Philip P. Pan

"Out of Mao's Shadow: The Struggle for the Soul of New China"

(Reviewed by Poornima Apte DEC 31, 2008)

Out of Mao's Shadow by Philip P. Pan

The Rich Lady. The Honest Doctor. The Newspaperman. It is but fitting that the person behind each of these titles in Philip Pan's wonderful book, Out of Mao's Shadow, can easily fill in for entire segments of contemporary Chinese society.

Take the example of the new breed of capitalists in the country. The Rich Lady—Chen Lihua—who has gained her riches through shameless kowtowing to the officials of the Communist Party, stands in for a large section of the new ultra-rich capitalists in the country. “There is an assumption in the West that the growing ranks of private entrepreneurs in China represent a force for democratic change in the country,” Pan writes. And while this may be true to a certain extent, there are also many capitalists in modern China who are just fine with the one-party system—who know how to manipulate its officials to get their ends met. Lihua fits this description well and Pan shows how capitalists like her become successful not just through astute business sense but by oiling the wheels of the one party system. The members of this new elite class see no rush in getting China to go democratic.

Pan, a reporter for the Washington Post, grippingly portrays the extent to which the Chinese Communist party controls and disseminates information. The party's propaganda machine is at work all the time and will do practically anything to have the party remain in power. One of the many memorable chapters in the book tracks the outbreak of the SARS epidemic in the country in early 2003. What started out a blip in the province of Guandong in the South, was largely ignored, even denied, by the party apparatus. It was the actions of one man—The Honest Doctor—Jiang Yanyong, that forced the hands of the party bosses to do something about the disease. By the time the country had acknowledged the virus and the subsequent epidemic it sparked, SARS had skipped borders and even traveled as far as Toronto.

In one of the most chilling chapters in the book, The Cemetery, Pan discusses the atrocities committed during the Cultural Revolution and the efforts of one man, Zeng Zhong, to remember the millions who died. Pan also describes the utterly horrific experience of then 14-year-old Xi whose mother was shot dead before his very eyes, during the height of the Revolution. Many years later, when Pan interviewed him, Xi is disheartened by how rapidly such tragic history is being forgotten in the new China. “These people died meaningless deaths, but they are even more meaningless if society never reflects upon it,” Xi says, “Remembering is painful, but it is also a kind of responsibility. We have to remember, so the next generation doesn't suffer such pain again.”

Out of Mao's Shadow was released last summer just as China was playing host to the Olympics. The China described in these pages certainly stands in stark contrast to the one depicted on television. In fact, in one of the chapters, Pan describes how old butongs, traditional houses that had been in families for generations, had been razed to make way for new high-rises and shopping centers in Beijing, just weeks before the Olympics.

I personally could not help but contrast Pan's incisive reporting to the more gushing account by NPR's Rob Gifford just over a year ago, in his book China Road. In portraying the dark underbelly of the economic tiger, Pan has done an excellent job in portraying the complete package—the economic strides in China along with the enormous costs that have facilitated these advances.

The Chinese leader, Deng Xiaoping, gambled that people would overlook the failure of communism as an ideology if Communists could make them richer, Pan argues. “He (Deng) hoped to unleash the power of free markets and private enterprise while preserving the party's monopoly on power, to grant the people economic freedoms while continuing to restrict their political rights,” Pan writes.

Many of the injustices described in the book will come as a revelation to readers. In that sense it is a real tragedy that the enormity of the human rights abuses imposed by the Chinese government has largely been swept under the rug, especially of late. Pan, for his part, is not very optimistic about the emergence of true democracy in China at least any time soon. It is apparent that capitalism has not been a breeding ground for democratic reform in the country. It is interesting to note that Deng Xiaoping, who is widely believed to have ushered in the economic reforms, called the new system “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” This is of course an euphemism of sorts, especially considering that the new brand of capitalism is simply an authoritarian version of it. As Pan shows, capitalism in China has adjusted and reinvented itself to meet the needs of the one party system. One could even call it capitalism with Chinese characteristics.

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Read a chapter excerpt from Out of Mao's Shadow at Simon & Schuster

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About the Author:

Philip P. PanPhilip P. Pan is a graduate of Harvard College and studied Chinese at Peking University.

He is a foreign correspondent for The Washington Post and the newspaper's former Beijing bureau chief. During his tour in China from 2000 to 2007 he won the Livingston Award for Young Journalists in international reporting, the Overseas Press Club's Bob Considine Award for best newspaper interpretation of international affairs, and the Asia Society's Osborn Elliott Prize for Excellence in Journalism on Asia.

He lives with his wife and son in New York and will begin a new assignment for the Post in Moscow in 2008. About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014