From Publishers Weekly
These three intimate case studies explore how China's recent reforms have opened avenues for dissent. Johnson portrays the upsurge of popular protests as the leading edge of an inchoate grassroots movement that will ultimately threaten Communist Party rule. He is skeptical about whether the Party can accommodate or co-opt expectations arising from a nascent legal system through which grievances are supposed to be channeled. The problem he illustrates is that petitioners too often lose, no matter the justice of their cause-the legal system is hopelessly skewed in favor of the rich and connected. The three cases studies are chosen to represent the variety of experiences of ordinary Chinese. The first involves a self-educated peasant lawyer who takes on the local political elite over the excessive and illegal taxation of impoverished farmers, and mobilizes thousands in the process. The petitioner is encouraged by a court victory in one village, but the demands are defeated and the protagonist jailed when higher authorities realize the danger of his appeals. The second case pits owners of homes in the historic heart of old Beijing against city planners who want to bulldoze nearly everything old to make way for high-rise developments. The third case exposes the persecution and determined persistence in her faith of one woman who joined Falun Gong protests. Johnson won a Pulitzer in 2001, as Beijing bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal, for his coverage of Falun Gong. While it offers insight into grassroots activity in China, this local focus makes the book less useful for understanding how factional fighting within the governing elite sometimes opens opportunities for successful dissent.
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From the reporter-returns-from-abroad genre comes Johnson's portrait of contemporary China. Writing for the Wall Street Journal
in the late 1990s, he covered such news as the repression of Falun Gong, the spiritual and exercise movement. In this work, Johnson profiles three ordinary citizens whom the government treats as obstreperous nuisances, and whose fortunes from protesting injustice illustrate the government's nervousness at the least manifestation of opposition. Ma Wenlin, currently in prison, is a self-taught lawyer who represented farmers aggrieved by tax rake-offs; Zhang Xueling wants answers about the death of her mother, a Falun Gong adherent, while in police custody; and Fang Ke is an architectural student opposing the razing of historical Beijing. Johnson focuses each personal story on the courageous decision to oppose rather than acquiesce to the caprices of officialdom. A perceptive observer, Johnson ably depicts the personal cost borne by individuals subjected to the authoritarian policies of the communist regime. Gilbert TaylorCopyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved