photoillustration by Martyn Kyle

By Tom Bradley

Now, before you get all riled up at the things I’m going to say about certain goings-on in China, remember that they’re happening within the borders of a sovereign nation whose people have, for 4,000 uninterrupted years, placed a different value on human life than Americans with modems do.

Try to get a typical Red Chinese lumpen-prole to sit down with you and share a few minutes of pleasantly goose-bumped thermonuclear war paranoia. He’ll first look puzzled, then think about it for half a second. And then he’ll say there are so many of his people around that lots of them are bound to survive even the biggest holocaust Bush can provoke. So, there’s no need to fret. And his lack of a silly grin when he says this cannot be ascribed to the legendary inscrutability of the yellow face. He’s not joking.

This is Asia, remember? Do you think the Greeks were just goofing around when they took up their spears and pushed the kowtowing Persians back across the Hellespont? They were doing nothing less than inventing the West. This was no arbitrary line drawn in the mud, despite the Turks’ recent grotesque attempts to graft Asia Minor onto the European Union.

We live in the incessantly touted Age of Globalization. But the East remains the East, and the absence of a humanistic tradition is one of its defining characteristics. The individual counts for nothing, except in the context of the group. A single Chinese existence, unless it belongs to someone of the ruling class, or to someone in your immediate circle, is unimportant. Human rights are a non sequitur, democracy an impossibility. Both are regarded as bits of barbarian fatuousness by most comrades who haven’t been overexposed to American professors.

I taught here during the years leading up to the most recent massacre in Tiananmen Square. There were student demonstrations in those days as well, particularly during 1988. Most of them took place in provincial cities—so they were suppressed more subtly and did not receive much attention in the outside world. But plenty of students did cease to exist.

For example, my teaching assistant, Wei FuLiao, was quietly put on trial for his life. This means he was dead before too long because, in this socialist country, people aren’t tried unless they’re guilty.

He and his fellow scholars were political prisoners, even though they were arrested without fanfare in a supposedly non-political "anti-crime campaign" on charges as ludicrous as they were trumped-up. These arbitrary police orgies have always been famous for spawning novel offenses: "The aggravated saying of lascivious things to girls in the city park" is but one example—the one they pinned on shy, virginal Wei FuLiao.

There was another consideration that hastened the boy’s dispatch, once he was in custody. Regardless of the circumstances of their arrest, imprisoned students have historically shown the tendency to say and write counter-revolutionary things and to attract embarrassing international attention, as certain enterprising veterans of Tiananmen Square ‘89 have been doing lately. So Wei FuLiao and the other hapless matriculants were silenced quickly, rather than being kept on ice, as it were, in the Public Security Bureau lockup.

Then, as now, an indefinite period of what our own proportionately more numerous prisoners call "dead time" was prescribed for the students’ proletarian cell mates: those mute, illiterate, almost pre-lingual, certainly apolitical rapists, house breakers and bike thieves who comprise the steak and potatoes, or rather pork and noodles, of any robust Chinese anti-crime campaign.

There's no danger in letting the uneducated ones hang around. "Foreign experts" such as I have not had the chance to expose those humble boys to the seductive lies of bourgeois individualism. I flatter myself that only Masters Degree candidates in British and American literature enjoy a few hours of useful consciousness among the zombies. And it is precisely this consciousness that poses the greatest danger to the power structure, hence the speedy carrying out of their sentence. Education has its benefits. Parents, tell your children.

On the other hand, when society condemned the poor unlettered townies, they effectively died on the spot. Never having been taught to distinguish themselves from their lost "face," they became as tongueless as the corpses the vultures have been gnawing on. That’s why there is so little mugging and wisecracking at your typical Chinese blood bath. The People’s Republic has not produced many self-composed martyrs like Saint Lawrence, the fricasseed deacon who quipped, "I'm done on this side. You can turn me over now." And I doubt many Chinese look sarcastically up to heaven and say "Let’s do it," as my glamorous fellow Utahan Gary Gilmore did—assuming Norman Mailer didn’t pull that deadpan one-liner out of his ass, like so much else.

Their personalities may be less than fresh and dewy, but this is not to say there is anything lacking in the non-matriculants’ physiques. A strapping young hooligan will tend to be better nourished than your typical varsity boy, and probably healthier in other respects as well, here in the land of 40 percent hepatitis-C infection among the general populace. Even in the Chinese context, student dormitories and college cafeterias tend to be exceptionally squalid, with rats and roaches of Jurassic proportions.

And that’s the other reason for the swift application of "justice" in the students’ case, regardless of fluctuations in the heart and kidney trade. Their produce is less marketable. The working-class stiffs are not put out of their numb misery till demand for the salable bits of their bodies generates a price worth the bother of causing them to be dead.

And it is a bother, after all. This is not just some spontaneous lark. Two or three People’s Liberation Army trucks have to be gassed and loaded up. Patients in the hospitals have to be notified that their transplant operations are scheduled for the morrow—and this is complicated by the fact that most of them are foreigners and don’t understand the language of the mandarins. The utility poles in town must be pasted over with posters bearing the names of the condemned (mass invitations to the beheading)—and do you think it’s easy coming up with the correct hieroglyphs to render these kids’ monikers, when half of them have never even been taught how to hold a pen properly?

Like his more famous classmates crushed by tanks a year later in Beijing, Wei FuLiao was sacrificed in the name of the man who was called "Doctor of Mimeography" in his Parisian student days; who should have recalled how he and his betters came to power as idealistic youths; who, in the infinite cynicism of extreme old age, proclaimed the national anti-crime campaign that was my T.A.’s undoing.

It was, of course, like most proclamations by Comrade Deng, something else in disguise. It was an opportunity for enterprising civic officials to thin out the ranks of dissidents while they were still too insignificant to warrant outright political persecution, while they could still be simply disposed of without calling attention to the hellishness of this society. If the fundamental militarism of China had been revealed only in part, it would have cut into the tourist dollars that Americans were scheduled to sprinkle from their airplanes that summer, in those early days of troll-cute Deng’s "Four Modernizations," when the PBS and NPR were sedulously making the place look and sound like Shangri-La East.

Way back in 1980, one of these anti-crime campaigns was inspired by warring teenaged gangs hindering the progress of Deng’s limousine through the streets of the nation’s capital. By the time I came stumbling through, the preposterousness of the excuses for his temper tantrums reflected the little prick’s intellectual disintegration in the meanwhile.

According to one of Wei FuLiao’s dormitory mates, who had just returned from a visit to Beijing, some idealistic youths somehow managed to sneak into the garage where Old Deng’s limo-of-doom was resting between not-to-be-hindered promenades through the imperial city. They soaped the following dangerous slogan on its bulletproof windshield: RAT PISS AND PIG SHIT IN THE MOUTH OF THE MALIGNANT PEPPER-FARTING DWARF. Clearly, a ballet of death was overdue.

The last time we honorable foreign experts saw our little Sydney Cartons, they were rumbling across the cobblestones of Stalin Square, standing in the back of an open-bed army truck with not a few of their former classmates, their heads shaved. They were unable to wave at us, for their hands were tied behind their backs.

Everyone in my particular town watched them take that last spin. They were paraded a long time, disguised as hooligans. But it was a poor disguise, for only underfed students could have so many ribs showing. If the authorities wanted the locals to mistake them for members of the criminal class, instead of beating them in the lockup, they should have fattened them on noodles and pork lard, the diet of thieves in China’s newly rich age. Everybody knew exactly who the students were, it was clear, for the staid burghers were not as pleased as usual—though not particularly displeased—to observe these troublemakers’ exit.

Sentimentality has never been a popular vice in the land of jasmine tea and porcelain. By way of illustration, let’s say that, for some surreal reason, regulations suddenly required these folks to embalm and bury, rather than efficiently to cremate, their dead. It can be safely assumed that the Chinese would never have caused a scandalous ruckus, like the one in Britain lately, over the stripping of baby carcasses in hospitals. All it would take would be for someone wearing glasses to go on television (as someone did on the BBC, to no effect) and point out that precisely the same process takes place, at a hefty price, in mortuaries, in preparing defunct tykes for tasteful, scentless display. In China, there would be no supernumerary funerals, with parents grieving after the fact, over modern versions of gruesome canopic jars, parasite priests pocketing the proceeds.

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