A vivid chronicle of the world's most successful authoritarian state. Pan, who reported from China for seven years, eluded the police and succeeded in going where few Western journalists have dared. From the rusting factories in the industrial northeast to a tabloid newsroom in the booming south, from a small-town courtroom to the plush offices of the nation's wealthiest tycoons, he takes us inside the battle for China's soul and into the lives of individuals struggling to come to terms with their nation's past and to take control of its future. Capitalism has brought prosperity and global respect to China, but the Communist government continues to resist the demands of its people for political freedom. The young people who filled Tiananmen Square in the spring of 1989 saw their hopes for a democratic China crushed, but Pan reveals that as older, more pragmatic adults, many continue to push for justice in different ways.--From publisher description.
It's hard to read anything about China these days that doesn't talk about it's meteoric economic rise and pending global dominance. Certainly with the Olympics just past, more has been written about the inequalities and continued political oppression. "Out of Mao's Shadow" is a collection of disparate stories put together by Washington Post reporter Philip Pan about the "New China" with the common theme of the price of this unprecedented prosperity.
Pan doesn't have a central thesis, but the point of his writing the book is to show that political liberalization is not an inevitability in China. That capitalism will not automatically lead to democracy. On this point, I do agree with Pan as there are plenty of historical precedents to prove that point (eg. Russia).
Often times, the Chinese are portrayed as drones, pathetically following the coattails of every Communist Party directive. Pan gives the reader but a glimpse of diverse thought, stories of resistance, of subversive protest, and refusal to accept the status quo. While there is great prosperity, there is both unreconciled anger at past injustices (Great Leap Forward, Cultural Revolution, and the Tiananmen Square Massacre) and rising disillusionment with the corrupt apparatchiks. Even the Mussolini style fascist economy which Pan calls "authoritarian capitalism" has begun to show cracks with out-of-control inflation.
Pan spends a great deal of time with stories about the severe censorship and the Communist party propaganda machine. Examples like "The Great Firewall of China", or the failed cover-up of the SARS outbreak show how paranoid the leaders really are.
The complete narrative of China post-Mao is necessarily incomplete. Pan is light on the social consequences of the one child policy, the most audacious social engineering policy in the modern era. Pan mentions Tibet once in the entire book and barely touches on post-handover Hong Kong or rapprochement with Taiwan. Perhaps most surprisingly Pan omits any mention of the Falun Gong.
Overall, the stories presented are those of great human suffering but also tremendous courage to stand up for the oppressed against the oppressor. "Out of Mao's Shadow" is a an important glimpse into a world that remains as secretive as ever.
Period: 1949 - 1976
Sub 1: 1949 - 1956; characterized by great optimism and progress
Sub 2: 1957 -1965; characterized by some serious mistakes
Sub 3: 1966 - 1976; a disaster ("I am not going to say anything more")
Period: 1977 - now
Sub 1: 1977 - 1986; characterized by great optimism and progress
Sub 2: 1987 - 1994; characterized by great progress with the opening up & reform
Sub 3: 1995 - now; characterized by increasing gap between rich and poor and corruption
Regardless of the typical refusal to refrain from comment on the Cultural Revolution (though naming it!), the chronology and characterization are pretty candid.
During my 12 year stay in China, and longer than that experience with Chinese people, it is obvious that Chinese people need to come to terms with their history on their own, as this is painful enough for them as it is. And this can only be done in very small steps.
Who has the right to claim that these steps are too small? Historiography of modern China is divided by Chinese scholars, Western sinologists and an ever increasing group of journalistics publicists, all of whose allegions are divided by their loyalties.
The author of this book, a journalist, Philip P. Pan makes clear where his loyalties lie in the introduction. Mr Pan is clearly no "friend of China" and expresses his hope that his book might be instrumental to, and he himself a witness of the collapse of the system. This stance made me reflect on the objectivity dilemma, and the value of this book.
Perhaps I should mention here that in my final assessment I appreciate the book highly, in spite of a number of flaws and the intentions of the author. The book seems to be written from two angles of motivation, the one mentioned above, with which I do not sympathize, the other however is more sympathetic, namely the preservation of people’s stories for later generations.
Out of Mao's shadow. The struggle for the soul of a New China consists of 11 chapters, covering the same periods of Chinese contemporary history as above. Needless to say, the author has only picked stories which cast more of a shadow than expel any.
The first three chapters focus on the story of a young female student who resisted the oppression exercised from the late 1950s onward, the second and third sub-period. While from a Western point of view the issue of “breaking her will” is very valid, we also see that her behaviour (stubbornness) is very un-Chinese; in fact, all her classmates and other prisoners survive the whole period and the madness. These chapters are flawed in the sense that the author reports the facts through the lens of a Chinese film maker who tries to document the student’s life. It is not very clear where the film maker speaks and where Mr Pan steps in.
Chapter four is the most balanced and has a poetic quality. It tells an original story, not much heard elsewhere. This chapter comes closest to the author’s other motivation to preserve these stories for future readers. The story sounds true and is moving.
Corruption is a big problem in China, which is not denied by anyone. There is no doubt that power and politics are woven into an intricate pattern in many countries around the world, and in a country like China where there is perhaps more money, and less regulation, excesses may appear on an even larger scale. Interesting reading, though.
The final part of the book is somewhat weak, as the author chews up an old story, and spreads it out over four chapters; 7, 9, 10 and 11. While approaching the story from slightly different angles, the fabric of the book becomes very this here, the more so because this story has been dealt with in more detail in the book Will the boat sink the water? The life of China's peasants by Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao.
There is no chapter dedicated to the events in 1989, although they are described lightly as part of the biography of Mr Pu Zhiqiang in chapter 10 (pp. 274-275), conclusions which are quite a lot less shocking than we are used to from other publications.
I do not know what readers outside China would make of this book, but I felt it was rewarding and insightful. Clearly, the book is not entirely balanced and has some flaws which the author could have avoided. The author’s outspoken intentions should caution readers to be critical. While some stories are controversial, others are not. For readers who are not necessarily looking for judgement, there is a lot to listen to and ponder on, reading this book.
Each of the chapters introduces a new story, ranging from the doctor who uncovered the state's cover-up of the SARS epidemic to a blind lawyer fighting against injustices in the countryside, from a nascent labour movement brutally suppressed to the perils of journalistic integrity in a system that rewards cronyism and self-censorship. Pan is able not only to engage the reader in the narrative as a story-teller but also excels as a journalist in delivering the facts of each case - facts that cause dismay and distress as the weight of statistics and first-hand accounts force the reader to confront the true pain and dirt beneath China's glittering surface.
His narrative style is to-the-point and yet evocative - there were many times when I was moved greatly by the hardships and troubles people who Pan interviewed faced in trying to attain and maintain a basic level of decency and dignity. Some of the stories are familiar to western readers (such as Jiang Yanyong's exposé of the SARS cover-up) while others are less familiar (such as documentarian Hu Jie's struggle to uncover the true circumstances of the death of supposed "counter-revolutionary" Lin Zhao). Regardless of one's familiarity with narrative beforehand, Pan immerses the reader in the facts of the case and leaves the reader with clearer and often grimmer picture of modern life in the most successful authoritarian state, and yet there is also the hope of change. And that is the message Pan's book ultimately leaves one with.