While in some ways I

While in some ways I truly admire Microsoft, there’s always ample reason to fear, distrust and despise them. Here are the latest reasons.


The Tiananmen Tragedy Revisited

The 12-hour train ride from Bangkok to Chiang Mai gave me time to read a new book that, despite some flaws, I found extraordinary. Red China Blues is a sort-of memoir by Globe & Mail correspondent Jan Wong. Actually, the first two thirds are a memoir, chronicling Wong’s experience as a Canadian-born ethnic Chinese taking part in the Cultural Revolution as a Maoist in 1972; the rest of the book focuses in relative detail on some aspect of China post-Cultural Revolution, most notably the Tiananmen Square massacre, which Wong was “lucky” enough to witness for herself, as well as the phenomenon of Chinese women sold or kidnapped to be wife-slaves in remote villages.

Way back in January I wrote that there are only a handful of topics that move me to tears simply by thinking of them. Yes, I know I am a sentimental fool, but when it comes to these subjects, the lump in the throat and the fighting back of tears are nearly automatic. The image of the New York City firefighters receiving last rites before they raced to their doom to save the lives of innocents during the 911 attack on the World Trade Center is one. Another is the Oskar Schindler creating the list that saved more than a thousand Jewish lives.

And then, most poignant to me –and I can’t say exactly why — was the young man standing off against the tank shortly before the People’s Liberation Army, on direct orders of then Chairman Deng Xiaoping, shot to death thousands of innocent Chinese citizens, mainly young students, in the streets around Tiananmen Square on June 3-4, 1989. Maybe it is because I actually “saw” (via television at least) the young man dancing with the tank, that this image has remained so fresh and vivid. It was fourteen years ago, and I still can’t overcome the flood of emotion I experience at any reference to it.

Jan Wong’s revelations of what it was actually like to be a part of the Cultural Revolution in all of its glory, in all of its insanity, is gripping and immensely informative. It certainly enriched my insight into why the Chinese are the people they are today. At times it made me furious, while often I simply had to laugh at the absurdity of it all. But ultimately there is little to laugh about; countless innocents lost their lives, and the same dogmatic brutality that brought us those ten years of hell also brought us the slaughter of the students in 1989.

I am grateful to Wong for shattering some of the myths we have (or that I have, anyway) about Tiananmen Square. The students weren’t always noble. There was a lot of grandstanding and made-for-TV melodrama, and most ironically, the students in the square had set up their own little dictatorship and circles of authority that mirrored those of their oppressors. They were also gathering firearms. That said, it remains one of the most ruthless and bloody misdeeds of the second half of the century.

Wong brings us right into the midst of the holocaust. She describes moment by moment how the protests started and evolved, bringing the world’s greatest plutocracy to the brink of civil war. Most shocking is the utter wickedness of Deng & Co. as they decided to commit cold-blooded mass murder. The oppressive heat was wearing down the students’ momentum. Many on their own accord were leaving or getting ready to leave. Most horrifying to me was reading of how the troops opened fire on groups of students and civilians who were already in the process of leaving. The troops used machine guns and AK-47s and fired into the stampeding crowds again and again and again and again. It was sheer butchery. Wong takes us to her balcony in the Beijing Hotel overlooking the square, and you can almost hear the gunfire as she describes the volleys and their effects in excruciating detail. Finally, tanks came in and intentionally crushed students alive.

It has been confirmed that at least 2,600 citizens were wiped out on the dawn on June 4, though Wong says the final number is certainly far higher. (The government claims it was only a few hundred, and they were only shot after they started shooting the soldiers.)

I always wondered why there wasn’t more outrage about the massacre. I remember hearing a political analyst shortly afterward saying that anyone who understood the history and the mentality of the Chinese Communist Party knew that the massacre was inevitable. There was simply no way that they could deal with such a challenge to their one-party, iron-fisted rule. Deng Xiaoping’s ending of the Cultural Revolution and opening of China’s markets might seem to us to be “good deeds,” but in reality his goals were not that different from Mao’s — to strengthen the central government’s control over its people and ensure the party’s endurance. Deng realized China and its leadership would fall apart if it didn’t have a body of educated citizens to compete in the modern world. The Cultural Revolution and the Gang of Four had turned the nation’s bastions of higher learning into travesties, mass-producing little miniature Maos at best, and thuggish zealots at worst. Deng knew he had no choice; the Cultural Revolution was ended. It was certainly the right thing to do, but it was first anjd foremost a practical decision; I don’t believe it was inspired by any sense of altruism or humanity.

Wong goes on to describe many other sins of her once beloved Central Party. She describes impoverished peasants in Gansu province eating dirt, and families selling their daughters into slavery. She also describes the bullet-paced growth of China’s economy in recent years, and how it just might create enough of a middle class to break the country out of its 4,000-year-old feudal system. Toward the end she writes:

My disillusion with the workers’ paradise has not made me more cynical, just less patient. Having been there myself, I can no longer tolerate dogma in any form. I am suspicious of anything that is too theoretically tidy, too black and white. If I adhere to any creed today, it’s the belief in human dignity and strength. Anything I do believe in today has to stand up to reason — and be explainable to my five-year-old son.

So back to my sentimental reaction to the young man facing the tank. It was simply so brave, so beautiful, so…magnificent. The evil machinery of the Chinese Communist Party was being brought to a halt — being brought to its knees — by a young anonymous man who showed the courage to stand up to that evil machinery. And he disappeared and was never heard from again. (Wong believes he is alive and in hiding.) The poignancy of this moment, when the entire world held its breath and the Last Evil Empire quivered, can never be forgotten, just as the Tiananmen Massacre can never be forgiven. And I want anyone who happens to stumble onto my site and who actually has the patience (masochism?) to read such over-long posts as this to remember that the leadership in China today is basically the same as it was then. A little more relaxed, a little more open, and Jiang Zemin looks adorable when he smiles on TV. But as the SARS scandal drove home so vividly, they still exist to protect their privileged position and to stifle any and all criticism. Their key strategy is to keep China’s citizenry as ignorant and as powerless as possible. Those who speak up are still imprisoned. And if students were to gather again in Tiananmen Square, they would be slaughtered as heartlessly today as they were 14 years ago.

More posts about Tiananmen Square:
Tiananmen Square re-revisited
The story behind the Tiananmen Square “tank man” photo

Reappraising Tiananmen Square


Why I left China

A reader emailed me and asked why exactly I took the drastic step of leaving my job and leaving China. She wanted to know why I didn’t stick it out, and if there were hidden reasons I had never mentioned, or perhaps never faced up to myself. I thought I’d try to address this, for her and for me, on this hot and humid afternoon in Chiang Mai.

Leaving a job I generally enjoyed and a company I still feel a strong loyalty toward was no easy decision, nor was it an impulsive one. The company knew I was unhappy in China, and they did all they could to help me. These are really wonderful people, and I hope I can get to work with some of them again, though not in Beijing. The fact was I had made a mistake, something a lot of people do, and I needed to come to terms with that fact. I did not belong in Beijing. My personality and my likes and dislikes (across the board, from food and music to the weather to the news sites I enjoy surfing ) — none of these meshed with my environment. Yes, the Beijing people are warm and gracious, but their city is a challenging one. So is their government, and as I began to loathe the CCP more and more each day, the more determined I became to get out. Perhaps the biggest factor was the language. I can now communicate in pidgin Chinese well enough to get me around the city and to have a very, very basic conversation. But nearly all of the time I was struggling to understand and to be understood. The most basic things, like ordering food at a restaurant, became monumental hurdles, and it wore me out and depressed me.

Despite some attempts to bargain with me and counter-offer, I felt I had to hand the company my notice. I went back and forth in my mind for several days, and then I finally decided there was no choice. SARS was then becoming a big issue, and it certainly didn’t generate any new love between me and The Party. I actually ended up leaving Beijing several days earlier than I had planned because I was afraid the entire city was going to be barricaded (thus my allusion to “fleeing” and “escaping” Beijing, and ultimately China).

I knew within minutes of arriving in Thailand last week that I had done the best thing. When I saw signs in English and had CNN and the BBC on the television, when I was able to log onto my own blog and the blogs of others, when I realized I had returned to freedom and civilization — I can only describe it as a sort of euphoria.

I write everyday to my friends in China, and I plan to go back and see some of them, though I can’t say when. I learned some invaluable things about the Chinese people and how to do business in China. I also learned how the government there functions, and any liberal notions I may have harbored about the joys of Chinese socialism were soon shattered. I learned about myself, and what I need to survive and be productive, and I also learned how this tool (blogging) can help me organize and sort out my thoughts and emotions and problems. It was only in China that I got serious about blogging, and now it is an essential part of my life, something I truly look forward to…. So all in all, it was a great experience. Not necessarily a fun or delightful one, but great in the sense of helping me grow. If there are other “hidden reasons” for my choice, I am not aware of them, and after 10 months of chronic distress and uncertainty, I now feel serene in the knowledge that I did the right things, both in terms of going to China and in terms of saying farewell.


Five-thirty in the morning and

Five-thirty in the morning and we are about to embark on a 12-hour train ride to Chiang Mai. What fun. I won’t be able to blog at all for a day or two. It’s been a good trip, but I strongly recommend not visiting Thailand in May. On top of the heat, SARS has decimated tourism here, and as in China, the tourist spots are pretty much empty. In the upscale shopping malls, nervous clerks file their nails and read the newspaper and look miserable. In order to make enough to pay their staffs, the big hotels are offering dirt-cheap rates and bargains abound.

I can’t believe how much I’ve missed since I basically stopped blogging in late April, when my stuff was carted away to Singapore and I fled China as fast as I could. Only now, as I try to catch up with my favorite blogs and news sites, am I seeing just how out of touch I’ve become. I’d never even heard about the Katrina Leung scandal or the Bill Bennet gambling scandal until minutes ago, when I went through Josh Marshall’s most recent posts. Marshall is a brilliant sleuth journalist and his points on how Bennet’s past self-anointed role of nation’s moralist justifies the intense examination of his own morality/hypocrisy. This and his recent posts on how the “liberal media” glossed over Leung’s ties to the GOP make for great reading.

More to come in a day or two, hopefully.

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SARS Snake Oil

Today’s Times has an intriguing article on the booming cottage industry of herbal SARS remedies in Beijing and the rest of the PRC. It appears that even the Chinese doctors are buying into the fad.

To anyone who has lived in China this is hardly surprising, as there are few people on the planet as superstitious as the Chinese. To make matters worse, the government has actually endorsed some of these quack remedies, probably in hopes that word of a cure will help bring about a return to calm and social stability.

[Edited 7:26 pm Thai time, at which time I deleted some material which, in retrospect, sounded overly dramatic and redundant.]

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Bush’s Military Record

Whatever you do today, don’t miss Orcinus’ calm but scathing post on our president’s military record. There are two scandals here: 1.) Bush’s military record itself and his efforts (successful so far) in hushing it up, and 2.) the media’s failure to investigate it.

When I think of the way the media would bite like sharks at any Clinton scandal, real or perceived, and the way they ignore this administration’s, I can only marvel at Bush’s ability to wrap himself in teflon.

I don’t have time to go through all my favorite blogs and news sites, but I always have time for Orcinus. After reading his posts from the past few days, all I can say is, Thank You.

UPDATE: Especially enjoyable are his concise but hilarious observations on perennial liar Ann Coulter, who attempts to address the topic above, showing us all just how stupid she really is (not that I ever had any doubts).

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My Last Days in China

[UPDATE: I am removing the pictures from these posts, as they were slowing down my site.]
I wanted to get down some recollections of my aborted trip through South China before they start to fade.

We literally fled Beijing on April 27, when rumors were flying about an imminent sealing off of the entire Chinese capital due to SARS. This is me reading, all alone, at the Great Wall a couple of days before our exodus.

The first stop was the ancient Chinese capital of Xi’An, which was basically an obscure backwater until, in 1974, a peasant farmer unearthed what was perhaps the most astounding archeological find of the century. Under his fields was buried the vast tomb of an ancient emperor who wanted to be buried with an army of life-size terra-cotta soldiers, more than 6,000 in all, each one with a different face and clothing.

As with virtually every tourist attraction we visited, we had the entire place to ourselves. I wasn’t ready for what we saw at this site: the size of the tomb is so huge, you cannot see from one end of it to the other. And the army of warriors is so massive, each of the kiln-baked figures so beautiful and lifelike, that you have to be overwhelmed. Hopefully this photo captures a bit of the magic.

Next we were on to Guilin, referred to in all the guidebooks as simply one of the most beautiful places on earth. The terrain of this region is generally flat, but it is dotted with grandiose limestone mountains that suddenly rise sheer out of the flat countryside and soar upwards at near-90-degree angles, creating a scenic wonder that almost looks man-made. It’s as though they were placed there with an ice-cream scoop, one here, one there. Some are covered in lush vegetation, others are gray and stark. They do not have sharp peaks; most are rounded, almost oval; others culminate in plateaus. These photos can’t do it any justice but are the best I can do:

The highlight of this trip was the boat ride from Guilin to the enchanted town of Yangshuo, four hours up the Li River. This trip cannot be described in words. The limestone constructions are so spectacular and the surrounding scenery so gorgeous they create a fairy-tale quality to the excursion.

We were supposed to move on to Yunnan, the highlight of the trip. Two full weeks were to be spent exploring the Tibet border and Lijiang and Dali and Kunming, and everything was paid for in advance. When we heard the roads were actually being blocked to keep tourists out and that our hotels had been closed, we knew it was time to get out, the sooner the better.

The only problem here in Bangkok right now is the oppressive heat, and much of the day is spent trying to get out of the sun. Still, it’s always a haven for me, and
after so many weeks of insanity in SARS-decimated Beijing, a haven is just what I need.


Escape from China

I had worked on my trip through South China for months, talking with everyone in my office who had travelled there, with my travel agent, and going through countless web sites to create the perfect trip. The SARS dilemma surfaced several weeks before my vacation was to begin, but it seemed at first to be mainly a Hong Kong-Singapore phenomenon. Then the Guandong Province situation was revealed, and suddenly the Beijing nightmare began. I still thought our trip would be relatively unaffected, as I was going only to “SARS-free” regions, remote from Beijing. I never thought the government would suddenly forbid all travel to China’s countryside.

When my travel agent called frantically to tell me the hotels she booked for me had closed, I knew I had to change plans fast. My friend was with me, and this was supposed to be a very special time for us. We still had 20 days together, but China was becoming impossible to deal with, with its closed restaurants and hotels and tourist sites, and very little to do. We finally decided to skip over to Thailand, despite the pounding heat, and we have been having a great time here.

One interesting comment on SARS and Thailand: We had trepidations about coming here because Thailand has issued very strong statements about their stringent anti-SARS policy, which calls for medical check-ups every 3 days and/or wearing a mask constantly, under pain of a six-month prison sentence! I told my friend I couldn’t imagine the Thais actually enforcing such draconian measures. When we got there, all they did was take our temperatures, ask some questions, hand us a surgical mask and wave us goodbye. No mandatory anything. This was a great relief for us, but if it becomes common knowledge the Thai government is going to look might silly.

We are off to Chiang Mai in a couple of days. Being out of China is an indescribable relief, even if it’s hot and noisy here in Bangkok. The last couple of days in China were pure hell, and there were moments when I thought we simply wouldn’t be able to get out. It’ll all be in my book.


SARS Wins, I Lose

I have just canceled my entire vacation in South China, and my friend and I are scrambling to figure out a way to get out of the country to a place we can afford to stay for a couple of weeks, without having to be quarantined most of the time.

China is virtually closed down, even in SARS-free zones. I appreciate the fact that they are trying to prevent the spread to rural areas. But closing down outdoor parks and open-air boats seems heavy-handed. Next post will most likely be from a different country.

I watched a 10-minute CCTV-9 special last night on what a great time quarantined students in Beijing are having playing badminton. Some students were interviewed, each expressing his/her joy at being quarantined and how delighted they are about it. As I so often say, only in China.

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Scathing article in the International Herald Tribune on what the Chinese government should have learned from its botched efforts to cover up the SARS epidemic. Among its insightful conclusions:


The half-baked reform of China’s health system is nothing short of scandalous and the country is now paying for it. Peasants — who can least afford it — must shoulder their entire medical burden, while the wealthy party elite and state employees enjoy a lavishly subsidized health system that consumes most of the state health budget.
Only those who can afford to pay can expect treatment for SARS, AIDS or other modern plagues. The Communist Party should be taxing the rich to subsidize the poor, not the other way around.

I know I’ve dwelled on this topic a lot lately, but I find it monumental. I was working on a report on AIDS in China just as the SARS cover-up blew up in the Party’s face, and the similarities between the two scandals is uncanny. There is one major difference between them, however, and that is what stands out the most: AIDS is still neglected and swept under the carpet in China. No officials have been fired for the cover-up, for the suppression of data and the quashing of efforts to inform the vulnerable public.

Reason? While I can’t state it as a categorical fact, I think I have studied the situation closely enough to offer an educated guess: With SARS, everyone is at risk — the young, the healthy, the elderly, etc. SARS is an equal-opportunity virus. It threatens tourists and businesspeople; it could even infect Party members. AIDS, on the other hand, selects as its victims those who, to the CCP, don’t matter very much — sex trade workers, impoverished peasants who sell blood in remote rural provinces, injection drug users, and of course, the group that doesn’t even exist in China, homosexuals.

At the moment, millions and millions of Chinese citizens are at risk of contracting AIDS, and the government is doing next to nothing, especially compared to what it is doing, finally, about SARS. Long after the SARS epidemic has been contained, the AIDS threat will continue to mount, even to the point of turning China into “the next Africa” in terms of AIDS devastation. This neglect, this silence, this willful denial of a tragedy utterly without precedent in terms of lives affected — this is the greatest sin that the Chinese Communist Party will have on its conscience.