The down wave

In a gloomy article, an Axios analyst of global markets documents just how dire China’s economy is today.

New data out Monday showed retail sales activity [in China] collapsed in April, with unemployment rising and exports and industrial production slowing sharply.

Retail sales fell 11.1% in April, compared to the prior year, with considerable declines in major categories like restaurant spending and auto sales (a total of zero vehicles were sold in Shanghai).

China’s surveyed unemployment rate rose to 6.1%, just shy of the high of 6.2% reported during the early days of the COVID outbreak in 2020.

Industrial and export activity decelerated to 4% and 3.9%, as lockdowns in key industrial hubs such as the Yangtze River delta — home to Shanghai — took their toll.

The bottom line: “The April activity data shows that the temporary disruption from the zero-COVID policy is more severe than expected, raising significant downside risk,” JPMorgan analysts wrote in a research note.

This is bad news for everyone. Like it or not, the engine of China’s economy has helped power the world for decades. China’s role in maintaining global supply chains can’t be exaggerated. Western auto makers for years have counted on robust car sales in China, where Buicks and Teslas and Audis (to name a few) can be seen everywhere in Shanghai, and to a lesser extent in Beijing. Most of these auto makers’ China manufacturing facilities have closed due to Covid (Tesla’s giga-factory in Shanghai is open after the company agreed to house all its workers at its factory premises).

Chinese leaders say Shanghai is opening up incrementally and could be back to normal at the end of this month. But the lockdown, for all intents and purposes, remains. A BBC reporter in Shanghai writes:

Although state media has blithely reported that the “hustle and bustle” is returning, it’s difficult to verify that.

Despite claims that the majority of residents are free to roam, anecdotal reporting on the ground is very different.

I am still confined to my home. Other members of the BBC team here, in various places, face similar restrictions.

Access to food and healthcare remains limited for some. Some shops are opening, but only “offline” business will resume initially.

For three decades the Chinese people and the CCP have enjoyed a Faustian bargain: the government will let you get rich if you mind your own business and don’t meddle in government affairs. The government will make sure GDP keeps growing and citizens will remain loyal and content. A censored Internet and CCP repression in distant provinces is a small price to pay for soaring economic growth. But now it’s China’s moment of truth. The Chinese people are fed up, putting up angry social media posts criticizing the zero-Covid policy, and as soon as the censors delete them more spring up. This is what the CCP dreads most: a population that could lose its confidence with the Party and threatens the government’s obsession with “harmony” and “stability.”

We aren’t going to see the population rise up to overthrow the CCP. We aren’t going to see a revolution. But as the economy’s down wave continues, the government will have to deal with an increasingly disillusioned and bitter public. Where this may ultimately lead is anyone’s guess, but at the moment I see no cause for optimism. The government must keep its bargain with the Chinese people or face growing discontent. And just a couple of years ago it seemed double-digit growth would continue for years, maybe for decades. How the mighty have fallen. Can the government pick up the pieces and lead the country back to its pre-pandemic prosperity? In the short term I remain skeptical. The breadth of this breakdown is simply too huge. I hope there is a full recovery because I love China, home to many of my dearest friends. But they, too, are angry and disillusioned with the CCP. People have long memories and they won’t soon forget the nightmare of the past few months. It might take years before the Party has regained their trust. If ever.

China has entered a new phase, one in which the people no longer see its government as infallible and invincible. Can they recover and carry on as before? No one knows, but as I said, I’m not optimistic.

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Shanghai, the next Xinjiang?

There is an absolutely must-read article in yesterday’s NY Times drawing parallels between China’s police state policies in Xinjiang and the brutality of the “Zero Covid” policies imposed on the people of Shanghai.

Let me say first that my dearest friend in China lives and works in Shanghai and has kept me apprised of the misery of day-to-day life in the age of Zero Covid. Thank god he works for one of the best multinational companies which has been supplying its employees with food. Someone in his building tested positive for covid a couple of weeks ago and the tenants are basically under house arrest. The psychological toll this takes on citizens, my friend said, is crushing. Can Shanghai ever be the same again? I was there just three years ago and never saw so much prosperity — Teslas and other luxury cars everywhere, shopping malls that felt like you were in Paris, a general mood of festivity and optimism.

Now, according to the NY Times article, Shanghai finds itself in a dark place.

Shanghai and Xinjiang used to be the two sides of the China coin.

Shanghai was the glamorous China, with skyscrapers, Art Deco apartments and a thriving middle class that shopped in Paris and strolled around Kyoto, Japan.

Xinjiang was the dark China. The western frontier region, which is twice the size of Texas, is home to more than 10 million Muslim ethnic minorities who have been subject to mass detentions, religious repression and intrusive digital and physical surveillance.

Since April, the 25 million residents of Shanghai have gotten a small taste of the Xinjiang treatment in a strict citywide lockdown. They have been lining up for rounds of Covid-19 tests to prove they are virus-free, a pandemic corollary to Uyghurs lining up at checkpoints to prove they don’t pose any security threat.

The political slogans in the government’s zero-Covid campaign echo those in the Xinjiang crackdowns. Residents in both places are subject to social control and surveillance. Instead of re-education camps in Xinjiang, about half a million Shanghai residents who tested positive were sent to quarantine camps.

What many Shanghai residents are experiencing doesn’t compare to the violence and cruelty that Uyghurs and Kazakhs have endured in Xinjiang since 2017. But they’re all victims of senseless political campaigns that are driven by paranoia, insecurity and authoritarian excess.

The CCP, one interviewee tells the reporter, has demonstrated in Shanghai its ability to impose “a digital totalitarian regime that surveils everyone, makes each neighborhood an on-site concentration camp and controls the society with the same iron fist in a future crisis, be it war, famine, climate disaster or economic meltdown.”

Fourteen years ago, around the time leading up to the Beijing Olympics I underwent a change of heart in regard to the Chinese government. I learned about programs to bring the Internet to people in remote parts of the country, of plans to build affordable housing for migrant workers, of a seemingly unending wave of prosperity and the continuous strides being made to lift the Chinese people out of poverty. I never forgot the sins of the CCP, its authoritarian tendencies, its censorship, it’s arrest of activists, its paranoia and deep insecurities. But I couldn’t deny the progress it had made in so little time; I had first moved to China briefly in 2002 and Beijing looked nothing the way it does now (although the gentrification took its toll on many of the city’s hutongs and other cultural icons, like the Bookworm and the sleazy bars along Sanlitun). For the Games, China opened its Internet, got half the cars off the Beijing roads to cut down on pollution and transformed Beijing into a gleaming first-class city. Beijing became a destination. I was awestruck.

Now I wonder if I can ever go back again. The iron fist with which Xi is ruling China has me terrified. Would I be safe there? Could I access the Internet? Would my critical blogging about China over the years make me a marked man? (I realize that is highly unlikely, but I have other friends who worry that they, too, might be targeted because of their past criticisms of the Party; one even writes under an alias, worrying if China knew their real name they might be harassed there). For nearly three years in Beijing I was happier than at any time of my life. I went back to see my friends twice a year; it was my home. And now, I can’t imagine going back for years, if and when China’s brutal Zero Covid madness has abated.

Back to the article. What we’re seeing play out in Xinjiang and Shanghai is not new, but rather an extension of the totalitarian noose the CCP has wrapped around its citizens’ necks for more than half a century.

Both the Xinjiang crackdown and the Shanghai lockdown are political campaigns that can be explained only through the governing rationale of the ruling Communist Party: Do whatever it takes to achieve the leadership’s goal.

That was why Mao’s Great Leap Forward resulted in the Great Famine, why the Cultural Revolution devolved into a decade of political chaos and economic destruction and why the one-child policy left many women traumatized and the country with a demographic crisis. In each case, the leadership mobilized the whole nation to chase after a goal at any expense. In each case, it resulted in a catastrophe.

The Shanghai lockdowns herald a new phase of governmental repression, and one that might linger for years. The CCP has always sought control over the minds of its people, thus the Great Firewall, the vast network of censors, the drivel you see nonstop on Chinese state television. In Shanghai it has shown just how far they are willing to go, and one must wonder if the repression represents a new milestone in the Party’s obsessive need to control the Chinese people’s bodies and minds.

Nazi comparisons can be alarmist and unfair, but Germany in 1933 comes inevitably to mind as I read about the Shanghai police battering down doors and forcing citizens into quarantine camps with ghastly living conditions. And there is no recourse for those mistakenly rounded up; you can’t fight a faceless bureaucracy as entrenched as the Chinese Communist Party.

The article continues:

Like the Muslims in Xinjiang, the people in Shanghai and many other cities lost their rights and the protection of law in lockdowns.

A city in northern Hebei Province made headlines when community workers demanded that residents surrender their keys so they could be locked up from outside. In Shanghai, community workers covered the insides of apartments with disinfectant after residents tested positive, even though there’s no scientific evidence that disinfectant can kill coronavirus. In a widely circulated video and a social media Weibo post, a woman documented how a group of police officers had broken the door of her apartment and taken her to a quarantine camp even though they couldn’t present a Covid test report. When her Covid test came back negative hours later, she was already in a camp, according to her posts.

It is sickening and painful to watch the asphyxiation of a once great city. It used to seem that CCP repression on a massive scale was largely limited to faraway places like Tibet and Xinjiang. Seeing it play out in China’s financial hub, one of the greatest cities on earth, liberal and urbane, is agonizing. No I won’t be going back for years, if ever. Weep for a China that has fallen victim to indescribable cruelty and inhumanity. I once believed that the misery Mao inflicted on his people could never be repeated, that after Deng’s reforms China could never go back to totalitarianism. I fear I may have been wrong, and that the country I so loved and considered to be my home, may not recover for generations. I kept waiting for years for the government to institute reforms and loosen its draconian control of what its people say and do. I thought in the early years under Hu Jintao, after SARS, that freedoms would expand. I was bitterly disappointed. Now, under Xi Jinping, the only emotion I feel is hopelessness. And outrage. Can I ever go back again? I just don’t know. All I know is that in this era of Xi Jinping Thought, we’re witnessing the brain death of a country I loved like no other. How tragic.

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Xinjiang and Shaun Rein

[This blog is officially closed, but from time to time I will add new content, mainly for myself since no one comes here anymore.]

I think by now most of us have seen the New Yorker’s shocking expose of life in the Xinjiang “re-education” camps. The CCP has done nothing less than license cultural genocide, torture, forced labor, brutal prison sentences and worse.

But someone I occasionally follow on Twitter named Shaun Rein has a very different viewpoint. For him, the compounds, surrounded by barbed wire and watch towers, are serving the noble function of teaching the Uighurs and Kazakhs Mandarin, a selfless endeavor he praises. He has said the US is holding Uighurs in the Guantanamo Bay prison so we have no right to criticize China for doing the same, as if there’s an equivalence between holding a handful of Uighurs in Gitmo and the enslavement, brutalization and indoctrination of hundreds of thousands of innocent Muslims in Xinjiang. Most gallingly, he has said, to paraphrase, “I haven’t been to Xinjiang so I can’t comment on what’s going on there.” Well, I’ve never been to Cambodia but I know the Khmer Rouge butchered millions of its own people there. I’ve never been to Auschwitz but I know what went on there. I’ve never been to Xinjiang but I know, from sources I know and trust, what is happening there. Shaun is not stupid; he knows the truth, but to acknowledge it would threaten his cozy relationship with the CCP (his father-in-law is a high-ranking party official). He knows where his bread is buttered.

Just yesterday this self-described marketing guru tweeted, “Journalists who cover China either love my research or hate me. Journos who quote me know I’m unbiased, truthful & have data to back up views. Journalists who hate me know I know I’ll call out their BS, have better data & forgot more about CN than they ever knew: Birtles, Fallows”

Bad news: I know many, many journalists in China, past and present, and they *all* hate you, and with good reason. You are an insect next to James Fallows and Gady Epstein (whom you also frequently attack).

Sorry to go off on this guy again, but he enrages me with his egotism, self-aggrandizement and hatred of those who don’t worship the CCP. (If you’re new to this blog you can find my earlier posts about this scammer here: Shaun Rein.)

If you haven’t read the New Yorker article please do. Then tell me what you think of someone who says these camps are simply helping Muslims learn Mandarin for their own benefit. You see, it’s selfless. It’s good. Read the article and tell me if you think these camps are noble and selfless.

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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. Some of the posts I put up about a brazen China apologist, Shaun Rein, generated some of the blog’s 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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