Category: Book Review

Book Review – Peking Diary: A Year of Revolution

By , January 26, 2021

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

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

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

People’s Liberation Army enters Beijing, Jan. 1949

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

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

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

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

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

RATING:

Rating: 4 out of 5.
A young Derk Bodde, around 1943

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

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

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

By , December 21, 2020

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

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

Map showing Ngaba’s location in China

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

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

Chinese military on the streets of Ngaba around 2009

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

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

Ceremony at Ngaba’s Kirti Monestary

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

RATING:

Rating: 5 out of 5.
Author Barbara Demick

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

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

Book Review – Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China

By , January 19, 2020

Freelance Journalist, Huang Xueqin

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,[1] 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.

Rating: ★★★★½

Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China, by Leta Hong Fincher (Verso 2018), 205 pages

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[1] In the interest of full disclosure, Fincher is a colleague and friend .

Book Review: Peter Hessler’s The Buried

By , August 20, 2019

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

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

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

King Tut’s Sarcophagus

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

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

Rating: ★★★★½

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

Book Review: Peter Hessler’s Strange Stones

By , March 17, 2019

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

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

Author Peter Hessler

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

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

Rating: ★★★★☆

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

Book Review: Paul French’s City of Devils

By , September 27, 2018

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

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

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

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

Young Victim of the Battle of Shanghai

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

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

Rating: ★★★★☆

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

Book Review: Patriot Number One – American Dreams in Chinatown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: ★★★★½

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

Book Review: Val Wang’s Beijing Bastard

By , December 8, 2015

In the interest of full disclosure, I knew Val Wang back in the late 1990s when we both lived in Beijing.  That’s part of the reason why I picked up her new memoir, Beijing Bastard: Coming of Age in a Changing China.  Who of our friends made it into the book and which of our exploits were featured?  In essence, I wanted to take a walk down memory lane when time had no meaning and we partied hard.

Wang’s arrival in Beijing in the late 1990s was not certain; infact, far from it.  Growing up Chinese-American, Wang’s parents had major ambitions for her and she was constantly being compared – usually not positively – to her Saturday Chinese school classmates.  Wang wasn’t the typical Chinese-American child and fought her parent’s culture; whereas others went to medical school after graduating from college, Wang was just confused and without a plan.  Still rebelling against her Chinese parents, Wang ironically chose to go to China to get away from it all, find herself and grow up.

But Beijing Bastard is more than just Wang’s coming-of-age story.  It captures a city on the cusp of change, where ancient homes were being torn down – both day and night – to pave the way to make Beijing the global, glitzy, Starbucks-filled city that it is today.  I remember visiting Wang at her compound, in an area of Beijing known as Maizidian’r (pronounced my-zi-dee-r).  Her apartment compound was the last group of buildings along a barely-paved street.  From there, the street quickly opened up to dusty dirt fields and farmers with donkey-pulled carts still roamed the area. But that was Beijing back in in 1999.

The character "chai"to signify that this hutong home is set to be destroyed

The character “chai” to signify that this hutong home is set to be destroyed

Or at least, one part of it.  As Beijing Bastard wistfully recounts, changes were decimating the old parts and old ways of Beijing.  Much of Wang’s memoir intertwines with her family’s history in Beijing and her uncle’s attempt to save one of her great Aunt Mabel’s courtyard homes.  During the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Beijing government destroyed much of Beijing’s old homes in the hutongs (pronounced who-tongs), homes that had been around since the early Qing dynasty (1644-1911).  Interestingly, as Wang details, before destroying these homes, the Beijing government sought to compensate the original owners.  Even in a communist country, where many of these courtyard homes had been occupied by multiple families since the Cultural Revolution (1966-1972), the Beijing government still felt the need to make all of this legal, find the rightful owners and pay them for the destruction of their centuries-old homes. Wang follows her uncle’s quest to ensure that great Aunt Mabel, living in America, would be properly compensated.  But in describing his quest and the homes that were to be destroyed, Wang poignantly portrays what will really be lost: the old architecture, the closeness of neighbors, the history of families.

But Wang does not limit her analysis of Beijing’s disappearing past just to its hutongs.  Another story that weaves throughout her memoir is that of a family of Peking Opera stars.  The grandfather, a superstar in his day, now is relegated to holding court about Peking Opera from his bed.  Unfortunately, he has taught this dying art form to his two sons and like their father both are frustrated and angry that Peking Opera is an art that Beijing prefers not to preserve.

The ancient art of Peking Opera

One wonders just how much of Beijing’s old ways have been lost to history.  It must be more than just the hutongs and the opera. Back then, Beijing was singularly focused on becoming “modern.”  But then at the same time, is it fair for a group of expats to lament the lost charm of homes that offered no privacy, where bathrooms were public and houses were drafty?  When Wang visits her hairdresser at her hutong home, the hairdresser can’t wait to move to a modern apartment on the edge of town.  Is it fair for an expat, who only spends a few years in Beijing, to wish for a lifestyle that she gets to leave?

Beijing Bastarddoes a great job of capturing a city when it still had a small town feel and was not the global city that it is today.  The stories of Wang family’s courtyard home and of the opera singers are both highlights. But even some of the tidbits about her self-discovery – who she is as a Chinese American, as the daughter of her parents, as Val Wang – are insightful.  While there are some points that meander but overall, if you want to get a glimpse of what what Beijing was like before the 2008 Olympics, Beijing Bastard is a good read.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

Beijing Bastard: Coming of Age in a Changing China, by Val Wang (Gotham Books 2014), 338 pages

Book Review: Leftover Women – The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China

By , July 18, 2014

For over 60 years, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has promoted itself as a champion of women’s rights. It was Mao Zedong who famously proclaimed “women hold up half the sky.” In making such proclamations, the CCP has crafted the story that in Asia, an otherwise bastion of patriarchal societies, China is an oasis of women equality.

But Leta Hong Fincher, in her new book Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China, unmasks that myth and exposes a disturbing, shocking and ultimately depressing development: China likely has one of the fastest-growing gender wealth gaps in the world. And the culprit of that increasing inequality? The Chinese government itself.

As Fincher convincingly demonstrates, it all starts with the concept of a “leftover woman,” a recently-developed ideology splashed not just all over the government-run newspapers but promoted

CCP Propaganda: Women Hold Up Half the Sky

CCP Propaganda: Women Hold Up Half the Sky

by government agencies like the All-China Women’s Federation, an organization ostensibly designed to encourage female empowerment. Basically, if a woman is not married by 27, she is labeled a “leftover woman.” The older one gets, the worse the mind games become, mind games that are played out in the press and on TV on an almost daily basis. As a result, women, especially educated women who are mocked even more vigorously, feel societal pressure to marry at a young age; if you are leftover, no one will want you. But, as Fincher shows, this fear is utterly illogical. Due to the preference for boys in what has been one-child country for the past 30 years, China has a shortage of marriageable women. Not to mention, if you can only have one child, what is the rush in getting married? But in perhaps one of the most shocking parts of the book, doctors – licensed medical professionals – lie to their female patients, instilling fear in them that babies will be born with birth defects if conceived after the age of 30.

In Leftover Women, Fincher shows that this fear of being leftover has resulted in women being left out; left out of one of the largest gains in individual wealth in Chinese history: property accumulation. To understand better the connection between the two, Fincher set up a Weibo (Chinese version of Twitter) account to survey hundreds of young Chinese women. Through revealing snippets of interviews with these 20-somethings, it becomes clear that this fear of being leftover by the age of 27 has taken hold in the women themselves. This fear causes women not just to rush into a marriage but act against their own economic self-interest. Many of these well-educated, well-employed women will provide cash toward the down payment on a marital home without putting their name on the deed. Instead, as Fincher documents, in the vast majority of apartments occupied by married couples, only the man’s name is on the deed due to the resurgence of traditional gender roles. Shockingly many of the women interviewed accept these roles, acknowledging that they are effectively being swindled, but hint that it is all worth it so that they are not “leftover.”

Leftover Woman?

Leftover Woman?

Changes to the Marriage Law in 2011 only further perpetuated these non-progressive gender norms. In 2011, the Supreme People’s Court issued an interpretation of the Marriage Law finding that in the case of the divorce, the property goes only to those whose names are on the deed unless the other party can clearly show their monetary contribution. But because down payments are in cash, receipts are often not kept. Further, China does not allow joint bank accounts and it is usually the husband who writes the monthly mortgage check, even if the wife is providing cash contribution or providing for other household needs such as food and childcare. But under the new interpretation, these contributions are not considered. So, yes the interpretation is neutral on its face, but its disparate impact it clear. This is an interpretation that is going to screw women.

Rushing into marriage and losing their economic independence leaves these women vulnerable to another increasing and alarming practice in China: domestic violence. Through the interviews that Fisher conducted, a general trend emerges: these women will often stay in an abusive marriage because otherwise they will lose everything. Not to mention that the Chinese government, even after years of lobbying, has yet to adopt a Domestic Violence law. As a result, the police’s treatment of domestic violence is anything less than sensitive and is usually just seen a family matter for the wife and her abuser to handle on their own.

The Most Powerful "Leftover Woman": Epress Dowager Cixi

The Most Powerful “Leftover Woman”: Empress Dowager Cixi

Leftover Women is a chilling portrayal – often told through the voices of the women themselves – of the rapid deterioration of women’s equality in China. If you think you know China, you don’t until you have read this book. It exposes an ugly development where, through pressure to marry young, the resurgence of traditional gender norms and laws that promote male property ownership, the Chinese government is keeping women out of the property market and thus out of an important segment of societal wealth.

Unfortunately, China is not alone in keeping a group of people out of property ownership and thus wealth accumulation. In an essay that was published in June in the Atlantic, Ta-Nahesi Coates illustrates the racist policies of home ownership in the United States that has largely kept communities of color out of one of America’s most important sources of family wealth. The initial culprit? The U.S. government itself. Reading these two pieces together will make you doubly angry, but also more reflective on how wealth is accumulated in any society and the desires to keep certain groups of people out.

Rating: ★★★★½

Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China, by Leta Hong Fincher (Zed Books 2014), 192 pages.

Book Review: Ian Buruma’s Bad Elements – Chinese Rebels From LA to Beijing

By , October 17, 2013

You can’t really be a dissident in an authoritarian regime without being a difficult character. These are individuals who for some reason – call it bravery, call it madness, call it no other choice – feel the need to speak out knowing, either consciously or not, that their cause is likely futile and the full force of the authoritarian regime will come down on them like a ton of bricks.  As a result, their life often becomes their cause.  What happens to these characters when things get so bad that they are forced to flee their country?  What happens to their causes?

These questions rose again this past June when Chen Guangcheng, the blind dissident who escaped his illegal house detention in 2012 and made it to the U.S., caused a stir in the media about his departure from NYU.   But answering these questions – or at least attempting to – isn’t untraveled ground as one China scholar pointed out in the wake of Chen’s NYU exodus.  Back in 2001, Ian Buruma, a Dutch China-hand and journalist, published Bad Elements: Chinese Rebels from Los Angeles to Beijing and this past summer seemed an appropriate time to pick up the book and read it.

Buruma’s Bad Elements begins by looking at the Chinese dissidents – starting with China’s 1978 Democracy Wall Movement through the 1989

Chai Ling during the Tiananmen Protests

Chai Ling during the Tiananmen Protests

Tiananmen student activists – living a new life in the United States.  His survey from Wei Jingsheng to Wang Dan and Chai Ling shows a group of people out of sorts in their adopted land.  Without access to China, most have given up their cause.  Chai Ling, the famous female student leader of the Tiananmen protests is now a successful businesswoman with a Harvard Business School MBA.  Same is true of her former Tiananmen colleague Li Lu.  He now runs an investment company in New York.  Many of the other student leaders just seem lost and lonely.

The pre-Tiananmen/post-Cultural Revolution Chinese exiled in America do not fare any better.  Separated from their cause, most have failed to figure out how to remain relevant to the mission back home.  Fang Lizhi‘s wife, Li Shuxian, probably expressed the exiled dissident’s predicament best when she told Buruma “[n]ow I am finally free to talk, but there is no one for me to talk to.”  Even amongst the exiled dissident community itself, there is little conversation for as Buruma recounts, the splits within the community are cavernous with some dissidents refusing to be in the same room as others.  One would think the bonds within the community would be stronger, but as Buruma insightfully details, the personality traits that allows one to become a dissident are not those that allow them to create strong bonds with others.  But even in honestly observing the exiled dissidents, Buruma never loses respect for them, reminding the reader that these people had the courage to speak up and that their suffering is likely incomprehensible to anyone else.  These individuals carry the battle scars of seeking democracy in a dictatorship and Buruma is always cognizant of this fact.

Modern day Singapore; what Buruma refers to as "Disneyland with capital punishment"

Modern day Singapore; what Buruma refers to as “Disneyland with capital punishment”

But Bad Elements most fascinating aspect is Buruma’s attempt to breakdown “the Chinese Myth,” a key tenant of which is that the Chinese are just not made for or currently prepared for democracy; some form of an authoritarian rule is necessary.

Buruma begins this journey to deconstruct this myth in Singapore, a Chinese-based society where the post-colonial government took and maintained power in the most vicious of ways.  For those who have never been to Singapore or know little of the details of its history, this chapter is a must read.  Singapore is a scary society that holds tight to the belief that this type of rule is necessary in a “Confucian” and “Asian-valued” society.  But even with such pressure to conform and unfathomable methods of torture, there are still those in Singapore who choose to dissent.  Their very existence in Singapore demonstrates that the idea that democracy is too alien a notion for the Chinese is nonsense.

The experiences of Taiwan and Hong Kong further demonstrates that the Chinese can have democracy, with Taiwan offering the best hope that democracy can succeed in a Chinese society.  While Taiwanese democracy is often punctuated with physical assaults within parliament, as Buruma shows, after a period of abusive rule, it has become a rather thriving and real democracy.  Hong Kong is similar except that its reversion back to the Mainland and the change in leadership to more Mainland, business-focused executives threatens that democracy.  In fact, in Hong Kong, the Chinese myth is beginning to reassert itself, with some prominent leaders stating that perhaps the Chinese people cannot handle full democracy.

Buruma ends his journey of destroying the Chinese myth by visiting the Mainland where shockingly, the belief in the need for a strong

Beijing cab driver looking for democracy

Beijing cab driver looking for democracy

government is not just prevalent amongst China’s intellectuals (who usually are the dissidents), but is a strongly held.  It is Buruma’s cab driver who most cogently expresses the desire for democracy, demonstrating that while the intellectual class believes China’s masses are not ready for democracy, those masses sure think they are.

Although Bad Elements is 12 years old, it is certainly not dated and raises issues that are still pertinent.  Twelve years later, the Chinese Myth is still very much alive and not just among the Chinese; at times Western businesses prefer to turn a blind eye to the Chinese government’s choice of leadership and instead are easily lulled by the belief of the Chinese Myth.

Buruma believes that democracy is inevitable in China and that it must be brought more quickly than the current (as of 2001) intellectuals appear to want.  Even as early as 2001, the Mainland intellectuals, perhaps reminded of what happened in Tiananmen Square, sought to more gradually change China.

But one wonders, who is Buruma – or any non-Chinese – to say that this approach is wrong?  Only the Chinese themselves can find their path.

Xu Zhiyong, a more gradual reformer finds himself in and out of jail

Xu Zhiyong, a more gradual reformer finds himself in and out of jail

This theory of gradual reform within the system has only gotten stronger in the past twelve years, with current activists like Xu Zhiyong seeking to work within the system.

Unfortunately, the past four years have shown that perhaps Buruma was right to feel frustrated – the Chinese government has also crackdown

harshly on this set of reform-minded activists.  Buruma’s suggestion twelve years ago – that the “social stability” which the Chinese government and the intellectuals desire – can never be achieved where a people is ruled by an authoritarian regime – rings more true today than ever before.

Another prescient aspect of Bad Elements is Buruma’s observation that many of the dissidents, those in the US, Singapore, Tawain, Hong Kong and even China, are Christians.  This is an occurrence that has only increased over time.  Most of today’s Mainland activist profess the Christian faith.  Buruma speculates that Christianity is prevalent among Chinese dissidents as it replaces one religion – Maoism and the Party – with another.  It’s unclear if that is the reason or if the reason is more because many of the dissidents see Christian values (at least the ones that make it to China) are akin to the rights and democracy which they seek.

Chai Ling today (to the left), working with her group "All Girls Allowed"

Chai Ling today (to the left), working with her group “All Girls Allowed”

But there are aspects of Bad Elements that do show their age, mostly about the exile community.  Although slightly dismissive of Chai Ling in Bad Elements, she has re-engaged with China.  In 2010, Chai founded “All Girls Allowed,” a Christian-influenced non-profit that seeks to eliminate the injustices associated with the one-child policy in China.  Similarly, Xiao Qiang who is give short shrift in the book, has become an important force in communicating the stories of dissent from the Mainland through his website China Digital Times.  Xiao remains extremely relevant to China’s reform movement.  And that’s the aspect of the book that Buruma could not have fathomed at the time – the rise of the internet.  The internet certainly shapes the role of today’s exile differently than those of years past and perhaps allows the dissident community to continue their connections with activists on the Mainland.

Rating: ★★★½☆ — as a result of certain aspects of the book being outdated (which is too be expected from a 12 year old book about contemporary China)

Bad Elements: Chinese Rebels from Los Angeles to Beijing, by Ian Buruma (Vintage Books 2001), 341 pages.

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