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Mandate of Heaven

BAD ELEMENTS: Chinese Rebels From Los Angeles to Beijing By Ian Buruma Random House: 432 pp., $27.95

April 14, 2002|WARREN I. COHEN | Warren I. Cohen is the author of "America's Response to China," "East Asia at the Center" and, most recently, "The Asian American Century." He is professor of history at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Do the Chinese hope for the freedoms sought by other peoples all over the world? Do they want to live under the rule of law, free from arbitrary government? Do they want to be free to speak out when their leaders err, when they encounter corrupt officials? Do they want to be free to worship as they please? Of course they do, but even some would-be reformers are not sure that democracy is the answer.

In "Bad Elements," Ian Buruma has written a wonderful book about brave people, some more sympathetic and more appealing than others. Most of them risked their lives and many of them suffered horribly because they spoke out against three despotic Chinese governments: that of the Communist Party ruling mainland China since 1949; that of the Chiang family's Kuomintang government on Taiwan from the end of World War II until Chiang Kai-shek's son, Chiang Ching-kuo, opened the door to an opposition movement in the 1980s; and, not least, that of Lee Kuan Yew's People's Action Party, or PAP, which has dominated Singapore since 1963.

Lee is, of course, the foremost articulator of the nonsensical "Asian values" rationale for denying various human rights. Its advocates insist that Asians value community and state above individual freedom and do not want democracy. South Korea's president, Kim Dae Jung, dismissed such claptrap long ago, as have the people of South Korea and Thailand and the Chinese of Taiwan and Hong Kong who struggled for democracy. Buruma has had conversations with scores of Chinese dissidents from Los Angeles to Beijing and deftly lets them demonstrate, through the stories of their lives, just how much the Chinese crave freedom.

Communist Party leaders in China, like those who ruled the country for centuries before them, reject the concept of a loyal opposition. Any group offering an alternative to the party line of the moment is perceived as a threat: the tiny democracy movement, labor advocates, Tibetan Buddhists, Christians or Falun Gong. Buruma notes that the party disguises politics as culture: to dissent is to be "un-Chinese" as well as unpatriotic.

Key to the survival of the Communist Party has been its success in exploiting divisions in the opposition, nurturing intellectuals' traditional mistrust of peasants and workers and fostering conservative reformers' suspicion of the more radical opponents of the regime. Many Chinese intellectuals fear democracy, however willing they are as individuals to reject party dogma. Buruma spoke frequently with Dai Qing, a courageous woman who has been relentless in her criticism of the environment-wrecking, potentially catastrophic Three Gorges dam project along the Yangtze River. Dai insists on her freedom to speak but is skeptical about whether democracy can work in China. She is a classic conservative reformer, apparently still dreaming of some form of benevolent authoritarianism, a variation on the virtuous leader that Confucians have always sought.

But much as Buruma enjoyed his conversations with Dai, he found the churlish Wei Jingsheng most persuasive about what is needed in China. He is not put off by Wei's chain-smoking and badgering in-your-face personality. This is the man who in 1978 demanded that Deng Xiaoping grant China democracy--and spent 18 years being tortured in prison without yielding an inch. For Wei the term "virtuous leader" is an oxymoron. Men with power have to be kept in check by democratic institutions. Wherever he can find an audience, he insists that the Chinese people are ready now.

Singapore is a particularly sad story. No one has ever doubted that Cambridge-educated Lee is brilliant. But intelligence never inoculated anyone against arrogance, ruthlessness or stupid behavior. Buruma recalls the old description of Singapore as a "Disneyland with capital punishment." Lee's imagined Chinese community is a Potemkin democracy where everyone is happy, the streets are spotless and nobody dares spit. Archly, Buruma asks why, despite intimidation, more than a third of the people voted against Lee's PAP in 1997. And the world wonders why Lee has found it necessary to hound, imprison and torture his critics. "The fact that dissidents are called Communists in Singapore and counterrevolutionaries in China is incidental; the underlying sentiments of the rulers are the same."

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