Books – recent titles reviewed

Good governance before democracy

The End of the Chinese Dream: Why Chinese People Fear the Future
Gerard Lemos, Yale University Press, London, 2012, 352pp, ISBN 9780300169249

Gerard Lemos’s book on China begins on a London housing estate and ends with thoughts about the Arab Spring. In between, the author takes us to central China where he sets about assessing the aspirations of the citizens living in and around the megacity of Chongqing.

His findings are made more salient because Chongqing was recently the fiefdom of the fallen politician Bo Xilai, who attempt­ed to mesh the contradictions of consumer society within an au­thoritarian state by reviving op­eras from the Cultural Revolution and the teachings of Mao Zedong.

Fresh from his surveys on the fractious and run-down Aylesbury estate in south-east London, in China Lemos uses a ver­sion of the ancient Chinese Wish Tree where people write down their wishes and tie them to its branches. With a small army of helpers, he devises four ques­tions: Who are you? What event changed your life? What is your biggest worry? What do you wish for?

The answers give us a fascinating in­sight into the people’s hopes and fears: about losing jobs, factories closing, land seizures, growing old, corrupt govern­ment and – most prevalent – about non-existent or unaffordable health care.

The Chinese government should be grateful for Lemos’s work because it tells them what their corrupt local officials per­haps do not. Democracy ideo­logues should also take note of the absence of cries for human rights and elections.

The results of the Wish Tree encapsulate more than anything a cry for good and fair governance. They might be off-message, but they go to the heart of the most complex social and political ex­periment of modern times.

“Chinese people are deeply insecure about themselves and their future,” writes Lemos, “just when the rest of the world has become star-struck by the apparent pros­pect of China’s imminent glory.” Lemos is not prescriptive. Each reader can devise their own road map, one that, for starters, could channel more of China’s billions into hospitals and less into skyscrapers.

On the Aylesbury estate, the 10,000 res­idents overturned the government’s own development plans because they were given a vote. In China, there is no vote.

Lemos reminds us that few predicted a sudden end to the Soviet Union or the dumping of dictator after dictator in the Arab world, and that more often than not substantive change comes not from experts or existing political systems but from the hands of the citizens themselves. This is, therefore, an important contribution to an­swering one of the great 21st-century ques­tions: How will China’s leaders deal with the universality of human hope?

Humphrey Hawksley, BBC World Affairs Correspondent

A difficult story that must be told

Still Counting the Dead: Survivors of Sri Lanka’s Hidden War
Frances Harrison, Portobello, London, 2012, 272pp, ISBN 9781846274695

The enormity of what happened in Sri Lanka in 2009 is still far from being gen­erally known or appreciated around the world. A conflict pitting Buddhists against Hindus, with the latter as the underdogs, doesn’t fit into any of the main paradigms that motivate and polarise activists, media or indeed governments in the wider inter­national community – East vs West, North vs South, Muslim vs Judeo-Christian, etc. Even many of those who almost routinely rush to the defence of ethnic minorities are reluctant to do so in this case for fear of being associated with the Tamil Tigers – one of the best-armed and most ruthless of separatist groups in recent world history.

There is also the sense that this conflict, however unpleasant, is at least now over, and one should not risk reviving it by rak­ing over old grievances. So the outside world continues to treat Sri Lanka’s gov­ernment with respect, and President Ma­hinda Rajapaksa is set to become the next two-year chairman of the Commonwealth.

Frances Harrison’s book is important and timely. A former BBC correspondent in Sri Lanka, she makes the full horror of the last months of the war almost unbearably real, by allowing a series of individual survivors to tell their stories. Each of them describes liv­ing through an unimaginable hell on earth, as tens – prob­ably hundreds – of thousands of people were crowded into an ever-shrinking strip of land controlled by the Tigers, with shells raining down on them at all times of day and night; men, women and children blown to pieces at every moment; makeshift hospitals repeatedly targeted, their doctors struggling to perform surgery, often without anaesthetic; the whole landscape filled with dead bodies or body parts as well as the excrement of the living; and eventual surrender followed by lengthy detention, abuse and, in many cases, torture, rape or both. Harrison reveals, almost in passing, that much of the Sri Lankan army’s equipment – including armoured vehicles, aircraft compo­nents and semi-automatic pistols – was sup­plied by Britain.

The witnesses come from the minority who have since been able to bribe and smug­gle their way out of the country, utterly traumatised and still not daring to give their real names. Inside today’s ‘peaceful’ Sri Lanka, no one would dare tell such stories to a journalist, even if promised anonymity. The defeat of the Tigers might have given an enlightened govern­ment the chance to embark on a real process of national recon­ciliation, which would have to include an honest reckoning of crimes committed by both sides. Alas, there is little sign of that.

Edward Mortimer, former speechwriter for Kofi Annan and Chair of the Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice (www.


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