Wild Grass: Three Stories of Change in Modern China

by Ian Johnson, Pantheon $200





Wild Grass is journalism at its best. American Ian Johnson, who joined this week's Man Hong Kong International Literary Festival, takes advantage of relaxing controls on foreign media to search for Chinese involved in what he sees as a percolating grassroots movement against an ossified political system. Johnson argues that efforts by the Communist Party to win back public support have boosted living conditions. But the changes have created a populace that is travelling more, thinking more and demanding more.

Johnson, who worked for the Baltimore Sun and The Asian Wall Street Journal in China, says change is not being instigated by academics, journalists or Chinese Gorbachevs. He pins his hopes on average people such as his three main characters: a small-town lawyer who fights for abused farmers, an architect who champions dispossessed homeowners in Beijing, and a woman who attempts to expose police brutality.

He is not predicting the imminent collapse of the government. He says the party's message is still clear: 'We are nervous, possibly even weak, but do not meddle; we can still crush you.'

It's exactly what officials do to the book's heroes. Despite his new-found freedom, Johnson is forced to resort to subterfuge. He is smuggled to meetings crouched in the back of a car with tinted windows, a blanket thrown over him. He trades cryptic messages with sources via public phones and conducts interviews while riding bicycles. Two sources meet him in a Beijing KFC. 'Those people who overheard us, we don't know them,' says one of the sources. 'We'll never meet them again. It's safe. I like KFC.'

The three stories in Wild Grass focus on how people are turning to the nascent legal system for justice, despite the party's willingness to subvert rule of law. We meet Ma Wenlin, a former teacher and self-educated lawyer who reluctantly defends farmers driven to poverty by officials demanding illegal taxes. What motivates people like Ma? It should be obvious to the man dubbed by farmers as the 'peasant champion' that such cases are political suicide. Despite media support for what seems like an open-and-shut case, Ma is beaten by Beijing police and escorted home to face court. He is jailed for five years.

Johnson introduces architect Fang Ke, who fights to keep corrupt local government agencies from demolishing centuries-old homes in Beijing. The legal system backs officials who are offering cheap compensation to ousted residents while selling to developers for huge gains.

The final chapter, Turning the Wheel, is the best of the three vignettes. It tells of the government crackdown against the Falun Gong movement, a subject that won Johnson the Pulitzer Prize. Through dogged reporting about a woman who dies in police detention - and her daughter's failure to prove her mother's death was not due to natural causes - we get an exciting inside view of this movement that so rattled China's top leaders.

While his subjects fail, Johnson says - in elegant prose - that each has sparked a revolution. 


© 2013 Paul J. Mooney