Philip Pan, Picador Asia
Really one of the best books I’ve ever read, it’s an insightful narrative in which the facade of China’s great economic growth is pulled aside to reveal the courageous stories of those who dare to challenge the state on issues like corruption and repression. It is no secret that the Communist Party’s rule has been ambiguous, having created tremendous economic growth and raised living standards for many, whilst stifling personal freedoms and fostering significant abuse, corruption and inefficiency.
This has led to, as the subtitle says, a struggle for the soul of a new China, one that involves a wide cross-section of society from lawyers to factory workers to peasants.
Starting off with the funeral of Zhang Ziyang, the much-admired Premier whose sympathy for the Tiananmen students led to his downfall, for whom thousands brave official censure and punishment to pay their respects, the book is divided into three compelling parts. The first is about people trying to uncover details of past tragedies like the Cultural Revolution and the less-famous Anti-rightists campaign. The second describes how the party has kept control as well as victims of China’s economic boom. The third focuses on people fighting injustices such as the weiquan (rights defense) lawyers.
While many of these injustices like the initial SARS outbreak coverup and rampant rural corruption are not unknown, Pan’s profiles reveals how stunningly widespread and systematic these problems are. The struggles written in the book are not merely personal battles but have wider ramifications for society. The editor-in-chief of China’s most well-known newspaper- Southern Metropolis Daily, pushes the limits as far as he can in exposing government wrongs, which he deems necessary for progress of society. The murder of a university graduate by police in a shourong station, where undesirables are detained and repatriated to their hometowns, in becomes a personal crusade for him and ultimately brings about a shocking state policy change but also his downfall. The court case brought by a corrupt county chief against two authors of an investigative book is not just about freedom of speech, but also highlights oppression such as forced sterilization, a supposedly banned practice, to control birth rates. Beijing surgeon Jiang Yanyong exposed the 2003 SARS outbreak for which the nation and Party (reluctantly) celebrate him as a hero but when he uses his new-found fame to call for state acknowledgement over Tiananmen Square, he is imprisoned, and banned from traveling overseas.
While progress is made, it is often gradual and ineffectual, and at the cost of freedom for some of these people. At the end, the Party rule is still strong but the struggles show that people are willing to risk lives and careers to confront it, is probably the most important lesson. The recent cases of two high-profile dissidents being considered for the Nobel Peace Prize, with one receiving a EU award (and whose advocacy and arrest was mentioned in the book’s epilogue), shows that this fight is still alive and well.