China From the Inside

New America Media, Q&A, ďChina From The InsideĒ Director Jonathan Lewis Interviewed By Pueng Vongs Posted: Jan 12, 2007

Editor's Note: China has undergone such extraordinary and transformative change in a very short time that even those who live there are trying to come to grips with it. For instance, in 2005 Chinaís industrial production grew by a blistering 30 percent. A new documentary, ďChina From the Inside,Ē a four-part, four-hour documentary that started on PBS this week and continues next week, explores powerful transformations in the environment, Communism, freedom and justice and womenís roles. Jonathan Lewis took five years to produce, write and direct it. He shared his insights with NAM editor Pueng Vongs.

Q. China is a Communist country preaching materialism to its masses. Does this changing nature of Communism cause confusion in the population?

There are enormous anomalies in the situation. You meet people who are all-star Communists. They donít think itís right to be driving a Lexus. They canít see quite how you fit in wealth with Marxism and Leninism and the struggle against exploitation. At the same time, the party has realized that the prosperity of China is central to stability. This is Deng Xiao Pingís legacy.

Q. The government has the National Peopleís Congress which votes on various issues once a year. How would you describe Chinaís democracy?

One of the things that I had to do was to unhook that part of my brain that saw people voting and equated it with democracy. We had to ask ourselves what is going on here. Interestingly, Chinese academics in the field of politics come to very different conclusions about what is going on.

One academic believes that village elections are a simple means by which government can control the countryside. You put your own people in at the bottom of society and they make sure nothing unruly is going on the countryside. In other words, far from making China more democratic, it gives more power to the Party right down to the grassroots.

Another academic said quite the opposite. He believes that you start giving people the choice as to who is going to govern them and you donít know where it is going to stop. So even if itís being done as control, or to make you look good to the rest of the world, it could wind up in a place you cannot predict.

Q. Political unrest is increasing in the country side. Can we expect more?

There have been something like 80,000 acts of insurrection. This varies from two guys with a placard outside a store where they got thrown out of a job, or it could be hundreds of people battling physically with dead bodies on the ground.

There are lots of reasons for this unrest. Often it is pollution that has deprived peasants their livelihood or itís a land grab where developers are in cahoots with local officials and have decided to take the land. There are good people in the government and good people in the Party who want to do something about it and they may be stopped.

Role of Women

Q. Mao famously said women held up half the sky, putting them on a par with men. What is the state of womenís rights now?

Maoís quote is very interesting. Some took the view that his quote is not a womenís plea for emancipation but a bid to double the workforce overnight -- an androgynous workforce where they all wear boiler suits. It doesnít matter if they are men or women.

Now the womenís organization in China, which is partly a Party organization, has become more progressive. It has gotten out the ideological message to try to find ways for women to get education, to get help. Often you find the alignment of Party and womenís interests. It is a progressive force whose ideas are trying to battle an older, traditional, male oriented point of view.

Q. Chinese women have one of the highest suicide rates in the world. The government has tried work training programs and other programs to build womenís esteem. Are they helping?

I think there is a very basic element in Chinese rural society for women and that is upon marriage they become the property of the husbandís family. They may be no longer in contact with their parents, and have to get along with their mother in law big time, living in her house.

Many are under intense pressure to fit in, behave, to look after the elderly, the children and to work hard. Many are lonely and frightened and subject to physical violence. The terrible thing is when they are feeling suicidal they drink poisonous fertilizer. Itís the easiest poison that they can get access to in the rural areas. It is a very horrible death. The hospital is a very long way away. They often donít get there in time. These are very desperate.

On the other side of the coin, the great thing is there are people who recognize this. They have got these programs to deal with it. Itís at the early stages now, and they are looking at how to empower people to avoid states of depression which will lead to suicide. Itís small but itís there

The Environment

Q. Weíve reported on the rapid desertification in the north, due to global warming and the encroaching desert. China has proposed a massive project to redirect the rivers in the south 800 miles north. It is the largest project of its kind and will relocate hundreds of thousands of people. What is going to happen to these people?

The big issue is whether the Chinese officials will learn from what happened during the Three Gorges Dam, the operation to dam the Yangtze river. Hundreds of thousands, some say millions of people were displaced. They are moved to new cities or new townships, places where they have no work.

Societies and villages get destroyed, peopleís livelihoods get destroyed. The ancestral graves that they have been tending are going to get submerged.

There is an unnaturalness to some of this engineering. It is not just hydraulic engineering but social engineering. And you ask yourself the question in a world in which the climate is changing, will the circumstances be still the same by the time this project is finished in 50 years time.

Q. You document the toxic rivers and the cancer villages that rise beside it. Specifically you talk to one journalist-activist about the damage. Who is he?

Hu Dai Shan is a photographer who lived along the banks of the river Huai and was very surprised when he went back to take a series of photographs that the river now longer had a life to it. It was a dying river. He saw dead frogs, dead fish, he was so moved by the damage, not just to the wildlife, but also to the people along its banks that heís become an activist Ė a brave activist. Heís been beaten up, chased. Big business is often in cahoots with corrupt officials who donít want people coming along and saying stop polluting the river.

Q. How concerned is the government about the effect this pollution is having on these people?

Belatedly the government has acknowledged that the groundwater has been polluted by this river and they have to dig deep, deep wells to enable villages to get water from way below the point where groundwater has been polluted. The water is polluted with frightening things, arsenic and all sorts of horrible processes. Processes that have often been banned in the U.S. have moved to China.

The government is playing catch up in trying to solve these problems and there are people in the government who feel absolutely passionate that we have to do something.

Donít ever get it into your mind that government and Party equals bad in China. It really isnít as simple as that. There are some great progressive people in the party and the environment side in China who want to change things and want it to be safer. It is also a realistic view about where longterm stability and prosperity lies if you are storing up this trouble. If you are creating all this dirt, damage and pollution, you are going to have to pay for it sooner or later. Deputy administrator of the environment, Pan Yue, worries that the enormous growth that China is enjoying, maybe 10 percent will be wiped out effectively.

Religious Freedoms

Q. China is officially an atheist country, but there are thriving religions. Catholicism is sanctioned by the Communist government. How does Beijing define Catholicism?

The Catholic Church in China has above it, the Communist Party. The Communist Party looks over China in a way that the Pope looks over his people, protective, encircling, worried, occasionally interfering and controlling. Some set up underground churches and some of these get persecuted and some of these are allowed to flourish. Itís a complex multilayered situation.

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User Comments

George Koo on Jan 19, 2007 at 02:19:20 said:

I find the last two hours of the program particularly distressing, not because it is some form of malicious distortion but because it is a sincere and unvarnished look at today's China. There may be some that would use the material to demonize China but I credit the maturity of the Beijing government to allow the kind of access that made the program possible. And I credit Lewis for his attempt to provide a balanced picture.

My conclusion from these four hours is that China's solution to its manifold and varied challenges must begin by rooting out local corruption. Whether it's the environmental damage, the deprivation of the farmer's land, the AID's epidemic, the existence of sweat shops, and so on, the root cause starts with the corrupt local official.

David Tan on Jan 13, 2007 at 02:11:16 said:

Well commented with a balanced view, Director Jonathan Lewis! China is neither an Utopian or hellish place. It is somewhere in between, closer to Utopia. Cetainly it is still further away from the current Western ideal of what an Utopia may be. Ultimately it is her people who would take fate in their hands and march forward. Nobody says it is going to be a bump-free journey but like all nations in this world, China should be given the Right (Human Right at that) to try it out and see for herslef and for all to see.




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