Growing up in California with no special interest in China, one of the few things I associated with the big country across the Pacific was mix-and-match meal creation. On airplanes and in school cafeterias, you just had “chicken or beef” choices, but Chinese restaurants were “one from Column A, one from Column B” combination domains. If only in more debates on China, a similar readiness to think beyond either/or options would prevail!
I thought of this early in 2013 when I saw a January 10 Reuters assessment of Xi Jinping’s actions during his first few weeks as head of the Chinese Communist Party (C.C.P.). The article carried this “chicken or beef” headline: “China’s New Leader: Harbinger of Reform or Another Conservative?” Previous Chinese leaders had often turned out to have both reformist and conservative sides. Even Deng Xiaoping, considered the quintessential reformer due to his economic policies, held the line on political liberalization and backed the brutal 1989 crackdown. Despite what the headline suggested, I joined with those analysts who thought it most likely that Xi, too, would end up ordering from both the reformist and conservative sides of the menu. And that’s what he has done. For example, he has instituted a dramatic change in the way rural property rights are handled, something that economist Barry Naughton, hailing it as one of several key important recent economic reforms, lauds for finally giving farmers “a clear system to support renting, leasing, and mortgaging land.” But, conversely, Xi has also done even more than his predecessor did to rein in civil society and shown an even greater penchant than Hu for celebrating traditional Confucian values.
Thanks to Mo Yan’s Nobel Prize win, in early 2013 commentators were also often falling into a similar “chicken or beef” trap—or, rather, an “Ai Weiwei or Zhang Yimou” one—when dealing with creative figures. Ai Weiwei, back then, was locked into an antagonistic relationship with the government and had become the poster child for uncompromising resistance to authorities. Zhang Yimou, once lauded as an edgy independent filmmaker, had by that point taken on the role of state choreographer, overseeing the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympic Games and the 2009 gala commemorating the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. Since they were two of the only internationally prominent creative Chinese figures of the day, when Mo Yan was named a literary laureate, some commentators assumed he must either be like one or the other.
In fact, the novelist—who was most recently in the news for refusing to answer a question about the silencing of Ren Zhiqiang, an outspoken tycoon whose online commentaries were recently swept off the Chinese Internet—shares traits with Ai Weiwei and Zhang Yimou, but he is not all that similar to either. Like China’s best-known artist, who is now traveling and putting on shows internationally again, Mo has a penchant for mocking the powerful. And like the renowned filmmaker, he works within the system. (When he a shushed the reporter who asked him about the moves against Ren, he did so while serving as a representative on a rubber stamp pseudo-legislature, the Chinese People’s Consultative Conference.) Unlike Ai Weiwei, who was among those who lambasted the Nobel Prize committee for honoring Mo, the novelist skewers only relatively safe targets, like the kinds of corrupt local officials that the central authorities don’t mind seeing satirized. Unlike Zhang, one of whose best films was based on the novelist’s Red Sorghum, Mo has consistently produced iconoclastic works, with his latest to be translated into English, Frog, which the Christian Science Monitor called a “neatly crafted critique of today’s China,” a case in point.
If Column A choices signal compliance and Column B ones indicate criticism, the artist and filmmaker were sticking to opposite sides of the menu in 2013. That said, they had not been so easy to pigeonhole at other times. Ai Weiwei, after all, helped to design the Bird’s Nest Stadium, an Olympic venue, before swerving in a radical direction just before the Games opened. Zhang’s early films, in contrast, sometimes ran afoul of the censors. Mo Yan, however, keeps choosing from both sides of the menu. And he is not alone in doing this. The same could be said of other important figures, such as Jia Zhangke, the talented director. In the early 2010s, he made both envelope-pushing films that could not be shown on the mainland and a movie linked to the Shanghai Expo that was in steady rotation at the fairgrounds, and he continues to confound easy “dissident” or “stooge” classification, while making more daring choices than Mo—that is, picking from Column B more than Column A over the course of his career.
A third debate, centering on the competing predictions made by When China Rules the World author Martin Jacques and The Coming Collapse of China author Gordon G. Chang, makes me think not of combining Column A and Column B choices, but of a different feature of Chinese restaurants that I only learned about as an adult. If you don’t like the options on the English language menu in some Chinatown eateries, you can ask to see a Chinese language one that lists additional dishes the proprietor doubts will interest most customers.
My problem with the Jacques vs. Chang debate is that I find neither pundit convincing. Jacques’ vision of China moving smoothly toward global domination glosses over the many domestic challenges its government faces, such as the tens of thousands of protests that erupt each year, the still limited impact of its international soft power drives, and the ways that Washington continues to be more of a force than Beijing in some domains. Chang, on the other hand, continually underestimates the C.C.P.’s resiliency and adaptability. His 2001 book said it would implode by 2011. When that year arrived, with the C.C.P. still very much in power, Chang wrote a December 29, 2011, piece for Foreign Policy in which he confidently told readers that, though he had miscalculated, they could “bet on” his prophecy coming true in 2012. Fast forward almost half a decade and we find the Party still in control—and, amazingly, Chang, the Chicken Little of China-watching, still being invited onto CNN to make forecasts and publishing sky is falling accounts of the C.C.P. regularly in the Daily Beast.
When asked whether Xi Jinping is a reformist or conservative or whether he is bringing changes to China or continuing in the footsteps of those who came before him, and when asked whether Mo Yan and Jia Zhangke are collaborators or critics, I can craft answers that draw a bit from both Column A and Column B. Being asked whether I side with Jacques or Chang is different; I’m left feeling like a hungry vegetarian who has been given a list made up exclusively of chicken and beef dishes—and hopes desperately that there’s another menu hidden in back with some acceptable choices.