Xu Zhiyuan is an exiled Chinese journalist who writes on political and cultural life in China. Described by the perhaps better known dissident and artist Ai Weiwei as “the most important young Chinese intellectual of his generation,” his book Paper Tiger: Inside the Real China is a no-holds-barred look at the devastation caused by the Chinese Communist Party in his native land. But although this is a profoundly anti-Party book, the pieces inside also reveal the positives of modern Chinese life.
These pieces – loosely organised into themes – are all short, but each packs a punch. Xu is scathing about the damage done to Chinese individuals and to the people as a whole through totalitarianism, obsessive secrecy, domination and arbitrary use of power, including detention and theft. And although, as expected, the political aspect of all this is centre stage, Xu makes a lot of how some pseudo-capitalist changes (rooted in the leadership of Deng Xiaoping) have robbed the Chinese of their ethics and indeed their selves. China is revealed through his writing as mostly shallow, trite, money-obsessed and incapable of anything other than disconnected thought.
It is a melancholy book in places, but there is insight enough to make it very readable, often fascinating. China is revealed as a country unique on the planet, with what appear to be Western style freedoms knocking around in the worst kind of twentieth century dystopia. Xu Zhiyuan himself offers little hope, but he does at least show the direction in which hope could be found.