For over 500 years the Forbidden City has been home to 24 Emperors. The Last Emperor, Pu Yi, the so-called Child Emperor, abdicated in 1911. On January 1, 1912 Sun Yat Sen headed the newly formed Republic of China. It was the end of Emperorship. Or was it? The 880 meters long and 550 meters wide Square of the Gate of Heavenly Peace is the home of Chairman Mao’s mausoleum. Hawkers try to sell you Mao's little red book, or a watch with the face of Chairman Mao and a hand that waves at you.
Mao’s tomb is at one end of Tiananmen Square, the Gate of Heavenly Peace at the other. Mao’s portrait hangs above the central archway. It is replaced every three years. A single artist devotes his life to the painting, supplying portrait after portrait of the same face down to the mole on Mao's chin. I marvel at that mole. It is an imperfection. Yet the artist continues to paint it. If I were to write a history of China, I would call it Chairman Mao's Mole.
The portrait is flanked by slogans. The one on the left says, “Long live the People's Republic of China.” The one on the right says, “Long live the unification of the world’s people.” The world is hardly unified. So is the slogan China's expression of a long-term goal to unify the world under its leadership? I don't think so. I think it is the expression of the Chinese view that there is only one world. That world is right here. We are in the central kingdom, Emperor, or no. We are standing on the vertical line in the character for China, zhong:
One should be careful what one wishes for. China wishes for centrality in the world community. It is surely on a path to getting it. The myriad of problems that come with that, pollution, overpopulation, unemployment, are apparent in the brief time we've spent in Beijing. The air quality on the Sunday we arrived was rated one step above hazardous. The Forbidden City was crowded and it was an off day. The population growth rate is now 0.66 percent per year. China’s population is at an all-time high of 1.3 billion people. It is expected to grow to 1.6 billion by the year 2040. Then 80% of its population will be living in cities. Since January 1, 2005 33 million new Chinese have been born.
For me the main problem facing China is a cultural one, the one behind the slogan “Long Live the Unification of the World.” It is that business of Foreigner on the sign over the Passport Control kiosk. It is what leads China to say that the Nobel Peace Prize was desecrated when it was awarded to Liu Xiaobo, the man who was credited with defusing the standoff between the Army and the students in Tiananmen Square in 1989. The offense for which he was sentenced to 11 years in prison was “openly slandering and inciting others to overthrow our country's State power.” If Glen Beck, Rush Limbaugh or Sarah Palin were Chinese, they would be keeping Liu Xiaobo company. The Nobel Committee in honoring Liu Xiaobo claimed to be honoring “the foremost symbol” of the “struggle for human rights” in China. An editorial in the China Daily for Monday, October 11, concludes with this, “Like it or not, the Nobel Peace Prize broadens the suspicion that there is a Western plot to contain a rising China.” This is where the real battle lines are being drawn.