Scott Savitt’s Crashing the Party

Crashing the Party: An American Reporter in China by Scott Savitt grabs you by the throat in its first pages and keeps you turning the page until the end. From the opening page:

I’m lying on a bamboo mat on the concrete prison floor. My torn T-shirt is tied around my eyes to block the bare ceiling bulb that burns day and night. Sweat drenches my shirt from summer temperatures that soar above 100 degrees. The cell is six-by-eight feet, windowless, with a food slot in the iron door. The humidity is suffocating.

I roll my head from side to side, desperate to get some rest. The drone from the light blends with the buzz of mosquitoes in my ears. I’m too tired to slap the insects away. My skin is covered in a rash of bites…. I can’t take much more of this. I’m prepared to do something desperate, but there’s not even a piece of metal or shard or broken glass in here to cut myself with. Could I strangle myself with my own bare hands or smash my head against the wall?

And from there it only gets worse. The prison is in downtown Beijing, next to the Lama Temple, a place I’ve walked by countless times, ignorant, like everyone else, of what was going on behind the prison’s inconspicuous door. It’s a powerful start to a memoir that offers a spellbinding look at China from 1983 to 2000. Scott, at the age of 19, arrives in China as an exchange student at Beijing Teacher’s University. It’s the time when foreigners are stared at as though they are from another planet. Cultural Revolution propaganda — “Down with Yankee imperialism!” — still adorns the campus’ building walls, though now the characters are fading, six years after the Great Helmsman’s death.

Savitt, we learn, was a student at Duke University, whose father expected him to get a law degree and work for his firm. But Savitt has different plans. Grief-stricken over the death of his girlfriend from meningitis, he makes his way to Beijing, though it is somewhat unclear what he hopes to find there. Strumming on his beloved guitar, he walks across the campus and eventually meets a fellow student, John, who will become his closest friend, a fellow musician who made his own electric guitar out of spare parts from the school’s electronics workshop. John becomes his guide to Beijing, where there are still more horse carts on the wide avenues than cars. Savitt gives us a wonderful look into what Beijing was like just as the forces of modernization and increased openness began clashing with tradition and China’s many years of self-imposed isolation. What I found especially interesting was John’s undisguised contempt for the CCP. “All the best food, clothing and imported goods go to Communist Party officials in special shops off-limits to ordinary people… Only the leftovers go to us masses.” Soon we learn the source of his contempt; his father, a literature professor, was marched out by Red Guards, wearing a dunce cap, and was never seen again. His sister, as the daughter of a “stinking intellectual,” was left brain damaged and mute after she “fell” out of a third-story window during her interrogation by Red Guards.

During the first part of the book, we are immersed in life in 1980s’ Beijing as Deng’s reforms give the people a taste for freedom that they will not readily give up. Savitt is lucky, becoming close friends with the US ambassador and his wife of Chinese origins, and socializing at their salon-like parties where he rubs shoulders with Chinese intellectuals, activists and officials.

Now in his mid-20s, Savitt has taken a job as a journalist for the Los Angeles Times and later becomes a foreign correspondent for United Press International (UPI), where his Chinese language skills and boundless energy make him a prized asset. Change is in the wind. Chinese intellectuals are challenging the government to reform. They demand the release of political prisoners. Deng is being directly challenged. At Beijing University Savitt meets the student organizer Wang Dan, who is moderating debates about democracy for a group he organized, Democracy Salon, and who will soon become the most wanted man in China.

The build-up to the Tiananmen Square demonstrations and the coverage of events as they unfold constitute the most thrilling part of the book. Upon hearing of Hu Yaobang’s death in April of 1989, Savitt rushed to Beijung University to interview the gathering students. He takes us right there; we can feel the students’ anger and determination, we can sense their outrage as they march, in the thousands, from Beida and Qinghua University to the square. All the while, Savitt is interacting with them, rushing from the university to the UPI office to pound out stories that will be read the next day all around the world. Soon hundreds of thousands of protestors arrive at Tiananmen Square.

We all know what happens, but Savitt offers us a fresh perspective, and brings to light the horrors of the crackdown and massacre. (Don’t ever tell me there was no massacre.) In the thick of the crackdown, Savitt comes to the aid of a student who has been shot and carries him on his motorcycle to the hospital. Savitt is drenched in the man’s blood.

I speed up to the hospital entrance and half-carry the guy in. The sight inside shocks me. The entrance corridor is filled with gunshot victims. Most aren’t being treated. Some are hooked up to IV bags. A handful are covered with bloody white sheets, obviously dead… The smell of blood and open wounds nauseates me.

Savitt’s best friend John, who was involved with the protest organizers, flees to the US. Wang Dan is soon found and arrested. The descriptions of the tanks entering the square amid the chaos of the early morning on June 4 are harrowing. This is some of the best reporting of the crackdown I’ve read anywhere.

Over the coming years, things change. More than anything else, there is now “an exclusive focus on making money as quickly and ruthlessly as possible.” Savitt decides the best way to promote change will be to set up an independent, underground English-language newspaper in Beijing. The rest of the book is about the birth of his publication, Beijing Scene, its stunning success, and its violent end in 2000, leading ultimately to his arrest and imprisonment.

The book is not perfect. It could have used some more thorough editing (being a copy editor I found several changes I would have made, mostly minor but enough for me to wish the editing were tighter). Savitt is a very competent writer, but don’t expect to read the kind of beautiful prose Peter Hessler offers up in River Town. But that’s alright. The tone is journalistic, and is fast-paced and compelling. My other criticism is that the book ends abruptly after the author is released from prison and put on a plane back to America. A little too abruptly. I was hoping for an afterward to tie things up, and to know what Savitt is doing now. There were a few loose ends I wish had been sewn up.

But these are small things. I strongly recommend this book to anyone interested in China — especially those interested in the story of how and why the Tiananmen Square demonstrations and crackdown came to be, and in the perils for a foreigner starting a business in China. It’s a great read.