Book Excerpts - Out of Mao's Shadow

The Peking Duck has pointed me to a new book titled “Out of Mao’s Shadow” by Philip Pan, correspondent and former Beijing bureau chief for The Washington Post.

There are two poignant stories told in the book. One is about Jiang Yanyong, a surgeon who was responsible for blowing the whistle on the 2003 SARS crisis. Jiang wrote and distributed copies of a long letter in February 2004 addressed to the CCP’s new leaders recounting what he saw with his own eyes during the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown and challenging them to admit their mistake, and eventually he was coerced into silence with the threat of not being allowed to go abroad to visit his daughter and grandson.

An article about this first story was adapted by the author from the book and published in The New Republic.

The other story is about a Xinhua News Agency cameraman Hu Jie who once served in the air force trying to finish a film documentary on the tragic life of the defiant poet Lin Zhao. She had written in blood while being imprisoned for her obstinate refusal to write a political confession during the 1957Anti-Rightist Campaign, which refusal ultimately cost her her life. Hu managed to retrieve from Lin’s lover Gan Cui a collection of 140,000 words of prison writings by Lin opposing party politics and describing her sufferings while in prison. But just like what happened to many other human rights activists, Hu’s actions brought harassment from political agents.

This story has also been adapted into an article which was published in The Washington Post.

This paragraph in Chapter One gives a good hint about the theme of the book:-

“Zhao’s death revealed a scar on the nation’s conscience. For years, people had tried to put Tiananmen behind them. Friends avoided the subject, and parents told their children not to ask about it. Many of those who had been part of the democracy movement threw themselves into making money, claiming they no longer cared about their country’s political fate. The pain of remembering, the guilt of giving up and moving on — for many, it was too much to bear, and looking away seemed the only way to live. But when Zhao died, people allowed themselves a moment to reflect again on those young men and women killed in 1989, and to ask whether their sacrifice had meant anything. They examined what had become of their country in the years since the massacre, and let themselves wonder what might have been had the students moderated their demands and prevailed. They considered the failings of the party’s marriage of authoritarian politics with capitalist economics. Yes, China had grown more prosperous and gained international prestige. But the boom had also left many behind, and the nation’s troubles were obvious to anyone willing to see: the stifling limits on political and religious freedoms, the abuse of power by privileged officials, the sweatshop conditions in the factories, the persistent poverty in the countryside, the degradation of the environment, the moral drift of a cynical society.”

In an online discussion, the author was asked whether there is hope that future leaders will realize the advantages of less repressive governing. To this he replied:-

“This is a great question. There has been an explosion in access to information -- in the state media as well as on the Internet -- and my impression is that young people in China today are quite aware of ‘alternate government styles’. Many know all about the American democratic system (and are sometimes quite critical of it). For example, many educated young Chinese are following the U.S. presidential campaign with interest. In addition, there's a lot of information available about democratic political systems in Europe and Asia -- especially in Taiwan!

Whether such knowledge leads to political change, though, is another question. Will the younger generation of government officials and bureaucrats eventually embrace a ‘less repressive’ political system? I think they certainly would be more open to it than their predecessors. On the other hand, they also might conclude -- as the current leadership apparently has -- that a one-party state is in their best interests. These young people have benefited from the one-party system, and even if they don't like its most repressive aspects, they may decide that they -- and their families -- are better off as members of the political elite, with all the benefits and privileges that implies.

Still, several of the characters in ‘Out of Mao's Shadow’ are of the younger generation, and they often surprised me with their willingness to take risks and push for change. They are lawyers, journalists, peasants, AIDS activists, environmentalists.....

Young people are a very important part of the nascent civil society emerging in China, and it will be very interesting to see what happens to this generation in the years ahead!”