Exorbitant Taxes, Alleyways, and Falun Gong

(Image: via  Ian Johnson's Website )

In Ian Johnson’s book Wild Grass, exorbitant taxes, alleyways (hutongs) and Falun Gong do not seem to have anything in common, but these three things are indeed the undercurrent of the disadvantaged, like weeds in the ground.

Author Johnson works like a private detective. In a bold and alert manner, he avoids China’s ubiquitous police and security, and explores three ordinary people’s lives, their varied sufferings and their experiences in their struggle for human rights.

Ian Johnson wild grass china chinese persecution Falun Gong peasant tax hutong

Screen Shot of Ian Johnson’s website.


The first story is about a Shanxi peasant working as a legal clerk who filed a class action suit on behalf of overtaxed farmers. Although he became a farmers’ hero, the authorities sent him to a labour camp for five years.

The second story is about an old Beijing courtyard – an alleyway, or hutong – with hundreds of years of history, being forcibly expropriated by the local government and replaced with skyscrapers. Its owners were forced to relocate with little compensation. Their mass appeal could not change the fate of the old courtyard nor its owners.

Falun Gong Practitioner China campaign persecution

A campaign of persecution against the Falun Gong in China. (Image: 明慧分类资料网 via Wikipedia / CC BY-SA 3.0)

The last story is about a Falun Gong practitioner. An old woman from Shandong was persecuted to death for practising Falun Gong. The local government quickly cremated her body. This has changed her daughter’s perception of her mother and also her own life.

In a quiet, calm and collected manner, the author describes a ridiculous legal system in modern China and the shocking brutality of enforcers. This book changes our image of China’s bottom layer: in fact, it is like an indomitable weed – tough, persistent and full of innovative forces.

The stories of these common people fighting against injustice, whether driven by personal interests or idealism, show the power of the human spirit cannot be suppressed and that the rule of the Chinese Communist Party only maintains a seamless appearance.

And yet, these stories of the underprivileged are China’s hope for political progress. China’s political progress is neither promoted by intellectuals’ declarations nor by a Chinese Gorbachev. It comes from the lower social class – defenders of human rights. It is a slow revolution that is shaking China’s power structure.

About the author Ian Johnson


Ian Johnson wild grass a book on china chinese persecution Falun Gong peasant tax hutong

Screen shot of Wild Grass bookcover.

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ian Johnson is the director of the Berlin office of The Wall Street Journal and a senior reporter in Beijing. He was born in Montreal, Canada, and is well known for his coverage of social, cultural and religious events. Mr Johnson has written award-winning coverage of China’s social development during the last two decades.

He eventually published Wild Grass: Three Portraits of Change in Modern China. In addition, his tracking reports on origins of radical Islam in Europe led to his publication of A Mosque in Munich.

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