The Magazine

The Chinese Wall

It separates reality from wishful thinking in the West.

Nov 24, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 10 • By ELLEN BORK
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Guy Sorman does not neglect the Communist party in Empire of Lies, a bracing, polemical, and encyclopedic account of its pathologies, among which are corruption, forced abortion, and social unrest. During a recent year-long trip to encounter "representative[s] of the present debate between the authoritarian power structure and its opponents," Sorman meets with dissidents, religious believers, Tibetans, and others who belie the conflation of China with the Communist party that pervades much thinking about China in the West.

Western policy is premised on the notion that economic growth will lead inexorably to reform. On a visit to a party school in Shanghai, Sorman asks about human rights and government accountability: "The Party listens to the people and addresses all of their concerns," the school's head tells him. "Western style democracy would mean going backward for China." When Sorman's interpreter wonders (out of earshot) if the cadres really believe such nonsense, he tells her that "the Party's real thinking and the training that it imparts have less to do with content than with the incessant repetition of these circumlocutions."

Sorman places his hopes with the many dissidents he meets, such as Ding Zilin, who for nearly 20 years has been trying to make the government accountable for the 1989 massacre of democracy protesters, including her son; a leading lawyer in the human rights defense movement; and Liu Xia, an artist married to a dissident intellectual who calls herself a Jew to identify herself with victims of another totalitarian regime.
Empire of Lies was originally published in France, and some passages are directed toward French intellectuals and politicians in ways that may seem irrelevant to American readers. No matter. While Americans love to mock Europeans for their slavish deference to Chinese leaders, on human rights and security matters the West is united in an approach built on the mistaken assumptions Sorman illustrates.

Ellen Bork works on human rights at Freedom House.