Saturday, February 28, 2009

Out of Mao's Shadow: The Struggle for the Soul of a New China

I read Out of Mao's Shadow a couple of months ago, and I've been meaning to blog about it since.

Philip Pan was on The Daily Show promoting this book sometime last spring, and it sounded pretty interesting at the time. I'm pretty bad at actually reading the books I put on my book list, though. Fast forward to November, and I noticed it prominently on display in the library, so I picked it up. Then it sat in my room for a few weeks as I read a biography on Hillary Clinton. Eventually I got around to it, and am I ever glad that I did! I tore through it in about two days.

The book is organized into three parts, or eleven chapters. Each one discusses a separate story, focusing on a specific person and their experiences in dealing with the Chinese system. For instance, there's a chapter about a doctor who broke the story of SARS as the Chinese govt tried to keep the epidemic under wraps as it escaped China. There's another chapter about the editor of a newspaper that struggled to maintain its voice and duty to report honestly in a climate of censorship. One of the most fascinating was the chapter about Lin Zhao, a young revolutionary woman in the fifties who turned against Communism with the same fervour that she felt when she first ran away from home to support it. She was imprisoned and wrote hundreds of pages assailing the Party with her own blood before her execution.

I'm not very well-versed in Chinese history, but Pan's book provides a fascinating primer. He places all the stories in their historical context, giving a basic background to events like the Cultural Revolution, and the extreme violence that took place in cities like Chongqing, as well as the role the Communist Party played in trying to suppress the populace's memory of these events and the people who struggled to reveal the truth and seek justice. Part of Pan's analysis is that in many of the cases, the dissidents were able to get the Party to make small changes, such as finally being open about SARS, enabling the medical field to fight and contain it. However, this did not result in more openness and a path to democracy in China, but rather the opposite. By showing a small amount of flexibility, the Communist Party was, in fact, able to strengthen its hold on power. They were basically able to take credit for taking action rather than being vilified for hedging and taking not action for so long.

I highly recommend it.

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