Does Beijing submit to the hands of the clock, or does it force them? Is it the passage of time that defines history, or is it the twisting of events?
In China, time is examined in blocks representing the dynasties of the past, and by the symbolic events of modern times. It is a means to facilitate disclosure and to interpret events in a methodical way. The spaces between the blocks belong to the steady march of time; they complete, rather than break. The contradictions that emerge are robbed of their destructive power and are blended into the social progress, into the natural order of things.
The most painful period in Chinese history is the “Century of Humiliation,” beginning between 1840 and 1842 and lasting until 1945. China’s defeat in the First Opium War left an open wound that was only healed by the surrender of Japan at the end of WWII. The decadent and corrupt Qing Dynasty had been unable to protect its subjects, the most important task assigned to it by the “Mandate of Heaven” For the first time in history the country had been invaded by foreign armies, pillaged, plundered, and its presumed invincibility was shattered. The conviction that such an ancient civilization could be unassailable had been woefully wrong. Adding insult to injury was the fact that the conquerors were not Asian neighbors, but Europeans from far away. A small number of soldiers, politicians, and merchants had easily defeated the largest, most populous, and most prosperous country in the world. An aggressive industrial society had the better of the stagnant agricultural nation. In this conflict, time represents both a concept and an instrument, used in different ways by China and Europe.
Traditionally, the cycles of the four seasons bring the harvest, and they are plentiful when the circularity of nature has not been offended. A day in the fields is emphasized by the rise and set of the sun. Nevertheless, China was able to contradict this implication, or at least the conviction its stagnation was congenital. When China decided to become an industrial society, it changed the use of time, and the factory clock replaced the arc of the sun through the sky. Starting with the birth of the People’s Republic in 1949, time began to lose its traditional qualities. The ambitious objective– a momentous phenomenon that is in many ways is still ongoing – has had two distinct phases, hinging around the death of Mao Zedong in 1976. In its first 27 years of life, the PRC has made concerted efforts to rid itself the baggage of its past. Defined as feudal and conservative, a sweeping chunk of the past was identified as dead weight that needed to be eliminated. The times of the past had the mark of oppression, and to build a new China it was necessary to avoid the litany of the Dynasties, erase the Confucian past, and condemn the virtues of inaction. Mao attempted to remove the immobility of time, the guardian of a poor and traditional China. The symbols of the past had to be replaced, and so entire neighborhoods, even the city walls, were dismantled and destroyed, and the Forbidden City was opened to all. The past had to give way to the future. The political mobilization spilled over into the ideological fanaticism of the Cultural Revolution, begun in 1966. China’s cultural background was consigned to history; the present had to be tabula rasa, a year Zero for future generations.
A different China, the China of today, finally emerged. The revolutionary enthusiasm gave way instead to the accumulation of prosperity, because social equality had proven to be incapable of generating enough. The global Dragon astonished the world with its growth, studded with record-breaking numbers. But records are only beaten when time is working in your favor. In a bold and profitable move, the new Chinese leadership overturned the Maoist teachings without demonizing the author. Pragmatism prevailed as the search for the stability needed to reach certain goals. China’s transformation into an impressive industrial machine – “the factory of the world” – accelerated the change. The words of Yang Yuan Qing, CEO of Lenovo (who in 2004 bought the personal computer division of IBM in a first resonating purchase of a Western megacorporation by an emerging nation), are emblematic: “in a world with just one time zone – now – business must source materials, innovation, talent, logistics, infrastructure, and production wherever they are best available.” Globalization has imposed, especially on China, an unprecedented pace. Not only is business delocalized to where there are better factors for success, but time is wiped out by speed when shifts are added and vacation time is cut, all to feed the perpetual merchandise machine that China has assembled. There is no break time when material interests prevail. Today China is a richer, more dynamic, and more productive society, and it is in this setting that the three elements interact.
New records are struck with unimaginable speed. Roughly 200 million people have moved from China’s countryside into the cities in the past 25 years. Farmers have become factory workers, technicians, engineers, and entrepreneurs, all to catch some of the advantages of globalization. For the first time in its thousand-year history China’s urban population outnumbers those in the countryside. The same workers that measured time with the passing of the seasons are now building streets, subways, high-speed trains, houses and factories at a pace that astound even the most efficient nations. This upheaval is thanks in part to the vision of Deng Xiaoping, the architect of the new China who inherited from Mao a proud nation with a disastrous economy. Deng successfully imposed a dual time, emphasizing the movement of the hands according to the interests of China. He maintained continuity and avoided slack or tension, while at the same time accelerating reforms and shrinking time needed to enrich and seek out wellbeing. Deng gained approval through prosperity, stability, and the economy.
The China of the Third Millennium contradicts but does not renounce its past. It uses time and is not subjected to it. It does not impose time’s circularity on its citizens, passing it off as an imperial tenet. The new China considers time a resource, to be used with acumen and a vision for the future, as a tool to contain and diminish tensions with its passing. At the same time it is useful to accelerate and become an instrument of production. Freed from thousands of years of encumbrance, China now gives time a more secular role, a more ductile and pragmatic significance. Time is close to becoming a commodity, perhaps even rare, but in any case to be treated with care, despite its eternal characteristics.