When the act of remembering becomes a crime: Tiananmen 32 years later

Pre-Covid Tiananmen candlelight vigil in Hong Kong’s Victoria Park (Photo: Dickson Lee)

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. 

From left L Nathan Law, Joshua Wong, Tiffany Yuen and Eddie Chu, last year at the banned Tiananmen vigil. (Photo by Tang Yan/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

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. 

Never forget. The Tiananmen Protests, May 1989.

Never Again: Lessons from the Holocaust apply to China’s Uyghurs

Originally published in Commonweal Magazine

Ann Buchsbaum (at that time Ann Fried), at the Dutch orphanage. 15 years old
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Collection, Gift of Anne Fried Buchsbaum

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. 

CONTINUE READING ON COMMONWEAL’S WEBSITE BY CLICKING HERE.

Book Review – Recovering Histories: Life and Labor After Heroin in Reform-Era China

By , April 6, 2021

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.

Gejiu, in China’s Yunnan province, today.

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.

Rating: ★★★★☆

Author Nicholas Bartlett

Recovering Histories: Life and Labor after Heroin in Reform-Era China, by Nicholas Bartlett (UC Press, 2020), 222 pages (with 100 of those pages being bibliography, so only 120 pages of real reading).

Interested in purchasing the book? Considering supporting your local, independent bookstore. Find the nearest one here.

GW Law Symposium on The Crisis in Xinjiang

By , March 24, 2021

On Thursday, March 25 and Friday, March 26, the George Washington Law School’s Uyghur Human Rights Initiative (UHRI) is hosting a two-day symposium on the atrocities in Xinjiang and what we can do about it. It kicks off at 4 PM on Thursday, March 25 with a keynote address from Jewher Ilham, a Uyghur activist in the United States whose dad was given a life sentence in Xinjiang.

I will be speaking at the panel on international law which will also feature Preston Lim, Jewher Ilham and Don Clarke. To RSVP to that panel or any other panels, please email uhri@law.gwu.edu

Book Review – Green Island: A Novel

By , February 27, 2021

Tomorrow marks the 74th anniversary of the 228 (two-two-eight) Incident.  Never heard of it?  I hadn’t either until a couple of years ago. But the 228 Incident marks the start of a violent, dark period of Taiwan history: the White Terror.  Starting on February 28, 1947 and for the next 40 years, Taiwan’s ruling Nationalists Party (“KMT” or “Guo Min Dang”) instituted martial law, subjecting any dissenters – or those who the government believed to be dissenters – to arbitrary imprisonment, torture, and death. At times, the White Terror even made its way to U.S. shores, such as assassinations sponsored by the KMT

The world knows little of the White Terror because of the KMT’s effective suppression of the topic even after martial law was lifted in 1987. And also because of Taiwan’s friendship with the U.S., which didn’t ask the questions it should have even when U.S residents and citizens were subject to the White Terror, let alone ordinary Taiwanese.  Then, came the mid-1990s, when Chinese studies in the U.S. began to focus on the mainland, with Taiwanese history an afterthought, if even that. 

Now though Taiwan is on the rise.  With its successful containment of COVID-19 and its strong embrace of democracy, the world is watching Taiwan.  And another example that Taiwan can offer to the world is how a country deals with the mass violence and murders of its own people. In 2018, the Taiwanese government instituted the Transnational Justice Commission to investigate and address the atrocities committed during the White Terror.

Artist rendition of the 228 Crackdown

To even contemplate if the Transnational Justice Commission will be successful, knowledge of the violence and pervasiveness of Taiwan’s White Terror is a must. Shawana Yang Ryan’s Green Island, a historical novel that tells the story of a Taiwanese family trying to survive the White Terror, provides that understanding.

Green Island starts on the eve of the 228 Incident, with the birth of its narrator who remains nameless throughout the entire novel. Her father, a doctor, delivers her, but the next day he is violently hauled off by the police, all because of a brief moment when he spoke, in public, about his desire for a freer Taiwan. He returns to the family 10 years later, unrecognizable after a decade of on Green Island, the island where the KMT set up its diabolical prisons for political dissidents.  Ryan briefly details the father’s torture, covering only the time period soon after his detention; Ryan does not go into the gory details of his decade-long prison sentences.  But what Ryan shares is enough to know that the father will emerge – if he emerges at all – a very broken man. And by telling the story through the daughter, we see the intergenerational damage of the White Terror: a distant, destroyed father, who will never be able to hold a job again nor the respect of his family; the constant surveillance by the authorities; the crushing of civil society; family and friends forced to turn on each other to save another or sometimes just themselves; the retribution experienced by family members in Taiwan when an emigrated child exercises her freedom of speech in America.

Green Island is not an uplifting novel, nor can it be given the truth it seeks to expose about the KMT’s martial law.  Even the narrator is a complex character, where at points you are rooting for her but then at others are appalled by her choices. Although on some level, you wonder – would I have made the same choice if put in such a horrific situation, and are thankful that your government never has asked you to. With Ryan’s artful prose and development of characters over a 60-year time period, Green Island is a necessary read to learn about the White Terror and to understand the trauma that Taiwan still grapples with even as it establishes itself as a vibrant democracy. 

Rating: ★★★★☆

Author Shawna Yang Ryan

Green Island: A Novel, by Shawna Yang Ryan (Penguin Random House, 2018), 400 pages.

Interested in purchasing the book? Considering supporting you local, independent bookstore. Find the nearest one here.

The Economist’s Recent Piece about Genocide in Xinjiang is Wrong

By , February 15, 2021
Protest outside of China

It was disappointing to read The Economist‘s most recent piece about the atrocities in China’s Xinjiang province – “‘Genocide’ is the wrong word for the horrors of Xinjiang” given the hard stance it has taken in the past against the Chinese government’s violence, oppression and mass internment of Uighurs and other Turkic Muslims. But in its most recent article, by ignoring the sexual violence against Uighur and Kazakh women, The Economist demonstrates its lack of understanding of the crime of genocide under international law and perpetuates a misogynistic view of the crime.  

Although sexual violence has been a key element of most genocides – from Armenia in 1915 to the Rohingya today[1] – the term rape does not appear in either the Genocide Convention or the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.  But the systematic rape of women has repeatedly been found to constitute the physical element of genocide.  In 1998, the U.N. Tribunal for Rwanda found former Hutu mayor Jean-Paul Akayesu guilty of genocide for the systemic rape of Tutsi women in his community.[2] Specifically, the Tribunal held that systematic rape constituted the genocidal act of “causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group.”[3] More recently, the U.N.’s Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria concluded that the Islamic State of Iraq’s (“ISIS”) systematic rape of Yazidi women and girls constituted the physical element of genocide: “Rape can be a measure to prevent births [another defined genocide act under the Convention] ‘when the person raped subsequently refuses to procreate, in the same way that members of a group can be led, through threats or trauma, not to procreate.’”[4]

Uighur Protest in front of the Chinese consulate in Istanbul on October 1, 2019 (Photo by Yasin AKGUL / AFP)

But in arguing that genocide is the wrong word to describe what is happening in Xinjiang, The Economist ignores clear legal doctrine.  Allegations of rape in Xinjiang’s concentration camps have been circulating since at least 2019.  Earlier this month, the BBC reported on the systematic use of rape and sexual torture against Uighur women in the concertation camps, with different women, from different camps, describing the same horrific acts perpetrated by Chinese state actors. The eerie similarity in these women’s stories is what gives them credibility, especially as the Chinese government’s sole retort is to state that these sources are “untrustworthy.” The Chinese government has also failed to give the U.N. High Commissioner on Human Rights access to Xinjiang for an independent assessment of what is happening there.  If The Economist failed to mention these women’s stories because it doesn’t think these stories “prove” genocide, “we should long ago have shifted the burden of proof away from the refugees and to the skeptics, who should be required to offer persuasive reasons for disputing eyewitness claims.”[5]

In addition to ignoring the well-developed doctrine that mass rapes can constitute the physical element of genocide, The Economist implies that the only action that could be “intended to prevent births” is “the systematic sterilisation of all women.” As show above, the United Nations – and the world – moved away from such a narrow definition years ago. The Economist does a disservice to its readers – and female victims of genocide – by offering such an inaccurate assessment. 

Uighur woman walking past Chinese government troops.

Ultimately though, it appears that The Economist wanted to make the argument that we shouldn’t get hung up on defining what is happening in Xinjiang as a genocide or as crimes against humanity; it’s all just a parade of horrors that need to end.  China Law & Policy has made this argument too (see here) since for both genocide and crimes against humanity, U.N. member states have the same “responsibility to protect.” But The Economist went too big in definitively stating that what is happening in Xinjiang is not genocide. The Economist does not know that and offers no proof or legal analysis; instead it merely states that genocide “exaggerates” the Chinese government’s crimes in Xinjiang.  But it doesn’t if you focus on the violence perpetrated against Uighur women.  The Economist – and the world at large – would be wise to heed the advice of Samantha Power in her authoritative book on the world’s missteps in stopping genocide in the past: “A bias toward belief would do less harm than a bias toward disbelief.”[6]


[1] Global Justice Center, Beyond Killing: Gender, Genocide & Obligations Under International Law, pp. 18-19 (Dec. 6, 2018), available at https://globaljusticecenter.net/files/Gender-and-Genocide-Whitepaper-FINAL.pdf.

[2] Samantha Power, “A Problem from Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide, pp. 485-86 (Harper Perennial 2002).

[3] Id.

[4] U.N. Human Rights Council, “They came to destroy”: ISIS Crimes Against the Yazidis, ¶ 145 (June 15, 2016), available at https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/HRBodies/HRCouncil/CoISyria/A_HRC_32_CRP.2_en.pdf.

[5] Power, supra note 2, at p. 506.

[6] Id.

恭喜发财!Happy Year of the Ox!

By , February 9, 2021

The world needs an ox. Boy does it need an ox. Grounded, loyal, gentle and trustworthy, the ox fixes and stabilizes, heals and unifies. And on Friday, the ox will finally arrive as our friends in East Asia celebrate the lunar new year and mark the start to new beginnings.

The ox is known to work hard and plan and because of that some see this ox year as one that will take the negative challenges of last year – a rat year that brought a world-wide pandemic – and transform them into positive outcomes.  But the ox year can’t do it alone.  We have to put on our ox hats and work at it too.  There does seem to be light at the end of this COVID tunnel, but like an ox, we must stay focused and persistent, ensuring that we reach our goal of ending this pandemic. 

Although many are positive about the upcoming year of the ox, seeing its reliable nature as something that will get us through the next few months, there are some doubts.  In particular, feng shui master Raymond Lo warns that it could be a “bleak” year. That is because this year’s ox isn’t just any old ox but a metal ox.  In Chinese astrology, a new year doesn’t just usher in a new animal, it also brings forth a new element.  In addition to being associated with an animal, each year is also associated with one of the five astrologic elements (metal, wood, water, fire and earth).  For 2021, that element is metal.  But at the same time, each zodiac animal is independently associated with one of the five elements.  And a ox’s intrinsic element is earth.  According to Lo, mixing an earth ox with a metal year “is a symbol of a harsh and cold atmosphere that incites disharmony, conflict, assassination, and terrorism.”  But Lo has never been a “glass half full” kind of feng shui master and if you ask me, Lo seems to be a little too focused on 1901, another metal ox year that saw the assassination of U.S. President William McKinley, the attempted assassination of German Emperor Wilhelm II, and an attempted coup in Portugal.  Let’s hope these are all things of the past.

What does year of the metal ox mean for you?  That depends on how your zodiac sign interacts with the ox.  To find out your wealth, career, love and health prospects for 2021, click here (Don’t know your Chinese zodiac sign? Find out here).

But most importantly, the lunar new year is a time to cherish your loved ones.  That’s hard to do in person right now, but maybe this weekend you, your friends and family can each order in some dumplings (traditional new year food in northern China), hop on the Zoom, and reminisce about the good times you have had together and plan for more in the future!  With that, I wish everyone a happy and healthy new year and 恭喜发财! (gong-see-fah-tsai – “may you be happy & prosperous!”)

Since many will be missing outdoor lion dances this year, here is a great performance from Hong Kong, 2019.

Book Review – Peking Diary: A Year of Revolution

By , January 26, 2021

Reading Derk Bodde’s memoir, Peking Diary: A Year of Revolution, is like watching season four of The Crown. Sure we know what is going to happen to Prince Charles and Princess Diana, but it’s watching the details develop that is fascinating.  The same with Peking Diary, Bodde’s account of his year in Beijing in 1948, when China was in the midst of a civil war.  We know that the Chinese Communists will eventually defeat the Nationalist government, but seeing precisely how that happens, and the changes it brings to everyday life in Beijing, is fascinating.  Anyone who wants to understand better how the Communists were able to defeat the U.S.-backed Nationalists, Peking Diary is a must read. 

Peking Diary opens with Bodde, fluent in Mandarin and a professor of Chinese studies, returning to Beijing in August 1948 as a Fulbright fellow.  It’s been eleven years since he was last in China and Beijing is a shell of its former self.  Bodde sees a city, weighed down both economically and psychologically by a corrupt Nationalist ruling party that largely ignores the Chinese people’s hardships.  Through conversations with various Chinese people – both the elite and the average individual – Bodde conveys the Chinese people’s frustrations.  Much of the first half of Peking Diary is a recounting of the exploding inflation under the Nationalists, a fact that makes living in Beijing, especially for the Chinese, extremely difficult.  Bodde himself becomes obsessed with it as he sees his Fulbright stipend able to buy less and less each day.  But instead of trying to get the inflation under control, the Nationalists try to pass it off as fake news.  Bodde never expresses support for the Communists but, as living conditions worsen and the Nationalists continue flounder in response, a sense of eagerness for the Communist invasion of Beijing permeates his entries.  For the Chinese people Bodde talks to, they seem to feel the same. 

On January 23, 1949, after two weeks of air raids and the sounds of constant gunfire just outside Beijing’s city walls, the Communist finally take Beijing.  Within a few diary entries of that conquest, the city seems to come back alive.  Most people are excited about the Communists, or at the very least that Nationalist rule is over.  It is Bodde’s description of this ground level reaction to the Communists that makes Peking Diary a compelling read.  So few histories from that time cover what people on the ground were thinking and how they were reacting to the fall of the Nationalists.

People’s Liberation Army enters Beijing, Jan. 1949

But what comes as a shock is how quickly the Communists were able to get control of the Beijing and effectively run the day-to-day affairs of the city.  Blackouts quickly ceased, running water returned, homeless students were sent back to their schools, and, to limit inflation, the Communists adopted plans that the Nationalists ignored. 

Peking Diary generally portrays the Chinese Communist Party in a positive light, but there are moments when Bodde is rather prescient about the hidden dangers of the Party.  Almost immediately the Party shuts down the foreign press and, through control of the Chinese press, Bodde sees how the Party seeks to limit the Chinese people’s independent knowledge of affairs outside the city’s borders.  The Communists fondness for thought control also unnerves Bodde.  And Bodde also sees the beginning of a police state, with anonymous “investigation boxes” set up in Tianjin so anyone can secretly denounce another.

But there are also things that Bodde gets terribly wrong.  In particular, his assessment of the Communists’ land reform policy. Throughout the book, Bodde describes the new policy as relatively benign, nothing more than the reallocation of land from the rich and well-off medium farmers to everyone else in the village.  But outside the walls of Beijing, the mass murder of landlords in the countryside is occurring as part of the land reform policy.  Between 1949 and 1953, the Chinese government estimates that anywhere between 830,000 (as estimated by Zhou Enlai) and 2 to 5 million landlords (as estimated by Mao Zedong) were killed.  Under Communist control, Bodde is not permitted to leave Beijing to see for himself the effects of what he thinks is a harmless land reform policy. 

But Peking Diary is a must read not just because it is one of the few books from that time period that captures the ground-level impact of Communist rule, but also because some of Bodde’s warnings to U.S. policymakers still resonate.  In the Epilogue, Bodde cautions policymakers from seeing China’s Communist revolution as a mere extension of Soviet influence or that somehow the Chinese people have been “enslaved” by an illegitimate Communist party.  Bodde makes clear that the reality on the ground is much different – with Chinese people, even critiques of communism, welcoming the Chinese Communists. 

Unfortunately, this idea – that the Party is illegitimate – has re-emerged in today’s Washington.  In July 2020, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo distinguished the Chinese people and its government: “We must also engage and empower the Chinese people – a dynamic, freedom-loving people who are completely distinct from the Chinese Communist Party.”  But the Chinese people’s relationship with the Communist Party is not that simple.  It is much more nuanced, just like any citizenries’ relationship with its government.  This isn’t to say that there isn’t a large number of dissatisfied Chinese citizens, demanding greater reform, freedom and human rights. And there are some who also seek the downfall of the Communist Party.  But there are many who are at the very least agnostic toward the current Chinese government if not supportive of it.  To fail to recognize these distinctions will only lead to an uninformed China policy, much like it did in 1949. It’s disappointing that 70 years on, the lessons of Peking Diary still need to be learned.   

Rating: ★★★★☆

A young Derk Bodde, around 1943

Peking Diary: A Year of Revolution (Henry Schuman, Inc. 1950), 274 pages.

Peking Diary is currently out of print but appears to be available for free in it entirety at Internet Archive here. Used physical copies are available on Amazon.

Genocide Declared, Now What?

By , January 19, 2021

In one of his last acts as Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo stated that the Chinese government’s extrajudicial internment of 1.8 million Uyghurs, the torture and forced labor of Uyghur detainees, and the forced sterilizations and abortions of Uyghur women, amounts to crimes against humanity and genocide.  Hours later, in his confirmation hearings, President-elect Biden’s secretary of state nominee Antony Blinken agreed with Pompeo’s designation of genocide.  Immediately, the U.S. press heralded the bi-partisan nature of this genocide declaration.

But genocide is not just about the acts committed; it also requires government intent to physically or biologically destroy the group.  See Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (“In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”) (emphasis added).  By declaring genocide, the U.S. government could easily get bogged down in this required element, an element that even Pompeo left out of his declaration. Nowhere in his statement does Pompeo assert that the Chinese government had an intent to physically destroy the Uyghur people. 

Mike Pompeo

That is why Pompeo’s declaration that the Chinese government’s actions in Xinjiang province amounts to crimes against humanity is more actionable, and has been for the past couple of years. Like genocide, crimes against humanity include acts that attack the very soul of a people and its culture: murder, extermination, torture, arbitrary detention, forcible transfer of a population, rape, sexual violence, forced sterilizations, apartheid. But unlike genocide, these crimes do not require an intent to biologically destroy.  Instead, acts that constitute crimes against humanity merely need to be part of a widespread or systemic attack directed at a group, with the perpetrator’s knowledge that his or her acts are part of this larger attack.  In looking at Pompeo’s declaration of genocide he states that “we are witnessing the systematic attempt to destroy Uyghurs.” In those words, he seems to mistake the element of crimes against humanity for genocide.

This isn’t to say that the crime of genocide is not occurring in Xinjiang nor that such a declaration is inconsequential. It certainly carries meaning and should. But the U.S. must ensures that it acts on these declarations and not just get caught up in a war of words with China and its allies, something that could more easily happen by solely focusing on genocide.  In fact, the United Nations, through a 2005 Resolution signed by all 193 member states, requires countries to respond similarly to both genocide and crimes against humanity. For both, states have a duty to “protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity” and must “use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means.” See ¶¶ 138-39.

Antony Blinken at his Senate Confirmation Hearing, Jan. 19, 2021

To fulfill this obligation to protect, the U.S. must step up its efforts.  Pompeo’s statement, while full of important policy pronouncements, provided no new courses of action. Similarly, Blinken’s suggestions on how to respond – ensure that we don’t import cotton picked by forced labor and guarantee that we don’t sell surveillance technologies to China – didn’t break new ground.  Instead, the U.S. should be advocating a liberal asylum/refugee policy for Uyghurs. 

More obvious, the U.S. government needs to start discussing boycotting the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing and encourage allies to do the same.  How can the U.S. send its athletes to compete in games hosted by a country engaging in crimes against humanity and genocide?  To do so would render Pompeo and Blinken’s statements today hollow words and would embolden the Chinese government – and all governments – to continue genocidal policies.  The last time we ignored the genocidal intent of a host country – Berlin, 1936 – six million Jews were murdered by the governing party.  The 2022 Winter Olympics are a little more than a year away.  In fairness to our athletes, these discussions must begin now.  Also, making these discussions public now, might save some lives in Xinjiang. 

But the U.S. cannot go this alone, either boycotting the 2022 Olympic boycott or fulfilling its responsibility to protect. Only a multilateral response can defeat crimes against humanity; no individual country has ever been able to end a genocide. The U.S. must re-engage international institutions including re-joining the U.N. Human Rights Council, a body where has been dominated by China since the U.S.’ 2018 withdrawal from the Council.

Genocide is a bold word. Those words need to be followed up with bold action.  Failure to do so only weakens those post-World War II international institutions and treaties the Biden Administration has promised to uphold.  It also means that Uyghurs will continue to suffer while all we did was play word games.

Book Review – Eat the Buddha: Life and Death in A Tibetan Town

By , December 21, 2020

Since 2017, the Chinese government has interred over a million Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang, destroyed Uighur religious sites and limited – at times forcibly – the number of children a Uighur woman can have, all in what appears to be an effort to stamp out the Uighur culture.  This summer, in Inner Mongolia, the government instituted policies that restrict the use of Mongolian in local schools, an effort Mongolian parents maintain is designed to eliminate their language and culture.  For many outside of China, these policies are a shocking new development, reflective of the hardline approach of current President Xi Jinping.  But, as Barbara Demick shows in her harrowing new book, Eat the Buddha: Life and Death in a Tibetan Town, for Tibetans, cultural destruction has been a part of their lives for the last 70 years. 

Eat the Buddha tells the story of this destruction by focusing on Ngaba, a town on the Tibetan plateau that has earned the morbid distinction as “the undisputed world capital of self-immolations.”  Ngaba is not located in the Tibetan Special Autonomous Region (“SAR”), the area on a Chinese map that most non-Chinese think of as “Tibet.” Rather, Ngaba is located in the northwest region of China’s Sichuan province, and is an important reminder of just how far the Kingdom of Tibet once extended and how dispersed the Tibetan population is today. In fact, as Demick notes in her introduction, the vast majority of Tibetans in China live outside the Tibetan SAR, but this in no way lessens the Chinese government’s repressive rule. In many ways it is worse.  According to the International Campaign for Tibet, since 2009, 45 Tibetans in Ngaba have self-immolated in protest. In Lhasa, the capital of the of Tibet SAR, only two have. 

Map showing Ngaba’s location in China

In Eat the Buddha, Demick asks why. Why have so many in Ngaba chosen to set themselves on fire, especially in a religion where suicide is not an accepted practice. Demick answer this question by examining the lives of eight Ngaba residents spread across generations, from the daughter of the last king of Ngaba (Princess Gonpo) to a twelve-year-old Tibetan girl, captivated by Chinese social media and uninterested in her own culture (Dechen).  None of the people are particularly militant or even interested in Tibetan independence.  Even Princess Gonpo, whose family members died, some by suspicious means, during the Cultural Revolution, is not anti-China and sees some of the benefits of being a part of the world’s second largest economy. 

But as Demick tells their stories, each of the eight, even the younger ones, begin to resist Chinese rule and increasingly view the Chinese governments’ efforts in Ngaba as the degradation and ultimate destruction of their culture.  And as Demick shows, these efforts have not just been limited to policies designed to “assimilate” the Tibetans; some have been violent attacks on the Tibetan people.  Particularly harrowing is the retelling of the violence perpetuated on Delek’s grandparents in 1958 when he was just nine years old.  As he hid in basket in their home, he heard screams and the senseless beating of his grandparents.  When he emerged, this nine-year-old saw his grandmother, blood running down her head from where her braids had been ripped from her head.  More recently, Ngaba has seen the increase militarization of the police force, creating an air of violence and captivity in the city, and at times resulting in the loss of innocent, young lives.  For most of us who have studied Chinese history – at least those of us outside of the Mainland – we have been taught about the harshness of Chinese rule.  But Eat the Buddha, by putting a personal face on this human suffering for the past 70 years, horrifies in the way a history lesson never can. 

Chinese military on the streets of Ngaba around 2009

What Eat the Buddha also powerfully makes clear is that as much as the Chinese government attempts to censor this history in schools or tries to buy young Tibetan’s loyalty through a higher standard of living, these attempts ultimately fail.  Dechen is a perfect example. When we first meet her, she is a twelve-year-old Tibetan girl fluent in Mandarin who loves watching Chinese movies that glorify the Chinese military.  For her, Tibetan culture is for the old. But then, as Chinese rule becomes increasingly suffocating in Ngaba and her family members become victims of the government’s violence, she awakens her from her social media stupor. 

By the time Demick reaches the start of self-immolation period in 2009, the reader is not shocked. It is the last form of protest available to Ngaba’s Tibetans, particularly the young monks at the Kirti monastery, grandchildren of those Tibetans first exposed to the Chinese government’s oppressive and violent rule.  Unable to freely learn their religion and watching their culture be destroyed, they are left with nothing else but the ultimate sacrifice.  The sad truth though, these self-immolations, with their shocking nature and international attention, result in the easing of some restrictions.  45 monks had to kill themselves in the most horrific of ways for the Chinese government to listen. 

Ceremony at Ngaba’s Kirti Monestary

Eat the Buddha is a brilliant exposition of the Chinese efforts to eradicate a culture and how the culture pushes back.  But that push-back is not enough to save the Tibetan culture and one starts to wonder why other countries aren’t doing more.  Yes, some leaders, risking Beijing’s ire and meet with the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists (Angela Merkel in 2007; Barak Obama in 2016).  But those are just symbolic gestures. And this is why Eat the Buddha is a must read. By telling Tibetan’s stories, Demick reminds us that the world’s commitment to human rights is more than just words, sometimes it is the difference between life and death for a people and their culture. Its time we give more than just words.

Rating: ★★★★★

Author Barbara Demick

Eat the Buddha: Life and Death in a Tibetan Town, by Barbara Demick (Penguin Random House, 2020), 352 pages.

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