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Each year around the “sensitive” anniversary of the Beijing massacre of June 4, 1989, Ding Zilin, a seventy-four-year-old retired professor of philosophy, is accompanied by a group of plainclothes police whenever she leaves her apartment to go buy vegetables, or to do anything else. Her son, Jiang Jielian, was killed in the massacre by a bullet in the back, and very soon thereafter Ding decided—unlike other parents who had lost children—to defy the government’s demand that the families of victims keep quiet and absorb their losses in private. She organized a group called “Tiananmen Mothers” and, in her speaking and writing ever since, has essentially said to the regime: say what you like, and do what you will, but my mind belongs to me and you cannot have it. (In October, the Tiananmen Mothers called on the Chinese government to release Liu Xiaobo, the imprisoned writer who was awarded the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize and who has been a longtime supporter of the group’s efforts.) Václav Havel, whom Professor Ding admires, called this “living in truth.” To the regime, it makes Ding a dangerous person.
Many people have wondered where Ding Zilin got the mental fortitude to confront a vast and potentially brutal government. Even more worth probing, in my view, is what the standoff says about the mentality of her opposition. The Chinese government is the largest in the world. It commands more soldiers than any other government, and owns about $2.5 trillion—by far the most in the world—in foreign exchange reserves. It is widely viewed as an emerging superpower. Nevertheless it sends plainclothes police to accompany a seventy-four-year-old woman as she sets out to buy vegetables. Why? The two books under review here do not have all of the answers to this question, but they illuminate it in profound ways.
Today’s “rising China,” which from the outside can seem to exude strength and confidence, inwardly lives with an unsure view of itself. People sense, even if they do not want to talk about it, that their country’s current system is grounded partly in fraud, cannot be relied upon to treat people fairly, and might not hold up. Insecurity, the new national mood, extends from laid-off migrant laborers to the men at the top of the Communist Party. The socialist slogans that the government touts are widely seen as mere panoply that covers a lawless crony capitalism in which officials themselves are primary players. This incongruity has been in place for many…
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