Peter Hessler: From Beijing to Cairo on What Makes a Real Revolution
Usually in this newsletter I translate Chinese language sources about economics and politics. But I recently recorded a really good ChinaEconTalk podcast episode with Peter Hessler and thought it worth transcribing. Peter spent seven years in China as a correspondent for The New Yorker, followed by five years in Egypt. He recently published The Buried, An Archeology of The Egyptian Revolution.
In the edited transcript below, we discuss the differences in the governments, geographies, economies, and societies of Egypt and China, as well as how these countries make sense of their respective places in the world. Peter also reflects on the 30th anniversary of Tiananmen Square in contrast to Egypt’s 2013 mass protests and eventual coup d'état in Cairo, and what it takes to have real social change.
On Tiananmen and Tahrir Square
Schneider: So we’re recording on June 5th, 2019, 30 years and a day after Tiananmen Square. How did your experience in Egypt re-contextualize for you what happened in Beijing 30 years ago?
Hessler: I thought about it a lot actually. In 2014, the anniversary of the original uprising on January 25th, every year there was some kind of demonstration or meeting, and in that year the government put it down very violently. I was out in a square, not Tahrir because you couldn’t even go to Tahrir at that point. The police just started shooting indiscriminately after about five minutes of a totally peaceful demonstration by not a large crowd of people. There was no warning given, there was no ‘clear the square you have five minutes,’ there weren’t even clear warning shots. Something like sixty people died in Cairo that day.
After fleeing, I took shelter in some guy’s garden until the police had finished rounding everybody up. They were very frustrated as to why this kept happening. When I told them I lived in China, I explained that they’d usually give people a warning. In Tiananmen, they did not, and one of the tragedies of Tiananmen was the awful police work. If you are going to declare martial law, you should negotiate with people, give them a chance to leave, provide safe exits, and in many places they didn’t do that. But afterward, the Chinese did handle these things very differently. They did train police in crowd control. This is not something to give them a ton of credit for, there was a terrible crackdown, but in Egypt, you saw how much worse it can get if they keep doing this.
It just damages a society to have these rituals of public violence again and again.
The other thing I thought about was just how hard it is to have a revolution, and thinking about other ways the Tiananmen movement could’ve played out if the students had to some degree won. It may very well have happened like what happened in Egypt, a classic pattern where some arm of the military uses the students to take power, and then you end up with a military regime. Then you’re still many steps away from change.
When you have all these people calling for the overthrow of a leader, even if that leader is overthrown as he was in the case of Hosni Mubarak, you’ve got a long way to go. It was very sobering in Egypt to watch how hard this is. And when you don’t have institutions prepared, no political groups, no real parties, so who takes over other than the military? In Egypt, they even had groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and there were some small parties that had been allowed to form under Mubarak, but that wasn’t enough. It made me very sober also about how hard it would be to have this kind of ground-up change in China.
Schneider: Whoever comes next is at some level going to ape what they saw before.
Hessler: It’s the tragedy of an undemocratic society where you’re not preparing people for self-governance. And because they’re not prepared for self-governance they can’t enact self-governance. This is why most revolutions, in the end, are coups, which is what we have in Egypt.
On Cultural Differences and How Real Change Comes from Societies
Peter: They kind of liked each other’s differences. The Chinese would say, if you’re in Egypt, and my car breaks down on the road, the first person who passes will stop and help. That would never happen in China. There’s a certain sense of community you don’t have in China, and the Chinese appreciated it.
And on the other end, the Egyptians when they talked about the Chinese, they’d say stuff like, “you see that husband and wife over there? They work really hard. They’re very honest, very direct.”
Schneider: I thought the contrast between the Chinese women your wife portrayed in Factory Girls and women in Egypt was fascinating.
Hessler: 23% of Egyptian women work outside the home. It’s very low even by the standards of the Middle East. Husbands don’t let their wives work. One of the things that stood out about the Chinese was they would work in couples. This reminded me of when I was in Fuling or Beijing, and so many of the little noodle shops were run by couples, but in Egypt that wasn’t done because the man doesn’t want his woman out in public.
It contributes to the distance of men and women because they’re not really sharing in the way they often are in China.
Schneider: So tell us about this recycling factory.
Hessler: It came out of this husband and wife who had been selling lingerie in the south. They noticed that there was a lot of garbage lying around, so the guy had the idea…
Schneider: I just want to read the quote. “They noticed a lot of garbage lying around. They were not the first people to make this observation. But they were the first to respond by importing a polyethylene terephthalate bottle production line, that was manufactured in Jiangsu province.”
Hessler: You have to keep in mind this is a couple who, the man has a 5th-grade education and his wife never went to school and is illiterate. But they figured out how to do this. This was the first plastic bottle recycling plant in all of southern Egypt. This is a region with thirty million people, and they’re just throwing this in landfills. But once they set up their plant, they become hugely successful, and are clearing $100,000 a year. People are coming from all over to bring bottles there.
It was really fascinating talking to them. Over the course of my research, I also met other Chinese who had factories in the north. One guy said it most insightfully because he had managed factories in China. “In China, when young women go to work in factories, they’re trying to escape. They want to get out of the village and away from their families. They get to the dormitories and change and start to have goals. In Egypt, it’s totally different. Here the women aren’t trying to escape, they just want to make some money usually for the dowry.” Most of the women he could hire needed money to buy the lingerie and whatever else for their dowries and the moment they earned enough for that they quit.
This was the problem, no female workers were making a career out of it. So in a way, in China this migration, young women working was a subversive act. In Leslie’s book, she describes these women going back to their village, and the old men are trying to boss them around, tell them who to marry, and give them advice. And the girls are just like, ‘screw you, look at my cell phone! I don’t need to listen to you anymore. I’m going to marry who I want, I’m going to go back to the factory, and this is my new life.’ That was an incredibly powerful moment for these people, and that wouldn’t happen in Egypt. Their goal isn’t to subvert the system it’s to enter it.
This was part of what was missing from Egypt and what was missing from the revolution.
It’s pretty arbitrary what we call a revolution. China didn’t have a revolution in the time I was there [1996-2007], but in many ways, there was a revolutionary change in peoples’ lives, in the ways families interacted, the lifestyles. Egypt I was there during a revolution, supposedly, but in terms of how people interacted and in particular how genders interacted, there were no changes at all. There was no social revolution; there was just a political event.
The Role of Geography
Schneider: You write that “for Egyptians, the family was the deep state.” But China went from this society where women bound their feet to women working thousands of miles from home. Can you talk about how geography played a role in this?
Hessler: The sheer size of China and the fact that development at first took place mostly in the south, meant that when people left to work, they would go provinces away, and they could only go home once a year. The break was really total in many cases.
Egypt is a very different country physically. It’s all laid out along the river, it’s not that big. More than two-thirds of the population lives within a three-hour drive of Cairo. Cairo is a dominant city in a way Beijing is not. It’s very easy to go back and forth, so you don’t break connections to your village so easily. You could see the impact of it—it was easier to control the young women, for instance, they weren’t allowed to live in dormitories.
That was one thing the Chinese learned very quickly—initially, they set up a 开发区 [Development Zone] in northeastern Egypt following the Chinese model, which is location is everything. Put this thing in the middle of the desert, near the canal, you’ve got access to the highway that runs to Cairo, access to the shipping lines, build dormitories, all sounds great! But Egyptians wouldn’t let young women live in the dormitories. Having to return at night means they had to recruit workers from the city of Suez, which is an hour and a half each way, cutting into your workday by busing these people back and forth.
Geography plays a big role in terms of the region. When China starts to come out of the Mao years, what do they see around them? They see Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea, Japan. The Chinese were very aware of the fact that they’d screwed up. They were also aware of the models. Where does Shenzhen come from, these export processing zones? Well, South Korea, Taiwan…this was easy for them to do. They saw a path out.
Now think of Egypt. What do you have around you? You have Iraq? Syria? There are no models, so you don’t realize how bad you have it. Even at the end of these five years, I’d often hear “well, we’re not Syria!” Well, that’s true, but at some point, you should be comparing yourself to somewhere more positive.
You get the sense in China that “we messed up, we’re behind, we have to catch up.” And the Egyptians really don’t have that. They’re not aware of how better things could be, and they weren’t putting pressure on themselves. And they weren’t really owning the situation.
There’s a lot of historical reasons for this. There was a lot more colonial impact in the Middle East than China. When I lived in China, certainly there was a lot of xenophobia, and blaming the Americans or whatever, but in the end there was some sense that we have some responsibility and whether not they’d say it directly I think the Chinese realized this, that they had messed up and these moments like the Cultural Revolution when the Chinese had turned against themselves had put them behind. And implicitly, when you’re making that realization, you understand ‘we can fix this, and we have to be the ones to fix this.’ In Egypt, every fault, every problem is because of somebody else. It’s the Americans, it's the Qataris, its the Israelis, but it’s never us.
I met the governor of a province where they burned all these churches and I asked, what happened here? And the governor said, “it was Obama.” Yeah, like Obama wakes up every day and things, “what can I do to make Minya worse.”
Schneider: Do you think it takes the levels of 1960s China disruption to have a real revolution?
Hessler: There was this Chinese guy in China I met who sells lingerie who has a fifth-grade education. He would say, “gender relations are the big problem here. You know, in China we had a real revolution. People made a decision that we can’t go on like this, we made a decision to change everything, and in Egypt, they haven’t decided that yet.”
When you have these revolutions, it’s incredibly wrenching and painful, bad things are going to happen. Who knows if it’s even a net positive? But, there’s no denying that this was a major, major change. Nothing like that had happened in Egypt.
How Classical Arabic Impacts Society
Schneider: So if we’re thinking of the ‘Four Olds’ of Chinese society, classical Arabic has got to be up there.
Hessler: This is something that looked different coming from China. Fuhsa is the classical Arabic, a vision of what the Quranic Arabic was. And it’s a language that isn’t spoken anywhere in the Middle East. Even linguists can’t speak this language fluently without making grammatical mistakes. It was never used as an everyday language, but it remains the language of formal speeches, and it’s the literary language, so virtually everything is written in classical Arabic.
It’s very similar to classical Chinese. Many civilizations had a version of this. In Greek people wrote in a classical Greek up until the 1970s, Turkey had a literary language they finally reformed, but the Middle East is the only place that still has this situation, where they’re writing in a non-colloquial language.
I came to believe that this had a big impact on the culture, on literacy, on expression, on political expression. This isn’t a popular idea in Middle Eastern Studies, it’s seen as very colonial because when westerners were coming to Egypt in the 19th century, they sometimes pushed for reform of this sort, and Middle Easterners saw this as western pressure trying to change our traditions. A quite different outcome from the Chinese who reformed this in the Baihua movement. Before the Communists came to power, they stopped writing in classical Chinese.
It has a big impact on literacy. If you don’t do this, you’re writing in a language you don’t speak, and it’s very awkward. You have to be highly educated to do that. But this isn’t discussed in the Middle East. To me, I don’t see how Egypt would be any different. But it’s all wrapped up in colonialism which has traumatized this region to a much higher degree than anything China experienced.
Schneider: You have a very illustrative story of this activist who once he starts feeling like he has something to stay, he has to put his work on pause, and learn grammar and vocab. It’s just a friction point to be taken seriously if you’re not someone who has grown up around this archaic language.
Hessler: One-quarter of Egyptians are illiterate, and while the education system is underfunded and poorly structured, but the language itself probably plays a role. Our local garbage man was highly intelligent, but he was illiterate and had never gone to school for a day. When I first knew him, he couldn’t read at all. When he would fight with his wife, his wife would send him text messages. If he gets a text, he’d have to go to somebody in the neighborhood to read it to him. These messages would embarrass him, and it was sort of awful to see how his illiteracy could be used against him.
But it was fascinating to see how by the time we left in 2016 he had become semi-literate. He could handle texting functions on his own because when people text, they do it using colloquial Arabic. It’s not like he’s going to class, but because they’re writing in the form that he speaks he can do it. But a couple times when he’d enrolled in classes in Fuhsa he’d never gotten very far. It’s obvious that this is going to have an impact.
In China, if someone is moderately educated, they can express themselves without going to classical Chinese how they’d have to 150 years ago.
Schneider: Back to the 7000 vs. 5000 years of history, it almost seems like Egypt gets another point in this regard.
Hessler: One really important thing to think about. One thing you realize when you start to study Egyptian history is all these dynasties and names were all named later in the 19th century by foreigners. They haven’t even written their own history, it’s basically all done by outsiders.
You compare that to Chinese, where the dynasties name themselves, the most important historiographers are all Chinese. They are in charge of their past, but the Egyptians haven’t ever been.
The Chinese are now starting to excavate in Egypt. Can you imagine that in China? You couldn’t go, say, “we’ve got a lot of money, I’m from NYU, I want to excavate Qin Shi Huang’s tomb.” No way.
The last Egyptian that declared himself pharaoh was in the first century BC. So basically, from then until to 1952, there was not a single Egyptian ruler of Egypt. Wave after wave of foreigners running the country. Think about what that does to civilization. China would talk about the damage done under the Opium Wars, but that’s incredibly minor compared to what happened in Egypt. Imagine if you hadn’t had a single Chinese ruling from the Han until Mao, and that’s basically what you got in Egypt.
When I talk about the Egyptians not owning the problem and not feeling empowered, you have to think about the history.
Contrasting Local Politics
Schneider: You have an episode in the book where you talk about a local election in Egypt, something you also covered in Country Roads.
Hessler: I wrote about the dynamics of a village north of Beijing in 2001-2. It took about two and a half hours to get there. This place by Chinese standards was on the periphery. But one thing that was very striking about that village and any village you’d go to in China was that there was no question who was in charge. The Communist Party was in charge.
So who was the highest official in that village? A woman who had married into the most populous family who had the surname Wei. The Party Secretary wasn’t from this family. She had married into this family, but she was an outsider. She had married into this village in the region.
To me, this is very striking. First off, she’s female and an outsider and married to a Wei but not one of the powerful people in that clan. This speaks to the fact that the Party has really broken the clan structure. Why was she in charge? You’d get to know her, and you’d see why. She’s an incredibly powerful figure, one of these people who had political instincts, the force of personality, and somehow the Party had figured this out and put her in charge. It’s not democracy by any means, but somehow this force of nature has risen to the top rather than the local clan figuring things.
Meanwhile, you go to Egypt, and I followed an election there. You’ve got the National Democratic Party who had run things under Mubarak, then you had the Muslim Brotherhood, and then after that, you have Sisi come. But meanwhile, in this village, you had people doing their own thing. They had elections periodically throughout the last 40 years, and the locals had figured out their own version of parties based on families. They would sort of fight it out amongst themselves, and nobody in central Cairo was powerful enough to really institute their own vision on places like this. It’s a very weakly governed country.
This was a really striking contrast. Whereas in China, at the smallest level you’d see the Party still in charge, in Egypt at the smallest level the families were in charge.
And what would the powers do, the NDB or the Muslim Brotherhood or the Sisi government? They would let them fight it out, and whoever won they would co-opt. But they wouldn’t bother trying to break the structures because they knew they couldn’t do it. The family continues to run things at the village level.