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.

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Whale watching on the Pacific

Well, I said the blog was closed but I can’t resist putting up these images, which you need to click to enlarge.

These are humpback whales, as seen from a boat several miles off the coast of Mazatlan. At one point, as they burst skyward as if out of nowhere, they seemed so close we could touch them. They are fiendishly difficult to photograph as they appear so suddenly and then disappear even faster into the deep.

After they’ve leapt up, the two whales plunge back downwards in perfect synchronicity, their huge tails hitting the water like spatulas. (Again, click to enlarge.)

A wonderful trip so far.

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Blog closed for a week

Tomorrow I’ll be at a beach resort in Mazatlan, Mexico, and the last thing I want to do is bring Tibet and Xi Jinping and Chinese politics with me. No new posts for at least eight or nine days. You can use this as an open thread if you so choose. (I’ll ask my hall monitors to watch out for thread hijackers.) Thanks, and enjoy the week ahead.

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Away

I’ll be in Los Angeles the next few days and won’t be posting. Please leave any comments or links in the thread below. (If anyone wants to meet up in LA send me an email.) See you next week.

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Sickness, Harassment and Suicide

Few stories in the news recently have disturbed me as much as that of the young Internet pioneer and activist, Aaron Swartz, who hanged himself in his apartment two days ago. Aaron was the type of geek and free thinker who you’d just know would be a multimillionaire, and indeed he became rich from the sale of the business he co-founded, Reddit. The money made no difference; Aaron was a tortured soul, even before a US prosecutor disgracefully got Aaron in his sites and all but decided to ruin his life, forever. The story frightens me, it sickens me, it reminds me of how Kafkaesque the US legal system can be and of how corporate interests get away with murder (almost literally) while the little guy, especially the kind like Aaron who challenge the system, can be pulverized. No, I can’t stop thinking about it.

The media have been saturated with this story; if you have no background you can read this or this. The government helped to hound Aaron to death. I can’t say their harassment actually killed him, but it was surely a very major factor behind his decision to take his life.

Aaron had a long history of depression, so perhaps the harassment was just a co-factor. He wrote a heartbreaking blog post about his illness nearly six years ago. His pain — depression, migraines, severe stomach illness — colonized his body and often made his life miserable.

Surely there have been times when you’ve been sad. Perhaps a loved one has abandoned you or a plan has gone horribly awry. Your face falls. Perhaps you cry. You feel worthless. You wonder whether it’s worth going on. Everything you think about seems bleak — the things you’ve done, the things you hope to do, the people around you. You want to lie in bed and keep the lights off. Depressed mood is like that, only it doesn’t come for any reason and it doesn’t go for any either. Go outside and get some fresh air or cuddle with a loved one and you don’t feel any better, only more upset at being unable to feel the joy that everyone else seems to feel. Everything gets colored by the sadness.

At best, you tell yourself that your thinking is irrational, that it is simply a mood disorder, that you should get on with your life. But sometimes that is worse. You feel as if streaks of pain are running through your head, you thrash your body, you search for some escape but find none. And this is one of the more moderate forms.

He was clearly not well, and his friends in various articles posted yesterday noted how he could turn on them, almost violently. But they all loved him, and saw him as a noble person determined to do what he thought was right.

But then something happened that put him over the top and magnified his depression exponentially. It is a complicated story, but this is it in a nutshell:

He was facing multiple felony charges; if convicted he could have gone to jail for thirty-five years, and owed over a million dollars in fines. His “crime” was that he downloaded too many articles from JSTOR, an online service providing access to academic articles. He downloaded more articles than JSTOR’s terms of service allowed, therefore he was in violation of their terms of service, therefore (according to the prosecution’s interpretation) he violated the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. JSTOR themselves were not interested in pressing charges — this was federal prosecutors deciding to make an example. Now they have unintentionally succeeded, tragically and in a way that I hope, for the sake of their own souls, they never anticipated. Stubbornly, and characteristically, Aaron was unwilling to take a plea deal and be labeled a “felon” when he had done nothing wrong; he insisted on pleading not guilty.

It may be a little more complicated. He downloaded millions of documents because he felt academic articles that JSTOR stored should be available for free to the public. Their authors made no money from the fees JSTOR charged readers, only JSTOR did. It was a quixotic, foolish thing to do. It was not well thought through. But it absolutely did not justify the prosecutor throwing at him multiple felony charges that would have landed him in jail for as much as 50 years, with fines above $1 million, let alone his legal fees.

Something is so wrong about this. JSTOR, the defendant, wanted to drop the whole case. But the prosecutor was adamant and found multiple counts with which to charge Aaron for a wholly victimless “crime.” Just a few weeks ago, HSBC was forced to pay a $1.9 billion fine for laundering money from murderous Mexican drug cartels. They did this knowingly, breaking the law and greedily accepting the blood money. The fine was the equivalent to “about five weeks of income for the bank.” Think about that. Those who are powerful and politically connected get away almost literally with murder, breaking serious laws and committing serious crimes. (I strongly recommend you read the article to see just how depraved our justice system is.) Here, a kid (and at my age anyone under 30 is a kid) did something foolish but hurt absolutely no one. He had to live for nearly two years under the specter of knowing he could go to jail for decades. And be bankrupted. While those who commit heinous crimes are given what amounts to even less than a slap on the wrist. I believe it is safe to say he was bullied to death, and I wonder how the prosecutor is feeling as he goes to bed each night.

Aaron will probably be forgotten by most in a few days, overshadowed by other stories. But I wanted to memorialize him on my blog because his story encompasses so much of what I hate and fear: people in government abusing their power, the hopelessness and helplessness of those who fall into our legal web, and the needless death of a young and brilliant life by his own hand.

With this post I just want to keep his memory alive a little longer. I realize it’s not China-related and won’t draw comments, but I can’t just be silent about a story that’s consumed me for the past two days. This is an outrage, a tragedy, and a crime.

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Merry Christmas

I don’t think there’ll be many readers sitting around reading blogs today (I won’t be), but just in case, this is an open thread. Anything goes.

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Mao’s cheerleader

Han Suyin, who died last week, was a successful novelist I never heard of until I read this intriguing article on her role as an evangelist for Mao and the Cultural revolution. She denied the horrors of the Great Leap Forward’s famines and later admitted she “lied through her teeth” about it. Although she later turned against the Cultural Revolution as Jiang Qing fanned the flames that led to mass murder and hysteria, in the early years she never met a Red Guard she didn’t love.

In Han’s telling, the Red Guards—the paramilitary social movement of young fanatics—were “clean, well behaved and polite” youngsters who “learn democracy by applying democratic methods of reason and debate.” The army’s assumption of control over the government was “the continuation of the revolutionary tradition” and “the reassertion of ideological primacy over purely military ambitions.” The societal ferment also lent “an enormous spurt to production, to the development of productive forces along socialist lines.”

Still, even as she lavished praise on the Cultural Revolution she fully understood its dark side. She epitomized the concept of “useful idiot” but was in a class by herself; useful idiots often don’t know the truth and don’t look for it, lapping up the lies of the government. But she knew, and still she evangelized.

The closing lines of the article ring true:

Don’t imagine that there could never be another Han Suyin. Ambitious apologists for authoritarianism will certainly vie to take up her mantle. And who could blame them? Her works might appear odious to us now, but she had a very successful run.

Imagine that, ambitious shills for the party who enjoy personal gains for their sucking up to a government they know is doing terrible things. Do they really still exist?

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Paranoia

This is already two days old but I wanted to record it on my site. For all the CCP’s efforts to portray itself as Tibet’s liberators and benefactors, many Tibetans are still treated as second-class citizens, and the party remains deathly afraid of those who would speak out about it. This is a shocking story, and if you read the whole thing it gets worse.

I don’t belong to a political party and have never felt that Communist Party meetings are any of my business. But my home is in Beijing. I am a writer, and Han Chinese. My wife, Woeser, is also a writer, and Tibetan. The other member of our household is my mother, who is 90.

A few weeks ago, China’s political police asked my wife to leave Beijing because “18th Major,” a once-in-a-decade coronation of new party leaders, was on the way. The Communist Party views Tibetans and Uighur Muslims from western China as noxious. They are constantly under suspicion as troublemakers, if not terrorists. My wife, as it happens, is petite, as lacking in guile as a window pane, and about as far from a terrorist as one could get.

She has, however, written some words in protest of the fate of her fellow Tibetans. And for this, the party has put her on a blacklist, barred her from publishing, deprived her of her job, and denied her a passport. When she obeyed the recent order and headed home to Tibet, police officers along the way stopped and searched her at nearly every juncture. While Chinese people — on airplanes, trains, buses and motorcycles — are streaming into and out of Tibet by the thousands, Tibetans themselves have become outsiders in their own land, blocked at every turn.

Shortly afterward, the author himself was visited by the PBS and was told he should leave Beijing with no explanation. Guards were posted at his door.

Just imagine being told you had to separate from your spouse due to the irrational fears of the government. Just imagine the government stationing “state security” guards in front of your home. All for no logical reason, just illogical fear of…of what? For all the reform and improvements, it remains the same insecure government at heart. Blocking websites, silencing Tibetans and Uyghurs and exiling those who threaten harmony remain business as usual, and all you can do is wonder what they’re so afraid of. Is it a surprise there remains so much unrest in Tibet?

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Friday night cat blogging

My two cats are constantly intertwined. The most beautiful, most loving cats in the world. I only wish they could stay kittens forever.

And on a totally unrelated note, here’s the review of my book that just came out today in the UK newspaper The Independent. Life is good sometimes, especially when you have cats to share it with.

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People’s Daily on mahjong

This is now the kind of thing one tweets, not blogs about, but I have to share it here anyway. The People’s Daily has published a piece on China’s “mahjong culture” that made me laugh out loud. It makes the argument that it deserves to be added to the UNESCO World Heritage list, while it also makes the argument later on that mahjong can incite illegal gambling.

Take a look at the snippets below. Was it written by an intern? Is it a case of bad translation? What is this?

Together with Beijing opera, traditional Chinese painting and medicine, Mahjong is known as the quintessence of Chinese culture, and its application for the world heritage again caused high attention of outside world.

In the eyes of many people, playing mahjong means idle and doing no decent work. In fact, it is somewhat biased to view and understand mahjong in this way. Mahjong has a long history in China and is loved by numerous Chinese people. Now, it has been transmitted to other countries, with many blond foreigners participating in the mahjong competition….

[I]f the relationship between Mahjong and the “gambling” habit cannot be clearly cut off, the application cannot be justified. Therefore, the application is reasonable provided the public should be advocated to return to healthy, scientific, and friendly Mahjong culture by getting rid of gambling.

Blond foreigners? You may want to read it all because it just gets funnier and funnier. (What is “scientific mahjong culture?”)

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