Ian Johnson’s intriguing book is an examination, on a very human scale, of the burgeoning of grassroots revolt in China’s rapidly evolving political and economic landscape. Opening with a quote from the Chinese philosopher, Han Feizi – ‘Rulers and ruled wage one hundred battles a day’ – he recounts the struggles of three individuals against a sclerotic and authoritarian system.
In Yan’an, historic heartland of the Communist Party, a former Red Guard turned small-town lawyer, Ma Wenlin spearheads a class-action lawsuit by thousands of farmers, protesting against unjust taxes. In Beijing, Fang Ke, an architecture student writes a book that becomes the focus for a movement opposing the wholesale demolition of the capital’s historic heart of interlocking lanes and alleys. In the city of Weifang, one ordinary woman, Zhang Xueling, negotiates the labyrinthine bureaucracy of local committees and central power to uncover the truth about the death in custody of her mother, killed as part of a government crackdown on the Falun Gong faith.
Each of these cases, recounted with captivating directness by Johnson, stands as an exemplar of a multitude of daily struggles by people who refuse to allow arbitrary imprisonment, beatings and worse to deter them from fighting for justice and basic rights. Despite the efforts of China’s rulers to put a lid on the bubbling demands for social reform unleashed by its economic changes, this revolution from below continues to erupt in unexpected places. Ordinary people continue to test their individual and collective strength against a system increasingly failing in its practice of using laws to rule the people, rather than allowing laws to rule the land.