No release for Guantanamo’s Uighurs

“Appeals court blocks release of Guantanamo detainees”:

A federal appeals court temporarily blocked the release of 17 Chinese-born Muslims detained at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba , a day after a landmark decision required them to be freed to the U.S….

…”Seventeen men were told yesterday that they were going to be released after nearly seven years of wrongful detention,” said Emi MacLean , an attorney for the Center for Constitutional Rights , which coordinates the representation of detainees including the Uighurs. “Now, they have to be told that their detention will continue to be indefinite.”

The Uighurs are among a group of more than 60 men inside the prison who’ve been cleared for release by the military but who are stuck in limbo because the U.S. government can’t find a country to ship them to. The Uighurs say they can’t return to China because they’ll be tortured as political dissidents.

Urbina’s decision marked the first time a court had ordered the transfer of Guantanamo detainees to the U.S. and could have prompted the release of others who’ve been cleared by the military.

Urbina declared the continued detention of the Uighurs to be “unlawful” and said the government could no longer detain them after conceding they weren’t enemy combatants.

However, Justice Department lawyers continued to argue that the release of the group into the U.S. could pose a security risk and warned that the decision could harm international relations with China.

In court papers, Justice Department lawyers attacked Urbina’s ruling, warning in court papers of “serious harms to the government and the public at large” if the appeals court did not intervene.

The lawyers said that Urbina’s decision “directly conflicts with the basic principle” that the executive branch, specifically the Department of Homeland Security , has sole discretion as to whether to admit foreigners into the U.S. The Justice Department also raised security concerns about releasing men they say were captured at a weapons training camp run by the Taliban in Afghanistan.

The Uighurs attorneys disputed that characterization, saying the men merely were living in a small village in Afghanistan where they’d kept one weapon, but lacked ammunition.

Show of hands — who do you believe?

Maybe I’m cynical.

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Some good news (we hope)…

I posted about the plight of Chinese Uighurs detained in Guantanamo over three years ago. As the Washington Post reported at that time:

In late 2003, the Pentagon quietly decided that 15 Chinese Muslims detained at the military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, could be released. Five were people who were in the wrong place at the wrong time, some of them picked up by Pakistani bounty hunters for U.S. payoffs. The other 10 were deemed low-risk detainees whose enemy was China’s communist government — not the United States, according to senior U.S. officials.

More than 20 months later, the 15 still languish at Guantanamo Bay, imprisoned and sometimes shackled, with most of their families unaware whether they are even alive.

Now, after nearly seven years in detention, a US judge has ruled that the Uighurs must be released into the US, agreeing with their attorneys that holding the men without cause is unconstitutional:

At a hearing packed with Uighurs who live in the Washington area, Urbina rejected government arguments that he had no authority to order the men’s release. He said he had such authority because the men were being held indefinitely and it was the only remedy available. He cited a June decision by an appellate court that found evidence against the Uighurs to be unreliable.

Urbina said in court that he ordered the release “because the Constitution prohibits indefinite detention without cause.” He added, “The separation of powers do not trump” the prohibition against holding people indefinitely without trial…

…Justice Department lawyer John O’Quinn asked Urbina to stay the order for a week, giving the government time to evaluate its options and file an appeal. Urbina rejected that request and ordered the Uighurs to appear in his courtroom for a hearing on Friday. He said he would then release them into the custody of 17 Uighur families living in the Washington area.

Apparently the government plans to appeal, but Urbina seems firm in his determination that these men have gotten a raw deal and that they will be released from custody, period (he didn’t take kindly to the proposal that US Immigration authorities might re-detain the Uighurs either). Good for him.

I’ll go further: the United States of America should pay these men an annual stipend equivalent to a decent income for a period of time allowing them to adjust to their new lives here. I’d say for about seven years, at the very least.

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“Apologies Forthcoming” – A Conversation with Xujun Eberlein

Xujun Eberlein grew up in Chongqing, China, and moved to the United States in the summer of 1988. After receiving a Ph.D. from MIT in the spring of 1995, and winning an award for her dissertation, she joined a small but ambitious high tech company. On Thanksgiving 2003, she gave up tech for writing. Her debut story collection Apologies Forthcoming won the 2007 Tartt Fiction Award and was published in May 2008. You can buy the book here

The stories in Apologies Forthcoming deal with the Cultural Revolution, which defined the generation now coming to power in China. Xujun departs from the more typical “victim literature” about the CR, and the stories show a broad range of perspectives, actions and responses to the turmoil of the period.

 Lisa: Tell us about the title of your collection, “Apologies Forthcoming.” Why did  you choose it? 

 Xujun: I had considered calling the book Men Don’t Apologize, but some writer friends objected. They pointed out that people would probably expect a feminist treatise, while I’m not a feminist at all. And the stories don’t actually have any agenda other than realistically portraying human behavior and psychology at a particular time. While that namesake story is about several men and a woman, the idea of apologizing for, or even acknowledging participation in, activities during the Cultural Revolution cuts across the sexes. Apologies Forthcoming was actually the publisher’s suggestion and I like it, though I am not sure we will ever see the apologies.  ☺

 Speaking about apologies, two years ago I interviewed a few ex-Red Guard leaders in Chongqing, who had been in jail for more than a decade and now are businessmen. I wrote a short journalism piece about this, which you can read here.

Let me just quote one of the men here – he said, “We castigated the capitalist roaders for two years. They punished us for many more.” He didn’t think he ought to apologize to anyone at all, and you have to acknowledge his point.

Lisa: Related to this question of apologies…my first time in China was in 1979, so the Cultural Revolution was still very present in peoples’ lives. At the time I felt like the country suffered from a massive emotional depression from the after-effects of so much mass trauma. And a number of Chinese people I met told me about some of their experiences during the CR – some very traumatic and personal things. I’m guessing this was because I was a young foreigner, not involved and therefore safe to confide in. Did you talk about your experiences with fellow Chinese? To what extent did people feel they could honestly speak about what had happened to them and what they had done during this time? Did you talk to anyone about your own experiences?

Xujun: Oh, plenty of people talk about their sufferings, but few mention their roles as participants. One representative example is the memoir Wild Swans. I admire the book’s writing, but as I mentioned in my Amazon review for it, I wish the author were more honest. Readers relish suffering stories, but suffering stories alone provide limited insights into human behavior.

It also occurs to me that few westerners know the subtleties and nuance surrounding the participating parties in the CR. I once did an informal poll among writers I workshop with on what they thought of the Red Guards, and the answers were pretty much uniform with the representative one being “pretty much the same as the Hitler Youth.” This is quite baffling and at the same time very interesting. As we know (I’m aware of the pitfall of generalization) Americans hate the communist government of China; but did they know the biggest thing the Red Guards did was to break China’s state apparatus? Should a communist hater applaud or condemn that? There is just no simple black-and-white answer.

Another thing is that the Red Guards consisted of an entire generation of students from middle school through university, and though viewed as a collective by westerners, there were many different factions emerging, converging, breaking down and reorganizing over times.

The Red Guards did have a hand in lots of violence, yet the individual members were often idealists. This complexity seems beyond the average outsiders’ comprehension. It is very hard for someone to understand another culture without actually experiencing it. But the real problem is not the limitation in understanding – everyone has limitations; it is failing to recognize limitations. Too many people are vocally righteous about other cultures they know little about, that is the problem.

As a writer, however, I am more interested in human behavior and the mentality that leads to it. I’m not interested in pointing fingers because what does that do to increase understanding? I think as realistic fiction the story “Men Don’t Apologize” departs from the usual victim literature and takes one step further in exploring human nature and the different behavior that manifests between ordinary and extraordinary circumstances.

I don’t want to digress too far on this topic, let’s just say that, as far as political conflicts are concerned, victims and victimizers can easily switch positions. The distinction between victims and villains is very unclear and my stories show a broader range of behavior beyond suffering.

Lisa: “Snow Line,” the opening story in the collection, is set in Chengdu, a city I’ve spent some time in and really love. Even in the immediate aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, it felt a lot more relaxed and open to me than most of the cities I visited. It’s surrounded by a lot of natural beauty, and places like Qingchengshan, which is considered one of the birthplaces of Daoism.

I notice that flowers are a recurring motif in “Snow Line,” and I’m curious if this is something that connects specifically to Chengdu.

Xujun: Yes, Chengdu! My favorite city of all! (I hope my Chongqing townsmen will forgive me for saying this.) In the north it is Beijing and in the south it has to be Chengdu. Do you know a saying, “少不入川,老不出川” – “When young don’t enter Sichuan; when old never go out of it”? In this saying “Sichuan” actually means its capital Chengdu. Chengdu is such a relaxed and cultured city, a young man would only be spoiled there and never work hard, is what the saying means. But it is heaven for a relaxed and richly cultured life. Every year I go back for a visit, I can’t help but wonder how such a free and at leisure population make their livings. Yet they live leisurely on. All my close friends from Chongqing have moved to Chengdu by now.

And yes, Chengdu is a true flower city. Everywhere on the streets and in every season you see flower girls and flower stores. Even Chengdu’s air is fragrant and colorful. You don’t see or smell this in Chongqing for example. Don’t get me wrong, I love Chongqing, too, but that’s for its ragged hilly paths and two legend-filled rivers.

You can probably sense my love of Chengdu from descriptions in “Snow Line.” But the reason I placed “Snow Line” as the opening story is because of the artwork, “Dandelion.” The artist, Mr. Wu Fan, is a renowned “literati artist” in Sichuan, a very classic kind. “Dandelion” was his signature work and won a gold medal in the 1959 international block prints competition. During the CR the gold medal became a criminal indictment for him and nearly killed him.

Mr. Wu is a friend of my parents, and his daughter and I are friends. The genesis of “Snow Line” actually came from the daughter; she had modeled the little girl in “Dandelion.” I thought the artwork would add a nice dimension to my story, so I asked for permission to include it from Mr. Wu Fan, and he generously agreed. I ended up using three works from him, each fits nicely with one of the stories. His daughter did the sketch for “Men Don’t Apologize.”

When I was in college, every summer I would go to Chengdu and spend time with the Wu family. The mother, an oil painter, would bring her two daughters to paint from nature in Huanhua Xi – Wash-flower Brook, and I would go with them. Those were some happiest times of my youth.

Lisa: The first time I was in China, one of the phrases I learned right away was “work unit.” The idea that so many decisions about one’s personal life could be made by one’s place of employment was very foreign to me. “Snow Line” presents a typical situation in the China of the late 1970s to early 1980s, where a woman lives in the factory in which she works. The whole notion of privacy and personal space is very different from the West. So a two-part question – when you moved to the US, was this a difficult adjustment to you? And do you think that China as a society has moved towards more “Western” notions of privacy?

Xujun: Hehe, the phrase is still there, on everyone’s lips. And you ask an interesting question. When I am writing stories I wear the hat of the times, and this all seems perfectly natural. However, when I think about actually doing something like living in a printing factory it does seem pretty strange. It is curious how quickly I became accustomed to the easy (and private) life in the US. I don’t think I could make the adjustment in the other direction nearly so quickly. There is a Chinese word for that – xiguan – that would be used only in one direction.

China has changed a lot since the early 1980s, when I was in college. There is surely more privacy in people’s lives now. For example the question “How much do you make?” was as common as “Have you eaten?” in conversation when I lived in China. Now you hardly ever hear the former spoken. ☺
However I don’t think Chinese will completely adopt the Western notion of privacy – that would be very sad anyway. Neighbors still love to “chuan-men” (drop-by) without having to first set appointments, for example.

Lisa: “Feathers” tells the story of a girl losing her older sister. In a way it is a typically “Chinese” story, a Cultural Revolution tragedy. But on the other hand, the family dynamics transcend the cultural particulars and deal with universal themes of loss, denial and suffering.

Xujun: I think that is an important observation, and I think it may apply more broadly than just this story. People have a lot in common with one another, and a lot that sets us apart. “Feathers” is about family and dealing with tragedy, and this is an area where similarities are much stronger than differences. Still, the story tells a Chinese way of dealing with things, for example making up stories so the grandmother wouldn’t know about her grandchild’s death. I remember workshopping the story and some American friends just couldn’t understand why the lying was necessary. Some things that might stand out to a Western reader would simply be background to a Chinese reader.

You know, this story is close to my heart. And go back to your question earlier if I talked to anyone about my own experiences during the CR, I was a child when the worst thing happened to my family – my big sister’s death. She was a 16-year-old Red Guard. I had to safeguard my 75-year-old grandmother from knowing the bad news, just like in the third-person story “Feathers.” Imaging a 12-year-old girl running around bare her teeth like a fierce cat hissing at any gossipy neighbor who dared to mention the incident. That practice trained my habit of silence; for more than three decades I did not talk to anyone other than my diary book about the incident. I never shed tears either. I cried for the first time in 2002 when I began to write the memoir piece “Swimming with Mao”.

One question a reader raised was if my loyalty to my sister might have impeded my condemnation of the Red Guards. However, though my sister was both a participant and a victim of the CR, she foremost was my dear sister and no political identification could change that. This became never so clear after I started to write about her.

The story also reflects my aversion to heroism. When my sister died, her comrades called her a “hero.” As a child I was very confused by the notion that a life was tradable with the title “hero.” I just wanted my dear sister back – who cared what her title was?

Lisa: I particularly liked “Watch the Thrill,” with its two bored neighborhood boys who are looking for excitement. It’s not that they are bad or evil, they just seem to lack the capacity to make moral choices, and there are no adults around to guide them. This had a lot of resonances to me, both to kids growing up here and now without adequate parenting and to figures in classical literature – “Lord of the Flies” comes to mind.

Xujun: It is interesting you should mention this. There is a broader belief that youth and innocence should go hand in hand. In this story I wanted to portray not that the boys were bad, but that they really weren’t concerned about the concepts of good or bad, but just interesting or boring. Becoming invested in good and bad requires some reasonable landmarks of this type of judgment, and those landmarks were missing when these boys were raised. This makes the emergence of any sort of morality difficult.

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Please keep your comments on topic

I started deleting off-topic comments in the last thread and realized that there would have been virtually no comments left if I’d continued.

Well, maybe two. 

Consider this an open thread if you must. 

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Comments FUBAR again

I’m afraid I don’t know how to fix the problem, but in the meantime, here is another open thread to use until it gets FUBAR’d too…

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The Fenqing get funky….

New video making the rounds…I’m not sure whether to laugh, cry, or what. It’s a Will.i.am world, propaganda comes with a backbeat these days, I guess.

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I guess it could work…

After 14 failed attempts at joining the United Nations using media campaigns and presidential appeals, Taiwan is turning to a local goth-style rock band backed by Ozzy Osbourne in its quest for membership to the world body.

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Year of the Pig

More bad news about the safety of China’s food supply and the willingness of the Chinese government to share necessary information to the rest of the world:

A mysterious epidemic is killing pigs in southeastern China, but international and Hong Kong authorities said today that the Chinese government is providing little information about it, or about the contaminated wheat gluten that has caused deaths and illnesses in other animals…

…Because pigs can catch many of the same diseases as people, including bird flu, the two U.N. agencies maintain global networks to track and investigate unexplained patterns of pig deaths.

Hong Kong television broadcasts and newspapers were full of lurid accounts today of pigs staggering around with blood pouring from their bodies in Gaoyao and neighboring Yunfu, both in Guangdong Province. The Apple Daily newspaper said that as many as 80 percent of the pigs in the area had died, that panicky farmers were selling ailing animals at deep discounts and that pig carcasses were floating in a river.

The reports in Hong Kong said the disease began killing pigs after the Chinese New Year celebrations in February, and is now spreading. But state-controlled news outlets in China have reported almost nothing about the pig deaths, and very little about the wheat gluten problem…

See the comment thread on pet food below for discussion and some great links on these issues (particularly the poisoned medicine story from the New York Times) and feel free to continue the discussion here.

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It’s not just about pet food

The New York Times has a story up about the pet food contamination scandal that claims adulteration with melamine is an open secret in China, and that it’s been in the human food chain for a long time:

Workers at the Shandong Mingshui Great Chemical Company say they commonly add the chemical melamine in the process of making animal feed. Melamine appears as protein but has no nutritional value.

For years, producers of animal feed all over China have secretly supplemented their feed with the substance, called melamine, a cheap additive that looks like protein in tests, even though it does not provide any nutritional benefits, according to melamine scrap traders and agricultural workers here.

“Many companies buy melamine scrap to make animal feed, such as fish feed,” said Ji Denghui, general manager of the Fujian Sanming Dinghui Chemical Company, which sells melamine. “I don’t know if there’s a regulation on it. Probably not. No law or regulation says ‘don’t do it,’ so everyone’s doing it. The laws in China are like that, aren’t they? If there’s no accident, there won’t be any regulation.”…

…The pet food case is also putting China’s agricultural exports under greater scrutiny because the country has had a terrible food safety record.

In recent years, for instance, China’s food safety scandals have involved everything from fake baby milk formulas and soy sauce made from human hair to instances where cuttlefish were soaked in calligraphy ink to improve their color and eels were fed contraceptive pills to make them grow long and slim.

For their part, Chinese officials dispute any suggestion that melamine from the country could have killed pets. But regulators here on Friday banned the use of melamine in vegetable proteins made for export or for use in domestic food supplies.

Yet what is clear from visiting this region of northeast China is that for years melamine has been quietly mixed into Chinese animal feed and then sold to unsuspecting farmers as protein-rich pig, poultry and fish feed.

“If there’s no accident, there won’t be any regulation…”

It’s no surprise to anyone who’s followed contemporary China closely that unscrupulous business owners cut corners to lower costs and increase profits. But I place the blame on our own cutthroat, corporatist system as well. Where was the FDA? What happened to food safety?

Remember how Ronald Reagan helped to demonize the government? What was that cute joke of his, “the nine scariest words in the English language — ‘I’m with the government, and I’m here to help.” So we’ve cut services, privatized, outsourced, basically allowed the agencies that are supposed to be working for our benefit to be gutted and co-opted, to the point where the state of California had to sue the Environmental Protection Agency in order to regulate tail-pipe emissions…and poisoned pets, contaminates in the human food chain, are just one result.

There’s something deeply wrong with the current logic of globalization, when the United States, one of the world’s agricultural powerhouses, is importing substandard food products from China, simply because they are “cheaper.”

“Cheaper”? What are the real costs here? To our health. To our environment. The amount of fossil fuels burned to transport this stuff alone should give us pause.

It’s past time to start factoring in the social and environmental costs of doing business when we consider the definition of profitability.

H/T to SusanHu of No Quarter and Itchmo

UPDATE The FDA announced that it will limit the import of certain Chinese food products until they can be proven safe, to include “wheat gluten, rice gluten, rice protein, rice protein concentrate, corn gluten, corn gluten meal, corn by-products, soy protein, soy gluten, mung-bean protein and amino acids” – ingredients found in everything “from noodles to breakfast bars.” They’ve also confirmed that pet deaths are in the thousands, not the few dozen they’ve insisted on, against all evidence.

Stay tuned.

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“My Brother, the Dissident”

Okay, you’ve all heard me whine about not having an internet connection, not having a computer (my cat peed on it. Really) and in general being too busy to post – thankfully only the last one of those applies at the moment – but in lieu of a post that requires actual thought or writing, I thought I’d pass along this link to a lengthy and nuanced New Yorker article by Jianying Zha about her brother, a jailed activist. It’s not the black and white bash-fest you might expect; Zha avoids howls of outrage and easy conclusions. Go have a look.

Or, I dunno, we could go back to arguing about what country is more racist, Tibetan/Taiwanese independence/splittism, and what’s that whole White guy/Asian woman/White woman/Asian man thing about, anyway?

Your call.

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