My connection to China goes back 35 years. The country is a part of my life and always will be.
But at times the connection grows thin. I last visited in September. Not that long ago, but it feels distant. The third Ellie McEnroe book (my series set in China) is finished, save for a review of the page proofs when they are available. I don't know if or when I'll write another one. Not for business reasons, but for creative ones. Ellie had a story, and while I won't say that her story ends with Dragon Day, a chapter in her life definitely does.
Meanwhile, I'm writing a book set in the exotic US and am in the final third of the draft, the point where my creative focus narrows to the extent that I really can't think about much of anything else. Doing laundry, getting my car smogged, my teeth cleaned, my hair cut, all of this minutiae feels huge and overwhelming. And you know, it's just not that hard to get your car smogged.
The book I have tentatively planned to write next is also set in the US, so it's going to be a while before I return to China, at least in a novel. Physically, I hope to make my annual trip later in the year. Fingers crossed on that one.
I do keep up on the news from China. And lately, it's been pretty depressing.
A lot of people had high hopes for incoming president Xi Jinping. Especially after the years of waiting for predecessors Hu Jintao and "Grandpa" Wen Jiabao to do…something. To make good on their promises of political reform, of addressing income inequality and corruption, to ease net censorship and open intellectual discourse. But Hu was a bland character in public, cut from the cloth of bland bureaucrats who recited canned speeches and never had a dyed-black hair out of place.
Xi came in with the promise of something different. He had charisma, a famous folk-singing wife. And he began an anti-corruption campaign that promised to go after both "Tigers and Flies," the powerful and the lowly alike. While it's true that many officials have been sacked and some high-level "Tigers" brought low, it is still unclear to what extent this is an anti-corruption campaign and to what extent it is a consolidation of power. But most China watchers agree that Xi represents a break from the overall rule by consensus that had governed China since the days of Deng Xiaoping, and that he has amassed more personal power than any Chinese leader since…well…
My first time in China was in 1979, only a few years after Mao's death and the end of the Cultural Revolution. The changes in China since that time are staggering, almost unimaginable. It is nearly impossible to imagine that anything like a Cultural Revolution could happen in today's China, where there are Starbucks and Gucci boutiques in every major city in the country, well, most of them, anyway. But I have friends there who worry about the personality cult building up around Xi. Crackdowns on dissidents occur with depressing regularity in China, but what has been going on recently is deeper, broader and more alarming, with the definition of "dissidents" expanding and the circle of acceptable public discourse shrinking. This recent New York Times article discusses what's happening in China's universities, and it's not pretty:
“Since Xi came to power, the pressure and control over freethinkers has become really tight,” said Qiao Mu, a Beijing journalism professor who was demoted this fall, in part for publicly espousing multiparty elections and free speech. “More and more of my friends and colleagues are experiencing fear and harassment.”
Two years into a sweeping offensive against dissent, Mr. Xi has been intensifying his focus on perceived ideological opponents, sending ripples through universities, publishing houses and the news media and emboldening hard-liners who have hailed him as a worthy successor to Mao Zedong...
...The latest directive, Document No. 30, demands cleansing Western-inspired liberal ideas from universities and other cultural institutions, according to Song Fangmin, a retired major-general, who discussed it with dozens of veteran party officials and hard-left activists at a meeting in Beijing in November. The directive formed a sequel to Document No. 9, which Mr. Xi authorized in April 2013, launching an offensive against ideas such as “civil society,” General Song said.There's much more, and I suggest you read the entire thing.
I don't know what all this means for China. Is it possible to be a successful, modern nation that suppresses intellectual discourse and open minds? Obviously China has been remarkably successful at many things—bringing millions out of poverty, modernizing infrastructure, doing a credible job at developing green technology and building a high-speed rail network that will soon connect the entire country together.
I watch this happen at a time when American infrastructure is critically underfunded, out-of-date and literally falling apart, when we have freedom of speech but our words are rarely heard through a cacophony of spin and lies and all the noise that millions upon millions of dollars buys, where corporations are people, and actual people are disengaged from the political process, where we're shouting at each other across political and cultural divides that seem impossible to bridge.
I don't know the answers to our own national dilemmas either. But I'm wrestling with some of the questions, in fictional form. And I'm hoping the results will be entertaining.
Lisa…every other Wednesday...