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  • Writer's pictureTom Paine

Pre-Xi China

Updated: Feb 23

This long-march of a blog draws on material I had hoped to see into print a decade ago—China Makeover, the perspective of a design professional then working in China. As classmate Jim Fallows has written, China’s vastness warrants many takeaways. Here is mine, on the buildup to the era of Xi-jinping.

The Chinese Revolution in 1911 at long last ended thousands of years of dynastic rule going back to 2000 BC. Delegates meeting in Nanjing elected Sun Yatsen as provisional president of the Republic of China. Dr. Sun is still fondly remembered as the Father of Modern China. Educated in Hawaii, having visited Chicago, and discovered Lincoln, Sun modeled his Tree Principles of the People of the new Constitution—nationalism, democracy, livelihood—on Lincoln’s immortal Gettysburg Address—of the people, by the people, for the people. I love that connection. I was amazed that my great aunt, artist and photographer Helen Paine Kimball, had stood within a few feet of the newly elected president tipping his hat to a crowd of Western-well-wishers in Shanghai in 1912.

President Sun Yat-sen tipping his hat to Western wellwishers on arrival in Shanghai in 1912. Photo by Helen Paine Kimball (1881-1947)

Unifying and modernizing China—vast in size, varied in dialects and ethnicities—continued to pose almost insurmountable challenges. Warlord infighting met Japanese occupation of Manchuria and points south. In World War Two, the Americans assisted the Nationalist government by basing Flying Tigers in central China. Four years after Japanese surrender ended their occupation came the Liberation, the proud work of the Communists’ Peoples Liberation Army, ending not just decades of civil war, but what the Chinese called “a century of humiliation” by foreigners, be they Europeans, Americans, or Japanese. As of 1949, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) controlled the mainland, henceforth to be known as the Peoples Republic of China (PRC), while the Nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek fled to Taiwan, an island 100 miles off the coast, to maintain their Republic of China (ROC) government in exile. For the next four decades, while the U.S. and most other countries recognized the ROC, the PRC did not permit Americans to visit “Mainland China.”

Though the PRC remained terra incognita to Americans, most weren’t buying the hype of various Western apologists. In fact, the place seemed primitive, ill clad, ill fed. If the thirty-hour train ride from Beijing to Shanghai only offered toilets only in the form of a squat toilet exposed to all, this was progress. But who were we to judge?

No one suspected that CCP Chairman Mao’s big push from 1957-62, the Great Leap Forward, mimicking Stalin’s back in the day, was so bungled that it caused the Great Famine, with a death toll probably twice as large as the officially acknowledged astronomical thirty-five millions, while the Chinese people were being told that the people starving in capitalist countries were the ones who really had something to complain about. The difficulties were described as three years of natural calamities, but were mostly man-induced, from the demolition of thirty to forty percent of all housing to the deforestation of much of eastern China, and brutally enforced collectivization of peasants.

The student unrest that started to unfold in the West in 1966 was no match for the virulence of young people’s unrest that Mao fomented in the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution that same year, in his bid to consolidate his power that was once again being challenged in the wake of his recent failings. The Cultural Revolution focused on eradicating old ways of thinking, indeed thinking itself. Intellectuals were reviled as “the stinking ninth category.” The people were going after “landlords,” although the State had owned all the land since 1949. While I was a college student majoring in visual and environmental studies and for good measure taking John K. Fairbanks’ and Edwin O. Reischauer’s celebrated survey history course on China, Korea and Japan, kids my age in China were becoming sworn enemies of everything for which we stood, denouncing teachers and parents alike, and losing face by self-criticism.

The teenage and twenty-something children of Chinese professionals were fast becoming Red Guards and helping Mao “beat down the Four Olds”—Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits, Old Ideas. Out of fashion were tolerance for religions like Christianity and pride in the glory of Five Thousand Years of Chinese History that would be touted a few decades later. Beijing’s Ming Dynasty city walls had to go, forty kilometers of them. Tactically, the Gang of Four, which included Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, was calling the shots as much as Mao, outmaneuvering the voice of reason in Premier Zhou Enlai, whipping up a frenzy of destruction and “class struggle” against “class enemies,” exacting confessions from “capitalist running dogs,” indeed punishing anyone who dared to own property or have an attitude. Two “olds” that did not make the short list were relationship (guanxi) networks and saving face (ai mianzi). At all levels in the hierarchy, these two olds played pivotal roles in the control of the group (“do it because you owe me”), the goals they set for themselves, and the impossible demands they made of their subordinates. The Red Guards were on a rampage so out of control that they were in essence the prime example of what social unrest would later mean for the CCP.

Once central to the glory of Five Thousand Years of Chinese History, Confucianism was now so dead, and the Cult of Mao so strong, that the young obediently denounced their own parents and teachers as “counter-revolutionaries” and “revisionists,” meting out “yin-yang haircuts” and “jet plane rides”—arms held behind the back like wings to inflict humiliation and even excruciating pain. Universities, so recently restructured in the 1950s and now viewed with suspicion as fostering elites of no use to the masses, were being closed. Everyone recited endless quotations from Chairman Mao’s infallible Little Red Book, sold by the billions. All other book learning was replaced by book burning, all but obliterating the domestic record of the alleged glories of Five Thousand Years of Chinese History. The cultural elite were beaten down, beaten up, tortured, and killed. One million died. Losing face in the public ritual of self-criticism replaced saving face.

This not-so-great Revolution itself would later be denounced, though extolled by some Chinese for giving the Chinese the gift of free speech for the first time. But group-speech denouncing the group’s superiors was a far cry from the individual right of free speech. That right remained unrealized into the era of Xi Jinping. And above all, the CCP would allow no freedom of the press. That would create social unrest.

In 1971 the Chinese ping pong team invited the U.S. ping pong team to the PRC, ushering in the era of ping pong diplomacy. A year later, Nixon traveled to Beijing to shake Mao’s hand, a gesture China compared to waving the white flag. Our sense of face lost and gained in such ritualistic moments did not align with theirs. Suddenly, studying English in China went from being illegal to being indispensable to getting ahead. Foreign books, no longer condemned, opened eyes again. The universities, shuttered since the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, started to reopen. But signals remained mixed as long as the Cultural Revolution continued.

Though Americans then thought of it as our Bicentennial Year, for the Chinese 1976 was the Year of the Dragon, ordinarily the most auspicious of years in the twelve-year Chinese zodiac. But not this time. In China, 1976 became known as the Year of the Curse. In January came the death of Zhou Enlai, the beloved and urbane first Premier, the PRC leader whom the U.S. considered the voice of reason and who had personally greeted Nixon deplaning in Beijing in 1972. When Tiananmen Square attracted a huge outpouring of mourners for their “Beloved Premier” in April, the attempts by the anti-Zhou Gang of Four to suppress the mourning precipitated rioting.

The year 1976 was also the year I went to Asia for the first time, to work as a landscape architect in Taiwan. In the spring my wife Lynn was selected as one of fifteen profoundly lucky young Americans to become a Luce Scholar. Named for the China-born son of missionaries who had founded Time-Life, the Henry Luce Foundation wisely sought to remedy the ignorance about Asia among the best and the brightest by sending young Americans to work for a year in Asia. Then in its third year, the program operated in East Asian countries like Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and the ROC in Taiwan—but unfortunately not “the real China,” since the U.S. and China had gone without diplomatic relations for a quarter-century, nor Vietnam, Myanmar or Cambodia. After all, the U.S. was winding down a disastrous war against Communism in Vietnam in which the best and the brightest in their arrogance had made miscalculations based on faulty assumptions about the Asian world in every dimension. Through the Asia Foundation, which had offices in most Asian countries, the Henry Luce Foundation found work placements for scholars and their spouses in their chosen fields. Since the PRC was off limits to Americans, Lynn and I decided to go to Taiwan. Though it had lost its seat in the U.N. to the PRC in 1971, and only a quarter of its trading partners still recognized the Taiwan government’s claim to represent all China, Taiwan continued to flourish, with the second highest GDP growth rate in the world. Taiwan was one of the Four Asian Tigers. A year in Taiwan in 1976-7 proved to be the ideal preparation for a year in China three decades later.

Days after we arrived in Hong Kong en route to Taiwan, Chairman Mao died. In our hotel room we took in the stunning news as black and white televised images lingered on mourners wailing over the Great Helmsman’s remains, with an emotional English-language voiceover. This was the biggest news yet in 1976. It was truly the end of an era. Although it would be months before we knew, the Cultural Revolution was finally over, and the healing after its decade of destruction could slowly begin, with the arrest of the Gang of Four in October. The Revolution had failed miserably to stamp out CCP corruption. Mao’s legacy fell woefully short of the idealism of the rhetoric, yet his image facing Tiananmen Square in Beijing, ground zero, remains to this day.

We arrived in Taiwan to be greeted by “Recover the Mainland” billboards. Portraits of Chiang Kai-shek and Sun Yat-sen were paired in all public buildings. The big story was that while Taiwan may have been under martial law and under one-party rule led by refugees from the mainland, they had not taken over the economy or land ownership: the native Taiwanese continued to dominate both—and the Nationalists, perhaps chastened by the mess they had made on the mainland, had used their power wisely to develop the country’s export economy and its infrastructure in the Ten Major Projects, including rail and superhighways. They welcomed U.S. consultants, and cooperated closely with the U.S. on land reform and agricultural best practices through the Sino-American Joint Commission on Rural Reconstruction (JCRR), founded in 1948 on the mainland and then still alive on Taiwan. In its accomplishments, the ROC leapt twenty years ahead of the PRC. Taiwan was called the Economic Miracle, while the PRC remained a shambles.

Dragon Mountain Temple, Lukang, Taiwan (1798, restored after 1999 earthquake) I had worked on Lukang in 1977.

Unlike the PRC, Taiwan celebrated traditional Chinese culture, despite ever-increasing trade, exchange, and communication with the West. If baseball was the national sport, Taiwan lovingly celebrated Teachers Day on Confucius’ birthday, as I came to appreciate after I attended a moving ceremony at the historic Confucian temple in the heart of Taipei, whereas Confucius was still on the outs with the PRC. Double Ten Day (October 10) celebrating the founding of the Republic of China culminated in the most stunning display of fireworks I had ever seen.

One of my ink brush landscape paintings in traditional Chinese style, Taipei, Taiwan 1977

I studied traditional Chinese ink brush painting—cherry blossoms, bamboo, pavilions hovering over mountain waterfalls, and leaned to inscribe my Chinese name in calligraphy. Every weeknight, a tutor came to our apartment and drilled us in our spoken Chinese.

I worked in the Taiwan Tourism Bureau, in its Technical Services Division, alongside well-educated colleagues my age who spoke good English. I was responsible for the design of facilities at a network of Special Scenic Areas that attracted international as well as local tourists. Off limits was scenic Green Island, where political prisoners were jailed. Seeking independence for Taiwan from Nationalist rule was considered as punishable as supporting PRC claims to Taiwan. On matters of political sensitivity, the heavy-handedness of the two Chinas was still comparable.

Taiwan Tourism Bureau Director General Chu honoring me with his calligraphy on my departure, 1977

Had there been no Taiwan for me in 1976-77, there would have been no China for me later. I knew enough spoken Chinese to make many friends, I knew how to accept cultural differences, and I knew how to go with the flow. But it went deeper: I felt a strong spiritual connection to a Taoist-Buddhist sensibility that had its local historical counterpart in New England Transcendentalism. I would be back in 1984, in 1988, and yet again in 2005. Each time I went back to Taiwan, I could see that the liberalization continued—“opening-up” by another name, long before the “Reform and Opening up” of which the PRC made such a fuss. If the ROC on Taiwan originally liberalized to score points with the West against the PRC, it hardly looked back longingly for a less prosperous or more disorderly time anymore. Taiwan functioned as an independent nation claimed by China as part of its nation, but could not officially declare as much. What it lacked in diplomatic recognition due to its uniquely ambiguous political state it more than made up for in its unambiguous economic state as an export powerhouse from plastics to computer chips.

Meanwhile, Mao’s successor Hua Guofeng was doubling down on Mao in his soon to be infamous Two Whatevers: “We will resolutely uphold whatever policy decisions Chairman Mao made, and unswervingly follow whatever instructions Chairman Mao gave.” Resolute was never forever. In late 1978, after China adopted its third Constitution in as many decades, CCP paramount leader Deng Xiaoping initiated the Four Modernizations campaign focusing on agriculture, national defense, science, and technology. Deng remarked that Mao had been 70 percent correct and 30 percent wrong. The West was thrilled to hear about the Democracy Wall, where at long last ordinary Chinese could post suggestions, and where political dissident Wei Jingsheng proposed the “fifth modernization,” democracy. They had a year to delude themselves, before Deng Xiaoping had the Wall removed, foreshadowing his behavior in Tiananmen Square a decade later.

Deng Xiaoping became the first CCP leader to visit the U. S. Along with millions of others that January 1979, I watched the telecast from the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, in which singer John Denver entertained Deng by greeting him with “Mr. Vice-Premier, it is with great joy that we welcome you to our country, and it is with true love that we extend our very best wishes to you and your people, on your ‘New Long March Toward Modernization In This Century,’” and then singing Rocky Mountain High. Deng instituted the counter-revolutionary Four Moderns and “Reform and Opening up” granting Americans access to China for the first time in three decades.

Deng also announced “One Country, Two Systems,” in effect acknowledging that the system in the PRC was hardly the same truly open system of Hong Kong and Taiwan. By 1981 he could proclaim that the Cultural Revolution, in which a million people had died, was an official “catastrophe.”

In 1984 Deng rebranded the economic opening-up begun in 1979 as “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” The phrase was catchy. Unfortunately, one of the characteristics was an inability to eradicate a culture of rampant corruption—punctuated by the occasional show trial—that a longtime expat Communist and CCP member like American Sidney Rittenberg bemoaned finding on all sides when the CCP finally released him from wrongful imprisonment. In 1987 Deng acknowledged that central economic planning no longer drove the Chinese economy, while Taiwan ended thirty-seven years of one-party rule in 1986, lifted martial law in 1987, and began to allow its citizens to visit China.

China in 1988 was full of the hope of economic growth and democratization—delivering the full promise of a Chinese society that had opened up. Only a year after the PRC opened up to Taiwanese visitors, in 1988 Lynn and I finally got to visit mainland China, at least Beijing, with the Henry Luce Foundation. I may have missed the wall-encircled version of Beijing and the original smaller Tiananmen Square that survived intact until the 1950s, but at least I got to see the fabled city before the skyline was upended with inane high-rises, the sky polluted to a pulp, the hutong neighborhoods eviscerated, and the roads clogged with cars, all of which would happen in the next two decades. If the airport roof had solar panels, the road from the airport was a mere two lanes wide ride, through open country. If there were already cars, there were still millions of bicyclists, and no second and third ring roads. Foreigners were required to use foreign exchange certificates to make purchases.

The big Henry Luce Foundation event was meeting one of the Eight Elders of the CCP, Li Xiannian, at the Great Hall of the People. Recently made Chair of People’s Political Consultative Conference, the veteran of Mao’s Long March had had risen to prominence after Mao’s death to become one of the most influential architects of China’s economic policy after the Cultural Revolution and become President of the PRC from 1983-1988.

Henry Luce Foundation with Li Xiannian in Great Hall of the People, 1988

At a banquet on that visit I was seated next to Hou Renzhi, a retired Peking University professor of geography and urban history. Born in 1911, the year of the birth of Modern China, he gained exposure to the Western field of historical geography while earning his PhD at Liverpool, in time to return to the New China in 1949, ran marathons, was sent to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution, became renowned as a pioneer in the field of historical geography and lived to be 100. When I met him he was a lean and vigorous seventy-seven. Prof. Hou told me how he had been one of those who were shouted down during the Cultural Revolution as he tried to save from the Red Guards, whose slogan was “smashing of the Four Olds,” what was left of Beijing’s magnificent city walls already largely demolished for a subway line and air raid shelters, only to have one of those who had shouted him down apologize years later, telling him that he had been right all along. They were now friends. Nowadays, if you wanted to experience an elevated people’s greenway, you had to walk the walls of Xian or Nanjing.

What a difference a year made. In the spring of 1989, Prof. Hou was leading a tour of Beijing’s city wall remnants along the second ring road when events in the heart of the city took a dramatic turn. Soon after the death of beloved pro-democracy reformer Hu Yaobang, students gathered in Tiananmen Square both to mourn him and to demand democracy of their government. Though cellphones had not yet been invented, word spread rapidly by fax machine. Intellectuals, students, workers, even some peasants from the countryside gathered in the center of the capital city, indeed gathered in scores of other cities as well. For the first time in Chinese history, coming from all walks of life, to use Mao’s phrase uttered here in 1949, the people had stood up to express frustration at rising inequality, rampant official corruption, and the lack of democratic freedoms. In Tiananmen Square, exercising their right of free speech, students read aloud both the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address in translation. They hardly expected a repeat of what happened there after Zhou Enlai’s death twelve years before. Though the demonstrators committed not one act of violence, the government imagined huge risks to the country. Seeing its legitimacy threatened and the nation’s existence imperiled by social unrest, spreading like a contagion since the fall of the Soviet Union and political reform in Eastern Europe, and now to 80 cities across China, the frightened government reacted in a harsh crackdown in Beijing that was forever etched on the minds of Chinese participants and observers and millions of Westerners who were riveted by the television coverage and subsequent eyewitness accounts.

The most enduring images were the highly symbolic clone of the Statue of Liberty erected in the Square and Tank Man, a lone figure standing in the middle of Chang’an Road, gesturing with his two shopping bags, halting a line of tanks sent in to enforce the will of the state. After the tanks shut off their engines, the man climbed onto the turret to talk to the human being hidden within. It was a gesture of nonviolent resistance in the heroic tradition of Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. His fate remains a mystery. Eyewitnesses reported seeing pro-democracy demonstrators crushed by tanks, and soldiers bayoneting mothers and children. Deng had cracked down on the Democracy Wall a decade before, and now was implicated again. But which army leader was really to blame for the brutal tactics of the People’s Liberation Army that resulted in the death of 300 to 1000 unarmed democracy-denied civilians? And some commanders in the People’s Liberation Army had been opposed to violence against the People. The opportunity costs were enormous. The perceived brutality in the crackdown cost the PRC dearly in the public relations tug of war with Taiwan, and in international investment for a while. What the West called the Tiananmen Massacre remained a taboo topic in China, which wanted to avoid social unrest at all costs.

The abrupt turn away from the people’s consensus as if none could be had, only chaos, placed China squarely and defensively on the sidelines of global democratization. By 2023, as electoral democracies benefited 45 percent of the world’s population, China was working overtime to assert the superiority of its system of government for the people and churn out “democracy has failed” screeds. In 2023 one might think they are winning. Don’t bet on it, any more than investing in its real estate. Given what China has been through with nearly two centuries of foreign powers cutting up China “like a watermelon,” dynastic decline, warlords, a brutal Japanese invasion, and civil war, how can we in the West really blame them or begin to feel their pain? Self-inflicted wounds come with a history.

Doubling down on official Tiananmen amnesia, China chose to rebuild its way out of the 1989 crisis. Indeed, in 1993 it became a net importer of oil for the first time, and Beijing was already trying to rein in the real estate bubble before the economy and social unrest spun out of control. The phenomenon of empty blocks replacing farmland, and landless ex-farmers forced to live in otherwise barren blocks could trace its origins back that far. As long as the nation grew and the standard of living improved for the masses, the people would choose stability over social unrest, economic growth over stagnation, leaving for another day the luxury of human rights and justice before the law, or so the state reasoned, and postponing the day of reckoning with the ever-ballooning real estate bubble. One thing that was off the table was another famine. Chinese citizens could now talk to foreigners and not get arrested; with the danger gone, there was a sense of risk-free and optimistic adventure in the air.

But still the riots broke out in far-off ethnically non-Han Chinese strongholds like Xinjiang and Tibet, where with irony that escaped the CCP, they dealt with the locals precisely the way the much-hated Japanese had with Manchuria back in the day. And still the official voice of the state was shrill; nuanced discussion was an oxymoron. The persistent state-stoked narrative of national humiliation promoted by Mao, Chiang Kai-shek, and Sun Yat-sen before them—victimhood at the hands of colonial powers whether European or Japanese—wuwang guochi, “Never forget our national humiliation,” would in fact soon be forgotten a lot of the time, although trotted out whenever the state felt its power eroding. That, and protesting when something “hurt the feelings of the Chinese People.”

Meanwhile, on the political front, Taiwan kept up the pressure on the PRC by the force of its counterexample. In 1989 Taiwan had embraced legislative reform, culminating in the retirement of the old Nationalist representatives of Mainland provinces, and not a moment too soon. In 1991 Taiwan held its first national elections, and newly elected President Lee Teng-hui formally recognized the PRC government, as if to say the ROC enjoyed the status to do such a thing. Henceforth, the ROC would no longer claim to represent all of China; it had been some time since that old rhetoric had seemed credible. President Lee’s reforms extended to inviting free discussion of sensitive political issues of Taiwan’s past, an opening-up of thought.

Taiwan was occasionally in the news as forever living under the threat of a PRC takeover, given the PRC’s prickly insistence on preserving the “Motherland” and intolerance for “splittists.” When Taiwan held its first direct presidential election in 1996, the PRC’s attempt to intimidate the Taiwanese electorate by staging war games in the Taiwan Strait backfired into yet another public relations gaffe. The U.S. dispatched two aircraft carrier battle groups to the region. By the 2010s the naval intimidation became habitual. In electing Democratic Progressive Party candidates Chen Shui-bian as President and Annette Lu as Vice-President of Taiwan in 1996, a Chinese people had freely voted for the peaceful transition of power for the first time in Chinese history. Ordinary Taiwanese people had voted, and not for reunification.

In 1997, Hong Kong reverted to China without losing its democratic system for the next fifty years, much to the relief of an apprehensive world. From the vantage point of 2023, we can see how shortsighted that relief was to be. After the death of Deng, China stayed the course of “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” rather like capitalism in socialist clothing, under the new PRC leader Jiang Zemin, the former mayor of Shanghai, and as liberal pro-Western a leader as we could hope for. In October 1997, Jiang visited Washington and with president Bill Clinton agreed to establish a regular consultation mechanism for defense. Jiang then spoke at Harvard, in halting English, about our common destiny.

In 1999 Premier Zhu Rongji signed a joint statement with Clinton on China’s accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO), promising reforms to increase transparency and protect intellectual property, and unleashing Chinese industrial might beyond anything the world had ever seen. Foreign direct investment exploded. Capitalism with Chinese characteristics had taken root.

Even as I paid attention to all these momentous events, I had been assuming that a new generation was in charge in Taiwan and in no need of advice from Americans, much less Americans of the previous generation. I assumed the same about China, whose reputation had been sullied by Tiananmen. But I was wrong on both counts. The PRC and Taiwan were becoming more interlocked economically: now their peoples could even travel back and forth to sightsee or visit relatives. Between the PRC and Taiwan, the days of antagonistic clashing over ideology seemed, until the Xi Jinping era, to be behind them. In 2001 Taiwan joined China in the World Trade Organization. And both the PRC and Taiwan still looked overseas for design advice. I was about to put everything I had ever learned to work in Taiwan once more. And it would take me across the Taiwan Strait to the China that had been closed to me when I had first gone to Taiwan in 1976 and that I had barely seen in 1988.

In 2005 an old Tourism Bureau colleague from 1977 and now the Bureau’s Director General invited me back to consult on 23 special scenic area construction projects over a three week period. When I was back, I was amazed at the power of democracy. Taiwan was moving on from trying to suppress dark moments in its own past to finding ways to acknowledge them and mourn the victims. In downtown Taipei, it had created the 2-28 Peace Memorial Park, two blocks from the Presidential Palace, to honor the victims of the “228 Incident” of Nationalist Party brutality against native Taiwanese that occurred on February 28, 1947, a forbidden topic when I had been in Taiwan before.

Of all the sites I consulted on, the most profoundly moving was Green Island. Off limits in 1977 when it still housed political prisoners, totaling anywhere between 30,000 and 70,000 from 1951 to 1989, Green Island was now a vacation destination attracting 349,000 visitors annually. Its mix of spectacular unspoiled scenery, the only seafront hot springs in Asia, its Human Rights Monument, and prison museum showcasing human rights progress had the power to win many friends for Taiwan. What Robben Island and its political prisoner Nelson Mandela meant to South Africa, Green Island and its political prisoners meant to Taiwan.

American land artist Maya Lin would recognize the big design idea of the Green Island Human Rights Memorial, also known as the White Terror Memorial Park: an inscription wall descending into the earth, with hundreds of names inscribed in the sandstone. No, these were not the kind of heroes who had gone off to Asia to fight a war against Communist revolutionaries and for whom decent records were kept, as with Maya Lin’s celebrated Vietnam Veterans Memorial. These were a different kind of hero, the names of Taiwanese imprisoned for simply voicing dissent, when the Nationalist government did not recognize the right of free speech, or even the right to a decent record. Some of the inscriptions were ringed by a dark grey oval, burnished by the tender touch of adoring hands, for these were the names of people who were now leading Taiwan to greatness.

Green Island memory wall. Tourists have touched the names of admired Taiwanese once incarcerated in Green Island Prison enough to leave smudges

Heading the list were Taiwan’s top two leaders, President Chen Shui-bian and Vice President Annette Lu, perhaps the highest ranking Chinese woman anywhere, a graduate of both Green Island Prison and Harvard Law School. Lu had been one of the Kaohsiung Eight, arrested for a pro-democracy demonstration on Human Rights Day in that city in 1979 when Taiwan was still a one-party state. Among other famous prisoners was Cai Ruei-yue, Taiwan’s first lady of modern dance, who had never breathed a word of it to my wife 29 years earlier when Ms. Cai taught her traditional Chinese dance. The Memorial spoke to me not for its design but for the fact of its existence, what it represented, and what that meant. It represented the triumph of democracy and human rights for the largest predominantly ethnic Chinese population outside China. And that meant Taiwan had gained enormously in good will and world admiration.

As I could personally attest over the last thirty years, Taiwan had a great story to tell, one of incredible economic and political progress, a fabulous success story in so many spheres. In Taiwan, innovation goes hand in hand with a deep respect for tradition, the environment, and human rights.

Now that our three children were out the door, with Lynn’s encouragement I looked for opportunities in China in late 2006. Little did we know how perfect the timing was: the year of 2007 proved to be the banner year for China’s GDP growth, 14.2%, almost double the 8% target, itself far ahead of any other economy. Record numbers of development projects needed to be designed. Alongside just about any other profession one could name, in China landscape architects were in as much demand as the world had ever seen.

Old and new in Shanghai as I found it in 2007

When I moved to Shanghai I hardly knew what to expect. As director of design at a Chinese landscape architecture and urban planning firm, and the lone American, I wondered how well I would assimilate. I needn’t have worried. Traveling all over China to meet with clients, I discovered that the Chinese people had a healthy appetite for almost all things American. Once banned under Chairman Mao’s dictatorial rule, American pop culture was everywhere.

But it was not just pop culture that interested them. I was amazed that in school many had read American classics such as Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. At a conference on visionary urban planning, where I was the only non-Chinese, the big red banner behind the stage was emblazoned with a huge image of Abraham Lincoln, patterned on the famous Daniel Chester French statue at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. I asked several attendees how Lincoln was relevant to an urban planning conference in China. “Because he represents good government,” they said, gently implying that that should be obvious.

Projects that would take years to get off the drawing board in the U.S. got built in months here; orders were given, people were moved, and, presto, a half billion square meters of new residential and commercial space were built every year. The Great Leap Forward these days was the real deal. Though the CCP still proudly displayed the official portrait of Mao overlooking Tiananmen Square, no one talked anymore about “class enemies.” Only curio shops were selling the Little Red Book. If the scars of that age of suspicion and denunciation ran deep, no one was admitting it now.

The odd juxtaposition of the Stars and Stripes and the portrait of Mao in a Tiananmen Square tour group during a sand storm in 2010

The Chinese did not yet have the vote for their own top leaders but they voted for the leading facets of Western life in countless ways. Whereas they made no secret of their visceral hatred of the Japanese that not even apologies for the Rape of Nanjing and the like could ever cure, they held no such visceral hatred for us. Au contraire. The U. S. was the ambitious Chinese student’s destination of choice for studying abroad. Pregnant mothers seeking a stateside birth to confer US citizenship were voting for American stability, freedom, and educational opportunity over what they had back home. We took for granted that of course their business attire was Western; they could have continued with local garb even as Arabs and Africans did theirs but wisely chose not to. Long gone were Mao suits, the opposite number of leisure suits in the U.S. back in the benighted day. Recently Paramount Leader Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, former low-level Red Guards, wore Western attire and parted their jet-black medium-length hair to look like Westerners, not like their buzzed Communist parents. Regular people wore jeans with abandon, even baseball caps, including the Red Sox, and flaunted iPhones. The armed forces and police wore uniforms whose antecedents were hardly Asian, and sometimes a tad fascistic with the jackboots. On airlines, in mostly School of Boeing aircraft, the utensils of choice for all meals were not chopsticks. As to the second language of business here, the Chinese had voted with their commercial signs, traffic signs, and road signs, subway ticket machines and ATMs which proudly displayed not French or Japanese or Russian, but their best English. The street signage symbol for parking was P. They taught English as a second language and it began in primary school now; we had not yet begun to reciprocate, although we should: it would be a strategic national investment. They used “OK” more than we would ever use “haode,” and routinely signed off with “Bye bye” on the phone, and punctuate Chinese texts with Western exclamation points and question marks.

Coffee drinking had taken the land of tea by storm; Starbucks was in every major city and had attracted many clones, pirates, imitators, coffeecats, none of which could resist using a logo that was round and ringed with white letters, everything but the mermaid. Coke had long been popular, and at the 2008 Shanghai World Expo it was the most popular exhibit in the consumer brands area. Fast food chains like KFC were ubiquitous.

Water calligraphy in a park in Yangzhou, 2007--an ephemeral artform. The brush is linked to a water tank strapped to the back of the artist

In the English class that I gave in the Shanghai and Beijing offices, I once chose as our subject what American movies my colleagues liked, and why, and what they disliked. The guys loved the action and fantasy flicks like Spiderman, the women chick flicks and TV shows like Sex and the City, just as in the West. Some had seen older classics like Gone with the Wind, and newer ones like The English Patient.

The people adored not just our movies but our music in ways Westerners did not reciprocate. They sang our Happy Birthday song with Chinese words. Cell phone jingles I’d heard included Oh Susannah, Singin’ in the Rain, and the Eagles’ Hotel California. Hotel electronic muzak included Simon and Garfunkel’s’ The Sounds of Silence. The schoolyard behind my Shanghai office regularly blared Western and only Western music, Bolero and Pachobel’s Canon. Department store floors decorated with huge posters of Western models sold with sentimental fare like As Time Goes By, The Way We Were, and Bridge over Troubled Waters, all covers, no doubt royalty-free. I had caught people in the firm and taxi drivers whistling Ode to Joy or Silent Night (I concede these are not English) and Jingle Bells, the latter a little bit of New England in Shanghai (James Pierpont, Boston, 1857). Another taxi driver was humming along with everything on a Western classical music station. Indeed, I had heard so little Chinese music in China, classical or pop, that the vote seemed to be overwhelming. But it had been no overnight phenom. Western classical instruments and orchestration had amplified the cause of socialist revolution since the beginning in China, and with the opening-up, the familiar instrumentation and borrowed soundscape could hardly be expected to diminish. Chinese virtuoso violinists and cellists vastly outnumbered Western virtuoso performers on the guzhang. Western appreciation of sounds Chinese was not keeping up. We needed to be directed to the Chinese Beethoven, or even Pachobel. Surely with five thousand years of civilization, there was a vast musical repertory waiting for Westerners to hum along with. We Western barbarians needed to be properly schooled, was all.

They and everyone else voted for perhaps the most far-reaching of all American inventions, the internet, the personal computer and the cellphone. Across China, the new generation, unlike their parents, were computer-literate early, facile with the keyboard’s indispensable Western alphabet, often as preschoolers. As soon as in primary school, people were voting for the Western alphabet as indispensable to computer literacy. The number symbols used in Chinese computers, texts, and traffic countdown signals were in Arabic, like ours, not their own cumbersome number characters. They went along with the Western calendar (Chinese New Years falls many weeks after ours), and dividing a day into twenty-four hours, systems invented long after they had come up with their own. I am profoundly grateful for their vote for American software, from operating systems to Excel spreadsheets to PowerPoint, which was called “PPT,” and above all for Google, whose maps and satellite images made far off places seem very near. For years Chinese urbanization happily borrowed many great inventions and innovations from the West—elevators and escalators; trains, planes, and automobiles; train stations, airports, and superhighways; high-rises and underground parking; tunnels and subways; large public parks, hydroelectric dams, and the power grid.

Guangzhou high rises in 2014. Formerly known as Canton

TV newscasts, milk cartons and soda cans, business cards, telephones, gas stations, cars and even the legions of concrete trucks all looked all-American. The military and airline uniforms were Western knockoffs. Their nautical and aeronautical charts were virtually identical to ours. Even the party elite, whose parents had worn Mao jackets, sung the Ode to the Motherland and read the Little Red Book, took up golf as the ultimate status symbol. They played American-invented sports like baseball and basketball. One hundred universities offered baseball studies. The votes for American leisurely pursuits and technology across all fields could fill a book. It was just easier to adopt than to start a parallel universe from scratch. Very little was left that was pure Chinese except local foodstuffs, household products, crafts, and sundries.

The voting went back even before the CCP era. Even the realm of pre-CCP memorial architecture owed something to the West. Did the architect Henry Bacon and the sculptor Daniel Chester French who together designed the sublime Lincoln Memorial have any idea how that idea would take wing and end up in China? And yet both China and Taiwan boast memorials to revered leaders whose exterior architecture may not look classical, but whose interior sanctuary focuses on a monumental statue of the hero, neither standing nor lying in state, but seated. Dr. Sun Yat-sen was so honored in Nanjing in the 1920s, and Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek in Taipei in the 1980s.

Now we in the West may take all this homage for granted, but we really ought to be profoundly grateful. In 2010, having led the world out of recession, China’s economy surpassed Japan’s to become the world’s second largest, 90-times bigger than when leader Deng Xiaoping ditched hard-line Communist policies in favor of free-market reforms in 1978. If China ever becomes our Overlord, I seriously doubt that they will flip this all into a neo-Sino culture makeover with Chinese language at the helm. We may well remain the overlords of innovation for a while yet.

When my Shanghai-based AGER Boston office won a design competition in Taiwan in 2011, I spoke in Chinese and showed an image of me at the Taiwan Tourism Bureau 34 years before

After I opened the Shanghai-based design firm’s first overseas office in Boston, indeed the first bona-fide office of any Chinese design firm in the U.S., I found myself drawn to the idea of writing a book on urban public space best practices. I wanted nothing important to get lost in translation, so my vision for Cities with Heart included the original English text and the Chinese translation side by side. The company had hired Ran Weiming, a young Shanghai-based bilingual communications specialist who not only understood my English, but educated me by Skype on the differences in exposition between our two languages, both as to logic and to clarity. When I finally met her on a company trip to Shanghai World Expo in 2010, she mentioned that she had been captivated with Thoreau’s Walden since she was a fifteen-year-old high schoolgirl living in a mountain village a few hours outside Qongqing. I was stunned that she had found Thoreau in such a place. She loved Transcendentalist writers like Emerson and Fuller. If this global connectivity was where our world was heading, it was a good place. It was my pleasure to make sure she saw Walden, birthplace of the modern environmentalism movement. On the first day that she had ever spent outside China, a jet-lagged Ran knelt before the pile of pebbles brought by pilgrims from all over the world to Thoreau’s cabin site, and added her own offering with these words for Henry: “My name is Ran, and you may not know me, but I knew you when I was a fifteen-year-old.” Henry surely smiled.

Ran Weiming, who discovered Walden as a teen, on her first day ever out of China, at Walden. 2011.

Sadly, the Xi Jinping-Covid era has chilled the warmth of those days. There is blame on both sides. China looks at our current state as if it confirms the superiority of its system of government, even as ominous economic signs hover over the Chinese mainland. Indeed, even before those signs began to appear, Xi Jinping’s ponderous tome The Governance of China (2014) included this admission: "Actually, how to govern a socialist society, a completely new socialist society, has not been clearly addressed by world socialism so far."

In Taiwan, democracy soldiers on, while across the Taiwan Strait, far from having anything close to a majority, the CCP that rules the Peoples Republic of China counts less than 7% of those people as CCP members.

One word on the t-shirt of a young urban Chinese says it all, Hainan, 2007


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