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From The Asian Reporter, V14, #43 (October 19, 2004), page 16.

Three blades bending against the Chinese wind

Wild Grass: Three Stories of Change in Modern China

By Ian Johnson

Pantheon Books, 2004

Hardcover, 324 pages, $24.00

By Dave Johnson

Wild grass strikes no deep roots,

has no beautiful flowers and leaves,

yet it imbibes dew,

water and blood and the flesh of the dead,

although all try to rob it of life.

In 1926 poet Lu Xun wrote this succinct little poem that can be viewed as an emblematic metaphor for the Chinese proletariat, a populace as vast and durable as the grasslands of Inner Mongolia.

Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist Ian Johnson borrows the term, wild grass, for the title of a book that illuminates Chinaís dramatic social and political changes through three compassionate, inspiring portraits of everyday citizens who pushed for social justice and civil liberty.

Johnson went to work in China in 1984 as a reporter for the Wall Street Journal. During his seven-year stint, he met numerous folks who were vexed by the corruption and oppression that still plagued a citizenry struggling to live decent and productive lives while waiting for promised reforms. Against astonishing odds and the recalcitrance of an ossified political structure that would make Joseph Hellerís Catch-22 seem like a nursery rhyme, there are a growing number of dissidents bucking the system, risking what little freedom they enjoy, and valiantly sowing the seeds of transformation in China.

The author chose these courageous, determined citizens to present dramatic reforms in this vast nation. The first portrait is of Ma Wenlin, a lawyer who filed a lawsuit against the Zizhou district in northwest China for illegal, excessive taxation. Dubbed nongmin yingxiong (peasant champion) by the farmers he represented, Wenlin took advantage of the Administrative Litigation Law of 1990, which allows people to sue the government, to rid his clients of illegal taxes.

Comparable to Western societyís class-action lawsuits, his protest claimed that the plenitude of user-fees, levies, village taxes, and irrigation taxes, combined with a national income tax, were ruinous to his clients ó farmers struggling to stay in business. As a result of his suit, the government arrested Ma in 1999 and sentenced him to five years for, essentially, creating an embarrassing situation.

Johnson travels to the locale where Ma instigated his revolt, interviews friends and colleagues, and learns more about this thorn in the side of the Politburo. Locals fondly refer to him as laoshi, honest, truthful, and good.

The second outraged citizen is Fang Ke, an architectural student who was troubled by rapidly fading neighborhoods in Beijing. His research into the arbitrary destruction of historically valuable homes and the forced relocation of their owners triggered numerous lawsuits against the municipal government.

During the 1990s, more than 200,000 folks lost their homes due to condemnation by the local government, which owned the real estate companies that sold the land to developers. You get the picture.

When Keís well-researched figures were published in a famous book, this corruption was used as legal ammunition to halt the destruction of Beijingís residential areas, considered to be microcosms of ancient China.

Although the government claimed that the buildings in question were dilapidated and dangerous, Ke pointed out that many of the nationís top leaders lived in these quaint, traditional courtyard homes. One of his admirers says that Fang Ke "is the smartest man in China."

The third biographical sketch is the sad story of an old woman who found spiritual invigoration in the practices of Falun Gong, a tribute to a daughter who investigated her motherís death in prison, and an appreciation of the power rendered by the public exposure of criminal acts committed by governments ó even in an oppressive regime that would deny me a visa if their immigration officials actually read this review.

To protest the Chinese governmentís vicious crackdown on Falun Gong, a spiritual path that emphasizes thoughtful exercise ó they insisted it was an "evil cult" ó an elderly villager, Chen Zixiu, made her first trip to Beijing to join protests in Tiananmen Square. It was the beginning of a remarkable saga of religious persecution, and international exposure for the organization that continues to "threaten" the security of a collapsing government.

These personal dramas take us straight to the rapidly beating heart of a world poised on historically exciting change. Johnsonís portraits of these three lives vividly encapsulates the shift in power from the old guard to a new economy raging on its own. It is a good read and a reminder to citizens in the fields, on the streets, and behind political bars, that it is up to us to make the world a more civil, decent, caring place to live.

Ian Johnson is the Berlin chief for the Wall Street Journal. In 2001, when he was the Journalís Beijing correspondent, Johnson won the Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on the Falun Gong.

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