It wasn’t long before I noticed that you almost never see any Chinese people reading. This is all the more notable because we are living on campus at a major university. There must be a bookstore on campus, but I haven’t seen it. Occasionally one sees students carrying books around, but I can count on two hands the number of times I’ve seen a Chinese person (with foreigners it’s different) so much as reading a newspaper, let alone a magazine or a book, even on public transport, where they sit staring straight ahead. It’s even hard to find a newsstand. Just off campus there are two bookstores. One has recently shut down for lack of business. The other, apparently a chain store, is hardly bustling. Half its floorspace is devoted to economics and business books. The only section that always has people in it is the one selling exam booklets and books on how to cram for exams (a national obsession).
This is doubly surprising because the one thing I always heard about Russia under Communism was that it was a nation of voracious readers. The Moscow subway was crammed with people reading books and newspapers, and if you stopped someone on the street you had a good chance of being able to start up a conversation about Pushkin or Dostoyevsky. Even if all people could get was Pravda and a heavily filtered selection of books, people read what they could.
So why is China different?—China, which brags of an unbroken literary tradition going back millennia? Well (and here I’m guessing), in Russia, Leninism saw itself as the product of a long tradition of philosophers and essayists. Tolstoy was already a folk hero in 1918, not least because he championed the common man. A Leninist ideal was that every Soviet citizen would be both a worker and an intellectual (even if the authorities insisted that all intellectuals should come to the same conclusions). The Kremlin felt that it could not suppress Russians’ love of literature, so they chose instead to celebrate it but try to co-opt and divert it. In China, by contrast, in the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, anyone who read books, much less wrote them, was either shipped off to a labor camp or thrown against the wall and shot. No one talks about that, but everyone remembers it.