Dujiangyan is a system of irrigation channels largely responsible for the renowned fertility of the Chengdu basin, in southwestern China. This elaborate engineering wonder, built about 2300 years ago, and still in use today, is what makes Sichuan province the most productive agricultural area in China. Most contemporary dams use a big wall to block water, adversely impacting the natural flow of fish and other marine life, but the ancient Dujiangyan irrigation works lets water and fish continue to flow.
I have no idea how old the statue above is (2300 years?), but the colossal millipede nestled in this gargoyle’s ear looks old and big enough to be from an entirely different geologic era.
Dujiangyan is also home to another old and elaborate example of Chinese engineering: the Dujiangyan Detention Facility, one of many outposts in the sprawling Chinese police state. Literally countless dissidents, political activists and otherwise problematically outspoken people have been detained, tortured and interrogated at these facilities.
A lot of even modestly well-informed Westerners don’t know about the full scope of China’s police state, it’s laogai prisons or its contemporary forced labor practices. One reason for this ignorance is simply that the Chinese government works very hard to control news and information about its internal security apparatus, but another reason surely has to do with just the sheer size of the apparatus.
In 2012, Al Jazeera produced a special program about the Chinese prison system, Slavery, A 21st Century Evil: Prison Slaves. In response to the release of this program, the Chinese government expelled Al Jazeera from the country.
Shortly before I visited the Dujiangyan Irrigation Park, I had the opportunity to meet outspoken Chengdu writer, historian and blogger Ran Yunfei. We met at a riverside teahouse full of mahjong players, and he commented on how Chengdu’s longstanding reputation as a place with a relatively easy pace of life and relaxed people owed quite a lot to the irrigation project, because it made it relatively easy for people in the area to grow food for themselves.
Not long after I visited the Dujiangyan Irrigation Park, Ran Yunfei was arrested and detained at facilities nearby for publishing material the government deemed subversive. In the wake of the Arab Spring, the Chinese government’s moderately relaxed attitude towards people like Ran Yunfei constricted, and an untold number of writers and public figures were detained or strongly discouraged from voicing critical opinions of the government.
Describing the government’s previous, more relaxed disposition towards dissidents, writer, historian and political asylee Liao Yiwu told me during an interview that “you can criticize, but you can’t change… that’s the line you can’t cross.”
Ran Yunfei has since been released, and continues to write, though the overall political and intellectual climate in China is considerably less open than it was a couple of years ago. Ominous new interrogation tactics are reportedly being used, and even usually belligerent and outspoken dissidents have been returning from detention with lips uncustomarily sealed.
Of course, the U.S. incarcerates a higher percentage of our people than any other country, and a credible argument can be made that we, too, are a police and surveillance state. Witness how organized and unlawful law enforcement agencies were as they disrupted, infiltrated, entrapped and spied on the Occupy movement. When I would try to explain the subtleties of Democratic anti-democratic reality to Chinese people I met, they were most often shocked and disbelieving. Was America not a democracy? (No, not really; corporate oligarchy’s in the store, with democracy in the window.) What about the American Dream? (Like George Carlin said, “They call it that because you have to be asleep to believe it.”) If China is something like an Orwellian vision of an authoritarian regime, then the U.S. is something more like that envisioned by Aldous Huxley, where pleasures, distractions, and consumerism, and a sophisticated propaganda system, keep a significant portion of citizens from acting in any populist way that would challenge elite, mostly corporate, rule.
So-called capitalist or so-called communist, unaccountable power still exercises itself on those under its influence. As Liao Yiwu joked at another point during our conversations, “The biggest difference I see between our countries is that in China, the government owns the corporations and in the U.S, the corporations own the government.”
I laughed at this observation, and asked Liao if he knew of any Chinese anarchists.
“All thinking Chinese people,” he said without hesitation, “are no-government people.”
It’s interesting that 2300+ years ago the Chinese gave more free and natural passage to fish than they do, today, to people like Ran Yunfei and Liao Yiwu, or countless other people who might like to express opinions or take actions not entirely contingent on the permission of authorities.