Monday, October 13, 2008

Partial Pan

Philip Pan's journalism writing is at its best when his own voice is the least intrusive. For the most part, he's a good storyteller in Out of Mao's Shadow. I very much enjoyed reading all the eleven stories in the book, among them "The Newspaperman" (about the Southern Metropolis Daily's fighting for real journalism) and "The Party Boss" (about two writers' struggles against a Party official) the most fascinating ones. Even though, in the past years, I had followed Chinese reports on all of the incidents he writes about (one even took place in my own home city Chongqing), I still read Pan's descriptions with great interest, because he renders the details well and he approaches the stories from attention-grabbing angles.

However, it is a bit problematic when he makes comments on the issues in question. For one thing, Pan often lays out only one-side of an argument while ignoring the other, which seems to be a tradition of many Western journalists (with the notable exception of the New Yorker). Further, the stories Pan tells don't actually support the book's two main themes (as he emphasizes in several interviews): 1. Economic reform does not lead to political reform; 2. all the problems have resulted from China's one-party system. It seems to me the book would read the best if Pan hadn't emphasized, or even mentioned, his themes and theories.

I found myself agreeing with a reader who commented on Amazon, "Without a doubt, this is an important book, but do NOT let this be the only book you read about China. It's far too one-sided." Though I'd give the book 4 stars instead of 2.

My husband, Bob, enjoyed reading the stories in the book as well but also showed some disappointment. "From the introduction," Bob said to me, "I thought he had a great idea for a book. However after you read it you see the book is not what he said. If he hadn't claimed the stories tell how China changed after Mao, the book wouldn't have been such a disappointment."

This is to say, if the author hadn't set an agenda while trying to prove his opinions unnecessarily and unsuccessfully, the book would have been an even better read. In this regard, I think Ted Koppel did a better job in his documentary, "The People's Republic of Capitalism," to let the interviewees speak, even when he often disagreed with them.

Philip Pan's personal opinion is most intrusive in the book's final chapter "Blind Justice," which focuses on the consequences of the "one-child policy." The cruelty of local officials in forcing rural women's abortions is evident and horrific. However, is it the policy or the implementation that has been bad? Pan again presents only one side of the arguments on this. I happen to believe that China's population control is necessary and urgent, and I had hoped that Pan would address both sides of the issue. But he didn't. As such I've posted a question on Fool's Mountain blog for all who care to respond:

In his recent journalism book, “Out of Mao’s Shadow,” Philip Pan touched upon many problems in China, one of which is the heavy human cost resulting from cruel local implementations of the one-child policy. The author commented in the final chapter:

“Fertility rates were already falling quickly in the 1970s under the more moderate program launched by Zhou Enlai, from just under 6 births per woman at the beginning of the decade to 2.7 births when the one-child program was launched – one of the fastest declines in modern history. Nearly three decades of the one-child policy reduced the rate further by only about 1 more birth per woman, and even the government attributes half of that reduction to the impact of rising living standards. The government takes credit for the other half but could that modest decline have been achieved by enforcing a late marriage age or wider spacing of births? Could it have been achieved by following the experience of other developing countries and focusing on education and facilitating contraception?”

Judging from the above quote, even if it’s true that the one-child policy has only reduced the birth rate per woman from 2.7 to 1.7, that is still a 37% decrease, which is not as modest as Pan suggests. To those of us who grew up in China, the problems resulting from extremely high population density had certainly been huge and urgent. A late marriage age is a good idea, but it doesn’t constrain those who have already married. Education is of course an even better idea, but as a Chinese adage goes, to make a tree takes ten years, while making a person takes a hundred. Enforcing a wider spacing of births would run into the same drawbacks as enforcing a limited number of children.

But lets have a discussion. I would like to hear from you, especially those of you who have experiences or studied this area, as to whether the one-child policy itself is completely unnecessary and thus a wrong one, or if it’s the implementation method that needs to be improved.

There have been quite a number of responses since the question was posted early this morning, not all agreeing with Pan.

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