Out of Mao's shadow : the struggle for the soul of a new China

by Philip P. Pan

Hardcover, 2008




New York : Simon & Schuster, 2008.


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.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member rypotpie
Beautifully written stories of courageous individuals struggling for greater freedom in modern Chinese society. Each chapter profiles a different person, including a journalist, lawyer, doctor, activist, and others who tried to challenge the Communist party in some way. The stories have striking similarities -- often the individual puts themselves at great personal risk in order to fight for justice; in most cases they ultimately succeed in winning some concessions but at great personal loss, ranging from harrassment to imprisonment to death. In a few cases, these losses occurred without noticeable change. I was struck by the reflexive repressive attitude of the Communist party, which cannot stand even the most innocuous criticism for fear that it will bring down the entire edifce of the one-party system. Almost like a playground bully who will fly into a rage if even looked at askance.… (more)
LibraryThing member bruchu
China's Gilded Age

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.
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LibraryThing member edwinbcn
Within the People's Republic of China, discussing contemporary history in public is taboo. Yesterday, I watched the live broadcast of the wreath-laying ceremony at the The Monument to the People's Heroes, on the occasion of the 62nd anniversary of the foundation of the New China. An aged and eminent Chinese professor was interviewed and asked for comment on the proceedings. Interestingly, this professor made the rather bold claim that the monument, which was erected in the 1950s, does not only commemorate past martyrs who laid down their lives for the revolutionary struggles of the Chinese people during the 19th and 20th centuries, but included those who fell in the years leading up to the present. Summarising China's contemporary history, the commentator divided modern history after 1949 in two periods, each subdivided into three periods, as follows:

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.
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LibraryThing member rivkat
Super-interesting book about modern China via various profiles, from party bosses to human rights lawyers to construction moguls. The rule of law as a concept lacks most meaning, but some people are trying to change that; in the meantime, local Party officials can decide how much in taxes peasants ought to pay (until very recently, there were no taxes on city dwellers) and if someone with connections wants your block to build a luxury home on, you’re going to be evicted with a couple hundred dollars to find a new place to live. The one-child policy and associated coercion is still going on in various provinces, but there’s also been a lot of agitation and protest across all these issues (corruption, taxes, expropriation, forced sterilization, and so on) that sometimes gets the Party to act, at least in the sense of fixing a few problems and sending a few people to jail. Pan suggests that China’s version of authoritarianism may be robust enough to survive for decades longer—agreeing with skeptics like Evgeny Morozov and Rebecca MacKinnon that the internet is not an inevitable engine of freedom even as hundreds of millions now have access to it—and presents the views of some who think that reform is possible within the one-party system, as well as others who think that’s never going to work. It’s a really fascinating read.… (more)
LibraryThing member zhoud2005
eye opener!
LibraryThing member xuebi
Out of Mao's Shadow tells the stories of individuals caught up in the chaotic transition China is undergoing from a Maoist state to a modern player in the global economy, a capitalist authoritarian state that will cast a long shadow across the globe and impact current affairs in many ways. This transition is difficult and tumultuous - Philip Pan introduces the reader to a cast of engaging people, whose difficult struggles to change China have cost them so much.

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.
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