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
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
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