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.


China Idiocy Alert

Rick Ruffin, satirist

Rick Ruffin, satirist

This may well take the cake. I mean, a skyscraper cake with a whole jar of maraschino cherries on top and enough Cool Whip to swim in. What can one say?

History has dealt China a dirty hand. It had famine, it had Mongol invasions, it had British colonization and the Opium War. It had Japanese invasion and the Nanjing Massacre. It is no stranger to atrocity. And it never had enough land. Not good land, anyhow. Fate dealt it the Gobi Desert.

In spite of these limitations, Mao Tse-tung managed to consolidate the country, to kick out the European and Japanese colonizers, to instill a one child policy (which India has yet to do), and to embark on the Great Leap Forward. And what a leap it has been.

Yikes. Could someone in this modern world actually look with a straight face at the Great Leap Backwards and praise it? Could someone actually say, without irony, that Mao’s leadership was so positive it helped balance the “dirty hand” China had been dealt? Could they? (I guess it becomes slightly more believable when the same person claims it was Mao who implemented China’s one-child policy, which began in 1979. I was always of the impression Mao was quite dead by then.)

This is via the Marmot, who caustically remarks,

Classic, Rick. Just classic. As my good friend Hamel asks in the KT comment section, this is satire, right?

Would that it were so.


Xinhua’s creative editors

Absolutely, totally priceless. BWC should post more often. Thank god for people who have the patience and fortitude to do work like this.


Friedman reports from the Closing Ceremony

Actually a less tedious read than I would have expected. While reflecting on changes in the world since 911, he underscores a point I’ve believed in for a long time: no matter how atrocious the CCP is – and I find them more atrocious now than ever, or at least since the Gang of Four were put down – and no matter how strong America is despite nearly 8 years of slow bleeding under Bush, there’s little doubt that China is rising as America sinks. Now, that may not be forever; Friedman thinks we now have a window to turn that around, and I sure hope he’s right. But the facts speak for themselves, and Friedman lays them out adequately.

As I sat in my seat at the Bird’s Nest, watching thousands of Chinese dancers, drummers, singers and acrobats on stilts perform their magic at the closing ceremony, I couldn’t help but reflect on how China and America have spent the last seven years: China has been preparing for the Olympics; we’ve been preparing for Al Qaeda. They’ve been building better stadiums, subways, airports, roads and parks. And we’ve been building better metal detectors, armored Humvees and pilotless drones.

The difference is starting to show. Just compare arriving at La Guardia’s dumpy terminal in New York City and driving through the crumbling infrastructure into Manhattan with arriving at Shanghai’s sleek airport and taking the 220-mile-per-hour magnetic levitation train, which uses electromagnetic propulsion instead of steel wheels and tracks, to get to town in a blink.

Then ask yourself: Who is living in the third world country?

Yes, if you drive an hour out of Beijing, you meet the vast dirt-poor third world of China. But here’s what’s new: The rich parts of China, the modern parts of Beijing or Shanghai or Dalian, are now more state of the art than rich America. The buildings are architecturally more interesting, the wireless networks more sophisticated, the roads and trains more efficient and nicer. And, I repeat, they did not get all this by discovering oil. They got it by digging inside themselves.

I realize the differences: We were attacked on 9/11; they were not. We have real enemies; theirs are small and mostly domestic. We had to respond to 9/11 at least by eliminating the Al Qaeda base in Afghanistan and investing in tighter homeland security. They could avoid foreign entanglements. Trying to build democracy in Iraq, though, which I supported, was a war of choice and is unlikely to ever produce anything equal to its huge price tag.

But the first rule of holes is that when you’re in one, stop digging. When you see how much modern infrastructure has been built in China since 2001, under the banner of the Olympics, and you see how much infrastructure has been postponed in America since 2001, under the banner of the war on terrorism, it’s clear that the next seven years need to be devoted to nation-building in America.

Yes, I know – the Olympic Green is not China. For all the progress, many are more impoverished than ever. But the progress is nevertheless undeniable, and no one looking at China without Cold War-tinted spectacles can see that China is increasingly a power to be reckoned with as US influence wanes. (Whether this progress is sustainable is a whole different conversation. Still, it has proceeded uninterrupted for decades, something of a miracle in itself.)

In this respect, Mr. Hu, whom I both detest for his stranglehold on power and grudgingly and cautiously admire for his pragmatic ability to broker deals and get things done, has overshadowed Bush (not that that’s so hard to do) and turned traditional views on the balance of power on their head. No small achievement, so credit where due. A pity that a man who can reshape the political universe and move mountains can do nothing to restrain his corrupt officials from terrorizing their citizens and living in obscene and conspicuous wealth off the fat of the land.

And no, that is not “anti-China”; it is anti the plundering and brutalization and exploitation of Chinese people who deserve far better. More on that later when I review Philip Pan’s marvelous new book.


The Sydney Olympics faked it, too

A commenter in the thread below points to an article in the Syndey Morning Herald about how the Sydney Symphony mimed its way through the Opening Ceremony performance for the 2000 Games in their home city. And it’s more than just synching/miming:

Even worse, it admits the backing tape was recorded, in part, by its southern rival, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.

So the parallel with the China crooked teeth controversy intensifies. Not just faking it, but taking credit for what was the work of another.

I haven’t said much about this because of mixed feelings. I don’t like the practice of lip-synching because it’s deceptive – no matter how you parse it, you are fooling the viewers. So I understand the critics of Pavarotti and countless caught-lip-synching pop stars who felt they didn’t get what they paid for. At least what they heard was the artist him/herself, even if it was canned and piped in – if that’s any consolation.

It goes to a whole different level when you’re lip-synching and pretending to be the performer when you’re actually not. It’s not the end of the world and it doesn’t ruin the Opening Ceremonies of Sydney or Beijing. It just doesn’t look good, even when they have excellent excuses. It looks even worse when it appears the main factor influencing the decision is the real singer’s teeth. In Sydney, the excuse was lack of time to make a backup tape (or something like that). Whatever. It still looks deceptive, and certainly blows a big hole in the argument that “only China” would go to such lengths to cover up reality in the name of putting on a good show.

Let’s focus more on things that really matter instead of trying to make China look bad for what was a spectacular Opening Ceremony and a very well-hosted Games. There are plenty of other things to criticize China for.


Winding down: The Games trickle to a halt

Note: This is a blog post I wrote for another site, cross-posted here. I’ll share the link where it’s cross-posted once I know it myself. I wrote it yesterday afternoon as the rain was clearing up.

The crowds in the Main Press Center have started thinning and there seems to be a general sense of winding down. In just three days they’ll lock down the Olympic Green, which won’t open again until September when the Paralympic Games begin.

One thing I’ve learned about doing Olympic PR is just how top-loaded the 17-day event is. That is to say, there’s an unbelievable amount of effort expended in the days leading up to the Opening Ceremony and the week following. And then, the balloon rapidly deflates. You’ve prepared your materials, held your most important press conferences, run around like a chicken with its head cut off trying to coordinate a seemingly endless stream of interviews with the very highest executives and then…. I don’t want to say it dies, but it sure slows down and gets easier.

I’m on the Olympic Green now and it’s packed. Visitors are lined up at the partner pavilions in spite of the on-again-off-again rain, gray skies and a sudden drop in temperature. BOCOG finally opened up the Green a few days ago after restricting access to non-ticket holders. Last week a number of sponsors were wringing their hands. They’d spent millions of marketing dollars building elaborate pavilions, and for the first few days after the Opening Ceremony the Olympic Green was practically a ghost town. The sight of televised events in stadiums that were clearly full of empty seats added to a sense of gloom among some sponsors and of mystification among the media in town to cover the Games. Every seat was supposed to be sold out.

There’s a lot more people now and the stadiums seem fuller, perhaps in part because BOCOG came up with a creative solution to save face. In any case, things are looking pretty happy at the moment.

I think the lingering question in the weeks (years?) ahead will be whether China saw a good return on its investment of tens of billions of dollars in perhaps the most ambitious positioning/branding project of all time. It was always about PR, about China’s “coming out,” about presenting a new image of China to the world. Instead of a hopelessly polluted Beijing drowning in its own traffic, newcomers would see a manicured city with relatively clean air and fast-moving highways, cops on every corner, smiling volunteers who all speak English, even recycle bins (very conspicuous all over the Green) so people can carefully separate plastics and bio-degradables. Of course, every once in a while we got uncomfortable reminders that perhaps something less delightful lurked behind the carefully constructed montage of happiness and love, but compared to the glitz and the glamor and the gold these and other inconvenient truths received relatively short shrift.

From the spectacular Opening Ceremony to the efficient crowd management to the prettying up of the city, I’d give China very high marks indeed. At the same time, I’m sorry (though not surprised) they didn’t seize on this as an opportunity to show the world they had lightened up, that they could extend some magnanimity to protesters, give reporters truly free access to pursue their stories and open up their Internet 100 percent. Such simple gestures would tell the world that China is truly secure, that it truly believes in itself. When it make grandiose displays and then tries clumsily to stifle all criticism, it leaves itself open to charges of creating a Potemkin Village and raises questions of whether the smiles and air of celebration is real or mere window dressing, to be taken down shortly after the crowds go home. We’ll know soon enough. It’s easy enough to generate a big burst of publicity when you have unlimited resources to create The Greatest Show on Earth. The true PR value can only be measured when we see how sustainable the image of The New China proves to be.


Foreign Policy Magazine List: Top Ten Worst Chinese Laws

FP has put together their list of the top-10 worst laws on the books in the PRC.  Making the cut were Article 105 of the Criminal Law Code (subversion) and the Law on the Supervision by Standing Committees of the People’s Congress at All Levels, Article 3 (upholding the leadership of the CCP).

The full list and commentary can be found here.  Tell us what you think: Fair or unfair? Which laws should be scrapped, amended, or updated? Did FP interpret the laws correctly? Any on the books that didn’t make this list?


Liu Xiang pulls out of Olympics with injury

Breaking: A right achilles injury has prematurely ended Liu Xiang’s Beijing Olympic dreams.

Update by Richard: It’s being broadcast live right now on CCTV – his coach Sun Haiping is crying his eyes out explaining his injury. Everyone in my office is huddled around the TV set watching, visibly depressed. All that time training for this, four years, gone.


The gymnast controversy – China’s censors at work


The following article from the Globe and Mail gives an interesting point-of-view on the controversy over the age of some of China’s gold-medal winning women’s gymnastics team.

What is really creepy about what’s emerged from the reporting of the gymnastics controversy is how state-owned agencies have rewritten themselves online to “correct” the record – in other words, rewritten history and attempted to expunge any contrary evidence…

What the researchers also found was that in several instances, the stories which had reported the ‘wrong’ ages – either written before the girls in question made the Olympic team or before anyone realized age mattered so much, the numbers were simply mentions in results-driven stories about various competitions – have been corrected to reflect the ‘right’, or state-approved, ages.

It is unlikely that a smoking gun will be found to prove that one or more of the Chinese girls was under-age, even if there is a lot of circumstantial evidence. The international gymnastics body certainly doesn’t seem to care, given it didn’t even query China’s story, which probably shows the depth of its “commitment” to stop young girls being exploited (one should note that there is no requirement on daily calorie consumption as the G & M observes).

So it makes the reaction of the Chinese authorities idiotic for two reasons – one as it only gives further fuel to those who doubt the official line and two because it demonstrates clearly to the outside world the Chinese State’s ability and willingness to manipulate the media. People only somewhat (or not at all) interested in China may have heard stories about censorship before, but with the attention this incident has caused around the world the subsequent “cover-up” has clearly shattered any possible reputation for media independence China has been trying to create (and will make it even more difficult to build any such status in the future).

The article finishes:

So, in the end, it’s not the Chinese gymnasts or how old they are that counts; it’s the Chinese censors propagandists and professional liars, and what they’re doing, that tells the tale.

One very said thing is that I doubt the Chinese authorities even realise the damage they were causing to how China is seen around the world.


Chinese stoicism

It’s news to David Brooks. It’s okay for people to express their awe over things they experience for the first time, like Bush I and the bar code reader (a story that was much less newsworthy than made out to be). But Brooks seems to have literally no insight into what he’s writing about nor does he seem to have done any basic research. This piece has a”gee whiz” tone to it that I’d expect to read in a blog by someone visiting China for the first time, but not in a NYT column. At least he acknowledges that he’s completely ignorant.

Nevertheless, the story he tells and his interviews with Sichuan survivors are poignant, and I do tend to agree with his last sentence. The takeaway for me, aside from confirmation of my belief that Brooks should be demoted to beat reporter, is that even the Chinese who are vulnerable, even those with nothing, still look to the government with trusting eyes, knowing that their rulers are doing the right thing, wiling to sacrifice just about everything for what’s perceived as the common good. Thus, no bitterness over the lavish spending on Olympic pyrotechnics as they pick through the rubble of their demolished homes. These people see themselves as cogs in the vast machinery that keeps China functional. Lei Feng would be proud