[This post was originally published on my Asia Sentinel blog on August 30, 2008.]
As the Olympics drew to a cathartic end, I finished reading Philip Pan’s heart wrenching book “Out of Mao’s Shadow”. Watching the Games and related news on TV and the Internet while reading the book at the same time invoked in me paradoxical sentiments.
Though I felt baffled about the dishonesty surrounding certain gymnasts’ age and the choice of vanity over real talent behind the lip synching incident, on the whole I was pretty impressed by the entire event, especially the opening ceremony. I was also amazed by the organizational prowess of the “rising nation” which pulled out all the stops to make this sports event an awe-inspiring spectacle. And I was delighted and proud that she did it! Though I may not share the wild ecstasy of most mainlanders (for one thing, I have never been a sports fan), I nevertheless feel that China deserves a standing ovation from the world audience for her striving for perfection in putting together such an epic international event.
Yet, after reading Pan’s book, that delightful and proud feeling was dimmed by sadness and worries about this same nation.
Expression of feelings aside, the purpose of this post is to review the book, which, if nothing else, has shone some light (for my ignorant self anyway) on the otherwise inscrutable and nebulous recent history as well as on some crucial contemporary issues of mainland China.
There are perhaps two resounding messages that the author tries to convey: firstly that “those counting on the capitalists to lead the charge for democratization in China are likely to be disappointed”, and secondly, that the society’s struggle for social justice and civic liberties is often futile, although passionate individuals with a conscience and a sense of justice are ceaselessly trying against all odds to attain those.
In an early chapter of the book, the author lets us have a glimpse into China’s recent past, through the camera lenses of photographer Hu Jie who was obsessed with digging up the life story of young poet Lin Zhao. In making and distributing underground the documentary about Lin, Hu had to sacrifice a steady well-paying job at Xinhua News Agency and to risk being arrested any day. But he was determined to get to the bottom of it because he believed that “it wasn’t normal or healthy for a society to go through a cataclysm like the Anti-Rightist Campaign and never discuss it and he wondered if the absence of historical knowledge hindered social progress”.
In the 1950s, Lin Zhao had once been a Communist Party member while studying at the Peking University but she later paid with her life for opposing the party out of utter disillusionment with it. As the author takes us through the young lives and actions of Lin and her classmates via Hu’s investigative interviews, scene after scene of the perfidious Hundred Flowers Movement and the cruel Anti-Rightist Campaign unfolds before us. When Lin’s prison writings about the wickedness and absurdities of the Campaign and her sufferings are revealed to us, we can almost smell the blood that Lin used to write her memoir with.
Then we are brought to some tragic happenings during the nefarious Cultural Revolution through the recollection of a former red guard, Xi Qinsheng of Chongqing, whose mother was killed nonsensically during an in-party strife. In an interview with the author, Xi is quoted as saying: “The Cultural Revolution brought out the worst in people, and the worst in the political system.” “Xi said he believed one-party rule was ultimately to blame for the crimes of the Cultural Revolution, but that individuals – like the man who killed his mother, and like himself – must also accept responsibility. ‘How could a ruthless dictatorship thrive in this country? Why did the nation support it?’ he asked.”
Apart from the historical snapshots, the book tells the stories of other present-day dissidents as well as the story of a wealthy real estate developer who exemplifies the venal union of capitalism and authoritarianism.
Jiang Yanyong, a semi-retired surgeon, blew the whistle on the spread of SARS in Beijing and later tried, to no avail, to persuade the Communist Party to admit its Tiananmen Square wrongdoings. Threatened by house arrest and a prospect of never being able to visit his daughter in the United States, Jiang was finally forced to abandon his cause.
The blind legal expert, Chen Guangshen, who tried to help women forced to have abortions under the one-child policy to fight the bureaucracy and who escaped house arrest to take the case all the way to Beijing from the remote village in Shandong province where he lived, was finally kidnapped by public security officers and was subsequently imprisoned.
There are a bunch of “weiquan” (維權) lawyers who try their best to defend Chen’s case and another notorious libel case incriminating Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao, for writing and publishing the book “An Investigation of China’s Peasantry” in 2003 (the English edition is called “Will the Boat Sink the Water?”), brought on by a corrupt party official. The book is banned in China as it exposes corrupt deeds of local party and government officials, supported by documents and witnesses, in particular the imposition of punitive taxes on peasants. The case was tried in court but the judge could not (or would not) come up with a verdict.
Then there is the story of Cheng Yizhong, the idealistic journalist who took Guangzhou’s outspoken newspaper Southern Metropolis Daily to unprecedented levels of popularity and fame. He first caught the nation’s and the leaders’ attention by an expose of the corrupt “shourong” (retention and repatriation) system run by local police, whereby the latter had the right to detain at will roaming migrants and force them into involuntary labor and captivity until they could pay their way out. Although Cheng managed to force leaders to order a ban on the vile system, he also upset many party officials in the process, unwittingly setting the stage for his subsequent downfall. His unreserved reporting on SARS did not help either. In 2004 he was imprisoned for five months for an alleged corruption charge, which was an obvious set-up to frame him.
“But prison had changed him, and now he considered the party’s rule irredeemably corrupt. That judgment, however, left him with few options as a citizen and a journalist, and he was restless. ‘The worst thing that happened to me,’ he said, ‘was that I lost all hope in the system.’”
If the stories of the dissidents seem outright depressing, that of Chen Lihua is remarkably buoyant - from her standpoint, that is. Chen was named China’s sixth richest person in Forbes’ 2001 list, with assets of US$550 million.
This passage may best sum up Chen’s story: “China’s emerging business elite is a diverse and disparate bunch, and for every entrepreneur who would embrace political reform, there are others who support and depend on the authoritarian system, who believe in one-party rule and owe their success to it. Chen Lihua fits in this latter category, and her story is a reminder that those with the most wealth – and thus the most resources to devote either to maintaining the status quo or promoting change – are also the most likely to be in bed with the party.”