- - Friday, June 14, 2013

THE DARK ROAD
By Ma Jian
Translated by Flora Drew
Penguin Press, $26.95, 384 pages

George Orwell once remarked that we have less sympathy for the 7 million victims of Stalin’s famine in Ukraine and the Caucasus than we do for the dog that we just hit on the road. The dog is an audible yelp and visible carnage: flesh, blood, bone and fur scattered over the highway. The 7,000,000 dead Ukrainians, on the other hand, are just a number.

I have long shared Orwell’s frustration. I have seen how eyes glaze over when I tell audiences that 400 million Chinese women — 400,000,000 — have been violated by the Chinese state in pursuit of its one-child policy. They gasp and gape at the number but, by the end of the lecture, all those zeros have begun to blur together in their minds.

However, when I tell the true-to-life story of a flesh-and-blood woman who was arrested for the crime of being pregnant, locked up in a holding tank for weeks on end and then forcibly aborted just before she was ready to give birth — well, that makes a lasting impression. So I have learned to put a human face on the numbers.

Celebrated dissident writer Ma Jian, in his latest book, does it even better. As Dickens exposed the inhumane treatment of orphans in “Oliver Twist,” as Orwell documented the plight of the poor in “On the Road to Wigan Pier,” so now does Mr. Ma come forward to reveal, in “The Dark Road,” how China’s women are suffering at the hands of the Chinese state.

The book begins with a scene from everyday life in rural China: A population-control van filled with hired thugs rolls into Kong Village. Their orders are to arrest all women pregnant with illegal children and bring them, by force if necessary, to the village school. There, in a makeshift operating theater, a doctor will administer a lethal injection into the woman’s womb, and remove the now-dead baby.

Meili and her husband, the main characters, manage to avoid the dragnet (although their neighbor Fang is not so lucky). They flee the village, buy a boat and take to the Yangtze River, thinking to escape into the relative anonymity of the floating population. But even fishermen are subject to the one-child policy, and they must stay on the move if they are to elude the minions of the state and have a second child. Each move strips away more of their humanity, revealing the raw, naked emotions underneath, and ultimately bringing Meili and her husband into jarring conflict.

As I know from personal experience, the one-child policy is something that you write about on your way out of China, when you don’t expect to be allowed back in. Ma Jian realized that he would be barred from China after the publication of his previous book, “Beijing Coma,” and so he took a long trip through the countryside in an effort to understand the lives of ordinary people. The fruits of that journey are in “The Dark Road,” which is as powerful a China novel as any I’ve read.

From the experience of failed communist states, we know what happens to economies when the state owns the means of production: It withers and dies. Thanks to Ma Jian, we now know what happens to women’s hearts when the state assumes control over the means of reproduction: They wither and dies as well — of pain and grief.

One is left with the sense of a country slowly killing itself — committing a kind of slow, collective suicide — that is hard to shake. We in the United States are horrified by the house of horrors that abortionist Kermit Gosnell ran in Philadelphia, where babies born alive after failed abortions were beheaded (just to make sure that they were dead, we are told). But there are thousands of houses of horror in China that do exactly the same thing day after day, year after year. How else do you get to 400 million?

Steven Mosher, president of the Population Research Institute, is the author of “A Mother’s Ordeal: One Woman’s Fight Against China’s One-Child Policy” (Harcourt).