China to foreigners: Quote Mao, at your peril

Nick Young's China Development Brief may have understood the Middle Kingdom a bit too well.

By Andrew Leonard

Published July 12, 2007 4:12PM (EDT)

Maybe he shouldn't have quoted Chairman Mao.

China watchers are abuzz with the news that longtime China hand Nick Young's "China Development Brief" has been shut down by Beijing authorities. Back in March, How the World Works highlighted a report authored by Young, "How Much Inequality Can China Stand?" I called it "the most current, concise, readable and evenhanded look at what's going on beneath the headlines in China that I've read in a long time."

Maybe it was too on the money. The report opens with a quote from Mao Zedong's seminal tract, "On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People."

"In ordinary circumstances, contradictions among the people are not antagonistic. But if they are not handled properly, or if we relax our vigilance and lower our guard, antagonism may arise."

Young's report concludes with a warning about what the revolution of rising expectations might foretell for China's rulers, if the rich are allowed to continue to get richer at the current rate.

It is not, of course, the case that only perfectly just societies are politically sustainable: people throughout history and across the world have proved capable of enduring and even accepting huge inequality -- under main force, in some cases, but often also out of a sense that this is the natural order of things. But a high-paced and market-oriented consumer society -- where acquisitiveness is consciously promoted, personal success publicly applauded and affluence often openly flaunted -- can hardly help but raise expectations generally, perhaps especially among younger generations who have fewer memories of past trials. Disappointed expectations, linked to a sense of social justice, could prove difficult to handle.

Time magazine quotes Young as saying "I do consider myself to be a friend of China... I think it's a serious problem if the state cannot distinguish between friends and enemies."

Maybe China's leaders prefer enemies who do not understand their country to friends who seem to have a pretty good handle on exactly what's going down.

UPDATE: A message from Nick Young about the shutdown published this morning on China Development Brief.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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