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.

The Discussion: 85 Comments

Great review, Richard. Look forward to getting a copy.

“…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 college campus in the nation.”

Yes – the party’s justification for being in power, while at the same time (as the Olympics demonstrated) putting a healthy distance between themselves and the man.

August 31, 2008 @ 11:36 pm | Comment

Not every college campus. Not by a long shot. (Off the top of my head I can only think of one in Shanghai.)

I’ll read it as soon as I can get my hands on a copy. October if I’m lucky.

August 31, 2008 @ 11:47 pm | Comment

Dish, I’m sure you’re right. I should have said “every college campus I’ve been to in China” – about seven or eight.

September 1, 2008 @ 12:10 am | Comment

Thanks for informing me of these books, I will have to read it. Yeah, this is how I feel, although I like going to China and having all the fun there but I know deep down how sick and evil teh system can be, or is whatever. But most people only care about making a ‘buck’ and partying so they don’t really think about what’s going on around them (or they will give me some excuse like no don’t come back to China, you don’t understand it.) I can see why, it’s pretty negative stuff to ponder on all the time. But it’s not all like that. I’ve know plenty of people who are aware. Still, you can’t expect rich middle class kids to really ‘rebel’ and ‘revolt’ do you? I know I talk a lot of crap but to really go on the street and fight the government using violent means? It’s the same situation in China. Plenty of people I know fantasize about fighting the government, but how do you fight against modern military weapons? So the only way is to enlighten people’s minds, to cause change gradually, through non-violent ways.

September 1, 2008 @ 3:38 am | Comment

@Richard – Minor issue, but yeah, I can’t remember seeing on statue of Mao in any of the campuses in Nanjing (at least the half-dozen that I visited), the only one I saw in the entire city is the one inside the Nanjing bridge museum. Indeed, I can’t remember ever seeing one on public display in the open.

“I say nuke them from orbit, it’s the only way to be sure”

September 1, 2008 @ 4:07 am | Comment

I’m halfway through this great book and most of the time I’m struck by either an overwhelming sense of sadness at the brutality that the Chinese people have had to live with and a sense of rage at the government/wealthy class who continue to abuse the citizens every day. The lack of access to information, the lack of open, critical discourse keeps the countries citizens as a nation of virtual political (and in all too many cases actual) prisoners. Phillip Pans work is must read for all Westerners and should be made available to our Chinese firends, too.

September 1, 2008 @ 4:31 am | Comment

Still, you can’t expect rich middle class kids to really ‘rebel’ and ‘revolt’ do you? I know I talk a lot of crap but to really go on the street and fight the government using violent means?

There is a way to revolt without any violence. It may not work in China, but it has worked well in many other areas. It’s called “voting.” (And no, I am not a n advocate of imposing Western-style democracy on China.)

September 1, 2008 @ 7:30 am | Comment

Great review, Richard.

September 1, 2008 @ 8:15 am | Comment

Chinese dissidents’ stories have nothing to do with Mao, nor soul, nor any ideological frames. It’s simply a reflection of the fatal flaw of chinese current political/governing architecture — all the answerings go up, nobody answers to the ppl in the bottom. CCP knows that, that’s why they are trying to promote “elections at grassroot level”, 基层选举. Their hope is that so local officials would be put under some kinda leash yet the elections wont go all way up to threaten their central power. It’s clever but whether it can work I dont know. The point is China is not an alien, it’s a semi broken car, you cant fix an alien wihtout killing it, but you can fix a car, the way you do is to present the facts, pinpoint the problems, stiring up emotions can not help on a reform, unless you want to see a bloody revolution.

September 1, 2008 @ 8:54 am | Comment

Coldblood, i brought up Mao’s name in reference to the girl who was arrested for her courageous writings during the Let a 100 Flowers Bloom tragedy, which has everything – absolutely everything – to do with Mao.

In terms of staying power and in terms of dealing effectively with enemies, real or perceived, I would say the comparison with Alien is more accurate than with a broken car. A semi-broken car cannot crush anything in its path the way Alien can. Mainly agree about using facts to encourage change. Stirring up emotions is also valid – it was stirred emotions that led to China overhauling its evil vagrancy/hukou laws. There is definitely a time for people to have their emotions stirred (think Sichuan earthquake) so they take positive action. There is emotional awareness and then there’s emotional manipulation. I’m a believer in the former, backed by facts.

September 1, 2008 @ 9:22 am | Comment


While, the local political structure certainly wields the power that affects people on a day to day basis, it is the top down complicity of the entire rotten CCP organization that has to be eliminated. There is no partial or gradual fix to the cancer it has become on the Chinese people. Bloody revolution, you say? It has been the only answer humans have been able to come up with (with a few exceptions: East Germany, Poland, and a few other eastern European countries). I think that a some well placed economic support in Xingjian to deploy arms to the rural inhabitants of China will take care of the despots once and for all. I wouldn’t mind seeing the likes of Chen Lihua being dragged into the street and shot like the dog she is. Or Hu, or Jeng or Wen. Can you imagine the purge needed to rid the country of 80 million strong party members and their wealthy patrons? I can. I wish I could find a way to fund it and organize it. I would start today.

September 1, 2008 @ 9:30 am | Comment

Thanks for the reference. I’ll read a copy of the book.

Why do you suppose that there are always some people who have an inner, burning need to tell the truth?

Other people sometimes view such people as queer, if not just stupid. How do we account for such people?

September 1, 2008 @ 11:05 am | Comment

Richard, Well said!

September 1, 2008 @ 11:13 am | Comment

If the Alien is the perfect organism, then isn’t there a moral imperative to “blow the ship”, i.e., deconstruct globalism?

September 1, 2008 @ 11:26 am | Comment

Sounds a lot like “Will the boat sink the water?”. A book that makes you angrier/sadder with every page turn. Can’t wait to pick up a copy next time I’m in Taiwan. Thanks for the review!

September 1, 2008 @ 2:02 pm | Comment

Oriental View, what do you mean deconstruct globalism? The party can and did exist without globalization. If anything, the globalization might be the best way to give the Chinese people the power to stop the CCP.

The best way imo is to equip the ship’s doors with ID verification. If you have morals (democracy), then the door opens. If no moral values, the door remains shut. No opportunities to expand, grow and hunt. That’s the way to contain the alien. The victims of the alien are free to roam the ship to survive, while the alien must stay locked in a room.

The current international system already has doors like this. Take a look at Burma and North Korea. They aren’t able to grow larger and feed on more people. Even though these doors are imperfect, they can and should be strengthened.

Why not slap travel and business restriction on members of the party, like we do with Burma?

“We’re all in strung out shape, but stay frosty, and alert. We can’t afford to let one of those bastards in here.”

September 1, 2008 @ 2:06 pm | Comment

Oriental View, it’s very hard to explain heroism. Why does someone throw himself in front of a car to push someone else out of its way? Throughout the book you will keep asking yourself that question: Why did they do it, knowing they could not win? I don’t know if I could have done it were I in an analogous situation. Yet the world is full of stories of heroes, and while cruelty and inhumanity seem to be facets of human nature, maybe so too is the urge to help others and expose evil, to the point of putting their lives ahead of your own.

September 1, 2008 @ 2:07 pm | Comment

Byronias, who are we to create a democracy litmus test? What if other nations apply a “Do you torture?” litmus test?

September 1, 2008 @ 2:09 pm | Comment

>>Why not slap travel and business restriction on members of the party, like we do with Burma?

In my experience, using party membership as some sort of indicator of political views is completely worthless. Some of the most “liberal” (well, right-wing in a Chinese context) Chinese I know are party members, while I know a few people who hate the CCP because it isn’t left-wing and reactionary enough — kind of like right-wing American wingnuts who think the real problem with Bush is that he is a “liberal” who hasn’t started nearly enough wars.

September 1, 2008 @ 2:36 pm | Comment

I dont buy any emotional craps when it comes to governing a country, the single most crucial struggle in human society is Goverment v People. When you have a developed nation, you need strong people v weak government, because people can take care of themselves for most of the parts; when you have a developing nation, you need a strong government v weak people, because you want to get things done. China is a developing country, I dont mind seeing the government continue to have the stronger hand for a while. Everything comes with a price tag, some people may get thrown under the bus along the way, we need herotic dissidents to save as many of them as possible, but the bus has to keep going.

Back to your Alien comparison, on the contrarory it’s the CCP keeps a country with 1.3 billion ppl from crushing things on its path, it’s the CCP keeps the lid on the jar which has this nationalistic monster inside. I’m supprised very few western people see this, you think if there’s a general election today Chinese would elect a government friendly to the west? Saw how Koreans riot on the streets over American beef? some anti-west polulist will turn China into another Russia before you blink ur eyes, be careful of what you wish for.

The car runs ok, AC doesnt work, oil leaks all over the place, you fix it, you dont blow it, coz you may go out in flames with it.

September 1, 2008 @ 3:00 pm | Comment

Here’s the deal, you have 3 things out there: getting rid of CCP once and for all; democracy overnight; bloody revolution. As a chinese allow me to generalise the reality on this land regarding these 3 things, from 2 perspectives, lower classes and middle classes. For lower classes, dont know about democracy whatsoever, dont mind a bloody revolution if the opportunity is ripe, dont care about CCP one way or the other as long as they get paid better. For middle classes, suspicious of democracy will tear the country apart, no-no to revolution, hate but need CCP to keep getting paid well.

Now that’s the dilemma of the Chinese, neither clearly wants democracy overnight, one may want a revolution the other clearly rejects it, neither clearly wants to get rid of CCP overnight. The only thing in common is everybody just wants to get paid. It’s as simple as that, so what you gonna do?

I wonder in Pan’s book there’s anything remotely close to a solution/plan/strategy proposed? Didnt think so. All I know is any changes have to come from CCP until there’s another clearly reliable alternative presents itself. In a project involves 1.3 billion ppl you simply can not take out the coordinator and hope for the best. You can keep pushing, I solute these dissidents I wish there are more of them, they are the hopes and inspirations but they cant close the deal, the Gorbachev has to come within CCP.

September 1, 2008 @ 3:25 pm | Comment

>>it’s the CCP keeps the lid on the jar which has this nationalistic monster inside.

Yes and no. Yes, the average Chinese (esp. under 30) is even more nationalist than the CCP. No, the CCP itself helped to create the monster in the jar and often pokes it to get it riled up.

I agree, though, that if China had a democracy tomorrow, it would be even more hostile to the West and even more nationalist than it is already. Actually, if China had a democracy tomorrow, they would probably vote in another Mao within a month and beg him to get rid of democracy. Seems like something similar happened in a place called Russia.

If I only worried about what was in the interest of the West (and the US in particular), I would hope for another Cultural Revolution in China. I would hope that China would return to Marxism and Maoism. This is what is so funny about the idea that Western calls for democracy in China are part of a CIA plot to “keep China down.” If anyone wants to keep China down, the last thing they would want is democracy and capitalism in China — those actually work.

Anyway, “luckily” for the West and unluckily for the Chinese people, there is no threat of democracy breaking out there anytime soon.

September 1, 2008 @ 3:49 pm | Comment

Coldblod: I wonder in Pan’s book there’s anything remotely close to a solution/plan/strategy proposed? Didnt think so.

Did you read the book? Didn’t think so.

When you read a history book about Stalin’s gulag or about the TSM or the SARS cover-up, you are not reading a how-to manual with a blueprint for the future, at least not usually. That isn’t what this book is. If he did offer a strategy, you’d be screaming that Americans have no right to interfere and tell China how they think they should run their country. Pan is not a policy adviser, he is a reporter.

This book is historical, not theoretical.

This book is not about bringing democracy to China. It is about how everyday people have their lives destroyed by the rich and corrupt state because their real estate is in the wrong place, or because they walked out the door and forgot to carry their ID card, or because they responded to the government’s pleas for criticism. It is not a diatribe on how China should be governed. It’s simply about what is, and why it is next to impossible to affect meaningful change except at the slowest conceivable pace.

We all know how everyone “wants to get paid,” coldblood, so please don’t think you are enlightening us.The question is, can you not have getting paid without the repression and bloodshed? Does it have to be a trade-off? There are societies where the people can compete and get rich and focus on what they choose without being terrorized, having their homes seized and finding their child murdered for forgetting his ID card.

There’s a popular in-bred notion (which you echo) that Chinese people don’t worry about human rights and freedom and those things, as long as they can make money. Now, there’s some truth to that, but not as much as everyone thinks. And that’s why you need to read this book – to see that to millions of Chinese their government is not so benevolent or magnanimous; they are exploited and even killed; some have horror stories to tell, and are beaten by thugs as they travel to present their petitions. All is not harmony and joy. Things are getting better, and China today is a million times better than under Mao. But in some ways it’s the same or worse, especially for those who are disenfranchised.A lot of Chinese are waiting anxiously for the collapse of the CCP (I don’t think they will live to see it).

I see that over at Asia Sentinel Alice Poon has put up her own review. She starts by saying how wonderful, how impressive the Olympic Games were despite the little scandalettes (lip synching, underage gymnasts).

Yet, after reading Pan’s book, that delightful and proud feeling was dimmed by sadness and worries about this same nation.

Expression of feelings aside, the purpose of this post is to review the book, which, if nothing else, has shone some light (for my ignorant self anyway) on the otherwise inscrutable and nebulous recent history as well as on some crucial contemporary issues of mainland China.

There are perhaps two resounding messages that the author tries to convey: firstly that “those counting on the capitalists to lead the charge for democratization in China are likely to be disappointed”, and secondly, that the society’s struggle for social justice and civic liberties is often futile, although passionate individuals with a conscience and a sense of justice are ceaselessly trying against all odds to attain those.

Pan is telling us we must all expect many more years of frustration and pain, but that thanks to “the little people” most of us have never heard of there are signs of promise. Maybe that is his strategy and solution: keep chipping away at the cancer.

Anway Coldblood, looking at other pearls of wisdom in your comments I see I am not going to get anywhere with you. For example,

it’s the CCP keeps a country with 1.3 billion ppl from crushing things on its path, it’s the CCP keeps the lid on the jar which has this nationalistic monster inside.

Where did this “nationalistic monster” come from? Actually, I think you may be a fascist (not that there’s anything wqrong with that), seeing the state as the force that keeps the people in line. Funny how in countries where we don’t have this police-state apparatus people do just fine keeping their own emotions in check, with little or no help from the government. The unhappy truth is this nationalism was cultivated and fostered by the government for very specific reasons. You can almost pinpoint the day it started in 1992. The state encourages it when it’s to their advantage, then squelches it when it states to make them look bad. You don’t get it – you are a product of manipulation and patriotic slogans. And you know what? I truly respect you for having the courage to come in here and comment. It doesn’t matter that you’re wrong on just about everything and a slogan machine.

China is a developing country, I dont mind seeing the government continue to have the stronger hand for a while. Everything comes with a price tag, some people may get thrown under the bus along the way, we need herotic dissidents to save as many of them as possible, but the bus has to keep going.

One slogan after another, As the Great Helmsman himself used to say, “You can’t make an omlette without breaking a few eggs.” Still, thanks for trying to talk these things out over here, and let me know if you’re in Beijing – I can lend you a copy of this great book. Then you can talk about it with authority.

September 1, 2008 @ 4:20 pm | Comment

I really want to read this book. And Richard, while I agree with your critique of much of Coldblood’s comments, I agree that he/she has a point about the “nationalistic monster” that is kept somewhat bottled up by the CCP. The problem is, the CCP used nationalism as a substitute for Maoist ideology and Communist ideology in general. This combined with an official state history drilled into kids in school emphasizing grievances against foreign powers in the contest of a China that is “rising” and taking its rightful place at the table of great nations has the potential to be particularly toxic if young peoples’ expectations of prosperity and power are not met.

That’s the other thing about creating a middle class: you create middle class expectations.

September 1, 2008 @ 5:19 pm | Comment

I should have said, “emphasizing grievances against foreign powers and One Hundred Years of Humiliation in the context of a China that is rising…”

But I’m sure y’all knew what I meant.

September 1, 2008 @ 5:21 pm | Comment

Hi Lisa. Want to make sure I understand – do you think the CCP is doing a good thing by “keeping the lid” on their people’s nationalism? I see it (the nationalism) as a useful tool for deflecting attention away from their shortcomings, and one of the most brazen examples of CCP cynicism.

Good to see you back – let us know if/when you’ll be in town. I may have some more time on my hands in the weeks ahead.

September 1, 2008 @ 5:39 pm | Comment

I agree with ColdBlooded, another revolution for China at the moment would be a disaster. Historically, most revolutions have been failures in terms of improving the lives of ordinary people. Who would replace the CCP? To beat them they would need to be another ruthless, authoritarian organization. The success the CCP has had in raising living standards is through incremental change, not radical reform.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be prepared- when justified- to criticise the CCP, or that we should buy the line that a certain amount of abuse is acceptable as long as people’s living standards are rising. Chinese people deserve human rights as well as prosperity, is the CCP not capable of improving both at the same time?

September 1, 2008 @ 6:29 pm | Comment

Peter, we don’t disagree about there being no one to fill the void if the CCP folds. It’s impossible – they have brilliantly stacked the deck so they can rule for a long time to come, possibly forever. That is why I use the “perfect organism” analogy. And I have never, ever argued for revolution. I have argued, however, that it wasn’t necessary to kill all those people on June 4.

The success the CCP has had in raising living standards is through incremental change, not radical reform.

Not sure if I entirely agree. The entrepreneuring manufacturers who took a mile when the CCP gave them an inch made incredibly rapid changes, 180-degree changes, that then spread like wildfire. The switch from communism to capitalism was nearly overnight, and probably the single most radical widespread economic transformation in the history of mankind. Thus it’s dubbed the “economic miracle.” Anyone who had visited Beijing in 1976 and then was to visit again a mere 10 years later would agree, this was the most radical, most complete, most dramatic transformation in all history.

Totally agree with your last paragraph, thanks.

September 1, 2008 @ 6:40 pm | Comment


We are the free people that choose our leaders and our foreign policy. We should put pressure on other governments to let their people do the same. Why not have a litmus test? We make our government do it, why shouldn’t we expect the same of other countries too? Especially governments that are essentially a gang, not chosen by their people.

A torture litmus test is exactly what America needs. Put Bush and his administration under pressure for violating human rights.

September 1, 2008 @ 10:24 pm | Comment

Well, the issue is, who decides what the litmus test should be, and on what terms? All governments have done evil, which is why we always need a free press and rule of law. Who is so pure that he can dictate the terms to others? I am totally in favor of pressure to create change. But once we have litmus tests… I mean, to many, a rational litmus test might be whether women of a certain country have the freedom to choose an abortion, or whether that country allows gay marriage, or just about anything else you can think of. Knowing human nature, I am always cautious about dictating terms of morality. And America right now is in no position to dictate morality to anybody.

September 1, 2008 @ 10:47 pm | Comment

Richard, using nationalism as a substitute for Maoism is a risky game that the CCP has been playing and one that can be difficult to control – see the anti-Japanese protests of a year back (that was only a year ago, right?). IMO the CCP has been both encouraging it and trying to control it (keep the lid on). I think the larger point is that a strongly nationalistic country without that element of control might be more problematic for the rest of the world than the current situation. I may not like certain elements of the CCP’s foreign policy (shoring up Sudan and Zimbabwe’s current regimes, for example), but it is very hard to argue that today’s China is an expansionist imperialist power at its core.

But as you imply above, it’s up to the Chinese people to determine what sort of country they will have. I hope for the best.

You could do worse than base a nation on a free press and a consistent rule of law, however. Surely if the US manages to pull back from the brink of the immoral stupidity of the last 8 years, it will be because of this. Not that I’m super-confident at this point, but…

September 2, 2008 @ 3:02 am | Comment

And as a p.s. – I doubt that I will be back in Beijing this year, but look for me for an extended stay next year (six months or so). I can’t say it’s definite because so much is in flux right now, but those are my plans.

September 2, 2008 @ 3:03 am | Comment

lisa, do you think that Chinese people will determine their country’s political path in the near future? There is the argument, right or wrong, that although pressure might come from outside, it is completely reliant on the central government changing things.

September 2, 2008 @ 6:03 am | Comment

Peter, we don’t disagree about there being no one to fill the void if the CCP folds. It’s impossible – they have brilliantly stacked the deck so they can rule for a long time to come, possibly forever. That is why I use the “perfect organism” analogy. And I have never, ever argued for revolution. I have argued, however, that it wasn’t necessary to kill all those people on June 4.

It was people like Not_A_Sinophile I was arguing against, who was talking about funding revolutions. I guess he probably knows that the CIA already tried that, in Tibet?

What I would like to see is a grass roots movement of many people trying to improve one small thing at a time, without trying to overturn the existing social order or settle scores.
The word “movement” doesn’t really describe what I’m talking about, because it implies leadership and a programme.

As for June 4, I agree. The leaders of the CCP aren’t known for imagination or thinking outside the box. When faced with a crisis, they will revert to type. Deng Xiaoping and the others couldn’t think of a response that didn’t involve killing people (at least not one they were confident would work), that doesn’t mean that no other response to 1989 was possible.

Not sure if I entirely agree. The entrepreneuring manufacturers who took a mile when the CCP gave them an inch made incredibly rapid changes, 180-degree changes, that then spread like wildfire. The switch from communism to capitalism was nearly overnight, and probably the single most radical widespread economic transformation in the history of mankind.

As I understand it, they were more cautious than that. They didn’t dismantle the planned economy all at once, they set up free market enclaves in places like Shenzhen and ran them experimentally. Once they knew what worked and what didn’t they used that experience to conduct the economic reforms that we all know about.

Of course it wouldn’t have happened without the entrepreneurial spirit of the people.

September 2, 2008 @ 7:13 am | Comment

Chinese people deserve human rights as well as prosperity, is the CCP not capable of improving both at the same time?

Given the way “human rights” has been used as a stick to bash China with, I wonder whether it’s actually counterproductive to keep talking about it. Perhaps I should have expressed myself a different way?

As well as prosperity, Chinese people deserve not to be bullied.

Isn’t that the essence of human rights?

September 2, 2008 @ 8:22 am | Comment

Now, see, Peter, I can’t really agree with you here. Just how has “human rights used as a stick to bash China with” actually affected the lives of Chinese people? What real injuries have been caused by Western criticisms of China’s human rights policies? Who in China has been harmed by this, in a real sense? Deprived of their lives, their property, wounded in some tangible way? Let’s skip past the “100 Years of Humiliation” and look at the actual impact of such “bullying”?

Blows to national pride don’t count.

September 2, 2008 @ 11:31 am | Comment

Bravo, Lisa. And we see eye-to-eye on how China “keeps the lid on nationalism” (earlier comments).

Peter, I give the party not a single iota of credit for the economic expansion, miracle or whatever we should call it. As I said, it happened when they weren’t looking and then they grabbed full credit for it (which is understandable). Meanwhile, they fattened their personal coffers immeasurably and corruption sky-rocketed. I do give them some credit for keeping the economy stable in recent years, reforming the banking system and at least so far keeping things from seriously over-heating. I also give them credit for ruthless deals that ensure the country gets the resources it needs. But the only thing I give them credit for in regard to the economic explosion is getting out of the way of the world’s most capitalistic people. When you think of where China might be had Mao never come to power…

About the grass-roots movement and changing things one small step at time: read Pan’s book. That is what it is about. But the hell and the misery these people go through will scare you shitless. Did you click on the last link in the post we’re commenting on, also by Pan? About a few college students who tried to start a grass-roots movement to study democracy? Please read it, and you will see how some grass-roots movements in China actually fare. There are increasing signs of tolerance, but as soon as these movements are perceived as threat, that’s it – the Alien obliterates them.

September 2, 2008 @ 11:59 am | Comment

Great book review. I think compare today’s China to China in the early 80’s, lots of progress has been made as far as personal liberty, of course it’s not as in the west, but China hasn’t been stuck at the same spot for the last 10 years also. I wonder what would have happened if Tiennaman Square riot had turned out differently.

September 2, 2008 @ 12:40 pm | Comment

US-China cooperation: What do you get when you cross an Alien with JR Ewing and a bunch of oil executives? Don’t wait for the answer to jump out of your chest!

September 2, 2008 @ 12:52 pm | Comment

@otherlisa: I do think that some of the China bashers (real China bashers, ie motivated by a desire to attack China politically rather than by a desire to see things improve for Chinese people) use human rights as a stick. This is counterproductive because Chinese people get angry and stop listening, and it also tars all human rights activitsts with the same brush.

As well as this, “human rights” has become a somewhat politicised phrase associated with Western-style parliamentary democracy and other things. Maybe it’s better to not always use a term loaded with so much baggage. To me, human rights is about not being bullied. I just thought, sometimes it might be better to just say that. Even the most anti-Western fen qing can agree with me that Chinese people don’t deserve to be pushed around, surely? Although it seems they are prepared to make a distinction between being bullied by foreigners and bullied by their fellow countrymen.

I agree with you, even when the term is misused by the China bashers it doesn’t do China any real harm. The risk is that it will end up a meaningless phrase that people just ignore.

Richard, I know you don’t give the CCP credit for China’s economy. I sort of agree- any conservative will tell you that government’s don’t create wealth, entrepreneurs do. But governments can create the conditions for entrepreneurship to flourish. China’s government did (mostly by, as you say, getting out of the way) – but doing it in such a way that the whole political system, rotten as much of it is, didn’t fall to pieces. That can’t have been easy.

Of course it would have been better if China could have avoided experimenting with Communism, then there would have been no need for economic reform in the first place. I don’t think the CCP was essential to China’s modernization. Chinese entrepreneurs were already starting to create a modern economy in the 1930s. Colonialism was doomed by the end of WW2, I don’t think it could have persisted in China longer than it did in India or Africa. So yes I agree that China would have been better off if Mao had not come to power. Perhaps it would have reached where it is now, 20 years ago.

September 2, 2008 @ 1:07 pm | Comment

The Alien and Chinese food:

September 2, 2008 @ 1:24 pm | Comment

Could China developed into Taiwan’s political system in time? If the middle class continues to grow?

September 2, 2008 @ 2:02 pm | Comment

Power attracts too often not the best of mankind and the political system of China neglects this mostly. Its structure assumes that most officials are gentlemen. And the fact that there are good people in the CCP who are sincere, work hard and really mean to do good is one big example of the fact that you can put the best people with the best intentions in a bad environment and what you get are to often horrible results.

What so many of the apologists of the party (and btw many who cherish democracy as if it was a gift from god and not just a political systems with flaws any human institution has) don’t seem to understand is that its not working to just replace the bad by the good guys. The architecture of the institution, the constraints and incentives it poses are most important.

I think there is still an echo of the Confucian tradition and its emphasis on rule by virtue and by gentlemen in today’s China when it comes to treating officials and ideas about political institutions. There is still a lot of truth in the words Lin Yutang wrote 80 years ago:

“The fact that so many people persist in talking of moral reforms as solution for political evils is a sign of the puerility of their thinking and their inability to grasp the political problems as political problems. They should see that we have been talking moral platitudes continuously for the last towthousnad years without improving the country morally or giving it a cleaner and better government. They should see that, if moralizations would do any good, China should be a paradise of saints and angels today.”

You still hear a lot of this moralizing in today’s China.

People in a one party system where officials have the power to overrule any law and where feedback and correcting mechanisms as a free press also can easily be manipulated can only hope that there will be good guys at the top. But even if there are, which is already difficult as power seems to have the tendency to attract not the most noble of individuals, the system itself makes it very hard for the individual to be and do good as the crux is which constraints and incentives an institution poses. Unfortunately the current system in China is not rewarding the ones with the good intentions but the ones with the worst.

September 2, 2008 @ 2:06 pm | Comment

Shulan wrote: “Unfortunately the current system in China is not rewarding the ones with the good intentions but the ones with the worst.”

Do you mean that it rewards just the bad Chinese, or do you also include all foreigners, or just “bad” foreigners?

September 2, 2008 @ 2:28 pm | Comment

I think I see what you are saying, Peter. To me, bullying implies an action that has a real negative impact on people. I agree that no one likes to be lectured to (and I’d add that I find any lectures about human rights from George Bush to be absurd and insulting under the circumstances). But sanctimonious lectures are more of an annoyance. Real bullying implies real harm done to someone.

But I also agree that browbeating people with moral judgments can be really counterproductive, because as you said, it makes people defensive and they stop listening.

And I’d agree that the CCP has done some things right in terms of managing the economy.

@Shulan, this: The architecture of the institution, the constraints and incentives it poses are most important I think is exactly right. It’s why in spite of the flaws of the American system and the abuses throughout our history (and particularly in the last 8 years), I think there are some good things to model – the Constitution, the separation of powers and importance of rule of law and a free, independent press – these are a very sturdy and intelligently designed architecture.

September 2, 2008 @ 2:44 pm | Comment

I got some good news and some bad news.

The good news is that its economy is developing rapidly and presents a very important market for your goods.

The bad news is…on second thought…there is no bad news.

September 2, 2008 @ 2:48 pm | Comment

@ Oriental View

Surley this also counts for foreigners. But much less as they seldomly hold official position as far as I know. And thats the crucial part of the equation.

September 2, 2008 @ 2:53 pm | Comment


that’s my point. You can say a lot bad things about democratic systems. But they ackanowledge that people are not angels, especially politicians. Unfortunately this easay lesson from history is also forgotten too often in democratic systems.

September 2, 2008 @ 3:06 pm | Comment

Shulan, that is exactly right. I like your larger point, that Confucianism, which in many ways is a noble philosophy, assumes a nobility of spirit among the rulers and the ruled in order for the system to work.

Constitutional democracies really are not based on those assumptions, by and large, though they do make the assumption that citizens are capable of participating in the democratic process. But there are safeguards built in, that for example protect the rights of minorities in a system where majority rule determines outcomes.

That’s how things should work, in any case. Technology and turbo-capitalism have switched things up so dramatically that the foundations have been undermined, IMO. I particularly worry about an independent press in the age of media consolidation, corporate gutting of newspapers and this absurd notion that internet commentators can somehow do the work of investigative journalists.

September 2, 2008 @ 3:23 pm | Comment

Phillip Pan’s “Out Of Mao’s Shadow” Is One Great Book….

“If you want to make an omelet, you must be willing to break a few eggs.” Vladmir Lenin “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely..” Lord Acton Phillip Pan, former Washington Post Beijing bureau chief has written a great book …

September 2, 2008 @ 3:30 pm | Trackback

@ 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, 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


Thanks for the plug and link. Appreciate it.


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:

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


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


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


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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