“Even in the darkest of times,” Hannah Arendt once wrote, “we have the right to expect some illumination.” Ian Johnson presents Arendt’s comment as the epigraph to “Sparks,” and appropriately so: It sounds the great theme of his illuminating book.
For Mr. Johnson, the darkest of times for China is right now—the period since the establishment of the People’s Republic in 1949 under a Communist Party ruled by Mao Zedong. Today, Xi Jinping’s China is an authoritarian state with an aggressive foreign policy fueled by aspirations of world dominance. The economy is flagging, the population is aging, anyone who questions the “truth” as proclaimed by the party is subject to punishment, and modern surveillance technology allows Beijing, with its giant state apparatus, to spy on its citizens more intrusively than ever. “It is easy to argue that the leviathan has won,” Mr. Johnson writes.