CDT Bookshelf: Interview with Philip P. Pan

, the former Beijing correspondent for the Washington Post, has written a remarkable new book, “Out of Mao’s Shadow: The Struggle for the Soul of a New China” in which he profiles a disparate group of Chinese citizens who are, in their own way, trying to bring positive change to their country. The book starts with the dramatic story of Lin Zhao, a passionate critic of Mao’s revolution who was sentenced to death for her outspokenness. Pan brings the story into the present by following Hu Jie, a documentary filmmaker who went to extraordinary lengths to uncover Lin Zhao’s story on film. Several of the other characters in the book – of blind rights activist Chen Guangcheng, journalist Cheng Yizhong, labor activists Yao Fuxin and Xiao Yunliang, and others – will be familiar to many readers from reports in the western media. But in his book, Pan digs deeper into their stories to present a much more nuanced and complex portrait of their struggles, challenges and successes. In the Washington Post, Andrew Nathan wrote, “Out of Mao’s Shadow is a work of reporting, but it is also a work of conscience.”

CDT recently asked Philip Pan some questions about Out of Mao’s Shadow and his work in China. Pan responded by email from Moscow, where he recently moved to cover Russia for the Post:

China Digital Times: The individuals you profile in the book are, on the surface, very different, yet they are all dedicated to bringing change to China. Out of all the stories you could have told, how did you decide who to profile?

Philip Pan: I tried to pick a group of individuals who represented different facets of the struggle for the country’s future.  But I also wanted to focus on people who were at the center of the struggle, people that future generations of Chinese might look back on and say, “What this person did was significant.”  I should note that not all of the individuals I chose to write about are dedicated to change.  I deliberately included a few who are resisting change — the rural party chief Zhang Xide, a very ordinary cadre who found himself thrust onto the national stage, and the real estate tycoon, Chen Lihua, the seamstress who became China’s richest woman.

When I first set out to write Out of Mao’s Shadow, I actually had a much larger cast of characters in mind.  I wanted to write more about religion, and the environment, and the Internet, for example.  I also toyed with the idea of setting aside a chapter to explore the special set of issues related to China’s ethnic minorities.  But the book would have been too long for most people to read, and it would have taken me too long to write.  So I went through a painful process of slimming down the project, choosing the individuals and stories that were most compelling.  I still touched on some of these other subjects, of course, but not in the detail that would have been possible, say, if I had included chapters on a priest, an environmentalist or a blogger.  Maybe I’ll be able to write about them in a sequel.

CDT: Several of these stories have been written about extensively in the Western media, yet the book is remarkable because of the depth of knowledge and detail you dig out. Was it difficult to get the subjects to agree to give you such access to their lives?

PP: As a foreign journalist working in China, it can often be difficult to get people to open up to you.  I met most of the characters in the book through the course of my reporting for the Washington Post, and as I spent time with them, they came to trust me.  It’s the way good journalism works anywhere.  In the end, most of the individuals I chose to write about in the book were eager to share their stories, sometimes at great risk to themselves, and usually for a simple reason — they wanted the world to understand their country better.

CDT: Despite the noble and hard-fought battles taken on by the characters in your book, many of their tales end sadly (several are in prison, others lost their jobs or were effectively silenced). In the long-run, are you optimistic about the possibility that individuals like those you profile can bring about meaningful change in China? Where do you see the greatest hope?

PP: Many people have told me the book leaves them saddened, even depressed.  But I didn’t set out to write a sad book, and I’ve been somewhat surprised that so many readers have taken it that way.  Of course, I understood that many people wouldn’t like my central argument — that economic change will not lead inevitably to political change, that the party is remarkably resilient and winning its struggle to stay in power.  But I also hoped more people would come away inspired by the individuals in the book who, despite great risks and poor odds, chose to challenge the state.

Because, yes, in the long-run, I am an optimist.  I do believe that individuals can bring about real change in China — because they already have.  People in the book like Jiang Yanyong, the elderly surgeon who forced the government to end the SARS cover-up, and Cheng Yizhong, the newspaper editor who led the crusade that led to the abolishment of the shourong detention system, come to mind.  But it’s even broader than that.  People in China today enjoy much more freedom and prosperity than they did three decades ago.  The party likes to take credit for this, but I believe these improvements have come despite the authoritarian system, not because of it.  They’ve come because of individuals who have fought for them, and because the party has retreated in the face of such pressure.

CDT: In the past, the image in the West was that the people who were most actively speaking out against injustice in China were “dissidents,” who tended to be targets of political repression and therefore marginalized from mainstream society. The people you write about  are also dissenting from the political status quo (and also are often targets of repression), yet they are working from within the society and the system, as workers, lawyers, journalists, farmers, etc. What has changed in Chinese society to inspire these people to speak out, often at great risk?

PP: One reason I devoted the first part of the book to the struggle to define history is because I wanted to challenge the idea that the push for greater political freedoms in China is something new.  As the filmmaker Hu Jie discovers when he sets out to learn more about the young poet Lin Zhao, people have been pushing for change for a long time.

I do agree that there seems to be some shift in the ways that people are pushing for change, and I think it can be traced in part to the student-led demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in 1989 and the massacre that followed.  One lesson that Chinese society absorbed from those events is that directly challenging one-party rule may not be the most effective way to bring about change.  As a result, many people in China today are fighting for change, as you say, from “within the system.” 

Whether this approach is effective, however, is an open question.  In fact, as I tried to show in the last chapter of Out of Mao’s Shadow, when the lawyers fight among themselves about how to save the blind activist Chen Guangcheng, the strategy of pushing for change “within the system” brings its own obstacles.  When the system pushes back, what do you do?  Should you give up and retreat?  Should you keep challenging the state?  And if you do keep pushing, at what point do you end up “outside the system”?

One final thought: Another reason we see more challenges to the political status quo coming from “mainstream” Chinese society is the economic boom.  Prosperity means people have more resources to devote to the struggle.  Even more important, prosperity means people have higher expectations.  People have seen how other countries are governed, and they are demanding more from the Communist Party.   That’s why we’ve seen a series of protests from middle-class, urban communities across the country — people who have benefited most from the party’s rule — over issues as varied as environmental pollution and police corruption.  The party has shown that its authoritarian system can deliver economic growth.  Now it needs to show if it can deliver other “public goods” — clean air and water, safe coal mines and factories, better health care and education, etc.

CDT: Are you sorry you weren’t in Beijing for the Olympics?

I have mixed feelings about it.  I do feel a pang of regret over missing the Summer Games.  As someone who cares about China — who spent much of his adult life in Beijing, who got married and had a child there — I would have liked to see the city play host to the Olympics.  After all, the run-up to the Beijing Olympics was an important backdrop to my coverage in the Post and to the stories in Out of Mao’s Shadow.  It would have been interesting to see the culmination of all that build-up.

On the other hand, as a journalist, I was also a little bit relieved to miss the Games.  Tens of thousands of reporters from around the world converged on Beijing for the Olympics.  That’s not the kind of journalism I like to do.  I prefer to write stories that no one else is writing, to go places that aren’t being covered and talk to people who aren’t being heard.  Also, I decided to leave China for a reason — I had been there too long and perhaps become too jaded, and I wanted to tackle another assignment.  So during the Olympics, I was busy studying Russian and getting ready for Moscow.
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Read more about Out of Mao’s Shadow, via CDT.