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 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 heros, 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. Instead, let me quote from an earlier review that provides a good summary:
The 10 or so intersecting stories he tells here are gritty and real. This is not a big-theme book about the “true” China but a concrete, closely observed encounter with particular people, places and events. He puts the reader on a stool in the small shop of laid-off steel worker Yao Fuxin as Yao and some colleagues plot a doomed demonstration against corrupt local officials in the rust-belt city of Liaoyang. We run through cornfields with blind activist Chen Guangcheng as he escapes from government thugs in his home village, hoping to carry a petition for justice all the way to Beijing. Other protagonists include a land developer, an army doctor, a local party secretary, a crusading editor and a passel of feuding “rights protection” lawyers (as they call themselves). Pan seems to have been all over each incident, watching before, during and after it happened, getting long interviews with participants who initially did not want to talk, copying quotes from secret documents, hiding notes from a trial in his socks.
Yet some big truths emerge. Local government omnipotence and corruption are a toxic combination, personified in Pan’s book by Zhang Xide, the party secretary of Linquan County. He presided over the violent repression of a peasant revolt against coercive birth-control methods and illegal taxes. And what is wonderfully revealing about today’s China is that he was proud of his achievement! When a pair of crusading journalists named Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao exposed his actions, he sued them for defamation. (Their book, Will the Boat Sink the Water?, was published in English by PublicAffairs in 2006.) A local judge allowed something like a real trial to take place, enabling a rights protection lawyer named Pu Zhiqiang — another vivid character — to humiliate Zhang and his colleagues on cross-examination because of their eagerness to brag about their use of harsh methods. When the proceedings got out of control in this way, the local party authorities, who ultimately supervise all court decisions, disposed of the embarrassment by having the court issue no judgment. Zhang retired on full pension, while Chen and Wu’s book remains banned.
Another theme is the alliance of the party with private entrepreneurs, represented by a richly loathsome female property developer named Chen Lihua. She specializes in acquiring land in Beijing through cronyism and forcibly evicting tenants with police assistance. Pan reports her rags to riches story, visits her lavish office and notices nine separate photos, one of her with each member of the party’s top decision-making body, the Politburo Standing Committee. Chen, too, is proud of her achievements and especially of knowing how to work the system; she reflexively offers Pan a bribe.
In contrast, Pan’s heroes are fighting against the system that he calls the “largest and perhaps most successful experiment in authoritarianism in the world.” That they can do so without being executed is a sign of how far China has emerged from Mao’s shadow. But it is also a tribute to their courage and cunning, because, as Pan notes, the machinery of repression is “cynical, stable, and nimble.” The documentary filmmaker loses his job, consumes his savings and has his films banned. The crusading newspaper editor spends a short time in jail and ends up sidelined, writing for a sports magazine. The blind activist is kidnapped, beaten and sentenced to a four-and-a-half-year prison term.
No, 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.
I’d been trying to temper my feelings about the CCP over the past two years, trying hard to see all sides and avoid black and white generalities. I know there are many totally good and selfless people in its ranks, and believe that many, maybe most of them, truly believe they are doing what is best for China. But reading Out of Mao’s Shadow forced me to take yet another hard look at what is a hopelessly corrupt and in general a bad institution and an instrument for enough evil to overshadow any good that it may do. They hosted a damn good Olympics, but underneath the rosy patina of respectability there lurks so much violence and repression, backed up with a shadowy underground prison system few pampered foreigners would even dream exists. Pan opens our eyes to what’s going on behind the scenes, the misery and highway robbery that form the foundations of many of those gleaming skyscrapers, the inherent badness of a system that like the creature in Alien will reflexively crush and destroy and consume anything in its path without the slightest hint of remorse or even awareness. It’s just something that it does, as natural as breathing.
In my conversations with other expats here, 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.
Update: Looking through the book again, there’s so much I couldn’t include that you will want to read about, so one last request that you read it yourselves. As I re-read the section about Lin Zhao, the young woman who falls victim to the 100 Flowers horror and writes her story in her own blood from her prison cell, it struck me yet again how bizarre and how frightening it is that statues and portraits of Mao beam down at us from all over this city and on
every many college campuses in the nation.
Update 2: Another excellent review of Pan’s book.