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LEE: They don't view it the way you do. It's been their experience to always need total control at the center. If China's center loses power, the country will disintegrate. That's a deep-seated historical lesson. Deng [Xiaoping] said, "You cross the river feeling for one pebble at a time." They're going about it in a pragmatic way. With corruption and the grassroots, they find that when they allow a vote for the village chief, the corrupt officials are voted out. How far will they go? I think they'll go for small townships. As long as they can stay in overall control, they will keep experimenting.
TIME: Mao Zedong said: "A single spark can light a prairie fire."
LEE: A prairie fire will only start if there's a dry spell. They've got $700 billion worth of reserves. Never has the central government of China been so well equipped with the latest in transportation and communication technology. Is anybody going to die of hunger? No. Anybody needs to be turfed out of their homes and thrown onto the streets without alternatives? No.
TIME: Is that what it's all about then: keep the people fed and watered and they won't bother you?
LEE: With rural folk, yes. With the town folk, that's a different problem. As China moves to a majority urban society, [where people have access to] satellite TV, Internet, cell phones, the towns have to be governed differently. At the moment they are co-opting: you are a successful entrepreneur, you are a great artist, then join us. The Communist Party is a very broad church. You help drive China forward. Make it work better.
TIME: Do they know that they have to do more than make the Communist Party a broad church, that there's a mindset they have to change?
LEE: Oh yeah, they're not stupid. Talking to them, I do not think that they believe their grandchildren will live under this system unchanged. They allowed the book Studying in America by Qian Ning, son of [former vice premier] Qian Qichen, to be published. He was working at the People's Daily, went to the University of Michigan on a scholarship immediately after Tiananmen, and he wrote the book three or four years later. He had an impeccable communist pedigree, but what he wrote was quite subversive. When he arrived at Ann Arbor that summer of 1989, he suddenly realized that life consisted also of parties, barbecues, great friendships, not this hothouse self-criticism and politicking in Beijing. In one passage he says that all those who had their wives with them [in the U.S.], when these women go home, they would never be the same Chinese women. They had seen that a different style of life is possible. In an oblique way, he's saying he's changed his perspective of what is possible in Chinese society. This is the new world, multiple channels of interaction with the outside world, their students in universities abroad, businessmen scouting for opportunities abroad, tourists and businessmen coming to China.
TIME: You mentioned 1989, the year of the Tiananmen crackdown. You've said that came as an incredible shock to you. Do you think Deng Xiaoping did the right thing?
LEE: I cannot judge what he did, because I did not have his information. If, in fact, there was a danger of similar outbursts in other cities, then I think he had to move. But I said later to [then Premier] Li Peng, "When I had trouble with my sit-in communist students, squatting in school premises and keeping their teachers captive, I cordoned off the whole area around the schools, shut off the water and electricity, and just waited. I told their parents that health conditions were deteriorating, dysentery was going to spread. And they broke it up without any difficulty." I said to Li Peng, you had the world's TV cameras there waiting for the meeting with Gorbachev, and you stage this grand show. His answer was: We are completely inexperienced in these matters.