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BAD ELEMENTS by Ian Buruma


Chinese Rebels from Los Angeles to Beijing

by Ian Buruma

Pub Date: Nov. 27th, 2001
ISBN: 0-679-45768-2
Publisher: Random House

A global look at the movements, great and small, that keep the Central Committee awake at night.

China, writes Buruma (The Missionary and the Libertine, 2000, etc.), is a nation of walls: the Great Wall, more effective as a symbol than as a barrier against barbarians; the walls of countless prisons; and the Democracy Wall, an unpretentious, gray brick structure on which, in 1979, an electrician posted demands for political reforms. Soon torn down, the last wall “became part of a silent history, suppressed by the government but kept alive among Chinese in exile.” Those exiles number in the millions (and tens of millions more, if you count the residents of Taiwan and Hong Kong); once separated by oceans and ideologies, they are coming into closer contact thanks to the Internet, which has kept even accidental resistance movements—such as Falun Gong (whose key texts, Buruma writes, “range from the zany to the banal”)—in the international eye. What is more, he suggests, the unblinking eye of the World Wide Web has helped rein in the Beijing government somewhat, keeping it from reiterating the excesses of, say, the Tiananmen Square massacre and the Cultural Revolution. Among the many dissidents Buruma interviews are Wu’er Kaixi, one of the most charismatic leaders of the 1989 student revolt, who is now living in exile in Taipei; Chai Ling, another presence at Tiananmen Square, who, along with many other prominent rebels (including the journalist Liu Binyan), now lives in New Jersey; and Fang Lizhi, now an Arizona-based astrophysicist, who shocked Chinese chauvinists by his call for a “total westernization” of Chinese political culture—which, Buruma writes, is now “post-totalitarian” but still far from democratic.

Good reading for students of China and world politics.