Merle Goldman has produced a gem of a booklet on political rights in China. Lucid and accessible, it is vivid with human detail and historically rich. The booklet traces the heroic struggles of numerous Chinese over a long time, so that it is clear how much and how many Chinese wish to not to have to continue to endure the indignities of life under a cruel and arbitrary regime.
In focusing on Chinese trying to promote “Political Rights in Post-Mao China,” Goldman, however, may unintentionally lead some readers to think that those working for constitutional liberties and safeguards that allow people to lead normal human lives are in the mainstream. They are not. As most everywhere, most Chinese are apolitical. They fear losing whatever little they have. They are appreciative that the suffocating controls of the Mao era have ended and that they no longer have to worry about the ignominy, torture, starvation, fear, and premature death that marked Mao’s tyranny.
They appreciate that the regime no longer interferes in family matters, that wealth and opportunity have expanded, and that they can travel more or less freely and enjoy the dignity of being recognized as respected members of a great nation.
Many are even nostalgic about the Mao era as an age of purity and strength. They resent the compromises required to get along with the rest of the world. One should take very seriously the question of a Chinese history professor: “Will nationalist ideas . . . acquire a martial, belligerent, and expansionist tendency in China?” (28).
I worry a bit that this excellent pamphlet’s depiction of blessed changes away from Mao’s suffocating tyranny does not capture how wide open China’s future is, for better or worse. Goldman is to be congratulated for getting the reader to focus on the big picture. The big question about China’s future is whether the economic reforms responsible for China’s extraordinary rise in wealth and power can continue “without also restructuring the political and legal systems . . .” (39). I fear the answer may be yes.
Goldman concludes, finding that the increasing number of Chinese who embrace their political rights will prove a formidable challenge to the authoritarian regime headquartered in Beijing, that the future is wide open and unknowable and that it will depend in no small part on the ideals and actions of freedom-loving Chinese. The great contribution of Goldman is to introduce the general reader to a wide variety of courageous and caring human beings with such vivid specificity that the reader has to learn that Chinese are not culturally doomed to suffer authoritarian cruelties unto eternity.
Still, China is the world leader in journalists and netizens in prison. Goldman’s reliable and illuminating essay clarifies how many Chinese of conscience are not cowed by the repressive Beijing regime. This wonderful pamphlet is about how these people struggle to advance the cause of “Political Rights in Post-Mao China.”