice in the courts, Yang has taken his case to the court of public opinion and has appealed for help online.

There is a saying in Dragon Mountain: the poorer the region, the greedier the officials become; the greedier the officials, the even poorer the region becomes. One concrete success story of internet connectivity triumphing over corruption, however, came when Li Jin, a female student at Peking University, was raped and exposed her rapist online. Du Chongyan, the accused, happened to be the former party chief of Dragon Mountain. It turned out that Du had received millions in bribes, including a large sum from a construction company that was responsible for faulty work on a big bridge that collapsed, killing 64 people. Some speculated that Du was set up by his competitors and was himself a victim of a power struggle within the secretive world of the Communist Party. In any event, Du received a prison term of 10 years.

Dragon Mountain’s move from poverty to prosperity, along with the struggle between individual rights and government control, is a microcosm of what is going on all over China. The Internet has had enormous impact. The massive culture shift for Dragon Mountain – from an isolated backwater with no paved roads to hundreds of Internet cafes and lightning-fast connectivity to the rest of China – has changed the relationship between the governed and the government. Much of the online discussion happens through China’s homegrown Twitter-like services known as ‘Weibo.’ China’s mobile Internet users are expected to reach 600 million in 2012, about double the entire population of the United States.

The Chinese government, which thought it had mastered the art of directing public opinion, has some catching up to do. Last year, China’s ‘netizens’ defied the government and launched a campaign to support the dissident artist Ai Weiwei. They donated 8.7 million Yuan to help Ai pay a tax bill that many perceived to be imposed by the government as a response to his attacks on corruption and calls for human rights.

It is precisely this culture of connectivity and communication found on the Web that Beijing seems to be afraid of. A number of online activists have recently been tortured and given heavy prison sentences. While China’s leaders take complete credit for the economic miracle, they blame all social ills on Western cultural influence, instead of taking a serious look at their own political system.

During his Chinese New Year address, hailing the start of the Year of the Dragon, China’s President Hu Jintao urged the nation to focus on ‘cultural construction.’ Hu also published an article admitting that Chinese cultural influence abroad did not match China’s economic stature: ‘Western culture is too strong and ours is too weak.’ Perhaps foreshadowing the opening up of a new front in the culture wars, Hu stated that ‘whichever nation can occupy the commanding heights of culture and has strong soft power will win in the fierce international competition.’

For now, however, we can assume that the culture war will first be waged domestically in China. The intention of China’s leaders is twofold. On the one hand, they want to build a more powerful, innovative propaganda machine to legitimate their rule internally, regain control over the Chinese people in a new information age and, by so doing, maintain the stability of the Communist regime. On the other hand, they also want to control world opinion and win the hearts and minds of the West, in particular.

Unfortunately, China’s leaders fail to understand that the dominance of the West in culture is completely tied to the existence of cultural freedom, and that ‘controlling world opinion’ is itself an oxymoron because free thought cannot be controlled.

The tightrope of control that is walked by local leaders in Dragon Mountain is the same one walked by the leaders in Beijing. Whether or not the Year of the Dragon will lead toward greater prosperity and stability or be a year of disaster is not clear. Just as in 1976, the Dragon Year will mark a transition in government as Hu Jintao steps down as general secretary of the Communist Party.

Although Hu and his chosen successor, Xi Jiping, want to take China to even greater heights, it’s clear that their current model of governance won’t work. They would do well to remember that the key to dancing with the dragon is to let the dragon rise as high as it can get, but handle it gently enough so that it doesn’t come crashing down to earth.

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