I was on my way to meet Zhu Xueqin, the best-known of the Chinese intellectuals who describe themselves as ‘liberal’. In 1998, Zhu, often openly critical of the Communist regime, wrote the introduction to a book called Pitfalls of Modernisation, a denunciation of Chinese official corruption, that was subsequently banned; and I expected to meet someone living in somewhat straitened circumstances. . . .
Zhu had just finished elementary school in Shanghai when the Cultural Revolution began. In line with Mao’s desire to expose intellectuals to the conditions of the working class and peasants, he voluntarily spent four years in one of the poorest regions in Henan province with a group of idealistic students who wanted to combine a life of manual labour with self-directed study. In 1972, he moved with them to a factory and spent ten years there, working through the day and reading at night, before eventually resuming his formal education in 1982, just as Deng Xiaoping began to marketise large sections of China’s state-controlled economy. . . .
It is hard not to wonder about the political outlook of the newly affluent Chinese. Their inability to articulate it through elections does not make any less urgent the question of what role they are likely to play within China as well as in the wider world. For, given the chance to vote, Indians have failed to prove the thesis that free markets and regular elections lead to an enlightened and harmonious society. India’s new middle class tends to be conservative, if not reactionary, consistently and overwhelmingly electing Hindu nationalists as their representatives, despite the latter’s repeated assaults on Muslims and their equally murderous indifference to the rural poor – the hundreds of millions who are trapped in a cycle of poverty and debt, and increasingly vulnerable to militant Communist movements that draw their inspiration from Mao.
London Review of Books interview with Zhu Xueqin
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