Small Signs of Political Reform in China ; Three Stories of Ordinary Chinese Citizens Inspired to Take Up Local Activism Demonstrate the Challenges of Reforming the World's Largest Country

Article excerpt

While debates over the big picture in China rage on, a slow transformation is unfolding on a much smaller scale. In villages and cities across the country, dissatisfaction and disbelief have provoked widespread protests and have also encouraged the emergence of an increasingly vibrant civil society, offering citizens new opportunities for social action.

Ian Johnson, the former Beijing bureau chief of The Wall Street Journal, witnessed these civic stirrings firsthand. As he writes in his introduction to "Wild Grass: Three Stories of Change in Modern China," "Try as it might, the party can't put a lid on the demands that people are making for change."

"Chinese people have begun forming independent centers of power outside government control.... Now, these groups are eroding the power of China's Communist Party."

This activism is the common thread that joins the three separate narratives of "Wild Grass" together. The protagonists of his book are ordinary Chinese facing extraordinary obstacles as they engage in bitter struggles against corruption and oppression.

A peasant lawyer, an urban homeowner, and a victim's daughter, each has a unique story to tell, but together they embody the increasingly universal desire for justice in China.

While tracing the development of China's nascent civil society and legal system, Johnson also brings to light the grave challenges that continue to impede progress. Indeed, though a framework for seeking legal redress has been established, it is often rendered obsolete by lack of the rule of law, by rapid development, and by local corruption.

When Ma Wenlin brings a lawsuit against the local government for levying illegal taxes and fees on his peasant neighbors, he believes that the law is on his side. He uses all of the available means of civil action: He organizes the peasants, leads protests, and - when these efforts fail - he travels to Beijing to file a written appeal with the central government.

However, Mr. Ma's trust in the system is apparently misguided and lands him in a labor camp.

The legal channels for addressing grievances exist in China, but without the rule of law to support them, citizens are often left at the mercy of self-serving officials.

We won't go

In China's cities, development has been pursued at a blinding pace. Pressure to modernize and to support a growing population has resulted in large-scale real estate development, necessitating mass evictions.

As a result, in Beijing, the old city is disappearing. Angry citizens are organizing themselves, and have brought lawsuits against the government to protest the destruction of their homes and their lack of fair compensation.

But as in the case of Zhao Jingxin's Ming-era residence, the government's push to develop - and to siphon off reparation funds - often takes precedence over the law. After her mother, a Falun Gong practitioner, is arrested and beaten to death by her local neighborhood committee, Zhang Xueling sets out determined to find justice. …