Out of Mao’s Shadow

Out of Mao’s Shadow

Reviewed By: Bruce Riley Ashford

Recently, I had opportunity to read Philip Pan’s Out of Mao’s Shadow. I had always wondered how the Chinese government managed to steer its mammoth populace toward a decade of globally unprecedented growth. Now I know, but almost wish I didn’t. In the book, Pan gives us the “no holds barred” narrative of recent Chinese history, and in particular China’s attempt to balance its version of capitalism with its unique brand of authoritarianism.

He does so by focusing on 11 profiles of China’s dissidents: a young entrepreneur’s open defiance of the police by attending the funeral of Chinese dissident Zhao Ziyang, a doctor arrested for blowing the whistle on the government’s handling of the SARS epidemic, a filmmaker’s documentary about a Mao-era dissidents who wrote a prison manifesto in her own blood, and others.

The author arrived to his post in Beijing in the spring of 2001, and over the next seven years came to several conclusions, among which are three in particular: The first is that the Communist Party is, on the whole, winning the battle for the nation’s future: “What I found was a government engaged in the largest and perhaps most successful experiment in authoritarianism in the world. The West has assumed that capitalism must lead to democracy, that free markets inevitably result in free societies. But by embracing market reforms while continuing to restrict political freedom, China’s Communist leaders have presided over an economic revolution without surrendering power.

The second conclusion is that China’s authoritarian government is deceitful, manipulative, and often brutal in its governance: Pan writes, “Fabricating and controlling history was so important to the party that it devoted a vast bureaucracy to the task, an army of propagandists, ideologues, and censors who labored to deceive the masses in the name of serving them….The result was a complex tapestry of truth and lies intended to bury unpleasant memories and obscure inconvenient facts.

The third conclusion is that China’s citizens, especially her dissidents, are making a difference for the better, even thought their efforts are costly and sometimes fatal: “But as I examined the party’s success, I also saw something else extraordinary-a people recovering from the trauma of Communist rule, asserting themselves against the state and demanding greater control over their lives.”

Pan’s lively and engaging portraits combine to support these conclusions, and communicate them to the reader in a concrete and memorable fashion. It is a fast-paced and well-written book, but in many ways gloomy and even sad, as Pan details the oppression of China’s people at the hands of their government. Out of Mao’s Shadow is highly recommended for its critical analysis of contemporary China, its salient portraits of her people, and its glimpse into her future.

Book: Out of Mao’s Shadow (2008)

Author: Philip P. Pan

Region: East Asia (China)

Genre: Historical Journalism

Length: 312 pp.

Difficulty: Intermediate