Book Review: Patriot Number One – American Dreams in Chinatown

When Zhuang Liehong arrived in America he anticipated a country that would open its arms to him and celebrate his arrival.  Only years before – in 2011 – Zhuang, then 28 years old, had been the darling of many a Western newspaper as he led the mass protests in his village of Wukan.  It was Zhuang who started the Wukan revolt, waking up fellow villagers to the illegal appropriation of local land with little to no compensation.  And it was these protests that would necessitate Zhuang’s exodus from China to the United States.

But as Lauren Hilgers portrays in her powerful, thought-provoking new book, Patriot Number One: American Dreams in Chinatown, America was anything but welcoming.  Instead, Zhuang, and his wife Little Yan, find themselves friendless, jobless and directionless in New York; their infant son left in Wukan with Zhuang’s parents.  The few contacts Zhuang has in New York don’t have the advice he needs to survive as an undocumented immigrant in Flushing, Queens.  As Hilgers recounts, Zhuang came to America believing that applying for asylum could easily be done with a simple application and some newspaper clips about his advocacy.  But Zhuang quickly learns that America’s immigration system is a bureaucratic nightmare; that this proud man whose name once was splashed on the pages of the New York Times, is nothing more than a number in America’s soul crushing asylum process.  It is Hilgers’ deft writing and keen observations that allow the reader to feel with Zhuang.  Yes, at times, he is arrogant, thinking that because of who he is, he will go to the front of the line.  But at the same time, the reader feels the disappointment that Zhuang must have felt when reality set in.

Hilgers goes back and forth between Zhuang’s old life in China – recounting the injustices that the Wukan villagers suffered as a result of their standing up to the government – and his new life in Flushing, effectively interweaving the two stories into one narrative.  But it is the second part of this narrative – the immigrant life – that currently resonates the most given the Trump Administration’s zero tolerance policy toward migrants fleeing violence in El Salvador, Nicaragua and Honduras.

The size of the crowds of the 2011 Wukan Protests Photo courtesy of the BBC

Hilgers doesn’t shy away from the fact that for Chinese immigrants, it is in many ways easier to obtain asylum than those currently coming from Central America.  U.S. immigration policy makes a distinction between state-sponsored violence and violence perpetrated by private actors, preferring the former.  For the Chinese, showing state-sponsored violence – the one child policy, discrimination against Christians, assault of human rights activists – is pretty easy in a one-party, Communist dictatorship.  In fact, as Hilgers documents, an asylum industry of sorts has emerged in Flushing: churches willing to give out attendance certificates to its members; Chinese immigrants who, unlike Zhuang, have never thought about democracy attend the weekly protests of the Chinese Democracy Party; and asylum lawyers that abound in Flushing, willing to tell their clients the “tricks” to get asylum, even after a 2012 raid by the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York.

Zhuang Liehong in New York City. Still Protesting. Photo courtesy of Lianian Films. http://www.lianainfilms.com/

But for the families coming from Central America, trying to obtain asylum is not as easy since the violence they are fleeing is perpetrated by criminal gangs, in other words, private actors. Even though these countries have weak governments, where crime is rarely prosecuted, that is not enough to show state-sponsored violence.  And in addition to Trump’s current zero tolerance policy, a policy that initially ripped children from their parents, and Jeff Sessions’ rescission of domestic violence and gang violence as a basis for asylum, Trump has also revoked the temporary protected status designation for El Salvadorian immigrants, a status that allows undocumented immigrants to remain in the United States.  By September 2019, 350,000 immigrants will be deported backed to El Salvador, one of the world’s most violent nations.  Somehow, under U.S. immigration policy, unspeakable acts of violence on little Latino children isn’t a grave enough atrocity. Hilgers doesn’t discuss this issue in her current book, but it is something that many readers might be thinking about given Zhuang struggles and the current struggles of the migrants desperately trying to find a safe place for their children. And, as Hilgers recounts in her analysis of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, even with a complete ban, Chinese immigrants found a way to get into the United States.  As long as circumstances in the home country remain dire, people will continue to flee to a better place.  And that place has long been America.

Through Zhuang’s story and many of the other engaging characters Hilgers writes about – Little Yan, Karen, Tang Yuanjun – we get to see the insular, and lonely world, that is immigrant life in Flushing.  At times it is heartbreakingly sad and at times, down right funny.  But through it all, Hilgers brilliance as a writer shines through; every character she writes about, she completely humanizes.  These are not immigrants from a foreign country with a different culture; these are human beings that, like each of us, suffer life’s disappointments and, like each of us, find joy in life’s small accomplishments.  Given the times, it is important to be reminded of that and Patriot Number One is a must read.

Rating: ★★★★½

Patriot Number One: American Dreams in Chinatown, by Lauren Hilgers (Crown New York, 2018), 324 pages

The Tiananmen Square Sanctions – Needed Now More than Ever

The Protests on Tiananmen Square, Spring 1989

Twenty-nine years ago today, on June 4, 1989, the Chinese government ordered the unprovoked and brutal assault by the People’s Liberation Army on tens of thousands of unarmed civilians surrounding Tiananmen Square.  The exact number of people killed the night of June 3, 1989 into the early morning hours of June 4 is only known to the perpetrators of the massacre: the Chinese Communist Party (“CCP”). But whether it was a few hundred or a few thousand does not diminish the fact that peaceful protests were squashed with such a violent – and unnecessary – crackdown.

In the immediate aftermath, other countries had to figure out how to respond to a government that would massacre its own people.  In the United States, that response came from President George H.W. Bush who granted asylum to Chinese dissidents and ordered a plethora of sanctions against China, including suspension of U.S. foreign aid, arm sales, high-level government exchanges, export licenses for certain products and the linking of Most Favored Nation status to human rights. (see Congressional Research Services, China: Economic Sanctions (Aug. 22, 2016), pp. 1-3)  In the months that followed, Congress codified many of those sanctions including the suspension of export licenses for crime control and detection equipment. (see Public Law (“P.L.”) 101-246, § 902(a)(4))  Congress’ reasons for codifying these sanctions: the random arrest and detention of those suspected of participating in the Tiananmen Square protests (P.L. 101-246, § 901(a)(3)-(4)), continued surveillance on activists (P.L. 101-246, § 901(a)(5)), blocking foreign journalists from covering the events (P.L. 101-246, § 901(a)(7)), and continued and unlawful repression of human rights activists and activities (P.L. 101-246, § 901(a)(8)).

But as time progressed and the events of June 4, 1989 became a distant memory, many of the U.S.’ Tiananmen Square sanctions were waived or rendered obsolete. (China: Economic Sanctions, p. 3)  But one sanction that still remains in effect today is the suspension of export licenses to any U.S. company seeking to sell any equipment or instruments related to crime control and detection. (Id., pp. 3, 8; see also Office of the Chief Counsel, Bureau of Industry and Security of the U.S. Dep’t of Commerce, Legal Authority: Export Administration Regulations (Jan. 4, 2017) (“BIS Legal Authority”), Part III.7 (p. 106)).  Although the President can terminate the sanctions, he can only do so if he issues a report to Congress that provides one of two reasons – either that the Chinese government no longer perpetuates human rights violations or it is in the best interest of the United States to terminate the sanctions.  It does not appear that a U.S. president has ever issued such a report in regards to crime control sales, leaving the Tiananmen Square sanctions against of such equipment by U.S. companies to China very much in effect.

Chinese police with facial recognition sunglasses

As China uses technology more and more to suppress any form of spontaneous dissent and to constantly surveil its citizenry, the Tiananmen Square sanctions against the sale of crime control equipment to China seem particularly prescient.  But, unfortunately, the sanctions have rarely been enforced and U.S. companies skirt the sanctions with impunity.  In 2011, Cisco sold over 500,000 cameras to the city of Chongqing specifically to watch its citizens. Every year, U.S. technology and security companies enthusiastically market their goods at the China International Exhibition on Police Equipment, an annual trade show sponsored by the Ministry of Public Security.

And now it turns out that U.S. companies are actively participating in what can only be termed the most profound police state in human history: the mass surveillance, detention and abuse of Uighurs, a Muslim ethnic group in China’s western province of Xinjiang.  Cameras on every street are equipped with facial recognition; Uighurs are constantly stopped by police to check their social media accounts on their phones; over 500,000 Uighurs have been forced into detention without any trial, under the guise of “Political Education Centers;” iris scans and blood tests, in order to collect DNA, are randomly performed on Uighurs; the Han Chinese in Xinjiang are exempt from these abuses.

Unfortunately, U.S. company Thermo Fisher Scientific is one of the entities selling DNA technology to the Chinese Ministry of Public Security and various Public Security bureaus across China, including those in Xinjiang, according to a Human Rights Watch report.  Last month, the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (“CECC”) issued a letter to Wilbur Ross, the Secretary of Commerce, calling on him to investigate Thermo Fisher’s sales to China’s public security organs in light of the export sanctions and to report what other export licenses are being granted in violation of the law.  It does not appear that Secretary Ross has responded to the CECC’s inquiry, and if the history of the enforcement of the Tiananmen Square sanctions is any guide, he will not.

Chinese police in Xinjiang city of Kashgar

Many of the reasons for the passage of the Tiananmen Square sanctions almost 29 years ago – the repression of dissent, surveillance of peaceful protesters, the concealment of information, the violation of human rights – are very much alive and well in today’s China.  It is true that given China’s current status in the world, it will be much harder now to influence China’s domestic behavior than it was in 1989.  But that doesn’t mean that the United States should abandon its own laws, or the policies underlying those laws.  The government should not permit U.S companies to profit from the Chinese government’s creation of a Jim Crow society in Xinjiang.   To do so would be a disrespect to the many innocent lives lost 29 years ago today and to the valiant efforts of the U.S. government in the wake of the massacre to ensure that the U.S. does not play a role in human rights violations in China.

Just for Fun – Art Review: Tokyo National Museum’s Toyokan Gallery

By , March 29, 2018

The Toyokan Gallery at the Tokyo National Museum

On a rainy Tuesday in Tokyo, I found myself with a lot of time to kill at the Tokyo National Museum and as a result, ended up meandering into its Toyokan Gallery. A small, compact gallery, it houses some phenomenal art and artifacts from ancient China.  While the Museum’s “Highlights of Japanese Art” is what draws in most tourist, a stop at the Toyokan Gallery is equally a must.

Camel on the Silk Road

At the turn of the 20th century, while Qing Dynasty China was in a state of disarray, much of Western China became part of an international, archeologist race for who could uncover the ancient Buddhist capitals of the Silk Road.  With those discoveries also came a wealth of riches, namely the ability for those archeologists to take some of China’s most impressive artifacts back to their home countries.  Although the British, with Aurel Stein, and the French, with Paul Pelliot, obtained some of the most well-known artifacts from Western China, the Japanese were in on the game, sending a mysterious figure, Count Otani Kozui to these far reaches of China.

A map of Count Otani’s 3 tours to Western China, presented at the Tokyo National Museum

It is his discoveries – and many other Japanese archeologists and collectors who soon followed in his path – that make the Toyokan Gallery an impressive collection.  While the Museum does not exhibit any of the original work that Count Otani obtained during his three exhibitions to the celebrated, ancient Silk Road city of Dunhuang, the Museum does lay out other artifacts that show the beauty of Chinese art from the the eighth century, as well as the early sinicization of Buddhist sculpture.  In addition to pieces from far Western China, the Toyokan also has a number of splendid Buddhist wall sculptures, also from the 700s and lifted from a Buddhist site from the then capital of China, Chang’an (present day Xi’an).  The Museum does not explain how or why it has these niche carvings, but the collection is something to be seen.

A sublime example of Gandhara Buddhist artwork

But what makes the Toyokan Gallery truly superb is it large collection of Buddhist art from Gandhara, a kingdom which existed between 1200 BC and 500 AD and was conquered by Alexander the Great in 327 BC.  Gandhara was located in what is now present-day Afghanistan and Pakistan.  As a result of its history and geography, Gandharan art, with its crossroads of the Western world and the Eastern civilizations, shows the confluence of both.  It was also one of the first civilizations outside of India where Buddhism took hold on its way to China, Korea and eventually Japan.   But shockingly for most, its statutes of Buddha are not at all Asian.  Instead, the sculpture has traces of Greek and Roman influences – Buddha with western facial features, with curly hair. The Museum has some key pieces that truly highlight the beauty that is Gandharan Buddhist art and leaves the spectator in awe.  It would be a travesty to go to the Tokyo National Museum and miss this remarkable collection.

Gandhara Art!

The remaining floors also have other pieces of interest to Chinese art aficionados. Ceramics, lacquerware, and a rather impressive collection, largely from private donations, of Chinese scroll paintings and calligraphy.

Given its size, adding the Toyokan Gallery will probably only add an extra hour to your visit to the Tokyo National Museum.  But in that hour, you see some of the finest examples of Gandharan and western Chinese Buddhist art.  Expect your mind to be blown.  And it would be crazy to miss that.

 

Rating: ★★★★☆
Toyokan Gallery (the Asian Art Gallery)
Permanent Exhibit
Tokyo National Museum
13-9 Uenokoen, Taitō, Tokyo 110-8712
Sundays through Saturday, 9:30 AM to 5 PM; Open later Friday, Saturdays & Sundays
For more information on hours and how to get there, visit: http://www.tnm.jp/modules/r_free_page/index.php?id=113
Cost = 620 Yen

China’s Peaceful Rise? The Fate of Lawyer Liu Yao

By , March 4, 2018

Since 2004, it has been illegal to build golf courses in China.  Not only do they suck up a tremendous amount of water, but all too often local officials unlawfully appropriate farmers’ land for these golf courses.  In 2015, President Xi Jinping focused his anti-corruption campaign on the sport, forbidding Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials from playing the game.  But even with these prohibitions, golf still reins.  Since 2004, over 400 new golf courses have been illegally built.

Thus, one would think that the Chinese government would welcome a local tip that an official was appropriating village land to sell to a developer to build a golf course.  But that is not how the Chinese government responded when, in August 2015, Guangdong attorney Liu Yao reported precisely that.  Instead, Liu Yao now sits in a jail cell, serving a 20 year sentence on what most believe are trumped-up charges in retaliation for his whistle-blowing.

Like many Chinese human rights lawyers, Liu Yao is not a stranger to the inside of a Chinese prison.  In 2008, Liu was given a four year sentence for leading a demonstration of farmers who had not been properly compensated when government officials took their land. His sentence was decreased to 18 months after the Shenzhen Lawyers Association began a campaign to expose the sham that was his conviction.

But as in every society, land has value and the powerful will seek to unlawfully strip the poor of their land rights, enriching themselves in the process. For China, that struggle is happening in the rural villages. And that is what makes Liu, an effective advocate for these rural poor, a danger to the powerful.

Liu Yao awaiting his verdict

But Liu is more than just an advocate.  He is one also of them, deepening his clients’ faith and trust in him.  As Tom Mitchell reported back in 2009, Liu himself is the son of farmers, teaching himself the law after witnessing injustices against his family and feeling powerless to do anything about it.  He knows the value of land to farmers and since passing the bar exam in 2003, has successfully helped farmers in his home province of Guangdong to fight to keep their land or, at the very least, for the market value of what they are forced to give up.

So when He Zhongyou, the Party Secretary of Heyuan City in rural Guangdong, appropriated thousands of farming fields to sell to a company to build an “ecotourist site”, Liu, whose 2008 conviction resulted in his disbarment, did what he could: he filed a complaint about He Zhongyou to the CCP’s Commission for Discipline Inspection in Guangdong.  Make no mistake, He Zhongyou’s ecotourism development was not a secret to the central government; the local state-run media had already celebrated He Zhongyou’s development.  But what Liu highlighted was the fact that the ecotourist site was to also include an illegal golf course, something not reported by the press.  And Liu did not just submit the complaint.  A few days later, on August 22, 2015, he also published it on his blog for all to read.

On December 26, 2015, while meeting with a colleague, Liu Yao was grabbed by a number of men, thrown into an unmarked minivan and taken away according to an article that appeared in the Southern Metropolis Daily.

For over six months, Liu was held incommunicado, under the now infamous and well-abused legal procedure of “residential surveillance at a designated location” (RSDL).  Under Article 73 of the Criminal Procedure Law (CPL), RSDL is permitted when the individual is being investigated for national security crimes; national security also permits the police to deny access to lawyers and family members (CPL, Art. 37; see also RSDL Monitor for more on the abuse of RSDL on human rights defenders).  The “evidence” the police used to claim that it was investigating Liu Yao for national security crimes, was a picture of Liu with two well-known Western China law experts, Professors Jerome Cohen and Eva Pils.  Because of that picture, the police claimed that they were investigating Liu for “providing state secrets to foreigners.”

Liu Yao and his wife, Lai Wei’E

Ultimately, the police’s national security investigation went nowhere except for the very useful fact that it provided a fig leaf of legality to deny Liu access to his own lawyer.  On June 23, 2016, Liu was officially charged with extortion (Art. 274 of the Criminal Law (CL)), fraud (CL, Art.192,) , and trafficking in children (CL, Art. 240).  The extortion and fraud claims related to Liu’s work in achieving beneficial settlements from some of the local industries for their illegal appropriation of his clients’ land.  The trafficking charge was a result of his and his wife’s adoption of a baby from an unwed mother who already had three other children.  But in addition to Liu, four local farmers were also charged as well as Liu’s own son.  Liu’s wife, Lai Wei’E was also held for a year, allegedly while the police were investigating the legality of the adoption.

With a closed door trial, lack of access to a lawyer, and the fact that Liu was exposing the local government’s most important revenue-generating strategy – illegal land grabs – a judgment of guilty on all charges was all but certain.  And on April 24, 2017, the Heyuan City Intermediate People’s Court found Liu Yao guilty, sentencing him to 20 years and a fine of 1.4 million RMB ($221,000).  Liu’s son was given four years and three months for helping his father post materials online with the three farmers receiving sentences ranging from four years to nine and half years.

He Zhongyou

Even with the Chinese government crackdown on human rights lawyers that began in earnest in July 2015, Liu’s 20 year sentence is harsh.  It is almost triple that which was given to the “ringleaders” of China’s human rights lawyers.  Such a harsh sentence likely shows the continued importance to the Chinese government of being able to take farmers’ land without proper compensation.  Even representing Falun Gong participants, petitioners, other rights activists is not as threatening to the government as representing those who challenge an important revenue source to local officials.

And what happened to He Zhongyou after Liu Yao exposed his land grab to build a golf course?  He has had a series of promotions.  In January 2016, as Liu languished in detention, He Zhongyou became the vice-governor of Guangdong Province, an influential position in one of China’s wealthiest provinces.  In May 2017, after Liu Yao received his 20 year sentence, He Zhongyou was again promoted to the powerful position of Secretary of the CPP’s Political and Legal Affairs Commission for Guangdong.

From the website for the resort that shows the golf course

And the illegal golf course? It’s been built along with a resort of luxury RVs, personal saunas and a Disney-like castle to serve as the golf club.  For this playground of the wealthy, Liu Yao got 20 years, pretty much a life sentence for this 56-year-old.

Since taking over the leadership in 2012, Xi Jinping has attempted to reassure foreign powers that China’s rise is peaceful.  But all evidence points otherwise.  In the summer, it was the unnecessary death of Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo while he was serving an 11 year prison sentence; last week it was the mysterious death of human rights lawyer Li Baiguang after being admitted to a state-run hospital for stomach pains; a few days ago it was Xi’s moves to eliminate term limits; and then there is Liu Yao’s 20 year sentence for exposing the corruption and injustice that Xi’s government has publicly stated it wants to eradicate.  Increasingly, China’s rise – or more apt, Xi’s consolidation of power – has not been peaceful.  It is time foreign government recognize that what is happening to China’s human rights defenders is not an outlier but is instead a reflection of the governing philosophy of Xi’s regime, both domestically and internationally.  And it’s time they start to care and raise these issues publicly.

Chinese Government Set to Abolish Term Limits

By , February 25, 2018

President Xi Jinping, trying to be more Mao than Mao?

In preparation of the three-day plenum set to start on Monday, the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, the Party’s highest ranking body, announced today that it would propose the elimination of the term limit provision found in the Chinese Constitution.  While the proposal still has to be ratified by the National People’s Congress (NPC), which is set to convene on March 5, 2018, the Party-controlled NPC will likely rubberstamp the proposals that emerge from this week’s Party plenum.

Added to China’s 1982 Constitution, the term limit provision limits the president and vice-president to two, five-year terms.  It was put in place in response to the excesses of the Cultural Revolution and the one-man leadership of Mao Zedong, with its goal to ensure the peaceful transfer of power from one leader to another and eliminate the consolidation of power in one man.  But it’s repudiation all but guarantees that current President Xi Jinping will continue on as China’s leader well past 2023, when his second term was to end.  It also signifies that, with the rapid purging of rivals through his anti-corruption campaign, all power now resides with Xi.  Gone is China’s governing model of a collective Party approach, an approach where Xi would merely be the first among equals, an approach that has ruled China for the last 35 years.

The last time a U.S. President met a one-man-rule leader.

How will the United States confront this new challenge is anyone’s guess.  The United States, only formally recognizing the People’s Republic of China in 1979, has only engaged China with a collective leadership.  And as if on cue, last week, the Asia Society’s online magazine, ChinaFile, published a series of conversations from experts about how the U.S. should engage a rising China under Xi Jinping.  It’s a very timely piece and well worth the read, with many already acknowledging complete power in Xi.  And while Professor Jerome Cohen in his piece rightly points out that Xi will eventually pass from the scene and there will be a reaction to his harsh rule, much like there was when Mao died, expect that point to be much further away now that Xi will likely be able to rule indefinitely.

新年快乐! Welcome Year of The Dog!

By , February 15, 2018

On Friday, about a quarter of the world’s population will sit down with their families, eat a good meal and celebrate the most festive of holidays in Asia: the Lunar New Year.  While most associate the holiday with China, various other countries and cultures also celebrate it – South Korea, North Korea, Vietnam, Taiwan, Hong Kong, the Philippines and Asian communities throughout America.

But Friday does not just usher in a new year, it also brings in a new animal in the 12 animal zodiac.  And with the new animal, a new year of speculations and predictions.  This year is the Earth Dog which, with the earth element, is particularly auspicious since the dog’s internal element is also earth.  With earth reinforcing earth, it will reinforce the good.  But it will, unfortunately, also reinforce the bad.

If you are having a baby during this Earth Dog year, well then, lucky you!   A dog is loyal, compassionate, and values morality and justice; an easier kid to raise than a dragon or a tiger.  But a dog can also be “highly dependent, suffer from imaginary fears, and sometimes self-reclusive and silent.”

Thus, it should come as no surprise that the current U.S. president is a dog.  And that is the greatest fear for most Chinese feng shui masters for 2018.  In general, it is not good luck when the year matches your sign.  For dogs, to ward off the bad luck during this dog year, you should look to wear something red for most of the year – a red bracelet, red underwear, red socks – as red is seen to drive away bad luck.  But for Donald Trump, that likely will not be enough.  That is because Trump is a Fire Dog, and fire and earth clash.  According to Feng Shui Master Thierry Chow, “The elements are too much fire [in Trump] and too much earth [in 2018], so that’s going to be causing him imbalance in his fortune.” According to Chow, expect Trump’s fiery rhetoric to bring about “real problems” and tangible consequences.  Chow didn’t say if that also includes his tweets.

Trump aside, the question still remains – what about your horoscope for the year?  That is dependent on how your birth sign deals with the Earth Dog. Check out your personal horoscope here (note you may have to do a Bazi test to determine the strength of your birth year element.  You can do that here).

But no matter what the future may hold, may you spend Friday ringing in the new year with family, good friends and delicious food!  To our Chinese friends who celebrate the new year,新年快乐 (sin knee-an k-why le)!

Happy New Year!

Just for Fun – Art Review – The Guggenheim’s Art & China After 1989

By , January 2, 2018

Open at the Guggenheim, NYC until January 7, 2018

In October, the Guggenheim’s show, Art & China After 1989: Theater of the World, opened to a flurry of criticism, with the museum capitulating to animal rights activists and online protesters by pulling three pieces that involved – and in some cases abused – animals.  But after seeing the show this past weekend, one has to wonder precisely when the Guggenheim first started on its path of censorship in creating Art & China as self-censorship appears to permeate the first half of the show.

Art & China covers what was perhaps China’s most innovative artistic time period – the two decades covering 1989 through 2008.  With 1989 being the start, one would assume that the focal event would be the students protests at Tiananmen Square in spring 1989.  Much of the art included in the first half of Art & China, with its darkness and dystopian feel, is a result of those protests.   But Art & China makes little mention of the Tiananmen massacre, an event that caused artist and the art movement in China to radically change; many of the artists featured in the Guggenheim’s retrospective left the country as a result.  But instead, the Guggenheim merely equates 1989 with the end of the Cold War.  That might be true for the West, but for China, the Tiananmen protests and massacre was likely a more influential event.  But Tiananmen – a seminal moment for many of the artists featured –  is shortchanged.  In fact, it is whitewashed.  One slide shockingly describes the Tiananmen massacre as a simple clearing of the Square:

Back in Beijing, in the early morning of June 4, soldiers cleared demonstrators from Tiananmen Square, marking the end of a democracy movement to which advanced art had been closely allied.  In the months that followed, the publications and institutions that had catalyzed artist discussion throughout the 1980s were reined in or shuttered. . . .

There is no mention of the fact that the Chinese government ordered the massacre of hundreds to possibly thousands of unarmed civilians the night of June 3 into the early morning of June 4, 1989 on the streets surrounding the Square.  Even the pieces that directly address the Tiananmen massacre, choose not to explain it. Wang Xingwei’s painting of a cyclist ferrying two bleeding penguins does not mention that the painting is a reference to a tragic photo from that night where the penguins were dying people.  It does not even  show the original photo.  Similarly, Zheng Guogo’s sculpture of a line of deep fried toy tanks makes no mention of the iconic photo of Tank Man – a Chinese man stopping a line of tanks after so many civilians were killed by those same tanks only hours earlier.  Again, the original photo is absent.  And as Jane Perlez points out in her New York Times piece, even for those artists featured, the Guggenheim chose not to include more powerful and artistic pieces likely because they more honestly and precisely addressed what happened on June 4, 1989 and would arouse the ire of the current Chinese government.  There is one piece at the end of the exhibit- Yang Jiechang’s Lifelines I – where the wall plate goes into a little more detail, acknowledging that this piece reflects the zigzag paths that volunteers carried injured protesters to hospitals and to safety.

But the Guggenheim should not assume that the people visiting the show will already know the history.  This past weekend, much of the crowd appeared to be average tourists, not necessarily people who are China watchers. With many looking like they were below the age of 40 who likely didn’t personally experience the events of 1989.  Without putting these early works from 1989 and the early 1990s into the proper historical perspective, these visitors lose the true meaning of not just the works, but what these artists were doing with their movement.

Chen Zhen’s “Precipitous Parturition”

The Guggenheim does a bit of a better job explaining the next major event that impacted these artists – the rapid economic development that took China from a poor country to the second largest economy in the world.  But again, the description of these events presupposes a knowledge of China.  The enormity of this transformation – in a night, entire neighborhoods were razed, with new buildings being built a week later; in the spans of 10 years, China’s urban population would grow from 26% to 50% of the total population – is not fully developed.  But that massive societal shift is never put in any type of measurable perspective which makes it difficult to truly understand what these artists were responding to.

Finally, Art & China only features avant-garde, conceptual art from 1989 through 2008.  Most of China’s famous artists from 1989 to 2008 who practiced in more staid mediums like oils or watercolors are not featured.  But many of the conceptual pieces that the Guggenheim chose to feature were some of the most important from the time period and heavily influenced not just artists in China but also abroad.

Yang Jiechang’s Lifelines I, one of the few pieces where there is a little more description about the Tiananmen massacre.

Art & China is in its final week, closing on Sunday, January 7. But given the whitewashing of the Tiananmen Square protests and massacre, an average visitor likely will not fully comprehend the depth of what these artists were doing in the early 1990s.  It is true that many Western observers seek to view Chinese art through a political perspective and that has, rightfully so, frustrated many of China’s newest artists. But for the artists of the early 1990s, their art was a reaction to the Tiananmen massacre.  So it is essential to explain their work through that lens.  That fact that the Guggenheim chose not to raises the question as to why.  What audience were the curators seeking to serve with their show?  Certainly not the visitors, who are left with looking at political art and understanding a movement without any perspective; and certainly not the artists from the early 1990s whose work was completely altered by Tiananmen.  It is unfortunate that the Guggenheim – in a show that starts with 1989 – chose not to fully explain or address Tiananmen.  it does a disservice to the featured Chinese artists and their impressive work.

Rating: ★★½☆☆

Art & China After 1989: Theater of the World
Through January 7, 2018
Guggenheim
1071 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10128
Sundays through Wednesdays & Fridays: 10 AM – 5:45 PM
Closed Thursdays
Saturdays, Pay What You Want After 5:45 PM
Otherwise $25 adult; $18 students and seniors; children below 12 free
Skip the line and purchase online: https://tickets.guggenheim.org/Info.aspx?EventID=3

Two More Civil Rights Activists to Be Sentenced on Tuesday; Lawyer Wang Quanzhang still MIA

By , December 25, 2017

UPDATE – Dec. 26 @ 10:00 AM, EST – As expected, Wu Gan was found guilty of subverting state power.  He was given one of the harshest sentences yet – 8 years (with about 2 and a half already served).  His release date is May 18, 2023.  Xie Yang escaped any prison time, with his court noting that he plead guilty to the charge of inciting subversion and his actions did not cause severe damage to national security.  Xie also again publicly withdrew his claims of torture while in custody.

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China Human Rights Lawyer Concern Group announcement about the upcoming court appearances in Wu Gan’s (R) case and Xie Yang’s (L) case

As the sun sets on Christmas 2017, China will awake on Tuesday to two more civil rights activists being convicted for seeking to end injustice in their country.  According to lawyer Liang Xiaojun, the courts will finally issue verdicts – and possibly sentences – in the cases against advocate Wu Gan and lawyer Xie Yang, two civil rights activists arrested and charged in the wake of the Chinese government’s July 9, 2015 nationwide crackdown on over 250 civil rights lawyers and activists (“the 709 Crackdown”).  Although both had their trials months ago – Wu Gan on August 17, 2017 at a closed-door trial at the Tianjin Intermediate Court and Xie Yang on May 8, 2017 at the Changsha Intermediate Court – verdicts, and in the case of Xie Yang, a possible re-trial, will be announced tomorrow morning at each of the respective courts.  Wu’s verdict will be handed down at 8:30 AM local time and Xie’s court will deal with his case an hour later.

While both have undergone severe treatment in custody, with allegations of torture, expect a much harsher sentence for Wu Gan.  First, Wu Gan has been charged with the more severe crime of “subversion of state power,” a charge that, if he is determined to be a ringleader, carries a sentence of no less than 10 years under Article 105 of China’s Criminal Law.  If he is considered a mere participant, the law still requires a sentence of no less than five years.  Xie Yang has been charged with “inciting subversion of state power.”  It’s the verb of inciting that will inevitably lead to a lesser sentence under Article 105 of five years or less (unless of course he is considered a “ringleader; then five years minimum).  Further, since his trial, Xie Yang has been out on bail.  Although constantly surveilled  by police, it provides a touch more freedom than being trapped in a Chinese detention facility.

A female character who stabs to death a government official after he assumes she is a prostitute and tries to rape her in Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin.

Second, Wu Gan – who often uses the online pen name of Super Vulgar Butcher – is the activist that defies the Chinese government’s current narrative – a narrative that believes that middle class, intellectual lawyers have become entrapped by “foreign forces,” forces like George Soros and the U.S. government that funds Chinese civil rights non-profits.  But that is not Wu Gan.  Instead, for the first 35 years of his life, Wu Gan was just an average Chinese citizen.  A former soldier, Wu Gan was a security guard at the Xiamen Gaoji International Airport until he resigned in 2008 to work full-time on his online activism, wanting to expose the everyday injustices that frustrated him.  In 2009, Wu Gan brought societal attention to the case of Deng Yujiao, a waitress who stabbed to death a government official who attempted to rape her.  While her story would eventually appear in Jia Zhangke’s internationally-acclaimed film, A Touch of Sin, it was Wu Gan who brought the injustice of her case to light.  His activism around the case sparked an online debate about rampant government corruption, the flagrant abuse of prostitutes by government officials as well as the right of women to defend themselves.  It was also successful, resulting in Deng Yujiao being convicted of the much lesser crime of “causing injury with intent” as opposed to the original murder charge.

Photo of Wu Gan at his May 2015 protest outside the courthouse. Photo courtesy of Change China

Further, Wu Gan’s strategies just get under the skin more.  Wu’s advocacy includes using online humor, satire, crowdfunding and street performances to draw attention to the Chinese government’s abuse of people’s rights.  In 2011, Wu published a series of online “How To” pamphlets: Guide to Butchering Pigs (strategies on how to conduct a campaign to protect human rights); Guide to Drinking Tea (how to deal with the police during interrogations); and Guide to Petitioners Fighting Against Forced Demolitions (instruction manual on how individuals can fight to protect their home from force demolition).  Each are widely popular in China and not just for their fun titles but because they are effective teaching tools.

But the straw that broke the camel’s back was Wu Gan’s May 2015 street protest to overturn the death sentence of four criminal defendants who had been convicted of capital murder even though each was tortured while in custody.  Wu stood outside the courthouse with two handmade signs – one with a picture of the chief judge with a Hitler moustache and one with the tombstone of the chief judge with an engraving highlighting his lack of integrity and ignorance of justice.  Situated between the signs was Wu, with his middle fingers up on each hand.  While that kind of protest elicits chuckles in the West, in China it is not tolerated.  Wu Gan was detained and has been in custody since.  Regardless of the fact that the four criminal defendants were exonerated in 2016, Wu Gan will still likely see a prison sentence as a result of his advocacy for justice.

Xie Yang in happier times with his daughter. Xie’s wife and two daughters were able to flee China earlier this year and now are in the United States.

But make no mistake, lawyer Xie Yang’s detention has been no walk in the park.  While being held incommunicado, Xie was physically tortured according to his lawyers who eventually got access to him.  And like Wu Gan, Xie’s crime has been his advocacy on behalf of others.  Xie Yang has long represented China’s most vulnerable: Christians; members of China’s Democratic Party; petitioners whose land was unlawfully seized by the government; and other activists.  In May 2015, Xie had been retained by the family of Xu Chunhe after the police officer who killed him was found not guilty of any crime.  Although Xu Chunhe, unarmed, was with his three young children and his 81 year-old mother in a crowded train station, the officer still shot and killed Xu Chunhe.  According to the officer, his act was one of self-defense; but for for most Chinese people, Xu Chunhe’s case was yet another example of police acting with impunity.  Thus, Xie Yang’s advocacy in bringing a wrongful death case on behalf of the family would go to the heart of the Chinese government’s police state.  And for that, he is now facing the charge of inciting subversion of state power.

But while Wu Gan and Xie Yang’s cases will finally be dealt with tomorrow, there is still one activist that has disappeared completely, lawyer Wang Quanzhang.  Another victim of the 709 Crackdown, Wang has not been heard from since August 4, 2015, when he was detained for “inciting subversion of state power.”  Neither his wife, family, nor the lawyers hired by his family have been able to meet with him and no trial has been set for Wang even though it has been more than two years since he was first taken into custody.  While Wu Gan and Xie Yang’s fates will be known tomorrow, it is the unknown of what is happening to Wang Quanzhang – and why – that is most alarming.  Denied access to lawyers, unable to meet with family, no speedy trial, how is this a country with a rule of law?

NYC Event – Challenging Authoritarianism through Feminist Activism: Insights From China

By , December 7, 2017

On Monday, December 11, 2017, 6 pm- 8pm, Fordham Law School’s Leitner Center for International Law & Justice will be hosting panel discussion with two of China’s preeminent feminist activists, Guan Er and Xiaowen Liang.  They will discuss their work in China and feminist scholar and author, Leta Hong Fincher (author of Leftover Women:  The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China) will place their work in the historical and cultural context.  Elizabeth M. Lynch of China Law & Policy will moderate. Details about the event – from the Leitner Center’s website (http://www.leitnercenter.org/events/1259/) – are below.

Challenging Authoritarianism through Feminist Activism: Insights From China

December 11, 2017 6:00PM – 8:00PM
Location: Bateman, Fordham Law School, 150 W. 62nd St., New York, NY 10023
Contact: LeitnerCenter@law.fordham.edu

The rise of China’s economic and political power does not bring its society gender equality. There is a general demand for more feminist approaches to social issues, which have not yet been well known outside China. Regardless of the hostile political environment, Chinese feminist activists have worked collectively to fight against inequality and discrimination through all kinds of legal strategies, and to channel social grievance towards effort for social changes. Their fights are invaluable expertise for any social movement that wants to survive in difficult situations. This event aims at delivering these feminist insights from the frontline, and bridge better communication among different feminist perspectives.

Speakers:

Guan Er, Young Feminist Activist

Guan Er is one of the leading young feminist activists in China. She has been active in Chinese young feminist activism since 2012, and initiated multiple well-received campaigns for advocacy and public education. At this talk, she will introduce contemporary feminist activist action in China, and how to negotiate with the state for movement space.

Dr. Leta Hong Fincher, Feminist Author  

Dr. Leta Hong Fincher is author of “Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China” (2014) and her new book, “Betraying Big Brother: The Rise of China’s Feminist Resistance” will be published next year by Verso. She will give an overview of the underlying social and economic factors behind the emergence of feminist activism today.

Xiaowen Liang, Young Feminist Activist

Xiaowen Liang is a Chinese feminist activist. She started her activism work in LGBT movement and feminist movement in 2012. After graduation, Xiaowen worked as a legal project manager of a feminist activist group. She has initiated and participated in several successful campaigns by using legal strategies and network building with women lawyers. During her studies at Fordham Law School, she initiated a Chinese feminist group in New York and put on a theater play called “Our Vaginas, Ourselves” at Times Square. She will share her experiences on being an activist in China and how to support China’s activism while in the U.S.

Moderator:

Elizabeth M. Lynch, Attorney and China Watcher

Elizabeth M. Lynch is a legal aid attorney in New York City and the founder of China Law & Policy. She was named a New York Law Journal “Rising Star” in 2015, and her writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Huffington Post and the George Washington International Law Review. From 2007 to 2009, Elizabeth was a research fellow at NYU Law School’s US-Asia Law Institute where she worked with Professor Jerome Cohen on criminal justice reform projects in China.

 

The Sentencing of Jiang Tianyong: What it Means for China & the World

By , December 3, 2017

Civil rights activist, Jiang Tianyong, sitting in the courtroom awaiting his sentence on Nov. 21, 2017

Last month, and three months after civil rights activist Jiang Tianyong pled guilty to “inciting subversion of state power,” the Changsha Intermediate Court finally issued its sentence: two years in prison (much of it already served) and the deprivation of Jiang’s political rights for three years.

As far as the crime of subverting state power goes, a crime the Chinese government has increasingly used to silence its civil rights activists, things could have been worse.  Jiang is seen as a leader in China’s civil rights circles, a lawyer who has daringly taken on some of China’s most politically sensitive cases, such as representing Falun Gong practitioners as well as ethnic Tibetans in the aftermath of the 2008 Tibetan riots.  As a result of his zealous advocacy in these cases, in 2009, the Chinese government denied the renewal of his law license.  But lack of a law license did not stopped Jiang from continuing his work.  Ironically, much of his advocacy began to focus on a new vulnerable group: China’s civil rights lawyers.  In 2011, Jiang played an active role in ensuring that blind activist Chen Guangcheng’s cruel house arrest remained in the public eye.  More recently, Jiang was important in supporting many of his colleagues who were caught up in the Chinese government’s July 9, 2015 nationwide crackdown on over 200 civil rights lawyers and activists (“709 Crackdown”). Through blog posts, tweets, calls for protests and interviews with foreign media as well as with Philip Alston, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, Jiang effectively kept the 709 Crackdown visible.  It is this type of ardent support for his colleagues that has made him the him the soul of the movement.

Civil rights lawyer Zhou Shifeng at his sentencing. August 4, 2016

And in a legal system where the Chinese government essentially determines the crime and sentence of any activist regardless of evidence, such a leadership role would result in a charge that could lead to a substantial prison term.  But Jiang was only charged with – and pled guilty to – the lowest level of subversion under Article 105 of China’s Criminal Law: inciting subversion of state power; a crime that carries a prison term of three years maximum.  Some of Jiang’s colleagues – those caught up in the 709 Crackdown – received harsher sentences for actually subverting state power under Article 105, not just inciting it: Zhou Shifeng received seven years, Hu Shigen seven and a half years.  And more recently, two other activists, Lee Ming-che and Peng Yuhua, both arrested after the 709 Crackdown but still part of the Chinese government’s attack on free speech, were each charged with – and pled guilty – to Article 105’s subversion of state power and were sentenced to five years and seven years, respectively.

Jiang Tianyong, second from left, and proudly standing with other activists outside of a detention center.

But make no mistake, Jiang has suffered just as much as these other activists while in detention.  According to the China Human Rights Lawyer Concern Group, Jiang was repeatedly denied access to his own lawyers and allegations of torture have emerged.    He was demonized in the state-run press and social media outlets, and, although his own lawyers could never gain access to Jiang, the state-run CCTV was able to interview him in which he “admitted” to fabricating allegations of torture of his colleague Xie Yang.  After being held incommunicado for over nine months and under who knows what kinds of conditions, on August 22, 2017, Jiang pled guilty to the crime of inciting subversion.  In his televised, in-court confession, Jiang called upon his fellow rights defenders and rights lawyers to learn from his experiences.  A shockingly far cry from Jiang’s Twitter description“A lawyer who was born at just the right time; a lawyer who’s willing to take any case; a lawyer hated by a small political clique; a lawyer who wants to win the respect of regular folk; a lawyer who kept going even after being stripped of his law license.” (translation courtesy of China Change) – causing many, including his wife, to strongly believe that his confession was forced.

Cultural Revolution Poster: “Imperialists and reactionaries are all paper tigers”

Although much of Jiang’s ordeal calls into question the Chinese government’s commitment to the rule of law, respect for human rights and why it must continue to abuse its own people, another deeply troubling trend has emerged: the Chinese government’s anti-foreign rhetoric.  In reporting on the Jiang’s sentencing last month, the state-run Legal Daily blamed the “foreign, anti-China” forces influencing Jiang for much of his behavior.  It is that paranoia of anything foreign that is the most dangerous to the current world order.  With the U.S. retreating from its position of global, moral leader, China is seeking to rise and promote its type of leadership.  From the trial of Jiang Tianyong, that moral leadership model seeks to create societies that are not just unresponsive to its own people, but shut off from connections with the rest of the world.  But it is those connections between cultures and people that have long been a driving force of the post-WWII model and have helped to maintain the peace in much of the world these last 75 years.

But in blaming these elusive, foreign, anti-China forces, the Chinese government ignores the real reason why these civil rights activists exist: the injustices in Chinese society.  It is Jiang’s own life that is a testament as to why the Chinese government’s efforts to suppress these civil rights activists will ultimately fail.  For a long time Jiang was just an ordinary guy; after graduating from college, Jiang was a teacher for almost 10 years. But in 2004, wanting to pursue greater justice for others, he gave up teaching to become a civil rights lawyer, passing the bar exam in 2005.  People like Jiang are not motivated by foreign forces or other entities; they are motivated to correct the injustices and sufferings of others to make their society better.  The Chinese government cannot stop people from feeling that way and the real question is – why would they want to.

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