The June 4th Incident

Allow me to emerge from my self-imposed hibernation to comment briefly, as I have done nearly every year in this blog’s 13-year history, on what happened in the streets around Tiananmen Square and in other Chinese cities on June 4th, 1989.

I had just moved to Phoenix in the Spring of 1989 for a new job, and for the first time I could afford cable television. CNN’s coverage of the demonstrations in China transfixed me as I watched the entire drama unfold. I remember watching amazed as the students carried out the “Goddess of Democracy,” and as thousands of others — not only students but working people, even police officers — joined the demonstrating masses. I had no particular interest in China at the time, but was riveted to my TV set; I saw the students as heroes and the government as villains. Now I know it was not nearly so black and white, but I still see the students as idealists fighting for a noble cause, and I see those who ordered the shootings as murderers.

In past posts on the subject, some of my Chinese commenters came back with the “America does it too” argument, pointing to the Kent State shootings. But here’s the big difference: Everyone in America who is literate and curious about the nation’s history is familiar with the story of the Kent State massacre. Public television (maybe CNN?) just a few weeks ago had a special program all about the shootings, what led up to them and how the deaths were seared into the national psyche. In China, of course, not only is there a total blackout of anything having to do with the TS demonstrations and ensuing massacre, there is a willful campaign to purge it from the national consciousness.

I can’t say much more about this subject than I have in the past. I’ve acknowledged that not all the students were angels, and that they had power issues of their own. But they were fighting for the right cause — greater representation, challenging rampant corruption, demanding accountability from those in power. The catastrophic turn of events that culminated in soldiers firing live ammunition into crowds on the side streets of Tiananmen Square was an act of brutality I can never forgive or forget.

One year ago I wrote a post about the remarkable book by former NPR correspondent Louisa Lim, The Peoples’ Republic of Amnesia. I wish everyone who argues that enough has been said about the “incident” already and that it’s time to move on and forgive/forget would read this book, which makes it clear that the TSM remains an open wound for many, and that won’t end until the government comes clean about what actually happened. As I wrote in my post:

…Lim notes how thoroughly the government has wiped out nearly all memories of the TSM. Every reference to it is silenced. The Tiananmen Mothers are persecuted. Several Chinese I spoke with in my old office said the only thing they know about it is that angry demonstrators killed innocent soldiers. Ignorance is Strength. This is what I call brainwashing — wiping the slate clean and restricting what the people can know. Anyone who reads this book will have no doubt that the Chinese people have been brainwashed on the subject.

In addition, a fine review of Lim’s book in last year’s Economist lays out the argument that the effects of the TSM resonate through China today:

One of Ms Lim’s most revealing portraits is of Bao Tong, an outspoken former senior official in Beijing who was imprisoned for seven years after the crackdown and still lives under constant surveillance. She says that from Mr Bao’s perspective the suppression of the protests was the “defining act” of modern-day China, accounting for its major ills today: rampant corruption, lack of trust in the government, a widespread morality crisis and the ascendancy of the security apparatus. The Chinese may not be so quick to blame the 1989 bloodshed, but most would recognise these symptoms.

One of the most illuminating chapters in the book deals with an atrocity I had no idea ever occurred, namely the brutal beating to death of demonstrating students in Chengdu. Lim’s harrowing description of the murders, carried out in a hotel courtyard is evidence that there is still much about the June 4th incident that hasn’t been exposed. Read the book for this alone. The violence in Chengdu is a story I will never forget.

Many Chinese — even a friend of mine — argue that the TSM was unfortunate but necessary to keep the Party in power so it could oversee the “economic miracle” that started in the early 1990s. It’s a shame some lost their lives, but it was more important to keep China from sliding into chaos and anarchy the way Russia did.They also argue that proof of the massacre’s justification is that China is moving toward greater political freedoms — the demonstrations were not necessary, the CCP is heading in the direction the students demanded all by itself. An article I saw today does a good job blowing a hole in this argument.

Even today, there are still some who believe that with further development, and the growth of a middle class, China will gradually evolve towards liberal democracy. This long-held narrative presupposes that China is on the right path now. But it isn’t. It isn’t, because of choices made through political expediency after the Tiananmen Massacre. Continuing down this crooked path is simply going to move China further away from democracy, and this has become plainly evident especially over the last couple of years since Xi Jinping took power. For 26 years, precisely because too many people have accepted the faulty premise of economic development inevitably leading to political reform, the proper and righteous resistance to the Party’s dictatorship has been forgotten. Instead, the world sits and watches, or even helps the hydra grow.

There’s a lot more I can say on the subject: tank man, the Tiananmen mothers, Zhao Ziyang, the horrors of the dead and maimed brought to Beijing emergency rooms. I’ve written about them extensively for years, and I won’t rehash it all here. Let’s just say that this is an incident that must not be forgotten, that it in many ways has helped define the CCP and its obsession with total control of its people — an obsession that has reached its pinnacle under Xi Jinping. I look at China now, with its crackdown on NGOs and repression of all dissent and the inexcusable prison sentences handed down to many who have dared speak out, and I’m not so sad that I left. In some ways, the spirit of the massacre lives on, especially in the minds of government leaders who dread the thought of anything like it happening again. They will never forget how the swelling masses of students challenged their authority; and neither will we.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


My blogroll and the slow asphyxiation of China-related blogs

I wanted to note that I’ve culled nearly half of my blogroll under the category, “Pearls of the Orient.” All the blogs I deleted had failed to update for some months and are depressing reminders of just how obsolete blogs have become. Right now the only really good Chinese-focused blogs that update constantly is this one, which is always a lot of fun, and this old warhorse. Even ESWN hardly ever posts nowadays. [Update: forgot to mention this impressive blog, which updates frequently.)

I have almost no interest in blogging anymore, as I now, like everyone else, use social media to offer my links and commentary. At the same time, I don’t want to shut the blog down (yet), as I still get occasional flashes of inspiration. So excuse me while The Peking Duck continues operating on life support.

To those whose blogs were taken off my blogroll: please email me if you plan to update and keep your blogs active, and I’ll add them again. Thanks.

There is a fine post about the current China-blog doldrums over here. It raises the question: “Can you blog about China without being there? Probably – but it will have to be a different kind of blogging.”

It will be a very different kind of blogging. I had far more to say on this site while I was living in China. Living in a desert thousands of miles away makes it difficult to keep the flame going.


Will China ever legalize gay marriage?

You can read my new post on the subject over at China Law Blog. The post is in response to recent pro-gay marriage rulings in the US and the question, Can that ever happen in China?