Sunday, January 13, 2013

Five top books on political reform in China

Richard Baum was a distinguished professor in the political science department at UCLA. A specialist on Chinese and comparative politics and foreign relations and a past director of the UCLA Center for Chinese Studies, Baum was the founder and list manager of Chinapol, the world's largest dedicated listserv for professional China scholars, journalists, and policy analysts.

In October 2010 he and The Browser's Sophie Roell discussed top books on obstacles to political reform in China, including:
Out of Mao’s Shadow
by Philip Pan

Your fifth book is Philip Pan’s Out of Mao’s Shadow.

This is another book along the lines of Will the Boat Sink the Water? Its author, the Washington Post investigative reporter Philip Pan, presents moving portraits of several victims of China’s corruption-tainted economic growth. Pan also draws attention to the few brave souls – mostly journalists and lawyers – who at great personal risk to their careers, and occasionally to their lives, dared to unmask egregious wrongdoing by local officials and their underlings. Unlike Chen and Wu, whose case studies are drawn exclusively from rural China, Pan selects his vignettes from a broad array of contemporary Chinese settings, from the well-connected real estate tycoon who ordered the eviction of hundreds of Beijing residents in the run-up to the 2008 Olympics, to the unscrupulous township officials in East China who forced local women to undergo late-term abortions so they could meet their birth-control quotas, to the bravery of a lone army surgeon who dared to violate a government-imposed curtain of silence about the burgeoning 2003 Sars epidemic in China. In these and other vignettes, Pan catalogues typical abuses of official power in post-reform China, while calling attention to a handful of true Chinese heroes who bravely exposed these misdeeds. In doing so, he vividly illuminates the dark side of China’s developmental miracle, while at the same time helping us to rekindle our faith in the ultimate decency and humanity of those ordinary Chinese who dare to speak truth to power.

There does seem to be a general apathy toward politics among China’s young people, including college students. They say they’re not much interested in it.

That’s the comfortable thing to say. When pain is administered for asking inconvenient questions, most people learn to stop asking them. As I noted earlier, the party-state has been brilliant at buying off, co-opting, or, when all else fails, intimidating systemic opposition to its rule. After the disastrous Tiananmen debacle of 1989, for example, most Chinese college students retreated, shell-shocked, from politics. A few years later, in 1992, Deng Xiaoping offered them a tacit bargain: ‘We’ll give you undreamed of opportunities to pursue a rewarding career, a well-paying job, and all the good things in life; but in return you must agree not to challenge the authority of the party-state or its leaders.’ Not surprisingly, most Chinese students accepted Deng’s offer, opting to enjoy the benefits of this ‘get along, go along’ mentality. And there has been precious little student activism ever since.

What’s your sense of where the whole thing is headed?

I’m caught between these bookends that I described earlier. Some days I wake up and I think Minxin Pei has got it right, and other days I think Yang Dali has got it right. There’s simply no relevant precedent for what is happening in China. To date there has been no example of a successful, evolutionary post-Leninist transition. There have been a number of radical anti-Leninist overthrows and pro-Leninist backlashes, but nowhere else has there been a sustained effort to graft a modern, developed market economy on to the political framework of a one-party Leninist dictatorship. I’m just not sure it can be done.

I don’t want to sound too pessimistic. Maybe China does have a shot at emerging from all of this with a coherent political system that is not recognisably democratic in the Western sense. Maybe a kinder, gentler version of neo-Confucian paternalism can soften the iron fist of Leninism without forcing the party-state to relinquish its power monopoly. But I have my doubts that the current, corrupted relationship between political Leninism and bureaucratic capitalism is tenable in the long run.
Read about the other books Baum discussed at The Browser.

Out of Mao’s Shadow appears on Jeffrey Wasserstrom's list of "thematic pairs of [China] books that are particularly effective when read together."

--Marshal Zeringue