Category: Book Review

Book Review: Val Wang’s Beijing Bastard

By , December 8, 2015

In the interest of full disclosure, I knew Val Wang back in the late 1990s when we both lived in Beijing.  That’s part of the reason why I picked up her new memoir, Beijing Bastard: Coming of Age in a Changing China.  Who of our friends made it into the book and which of our exploits were featured?  In essence, I wanted to take a walk down memory lane when time had no meaning and we partied hard.

Wang’s arrival in Beijing in the late 1990s was not certain; infact, far from it.  Growing up Chinese-American, Wang’s parents had major ambitions for her and she was constantly being compared – usually not positively – to her Saturday Chinese school classmates.  Wang wasn’t the typical Chinese-American child and fought her parent’s culture; whereas others went to medical school after graduating from college, Wang was just confused and without a plan.  Still rebelling against her Chinese parents, Wang ironically chose to go to China to get away from it all, find herself and grow up.

But Beijing Bastard is more than just Wang’s coming-of-age story.  It captures a city on the cusp of change, where ancient homes were being torn down – both day and night – to pave the way to make Beijing the global, glitzy, Starbucks-filled city that it is today.  I remember visiting Wang at her compound, in an area of Beijing known as Maizidian’r (pronounced my-zi-dee-r).  Her apartment compound was the last group of buildings along a barely-paved street.  From there, the street quickly opened up to dusty dirt fields and farmers with donkey-pulled carts still roamed the area. But that was Beijing back in in 1999.

The character "chai"to signify that this hutong home is set to be destroyed

The character “chai” to signify that this hutong home is set to be destroyed

Or at least, one part of it.  As Beijing Bastard wistfully recounts, changes were decimating the old parts and old ways of Beijing.  Much of Wang’s memoir intertwines with her family’s history in Beijing and her uncle’s attempt to save one of her great Aunt Mabel’s courtyard homes.  During the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Beijing government destroyed much of Beijing’s old homes in the hutongs (pronounced who-tongs), homes that had been around since the early Qing dynasty (1644-1911).  Interestingly, as Wang details, before destroying these homes, the Beijing government sought to compensate the original owners.  Even in a communist country, where many of these courtyard homes had been occupied by multiple families since the Cultural Revolution (1966-1972), the Beijing government still felt the need to make all of this legal, find the rightful owners and pay them for the destruction of their centuries-old homes. Wang follows her uncle’s quest to ensure that great Aunt Mabel, living in America, would be properly compensated.  But in describing his quest and the homes that were to be destroyed, Wang poignantly portrays what will really be lost: the old architecture, the closeness of neighbors, the history of families.

But Wang does not limit her analysis of Beijing’s disappearing past just to its hutongs.  Another story that weaves throughout her memoir is that of a family of Peking Opera stars.  The grandfather, a superstar in his day, now is relegated to holding court about Peking Opera from his bed.  Unfortunately, he has taught this dying art form to his two sons and like their father both are frustrated and angry that Peking Opera is an art that Beijing prefers not to preserve.

The ancient art of Peking Opera

One wonders just how much of Beijing’s old ways have been lost to history.  It must be more than just the hutongs and the opera. Back then, Beijing was singularly focused on becoming “modern.”  But then at the same time, is it fair for a group of expats to lament the lost charm of homes that offered no privacy, where bathrooms were public and houses were drafty?  When Wang visits her hairdresser at her hutong home, the hairdresser can’t wait to move to a modern apartment on the edge of town.  Is it fair for an expat, who only spends a few years in Beijing, to wish for a lifestyle that she gets to leave?

Beijing Bastarddoes a great job of capturing a city when it still had a small town feel and was not the global city that it is today.  The stories of Wang family’s courtyard home and of the opera singers are both highlights. But even some of the tidbits about her self-discovery – who she is as a Chinese American, as the daughter of her parents, as Val Wang – are insightful.  While there are some points that meander but overall, if you want to get a glimpse of what what Beijing was like before the 2008 Olympics, Beijing Bastard is a good read.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

Beijing Bastard: Coming of Age in a Changing China, by Val Wang (Gotham Books 2014), 338 pages

Book Review: Leftover Women – The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China

By , July 18, 2014

For over 60 years, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has promoted itself as a champion of women’s rights. It was Mao Zedong who famously proclaimed “women hold up half the sky.” In making such proclamations, the CCP has crafted the story that in Asia, an otherwise bastion of patriarchal societies, China is an oasis of women equality.

But Leta Hong Fincher, in her new book Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China, unmasks that myth and exposes a disturbing, shocking and ultimately depressing development: China likely has one of the fastest-growing gender wealth gaps in the world. And the culprit of that increasing inequality? The Chinese government itself.

As Fincher convincingly demonstrates, it all starts with the concept of a “leftover woman,” a recently-developed ideology splashed not just all over the government-run newspapers but promoted

CCP Propaganda: Women Hold Up Half the Sky

CCP Propaganda: Women Hold Up Half the Sky

by government agencies like the All-China Women’s Federation, an organization ostensibly designed to encourage female empowerment. Basically, if a woman is not married by 27, she is labeled a “leftover woman.” The older one gets, the worse the mind games become, mind games that are played out in the press and on TV on an almost daily basis. As a result, women, especially educated women who are mocked even more vigorously, feel societal pressure to marry at a young age; if you are leftover, no one will want you. But, as Fincher shows, this fear is utterly illogical. Due to the preference for boys in what has been one-child country for the past 30 years, China has a shortage of marriageable women. Not to mention, if you can only have one child, what is the rush in getting married? But in perhaps one of the most shocking parts of the book, doctors – licensed medical professionals – lie to their female patients, instilling fear in them that babies will be born with birth defects if conceived after the age of 30.

In Leftover Women, Fincher shows that this fear of being leftover has resulted in women being left out; left out of one of the largest gains in individual wealth in Chinese history: property accumulation. To understand better the connection between the two, Fincher set up a Weibo (Chinese version of Twitter) account to survey hundreds of young Chinese women. Through revealing snippets of interviews with these 20-somethings, it becomes clear that this fear of being leftover by the age of 27 has taken hold in the women themselves. This fear causes women not just to rush into a marriage but act against their own economic self-interest. Many of these well-educated, well-employed women will provide cash toward the down payment on a marital home without putting their name on the deed. Instead, as Fincher documents, in the vast majority of apartments occupied by married couples, only the man’s name is on the deed due to the resurgence of traditional gender roles. Shockingly many of the women interviewed accept these roles, acknowledging that they are effectively being swindled, but hint that it is all worth it so that they are not “leftover.”

Leftover Woman?

Leftover Woman?

Changes to the Marriage Law in 2011 only further perpetuated these non-progressive gender norms. In 2011, the Supreme People’s Court issued an interpretation of the Marriage Law finding that in the case of the divorce, the property goes only to those whose names are on the deed unless the other party can clearly show their monetary contribution. But because down payments are in cash, receipts are often not kept. Further, China does not allow joint bank accounts and it is usually the husband who writes the monthly mortgage check, even if the wife is providing cash contribution or providing for other household needs such as food and childcare. But under the new interpretation, these contributions are not considered. So, yes the interpretation is neutral on its face, but its disparate impact it clear. This is an interpretation that is going to screw women.

Rushing into marriage and losing their economic independence leaves these women vulnerable to another increasing and alarming practice in China: domestic violence. Through the interviews that Fisher conducted, a general trend emerges: these women will often stay in an abusive marriage because otherwise they will lose everything. Not to mention that the Chinese government, even after years of lobbying, has yet to adopt a Domestic Violence law. As a result, the police’s treatment of domestic violence is anything less than sensitive and is usually just seen a family matter for the wife and her abuser to handle on their own.

The Most Powerful "Leftover Woman": Epress Dowager Cixi

The Most Powerful “Leftover Woman”: Empress Dowager Cixi

Leftover Women is a chilling portrayal – often told through the voices of the women themselves – of the rapid deterioration of women’s equality in China. If you think you know China, you don’t until you have read this book. It exposes an ugly development where, through pressure to marry young, the resurgence of traditional gender norms and laws that promote male property ownership, the Chinese government is keeping women out of the property market and thus out of an important segment of societal wealth.

Unfortunately, China is not alone in keeping a group of people out of property ownership and thus wealth accumulation. In an essay that was published in June in the Atlantic, Ta-Nahesi Coates illustrates the racist policies of home ownership in the United States that has largely kept communities of color out of one of America’s most important sources of family wealth. The initial culprit? The U.S. government itself. Reading these two pieces together will make you doubly angry, but also more reflective on how wealth is accumulated in any society and the desires to keep certain groups of people out.

Rating: ★★★★½

Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China, by Leta Hong Fincher (Zed Books 2014), 192 pages.

Book Review: Ian Buruma’s Bad Elements – Chinese Rebels From LA to Beijing

By , October 17, 2013

You can’t really be a dissident in an authoritarian regime without being a difficult character. These are individuals who for some reason – call it bravery, call it madness, call it no other choice – feel the need to speak out knowing, either consciously or not, that their cause is likely futile and the full force of the authoritarian regime will come down on them like a ton of bricks.  As a result, their life often becomes their cause.  What happens to these characters when things get so bad that they are forced to flee their country?  What happens to their causes?

These questions rose again this past June when Chen Guangcheng, the blind dissident who escaped his illegal house detention in 2012 and made it to the U.S., caused a stir in the media about his departure from NYU.   But answering these questions – or at least attempting to – isn’t untraveled ground as one China scholar pointed out in the wake of Chen’s NYU exodus.  Back in 2001, Ian Buruma, a Dutch China-hand and journalist, published Bad Elements: Chinese Rebels from Los Angeles to Beijing and this past summer seemed an appropriate time to pick up the book and read it.

Buruma’s Bad Elements begins by looking at the Chinese dissidents – starting with China’s 1978 Democracy Wall Movement through the 1989

Chai Ling during the Tiananmen Protests

Chai Ling during the Tiananmen Protests

Tiananmen student activists – living a new life in the United States.  His survey from Wei Jingsheng to Wang Dan and Chai Ling shows a group of people out of sorts in their adopted land.  Without access to China, most have given up their cause.  Chai Ling, the famous female student leader of the Tiananmen protests is now a successful businesswoman with a Harvard Business School MBA.  Same is true of her former Tiananmen colleague Li Lu.  He now runs an investment company in New York.  Many of the other student leaders just seem lost and lonely.

The pre-Tiananmen/post-Cultural Revolution Chinese exiled in America do not fare any better.  Separated from their cause, most have failed to figure out how to remain relevant to the mission back home.  Fang Lizhi‘s wife, Li Shuxian, probably expressed the exiled dissident’s predicament best when she told Buruma “[n]ow I am finally free to talk, but there is no one for me to talk to.”  Even amongst the exiled dissident community itself, there is little conversation for as Buruma recounts, the splits within the community are cavernous with some dissidents refusing to be in the same room as others.  One would think the bonds within the community would be stronger, but as Buruma insightfully details, the personality traits that allows one to become a dissident are not those that allow them to create strong bonds with others.  But even in honestly observing the exiled dissidents, Buruma never loses respect for them, reminding the reader that these people had the courage to speak up and that their suffering is likely incomprehensible to anyone else.  These individuals carry the battle scars of seeking democracy in a dictatorship and Buruma is always cognizant of this fact.

Modern day Singapore; what Buruma refers to as "Disneyland with capital punishment"

Modern day Singapore; what Buruma refers to as “Disneyland with capital punishment”

But Bad Elements most fascinating aspect is Buruma’s attempt to breakdown “the Chinese Myth,” a key tenant of which is that the Chinese are just not made for or currently prepared for democracy; some form of an authoritarian rule is necessary.

Buruma begins this journey to deconstruct this myth in Singapore, a Chinese-based society where the post-colonial government took and maintained power in the most vicious of ways.  For those who have never been to Singapore or know little of the details of its history, this chapter is a must read.  Singapore is a scary society that holds tight to the belief that this type of rule is necessary in a “Confucian” and “Asian-valued” society.  But even with such pressure to conform and unfathomable methods of torture, there are still those in Singapore who choose to dissent.  Their very existence in Singapore demonstrates that the idea that democracy is too alien a notion for the Chinese is nonsense.

The experiences of Taiwan and Hong Kong further demonstrates that the Chinese can have democracy, with Taiwan offering the best hope that democracy can succeed in a Chinese society.  While Taiwanese democracy is often punctuated with physical assaults within parliament, as Buruma shows, after a period of abusive rule, it has become a rather thriving and real democracy.  Hong Kong is similar except that its reversion back to the Mainland and the change in leadership to more Mainland, business-focused executives threatens that democracy.  In fact, in Hong Kong, the Chinese myth is beginning to reassert itself, with some prominent leaders stating that perhaps the Chinese people cannot handle full democracy.

Buruma ends his journey of destroying the Chinese myth by visiting the Mainland where shockingly, the belief in the need for a strong

Beijing cab driver looking for democracy

Beijing cab driver looking for democracy

government is not just prevalent amongst China’s intellectuals (who usually are the dissidents), but is a strongly held.  It is Buruma’s cab driver who most cogently expresses the desire for democracy, demonstrating that while the intellectual class believes China’s masses are not ready for democracy, those masses sure think they are.

Although Bad Elements is 12 years old, it is certainly not dated and raises issues that are still pertinent.  Twelve years later, the Chinese Myth is still very much alive and not just among the Chinese; at times Western businesses prefer to turn a blind eye to the Chinese government’s choice of leadership and instead are easily lulled by the belief of the Chinese Myth.

Buruma believes that democracy is inevitable in China and that it must be brought more quickly than the current (as of 2001) intellectuals appear to want.  Even as early as 2001, the Mainland intellectuals, perhaps reminded of what happened in Tiananmen Square, sought to more gradually change China.

But one wonders, who is Buruma – or any non-Chinese – to say that this approach is wrong?  Only the Chinese themselves can find their path.

Xu Zhiyong, a more gradual reformer finds himself in and out of jail

Xu Zhiyong, a more gradual reformer finds himself in and out of jail

This theory of gradual reform within the system has only gotten stronger in the past twelve years, with current activists like Xu Zhiyong seeking to work within the system.

Unfortunately, the past four years have shown that perhaps Buruma was right to feel frustrated – the Chinese government has also crackdown

harshly on this set of reform-minded activists.  Buruma’s suggestion twelve years ago – that the “social stability” which the Chinese government and the intellectuals desire – can never be achieved where a people is ruled by an authoritarian regime – rings more true today than ever before.

Another prescient aspect of Bad Elements is Buruma’s observation that many of the dissidents, those in the US, Singapore, Tawain, Hong Kong and even China, are Christians.  This is an occurrence that has only increased over time.  Most of today’s Mainland activist profess the Christian faith.  Buruma speculates that Christianity is prevalent among Chinese dissidents as it replaces one religion – Maoism and the Party – with another.  It’s unclear if that is the reason or if the reason is more because many of the dissidents see Christian values (at least the ones that make it to China) are akin to the rights and democracy which they seek.

Chai Ling today (to the left), working with her group "All Girls Allowed"

Chai Ling today (to the left), working with her group “All Girls Allowed”

But there are aspects of Bad Elements that do show their age, mostly about the exile community.  Although slightly dismissive of Chai Ling in Bad Elements, she has re-engaged with China.  In 2010, Chai founded “All Girls Allowed,” a Christian-influenced non-profit that seeks to eliminate the injustices associated with the one-child policy in China.  Similarly, Xiao Qiang who is give short shrift in the book, has become an important force in communicating the stories of dissent from the Mainland through his website China Digital Times.  Xiao remains extremely relevant to China’s reform movement.  And that’s the aspect of the book that Buruma could not have fathomed at the time – the rise of the internet.  The internet certainly shapes the role of today’s exile differently than those of years past and perhaps allows the dissident community to continue their connections with activists on the Mainland.

Rating: ★★★½☆ — as a result of certain aspects of the book being outdated (which is too be expected from a 12 year old book about contemporary China)

Bad Elements: Chinese Rebels from Los Angeles to Beijing, by Ian Buruma (Vintage Books 2001), 341 pages.

Book Review – Environmental Litigation in China


For over a decade now China has been drafting environmental protection laws at a rapid clip.  And it’s no wonder. From 1980 to 2000, the Chinese government’s singular focus on economic growth has put the environment in grave jeopardy, with cancer villages sprouting up throughout the country, toxic air a common occurrence and polluted waters killing fish and people’s livelihoods.

But laws on the books are meaningless if not properly enforced and part of that enforcement often takes the route of citizen lawsuits, especially in the environmental realm.  In China, a country that intentionally keeps its statistics and information opaque, it’s often difficult to see what is happening on the ground let alone in the courts.  Until now.

Enter Environmental Litigation in China: A Study in Political Ambivalence, a new book by Rachel Stern, an assistant professor of law and political science at the University of California, Berkeley.  The book is perhaps the most significant contribution to the pantheon of books on China’s legal development published in the past ten years.  Through on the ground research, including review of hundreds of legal cases, interviews with lawyers, judges, government officials and average citizens, Environmental Litigation in China is not some theoretical analysis of the law.  Rather it provides a concrete example of law in action in China.

Taichi in the Beijing pollution – the price of economic development at all costs

And although the book is ostensibly about environmental litigation, the patterns and problems for average citizens in bringing cases could be applicable to many of China’s touchier subjects such as workplace discrimination or food safety.  In a clear and concise way, Environmental Litigation in China begins by describing the destruction and then the re-development of the Chinese legal system under Mao and then Deng Xiaoping.  From there, Prof. Stern discusses the new environmental laws that have been passed during the period when China was truly “turning toward the law.”

Then comes the more practical aspects of the book.  Chapter 2 – “From Dispute to Decision” – is a gem.  It describes in detail the unfolding of an environmental case in China – how citizens hook up with lawyers, the exorbitant rates of filing fees, how cases often fail to be “accepted” by the case-filing division (li’an ting), the use of evidence at trial, and the enforcement mechanisms of the court.  Even for long-term China law watchers, this chapter provides a great resource to the various stages and venues for court cases and the intricate rules that govern both.

In line with presenting the realities of litigation in China, Environmental Litigation in China goes on to describe some of the major players in environmental law in China – the judges, the lawyers, the media, the Party and the international NGOs.  For each actor, Prof. Stern describes many of the limitations that leave the environmental law field from developing.

But Environmental Litigation in China‘s greatest contribution is perhaps the interviews with many of the on-the-ground actors.  This was a

Dead fish – a common occurrence in China’s polluted waters.

six-plus year project for Prof. Stern, with many trips to China and interviews with hundreds of individuals.  Interspersed throughout the book are these people’s analysis of why they did certain things and how they believe the law is developing.  Getting inside of these actors’ heads is invaluable to understanding how those who are shaping environmental law currently perceive it.   It’s one thing for an outside scholar to hypothesize a law’s limits; it’s another thing to hear it from the lawyer or the judge herself.

Environmental Litigation in China is a great book and an important study, but if you are a looking for a feel-good conclusion, this is not it.  Ultimately, it is the mechanics of China’s unique system – the importance of business to the local tax base, the tying of the local judiciary to the local Communist Party and the debilitating fear of the Chinese Communist Party to allow the law to just take its course – that undermines environmental justice and a rule of law for the average citizen.

And that’s the one and only critique that could be made of the book – that perhaps it doesn’t look enough at some of the positives.  Chapter 3 – “Frontiers in Environmental Law” – discusses two environmental cases and then compares them to two situations where the people opted to go outside of the courts.  The two traditional legal cases, while “victories” ultimately provided little compensation for the damage.

But the last two cases, where the people decided not to file a legal case, demonstrate the creativity that citizens use to enforce their rights in place of a broken legal system.  In particular, the citizens of Shanghai whose international media blitz, banners on the tops of buildings that could not be easily taken down, and weekly demonstrations resulted in the plan to build a maglev train in their backyard from being completely shelved.

Shanghai residents protest maglev trains in their backyard – note the use of English signs for the international media

Yes, this wasn’t the use of law and it probably makes Western legal scholars uncomfortable in the use of messier tactics such as demonstrations and outright public shaming.  But it got results and results more quickly than any legal case could.  And make no mistake, this is not just a tactic used in China.  Rather it is a tactic in any legal system, including the United States – using outside legal means, including the press, to achieve justice for society’s underdog is common.  It is this development of a rights consciousness among these Shanghai residents and their effective tactics that is an important part of China’s legal development that could have been discussed a bit more.

Ultimately this is a minor point in what is an amazing study of China’s recent legal development. Environmental Litigation in China: A Study in Political Ambivalence is a necessary read for all China scholars, and even more so for those who teach a Chinese law class.  The book itself – with its clear, concise and direct style – could serve as the textbook for the course.  And although it does not provide for great optimism in the present system, it does provide for hope.  The fact that one of the judges on an environmental case was a student of an environmental clinic at her law school, the fact that the Environmental Protection Bureau officials often leave to become aggressive “cause” lawyers, the fact that average citizens are looking for ways to achieve justice, these are all hopeful signs for the future of environmental litigation in China.

Rating: ★★★★½

Environmental Litigation in China: A Study in Political Ambivalence, by Rachel Stern (Cambridge Studies in Law and Society 2013), 234

Book Review – The Corpse Walker: Real Life Stories, China from the Bottom Up

By , October 10, 2012

Too often Westerners’ views of China are shaped through the eyes of a select few – Ai Weiwei, Han Han, and in the legal world, He Weifang, Xu Zhiyong, and Chen Guangcheng.  How they see China is often how we see it.  China is far from an open society and these individuals are educated, media savvy, and maintain a good rapport with foreign reporters.  Make no mistake, they have important stories to tell.

But it is rare to know what the average Chinese person thinks and feels about his own history; what is important and what shouldn’t be forgotten.  Although China has a history that spans more than 2,000 years, it doesn’t have the same respect for the individual history and experiences of the everyman.  There is no Library of Congress that attempts to collect the stories of former slaves before they die or a StoryCorps project where anyone can go to a recording booth and interview a friend or family member.  In some ways, there are likely stories that the Chinese Communist Party (“CCP”) would rather forget.

Fortunately for China and for us, there is LIAO Yiwu and The Corpse Walker: Real Life Stories, China From the Bottom Up.  In his way, Liao Yiwu is trying to be the Library of Congress, interviewing average people before their histories are forgotten.  In The Corpse Walker, 27 of Liao’s interviews with average Chinese people are translated into English, giving the reader a more democratic view of China.

Three of the first four of Liao’s  interviews – The Professional Mourner, The Public Restroom Manager, and The Corpse Walkers – paint a picture of a China that is long gone.  But Liao is able to capture these  dying professions and the men who filled them.  And while they tell the stories of China’s past, their stories are still familiar.  The public restroom manager is still bitter from an incident with a young punk who teases him because of his work, but ultimately he is just happy to have a job.  The corpse walker discussing how to “walk a corpse” and tells his story with the nostalgia of an old man thinking back to other times.

But in each of the 27 interviews, not a single person has been left unscathed by the CCP’s various campaigns and politics.  Liao doesn’t have to delve deep to get these stories.  For each person, the Land Reform Movement, Great Leap Forward, the Anti-Rightist Campaign, the Cultural Revolution, or the Tiananmen crackdown, have shaped their lives.

It is particularly poignant in The Yi District Chief’s Wife.  The wife – Zhang Meizhi – and her family did not fare well during the Land Reform Campaign.  As members of the highest caste of the Yi minority, a caste-based ethnic group in southwest China with land being owned primarily by the highest caste, Zhang and her family were major targets of the Land Reform.  After witnessing her husband’s execution and the subsequent cutting of his tongue from his mouth,  Zhang’s struggle was far from over.  Her eldest son became a target, forcing him to live in a hole in a ground for years to avoid the same fate as his father, all the while degenerating into a wild existence.  Today, Zheng has not forgotten; she has forgiven to a degree, but she has not forgotten.  Unfortunately, as she points out, the children of those who want to forget already have.

In The Retired Official, Liao interviews Zheng Dajun, an official who headed a government work team in rural Sichuan during the Great Leap

Rural residents and victims of China's Great Leap Forward

Forward.  Zheng eye-witnessed a country descending into one of the worst famines in modern history and a people spiraling to a state of nature in the rural areas.  Slowly the starving people moved from eating white clay and drinking castor oil to cannibalism.  Although Zheng repeatedly informed higher officials, nothing was done to stop the export of needed grain from the rural areas to the cities.

Perhaps the most moving of all of Liao’s interviews is The Tiananmen Father.  As poor workers in Sichuan province, Wu Dingfu and his wife felt lucky that one of their sons excelled in school; both were ecstatic when their son passed the college entrance exam and attended college in Beijing.  Wu tells the story of his son, a young man who believed in something and then like many college students, got in over his head.  But before he could get out, he was killed by the troops on their way to Tiananmen Square.  In Wu’s interview, you can feel not just the ache of a father bringing not just his son’s body back to Sichuan, but the collapse of a dream that his family could do better.

The Corpse Walker is an important read since the voices of China’s average person are finally heard.  And what’s remarkable is that while their stories are different from ours, the emotions are not: the bitterness of working a menial job; the need to forgive to go on living; the anger of a former government official who tried to do the right thing; the emptiness of a father who has to bury his son.  If just for this reason – for showing the humanity of the average Chinese person – The Corpse Walker is an important read.

But The Corpse Walkeris vital as a depository of China’s history, the history that the people – not the Party – wants to tell.  The Chinese Communist Party is in denial of its past; it does not want to recognize the divisions and violence that has been a result of its rule and it hopes

The author, Liao Yiwu

that China’s economic miracle can serve as bread and circuses for the young, causing them not to even ask about the past.  But as Liao makes clear in some of his more prescient interviews, the past is often the catalyst for the future.  Can it be forgotten or more importantly, should it be?  For Liao, the answer is no, but for the rest of China, the answer is much less clear.

Not all of Liao’s interviews are as remarkable as the ones mentioned here.  Some are boring and at times, Liao can be rather didactic in his questioning of those that he has less sympathy for which detracts from the stories he is trying to tell.  But the interviews mentioned here, especially The Tiananmen Father, must be read.  Because to understand China’s present, we must understand how the victims of China’s past live today.

Rating: ★★★½☆

The Corpse Walker, by Liao Yiwu (Anchor 2009), 352 pages.

Tiananmen 23 Years Later: An Unknown History?

For the great majority of young mainland Chinese, the events of the Tiananmen Massacre have never entered their consciousness; they have never seen the photographs and news reports about it, and even fewer have their family or teachers ever explained it to them. They have not forgotten it; they have never known anything about it.”

So ends Chan Koonchung’s The Fat Years, an allegorical novel set in the near-future Beijing, where China is the only prosperous nation left after the great global economic meltdown of 2008. Most of its citizens are happy – unnaturally so – and fully satisfied with the materialism of their new lives.

But there is a small group of misfits- led by Fang Caodi – that is searching for a missing month from 2008 where martial law was imposed so that the government could bring on the fat years. All remnants of that month have been erased from society’s collective memory: newspapers published during that month no longer exist and no one ever speaks of it. It’s as if it never occurred. Fang and his posse go all over the country, trying to find any evidence of that missing month and trying to find more people like them: people who remember. They find almost no one but then hatch a plan to kidnap a high level government official and interrogate him. They find out about a government intent on guaranteeing that the mistakes of its pass are forgotten and only China’s glorious future is remembered.

Make no mistake, Chan is not talking about a missing month in 2008. What Chan is discussing are the seven weeks that led up to the June 4, 1989 Tiananmen massacre, where martial law was imposed, high-level Chinese officials ordered the army to open fire on its own people, and hundreds of unarmed student protestors were estimated to have been killed.

On Monday the world will mark the 23rd anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre. But Mainland China will not. Every year, the anniversary of Tiananmen, known as Liu Si in Chinese, is forgotten on mainland China, unless you count the Chinese government’s stepped up security of Tiananmen Square and random detention of activists as a commemorating event.

Around June 1, 1989, over a million students converge on Beijing's Tiananmen Square

For 23 years, there has been no public mention of the Tiananmen massacre and aside from hushed whispers among older Chinese, in particular the Tiananmen Mothers who bravely try to keep the murder of their children alive, there is little private discussion of the event. The Chinese government’s 23 years of silence concerning Tiananmen isn’t just denial. It’s been a concerted and fairly effective effort to erase Tiananmen, and the government’s bloody actions on the night of June 3, 1989, from China’s collective memory.

Mainland Chinese born after 1989 largely do not know anything about the events surrounding those seven weeks 23 years ago nor the bloody repression on the night of June 3 into the early morning hours of June 4. To the extent that they have heard anything about it – from a professor who might have supported the students in 1989 or from a family member who was there – their recollections are muddied at best.

Chan’s The Fat Years is a warning: that the Chinese must not forget the past; that they must continue to remember. But that warning is mixed with the reality that perhaps some Chinese do want to forget, especially the young. Compared to 1989, times have never been better. Why rock the boat? Why be bothered with your parent’s history?  And that is Chan’s second note of caution to the Chinese: do not be lulled into acceptance by materialism.

But those messages will not be heard in China.  In keeping with their efforts to annihilate Tiananmen from collective memory,the Chinese government has banned The Fat Years. In the introduction to the English translation, Julia Lovell notes that the book has still

A rickshaw driver ferries two dying students on he morning of June 4, 1989

made its way around dissident circles in Beijing. But dissidents in Beijing are a small, insular group; the vast majority of Chinese will remain unaware.  The fact that today’s dissidents and rights activists still remember Tiananmen is one weakness in the Chinese government’s goal and might explain the two-year crackdown on activists.

For the first few years after the Tiananmen massacre, the question was, how long will the Chinese government refuse to investigate the murder of hundreds of Chinese students. Twenty-three years later, now the question is, will the Chinese ever know their own history? As time passes, memories fade, Tiananmen mothers die, and the Chinese Communist Party remains in power, the answer seems to be leaning toward no.

That is why we must never forget June 4, 1989 and continue to memorialize and investigate the events. As censorship increases in China, the western world is ironically becoming the repository of China’s modern history. Eventually, the Chinese people will demand that they be allowed to learn their own history; eventually they will be free to decide for their own what aspects of their history that they want to commemorate and what they want to forget.  Eventually, the West’s repository of knowledge will be accessed by the Chinese.

Chan’s The Fat Years should not be read for its literary style. At many points the narrative really slows down and “near future Beijing” is actually 2013, making it difficult for the current English reader of translation to find it even slightly believable. It also appears to peter out toward the end with the main characters just fading from the page. But for the ideas that the book presents about modern day China and its potential future, it is an important read.  Especially today, on this anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

The Fat Years: A Novel, by Chan Koonchung (Nan A. Talese, 2012), 336 pages.

A BBC news report from the early morning of June 4, 1989

Book Review: Paul French’s Midnight in Peking

Paul French describes his gripping new book, Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China, as a belated quest to bring justice to a young woman, brutally murdered 75 years ago in Beijing.  But the story is equally as applicable to the present, highlighting that our criminal justice system — and with the case of Bo Xilai, China’s criminal justice system — can easily fall victim to political agendas, singularly-focused investigations, and prejudices about who can and cannot commit a crime.

Midnight in Peking opens on a dark, cold morning in January 1937, in the dying days of old Beijing.  A young white woman’s mutilated body is found near the haunted fox tower by an old Chinese man who is up early walking his caged bird.  The body turns out to be that of 19 year old Pamela Werner, daughter of E.T.C. Werner, a former high-ranking British diplomat, China scholar, and single father who raised his daughter outside of the gated-off, foreign Legation Quarter of Beijing.

On the eve of the Japanese invasion, it was a murder that distracted Beijing as much as it obsessed it.  And rightfully so.  For the murder, and French’s amazingly detailed account of it, uncovers the debaucheries of some of foreign Beijing’s most elite, a young girl experimenting as a woman, and the official cover up that followed.  On the eve of World War II, there was no way that British officials would allow the Empire and its respectability to lose face, even if it meant short-changing a police investigation and letting a diabolic murderer to go free.

Pamela Werner becoming a woman - taken a few days before her murder.

French’s talent lies in his ability to transport the reader back to 1937 Beijing, back to the Grand Hotel des Wagons Lits, back to the Badlands where seedy expat Beijing lead much of its life but rarely talked about it within the Legation Quarter.  French also makes the characters come alive – with his seven years of painstaking research into the official criminal investigation and Pamela’s father’s own inquiry, French knows what each of the characters were doing, writing and saying at the time.

Midnight in Peking is known as a work of “literary non-fiction,” presenting the facts almost as a novel but unable to take any of the liberties that a work of fiction could permit.  In reality though, the work has more of the drama of a good closing argument – a winning closing argument – presenting the facts,debunking the police’s simplistic conclusions (including that it was a Chinese who did it; who else would kill and mutilate a body), and thoroughly presenting a stronger theory of who did it, a theory that the reader eventually adopts.

Midnight in Peking is a remarkable read, a page turner that kept me in one Friday night just to find out who did it.  But it is not just a story about the past.  Sitting there, reading  about a British murder investigation in China and seeing the prejudices that the police held about certain incidents, particular people and specific facts, made me think of the recent re-examination of the 1979 Etan Patz kidnapping case that is currently transfixing New York City.  In that case, it appears that the police misjudged suspects and had a singular focus on a specific interpretation of the facts, even with little facts to back that up.  Some 50 years after the Pamela Werner murder, police in New York City were making the same mistakes.  Fast forward 33 years to today and most likely these same types of mistakes are still being made.

But more than anything, the book also demonstrates the susceptibility of any criminal justice system to power and politics.  E.T.C. Werner was an outsider to British expat society of 1937, and not just because he chose to live outside of the Legation Quarter.  That pissed people off and when it came time to investigate the murder of his daughter, Werner, as an outsider, became a suspect.  The murderers that French eventually uncover were not just accepted in British society but considered the elites of Beijing.  That acceptance – and the fact that the British diplomats didn’t want a scandal on their hands – allowed them to live their lives as free men.  Ultimately politics – both individual as well as national – proved more important than justice.  Even when Werner conducted his own investigation and uncovered many of the lies of key suspects, British diplomats continued to ignore his pleas for justice for his daughter.

Not surprisingly, when reading French’s book, the Bo Xilai case – where Bo’s wife is accused of murdering a British national – was not far from

An old ETC Werner, around the time of his daughter's murder

my mind.  Given the politics involved in that case and the fact that perhaps Bo became an outsider to the Party system, it makes one wonder about the accuracy of the story that the Chinese government is currently presenting to the press.  If it could happen in British Peking in 1937, it can certainly happen in Chinese Beijing in 2012.  Likely, no criminal justice system is immune to political pressure.  It would be foolish – and dangerous – to think that any system is impervious.

Midnight in Peking is a remarkable story, wonderfully written and with characters that just come to life – some you love, some you hate and some you just despise.  For those who want to be transported to the past, Midnight in Peking is your ticket there; but for those who want to understand the present, more precisely the mistakes inherent in any criminal justice system, Midnight in Peking will take you there.  Whichever trip you decide to make, French will take you on a fun ride.

Rating: ★★★★½

Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China, by Paul French (Penguin Books, 2012), 272 pages.

French also has a great website about the book, including his own explanation as to what propelled him to write the book and a walking tour of Pamela’s Beijing (with downloadable podcasts). For anyone who does the walking tour, I would be interested in you take of it. Please comment below!

Book Review: Jim Yardley – Brave Dragons

By , April 18, 2012

Jim Yardley’s new book, Brave Dragons: A Chinese Basketball Team, an American Coach, and Two Cultures Clashing, is more than just a good story about basketball in China.  Yardley’s micro-analysis of the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) provides an important macro view of current US-China relations.

In 2008, Yardley, a former Beijing-based reporter for the New York Times and a basketball fanatic, followed China’s worst basketball team, Shanxi’s Brave Dragons, its crazy owner, Boss Wang, and its great experiment: hiring a former NBA head coach, Bob Weiss. While the Brave Dragons may be China’s worst team, they are its most lovable.  Through multiple interviews, observations and traveling with the team, Yardley perfectly captures the comedy that at times is the Brave Dragons and demonstrates the individual humanity of the team’s players, coaches and even in the end, of Boss Wang.

But if all Yardley’s book did was provide the Chinese basketball version of the The Bad News Bears, it wouldn’t be worthy of the four stars this review has given it.  Yardley uses the CBA and basketball in China to better describe the complexity that is U.S.-China relations.  The subtitle of the book refers to this as a “cultural clash” but as Yardley’s story makes clear, that is a misnomer (and likely the result of an overzealous editor).  Instead of the usual take that relations are strained, Yardley portrays the complicated dance – where some times foots are stepped on and shins

Former NBA head Coach and Brave Dragon coach Bob Weiss

kicked – that occurs on a daily basis between the Chinese and American basketball players, their competing leagues, and their cultures.

In the process, Yardley calls into question some of the more common-held myths about China.

Myth Busting #1: China’s State Capitalism is Not All that Great

Since the economic downturn in 2008 and the ever increasing ineffectiveness of Congress, there seems to be a growing consensus that China’s “state capitalism” is superior to America’s democratic one (think Tom Friedman’s That Used to Be Us and Ian Bremmer’s The End of the Free Market).

In Brave Dragons, Yardley challenges this increasingly common perception by analyzing the hot mess that is the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA). The CBA is anything but a competitive league.  The CBA’s goal is not to make money or even to provide China’s sizable basketball fan base with a satisfying experience, or even to develop talent.  Instead talent is largely stunted, the league is not terribly competitive and even a team like the Shanghai Sharks doesn’t take in much of a profit, or more aptly, doesn’t care to.

Perhaps what is most shocking is the archaic way in which basketball talent is still found in China.  China doesn’t really do little league and youth sports, where any young kid with a love of the game can play, regardless of his or her ability, and where those with enough passion for the sport and enough talent may eventually make that sport his or her career.  Instead, through a series of bone measurements and medical tests, Chinese doctors determine which youngsters are destined to grow tall and then enroll them into the country’s sport system, providing them with little choice concerning their future career.

As Yardley points out, this system is not without its detractors but their criticism gains little traction.  In 2004, then CBA president, Li Yuanwei commissioned a consulting service to create a plan for the CBA to become a successful, efficient and effective organization.  But effective and efficient without pushing many of the government bureaucrats and Party officials who make their living from the system as it stands is nearly impossible.  The plan was shelved, with the excuse that China was just not ready.

Practice makes perfect? Practice is non-stop in China

Yardley’s description of the CBA reflects the shackles of the communist system and the vested interest that propel some aspects of the anachronistic system to continue to function.   But one begins to wonder – to what extent is this just limited to basketball?  How many other industries in China function so disastrously?  Yardley never fully tells us that as it is outside the scope of the book, but his book certainly raises the question and leaves the reader thinking: if that is how basketball is run in China, I’ll take the U.S. any day of the week, even in this economic downturn.

Myth Busting #2:  China is Never Going to Look Just Like Us, So Maybe We Should Stop Trying

Yardley perfectly demonstrates the arrogance of the NBA’s current business tactics in China by comparing it to the YMCA’s strategy. In 1895, the YMCA first brought basketball to China in an effort ostensibly to assist China during a historical transition (the impending fall of the Qing dynasty) but with the covert goal to convert as many Chinese to Christianity as possible.

In the process of attempting to achieve its goal, the YMCA became a solidly Chinese organization.  It was that sinicization of the organization that ultimately saved it.  Today, the organization still exists in China although Christianity is no longer a part of its mission.  But it continues to teach the importance of sports and basketball.

The CBA’s current ineptitude is readily apparent to the NBA as it sits on the sidelines, salivating and waiting to not just break into the Chinese basketball market but to control it.  Basketball is s the hottest sport in China and the NBA wants to be able to tap a country of 1.3 billion fans. But the NBA’s plan for China is less of a partnership and more of a colonization of the game by eradicating the current structure.  Although the NBA has hired consultants to analyze its takeover, its analysis left out one important question – did the Chinese want this?  As Yardley points out, if the NBA is genuine about promoting basketball and not just its own profit, it needs to take a lesson from the YMCA – to have long-term success it is essential that there is some sort of Chinese buy-in; that it cannot just be a complete takeover.

Yardley’s analysis made me think of my own work in China – rule of law development.  The United States government provides millions of dollars in grants a year to U.S. universities and organizations to promote greater rule of law in China.  But sometimes these “exchanges” become more a didactic, one-sided explanation of how the Chinese legal system should look more like ours.  But what good are these exchanges if there is no Chinese buy-in?  It’s good that these exchanges are out there, but what should their roles be?  There is no denying that China needs a greater rule of law and its own people clamor for it, but how do we copy the YMCA model to guarantee that rule of law maintains its existence?

Myth Busting #3:  It’s Ordinary People that Will Determine US-China Relations

The most humorous aspects of Brave Dragons were parts about the American players’ response to the often unique, Chinese ways of basketball.

Bonzi Wells practicing with a Chinese teammate

Every team in China is allowed two foreign players (except Bayi, the Army’s team) and as a result, many aging NBA stars spend a lot of time playing in China.  How do the American players – and Coach Weiss – respond to what appears to be off the wall demands from the Chinese coaches?  How do the Chinese fans respond to a former NBA star and bad boy like Bonzi Wells when he starts playing for the Brave Dragons?  When two cultures collide, what are the results?  According to Yardley, it’s not all that bad and not just changes the relations, but changes people as well.

Yardley’s book is a reminder that US-China relations is not always a government-to-government affair.  Rather individuals play a very important role in how the two cultures end up understanding each other, and ultimately forgiving each other for their respective cultural faux pas.  These individuals will not necessarily be people who understand anything of the other person’s culture; these are just regular Joes who end up in China – they didn’t necessarily ask for it, sought it out, or ever even thought about China, but that is where their life took them.  And the people they interact with don’t necessarily speak English, understand that much about American culture, or even wanted to work with Americans, but that is where fate placed them.

And as everything in life becomes more globalized, more and more non-specialists will be interacting with China.  Yardley shows that while at times there will be friction, ultimately these interactions are essential – if not the most important – to our understanding of each other.

In sum, Jim Yardley does an amazing job of showing the compassion and humanity of each player on the Brave Dragons, even Bonzi Wells you end up liking and understanding (to a degree).  But more importantly – and the reason why Brave Dragons is a must read for anyone who has any dealings with China – Yardley convinces the reader not just of the economic bond between China and the US, but the emotional one.  And it’s important in today’s world to be reminded of the bond that exists between people.

Rating: ★★★★☆

Brave Dragons: A Chinese Basketball Team, an American Coach, and Two Cultures Clashing, by Jim Yardley (Alfred A. Knoff 2012), 300 pages.

 

Book Review: Nien Cheng – Life & Death in Shanghai

When Nien Cheng passed away on November 2, 2009, I did not know who she was.  Chinese studies listserves were abuzz about her passing, but as someone who started in the Chinese studies field in the late 1990s, I was unfamiliar with her work.  A quick Wikepedia search revealed that in 1987, she wrote a book about her time in Shanghai during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) – Life & Death in Shanghai – but her book didn’t seem any different than the many other memoirs I had read about the Cultural Revolution.

Fast forward a year and a half and I found myself in a soon-to-be-closed Borders Bookstore in lower Manhattan staring at a pile of Nien Cheng’s Life and Death in Shanghai on the “Ultra Bargain Books” table and stamped with a $1.99 price tag.  Even at two bucks, I hesitated in purchasing the book, but Ms. Cheng’s picture on the cover – a grandmotherly woman, with big pearl earrings and make-up perfectly in place – refined, older and  beautiful Chinese woman wistfully gazing out – caught my attention.  And thankfully it did because Ms. Cheng’s memoir is decidedly different from the others I had read.  It is a must read for anyone who wants to truly understand both on an intellectual and emotional level, the personal and physical costs of China’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.

Ms. Cheng’s story starts on the eve of the Cultural Revolution, a hot, steamy morning in her lavish Shanghai home.  Although the Chinese Communists had been in power for more than 15 years, three servants continue to wait on Ms. Cheng and her daughter.  But as the Cultural Revolution begins to heat up, her lifestyle, her life abroad, and her former employer in Shanghai – Shell Oil Company which only shut down its office in China in 1965 – make her the perfect target for Mao Zedong’s new campaign against the remaining vestiges of “capitalist privilege” in China.  On that fateful morning, Ms. Cheng is dragged away by low-level Chinese officials, all the while lamenting about their ill treatment and their improper manners.

Ms. Cheng’s complaints – of missed meals, the oppressive heat, the disrespect, ignorance and bad manners of the

Picture of a typical struggle session during the Cultural Revolution

Communist officials – continue for months during the summer of 1966 as the struggle sessions against her former Shell colleagues, and eventually her, increase in intensity.  At first, it’s hard to have much pity for Ms. Cheng – her grievances seem trivial, and – for lack of a better word – bourgeois.  Seventeen years into the Communist Party’s reign, how could Ms. Cheng expect to maintain such a lifestyle and it comes to a shock that she did.  But that is what makes Ms. Cheng’s memoir interesting and an essential read.  Most memoirs of the Cultural Revolution (at least in English) are written by former Red Guards – individuals who would have been in high school or college during the time.  Ms. Cheng was much older, much more experienced in life, and much more politically aware when the Cultural Revolution began.

Because of her age and experiences, Ms. Chung’s memoir does one of the best jobs in placing the Cultural Revolution in its historical context, questioning many people’s simple perception that the Chinese Party’s rule from 1949 until 1976 was a simple lineal progression to communism.  In fact, Ms. Cheng’s story shows that there were differing voices in the CCP leadership that at times held sway – Shell was allowed, even encouraged, to maintain a presence in China because by the early 1960s, certain market reformers had significant power in the Chinese leadership; at one point Ms. Cheng’s life was saved because she defended Liu Shaoqi – a senior leader who fell out of Mao Zedong’s favor but was still supported by certain Red Guard factions.

But more than the historical context is the strength that Ms. Cheng shows in her six years of solitary confinement, suffering the abuse, torture, and near death experience at the hands of the Red Guards.  Many a Cultural Revolution memoir is more of a mea culpa for the author’s betrayals – turning on a father or a close friend in order to preserve his or her own life.  But Ms. Cheng has no reason to offer such an apology for she never succumbs to what must have been intense pressures on the intellectual class.  Before being taken away to prison, Ms. Cheng is visited by a close friend of her dead husband who gives her one piece of advice – do not make a false confession, no matter how heavy the pressure.  These are words she ends up living by and which not only eventually save her, but save many others who the Red Guards attempted to implicate during Ms. Cheng’s various “interrogations.”  As Ms. Cheng points out in her book – although rule of law was largely non-existent during the Cultural Revolution, the procedures of a legal system were still in place – there was a deep need for her interrogators to obtain “evidence” in order to “convict” her and others of political missteps.

Nien Cheng (right) with her daughter Meiping

Ms. Cheng is finally freed in 1973 but it is questionable if her life improves.  [ATTENTION PLOT SPOLIER]  Upon her release, Ms. Cheng finds out that her daughter – her only child – has died.  The revelation takes the reader by surprise as one has been so focused on Ms. Cheng’s survival that one has forgotten about her life outside of prison.  Interestingly, Ms. Cheng’s memoir does not dwell on her daughter’s death nor does it describe the deep and visceral pain Ms. Cheng must have suffered in eventually learning that her daughter was killed by an overzealous Red Guard that attempted to pressure her to turn on her mother.  It is the murder of her daughter, and what is eventually the denial of justice for her daughter, that makes Ms. Cheng’s survival all the more tragic.  There will be no Hollywood ending for Ms. Cheng, where she is happily reunited with her daughter; instead, Ms. Cheng must live the remainder of her life with this hole in her heart, and while Ms. Cheng never precisely states it, the reader is left wondering why; why this gentle, strong woman had to lose her beautiful child; why any of this had to happen at all; and how could these experiences not still resonate in most Chinese people’s minds.

In 1983, Ms. Cheng left China for Canada and finally the United States.  But before leaving, Ms. Cheng donated her antique Chinese porcelain to the Shanghai museum.  When the Red Guards first ransacked her home in 1966, Ms. Cheng pleaded with the immature high school students to save her valuable pieces of porcelain, pieces that today fetch millions in auctions throughout the world by Chinese buyers attempting to reclaim their history.  But while Ms. Cheng still respects the beauty of these pieces, she no longer seems to care.

China changed much between Ms. Cheng’s departure and her death in 2009 – economic reforms ushered in a flourishing market economy, there was greater openness in thought and speech, and the political indoctrination of the Cultural Revolution ceased.  But Ms. Cheng never returned to her homeland.  Not surprisingly, her death was not widely reported on the mainland.  And this is perhaps the greatest tragedy of all – that the Chinese people are not afford the opportunity to celebrate this strong, kind, brave, and wonderful woman.  Instead, the Chinese Communist

Nien Cheng in her new homeland, the United States (1988)

Party insists on white-washing its history and denying its people the choice of what to remember and who to celebrate.  The newly renovated National Museum of History in Beijing barely mentions the Cultural Revolution, providing only one picture from that time period and three lines of text, reflecting a government intent on suppressing its own history.

Life and Death in Shanghai is one of the best Cultural Revolution memoirs I have read and is a must read for anyone who wants to understand China.  It is also a must read for the Chinese people as well, for them to know that during one of the darkest periods of their history, there were individuals who never lost sight of their moral convictions and who in their individual ways helped to guide their country through such a tumultuous period; even in the darkest days, there is still a history that the Chinese people can be proud of.  Hopefully one day, the Chinese people will be able to celebrate these people, like the rest of the world already has.

Rating: ★★★★★
Life and Death in Shanghai, by Nien Chang (Penguin Books, 1987), 543 pages.
 

Book Review: Frank Dikötter’s Mao’s Great Famine

By , April 18, 2011

When teaching about China’s Great Leap Forward (1958-1962), my Chinese history professor would remind students that history is not necessarily written by the victors but rather is written by those with the ability to transcribe and communicate their experiences, namely the educated.  A comparison of our knowledge of China’s Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), a campaign largely against the Communist China’s remaining vestiges of wealth and educational elitism, with our knowledge about the Great Leap Forward proves his point.  A simple search on Amazon reveals 20 memoirs, just in English, about the Cultural Revolution.  The number of memoirs on the Great Leap Forward in English?  Zero.  We don’t even know how many people died as a result of one of the worst famines in modern human history (the traditional estimate is 30 million but many believe this is too low).

But Frank Dikötter, in his new book Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962, seeks to enlighten us on this horrifying period in Chinese history, or as he puts it in his opening sentence when “China descended into hell.”  With access to recently published provincial archives from the time period, Dikötter shows a China when all semblance of a rule of law vanished and society returned to a Hobbesian state of nature.

Dikötter goes deeper than just explaining the misery; instead he seeks to refute many common-held beliefs regarding the Great Leap Forward and hold the Chinese Communist Party, in particular Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, directly responsible for the tens of millions of peasants who unnecessarily perished.  For Dikötter the Great Leap Forward is not a famine but rather a genocide on par with the Holocaust and Stalin’s gulags.

Parts one and two of the book – which are perhaps the most interesting – convincingly argues that the highest echelons of power knew exactly what was happening on the ground during the Great Leap Forward and largely didn’t care.  For the leadership, proving to the rest of the world that China had already made the successful “great leap” to an industrialized, rich, Utopian communist society became paramount, even at the expense of Chinese lives.  Mao’s Great Leap Forward began with the complete collectivization of farms, village duties, factories, and most of society.  Dikköter shows that although some in the leadership, most notably Peng Dehui, criticized the rapid drive to collectivization as early as 1959, others like Zhou Enlai who was desperate to return to Mao’s good graces vigorously supported the Great Leap Forward, even with its half-baked ideas of digging crops deeper, smelting steel in backyard furnaces, and building useless irrigation projects that took farmers away from farming the land.

For Dikötter, the leadership’s stupidity was augmented by its arrogance.  To prove to the world that China had

French Photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson visited China during the start of the Great Leap Forward (1958) for Life Magazine. Here is a backyard furnance.

successfully made the transition to communism, Mao didn’t just pressure local leaders to meet agricultural and industrial targets, but to surpass them.  The excess grain and goods were sold, below market value even, abroad.  But in reality, as Dikötter makes clear, there was no excess grain – local cadres lied about the numbers, causing the central government to take what was viewed as excess, but which was largely the sum total of all that a particular village produced.

Dikötter disproves the notion that the central leadership was unaware of the mass starvation.  Instead, Dikötter portrays a leadership that made a choice: instead of returning the grain that it knew would keep people alive, the leadership, at the behest of Zhou Enlai, needlessly sought to pay off China’s international debts through grain’s export.  What is perhaps one of the more shocking aspects of the book, Dikötter goes on to explain that although most of China’s treaties provided 18 years for China to repay its debt, the leadership was intent on paying off all debt by 1965.  Because China did not have cash or bullion, the only commodity it could use to pay off its debt in only 5 years was grain.  For Mao, the choice was simple – “when there is not enough to eat people starve to death.  It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill”  – the image of China that Mao wanted to portray to the rest of the world trumped any local needs.

Mao’s Great Famine, with access to the provincial archives, focuses on the systems in place that allowed the famine to continue as well as the callousness of China’s leadership.  At times, one is left wondering what vestiges of the Great Leap Forward still remain; what is not unique to the time period but instead applicable to the modern-day CCP?  Today, the Chinese government still maintains targets for local cadres, and local officials are desperate to meet these targets, even at the expense of the law.  Prof. Carl Minzner has analyzed the current “cadre responsibility system” especially in terms of forced abortions to meet local one-child policy targets.  See Carl Minzner, Riots and Cover-Ups: Counterproductive Control of Local Agents in China (November 9, 2009). University of Pennsylvania Journal of International Law, Vol. 31, 2009; Washington U. School of Law Working Paper No. 09-11-01. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1502943.

Dikötter also describes the increasing politicization of the legal system, or what was left of it after the Ministry of Justice was disbanded in 1959.  “Every one of our party resolutions is a law.  When we have a conference it becomes the law….The great majority of rules and regulations are drafted by the judicial administration.  We should not rely on these….”  Epitomizing this politicalization of the legal system, Dikötter points to the creation of re-education through labor (laojiao), an extra-judicial proceeding where prisoners could be held indefinitely.  Interestingly, China today, even on its alleged quest for a rule of law, has maintained re-education through labor and has largely kept it an extra-judicial, politicized process.

Cartier-Bresson photographs children paving the road after school.

Dikötter’s book is a necessary read to understand the misery that the Chinese people, especially in the rural areas, suffered during the Great Leap Forward.  Its description of the idiocy of the central leadership in caring more about China’s image abroad than the suffering of its own people makes Mao’s Great Famine an important read, especially parts one and two, in any Chinese history class.  But the book itself isn’t a particularly enjoyable read; certainly not a good subway ride book.  The story of the Great Leap Forward is not told in a lineal way; instead, Dikötter breaks up the story by topics, making it difficult to follow the progression of certain events.  Additionally, Dikötter has a large amount of data to share which is impressive indeed.  But at times the constant recitation of numbers is overwhelming and largely causes the reader’s eyes to glaze over.  Dikötter would have done better to add more charts to the book to reflect these numbers.

Finally, Dikötter cites often to two books about Mao Zedong – The Private Life of Chairman Mao: The Memoirs of Mao’s Personal Physician by Li Zhisui and Mao Zedong by Jung Chang and John Halliday.  The veracity of these books, particularly the latter, has been called into question by some academics.  Dikötter’s reliance on these books, particularly when it comes to quoting Mao, is slightly problematic.

But this is a small issue in what is otherwise an important addition to the understanding of the Great Leap Forward and today’s China.  As Dikötter notes throughout the book, the publication of the provincial archives is only the beginning; we will only know the truth when Beijing finally releases the central government’s archives from the time period.  Dikötter implies that this is an inevitably, but given the current political environment, we will likely be waiting a long time.

Rating: ★★★½☆

Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962, by Frank Dikötter (Walker & Company 2010), 448 pages.
 

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