Early last December, a group of nine British lawyers and human-rights specialists gathered in a wood-paneled room under the glass dome of Church House, near Westminster Abbey in downtown London. They were there to do what the United Nations and its member states have so far failed to accomplish: conduct a thorough review of five years of evidence regarding the Chinese government’s persecution of its minority Muslim Uyghur population in the province of Xinjiang, a sprawling semi-autonomous territory in northwest China. On December 9, after hearing days’ worth of live testimony and poring over thousands of pages of expert reports, as well as published regulations of the Chinese government and other leaked documents, the independent Uyghur Tribunal pronounced its verdict. It found the Chinese government guilty of crimes against humanity and genocide of its Uyghur population.
Such an important determination should not have taken this long, nor should the judgment have fallen to a people’s court. Since 2017 the world has known—through media reports, academic studies, and witness testimony—that the Chinese government has summarily interned more than 1 million Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang concentration camps. . . .
Enough with the head-down, slow-and-steady hard work of the year of the Ox. On Tuesday, the world will shake off its yoke and welcome the king of all beasts: the tiger! Powerful, daring, bold, expect 2022 to be exciting and positive. Even Raymond Lo, normally the Debbie Downers of feng shui masters, is excited! As Lo points out, this isn’t just any ordinary tiger year. With 2022 being a water year, this is year of the water tiger! And why does this make Raymond Lo burst with positivity? Because the tiger’s inner element (every zodiac animal has its own internal element) is wood, and water is supportive of wood. With such supportiveness, Lo sees a strong economic recovery, conflicts being resolved and more harmony in the world.
But he does note that there is a chance that, like a tsunami, water could flood the wood and we will see elements of destruction. Marites Allen, known as the “Philippine Feng Shui Queen,” echoed this sentiment, stating that the tiger, with its competitive personality, will cause people to have a short fuse. On a more macro scale, we could see greater human rights violations and greater income inequalities Allen said.
For those who have missed traveling the last two years, both Lo and Allen agree that tiger years always mean more traveling. But, in returning to his glass-half-empty self, Lo did say that because of this increased travel, there will be increased traffic accidents. Be warned.
But overall, the sentiment for year of the water tiger is positive, with the Way Fengshui Group in Singapore telling Her World magazine that tiger years can “turn crazy dreams into glorious reality.” So dream crazy and dream big.
Of course, how you fare during year of the water tiger depends on how your birth sign interacts with the tiger. Her World magazine has a list of predictions for each of the 12 zodiac signs in this upcoming year (click here to look up your sign)
Ultimately though, Lunar New Year is less about predictions than it is about celebrating with cherished family and friends over good food and fun. For our friends in China, where COVID is popping up, our thoughts are with you and we hope that you can take solace knowing that there will be more positive times to come, at least according to Raymond Lo. 加油. And of course,恭喜发财 ! (gong-see-fah-tsai – “may you be happy & prosperous!”)
Last Monday, the White House announced that, because of the “ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang and other human rights abuses,” President Joe Biden will not be sending any diplomatic, government or other official representatives to the Beijing Winter Olympic Games. With the U.S.’ announcement, other countries and territories have followed suit. New Zealand, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Scotland, Kosovo and Japan all have announced similar diplomatic boycotts. To its credit, Lithuania preceded the United States in announcing a diplomatic boycott by three days.
But in light of the Chinese government’s ongoing persecution of Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims – the unlawful internment of one to three million in camps (and yes, it is unlawful under Chinese law), the criminalization of their religion, the restriction on Uyghur births, the constant destruction of their mosques and other religious grounds, the seizure of Uyghurs’ passports, and the dehumanization of Uyghurs – a diplomatic boycott is not enough. Our athletes’ participation in the shadows of what the U.S. government has declared a genocide and U.S. corporations’ Olympic sponsorship will make the Beijing Winter Games come off as business as usual. We don’t look back on Berlin 1936 because we sent our diplomats to attend the Nazi’s Olympics. We look back on the Berlin Summer Games because we allowed our athletes to perform before a regime that we knew was persecuting and dehumanizing its Jewish population. And in allowing for business as usual, we demonstrated our lack of commitment to protecting Germany’s Jews and gave the Nazi government the imprimatur of global legitimacy. With just a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing 2022 Winter Games, expect the same result which, if history is a guide, does not bode well for the Uyghurs.
Additionally, leaving the moral responsibility to do more on the shoulders of our athletes is not only unfair to them, it is also dangerous. Many of our athletes are in their late teens to mid-twenties, peak age to take on causes and protest. In March of this year, likely recognizing their athletes’ proclivity to activism and the U.S.’ tradition of free speech, the U.S. Olympic Committee permitted demonstrations at the U.S. Olympic trials. At this summer’s Tokyo Olympics, U.S. shot-putter Raven Saunders, while on the medal podium, held up her arms in an “x” in protest for the oppressed of the world.
But such protests in Beijing could result in severe consequence for our athletes under Chinese law. Disrespecting the Chinese flag is a crime under Chinese Criminal Law (Article 299) and anything touching upon Tibet or Xinjiang, such as unfurling or wearing a Tibetan or East Turkestan flag or symbol, could be deemed inciting separatism (Article 103) or inciting ethnic hatred (Article 249). Similar with any show of support for an independent Taiwan or for protestors in Hong Kong. Even writing #WhereIsPengShuai could easily fall under the Chinese government catch-all, anti-activist criminal prohibition against picking quarrels and provoking troubles. (Article 293(4): “making disturbances in public places. . . .”). Even if the Chinese government doesn’t want to throw the book at a foreign athlete, there is always administrative detention – a 15-day prison sentence without trial – as a result of “disturbing public order” that could be a good way to prove its point.
The fact that the world will be watching should not afford any comfort. The past few years have shown that the Chinese government has no qualms in using its legal system to prove a political point. For almost two years, the Chinese government detained Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor in retaliation of Canada’s arrest of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou. American citizens and siblings Victor Liu and Cythnia Liu, who went to China to visit family, were forbidden from leaving for over three years, likely as a way to pressure their businessman father to turn himself in on fraud charges. Even the United States Department of State has noted the political use of the legal system , warning Americans traveling to China that the “government arbitrarily enforces local laws, including by carrying out arbitrary and wrongful detentions and through the use of exit bans on U.S. citizens and citizens of other countries without due process of law.”
So what’s the Biden’s administration’s plan when one of our athletes is detained or not allowed to leave China? Has the U.S. Olympic Committee informed athletes’ parents and family what it will do when their relative goes missing? The Biden administration and the U.S. Olympic Committee need to be honest with our athletes and their families that protesting in China could have real consequences and if they do protest, communicate now what the U.S. government will do for them. It’s funny how our choice to engage in a diplomatic boycott also puts us, the bastion of free speech, in the awkward situation that to ensure our athletes’ return, we have to tell them not to protest against some of the gravest human rights violation in the world today. Perhaps a more complete boycott – athletes, corporate sponsors, media coverage – would have been the better choice, both morally and for the safety of our athletes.
In his 1950 memoir, Peking Diary: A Year of Revolution, American sinologist Derk Bodde issued a warning to U.S. policymakers. He had just returned from Beijing, where the People’s Liberation Army had marched into the city and easily toppled the ruling Guomindang (Nationalist) government. The lack of popular opposition to the coup was hardly surprising. Constant blackouts, runaway inflation, and rampant corruption had made even ideological opponents of communism eager for the arrival of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP, or simply “the Party”). It would thus be a mistake, Bodde cautioned, to assume the Chinese people felt “enslaved” by an illegitimate regime. It was the CCP, not the Guomindang, that was responding to the needs of the people.
Seventy years later, the West still hasn’t learned Bodde’s lesson. Fortunately, Bruce J. Dickson’s The Party and the People offers a needed corrective to the American misconception that the CCP lacks popular support. Hardly some inflexible, iron-fisted regime that governs through fear and repression, the CCP is fairly responsive to the Chinese people and the changing times. As Dickson points out, the Party’s adaptability is precisely what has enabled it to maintain its grip on power for more than seven decades.
Just for Fun (“JFF”) is a sporadic series on China Law & Policy where we take a break from the more serious aspects of China’s development. JFF often features movie reviews, restaurant reviews, art reviews, or anything else that could be considered “fun.”
For many of my friends, I am their “China person.” Questions about Chinese politics, questions about Chinese culture, questions about good Chinese restaurants, they all come to me. But it is the latter – good Chinese restaurants – that I feel most obligated to answer correctly.
So when my friend Tanya randomly said to me “I want good Chinese noodles,” I went to work, researching and asking friends who work in Manhattan’s Chinatown, what was there number one pick for noodles. One name that kept coming up was Yiwanmen, or in Chinese characters, 一碗面, “A Bowl of Noodles.” Seemed like a must try.
Yiwanmen, on Mott street in Manhattan’s Chinatown, has the look of a faux hole-in-the wall spot, with wood paneling on the outside in an attempt at making it look old even though it opened in 2017. Inside, a small dining area with three tables and a few side seats, its clear that Yiwanmen is too clean to be a true hole-in-the wall. But don’t let that distract you from the noodles, which are delicious, authentic and not to be missed.
Yiwanmen makes the smart, strategic decision of not offering too many noodle dishes, a total of 11 with only six being noodle soups. And while Yiwanmen presents itself as a Chongqing noodle spot (it’s chef is from Chongqing), my eyes – and stomach – gravitated to its more northeastern noodle fare, namely the hongshao beef noodle soup. Hongshao, a type of slow braising technique using fermented bean paste common in northern and eastern China, is not usually associated with Chongqing, a city smackdab in the middle of China that embraces Sichuan spicy as its flavor of choice. Should I go with something outside of the chef’s native city? I decided to take the risk. I ordered the hongshao.
And thank goodness I did. The pieces of beef explode with the sweet, savory flavor of the hongshao, and because it was slow cooked, the beef melted in my mouth, making chewing largely optional. The broth, a touch greasy, was flavorful withfresh cilantro and the noodles were perfect – not too chewy and they did not stick together. The chef may be from Chongqing, but he obviously is a master of all of China’s noodles. Although one noodle not on the menu is the famous thick, pulled noodle (la mian, 拉面) of northwest China. But given the ubiquitousness of those noodles throughout Chinatown these days, it was nice to find a place that shined the spotlight on China’s other noodles. And at $9 for a big bowl of noodles, Yiwanmen is at the perfect price point.
My friend also ordered the jianbing, a crepe-like sandwich sold on the streets of Beijing. I have never been a fan of jianbing so I cannot speak to whether Yiwanmen makes a good one. But if it was me (and hopefully it will be me again very soon at Yiwanmen), I would stick with the noodles. The fact that the place is called “Bowl of Noodles” in Chinese and not “Plate of Crepe-like Sandwich” is telling.
One thing to do before you go – make sure you aren’t wearing your nice clothes, like my friend who wore her silk dress. Drops of noodle soup just gets on you even if you try to be careful. Other choice is to wear a bib. But no matter what, when you are in the mood for noodles, get yourself to Yiwanmen.
Yiwanmen 150 Mott Street (between Grand & Broome Street) New York, NY 10013
Last week, Sinica interviewed Ambassador Huang Ping, the New York consul general of China. Even though Huang often just speaks the party line, the interview is still very much worth a listen, especially the questions about the Chinese government’s internment of over one million Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang without any legal process. (see interview @ 50:54).
Ambassador Huang didn’t deny the existence of these camps, which he euphemistically referred to as “vocational and education training centers.” Instead, he argued, the camps were needed to “deradicalize” the Muslim population and to provide job training. But like the many Chinese government officials before him, Huang provided no proof that these one million Uyghurs demonstrated anything more than the practice of their religion, or why even if they did, the denial of due process is appropriate. And he failed to explain why some Uyghurs with flourishing careers prior to their internment were forced into the camps.
Huang also failed to provide any citation for his statement these camps are “legal” (see interview @ 53:43). But are they? After over four years, now is a good time to look again at why there is still no legal basis under Chinese law for the camps.
Much of what has been happening in Xinjiang is against the backdrop of the 2015 passage of the Counter-Terrorism Law, a vaguely drafted law that often references religion when discussing “extremism.” For violations of the Counter-Terrorism Law that rises to the level of a crime, these matters must be prosecuted through China’s criminal justice system, a.k.a, the court system (see Art. 79). However, there are some situations that do not rise to the level of a crime and instead, the Counter-Terrorism Law allows the police – without accessing the judicial process – to “administratively detain” the person for 10 to 15 days in detention. These minor situations are specifically described in the Law (see Arts. 80-82). Thus, the Counter-Terrorism Law gives only two choices: if you want to deprive someone of their liberty of more than 15 days, you must go through the courts and the criminal process; if you do not want to go through the courts, then the Law only permits up to 15 days of administrative detention and only for the specific behaviors listed in the Law.
Knowing these provisions of the Counter-Terrorism Law are important because under Chinese law, only national level laws can provide for the deprivation of a person’s liberty. Local regulations implementing the national level laws cannot hold a person beyond the time-frame permitted by national law.
But, as China law experts Jeremy Daum and Don Clarke noted back in 2018 (here and here) when it was first coming to light that Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims were being detained for months to years without any trial or other criminal process, only the Xinjiang local regulations mentioned establishment of “education centers” and suggest that a person’s stay there is lengthy (e.g., individuals will eventually be “returned to society” after their time at the education center). “The [local] regulations provide a legal basis but not a sufficient legal basis,” Daum told me recently when I asked him about the legal basis of the camps. “It doesn’t solve the problem of needing that national level law.” So until there is a change in the Counter-Terrorism Law, these camps are still illegal under Chinese law.
But Daum noted a new argument from the Chinese government: that the camps offer a more lenient diversion from the criminal justice system. This argument first emerged in a series of government white papers from 2019 (and which Huang references in his Sinica interview). And while the white papers are not law, they do offer important policy justifications. “What those white papers are saying is that everybody goes to the camps,” Daum stated. “If we want them to go to the camps, they go to the camps, whether they have been convicted, whether they have been suspected, or whether they could be convicted and were diverted.”
It is this diversion argument – that the camps are a lenient alternative to the criminal justice system – that is becoming more prominent Daum noted. And while Chinese officials may present this as a voluntary choice – that the person choses to go to the camps over running the risk of a harsher prison sentence through the criminal justice system – it isn’t much of a choice when the alternative is a system with a 99.9% conviction rate. Daum also pointed out, this “choice” – camp over prison – is given even to those who committed one of the listed administrative detention offense, which if the Counter-Terrorism Law was followed, would only mean the maximum of 15-day detention. But instead, by offering “diversion,” these individuals end up in a camp with a much longer sentence.
And make no mistake, these camps are not places where people can come and go freely. The leaked “Xinjiang Papers” and “China Cables” make this clear. “The one thing [the papers] really did show was that these schools were managed like a prison. . . .It’s about containing people who don’t want to be contained,” Daum told me.
Ambassador Huang was wrong. These camps are not legal under Chinese law; they weren’t back in 2017 and they still are not today. And even the policy arguments that Chinese officials try to peddle ring hallow. But the one thing to note is that international pressure is doing something; the Chinese government feels that it has to respond to these allegations, even if their response is pathetic. This doesn’t provide solace to the millions of Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims whose rights, freedom and dignity are constantly violated by the Chinese government, but it shows that the rest of the world must continue its pressure and hold the Chinese government accountable not just to international law but also to its own.
Is there a genocide in China’s Xinjiang province? Are western governments right to declare such an event? Or is this merely a political game? For the past six months, since the United States first declared the Chinese government engaged in a genocide and crimes against humanity against the Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang, it is the questions of whether it is right to call this a genocide, not questions of what can be done to stop the atrocities, that have filled editorial pages of the Western press. Crimes against humanity – an equally serious charge and the charge that resulted in death sentences for the defendants at Nuremburg – raises no one’s interest.1 Why?
It was with these questions on my mind that I began reading Philippe Sands’ East West Street, a book that tells the story of the two men who created the legal doctrines of “crimes against humanity” and “genocide” after World War II and change the course of international law: Hersch Lauterpacht and Rafael Lemkin. Lauterpacht and Lemkin, born only three years apart at the turn of the 20th century, led similar lives. Both were Jewish; both born in a small town in what became Poland after World War I; both had their legal minds shaped at Lemberg University; both were pretty much their families’ sole survivors after the Holocaust.
And both saw the same problem with the post-World War I world order in which they came of age: an international legal system that promoted state sovereignty above all else. Each country was free to treat the people within its borders as it saw fit and, because of state sovereignty, other countries could do nothing to stop it. For Lauterpacht, the Polish and Ukrainian pogroms imposed on the Jews post-World War I, were the type of violations that demanded humanitarian intervention. Lemkin, in watching the trial of an Armenian for the murder of an Ottoman official who killed his family, could not comprehend how Ottoman Empire officials were left unpunished for the Armenian genocide. The Nazis rise – and its abuses and ultimate destruction of the Jewish population – made it all the more obvious to both that to protect fellow human beings, the world order had to change.
But Lauterpacht and Lemkin would offer different solutions. Lemkin came up with the crime of genocide, the intentional destruction – in whole or in part – of a group of people. For Lemkin, certain people were targeted – be it the Armenians of the Ottoman Empire or the Jews of Europe – because of their membership in a particular group. The law should not ignore that fact and should punish it. For Lauterpacht, it was group dynamics that lead to atrocities – this “us against them” tribalism, be it by the victim or by the perpetrators, is what needed to end. Thus, Lauterpacht created crimes against humanity – the systematic destruction of individuals in large numbers; membership in a group and the perpetrator’s intent were irrelevant. In the short-term, Lauterpacht’s theory won the day – no defendant at Nuremberg was convicted of genocide but many were convicted of crimes against humanity. But it is Lemkin’s theory of genocide that has come to be seen as “the crime of all crimes,” and that has somehow led to crimes against humanity taking a backseat in the global media. We can see this in how the debate about Xinjiang has played out: an almost laser-like focus on genocide at the expense of the charge of crimes against humanity.
While I picked up East West Street to help me understand the current debates about genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang, it was Sands’ description of the post-World War I world order that was surprisingly applicable to present-day China. Since at least 2019, the Chinese government has responded to any foreign criticism of its actions in Xinjiang by claiming state sovereignty: other countries have no right to interfere in China’s internal affairs. In June, in response to a 40-country statement critical of China’s actions in Xinjiang, the Chinese delegation to the United Nations organized a 65-country response that stressed state sovereignty and opposed the “us[e of] human rights as an excuse to interfere in China’s domestic affairs.”
As East West Street makes clear, this type of ideology harkens back to the post-World War I world. It was that world order that allowed the Nazis to pass anti-Semitic laws like the Nuremburg Race Law without any repercussions. It was this idea of state sovereignty that gave the Nazis the belief that their murder of six million Jews was within their rights. And while the Chinese government might pretend that human rights, and its supplanting of state sovereignty, is a Western idea, China has signed and ratified a large number of human rights treaties, including the 1948 Genocide Convention, all of which places human rights above state sovereignty. In fact the whole idea of the United Nations, including its Human Rights Council, is about relinquishing some of that sovereignty when it comes to individuals’ rights.
Unfortunately China is not alone. The fact that it was able to garner 65 countries’ support last week – even if some of that support is bought – reflects a real backsliding in the world. On some level, that backsliding is evident even in the West where countries like the United States (at least under the Trump Administration) and the United Kingdom reject international institutions and beat the drums of nationalism.
East West Street was published in 2016, before the crisis in Xinjiang and before the rise of rampant nationalism in the U.S., the U.K. and other parts of Europe. But reading it now is an important reminder on what we stem to lose and how dark our world can be if we allow state sovereignty to once again dominate human rights. It is imperative that those who fight for human rights also fight against the Chinese government’s demand for the dangerous return of state sovereignty as the governing ideology.
East West Street is also a must read for anyone who wants to witness the mastery of the art of creative non-fiction. Sands describes the legal doctrines that reshaped international law by telling the stories of four men – Lauterpacht, Lemkin, Hans Frank, the Nazi who ordered the murder of all the Jews of Lemberg, and Sands’ grandfather, Leon Buchholz, another Jewish native of Lemberg and the only one of his family to survive the Holocaust. Sands’ painstaking research enabled him to make these four men more than just historical figures, but real people with hopes, dreams and fears: Lauterpacht’s slow realization of what happened to his family as he sat in a Nuremberg courtroom listening to how the Nazis murdered six million Jews; Lemberg’s single-mindedness to get the world to use his new word, genocide; Franks’ pathetic desperation to save his own skin on the eve of a verdict; and Buchholz’ silence to his grandson about all that he lost between 1938 and 1945. Sands makes it humanly clear through the lives of Lauterpacht, Lemkin and his grandfather what the world stands to lose if it allows state sovereignty to ever again supplant human rights.
Interested in purchasing the book? Considering supporting your local, independent bookstore. Find the nearest one here.
1. One exception is Human Rights Watch and Stanford Mills Legal Clinic’s April 2021 report which declared that the Chinese government’s actions in Xinjiang as crimes against humanity. Further, since publishing this review, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide also declared crimes against humanity occurring in Xinjiang and possible genocide in its November 2021 report.↩
For 30 years, the night of June 3 has been special in Hong Kong. On that night thousands – and at times hundreds of thousands – of Hong Kongers descend on Victoria Park to remember the peaceful protesters killed by the Chinese government in the early morning hours of June 4, 1989. Since 1997, when Hong Kong “returned” to China as a semiautonomous, democratic city, it has been the only place within the borders of the People’s Republic of China where the 1989 Tiananmen massacre could be publicly commemorated.
But with Beijing’s increasingly harsh, autocratic, and illegal rule in Hong Kong, the act of remembering the Tiananmen massacre has now become a crime. Last year’s vigil was banned because of COVID. Thousands though defied the ban, meeting in Victoria Park for the silent, candle-lit protest, all sitting more than six feet apart, all wearing masks. But instead of balancing the attendees’ rights to freedom of speech and assembly against the government’s complete ban, 25 were indicted, and five of the most prominent protestors, including Joshua Wong, Tiffany Yuen, Lester Shum and Jannelle Leung, recently received prison terms ranging from four to ten months for violating the ban.
And if those prison sentences – issued only a few weeks ago – were not enough of to scare off participation in this year’s commemoration, the Hong Kong police have again banned the Tiananmen vigil, but this time noting that the prison sentence for violating the ban could be up to five years and, for those who just advertise the vigil, they could face up to one year in jail. Again, the Hong Kong government uses COVID as the reason to infringe upon speech and assembly, even though Hong Kong’s coronavirus cases are at an all-time low and the event is outdoors.
While the Chinese government stamps out any memory of Tiananmen within its borders, it is the government’s own actions in Hong Kong over the last year that shows that it will never forget Tiananmen. As Louisa Lim, author of The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited, pointed out at a recent event to commemorate the Tiananmen massacre, what the Chinese government is doing in Hong Kong to squelch dissent is a page from its Tiananmen play book. Blaming “foreign forces” for the 2019 Hong Kong protests, requiring more political and ideological indoctrination in Hong Kong schools, referring to Hong Kong’s peaceful protests as “riots,” these were all tactics used by the Chinese government after Tiananmen to vilify the peaceful student protests and to justify its murderous crackdown. 32 years later and the Chinese government is doing the same thing.
This Friday the world will again mark another anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre. But it’s not enough that the rest of the world “remember.” Rather, it must publicly draw the connections between what happened to the protestors after Tiananmen and what is happening in Hong Kong today. To do anything less would be a disservice to the many who lost their lives on June 4, 1989, would ignore the bravery of the many Hong Kong protestors who now sit behind bars, and would enable the Chinese government to again succeed in silencing its people’s demand greater freedom.
One of the few happy memories Ann would share from her childhood was the time she spent in a Dutch orphanage. She talked about it often—the endless fields of red and yellow tulips that surrounded the place; the Dutch princess who sometimes stopped by to visit; the day trips to Amsterdam to visit the Rijksmuseum. Every time Ann reminisced about her time there, her pale blue eyes would light up her thin, wrinkled face and a small smile would sneak across her lips. Tulips were her favorite flower.
Ann Buchsbaum (nee Fried) was already eighty-nine years old when I first met her in 2012, and her body was beginning to betray her. Only a few years earlier, Ann was going to parties in Manhattan, volunteering at her beloved museums, and reading voraciously. Now, hobbled with a walker, her tiny, hundred-pound frame slightly hunched, Ann’s outings were limited to a three-block radius around our Forest Hills apartment building. Her social circle had been whittled down to her home-health aides and a few hallway neighbors. But Ann still had her stories and an enthusiasm for life. I could never tell if that enthusiasm was genuine or just a habit—developed as a Jew who had survived Hitler’s Europe.
While reading Nicholas Bartlett’s new book, Recovering Histories: Life and Labor after Heroin in Reform-Era China, I was reminded of a phrase I read in an interview the New York Times Book Review did with former president Barak Obama: radical empathy. For Obama, reading other people’s stories is key to realizing that no matter what our race, politics or background, we are more alike than we are different, sharing similar hopes and dreams and sharing in life’s sufferings, losses and disappointments. Recovering Histories, by following 10 middle-age Chinese people with heroin-use history, provides that radical empathy. The problems that brought them to drugs, the struggles in reclaiming their lives, the families broken, the hope that many of them hold on to, these experiences will not be novel for most American readers. For many of us, we have seen our friends and family members face the same challenges here in the U.S. And, as Bartlett shows, the Chinese government’s response is very much like our own governments’: too few resources and too little care.
Bartlett tells the story of Gejiu, a Chinese city in southern Yunnan province famous for its tin mining and, up until the 1980s, known as a model Maoist city. With a prosperous, state-run tin mining industry, every family had the benefit of the iron rice bowl: a job for every resident and lifetime benefits for their families. Their children were set to lead the same life, inheriting their parents’ positions. But in 1979, Deng Xiaoping announced a new policy of “reform and opening”: opening the socialist economy to private enterprise. Not long after, private industry came to Gejiu and regulations on tin mining were lifted. Fast money could be made. All of Bartlett’s 10 characters were coming of age when reform and opening was announced, and each rejected their parents’ job, seeking to make quick money in the private tin mining industry or in other ventures that entertained the wealthy new capitalists. Soon though Gejiu had another distinction, the heroin capital of China, and each of Bartlett’s characters succumbed to the drug. Even those succeeding in the new economy of the late 1980s and early 1990s saw it all slip away.
Fast forward 20 years, we now see them in various stages of recovery, trying to get their lives back on track. As Bartlett notes in the introduction to Recovering Histories, his subjects all distinguish between “quitting drugs” and “returning to society”; many have been able to achieve the former, but the latter remains elusive. Largely unemployed and dependent on disappointed parents, Bartlett’s characters have too much time to think, to reflect on their past mistakes and their difficult futures. It is a testament to Bartlett’s narrative writing skills that he lets his characters speak in their own words. In a particularly poignant scene, Bartlett recounts the evening he spent at Zhijun’s home. At 44 years old, Zhijun is still living with his parents. While his mother cooks dinner, Zhijun pulls out an Atari game console, still in its original box. Zhijun had purchased it back in the 1980s when his motorcycle business was profitable. But with instructions in English, Zhijun was never able to hook it up to his TV, and, 20 years later, asks Bartlett for help. But the 1980s game console is too outdated to fit the flat screen TV; its moment had passed, much like Zhijun and many of the characters in Recovering Histories.
It isn’t initially clear why none of Bartlett’s characters are able to ‘return to society’ but slowly, through his characters’ stories, Bartlett reveals the prejudice and discrimination that people with a history of drug use face in China. It’s heartbreaking when Su, a rather optimistic sort and desperate to return to society, recounts how, on her first day at a new job, she was immediately let go, likely because her employer had found out about her previous history with drugs. This discrimination has largely been institutionalized, extending to the Chinese government. Although the Chinese government abolished some forms of extrajudicial detention, such as reeducation through labor (for political dissidents) and custody and education (for sex workers), such detention still exists for individuals who test positive for drugs, requiring, without a trial or any judicial intervention, work in a labor camp for up to a year. Ironically, once out, the government fails to provide any job opportunities for these individuals even though they are desperate to work. Bartlett attributes this desire to work as part of their socialist upbringing. But in many societies, including in the United States, work gives life meaning or at least a distraction from other issues, and without it, makes the return to drug use more likely.
Recovering Histories offers an important, counternarrative to the traditional viewpoint that reform and opening was a miracle that lifted an estimated 800 million out of poverty and set China on the road to becoming the world’s second largest economy. Instead it shows the human toll of radically transforming a society in the matter of a decade and the people the government chooses to leave behind. Recovering Histories is an essential read not just because it puts a human face on China’s reform and opening policy but, in its radical empathy, puts a human face on people with a history of drug use globally. And while the book is a critique of China’s failed response, the reader can’t help but wonder: is any country getting this right? Is any country ensuring that the potential of their Sus and Zhijuns is not wasted? Recovering Histories, with its focus on China, is not tasked with figuring out the rest of the world. That is left for us.