Whither the future of China? The sole certainty is change

The Argument

From crumbling Communism, only tyranny remains, but there's no guarantee of democracy taking hold.

Books

April 18, 2004|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,Sun Staff

Before 9 / 11, China's rise was the most important international story on the planet. China is home to the world's largest population, 1.3 billion people. It has one of Earth's fastest growing economies and at least 30 long-range nuclear missiles. Ambitious leaders in Beijing envision becoming Asia's indispensable power. While Iraq and terrorism preoccupy the United States, China continues a steady climb that could force a redrawing of the world's geopolitical map.

Now Communist in name only, China is an unwieldy hybrid: an increasingly market-driven economy overseen by an authoritarian regime awash in corruption. No one knows when or how the Chinese Communist Party will fall, but 15 years after soldiers crushed the Tiananmen Square uprising, a legion of new rebels is challenging the system. They are not the bespectacled students and privileged intellectuals who appeared on CNN in those heady summer days in 1989. In stark contrast, they are ordinary folk: laid-off workers, homeowners and farmers demanding justice from the world's last great dictatorship. The new rebels do not speak airily of democracy -- they fight for basic rights through class action lawsuits, petitions and countless public protests.

The story of change in China today is not an epic, public struggle like Tiananmen, but the quiet drama of thousands of citizens chipping away at the nation's authoritarian system, one at a time.

Perhaps more than any other recent writer, Ian Johnson, who spent seven years covering China for The Sun and The Wall Street Journal, captures this "slow-motion revolution." (Johnson, for the record, is a colleague and friend. His coverage of the regime's crackdown on the banned, spiritual-mediation group Falun Gong won a Pulitzer Prize in 2001.) In Wild Grass: Three Stories of Change in Modern China (Pantheon Books, 336 pages, $24), Johnson profiles activists who abandon ordinary lives to engage the Communist Party in a David-and-Goliath struggle.

They include a "peasant champion" who files a class action suit on behalf of farmers crippled by high taxes, and a young student who tries to save the architectural heritage of old Beijing from the developers' wrecking ball. The third character is the most tragic: a woman who tries to expose the government's killing of her mother, a member of Falun Gong.

In one memorable scene, Johnson arranges a rendezvous at a Beijing KFC restaurant with Mr. Luo, who works as an inspector in an agricultural machinery factory. Luo and a partner have put together a class action suit on behalf of 23,000 homeowners whose houses -- some dating to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) -- had been leveled by the local government in a drive for development and huge profits.

The suit, as Johnson notes, is especially dangerous to the regime because its authors are ordinary people, "not dissidents who'd spent years reading political tracts."

The stories of Luo and the others illustrate the popularization of dissent and the growing appreciation average Chinese have for basic civil rights. Driving each character is a keen sense of outrage at injustice, something earlier generations were beaten, imprisoned or duped into accepting. Increased contact with the outside world, spectacular economic growth, a freer press and a slowly emerging legal system have encouraged Chinese to put demands on their unelected leaders. It is a testament to how much more open China has become that Johnson draws intimate portraits of his subjects and exposes the banal motives behind the government's brutal behavior. Why did police beat to death a Falun Gong practitioner and many others from her hometown? The central government was fining local officials for each practitioner from their jurisdiction caught protesting in the capital.

"The government instructed us to limit the number of protesters or be responsible," an official tells Johnson dryly as he explains the body count.

The title phrase, Wild Grass, comes from the great Chinese writer Lu Xun, but this book could have been titled, "Hammered Nails." Despite heroic efforts, Johnson's rebels fail. The government beats and jails the man who champions overtaxed farmers. Denied a lawyer, the daughter of the dead Falun Gong prisoner is sentenced to three years "administrative detention." And the architecture student leaves China for MIT as the pace of old Beijing's destruction quickens in advance of the 2008 Olympic Games.

But like drops of water on a stone, each act of rebellion continues to wear away at the system. When the regime finally cracks, it will be in part because of the efforts of rebels like those in Wild Grass.

While Johnson focuses on mainland Chinese, Ian Buruma explores a broad range of "rebels from Los Angeles to Beijing," as he states in the subtitle of his book, Bad Elements (Random House, 400 pages, $27.95). He begins with exiles on the outer edge of the Chinese diaspora in the United States and works his way toward the center, Beijing, via Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong.

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