Books: 'Out of Mao's Shadow'

Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, July 3, 2008; 12:00 PM

Post foreign correspondent Philip P. Pan was online Thursday, July 3 at noon ET to discuss his new book, " Out of Mao's Shadow," which examines the changes taking place in China through the stories of people who sacrificed to challenge the communist government.

The transcript follows.

Pan was The Post's Beijing bureau chief from 2004 to 2006, where he won a number of awards, including the Livingston Award for Young Journalists in international reporting. He'll join The Post's Moscow bureau later this year.


Philip P. Pan: Hello, everyone, and thanks for joining me for this online discussion about today's Style piece, "A Past Written in Blood," and the book it was adapted from, "Out of Mao's Shadow: The Struggle for the Soul of a New China."

The book is the product of my seven years in China as a Beijing correspondent for The Washington Post. It is a chronicle of the ongoing struggle for the political future of one of the dynamic countries in the world, told through several individuals who found themselves in the middle of that battle. Hu Jie, the filmmaker in today's article, is one of them.

For more information about the book, please visit, where I will be happy to take any questions we don't get to today.


Washington: Do you have plans to publish the book in China (including Taiwan and Hong Kong) in Chinese?

Philip P. Pan: I would love to publish the book in mainland China, but the content makes that essentially impossible. The state still controls the publishing industry, and no editor would risk the wrath of the censors by publishing these stories.

On the other hand, I do plan to publish a Chinese translation in Hong Kong and Taiwan, and I am confident that copies quickly will make their way into the mainland. It's also possible that pirates then will reproduce it and sell it in the underground book markets there. We won't make money from these pirated editions, but at least mainland Chinese readers will have access to the book!


Philadelphia: How are aware are the young -- and in particular young government leaders and bureaucrats -- of alternative government styles? Is there hope that future Chinese leaders will realize the advantages of less-repressive governing?

Philip P. Pan: 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!


Washington: The blood words shocked me this morning! Can you tell me how I can learn more about Lin Zhao outside of Hu Jie's and your works?

Philip P. Pan: I don't think anyone has done as much research into Lin Zhao's life than Hu Jie. If you can read Chinese, a few books have been published in Hong Kong collecting essays about her written by her relatives and former classmates. You can find them listed in the note on sources at the back of "Out of Mao's Shadow."

If you are limited to English, I'm afraid I don't know of any extended sources beyond my own book and the documentary that Hu Jie produced, "Searching for Lin Zhao's Soul," copies of which are circulating with English subtitles.

Stop and think about it, and it's really amazing: If Hu Jie had not made it a personal mission -- bordering on obsession -- to uncover and record Lin Zhao's story, the remarkable story of this remarkable woman might have been lost not only to the Chinese people but to the world.

It's an example of how the struggle to define the past has become an important battleground in the fight for the nation's future -- and of how a single individual can still make a difference despite the authoritarian system.


Philadelphia: I have read many of the handouts that the Falun Gong give out on the streets. Why does the Chinese government suppress the Falun Gong? Is there anything our government can do that would make the Chinese government end their repression of the Falun Gong?

Philip P. Pan: Almost everywhere I speak in the United States, someone asks about Falun Gong. This is testament to the tenacity of its adherents, I suppose!

The government suppresses Falun Gong because it sees it as a threat to its monopoly on power. It considers any organization that isn't under the party's control a potential threat. And it was especially wary of Falun Gong because it attracted so many members and inspired such stubborn faith -- even in the face of torture.

As for what the U.S. government can do about it, that's a tough question and goes to the larger question of U.S. policy toward China and other authoritarian states.


Washington: Historically, major political change in China often have brought about the dissolution of the central Chinese state. Can China move away from authoritarian rule without falling apart into several pieces?

Philip P. Pan: This is a good question that not only deserves a better answer but also more research and debate. I would quibble with your premise -- that major political change has always resulted in the dissolution of the central Chinese state. Certainly the Communist Revolution strengthened the central government.

But your larger question is important. What would happen to Tibet, Xinjiang and other ethnic regions in a democratic China? What would happen to Hong Kong and Taiwan? Would people vote for independence? My own guess is that some type of federal system certainly would be possible -- that there are also factors holding these territories together, not just cultural ties but also increasingly important economic ones.


Bowie, Md.: Last summer I read a book called "Life and Death in Shanghai" by Nien Cheng. What an amazing learning experience it was for me, a third generation Eastern European American who takes for granted all of the freedom in America. I was so moved that I have kept her book and am hoping my children -- 15, 13, 11 and 9 -- will read it so they can be amazed as such stories of courage in China. I am going to purchase your book to read, and afterward add it to my "mom's recommended reading list" for my children.

Philip P. Pan: "Life and Death in Shanghai" is a classic. Thanks for even mentioning it in the same breath as "Out of Mao's Shadow," and thanks for picking up the book. I hope you enjoy it.


Annapolis, Md.: Are you a native speaker of Chinese, or did you have to learn it? If you had to study, how difficult was it for you?

Philip P. Pan: I am not a native speaker of Chinese. I studied it in college, and after college at Peking University in the early 1990s. I continued studying on my own when I arrived in Beijing for The Washington Post, and I consider myself nearly fluent now.

It's a tough language, but in some ways Russian is even tougher!


Harrisburg, Pa.: How can we know what happens to dissidents? How reliable are government reports and denials, and how do we find out when they are lying and know the sources are reliable?

Philip P. Pan: Hey, I have in-laws in Harrisburg!

In addition to foreign correspondents working in China, there are a few nongovernmental organizations dedicated to tracking what happens to Chinese dissidents. You've heard of some of them -- Amnesty, Human Rights Watch -- but there are also others such as Human Rights in China and the Dui Hua Foundation. In addition, the State Department and others in the U.S. government follow these cases.

Of course, if the Chinese government wants to hide something it can be quite good at it. There are several imprisoned dissidents whose whereabouts are unknown.


Rockville, Md.: What motivated you to write this book? I haven't read it yet, but I look forward to it.

Philip P. Pan: I wrote this book because I was inspired by what I saw in China.

Obviously, it was also a great story -- a massive human experiment in whether capitalism and authoritarianism can coexist. Indeed, China has challenged the Western assumption that free markets inevitably result in free societies. The government has demonstrated that economic growth can strengthen a one-party system.

But I think I wrote the book because I was inspired by the personal stories -- by these remarkable individuals, ordinary Chinese, working for change despite the odds and sometimes at great risk to themselves. Some people who care about China like to tell themselves that political change is inevitable, that when income levels cross a certain threshold, democratization will follow, just as it did in Taiwan, South Korea and other places. But what I learned was that there is nothing automatic about political change. It's a difficult and sometimes heartbreaking process, and it only happens because individuals are willing to fight and sacrifice for it. I wrote the book because of these people.

Philip P. Pan: I hope you enjoy the book!


Philip P. Pan: Unfortunately, my time is up. I have to get back to Russian class!

But I'd be happy to answer more questions at the book's Web site. Just leave them in the comments on the blog page!

Thanks again.


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