I first traveled to China during those heady boom years of the Beijing Olympics and the Shanghai World Expo, when a feral kind of optimism hung in the air. It’s instructive now to recall that atmosphere—the Party’s exuberant party—in this moment when the world economy has grown sluggish, and China limps alongside it. The lights have come up on the dazed revelers, and the itemized bill has been plunked down on the table. The frenzy of those years begets all the morning-after questions: What did we do? What did it cost?
On my initial trip, in 2007, I managed to ensconce myself in a delegation of local officials, businesspeople, and academics from my dusty California hometown. The purpose of our trip, allegedly, was “cultural exchange”—though “culture” is one of those words that can mean almost anything. Businesses and governments are said to have “cultures,” the way the global economy is said to have a “climate.” During the tour, our government minders herded us into banquet rooms with local officials, where we were invited to experience Chinese culture, and Chinese culture, I suppose, was invited to experience us. But the culture exchanged in these rooms could be summed up in a single word: development. Economic development was a messianic calling, a redemptive and proud enterprise, a policy embraced by every official I heard speak. It was much more than a policy, in fact: It was the ground beneath us. Development’s adherents—basically everyone—preached with the fervor of religious believers.
It didn’t seem to matter how remote the province, how poor the city—every block of urban China was being made-over and every official had boomtown plans. And this rising tide of Chinese development, I was assured, would lift all boats, not simply benefit the wealthy or connected. Those people being removed from their homes? They would be given better homes, in better places. Those neighborhoods being cordoned off from view ahead of the Beijing Olympics? They, too, would soon be improved. It was a ‘win-win situation.’ The smoky air? It would be dealt with, eventually, I was told. And anyway the problem was exaggerated. I saw low-rise corners of old Chinese cities surrounded by bulldozers, even as it seemed already there wasn’t much architecture left to spare. Boom-time developers tend to have the same aesthetic sensitivity as locust clouds.
Swept into conference rooms with provincial lieutenant governors, I stood in line with my hometown delegation and handed out business cards I’d printed out myself, listing my job as “Ph.D. candidate.” A widely grinning official would accept my card, scan it eagerly for my title, and become visibly annoyed once he apprehended I had no standing in the global marketplace. The official would then rush onward in search of someone who could more easily help him build American-style tract housing or a shopping mall. After a few days, I stopped handing the cards out at all. I threw my stack in a hotel trash can somewhere in Shanghai. At every meal, I was seated at the furthest edge of any table over which a Chinese official presided.
But my insignificance made space for quiet observation in a deeply unquiet place. Between meetings and meals, we were herded onto long bus journeys for tours of agricultural projects and nascent housing developments. This was the era of the business park, the hi-tech district, the high-speed train.
I longed each day for those brief stops at far-flung cultural sites. In Xi’an, peddlers sold 10 yuan replicas of the Terra Cotta warriors outside the compound gates. At Shaolin Temple, a monk talked on a cell phone in front of burnt offerings of paper money. The Forbidden City was all scaffolding, under refurbishment ahead of the Beijing Olympics, and we were asked not to take pictures—to do so would spoil the great surprise being prepared for the world. At the tourist-crowded section of the Great Wall near Badaling, I watched cherry blossoms bloom in the smog. But these stops were brief. There was always another official to meet.
What I learned at these cultural sites was that even China’s ancient history had been conscripted into the development narrative. Xi’an’s grid, the Ming layout of Beijing, the Great Wall and the Forbidden City, all were treated as something like an obligatory prologue to the New China. It was as though the endpoint of Chinese history—what the culture had been striving toward all those centuries—was a regional convention center trade-expo.
One night in central China, a Party official with blackened teeth harangued us at the close of a banquet. I’d lost count of the hours, the toasts—all those sour ounces of rice wine. The official was variously described to me as the ‘Mayor,’ the ‘Vice Mayor,’ and the head of a ‘prefect’ of that remote city, Kaifeng. Veering from his economic development script, the official grew increasingly agitated as he recounted a battle against the Japanese. The depth of his anger made it difficult for me to tell if the hostilities occurred last century or last week, and the translator wasn’t interested in passing such details along. When the official finally released us, we were escorted to a massage parlor where a girl set cotton balls on fire and placed them in small glass cups which suctioned onto my feet as the flames extinguished. I didn’t have the language to tell her how unsettling it felt—not just the fire, but the dinner that preceded it.
The longer I listened over those weeks, the less I believed that the development these officials promised would be equitable, environmental, or even good—but with their slogans, trade expos, glossy brochures and “win-win situations,” I did not doubt their “New China” would quickly come to pass. In 2010, I traveled back in China for the Shanghai World Expo—that multi-billion dollar advertisement for the development religion—and just as on my first trip, I returned to the United States overwhelmed and skeptical. At the same time, I was struck by the way America looked stalled and crumbling by comparison. Landing at JFK airport after Shanghai, the infrastructural disrepair was staggering. China had the bullet train. We had the A train.
It’s been five years since I last visited China, and market reports attest that global recession has stalled China’s exuberance. The suggestion that the era of heedless, roaring growth has come to an end has made me begun to obsess again over my brief encounters with Chinese officialdom. Perhaps nowhere is the sign of reckoning with the boom years more apparent than in the 182,000 officials arrested in recent years in a corruption sweep undertaken by the new president, Xi Jinping.
President Xi’s purge of can be read in any number of ways. It could be precisely what it appears to be: a staggering attempt at ethical reform. Other observers contend Xi is up to something more calculating, that the corruption sweep is a power-play to shore up his own loyalists. What better scapegoats are there for boomtime excesses, after all, than mid-level officials? What I find myself wondering, though, is if I ever sat across a table from any of these arrested officials. Did one of them raise a confident toast to my table? Did another happily instruct me in the art of eating a soup dumpling or explain the potency of shark fin soup?
Recently, I dug out of my desk the stack of business cards I’d saved from my trips and began running names through Google and Lexis-Nexis. As I searched, I admired the expensive cardstock, with Mandarin printed on one side and English on the other. I was cast back to the wines Party officials served, the suits they wore, the Peking duck. I was reminded of one story of official corruption I’d followed closely years ago. After a series of international scandals involving tainted Chinese exports—baby formula, cough syrup, toothpaste—the former head of China’s State Food and Drug Administration went on trial. Court proceedings began in May and by July of the same year he was put to death. By American standards, such an execution was unimaginably swift, and that speedy judicial example was at the forefront of my mind as I searched the internet for my erstwhile dinner companions.
In the end, as with so many aspects of China, I was defeated by my own limitations. I could only read English news sources, where the coverage of Xi’s corruption sweep has hardly been comprehensive. I never turned up word of arrest for any of my former hosts, but it is a fate I nevertheless continue to imagine. Perhaps it’s the novelist in me. After all, these arrests read like nothing so much as a coda, the end of a novel about lavish high times. In a way, we might imagine it as the novel President Xi is writing. The story goes like this: When money was easy, officials grew corrupt and people were abused. But now the misbehavior is being brought to account, the guilty punished, and a new era is beginning. A novel of that sort would leave its readers feeling good all around.
But if we know anything about systems of corruption, it’s that they’re multivalent and difficult to dislodge, liable to change only after the most relentless and persistent effort. You can purge individuals—even 182,000 of them—but without addressing the embedded systemic relationships, a country of over a billion people won’t have any trouble finding new faces to give toasts at a banquet.
It’s the Kaifeng official with the blackened teeth that I can’t get out of my mind—his sputtering anger, his wild over-confidence, his disheveled mien, his utter lack of embarrassment as he denied the visible degradations being inflicted on ordinary people and the environment outside. I remember that Kaifeng official not because he was exceptional, but because he was so utterly ordinary. And I remember him not because he seemed so foreign to me, but because he seemed so familiar. He could have been an American congressman, just one more politician in thrall to all the promises of short term progress, and nowhere to be found when the party is over and the bill comes due.