Inside the Whale

Ian Buruma is a powerful storyteller and much of his story about Chinese rebels is very sad. This sadness persists throughout his long journey, starting in the United States, where he met most of the well-known dissident Chinese exiles, and ending in Lhasa, and he stopped frequently to meet more of them in Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong, and finally China itself. Just over the border from Hong Kong, in Longgang, near Shenzhen, Mr. Buruma found Zhou Litai. Short, stocky, with a “bad haircut” and “dressed only in shorts and plastic sandals,” Zhou was surrounded in his small apartment by seventeen men with missing limbs or hands, or with terrible burn scars. Some, “barely out of their teens, were sleeping snugly together, like puppies in a basket.” Zhou is the only lawyer in Shenzhen, and one of the few in all China to take up the cases of people injured in industrial accidents, of whom there are 20,000 in the Shenzhen area every year. Zhou is not a political activist, Buruma makes clear; he just believes in the rule of law.

Some dissidents demand democracy; others, like the Yale scholar Kang Zhengguo, writing recently in these pages, call only for freedom to talk, write, and read. The regime responds that without the Party’s authoritarian rule China would descend into “chaos” and “instability.” This view is bolstered by some foreign China-watchers, who regret the state’s violence but fear that without a tough government China could break up. Many Chinese and some foreigners assert as well that Chinese are not ready for democracy; Beijing regularly condemns “the Western model” and stresses that human rights in China means supplying people with food, clothing, and shelter. To the notion that Chinese culture is a “monolithic barrier to building democratic institutions,” Buruma replies that the experience of Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, Thailand, India, and many other countries shows that “democracy is relatively indifferent to culture.” He recognizes that bringing the government in Beijing down in a sudden convulsion could result in horrible disorder. The Chinese dilemma, he suggests, is that clinging to the illusion of stability could result in something worse.

Bad Elements is the best book yet written on China’s dissidents—and there have been other excellent books and reports on this subject. What makes it the best is Ian Buruma’s clarity and his penetration to the heart of large questions. As readers of The New York Review know, Buruma is a polymath who, in addition to knowing a lot about China, writes on northern European painting, Japanese politics, Dutch architecture, and the decline of the Tory Party, among many other subjects. Because of his considerable knowledge of East and Southeast Asia, and his linguistic ability, he was able to comprehend fully—and fairly—the lives of Chinese dissidents within and beyond China’s borders. He shows that some dissidents (all of them exiles from China) exhibit selfishness, indulge in damaging gossip, both true and untrue, about one another …

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