Category: Book Review

Book Review: Peter Hessler’s The Buried

By , August 20, 2019

It is no easy feat to try to write a book that captures the soul of a society that has seven thousand years of history. But in The Buried: An Archaeology of the Egyptian Revolution, Peter Hessler has done just that – providing a fascinating snapshot of where Egypt has been and where it likely is going.  As someone who devoured all three of Hessler’s previous award-winning books on China, I was not at all surprised that Hessler was able to pull this one off.  China, with its five thousand years of history and equally turbulent modern times, was certainly the perfect practice.

After serving as the New Yorker’s China correspondent from 2000 to 2007, Hessler decided to move his family to Egypt.  His goal was simple: to write about the archeological digs at Egypt’s various burial sites.  But just before his move in 2011, hundreds of thousands of Egyptian students took to the streets in the wave of peaceful protests that were sweeping the Arab world earlier that year.  In Egypt, the “Arab Spring” resulted in the overthrow of Honsi Mubarak, Egypt’s authoritarian leader for 30 years.  And it is in this post-revolution euphoria that Hessler moves there.  Unable to ignore the new history being written before his eyes, such as the election of a Muslim Brotherhood president, the military-sponsored massacre at Rabaa and the eventual coup of the newly-elected president, The Buried eloquently weaves the country’s ancient history with its more recent, tumultuous present.

Documenting the events that made up the Egyptian Arab Spring was a simple task – Hessler’s just being there was enough.  But to access the underlying culture and communicate it without judgment, is a much more difficult endeavor, especially for someone who is visibly non-Egyptian.  In an effort to overcome his outsider status, Hessler committed to learning Egyptian Arabic.  And as with his books about China, The Buried highlights Hessler’s true talent once he has mastered enough of the language: his ability to tell the story of a society through the eyes of ordinary people.  Sayyid, the local garbage collector, provides insight into Egypt’s devoutly Muslim, working class and the efforts they take just to live.  Rifaat, Hessler’s irreverent – and at times hilarious – Arabic teacher, portrays those highly educated Egyptians frustrated that Egypt is still muddled in its development.  And then there is Manu, likely the most tragic of all.  A highly intelligent, talented young man, but because of his sexuality, is constantly subjected to physical violence, police harassment, and societal abuse. It is through these memorable characters, and the humanity that Hessler capture’s in each, that allows the reader to truly understand  their struggles in a country that still has a long way to go to be responsive to its people’s needs.

King Tut’s Sarcophagus

But it is Hessler’s comparison to China that provides the most insight into Egyptian society.  Hessler first stumbles upon Egypt’s Chinese community while visiting a market in some random town in southern Egypt.  What he finds is not a merchant selling Chinese tea, chopsticks, or some other Chinese knick-knack.  Instead, it is women’s lingerie.  That chance encounter leads Hessler to uncover the Chinese’s monopoly on the women’s lingerie market in Egypt.  And with Hessler’s fluency in Mandarin and competency in Egyptian Arabic, Hessler completely unlocks this fascinating world – the selling of lingerie in such a conservative culture.  But it is also through these Chinese merchants’ eyes, outsiders from a country with an equally long and authoritarian past, that we begin to realize just how far Egyptian society has to go to have a true revolution.  What perplexes the Chinese merchants the most – many of whom are married couples, working side-by-side – is the status of women in Egyptian society.  There is little judgment in their tone; just the recognition that this seems to hold Egyptian society back.

The Buried is another Hessler masterpiece, offering a nuanced understanding of a complex culture that has been in existence for thousands of years.  While Egypt is not yet the economic powerhouse that China was when Hessler was covering it in the early 2000s, The Buried eloquently shows many Egyptians hungry  for that type of change but leaves you wondering whether, with the continued governmental corruption and conservative culture that changed little as a result of the Arab Spring, it will ever get there.

Rating: ★★★★½

The Buried: An Archaeology of the Egyptian Revolution, by Peter Hessler (Penguin Press 2019), 430 pages

Book Review: Peter Hessler’s Strange Stones

By , March 17, 2019

I miss Peter Hessler.  While there are still a lot of great writers covering China, there was something about Hessler’s writing – his ability to capture a moment and the ordinary people in it – that resonated.  His three books about China – River Town, Oracle Bones and Country Driving – are still some of my favorites. But Hessler left China around 2007, after covering it for almost a decade for the New Yorker, and I still feel the loss.    

When I heard that Hessler was set to publish a new book this spring, this time about Egypt, the country he has been living in since 2011, I looked up to see when it would be published (May 7, 2019 ). But, in looking up the publication date, I stumbled upon another book that Hessler published back in 2013, one that I hadn’t been aware of previously; one that is about China: Strange Stones: Dispatches from East and West.

Author Peter Hessler

Ostensibly, Strange Stones is a collection of 18 essays, 13 of which cover Hessler’s time in China and a few about his move back to the United States. But Hessler’s China essays – covering the period of 2000 to 2008 – are a snapshot of a China that doesn’t exist anymore. In the decade since Hessler left, China has achieved some amazing feats: it weathered 2008 economic recession better than most; it has become the second largest economy in the world; in many key industries (think 5G, artificial intelligence) it is a leader; and both its government and its people have a confidence that was absent back in 2008. 

And that is why reading Strange Stones now – almost a decade after some of the most recent essays were written – is particularly poignant. Hessler portrays a China and its people that are just starting to come into their own. And in a way that the reader can relate to for Hessler has a gift for truly capturing the souls of people. Each of his subjects opens up to him, telling him their secret aspirations, as well some of their regrets.  From a worker in a Chinese bra factory, to the manager of Hessler’s car rental spot in Beijing; to the Uranium widows in Colorado who wish uranium mining – and the economy with it – could come back to their town; to a pharmacist in a small border town between Colorado and Utah, Hessler forces you to briefly see the world through their eyes.  And by doing so, you come to realize that Hessler’s subjects – be them in China or in Colorado – are no different than us.  A sentiment that too many people are apt to forget these days.Strange Stones doesn’t have the overarching narrative of Hessler’s previous books, but, to understand where China is today vis-à-vis a decade ago, it is still a must read.

Rating: ★★★★☆

Strange Stones: Dispatches from East and West, by Peter Hessler (Harper Perennial, 2013), 368 pages

Book Review: Paul French’s City of Devils

By , September 27, 2018

Paul French, the author of the acclaimed true crime book Midnight in Peking is finally back.  It’s the 1930s again, Japan is on the march, brutally invading China, but in City of Devils: The Two Men Who Ruled the Underworld of Old Shanghai, French’s thrilling new book, the foreigners who occupy Shanghai’s International Settlement could care less.  As China burns and the rest of the world goes to war, these “Shanghailanders” frolic in neon-lighted nightclubs, gamble their immense wealth at the newest roulette tables, and drink and smoke opium till their hearts content.  Their frivolous lifestyle propped up by a seedy network of gangsters, ex-cons and grifters.

City of Devils follows the two most influential characters of that underworld – “Dapper” Joe Farren, a.k.a. Josef Pollack, a Jewish-Viennese émigré who uses his dance skills and panache to set up some of the Settlement’s best music and dance acts, and “Lucky” Jack Riley, a.k.a. Fahnie Albert Becker, an American ex-con, who escaped prison, and with no passport, papers or identity, fled to the only city that would take him: Shanghai.  Starting with nothing when they arrive in the late 1920s, the two would build an empire of sin, Farren with the night acts and Riley with slot machines, the one gambling device that was not declared illegal in the Settlement, very much an oversight of the law.  In the clipped speech patterns of a 1920s gangster film, French recounts Farren and Riley’s decade-long rise and their unique business methods, methods that would eventually catch the eye of the United States government.

Meticulously researched and eloquently written, French captures the feel of the time period and the lawlessness that seemed to flourish in Shanghai’s International Settlement, especially after the Japanese takeover of Shanghai in 1937.  The Japanese did not invade the International Settlement or the French Concession when they took Shanghai, allowing the foreigners to go on living their lives as if nothing was different.  But for many Shanghailanders, the writing was on the wall with Japan’s continuous advancement in China.  Those Westerns who could get out of Shanghai, did.  By late 1937, early 1938, the only foreigners left in Shanghai or those who had no choice – Jewish refugees fleeing the Holocaust, earlier Jewish émigré like Farren who can’t go back to Europe, White Russians who fled the Bolshevik Revolution, people like Riley with a crime record so long, that arrival back to the United States would only mean prison, and businessmen and their families whose finances were so entwined with Shanghai that leaving did not seem possible.

It is with 1937 that French’s story really peaks, with Riley, Farren and a slew of other colorful characters all but running the International Settlement.  Because of an increase in opium smuggling to the United States, the U.S. government sends over government agents to try to break up some of the criminal gangs.  But their limited resources are no match for the wealth of the underworld.  Nor for a society that seems more intent on protecting the Rileys and the Farrens of Shanghai so that their evening entertainment can continue unabated.

Young Victim of the Battle of Shanghai

But while many of French’s characters are blissfully ignorant of the world outside of the Settlement, French is emphatically not.  At no point does he allow the reader to forget the human suffering brought upon the Chinese people with the ruthless advancement of the Japanese army.  Only a few months after the fall of Chinese Shanghai comes the rape of Nanjing, an orgy of violence perpetuated on a civilian population, the scale of which the world had not seen before.  But the Battle of Shanghai, considered one of the bloodiest battles of the war, also reaped destruction, taking the lives of over 300,000 Chinese citizens.  And even after that battle, the Chinese continued to suffer.  While the Shanghailanders of the International Settlement sip their imported champagne, Chinese citizens were starving to death, collapsing and dying in streets by the truckload.  Often their bodies just left to rot.  In a particularly harrowing detail, French describe the hundreds of coffins filling up local coffin storage building, with the hope that the burials will occur before the spring when the bodies begin to thaw.  It is that contrast in experiences that leads to the reader’s ultimate disgust with the Shanghailanders.  Eventually history would catch up with them, with the Japanese invading the International Settlement almost immediately with the attack on Pearl Harbor.

French does an amazing job of describing the Shanghai of the 1930s, a brief time period that has been romanticized by many, but that French looks at with a more honest eye.  It is true that French takes many liberties and embellishments with the private thoughts and conversations of many of his characters – the real people who did exist – and that has opened him to some criticism.  But that is the genre that French has created – a novel-like feel based on true facts.  Facts that French acquired through years of researching the archives of the International Settlement, of the foreign police in Shanghai and the various foreign courts (see French’s recent interview on the Sinica podcast for more detail on his research).  Certainly the criticism is fair, and perhaps a bibliography listing the sources French used could have been informative as well as interesting.  And it might have been better to put the glossary of Chinese and other foreign words at the front of the book to help those not familiar with the words.  But other than, this is a fun read.

Rating: ★★★★☆

City of Devils: The Two Men Who Ruled the Underworld of Old Shanghai, by Paul French (Picador, 2018), 246 pages.

Book Review: Patriot Number One – American Dreams in Chinatown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: ★★★★½

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

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

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