In Hangzhou

I had originally planned to go to Chengdu but the plan was changed after the earthquake. I was in Nanjing for three days before arriving here, and it would have been great if there hadn’t been icy rain and raw weather for three days in a row. What can you do?

For whatever reasons, I feel more relaxed in Hangzhou than any other place in China. It’s just so beautiful, a perfect place for drinking tea and just sitting back and enjoying the scenery. I was in Beijing and Shanghai for a week, and it was anything but relaxing, just one interview after another. (If you’d like to see my interview with Xinhua News in Beijing from a few days ago, go here. That’s part one, with the second part to follow next week.)

This was a business trip, not recreation. Next time I go to China I promise to put up more posts about the trip.


Back in the motherland

I arrived in Beijing last night and will be in China for 17 days, if anyone wants to gt together. The itinerary will be Beijing, Shanghai and Chengdu. If my VPN keeps working I’ll try to make periodic updates. Nice to be here, pollution and traffic and all.

Update: Forgot to add, Fuck the firewall. Nastier than ever.


Adam Najberg’s Chongqing Burning

I wanted to give a brief shout-out to a book I just finished and highly recommend.

Chongqing Burning, a dark, intense novel about the meteoric rise and sudden collapse of Bo Xilai and his wife is a true page-turner. (The characters are renamed, but there’s no doubting who they are.) The main character, the chain-smoking, heavy-drinking David Northerly, is an old-school journalist feeling the pressures of an industry under siege. The book makes you appreciate what great journalism really is in an age of bloggers and “citizen journalists” armed only with a keyboard. With his two decades-plus of reporting, Northerly is hardened and relentless. As he pursues the story of the murder of an American businessman at the hands of Bo Xilai’s wife and her henchmen, he is harassed, thrown in a secret jail cell, gets beaten and worse. The book offers an engrossing mystery as Northerly uncovers who shot the American and why, but Adam Najberg’s best achievement may be his capturing how corruption works in China and how it lubricates the entire government apparatus. He has a deep knowledge of China and how its government operates, and one finishes the book with a better understanding of Chinese politics, and a much greater appreciation of what foreign correspondents there have to go through every day. (Najberg is an editor with the Wall Street Journal in Hong Kong. and has been with the paper for nearly two decades) A delightful read, a finely written thriller that I finished in two nights. Highly recommended. Available as an ebook of Amazon, and it’s for sale at a great price.


Life among the farmers

Two days ago I reviewed this book, and now I see its author has written a splendid piece about his experience living deep in the countryside in southeast China and his thoughts on the role of the agrarian classes in China’s future, and their plight throughout history.

Just one snip:

Not unlike the country’s own 260-million-strong “floating population” of itinerant laborers, I myself am also a nongmingong (migrant worker), presently dividing my time between our village and neighboring Shanghai, where I work. But the “simple life” I lead back in Jiangsu is not something I have been entirely inclined to share with other foreigners here. There seems to be an unspoken but prevalent attitude amongst more colonial-minded expats in China that leaving the luxury of the big city for the countryside is not becoming of us as westerners.

No, Western imperialism is not dead, and ironically it is found more frequently today among the Chinese themselves, especially the well-heeled, urban second-generation, whom harbor a deep-seated disdain for their agrarian countrymen. The derision is palpable, as if anyone with sun-kissed skin and a provincial hukou (identification card) is a shameful, sepia-toned reminder that China was not always an economic powerhouse.

Lest we forget, it is they — not the government who steals their land, nor the second-generation snobs residing in the skyscrapers built by them — who are the true People of this eponymous republic. And if the China watchers are correct in their prediction that the country’s profound social divisions may culminate into outright revolution within the next decade, my forecast is that the numbers are in favor of the farmers.

It’s very moving to see an expatriate championing China’s farmers. It is certainly not something you see very often. Please read the whole article.


China’s selective amnesia

I once wrote a post about my talking with one friend after another at the Global Times about what happened at Tiananmen Square 24 years ago, and whether they were familiar with the Tank Man photo. As I reported then, only one friend was familiar with the photo, and said she couldn’t understand why the West saw him as a hero. What he was doing was against the interest of society.

That episode came to mind as I read a piece in the NY Times that you should read, too, on “China’s State-Sponsored Amnesia.” We’ve discussed it here before — the air brushing of the horrors of the Great Leap Forward out of the public record, the erasure of June 4th, the downplaying of Mao’s misdeeds and blunders.

The author, a Chinese writer, sees the manipulation of history as a disaster for China.

The amnesia I’m talking about is the act of deleting memories rather than merely a natural process of forgetting. Forgetting can result from the passage of time. The act of deleting memories, however, is about actively winnowing out people’s memories of the present and the past.

In China, memory deletion is turning the younger generation into selective-memory automatons. Memories of history and the present, yesterday and today are all going through this uniform process of deletion and are being lost without trace.

I used to assume history and memory would always triumph over temporary aberrations and return to their rightful place. It now appears the opposite is true. In today’s China, amnesia trumps memory. Lies are surpassing the truth. Fabrications have become the logical link to fill historical gaps. Even memories of events that have only just taken place are being discarded at a dazzling pace, with barely intelligible fragments all that remain for people to hold on to.

This isn’t exactly new; I’ve been thinking about it for more than ten years now. But I hadn’t really realized the sheer scope of this massive, ongoing state effort to cleanse its people’s neurons and create its own history, almost in real time. After noting the whitewashing of the Cultural Revolution and the 1970 war with Vietnam, the author reminds us that state-sponsored amnesia is with us today, and the goal is always the same: to keep the ruling class in power.

What else is lost to memory? Everything that has happened in recent times: the AIDS epidemic caused by unhygienic blood selling; the innumerable explosions in illegal coal mines; the modern day slavery that takes place in illegal brick kilns; the rampant production of toxic milk powder, toxic eggs, toxic seafood, gutter oil, carcinogenic vegetables and fruit; forced abortions; violent demolitions; mistreatment of petitioners — the list goes on and on.

Anything negative about the country or the regime will be rapidly erased from the collective memory. This memory deletion is being carried out by censoring newspapers, magazines, television news, the Internet and anything that preserves memories.

… The oppression of words and ideas is not unique. It has been exercised by all authoritarian regimes around the world at various times. Under oppression, intellectuals — the people who are supposed to have good memories — are the first to become silent after being administered amnesia by the state. Next comes the general public.

The state prefers the intelligence of its people to remain at the level of children in a kindergarten. It hopes people will follow instructions, just as children follow their teacher’s instructions — they eat when they are told to eat, they sleep when they are told to sleep. When they are asked to perform, these innocent children enthusiastically recite the script prepared by adults.

As you can probably see, this is one scary article. Obviously in recent years the Internet has made it harder to stamp out memories of the more recent outrages and scandals, but the fact remains, most Chinese growing up in the Chinese education system have been denied the knowledge of much of China’s history. And I’m ready for the response that it’s the same in the US. Um, no. We are taught about the disaster of Vietnam, we see television shows about the folly of the Iraq War, we learn how we exterminated the American Indians. Some textbooks may try to put America in the best light possible, but there is no government-mandated effort to uproot history and deny Americans knowledge of their past. It’s all out there for whoever wants to know about it.

This is a long and engrossing article. Let me just quote its last lines:

The late Chinese writer Ba Jin had a dream for preserving memory — to build a museum in China devoted to the Cultural Revolution, the “revolution” that took place in the 1960s and 1970s and turned the nation into a madhouse.

Carrying on Ba Jin’s dream, I also have a naïve hope: I hope one day a memorial to amnesia engraved with all our nation’s painful memories of the last century can be erected on Tiananmen Square.

I believe a truly great people are people who have the courage to remember their own past, and a truly great nation is a nation that has the courage to record its own history.

China so longs for true greatness, it dreams so much of soft power and global influence. But as long as it insists on excising anything negative about its history from the minds of its citizens, it cannot be taken entirely seriously. How can they be taken seriously when they are so afraid of the past, so insecure about the present that they must reshape the truth to avoid any dissent or disharmony? Do they not know that it makes others wary to see how China manipulates its citizens’ minds? Is there any hope that this very basic notion is getting through to anyone at the top? Based on everything I’m hearing and reading, the answer is, for now, no.