Correction to This Article
This review incorrectly said that the author was The Washington Post's Beijing bureau chief from 2001 to 2007. Pan was a correspondent for The Post in Beijing from 2000 to 2007 but was bureau chief for only part of that time, from 2004 to 2006.

Battle Lines

  Enlarge Photo    
Reviewed by Andrew J. Nathan
Sunday, June 29, 2008


The Struggle for the Soul of a New China

By Philip P. Pan

Simon & Schuster. 349 pp. $28

Before she was executed in a Chinese prison in 1968, a courageous political dissident named Lin Zhao gave a tiny sailboat, folded from a cellophane candy wrapper, to her friend Zhang Yuanxun. He kept it for more than 30 years, treating it as a secret treasure. Then he passed it to Hu Jie, a documentary filmmaker, who accepted the fragile origami boat and the implicit burden it carried: the duty to preserve Lin Zhao's memory. This he did obsessively, working without pay for five years to track down people who knew her and to recover her prison writings, scratched in her own blood after the authorities had denied her ink.

Philip P. Pan tells the story of the origami sailboat in Out of Mao's Shadow, his entrancing book about the struggle "for the soul of the world's most populous nation" between a "venal party-state" and "a ragtag collection of lawyers, journalists, entrepreneurs, artists, hustlers, and dreamers striving to build a more tolerant, open, and democratic China." He uses the sailboat, in a quietly moving way, to help readers feel the enduring chill of Mao's ideological twists and turns, particularly the Hundred Flowers Movement of 1957, when intellectuals such as Lin Zhao were encouraged to criticize the Communist Party, then cruelly punished for doing so.

Part of the book's poignancy is that Pan has joined the chain of transmission: He earned the documentary filmmaker's trust and promised to tell his story, just as the filmmaker had earned Zhang Yuanxun's trust and promised to preserve Lin Zhao's legacy of pain and endurance. Out of Mao's Shadow is a work of reporting, but it is also a work of conscience.

From 2001 to 2007, Pan was The Washington Post's bureau chief in Beijing. 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.

Most of these reformers and dreamers are driven by a combination of outrage and hope: outrage over the system's inhumanity and hope because it is changing. The courts, investigative journalists, independent lawyers and access for foreign journalists are all developments of the past 30 years. At the same time, Pan's stories substantiate his judgment that the party apparatus has come "to resemble an organized crime network." The system rewards corrupt, repressive local officials because they get results -- economic growth, targeted levels of population growth and social order. The party, so far, has not given officials much incentive to pay attention to environmental health, urban preservation or social justice. For now, the "struggle for China's soul" remains sadly one-sided. ยท

Andrew J. Nathan teaches political science at Columbia University. He is co-editor of "How East Asians View Democracy," which will be published in August.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company