My China: Democracy Is Not Coca-Cola
Having weathered past contradictions, errors, and suffering, the country has found its Way, or Tao, by drawing on experience, ancient traditions, and philosophy.
To friends of mine who have never been here, I always say that one does not go to China; one returns to China. I add that you either love or loathe China; there are no half measures. Feign indifference at your peril: the ancient Middle Kingdom stirs powerful emotions — for me of friendship and understanding, but most often of admiration.
During my childhood I imagined China as a “Land of Wonders.” Livre des Merveilles, or in Italian, Il Milione — “The Million” is indeed the title of Marco Polo’s famous book. While at primary school I felt inexplicably drawn to the great map of the world that hung on the classroom wall, imagining exotic journeys to that vast yellow expanse with such a short yet evocative name: China.
I cannot account for my boyhood fascination with the fabled Celestial Empire. But apart from the tales of Marco Polo, the small illustrated book my parents gave me when I was five-years-old was undoubtedly a significant factor. It told of the adventures of a curious young boy who crosses the deserts of Arabia and the jungles of India before finally arriving in the Empire of the Dragon, where he is warmly welcomed by a young girl. Their conversation remains imprinted on my mind: “Beautiful girl I ask you, what is this country?” / “Arrived you are in China, and if you want you can stay” / “Thank you, beautiful Chinese girl! I am happy to stay”.
It was from that moment that China, its people, its history, and its civilization, became part of my life — as a schoolboy, as a student, and as an academic researcher — and remained so over the years. To others my adventures might appear extraordinary, but to me they are predestined, almost a vocation.
Consequently, the topic of my university thesis was China and its role in the world. An examination of historical events in the 19th and 20th centuries was necessary to establish how and why the unequivocal and painful split between China and the West came about. My studies and research, therefore, strove to comprehend this geopolitical upheaval and the reasons behind it.
China suffered war, invasion, territorial loss, economic depredation, enslavement to opium thanks to British merchants’ trafficking of it, atrocities at the hands of Japanese invaders, and relentless exploitation of its people. But what did the West know of crimes it had committed against China?
It was my lot to grow up in and live through that interminable post-war period of the so-called “short century” — the second half of the 20th century — as portrayed by the great American media machine. The divisive propaganda of the North Atlantic Alliance demonized half of the world, so I could rely on neither books nor newspapers for accurate information. To avoid falling into the mincer of biased reporting I needed to experience the China beyond such sensationalism. As a journalist, I had to go and see for myself.
So it was that in 1976 I obtained a visa and set out on the first of my 216 journeys to China. After 45 years it is fair to say that I have seen a great deal; that I am a reliable witness to all that has occurred — above all to the extraordinary transformation of that great country, the People’s Republic of China. Having seen how “Heaven has been brought to the Earth and the Earth to Heaven” I have written about my experiences in a book titled “Understanding China,” published by Giunti in Florence. I sincerely hope it might indeed help the Western reader to understand the country and provide honest responses to his or her doubts and fears.
But in the meantime, after a respite by virtue of the period of reforms, joint ventures, and openness to a market economy — all in the common global interest — hostility to China in the West, most notably the United States, intensified once again. It coincided with China’s decisive victory in eliminating absolute poverty ten years ahead of UN predictions — an achievement the United States cannot match.
In the wake of its reforms, China is now challenging the U.S.’s economic primacy. China’s current success, in spite of the crisis ensuing from the COVID-19 pandemic, is clear for all to see. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative is ample proof. This year, as China celebrates the centenary of the founding of the Communist Party of China (CPC), the country may feel justly proud. I believe that today, more than ever in the history of modern China, there exists a deep rapport between people and politics.
Only a Party that has taken an entire people into its embrace and proved it can lead them to national salvation, progress, and prosperity has a legitimate right to exercise power. This is what has happened in China, a country of continuous evolvement. The Communist Party of China, throughout adversity and painful upheavals, has never lost sight of its mission: seek happiness for the Chinese people and rejuvenation for the Chinese nation.
I have been a first-hand witness to events in China. When I made my first journey, Chairman Mao was still alive, but one could sense a prevalent anticipation of immense change. In 1978, Deng Xiaoping launch the country’s reform and opening-up drive. The CPC has engaged in a challenge that no other country ever faced, or perhaps even imagined.
I have always believed that undertaking a change of such magnitude while remaining faithful to fundamental principles would require Party leaders of a caliber sufficient to handle challenges that could exert profound impact on the Chinese people. However, the political leadership has, since the glorious days of the Long March (1934-1936), remained steadfast. The new “long march,” from 1978 to 2021, moreover, has brought China to the threshold of being the world’s greatest economic power.
Sad to say, COVID-19 has halted cultural exchanges between our two countries, and consequently postponement of projects that I’ve been working on with friends in China’s principal museums. Having mounted a series of archaeological exhibitions in Italy between 2005 and 2015, we have organized more in China, and hope to resume exchange activities before too long. I have dedicated the 15 months of COVID-enforced inactivity to writing a 700-page book about Beijing, a project begun many years ago.
Although not able to travel to China, the country still figures largely in my daily routine. Thanks to modern telecommunications I am in constant contact with friends in Beijing as we finalize plans for post-coronavirus cultural projects. We look to the future with confidence while waiting for the pandemic to recede and for travel to become safe once more.
I closely follow, with growing concern, the negative developments stemming from the U.S.’s bullying of China. Tensions regarding Hong Kong, Xinjiang, Taiwan, and the South China Sea have been exacerbated by fabrications aimed at provoking a new Cold War. The decolonization and return of Hong Kong, the rooting out of Islamic fundamentalist terrorism in Xinjiang and the Taiwan question are all China’s internal issues in which foreign entities should not meddle.
We’re seeing today what seems to be a continuation of what began in 1839; the attack on China that started the First Opium War and which continued for more than a century with the looting, colonization, and impoverishment of the country. The time has now come to show respect for China’s aspirations to be a free and united country — thriving, modern, and able to draw on its historical experience to promote world peace and prosperity.
By contrast, however, the West threatens and puts pressure on China by persistently, not to say hypocritically, harping on the issues of human rights and democracy. China is a socialist country forged through a great, historic revolution. Having weathered past contradictions, errors, and suffering, the country has found its Way, or Tao, by drawing on experience, ancient traditions, and philosophy. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi summed it up perfectly when he declared: “Democracy is not like Coca-Cola that promises the same taste everywhere in the world. Our democracy has a Chinese flavor.”
Adriano Màdaro is an Italian writer, journalist, and a well-known expert on China. He has published more than 30 books on modern China.