Book Reviews - Two Books, One Message

While one book states the obvious case of brazen power abuse and corruption at local government levels and oppression of the underclass by those in power, the other trace the roots of deep-seated distrust amongst Chinese people, especially between those with power and those without, back to the days of the Cultural Revolution, the atrocities of which left a permanent scar on their souls and sadly, rather than strengthening their character and sense of justice, made many extremely selfish and heartless.

“The Doctor Who Was Followed By Ghosts” by Dr. Li Qunying and Louis Han (Li’s youngest son), published in 2007, is a personal account of a Communist doctor’s struggles through the Anti-Japanese War, the Civil War, Korean War, the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Through her poignant personal memoir, the reader gets a vivid feeling of the horrendous physical and emotional sufferings, including ugly personal betrayals, that the Chinese society at large had to go through in the most tumultuous era of China’s history. Apart from telling her own life story and family saga, Dr. Li goes on a diatribe against the hideous deeds of the Communist Party during the Mao reign, and tells in particular the story of how her husband suffered when the Party trumped up accusations against him of embezzlement and of coming from a counter-revolutionary background.

The following passages are excerpts from the book:-

“This is the story of my ill-fated life and struggles through the Anti-Japanese War, Civil War, Korean War, the famine of the early sixties and numerous political movements, including the notorious Cultural Revolution. The Great Leap Forward took away my son, Bingbing’s life, and the Cultural Revolution took a heavy toll on my husband Han Wende’s health, and consequently led to his death before the age of sixty. Besides our personal misfortunes, I also witnessed the suffering of the peasants, who were the majority of the population at the grassroots level and whose stories have rarely been told.”

“When it comes to impact on the global economy, China is one of the most talked about countries today. However, the peasants are left behind by this seemingly booming economy and still can’t afford to see doctors. Endemic corruption has spread through every level of society, from government officials who claim to be selfless ‘public servants of the people’, to doctors who practice ‘humanitarianism’. Many doctors become corrupt, receiving extravagant commissions from prescribing unnecessary drugs or demanding gifts from patients. Fake medicine produced by people bent on profit is prevalent and threatens public health.”

“The damage of the Cultural Revolution and its aftermath was unprecedented. Some compared it to the French Revolution in terms of the chaos, blood and destruction. Everyone was in a constant state of fear, anxiety and paranoia. Victimizers one day turned into victims the next and vice versa. The full history, including the death toll of the Cultural Revolution, is still far from known. Many people were ‘struggled’ to death, murdered, driven to suicide, exiled, or went mysteriously missing.”

The other book, “Will the Boat Sink the Water?” by Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao, is the 2006 English rendition (translated by Zhu Hong) of the original Chinese version titled “Life of Chinese Peasants” published in 2003. This hugely popular book and the circumstance surrounding its publication and banning is described in detail in Philip Pan’s “Out of Mao’s Shadow” and has been extensively reviewed in the Western media since publication. The book is a work of reportage by two journalists who are residents of a village in Anhui Province, one of the poorest provinces in China. In four different investigative reports they account in detail how self-serving local party cadres and local governments treat peasants like dirt and how the latter are oppressed and ruled by brutality and terror by the former.

This passage best sums up the destitute position peasants are in, and it also implicitly condemns a political system that emphasizes “rule by individuals” rather than “rule by law” and which is devoid of accountability and a check-and-balance mechanism, thus encouraging endemic power abuse and brazen corruption:-

“The sheer number of Chinese peasants could make them overwhelming, but they are scattered, and have no organizational resources to counter oppression. The rural cadres, on the other hand, are highly organized; they are the legal representatives of state power in the countryside. If this body of representatives puts aside the will of the Central Government, the highest authority, which has delegated power to them, and appropriates the organizational resources of the state for their own interests, the consequences will be disastrous.”