Tide Players

Tide Players: The Movers and Shakers of a Rising China, by Jianying Zha, The New Press, RRP£18.99, 224 pages

Many westerners who are rightly incensed at the treatment of dissidents such as Liu Xiaobo or Ai Weiwei probably have a false impression of what modern China feels like. They imagine a uniformly repressive society in which people are afraid to speak out and where the heavy hand of the state reaches into every crevice of life.

This view is not without some truth. But for many middle-class city dwellers, China could not feel more different. For them, today’s China is a fantastic adventure, a lunge into a world of previously unimagined possibilities. Even among the generation that lived through the horrors of the Cultural Revolution, this is widely regarded as the most optimistic time to be alive in China in hundreds of years.

That view is especially true for a small group who push up against the edge of what is permissible but never quite overstep the limit. These are the “tide players” of the book’s title, those who have spirited wealth out of China’s shift to a market economy, or have prised open space for intellectual curiosity and self-expression. The term comes from Pan Lang, a poet of the Northern Song Dynasty (AD960-1127): “Tide players surf the currents/The red flags they hold up never get wet.”

In Jianying Zha’s remarkable and fast-paced book, the tide players are the pragmatists of modern China, who strive and prosper but who push events along in the process. The author is a Chinese woman who appears equally at home in Chinese and English, in Beijing and in New York. A returnee to China after a long stint in the US, she becomes the reader’s person on the inside.

Zha offers us six portraits, skilfully counterpointed – three of successful business people and three of intellectuals. Of the six, the only one who is not a tide player is her brother, an idealist jailed for nine years for helping to found a political party. Even his career parallels those of the daring entrepreneurs. He once hoped to be vice-chairman of a car-rental company. When that fell through, he became, instead, vice-chairman of the China Democratic party. That landed him in jail.

Like Zha’s brother, in his time a Red Guard, an inner Mongolian peasant, a would-be entrepreneur and a political prisoner, most of the book’s personalities have led multiple lives. They go from barefoot doctor to wildly successful businessman – and back again. Or from disgrace to respectability. Such has been the churn of China’s recent history.

Zhang Dazhong, whose mother was strangled to death by the state for criticising Mao Zedong, was brought up in poverty. He got a job at the village grocery store, selling pork for $5 a month. In the early 1980s, as the economy opened up, he registered a company to distribute amplifiers from his tiny apartment. He began to open stores, rode a boom in imported karaoke machines and, by 2005, owned one of the biggest electronics chains in China. Two years later, he sold out for $500m to a rival, a would-be tide player who fell foul of the power structures and is now serving a 14-year jail sentence.

But Zhang’s is not a simple rags-to-riches story. Like all those featured, his life is complex, reflecting what Zha calls “the rainbow of hues that you’d need to paint a semblance of Chinese life today”. Portrayed as a gentle, decent man – the title of the chapter is “A good tycoon” – Zhang’s driving force turns out to be not a quest for wealth but, rather, one to clear his mother’s name. He has campaigned for 35 years and has recently taken to handing out copies of a banned book on Mao to anyone willing to contemplate past injustices.

Yet Zhang’s rebellion – if that’s what it is – is circumscribed. Like many in the book, perhaps including the author, he appears to believe China is best served by incremental change. (A slight caveat: we only know what people say, not what they actually believe.) “I don’t have a bone to pick with the current leadership,” he tells Zha. “How fast can China change politically? Too fast is no good either.”

Zha’s technique is not to intervene openly in the debates she starts. For the most part, she lets the protagonists speak for themselves. “The person who takes one step ahead of others is a leader. The person who takes three steps ahead is a martyr,” says someone, referring to her brother’s principled obstinacy. Another, harsher critic calls political prisoners “toothless men writing for one another”. On this occasion, Zha offers her verdict. “The words were heartless,” she says. “They were also true.”

The book features some marvellous Chinese expressions, traditional sayings that illuminate the modern world. An ambitious plan to reform Peking University is “tiger head, snake tail” – it starts out big, but ends up small. Kicking a man while he’s down is “dropping a stone after someone’s fallen down a well”.

The most moving chapter is about Zha’s brother, described as both a “mulish simpleton” who bangs “an egg against a rock” and a fixed pole whose constancy allows others to find their bearings. Zha, who can’t decide whether he is a fool or a hero, is nevertheless sure that “those who locked him up are on the wrong side of history”. She brims with pride when readers of an essay she wrote about him, widely circulated in Chinese despite the best efforts of censors, praise her brother for his “courage and conviction”.

If those portrayed live double and triple lives, with complex hinterlands and contradictory impulses, so does Zha herself. Though she seems to have allied herself with the pragmatists and incrementalists, she is no apologist for the Communist party. Indeed, she was an early signatory of Charter 08, the document calling for democratic reform that landed Liu Xiaobo, one of its authors, in jail and subsequently won him the Nobel Peace Prize.

Liu, now an “enemy of the state”, turns out to be one of Zha’s friends. So is Wang Meng, the subject of the last essay, one of China’s most famous authors and a former culture minister labelled “a servant of the state”. Zha seems to be able to slip between these poles as effortlessly as she moves between China and the west. If she could not, she would not have been able to write this wonderful book. Zha herself is the ultimate tide player.

David Pilling is the FT’s Asia editor

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