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Archive for the month “April, 2012”

Peking Opera Masks and the London Book Fair

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The organizers of this year’s London Book Fair, where China is the country of focus, seem to have learned from the lesson of the 2009 Frankfurt Book Fair, which invited and then dis-invited dissident writers in an even-handed attempt to piss off as many people as possible. This time around, the LBF saved itself time by not bothering to consider writers who might have made the Chinese side of the equation uncomfortable. As a result there was a spate of more or less predictably lazy media coverage, some of it by people who should know better1 implying that the Chinese delegation to the LBF is made up of politically reliable hacks and that “real” Chinese literature is best represented by others. (Richard Lea and Isabel Hilton both offered fairer takes on the situation; they were in the minority.)

There is no way to have a fair or reasonable conversation about the literary merits of dissident or exile authors — some of whom, like Yang Lian and Liao Yiwu, are very good indeed — compared to authors who are read in China. We can probably all agree that in a better world, or at least a world in which the British Council had more backbone and the Chinese government had more maturity, the list of Chinese authors at the London Book Fair would have been a different one. Here on Earth One, though, things were never realistically going to go any other way, and so we may as well look at the authors who were on offer. Fortunately, many of them are much better and more interesting than the prevailing tone of the English-language coverage might lead you to believe.

Some examples, chosen entirely non-randomly:

1) The Shenyang-based author Diao Dou (刁斗) wasn’t actually in attendance at the LBF as far as I know, but his short story “Squatting” (蹲着) is featured in the new Comma Press anthology Shi Cheng: City Stories from China, which is being released during the LBF.
“Squatting” tells the story of a group of concerned citizens in a Manchurian city (which is never identified but is clearly Shenyang) who urge the municipal government to take action against summer crime waves. The municipal government (rather, the Counter-Criminal Crackdown Command Office, or “CrackCom”) responds with a blanket order dictating that from sundown to sunrise, all citizens are to go about their business in a mandatory squatting position — an order hailed by the “intellectuals” as a masterstroke of judicious urban governance. It’s one of the sharpest, funniest stories I’ve read in Chinese in a long time, and was a lot of fun to translate — though challenging, too, given that it’s written in a spot-on parody of the prose style — not so much “purple” as “cyanotic” — typical of a certain type of writer:

My colleagues and I weren’t People’s Congress delegates or People’s Political Consultative Committee members, nor indeed were we employees of any governmental authority. We were writers of reportage, teachers of history, players of oboes, designers of computer software, extractors of teeth, translators of foreign languages, creators of advertisements, students of calculus, researchers of pharmaceutical compounds. We’d all gone to university and taken at least undergraduate degrees, and if forced to give an account of ourselves we would shyly admit to being intellectuals. Engaged in different lines of work, living in different neighbourhoods, of different ages and genders, we shared nonetheless a common concern for the development and growth of our city, and wrote regular letters to a succession of highest-ranking municipal administrators addressing the strengths and shortcomings of our city and the strengths and shortcomings of municipal policy in the hopes that our suggestions would aid them in the performance of their duties. Our efforts were motivated not by a desire for official recognition or pecuniary reward, but by a sense of righteousness and justice, of responsibility, of social morality, and of love for our fellow man.

2) Sheng Keyi (盛可以) has gotten some notice in the foreign press for her novel Northern Girls: Life Goes On (北妹), which will be out in Shelly Bryant’s English translation next month. I haven’t read Northern Girls, and was basically unimpressed by the short Sheng Keyi story that I translated for World of Chinese magazine last year, but her short story “A Village of Cold Hearths” (一个没有炊烟的村庄), which appears in the new “Revolutions” issue of 天南/Chutzpah magazine, completely changed my opinion of her work. (Free PDF over at Paper Republic – it’s Issue 6.) It’s a tightly written, disturbing account of the more or less pointless suffering and violence of the Great Leap Forward:

“Grain” was a magic word that held everyone in its sway. The higher-ups came for an inspection, and the starving villagers roused themselves and affected expressions that they hoped would show the perseverance and correctness of Socialism. The yards were piled high with grain: a thin layer of rice at the top of the baskets and heaps of chaff and weeds beneath. Having placated the higher-ups, the village leaders were awarded Major Commendations, and promptly went back to searching for stockpiled grain, beating and interrogating the villagers ever more harshly.

No wedding banquets. No gatherings. No celebrations. No farewells. No cooking smoke. The village canteen closed down. Some people lay down and never got back up, some people got fat all of a sudden, some people fell down all of a sudden, some people got locked up, some people got put on trial. It was all very quiet. The village was as quiet as the grave.

Sentries patrolled at the village gate, their guns fully loaded. Vultures circled. A growing wind swept the land.

The bark was gone from all the trees, and the white wood beneath it had gone brown and then black. The earth was scored and lined where it had been clawed at, the mud churned up like the ground around a mouse’s nest.

Liufu’s mother racked her brains to find ways to fill her stomach. When the weeds, rats, roots, and bark were all gone she began to chop up rice straw and corncobs, which she would cook and crush and mash into a paste late at night. She would go out and collect egret shit by the paths to wash and steam. The secret was to imagine that they were your favorite foods when you ate them. That the egret shit was egg custard.

3) Feng Tang’s (冯唐) short story 麻将 (“Mahjong”), which I translated in the latest issue of Pathlight magazine, is not his best work, but it does give an idea of the qualities — a sharp ear for dialogue and a sharper sense of humor — that make him one of the most enjoyable young authors on today’s scene. It’s also a nice examination of the internationalized yuppie, an aspect of contemporary Chinese culture that is only just beginning to enter the literary consciousness:

She had been a small-town superstar from way off in the exotic southwest with beautifully clear Mandarin and a good head for figures, and she tested into Tsinghua University before she was eighteen. There she was the fairest flower of her department, though that particular flowerpot only had three flowers in it and the competition was not exactly fierce. She’d gone straight from college into an analyst job at a top consulting firm, where she worked on enough corporate group strategies over the following three years to give her more experience than all of the graybeards at the Tsinghua School of Economics and Management combined. No tallyman ever worked his abacus beads as nimbly as she manipulated Excel spreadsheets; no campus revolutionary ever painted big-character posters as pithy as her Powerpoints. Some of her projects had taken her to Europe, where she’d penned journal entries in Spain and picked forsythia in Greece. And now, turning her sights to the future, Shang Shu was preparing to wrap up the strategy planning project she was working on for a major northern port, go back southwest to say goodbye to her parents, and then head to Harvard Business School.

My point here — besides naked self-promotion — is that even a small sample of the writers at the London Book Fair (i.e., “writers I was asked to translate”) contains three writers, two of them relatively or totally overlooked by the Anglophone world, whose stuff I think is really good. This isn’t necessarily representative of all of the writers who went to the London Book Fair, but hopefully it should serve to show that things were a lot more complicated and interesting than you would have had any way of knowing if your sole source of information was the English-language media coverage of the LBF.


So the writers who were on offer are actually pretty interesting, or at least some of them are. That’s one side of the story. The other side of the story, tying into the point of people who’ve criticized the LBF for only featuring authors recommended by the  General Administration of Press and Publication (GAPP), is that there are many, many more Chinese authors out there, dissident and otherwise, who are equally deserving of a spot at the fair. (Yan Lianke [阎连科], for instance, was invited and then abruptly disinvited — despite the fact that his novel Dream of Ding Village, in Cindy Carter’s lovely translation, was recently shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction prize.) And going beyond the London Book Fair — since it’s over now anyway — there are many, many other writers whose work deserves to be translated (or translated better), but who have never made it to the attention of non-Sinologues.

The problem is that there has historically been a pretty limited amount of interest in Chinese literature, and an extremely limited amount of money to fund it. Publishers are wary of putting out translations — partly because literature in translation is always a hard sell; partly because they have generally not got a very good idea of what’s out there in Chinese. 2 But the times, they are a-changing. Some of the change is on the demand side of things — the result of a growing interest in China — but most of it is on the supply side: since the start of the 12th Five-Year Plan period last year, there has been money available for the project of helping Chinese literature “zǒu chūqu,” i.e., make its debut on the world stage. Like exporting Chinese animation, filming Iron Man 3 as a joint production, and getting people to start calling Mt. Everest “Mount Qomolangma,” literary translation into English is one of the ways to unlock achievements in whatever imaginary arcade game the Chinese government is playing here, and so the government has been plugging quarter after quarter into the machine in hopes of leveling up.

Given the origins and the goals of the funding for literary translation from Chinese, and the roles of the players involved, it is perhaps not entirely shocking that Liu Xiaobo was not granted early release from prison to attend the London Book Fair, and that the party paying the piper — in this case, mostly GAPP — got to call the tunes.

But!

A few years ago, a few other translators and I were talking with employees of a Chinese publishing house who said that they had some books that they wanted to translate into English — things that they said would show foreigners the real China. There was a brief and intense period of excitement, until the publishers said that these were coffee-table books about Peking Opera masks and different varieties of tea. Ever since then, I’ve used “Peking Opera masks” as mental shorthand for the Chinese habit of attempting to interest the world in aspects of itself that most Chinese people don’t give two-tenths of a rat’s ass about. (This same thing affects Chinese-language instruction, but I’ll save that rant for another post.) Even just a couple of years ago, almost all officially backed Chinese cultural offerings were of this sort — books about tea and opera masks, yes, or Foreign Languages Press translations by non-native English speakers, or poorly subtitled documentaries about the Potato Festival in some godforsaken corner of the Shandong peninsula. (“Since late Ming dynasty, the town of Pirang is acclaimed as ‘hometown of potato!'”)

What we’re seeing now is something different — a willingness, even an eagerness, to promote authors whose work presents a more complicated China than the one on the front page of the China Daily. The group of authors that visited the London Book Fair may not have contained Liu Xiaobo or Liao Yiwu — and as long as GAPP was involved there was never any chance that it would — but it was a more diverse, talented, and interesting group of authors than has been generally acknowledged. It represented an earnest attempt to present a more nuanced image of contemporary China than has been presented before, and is deserving of a similarly earnest and nuanced response. So far, it has mostly not gotten one, to the detriment of Chinese authors and foreign readers alike.


  1. I was going to let this pass without further comment, but Mirsky’s article really is a shocking piece of hackery. It is very difficult — for me, at least — to read it without concluding that he went to the LBF knowing exactly what his story was going to be, and then did all of the things necessary to enable him to write the story he wanted to write. This would be just about excusable (or at least unremarkable) in the case of a journalist who was simply ignorant about China, but Mirsky is a well-informed and intelligent observer of China and has no such excuse.

    Imagine the converse situation: a Chinese journalist shows up at an American literary event and buttonholes every person in sight, demanding in heavily accented English to know what they think about “Nom Chompski, your greetist living pooet.”
    “What?” they say.
    “Chompski! Free Brodley Mooning! Apollygize for Wounded Knee!”
    “Sir, this is a literary event.”
    “Ship! You are baa-baa-ing shiip! Baaaa!” Mirsky’s Chinese double shouts, sweeping pamphlets off of display tables as he storms out the door. That night he will file a piece about how the mean Americans took away his stuffed animal.

  2. From the perspective of an outsider, it sometimes looks as if international publishers end up picking books to translate based on (1) what sold well in China, (2) what sold well to people going on beach holidays in Ibiza the year before, or (3) the guidance of voices that only they can hear. Fame and fortune — at least by translator standards — await the person who successfully pitches a novel to publishers as “a Chinese Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, but with teenaged vampires.”

Testing Your Corruption Goggles

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My evening Air China flight from Chengdu to Beijing last week was delayed due to bad weather in Beijing.  After waiting in the airplane on the runway for takeoff for three hours and then another two hours in the airport, Air China made the announcement at 11:30pm that the company would put the passengers up for the night in a “nearby” hotel.  We were given direction to buses parked outside the airport, and as we drove by the Air China hotel located conveniently outside of the airport, I thought “Here we go again, another long drive through the suburbs to some far-away hotel for a three hour rest only to take the long drive again to the airport in the morning.”

Why couldn’t Air China put the passenger first and put us up at the airport instead of driving 30km to some third-rate hotel where I had to pay an extra 120 RMB in order not to share a room with a strange and snoring fellow passenger?  Looking around the lobby, indeed other passengers were asking the same question.

To answer this question, we need to don our corruption goggles.  You know, the lenses that help us see how pirated DVD sellers get to stay on the block, day in and day out;  those spectacles that allow privately-driven-but-publicly owned autos on Beijing’s third ring road to glow like the red ooze that paid for them; or the x-ray glasses that penetrate the concrete walls of the CCDI’s detention center to reveal Wang Lijun removing a tattoo “Neil” from Bo Xilai’s six-pack using skin grafts from dead Chinese prisoners.

Today’s corruption goggle lesson is a focus on a ubiquitous corrupt practice: over-invoicing.  Over-invoicing is a popular mechanism used in both government organizations and private firms in China and the rest of the world to embezzle funds.

To illustrate how this works, imagine that your firm or relevant organ needs a new computer and budgets 3500 RMB for said computer.  In a cash-based economy, like China’s, where prices are settled through a negotiated person-to-person haggling process, a manager sends his employee with 3500 RMB in cash to the market make the purchase.  The employee bargains the price of the computer down below the budgeted level – say to 3000 RMB.  This is savings for the firm, right?  Wrong, the employee then requests the seller to create an official invoice for 3500 RMB and the employee, pockets 500 RMB.  Well not exactly.  The seller needs something out of the deal too, so he and the employee split the difference at 250 RMB each.

Is the firm worse off?  The purchase still came in at budgeted price – or even under-budget which makes the manager happy.  The receipt goes on the books and the employee’s effective wage has increased in a piece-meal fashion.  (In a variant form, sometimes the seller needs to receive the full 3000 to produce this receipt.  Here, he throws in an extra gift, say an external hard drive.  The buyer pockets the hard drive, and the seller gains the profit.)

Extend this example through the accounting system (i.e. bank manager as the seller; construction foreman working on your housing decoration project as the employee; provincial railway official applying for funds to build a high-speed rail network) and by donning our corruption goggles we can begin to observe the systemic and ubiquitous penetration of embezzlement practices throughout the China.

Last week I was talking to a friend, Cheng, whose lines of businesses range from retail fashion to IT repair to high-end dining services – a true gold standard of diversification.  He regaled me with his latest project – building five buildings within an 18 building luxury housing project.  Typically, launching into the real estate development business takes experience and capital, but not for this guy.

To provide context on his opportunity, the five buildings are to be used to relocate villagers whose homes were demolished to build the luxury lot; therefore, it’s a government sponsored project with very little oversight.  He and two other business partners bid among other investment teams to win the project – they put up zero capital and had zero experience in construction.  Yet their 90 million RMB bid won – thanks to the secret ingredient of a 3 million RMB bribe to a bank official!  So now they have a grant from the local government for 90 million, but what they didn’t tell the grant issuing bank was the project will only cost 70 million (over-invoicing in not-so-competitive bidding form).  So minus the 3 million for the bribe, the three investors split the difference of 17 million RMB in government funds.  To top it off, they can put 50% of the apartments in the five buildings on the market to make even more money.  Again, all for zero money down and zero experience at building apartments – not bad for a day’s work.  Why can’t I get in on this deal!!

Getting back to the China Air example, have your goggles led you down the road to true vision?  The hotel services 30km away are listed at a much cheaper price than the Air China owned hotel due to low rents in the suburbs and distance from a prime location.  Air China can charge itself a high price for a hotel room in a prime location and produce a receipt.  The airline is not worried about cost-savings with knowledge that as a state-owned enterprise it can engage in morally hazardous financial practices and rely on a bailout from the central government at nearly any time (indeed it may be getting one soon!).  Then it can then pay the cheap Podunk hotel at cost and then reap the difference in between.  I love it when opportunities are created out of crises (that you’ve also created).

In this game, all you need is a middle man who is willing to play the game with the marginal opportunity of creating an official receipt for you, and you can steal money.  In my next post, I’ll explore the growing role of the semi-private middle man in rising corrupt practices in China.  For now, let’s set our corruption goggles to glow pac-man yellow for middle-men!

 

Facebook + Instagram + China = Take a Deep Breath

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So, Facebook bought Instagram for a billion bucks. Awesome for those guys. I, alas, did not get rich in either of the Internet startups I participated in. But you can’t put a price on experience, right?

Deep sigh.

Anyway, Instagram is freely accessible here in China, at least for the moment, and apparently has a small but growing user base. It’s been limited to a certain slice of the China market by being an iOS-only app until last week. It may get picked up more now that it’s on Android as well, especially given Android’s whomping share of the smartphone market in China.

Because Instagram is accessible from China there has been some speculation that it might provide a back-door into the market for Facebook. Well, color me embarrassed, because when I looked at how Facebook might get into China a couple of weeks ago, one scenario I didn’t explore was Facebook buying another, unblocked western social network.

Instagram certainly functions as a posting back-door to both Facebook and Twitter. Instagram posts route to Facebook, Twitter and other social networks through Instagram’s unblocked servers (actually, Amazon’s cloud servers for the moment). There are similar middleman workarounds for posting on blocked social networks, such as Ping.fm, but none come close to providing full access to Twitter or Facebook. And, from what I can see, neither does Instagram. That’s important.

The question that wins you the brand new car is: Will Instagram now be blocked in China? The reason why you don’t have the car yet is that the answer is complicated. China doesn’t block all foreign social networks. It does block the established, heavy-hitting, horizontal sites like Facebook, Twitter and Google Plus. But many vertical social networks and newer sites are unblocked. I can get on LinkedIn, Quora, Path, Flickr and Pinterest just fine, without a VPN (your mileage may vary). I can even get on MySpace.

I cannot read the minds of the bureaucrats who decide what gets blocked and what doesn’t, and if I could I’d probably be in a position to be less wistful about the fates of the startups I joined. But there do seem to be a few key factors in determining who stays safely outside the firewall. These include size, perceived influence, how closely the network has been associated with political movements, power to function as tool of mass organization, and whether or not the network has been explicitly associated with content or activities that the Chinese government considers sensitive. On all three counts, I’d rate Facebook and Twitter considerably higher than the rest of the pack. As for Google Plus, I trust this audience doesn’t need much explanation.

So, what happens with Instagram now that it is part of planet Facebook?

It depends. Assuming people don’t suddenly start posting pictures that annoy the Chinese government, maybe nothing. At the moment, Instagram seems pretty harmless, and its one-way posting features to other social networks don’t look like a big red flag. Posts to Chinese social networks like Sina Weibo essentially outsource the content monitoring and censorship. Of course, Twitter once looked pretty harmless. In 2007 I even wrote a short article mocking its triviality, possibly betraying the lack of vision responsible for my current un-billionaire status. Twitter has been blocked for a while now. So much for harmless. The fact that Instagram is essentially mobile only has also probably helped keep it under the radar.

But if Instagram is integrated more tightly into Facebook’s core service and stops looking and feeling like an independent platform, then the risks go up fast. Everything hinges on where Facebook sees the value in Instagram, and whether or not it pulls Instagram into the mothership. The more integrated Instagram is, the more powerful it is as “back door into China” for Facebook, but the more likely it is to be blocked. And if Instagram is suddenly used to post a lot of pictures of a sensitive event in China, it might not even matter if Facebook doesn’t change a thing.

Meanwhile, local photo-sharing clones have been blossoming for a while. Early enthusiasm for foreign social networks in China does not reliably translate into long-term success, while mainstream success in China often does translate into closer scrutiny. Instagram may indeed be a back door into China for Facebook, but if it wants to stay open, it might have to stay a rather small door indeed.

Other links:

Instagram

Smile.

So, bye bye Bo Xilai. Tripped up by your wife and a dead Lao Wai.

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On the scale of falling from the Party’s graces, the news of Bo Xilai’s ouster and the criminal investigation of his wife and associates ranks somewhere between “Zhao Ziyang getting Fredo Kissed by Deng Xiaoping in 1989″ and “Lin Biao hitting Outer Mongolia at 1000 MPH.” It’s certainly the most spectacular – and public – booting of a high ranking CCP official since 1989.[1] Bo’s naked ambition and high profile all but guaranteed that when he fell it was going to leave more than just a plane-sized divot in the Mongolian turf.

For nearly two months after the “Lin Biao Affair” in September, 1971, the Party was able to keep a lid on the story, knowing how confused people would be to hear the Mao’s closest comrade at arms and chosen successor had in fact tried to betray the Chairman and then died in the act of defecting to the Soviet Union.[2]  By contrast, the Party’s attempts to control the Bo Xilai story over the past few months has been like watching drunk chimps try to make wall art with a bucket of jello and a couple of nail guns.

The problem with rumors is that they’re usually not true.  The problem with rumors in China is that people believe them anyway because most people know that the ‘state media’ is nothing but an enormous firehose of steaming donkey shit. The problem with rumors in China NOW is that wild suppositions which at first glance seemed too crazy to be true turned out to be pretty accurate.

Last week the government made Sina, Baidu, and Tencent pull down their pants, lube up, and swear that they would help guide public opinion and participate in the fight against the spreading of online rumors.  Good luck with that.  At this point Boxun could probably run a photo of Wen Jiabao dressed in a gimp costume dipping chunks of Mao’s corpse in gutter oil hotpot while singing “American Pie”, and people are going to say, “Well, that shit about Wang Lijun was nuts, and look how that turned out. I dunno, this could be true as well…”

Global Times editor Hu Xijin both on Weibo last night and in the paper this morning has been gloating about how this whole mess is really a testament to China’s rule of law.  You see, we foreigners have it all wrong.  We look at the situation and see a high-ranking Party official who ran his own personal fiefdom while torturing his enemies and allowing his wife to take become the Tony Montana of Chongqing.[3]  What we’re missing is the part where…No, I don’t think we’re missing anything here.  That’s pretty much what happened.

It’s not rule of law if everybody’s doing it and you only oust the people who piss on the shoes of the top leadership. It’s not rule of law if every case of corruption is due to a lack of personal virtue on the part of the official with nary a word about the system that allows this kind of venality to flourish. It’s not rule of law if the police chief of a major city has to threaten to defect in order to get the attention of the central government.

As one Weibo user put it:

对胡锡进这条微博,看到两条神吐槽:1、什么屎到了胡老师嘴里都能吃出甜味来 2、主人的飞盘甩得再远,胡老师都能给她叼回来

“Two takes on Hu Xijin’s tweet. 1) Master Hu has a knack for finding the tasty morsels in any turd you stick in his mouth. 2) No matter how far his masters throw the Frisbee, Master Hu will always fetch it back for them.”

Lin Biao’s fall from grace marked the beginning of the end of the Cultural Revolution and, indeed, the Mao era.  It forced too many people to confront the very real possibility that the Party had been jerking them around for years.

People today are already very cynical.  The government’s annoucement of Bo Xilai’s dismissal and the investigation into his family and associates – essentially confirming rumors that for months the censors have been working overtime to squash – just might be one of those moments.


[1] Hu Jintao’s orchestrated ouster of Shanghai Party Secretary Chen Liangyu in 2006 probably comes the closest, but even then Chen didn’t have 1/10th of Bo Xilai’s charisma or pathological need for the spotlight.

[2] Which is how the Party spun the whole “Holy Shit, Lin’s gone Rogue!” story.

[3] Although to be fair, the focus on Gu Kailai (or as CCTV keeps calling her, Bogu Kailai) seems awfully similar to the way women in Chinese history frequently get blamed for political disaster.  I’m not saying Yang Guifei, Cixi, Jiang Qing, or Gu Kailai are innocent lambs, but when the same script gets used every time it’s hard not to wonder. As Hung Huang wrote on her Weibo account last night, “In China, whenever men are bad it’s the woman’s fault.”

A little bit of history repeating

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A very powerful and popular leader, with an equally strong wife, who organizes patriotic campaigns for ordinary people while at the same time allegedly orders the torture of his political rivals. For many Chinese, this all sounds very familiar.. Reading Bo Xilai’s story, it feels like it’s all just a little bit of history repeating. It was enough of a similiarity, that Premier Wen Jiabao could use it against Bo at the NPC meeting.

How to avoid making the same historical mistakes again and again? There is no better way than having an informed public who can look to the lessons of history, particularly the darker periods in the past.  Slavery in the United States. Apartheid in South Africa. The Holocaust in Europe.  These all have had profound and lasting effects, none of which can be fixed overnight or even over many generations, but without a discussion of those horrible moments in a country’s past then progress is not possible.  There is still a lot of racism in America, but could the US have elected its first African-American president in 2008 if the government prevented schools from teaching about the history of slavery and racism in America or if If it had kept African-Americans from writing about their own stories and own experiences, no matter how uncomfortable that might make the majority?

However, in China, history is neglected and often intentionally manipulated. A good example is the famine which occurred from 1958 to 1961. Over 30 million Chinese died of starvation and many of those deaths can be attributed to bad CCP policies during the Great Leap Forward. However, in our history text books, the tragedy was solely the result of “natural disasters.”

Former Senior Xinhua Reporter, Yang Jisheng wrote a famous book called Tombstone, which uses primary materials, many unreleased, to analyze the real political reasons behind the famine. Of course, the book is officially banned in China, but I was lucky enough to get a copy from my friend who went to Hong Kong.  I couldn’t believe how much I never knew and was never taught.

Many Chinese, even the ones who lived through the starvation never mind the younger generation, don’t know about the real causes of the famine.  My parents were only children back then. They remember being hungry all the time. A small piece of candy was their breakfast and their lunch.  They also called the time the “Three Years of Natural Disasters” and never questioned the real cause.  One of the greatest tragedies of the 20th century happened right here, and nobody talks about it.

Without proper introspection, the problems have a history have their way of resurfacing.  The Great Leap Forward was over fifty years ago but the Great Leap Forward mentality still exists.  China’s push to build the fastest train in the world as quickly as possible, whatever the economic and human cost.  Local governments competing with eachother to report the highest GDP figures or have the biggest, tallest, or fanciest new buildings built in their district.  Even in the private sector, Chinese companies want to be worldbeaters, expanding rapidly without always considering product quality for consumers or the environment.

One of my aunts was sent to Shanxi when she was young. The only thing she had to eat was a kind of cornbread and porridge. Whenever she came home to visit, my grandmothers would ask her to take as much food as she could carry with her.  She always ended up dragging bags and bags of flours, pickles, pancakes, and snacks with her on the train.

Today her own children aren’t interested in her stories.  Even I am surprised by how my aunt sounds like she is telling some other person’s story. There is no anger or discussion of why it happened or who started the campaign that took away a decade of her youth.  We talk about what happened, but not why.  I don’t know if it’s because she never thought about it, or tries not to think about it, or whether growing up in such politically sensitive time makes her reluctant to speak openly about her experiences.

Many people in my parents generation, even those who lived through the political movements of Mao’s era, can relate to what Bo was trying to do.  During the Reform and Opening up, the restructuring of state owned companies meant a lot of people lost their jobs and fell behind as others became richer and richer. After 35 years as a worker in a factory, my dad is still a big supporter of Mao. The reason is simple and straightforward: During Mao’s time, people enjoyed equality and there wasn’t any corruption.  Bo is connecting with that feeling and it won him a lot of support.

But there was corruption during the Cultural Revolution and it appears from the stories coming out of Chongqing that Bo wasn’t any less corrupt than the officials he may have tortured.

Once again, we do not know what is the truth and what is the lie.  Will we ever really know what happened in the Bo Xilai case?

Every society has its problems, but my country will continue to suffer from the scars of history until we, and the Party, has the guts to face the unpleasant things and to learn from our mistakes.

Hung Huang: “When parents sneeze, it’s the children who catch the cold”

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In Hung Huang’s latest column for the Nandu Zhoukan (Southern Metropolis Weekly) she recounts a harrowing memory from her childhood and wonders what might be in store for Bo Guagua.  

When parents sneeze, it’s the children who catch the cold.

So many years have passed and I haven’t thought about these things in a long time.  Even when people talk about it, it always felt like they were telling some other person’s story.  I don’t feel anything anymore.  But I know clearly that this was one of the most important moments in my life, one which profoundly influenced who I am.

The events of the past few days have been dazzling, and make me think about what happened back then.  In October of 1976, Qiao Guanhua took part in his last meeting at the United Nations.  Before he returned to Beijing, he called me to his room and told me, “Your mother and I might have a problem, and we need to “inoculate” you, you need to be mentally prepared.

I kind of knew about their political problem, but at the time I was only 15 years old, I had been in the United States for three years and I really didn’t know much about what was going on back in China.  I didn’t know what I would do if something happened to them politically. I didn’t even know how I should “prepare.” All I felt was this enormous, invisible hammer being held over my head which at any time could fall and crush me.

Several weeks later, my American host father Tony gave me a copy of the New York Times, the top article said that Qiao Guanhua had been sacked.

Tony asked, “What does this mean for you?”

All I could say in reply was, “I don’t know.”

A few months later, the Chinese UN Delegation phoned me, and told me that all children must return the delegation for “study.”

“You only need to go back every two weeks right?” asked Tony. “Why are they calling you in on a Thursday?”

“I don’t know,” I answered. I had the same question.

Tony couldn’t accept this. He was thinking about this more than I was, and immediately called the Chinese delegation, demanding to talk to the person in charge of managing the students.

I sat there dumbfounded watching him call, knowing my life was about to dramatically change.

After Tony hung up the phone he told me that all the children studying in America were to return to China, not just me.  But Tony still took time off on Thursday afternoon and we went together to see the delegation.  I remember the person who was in charge of me telling Tony that in just a few days I would be returning to China.

Tony became furious.  He banged the table saying, “Who do you think we are? Who do you think these children are? You say come they just come, you say go and they just go? Huang is part of our family; she can’t go just because you say she’s going.”

At this point, the person in charge of me left the room, telling me to talk to Tony.

“Do you wish to stay?” Tony asked me in a low whisper.

“Stay here?” I asked, although I knew perfectly well what he had said.

“Stay in America, I can raise you,” Tony whispered.

“No, I want to go back,” I said firmly.

“Why? Do you know what they will do to you when you go back?” He replied.

“I don’t know. But if I don’t go back my mother will be in a lot of trouble.”

At the time I only felt I must not “betray my country.”  If in addition to being lackeys of the Gang of Four, Qiao Guanhua and Zhang Hanzhi also had a traitor for a child they’d never be able to defend themselves.

After the meeting, a member of the delegation accompanied me back for my last trip to Tony’s house. I packed my belongings and said goodbye to the whole family.

I and three other exchange students, who like me had to leave school in the middle of the term, boarded a plane and returned to Beijing via Paris.

Once back in Shijia Hutong,[1] I lived in a little room near the garage. At the time, I felt I was treated much better than the children of the “Black Fifth Category.”[2]  I saw my mom once when my mom had been locked in the attic at the Foreign Ministry building.  At that time it wasn’t called “shuanggui” (detain and investigate) it was “quarantined for investigation.”  I also saw Qiao Guanghua once. He still lived in the back of our courtyard, supervised by a 12-person working group.  When he saw me, he just patted my head and didn’t say anything.  Later I learned that not long after he broke his glasses and tried to kill himself by slashing his wrists.

The next time I saw Qiao Guanhua and my mom was at the Worker’s Stadium during the the “Session to Struggle Against Qiao and Zhang of the Foreign Ministry.”   I was given a very good seat where I could be sure to see everything clearly.  The struggle session was held in the afternoon, with a circus being performed in the same space later that evening.  They had already set up the round wooden stage used for the bears and I saw Qiao Guanhua and my mother being pushed into the ring just like bears.  Then all the people in the stadium started screaming, “Down with Qiao Guanhua! Lackey of the Gang of Four! Down with Zhang Hanzhi!”

My teacher stared at me, a slight smile forming on his mouth.  I was stunned.  Even if I had been “inoculated” a hundred times, I could never have mentally prepared myself for what I was seeing unfold in front of me.

So many years have passed and I haven’t thought about these things in a long time.  Even when people talk about it, it always felt like they were telling some other person’s story.  I don’t feel anything anymore.  But I know clearly that this was one of the most important moments in my life, one which profoundly influenced who I am.

Last week, I couldn’t help but think about Bo Guagua. Did his father inoculate him? Did he know what was about to happen? Did his American friends try to convince him to stay in the United States? Will he stay?

At least there won’t be any struggle sessions.  I guess we can call that progress.


[1] Where Hung Huang’s mother and step-father lived at the time.

[2] Reactionaries.

OMG, They Killed Lei Feng! Those Bastards!

My god, you knocked a utility pole down on Kenny and then built a posthumous cult around him!

Another Hollywood soft power triumph.

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