Peter Hessler’s book Country Driving: A Journey from Farm to Factory reveals many astonishing things about grassroots Chinese society, based on the author’s experience of driving around a large part of China.
The book has been called a Chinese version of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. Together with Hessler’s earlier books, River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze and Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China’s Past and Present, it forms a trilogy that may well be the most in-depth investigation of China written by a foreigner in recent years.
One particularly symbolic incident described in the book comes when Hessler is stopped and questioned by a group of highway traffic police. The author describes the scene as follows:
“‘You must be a spy!’ he said. The others picked up the refrain, laughing. ‘He’s a spy! He’s driving around, he speaks Chinese — he must be a spy! A spy! A spy!’ Shaking with laughter, the cop returned both my licenses. It took me a while to find my voice. ‘Is it OK if I continue?’ I said. ‘Of course!’ Driving away, looking through the rearview mirror, I could see them roughhousing on the side of the road. The cops punched each other and laughed: ‘A spy! A spy!’”
This little incident, which leaves the reader not sure whether to laugh or cry, reflects a number of profound truths. Let us leave aside the absurdity of the logic fed to the police by the authorities — the idea that any foreigner who drives around China and speaks Chinese must be a spy. The key point is that, whereas Hessler was so worried when he heard the police say he was a spy that he lost his voice for a while, the outcome was that the police officers did not follow up on their assessment of the situation by taking any action whatsoever, but simply let him go, waving him on his way.
First saying he was a spy, but then letting him go while laughing heartily — it is even more absurd than the absurdity previously mentioned, and this absurdity of absurdities signals the approaching demise of a totalitarian regime.
The first reason for saying so is that when the logic of a totalitarian system reaches a certain degree of absurdity, the result will be that even the people responsible for operating the system come to see the whole thing as a joke. To put it another way, under such a system, when the theories that those in charge use to poison other people’s minds are seen alongside reality, then sooner or later it will reach a situation where the system’s enforcers no longer believe in it themselves.
Consider some of the terms still bandied about in China today — “socialism,” “the Communist Party is there to serve the people,” “prospering together” and so on. How many people still believe in such noble-sounding slogans?
History tells us that when any system reaches the point where even those who run the system no longer believe in its underlying theories, it will be hard to keep it going for much longer.
The second reason is this: On the face of it, the Chinese Communist Party has a vast and tightly controlled system for maintaining stability. Social controls seem to reach everywhere. Frequent drivers’ license checks by highway police are just one link in the chain.
You would think that such a system could not fall apart, but you then have to ask why all totalitarian systems in history have crumbled and fallen one after another. The reason is quite simple: No matter how strict a system may be, it still needs individuals to keep it going. When those individuals no longer strictly enforce the system, then the system is going to break down.
If the traffic police in Hessler’s book really thought they were up against an enemy agent, they should have interrogated him, but as it turned out, they thought nothing of it. This is how the system is cracking.
The communist party’s system for maintaining stability is indeed vast, yet it is not capable of controlling every one of those whose job it is to keep it going. It may take just one incident, involving one individual, for the ramparts of the system to crumble and collapse.
Among the huge force of people charged with maintaining stability in China, who can guarantee that none of them will cause such an incident?
Wang Dan is a visiting associate professor at National Tsing Hua University’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences.
Translated by Julian Clegg