On May 13th, I went to a conference at Sascha’s Shanghai, a great place with lots of fresh beers being served on the first floor. But before rushing for refreshments - what we would typically do at a bar, We had a chat with Philippe Massonnet. He had some thoughts on the development of China that he wanted to share with us following the publication of his book The so-called “Chinese Miracle1.

And it was quite refreshing I reckon.

Philippe Massonnet is Head of AFP (Agence France Presse) for China, he has been covering China since 1983. Here is the interview he later gave to Aujourd’hui La Chine (translated from French).

[Aujourd’hui La Chine] “The so-called “Chinese Miracle”, why this title?

It’s not a Sinologist’s book, but by sharing my experience and recounting situations that may at first seem anecdotal, I wanted to show that even if nothing is set in stone, the Chinese Communist Party has not changed. And I also wanted to tell the story behind the famous “Chinese miracle”.

You compare the CCP to a sect?

The way power works in China is totally secret. Nobody knows what is going on at the head of state, and those who dare to decipher or make predictions are usually wrong. Even today, it is impossible to get close to Hu Jintao or Wen Jiabao.

We see them everywhere on Chinese television, they make more and more official trips abroad, they receive more and more foreign guests, but we still know nothing about who they really are. Decisions are taken in total secrecy, and there has been no change in this area in 30 years.

And yet the country has changed?

There has undoubtedly been a rise in the standard of living, which doesn’t mean that people are happier, but that’s another story. There are more economic and even political freedoms. That’s not to say that everyone benefits, of course. But what strikes me about the evolution of Chinese society is that there is more and more violence in human relations and that everything is about money. And that translates into a whole host of situations.

There’s one in my book, for example, that really touched me. An office assistant, Linda, died in a car accident while on holiday. It had nothing to do with her work. She was someone we loved very much and of course I went to her funeral. I was very moved and very sad. But I soon realised that the main issue was compensation for Linda’s family. I was there to show that she was well paid and that the person responsible for her death should compensate the family accordingly.

This obsession with money went so far that one of Linda’s friends came up to me, and I thought we were finally going to be able to express our sadness, but she gave me the final blow by saying “we’d like to know how AFP is going to compensate the family”…

How does the CCP rely on Chinese society today?

The great strength of the party is that it has managed to win over urban youth. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that young people respect the party, but they don’t want to go back to the past. A past they know little or nothing about because they live in total ignorance of their own history. But they know that the party can help them to live better economically.

The other success of the CCP, if you can call it that, is to have transformed communism into nationalism. Today, the Chinese have a real desire for revenge on the West, which can of course be explained by what the West did to China in the 19th century, but above all by the attitude of the party, which nurtures and maintains this nationalism.

Since they were children, they have been hammered with the idea that China is great and, above all, they have not been taught to think for themselves. They don’t understand, for example, that I’m first Philippe Massonnet, then AFP bureau chief and finally French. They define themselves collectively, first and foremost as Chinese.

You could be accused of being anti-Chinese!

I’m neither pro nor anti, but one thing’s for sure: I’ve had enough of those who mistake their Western desires for Chinese realities… What I call ’the worshippers’, who live in fiction and believe and want to make believe that China is on the road to democracy and who accuse those who disagree of being ‘human rights activists’.

You’re not very optimistic

I’m careful not to make predictions about the future of any country: we’re always surprised by what can happen here, and this year is proving that time and time again. But yes, I’m worried about the collateral damage caused by this system: I think we’re facing a worrying society today, with no freedom to think, to express ourselves and to inform ourselves freely. We have both a terrifyingly open economy and a dictatorship led by people about whom we know little or nothing.

– Philippe Massonnet

  1. Pour en finir avec le miracle chinois – Philippe Massonnet (Éd. Philippe Picquier 2008) ↩︎