enemy of the state

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					                                                     letter from beijing

                                  enemy of the state
                                                  The complicated life of an idealist.

                                                       by jianying zha

B    eijing Second Prison is on the out-
     skirts of the city for which it is
named, and you can drive past the drab
                                               my purse and cell phone in a locker, pre-
                                               sent my documents, and wait to be called.
                                               The guards recognize me but maintain a
                                                                                            test-launched, which was supposed to be
                                                                                            able to hit Alaska; in the last paragraph,
                                                                                            Jianguo’s trial was reported. I was aston-
compound without ever noticing it. It’s        professional remoteness. I’m visiting my     ished and outraged, and, as his little sis-
set about a tenth of a mile off the high-       brother, Zha Jianguo, a democracy activ-     ter, I was fiercely proud as well: Jianguo’s
way, and when I visit I usually have to tell   ist serving a nine-year sentence for “sub-   act of subversion was to have helped start
                                                                                                                                          courtesy jianying zha; courtesy xu wenli

the cabdriver about the exit on the left,      verting the state.”                          an opposition party, the China Democ-
because it’s easy to miss. The first thing          Jianguo was arrested and tried in the    racy Party (C.D.P.). It was the first time
you see, after the turnoff, is a heavy, dun-    summer of 1999, and I remember with          in the history of the People’s Republic of
colored metal gate framed by a white           perfect clarity the moment I learned what    China that anyone had dared to form
tiled arch, and then the guards standing       had happened. I was standing in the          and register an independent party. Jian-
in front with long-barrelled automatic         kitchen of a friend’s country house, out-    guo and his fellow-activists had done so
weapons. Electrified wires are stretched        side Montreal, drinking a cup of freshly     openly, peacefully. Now they were going
taut along the top of the outer wall; it’s a   made coffee, and glancing at a story on       to prison for it.
maximum-security facility. Inside the          the front page of the local newspaper. It        My first visits, seven years ago, were
waiting room, adjoining the gate, I stow       was about a missile that China had just      particularly arduous. I had to obtain spe-

Above, Jianguo (age thirteen), with Jianying (age five), a younger brother, Jianming, and their mother. Opposite, Jianguo on a
Hong Kong magazine cover from 1999: “Zha Jianguo and Gao Hongming”—a fellow-organizer—“are sentenced heavily.”
the neW yorKer, april 23, 2007   47
cial permits each time, and during our        single file, from those buildings to the        might be able to leave China on medical
thirty-minute meetings Jianguo and I          interview room.                                parole, and I asked him many times if he
were flanked by two or three guards, in-           These days, I’m just another visiting      would consider it. He wouldn’t. “I will
cluding an officer in charge of “special”       relative, and, though the phones are mon-      not leave China unless my freedom of re-
prisoners. I was shocked by how changed       itored, the guards have long ago lost in-      turn is guaranteed,” he insisted. I have
Jianguo was from when I’d last seen him,      terest in watching my brother and me.          stopped asking. Jianguo repeatedly men-
two years earlier. It wasn’t just his pris-   Time passes quickly. Jianguo and I often       tions the predicament of exiled Chinese
oner’s crewcut and uniform of coarse          chat like two old friends who haven’t          dissidents in the West, who, in the post-
cotton, vertical white stripes on gray; his   seen each other in a while. I start by in-     Tiananmen era, have lost their political
eyes were rheumy and infected, his            quiring after his health and general con-      effectiveness. “Once they leave Chinese
hands and face were swollen, and his          dition, then report some news about rel-       soil, their role is very limited,” Jianguo
fingernails were purple, evidently from        atives or friends. After that, we might        says. But how politically effective is it to
poor circulation and nutrition. We sat        talk about the books he’s read recently or     sit in a tiny cell for nine years—especially
on opposite sides of a thick Plexiglas        discuss something in the news, such as         when most of your countrymen don’t
panel and spoke through handsets—             the war in Iraq or Beijing’s preparation       even know of your existence?
they were an incongruous Day-Glo yel-         for the 2008 Olympics. Sometimes we                That’s something I’ve never had the
low, like a toy phone you’d give a child.     even exchange carefully phrased opin-          heart to bring up. The mainland Chinese
Our exchanges, in those days, seemed          ions on China’s political situation. Fi-       press didn’t report the 1999 C.D.P.
fraught with urgency and significance.         nally, I make a shopping list. Each            roundup, so few people in China ever
After the first few visits, I also met with    month, a prisoner is allowed about eighty      knew what had happened. Outside
the warden, who turned out to be a            yuan in spending money (about ten dol-         China, there was some media coverage
surprisingly cordial young man. (“You         lars) and a hundred and fifty yuan of           at the time, and some protests from
expected a green-faced, long-toothed          extra food if a visiting relative buys it at   human-rights groups, but the incident
monster, didn’t you?” he said to me, smil-    the prison shop; this is for security rea-     was soon eclipsed by the Falun Gong
ing.) We discussed various issues re-         sons, but it also provides a source of in-     story. After almost eight years of incar-
garding Jianguo’s health. Within weeks,       come for the prison. Jianguo often asks        ceration, Jianguo is unrepentant, reso-
he granted my two main requests. Jian-        me to buy a box of cookies. Another pris-      lute, and forgotten.
guo was taken out of the prison in a van      oner, who is serving a ten-year sentence
with armed guards to a good city hospi-
tal, where he received a medical check-
up, and he was moved from a noisy cell
                                              for being a “Taiwanese spy,” has been
                                              teaching him English. The man’s wife
                                              left him, and no one comes to visit. Ap-
                                                                                             J  ianguo is the older of two sons my fa-
                                                                                                ther had from his first marriage. He
                                                                                             was seven when my father divorced his
with eleven murderers to a less crowded,      parently, he really likes the cookies.         mother and married mine. Although my
quieter cell.                                     In the first couple of years, I kept ask-   father had custody of Jianguo, the eight
    Four years ago, I moved back to Bei-      ing Jianguo whether he was ever beaten         years that separated us meant that my
jing, where I write for Chinese maga-         or hurt in any way. “I’m on pretty good        childhood memories of him are mostly
zines and work for an academic insti-         terms with all the officers,” he would tell      dim. As was the fashion at the time, he
tute; the monthly trip to Beijing Second      me. “They are just following orders, but       went to a boarding school and came
Prison has become a routine. I try to         they all know why I got here, and they’ve      home only on Sundays. He remained a
make conversation with the officer at the       never touched me. My cellmates have            gangly, reticent figure hovering at the
“book desk,” where you can leave read-        fights among themselves but never with          edge of our family life.
ing material for the prisoner you’re visit-   me. They all kind of respect me.” He told          Divorce was uncommon in China at
ing; he excludes whatever he deems “in-       me that the jailers let it drop when he re-    the time, and no doubt it cast a shadow
appropriate.” Anything political is likely    fused to answer if he was addressed as fan     on Jianguo’s childhood. My mother re-
to be rejected, although a collection of      ren (or “convict”) So-and-So; he objects       calls that, when Jianguo slept in the
essays by Václav Havel got through: the       to the title because he doesn’t believe that   house, she sometimes heard him sobbing
officer peered at the head shot of the          he committed a crime. He has also re-          under his quilt. In letters written from
gloomy foreigner, but didn’t know who         fused to take part in the manual work          prison, he described those weekends as
he was.                                       that all prisoners in his unit are supposed    “visiting someone else’s home” and said
    The so-called “interview room” is a       to do: packing disposable chopsticks and       that he “felt like a Lin Daiyu”—referring
bland, tidy space, with rows of sky-blue      similar chores.                                to the tragic heroine in the Chinese clas-
plastic chairs along the Plexiglas divider;       A family friend told me that Jianguo       sic “The Dream of the Red Chamber,”
you can see a well-tended garden out-                                                        who, orphaned at a young age, has to live
side, with two heart-shaped flower beds.                                                      in her uncle’s house and compete with
Farther away, there’s a row of buildings,                                                    her cousins for love and attention. But
gray concrete boxes, where the inmates                                                       his mother, whom I call Aunt Zhong,
live and work. (They’re allowed out-                                                         says that Jianguo was ambitious from a
doors twice a week, for two-hour peri-                                                       very young age. When she first told him
ods of open-air exercise.) You can even                                                      the story of Yue Fei, a legendary general
see the unit captain lead the prisoners, in                                                  of the Song dynasty who was betrayed
48        the neW yorKer, april 23, 2007
and died tragically, Jianguo looked up at
her with tears in his eyes, and said, “But
I’m still too young to be a Yue Fei!” She
was startled. “I didn’t expect him to be-
come a Yue Fei!” she told me.
    She probably expected him to be-
come a scholar. After all, the boy was
surrounded not by military men but by
academics and artists. My father was a
philosopher. Aunt Zhong is an opera
scholar and librettist from a distinguished
intellectual family; her father was a uni-
versity vice-president, her mother a
painter who studied with the famous
master Qi Baishi. In another letter from
prison, Jianguo described those primary-
school years as “uneventful,” aside from
a vivid memory he has of a great sum-
mer storm that struck while he walked                 “How dare you—in a straitjacket, no less—psychoanalyze me.”
back to school one Sunday afternoon. In
heated language, he recalled how he                                                  •          •
fought the wind and the downpour all
the way, how he was drenched, alone in
the deserted streets, but, oh, the awe-        rocks at me and even left human excre-        told me. “He just kept yelling ‘Goodbye,
some beauty of the thunder and light-          ment on our balcony. But Jianguo thrived      Chairman Mao!’ The Cultural Revolu-
ning and the ecstasy he felt when he           amid the social turmoil, and became a         tion really poisoned his mind.”
finally reached the school gate, the feel-      leader of a Red Guard faction at his              Millions of urban youngsters went to
ing he had of having beaten the mon-           school. He seldom came home. When             the countryside in those days, but not all
strous storm all by himself !                  he did, he dressed in full Red Guard          of them were true believers: some felt
    Jianguo was also a voracious reader        fashion: the faded green Army jacket          pressure to show proper “revolutionary
and a brilliant Go player. At the age of       and cap, the Mao button on the shirt          enthusiasm,” while others went because
fourteen, he was accepted to an élite          pocket, the bright-red armband. He was        there were no jobs in the cities. Most of
boarding middle school in Beijing,             tall and broad-shouldered, and, with his      them, shocked by the poverty and back-
receiving the top score in his class in        manly good looks, he seemed to me             wardness of rural life, became disillu-
the entrance exam. Yet he felt restless.       larger than life. I was shy and tongue-       sioned. And as the fever of the Cultural
School life was confining, and he dis-          tied in his presence.                         Revolution waned, in the mid-nineteen-
liked the petty authorities he had to con-         Two years later, in 1968, Jianguo left    seventies, many returned home, getting
tend with. During this period, he began        for Inner Mongolia with a group of other      factory jobs or going to university, which
to worship Mao Zedong. He read Mao’s           Red Guards. He was answering Chair-           in those days depended not on your exam
biography closely and tried to imitate his     man Mao’s call for the educated city          results but on your connections and po-
example: taking cold showers in win-           youth to transform China’s poor coun-         litical record.
ter, reading philosophy, and pondering         tryside. My parents held a going-away             Jianguo wasn’t among them. Dur-
the big questions of politics and soci-        party for him: I remember the din of a        ing the seven years he spent on a farm in
ety, which he debated with a group of          houseful of Red Guards talking, laugh-        Inner Mongolia, he had served as the vil-
friends. His first political act was to write   ing, and eating, my mother boiling pot        lage head and was popular among peas-
a letter to the school administration at-      after pot of noodles, my father sitting si-   ants. He was a good farmhand. He could
tacking the rigidity of the curriculum         lently in his study watching the teen-        drink as much baijiu, the hard northern
and certain “bourgeois sentiments” it en-      agers as though in someone else’s house,      liquor, as the locals could. He had mar-
shrined. This was something that Jian-         and Jianguo, seventeen years old, hold-       ried a former Beijing schoolmate and
guo is still proud of: even before the Cul-    ing court like a young commander on the       Red Guard, who stayed on because of
tural Revolution, he had challenged the        eve of battle. He invited his friends to      him, and they were making a life for
system, alone.                                 take whatever they liked from my father’s     themselves in the countryside. The vil-
    My own sheltered childhood ended           library; many books were “borrowed,” in-      lagers ignored whatever “revolutionary
with the Cultural Revolution. My par-          cluding my mother’s favorite novel, “Ma-      initiatives” Jianguo tried to introduce,
ents were denounced as “stinking intel-        dame Bovary,” never to be returned.           but his personality—honest, warm, gen-
lectuals” and “counter-revolutionaries.”           Aunt Zhong went to the railway            erous—won him their affection.
Our house was ransacked. Under the             station to see him off. When the train             In 1976, Mao died, the Cultural Rev-
new policy, I went to a nearby school of       started leaving, she waved at her son.        olution ended, and Jianguo’s daughter was
workers’ children, some of whom threw          “But he acted as if I wasn’t there,” she      born. Jianguo named her Jihong (“Inher-
                                                                                             the neW yorKer, april 23, 2007         49
iting Red”). The next few years were crit-      shine to the bright young Beijinger. Then     for me there looked like all the other
ical in China: Deng Xiaoping began to           Jianguo criticized one of Batu’s policy di-   local peasants hawking melons and po-
steer the country toward reform and             rectives, which he saw as disastrous for      tatoes from the back of their oxcarts. He
greater openness. The university entrance       the peasants, and even took Batu to task      was dressed like a peasant, spoke with a
exam, which had been suspended for              in front of a crowded cadre assembly. Ji-     local accent, and had even developed
more than a decade, was reinstated; I was       anguo lost his post and was placed under      a habit of squatting. His torpid move-
among those who took the exam and               investigation. Condemned as a “running        ments suggested years of living in a re-
went to university, a welcome change            dog of the Gang of Four,” he was locked       mote backwater where nothing much
from the farmwork to which I’d been con-        up in solitary confinement, allowed to         ever happened.
signed. But Jianguo seemed stuck in the         read only books by Marx, Lenin, and               It was early 1989 when Jianguo’s wife
earlier era. He framed a large portrait of      Mao. Two years later, Batu left the county    finally prevailed on him to move back to
Mao with black gauze and hung it on a           for a higher position, and Jianguo was re-    Beijing. She was a practical woman, and
wall of his home; he would sit in front of      leased. He was given various low-level        she wasn’t reconciled to a life of rural
it for hours, lost in thought. His wife later   posts, and was never promoted.                squalor. She was the one who, driven by
told me that Jianguo spent two years                In 1985, when I was a graduate stu-       poverty, sewed Jianguo’s last piece of Red
grieving for Mao.                               dent in comparative literature at Colum-      Guard memorabilia, a faded red flag
    Jianguo eventually took a job with the      bia University, I went to visit him. After    bearing the guards’ logo, into a quilt
county government of his rural outpost,         an eighteen-hour ride on a hard-seated        cover. Now she was determined not to let
working for the local party secretary, a        train from Beijing, I arrived at a dusty      their daughter grow up a peasant. For Ji-
Mongolian named Batu, who took a                little county station. The man waiting        anguo, however, their return marked a
                                                                                              humiliating end of a twenty-year mis-
                                                                                              sion. The idea of bringing revolution to
                                                                                              the countryside had turned out to be a
                                                                                              fantasy. He changed nothing there. It
                                                                                              changed him.
                                                                                                  Four months after Jianguo’s return to
                                                                                              Beijing, students started marching on
                                                                                              Tiananmen Square. Going to the square
                                                                                              each day, listening to the speeches and
                                                                                              the songs, watching a new generation of
                                                                                              student rebels in action—for Jianguo,
                                                                                              it was a profoundly moving experience.
                                                                                              Twenty years earlier, the Red Guards’
                                                                                              god was Mao. Now the idealistic kids in
                                                                                              blue jeans and T-shirts had erected a new
                                                                                              statue: the Goddess of Democracy.
                                                                                                  I was living in Beijing at the time and
                                                                                              visited the square daily. Jianguo said lit-
                                                                                              tle when we met, though he was evi-
                                                                                              dently in turmoil. One afternoon, I asked
                                                                                              him to join me while I visited a friend
                                                                                              who was active in the protests. Outside
                                                                                              on the square, my friend greeted me
                                                                                              warmly and invited me to come inside
                                                                                              the tent where a group of student leaders
                                                                                              were meeting, but when Jianguo fol-
                                                                                              lowed me he frowned and barred him:
                                                                                              “No, not you!” I explained that the man
                                                                                              was my brother. My friend looked in-
                                                                                              credulous. Here, in his native city, Jian-
                                                                                              guo stood out as a country bumpkin.
                                                                                              And, in 1989, the democracy activists
                                                                                              were members of an urban élite. My
                                                                                              friend’s snobbery must have driven home
                                                                                              the message to Jianguo: Stand aside. This
                                                                                              is not your revolution.
                                                                                                  Soon, it was nobody’s revolution.
                                                                                              What happened to the Tiananmen pro-
                                                                                              testers on June 4th showed what awaited
those who openly challenged the system.            “Good thing you’re still here,” I said     can you beat the Communist Party?
After the massacre, all government min-        as I got into the car, “or I’d have had a      Only by armed struggle!”
isters were required to demonstrate loy-       long walk to the bus stop.”                        “That’s an interesting idea,” I said,
alty to the Party by visiting the few hospi-       “I was waiting for you,” he said sim-      taken aback and trying to hide it. “But
talized soldiers—“heroes in suppressing        ply, and started the engine.                   then China would be in a war. It would
the counter-revolutionary riot.” The nov-          I told him my city address. “Thirty        make for bloody chaos.”
elist Wang Meng, who was then the              yuan,” he said. I agreed, and we were on           “That would be great!” the driver
Minister of Culture, got out of it by claim-   our way. At the end of the long asphalt        said.
ing ill health and checking into a hospital    road, the car turned right, onto a wider           I was appalled. “If that happened,
himself. He was promptly removed from          street, passing enormous mounds of             don’t you worry that the biggest victims
office.                                          construction material. In the distance, a      would be ordinary people?”
    During the spring demonstrations,          line of silos was silhouetted against the          “The ordinary people are the biggest
reporters for the People’s Daily had held      horizon. Though we were just a forty-          victims already!” the driver replied, his
up a famous banner on the street: “We          minute drive from the city, everywhere         face mottled with fury. “You look at this
don’t want to lie anymore!” It was a rare      you looked there were old factories, low       city—at what kind of life the officials
moment of collective courage. Two              piles of rubble, industrial-waste dumps,       and the rich people have, and what kind
months later, they were forced to lie          half-deserted farm villages on the brink       of shitty life we have.”
again. A journalist at the newspaper de-       of being bulldozed and “developed.” The            During the next ten minutes, while
scribed to me how the campaign to purge        farm I’d been sent to work on when I           navigating traffic on Chang’an Avenue,
dissent was conducted there: meetings          was in my late teens was just a few miles      the driver told me about himself. He
were held at every section, and everybody      away.                                          had worked in the same state plant for
had to attend. Each employee was re-               I was in my usual post-visit mood:         more than twenty years, first as a ma-
quired to give a day-by-day account of         tired and unsociable. I closed my eyes,        chine operator, later as a truck driver.
his activities during the Tiananmen pe-        and drowsed until a sharp horn woke            Then, a few years ago, the plant went
riod, and then to express his attitude to-     me. When I opened my eyes, there were          bankrupt and shut down. All the work-
ward the official verdict. “Every one of us      cars everywhere: we had got off the ex-         ers were let go with only meagre sever-
did this—no one dared to say no,” he           pressway and had entered the maw of            ance pay.
said, recalling the scene seventeen years      downtown traffic. We were hardly mov-                “But they must give you partial med-
later. “Can you imagine how humiliating        ing. It was about four o’clock, the begin-     ical insurance,” I said. I was thinking
it was? We were crushed, instantly and         ning of rush hour.                             about three high-school friends with
completely.”                                       “You were visiting your brother,           whom I’ve stayed in touch over the
    Among journalists and intellectuals, a     weren’t you?” the driver asked.                years: all three women were state factory
brief interval of exhilaration had given           My eyes met the driver’s in the rear-      workers now in their forties, all were
way to depression and fear. Many with-         view mirror. “How did you know?”               laid off, but all have since found new
drew from public life and turned to pri-           “Oh, we know the Second Prison             jobs, and are making more money than
vate pursuits. (A few, like me, moved to       folks pretty well. My father used to           before. Two of them even own their
the United States or Europe.) Scholars         work there. Your brother is a Democ-           homes.
embarked on esoteric research—hence            racy Party guy, right?”                            “The insurance is a piece of shit!” the
the Guoxue Re, the early-nineties craze            “You know about them?”                     driver replied. “It doesn’t cover any-
for studying the Chinese classics. A               “Oh, yes, they want a multiparty sys-      thing. I’m scared of getting sick. If I’m
friend of mine, the editor of a magazine       tem. How many years did he get?”               sick, I’m done for. For twenty years we
that had been an influential forum for              “Nine. He’s halfway through.”              worked for them, and this is how they
critical reporting, turned his attention to        “Getting any sentence reduction?”          got rid of us!” He spat again. “You look
cuisine and classical music. Meanwhile,            “Nope, because he doesn’t admit to         at this city, all these fancy buildings and
Jianguo, whose residual faith in the           any crime.”                                    restaurants. All for the rich people! Peo-
Communist Party and in Mao had per-                The driver spat out the window.            ple like us can’t afford anything!”
ished on June 4th, was adrift, both polit-     “What they did is no crime! But it’s use-          On both sides of Chang’an Avenue,
ically and personally.                         less to sit in a prison. Is he in touch with   new skyscrapers and giant billboards
                                               Wuer Kaixi?”                                   stood under a murky sky. When it comes

T    he driver of the gypsy cab was a
     stocky man with a rugged, weather-
beaten face, and wore a cheap, oily-
                                                   This gave me a start. Wuer Kaixi was
                                               a charismatic student leader of Tianan-
                                               men Square, who, after years of exile in
                                                                                              to architecture and design, most of this
                                                                                              new Beijing looks like some provincial
                                                                                              official’s dream of modernization. It’s
looking blazer. He was leaning on a            the United States, now lives in Taiwan.        clear that there is a lot of money in Bei-
Jetta, smoking a cigarette, when I got         “No! How could he be?”                         jing and a great many people are living
out of the prison snack shop. On this              “But you know some foreigners,             better than before. But the gap between
particular afternoon, three years ago, I       don’t you? You should tell your brother        the rich and the poor has widened. I
was the last visitor to leave. As soon as      to get out, and get together with the          wondered whether Jianguo, or someone
he saw me, he took one hard draw on            folks in America and Taiwan. Most im-          like him, could be the kind of leader that
the cigarette and flicked it away.              portant thing is: get some guns! How           people like this aggrieved cabdriver were
                                                                                              the neW yorKer, april 23, 2007           51
waiting for. Under the banner of social
justice, they could vent their rage against
China’s new order.                                                            mercury dressing

D      espite the emotions that the Ti-
       ananmen massacre had awakened
in Jianguo, he had a more pressing mat-
                                                                  To steal a glance and, anxious, see
                                                                  Him slipping into transparency—
                                                                  The feathered helmet already in place,
ter to deal with that year: he had to make                        Its shadow fallen across his face
a living. Legally, Jianguo and his wife                           (His hooded sex its counterpart)—
were “black” persons: they had no resi-                           Unsteadies the routines of the heart.
dential papers, no apartment, no job.                             If I reach out and touch his wing,
Worse still, they had no marketable                               What harm, what help might he then bring?
skills. So for a period they stayed with
relatives and took temporary jobs at an                           But suddenly he disappears,
adult-education school that Jianguo’s                             As so much else has down the years . . .
younger brother, Jianyi, had started. Ji-                         Until I feel him deep inside
anguo worked as a janitor, his wife as a                          The emptiness, preoccupied.
bookkeeper. The school was a success,                             His nerve electrifies the air.
mainly because it offered prep courses for                         His message is his being there.
the Test of English as a Foreign Lan-
guage. During the chill that followed Ti-                                                       —J. D. McClatchy
ananmen, studying English was becom-
ing ever more popular, and TOEFL was
crucial for applying to foreign schools. Ji-   ways ended up either quitting the job or      gently,” Jianguo wrote. “Yesterday was
anyi was growing rich, fast. It was an         closing the shop. By the summer of            my forty-seventh birthday. Will my re-
awkward reversal of roles. The two             1997, the last time I saw him before he       maining twenty or thirty years also slip
brothers had very different personalities:      was arrested, he had filed for bankruptcy      away in the blink of an eye?” Now he
next to his serious, ambitious, and hard-      several times. His personal life was in       looked back on his existence:
working big brother, Jianyi was always         disarray as well. He had divorced his wife        My whole life I have had a strong mind
viewed as a baby-faced “hooligan”: he          of nearly twenty years and married a          but my fate has not been good. Over the past
goofed off at school, chased girls, and         young, pretty girl from Inner Mongolia        few decades I have been fighting this fate,
                                                                                             clenching my teeth and not crying. I am an
squandered his money on dining out and         who worked in the soda factory. This          idealist. For the ideal of democracy, I quit the
having a good time. But in the new             second marriage lasted less than a year,      Party; for the ideal of freedom, I quit my job,
China the free-spending playboy was            collapsing as soon as the business did,       over and again; for the ideal of love, I di-
                                                                                             vorced, over and again. To this day I am, intel-
thriving. At first, he’d wanted Jianguo to      and Jianguo ended up moving in with his       lectually, professionally, financially and emo-
help him manage the business, but Jian-        daughter.                                     tionally, a “vagabond.” . . . The Chinese
guo declined; he preferred to have more            By then, Jihong (“Inheriting Red”)        market is now in a slump, and the majority of
                                                                                             businesses are not doing well. China, too, is
time to read and think, and being a jan-       had been renamed Huiyi (“Wisdom and           floating in wind and storm, not knowing
itor allowed for that. “He is always inter-    Pleasure”). The girl attended a commu-        where it is heading. When will there be an op-
ested in saving China, but he can’t even       nity college, and spent her time reading      portunity for people like me to rise up with
                                                                                             the flagpole of rebellion?
save himself !” Jianyi once said to me         pulp romances and chatting with her
about Jianguo. I wondered how Jianguo          girlfriends. But she was devoted to her           Jianguo hadn’t changed, I remember
felt about pushing a mop around for his        father. When she graduated, in 1998,          thinking with a vague sense of foreboding.
little brother.                                she got a job as a front-desk reception-      Within the striving, clueless businessman
    Jianguo didn’t stay on the job long. In    ist at the upscale Jinglun Hotel, and         was a rebel waiting for a new cause.
the following decade, he moved fre-            turned over half her salary to him. It was        What I did not know was that Jian-
quently, from apartment to apartment,          clear to both of them, by now, that he        guo had already found it. A couple of
and from job to job, mainly low-level          wasn’t cut out for business. Then, in         years earlier, he had met a man named
office work. But he seemed to have de-           1998, Jianyi died, of a brain tumor, and      Xu Wenli, a former railway electrician
cided that he’d spent enough time read-        Jianguo inherited his Beijing apartment.      and a veteran dissident from the De-
ing and thinking; he was eager to try          Finally, Jianguo had a place that he          mocracy Wall period. That was a brief
something bigger. After 1992, when the         could call his own. With a home, and          political thaw in the late nineteen-seven-
society was seized by an entrepreneurial       the help of his daughter, he was free to      ties, when, on a wall at a busy intersec-
fever, Jianguo tried a number of ventures.     do what he wanted.                            tion in the heart of Beijing, people put
He got involved in a scheme to buy coal            That August, I received a long, wist-     up posters, essays, poems, and mimeo-
in the north and sell it in the south. He      ful letter from Jianguo. Jianyi’s death, at   graphed articles, attracting huge crowds
set up a factory producing a new licorice      the age of forty-four, was obviously a        who read and discussed what had been
soda. (It tasted like cough syrup.) He ran     shock. “He’s gone, and the sense of life’s    posted. (In late 1979, the government
business-training programs. But he al-         bitter shortness presses on me more ur-       cracked down, and cleaned it up.) When
52         the neW yorKer, april 23, 2007
a friend introduced Jianguo to Xu Wenli,         born out by the tenor of post-Tianan-        States in the nineties. Yet their book was
he had just emerged from a dozen years           men Beijing. Over time, a semblance of       a scathing critique of the radicals and the
in prison. The two men had passionate            normalcy returned. Throughout the            revolutionaries. Looking back upon the
discussions about Chinese politics, but          nineteen-nineties, while new market re-      past century of Chinese history, Li and
at first they also planned to go into busi-       forms were launched and people’s ener-       Liu observed that attempts to bring
ness together. One idea was to start a           gies were directed toward the pursuit of     about radical change had always resulted
car-rental company. They did some                wealth, the Party established clear guide-   either in disaster or in tyranny. China
market surveys, and decided on their             lines about which topics could be pub-       was too big, its problems too numerous
own business titles: Xu would be the             licly discussed and which topics could       and complex, for any quick fix. Incre-
chairman of the board, Jianguo the vice-         not (such as the infamous “three Ts”:        mental reform, not revolution, was the
chairman. In the end, the venture didn’t         Tiananmen, Taiwan, and Tibet). As the        right approach. In a separate article, Li
work out; a loan that Xu was counting            economy boomed, the ranks of the edu-        also laid out four successive phases of de-
on never materialized.                           cated élite splintered: some plunged into    velopment—economic progress, per-
    In early 1998, the atmosphere in             commerce, some—notably the econo-            sonal freedom, social justice, political de-
China was unusually relaxed—the gov-             mists and the applied scientists—built       mocracy—that stood between China and
ernment was negotiating for member-              careers selling their expertise to the       full modernity. In other words, achieving
ship in the World Trade Organization;            government and to corporations. Artists      real democracy wasn’t a matter of throw-
President Clinton was coming to visit—           and scholars scrambled to adapt to the       ing a switch.
and small groups of dissidents in different       marketplace.                                     These were the arguments of two
cities decided to take advantage of the              Gradually, a tacit consensus emerged,    smart, reasonable Chinese with liberal-
new mood, moving to form an opposi-              which was captured in the title of a book    democratic sympathies. And they struck
tion party. They settled on the name             published in the late nineteen-nineties:     a chord with other smart, reasonable Chi-
China Democracy Party. Xu assumed                “Gaobie Geming” (“Farewell, Revolu-          nese who were equally sympathetic to-
the title of the chairman of the C.D.P.’s        tion”). The book was written by two of       ward liberalism but increasingly uncom-
Beijing branch, Jianguo that of the vice-        the star intellectuals of the previous de-   fortable with the idea of radical change.
chairman, the two reclaiming their busi-         cade, Li Zehou, a philosopher and his-       Though the book was published in Hong
ness titles for a loftier cause. With pecu-      torian, and Liu Zaifu, a literary critic.    Kong, it gave voice to a subtle reconfig-
liar daring, or naïveté, the officers of the       Both men had been hugely influential          uration in the attitude of mainland élites
C.D.P. decided to do everything openly:          figures during the movements that led         during the nineties.
they tried to register the party at the civil-   up to Tiananmen. Both became in-                 The new consensus was shaped by a
affairs bureau, they posted statements            volved with the Tiananmen demonstra-         curious combination of trends. Outside
and articles on the Internet, they talked        tions, and ended up living in the United     China, the exiled pro-democracy move-
to foreign reporters. For a few months,
the government allowed these activities,
but, shortly after Clinton’s visit, in June,
a crackdown began, and a first wave of
arrests and trials took place. Xu Wenli,
among others, received a thirteen-year
sentence. Jianguo remained free but was
followed by four security agents every
day. He assumed the title of the party’s
executive chairman and carried on: he
called meetings and urged the few
C.D.P. members who came to stand
firm; he posted new statements on the
Internet, expressing his political views
and demanding the release of Xu Wenli
and his other jailed comrades. When the
police finally arrested Jianguo, in June of
1999, he had long been ready for them.
He had even taken to carrying around a

 H     eroic deeds are not appropriate to
       everyday life,” the Czech dissi-
dent Ludvík Vaculík wrote, in the nine-
teen-seventies. “Heroism is acceptable
in exceptional situations, but these must
not last too long.” Those words were                                         “Oh no, not dinner again!”
                                                                                                said, and blinked as though I were speak-
                                                                                                ing in tongues. “I didn’t know our coun-
                                                                                                try still had political prisoners. I thought
                                                                                                everyone here got in trouble because of
                                                                                                something to do with money.”
                                                                                                    The last time I saw the C.D.P. men-
                                                                                                tioned in a major publication was in
                                                                                                March, 2002, in a profile in the New
                                                                                                York Times Magazine. The subject of
                                                                                                the article was my friend John Kamm, a
                                                                                                former American businessman who be-
                                                                                                came a full-time campaigner for Chinese
                                                                                                prisoners of conscience. The article dis-
                                                                                                missed the C.D.P. as “a toothless group
                                                                                                of a few hundred members writing es-
                                                                                                says mainly for one another.” The line
                                                                                                made me wince. The C.D.P. men could
                                                                                                take pride in their status as “subverters”
                                                                                                of a totalitarian state. And they could
             “The first thing you need to do is update your résumé.”                            forgive their countrymen for not rising
                                                                                                up with them: they are heroic precisely
                                       •          •                                             because most other people are not. But
                                                                                                how could they face this verdict—of
                                                                                                laughable irrelevance—from the Times,
ment had foundered, beset by factional-        because of their former prison records           a symbol of the freedom and democracy
ism. Inside China, the tone for public life    and their continued refusal to recant or         for which they’d sacrificed everything?
was Deng Xiaoping’s mantra “No de-             compromise. They had the courage of              Toothless men writing for one another:
bate”—that is, forget ideological deliber-     their convictions, and not much else.            the words were heartless. They were also
ation and focus on economic develop-           Some, like Jianguo, had tried to do some-        true. And perhaps it didn’t much matter
ment. While the technocrats moved to           thing “constructive,” and join the entre-        that these men were toothless because
the politburo and pushed market re-            preneurial ferment, but got nowhere.             their powerful opponent had rendered
forms, the ideologues stayed in the pro-       They had, in short, lost their way in the        them so; that they were writing only for
paganda ministry and tried to muffle             new era.                                         each other because in China a message
voices of criticism. Meanwhile, the econ-          When I first started visiting Jianguo         like theirs was not allowed to spread fur-
omy kept growing, at breakneck speed.          in jail, I could tell, despite his disavowals,   ther. I felt like weeping. But I wasn’t sure
As China integrated into the interna-          how much he cared about the outside              whether it was because I was sorry for Ji-
tional marketplace, four hundred million       world’s response to what he’d done, and          anguo or angry at him—for being such a
Chinese were lifted out of poverty. A          to what had been done to him. So I tried         fool. While he sits in his tiny cell, day
new affluent class began to emerge in the        to tell him every piece of “positive news”       after day, year after year, the world has
cities and coastal areas, where the younger    I could find. His eyes would light up, or         moved on.
generation, reared on the pop culture of       he’d assume a look of solemn resolve.
consumerism, shied away from politics.
As beneficiaries of the boom, they were
generally “pro-China”; nationalist senti-
                                               My task got harder as the C.D.P. faded
                                               from the news. In late 2002, Xu Wenli,
                                               the star dissident, was released on medi-
                                                                                                    Y ou can’t say the world has forgotten
                                                                                                      about him,” John Kamm insisted,
                                                                                                when we spoke not long ago. “I haven’t!
ments were growing. But “pro-democ-            cal parole and was flown to the United            I care about what happens to your
racy”? It’s unclear whether these young        States on Christmas Eve. Afterward, cov-         brother!” We were drinking coffee in the
people cared enough to give it much            erage of the other jailed C.D.P. members         lobby café of a Beijing hotel where John
thought.                                       largely ceased.                                  was staying during one of his trips to
    So when Jianguo and his comrades               Once, I had a sobering conversation          China.
formed the China Democracy Party, in           with a woman while waiting for the                  John is, by his own description, “a
1998, they not only failed to grasp the        prison interview. She was visiting her           human-rights salesman.” Formerly the
limits of the government’s tolerance; they     younger brother, who had killed another          chairman of the American Chamber of
failed to take the measure of the national     man in a quarrel and had been sentenced          Commerce in Hong Kong, he had a lu-
mood. For the most part, they lacked           to twenty years. “He was in the restau-          crative business career, with a chauffeured
deep roots in any particular community;        rant business and the guy owed him               Mercedes, maids, and a condo in a prime
they weren’t well educated or connected        money,” she explained. “He was young,            location. Then, in the mid-nineteen-
to the country’s élites; and they had little   too rash.” She asked me what my brother          nineties, he gave all that up to become an
contact with other liberals and reformers.     had done. When I told her, she was               advocate for political prisoners in China.
A few, like Xu Wenli, were marginalized        flabbergasted. “Organizing a party?” she          Shuttling frequently between Beijing and
54         the neW yorKer, april 23, 2007
Washington, D.C., and meeting with             ist” in 1957, she lost her job and labored    don’t have anything nice to say about the
high-ranking officials on both sides, John       in a camp for years. She is now a little      lot.” He believed that many Chinese dis-
uses everything in his power—hard data,        white-haired woman in her seventies,          sidents were afflicted with an inflated
personal connections, cajoling, name-          with a kind smile and swollen, aching         self-regard. “It’s a sickness so many of us
dropping, bargaining—to make sure that         legs. She has no illusions about the Com-     are not aware of,” he said. But, Han said,
the issue of Chinese political prisoners       munist Party, but thinks that change can      one should not discuss these things with
doesn’t go away.                               occur only slowly. In her view, the C.D.P.    a dissident in prison. “Because to get
    He’s a big man with a sonorous voice,      was “banging an egg against a rock.” She      through prison you need to mobilize all
earthy humor, and gregarious charm.            had tried to talk Jianguo out of his in-      your strength, to be self-righteous and
He’s also a devout Catholic with a mis-        volvement in the C.D.P., by reminding         believe that you are a hero,” he said. “You
sionary fervor, and his conversation glis-     him of his responsibilities to his own fam-   need that kind of mental arrogance to
tens with Biblical cadences. (“Justice will    ily. Jianguo had replied with a classical     prop up your spirit. You cannot afford
flow down like a river and righteousness        saying: “Zhong xiao bu neng liang quan”—      self-doubt.”
a mighty stream.”) He has been my main         “One must choose between loyalty and              Aunt Zhong listened to what Han
adviser on all questions concerning Jian-      filial devotion.” Upset by Jianguo’s obsti-    had told me, and accepted the point. She
guo and my prison visits, and if Jianguo       nacy, she did not visit him for two years     promised not to discuss politics again
has been treated better than some politi-      after his arrest.                             with Jianguo. “I just hope he will get
cal detainees it’s probably because of             Her exasperation is reciprocated. Aunt    through his term and come out in good
John’s efforts. But he acknowledges that        Zhong and I once went to visit Jianguo        health,” she said, shaking her head.
Jianguo’s name has fallen off the annual        together. During the interview, we took       “After that, maybe we can all have a
list of political prisoners compiled by var-   turns speaking with him by phone. At one      good talk with him. I hope he will
ious Western governments and watchdog          point, Aunt Zhong started talking about       change his way of thinking and not get
groups. I once asked John what he would        how China was too big a country to            back in jail again.”
do if he were in Jianguo’s position. John      change quickly, how the situation was
thought for a moment and told me a story
about what had happened in the late
nineteen-forties when Bertolt Brecht,
                                               gradually improving and many things
                                               were getting better. I watched Jianguo’s
                                               face darken steadily, until he said some-
                                                                                             T     he political landscape in China has
                                                                                                   grown more complex since the days
                                                                                             of the C.D.P. crackdown. After years of
then living in the United States, was sub-     thing and Aunt Zhong handed the phone         rapid growth, China is now the fourth-
poenaed by the House Committee on              to me. As soon as I got on, Jianguo said in   largest economy in the world, poised to
Un-American Activities. He agreed to           a voice shaking with emotion, “I don’t        surpass Germany and Japan before long,
testify, assured the committee that he had     want to listen to her! She only makes me      and widely expected to catch up with the
no sympathy for Communism, and was             angry!”                                       United States around 2050. It has the
thanked for coöperating. Then he flew to            After the visit, I told Aunt Zhong        highest foreign-currency reserve in the
Europe, and ended up in East Berlin,           about a conversation I’d had with Han         world. The transformation, however,
where he doesn’t seem to have given a          Dongfang, a workers’-union activist who       has been accompanied by endemic cor-
second thought to anything he might            had been jailed after Tiananmen. When         ruption, environmental destruction, a
have professed on the stand. “If I was ar-     we met, Han had been living in Hong           widening income gap, and unravelling
rested, I’d do exactly what Brecht did,”       Kong for many years, hosting a radio call-    social services. The policies of President
John told me. “I’d lie to save my ass. Then    in show on Chinese labor problems. His        Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao have
I’d have a life!”                              credentials as a dissident were impecca-      tempered some of these problems, by
    I sighed. I consider John, who aban-       ble: during his two years in jail, he was     eliminating the agricultural tax, paying
doned his career to devote himself to the      tortured, got violently sick, and nearly      more attention to the “weaker commu-
plight of strangers in someone else’s          died. Refusing to yield, he staged a hun-     nities,” and taking measures to curb
country, to be an American hero. So, if        ger strike. Unlike many Chinese dissi-        graft. But there’s a growing sense that
even a man like him would do what was          dents, though, Han is decidedly urbane        deeper accommodations must be made:
necessary to stay out of jail, why must my     (stylish clothes, fluent English, polite       on the one side is a swelling mass of dis-
brother be so stubborn? Doesn’t it make        manners) and reflective about his past         advantaged people who bear the brunt
more sense to chip at a wall, little by lit-   and his personal weaknesses. He was crit-     of social inequity and want more reform
tle, than to bash your head against it?        ical of Chinese dissidents on the whole,      and fairness; on the other is a large body
    The harshest comments I have heard         including himself. “Please don’t get me       of mid-level bureaucrats who are in a
about Jianguo come from his own mother.        started on that topic,” Han told me. “I       mercenary alliance with business inter-
“It’s not bravery,” she once told me. “It’s                                                  ests and resist any structural change. Ev-
arrogance and stupidity. He’s had a hero                                                     eryone knows that, in the political realm,
complex from childhood. The problem is,                                                      something will eventually have to give.
he’s not a hero. He is a foot soldier who                                                        Agitation for political reform has, in
wants to be a general, but without the tal-                                                  the past four or five years, grown more
ent and the skills of a general.”                                                            assertive, while taking on more varied
    Aunt Zhong was a beautiful woman                                                         and artful forms: instead of using the
when she was young. Purged as a “right-                                                      fraught term ren quan (“human rights”),
                                                                                             the neW yorKer, april 23, 2007          55
for example, people talk about fa zhi         whole, the political atmosphere in China        ing any action. “Perhaps they were eager
(“the rule of law”) and wei quan (“de-        really has eased, and people are a little       to set a record—to be the first to openly
fending civil rights”) to discuss consumer    less afraid. In private and in public, Chi-     form an opposition party in Communist
rights or migrant-labor rights or private-    nese discussions of political reform are        China,” Xu said. “If that’s what moti-
property rights. Each year, there are         getting louder.                                 vated them, it’s the sort of human weak-
more cases in which journalists expose             So Aunt Zhong had a point when she         ness I could forgive.” Like Jianguo, Xu
corruption, lawyers take up civil-rights      told Jianguo that the situation in China        had been a Red Guard, and he has writ-
suits in court, scholars investigate the      is improving. And not everyone has for-         ten a candid and moving memoir about
“blank spots” of history (the Sino-Japa-      gotten the C.D.P. incident. Several of          the Cultural Revolution, with soul-
nese War, the great famine of 1959-62,        my liberal Chinese friends have told me         searching reflections on his own youth-
the Cultural Revolution), publishers defy     that, thanks to men like Jianguo, who           ful delusions. He signed a copy for Jian-
taboos and print “sensitive” books. From      tested “the baseline” with their lives, oth-    guo and asked me to bring it to him. Not
time to time, a statement or a petition is    ers now know exactly how far they can           surprisingly, the censor at the prison
signed by a group of people, though they      push. As one of them, Cui Weiping, put          book desk rejected it.
usually take pains to present themselves      it, “The officials think of us as moderates           But Jianguo isn’t an educator, like
as an assortment of individuals, rather       because of them. They are the reason we         Xu. He’s a man of action. The C.D.P.
than as an organization. Acts of this na-     are not in prison. For this alone we are        founders are all men of action, and his-
ture tend to be sporadic and spontane-        grateful.” Cui, a literary and film critic,      tory has not been kind to them. I re-
ous, although, with the rapid expansion       has translated Havel’s essays into Chi-         member something I heard a Chinese
of the Internet and international com-        nese. She writes publicly about the need        C.E.O. once say: “The person who
munication, news travels fast, and the        to build civil society in order to battle to-   takes one step ahead of others is a leader.
task of controlling information becomes       talitarian culture. She respects men like       The person who takes three steps ahead
more daunting. On the Chinese Inter-          Jianguo but says that “real change will         of others is a martyr.” The C.D.P. men
net, the voices of criticism are so diverse   come from small, ignoble places. Social         are martyrs. I used to console myself
that censors face the equivalent of a guer-   movements, not the élite or lone heroes,        with the old Chinese saying “Bu yi
rilla war with a thousand fronts. For         are going to make history.”                     chengbai lun yingxiong”—“Do not judge
every offender who gets caught and pun-             Another prominent liberal figure, Xu        a hero by victory or defeat.” Yet Jianguo
ished, a hundred get away. These critics      Youyu, a philosopher at the Chinese             also seems a mulish simpleton, a man
can’t be easily located, isolated, and de-    Academy of Social Sciences and a force-         with a black-and-white vision of poli-
stroyed, the way the C.D.P. was.              ful advocate of political reform, told me       tics, oblivious of all shades of gray, not
    Meanwhile, globalization has made         that he would never make “foolish deci-         to mention the rainbow of hues that
the government and the leaders more           sions” such as those made by the C.D.P.         you’d need to paint a semblance of Chi-
mindful of their own image. The official        founders. “It was stupid in terms of po-        nese life today. In other moods, I would
talk of “peaceful rising” and “building       litical strategy,” he said. Xu, who is well-    think of Confucius’ remark about one of
a harmonious society” in recent years         versed in Western analytical philosophy         his disciples, Zilu: “He has daring, but
reflects a softer approach in both inter-      and liberal theory, emphasizes the im-          little else.”
national and domestic politics. On the        portance of “rational analysis” before tak-         Neither attitude seems quite right to
                                                                                              me now. I recall a conversation I had
                                                                                              with Perry Link, a distinguished China
                                                                                              scholar at Princeton, about Wei Jing-
                                                                                              sheng. Wei is Jianguo’s personal hero, a
                                                                                              legendary figure in the Chinese democ-
                                                                                              racy movement. Back in 1978, when he
                                                                                              was a twenty-eight-year-old electrician,
                                                                                              Wei had the audacity to post essays on
                                                                                              the Democracy Wall demanding de-
                                                                                              mocratization; Deng Xiaoping, he said,
                                                                                              was a dictator. Wei was charged, ab-
                                                                                              surdly, with “leaking state secrets,” and
                                                                                              sentenced to fifteen years in prison.
                                                                                              During his time behind bars, through
                                                                                              sickness and periods of solitary con-
                                                                                              finement, he never backed away from
                                                                                              his views. Once he had been released,
                                                                                              he immediately resumed his pro-de-
                                                                                              mocracy writing and activities, and was
                                                                                              sent back to prison. After serving two
                                                                                              years of a fourteen-year sentence, he was
                 “It wasn’t a lie, Senator, it was a larger truth.”                           freed, ostensibly for “medical reasons,”
and flown to the United States, where
he kept up his personal campaign against
the Chinese government. The West
must not be fooled by its reforms, he
warns, for the Communist Party will
never change its true nature. What’s cer-
tain is that Wei will never change. Over
time, many of his early admirers have
come to see him as a man with a sim-
plistic, static vision of China and the
Chinese Communist Party. In fact, the
Party appears to be far more agile and
adaptive than Wei Jingsheng.
    I told Perry about my ambivalence to-
ward people like my brother and Wei. I
admired their courage, their deep sense of
justice, but felt uncomfortable with their
almost religious sense of self-certainty.
“People like Wei Jingsheng are like the
North Pole,” he told me. “They are fro-
zen, but they define a pole.”
    Yes, I thought, my brother is frozen,
with his unchanging, unchangeable vi-
sion of what is to be done. He reduces a
                                                                                      •           •
vast, complicated tangle of problems to a
single point source of evil: the Commu-        flawed but admirable human being, with           Just remember this: your brother is a sim-
nist Party. End one-party rule, and the        perhaps one striking oddity—his un-             ple, old-fashioned, outdated, and stub-
evil is eradicated. Even as he is locked up,   compromising insistence on upholding            born man. Once I make up my mind, I
he has locked the world out, refusing to       his idealism at any cost. A novelist friend     stick to it.” In the past few years, he has
listen to anything that disturbs his con-      of mine who has listened to me talk             lost much of his hair, and a recent attack
victions, closing his eyes to a reality rid-   about Jianguo over the years once com-          of shingles had left some scabs on his
den with contradictions, ambiguities,          pared him to the creatures she’d seen in        forehead, but his face was as serene as I’d
and possibilities. For all this, Perry is      the 2005 documentary “March of the              ever seen it.
right: people like Jianguo define a pole.       Penguins.” “The penguins are silly, laugh-          With a year and a half to go, Jianguo
    And, of course, those who locked him       able creatures—they are fat, they waddle,       has started talking about how many
up are on the wrong side of history. Liu       they fall on their belly, and they are sin-     books he’d like to finish reading. “Re-
Ge, a friend who is a partner at an illus-     gle-minded,” she said. “But when they           ally, it’s not bad here,” he assured me re-
trious Beijing law firm, likes to remind        are in the water they are beautiful! What       cently. “I’ll get out in 2008, and if you
me of this. “All the countries that have       your brother does politically is absurd,        are in Beijing then we’ll watch the
succeeded in modernization have a mul-         but his idealism and his courage in their       Olympics together.” We spoke about
tiparty system, while those sticking to        purity are beautiful.”                          several of our Shanghai cousins, all suc-
one-party rule are losers,” Liu said. “De-         Maybe the question of whether Jian-         cessful businessmen and lawyers. “I’m
mocracy makes a country win and dicta-         guo is a hero or a fool is beside the point.    very happy they do well in their busi-
torship makes a country lose. The rulers       Above and beyond the consequences of            ness,” Jianguo said. “But each person has
today want to make China better, and           his action is the moral meaning of his ac-      his own goal. To achieve democracy in
they have done a lot of things well, but       tion. By keeping his promise to himself,        a country, some people must offer their
they cannot face their ugly past, how          he has fulfilled his own vision of a righ-       blood and lives in the struggle. Look at
they turned China into a place with a          teous life, his own sense of purpose. Dur-      South Korea, or Taiwan: there had been
hundred holes and a thousand wounds,           ing one of my prison visits, I mentioned        so many crackdowns, so many prisoners.
the Cultural Revolution, the Great Leap        that a former classmate of Jianguo’s, an        But, wave after wave, individuals rose
Forward, and so on. So they are not            expert on rural issues, had just won a pres-    up. They gave their lives to pave the way
confident enough to take radical critics        tigious official award. “That’s good,” Jian-      to their democracy.”
like your brother.”                            guo replied. “He helps the reform from              His eyes were intent, his gestures ex-
    Gradually, though, I have come to          within the system. I’m outside the system.      pansive; for a moment, you could tell, he
feel a certain degree of impatience with       There are a lot of big intellectuals who can    had even forgotten that he was in prison.
the impulse to see Jianguo mainly              help reform with their knowledge. I don’t       “China is a huge country,” he went on.
through the lens of Chinese politics. I’d      have enough systematic education to do          “We have 1.3 billion people. We ought
rather see my brother not as an integer in     that. But people like us have a role to play,   to have at least a few men who are will-
the realm of political calculation but as a    too.” He smiled at me. “Character is fate.      ing to do this.” 
                                                                                               the neW yorKer, april 23, 2007          57

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