Philip Pan, in a discussion of his book, says criticism and the public pressure it generates is the most effective tool we have.
[I]n the long-run, I am an optimist. I do believe that individuals can bring about real change in China — because they already have. People in the book like Jiang Yanyong, the elderly surgeon who forced the government to end the SARS cover-up, and Cheng Yizhong, the newspaper editor who led the crusade that led to the abolishment of the shourong detention system, come to mind. But it’s even broader than that. People in China today enjoy much more freedom and prosperity than they did three decades ago. The party likes to take credit for this, but I believe these improvements have come despite the authoritarian system, not because of it. They’ve come because of individuals who have fought for them, and because the party has retreated in the face of such pressure.
Of course, the two names 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, which you should read in full, Pan says he doesn’t quite see why people find the book so saddening. I urge him to reread his chapter about the totally innocent young lady writing her last words in her own blood from her prison cell, a victim of the 100 Flowers tragedy, and the sufferings of the man who tried to bring her story to light. I know, there are baby steps of hope, but their impact is still too fragile and tenuous to be a source of great optimism.
I like Pan’s point about the CCP taking credit for the reforms that came about only after the CCP failed in its fight against them. It’s important to remember as the CCP continues to mythologize its achievements.
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.