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The Multifaced Officials of Beijing

Making Sense of Chinese communist officials is sometimes a difficult task. This article explains why.

Since I can never quite figure out Beijing officialdom, I simply watch it as I would another indigenous performing art—Beijing Opera, with its fancy costumes, dramatic make-up, dazzling kongfu-style fighting, and high-pitched voices singing and talking in a dialect that few, including yours truly, can understand.

Rising from a junior male role or Xiaosheng, Chinese communist top leader Hu Jintao now masterfully plays the role of Laosheng, the leading actor as the middle-aged mandarin official but without the conventional beard.

And his partner, Premier Wen Jiabao, the man with the willowy figure, smooth manner, and quick tendency to shed tears, plays the leading actress, or Dan, a female role traditionally played by a male in Beijing Opera.

No Beijing Opera would be complete without the role of Chou, or comedy actor, who generally plays the role of a dim-witted and amusing character with blinking eyes and all the comic gestures. Who can play this better than Li Zhaoxing, the infamous, Red-Guard-style foreign minister?

At least I can figure out their roles. It’s those up-and-coming new stars who can sing in English that puzzle me the most.

Although the Taizidang, or princelings, the children of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) elite, still enjoy considerable inherited privileges, the new stars are those technocrats who understand the West and have mastered the multifaceted performing skills.

For example, Wang Huning, who emerged from his study of Western politics, was appointed as Jiang Zemin’s senior adviser. Xia Yong, an expert on Western law and human rights, became Hu Jintao’s top intelligence man.

More and more foreign-educated young hopefuls have been drawn into the power circle. Some are placed at the provincial and ministerial levels; some become senior advisers, some academic authoritative figures, and some big capitalists.

Unlike the old guys, these new players not only speak good English and know how to deal with Westerners, but also understand the art, the between-the-lines play of the Chinese language, as well as the underlying rules of the game in China’s power circle. They can switch between two languages, two cultures—like CVT (Continuously Variable Transmission), slick and smooth. In private, they can open up to you and share secrets to make you feel that they are double agents inside CCP headquarters. But on stage, under the spotlight, they are the standard version of the official apologists.{mospagebreak}

Here are a few shining stars:

Zhou Ji, Minister of Education, received his master’s and Ph.D. degrees from State University of New York back in the 1980s. He’s known for putting on a good show in front of visiting Western delegations or whenever he visits Western countries to pledge his commitment to learning from Western educational systems. And he frequently sponsors Sino-American academic exchange programs, such as the first "Exhibit of China’s 21st Century Higher Education" in the United States.

But he’s also infamously known for his iron fist in controlling the thinking among China’s college faculties and students. He’s responsible for censoring college Internets and shutting down popular forums and websites in over a dozen colleges, including Beijing University and Tsinghua University.

Min Weifang, the Stanford-educated CCP Secretary at Beijing University, who also completed his postdoctoral research at the University of Texas and was once assistant to the university president, considers turning the university into a CCP tool as his governing mission. It was he who fired Professor Jiao Guobiao, an outspoken activist, and openly vowed "to sweep any reactionary speeches out of the classrooms!"

Li Xiguang, dean of the College of Journalism and Communication at Tsinghua University, has demonstrated his bilingual acting skills on both sides of the Pacific. When he’s in the States, he lectures and writes papers in English on freedom of the press, which has made him a popular guy, well-known among his American audience for being such an open-minded professor at the most prestigious university in China.

But back in China, lecturing and writing in Chinese, the same Professor Li is also known for demonizing the United States. He openly calls for restriction of freedom of speech on the Internet, and thus has won himself the notorious "Apologist for Speech Censorship" by Chinese Internet users.

It is of small wonder that, other than providing a fancy resume and a stepping-stone to rapid success, Western education and democracy have done little for these people.

And there is no need to worry about the reserves. There are those college students who claim to be "patriotic and angry youth." Living in the campus utopia, their patriotism, no matter how strong, never stands in their way of pursuing an opportunistic lifestyle.{mospagebreak}

They can loudly protest in front of the U.S. Embassy today and come back tomorrow to wait in line for a student visa. They don’t think there is anything incongruous between the two acts, as both are genuine in their perspectives. They can be genuinely angry when they curse the Americans, and they are more genuinely jubilant on their flight to Harvard. No moral burdens. Whatever feels good and works for the moment is considered a smart move.

This is what is currently at play among the modern, multifaced officialdom of China—conflicting but in concert. The sharp difference between public showcase and private behavior, comic acting and tragic reality, patriotism and Western-worship, is magically in cahoots with people’s cynical lifestyles. The greed for profit and the ruthless approach lead to callous indulgence and lavish spending.

Indeed, it’s too complicated for me. Life is much simpler when I watch the "American Idol" show or vote for the shoot-from-the-hip kind of politician.

Liu Xiaobo is a freelance writer in Beijing.

Translated by CHINASCOPE.