Memory is a dangerous thing in China. Memories of disputes never resolved continue to surface, as Ian Johnson writes in his intro-duction to this excellent book, "like a corpse that won't stay under". Beneath the shiny surface of China's booming cities, with their global brand names and smartly dressed young people, thousands of unresolved disputes are festering.
Some are fights over the loss of past positions. Having worked all their lives for low wages in exchange for a guarantee of job security and an old age free from fear, factory hands now find themselves without jobs, pensions or prospects, while their former managers make off with the factory assets. Disputes over land and housing are also rife: citizens whose homes are torn down to make way for new commercial premises find themselves waking up in hastily erected suburban developments; land belonging to peasants is seized to make way for dams or factories. Then there are the arguments over corruption and abuse of power by petty local tyrants - arbitrary taxation, extortion, exploitation. Such disputes add up to an ugly sea of discontent, kept in check by a watchful state that has abandoned its commitment to the welfare of its citizens but has never stopped watching them for signs of dissent.
Johnson argues that China's transition to the market has reached a stage which makes political reform and an end to the Communist Party's monopoly of power inevitable, though he wisely refrains from pinning a date on it. A market economy demands the rule of law, transparent regulations and some control on corruption, none of which is evident in today's China. The frustrations and injustices that this hybrid system produces are manifest in the continuing rash of discontent - and in the courage of tens of thousands of ordinary citizens who challenge a corrupt and failing system.
Johnson was the Wall Street Journal's correspondent in China; he used his time well. In three long essays, he describes three cases of ordinary citizens fighting back. Ma Wenlin, a small-town lawyer in the north-west, was imprisoned for "disturbing social order" after taking up the case of peasants who were trying to fight illegal taxes imposed by the local party secretary. China's peasants have long suffered under an iniquitous tax burden. Even in the days of Mao, their profits were siphoned off to develop industry and to keep the cities quiet and content. In the 1990s, however, the new market principles ushered in by economic reform encouraged local officials to tax farmers at will and spend the money as they chose. In one drought-stricken village, in 1995, a peasant was left with a cash income equivalent to $12. His taxes came to $25. In that village, roughly $75,000 in total had been collected illegally, but with Ma Wenlin's help the peasants went to court and got their taxes reduced. When another village hired him to fight a similar case, however, he was jailed.
The three episodes explored by Johnson (the others concern a Falun Gong practitioner and the attempt by a group of Beijing residents to save their once-marvellous city from being vandalised by the authorities) offer a road map of China's discontents. In each section, citizens are shown taking action to defend rights that are technically constitutional. The reality is that Chinese Communist Party officials pay little heed to the formal rights of citizens where these conflict with private or party interests. Johnson's case studies are no exception: no action was successful.
What is significant, however, is the notion these citizens have of their rights being abused, and their willingness to reach for whatever tools are available to fight back. Johnson demonstrates that the transition to the market has started to fracture the party's monopoly of power - not politically but in the legal sphere, and in the minds of ordinary people. The system, with its arbitrary abuses, its petty tyrannies and corruption, is being challenged by citizens with a powerful sense of injustice and a solid core of ethics.
Although this process has only just begun, it contains the seeds of real political change. Ian Johnson is a wonderful writer and a sympathetic presence. There is no better guide to this quiet revolution.
Isabel Hilton's most recent book is The Search for the Panchen Lama (Penguin)