The Peking Duck is officially closed

Obviously, this blog has been “closed” for months (if not years, really). Now I simply want to make it official, and to share my final thoughts on The Peking Duck. For now, I am leaving the site up, at least temporarily. It would be too painful for me to take down; so much of my life is here in its pages.

I started this blog about 15 years ago as a way for me to jot down my thoughts and observations — for myself. I didn’t expect to have an audience, and for the first several months I didn’t even offer comments. Then, in 2003, I was in Beijing for the SARS epidemic, and I was amazed at the Chinese government’s dishonesty as they claimed the city was SARS-free. I began to blog about SARS obsessively and soon I had a bigger readership and the next thing I knew I was putting up multiple posts nearly every day and my site traffic grew. Then in 2005 I began putting up open threads, under the headline “Great Hall of the People” and hundreds of commenters participated in what at times were quite raucous conversations. (If you are new to the site, or if you feel nostalgic, go into the archives around 2005 and see how these threads started and developed.) Soon other China bloggers agreed to put up posts on my site and it became common to see five or six posts put up on any given day. I even opened a message board, The Duck Pond, for threaded conversations. Those were the golden days of blogging. I slowed it down dramatically in 2008, when I moved back to Beijing to work on the Beijing Olympics and I simply had no time to post. And for the next few years I posted less and less, and now it’s time to wrap it all up.

Before I go I’d like to call attention to a few of my favorite posts. On the left-hand sidebar on this page you’ll see the category “The Emperor’s Jewels,” a list of what I considered my best posts — this old-timer remains my favorite — but there are many others I could include. There is this post, which offers the wildest comment thread in the blog’s history. The post in which I expressed my greatest frustration with living in China was probably this one (which is also pretty funny). One post especially close to my heart is this one, which I wrote after learning that a friend of mine took his own life; people who knew him came here to share their memories of him and I found it incredibly touching. I also posted about the death of my closest friend from college, which also generated some moving comments. Another of my funnier posts is here, about a blind date I had in Singapore. (It’s funny now; it wasn’t funny in 2003.) Back in 2011 I had a feud with a China apologist named Shaun Rein; these posts, some of which were quite amusing, can be found here, and they inspired some of my best comment threads.

There are several thousand posts here (and tens of thousands of comments), and so many of them are close to my heart, I obviously can’t list all my favorites. If you have the time, scroll through some of the archives and see what a vibrant community The Peking Duck once was. But that was a long time ago. I have left China, and feel I have nothing new or revealing to add. When I do have something to say, I now turn to Facebook, as do so many former bloggers. And I simply don’t have the energy or inclination to keep the blog going as I did in years past. It was a lot of fun, and for a long time it was practically my entire life, but it was also a lot of work. So this site will join the ranks of other now-retired blogs like Imagethief, Beijing Cream, China Geeks, Chinayouren, Bokane, Mark’s China Blog, Talk Talk China, The Paper Tiger and many others. It was a thrilling ride. I used to love waking up to hundreds of new comments. It was a real community. But all good things must end, and I probably should have shut down the site a few years ago instead of allowing it to slowly die on the vine. Thanks so much for joining me here. I’ll miss all of those who contributed to The Peking Duck — the site was more about the participants here than it was about me. What a great experience it was. Thanks again.

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Trump Nation

In one of my most overwrought posts (and there are a lot of overwrought posts on this blog) I despaired, somewhat histrionically, that in order to survive the horrors of the Age of Trump, I had to try to block it out and look inward. What was happening was simply too terrible, too alarming to deal with. I concluded, rather hopelessly,

On the eve of World War I, British Foreign Secretary Edward Grey famously remarked, “The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time.” Will we see them lit again in America? For now, all we can do is stand and wait. And maybe pray. I do not mean in any way to be an alarmist, but I do believe Trump is going to be worse than any of us imagine. I fear we are going to be in nightmare mode for years to come, if not for generations (thanks to a Trump-selected Supreme Court). A tragedy, in every way. A complete and total tragedy.

The bad news is that I am now just as pessimistic about my country’s future. Maybe even more so. We seem to exist from one Trump atrocity to the next. Weeks seem like months, months like years, as each day brings another outrage, so many so quickly that we can’t keep up. This past week he injected nasty political swipes during an address to the Boy Scouts. Just a couple of days later he told police not to be “too nice” when arresting suspected gang members, a particularly ugly example of Trump’s brutality, actually encouraging police to rough up people they arrest, throwing to the winds the concept of innocent until proven guilty. The day before that we witnessed his new communications director referring to the sitting chief of staff as a “fucking paranoid schizophrenic.” Today he ranted against China, as though Xi Jinping could erase the threat of North Korea’s nuclear program with a wave of his hand.

It all started on June 16, 2015, the day Trump announced his candidacy. I watched it live, transfixed. Here was a candidate for the presidency of the United States slandering Hispanics with glee. We all remember his chilling words that day.

When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best….They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.

How on earth could he hope to win the nomination while preaching hatred and racism? He would have to burn out in a matter of weeks, right? Americans would obviously see how menacing and unhinged he was, right?

For months I watched him closely, and I began to become calloused – little Trump said could surprise me. He shocked me, but he did not surprise me. I watched in astonishment when he said John McCain was only a war hero because he got captured. My jaw dropped when he made fun of a journalist with a neurological disease. And perhaps I was most stunned when I heard him utter these words in December, 2015:

“Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on.”

This was deranged on several levels. Imagine President Obama announcing a ban on Jews seeking to come to America. Never before had we seen a “serious” politician slander an entire religion. Trump barely concealed his racism as he preached his message of “law and order,” which is code for keeping blacks and Hispanics in check. It was a message of fear. Fear of immigrants, fear of blacks, fear of Muslims, fear of Hispanics. Then he lashed out at Elizabeth Warren, dubbing her “Pocahontas,” another racist slur (imagine calling President Obama “Sambo”). When would it stop? When would he implode?

I admit, I was hypnotized. Like so many others, I watched the Trump rallies and speeches slavishly, in a state of bemused wonder. Bemused because he would, of course, never actually win. The networks became all Trump all the time. He was spectacular for their ratings; everyone wanted to enjoy the spectacle of this madman’s rants and insults. He had no fear of offending vast swaths of Americans (like the “elites”). The cheers of his adoring crowds gave him electrifying energy. He never backed down, never apologized, never showed any signs of conscience. He encouraged his fans to rough up protesters at his rallies, offering to help pay their legal bills. Ugliest of all, perhaps, was his constant smearing of Hillary Clinton as a criminal – a charge that stuck to her, and that he still rants about, calling for his attorney general to pursue criminal charges against her for using a private server, an issue that then-FBI director Jim Comey put to rest months earlier, saying she was careless but in no way criminal.

Then we watched him win one primary after another. Jeb Bush, we were told, was going to be the front runner, and maybe Marco Rubio would be his most serious opponent. Trump was a bad joke. He had to flame out. But we all know what happened next.

The fascination with all things Trump continues. Cable news cannot serve up enough of Trump, countless panels never tire of dissecting his every word, every tweet. Noxious Trump surrogates on CNN lie through their teeth defending him, and for some reason the network keeps them on despite their obvious prevarications. And I contribute to this circus, obsessively watching all the cable shows, and then tuning in later at night to watch Steven Colbert and Seth Meyers, both of whom have made mocking Trump a cottage industry.

We are now more than six months into this nightmare and things keep going from bad to worse. All the hope that he would “grow into the job,” that “sane” voices like Ivanka Trump’s and Jared Kushner’s, would keep him in check, and that experienced advisors like Generals Maddis and MacMaster would rein him in — none of it happened. And the Democrats can’t seem to come up with a credible alternative; where is the leader we can rally around and look to for leadership in 2020? And what is the Democrats’ message? This was a serious flaw in the Clinton campaign: she never successfully articulated a message that would bring people together. Trump’s Make America Great again and Bernie Sanders’ promise of a Better Tomorrow and a new deal for the working and middle classes, were effective, whatever we may think of Trump and Sanders. And let me be clear that I thought Clinton was a qualified, intelligent, experienced statesman who would have made an excellent president. But I was frustrated at her inability to articulate a vision, other than her promise to keep building on the foundations Obama had laid down. This proved to be tone deaf: Americans wanted a sea change; what we had wasn’t working for them. They wanted a leader who would “drain the swamp” and listen to the working people. Trump exploited their fears and prejudices masterfully. You have to give him credit. He tapped into a vein of anger, despair and frustration. Never mind that his promises were empty and that his words would ring hollow. He was a shrewd politician and I hope the Democrats can learn from him. The message is everything. What is the Democrats’ message?

At the moment, the only ray of hope I can see is the inability of Trump to get anything done. His narcissistic arrogance is equaled only by his incompetence and tendency to thrive on chaos. But don’t forget, he will almost certainly name at least one more Supreme Court justice, and the fate of Roe v. Wade (and plenty of other decisions) will be in danger. The Court will shape what America is for years, maybe decades, to come. And that is too scary to contemplate.

Thanks for indulging me as I rant against Trump for the second time in six months. I just had to get it out of my system. Meanwhile, I will keep doing all I can to support the resistance, but for now I remain half-paralyzed. I fear we still haven’t seen the worst of Trump’s presidency. It’s going to be a long three and a half years.

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Liu Xiaobo

Readers of this blog need no introduction to Liu Xiaobo, his life or his death. I just wanted to take a moment to reflect on his passing several days ago, and to share my thoughts on what his plight tells us about the CCP and the perils of being an activist in today’s China.

Liu was an outspoken advocate for human rights, and was sharply critical of the CCP and the stultifying effect the government had on all aspects of Chinese life, including its intellectuals and authors. Liu was persistently critical of writers in China who, he felt, had lost their ability to think for themselves. From the single best tribute I’ve read on Liu’s life and death, by the great China Hand Perry Link:

“I can sum up what’s wrong with Chinese writers in one sentence,” Liu Xiaobo wrote in 1986. “They can’t write creatively themselves—they simply don’t have the ability—because their very lives don’t belong to them.”

Often in his writing Liu deliberately stuck his thumb into the government’s eye. He was a fierce critic of the CCP’s stranglehold on its people’s psyche and he was not afraid to say so. This became most obvious in his Charter 08, a manifesto calling for democratic reforms. It was to seal his fate, leading to his arrest and 11-year prison sentence for subversion. But even thirty years before that Liu showed just how courageous he could be, after he rushed back to Beijing from New York in March of 1989 to support the students demonstrating in Tiananmen Square.

As the movement lurched towards disaster, Liu tried to reason with the students to tone down their protests and return to their classes. When the army arrived, Liu negotiated with them to allow protesters to leave the square peacefully. In the aftermath, he was arrested and imprisoned until January 1991.

“From the moment I walked out of the Square, my heart has been heavy, after all that bloodshed on June 4th. I’ve never gotten over this,” he said, afterwards.

The government has done a splendid job slandering Liu and destroying his reputation. The brutal 11-year sentence shocked the world and led to his being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010. The CCP-controlled media refer to him as a “criminal” and rage against the West for idealizing him. A particularly odious editorial in the Global Times lashes out at those outside China who dare to look favorably on Liu:

Since Liu’s medical parole was made public, the Chinese side has been focusing on Liu’s treatment, but some Western forces are always attempting to steer the issue in a political direction, hyping the treatment as a “human rights” issue. US and German authorities have also chimed in.

Obviously, outside disturbances were of no help to Liu’s treatment. It is common sense that a critically ill patient should not be informed of disputes surrounding him that may arouse emotional upheaval, but the West was unwilling to care about Liu’s condition.

Liu’s last days were politicized by the forces overseas. They used Liu’s illness as a tool to boost their image and demonize China. They aren’t really interested in prolonging Liu’s life. While Chinese doctors were doing their best to save Liu, they clamored and asked the critically ill patient to be transferred abroad only to show their so-called “sympathy.”

Liu’s jail sentence is a solemn ruling of the Chinese law. Liu was diagnosed with cancer in jail, and the prison authorities granted him medical parole and provided him with humanitarian treatment. These are all facts. The various speculations from the West will vanish soon….

Liu lived in an era when China witnessed the most rapid growth in recent history, but he attempted to confront Chinese mainstream society under Western support. This has determined his tragic life. Even if he could live longer, he would never have achieved his political goals that are in opposition to the path of history.

Right, the government saw to it that Liu was given “humanitarian treatment.” Right, his goals of democratic reforms and human rights are “in opposition to the path of history.” It’s when we read pieces like this that we are reminded just how thuggish and brutal China’s government can be. I have tried over the years to give the Party the benefit of the doubt and to point out some of the good they have done for their people. But the fact remains they are an authoritarian government that at times displays all the characteristics of a police state. And since Xi came to power, more and more activists, and even their lawyers, have been thrown into prison. Now they continue to harass Liu’s widow, who remains under house arrest. (That’s a shocking atricle.) China under Xi is a thugocracy. You’re fine if you keep your mouth shut. But once you call attention to yourself by speaking out, God help you. The Party will crush you like an insect.

Many years ago I called China “the evil empire.” (And if you never read that post, I strongly recommend it, even though my assessment of the CCP has softened since I wrote it 14 years ago.) For all their efforts to show us a peaceful and humane China, for all their attempts to strengthen the country’s “soft power,” little has changed.

Three years ago we witnessed another CCP crime against humanity when they arrested and sentenced to prison for life a moderate Uighur professor, Ilham Tohti, who advocated peaceful solutions to China’s conflicts with the Uighurs. Life imprisonment. This was an obvious attempt to “kill the chicken to scare the monkey.” How can activists dare to speak truth to power when they see that their lives can in effect be snuffed out even for a peaceful call for modest reforms?

China longs to be seen as a peaceful and benevolent world power. But we cannot be fooled. It remains a morally bankrupt and semi-totalitarian state. Yes, there have been reforms, yes, people there enjoy a degree of freedom unthinkable a mere 30 years ago, and yes, the majority of Chinese would most likely vote for the CCP if elections were to be held today (is there any viable alternative?). But don’t deny that it remains a police state. Just ask Professor Tothi. Just ask Liu Xia.

Western-style democracy may not be the answer. (Look at who we elected as our own president.) But greater adherence to the rule of law is a necessary step for China to be seen as a free country. And let me add that I understand why some would be critical of Liu Xiaobo for pointing to the West as an example for China, for pointing to Hong Kong as an example of how colonization by the West would be a good thing for China, and for being in favor of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. But that is all irrelevant. Liu should never have been thrown into prison. China has once again shown the world how paranoid, frightened and cowardly they can be. No government that isn’t terrified of the slightest opposition would ever sink to such a level of moral depravity. It cannot be forgotten or forgiven, despite the Global Times’ assertion that the West’s outrage over Liu’s plight “will vanish soon.” Let them believe that. The world remains shocked and appalled at Liu’s treatment, and history will not forget the CCP’s malfeasances.

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Mao’s Hidden Massacres

About nine years ago, when I was doing work related to the Beijing Olympics, I learned a lesson I should have been smart enough to know in advance. I should have known that Chinese people don’t like it when a foreigner criticizes their government in general and Mao in particular. I was talking to a colleague over lunch when something led us to the topic of Mao, and I expressed a belief I’ve written about countless times on this blog: that Mao was a mass murderer who led China to the brink of destruction and who brought the Chinese people nothing but pain and misery. The young lady, who was one of my dearest friends in China, was college educated and spent years studying in Canada. I made the mistake of assuming that someone so urbane and well schooled would know just how bad Mao was for China. “You don’t understand,” she said. “Mao did so much good for China.” She went on to defend him, tears in her eyes, and I did not argue back. I just nodded and said, “I understand.” I had been thoughtless; I should have remembered that I, too, have gotten defensive when Chinese friends criticized my own government.

I have read countless articles, essays, blog posts and books about what Mao has meant for China. I believe more than ever that he did incalculable harm, that he sent the country into a near-death spiral, that he had the blood of millions on his hands and that the Chinese people deserve to know the truth about the horrors of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. I know better than to lecture my Chinese friends about this, but I have no problem writing how I feel on my own blog.

Mao has been on my mind for the past several days thanks to a recent book review by Ian Johnson, arguably the most level-headed and knowledgeable of all China hands, on a side of the Cultural Revolution I was largely unaware of, namely the massacre of hundreds of thousands of innocent Chinese people in the country’s far-flung rural areas. These killings were not isolated incidents; they were systematic and widespread. Johnson’s article deals in particular with the massacre of some 9,000 Chinese citizens in Dao County in south Hunan province. People who had the bad luck of being the child of a traffic policeman, for example, were labeled “black elements” and rounded up as Mao tightened the notches of propaganda warning that these “enemies” were plotting a counterrevolution. In response, local authorities decided it was best to act pre-emptively and exterminate the enemies. (Johnson writes that records show between 400,000 and 1.5 million men, women and children were murdered in such incidents throughout rural China.)

Johnson describes one of the many massacres carried out in Dao County, in which the “black elements” were marched to a killing field:

A self-proclaimed “Supreme People’s Court of the Poor and Lower-Middle Peasants” was formed out of the mob and immediately issued a death sentence to the entire group. The adults were clubbed in the head with a hoe and kicked into a limestone pit. Mrs. Zhou’s children wailed, running from adult to adult, promising to be good. Instead, the adults tossed them into the pit too.

Some fell down twenty feet to a ledge. Mrs. Zhou and one of her children landed alive on a pile of corpses on a higher ledge. When the gang heard their cries and sobs they tossed big rocks at the ledge until it collapsed, sending them down onto the others. Miraculously, all the family members survived. But as the days passed each of them died, until Mrs. Zhou was the last person in the pit with thirty-one corpses around her.

For many of these “undesirables,” the killings were the culmination of years of living as second-class citizens: “The state had stripped them of their property. It had assigned them bad jobs with low pay or rocky plots of land to farm. And it had inundated China with a barrage of propaganda intended to convince many that black elements were dangerous, violent criminals who were barely human.” Blame for the hysteria that led to these acts of genocide can be traced directly to Zhongnanhai. I wonder, would there have been a Cultural Revolution without Mao? Would there have been a Holocaust without Hitler? The answer to both of these questions, I believe, is no.

The book Johnson reviews is The Killing Wind: A Chinese County’s Descent into Madness During the Cultural Revolution, which was originally published in Hong Kong and has just been translated into English. The review makes for engrossing reading, and portrays the Cultural Revolution as even more appalling and frightening than I had imagined, if such is possible. Accompanying the review is an interview Johnson conducted with the book’s author, Tan Hecheng. When Hu Yaobang was in power Tan and other officials were assigned to research the Dao County massacre, but by the time he was finished with his interviews and research the political winds in China had shifted and the government had no interest in shining a spotlight on itself. For anyone with even a passing interest in the Cultural Revolution, both the review and the interview are indispensable.

I regret the tears shed by my colleague, caused by my unintentionally hurtful comments. But my visceral loathing of Mao remains unchanged, and after reading Johnson’s articles it only becomes worse. Mao’s rein was nothing less than one long, brutal crime against humanity, and I wish more of today’s young Chinese understood that. As America steps closer to authoritarianism with Trump’s inauguration tomorrow, it is time for all of us to learn from the past.

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Welcome to the Age of Trump


Since Trump’s victory, my favorite Middle Eastern restaurant in Phoenix, Middle Eastern Bakery and Deli, has had its windows smashed — twice. I know the owner and his wife and it is kind of ironic that they are Christians (from Lebanon). Huge crowds lined up at lunchtime today to show their support, and I plan to go tomorrow. It is encouraging that the central Phoenix community has set up a GoFundMe page to help the restaurant owner and it has garnered nearly $11,000 in the past 24 hours.

They say it’s too early to call this a hate crime, but I strongly suspect it is. And I expect we will see lots more incidents like this as racists and haters feel emboldened by Trump’s election, by a man who called for the ban on all Muslims entering the US, by a man beloved by white supremacists and ultra-nationalists. Welcome to the Age of Trump, where the new national security advisor has said “fear of Muslims is RATIONAL” (his caps), and where Trump’s strategic advisor has strong ties to the alt right. Since Trump’s election, incidents of harassment and intimidation have soared. It’s going to be a long and painful four years.

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Donald Trump Rears His Head

Three weeks later, and the shock and worry won’t wear off. For months I had devoured every bit of news about the election. I donated three times to the Democratic campaign. I watched the three cable news giants obsessively. I had it all figured out, thanks to the media and the ubiquitous polls thrown at us every day: Trump had only the narrowest of windows for winning the race and he had a 90 percent chance of losing. Women and Hispanics were mobilizing and would vote in record numbers for Clinton. Millennials were coming off the pain they felt at Bernie Sanders’ defeat in the primaries and were now going to vote for Clinton. Obama was going to galvanize black voters and send them to the polls. For all her baggage, Clinton was the odds-on favorite up to the very last day. And then, as I sat transfixed watching my television screen on election day, the unthinkable happened, and now I can’t stop thinking about it. I keep trying to wrap my head around what a world led by a lying, bullying, hateful reality TV star would look like, and I still can’t quite visualize it. We know some terrible disaster is right around the corner, thanks to Trump’s ignorance of foreign policy, underscored by his chat with Taiwan’s president and his heaping praise on the president of Pakistan.

Even three weeks later I feel numb, helpless and betrayed. After all, Clinton won the popular vote handily. And if it hadn’t been for James Comey’s shockingly inappropriate letter to Congressional committee chairs announcing that yet more Clinton emails had been discovered, I am convinced we would have seen a happier outcome. We would have seen a more progressive Supreme Court. We would have seen the continuation and improvement of Obamacare. We would have seen protection of entitlements like Medicare and Social Security, which the GOP can’t wait to privatize. We would have seen a calm, cool-headed leader who knows how to skillfully interact with heads of state and who understands how to walk the tightrope of international relations (like how to deal with Taiwan). Instead we get a misogynistic, narcissistic, race-baiting carnival barker. Our lives are in the hands of a madman. All we can do is hope he can be restrained by those he surrounds himself with, but I’m not sure anyone can restrain Donald Trump. His chief strategist, Steven Bannon, is closely aligned with the alt right, and will be whispering in Trump’s ear every day. God help us.

We are all beyond saturation with the coverage. My Facebook feed fills up every few minutes with more stories about Trump’s improbable victory and what it means. Key words and phrases that keep running in my head include uncharted territory, fear, dread, despair, unprecedented, terrifying, no one knows, unimaginable, white supremacists, surreal…. And I admit that despite the saturation, I still keep reading the articles and watching the news shows, hoping that maybe I can finally understand and accept what happened. (So far I have been glaringly unsuccessful.)

I suppose we have two alternatives: to burrow ourselves into a hole and try to block it all out, or to actively work to change things for the better and to get ready for the next election fight in 2018. The closing stanza of Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach keeps replaying in my head:

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

There we have it: the most I can do at the moment is turn inward and try to keep the angst at a minimum, to forget about the “ignorant armies” that clash by night and just get on the best I can. Maybe in a few months I’ll get active in politics again, but for now I am simply trying to keep from being overwhelmed in a tsunami of terrible news that seems to get worse every day. The steady onslaught, the latest telling of Trump’s horrifying behavior or appointment or tweet, is numbing, stultifying. Hope is supposed to spring eternal, but at this moment I can’t see anything to feel hopeful about.

On the eve of World War I, British Foreign Secretary Edward Grey famously remarked, “The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time.” Will we see them lit again in America? For now, all we can do is stand and wait. And maybe pray. I do not mean in any way to be an alarmist, but I do believe Trump is going to be worse than any of us imagine. I fear we are going to be in nightmare mode for years to come, if not for generations (thanks to a Trump-selected Supreme Court). A tragedy, in every way. A complete and total tragedy.

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Ghosts of Tiananmen Square

Allow me to put up a brief post on the anniversary of June 4th, as I’ve done every year for some 12 years or so. The Tiananmen Square protests were a landmark in my life. I had just bought cable TV for the first time in the winter of 1989, and I will never forget watching CNN, transfixed by what looked like an unstoppable movement. I watched the students carry out the Goddess of Democracy, I watched the tanks rolling down the streets, I watched Tankman standing up to the PLA (and the amazing sight of the tank driver veering away, not wanting to harm the young man). I was full of hope that the students were really reshaping society. I knew nothing of China at the time, except that it was ruled by an authoritarian regime and was rarely featured on US television. Then the demonstrations began and for reasons I still don’t fully understand the media were all but invited to cover it. Thus the nonstop coverage from CNN.

If you go to the Tiananmen Square entries in the archives, you’ll see that I’ve said practically all I have to say about the TSM. It was a traumatic event for me and for the world. It still moves me, to remember reading about the shootings in the side streets around the square, and the rolling in of tanks as though there was a state of civil war (and there nearly was). It was so painful, watching what had been a great expression of hope suppressed with such ruthless violence. Many years later the images still haunt me. For those of you new to the site, please check out my interview with a demonstrator, written some 13 years ago. The demonstrator I talked with echoed almost to the letter the observation I read in a new article on the incident that came out today:

But young people in China today are defined by two major characteristics: caution and ambition. Cui, a young auditor working for accounting firm Ernst & Young, told me the anniversary “isn’t directly related to me, or to my life. I don’t know any young people around me who care about the June fourth anniversary either.” Instead, Chinese youth “think about how to set our roots in the big cities and grab a better position for ourselves in the future. China is still developing fast, and the opportunities to have a better life are now or never,” Cui explained. “Who wants to risk losing everything we have achieved for a vague dream?”

This is pretty much what the demonstrator said in my interview; we care about having our needs met, not human rights, and at a time of prosperity why dig up skeletons we don’t really care about?

Another of my memories is from 2009, when I was working at the Global Times. I’ve recounted it in earlier June 4 posts, so bear with me for the repetition. I had printed out the iconic photo of Tankman standing in front of the tanks and asked my colleagues if they were familiar with the image. Nearly all said they were not, and had no idea of the incident. Only one editor, my manager and a good party member, was familiar with it, and she asked me why this was seen in the West as an act of courage. It was, she argued, an example of a protestor going against the common good of the people of China. I couldn’t argue with her; she had it all figured out.

Let me share one more link of another article that came out today, this one an interview with perhaps the most thorough and prolific chronicler — and first-hand participant — of the TSM and the demonstrations, of which he has written three books (he wrote them in Hong Kong, of course). I would put it in the “must-read” category.

I calculated that around 200,000 troops took part in the martial law forces. And the book gives a more precise number of units that made up the martial law troops. These answers aren’t estimates: they’re precise figures based on evidence….The killing actually continued after June Fourth. In Beijing, many workers and urban residents continued to protest after June Fourth, as did people in other cities around the country. Many of those protesters paid a high price. After June Fourth, the Communist authorities carried out a large-scale campaign of investigations and arrests. This is another important part of the history of June Fourth.

I have to admit it, I am feeling Tiananmen’d out. Still, every year I feel compelled to put up something about it because I believe the incident needs to be remembered, and China still needs to come clean about what actually happened. (I’m not holding my breath.) We bore witness to history, thanks to the television cameras and news crews, and that history must never be forgotten. Again, check out my earlier posts on the subject, written when I was younger and had more energy; you’ll see just how passionate I am about Tiananmen Square and it’s tragic conclusion. Never forget.

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China’s Great Leap Backwards

So why don’t I post anymore about China? Mainly it’s because most of the news about China in recent months has been pretty uniform: China under Xi Jinping is becoming more authoritarian so censorship is worse than ever, more human rights activists and lawyers are getting arrested, foreign and domestic web sites are getting blocked in record numbers and the crackdown on all aspects of the Internet is nothing less than catastrophic, even if you’re using a VPN. It is remarkable how stories like this have been dominating media coverage of the country. I feel a sense of China fatigue, where the news keeps getting more and more depressing, and I feel there’s little I can contribute to the conversation.

But let me try anyway by mentioning this article by China hand Orville Schell. It is the single most disturbing piece I’ve read on Xi’s repressive regime because it is panoramic in its scope, touching on the many ways China is cracking down on its people, harassing churches, implementing a draconian anti-corruption campaign complete with forced confessions, re-centralizing and consolidating power, expanding the country’s security apparatus, throwing out “anti-government” foreign correspondents, making it nearly impossible to speak truth to power….

A good friend of mine moved out of China with his wife and children a few months ago and we just caught up last week. He told me there were aspects of China I wouldn’t recognize anymore, especially the crackdown on so many websites. He was delighted to have left after more than 20 years in Beijing. Several other friends of mine have left over the past year, and most of them said they don’t miss it. Between the pollution and the repression, they’d had enough. I know, China is still a wonderful place to live and people enjoy a great deal of freedom in their personal lives — but for those who are perceived as working against the state, like human rights lawyers, Xi’s repression is very real, generating a sense of despair and helplessness. Everyone needs to fall in line and think the way the state wants you to think. This brings back painful memories of the Cultural Revolution, and of Stalinism.

“All news media run by the Party [which includes every major media outlet in China] must work to speak for the Party’s will and its propositions, and protect the Party’s authority and unity,” Xi warned. In front of a banner declaring “CCTV’s family name is ‘the Party,’” Xi urged people who work in the media to “enhance their awareness to align their ideology, political thinking, and deeds to those of the CCP Central Committee.” Then, only days later the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology announced new regulations banning all foreign-invested media companies from publishing online in China without government approval.

I can’t cover everything discussed in this article and recommend you read it all. It’s thorough and it’s deeply troubling. So many groups are under siege, like churches and NGOs and news services and activists. You have to admire Xi’s ruthlessness for its sheer efficiency, but it is painful to see China moving so far backwards so fast.

Do I miss living in China? Yes, and I think of my wonderful experiences there every day. But would I move back? I really don’t think so. My blog was blocked there seven years ago; if I came back and blogged like I used to, I wouldn’t be surprised if I were thrown out. One by one, Xi has extinguished many of the lights in China, and some areas, like the media, are nearly altogether black. Many live in a state of fear.

[I]ndependent-minded researchers at think tanks and outspoken professors at universities worry about the “chilling effect” of Xi’s policies on academic life in both China and Hong Kong. Feminist activists demonstrating against sexual harassment have been arrested for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” while human rights lawyers have been swept up in a mass wave of arrests for “creating public disorder,” and even for “subverting state power.”

So no, I don’t miss China the way I used to. China is a wonderful place to visit, but at the moment I wouldn’t want to live there. I only wonder, how far will Xi go to pursue his utopian vision of a China where the people think in total conformity and unity? Will we see a return to Maoism, with its asphyxiation of the Chinese people’s brain cells? We are, I’m afraid, headed in that direction.

I am planning a trip to China in June, and look forward to giving my impressions of life there on the ground. So many of my friends have left, so much has changed for the worse, I wonder if I’ll recognize what was once my favorite place on earth.

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China: A Nation Afraid

As is evident from my last few posts, I believe that now more than ever (aside from the days of Mao) China’s leaders are using fear as a tool to silence dissent and hold onto power. Not that that’s anything new, but it is a matter of degree. I don’t mean to be a broken record and parrot the same line again and again but the past few days have seen a deluge of articles about this precise subject: the ascension of China’s rule by fear. Of course, the irony of this phenomenon is that no one is ruled by fear more than the CCP. They are ruling by fear out of fear. They are afraid of losing their grip, especially as their economy slows and the threat of social unrest rises.

Perhaps those living in the most fear are party officials and bureaucrats who know they are being watched. The high-profile arrests of officials on corruption charges have sent shock waves through the government. The arrests of activists and lawyers have instilled fear in anyone who dares speak out.

Outspoken China critic Minxin Pei notes how the rule by fear is spreading among the bureaucracy, universities, rights lawyers and activists.

China is once again gripped by fear in a way it has not been since the era of Mao Zedong. From the inner sanctum of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to university lecture halls and executive suites, the specter of harsh accusations and harsher punishment is stalking China’s political, intellectual, and business elites.

The evidence of pervasive fear is easy to discern. Since President Xi Jinping’s remorseless anti-corruption drive began in December 2012, arrests of government officials have become a daily ritual, sending shivers down the spines of their colleagues and friends.

….Even as China’s economy has boomed and modernized, its political system has retained its core totalitarian features: a state exempt from the rule of law, a domestic security apparatus with agents and informants virtually everywhere, widespread censorship, and weak protection of individual rights. Having never been repudiated, these institutional relics of Maoism remain available to be used and intensified whenever the top leadership sees fit, as it does today.

Censorship has become so severe that even the editor-in-chief of the Global Times is complaining that journalists can’t do their jobs.

China’s ruling Communist Party is cracking down on internal criticism, and the editor of one of the country’s most nationalist tabloids isn’t going to take it anymore. In a post on his Weibo microblog over the weekend, Hu Xijin, editor in chief of the Global Times, called on Chinese authorities to show greater tolerance for dissenting opinions.

“China should open up more channels for criticism and suggestions and encourage constructive criticism,” Mr. Hu wrote on Sunday. “There also should be a certain amount of tolerance for unconstructive criticism.”

I know Hu and I believe he is being sincere. He is a good party man, but he really has strived to bring the GT — at least the English edition — up to journalistic standards, with varying degrees of success. From personal experience, I know there was often a sense of frustration among the journalists there that the censors had the final say of what would go into the paper. Sometimes articles were published that truly pushed the envelope, to my surprise, but now it seems the censorship has reached a whole new level and the staff can only push the envelope so far.

Yet another article (and an excellent one) out this week traces how Xi has slowly but surely implemented “an anti-liberal shift of rhetoric and attitude,” enforced by fear and made known to the public in ways that bring the Cultural Revolution to mind. It is especially scary that they are now targeting foreigners; no one is safe.

We could see the results as one after another distraught individual was wheeled out on national television to ‘confess’ to wrongdoing, express repentance and (in some cases) humbly ask to be given another chance, shortly after being disappeared. The Party-State seems intent on advertising its repression. As was quickly observed, these confessions made very little sense, but then again that was the point. Precisely because they made no sense and offended basic principles of criminal justice such as the presumption of innocence, recorded ‘confessions’ were effective in projecting unlimited, in principle arbitrary and all the more fearful state power.

In televising and advertising its repression, the Party-State clearly seeks to amplify these fear effects. By detaining foreigners in China and allegedly orchestrating cross-border abductions of Chinese and foreign nationals, as well as submitting the victims of these abductions to the same kinds of measures, it has taken its visual repression even further. It is not only transmitting images across its borders, but also signalling to the world that foreigners may become targets. It is thus exporting rule by fear techniques and making them a transnational phenomenon.

Fear has long been a tool to protect the state, in China and elsewhere. What I find so alarming is the crescendo of repression in recent months, culminating in the disappearance of Hong Kong booksellers and activists and rights lawyers on the mainland. I had thought we’d seen the culmination of repression under Hu Jintao, who tightened Internet controls and forced the media to only report “good news,” punishing those that did not comply. Well, I was entirely wrong. Things have become worse, and once again I am glad I left, though I still miss it terribly. But the bloom is off the rose. Can the situation get any worse? I wouldn’t think so, but Xi has managed to surprise me more than once.

Update: I felt I had to add that China remains a magnificent place, and if you walk around Beijing and Shanghai you will see a happy, irrepressible people full of hope and optimism and ambition. The fear is harder to see, lurking beneath the surface, experienced by those who dare raise their voice to criticize the state or to publish stories that put the country in an unflattering light. This, to me, is the great paradox of China, where there is so much happiness, and so much brutality. I will always love China and its people; maybe that’s why I write posts like this.

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No Chinese activist is safe, inside or outside China

Even if you have fled China, if you are perceived by the government as being overly critical of the CCP you just might disappear, until you reappear in a Chinese prison. This upsetting article shows just how far China will go to persecute and silence its critics. Leaving the country might not be enough to escape its grasp. The article notes the disappearance of Li Xin, a human rights activist and columnist for the Southern Metropolis Daily, who vanished into thin air shortly after talking on the phone from Thailand with his wife. Even more terrifying is the case of political activist Wang Bingzhang, who had fled to the US, when he was lured to Vietnam to meet with other human rights activists.

“They were conferring over lunch in a restaurant near the China-Vietnam border when several men speaking Chinese ordered them into a car,” Wang’s daughter, Ti-Anna Wang, recounted in a Post op-ed. “Beaten, blindfolded and gagged, my father and his two colleagues were abducted into China by boat. They were left in a Buddhist temple in Guangxi Province for the Chinese authorities.”

Wang Bingzhang was sentenced six months later to life in prison and has been confined ever since — going on 14 years. He is 68 years old.

This blood-pressure-raising piece makes it clear that no one is safe, that China under Xi is exerting a take-no-prisoners approach to dealing with its enemies, even though “none of the victims has engaged in violence or committed crime.” And reaching its tentacles outside of China to kidnap activists is not very unusual. Brazen as these kidnappings are, the world has remained largely silent. The writer says you can understand this only if you follow the money. It’s all, he says, about business. China is just too big a player in international business for politicians to challenge it.

Britain may feel slighted when China makes a mockery of their agreement on Hong Kong autonomy. Sweden might wish that its passports would be respected, and the United States might regret China’s increasing repressiveness.

But business, apparently, come first. As long as that remains true, it appears that no critic of China, of any nationality, in any nation, will be safe.

China has become hell for thousands of activists and lawyers. When it seems it can’t get any worse, Xi always surprises us. Every day we see more stories of repression, whether it’s bookstore owners in Hong Kong or lawyers on the mainland. Forced public confessions in the style of the Cultural Revolution’s struggle sessions have been making a comeback as Xi pushes China ever further toward Maoism. I read stories like this and I have no regrets for leaving China, despite my love for so many of my friends there.

There are no limits to how far the party will go to silence any form of dissent (I know that’s nothing we don’t already know, but it is only getting worse). In a post below, I compared the disappearance of Hong Kong booksellers to the Nazi campaign called Nacht und Nebel. That is not extreme; check the link. People vanishing into the night is an exceptionally brutal form of repression, filling activists and lawyers throughout China with terror. When will the world speak out?

Update: America speaks out about the vanished booksellers. Good.

The United States has called upon China to shed light on the mystery surrounding the five missing Hong Kong booksellers, and to allow them to return home.

In a daily press briefing on Monday, the spokesman for the State Department, John Kirby, said that the US is “deeply concerned” about the disappearances of the five men associated with the Causeway Bay bookstore.

“These cases, including two involving individuals holding European passports, raise serious questions about China’s commitment to Hong Kong’s autonomy under the ‘one country, two systems’ framework,” said Kirby.

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