July 7, 2008 8:33AM

Liberalism in China

The New Yorker reviews Beijing Coma, a novel by Ma Jian, a Chinese exile who was at the Tiananmen protests in 1989. Reviewer Pankaj Mishra says that, like Milan Kundera, Ma knows that “the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” He wants to make sure that the Chinese don’t forget the Tiananmen protesters and what they were protesting. Even before 1989, Ma Jian had been denounced as an example of “bourgeois liberalism” and “spiritual pollution.”

I was particularly struck by a couple of lines in the review:

Reciting Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” to a fellow‐​writer, he mocked Ginsberg’s angry rejection of America. “He implies his country is not fit for humans to live in. Well, he should live in China for a month, then see what he thinks. Everyone here dreams of the day we can sing out of our windows in despair.”

In his memoir, Red Dust, published in 2002, Ma described his travels through China in the mid‐​1980s, in the midst of Deng Xiao‐​ping’s economic liberalization and before the Tiananmen crisis:

Ma Jian not only seems to have relished his own improvised life; he also appears to have embraced some of his country’s entrepreneurial exuberance. In one of the book’s many bracingly unexpected scenes, he finds himself exhorting the residents of an isolated village, “This country is changing, opening up. You can’t just stay here like vegetables. You should travel, broaden your minds. Haven’t you heard about Shenzhen Economic Zone?”

Ma Jian says his next book will be about China’s inhuman family‐​planning policy. It’s no wonder that his books are banned in China; if only American writers understood the liberating potential of economic freedom and the comforts of life in capitalist society as well as writers who lived under the alternative.