DECEMBER 17, 2001

Listening to China's Dissidents

Chinese Rebels from Los Angeles to Beijing
By Ian Buruma
Random House -- 367pp -- $27.95

Are we nearing the end of a dynasty in China? Longtime Asia observer Ian Buruma, in his new book, Bad Elements: Chinese Rebels from Los Angeles to Beijing, says we are. And it is with the end of communist rule in mind that he travels through the Chinese-speaking world--China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, and exile enclaves in the U.S.--to track the movements and murmurs of dissent.

With China preparing to undergo another leadership change under one-party rule in 2002, the questions Buruma poses are more relevant than ever: "Will one authoritarian dynasty be replaced, once again, by another, in the name of national unity and superior virtue? Or will the Chinese finally be able to govern themselves in a freer and more open society?" These are queries whose answers the world and the 1.3 billion people of China await. Buruma doesn't set out to answer them, but merely to give a hearing to the myriad viewpoints within the complex dissident community, and within Chinese-speaking Asia. The result is an engaging travelogue that doubles as a comprehensive Who's Who, as well as a Why's Why, of the Chinese dissident world.

Everyone who follows China knows a bit of the story: Dissident speaks out against the government, dissident gets thrown in jail, dissident gets released into exile--and increasingly becomes a lone voice, out-of-touch, railing against the Chinese leadership, finding it hard to get attention for the cause. As the courageous voices who were once familiar names--Harry Wu, Wei Jingsheng, and others--trail off into obscurity, Buruma searches them out to bring us up to date on where they are now. He finds them struggling to stay relevant, striving to make sense of the powerful forces for change they represent, and wondering why their own exiled community is fractured with recriminations that pit one dissident against another and keep them from unity. Buruma also lays out the plight of Singapore's persecuted opposition and the elite barristers who lead dissent in Hong Kong, and he recounts the history of Taiwan's corrupted democracy.

Some chapters, including a cursory look at cyber-dissent and at the outlawed falun gong religious movement, seem thinly researched. But Buruma shines when he tracks down the students of Tiananmen Square. Chai Ling, the woman we recall shouting through a megaphone as she led students into confrontation with the People's Liberation Army, is CEO of a software company near Boston. (At least she was when Buruma found her in 1999.) When he asks her to assume some responsibility for the bloodshed, she appeals coquettishly for "closure." But while asking to be allowed to forget the past, she speaks of liberating China through the Internet.

Chai's former deputy in Tiananmen, Li Lu, manages a hedge fund in New York. Wu'er Kaixi, another leader, is a radio talk-show host in Taiwan. Fang Lizhi, who spent two years hiding in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing after advocating free speech, teaches astrophysics at the University of Arizona. Wei Jingsheng, the dissident who spent 18 years in prison for his manifesto posted on the "Democracy Wall" in 1978, is still denouncing China from exile in Washington. Among his behavioral quirks, he shows up barefoot at dinner parties--a nod, Buruma astutely observes, to a Song Dynasty poet and generations of subsequent intellectuals who used a cloak of madness to resist social mores.

Buruma also finds the five authors of the River Elegy, a 1988 TV series in China that was as influential as Roots was in the U.S. China-watchers attribute the disillusion leading up to Tiananmen to the series, which attempted to analyze Chinese civilization and where it went wrong. Of the five, four fled to the U.S., and three of those have wholeheartedly embraced religion.

Buruma uses his interviews with them to ponder the relationship between democracy and religion, a strong theme in Bad Elements. During a foray into central China to meet village Christians, he is asked whether Jesus Christ would have favored democracy. Buruma thinks he probably would have. "What, if any, is the connection between spiritual and political change?" he wonders. "Is there something about Christianity--its egalitarianism, perhaps--that lends itself to struggles for political freedom?"

Intellectuals in China, when asked whether China should allow more dissent, offer a pat answer: Slowly, they say--lest the common people prove unable to handle their freedom and force change too fast. It's true that in China's past, no transition from one system of government to another has been peaceful. But Buruma argues that the go-slow approach is becoming unacceptable--that discontent is rising in the face of rampant government corruption.

Dai Qing, a go-slow intellectual who has chosen to remain in China with curtailed freedoms--and one of the few women's voices to come out of modern China--becomes the foil for this debate. "One sees what she means, but the analysis is flawed," Buruma states. "On the contrary, the raw emotions, the latent hysteria, the pent-up aggressions seething under the surface of Chinese life are the result of living in a lie. As long as people cannot speak freely, nothing can be exposed to the light of reason, and raw emotions will take over." For the sake of China's stability, one can only hope that Buruma is wrong, and that the country's gradual, if glacially slow, opening will continue.

Prasso has covered Asia for more than a decade.