WILD GRASS by Ian Johnson


Three Stories of Change in Modern China
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Thoughtful reportage on the small campaigns of resistance to state rule that are springing up throughout China.

Huge portions of Beijing are now being scraped away, the 600-year-old terracotta-tile roofs and cobblestone streets replaced by glittering skyscrapers in the name of economic modernization. That is an offense to preservationists, one of whom observes that “Beijing’s value is as a whole. . . . It was like Jerusalem, a complete medieval city.” It is a worse offense to the thousands of Beijing residents displaced by urban renewal; their property has been condemned and declared almost worthless, then sold out from under them for the equivalent of millions of dollars—and by the government. The long-suffering Chinese people may have once put up with such fraud and theft, writes Wall Street Journal Berlin bureau chief Johnson. But in the wake of government efforts to modernize the state with “a legal system that can keep order nationwide,” which has led to an explosion of lawmaking, ordinary citizens are using the courts and other judicial channels to fight back—vigorously but mostly without success. Johnson profiles three cases: the efforts of activist Fang Ke to save old Beijing from a government “bent on destroying everything but a few small corners of the old town, turning them into tourist zones”; a small-scale farmers’ rebellion on the Loess Plateau, protesting oppressive taxes and the brutal tactics used to collect them; and—perhaps most interesting to Western readers—the Chinese government’s battle to declare the religious movement called Falun Gong a dangerous cult. (The author won a Pulitzer in 2001 for his reporting on Falun Gong.) Johnson’s defense of Falun Gong, which blends calisthenics and meditation to improve both health and moral righteousness, is compelling, his rejection of the government’s efforts to equate movement leader Master Li with Jim Jones well argued. “Fundamentally,” he writes, “what was often forgotten in the learned discourse was that the government, not Falun Gong, was killing people.”

Of considerable interest to China watchers and human-rights activists.

Pub Date: March 23rd, 2004
ISBN: 0-375-42186-6
Page count: 336pp
Publisher: Pantheon
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15th, 2003


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