WASHINGTON POST REPORTER PHILIP PAN’S new book, “Out of Mao’s Shadow: The Struggle for the Soul of a New China,” makes several things abundantly clear, but perhaps none more forcefully than that the 20th century was uniquely tragic and horrific for China.
Pan examines the fallout of Mao’s famines, purges, civil wars and witch-hunts, noting that these massive events — little studied or understood in the U.S. — are perhaps even less well recalled in China.
The importance of historical memory is a major theme of “Out of Mao’s Shadow” and — as the soul of a new China is struggled over in this book — the meaning of the nation’s past is, too. Pan starts “Shadow” with the fraught funeral of a former general secretary of the Communist Party, Zhao Ziyang, who had opposed the use of force in Tiananmen Square. Consequently, Pan writes, “the party put Zhao under house arrest and set about erasing him from the public memory.”
“Zhao’s death revealed a scar on the nation’s conscience” — and the nation’s wounds are the book’s focus. Along with Tiananmen Square, Pan looks at an overgrown cemetery for victims of the Cultural Revolution, a documentary filmmaker obsessed with the hidden legacy of a fierce intellectual dissident, the horrors of Chinese coal-mining, riots, SARS, sterilization, abortion, labor camps and so on. The overall effect is an eye-opening read that’s nightmarish at worst and bleakly Orwellian at best.
“I didn’t set out to write a book that’s nightmarish,” said Pan. “I was a little surprised, when I finished writing the book, how dark it ended up. I was hoping it would be more hopeful.”
But, in some ways, the book is hopeful. Pan repeatedly emphasizes that, as oppressive as the Chinese state is now, it was far more brutal in the past. The Chinese economy roars along — “hundreds of millions of people have been lifted out of poverty” — and, as Pan subtly suggests, the Communist Party could topple at any time.
“Let a hundred flowers bloom, let the hundred schools of thought contend,” Mao once said, slyly encouraging dissent for a time before bloodily crushing the dissenters. The dictator’s legacy is such that the long-suffering Chinese people must still struggle mightily to be heard.
Express spoke with Pan about run-ins with the police, mine disasters, the one-child policy and more. He will also discuss his work on July 22 at Politics & Prose.
» EXPRESS: What would happen if the Communist Party catches someone who talked with you and who said things they disapproved of?
» PAN: Well, this is what’s so unnerving: Nothing could happen — or the worst could happen. The majority of the time, nothing happens. The government can’t arrest everyone we talk to. It’s no longer that kind of government. … This is why people decide to take that risk: Because it’s just a risk. [But] it’s not a certainty that you would evade punishment. This is why it can be quite difficult for people to make those kinds of decisions.
You know, I think most of the people in the book that I’ve interviewed are going to be fine — or are fine. A lot of these stories were published in the Post earlier and nothing happened to them. But the subject of the last chapter, the blind activist Chen Guangcheng — he’s still in prison.
» EXPRESS: Tell me about the one-child policy in China and forced abortion and sterilization there.
» PAN: The first thing I should say is that things are better than they used to be. The central government, and especially the bureaucrats in charge of the one-child policy, family-planning policy, they’ve recognized that the one-child policy is not that effective. Most research has shown that the gains the country has made through the one-child policy could have been achieved through softer means: through investment in health care, investment in sex-education, investment in rural education. There’s this growing understanding within the government that the coercive methods that we often hear associated with the one-child policy [are] too costly and they’re not as effective as other methods.
At the same time, though, the party has not abandoned family planning — forced planning of the population — and party officials are still promoted on the basis of how well they can keep people in their jurisdictions in what they call “The Plan” — the planned birth regime.
I try to avoid using “the one-child policy,” just because it’s more complicated than “one child” now. For example, in the countryside, you can have a second child if your first child is a girl. And in the cities, you can have a second child, if you pay a fine. But the bottom line is that officials, especially in the countryside, are judged by how well they can keep their population within “The Plan.”
[If] some official’s worried about getting a promotion, and people are having too many babies in his village, or in his community, they [can] order a crackdown. Sometimes this involves forced abortion, forced sterilization, and sometimes it involves destruction of property. Families are threatened. If they don’t comply with orders to have an abortion, their houses can be torn down and their property could be seized. Even family members and neighbors can be detained and tortured until people submit to these operations. So you still see these abuses.
» EXPRESS: Can you tell me about the conditions in China’s mines?
» PAN: It’s important to compare China to other developing countries. China’s record is far worse. The situation in the mines is one of the darker aspects of Chinese society and the Chinese economy; it really shows one of the weaknesses of the one-party system running the economy there.
The party has also shown that an authoritarian system can deliver growth. An open question is: Can an authoritarian system deliver other public goods? Can it deliver good healthcare? Can it establish an education system that will keep the economy running? Can it enforce labor standards and clean up the environment?
It’s very sad. I covered this for the first few years I was in China. By the time I left, this drumbeat of mine accidents had become so routine that we’d only cover the mine disasters [when] enough people died. Obviously, in the United States, even a dozen miners trapped in a mine would be a national story right away. In China, you could have a couple of hundred people killed in a mine and it would barely be a blip. We couldn’t cover all these mine disasters.
Poor labor conditions aren’t restricted to the mines. In factories across the country, the labor standards are in violation of Chinese law itself, because the rule of law is still so weak there. Factories owners can work with local party officials who are determined to keep the economy moving, because that’s the primary thing keeping them in power. These officials basically allow them to exploit workers who aren’t allowed to organize and file real lawsuits to protect themselves.
» Politics & Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW; Tue., July 22, 7 p.m., free; 202-364-1919. (Van Ness)
Written by Express contributor Tim Follos
Photo credits: Philip Pan by Sarah Schafer/Simon & Schuster; top photo by Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images; bottom photo by Teh Eng Koon/AFP/Getty Images