James Fallows: China and Arizona

I guess this comparison was inevitable. America’s smartest pundit notes that China has been stopping foreigners and asking for their “papers” for years, and even suggests my state might consider bringing in Chinese police to offer sensitivity training to their Arizona counterparts, and tips on how to limit potential abuse of their new, scary powers.

Here’s the point of comparison between the impending Arizona situation and China: it’s no fun knowing — as citizen and foreigner alike know in China, and as Hispanic-looking people in Arizona soon will — that you can be asked to show proof of your legality at an official’s whim. But if it’s sobering to think that the closest analogy to a new U.S. legal situation is daily life in Communist China, we should also look on the bright side. With some notable and serious exceptions, I typically did not see Chinese police asking for papers on a whim. Usually something had to happen first. Maybe soon the Chinese State Security apparatus can travel to Arizona and give lectures to local police and sheriffs. They can explain how to avoid going crazy with a new power that so invites abuse. “Civil Liberties: Learning from China” can be the name of the course.

Fallows notes how the Chinese police rarely abuse their “papers, please” powers, but I’m not convinced we’ll see the same restraint here. In China, the police – at least in the big cities – know to tread cautiously when dealing with foreigners, as it can lead to messy and embarrassing situations, especially now that every foreigner in China writes a blog. In Arizona, Latinos, especially those with neither the wealth nor political clout to raise hell, are in a far more vulnerable position. Fair or not, foreigners enjoy special privileges in China. The same cannot be said of the Latinos in Arizona.

Link via ESWN.


Arizona, my state, the nation’s shame

Obviously I haven’t been in a blogging mood lately. I just got back from China last weekend, and wondered for the next two days why the jet lag coming back from Asia is so much worse than going there. And I came home to my bigoted, small-minded, ignorant state of Arizona and reading the newspaper I simply felt too numb to blog.

I am forcing myself now to write so this site doesn’t atrophy. But that doesn’t mean I’m not passionate about this subject. I am.

In case you haven’t heard, the state I moved to 20 years ago has, in a single week, voted to institutionalize racism, to legitimize the literally deranged “birther” movement, and to permit citizens to carry concealed guns without a permit.

As I was packing to move here way back when I was still a news reporter, I remember the controversy raging over our then-governor Evan Mecham, who refused to recognize Martin Luther King Day, resulting in a massive boycott and companies around the country canceling their conventions in Arizona. Money talks, of course, and Mecham was soon impeached and tossed out of office.

And here we are all over again.

No matter what they tell you, this law discriminates against Latinos, and the argument that if you have nothing to hide you shouldn’t worry simply won’t wash. If you are Latino, the odds are now far, far higher that you, and not your white counterpart, will be stopped and asked for your papers, Gestapo-style.

The law is not only racist, it is irrational. No one understands it, and yet 70 percent of the cretins citizens of my state are embracing the bill as necessary.

After signing the new law requiring police to check out people who may be illegal immigrants, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer was asked how the cops are supposed to know when someone should be screened. “I don’t know,” she replied. “I do not know what an illegal immigrant looks like.”

No kidding. But she has a lot of company in her ignorance. When I called University of Arizona law professor Marc Miller and told him I wasn’t sure what some of the law’s provisions mean, he replied, “Neither is anyone else on the planet.” We will find out what it means after it takes effect, not before.

The law says cops must inquire anytime “reasonable suspicion exists that the person is an alien who is unlawfully present in the United States.” Since most of the state’s illegal immigrants are Latinos, the natural impulse of police may be to interrogate every Latino with whom they cross paths.

All over the Interwebs and local talk radio we’re hearing how 70 percent of Arizonans are in favor of the bill, as are 51 percent of Americans overall. But since when do numbers like that mean a bill is right or constitutional? Ask the people who will have to enforce it what they think.

Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik knows his protests could get him taken to court, but he says he won’t enforce Arizona’s new law criminalizing illegal immigration anyway.

This week, Dupnik, the top law enforcement official in one of the state’s largest counties, called the state’s tough new law “racist,” “disgusting” and “unnecessary.” He said it would force police officers to use racial profiling, which is illegal in Arizona.

This is going to become a nightmare for our police, who can be sued if, in the eye of the citizens, they fail to enforce the law. And because it’s so hopelessly murky, the cops will, understandably, err on the side of caution by demanding proof of citizenship with anyone who might be suspicious, i.e., anyone with darker skin or a Hispanic name. And it will waste vast amounts of time, diverting the police from handling actual crimes.

I know – we need to do something about immigration. I know – an Arizona rancher was murdered last year, possibly by an illegal immigrant. I know – the drug war in Mexico is spilling over into Arizona’s borders and leading to crime over here. But none of those things makes this bill redeemable. If we want to really address the problem at its roots, we should first legalize the drugs and liquidate the incentive to commit drug-related crimes. That would be a helpful start, and then we can move on to how best to secure the border.

So no, I don’t have the perfect answer. But this bill means nothing but trouble, and everyone here in Arizona knows our governor signed it because her party has become so radicalized she would stand no chance of winning the next election without sucking up to the base. (Ironically, she has no chance of winning anyway, but that’s another story.)

Arizona, you brought this on yourself. Now every baseball and football team and conventioneer and tourist will have to stop and consider whether it’s worth it to come here. Let Arizona feel for itself what it hath wrought. Maybe, just maybe that pressure will force it to look in the mirror and do the right thing: scrap this bill for one that makes sense and will actually provide a solution without licensing racism.

Update: I should have put in a word or two about the freak who is behind this bill, one Russell Pearce. Just a bit of background:

In October 2006, Russell Pearce forwarded an email from National Alliance, a white separatist group, to a group of supporters. The email titled “Who Rules America” [6] criticized black and white intermixing and Jews in the media for promoting multiculturalism and racial equality, for depicting “any racially conscious White Person” as a bigot, and for presenting the Holocaust as fact. He quickly apologized. The article reports, “He does not agree with the sentiments in the article, but that the title and the first paragraphs about media bias appealed to him. He said the article had been forwarded to him by someone else and he would not have sent it if he had read it in its entirety.”[7] He stated in one of his apologies, “Ugly the words contained in it really are. They are not mine and I disavow them completely. Worse still, the website links to a group whose politics are the ugliest imaginable.”

In April 2008, Pearce sponsored a measure, Senate Bill 1108, that would prohibit students of Arizona universities and community colleges from forming groups based in whole or part on the race of their membership. Pearce said he didn’t want students indoctrinated with seditious or anti-American teachings. The bill would ban groups that serve minority interests such as the Mexican American study program and the Black Business Students Association.

There are a lot of kooks here in Arizona. The Tea Party movement resonates with them, and they love our criminal sheriff Joe Arpaio because of his bulldog, tough-on-crime image, ignoring the fact that he is a corrupt extortionist who opens investigations into anyone who criticizes him. (How sweet to see the feds finally investigating Arpaio, who will hopefully end up in the cold cell in which he belongs). To the wingers, he’s a saint. They love the idea of raw masculine power without boundaries. They love the immigration bill, which dresses up their bigotry and rage and makes it seem respectable. What am I doing here?


Fading Shangri-la

Global warming in action – a moving video illustrates how the rapidly disappearing glaciers of Tibet are melting the culture away with the ice. Thought-provoking and refreshingly apolitical.



I said in the comments to the last post I’d be away until April 9, working on a big project in Shanghai. Now it turns out I need to stay until April 24. That is a very long time for me to stay in Shanghai. It’s funny how quickly the five-star hotel and fancy restaurants lose their appeal after a few days. And you can only watch so much CNN International before climbing the walls.

I’m working on a media relations project related to the most spectacular event of all time that just about nobody (outside of China) seems to know is even taking place. But I have to say, I love this work – China seems to be the one place where foreign companies are still willing to spend and invest, and I feel incredibly lucky that I got to work on China’s two big “coming out” events. If only they had both been held in Beijing. (And I don’t mean any disrespect for Shanghai; it’s just that I don’t know my way around and don’t have the network of friends I do up north.)

Posts will be continue to be sparse and not so witty. For a witty, brilliant article about China go here. Feel free to use this as an open thread.


Peter Hessler’s Country Driving


I probably don’t have to tell anyone here that I am a serious Peter Hessler fan. I took a circuitous route along the way, starting with Oracle Bones and then River Town. My friends told told me I should have started the other way around, and even though they were right, it hardly mattered. I loved them both.

Hessler set the bar impossibly high with River Town, and it’s almost sad – there is simply no way he can surpass it. An almost perfect blend of memoir, tour guide and history lesson, River Town is by far the most personal and moving of the three books (now including Country Driving) and, significantly, it’s the most coherent. It seems to flow effortlessly, without a lapse anywhere. The voices of his characters, like his uptight Chinese teacher, linger in your memory for a long time, maybe forever (“Bu dui!”), as do his students’ essays on a Shakespeare sonnet and Robin Hood. And you have no choice; you simply have to keep turning the page.

Oracle Bones is more demanding and less cohesive. Or maybe it’s more demanding because it’s less cohesive. It weaves several plot lines together, like the adventures of his Uyghur friend Polat, and the challenges faced by his former students, uprooted from home, some working in a Shenzhen factory. But it’s also about archeology and history, about the Chinese language and the Cultural Revolution. For me, the most gripping scenes were those in which Hessler traces the tragic fate of oracle bones scholar Chen Mengjia, who was denounced by a colleague during the CR and took his life. Relentlessly Hessler tracks down those who knew him and, ultimately, the man who denounced him. Their meeting is another of those moments when I simply had to put the book down and reflect; this man had done a terrible thing, and yet he was not a terrible man. This was simply what China was at the time, this was simply what you did. Like all personality cults and forced utopias, you look back and see insanity, though at the time it was simply what you did every day.

(I had similar feelings reading The Man Who Stayed Behind, and a few months ago Rittenberg was in Phoenix giving a talk. I asked him how he could describe in his book his revulsion at much of what he saw going on at the time, while simultaneously describing his active participation. “I surrendered my critical thinking,” the 81-year-old former Communist replied. “We all did.”)

But back to my point: There are so many things going on in Oracle Bones, which a friend described to me as a pastiche of Hessler’s New Yorker articles), that at times you can’t help but feel it’s meandering. It’s Hessler’s mesmerizing story-telling ability that holds it together. You kind of know it’s disjointed, but it’s so fascinating you don’t care. But it doesn’t come close to River Town in terms of pathos, or poetry. River Town is poetry.

And so we come at last to Country Driving, Hessler’s latest, a savagely funny and delightful read, and, like his earlier works, a combination of travelogue, colorful yarns, history (especially the history of the Great Wall), intensely personal profiles of individuals caught between the shifting social and economic forces of today’s China – all held together by the common thread of country driving.

Like Oracle Bones, this book is unashamedly disjointed. It is actually three separate books stitched together, perhaps a bit awkwardly, but again Hessler makes it work. The first (and funniest) section is mainly about the Great Wall, Chinese road maps and Hessler’s driving test. It’s punctuated with snippets from the written test he was given, with gems such as this:

If another motorist stops to ask you directions, you should

a. not tell him
b. reply patiently and accurately
c. tell him the wrong way.


When driving through a residential area, you should:
a) honk like normal
b) honk more than normal in order to alert residents
c) avoid honking, in order to avoid disturbing residents

That questions like this can even exist on a driving exam boggles the mind. Could there possibly be drivers who feel the best practice is to give false directions, or to honk the horn when entering a residential area? There must be, and a lot of them must be in China. (I think we all have a story to tell about horn honking in China.)

Roads and driving are the pervasive motifs in all three parts – what it’s like to drive along the “Great Wall” (of which there are so many) deep into the heart of China, how China’s new roads make or break communities, how they offer new worlds of opportunities to once isolated villages, and how a lot of Chinese drivers aren’t so good behind the wheel.

Along the way, as always, Hessler digs up nuggets of history and makes wry observations that ensure his journey is an entertaining one. Perhaps my favorite was his description of a book of maps that perfectly captures the Chinese psyche in regard to territories it sees as “part of China.”

A company called Sinomaps published the book, which divided the nation into 158 separate diagrams. There was even a road map of Taiwan, which has to be included in any mainland atlas for political reasons, despite the fact that nobody using Sinomaps will be driving to Taipei. It’s even less likely that a Chinese motorist will find himself on the Spratly Islands, in the middle of the South China Sea, territory currently disputed by five different nations. The Spratlys have no civilian inhabitants but the Chinese swear by their claim, so the Automobile Driver’s Book of Maps included a page for the island chain. That was the only map without any roads.

I’m fairly sure that to anyone from outside of China this would seem somewhat puzzling: a driving map with no roads, and maps of roads on which the publishers know their readers will never drive, placed in the book as a matter of principle. You know you’ve lived in China too long when things like this don’t strike you as absurd.

The other unforgettable image he conjures up is that of the fiberglass Chinese highway patrol officers that dot the freeways, terracotta scarecrows reminding citizens to drive safely.

There was something eerie about these figures: they were wind-swept and dust-covered, and the surrounding desert emphasized their pointlessness. But their posture remained ramrod straight, arms at attention with a sort of Ozymandian grandeur – terracotta cops.

Just as with the driving maps of Taiwan and Spratlys, the reader can only ask, “Why?” And the only answer is, this is China.

To briefly summarize the other sections: Book two is all about Hessler’s second home in a village north of Beijing. This is a radical departure from the previous section, in which there are no anchoring characters aside from Hessler himself, only strangers he meets for a moment on his travels and their fleeting stories. Now it’s all about one family and how the new roads to their village change their lives. This is much more like River Town, full of humanity and characters who you come to love, grappling with a world that puts their traditional culture on its head.

Book Three is about Hessler’s stay in Zhejiang province, where he tracks the birth of a factory that makes little rings used for the straps of brassieres. This chapter is all about the “New China,” the flood of migrant workers to the factory towns, the wheeling and dealing behind the scenes, how the workers are hired and how they live.

The recurring thought I had as I read this chapter was of just how little most Westerners know about migrant workers and their lives. I’ve read countless articles about the slavish conditions in which they live and the torturous hours they’re forced to work. And while that’s often true, it doesn’t tell the whole story. Most of the workers Hessler describes want to work the long hours. The last thing they want is vacation time. They want overtime, and they want to work on the weekend, as much as they can. They’ve come to the manufacturing towns for one reason, and one reason only: to take back as much money as they possibly can for their families. Hessler shatters quite a few myths here.

I can’t go into the details of these three books stuck together as one. (I fly to Shanghai in 12 hours.) But here’s the main thing: Everyone who would read this blog should get a copy of Country Driving. My bigger wish, however, is that people who aren’t so familiar with China get to read it, too. There is such a plethora of articles on China, mostly bad, flooding the Internets and the newspapers, and Hessler’s book, like his earlier two, provide wonderful antidotes, stripping away all the pompous claims of the “China experts” (something I freely admit I will never be) and showing you…China. The real, unvarnished China, free of editorial bloviation and spin. A dizzying, breathless, magnificent country, irrepressible in its energy and ambition, often irrational, unjust and infuriating, and always unpredictable. And often achingly funny.

My main issues with the book: It really is disjointed, and unlike with Oracle Bones, you really feel the bumps. Also, I found that Hessler often tries to be funny in this book, something he doesn’t do in the earlier books, and it doesn’t always work. The thing is, he doesn’t have to add jokes; his anecdotes are hilarious as they are, and inserting bits of cutesy humor isn’t necessary.

But these are small nits. Country Driving is a beautiful read. It may not have the hypnotic force of River Town, but what does? It’s a very different type of book, much more sweeping in its focus if not quite as intimate. If you really want to know modern-day China it’s simply indispensable.


“Google strikes back with new firewall software”

This is an odd one. Note that the headline is in quote marks because I know that today is April 1 and I know John Pasden can have a devilish sense of humor. Still, it doesn’t look like a joke…or does it?

On a more personal note, here’s my situation:

I now have two major clients. After fearing I could never find work in America, I now have more work than I can handle. Suddenly the work was just there, and I may take on a third client next week. (All of these are in some way related to this blog, which indicates it’s not a total waste of time.) I keep toying with the idea of shutting down the blog, something I think aloud about every year or so, but I still can’t do it. After this long, it would be like giving up a child. I may abandon it for a few weeks at a time, but I won’t give it up.

I leave yet again for Shanghai this weekend where I’ll be working for a full week. So while no one likes it when bloggers write tedious posts apologizing for their not posting, I have to do just that, again. I have a book review I need to write and some other posts percolating, but I’ll be lucky if I can get anything posted between now and April 12, when I come back. So once again, please hang in there and check in every few days. Eventually there’ll be a new post. There always is.