Journalist Ian Johnson describes his friend and colleague Peter Hessler for The New York Review of Books and analyses his often controversial take on China. For example his take on dissidents in China. ” Hessler’s four books have sold 385,000 copies in the US, a figure that easily makes him the most influential popular writer on China in decades.”
Hessler saw the story of China in the 1990s and 2000s as driven not by nationally known personalities or dramatic news events, but by an epochal movement of hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, and out of the village life that had dominated Chinese civilization. It was the rise of individuals—people with their own aspirations and goals, which they pursued in the space granted by the postMao state. Hessler lived in China while people like future Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo were publicly active, but he never wrote about them. To him, they might be noble but were marginal. That they were persecuted proved the state’s paranoia, not their larger significance for China’s future.
During his tour, I had the chance to talk to him at some length, and he emphasized to me that he isn’t allergic to politics. In Egypt, he has written extensively about the Muslim Brotherhood and attended former president Mohamed Morsi’s trial. In China his books include an indepth look at the Party’s operation in a village and sensitive issues such as hiring underage workers.
But in China, he said, he felt that elite politics are less important, especially when they revolve around classic dissidents challenging the state. During his eleven years in China, Hessler said he had been entrenched in a community three times—the teachers college (two years), a village (seven years), and a company town (three years)—and could follow events there longitudinally. In each place, the same pattern emerged: the most talented people either were recruited by the Party or quietly disengaged from it. The only people who actually fought the Party were “poorly connected and often dysfunctional”—petitioners, for example, or other marginal figures. Many were interesting and he wrote about them in depth, but they were not driving events.
“This is why I think it’s a big mistake to focus too much on the high profile and truly remarkable dissidents,” Hessler told me. “It gives the American reader the impression that the really smart people in China are opposed to the Party.”
These strongly held ideas underpin his books. Many journalists in China have been turned off—I often heard them say they wished he would finally tackle a “real” topic rather than his allegorical tales from small towns. But readers seem to find something of value. According to royalty statements at the end of last June, Hessler’s four books have sold 385,000 copies in the US, a figure that easily makes him the most influential popular writer on China in decades.
Are you looking for more experts on cultural change at the China Speakers Bureau? Do check out this list.