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.

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Welcome to the Age of Trump


Since Trump’s victory, my favorite Middle Eastern restaurant in Phoenix, Middle Eastern Bakery and Deli, has had its windows smashed — twice. I know the owner and his wife and it is kind of ironic that they are Christians (from Lebanon). Huge crowds lined up at lunchtime today to show their support, and I plan to go tomorrow. It is encouraging that the central Phoenix community has set up a GoFundMe page to help the restaurant owner and it has garnered nearly $11,000 in the past 24 hours.

They say it’s too early to call this a hate crime, but I strongly suspect it is. And I expect we will see lots more incidents like this as racists and haters feel emboldened by Trump’s election, by a man who called for the ban on all Muslims entering the US, by a man beloved by white supremacists and ultra-nationalists. Welcome to the Age of Trump, where the new national security advisor has said “fear of Muslims is RATIONAL” (his caps), and where Trump’s strategic advisor has strong ties to the alt right. Since Trump’s election, incidents of harassment and intimidation have soared. It’s going to be a long and painful four years.

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Donald Trump Rears His Head

Three weeks later, and the shock and worry won’t wear off. For months I had devoured every bit of news about the election. I donated three times to the Democratic campaign. I watched the three cable news giants obsessively. I had it all figured out, thanks to the media and the ubiquitous polls thrown at us every day: Trump had only the narrowest of windows for winning the race and he had a 90 percent chance of losing. Women and Hispanics were mobilizing and would vote in record numbers for Clinton. Millennials were coming off the pain they felt at Bernie Sanders’ defeat in the primaries and were now going to vote for Clinton. Obama was going to galvanize black voters and send them to the polls. For all her baggage, Clinton was the odds-on favorite up to the very last day. And then, as I sat transfixed watching my television screen on election day, the unthinkable happened, and now I can’t stop thinking about it. I keep trying to wrap my head around what a world led by a lying, bullying, hateful reality TV star would look like, and I still can’t quite visualize it. We know some terrible disaster is right around the corner, thanks to Trump’s ignorance of foreign policy, underscored by his chat with Taiwan’s president and his heaping praise on the president of Pakistan.

Even three weeks later I feel numb, helpless and betrayed. After all, Clinton won the popular vote handily. And if it hadn’t been for James Comey’s shockingly inappropriate letter to Congressional committee chairs announcing that yet more Clinton emails had been discovered, I am convinced we would have seen a happier outcome. We would have seen a more progressive Supreme Court. We would have seen the continuation and improvement of Obamacare. We would have seen protection of entitlements like Medicare and Social Security, which the GOP can’t wait to privatize. We would have seen a calm, cool-headed leader who knows how to skillfully interact with heads of state and who understands how to walk the tightrope of international relations (like how to deal with Taiwan). Instead we get a misogynistic, narcissistic, race-baiting carnival barker. Our lives are in the hands of a madman. All we can do is hope he can be restrained by those he surrounds himself with, but I’m not sure anyone can restrain Donald Trump. His chief strategist, Steven Bannon, is closely aligned with the alt right, and will be whispering in Trump’s ear every day. God help us.

We are all beyond saturation with the coverage. My Facebook feed fills up every few minutes with more stories about Trump’s improbable victory and what it means. Key words and phrases that keep running in my head include uncharted territory, fear, dread, despair, unprecedented, terrifying, no one knows, unimaginable, white supremacists, surreal…. And I admit that despite the saturation, I still keep reading the articles and watching the news shows, hoping that maybe I can finally understand and accept what happened. (So far I have been glaringly unsuccessful.)

I suppose we have two alternatives: to burrow ourselves into a hole and try to block it all out, or to actively work to change things for the better and to get ready for the next election fight in 2018. The closing stanza of Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach keeps replaying in my head:

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

There we have it: the most I can do at the moment is turn inward and try to keep the angst at a minimum, to forget about the “ignorant armies” that clash by night and just get on the best I can. Maybe in a few months I’ll get active in politics again, but for now I am simply trying to keep from being overwhelmed in a tsunami of terrible news that seems to get worse every day. The steady onslaught, the latest telling of Trump’s horrifying behavior or appointment or tweet, is numbing, stultifying. Hope is supposed to spring eternal, but at this moment I can’t see anything to feel hopeful about.

On the eve of World War I, British Foreign Secretary Edward Grey famously remarked, “The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time.” Will we see them lit again in America? For now, all we can do is stand and wait. And maybe pray. I do not mean in any way to be an alarmist, but I do believe Trump is going to be worse than any of us imagine. I fear we are going to be in nightmare mode for years to come, if not for generations (thanks to a Trump-selected Supreme Court). A tragedy, in every way. A complete and total tragedy.

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Twenty-five years later

I never before saw all the raw video footage of “Tank Man’s” defiance against a column of army tanks until today. It is remarkable, how one nameless man entered all of our living rooms for just a moment and is remembered so vividly a quarter of a century later. And for good reason.

Let’s keep the hundreds of murdered innocents in our thoughts today, and keep alive the fight to let the Chinese people know all who died during the crackdown. Let’s remember the Tiananmen Mothers, and let’s even hope for the day when the CCP admits the demonstrations were not an act of “counterrevolutionary” treachery inspired by foreign subversives, but an expression of the Chinese people’s yearning for a say in their government, for their voices to be counted, for officials to be held accountable. The demonstrators were patriots, not traitors. Sometimes foolish, sometimes caught up in their own infighting and bickering, but patriots nonetheless. Watch the Tank Man footage. Remember how and why he became an icon for standing up to brute force. (The driver of the tank should be remembered as well for his humanity. He could easily have killed Tank Man in an instant.) Every year I say Never Forget. Now, 25 years later, I say it with even more urgency. The Party, in its efforts to keep the TSM a taboo topic, reveals its own vulnerability and weakness. They must not be let off the hook. At some point the truth has to be told.

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Return of Liu Di, the “Stainless Steel Mouse”

Those of you who have been reading this blog for ten years or more (if any such reader exists) might remember an array of posts I wrote in 2004 regarding a “cyberdissident” Liu Di, who posted pro-democracy essays on the Internet under the moniker Stainless Steel Mouse. Posts like this or this, and several more. She also participated in study groups that discussed freedom and government reform, and saw herself and her colleagues arrested. I remember how angry I felt when another cyberdissident who lobbied for her release was himself arrested. Still, she has never been silenced. Even as recently as last month she was taken into custody for participating in a seminar about June 4th.

A reader brought to my attention the availability of three of Liu Di’s not-seen-before essays translated into English, one from 2014, another from 2013 and the last from 2010. These essays, one on remembering June 4, another on how the CCP operates and who they really serve, and one on why it is so important to hold out hope for incremental reform of the Chinese government, are poignant and beautifully written (thanks to Ragged Banner for the excellent translation). I hope you can take a moment and read all three.

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Two cats on a mat

I posted this on Facebook a few days ago and want to immortalize it on my blog. I had washed a small rug and put it on my front porch to dry and my two gorgeous cats immediately colonized it. (Click to enlarge.) What is life without cats?

Update: Today one of the cats climbed up on the roof and made his way to the front porch awning, where he held court all day, 12 feet from the ground.

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Xu Zhiyong gets 4 years for being a great civil servant

A week ago, Evan Osnos of The New Yorker wrote an excellent profile of a man who should be considered a national hero, Xu Zhiyong, who fought for greater government transparency to rein in corruption. I recommend everyone read it to see how this was no ordinary activist, but a courageous reformer whose crime was founding a grass-roots movement to promote citizens’ rights and rule of law.

[In 2009] Xu was known for his work as a legal activist, one who had made the rare choice to push for reform not from outside the system but from deep within it—he ran for, and won, a seat on a local district assembly in Beijing. In his work as a lawyer, he had been honored by the government for investigating contaminated baby formula and helping people who had been locked up by local governments in unofficial jails. In 2002, state television named him one of the “Top Ten Figures in the Rule of Law.” Xu projected a nearly evangelical sense of civic consciousness. In 2007, Susan Jakes, then a reporter for Time , wrote of him, “Xu is probably the person most committed to public service that I’ve met in China, and possibly in my whole life.” It was the kind of story that the Chinese press likes to promote now and then as evidence of the country’s capacity for pluralism within the wider confines of Party rule. “I have taken part in politics in pursuit of a better and more civilized nation,” The Economic Observer, a Beijing-based weekly, quoted him as saying.

As you probably know by now, today Xu, lauded a mere four years ago as a hero, was sentenced to four years in prison for organizing a crowd to disrupt public order. The news just broke, and I can’t find any articles in English yet, but according to several posts on Twitter, Xu said at the trial “this destroys the last remaining dignity of the Chinese legal system.” The sentence, the finale of a mock trial, will send out shock waves to all Chinese reformers. It was inevitable — you don’t get put on trial in China without being found guilty — but it is still a shock. Not a surprise, but a shock, a frightening reminder of just how, for all the new freedoms and rights and openness, there are still fat red lines that must not be crossed, like demanding a crackdown on government corruption. This is meant to cause shock waves, it’s a wake-up call to all activists: kick the hornet’s nest and we will come for you, no matter who you are.

As Osnos writes in his story, the great irony here is that Xi Jinping says one of his top priorities is rooting out government corruption and putting corrupt officials on trial. He is crusading even more zealously, however, for complete control over the flow of information in China, tightening the controls of censorship, especially on the Internet. As Osnos notes, “To tame the unruly power of the Web, the Supreme People’s Court declared that “false defamatory” comments, viewed five thousand times or forwarded five hundred times, could result in a prison sentence of up to three years.”

This story, like that of Liu Xiaobo, will create some international outrage and will reinforce stereotypes of China remaining a prickly authoritarian state that remains terrified of public scrutiny. It won’t matter a bit. This story is for China’s domestic consumption, and sends a clear and powerful message. It’s a tragedy.

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America’s epic fail

There are times when I almost wish the US was being led by an authoritarian government like China’s so it could get things done with no nonsense or political bravado. I say I “almost” wish that because, of course, there is enough bad that comes with authoritarianism to make democracy, for all its wretched faults, the best way to govern. But still, at the moment the notion of having the CCP run things is tempting.

We are now in the middle of the most shocking game of chicken we’ve ever seen in this country’s history. It is utterly unprecedented and frightening. The very idea that the US might default on its debts should scare everyone shitless. The fact that the Republicans needlessly forced the government to shut down ten days ago tells us this is no ordinary inter-party feud. The far right of the Republican party poses an existential threat to our democracy itself.

Andrew Sullivan, who should be a daily read, puts it succinctly:

How does one party that has lost two presidential elections and a Supreme Court case – as well as two Senate elections – think it has the right to shut down the entire government and destroy the full faith and credit of the United States Treasury to get its way on universal healthcare now? I see no quid pro quo even. Just pure blackmail, resting on understandable and predictable public concern whenever a major reform is enacted. But what has to be resisted is any idea that this is government or politics as usual. It is an attack on the governance and the constitutional order of the United States.

When ideologies become as calcified, as cocooned and as extremist as those galvanizing the GOP, the American system of government cannot work. But I fear this nullification of the last two elections is a deliberate attempt to ensure that the American system of government as we have known it cannot work. It cannot, must not work, in the mindset of these radicals, because they simply do not accept the legitimacy of a President and Congress of the opposing party. The GOP does not regard the president as merely wrong – but as illegitimate. Not misguided – illegitimate.

Underneath it all run the venomous tendrils of racism. I saw on the news just yesterday an interview with one of the most radical GOP congressmen and he said we still didn’t know if Obama is American or Kenyan. From day one the far right has challenged Obama’s legitimacy in a shameful spectacle of outrageous accusations. He is different; he is not like you and me. He is not a real American. Everything he does must be challenged and overturned at any cost. Any cost. Right now, I’m embarrassed to be an American. I wish we could bring in the CCP for a few days to crack down on the radicals, then send them on their way once the debt ceiling is raised and the country has no fear of default.

I’ve never worried about the future of the US like I’m worrying now. I think ultimately there will be a bargain, and the Republicans will back down about defunding the Affordable Care Act, a totally lost cause, a stupid cause. But that they dare take the country right to the brink of default, threatening the stability of the entire world, tells us just how dangerous these people are. And we’re stuck with them. Thanks to gerrymandering, the far-right loons are almost guaranteed reelection, and we may go through this nightmare again and again. This isn’t democracy, it’s a perversion of democracy, a shameless attempt to delegitimize the elected president and impose the agenda of the right, one that the American public rejected in the last election. The Tea Party is the greatest blight on the history of America since the end of Jim Crow. Let’s hope they sicken enough Americans for them to lose control of the House in 2014. It’s a long shot, but it’s the best, maybe the only hope America has.

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New blog

I know, I just wrote that I’m culling my blogroll, but now I want to take a second to introduce a new blog I’ve been enjoying, My China Kanfa. Please check it out. It’s intelligent, perceptive, and it updates frequently.

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Living in China: the Hammer Drill

I am almost certain that everyone who has lived in China has experienced the machine-gun staccato of the hammer drill being used to renovate an apartment in your building. It starts at the crack of dawn and makes sleep literally impossible. The walls shake, the roar of the machine breaks the sound barrier. I think I can say that for everyone it is one of their most unpleasant memories.

My friend and commenter Shanghai Slim recently sent me and other friends a brief description of life in the age of the hammer drill, along with an MP3 in which you can actually hear for yourself what this experience is like. Below is Slim’s letter followed by the MP3. Whatever you do, you MUST listen to the recording.

———————————–
Every place has things to love and things to … not love. In China, one of the latter is the pervasive racket of the place. The endless construction work, incessant horn honking, stores blasting distorted music through outside speakers, supermarket workers bellowing through portable amplifiers … sometimes it can drive you batty. An mp3 player becomes survival gear. At least during the summer, the clattering chorus of the cicadas drowns out some of it.

I think anyone living in a Chinese city – local or foreigner – will agree that one of the most annoying sounds in China is the hammer drill.

When you buy a new home in China (most urban Chinese live in what Americans would call “condo” apartments), you get a bare concrete shell. The only thing installed is the windows. Here and there PVC pokes out of the wall with some wiring or a temporary spigot, places where future electrical and water systems will be connected. The buyer spends several months and a big chunk of change “decorating” the new apartment, which includes installing all lighting, plumbing, electrical, flooring, closets, cabinets, counters and a/c units before painting, appliances and furniture. This work is often managed by decorating agencies.

When someone buys a used apartment, they typically rip everything out and start over with bare concrete. In the process it’s not unusual to make some changes to the floor plan by altering interior walls (hopefully not – but sometimes! – load-bearing walls). Chinese highrise apartments are typically built with solid steel-reinforced concrete walls, with concrete-covered brick used for non-load bearing interior walls.

A key tool used in decorating is the hammer drill, a heavy duty electric drill with a special feature, the drill shaft rapidly vibrates in-and-out as the bit spins. This allows the bit to pulverize as it whirls, which makes drilling into hard substances like concrete or masonry faster and easier.

When Chinese “decoration” workers make holes in walls, cut out sections of walls, or install anything attached to a wall, they typically use hammer drills. Major cuts are made by drilling “dotted lines” and then sledge hammering out the section to be removed. As you can imagine, cutting that way requires making a lot of holes. So do things like attaching flooring or wall paneling.

If you are in the same room as someone using a hammer drill, it does not sound much different from a standard electric drill – a whizzing, whining sound. However, the sound is amplified as it reverberates through solid concrete walls. The pounding and grinding action of the bit makes a distinctive staccato roaring that is just unbelievably loud and unbelievably annoying. If hammer drilling is taking place anywhere within several floors of you, you’re going to know about it.

I don’t know how to adequately describe this sound, even terms like “skull-cracking” somehow fall short. So it seemed a better idea to simply record a short example and let you hear for yourself (mp3 file attached). Sorry for the sound quality, this was recorded using my mp3 player, the general impression is accurate. Warning – please start the recording at low volume.

The drilling in the recording is happening in the apartment above mine, directly over my head, so it’s a little louder than most episodes. On the other hand, this is just a single hammer drill, it’s not uncommon for a crew to use more than one. In new buildings, multiple crews may be working at the same time.

The recording was made on the third day of drilling, fortunately that was the last day of intense work. Over the three weeks since, it has tapered off to sporadic bursts.

I don’t know how this kind of work is handled in American apartment buildings, I never lived in a concrete building there. If any of you know, please fill me in!

Hope you enjoy a quiet peaceful day!

Sounds of China – The Hammer Drill

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