The Old Man’s New China

The Communist Party of China has regularly warned Western observers like Merle Goldman not to interfere in China’s internal affairs. China, it says, has its own culturally distinctive ideas on topics like freedom, democracy, and human rights. So how could Goldman write a book about China called Sowing the Seeds of Democracy and dedicate it to her four children “who may someday see democracy flower in China”? Isn’t this cultural imperialism? Who invited her to tell China what to do?

Goldman does not take up these questions, but she has written a history whose solidity and detail in effect answer them. She shows, year by year and event by event, from the late 1970s to about 1990, how members of a Chinese intellectual and political elite themselves were striving for a fairer and more humane government, which, partly for want of a better word, they called “democracy.”

She selects about three dozen figures for careful study. Among them are the soft-spoken Wang Ruoshui, former deputy editor of the People’s Daily and a thinker equally serious about both Marxism and humanism, who dared to make the heterodox argument that “alienation” could happen in socialist as well as capitalist societies; Bai Hua, a writer whose assertion that patriotism and love of the Communist Party need not be the same thing brought him the stigma (or, as some saw it, honor) of being the only person in the Deng Xiaoping era to have a nationwide criticism campaign aimed at him; and Fang Lizhi, the astrophysicist whose faith in scientific method led him to reject Marxism and Maoism, and whose conviction that a citizen has the duty to speak the truth publicly quickly made him a hero among students and a villain to the top leadership of the Party. Fang Lizhi avoided prison only by taking refuge in the American embassy in Beijing and then going into exile in the US.

Some of the subjects—for example the indomitable writer Liu Binyan, who was expelled from the Communist Party in 1957 for telling too much truth in his stories, rehabilitated after Mao’s death, and expelled again in 1987 for basically the same offense—appear in one of Goldman’s two earlier books. The three books are similar in style, chronologically consecutive, and together make a comprehensive and shrewdly analytical history of the battles that have taken place over dissenting thought in Communist China during five decades beginning with the 1940s.

This long story includes some foreign influences—from Hungarian “Petofi Clubs” to the Statue of Liberty—but, as Goldman shows, the influences were ones that Chinese thinkers eagerly sought. No force was used. Moreover Goldman’s references to China’s history of “principled literati,” who were willing to confront abusive or wrong-headed kings and emperors during the 2,500 years before the modern century, further make it clear that the kind of dissenter she describes is no Western import, even if some of his or her ideas are.

Allison …

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