Saturday, July 10, 2010

Out of Mao's Shadow

I just finished a haunting book - Out of Mao's Shadow: The Struggle for the Soul of a New China by Philip P. Pan. It is an intense read. Out of all the books on China I've read over the past few months, it might be the most important one that I've picked up. It, along with Wild Grass by Ian Johnson, are certainly the most intense.

Pan was the Washington Post's Beijing bureau chief from 2000 until 2007. His book chronicles the lives of a handful of Chinese people who refuse to submit to the ways of "the Party." A wide range of people fighting the system are featured: a fearless documentary-maker, a truth-seeking journalist, and lawyers trying to develop a rule of law to name a few. The bravery of these people willfully standing up to the government in a fight for justice is inspiring.

Reading this book puts the economic development and all of the positive things we hear about China's rise in perspective. Yes, the masses' lives in China are for the most part improving. But there are a lot of problems. There are millions upon millions of people who are not gaining the benefits that others are.

Out of Mao's Shadow shows through many examples that a large numher of China's problems are the results of poor governance from the CCP. The brutality shown in the book is shocking. I feel like I keep up with China news and politics, but I was stunned time and time again by what I read. The horrors that some government officials have inflicted upon their own people within the past decade are staggering.

One of the chapters that struck me most was the one about the SARS epidemic in 2003 and the subsequent cover-up. The charade that was put on in the face of a serious health crisis was awful. Pan documents the doctors and journalists who put their own reputation on the line to do the work that the government wouldn't: protect the Chinese people from a serious outbreak.

There is a passage I want to highlight from the SARS chapter on pages 202 and 203:
The day after the medical experts visited Heyuan, the local paper published the world's first story about SARS under a headline that read "Epidemic Is Only a Rumor." Officals later acknowledged that their primary concern was the provincial economy. The weeklong Spring Festival holiday was scheduled to begin on February 1, and local businesses were counting on people to spend money. "The most important vacation in the life of Chinese people, the Spring Festival, was coming. We didn't want to spoil everyone's happy time," Feng Shaomin, director of foreign affairs for the Guangdong health department, told my colleague John Pomfret. "You can imagine how people would have reacted if we had told them about the disease. They wouldn't eat out, nor would they go shopping or get together with family members and friends. If we had done it earlier, it would definitely have caused chaos."

But if party officials didn't want to tell the public about the disease before the Spring Festival, they were even less eager to do so after the holiday. On February 10, the Guangdong government announced that three hundred people had been diagnosed with "atypical pneumonia" and five patients had died, but officials assured the world the disease was under control. It was a lie, but all provincial newspapers were ordered to publish it. With the National People's Congress only weeks away, no one wanted to be blamed for spoiling the picture-perfect ceremonies installing Hu Jintao with headlines about a fast-spreading illness of unknown origin. Even after the congress, the cover-up continued. Now officials were worried about the impact on tourism during the next national holiday, the May Day vacation. It seemed like a bad joke: When the best time for the party to break bad news to the public? Never.
Last year, I wrote about the tendency for China's government to put off bad news for the sake of "saving face." Pan's passage here talks about this same phenomenon. I saw this tendency many times while I was in China. There are constant buildups to specific dates or events where the party wants everything to go right.

In recent months, I've seen arguments that the Chinese political model - authoritarian capitalism - is the wave of the future because of its speed and willingness to tackle problems. Many seem to think that democracy's slow pace is being eclipsed by China's lightning-quick autocratic government. Thomas Friedman is one of those who's argued such a premise. Here's a passage from an article he wrote last year:
Watching both the health care and climate/energy debates in Congress, it is hard not to draw the following conclusion: There is only one thing worse than one-party autocracy, and that is one-party democracy, which is what we have in America today.

One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks. But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages. That one party can just impose the politically difficult but critically important policies needed to move a society forward in the 21st century. It is not an accident that China is committed to overtaking us in electric cars, solar power, energy efficiency, batteries, nuclear power and wind power. China’s leaders understand that in a world of exploding populations and rising emerging-market middle classes, demand for clean power and energy efficiency is going to soar. Beijing wants to make sure that it owns that industry and is ordering the policies to do that, including boosting gasoline prices, from the top down.

Our one-party democracy is worse.

Read On
The United States is an election year. Democrats are going to struggle to retain control in the House and Senate. There is a lot of politicking going on. There probably won't be any meaningful legislation put through in the coming months. America is certainly suffering from inaction in the face of potential catastrophic climate disasters. One could also say that we are not properly handling our economic/housing crises very effectually either.

And yes, China is doing a good job of developing its green industries. But to think that its "reasonably enlightened leaders" are immune to inaction for the sake of politics is just wrong. The leaders of China consistently ignore problems for the sake of saving face or not wanting to stir up trouble before a particular event or anniversary.

I can't fathom using the word "enlightened" to describe China's leadership after reading Out of Mao's Shadow as Friedman did. I've consistently written that China is a confusing place. I still stand by that. There is a lot of good going on in the country. But the bad that is occurring is impossible to ignore. It simply can't be explained away by a high GDP, lots of skyscrapers, or the millions who are getting rich.

I keep endorsing books here on my blog. I'm enjoying all of them. If you are to just pick up one though, I think this might be the one to read. You will now look at China the same after reading Out of Mao's Shadow.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This book blew me away. I seriously started passing it out to all my friends, many of them Chinese, and totally amazed at how powerful the stories in this book were.

Love it. And great blog btw.