A number of foreign correspondents have returned from China in the past 20 years and written books attempting to put a human face on the...
A number of foreign correspondents have returned from China in the past 20 years and written books attempting to put a human face on the giant. Many of these books are good, but for readers interested in fundamental political questions, “Out of Mao’s Shadow: The Struggle for the Soul of a New China” (Simon & Schuster, 349 pp., $28) stands out.
Philip P. Pan, The Washington Post’s bureau chief in Beijing from 2000 to 2007, has put together human stories with a political meaning. One such story is of the uncommon citizen who takes it upon himself to preserve the last graveyard of the Cultural Revolution. Another is of the physician who dares tell the truth about the deadly pneumonia SARS. Another is of a labor leader who rallies a city against managers who steal from state enterprises. Another is the young newspaper editor trying to lead a journalistic crusade in a country still governed by the Communist Party.
Most moving of all is the story of a cameraman who quits his job with the state and spends down his savings to track the story of a writer — not a famous one — who has been erased by history. Imprisoned during the Cultural Revolution, she wrote a manuscript in her own blood before being executed. Forty years later, hardly anyone remembers her, or wants to.
The Chinese people, Pan writes, are accomplices in their country’s forgetting. To remember is to experience pain — and to think of blame, and where to place it. That is not a question the government wants debated.
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Most of the stories in this book are of heroes who are ultimately defeated. The cameraman is not allowed to publish his documentary. The labor leader does not stop the theft from the state enterprises. The newspaper editor embarrasses the government into making an important reform, but also is sent to prison — for a few months.
What to make of this? Overall, political conditions in China are hugely improved since Mao Zedong. “The government has largely withdrawn from the workplace as well as the personal lives of its citizens,” Pan writes. But the new capitalism is married to a one-party system ungoverned by laws that defend life, liberty and property.
Westerners argue that China is bound to become a multiparty democracy when it gets rich enough, because it happened that way in South Korea, Taiwan and other places. Pan is doubtful. China, he says, is not bound to do anything.
“Rarely have people anywhere in the world gained political freedom without pain and sacrifice,” Pan writes. “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.”
Of course that is so. History is made by individuals. Though Pan has assembled stories of mostly heroic individuals, he seems to be saying there are not enough of them, and they will keep losing. The reader, however, may easily reach the opposite conclusion: that China is a country with many more heroes than you might think, and that they are pushing for freedom and will keep pushing for it.