Wild Grass: Three Stories of Change in Modern China

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Wild Grass: Three Stories of Change in Modern China by Ian Johnson. New York: Pantheon Books, 2004 ix + 324 pp. US$24.00 (hardcover).

This book by a former Beijing Bureau Chief of the Wall Street Journal is an engaging narrative that profiles three ordinary yet remarkable individuals whose experience in confronting the injustices of China's political and legal system reflect the tensions simmering beneath the surface of China's economic miracle. Johnson's intimate account reveals what he clearly believes to be the stirrings of a quiet revolution at the grassroots that must eventually transform China into a fairer society.

The first of Johnson's three long chapters traces the story of former middleschool teacher, self-educated legal services officer and peasant champion, Ma Wenlin. Inspired by the success of the Peijiawan case in which peasants successfully sued the local government for exceeding its authority in taxation, Ma filed a similar lawsuit on behalf of aggrieved peasants in his home county of Zizhou in Shaanxi Province.

Ma's story strikes at the heart of the crisis in China's countryside. Economic and administrative reforms have placed increasing pressure on local levels of the Party-state to generate their own revenues. In industrialized areas, local governments have succeeded by taxing enterprises, but in the agricultural heartlands, local governments have had little alternative but to squeeze peasants to cover bloated administrative costs. That peasants should protest is no surprise. In fact, Chinese authorities themselves acknowledge tens of thousands of protests across rural China each year. Central government officials are quick to blame rapacious local officials for the peasants' burden. However, when Ma exhausted all other legal options, he went like thousands of wronged Chinese citizens to the petition offices of the central government, a safety valve for social grievances that has a centuries-long history. Beijing's police promptly delivered him into the hands of the Zizhou County police, who detained him with regular beatings for four months. This points to a clear conspiracy between central and local administrative organs to silence voices like Ma's.

Johnson's second story relates another class action suit-this time by homeowners evicted from their Ming and Qing era homes by city governments and property developers seeking big profits. The city lawyers' case was also doomed before it began. There was simply too much money at stake for the 23,000 aggrieved residents to get anywhere with their claim. But Johnson maintains his optimism throughout. He observes astutely that the rules of the game are changing. The lawyers and their clients have become more sophisticated in representing their interests, pooling resources to print glossy brochures and using the media to mobilize public opinion, m a legal environment where the roles and interests of police, Party and courts are nebulously intertwined, such strategies become the new weapons of the weak.

The third character in Johnson's trilogy is not a lawyer but an ordinary grandmother. …