Bad Elements by Ian Buruma was published in 2001 so, considering how dramatically China has grown over the past couple decades, I almost gave the book a pass. I'm glad I didn't. While China has grown, and many changes have come with this growth, it has yet to undergo the transformation expected or hoped for by countless many, especially in the areas of human rights, freedom of speech, and transition to some form of workable democracy. Bad Elements is therefore relevant to the present but obviously without reference to very recent events. Another reason to read it is for Buruma's remarkable clarity of thought and smooth writing, and so whatever in it might be less relevant is still a brilliant read. It also brought me back to a late 90s feel, when the whole world knew China was on the cusp of monumental change but unsure as to what exactly that change would mean.
For Bad Elements Buruma sat down (often with food, and reminiscent of Anthony Bourdain's interview style) with Chinese dissidents to hear their stories (some quite violent and harrowing, and heroic) and views on the past, present and future of China as well as Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Tibet. Throughout the book he revisits the Tiananmen Square demonstration in 1989 as a sort of modern-day focal point for activism and opposition. He starts off his interviews in the U.S. (farthest from Beijing) and then makes his way towards the political center or core of control over the "Chinese people" with stops to chat with others of Chinese birth or descent living in regions or countries outside of greater China. Parts are frustrating, for us and Buruma too, as he tries to track down answers in a miasma of lies and delusion and indoctrination and the systemic belief that China is way too old and too big and too complicated for any outsider to ever properly understand. He also takes a look at the interesting link between Christianity and Chinese dissidents as well as parallels between religion and democracy. Overall a really interesting, still relevant book by an author I've for too long read only his books on Japan.