This is not a deer Bad Elements by Ian Buruma 367pp, Weidenfeld Chinese dissidents do not get much attention these days. Newspaper stories are few and far between. The latest item in a search on Google – reporting a four-year sentence for somebody who posted criticism of President Jiang Zemin on the internet – dates back to January. That conforms to the current mantra about China. Forget human rights, let alone democracy; it’s the economy, stupid. All that matters is whether Chinese exports will boom even further after Beijing’s entry into the World Trade Organisation, whether state banks will crumble under their mountain of bad debts, and whether the last major Communist-ruled nation on the planet will parlay economic growth into superpower status. In such a context, how can the tiny band of dissidents hope to be anything but yesterday’s men and women, out of touch with current realities, reduced to a squabbling group of exiles? Their marginality was symbolised when British police dragged off their most prominent member, Wei Jingsheng, as he tried to stage a one-man demonstration during Jiang’s visit to London in 1999.Hadn’t Chai Ling, the defiant figure of the Tiananmen Square demonstration in 1989, seen the light after escaping to the US, when she launched a software firm with a press release saying that a woman who had stood up to the Communist party should be able to see off Microsoft? That is certainly how Beijing – and most of those who deal with it – would like us to see the dissidents: as a hangover who should put the past behind them and accept that the world has changed. But Ian Buruma’s superb book shows how important the central question they pose is for the future of China – and thus for the world in our lifetimes. On the reportorial level, Buruma presents a clear-eyed but often touching account of the dissident world. His description of the torture and prison conditions that men such as Wei endured makes clear that, to survive, they needed not only enormous physical strength but also a single-mindedness that subsequently fuelled the violent rifts that make them easy targets for critics. As it moves from the exiles in the US to Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong, the book takes on a deeper aspect that develops further when the author gets to the mainland, moving through the materialistic jungle of the southern expansion zone of Shenzhen to well-observed visits to a village and to Tibet. In a finely plotted manner, Buruma lays out the fundamental question, encapsulated in a Confucian parable about a despot who tested the loyalty of his subjects by pointing to a deer and calling it a horse; his people were too afraid to contradict him. Though Confucius himself said that good government depended on the truth, such uniformity of thought, imposed by fear, has been sought by China’s rulers throughout the centuries. Whether the people really know the truth is less important. What matters is that they do not dissent from what their rulers tell them. As the rewriting of history has shown, this applies to the past, as well as the present. The legacy of the Tiananmen massacre, which runs as a current through the book, is a most salient example. In her new mode, Chai Ling asked Buruma why he wanted to talk to her about “all that old stuff, all that garbage”, and said she wanted “closure” on Tiananmen. Grasping the point perfectly, a young woman I spoke to at the 10th anniversary vigil in Hong Kong in 1999 said she had brought along her three-year-old daughter because “I just want her to know about history”. There is more to this than the desire of all authoritarian regimes to quell dissent. China’s rulers, old and new, insist that it is necessary for the people to call a deer a horse to avoid disorder. Stressing the danger of the world’s most heavily populated nation descending into chaos as a result of free thinking, the potentates in Beijing justify – to themselves, at least – locking up Falun Gong practitioners by the thousand, and proclaiming Jiang Zemin Thought as a sacred text. In Buruma’s phrase, they believe they have to hold “the centre of truth”. The dissidents’ offence is to refuse to recognise the infallibility of the regime, and the rulers react by locking them up, subjecting them to horrendous tortures – and then, for some, sending them into exile. Their refusal to buy Deng Xiaoping’s bargain of going along with the party’s thought monopoly in return for the chance to get rich raises the question of whether China will ever be able to admit that the centre of power may not be the centre of truth. Despite the flowering of democracy in Taiwan, Buruma is not optimistic about the prospects of the mainland moving down a gentle, slow road in that direction shepherded by the Communist party, and it is certainly hard to disagree, given the political permafrost in Beijing. This has a significance for the prevailing view from the west, which sees China through a business prism. The country’s growth has been a major world event of the last decade, and what happens in years to come may well be even more important. In which case, one has to wonder whether a regime that so violently rejects free thought and questioning, with the healthy checks and balances this brings, is up to running one of the world’s key economies. China’s financial system is rotten. Recent audits of state companies show a very high level of falsification of figures. Unemployed workers have taken to the streets this spring. The huge agricultural sector is suffering from stagnant prices, and will soon face competition from imports. Corruption is rampant, and the Communist party has long lost its aura. Those running China know this, and much more. But the monolithic mindset inhibits the necessary critical path for fear of bringing the whole edifice crashing down. One finishes this compelling book feeling that, in one sense, the rulers in Beijing are right. Few and weak as they are, the dissidents are a threat to their power, but it is the rulers who have decided so. · Jonathan Fenby is the author of Dealing with the Dragon: A Year in the New Hong Kong (Little, Brown), and is writing a biography of Chiang Kai-shek.