‘Human impulses run riot’: China’s shocking pace of change

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Thirty years ago, politics was paramount. Now, only money counts. China’s leading novelist examines a nation that has transformed in a single lifetime. By Yu Hua

When I try to describe how China has changed over the past 50 years, countless roads appear in front of me. Given the sheer immensity of these changes, all I can do is try first to follow a couple of main roads, and then a few smaller ones, to see where they take us.

My first main road begins in the past. In my 58 years, I have experienced three dramatic changes, and each one has been accompanied by a surge in suicides among officials. The first time was during Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, which began in 1966. At the start of that period, many members of the Chinese Communist party woke up one day to find they had been purged: overnight they had become “power-holders taking the capitalist road”. After suffering every kind of psychological and physical abuse, some chose to take their own lives. In the small town in south China where I grew up, some hanged themselves or swallowed insecticide, while others threw themselves down wells: wells in south China have narrow mouths, and if you dive into one headfirst, there is no way you will come out alive.

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