There were parts of Out of Mao's Shadow that reminded me of those ambiguous shadow pictures that look like one thing one minute, and then, when you look again, become something else. In Out of Mao's Shadow Phillip Pan covers a lot of ground, the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese government's rewriting and coverup of history, SARS, the AIDS scandal and most of all, the rise of the New China.
The rise of the New China is on our minds lately for the obvious reason that the "sleeping dragon" is awakening very fast. Many of us Americans, who grew up hearing about the Soviet threat and seeing Mao's throng's waving their little Red Books, have been greatly relieved to see the Chinese people focusing on building their economy and better lives for themselves. When you consider the starvation, violence and horror that Mao brought--there certainly is no question that things are better now.
But Phillip Pan's insights into the way that many Chinese millionaires have become rich is troubling indeed. Like those who look at a shadow picture of a woman--only to realize that its a vase, Pan explains that the assumption that business people in China want freedom is flawed as many of them depend on dictatorship, one party rule and repression of freedom to grow their businesses. In one particularly chilling chapter Pan describes one of the wealthiest women in China and how her fortune was built, to start, on selling antique furniture stored in a old warehouse. The furniture was loot, stolen from people imprisoned and murdered during the Cultural Revolution. This lady, now famous and respected shows Pan pictures of herself with Colon Powell. The horrible truth of the source of her wealth, is something she does her best to conceal. The author's revelation that every time he met her she insisted on giving him money and expensive gifts (which is revealed to Pan's employer, the Washington Post and donated to charity) gives the reader a pretty good idea of how things usually work in China.
There are many, many good things about the New China, and anyone who reads again about the Cultural Revolution has to see how much better things are. But Phillip Pan, in writing this book, has insisted that when we look at China, we see it as it is, not as we would like it to be--and that the idea that China will slowly grow more free--should not be taken for granted.
I recently spent two weeks in Beijing after working with a team of half-dozen or so co-workers there for five years via phone, email, and instant message. The trip was an eye-opener. One of my most important moments was having a lively discussion about "The Social Network", the Oscar-winning movie about the founding of Facebook. My co-worker had seen the movie, and had apparently read some about the history as well, and had some interesting opinions about … more