Ian Johnson's book 'Wild Grass: Three stories of change in Modern China' is a must-read for anybody interested in learning about the nature of state/subject relations during China's modernization.
Johnson is a true reporter. That's meant as the highest accolade for someone who only tells stories where he can touch, smell and talk to the protagonists. In pursuit of that goal, he travels thousands of miles through China's most inhospitable regions and meticulously chronicles his encounters with a cross section of individuals embroiled in the battle for personal dignity. .
Throughout, his tone is cool and his outlook objective. His account of Falun Gong, for example, does not shrink from the group's intolerance towards its critics. Yet his understated horror at the brutality meted out to even its weakest members shines through his numerous interviews with government officials and group members.
Johnson picks three excellent areas to discuss the degree and nature of consensus in China: The countryside, real estate in Beijing, and the Falun Gong.
All three areas have brought Chinese people in conflict with their government, and Johnson is there to examine the often messy outcome.
Johnson comes across as a kind of everyman - his dusk jacket photo shows a bespectacled and amiable face - yet that makes his description of the violence that underpins the state apparatus especially powerful.
The wife of one peasant champion keeps the overnight bag her husband had with him when he went to Beijing to file his petition. Part of its content is an old towel caked with blood. The peasant leader's reception in the capital led to the loss of 13 teeth and five years imprisonment.
Another middle-aged woman religious practitioner is beaten to death in captivity.
To anybody visiting or working in China, reading these sober accounts of wrongdoing is unsettling. The slim figures in the ubiquitous military, police or armed police uniforms become more sinister - and one realizes the downside to the control mechanism, which guarantees most Westerners lead safer existences in China's big cities than in their home towns.
Johnson questions the necessity of the scale of government suppression and reflects on the impact it will have on the rest of population.
Here the message is mixed. He mentions the frequently-noted (by Western observers) lack of empathy for victims if they are not bound by personal ties. But he also believes the sheer scale of government crackdowns on neighbours, colleagues, classmates and friends will have the effect of making ordinary Chinese ponder the actions of their government.
What Johnson describes very well is the daily flavor of life in China for people who have the slightly mad courage to pick a fight with the unaccountable officials who interface with the public.China still has an office of appeals for instance, just as it has had for thousands of years, as a final, and usually futile, resort for people who are seeking redress. In a Kafkaesque twist, none of the locations of these offices, which exist at government and provincial levels, are made public.
Johnson is also good at pointing out the reason the systems exists in its present form.
Oppression of the peasantry frequently revolves around arbitrary fees levied by officials. But officials are poorly paid, partly thanks to widespread tax avoidance in the wealthier urban areas.
Johnson points out that the government is by no means monolithically repressive. The peasant champion described in the book, Ma, is locked up after trying to repeat a successful court case with a different group of plaintiffs. But while conceding one victory was acceptable to the government, it couldn't allow peasant victories to become habitual. After all, the system is partly built on their misery, since they have subsidized the booming cities through cheap food and labor for most the Communist era.
Johnson's book, focused on individual cases, does not tackle the broader question about whether the price of suppression is worth paying for a booming economy.
(One suspects he is a moral man for whom the suggestion that prosperity could justify even one death would be met with genuine outrage).
The cities and the leadership are currently winners. By holding the keys to the economy, the government has enormous opportunities for self-enrichment. The urban population has so far shared in that process through the developing private sector, the wealthy foreign corporate sector, and arguably, even through the monetization of real estate.
The implication is that city dwellers have been successfully co-opted to the side with the government. It is certainly difficult to envisage an urban-rural coalition forming against the government.
Despite these contentious issue, Johnson's book is ultimately uplifting. To anybody who fears that China is consumed by materialism and moral evasion, the numerous descriptions of ordinary people running terrifying risks in pursuit of their beliefs will come as a welcome antidote.