Category: Book Review

Book Review – Red Memory: The Afterlives of China’s Cultural Revolution

Netflix’s Three Body Problem opens with the worst of China’s past. As the camera pans over a group of fanatical youths, chanting and saluting with Mao Zedong’s little red book, it eventually settles on an old man atop the stage. Bloodied and on his knees, his arms are pulled behind him, held taught by angry Red Guards. A tall, paper dunce cap sits atop his balding head. Around his neck, hanging from a sharp metal wire, is a placard that labels him a reactionary. As the Red Guards yell at him, we find out why: this physics professor had the gall to teach the theory of relativity, an idea that came from Western imperialists. After proudly refusing to confess to his “crimes,” the Red Guards, many of whom are his former students, bring his wife to the stage. In front of the frenzied crowd she criticizes him for his Western thoughts, betraying her husband to save herself. The crowd roars it support and the Red Guards, with faces seething with hate, beat him to death.

As Tania Branigan, the Guardian’s former China correspondent, shows in her gripping new book Red Memory: The Afterlives of China’s Cultura Revolution, the Three Body Problem’s opening scene was anything but unique during China’s Cultural Revolution. From 1966 to the Cultural Revolution’s end in 1976, “no household remained innocent. ‘Complicity’ is too small a word — comrade turned on comrade, friend upon friend, husband upon wife and child upon parent. You could build a career on such betrayals . . .” Branigan writes. Up to 2 million were killed and another 36 million persecuted for holding the wrong thoughts or just for their family background.

Opening scene in Netflix’s Three Body Problem

Red Memory features some of these harrowing stories and how people today are still trying to process it. Particularly appalling is Branigan’s retelling of Zhang Hongbing’s tale. In the waning days of the Cultural Revolution, Zhang heard his mother privately criticize Mao Zedong. A teenager at the time and indoctrinated in Mao thought, he and his father informed on her to the authorities, knowing that she could be executed for her comments. And she was. Zhang and his father did not attend her execution, but a family friend did, and he watched as the mother combed the crowded, likely looking for her son. Zhang now prostrates himself in front of the tombstone he had erected where she was shot in the head.

Then there are classmates of Song Binbin, one of China’s most famous Red Guards and who is often blamed for the first killing of the Cultural Revolution: the murder of vice principal Bian Zhongyun in August 1966 at one of Beijing’s most elite all-girls high schools. While not admitting to anything, Song had issued an apology and her classmates point out to Branigan the courage that took. But as Branigan notes, what these women were looking for was closure, not actual accountability.

But Red Memory does more than retell these horrific stories of violence and torture. Instead, its focus is on the competing viewpoints of the Cultural Revolution in China today, and this is what makes Branigan’s book particularly important. Outside of China, the Cultural Revolution is almost universally condemned. Inside China, where the discussion of the Cultural Revolution is increasingly suppressed, views are more mixed. Sure, there are those who see it as the worst period in modern Chinese history but Branigan also features those who cherish their experiences during the era. Branigan interviews a group of former “educated youths,” Red Guards, around 14 million of them, who were sent to the countryside for years after Mao tired of their fanaticism. The group Branigan interviews enjoy reminiscing about their time in the countryside. Then there is Zhou Jiayu, a Red Guard in Chongqing, a city that saw some of the most violent fighting between factional Red Guard groups. Zhou would eventually be jailed for beating rival Red Guards, but for this son of peasants, the Cultural Revolution was a time when the poor held power and education, health care were free and equally provided. A sharp contrast to what Zhou sees in China today – growing inequality and rampant government corruption. Finally, there are the performance actors who dress up as some of the Cultural Revolution’s leaders – Mao, Zhou Enlai, Lin Biao. Hired for parties, Branigan notes that “what was not permissible as history in China was allowed as entertainment.” There is a certain nostalgia for the era and for the young who never experienced it, an ignorance of just how violent it was.

But what is most interesting about this split view of the Cultural Revolution is the impact that it has on today’s ruling class. Some of Branigan’s most thought-provoiking chapters are on how two recent officials – Chongqing Party boss Bo Xilai and President Xi Jinping – use positive recollections of the Cultural Revolution to their advantage (although Bo, one of Xi’s main rivals, was eventually jailed for corruption early in Xi’s first term). With leaders in their 60s and 70s, the Cultural Revolution was a defining point in their young lives and no doubt shapes how they see the world. “It is impossible to understand China today without understanding the Cultural Revolution. Subtract it and the country makes no sense. . . .Unfortunately it is also impossible to truly understand the movement. . . .” Branigan states. 

Real life struggle session

Branigan inserts more of herself in Red Memory than is usual for a work of non-fiction, offering her viewpoints on certain events and the phycological impact that the Cultural Revolution has had on China as a whole. At times, these insights are helpful, for example when she questions Zhang Hongbing’s sincerity for his mother’s death. But at other times it feels a little too intrusive and a little too much armchair psychology.  But ultimately these are minor issues in an otherwise nuanced book. As Red Memory makes clear, we are unable to understand the Cultural Revolution because China has yet to collectively deal with the trauma of its past. But more importantly, with competing views, it could be that how the Cultural Revolution is ultimately remembered is not what the outside world would expect. 

Rating: ★★★★☆

Author Tania Branigan

Red Memory: The Afterlives of China’s Cultural Revolution, by Tania Branigan (W.W. Norton & Company, 2023), 254 pages.

Interested in purchasing Red Memory? Consider supporting your local, independent bookstore. Find the nearest one here.

China’s Living Dead: The assault on the Uyghurs continues

By , January 31, 2024

Originally published in Commonweal

Gulbahar Haitiwaji hoped it would be the last time she would have to betray a family member. She had already denounced her own daughter, her husband, and Uyghur activist leader Rebiya Kadeer the month before. That video-recorded “confession” had secured her release from the Chinese prison camps, where she had been detained for more than two years. But Gulbahar was not actually free. Instead she was sitting in a plush room in a house adjacent to the prison camp, ordered by the Chinese police who lived with her to call her family in France. She had not spoken to her husband or daughters since she was first arrested two and a half years earlier. Did they even know she was still alive? What would she tell them?

Gulbahar did not have to worry about being tongue-tied. The police would sit next to her during the call, providing her with notes on what she should ask and what she was forbidden to mention. If she ever wanted to see her family again, the police told her, she would instruct them to stop their public advocacy on behalf of her and millions of others caught up in China’s genocidal campaign to destroy the Uyghur people.

She readily complied. Refusal to go along with the police meant going back to the hell of the Xinjiang camps, with their constant degradation: sharing a small cell and one squat toilet with thirty other women; a starvation diet; rarely bathing and wearing clothes encrusted with two years of dirt; constantly being called a “filthy terrorist”; being shackled and hooded whenever she was moved to a new room or camp; being forbidden to speak her native Uyghur or show any signs of her Muslim religion; rarely seeing daylight; and being chained to her bed for twenty days, forced to defecate in front of her cellmates.

Gulbahar’s calls continued to be monitored for months. “Are you sure you are alone?” her daughter would ask whenever she called. Yes, Gulbahar would sheepishly reply, as the police wrote down her daughter’s every word—including the fact that she was meeting with French government officials in an effort to free her mother. “My room became the field headquarters for a Chinese intelligence operation directed against my own family, and I was a part of it,” writes Gulbahar in her powerful, heart-wrenching memoirHow I Survived a Chinese “Reeducation” Camp: A Uyghur Woman’s Story. “I had become a bargaining chip between my family and the police…. Lies leave a terrible taste in your mouth.”

Only after her husband and daughters removed all of their social-media posts about Gulbahar’s disappearance, in August 2019, did the Chinese government finally allow Gulbahar to return to France.

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The Human Toll of a Cold War: “Agents of Subversion” and “Lost in the Cold War”

By , January 4, 2024

Few Americans know the story of John “Jack” Downey, the United States’ longest-held prisoner of war who served over 20 years in a Chinese prison. But given the current broken relationship between the U.S. and China, it’s important to understand Downey’s ordeal and the human toll of the last Cold War. Fortunately, two new, thought-provoking books, Lost in the Cold War: The Story of Jack Downey, America’s Longest-Held POW, written by John T. Downey with explanations by China political scientist Thomas Christensen and a moving epilogue by Downey’s son, John Lee Downey, and Agents of Subversion: The Fate of John T. Downey and the CIA’s Covert War in China, by China historian John Delury, recounts Downey’s story and the repercussions of trying to “win” a cold war.

Downey’s story starts with America in 1950. Communism was spreading across the world and many in D.C. were looking for someone to blame for the “loss” of China to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) the year prior. Senator Joseph McCarthy settled upon the China hands at the State Department, hauling them before the Senate to accuse them of being Communist sympathizers. By October 1950, the CCP had entered the Korean War, turning the tide against the Americans forces. For the newly formed Central Intelligence Agency (“CIA”), overthrowing the CCP through covert action became a priority. Initially, the CIA used Chinese operatives, agents it called “the Third Force” because of their lack of allegiance to the CCP or the prior party that had governed China, the Kuo Min Tang (“KMT”). With only minimal training, the CIA would clandestinely air drop these Third Force agents into a village in China, hoping they could go on to form a successful resistance movement against the CCP. But after the corruption of the KMT and years of war, most Chinese were not interested in overthrowing the CCP. Of the CIA’s 212 Third Force operatives it dropped in China, 111 were captured and 101 killed. 

But these abysmal numbers did not stop the CIA. Instead, it hatched an even more absurd plan:  send American agents into China to try to help these Third Force operatives. In November 1952, the CIA sent two of its American agents into Chinese airspace over Manchuria to physically pick up one of these Third Force operatives: Jack Downey, only a year out of Yale University and with no knowledge on China, and agent Richard “Dick” Fecteau, also a recent grad with zero China knowledge. Their plane was to fly low over a meeting point, with Downey and Fecteau holding out a long hook that the operative was to attach to his vest, and as the plane ascended, Downey and Fecteau would pull the hook up into the plane, bringing the Third Force operative with it. But the operative had already been discovered by the CCP weeks earlier, had flipped, and CCP forces were awaiting Downey and Fecteau’s plane. As soon as the plane was low enough, CCP forces shot it down, killing the pilots and capturing Downey and Fecteau. 

For two years, the Chinese government kept secret the capture of these two Americans. The CIA presumed the two dead and sent letters to their families to that effect. But in 1954, when Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai made public that the two were very much alive and had been convicted of espionage, with Downey receiving a life sentence and Fecteau twenty years, the U.S. government went into crisis mode. But instead of admitting the truth, that they were in fact spies, the U.S. government concocted the story that the two had been civilian employees of the army and their flight from South Korea to Japan had been blown off course into Chinese airspace due to a storm.

For the next twenty years, the U.S. government maintained this fiction to the world and to its own people even though between 1954 and 1966, there were at least two opportunities to free the men.  All that the U.S government would have to have done was to admit that the two were CIA operatives. Then-Secretary of State John Foster Dulles refused. To him, such an admission would be a victory for the Communists and every Administration went along with his decision. It would not be until the early 1970s, and the formation of a new China policy by President Richard Nixon, that there would be any movement. With warming relations between the two countries, Fecteau was freed on December 1971, but Downey, always viewed by the Chinese as the mission’s leader, only received a reduction in his life sentence. Finally, at a press conference about Vietnam POWs in January 1973, Nixon admitted that Downey was a CIA agent. Two months later, on March 12, Downey would cross the Chinese border into Hong Kong, finally a free man.

Lost in the Cold War is Downey’s memoir of the mission, recounting his zealousness in signing up for the CIA during his senior year at Yale (“Suddenly, my life had purpose”), his training, his capture, and then how he mentally and physically survived close to twenty-one years in a Chinese prison. Written in secret and only discovered by his family after his death in 2014, Downey’s writing style is engaging, making his ordeal into a page-turner. Interestingly, he harbors little resentment against the Chinese government, accepting that a life sentence was appropriate for what he did – unlawfully fly into Chinese airspace with the intent to overthrow the CCP. There is also no ill-will toward the U.S. government even though years of his life were wasted because of Dulles’ belief that negotiating with Communists was below him.  Although Downey doesn’t express any anger, the reader cannot help but feel it for him. When Downey returns to Connecticut in 1973, he visits Yale; it was his memories of Yale, where he was a popular star athlete, that sustained him through prison. But all he finds on campus are ghosts. When he reunites with some college friends he sees that Yale is long behind them. “They had homes, jobs, wives, and children to enjoy and worry about. To them, the years at Yale were a distant memory.  To me college was yesterday. . .In many ways, I was still twenty-two.”  When he visits his sick mother, she firmly grasps his hand, unable to let go of the son she had to fight her own government to bring home.

Jack Downey crossing the border to Hong Kong

How could the U.S. government allow this suffering to continue for 20 years and what was it all for?  That is where Christensen’s chapters become important. For the majority of Americans today – two-thirds of whom were born either in the waning days of the Cold War or after it was over – the Cold War is nothing more than a plotline in a movie. Christensen reminds us that at the time, both the U.S. government and the American people really believed that every last resource had to be used to fight Communism. What we perceive as immoral choices today – letting Downey and Fecteau rot in a Chinese prison – were perceived as necessary to protect America. But even with this perspective, the failure to put a human life first still seems unnecessarily harsh. Downey’s son, whose moving epilogue is beautifully written and presents Downey as a kind, if somewhat tortured father, is much less forgiving. When he recounts the “celebration” the CIA held for his father and Fecteau in 2010, his tone is biting and rightfully so, reminding the reader of the human toll of all this. 

Delury’s Agents of Subversion is an important supplement to Downey’s memoirs, artfully putting Downey’s story into the larger narrative of the United States’ changing society in the early 1950s. It starts with the intellectual battles that were brewing in post-World War II America, between those who thought the U.S should focus on its own domestic issues and those who believed that any means that could eliminate Communism from the world should be used. Ultimately those who wanted to take on Communism through subversive and covert operations  – especially John Foster Dulles and his brother, Allen Dulles who was the CIA’s director at the time – won the day. 

Further, by using original Chinese language sources, Delury shows that instead of fermenting revolution in China, the CIA’s efforts had the opposite effect: they justified Mao’s fear that the United States was seeking to undermine his rule, and validated his suppression and surveillance of the Chinese population. Delury also recounts the U.S. government’s response to the failed mission, its subsequent cover up, the constant pressure of Downey’s mother to free her son, and the road to Fecteau and Downey’s release after Nixon takes office. With deep research and a well-written narrative, Agents of Subversion is an important contribution to the intellectual history of the United States in the 1950s as well as its policy toward China. 

In 2013, the CIA awarded Jack Downey (L) and Dick Fecteau (R) its highest award.

Today, the U.S.’ China policy seems to be circling back to a cold war mentality of the 1950s and 60s, with increasing anti-China rhetoric coming from both sides of the aisle. There are aspects of the current Chinese regime that undermine a lawful and human rights-respecting world order that the U.S. must combat, but a complete vilification of the country does not serve that goal. And, as in the case with Jack Downey, it may even cause us to lose sight of our own values. Lost In the Cold War and Agents of Subversion are timely reminders that when ideological stakes are running high, our government is not above lying to its own people or forsaking its own citizens.

Lost in the Cold War: The Story of Jack Downey, America’s Longest-Held POW, by John T. Downey, Thomas Christensen and, John Lee Downey (Columbia University Press, 2022), 344 pages.

Rating: ★★★★½

Agents of Subversion: The Fate of John T. Downey and the CIA’s Covert War in China, by John Delury (Cornell University Press, 2022), 408 pages.

Rating: ★★★★☆

Interested in purchasing these books? Consider supporting your local, independent bookstore. Find the nearest one here.

*******Correction: An earlier version of this article mistakenly referred to Eugene McCarthy instead of Joseph McCarthy. This has now been corrected. Apologies.

Book Review: Josh Chin and Liza Lin’s Surveillance State

By , August 14, 2023

Originally published in Commonweal

Every so often, I witness a scene in my neighborhood that’s all too common in New York City. A single car is double-parked on a narrow side street in front of a large apartment building. A blocked, frustrated driver—say, of a school bus full of frenetic children, or a delivery van on a tight schedule—angrily lays on the horn, sometimes for a full minute or more. Sometimes the guilty party sheepishly emerges to move their vehicle. But just as often they don’t.

If this were not Queens but Hangzhou, a city near China’s eastern coast, there would be no need for honking. In China’s “smart cities,” surveillance cameras immediately flag double-parked cars and run their plates to identify the owner. Local city managers, known as the Chengguan, then order such cars be moved via text message. Traffic can then resume flowing within minutes.

This is one positive element of China’s increasingly data-driven governance, analyzed by veteran reporters Josh Chin and Liza Lin in Surveillance State: Inside China’s Quest to Launch a New Era of Social Control. Their presentation can make Hangzhou seem like a paradise of efficiency, even to Americans skeptical of government control. Given China’s extensive record of human-rights violations, it can be tempting to dismiss innovations like Hangzhou’s camera and AI-based technology as tools of oppression.

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Rating: ★★★½☆

Josh Chin
Liza Lin

Surveillance State: Inside China’s Quest to Launch a New Era of Social Control, by Josh China and Liza Lin (St. Martin’s Press, 2022), 320 pages.

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

Remembering the politics behind a massacre

Thirty-four years later and even in the West, where we are allowed to remember the events surrounding the Chinese government’s June 4th, 1989 massacre of its people, there are things we have forgotten.  We think of the Tiananmen protests as millions of students occupying the Square every day for months.  But the protests had largely died down by the end of May 1989, with just a few thousand people left on the Square.  We refer to Li Peng, Premier at the time, as the “Butcher of Beijing,” but it was Deng Xiaoping who was most eager for blood and had been plotting a military response since early May. 

To help us remember is Michael Fathers and Andrew Higgins’ gripping, and, at only 148 pages, concise classic, Tiananmen: The Rape of Peking, published a few months after the June 4th crackdown.  In 1989, Fathers and Higgins were The Independent’s China correspondents giving them front-row seats to the protests.  More important though, were Fathers and Higgins’ well-connected government sources which allowed for their vivid descriptions of the factional infighting in the highest levels of the Chinese Communist Party (“CCP”).  It is this insider knowledge that makes Tiananmen: The Rape of Peking an astonishing read, especially compared to today, where China is increasingly closed off and the inner workings of the Party are a guessing game.  With their focus on the political power plays inside the Chinese leadership, Fathers and Higgins argue that the massacre was intended not just to subdue the Chinese people but to show Party officials that any dissension would be dealt with severely. 

By the late 1980s, the CCP was fractured between two camps: the reformers, led by CCP General Secretary Zhao Ziyang who called for more economic reforms with some societal loosening, and the conservatives, led by Prime Minister Li Peng who wanted to maintain Party ideology.  Deng Xiaoping, retired from government but still in charge of China, was generally a reformer.  But as Fathers and Higgins show, above all else Deng was a political survivor, overcoming multiple Party purges in his lifetime and unseating Mao Zedong’s chosen successor, Hua Guofeng, to become China’s leader after Mao’s death.  A year before the protests, as Fathers and Higgins point out, Deng and Zhao advocated for free market pricing.  When record inflation hit the country as a result, it was Zhao who took the fall, not Deng. Li Peng, who opposed such unorthodoxy, saw his star rise.

Left to Right: Deng Xiaoping, Li Peng and Zhao Ziyang, all in happier times

In Tiananmen: The Rape of Peking, it is Deng’s desire to politically survive that made the massacre in Beijing inevitable.  With 100,000 students marching to Tiananmen for reformer Hu Yaobang’s funeral on April 22 and demanding a dialogue with leadership, Deng saw the student protests as a threat to his absolute authority. Knowing that Zhao, the Party’s Chairman, held a more sympathetic view, Deng bypassed the chain of command, and while Zhao was on an official visit to North Korea, he convened a meeting of the leadership.  Without Zhao, Deng and the conservatives dominated and they approved the publication of Deng’s provocative People’s Daily editorial that unequivocally condemned the student protests and referred to them as “turmoil.”  For Fathers and Higgins,

“The editorial marked a crucial point in the evolution of an official response to the student unrest – the point of no return.  The hardliners [conservatives] had published their manifesto.  So great was judged to be its importance that it was made public before it had been printed in People’s Daily itself.  That, at least, was part of the reason: the other part was more devious.  A copy of the proposed text had been sent that same afternoon to Zhao Ziyang in North Korea….By the time he received the telegram, the text was already being released.”

Tiananmen: The Rape of Peking, p. 37
Students march to Tiananmen on April 27, 1989 (Photo courtesy of Patrick Chovanec: https://twitter.com/prchovanec/status/460373323008835585?s=20)

On April 27th, the day after the editorial’s publication, 150,000 students and Beijing residents marched to Tiananmen Square, demanding that the editorial be withdrawn in addition to general calls for greater freedom.  On May 4th, an important day in Chinese history, tens of thousands of students again marched to the Square.

Zhao though was no political neophyte as Fathers and Higgins brilliantly portray in their chapter that describes his comeback.  Simultaneous with the students’ May 4th protest, Zhao publicly stated that he believed the protests would “calm down” and there would be “no great turmoil in China.”  With Zhao’s speech, it was now public that the Party was far from unified.  “From the point at which Zhao delivered this speech, coexistence with Deng would become impossible” Fathers and Higgins grimly write.

Gorbachev and Deng meet in Beijing, May 15, 1989

Zhao’s speech had its intended effect.  The Square emptied and the students returned to their campuses.  It seemed like the political winds were blowing in Zhao’s favor.  But all that changed in the middle of May when the students, sensing the leverage that Soviet Union president Mikhail Gorbachev’s historic visit to Beijing could provide, began a hunger strike to last through his visit.  2,000 students participated and 10,000 more camped out on the Square in support.  Before Gorbachev’s arrival on May 15, Zhao’s staff pleaded with the students to move their hunger strike to outside Zhongnanhai, the Party’s headquarters. To do otherwise they told the students, could severely damage the reformers’ efforts. But the students did not move their protests and on May 17, during Gorbachev’s visit, over a million people occupied Tiananmen Square.  Joining the students were labor unions, professors, high school students and ordinary Beijingers, discontent with the status quo and excited for change.  May 18 saw another million-strong on the Square. 

With Deng’s loss of face before Gorbachev, Zhao’s strategy had failed.  On May 20, Li Peng declared martial law and Deng called up the military to prepare for a crackdown.  But as Fathers and Higgins point out, by the end of May, the protests had fizzled out. Although the Goddess of Democracy’s arrival on May 30th renewed some interest, only 5,000 students remained on the Square, and most of them were students from other parts of China.  Two of the protests’ leaders – Wang Dan and Wu’erkaixi – had returned to their campuses.  Summer vacation was only two weeks away.  Time was on the leaders’ side.

May 30, 1989 – A sparsely-filled Tiananmen Square

But time was irrelevant to Deng and the conservatives as they readied the PLA to enter Beijing.  As Fathers and Higgins recount, during the day on June 3, PLA troops began to march into Beijing. All were met by thousands of unarmed Beijingers who blocked the roads with either buses, cars or their own bodies. Instead of attacking, the PLA retreated. The people cheered and beckoned the retreating troops back out to celebrate the fact that the army did not turn on the people.  A carnival-like atmosphere permeated the streets of Beijing.

But a little bit before midnight on June 3, in the Muxidi section of Beijing, all of that changed. In their most powerful and heart-wrenching chapter, Fathers and Higgins portray the valiant Beijingers, over 5,000 of them, who tried to stop the troops from closing in on the Square.  The crowd included factory and office workers, journalists and writers, and the children of CCP officials who lived in the high-end apartment complex overlooking the Muxidi intersection.  Just like earlier in the day, unarmed soldiers were sent to disperse the crowd.  Again, these soldiers retreated giving the crowd the sense that the people were victorious. This time though, the troops were replaced by new ones. With their AK-47s, the troops stormed the crowd, shooting wildly. In the first few minutes, deaths were in the double digits according to Fathers and Higgins.  The army’s appetite for blood would continue as it marched down the main boulevard to the Square, meeting crowds of people at each intersection who thought they could stop the PLA. Instead, many were killed, either shot by soldiers or crushed by tanks.  Even in the daylight hours of June 4th and long after the PLA had secured the Square, it continued to shoot into crowds of onlookers, adding to the civilian death toll. 

For Fathers and Higgins, Muxidi shows Deng and the conservative’s diabolical nature.  Sending unarmed troops into Beijing all throughout the day on June 3 was all part Deng’s plan Fathers and Higgins argue: to lure as many people out into the streets as possible so that when the PLA did open fire, casualties were certain.  And it was no accident that the first murders happened before the apartment complexes that housed high-level Party members and their families:

Those who ordered the army into Peking, Deng and president Yang Shangkun, had done so not merely to disperse the mobs from the barricades, but to create a spectacle of forceful repression so shocking that it could not fail to cow anyone within the Party who had dared to sympathize with such defiance.  The decision to open fire at Muxidi, in front of one of the Part’s main residential compounds, was a part of that spectacle. 

Tiananmen: The Rape of Peking, p. 116

Tiananmen: The Rape of Peking is a fast-paced, comprehensive masterpiece that makes a frighteningly compelling argument that Deng Xiaoping, from the very first protests in mid April, wanted a violent crackdown so that his power would never again be challenged. For Fathers and Higgins, Deng is the ultimate villain and thirty-four years later, it is important that we do not forget this. But it is also essential that on this thirty-fourth anniversary of June 4th that we remember some of the heroes of Tiananmen that Fathers and Higgins highlight: those unnamed and unarmed civilians who took to the streets in a courageous effort to protect their city, mistakenly trusting that their government would never open fire on them.

Rating: ★★★★★

Tiananmen: The Rape of Peking, by Michael Fathers and Andrew Higgins
(The Independent/Doubleday 1989), 148 pages

Unfortunately this book is out of print which we hope that the publisher rectifies for the 35th anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown next year (2024).  And, with the Chinese people unable to write their own history on this tragic event, we also hope that the publisher publishes a Chinese version (there is an Indonesian translation).  Sometimes things jump the firewall; providing this book in Chinese will allow the Chinese people to learn about their fellow countrymen’s’ valiant efforts thirty-four years ago.

Used copies of Tiananmen: Rape of Peking can be purchased at Thriftbooks, Abebooks and Amazon

Book Review: Louisa Lim’s Indelible City

By , October 6, 2022

Originally published in Commonweal

About three years ago, before the onset of the COVID pandemic, I attended a talk in New York City given by a Hong Kong activist. Back then the city was deep in the throes of massive pro-democracy protests, with millions of Hong Kongers taking to the streets and enduring the sticky summer heat to oppose the increasing authoritarianism of the Chinese government. Despite his obvious weariness, the speaker talked hopefully about the prospective outcome of the demonstrations: the rule of law, freedom of speech, and human rights would prevail over China’s attempt to undermine them. “If we don’t fight for our freedom,” he said, “that is self-destruction.”

Fast forward to now, and even revealing that activist’s name would be enough to land him in prison. Just one year after the protests began, the Chinese government—without consulting Hong Kong officials—imposed a harsh national security law on the city-state. According to the statute’s vague wording, any expression of discontent, countervailing views, or conversations with “foreign forces” could result in a prison term of three years to life. Since the Hong Kong police are increasingly applying the law retroactively, the activist whose talk I attended is still very much at risk—even though he spoke in New York in 2019. For Hong Kongers, accustomed as they are to inhabiting a free society governed by the rule of law, the new law comes as a shock.

How did Hong Kong, a former British colony with an independent judiciary that protected personal freedoms, come to find itself under the heavy dictatorial thumb of Beijing? In her beautiful and timely new memoir, Indelible City: Dispossession and Defiance in Hong Kong, journalist Louisa Lim does more than simply answer that question. She fills a gap that has long been missing in books about Hong Kong: an account of the city’s long history of defiance, told from the perspective of Hong Kongers themselves.

Click HERE to finish reading this review.

Rating: ★★★★½

Author Louisa Lim

Indelible City: Dispossession and Defiance in Hong Kong, by Louisa Lim (Riverhead Books, 2022), 320 pages. 

China Law & Policy reviewed Lim’s previous book, The People’s Republic of Amnesia, perhaps one of the best books we have read about the 1989 Tian’anmen Massacre.  To read our review of The People’s Republic of Amnesia, please Click Here.


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

Book Review: Bruce Dickson’s The Party & the People

By , November 11, 2021

Originally published in Commonweal

In his 1950 memoir, Peking Diary: A Year of Revolution, American sinologist Derk Bodde issued a warning to U.S. policymakers. He had just returned from Beijing, where the People’s Liberation Army had marched into the city and easily toppled the ruling Guomindang (Nationalist) government. The lack of popular opposition to the coup was hardly surprising. Constant blackouts, runaway inflation, and rampant corruption had made even ideological opponents of communism eager for the arrival of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP, or simply “the Party”). It would thus be a mistake, Bodde cautioned, to assume the Chinese people felt “enslaved” by an illegitimate regime. It was the CCP, not the Guomindang, that was responding to the needs of the people. 

Seventy years later, the West still hasn’t learned Bodde’s lesson. Fortunately, Bruce J. Dickson’s The Party and the People offers a needed corrective to the American misconception that the CCP lacks popular support. Hardly some inflexible, iron-fisted regime that governs through fear and repression, the CCP is fairly responsive to the Chinese people and the changing times. As Dickson points out, the Party’s adaptability is precisely what has enabled it to maintain its grip on power for more than seven decades.

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Rating: ★★★★½

Author Bruce Dickson

The Party and the People: Chinese Politics in the 21st Century, by Bruce Dickson (Princeton University Press, 2021), 328 pages.

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Book Review: Philippe Sands’ East West Street

By , July 13, 2021

Is there a genocide in China’s Xinjiang province?  Are western governments right to declare such an event?  Or is this merely a political game?  For the past six months, since the United States first declared the Chinese government engaged in a genocide and crimes against humanity against the Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang, it is the questions of whether it is right to call this a genocide, not questions of what can be done to stop the atrocities, that have filled editorial pages of the Western press. Crimes against humanity – an equally serious charge and the charge that resulted in death sentences for the defendants at Nuremburg – raises no one’s interest.1 Why?

It was with these questions on my mind that I began reading Philippe SandsEast West Street, a book that tells the story of the two men who created the legal doctrines of “crimes against humanity” and “genocide” after World War II and change the course of international law: Hersch Lauterpacht and Rafael Lemkin. Lauterpacht and Lemkin, born only three years apart at the turn of the 20th century, led similar lives. Both were Jewish; both born in a small town in what became Poland after World War I; both had their legal minds shaped at Lemberg University; both were pretty much their families’ sole survivors after the Holocaust.

And both saw the same problem with the post-World War I world order in which they came of age: an international legal system that promoted state sovereignty above all else. Each country was free to treat the people within its borders as it saw fit and, because of state sovereignty, other countries could do nothing to stop it. For Lauterpacht, the Polish and Ukrainian pogroms imposed on the Jews post-World War I, were the type of violations that demanded humanitarian intervention.  Lemkin, in watching the trial of an Armenian for the murder of an Ottoman official who killed his family, could not comprehend how Ottoman Empire officials were left unpunished for the Armenian genocide.  The Nazis rise – and its abuses and ultimate destruction of the Jewish population – made it all the more obvious to both that to protect fellow human beings, the world order had to change. 

Hersch Lauterpacht (L) & Rafael Lemkin (R)

But Lauterpacht and Lemkin would offer different solutions.  Lemkin came up with the crime of genocide, the intentional destruction – in whole or in part – of a group of people. For Lemkin, certain people were targeted – be it the Armenians of the Ottoman Empire or the Jews of Europe – because of their membership in a particular group. The law should not ignore that fact and should punish it.  For Lauterpacht, it was group dynamics that lead to atrocities – this “us against them” tribalism, be it by the victim or by the perpetrators, is what needed to end.  Thus, Lauterpacht created crimes against humanity – the systematic destruction of individuals in large numbers; membership in a group and the perpetrator’s intent were irrelevant.  In the short-term, Lauterpacht’s theory won the day – no defendant at Nuremberg was convicted of genocide but many were convicted of crimes against humanity. But it is Lemkin’s theory of genocide that has come to be seen as “the crime of all crimes,” and that has somehow led to crimes against humanity taking a backseat in the global media.  We can see this in how the debate about Xinjiang has played out: an almost laser-like focus on genocide at the expense of the charge of crimes against humanity. 

While I picked up East West Street to help me understand the current debates about genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang, it was Sands’ description of the post-World War I world order that was surprisingly applicable to present-day China.  Since at least 2019, the Chinese government has responded to any foreign criticism of its actions in Xinjiang by claiming state sovereignty: other countries have no right to interfere in China’s internal affairs. In June, in response to a 40-country statement critical of China’s actions in Xinjiang, the Chinese delegation to the United Nations organized a 65-country response that stressed state sovereignty and opposed the “us[e of] human rights as an excuse to interfere in China’s domestic affairs.” 

Hitler’s Attorney, Hans Frank, on trial at Nuremberg

As East West Street makes clear, this type of ideology harkens back to the post-World War I world.  It was that world order that allowed the Nazis to pass anti-Semitic laws like the Nuremburg Race Law without any repercussions. It was this idea of state sovereignty that gave the Nazis the belief that their murder of six million Jews was within their rights.  And while the Chinese government might pretend that human rights, and its supplanting of state sovereignty, is a Western idea, China has signed and ratified a large number of human rights treaties, including the 1948 Genocide Convention, all of which places human rights above state sovereignty.  In fact the whole idea of the United Nations, including its Human Rights Council, is about relinquishing some of that sovereignty when it comes to individuals’ rights. 

Unfortunately China is not alone. The fact that it was able to garner 65 countries’ support last week – even if some of that support is bought – reflects a real backsliding in the world.  On some level, that backsliding is evident even in the West where countries like the United States (at least under the Trump Administration) and the United Kingdom reject international institutions and beat the drums of nationalism.

East West Street was published in 2016, before the crisis in Xinjiang and before the rise of rampant nationalism in the U.S., the U.K. and other parts of Europe. But reading it now is an important reminder on what we stem to lose and how dark our world can be if we allow state sovereignty to once again dominate human rights.  It is imperative that those who fight for human rights also fight against the Chinese government’s demand for the dangerous return of state sovereignty as the governing ideology. 

East West Street is also a must read for anyone who wants to witness the mastery of the art of creative non-fiction.  Sands describes the legal doctrines that reshaped international law by telling the stories of four men – Lauterpacht, Lemkin, Hans Frank, the Nazi who ordered the murder of all the Jews of Lemberg, and Sands’ grandfather, Leon Buchholz, another Jewish native of Lemberg and the only one of his family to survive the Holocaust.  Sands’ painstaking research enabled him to make these four men more than just historical figures, but real people with hopes, dreams and fears: Lauterpacht’s slow realization of what happened to his family as he sat in a Nuremberg courtroom listening to how the Nazis murdered six million Jews; Lemberg’s single-mindedness to get the world to use his new word, genocide; Franks’ pathetic desperation to save his own skin on the eve of a verdict; and Buchholz’ silence to his grandson about all that he lost between 1938 and 1945.  Sands makes it humanly clear through the lives of Lauterpacht, Lemkin and his grandfather what the world stands to lose if it allows state sovereignty to ever again supplant human rights.   

Rating: ★★★★★

Author Philippe Sands

East West Street: On the Origins of “Genocide” and “Crimes Against Humanity,” by Philippe Sands (Penguin Random House, 2016), 372 pages.

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

Footnotes

1. One exception is Human Rights Watch and Stanford Mills Legal Clinic’s April 2021 report which declared that the Chinese government’s actions in Xinjiang as crimes against humanity. Further, since publishing this review, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide also declared crimes against humanity occurring in Xinjiang and possible genocide in its November 2021 report.

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.

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.

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