People call me a traitor

So says Li Chengpeng, described as “a writer and a blogger who has over five million followers on Sina Weibo.” In this shocking excerpt from a long article he wrote on the 2008 Sichuan earthquake he describes firsthand watching the horrors unfold in Beichuan, where he saw children trapped under the rubble of the tofu school buildings moving their fingers, pleading to be rescued. All of them died.

Li describes himself as a former Chinese patriot who had sucked in all the propaganda and lies verbatim. He describes how he was manipulated like a soft lump of clay.

I was a typical patriot before 2008. I believed that “hostile foreign forces” were responsible for most of my peoples’ misfortunes. As a soccer commentator covering games between Japan and China, I wrote lines like, “Cut off the Japanese devils’ heads.” I saw Japanese soccer players as the descendants of the Japanese soldiers who brutally killed Chinese civilians in the 1937 massacre of Nanjing. I used to curse CNN for its anti-China commentaries. I was one of the protesters who stood in front of the U.S. consulate in Chengdu and raised my fist after the U.S. bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in 1999.

Now he wants to know how it happened, why some schoolhouses crumbled “like crackers” while others, built with the supervision of the PLA, stood unscathed. He wants to know what stands at the root of the problem, the graft, the corruption, the kickbacks, the sleaze. And by asking these questions he exposes himself as an agent of “foreign devils.”

A month after the quake, I returned to Beijing. One day I bumped into a respected journalist from CCTV, the state television news channel. We talked about the shoddy “tofu structures” that claimed many lives during the quake.

“Corrupt officials deserve to be shot dead,” I barked.

“No,” responded the respected wise man while gazing intently at me. “Tackling such issues in China must be a gradual process. Otherwise, there will be chaos again. After all, we have to rely on these officials for post-quake reconstruction.”

I used to have a lot of respect for that man. Now we are strangers.

Some people now call me a traitor. Some call me an agent of the foreign devils. But how can I be an agent of the foreign devils when I don’t even have a U.S. green card, when unlike much of the Chinese elite my child doesn’t drive a Ferrari or study at a prestigious foreign university, when I don’t own any real estate in the United States or Europe. I love my country, but I cannot love a government that is responsible for so many shoddy “tofu structures.”

He is still a patriot. He still wants Taiwan to return to its mother’s arms. But now he sees his patriotism in a new light.

Patriotism is about taking fewer kickbacks and using proper construction methods when building classrooms. Patriotism is about constructing fewer extravagant offices for the bureaucrats and building more useful structures for farmers. Patriotism is about drinking less baijiu (a fiery Chinese spirit) using public money. Patriotism is about allowing people to move freely in our country and letting our children study in the city where they wish to study. Patriotism is about speaking more truth. Patriotism is about dignity for the Chinese people.

I love this article. I love its love for the Chinese people. I love its drawing a distinction between being pro-China and being pro-corruption, the folly of believing you can only be a patriot if you accept carte blanche all the propaganda and injustices brought by venal officials who abuse their power. I love its definitions of true patriotism as opposed to blind allegiance. I love its honesty and the author’s willingness to challenge his own principles.

Read it. Cut it out and paste it on the wall. Refer to it whenever any idiot tells you it’s impossible to be critical of the Chinese government without being “anti-China,” a “China basher.” Li has exposed them as lemmings incapable of thinking for themselves even in light of the strongest evidence. This blind acceptance of all the government’s crap isn’t patriotism at all, it’s self-delusion and the surrender of one’s critical faculties. We all know that. But it’s wonderful to hear it from a former true believer who came to see for himself what the truth actually is. And that makes him a traitor and a threat.


Foreign Devils

Update: I want to take back a part of this post. I wrote the Nazi comparison in great haste, and I probably shouldn’t have, because Nazi is such a super-charged word. Anyone reading the text will see I am not saying Chinese people are like Nazis, and actually say the opposite: “Let me add, however, that while most gullible Germans ate this up, I strongly believe most Chinese are going to reject the race baiting that is setting the Internets ablaze today.” The Chinese will react responsibly and not like Nazis. What I thought was comparable was the use of race-baiting terms like “foreign trash” and sstereotyping many foreigners as spies, law breakers and enemies of China. Racial stereotyping was what I was alluding to. But in retrospect, I should have avoided that term and should have know that its use would be misunderstood by many.

Scapegoats are marvelous tools for energizing the masses. Especially when they are based on race. Der Stuermer, an Nazi rag published by Julius Streicher, often depicted images of grotesquely stereotyped Jews (big noses, fiendish) molesting pure, young beautiful German maidens. It was a successful campaign. Many really believed this was what Jews were, what they did. And it was a conspiracy, designed to pollute German blood and tear down German greatness. Let me add, however, that while most gullible Germans ate this up, I strongly believe most Chinese are going to reject the race baiting that is setting the Internets ablaze today. They are too suspicious of their government at the moment and are getting good at seeing through the government’s propaganda.

Although comparisons with Nazis are used too frequently and can induce groans, it’s nevertheless the first thing I thought of as I read the appalling call by Yang Rui, host of CCTV 9’s popular show Dialogue, calling in violent language for the ouster of “foreign thugs” from China’s sacred soil. This was brought on by two disgusting incidents of foreigners acting like idiots, even rapists, one attempting to molest a Chinese woman, another treating a Chinese woman on a train like scum. Shameful. Sickening. As vile as a crime can be. But these two sorry incidents are being used as red meat by the likes of Yang to rally the masses and breed hatred of all foreigners, even if Yang doesn’t say that in so many words. In his words:

The Public Security Bureau wants to clean out the foreign trash: To arrest foreign thugs and protect innocent girls, they need to concentrate on the disaster zones in [student district] Wudaokou and [drinking district] Sanlitun. Cut off the foreign snake heads. People who can’t find jobs in the U.S. and Europe come to China to grab our money, engage in human trafficking and spread deceitful lies to encourage emigration. Foreign spies seek out Chinese girls to mask their espionage and pretend to be tourists while compiling maps and GPS data for Japan, Korea and the West. We kicked out that foreign bitch and closed Al-Jazeera’s Beijing bureau. We should shut up those who demonize China and send them packing.”

[Note: I am having serious problems with the GFW and my VPN is making it hellish for me to supply links. This is from the Shanghaiist.]

Just last week friends began warning me to carry my passport at all times, as the PSB was stopping foreigners randomly, especially around Western hangouts like Sanlitun, to make sure they hadn’t overstayed their visa. Papers please. This all smells like a concerted campaign.

China Geeks has some excellent analysis and translations of weibo users’ reactions to this nonsense, and makes a strong argument that all foreigners should boycott Dialogue. I have at least four friends who have appeared on the program, and I really think they need to reconsider. After you read Charlie’s post you’ll have to agree. [Again, sorry but I can’t link.]

An interesting moment to be in China. Something seems to be in the air, an extreme edginess brought on by doubts about the government and concern for China’s future. I’ve never heard so many Chinese people tell me they oppose their government, even hate it. Obviously that’s not scientific, but my expat friends agree. China almost seems on the brink, unable to control its dialogue (no pun intended) and floundering in the wake of recent embarrassments we all know about. Rifts and fissures are becoming more apparent, and there’s a sense that “something’s got to give.” Will it?



That’s where I am now, and shortly after I landed I remembered all the things I love and hate about it. Not that I ever really forgot. And I definitely love it more than I hate it. But there were the usual frustrations.

Like when my taxi driver dropped me off at the hotel from the airport and drove away without giving me my change. It was only ten kuai, but still.

I decided to make this a budget trip and booked my hotel reservation at Ru Jia at Jiaodaokou. I stayed there with Lisa several months ago and we liked it. What’s not to like for 248 kuai a night at a good location? Alas, this time the main building was occupied and they sent me to a room in an ancillary building. I knew the second I stepped into the room that I was in trouble. It smelled like a toilet. A chinese toilet. And I mean it. The bathroom door was shut and when I opened it it was like being punched in the gut. The toxic vapors, freed by the opening door, soon permeated the room. I went to the front desk and they switched me to the room next door that was even worse, if such is possible. A lady from housekeeping came in and sprayed the room with a Chinese version of Glade, and for a few minutes the stench of human waste was replaced by a sickly lemony scent that soon dissipated and left the room with the same ungodly odor. I knew I had to leave.

Thank God my Chinese friend Ben had met me at the hotel.He recommended a place down the street, Green Tree Inn on Fangjia Hutong near Yonghegong, where I quickly checked in and was assigned a comfortable if spartan room with no foul smell. It was a haven. And it was even cheaper than Ru Jia. For those traveling budget I highly recommend it, and its environment is super-cool, surrounded by coffee shops and bars that in a few months will no doubt turn into another commercialized Nanluoguxiang. But for now, it’s wonderful.

The best thing about Beijing for me is always the people, both my Chinese and foreigner friends. There is nothing like them in Phoenix, I’m afraid. Brilliant, funny, generous, it’s for them that I always return to Beijing, and each time I’m with them I wonder how I could possibly have left China. Actually, back in America I think about it every day.

We all get used to China’s miserably slow, restrictive, ultra-paranoid Internet, but each time I come back it’s something of a shock. It is slower than ever, and my proxy only makes it seem slower yet. Sometimes you want to throw your PC against the wall.

Tonight I went to the gorgeous National Theater to see the opera La Boheme performed by a Korean company. The audience was largely Korean as well. I have absolutely nothing against Koreans, but I had never sat with them in a opera before. They talked through the performance, rummaged through crinkling plastic bags, giggled, got up and walked around… The Chinese and Westerners in the audience were outraged, and an usher finally came in and told them to shut up. Seriously, it was that bad. I paid a lot for these seats, and the performance was ruined. At one point, a Korean boy sitting in front of me simply stood up on his seat and started shouting at his mother, who did nothing to discourage him. I simply didn’t understand it. I’ve been to many operas with a Chinese audience and never saw anything like this. Luckily the performance was good enough to drown out the din of talk and laughter. But I, and many around me, were infuriated. I turned around a one point and stage-whispered “Shut Up!” to little avail.

As always, I love the youth and vitality and vibrancy of the city, the irrepressible attitude of the people. I loved less so the stacks of garbage on the alleys around my first hotel, and the usual Beijing oddities that make it Beijing, but all in all I am more enthralled than taken aback.

I had no definite purpose in coming. The city simply beckons me since it is in so many ways my home. That’s never gone away. I’ll strengthen my network, go on some interviews, and pursue some opportunities related to the project I’ve been working on for several months, the one that keeps me from blogging like I used to. For all the aggravation, I am very glad I came. There’s no place like home.

I’m going to be rushed, but if anyone wants to meet up please tell me and I’ll see what I can do. And now, as the lingering jet lag and the strain of a long day come together, I think I’ll pass out. If anything of interest transpires I’ll be sure come back and let you know.

Disclaimer: This post was written in a vintage jet lag/exhaustion stupor. Hope I am not flush with embarrassment when I see it in the morning.


The Chinese Dream

Go now and read James Fallows’ latest. Superb; I don’t see how anyone can disagree with a single word.

I leave yet again for a trip tonight and may not be around much for a couple of weeks. Use this as another open thread.


Do Westerners care about human rights in China?

This journalist clearly believes they do not.

Let’s stop jacking the Chinese around. We do not care a whit now — nor have we ever cared — about their human rights or any other aspect of their lives as long as they satiate our unbridled appetites. To pretend otherwise is to deny centuries of exploitative history in which the West drugged the Middle Kingdom and plundered it for its resources and cheap labor while obliterating any sign of popular resistance to our imperial sway.

From the Opium Wars to the contemplation of using nuclear weapons to bomb China back to the Stone Age because of our differences with it over Korea and Vietnam, the response of the West has been one of brute intimidation. Never have we been willing to acknowledge that China, for all of its immense contradictions, upheavals, sufferings and errant ways, represents the most complex and impressive example of national history.

Instead we intrude upon China in fitful moments of pique or treat it as a plaything. Who owns China? That was the question that marked the first period of U.S. involvement, when we joined other Western imperialists in carving up China into economic zones. And then came the bitter argument in the U.S. in the late 1940s and the ’50s about “Who lost China?” Now Americans find themselves preoccupied with how best to exploit China’s amazing economic prowess while feigning interest in the well-being of its people.

My problem with the article is the use of the word “We,” as if this lack of interest in human rights in China is monolithic and universal. Is it not possible that many of us care about human rights violations in China? Who is the “We” that doesn’t “care a whit” about the subject? Who are these “Americans” who feel this way? Are they to a large degree strawmen?

I would probably agree that most of the government and the oligarchy of multinational companies don’t care much if at all. But there are many sincere people in the West who do truly care. They are probably the same people who care about human rights in other countries, the kind of people who were appalled at the treatment by the US military of prisoners in Abu Ghraib and who spoke out against atrocities committed in the name of the “war on terror.” Most Western journalists I know in China care deeply about the plight of dissidents in China. I know I do, just as I care about the repression of women in Saudi Arabia, or the arrest and torture and murder of innocents in Syria.

How cynical can we get? Even more so.

Ever since the Republican Richard Nixon went to Beijing to suck up to Mao Zedong, every American president has acknowledged the power of China’s rulers to sweep aside the human rights concerns of foreigners as mere political theater for the folks back home. What a great spin it is to pretend that we are the champions of universal human rights as we tweet about our great concern for the Chinese people on the very mobile devices that their exploited labor created.

I am not so convinced China’s greatest human rights abuses are directed at its labor force, as the author contends. Most Chinese laborers are thirsty for the work and eager to work overtime. Of course there is exploitation and abuse. There is in any developing country, and in China it sometimes amounts to slave labor, at least in some instances. But many if not most migrant workers in China would much rather keep the jobs they have than move back to what they left.

There is nothing wrong or hypocritical about caring for human rights in China, for caring about Chen Guangcheng and Liu Xiaobo and the thousands of other activists/dissidents who had the temerity to challenge the status quo. I feel the same, as I said, for victims of US repression and have spoken out against it many times (go back and read my posts from 2004 criticizing the Bush administration). Read Philip Pan’s Out of Mao’s Shadow, a book of incredible compassion for the Chinese who stood up for human rights in China at a terrifying cost to their own lives. Does he, too, not care a whit about human rights in China?

He also pulls out the old chestnut of how “the US does it, too.”

The fact that Chen Guangcheng was targeted by Chinese authorities because of his opposition to his nation’s oppressive population control policies added the United States’ “pro-life” lobby to the army of morally subjective China watchers. Now if we can get the pro-lifers to care about the human rights of fetuses after birth, the condition of the millions of severely exploited Chinese workers who float U.S. consumption and our national debt just might stand a chance of improvement.

Morally subjective China watchers. Those who speak out are hypocrites because America, too, has a spotty record. I and most others I know are aware of and disgusted by this spotty record. But that doesn’t neutralize what goes on in China.

There’s a lot of truth to this article when it says the government and multinationals care more about their economic ties with China than with human rights. Very true. But many, many Westerners care deeply about human rights in China, as they care about it elsewhere. As they care about it in America as well. They are not all hypocrites and cynics. Scheer seems to dismiss them with a wave of his hand. I found this a deeply irritating and one-sided article.

And let me just add, a few minutes after posting this, that there is a lot of faux outrage and even more ignorance when it comes to the subject of human rights in China. Most Americans have no deep understanding of the actual story of Chen or Liu and see them in black and white, as good versus evil. There’s always more to it than that. These men may not be angels and some of those repressed by the government may not have been saints. But the illegal house arrests, beatings, solitary confinement and harassment are real. And yes, I know we are holding Bradley Manning in solitary confinement, and I find his treatment despicable, too. But at least it is common knowledge told countless times in the media and we can all speak out about it without fearing a 2am knock on the door.