YOU can learn a lot about a country's political culture by the way it celebrates. In the present mood of mingled discretion and convenience that governs our interactions with China, the Western media chose to avert its eyes from the lifeless spectacle of China's official 60th birthday celebrations.
But if you have a taste for such things, you can view the entire proceedings - from the first rocket-launcher to the very last - in seemingly endless instalments provided by China's semi-official netizens on YouTube. It's all there: the familiar balletic processions of white-gloved, goose-stepping soldiery; the unearthly martial music trapped in a perpetual loop; the studiously vacant expressions of the party functionaries and, to indicate the presence of The People, a few dozen cheerfully waving patriotic citizens, hemmed in beside the otherwise empty, echoing expanses of Tiananmen Square.
The whole frigid, airless spectacle of political onanism, in short. The sound of the Chinese Communist Party's one hand clapping. Preserved for our benefit by an invisible army of television cameras, secreted across the most surveilled 50ha of real estate in the world.
Imagining ourselves to be polite, we Westerners avert our eyes from it all. Yet this peculiar, tasteless spectacle of official China locked in joyless self-communion suits us fine. For in truth we're no more inclined to be confronted with China's dirty historical laundry than is the Chinese Communist Party itself.
We're co-dependents, as the psychoanalysts might say. We belong on the same couch.
Those few dozen official representatives of The People, with their unspontaneous applause, suit us well enough too. Once upon a time we told ourselves that the ugly birth pangs of liberal capitalism were endurable because they forced into the world the humanising ceremonies of liberal democracy. Now, in the fag-end of the Western moment, we've become bored by liberal democracy, even while we remain captivated by Chinese-built widescreen TVs. And so the official Chinese insistence that liberalism and democracy are simply un-Chinese - and that the citizenry really prefers things this way - works for us too.
Outside Tiananmen Square, though, the alleys and passageways of unofficial China have some weightier historical freight to deal with this year. For if the Chinese Communist Party deserved only a single entry in the testimony of history, it would be this: starting in the northern spring of 1959, China's leadership wilfully enabled the deaths of about 36 million of its citizens, and then watched as they suffered, expired and even consumed each other's flesh. Neither Stalin nor Hitler, nor any of the other protagonists in either of the 20th century's world wars, could match this scale of political and humanitarian nihilism. What a grand mosaic that would have made for the October 1 parade.
Yang Jisheng is a Communist Party veteran who spent half of his almost 70 years as a journalist for the official Xinhua news agency. Nowadays he is deputy editor of the dissident journal Chronicles of History (Yanhuang Chunqiu), a shoe-string affair run by a group of retired party cadres out of a small second-storey flat down the road from the Xinhua offices. It sells a few thousand copies, mostly to like-minded party veterans whose sense of conscience has been gradually aroused by living through what Yang calls three generations of lies.
We all have moments of epiphany, little sunbeams of insight, when our small purpose in life's great medley becomes just a little clearer. Yang has had the benefit of two such glimpses. One came in June 1989, when he realised that China's momentum towards democracy had been halted for a generation. His response was to record a series of clandestine interviews with exiled premier Zhao Ziyang that will some day enter China's legitimate historical record.
The other came during Yang's travels as a newsman. It was here that he discovered, from a Red Guard document, that hundreds of thousands had died from starvation in the province where he grew up, as a result of Mao Zedong's forced industrialisation and collectivisation policies. This discovery aroused the memory - related in agonised detail in Yang's recent Hong Kong-published book - of his father's death in China's great famine. He recalls his father "propped up in bed, his sunken eyes lifeless. His face, with all flesh gone, was slack, with thick wrinkles." His hand was "skinny as a bag of bones".
There have been Western accounts of China's 1959-61 famine, but Yang's Tombstone: A Record of the Great Chinese Famine is the first extensive study, fortified by a hundred interviews and thousands of official records, obtained through his privileges as a journalist. In consequence he has become acquainted with the persuasive powers of Chinese state security and with the not-so-subtle threats of that army of goons to whom state security nowadays outsources many of its coercive functions. But he is not troubled: the book, he says, is meant as a tombstone for his father, for the 36 million who died, and "for the system that lead to the great famine".
The ommunist Party and its Western apologists acknowledge that there was a severe famine in China between 1959 and 1961, and that millions died in it. But they insist this was merely a natural disaster, much as Soviet apologists long sought to characterise Stalin's terror-famine of the 30s. Yang has confirmed what Western experts long surmised: that Mao and the party hatched the famine as a tool of state policy, to coerce hundreds of millions out of traditional agriculture and into industry and collective farms. There was a shortage of food, true enough, but more lethal by far was the refusal to distribute it. In the reckoning of the party, the human individuum was simply a tool of economic advance, without moral value in its own right. One finger chopped off still leaves nine, as Mao said at the time.
From these awful revelations come two conclusions. First: that the Chinese Communist Party, now engaged in its ballet of self-celebration and self-delusion, is arguably the greatest violator of human rights in the history of the planet. (Even today, almost every one of the world's most inhumane states - from North Korea to Sudan to Zimbabwe - is a Chinese client.) Second: that when the era of the party's monopoly over China's public life comes to an end - as it will before too long - its undertakers will come, like Yang, from within its own ranks. China has had its Solzhenitsyn, you might say. It still awaits its Gorbachev.