»  (Not published)

September 13, 2009

  Running Out of Bullets

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Out of Mao's Shadow
By Philip P. Pan
Simon & Schuster; 368pp., $28

Reading Philip Pan's fine book — somewhat late: it came out in June last year: I am sorry — I was reminded of one of those caustic jokes that used to circulate in Brezhnev's U.S.S.R.

An elderly couple hears that there will be a delivery of meat at a local store. The husband hurries off to the store. After he has waited on line in the freezing cold for several hours, an official car pulls up and some KGB men get out. They tell the people on line that the meat delivery has been canceled, and that everyone should go home.

This is too much for the old boy. "Is this why we fought and suffered in the Great Patriotic War?" he calls out in exasperation. "Is this all we have to show for sixty years of socialism?"

One of the KGB men comes over to him. "Pipe down, Grandad," he says. "That's subversive talk. You're old enough to know what would have happened if you'd spoken like that in Stalin's time." The KGB man makes his hand into a gun shape and points it at his head. "Go on home now and stop making trouble."

The old boy goes home. Seeing him empty-handed, his wife says: "Oh no! Don't tell me they've run out of meat again!"

"It's worse than that," says the old boy. "Now they've run out of bullets!"

Coming up to its 60th birthday, Communist China has not actually run out of bullets, any more than the U.S.S.R. had in 1977; but the Chinese Party, like Brezhnev's, no longer has the will to use those bullets in acts of mass slaughter of their own citizens. The killing of millions in the name of ideological purity; the incarceration of millions more in slave labor camps; the engineered famines; the suppression of all independent thought and action; the deification of the leader and the propagation of pseudoscientific crackpottery as eternal philosophical truth; these are now fading memories.

The Party is still in charge, though: and if truth is the first casualty of war, it is the last casualty of revolution. The massacres may have been flushed down the memory hole, the ardent revolutionary warriors may have given way to manicured technocrats, the great nation-shaking "movements" may have dwindled down to perfunctory political-instruction classes in high schools, but the lies go on. Those who refuse to bow their heads to the lies are no longer casually shot, but they still face humiliation and slander, the loss of jobs and property, and secret trials followed by long sentences in spare, brutal jails. It is to the great credit of the present generation of Chinese that so many of them none the less stand up fearlessly for truth, justice, and human dignity.

Out of Mao's Shadow introduces us to some of these brave souls. Their names should be better known than they are. Philip Pan did his best to help publicize them during his stint as the Washington Post China correspondent in 2000-2007. (Our own Jay Nordlinger deserves a mention here, too — see pp. 331-346 of his book Here, There, & Everywhere.) In this book Philip Pan gives fuller accounts than are possible in a newspaper report. The book is in fact constructed with some art. The tale of rural Party boss Zhang Xide, for example, begins in Chapter 7, continues in Chapter 10, and is capped off in the epilogue.

Zhang was Party chief of a county in Anhui Province, in east-central China. Answerable to no-one but his superiors, who took any criticism of a Party official to be "counter-revolutionary," Zhang milked the county's peasants for taxes through the mid-1990s, and sent a squad of police goons to beat up villagers who protested. He was exposed in a 2003 book that won nationwide attention — and was then, of course, declared contraband by the Party. Zhang sued the authors of the book for libel, and Philip Pan attended the trial. There is nothing like a courtroom drama to hold the reader's attention, and this one is as gripping as any. The dénouement of the case, told in Pan's epilogue, sheds an interesting light on the mentality of China's current rulers.

Zhang's depredations on the peasantry remind us that while the grosser horrors of Chinese communism are in the past, and living standards have improved tremendously since the Mao period, Party rule is still essentially lawless, and has allied itself with the most brutish style of crony capitalism for the mutual benefit of robber barons and Party bosses both. The grand irony is that this unholy alliance of amoral plutocrats and Leninist control freaks inflicts itself most heavily on the workers and peasants — exactly the people for whose benefit Mao's revolution was supposed to have been carried out.

Pan gives us a graphic account of the appalling conditions in China's coal mines.

Even using the official figures, China's coal mines were by far the world's deadliest. For every million tons of coal produced, four to five miners were killed. By comparison, in Russia and India the fatality rate was less than one death per million tons of coal produced, and in the United States and Britain, it was less than 0.05.

Peasants and city folk alike are liable to see their property rights ignored and their homes bulldozed at the initiative of politically-connected property developers like the grotesque billionairess Chen Lihua. Says Philip Pan: "There is an assumption in the West that the growing ranks of private entrepreneurs in China represent a force for democratic change." However:

Those counting on the capitalists to lead the charge for democratization in China re likely to be disappointed … For every entrepreneur who would embrace political reform, there are others who support and depend on the authoritarian system, who believe in one-party rule and owe their success to it.

The hope for China lies not in her business elites, most of whom have long since made their accommodations with the Party (and it with them), but with the scattered brave citizens who have risked everything to stand up for civilized values. Here they are: blind activist Chen Guangcheng, in jail right now for protesting forced abortions and sterilization; crusading editor Cheng Yizhong, whose newspaper exposed the arbitrary arrests, beatings, and occasional murders routine among China's civil police; Jiang Yanyong, the retired military surgeon who leaked news of the 2003 SARS epidemic, which the Party bosses sought to cover up for fear it might overshadow their rubber-stamp National people's Congress session …

Philip Pan again:

What progress has been made in recent years — what freedom the Chinese people now enjoy — has come only because individuals have demanded and fought for it, and because the party has retreated in the face of such pressure.

Yet as humbling and impressive as the moral courage of these dissidents surely is, it is in a tradition that stretches back into the darkest depths of the Mao despotism. In those dreadful times, when an incautious word or gesture, or even less — perhaps just your local Party secretary's need to fill out the head-count of "counter-revolutionaries" being demanded by his superiors — could get you tortured and killed, and your family hustled off into slavery, even then there were dissidents.

In the pitch-black darkness of totalitarian night, without any hope of being saved or even known, they protested. Philip Pan gives a moving account of one such, the young woman Lin Zhao (1932-1968). He describes the ireless efforts of independent film-maker Hu Jie to recover the surviving fragments of Lin's story for his 2004 movie Xunzhao Lin Zhaode Linghun (In Search of Lin Zhao's Soul). To those of us raised in the soft, easy life of the Western democracies, it is instructive to be reminded of giant spirits like Lin — and there were of course many others — who, even when subjected to unimaginable pressure, would not assent to the Lie, would not agree that two and two make five because the Party says so.

The currents of liberty in China ebb and flow. There was some easing of control in the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, in a cynical attempt — successful, of course — to mute foreign criticism. Things have tightened somewhat this past year or so, and it is certain that even as you read this, some harmless schoolteacher, factory worker, or farmer is being clubbed senseless in the dungeons of the Public Security Bureau for daring to oppose the communist system — a system no longer really of ideology, and certainly not of laws, but of men, men who are determined to maintain their power and privileges at any cost to their nation.

Can the Party reform itself, and lead the Chinese people forward to the dignity and liberty that ought to follow on four thousand years of civilized life? Or is the Party, as one of Philip Pan's informants glumly tells him, "irredeemably corrupt"? We shall find out in the next decade or two. In the meantime, all honor and glory to China's brave dissidents, with a measure of the same to journalists like Philip Pan who bring us their stories.