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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Visions of China CNN TIME Asiaweek Fortune
SEPTEMBER 24, 1999 VOL. 25 NO. 38

An Identity Crisis
The collapse of ideology leaves generations adrift in a moral vacuum
By ANASTASIA STANMEYER and PAUL MOONEY Beijing

    ALSO IN ASIAWEEK
Anniversary
Fifty years of Communist rule have brought both triumph and tragedy to China

Politics
From "class struggle" to village elections

The Economy
Backyard furnaces yield to enterprise reform

Diplomacy
The drive for world clout and national reunification

Society and Culture
Still searching for a modern identity

Journeys
Personal accounts of life in the People's Republic

  MULTIMEDIA
People to Know
50 Movers and shakers in today's China

Immortal Quotes
50 immortal quotes from over 2,000 years of Chinese history

  VISIONS OF CHINA
CNN
50 years of the People's Republic presented by CNN, TIME, Asiaweek and Fortune

TIME
China's Amazing Half Century
Navigate through the People's Republic of China and discover the 50 places where history was made

Uniformity used to be a virtue a few decades ago when Maoism was to be the great social leveler. Now, thanks to the free-market economy, society is no longer as drab or as uniform as Mao suits. Self-expression gets greater leeway - if you steer clear of politics. City youths once confined by straitjackets of socialist orthodoxy now dress outrageously and listen to thrash music, even if Christians can't worship freely. And though seen only by fringe audiences, avant-garde artists, too, take their mediums to limits that might stretch even Western liberal standards.

When Mao proclaimed on Oct. 1, 1949, that the people of China had finally "stood up," few thought that civil liberties such as freedom of speech and cultural expression would be among the first casualties of Communist rule. Thousands of Chinese scholars and artists living abroad gave up promising careers to return home to work for the motherland. "At that time, the Communist Party won the hearts and minds of intellectuals," says Ren Wanding, a writer who spent some 11 years in jail for advocating greater democracy.

The new China, however, demanded that all aspects of life be subordinate to politics. The intelligentsia soon fell victim to the shifting tides of the party's power struggles. Most vicious, of course, was the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976, in which millions died. More than anything, the bitter experience taught intellectuals not to be critical. Their subsequent silence was a form of tacit support for the government and "has been the basis for all the disasters that have followed," argues Liu Qing, a dissident in exile in New York. "Even when the party was wrong, people supported it. Chinese society is built on falsehoods."

But in the era of economic reform, policing cultural activity has become increasingly difficult. Indeed, despite a post-Tiananmen backlash by conservatives, a plethora of new periodicals and books have emerged on subjects ranging from spirituality to homosexuality. Dwindling state subsidies and a fast-growing consumer market drove even the most stodgy publishers to consider popular interests.

Deng Xiaoping's "open door" ushered in forces that shook China from its socialist moorings. Young people in search of a new set of values found resonance in emerging rock bands, especially in Beijing. Trumpeter-singer Cui Jian's "Nothing to My Name" became something of an anthem for thousands of protesting students at Tiananmen Square in 1989. Despite periodic bans on performing, Cui and bands such as Black Panther and Tang Dynasty were not exactly flagbearers of social rebellion. Most trade on an affected "street" image for better recording contracts - and a long line of groupies. The authorities can tolerate their existence: Not only do the musicians have little interest in politics or social issues, they offer a convenient channel of a release for energetic youth. Besides, it is the commercial pop of Hong Kong, Taiwan - and the West - that dominate the airwaves.

While politics remains sensitive, a range of social issues are being debated publicly. Take the environment. In 1989, a law was passed requiring environmental reports by all levels of government. This was largely ignored. Local officials defended themselves, arguing they were merely trying to keep a lid on public dissatisfaction and protect the image of their cities (as well as their careers). But in a rare outburst, Qu Geping, former head of the National Environmental Protection Agency, attacked this attitude. "Treating the Chinese people like opponents in a guerrilla war is no way to build trust in the government," he says.

In its unrelenting drive to become an industrial power, China created environmental problems that became too severe to be shrugged off. (In 1995, health damage due to air and water pollution was already estimated to total at least $54 billion.) That explains, at least in part, officials' grudging acceptance of green groups such as Friends of Nature.

One area where the party played a positive role was in elevating the status of women. It banned prostitution, child marriages, concubines and the sale of brides. Girls attended school in ever greater numbers, and women in the industrial labor force soared from a total of 600,000 in 1949 to more than 50 million today.

Still, decades of socialist propaganda failed to alter the feudal preference for sons. Indeed, this gender bias has become even more pronounced after the strict one-child policy was introduced in 1979 to avert a population explosion (families in some remote districts are allowed two children). Yet many couples continue to risk severe penalties for the chance to have a coveted son. Baby girls in rural areas are sometimes abandoned, even killed. As a result, the ratio of men to women has gradually risen to an estimated 120:100. While population growth fell to below 1% at the end of last year, an entire generation of young men is growing up with the prospect of never finding a wife. Another consequence of the one-child policy - China is fast becoming an aging society. The population above 60 is expected to rise to 130 million, 30% of the total, by the end of 2000, and planners reckon the number will swell to 400 million by mid-century.

In renouncing Confucian ideas, the party had proclaimed that women would hold up half the sky. There's poor evidence within the leadership. Only one woman sits in the 24-member Politburo - Wu Yi. Certainly, aspects of exploitation have crept back as the market replaced Maoism. Where gender differences were once played down, advertisements now use scantily clad girls to promote the latest power tool or car. Pornography and prostitution have spread. Once again, women have become tradable commodities, to be sold into marriages or as sex slaves. They have often been the first to be laid off in the current drive to close inefficient state enterprises. And now officials report increasing cases of domestic violence.

Socialist idealism - and hope of building a modern nation - had given 1950s China a sense of purpose. That was undermined by the politics of vengeance during the Cultural Revolution and beyond. The turmoil created a culture of suspicion and cynicism that China's subsequent commercialization did little to erase. The moral bankruptcy of the state left a vacuum felt all the more acutely in the economic downturn. Hence the attraction of the now-outlawed Falungong movement, whose mix of breathing exercises and vaguely Buddhist philosophies draws millions of followers, many elderly or middle-aged. It "reflects the moral searching of the Chinese and the collapse of communist ideology as a motivating force," says Joseph Bosco, a professor of anthropology at Chinese University of Hong Kong. "In a sense, the party and Falungong are competing for the soul of the nation." For the moment, it is a soul adrift.

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