08/11/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The China Question: To Beg or to Blog?

Do you know anyone who had to choose between begging and blogging? During my year in China, I met many who felt that they did.

I lived in Gubei, an upscale Shanghai neighborhood peopled with deal-making foreigners. They enrolled their children in expensive international schools and installed their diamonded wives in half million dollar condos, furnished with Chinese maids who worked for ninety cents an hour. For many of my former neighbors, human rights were political issues, not personal ones: condemn government repression, but don't overpay the maids.

Beneath Gubei's bragging neon, poor Chinese kids trolled the late-night streets with conniving hands trying to beg the change out of Gubei's foreign pockets. The Gubei street handouts were private because the government dole is limited. However booming the economy, there are not enough dollars to even house the poor construction workers who are spread out all over Shanghai, men who are forced to sleep on dirty unsheeted mattresses slung inside the unfinished buildings. Hundreds of thousands are laboring hundreds of miles from home, sending their scraps of money back to their villages, only able to visit their wives and children once a year during the Chinese New Year holiday.

But at least the workers are not beggars. I once took some begging street kids in Gubei to a neighborhood grocery store and told them that they could each pick out two pieces of candy. The money I usually gave them always went straight to their mom, who squatted in the shadows of a nearby street corner waiting for her take. The kids should have a taste of childhood, I thought, a taste of sugar. What they chose were containers of milk, loaves of bread, and handfuls of sausage. Candy? How bourgeois.

Despite the raging capitalism, China is not yet bourgeois. It is still the birthplace of Mao. The ruthless sociopath was brought to power through a revolution fought by idealistic peasants. They were rebels who had erupted after generations had dutifully watched elites dine in elegance, their luxury gleaned from exploitation and gluttony while millions toiled in famine and dust.

From the balconies in tony Shanghai, it seemed like there was little left of Mao's legacy in the rapidly capitalizing China, nothing other than his sentimental image on the currency. Yet in the alleyways, there are millions of his peasant army's descendants who are still too hungry. Mao's successors in the Communist Party are offering them food but not freedom, and many are happy to take the deal. They'd rather see their kids barred from blogging about Tibet if it means not having to beg in Gubei.

Perhaps we can make them a better offer.

Steve Posner's latest book is "Spiritual Delights and Delusions: How to Bridge the Gap between Spiritual Fulfillment and Emotional Realities." Visit his website at