on June 27, 2008
As an American living in Shanghai, I've been impressed by the freedom that many people seem to enjoy here. Contrary to the Cultural Revolution, "RED COMMUNIST CHINA" image that many Americans have, the people of the middle classes in the huge coastal metropoli of this country live lives little different from those of their peers in the west, at least on the surface. The young people I meet scoff at the Little Red Book and the patriotic posturing of the Communist Party; they tend to be as cynical about politics as Americans, if not moreso. At the same time, however, there is a detectable current of discontent lurking below the surface.
Phillip Pan's "Out of Mao's Shadow" blows the lid off this discontent and reveals the dynamics of law and power in China's contemporary civil society. He shows a country that has left behind totalitarian ideology and control and replaced it with an elaborate system of amoral authoritarian gangsterism. Behind such catchphrases as Deng's "Socialism with Chinese Characteristics", Jiang's "Three Represents", and Hu's "Scientific Development Perspective", there's little true substance other than a massive kleptocracy's attempt to get rich quick off of exports and labor exploitation, or so Pan contends. At the same time, however, there is a growing middle class civil society- lawyers, journalists, filmmakers, bloggers, labor organizers, environmental activists, artists, and other troublemakers quietly pushing for change in a rapidly changing and increasingly liberal society. "Out of Mao's Shadow" is about what happens when the people and the party clash, told in a series of stories about these individuals, a small selection of modern China's heroes and villains:
-Zhao Ziyang, the liberal former General Secretary of the Communist Party, who spent the last 15 years of his life on house arrest after taking the blame for the Tiananmen Uprising.
-Hu Jie, a filmmaker who digs up the compelling story of a feisty Cultural Revolution martyr.
-Zeng Zhong, a chronicler of a period of history that the government would rather forget.
-Xiao Yunliang, a daring labor organizer from China's northeastern rust belt.
-Chen Lihua, China's richest woman, a wealthy land developer who made her millions through government connections and forced evictions.
-Zhang Xide, a party cadre who leads a brutal tax crackdown on an impoverished county.
-Jiang Yanyong, the courageous surgeon and PLA general who ended the government's SARS coverup- and then attempted to get them to come clean on the casualties at the Tiananmen massacre.
-Cheng Yizhong, a maverick newspaperman who starts China's freest and most provocative tabloid.
-Pu Zhiqiang, the weiquan (Right's Defense) lawyer who takes on a case against Zhang Xide- and almost wins.
-Chen Guangcheng, a blind student of medicine and law who takes on the country's forced sterilization program.
While there are many books on China hitting the shelves right now, there's only one like this. Pan combines incisive political commentary with personal profiles in a style that smacks of Peter Hessler (River Town, Oracle Bones) meets Fareed Zakaria (The Future of Freedom, The Post-American World). In between optimistic "business hype" titles and political paranoia tracts, Pan's "Shadow" is something completely different- a "boots on the ground" look at the untold stories of modern China. While there are a few places where I disagree with Pan's tone; while the CCP is undoubtably very corrupt, I would not characterize them as evil incarnate; there are many elements to their rule that are quite benevolently paternal, and, as Pan points out in several places, the country is progressively liberalizing under their administration, if at a fairly slow pace. Despite this minor critique, I give this book five stars for great writing and unique material you won't find anywhere else.
I highly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in contemporary Chinese politics and society.
on August 30, 2009
Perhaps the most unforgettable scene in the movie Alien, hands-down the greatest science fiction movie ever made, is the attempt by the fast-disappearing crew to resurrect the decapitated robot, Ash, whom they beg for an answer to their simple question:
Ripley: How do we kill it, Ash? There's gotta be a way of killing it. How, how do we do it?
Ash: You can't... You still don't understand what you're dealing with, do you? A perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility.
Lambert: You admire it?
Ash: I admire its purity. A survivor unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.
This unforgettable episode kept replaying in the back on my mind as I read through Philp Pan's unforgettable new masterpiece, Out of Mao's Shadow. This is a book about heroes, about the brave souls in China who dare to stand up to one of the world's most formidable political machines, the Chinese Communist Party. We know one thing in advance: none of them will win. Some do indeed make a huge difference, and nudge the monster toward reform, usually by raising public awareness. But they cannot beat the party. The party will always win. It is too perfect, too self-protective and self-sustaining to tolerate defeat, and it knows no sense of morality or conscience.
A fluent Chinese speaker and former Beijing bureau chief for the Washington Post, Pan has won the confidence of these people and, often at considerable personal risk, takes us into their homes, into their lives to give us an intimate portrayal of what they do and why they do it.
There are some whose stories we've discussed on this blog before, such as Jiang Yanyong, the doctor who leaked to the Western media the fact that SARS was spreading in Beijing, and who later spoke out on the carnage he witnessed in the emergency room on the night of June 4, 1989. And Cheng Yizhong, the editor of Southern Metropolis Daily who first challenged the government's insistence that SARS was under control and later helped bring the murder of Sun Zhigang onto the radar screen of the Chinese people and ultimately the world.
Each of the subjects in Pan's book takes it upon himself to stand up to the government, fully aware of the inherent risks. As Pan tells us their stories, he manages to paint an historical picture around them. For example, as he details the work of blind activist Chen Guangcheng against the evils of the one-child policy, Pan takes the reader through a brief and hopelessly depressing history of one of "the most ambitious experiments in social engineering ever attempted," and highlights just how tragic it was, mainly for Chinese women, half a billion of whom were either sterilized, made to endure forced abortions or sloppily fitted with IUDs that led to more misery for them.
Pan weaves history into each story he tells, and nearly all of it is grim. I have to admit, it's a painful and frustrating read. And there are no happy endings. To go through each of the chapters and tell you which ones moved me the most is too daunting a task - i have earmarked nearly every page.
It is not an uplifting book, but not a hopeless one, either. Remember, in the end Ripley does outsmart the creature despite its perfection. And each of these activists makes small dents in the party's armor, and it tells us something that each is still alive and able to talk about it (though quite of few of the characters alluded to along the way are not so lucky, serving lengthy prison sentences). So Pan allows us a glimmer of hope at the end. Reform is real, even if its pace is snail-slow. People are getting bolder, and some of the lawsuits against the government are being won. There is more freedom of speech, though that can be unpredictable. China is no longer totalitarian. But it's in no way democratic.
Pan writes in his epilogue, "What progress has been made in recent years - what freedom the Chinese people now enjoy - has come only because individuals have demanded and fought for it, and because the party has retreated in the face of such pressure."
I hope we never forget that. That's the answer to the question we hear a lot, "if you like China so much why do you criticize it so harshly?" Harsh, consistent criticism based on fact and made with conviction has proven to be the only winning formula in pushing reform ahead.
In my conversations with other expats in China, one thing we all seem to agree on is that Philip Pan is the best reporter who has ever covered China. Longtime readers know how highly I regard Pan's predecessor John Pomfret, who I still see as one of China's most perceptive critics. Pan is in a different category, however. While both Pomfret And Pan are master reporters, Pan is also a beautiful writer. (You don't read Pomfret for style or prose.) Each story in Out of Mao's China is told with an understated eloquence and poignancy - clear-headed and straightforward, but also genuinely poetic. And that's a balance few journalists can strike. It's a suspenseful book, a page-turner, if you will, that keeps you thoroughly wrapped up. Just as he does in the article I refer to more than just about any other in this bog, so too does Pan in his book keep you spellbound, incredulous that this could really be happening in a nation trying so hard to convince the world of its love of peace, of its good intentions, of its glorious reforms.
So many books on China and its transformation since passing "out of Mao's shadow." Get a copy of China Shakes the World, Oracle Bones and Out of Mao's Shadow - it's all there. Of the three. the latter is the most haunting and painful to read, but you'll emerge from it a lot more sober about China's progress, and a lot less patient when it comes to the naive insistence of the anti-CNN crowd that any negative perception of China's government is the product of biased reports in the Western media. There's a lot to be negative about and a lot to be scared of, despite the very real reforms of recent years. Get the book today, and prepare to have some illusions shattered.
on September 18, 2008
A mix of history and political analysis from a region and period in which records are systematically destroyed, and authors like Pan are fighting to preserve the truth.
The book paints a picture of a modern Orwellian state, describing, in detail, the contortionist social policies of a communist party that managed to cling to power long after communism became internationally discredited.
For example: the distortion of language for propaganda, the exploitation of nationalism, the systematic partitioning of farmers and peasants away from the central power structures, and the kidnap and remorseless torture of dissidents; Pan lifts all of these elements from the pages of '1984' and moves them to the non-fiction section with this expose'.
The story is also predictive. Pan casts serious doubt on the hopeful -possibly naive- assumption that capitalism will inevitably democratize China. Pan describes modern life in China as more free than it has ever been, though the story he tells is still draconian by most western standards, and his work gives good reason for the rest of the world to be gravely concerned about the future of world's next superpower.
At the same time, however, a powerful human element is brought to the fore: Pan interviews ordinary and extraordinary citizens and shows how the pain and despair of the last 5 decades, on both the individual and social scale, have led to a culture of citizens disengaged from politics.
Pan provides a scathing indictment of the officials and opportunists who exploit the status quo, but also a tribute to the courage and sacrifice of the few people willing to challenge the system; the painful decisions they make and the prices they pay are both inspiring and heartbreaking.
After reading, one is left cheering for the unsung heroes of a far away nation, hoping that eventually their stories will be revered at home, and that their images will be used to replace that of big brother over-looking the blood-soaked ground of Tienanmen square.
on January 6, 2010
I read this book for the first time in 2008, just before the start of the 2008 summer Olympics and then again in November 2009. China has been touted as the next super power. After reading this book, I don't see how this will happen without political change. A country that treats its citizens so poorly will never truly be great. I have read many books about China and have found "Out of Mao's Shadow: The Struggle for the Soul of a New China" to be one of the most insightful. I was drawn into the lives of each person Mr. Pan wrote about and always wanted to know more.
Pan opens with the funeral of Zhao Ziyang the only communist party member to try to stop the Tiananmen Massacre of June 4, 1989. Zhao Ziyang urged Deng Xiaoping not to send troops against the students. For his efforts and stand, Zhao remained under house arrest for the rest of his life. The communist party did its best to hide his death and funeral arrangements from the people.
We get an idea of how Mao operated through the efforts of documentary film maker Hu Jie who brought to life communist party member Lin Zhao who spoke out during the Hundred Flowers movement and was arrested during the Anti Rightist Campaign. The audacity of Mao to think that he was beyond criticism is unbelievable to most of us in the United States. Mao issued the invitation to people to participate in the Hundred Flowers movement, which basically asked people to tell the government what they thought about it. Mao got angry when people actually did what he asked them to do so he arrested them all in the Anti Rightist campaign. Move on to the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution where the communist party basically turned its back on the people that brought its members into power and who the party had pledged to help by making their lives better. Now instead of warlords and landlords the poor have to deal with corrupt party officials such as Zhang Xide who behaves worse than a Roman tax collector in his efforts to extract as much as possible from the people under his control.
I wanted to stand and cheer for the brave individuals willing to take a stand to try to improve the government. From Doctor Jiang Yanyong, who exposed the SARS cover-up and the newspaper editor, Cheng Yizhong, who did not want to publish lies about SARS and who continually pushed the envelope when it came to what he allowed his paper to print to the civil rights lawyers working within a corrupt system to try to get justice for their clients. Some of these lawyers, such as Gao Zhisheng who was arrested and tortured in 2007 and who was arrested again in February 2009, have paid a price much higher than any United States citizen would consider. Incidentally, Gao has not been seen since his second arrest, his family has escaped to the US and does not know where he is or whether he is even alive. To receive an even greater challenge, go to the website [...]
After reading this book for the second time, I remain convinced that although China will probably continue to experience great economic growth it will never be truly great.
on July 28, 2008
There are a lot of excellent books on modern China out there, but this one is a cut above. I think, as a newspaperman, Mr. Pan knows how to grab and hold his reader's attention. I was unable to put it down for a few days. He also gets very deep into the story, talking to the affected people, but also putting everything into historical context. Lastly, I'm glad this book doesn't try to shoehorn everything into some grand hypothesis about China's imminent superpower status. I was happy to learn about the general trends of public discourse and human rights since the Mao era through the stories of some particular citizens who turn out to be heroes in their own way.
on July 3, 2008
I finished this book in two days because I couldn't bear to put it down and it was completely engaging on both intellectual and emotional levels. It's compelling, heart-breaking, compulsively readable and an incredible piece of reporting. Phillip Pan is an amazing writer/reporter and this book allows him a larger canvas to showcase his talents. But what Mr. Pan does best is that he lets others speak: he gives voice to the many individuals who have attempted to stand up to the Chinese government in order to better Chinese society. He also places this struggle in the context of Chinese history, exposing how the Chinese government's authoritarian rule is a betrayal of its original communist ideals. The stories in his book are moving and inspiring. This book is a must-read for those interested in contemporary Chinese politics and society.
on June 19, 2008
I read lots of history and politics. This by far the best book I've read in ages. I read it twice cover to cover, I couldn't put it down. If you have any interest in China you must read this. Exceptional and greatly researched.
on July 22, 2008
Excellent. I couldn't put it down. I would like to read more about the people in China and their fight for democracy. I hope Philip Pan writes another book.
on August 12, 2008
In his China book Philip Pan, former Washington Post bureau chief in Beijing, chooses to write about the heroic individuals who dared to defy the inexorable force that is the Communist Party of China. He writes about an unemployed documentary filmmaker Hu Jie whose life passion is resurrecting a young woman who dared speak up against Mao Zedong. There's this doctor who -- defying government censors -- revealed the SARS epidemic to the nation, thus saving thousands of lives. There are the labor activists who rallied their fellow laid-off workers against corruption. And then there are the lawyers and the journalists who are always pushing the envelope, trying inch by inch to create institutions -- rule of law and freedom of expression -- that can restrain the abusive authority of the Party.
Philip Pan is a very fluid writer but the book nevertheless feels thin. And worse than feeling thin it feels irrelevant and insignificant. Two thousand and eight is, after all, China's Olympic year -- when America's economy suffers from recession China's economy is booming. In surveys nine out of ten Chinese are optimistic and positive about their country and where China is heading. And the people that Philip Pan writes about so admiringly in his new book are the marginalized intellectuals and the disaffected poor who nostalgically yearn for a time that never was and dream of a future that can never be. And so for Americans and Chinese alike they're irrelevant and insignificant.
That's sad because Philip Pan and his heroes are right. China is a complete mess, and rather than being subversive these individuals who defy the system are the true patriots because with their criticisms and actions they are trying to make the nation-state stronger and more stable.
China right now suffers from a corrupt and ossified bureaucracy determined at all costs to maintain power. China's curious and cowardly blend of authoritarianism and capitalism means that China's Gini co-efficient is comparable to that of Latin America, its pollution problem is a national shame and seriously threatens China's future growth, and China never before has witnessed so much crime and moral decay. And yet -- because multinationals are still pouring into China, because Americans cannot shopping at Walmart, and because China itself is spending hundreds of billions on new infrastructure and factories -- the Chinese economy in the past two decades has managed to create a middle-class that is now the bedrock of Communist Party support. And what the middle-class in their steadfast support blithely ignores is that China's "socialism with Chinese characteristics" is a system built on contradictions and lies and illusions.
And that's what the characters in Philip Pan's book refuse to ignore. The Party's greatest contradiction, lie, and illusion is that it's possible to have economic reform without political reform.
Consider the free market. The free market needs independent media and channels of information to create efficient pricing and distribution and marketing -- but the Party insists on maintaining control over newspapers and the Internet. Now the Party may say that it'll allow economic reporting but not political reporting but what's important for the media to have any real impact on consumers is perceived independence -- so it's in the media's self-interest to report on SARS because that makes their economic reporting more credible.
Consider also the free movement of goods, which is crucial to the free market. The Chinese provinces are controlled by local party bosses which adamantly protect their self-interest and the interest of their constituents. So that means they'll protect local industry by preventing competition from coming into town -- which hampers the economy. And they'll also tax peasants, and steal their land.
So here the Party's interest in strengthening the Chinese economy is perfectly aligned with peasant lawyers who want to break the local tyranny of the Party bosses. But in these cases the Party chooses to side with the Party bosses. Why? Because at the end of the day the Party is only interested in maintaining its monopoly of power, and that in turn means turning a blind eye to the rapacious and corrupt behavior of local bosses in return for their fealty.
That is the sad unfortunate conclusion that the lawyers, journalists, and labor activists come to -- and which we also come to -- at the end of Mr. Pan's book. They always believed that they could change the system gradually from within -- and that weakness is ultimately what will make them irrelevant and insignificant in history's eyes.
As China's economic contradictions finally collapse into each other causing a financial earthquake that will rent society asunder this current generation of activists will be very soon supplanted by another generation of activists -- people who immediately see that the problem is the system itself, and their first reaction will be violence not discussion.
That's even more sad because in these individuals who believed in themselves, in China, and ultimately in the Party stood China's last best chance for real progress.
on July 16, 2008
I got this book for my Kindle. I cannot get in bookstores here in Shanghai. This is one big advantage of the Kindle, being able to download books that are banned here in China.
This book is great for people interested in the recent history of China.
Read this and read also Wild Swans, Three Daughers of China. Two of the best books on the last part of the last century.