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 it. Then at the end of this discussion, with no emotion, no sense of outrage or loss or regrets, he said very matter-of-factly "You know Facebook is blocked here in China." I did know that, and I was experiencing the social-network withdrawal from not being able to talk to my family and share pictures with them the way I normally do when I travel. I was struck by the disconnect between knowing about Facebook and its history, and (outwardly at least) not expressing anger at being prevented from using it.
After reading Philip Pan's book about how China is struggling toward freedom from Mao, I think I understand a bit more of that reaction. Pan is a Washington Post journalist and former Beijing bureau chief for that paper who spend several years in China at the beginning of the century. This was a period of great upheaval in the present, with exploding economic growth, encroaching environmental destruction, and fumbling steps toward accommodation of individual freedoms in a one-party totalitarian state.
But Pan also found the past (Mao's shadow) playing a very real role in the present, as the impacts of the Great Leap Forward of the 1950's and the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s still effected families and individual lives today. Make no mistake, it is still Mao's country (his face is on every piece of currency, paper or coin), and the suppression of dissent and discussion during his lifetime is in part fueling the fires of freer speech and more open disagreement today.
Pan interviews many involved in these halting movements toward freedom--survivors of the Tienanmen Square protests of 1989, a military doctor who spoke out successfully about the government's attempted cover-up of the outburst of SARS, a documentary filmmaker who pursued the suppressed history of a female writer imprisoned (who literally wrote her masterpiece in her own blood from there) and executed during the Cultural Revolution.
The past and the present--but what of the future? Well, when Pan wrote in 2007, the Beijing Olympic games were still in the future, and there too was the shadow of a government powerful enough to condemn homes (without recognition of property rights or payment for property usurped) and silence media reporting on certain topics. But there two was the opportunity for the world to see China, and for China to see the world. Now in 2011, when I was there, I was surprised to hear my colleagues talk (to me at least) about the waste of money of the vast Olympic Park area, and (during the annual People's Congress gathering in Beijing) about corruption in the government (the expensive and very black Audi A8 luxury sedans, I was told with a cynical nod, were all driven by government officials), and even about the efficacy of the Communist Party. After one lunchtime discussion among my colleagues in hushed Chinese, one leaned over to me and said, "We were just talking about dropping out of the Communist Party. It isn't any good." When I expressed my surprise that he had a choice, he said "Oh, yes. I joined like many do while I was young, in college. But now I realize it hasn't done any good."
I was left by the end of my short time there, and after reading Pan's very interesting book, with this thought: In the US, we get the government we deserve, for good or bad. In China, I don't think that's the case, for good or bad. The recent attempt to suppress news of the democratic uprisings in Egypt and Libya suggests Mao still casts a long shadow.
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 … more
I love reading and writing about what I have read, making the connections and marking the comparisons and contrasts. God has given man the amazing power to invent language and the means to record it which … more
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