Suzanne Sataline reviews Patriot Number One by Lauren Hilgers
For weeks after reading Lauren Hilger’s debut book, Patriot Number One, I tried to embrace the concept of yin and yang. The collegial writer in me would like to say that the book is a first author’s loving tribute to an immigrant family’s struggle with identity and rebirth. The twisted journalist in my soul would counter that this is a young writer’s valiant attempt to stitch together two magazine stories into one topical, yet slender book.
Alas, I am no Taoist.
The patriot in question is Zhuang Liehong, a small town businessman and accidental activist from southern China who scurries to New York after police start rounding up fellow activists. Zhuang trades China’s thuggish corruption for New York’s Darwinian economics and the gunpowder populism of Donald Trump’s America. Hilgers offers quick sips of fine immersive reporting — the activists’ clandestine meetings, the indignities of low wage work, the grand schemes of a frustrated entrepreneur. But in her preference to be the witness, she brushes off the very reasons these people’s lives are so extraordinary, airbrushing the history and politics that make their decision, and their new life, so extraordinary.
On learning of the book, I was eager to read an inside take on the Wukan protests, an extraordinary campaign against corruption in the southeastern China province of Guangdong that rewarded, albeit briefly, democratic village elections in a one-party state. Hilgers’ magazine stories from China, and those of Chinese immigrant life in the United States, sparkle with pointillist details and insights, infused with material that is often unusual and dramatic. She visited the billionaire exile Guo Wengui at his New York penthouse, and followed the underground kitchen workers who commute along Interstate-95 to steam your wontons and General Tso’s chicken. Hilgers is a quiet observer who carefully notes emotional indignities, talking directly to her audience only when necessary. She is a young, companionable writer.
In Zhuang Liehong Hilgers found a loquacious, vain, civic-minded dreamer, who discovered in 2011 that officials in his home village of Wukan sold land and pocketed the renminbi. An unsteady businessman who yearns for respect, he organizes a protest – “Patriot Number One” is his social media handle – and prods thousands of agitated residents to riot. The government blockades the village. When a resident dies in police custody, a deal is struck: Wukan residents can elect their own leaders, an experiment that government officials know will descend into pay-offs and stand-offs.
Hilgers would seem to be the perfect writer to tell such a story at book length. She witnessed part of the action, and attended secret meetings with the rebels at a sleepy tea shop where she notes the cloying air as they fret for their future.
This fascinating ride then veers sharply off the runway. With the fate of Zhuang’s friends and neighbors in flux, Patriot Number One detours to New York. Now a political asylum seeker, with his wife in tow, Zhuang frets about affording life in the capitalist cauldron. A book about defiance in China becomes a more routine narrative of immigrant life, with the expected frustrations of subdivided flats, sclerotic bureaucracy, and comical experiments with English, updated with Zhuang’s forays with Uber and the gig economy. Hilgers tries to wring anxiety from the domestic dramas. We follow Zhuang and his wife Little Yan’s frustrations with the asylum process. They plot how best to safely extract their child from China. Time and again the crises fizzle. The baby arrives fine. The asylum process ends with such haste one wonders what details were left out. Sections with minor characters, including a smart striver who tidies rooms in a Manhattan hotel, feel like padding.
The narration is light, and Hilgers tiptoes in as a friend to, and cultural ambassador for, her uneducated characters. After Zhuang and his wife are scolded for not paying a restaurant tip, and for jumping off a bus instead of letting it stop, she explains their lowly new caste by the reaction of their neighbors: “Flushing was full of face-losing situations. … The veteran immigrants would sigh, tired of the complications that the steady influx of newcomers presented.”
All the while, the Wukan police busted down doors and dragged off neighbors in the night. One family stood up to the officials, and demanded that they release their dead relations’ body. Far from the action, Zhuang tracks the arrests and violence on Facebook. Like us, he becomes a mere spectator, and in time the book becomes a meta-narrative, with us reading about a protester who reads about protest – far less riveting than manning the barricades.
“The book becomes a meta-narrative, with us reading about a protester who reads about protest”
Hilgers’ easy asides are too feathery when she tries to explain China’s politics and history. Early in the book a participant urges the Wukan residents to not just demand that their land be returned, but to seek self-rule. “They were edging toward a line they could not precisely locate, moving from creating a nuisance to organizing real and dangerous dissent,” she writes. Then she skitters away. We never learn about the decades of southern Chinese activism, the government’s typical violent responses, how such social movements stoked generations of protest, and propelled millions to dash for asylum.
The book’s greatest deficit is its maddening refusal to wrestle with politics and history. How did these activists differ from their brethren in China? How often do Chinese visitors win asylum in the United States? (These days? Rare.) How did a neighborhood in far east Queens become the epicenter of Chinese emigre life in the United States? And what impact did these Wukan warriors have on President Xi Jinping’s campaign to stifle all dissent? Patriot Number One is so firmly rooted in the here and now, it’s as if Hilgers feared that the weight of the past would smother the dreamy present. The book is kept small, and twee, a spring twig that could be a sturdy oak.
Hilgers, I imagine, had two issues when planning the book. Late in her time in China, she found an amazing character leading a movement that then died down. Then she returned to America only to discover this character had moved to New York. Hilgers decided to interweave the two parts, a decision that leaves the reader with chronic whiplash and a mild concussion, as one tries to recall both the status of Zhuang’s asylum application and the name of which young dissenter was elected to the Wukan council.
And what of the prospect of democracy in China? Hilgers leaves us with a sunny sign-off, a protester’s earnest embrace of American freedom. At a time when the United States feels decidedly less free to many people, especially its newest residents, when thousands of Muslims have been hustled into Chinese education camps, there is a desperate need for work that examines defiance in the age of Xi and Trump. That work needs time, and research, and grit. ∎