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.
Is there a genocide in China’s Xinjiang province? Are western governments right to declare such an event? Or is this merely a political game? For the past six months, since the United States first declared the Chinese government engaged in a genocide and crimes against humanity against the Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang, it is the questions of whether it is right to call this a genocide, not questions of what can be done to stop the atrocities, that have filled editorial pages of the Western press. Crimes against humanity – an equally serious charge and the charge that resulted in death sentences for the defendants at Nuremburg – raises no one’s interest.1 Why?
It was with these questions on my mind that I began reading Philippe Sands’ East West Street, a book that tells the story of the two men who created the legal doctrines of “crimes against humanity” and “genocide” after World War II and change the course of international law: Hersch Lauterpacht and Rafael Lemkin. Lauterpacht and Lemkin, born only three years apart at the turn of the 20th century, led similar lives. Both were Jewish; both born in a small town in what became Poland after World War I; both had their legal minds shaped at Lemberg University; both were pretty much their families’ sole survivors after the Holocaust.
And both saw the same problem with the post-World War I world order in which they came of age: an international legal system that promoted state sovereignty above all else. Each country was free to treat the people within its borders as it saw fit and, because of state sovereignty, other countries could do nothing to stop it. For Lauterpacht, the Polish and Ukrainian pogroms imposed on the Jews post-World War I, were the type of violations that demanded humanitarian intervention. Lemkin, in watching the trial of an Armenian for the murder of an Ottoman official who killed his family, could not comprehend how Ottoman Empire officials were left unpunished for the Armenian genocide. The Nazis rise – and its abuses and ultimate destruction of the Jewish population – made it all the more obvious to both that to protect fellow human beings, the world order had to change.
But Lauterpacht and Lemkin would offer different solutions. Lemkin came up with the crime of genocide, the intentional destruction – in whole or in part – of a group of people. For Lemkin, certain people were targeted – be it the Armenians of the Ottoman Empire or the Jews of Europe – because of their membership in a particular group. The law should not ignore that fact and should punish it. For Lauterpacht, it was group dynamics that lead to atrocities – this “us against them” tribalism, be it by the victim or by the perpetrators, is what needed to end. Thus, Lauterpacht created crimes against humanity – the systematic destruction of individuals in large numbers; membership in a group and the perpetrator’s intent were irrelevant. In the short-term, Lauterpacht’s theory won the day – no defendant at Nuremberg was convicted of genocide but many were convicted of crimes against humanity. But it is Lemkin’s theory of genocide that has come to be seen as “the crime of all crimes,” and that has somehow led to crimes against humanity taking a backseat in the global media. We can see this in how the debate about Xinjiang has played out: an almost laser-like focus on genocide at the expense of the charge of crimes against humanity.
While I picked up East West Street to help me understand the current debates about genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang, it was Sands’ description of the post-World War I world order that was surprisingly applicable to present-day China. Since at least 2019, the Chinese government has responded to any foreign criticism of its actions in Xinjiang by claiming state sovereignty: other countries have no right to interfere in China’s internal affairs. In June, in response to a 40-country statement critical of China’s actions in Xinjiang, the Chinese delegation to the United Nations organized a 65-country response that stressed state sovereignty and opposed the “us[e of] human rights as an excuse to interfere in China’s domestic affairs.”
As East West Street makes clear, this type of ideology harkens back to the post-World War I world. It was that world order that allowed the Nazis to pass anti-Semitic laws like the Nuremburg Race Law without any repercussions. It was this idea of state sovereignty that gave the Nazis the belief that their murder of six million Jews was within their rights. And while the Chinese government might pretend that human rights, and its supplanting of state sovereignty, is a Western idea, China has signed and ratified a large number of human rights treaties, including the 1948 Genocide Convention, all of which places human rights above state sovereignty. In fact the whole idea of the United Nations, including its Human Rights Council, is about relinquishing some of that sovereignty when it comes to individuals’ rights.
Unfortunately China is not alone. The fact that it was able to garner 65 countries’ support last week – even if some of that support is bought – reflects a real backsliding in the world. On some level, that backsliding is evident even in the West where countries like the United States (at least under the Trump Administration) and the United Kingdom reject international institutions and beat the drums of nationalism.
East West Street was published in 2016, before the crisis in Xinjiang and before the rise of rampant nationalism in the U.S., the U.K. and other parts of Europe. But reading it now is an important reminder on what we stem to lose and how dark our world can be if we allow state sovereignty to once again dominate human rights. It is imperative that those who fight for human rights also fight against the Chinese government’s demand for the dangerous return of state sovereignty as the governing ideology.
East West Street is also a must read for anyone who wants to witness the mastery of the art of creative non-fiction. Sands describes the legal doctrines that reshaped international law by telling the stories of four men – Lauterpacht, Lemkin, Hans Frank, the Nazi who ordered the murder of all the Jews of Lemberg, and Sands’ grandfather, Leon Buchholz, another Jewish native of Lemberg and the only one of his family to survive the Holocaust. Sands’ painstaking research enabled him to make these four men more than just historical figures, but real people with hopes, dreams and fears: Lauterpacht’s slow realization of what happened to his family as he sat in a Nuremberg courtroom listening to how the Nazis murdered six million Jews; Lemberg’s single-mindedness to get the world to use his new word, genocide; Franks’ pathetic desperation to save his own skin on the eve of a verdict; and Buchholz’ silence to his grandson about all that he lost between 1938 and 1945. Sands makes it humanly clear through the lives of Lauterpacht, Lemkin and his grandfather what the world stands to lose if it allows state sovereignty to ever again supplant human rights.
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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.↩
While reading Nicholas Bartlett’s new book, Recovering Histories: Life and Labor after Heroin in Reform-Era China, I was reminded of a phrase I read in an interview the New York Times Book Review did with former president Barak Obama: radical empathy. For Obama, reading other people’s stories is key to realizing that no matter what our race, politics or background, we are more alike than we are different, sharing similar hopes and dreams and sharing in life’s sufferings, losses and disappointments. Recovering Histories, by following 10 middle-age Chinese people with heroin-use history, provides that radical empathy. The problems that brought them to drugs, the struggles in reclaiming their lives, the families broken, the hope that many of them hold on to, these experiences will not be novel for most American readers. For many of us, we have seen our friends and family members face the same challenges here in the U.S. And, as Bartlett shows, the Chinese government’s response is very much like our own governments’: too few resources and too little care.
Bartlett tells the story of Gejiu, a Chinese city in southern Yunnan province famous for its tin mining and, up until the 1980s, known as a model Maoist city. With a prosperous, state-run tin mining industry, every family had the benefit of the iron rice bowl: a job for every resident and lifetime benefits for their families. Their children were set to lead the same life, inheriting their parents’ positions. But in 1979, Deng Xiaoping announced a new policy of “reform and opening”: opening the socialist economy to private enterprise. Not long after, private industry came to Gejiu and regulations on tin mining were lifted. Fast money could be made. All of Bartlett’s 10 characters were coming of age when reform and opening was announced, and each rejected their parents’ job, seeking to make quick money in the private tin mining industry or in other ventures that entertained the wealthy new capitalists. Soon though Gejiu had another distinction, the heroin capital of China, and each of Bartlett’s characters succumbed to the drug. Even those succeeding in the new economy of the late 1980s and early 1990s saw it all slip away.
Fast forward 20 years, we now see them in various stages of recovery, trying to get their lives back on track. As Bartlett notes in the introduction to Recovering Histories, his subjects all distinguish between “quitting drugs” and “returning to society”; many have been able to achieve the former, but the latter remains elusive. Largely unemployed and dependent on disappointed parents, Bartlett’s characters have too much time to think, to reflect on their past mistakes and their difficult futures. It is a testament to Bartlett’s narrative writing skills that he lets his characters speak in their own words. In a particularly poignant scene, Bartlett recounts the evening he spent at Zhijun’s home. At 44 years old, Zhijun is still living with his parents. While his mother cooks dinner, Zhijun pulls out an Atari game console, still in its original box. Zhijun had purchased it back in the 1980s when his motorcycle business was profitable. But with instructions in English, Zhijun was never able to hook it up to his TV, and, 20 years later, asks Bartlett for help. But the 1980s game console is too outdated to fit the flat screen TV; its moment had passed, much like Zhijun and many of the characters in Recovering Histories.
It isn’t initially clear why none of Bartlett’s characters are able to ‘return to society’ but slowly, through his characters’ stories, Bartlett reveals the prejudice and discrimination that people with a history of drug use face in China. It’s heartbreaking when Su, a rather optimistic sort and desperate to return to society, recounts how, on her first day at a new job, she was immediately let go, likely because her employer had found out about her previous history with drugs. This discrimination has largely been institutionalized, extending to the Chinese government. Although the Chinese government abolished some forms of extrajudicial detention, such as reeducation through labor (for political dissidents) and custody and education (for sex workers), such detention still exists for individuals who test positive for drugs, requiring, without a trial or any judicial intervention, work in a labor camp for up to a year. Ironically, once out, the government fails to provide any job opportunities for these individuals even though they are desperate to work. Bartlett attributes this desire to work as part of their socialist upbringing. But in many societies, including in the United States, work gives life meaning or at least a distraction from other issues, and without it, makes the return to drug use more likely.
Recovering Histories offers an important, counternarrative to the traditional viewpoint that reform and opening was a miracle that lifted an estimated 800 million out of poverty and set China on the road to becoming the world’s second largest economy. Instead it shows the human toll of radically transforming a society in the matter of a decade and the people the government chooses to leave behind. Recovering Histories is an essential read not just because it puts a human face on China’s reform and opening policy but, in its radical empathy, puts a human face on people with a history of drug use globally. And while the book is a critique of China’s failed response, the reader can’t help but wonder: is any country getting this right? Is any country ensuring that the potential of their Sus and Zhijuns is not wasted? Recovering Histories, with its focus on China, is not tasked with figuring out the rest of the world. That is left for us.
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.
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.
Reading Derk Bodde’s memoir, Peking Diary: A Year of Revolution, is like watching season four of The Crown. Sure we know what is going to happen to Prince Charles and Princess Diana, but it’s watching the details develop that is fascinating. The same with Peking Diary, Bodde’s account of his year in Beijing in 1948, when China was in the midst of a civil war. We know that the Chinese Communists will eventually defeat the Nationalist government, but seeing precisely how that happens, and the changes it brings to everyday life in Beijing, is fascinating. Anyone who wants to understand better how the Communists were able to defeat the U.S.-backed Nationalists, Peking Diary is a must read.
Peking Diary opens with Bodde, fluent in Mandarin and a professor of Chinese studies, returning to Beijing in August 1948 as a Fulbright fellow. It’s been eleven years since he was last in China and Beijing is a shell of its former self. Bodde sees a city, weighed down both economically and psychologically by a corrupt Nationalist ruling party that largely ignores the Chinese people’s hardships. Through conversations with various Chinese people – both the elite and the average individual – Bodde conveys the Chinese people’s frustrations. Much of the first half of Peking Diary is a recounting of the exploding inflation under the Nationalists, a fact that makes living in Beijing, especially for the Chinese, extremely difficult. Bodde himself becomes obsessed with it as he sees his Fulbright stipend able to buy less and less each day. But instead of trying to get the inflation under control, the Nationalists try to pass it off as fake news. Bodde never expresses support for the Communists but, as living conditions worsen and the Nationalists continue flounder in response, a sense of eagerness for the Communist invasion of Beijing permeates his entries. For the Chinese people Bodde talks to, they seem to feel the same.
On January 23, 1949, after two weeks of air raids and the sounds of constant gunfire just outside Beijing’s city walls, the Communist finally take Beijing. Within a few diary entries of that conquest, the city seems to come back alive. Most people are excited about the Communists, or at the very least that Nationalist rule is over. It is Bodde’s description of this ground level reaction to the Communists that makes Peking Diary a compelling read. So few histories from that time cover what people on the ground were thinking and how they were reacting to the fall of the Nationalists.
But what comes as a shock is how quickly the Communists were able to get control of the Beijing and effectively run the day-to-day affairs of the city. Blackouts quickly ceased, running water returned, homeless students were sent back to their schools, and, to limit inflation, the Communists adopted plans that the Nationalists ignored.
Peking Diary generally portrays the Chinese Communist Party in a positive light, but there are moments when Bodde is rather prescient about the hidden dangers of the Party. Almost immediately the Party shuts down the foreign press and, through control of the Chinese press, Bodde sees how the Party seeks to limit the Chinese people’s independent knowledge of affairs outside the city’s borders. The Communists fondness for thought control also unnerves Bodde. And Bodde also sees the beginning of a police state, with anonymous “investigation boxes” set up in Tianjin so anyone can secretly denounce another.
But there are also things that Bodde gets terribly wrong. In particular, his assessment of the Communists’ land reform policy. Throughout the book, Bodde describes the new policy as relatively benign, nothing more than the reallocation of land from the rich and well-off medium farmers to everyone else in the village. But outside the walls of Beijing, the mass murder of landlords in the countryside is occurring as part of the land reform policy. Between 1949 and 1953, the Chinese government estimates that anywhere between 830,000 (as estimated by Zhou Enlai) and 2 to 5 million landlords (as estimated by Mao Zedong) were killed. Under Communist control, Bodde is not permitted to leave Beijing to see for himself the effects of what he thinks is a harmless land reform policy.
But Peking Diary is a must read not just because it is one of the few books from that time period that captures the ground-level impact of Communist rule, but also because some of Bodde’s warnings to U.S. policymakers still resonate. In the Epilogue, Bodde cautions policymakers from seeing China’s Communist revolution as a mere extension of Soviet influence or that somehow the Chinese people have been “enslaved” by an illegitimate Communist party. Bodde makes clear that the reality on the ground is much different – with Chinese people, even critiques of communism, welcoming the Chinese Communists.
Unfortunately, this idea – that the Party is illegitimate – has re-emerged in today’s Washington. In July 2020, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo distinguished the Chinese people and its government: “We must also engage and empower the Chinese people – a dynamic, freedom-loving people who are completely distinct from the Chinese Communist Party.” But the Chinese people’s relationship with the Communist Party is not that simple. It is much more nuanced, just like any citizenries’ relationship with its government. This isn’t to say that there isn’t a large number of dissatisfied Chinese citizens, demanding greater reform, freedom and human rights. And there are some who also seek the downfall of the Communist Party. But there are many who are at the very least agnostic toward the current Chinese government if not supportive of it. To fail to recognize these distinctions will only lead to an uninformed China policy, much like it did in 1949. It’s disappointing that 70 years on, the lessons of Peking Diary still need to be learned.
Peking Diary: A Year of Revolution (Henry Schuman, Inc. 1950), 274 pages.
Peking Diary is currently out of print but appears to be available for free in it entirety at Internet Archive here. Used physical copies are available on Amazon.
Since 2017, the Chinese government has interred over a million Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang, destroyed Uighur religious sites and limited – at times forcibly – the number of children a Uighur woman can have, all in what appears to be an effort to stamp out the Uighur culture. This summer, in Inner Mongolia, the government instituted policies that restrict the use of Mongolian in local schools, an effort Mongolian parents maintain is designed to eliminate their language and culture. For many outside of China, these policies are a shocking new development, reflective of the hardline approach of current President Xi Jinping. But, as Barbara Demick shows in her harrowing new book, Eat the Buddha: Life and Death in a Tibetan Town, for Tibetans, cultural destruction has been a part of their lives for the last 70 years.
Eat the Buddha tells the story of this destruction by focusing on Ngaba, a town on the Tibetan plateau that has earned the morbid distinction as “the undisputed world capital of self-immolations.” Ngaba is not located in the Tibetan Special Autonomous Region (“SAR”), the area on a Chinese map that most non-Chinese think of as “Tibet.” Rather, Ngaba is located in the northwest region of China’s Sichuan province, and is an important reminder of just how far the Kingdom of Tibet once extended and how dispersed the Tibetan population is today. In fact, as Demick notes in her introduction, the vast majority of Tibetans in China live outside the Tibetan SAR, but this in no way lessens the Chinese government’s repressive rule. In many ways it is worse. According to the International Campaign for Tibet, since 2009, 45 Tibetans in Ngaba have self-immolated in protest. In Lhasa, the capital of the of Tibet SAR, only two have.
In Eat the Buddha, Demick asks why. Why have so many in Ngaba chosen to set themselves on fire, especially in a religion where suicide is not an accepted practice. Demick answer this question by examining the lives of eight Ngaba residents spread across generations, from the daughter of the last king of Ngaba (Princess Gonpo) to a twelve-year-old Tibetan girl, captivated by Chinese social media and uninterested in her own culture (Dechen). None of the people are particularly militant or even interested in Tibetan independence. Even Princess Gonpo, whose family members died, some by suspicious means, during the Cultural Revolution, is not anti-China and sees some of the benefits of being a part of the world’s second largest economy.
But as Demick tells their stories, each of the eight, even the younger ones, begin to resist Chinese rule and increasingly view the Chinese governments’ efforts in Ngaba as the degradation and ultimate destruction of their culture. And as Demick shows, these efforts have not just been limited to policies designed to “assimilate” the Tibetans; some have been violent attacks on the Tibetan people. Particularly harrowing is the retelling of the violence perpetuated on Delek’s grandparents in 1958 when he was just nine years old. As he hid in basket in their home, he heard screams and the senseless beating of his grandparents. When he emerged, this nine-year-old saw his grandmother, blood running down her head from where her braids had been ripped from her head. More recently, Ngaba has seen the increase militarization of the police force, creating an air of violence and captivity in the city, and at times resulting in the loss of innocent, young lives. For most of us who have studied Chinese history – at least those of us outside of the Mainland – we have been taught about the harshness of Chinese rule. But Eat the Buddha, by putting a personal face on this human suffering for the past 70 years, horrifies in the way a history lesson never can.
What Eat the Buddha also powerfully makes clear is that as much as the Chinese government attempts to censor this history in schools or tries to buy young Tibetan’s loyalty through a higher standard of living, these attempts ultimately fail. Dechen is a perfect example. When we first meet her, she is a twelve-year-old Tibetan girl fluent in Mandarin who loves watching Chinese movies that glorify the Chinese military. For her, Tibetan culture is for the old. But then, as Chinese rule becomes increasingly suffocating in Ngaba and her family members become victims of the government’s violence, she awakens her from her social media stupor.
By the time Demick reaches the start of self-immolation period in 2009, the reader is not shocked. It is the last form of protest available to Ngaba’s Tibetans, particularly the young monks at the Kirti monastery, grandchildren of those Tibetans first exposed to the Chinese government’s oppressive and violent rule. Unable to freely learn their religion and watching their culture be destroyed, they are left with nothing else but the ultimate sacrifice. The sad truth though, these self-immolations, with their shocking nature and international attention, result in the easing of some restrictions. 45 monks had to kill themselves in the most horrific of ways for the Chinese government to listen.
Eat the Buddha is a brilliant exposition of the Chinese efforts to eradicate a culture and how the culture pushes back. But that push-back is not enough to save the Tibetan culture and one starts to wonder why other countries aren’t doing more. Yes, some leaders, risking Beijing’s ire and meet with the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists (Angela Merkel in 2007; Barak Obama in 2016). But those are just symbolic gestures. And this is why Eat the Buddha is a must read. By telling Tibetan’s stories, Demick reminds us that the world’s commitment to human rights is more than just words, sometimes it is the difference between life and death for a people and their culture. Its time we give more than just words.
Huang Xueqin, a 30-something freelance journalist in the southern Chinese city of Guangdong, doesn’t look like a hardened criminal. With a playful smile and wearing an Annie Hall-style hat, Huang seems like a friendly sort, with maybe a mischievous side. But make no mistake, Huang is a fierce advocate for women’s rights, being one of the public figures behind China’s nascent #MeToo movement after coming out in 2017 about her own workplace sexual assault. She’s written extensively on other women who have been sexually harassed and assaulted and, in 2018, conducted an online survey of female Chinese journalists finding that almost 85% had experienced sexual harassment on the job, with almost 60% of those remaining silent.
It was that activism that landed Huang in a Chinese detention center. And on Friday, after holding her for three months under suspicion of “picking quarrels and provoking troubles,” a crime under China’s criminal law that has been used almost exclusively to silence peaceful critics of the Chinese government, Guangdong police finally freed Huang. In a country where its founding leader once said that “women hold up half the sky,” it seems odd that a women’s rights activist would be considered a pariah, someone that the Chinese government has to deal with criminally.
But Leta Hong Fincher, in her recent book, Title: Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China, explains precisely why the Chinese leadership trembles at the idea of women calling for their rights. Identifying China’s current leadership as “patriarchal authoritarianism,” Fincher, in her well-researched and insightful book, shows that unlike other social movements in China, these feminist activists are not just seeking a more open society or looking to fulfill the promises of equality under Chinese law. As Fincher shows, if you take this feminist movement to its logical conclusion, only by overturning the current political and cultural order can these women achieve equality in China.
Fincher comes to this damning, powerful conclusion largely through the stories of five feminist activists who were detained for 37 days in 2015 and became known as the Feminist Five. This choice – to tell the history of China’s feminist movement and forecast where it is headed through these women’s personal narratives – is what makes this read an engaging page-turner. Not surprisingly, Fincher was previously a China-based journalist and she brings that reporter’s eye for detail and desire to understand the characters behind the story. And this is necessary because what caused the Feminist Five to end up in detention – also on suspicion of “picking quarrels and provoking troubles” – seems completely ordinary, and defies logic that this would be something that would scare any government, let alone China’s: they were just going to give out leaflets and stickers on public buses calling for the end of groping and provide women with information on how to report such an incident.
But for the Chinese government, this was a serious offense and the women needed to be broken. Through in-depth interviews, Fincher retells, for the first time, these Feminist Five’s harrowing experiences during 37 days of detention. They were subjected to physical and psychological torture: the police took away the women’s glasses, making them unable to see; interrogation was constant to the point that one woman needed medical attention; intense light, only a few inches from their faces, shown brightly in their eyes; medications were denied; and each was told about the threats made against their parents or children. These women talk about the emotional toll that these interrogations had on them, making each question whether it was worth it. But in the end, each remains committed to the cause, finding strength in the support of other Chinese feminists and inspiration from women activists abroad.
While the Feminist Five, and other Chinese Feminists’ stories makes the book a lively read, Fincher doesn’t shy away from more academic arguments to further support her argument of the Chinese government’s “patriarchal authoritarianism.” She examines societal institutions: the lack of any women in positions of power in government; the prevalence of domestic violence in China; the failure to enforce the Domestic Violence Law; the pressure on women to marry and the shaming of single women (this was the focus of Fincher’s ground-breaking book, Leftover Women); the lack of career options for most women; nationalist rhetoric filled with misogyny; and seeing women solely as reproductive vessels.
Chinese feminists march at NYC’s Women’s March
Betraying Big Brother is a necessary read to understand the role of women in Chinese society and why the feminist movement may be one of the few social movements to overcome the Chinese government’s persecution. Make no mistake, Fincher is not a neutral observer; she admits as much in the Introduction stating that she is a convert to the cause and friends with many of the women she writes about. But this doesn’t hinder her scholarship; she finds sufficient evidence to support her arguments. Fincher believes that China’s feminist movement will achieve its goals: there is broad discontent among women in China that crosses class lines and the creativity of these activists give them the uncanny ability to constantly influence public opinion even in light of the government’s crackdown. But while Betraying Big Brother is full of hope, Fincher is not naïve. She knows that the Chinese government will not give up without a fight and that things are going to get a lot worse for these activists before they get better. Huang Xueqin is a recent case in point.
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.
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.
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.
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.