Ha Jin‘s darkest fear about China is that the control-freak regime he fled 25 years ago has enough cash on hand to buy a lease on life — in Washington and the West, at the expense of its own people. The “myth” of an imperial rivalry with the US seems laughable to him, still moreso to sophisticated Chinese visitors who tell him “one good American museum is worth a few Chinese cities.” At the core, China is still a poor country, a very difficult place to live, without the social structure to guarantee safety or rights. Even at the top there’s no fun in being the world-record creditor when China waits more anxiously on American orders than we do on Chinese credit to pay for them. China’s second-worst fear must be that a bad tumble in the US economy would collapse theirs. The primal panic in the rich ruling circle, he’s saying, is about losing their one-party monopoly on power.
In the context of Brown University’s Year of China, I am scrambling to catch up, to get past the numbers, to imagine “reading” China. Ha Jin reads bloggers for news and outrage — over the wreck last week, for example, of a country school bus: 69 kids on a 9-seat vehicle, at the same moment the official press was crowing about the sale of luxury buses in Europe. He reads the published writers more and more available in the U.S. like Su Tong and Yu Hua; and the multi-media star Murong — exploding everywhere now in the New York Times and in his latest post, “Caging a Monster,” as he heads home from Oslo. Ha Jin endorses the steady clarity of the husband-wife reporting of Peter Hessler in the New Yorker and Leslie Chang in the Wall Street Journal — specially on the point that China’s boom has been bad for happiness and sanity. And of course he reads his friend the Nobel Peace Prize poet Liu Xiaobo, under house arrest in China but more and more widely read for his exquisite Tienanmen elegies.
We’re talking too about Ha Jin’s new novel, Nanjing Requiem, a book to be taken to heart on opposite faces of the earth. The re-creation of the vicious Japanese occupation of Nanjing after 1937, focused on the fate of a college campus for women, is bathed in sympathy for China’s suffering at a low-point of humiliation. But the heroic role in this reality-based fiction goes to an American teacher, Minnie Vautrin, for her fortitude and indomitable purpose. Official culture long buried the Nanjing chapter of China’s helplessness and shame as well as the history of faithful foreign friends (Germans, Brits, Americans and others) who stood tall under the same abuse and, after World War Two, drove the war-crimes trials of many Japanese officers in Nanjing. Ha Jin has brought alive a moral drama of suffering and solidarity — of decency transcending difference, as he says, “that should be remembered even today. People are human beings. Their sufferings are the same.”