When This Critic Speaks, Even the Government Listens

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TERRY McCARTHYWhen He Qinglian set out to write a denunciation of China's economic reforms and the systemic corruption they have given rise to, she never thought it would be published at home. Anger at the growing iniquity of Chinese society and what she sees as the wholesale looting of state-owned assets by corrupt cadres drove the 42-year-old economics graduate of Shanghai's Fudan University to complete her book. But after being turned down by nine publishing houses in China, she finally settled for a Hong Kong publisher--and resigned herself to being ignored on the mainland.Unknown to her, the manuscript was passed by a friend to the China Today Press in Beijing, whose chief adviser, Liu Ji, just happens to be vice president of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and, more importantly, a key adviser to President Jiang Zemin. Liu, who quickly saw the book as a tool in the leadership's campaign against corruption, extolled it as a masterpiece. Suddenly the obscure writer living in southern China's freewheeling Shenzhen special economic zone (the best city to learn about the vices caused by the reforms, says He) was in the big league. He's book, The Pitfalls of Modernization, was published in Beijing in February. In August she was summoned to the capital to address a government-sponsored conference on corruption. Liu told me three times, 'Tell me if you have problems ... remember that you have a friend in Beijing who can help you.'With such an eminent protector, He has become something of a celebrity in China and is regularly interviewed by the local media. Her book has become a surprise best-seller, provincial officials in Shandong and Guangdong have bought copies for their staffs, publishers eager to cash in on her name have put it on books she hasn't written. He receives so much mail from readers that even her local postman knows who she is. If there are letters with my name but the wrong address, he still knows where to deliver them, says He, who is married to a construction company executive and has a five-year-old son.Even with her backing, it's surprising to many that He gets away with her frankness. She says she was careful not to identify corrupt officials by name unless their cases had already been in the newspapers--I didn't use half of my research material--and her book goes to some lengths to praise the country's top leadership. But she doesn't pull any punches on the corrosive effects of the get-rich-quick mentality that she says is leading to growing resentment among the have-nots.On a scale of one to 10, how worried is He about China's future? Ten out of 10, she says. If prompt action is not taken, the country could collapse into chaos. A collection of He's essays is due to be published in November, and she plans to start work on another book about China's economy next year. This time she'll have her pick of publishers.Reported by Isabella Ng/Shenzhen
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