Out of Mao’s Shadow: The Struggle for the Soul of a New China
by Philip Pan. Simon & Schuster, New York. US$25
It has been some time since a nonfiction China book evoked much in the way of emotion or deviated in any considerable way from a kind of predictability chronic to the genre. No longer is the foreigner who speaks Manadarin and has traveled to many cities and villages a rarity. There is not much new ground to cover in the dichotomy between rich and poor, oppressed and oppressor, urban entrepreneur and country laborer. It is all usually greeted with a yawn.
Philip Pan’s Out of Mao’s Shadow begins in the same vein. Another little bit of reminiscence about China several years ago. Yes, everybody has one of those, even the readers.
Once the book starts in earnest, though, a new pattern emerges. Pan – once the Washington Post’s man in Beijing – delivers a series of well-researched biographical accounts of people who have experienced the reality of China’s emergence. He doesn’t cover a lot of new ground, but there is skill in his approach: The power comes in the detail and how the stories interlink.
While government policy does not escape plenty of implied criticism, Pan looks more at how his real life characters have responded to this policy. There are many stories about atrocities committed during the Cultural Revolution and also no shortage of coverage of incidents since then – people plying the system to their best interest while the government continues to focus on its economic goals.
At the same time, though, Pan gives plenty of positive examples – people talk of improvements that have been made to the system and tell anecdotes of officials who stepped in to help those in need. There is something of a black and white approach that rarely works well in China. But Pan deals with it like the veteran reporter he is – mostly telling stories and including as many facts as possible.
Out of Mao’s Shadow is worth the bout of internal struggle it is likely to cause. Where is the line drawn between being a guest, an investor, an observer and accomplice? Is domestic unrest too high a price to pay or are individual freedoms and rights more important than collective gains?
For those of us who make a living of some kind out of the China story, it may be convenient to pretend Pan did not write this book or to ignore what he has to say.