I picked up my parents at LAX the day after New Year’s. It’d been five years since they’d visited.
“California looks the same,” my father commented as we drove the 405.
“There are changes if you look carefully,” I replied. “But it’s nothing compared to China.”
I knew what my father was talking about. I have a two-bedroom condo at the Suzhou Industrial Park in China. The last time I visited, a new shopping mall had suddenly appeared on the other side of the street. It definitely hadn’t been there during my last trip there a year ago. The Chinese can build a 650,000 square foot complex in as much time as Americans take to fashion a lean-to.
My father first came to North America in 2008. He was impressed with Vancouver’s natural beauty, clean air, and the ease with which people conducted their lives. He visited California five years ago in 2013. He was especially impressed with the designs of roadside storm drains. Back in China, his city was paralyzed nearly every time it rained. The country’s urban areas had expanded much faster than its infrastructure could handle. Abandoned cars would float down the street as commuters trudged through knee-deep water. Here in California, city planners had time to think ahead. “Look at that!” he said excitedly. “It hardly rains here, but you have drains that big just in case it happens. Amazing.”
This time around, my father seemed unimpressed with the American speed of development. LAX had just been renovated but failed to impress him. The landscape along the 405 had stayed the same and the house I lived in had apparently aged. Nothing was acceptable if it hadn’t undergone a complete overhaul. Even though California offered all the natural beauty, clean air, and road drainage he could ever want, he felt the Chinese had some lessons to teach the Americans. “Development is an unyielding principle,” he repeated, quoting a policy proposed by Deng Xiaoping.
A couple days after his arrival, we discussed the Huawei incident over dinner. The CFO of Huawei had been arrested in Canada on behalf of the US for Iran fraud. I forget who brought it up, but I remember that our differences were summed up neatly in only a couple of sentences.
“The US is only doing this to suppress Chinese development,” my father complained. “What fraud?”
“I don’t blame the US,” I said. “If you want to do business with the US, you have to follow their rules.”
“Those rules were made up by Americans and are completely arbitrary. Just because you don’t do business with Iran, no one else is allowed to?”
I explained that everyone has the right to sell their own products, but Huawei bought stuff from the US and sold it to Iran, circumventing a trade embargo. That was where the fraud accusations were coming from.
My father was surprised. He’d never heard the details about the charges. He only read state-approved newspapers and watched state-approved TV. He gave it some thought and conceded that Huawei had made a mistake, but he insisted the US was overreacting. He still believed the real purpose of the charges was to hamper Huawei’s ability to compete, and I didn’t completely disagree.
“The US brags about their free market, but it’s a lie,” my father claimed. “They’re using state power to target a Chinese company. It’s not fair.”
I pointed out that it was China that didn’t play fair in the first place. The Chinese government is pouring resources into companies like Huawei that fit into China’s “Made in China 2025” strategy. The plan was issued in 2015, and is aimed at elevating China from being known as a producer of cheap goods to being known as a manufacturer of high-end products.
My father denied that Huawei had received assistance from the Chinese government. He admired Ren Zhengfei, the founder of Huawei, and praised his spirit of adventure, his business acumen, and his hardworking nature. I didn’t deny Ren had those qualities, but in my opinion he was also connected with the Zhao family.
In recent years, Chinese people have used the term “Zhao family” to refer to those who thrive as a result of China’s crony capitalism. The phrase first appeared in Lu Xun’s novella “The True Story of Ah Q.” Ah Q is from a poor rural family and wants to curry favor with those in power, who sadly despise him. Ah Q’s surname is Zhao, but when he congratulates the powerful Zhao family’s son on passing the imperial examination, the Zhao patriarch slaps him and rebukes: “Do you really think you’re worthy of the name Zhao?”
My father vehemently denied Ren had anything to do with the Zhao family. He was like a crazed fan who’d heard their idol insulted, which I found funny. There are two types of success stories in China: One requires a person to be responsible, hardworking, imaginative and courageous. The other bears more Chinese characteristics and requires aligning yourself with the interests of the Zhao family.
Ren’s story clearly was the latter. My father asked what proof I had, but all I had was common sense. Suppose you were Ren Zhengfei. Would you really risk your chance to do business in the US by violating US law? How much money would you make in Iran to make up for what you were losing in the US? It’s clear that Huawei’s violation of US sanctions was not made for the sake of business, but had something to do with the Party’s diplomatic strategy. If Ren Zhengfei wasn’t a member of the Zhao family, he had to be following orders.
“So what?” my father tilted his head condescendingly. “What’s wrong with listening to his government?”
Following government orders even once raised red flags for me. One of the reasons I left China was the Party’s increasingly tight grip on China’s internet. Huawei is competing to introduce 5G technology to the US market. I wouldn’t want my cyber life here controlled by a company under the thumb of an authoritarian regime.
“Whatever,” my father smirked. “It’s too late. Huawei holds tons of 5G technology patents. If the Americans don’t pay to use Huawei’s patents, they’ll never have 5G at all.”
“But Huawei stole American intellectual property. What do you have to say about that?” I read him a Bloomberg article about Huawei stealing secrets from a glass manufacturer.
“Huawei did the right thing! Otherwise, how will China ever surpass the US? China should lead at all costs.”
I was surprised that my father went that far to defend outright theft. Why would he align himself with an authoritarian regime? He’s not even remotely affiliated to the Zhao family.
In my opinion, the average Chinese citizen should stand against the one-party system, but my father’s case proved otherwise. He was anxious that Huawei’s takeover of the US 5G markets would fall through. He hated it when the US stood in the way of Chinese ambitions.
I wondered how my father stood to benefit if China controlled the world. It was clear that any economic and political advantages would go to the Zhao family. But if China stopped its crazy expansion, average citizen like my father was clearly headed for disaster.
My parents own their homes and live on pensions. They’re not rich, but comfortable. Compared to the 1970s, their living conditions have vastly improved. Believe it or not, they’re grateful for the Party. Since they’d worked for the State — there weren’t private sector around when they entered the workforce, their pension is paid by the state. As long as China’s development keeps up and trade surplus continues, the nation’s affordability could be sustainable and the value of their house could keep rising. But after 40 years of rapid development, where does China’s go next?
That’s why my father unwaveringly praised China’s development. For China, it’s not a matter of development vs. stagnation, but a matter of continued expansion vs. complete collapse. One-party rule brought about an economic boom driven by corruption, and my parents were well aware of that fact. But that corruption had become so deeply rooted into society that it was impossible to picture China without it.
Thus, chasm grew between me and my parents. It can be described as the chasm between the Chinese living outside China and the Chinese at home. For me, a middle-aged Chinese writer living in North America, I am pleased to see the US government trying to force structural change in China, because I want my books to be published in my birth country instead of being banned, and I want China to become a trustworthy country that when my children grow up they can to be trusted in the workplace instead of being suspected of stealing secrets based on their ethnicity. But for the Chinese at home, especially for my parents’ generation, I’m not sure if the proposed structural changes would disrupt China’s current economic and social order. Even though I’m confident that the changes would be good for China in the long run, what’s the point of discussing a future my parents’ generation might not even see?