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.


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.


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?



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?


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.


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?”)


How to climb the greasy ladder to the top of the CCP

BBC News has a somewhat droll “how-to article” that provides step-by-step instructions for clawing your way to a high position in the CCP. Of course most of these steps are nearly impossible for the vast majority of those struggling to make it into the Standing Committee or the Politburo, as they call for lots of patronage and connections, though hard work and good luck can help as well, as it did for Hu Jintao, who spent four years working arduous hours in Tibet. Oh, and it also pays to be a male.

Only about a quarter of Party members are women. No woman has ever reached the Politburo’s standing committee, its highest decision-making body. In the wider, 24-strong Politburo, only one woman, Liu Yandong, has a seat.

The last rule of thumb might be the most important: Be ruthless.

Ambitious leaders are advised to first read Houheixue, or Thick Black Theory – a classic of political dark arts published in the last century. It says the weapons needed to succeed are a thick skin, which is immune to shame or guilt, and a black heart, hardened to hurting others for your own gain.

This somewhat tongue-in-cheek primer on how to succeed in the CCP is worth a look, if only for a smile. But behind the humor, all of it is probably true.


The myth of bad local officials, good central government

One of the most fashionable arguments employed by apologists for the Chinese government is that yes, corruption thrives at the local level, but a concerned and squeaky-clean central government has little control over it, though it does all it can to contain it. This was a central argument made by some who argued the detention of Chen Guangcheng was the result of “a single local official” and the central government couldn’t be blamed for it. I wrote about one such pundit who made the “one local official” argument: “Think about that. The CCP can be off the hook for anything that doesn’t happen within walking distance of the Great Hall of the People.”

In the wake of the Bo Xilai catastrophe, the Financial Times today directly questions this argument about good central government, bad local officials, and concludes that it’s nonsense. Which, of course, it is.

From revelations of massive corruption to the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood by Mr Bo’s wife Gu Kailai, the sordid affair has shown the Chinese people and the world that the rot goes right to the top.

For the last three decades, the party has carefully cultivated the perception that, while there may be corruption and wrongdoing at lower levels, the system is governed by clean and selfless elites who live only to serve the masses.

China’s spectacular rise and its success in lifting hundreds of millions out of abject poverty combined with the intense secrecy surrounding senior officials have convinced many to accept this vision of a just and benevolent emperor calling the shots from Beijing….

When historians look back on the Bo Xilai scandal they will almost certainly identify this as the moment when China’s vicious backroom political battles spilled into the open and the myth of the good emperor was shattered.

Far from revealing authoritarian China’s meritocracy and ability to self-correct, the Bo Xilai saga underscores how its leaders believe they are above the law and how little accountability there actually is.

This is an argument I’ve been making for years. No, the central government isn’t only corrupt. They have done some great things, initiated some wonderful programs, demonstrated solid and meaningful successes, and 80 percent of those polled in a 2008 Pew Research poll believe they are on the right track. However…. (more…)


Guest Post: How America, Europe, China, and Russia enable “Democracy in International Relations”

By JR of the excellent Just Recently blog

According to American or European conventional wisdom, China and Singapore have a lot in common. They are both “authoritarian”. Malaysia’s then prime minister Mahatir Mohamad and Singapore’s then prime minister Lee Kuan Yew advocated the concept of “Asian values” in the 1990s. Lee Kuan Yew still believes in authoritarianism. But he also believes in an American role in Asia, “to balance China”. So does the Vietnamese party leadership.

When I stayed in Aleppo, Syria, a few years ago, you would find Chinese light trucks in every street. You’d also find typically China-made consumer goods in every street. The light trucks were quite popular. Most other Chinese products were obviously bought, too, but they weren’t liked. Displayed on markets and in shops, along with pieces of traditional Syrian handcraft, the reason for the contempt was palpable. Comparing the prices, the demand was palpable, too.

Some Syrians who I heard condemning China’s growing economic influence in Syria will now condemn its political clout – at the UN Security Council. But other Syrians – “ordinary” people, too – will like it. It’s hard to assess how much popular support the Syrian regime has, how much popular support the Free Syrian Army has, and how many people of different ethnicities and religions are caught between two warring parties, neither of whom seems to show much respect for individuals who just want to survive.

Let’s suppose that the conditions were exactly as described by most mainstream Western media and al-Jazeera, in March 2011. Let’s suppose that peaceful demonstrations turned violent, because the regime hadn’t learned to handle them peacefully. And let’s suppose that Syria’s well-being was foremost on the minds of American, European, Turkish, and Arab-League leaders when they began to arm Syria’s opposition.

Obviously, everyone is free to comment and explain how this, in his or her view, is not so – but I want to keep my point within this post rather simple. (more…)


I promise, this will be my last one

For now. These are the most beautiful cats in the world, brothers who are totally in love with one another.