Philip Pan’s Out of Mao’s Shadow: The Struggle for the Soul of a New China

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 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.

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Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.

The Discussion: 85 Comments

@ Lisa
I am not so sure if I know what you mean with “technology and turbocapitalism have switched things up”. The concentration of too much media power in too few hands surely is something to be concerned about, but isn’t technology exactly the antidote to that? Sure bloggers don’t have the recources to be investigative journalists but its much easier today to get information because of the internet and real investigative journalists can get stuff out even when no mainstream media wants to publish it. And trough the internet my range of possible information sources has mulitpied. So I think, I am a little more optimistic about the power of technology than you.
And also the “turbocapitalism” doesn’t seem so frightening to me. In the time we had this turbocapitalism the rate of people which live from less than 1,25$ a day has declined 40% (1990 to 2005 from 42% to 26% of world population, http://tinyurl.com/5wgkun). Still a lot, sure, but also something that fules my optimism, that it’s not all bad with the economic system we live in. But then, perhaps I’m a hopeless optimist. 🙂

September 2, 2008 @ 4:39 pm | Comment

I agree that too much centralisation of media into the hands of a corporation or individual can be a bad thing, but so far at least in the UK I do not think that this has become a problem – I will not comment on the US as I don’t consult newspapers and watch TV news on a daily basis.

I suppose there isn’t a lot you can do about it and you just have to trust market economics for things to work out in the end. It is tempting to consider regulations stopping the media being taken over by just a few people/one person, but that could only be stopped by very complicated and specific regulation. Then where would it stop – it wouldn’t take much to go that bit further and start deciding who/what could own a media organisation, what they reported on, how they did so, etc.

Like shulan I try to be optimistic in this area, though maybe for different reasons.

September 3, 2008 @ 12:03 am | Comment

Upholding high moral principles in government (as is advocated in Confucianism) is surely necessary. It’s just not sufficient; you also need checks and balances against a ruling body lest it strays from those high morals.

September 3, 2008 @ 12:29 am | Comment

By the way, I think ‘Alien’ IS slightly sick. No offense, Richard.

September 3, 2008 @ 12:33 am | Comment

Richard,

Thanks for the plug and link. Appreciate it.

Alice

September 3, 2008 @ 2:25 am | Comment

Otherlisa, what I said about bullying might have been a bit ambiguous. This is the sort of thing I mean. This is how Chinese people get bullied:
http://www.nowpublic.com/world/chinese-authorities-sentence-elderly-protest-applicants-years-labour

2 old ladies, nearly 80 years old. They probably have grandchildren. I find it hard to imagine how someone can sentence a grandmother to reform through labour – and I don’t come from a country with a cultural tradition of respect for the elderly.

Now that they’ve been put in their place, the authorities have graciously revoked the sentence. A threat is often enough to intimidate people, it’s not always necessary to carry it out.

Imagine if the PSB officials responsible for this had been given their own sentence. I would have cheered for that. It would have been a lot more impressive to me than all that synchronised drumming.

September 3, 2008 @ 3:18 am | Comment

Richard,

I agree completely with your review of the book, but I disagree with your assessment of Aliens as the best science fiction movie of all time. It was not even R. Scott’s best film; Bladerunner was.

September 3, 2008 @ 2:23 pm | Comment

Dan, Bladerunner is one of my very favorites. Maybe I should have qualified: Alien is hands-down the best science fiction snuff movie. It is, after all, the godfather of all the later “and there were none” stalker-thriller flicks like Halloween, Texas Chain Saw Massacre, I Know What You Did Last Summer, et. al.

Bladerunner is also the movie with the most memorable one-liners.

September 3, 2008 @ 4:12 pm | Comment

@Dan –

“I disagree with your assessment of Aliens as the best science fiction movie of all time. It was not even R. Scott’s best film; Bladerunner was.”

Pure, unadulterated sacrilege. One film features large amounts of evil aliens being gunned down in the most intense alien-blasting of any film I can think of, and the other is Philip K. Dick’s sci-fi as allegory spiel: entertaining, but not really worthy of the name ‘sci-fi’.

@Richard – I’m sorry man, but Psycho was quite obviously the first film of that genre, and films like The Exorcist and Omen pre-date Alien as well.

September 3, 2008 @ 6:54 pm | Comment

Plus, Aliens was a James Cameron flick (shakes head in stunned disbelief)

September 3, 2008 @ 7:22 pm | Comment

Aliens may have been Cameron’s, but not the original Alien. That was vintage Ridley. That’s the one Dan and I are referring too, and there was only one creature in that movie. And Bladerunner is definitely classic sci-fi, whether it’s an allegory or not. Practically perfect in every way.

Disagree about Psycho. That was a thriller, but not a one-by-one-they-disappear snuff flick like the original Alien and Halloween.

September 3, 2008 @ 7:31 pm | Comment

I plan to review this book too soon. I’m roughly half way through it, and so far I’m impressed.

September 3, 2008 @ 7:39 pm | Comment

@Richard, Dan – I’m sorry, but you guys loose ten sci-fi nerd points each for the heinous crimes of:

1) Wantonly getting Alien and Aliens mixed up.

2) Publicly expressing the opinion that Aliens (or, alternately, The Wrath of Khan) is not the best sci-fi movie of all time.

Consider your selves lucky to have gotten of so lightly . . .

September 3, 2008 @ 7:50 pm | Comment

No guys! The best science fiction film of all time clearly is Dark Star.

September 3, 2008 @ 10:52 pm | Comment

Star Wars, obviously. Though I guess that’s unfair because you can wrap the triology together.

September 4, 2008 @ 4:48 am | Comment

@Raj – Totally poisoned by the last few films – especially the latest animated cash-in version.

But for sci-fi/horror – I do believe Event Horizon holds top spot.

September 4, 2008 @ 9:37 pm | Comment

Don’t forget the Borg Collective in Star Trek,
“Resistance is Futile. You will be Assimilated!”

September 4, 2008 @ 10:32 pm | Comment

Using selective anecdotes to extract general statements is a misleading and dangerous endevour.

To find some statistically meaningful assessment of common people’s sentiment toward CCP, one can check out the latest Pew Research attitude survey on China. This is a much more accurate reading of the success or failure of CCP in the eyes of the Chinese people. But it has been intentionally or unintentionally ignored by Western media. To most Westerners on this board, I suggest you don’t read that survey. It may contain material not suitable to your pure minds.

September 4, 2008 @ 11:47 pm | Comment

I think every reader here knows that the majority of the people of China hold their government in high esteem. Every one of us knows that. Does that always mean it’s a good government? And is the deck stacked when the government controls the media and the education system? Please read this post, which frankly admits that the majority of the Chinese people are quite satisfied with their government (or at least the part of it that they are familiar with) – but it also looks at whether that is always a fair measurement of whether such admiration makes a government good. Read it carefully, then come back and make your case.

I am from a red state where people absolutely adore our evil sheriff, Joe Arpaio. He’s super-popular even though (or because) he is a racist who loves to lock up brown people. Does that make him a good sheriff, no matter how high he would rank in the Pew Research poll? I want an honest answer from you. Thanks.

There’s a world of difference between being popular and being good. The death penalty is very popular in America, as are mandatory prison sentences for drugs including marijuana. Does that make these things good?

September 5, 2008 @ 1:30 pm | Comment

“I think every reader here knows that the majority of the people of China hold their government in high esteem.”

I’d always be careful with such statements.

1. How many Chinese people do you know?
2. How many Chinese people have you asked about their opinion?
3. How many Chinese people will tell you out of all people what they really think about the government?

I’ve spent several years in China and I would certainly agree that many Chinese people hold their government in high esteem, but the majority, as in over 50%? I’m not so sure about that and neither is the Chinese government. If they could be sure of the majority of the population supporting them, they wouldn’t have to arrest old ladies and disabled human rights advocats.

September 5, 2008 @ 8:35 pm | Comment

@FOARP

Ah, well I see it as being the original three – what came afterwards was not “Star Wars” in my view.

September 5, 2008 @ 9:07 pm | Comment

Sure, a lot of people support the government. But it’s also true that many others will not tell you what they really think – or they will not talk to you at all. Those that are most likely to express their views are happy to do so because they know that nothing negative can come of it (because they generally have good things to say). Those who do raise criticisms/show opposition are brave and/or very aggrieved.

As mor said, if the Politburo/government was supremely confident of its popularity those pensioners wouldn’t have been treated as was the case recently, nor would there be the sorts of media and polling restrictions that there are. I think that it’s happy to allow the notion that it is widely supported continue to circulate around China and the world, but it won’t allow hard, regular assessments that are published openly. An irregular (as in not frequent) review by a group like Pew Research isn’t going to counteract the view that many Chinese hold that if you have nothing good to say it is certainly better not to say anything at all (for your own sake).

September 5, 2008 @ 9:19 pm | Comment

Mor, in answer to your question – literally hundreds, and many, many, many have told me what they think of their government and really opened up about it, a couple with tears in their eyes.

ow many Chinese people will tell you out of all people what they really think about the government?

Not sure I get the “you of all people.” They know me as a friend or a colleague, not as TPD. I have been asking people about this since 2001 and I have some astonishing replies. But also a lot of consistency – consistently mixed feelings, but usually general approval and acknowledgment that the government can be cruel, heartless and corrupt. Absolutely astounding how consistent the response is. I think I posted once about one common line I’ve heard: “I love my government, but my government doesn’t love me.” And to me, that says it all. People here respect and even love the CCP and feel deeply loyal to it, while acknowledging it would destroy them in a heartbeat should they ever get in its way. I have to repeat again – astonishing consistency across multiple provinces and different types of friends, from the most intimate to the professional.

That doesn’t mean the government is supremely confident. It’s terrified because they know awareness of its worst sins on a broad level could mean revolution. Thus the censorship and psychotic control of all media. And the happy happy storyboarding supporting every everything you see on TV.

Let’s remember, being popular doesn’t always mean being good. But I would strongly challenge anyone who doesn’t think the CCP enjoys a high degree of popularity overall in the country, along with the justifiably hysterical hatred among those who have been most abused and disenfranchised, like every character in Pan’s book. But hell, I even heard Hu Jia’s mother is still in the Party despite what they did to her son – the feelings toward the party can be quite complicated, and the sense of loyalty even by those who are the most liberal and enlightened never fails to impress me (not necessarily in a positive way).

Raj, how many Chinese have you interviewed about the party? Serious question.

September 5, 2008 @ 11:06 pm | Comment

Raj, how many Chinese have you interviewed about the party? Serious question.

I don’t “interview” people about their opinions on the CCP because that’s not my profession. I have had discussions with numerous Chinese friends – how many, I couldn’t tell you.

September 6, 2008 @ 12:11 am | Comment

In China? Again, just askin’. Because to me it’s beyond comprehension/belief that you could talk to a broad spectrum of Chinese people here and conclude that they aren’t mainly loyal to and even grateful to the Party (whether we think they should be or not). I know mor has lived here and has a Chinese wife. It’s just (again) so surprising to me that he might think the survey is so off-base. I know of a very respected poll of Chinese people across the nation conducted last year by a US company (and a business competitor of mine) showing that the majority of Chinese people trust the government over any other entity in the country, compared to the media, marketers, private corporations, corporate web sites, etc. I think we all have to be aware of this peculiar duality, where the people admit their government does horrible things, but also admire it and believe its word over any other’s. When you’ve lived here a while, you do start to understand this, even if on a rational level it doesn’t quite make sense. I know I’ve lived here a relatively short time – less than 4 years in China, more than 7 in Asia in total – but it finally started sinking in with me about a year ago. It may not make sense to us, but there it is. We cannot deny the sway this government has over its people. (Which again, may not be a good or admirable thing, but a fact we need to take into consideration in any dialogue with our Chinese friends.)

September 6, 2008 @ 12:30 am | Comment

@Richard – From a historical view point it is not surprising but very human. Witness the majority of Germans who saw nothing wrong with the Nazis until the Russian army was knocking on their door, or the French who saw nothing wrong with Petain – until 1944 that is. Up until the present day the majority of Russians are positive about Stalin – and always have been. In Taiwan most people have at least on or two thing nice to say about Chiang Kai-Shek.

Now, imagine if Governor Palin had been unveiled to the public at the most recent people’s congress – what would you know about her? Certainly you wouldn’t know anything about the various scandals back in Alaska (or Hainan, or whatever) – and scandals there would be, but you would hear her speech (although this would be without any reference to opposition – there would be no opposition) and you would hear the praising pundits on TV. This is all you would know about any member of government, other than internet rumours, and even then, those would have a degree of ‘steerage’ – see the ‘Jiang Ze Min/Song Zu Ying’ rumour that came out around the time of Hu Jintao taking power.

The basic note is “they are us” and “they belong to us”, and there is nothing to counter-act this – from day one in the lives of the majority of PRC citizens.

September 6, 2008 @ 9:32 am | Comment

“But hell, I even heard Hu Jia’s mother is still in the Party despite what they did to her son”

Has anybody ever told you what it means to LEAVE the CCP? Has the thought ever crossed your mind that Hu Jia’s mother is still in the party, because leaving or even criticizing the CCP would most likely only make things worse for her, her son and the rest of the family? And what would that have to do with holding the party in “high esteem”?

And since you’ve played the “I’ve spent more time in China and know more Chinese people than you”-card with Raj, I want to ask you one more question:

When you talked to those literally hundreds of people, which language did you use? Is your Chinese good enough to talk politics? Or did you conduct the interviews in English? Or maybe there was a translator?

And once more, what makes you think that people who usually are rather careful about telling others – even their neighbors or relatives – what they really think about the government – will tell you, an expat American they don’t know that well (since I assume not all of those hundreds of people are close friends of yours)?

Last not least, to avoid any misunderstandings, I do agree that “the CCP enjoys a high degree of popularity overall in the country”. But I have a problem with statements like “I think every reader here knows that the majority of the people of China hold their government in high esteem.” We do not know that. Well, maybe you do, I certainly don’t. And the CCP doesn’t know either. Maybe they should read your blog.

September 6, 2008 @ 6:43 pm | Comment

I know, I know, trust me.

As you know, I am very, very, very hard on the CCP. I understand it pretty well and know how it has succeeded. I may “admire” it the way Ash “admires” alien: Really bad, but oh, so effective. Like the Republican propaganda machine, another bad entity I “admire.” Its effectiveness cannot be disputed, similar to the effectiveness of the CCP. Hope you read about the surveys I mentioned. Fascinating and disheartening and depressing, but it’s reality.

Take it easy.

September 6, 2008 @ 11:16 pm | Comment

About Hu Jia’s mother not dropping out of the party – it may not be fun, but it is not that difficult and it certainly is not unprecedented. Many have dropped out without consequence.

It is a process called reregistration. A number of party officials interviewed said many of the 48 million Chinese Communists would have to submit self-evaluations, self-criticism and programs for self-improvement, and take part in group discussions to better understand their party role. Through that process, the Communist leaders hope to teach their members the ”party style” and the ”party concept,” and more importantly to ferret out the ”hostile elements” who presumably were behind the pro-democracy movement last spring.

”It’s not going to be any problem at all to reregister,” said a party member who marched in the protests. ”They will have more problems if they start kicking too many people out.”

At one university where the reregistration was conducted as part of an early-stage trial run, six members who marched in the demonstrations were told they would probably not be signed up as members again. They were given the choice of accepting their verdict and dropping out of the process immediately, or enduring the long, arduous process of self-criticism and group discussion and awaiting a verdict that might not be positive. Three decided to hang on, but in the end they were kicked out, a teacher who knew one of the members said….

There are signs that the Communist Party itself is concerned that people might want to drop out or resign. To ward off any embarrassments, the party decided that during the reregistration process, members would not be allowed to resign, because they would be expelled first, several members said. But one official said that in some units people were allowed to resign.

People want to drop out, and they try to resign, are then expelled, and their lives go on. Of course, the CCP could make Hu Jia’s mother’s life hell – god knows they’ve done that to others. The fact that people like her remain is another of those conundrums that you start to understand the more you read books by the like of Pan and, even more so (in this case), Pomfret’s Chinese Lessons.

Update: mor, that last comment of yours was really rude and inappropriate. I’m not sure where the sudden hostility comes from, but I respectfully ask you to please keep it to yourself. When you pointed out Ferin’s hostile comments when I was too busy to even read everything on this site I immediately deleted them and ultimately banned him permanently. Remember? I expect you to follow the same rules. I’ve always respected you and have never been rude to you, so I am really surprised. If you have an issue you want to talk about please let me know by email. I’ll try to forget that last comment and let it go. Thanks a lot for your understanding.

I want to stress again that Pan makes it clear that many people in China feel there is no hope for the party, no cause for any optimism,and the only solution is the end of the current system. (This is the conclusion of the Southern Metropolis Daily editor, in one of the most poignant moments in the book.) I believe, based on the studies I’ve seen and the people I’ve met, that still the government commands an incredible level of trust despite its sins. Just like several other powerful dictatorships have. The dissenters are there – that’s what this magnificent book is all about. But to call them a small minority is an overstatement – they are a very small minority. At least for now. You can point to the many thousands of protests that flare up each year, like this week’s in Hunan province, but these still involve a slender sliver of the population. Most people in China just don’t care about them, partly because they don’t know the extent of the horrors, and partly because they are too busy struggling to improve their lives to be bothered. Most of them believe their government is on the right course (as did most Germans from 1933 to 1941).

September 6, 2008 @ 11:31 pm | Comment

Mor,

For what it’s worth, both my wife and I speak Chinese and I would also argue that, especially in urban areas, popular support for the CCP is high and I would agree with the basic substance of Richard’s analysis. I might qualify certain points, but it would be quibbling.

Also, for the record, I was one of the administrators so appalled at Ferin’s comments about your family that I asked Richard to ban Ferin.

I’d rather not see the dialogue here descend down that road, so let’s all chill a bit.

September 7, 2008 @ 4:46 pm | Comment

Thanks Jeremiah; I did try to give Ferin a fair chance but he was a repeat offender. It was precisely his remarks about mor’s wife that made his presence here untenable.

I think people get very emotional when they hear exactly what they don’t want to hear. I know I sometimes do. I know many of us want to believe there is massive unrest in China that threatens the government’s stability right now. I would love to believe that because it would be a real catalyst for change. It makes us feel good to think that this may be so, but my objective side tells me it isn’t, and when I say so it can infuriate.

Mor, I do hope you’ll reconsider. You’re always welcome.

September 7, 2008 @ 5:51 pm | Comment

In China? Again, just askin’. Because to me it’s beyond comprehension/belief that you could talk to a broad spectrum of Chinese people here and conclude that they aren’t mainly loyal to and even grateful to the Party

Yes, in China – or they’re PRC citizens abroad for whatever reason on a temporary basis. But you miss the point. I never said that my views were based on what they said. And I never said that they aren’t “mainly loyal/grateful”. I said that those who are mostly likely to be open with their views are those that are pro-government because they have so much less to be worried about. Whereas others will be more guarded with their views – why do you think it is that foreign reporters in China so often say they had difficulty in talking to people about certain issues?

But the main thing is that as I know the people I interact with are not drawn from the entire cross-section of Chinese society I would not hold their views out to be “representative” anyway, nor can one person ever interview the reasonable minimum for polling which is several hundred people (with a population like China’s probably much higher). Now, richard, do you want to assert that you’ve talked to that many people from one end of the country to the other, farmers and the unemployed to rich urbanites and they’ve all given you responses without any hesitation?

September 7, 2008 @ 7:18 pm | Comment

Wow! Some of you guys really seem to be lacking greatly in tolerance for those who have alternative viewpoints to your own.

I certainly have no doubt that a sizable majority of Chinese – both rural and urban – broadly support the central government, even though a minority of individuals (though this minority may be large in actual numbers) are unhappy with the quality of political leadership provided by their local representatives – be they popularly elected or not. Most villages function quite well though, despite what some people like to think.

Keep in mind guys, that there are over one million villages throughout China, and around 900 million people live either in or around them. The 80,000 or so disturbances that occur each year isn’t as significant as what many people want to believe, as Richard says. Even if all of these disturbances were to have occurred in separate townships and villages (which is NOT the case) that would only amount to a very small percentage of villages that ever experience this kind of social stress. Many of these disturbances occur in towns, but let us, just for argument’s sake, imagine that they all occurred in separate villages: that would mean that only about 8 percent or less of villages ever experience such disturbances in a given year. Many of these distubances don’t occur in villages, but in towns. Combine the total number of towns and villages in China, and then assume that all 80,000 or so disturbances a year occur in separate towns and villages, and the percentage of human settlements in China that experiences any social unrest in a given year falls to less than 4 percent.

Some of these disturbances involve large numbers (10,000 people, and sometimes even more) but the vast majority involve only small handfuls of people.

September 7, 2008 @ 9:30 pm | Comment

Robert, agreed. I wish there was more community outrage, but that will take time as people realize the disparities and the injustices and how they themselves are vulnerable to what they see happening to strangers in far-off parts of the country.

Appreciate all the comments to this thread and apologize that it kind of went off-track from its subject. I also apologize for letting some of the comments get to me – I get frustrated when people don’t realize I am nearly always right. Read the book. Thread closed.

September 7, 2008 @ 9:40 pm | Comment

[…] he mentions paid mightily for it, and no matter what he says, I can’t imagine anyone reading Out of Mao’s Shadow without feeling chronic depression throughout, with a few moments of optimism. (In the interview, […]

September 10, 2008 @ 1:41 pm | Pingback

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