Monday, February 10, 2014

What Foreigners Do in China

(Also published on LARB's China Blog)

In the remote mountains of Yunnan Province, China, a middle-aged European ecologist gave up his high-level international program manager job and made his home with a local woman. Together, they set forth to reestablish the rainforests destroyed by rubber tree plantations, cultivated a garden — a seed bank — that “was home to more species than all of Germany,” reintroduced indigenous plant species to China, and homeschooled two bright young children with knowledge, poise and manners belying their age. In 2010, the extraordinary life of the ecologist, along with the draft of an unconventional paper that could “be of enormous value to mankind,” was cut short by a heart attack.

This story about Josef Margraf, written by journalist Jonathan Watts, is not a news report or profile but rather an essay, moving for both Watts’ own introspection and his sketch of Margraf’s life. I read it in the anthology Unsavory Elements —Stories of Foreigners on the Loose in China, in which editor Tom Carter has assembled 28 short contributions by a variety of expat writers. I had opened the book with the intention of browsing through it quickly. Though I was curious about how expats live in China, and why there are so many of them now, as a Chinese writer with a certain cynicism, I did not expect to find anything truly surprising. But surprised I was, and my own stereotypical presumptions stand corrected.

In 1971, when I was a middle school student in the city of Chongqing, recruiters dressed in military uniforms from the faraway Yunnan Production and Construction Corps — a more attractive name, I suppose, than “rubber plantations” to teenagers at the time — arrived at my campus and called on students to join them “guarding the frontier and cultivating the borderland.” Many of us, me included, applied with youthful enthusiasm, and almost everyone I knew who applied got their wish. I was spared because I was under-aged and also because some insightful adults, who viewed higher education as more important than planting rubber trees, stood in my way. In all, about 100,000 middle school students were collected from the cities of Beijing, Shanghai, Chongqing, Chengdu, and Kunming and sent to labor in Yunnan’s rubber plantations. The collective name for those young people was “Zhiqing,” or “Educated Youth.” Seven years of hardship and many tragic stories later, in the winter of 1978-79, those Zhiqing launched a spontaneous mass rally that has since been termed the “big return-to-city storm,” which eventually did bring them home. By then I, as one of the lucky few, had entered my second year in university, but my middle school friends who went to Yunnan missed their chance not only for university, but even for a high school education.

I had thought that the wasted youth of my 100,000 contemporaries qualified as the biggest damage caused by the rubber plantations, and that an end had been put to the practice in early 1979. Not until reading Watts’ chapter did I realize with a shock that the rubber plantations have been expanding during China’s recent economic boom and have gone on to become one of “China’s greatest ecological disasters.” The invasive species eats away at the region’s fertility and diversity, changes weather conditions and rainfall, and threatens to wipe out China’s only tropical rainforest. Many friends from my youth, through their goodwill and hard work, had unknowingly contributed to the disaster while also bringing short-term benefits to China’s industries.

In his essay titled “Invasive Species,” Watts also points out that, ironically, it was Europeans who brought rubber trees and monocultural practices to China more than a century ago. As a European himself, Josef Margraf’s effort thus could be viewed as “looking to the future by making up for the past wrongs.” “I think Josef has achieved more than any foreigner I had met,” says Watts, who also wonders loudly, “weren’t we too part of a kind of invasive species?”

Nowadays, there are over one million foreigners living in China, “many of whom are in effect economic refugees,” says Tom Carter in his introduction. The exponential growth of foreign residents compared to the late 1980s, when I first met my American husband in Chengdu, alone illustrates the now tried and true cliché “look how much China has changed!” Chinese readers of my generation, however, might also find in the book more than a few things that are unchanged, sometimes in unexpected corners. Dominic Stevenson, who fits more into the category of adventurer than economic refugee, left a comfortable life in Bangkok for China, but ended up spending two years in a Shanghai prison for being a hash smuggler along the ancient Silk Road. Stevenson’s essay, titled “Thinking Reports,” provides a rare glance at life as a foreign prisoner. A bizarrely familiar scene described in the chapter is probably unfamiliar to today’s young generation of Chinese: Stevenson and his cellmates are required to write “thought reports,” a maddening practice prevalent in the Cultural Revolution years that had “reformed” more than a few otherwise noble men into despicable informants betraying their friends. The suspense of Stevenson’s story is thus how he, a liberal-minded foreigner, will react to such a request. I can only hope the practice of “thought reporting” preserved in a prison is not going to reappear in Chinese society at large, a dreadful outlook no longer unthinkable under Xi Jinping’s rule.

But I might be too pessimistic. Simon Winchester takes my emotional ride with the expat experiences to a high point in his epilogue, where he is stuck in the void of western China’s desert alone with his dead car, toying with the prospect of perishing. “Except.” Following this emphatic pause is a cellphone signal, and his rescue because of it. “The Chinese build their infrastructure well these days, and one of the first things they have created in making their new nationwide transportation system — long before finishing the roads — is a cell phone network.” I might not agree with the author’s conclusion that China has become so successful today “precisely because it [is] not a casually planned society any more,” but that does not stop me from being in a celebratory mood when reading about a man’s life saved by China’s modern telecommunication infrastructure. This despite my own support for a neighborhood protest against the building of another cellular tower in our Boston suburb.

While my contradictory attitude might be explained away by the Chinese adage This is one time, that was another, Graham Earnshaw’s chapter “Playing in the Gray” tells a story eerily reminiscent of an earlier time. In 1872, a British businessman named Ernest Major launched one of the first and most prominent Chinese newspapers, Shen Pao, in Shanghai, which went on to lay the foundation for modern Chinese newspapers and continued publication for 77 years, until the Communists took over Shanghai in May 1949. Half a century later, in 1998, Earnshaw, again a Briton, again in Shanghai, founded “the first independent weekly English-language newspaper to be produced in Shanghai since the communist takeover in 1949.” “Sure, it was illegal. It had no publication license, its content was not reviewed by the Propaganda Bureau ahead of publication, and we had no right to print or distribute. But we did it anyway.” This fascinating experience led Earnshaw to believe China is a place where “nothing is allowed but everything is possible.”

Perhaps that is one of the major attractions of the Middle Kingdom. In an interview with Business Insider, Tom Carter was asked, “Do you think that the influence of foreigners on China is a good thing?” and he answered, “All things considered, I think China is more of an influence on the expats who live here than we are on it…” Circling back to the story about Josef Margraf, the influences work both ways, and every person has a different story to tell. I ended up reading through Unsavory Elements page by page, story by story, on the train to work in the morning and, when I was lucky enough to find a seat, on the way home in the evening as well. It is an uneven book, as might be expected of any anthology. There are a few stories that come across as condescending, sentimental, or dull. But the majority of them are captivating and, as a whole, the book is unexpectedly wide-ranging, thought-provoking, and entertaining.

Monday, November 4, 2013

"Better to Let Half of the People Die," said Mao?
Nearly two years ago, when I translated Yang Jisheng's response to Dikötter's strange comments on Tombstone, I said I was intensely interested to find out whether Mao really said "It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill," and if he did, in what context.  I received a couple of clues, but none provided the complete context, and I have been left wondering since. I even sent an email to Yang Jisheng asking if he knew about this Mao quote, but did not hear back – perhaps the email address I got from a journalist friend was no longer valid.

Amazingly, last week the answer came to me by accident, as I was reading a scholarly article written by Anthony Garnaut, a historian at Oxford, published in the journal China Information. 

In his article, "Hard facts and half-truths: The new archival history of China's Great Famine," Garnaut finds out that the Mao quote in question is not from a speech Mao delivered on March 25, 1959 as Dikötter claims, but it represents an impromptu response Mao made to Bo Yibo's report on the implementation of the industrial plan in the days that followed. "The comment is preceded by several remarks by Mao about Party oversight of the industrial sector, none of which touch upon agriculture or rural welfare." Mao was weighing in on how many projects should be undertaken to accomplish the plan set forth in Bo's report. Mao says:

If we want to fulfill the plan, then we need to greatly reduce the number of projects. We need to be resolute in further cutting the 1,078 major projects down to 500. (要完成计划,就要大減项目。1078个项目中还应該堅決地再多削減,削到500个。)

To distribute resources evenly is a way to sabotage the Great Leap Forward. (平均使用力量是破坏大跃进的办法。)

If all are unable to eat their fill, then all will die. It is better for half to die, so that half of the people can eat their fill. (大家吃不飽,大家死,不如死一半,給一半人吃飽。)

"The ‘people’ whom Mao was willing to let die of starvation turn out to be not people at all," Garnaut concludes, "but large-scale industrial projects."

I'm glad this fact is clarified, not because it mitigates Mao's guilt (it doesn't), but it supports the conclusion I reached in my LARB review of the two books by Yang and Dikötter respectively, that "the catastrophe was not a deliberate act of mass murder like the Holocaust, as Dikötter suggests. Rather, it was the result of policy failures from a governance system based on the control of ideology and information." This distinction is important if there are any lessons to be learned for today's leaders.

Another China scholar once wrote me – after reading my LARB review – that Mao's
monstrous moral failing was not in the motivation of starting the Great Leap Forward which turned out to be disastrous, but in his attitude toward criticism of his policies in the aftermath. I couldn't agree more with this assessment.

A question remains:  did Dikötter know what Mao meant but intentionally misinterpret it for wanting a smoking gun, or was his Chinese not good enough for him to know what he was doing?

By the way, Garnaut's article also analyzes Dikötter's repeated assaults on Yang Jisheng and his unacknowledged use of Yang's research results. I must say that, to date I still don't quite understand Dikötter's motivation in turning around on someone who had helped him generously with his research.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Reviews of Unsavory Elements

I have gotten good feedback on compiling reviews for a book (example: "Reviews of Deng Xiaoping in Review").  So here is another one - today for Unsavory Elements: Stories of Foreigners on the Loose in China. Some of these reviews (as well as the comments they triggered) are surely interesting to read.

I also plan to write a review myself, and I can tell you beforehand that I honestly enjoyed reading most of the book. But since translation issues will be beyond the scope of my review, here I'd like to briefly discuss the translation of two Chinese phrases, which I happened to encounter in two of my favorite stories in the book. 

"思想汇报" -- in the book it's translated as "thinking reports,"  but "thought reports" might be more accurate, and read better.

"哪里哪里" -- as a modest response to praises, this is humorously translated as "Where? where?" in the book.  If you have read my posts on translation before, you would know I'm often in favor of literal translation, but here I agree with one of the book reviewers below that "Nah, nah" would be a better rendition. Note also that the question marks don't exist in the original Chinese phrase. As a bilingual reader I enjoyed and appreciate the writer's humor, but for English readers who don't know Chinese the confusion caused by  "Where? where?" might trump the humorous effect.

Now, here is my compilation of reviews as well as interviews with Tom Carter the editor, in reverse chronological order of their publication dates --

(Updated 11/5), Nov. 5, 2013

LA Review of Books, Sept. 25, 2013

The Peking Duck, Sept. 13, 2013

Caixin Online, Aug. 24, 2013

Asian Review of Books, Aug. 17, 2013

Business Insider, Aug. 2, 2013, July 22, 2013

That's,  June 17, 2013

Chengdu Living, June 1, 2013

The Beijing Cream, May 21, 2013

Beijing Bookworm: "A Q&A with Tom Carter," May 21, 2013

Time Out Shanghai, May 10, 2013

The Beijinger, May 9, 2013

Shanghaiist, May 8, 2013


Monday, April 15, 2013

The New American Mother

(A personal essay about my early days in America)

In pain, you know only your native language.

The fetal monitor beside me showed a running curve, no pause between contractions. I was screaming in Chinese, my American husband told me later, but the language of pain did not need translation: the midwife hurried over to offer a painkiller. I refused; I did not want to risk my baby to any drug, no matter how safe they said it was.

When the baby finally emerged, wet and squalling, the midwife encouraged my husband to cut her umbilical cord. He did it with shaking hands while, with one glance at the new life I had created, I fell into the deep sleep of exhaustion. Hours later I opened my eyes to find myself still on the delivery bed; Bob sat to the side watching me, and our tiny new baby cradled in his big arms. I wanted to see whom the baby looked like, her American father or Chinese mother, but her closed eyes and the little reddened face gave no clue. Only her rhythmic hiccups expounded the commonness among humans.

Early the next morning, a nurse came to my hospital bed asking if I had urinated. "I did a lot," I told her, trying to be complete, but my Southern Chinese tongue, which did not distinguish "l" from "n," twisted the sound of "lot" to "not." "You did, or you did not?" The nurse asked again, her face twisted in confusion. I repeated the answer. She repeated the question. Several repetitions later, the frustrated nurse left without a sure answer. I only hoped that information was not important.


Giving birth was not the only hard thing for me in the new land.

Bob and I were married in China, and I had come to America with him for only a few months. Shortly after my arrival, one afternoon a delivery truck brought to our door a new refrigerator Bob had just purchased. The driver, a big muscular man in a white T-shirt, demanded a $30 delivery fee. I wanted to tell him my husband had paid the fee at the store, besides I did not have the cash at hand. However I could not form a proper English sentence. I made repeated "Ah, ah" sounds, like a mute person trying to talk, and they infuriated the man. He shouted, flailing his arms, "You don't wanna pay? Heh? Heh?" I understood his Boston-accented English, but I could not make him understand me. I feared he was not trusting of my Chinese face. Our landlord, an American man at his fifties, ran downstairs and said, "Easy, easy. She's new here, she doesn't speak English. It’s only 30 bucks." He took out money from his own pocket and handed to the driver, who climbed up the truck with our landlord's money, and uttered some incomprehensible apologetic words.


Before our baby's birth, Bob persuaded me to attend an exercise class for expectant mothers. The first time the exercise instructor said "hold," I did not know what to do. I looked around to see what others did, but found no apparent movements. The instructor smiled at my puzzlement, "Like you were going to pee, but not," she explained. A slight laughter ensued from my classmates, all American women.

When I returned to the class for postpartum exercise, the secretary asked for my baby's picture and my comments on the experience of giving birth for the first time. The wall facing her desk was full of pictures of cute infants, all looked the same with closed-eyes, and their mothers' exhilarating notes. I told her, "It was painful." The smile disappeared from the middle-aged woman's face. After a moment she said, "Well, I'm not going to write that down."

A fellow mother beside me said, "You'll forget the pain, believe me. Then you'll want another baby!"


I went to Boston University's summer English school when my baby was three months old. I couldn't wait. I pumped my own milk (a very difficult and painful affair) each evening, and stored it in the new fridge. I nursed my baby in the morning, pushed her stroller with my pumped milk to the babysitter, and rode an hour on my bicycle from Belmont to BU. The bike ride was an idea of one arrow for two eagles: to save the subway fair and to lose the weight from my pregnancy. I bought the bike from a yard sale, and it cost only $15.

My class contained mostly young Japanese women, a decade younger than me perhaps. On the first day's introduction, I thought it funny that we had two Miki's. The second time I heard the name Miki, I chuckled, "Ah, Miki too!"

"My name is Miki! No Miki one, no Miki two!" the young woman yelled at me in an unexpected anger. "I said 'too,'" I tried to explain, "t-o-o," but it only made her angrier. What created me an unintended enemy the first day, my bad pronunciation, or the universality of lack-of-understanding, I was not sure.

Not a good start.


Katherine, the thirty-something teacher, chewed gum and gave us an assignment to make sentences from our new vocabulary. I was stuck at the word "ample." My baby did not take the pumped milk yesterday, the babysitter had told me. Should I quit the English school and stay home with her? Was she sick? I should check the color of her poop more carefully tonight.

I wrote: "A baby has ample poop."

Katherine read my sentence to the class and said it was wrong, but I did not understand why.

After class, the other Miki, the friendly one, asked me what "poop" meant. "The thing you do in bathroom," I told her. Her cheeks flushed, but she was persistent: "Which one? Big one or little one?"

The evening I asked my American husband what was wrong with my sentence. He laughed and laughed. "It's so cute! It's so cute!" He cooed to the baby, "Let's check your ample poop." He made me laugh too, but I suspected his love had handicapped his ability to teach me proper English. He enjoyed my Chinglish too much.


My baby cried the whole night and I did not finish my English homework. In the morning, during my hour-long bike ride to BU, it showered. I looked like a drenched chicken when I showed up at the classroom door and I was late. "Don't come in yet," Katherine frowned at me, then she turned to ask the other women students, "Who has extra clothes?"

The friendly Miki took me to her dorm in BU and made me change to her dry clothes. The shirt and the pants were a bit too short for me, but her generosity was not. We returned to the classroom twenty minutes later, and Katherine's expression softened.

Katherine paired off the students to check each other's homework, and she assigned the unfriendly Miki to me. I hesitated before saying, "I'm sorry, I did not get the time to do my homework." Miki wasted no time looking for more explanation. She shouted, in a victorious voice, to the teacher across the classroom, "She did not do the homework! She did not do the homework!" Katherine's face dropped. The entire class went quiet, and 12 pairs of eyes stared at me. I had not known this was such a big crime.

I told Katherine, and the class, about my crying baby, and my words sounded like a bad excuse. The quiet stares continued. None of the young students were married. I wasn't sure about Katherine's marital status, but I knew she was not a mother. The other day, during the lunch break, when I was looking for a store to buy a more effective milk pump, she had directed me to a bicycle shop.

Now she said, "Perhaps you should just stay home and be a good mother." Then she ordered me to leave.

I rode my bike home, crying all the way. I had always been a top student in China, from elementary to graduate school, and now I was kicked out of a class for a stupid piece of English homework.

The afternoon, Bob took off from work and drove to BU's administration office. The administrator responded to his protest by telling him that Katherine was an ambitious teacher, one of their best, and her aggressive approach was quite understandable.

I told Bob I was quitting the English school.


That weekend, in a Chinese friend's party, my baby sat on the floor playing with her rosy bear. She was four months old. Suddenly I heard a sound, a sound so clear, so melodious, like a pearl falling into a silver plate. It took me a moment to realize it was laughter, my baby's first laughter. I held her up, laughing too, turning around to meet Bob's equally amused eyes. The room was full of noises from the host and the guests, and no one else had noticed the most amazing, most rewarding sound in the world.

I rode my bike to BU again on Monday, my baby's first laughter following me all the way like sunshine. It made me realize that my English vocabulary would grow with her. One day—I promised myself—I would get revenge on Katherine with my first published story written in English.

(First published in MotherVerse, 2006)

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Reading: Harper's on Bo Xilai

For much of 2012, the year of China's political earthquake, I waited to read Harper's analysis of the Bo Xilai saga, but never got the chance. As a long-time subscriber, I'm glad to see a report this year, even if it's a bit late.  In her informative article "The Unraveling of Bo Xilai – China loses a populist star," Lauren Hilgers provides balanced coverage of the divided public opinions on Bo, and convincingly shows how information unavailability helped to veil the fact that a Chinese politician who once appeared to be the most accessible "had been no more candid than any other Party secretary."  

I completely agree with Hilgers that officialdom opacity is a big problem in China and, as I've discussed before, different social classes have different level of access to information. But her article sparked more thoughts. Suppose all the social classes received the same amount of information about Bo Xilai, would their positions toward him converge?   I doubt it.

Chongqing, where Bo Xilai last ruled, is my hometown and I visit it often. There has been a heavy divide between the locals even when confronted with the same promulgated information.  Intellectuals I spoke to disliked Bo's behavior and policies long before his downfall; this is consistent with Hilgers' report.  Many low-income, less-educated people, on the other hand, continue to advocate Bo even after his dark side has been exposed and the initial stage of disbelief has passed. What's interesting – and also alarming – is the latter's reasoning. So what if Bo was corrupt? They say, Which official in China is not?  But the others are corrupt AND incompetent, while Bo was capable of getting something done. So what if Bo's "Chongqing model" was causing local government bankruptcy?  Certainly it is a lot better to spend the money on local construction than let it fall into the pockets of corrupt officials. And, so what if Bo Xilai and Wang Lijun carried out cruel torture, unjust executions, and massive imprisonments of private businessmen and political dissenters during their "anti-mafia" campaign?  Since ancient times, "killing the rich to benefit the poor" has been justified.

So, the most urgent and fundamental problem as seen by the two groups of people is different. To those with low-income, it is the wealth gap.  To liberal intellectuals, it is the rule of law. Both are legitimate concerns, and both should be addressed.  Bo, however, for his own self-serving agenda chose to play the game of favoring one and trampling the other. While it is clear that he placed himself above the law during his rule in Chongqing, there is no evidence that his populist policies (the so-called "Chongqing model") actually reduced the wealth gap; further, the face engineering that pleased his supporters is unsustainable, as it was implemented with heavy borrowing that has put Chongqing's finances into dire straits. In fact, what the current division in public opinion reflects is that the Bo incident has become an anchor from which both sides can vent their discontent.

Hilgers also touches on a very interesting phenomenon: "[T]here were two groups who disliked Bo Xilai: Party leaders and liberal intellectuals."  I wish the author had explored this coincidence a bit further. When groups we think of as critical of Chinese authority find themselves on the same side of some issue, this is worth analyzing and understanding. But I realize it is also beyond the scope of Hilgers’ article.

Friday, February 22, 2013

"Skylark": a Translated Story

Cover Image(Note:  This is a short story I translated for Pathlight issue No. 1, 2012, posted here with permission. I had not heard about author Jin Renshun before I got the assignment. Her writing is both beautiful and subtle, and I truly enjoyed translating the piece. I tried to be faithful to her original style and hope I've succeeded somewhat. – Xujun)

Jin Renshun:   Born in 1970 of Korean extraction, and now living in Changchun, Jin Renshun has published the novel Spring Fragrance, the short story collections Cold Front of Love, Moonlight Oh Moonlight, One Another, and The Glass Café, and the essay collections Like a Dream in Broad Daylight and Poisonous Beauties. Her work has been translated into Japanese, English. German and Korean. In 2010 she attended the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program.


Each day at dusk, from six to eight, the third table by the window was reserved for Kang Joon-Hyuk. Occasionally he brought friends – perhaps employees – with him, but mostly he came alone, magazine in hand, to read a few pages before the dishes were served. He and Chun Feng spoke every day, but nothing beyond her asking what he’d like and his ordering of dishes, followed by a few pleasantries of the “Thanks,” “You are welcome” sort.

One day Chun Feng forgot to put the “Reserved” sign on the table. By the time she realized her mistake, the table was occupied by two middle-aged women who chatted nonstop from the second they walked in. They ignored Chun Feng’s apologies and requests.

“This is where we’re sitting,” they said. “We’re not going anywhere.”

While another waitress handled their order, Chun Feng went outside to wait for Kang Joon-Hyuk.

“I’m really sorry,” she bowed to him, tears spilling forth. “It’s all my fault.”

“Did I cause you any trouble?” he said. “You stood in the wind for so long, for such a little thing! It’s me who should apologize.”

(Read the complete story here)

Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Last "Red Guard"?

In my previous post, I distinguished two generations of Red Guards.  The first generation,  a disarray of factions who engaged in a great deal of violence from the summer of 1966 to 1968, were disbanded by the end of 1968 after the "Down to the Countryside" movement began on a large scale. This fact is pretty much clear.  The nuance I was trying to spell out is about the second generation, which came into being when middle schools resumed classes in the fall of 1969 after a three-year hiatus.  This time, the name "Red Guard" was borrowed by authorities for the official student organizations that, at first, served as a temporary substitute of the Communist Youth League which remained dormant then.

Apparently, what requires further clarification is exactly when the second generation "Red Guard" organizations began to disappear and when they eventually ceased to exist nationwide. From my memory, after I entered high school in the fall of 1971, the Communist Youth League revived, and we had no more "Red Guard" activities.  Last week in Chongqing, I asked a few old schoolmates, and they remembered it the same as I did.

However, the evening before I left Chongqing, I had dinner with some friends, and a couple of younger men told me that they had entered middle school and become "Red Guards" in 1975 (at the time, I was in the countryside receiving "reeducation" as a "zhi-qing").  I was surprised and subsequently searched I found two pieces of information that I wasn't previously aware of (or had forgotten about):

  • In 1975, Wang Hongwen (a member of the "Gang of Four") had proposed merging the Youth League and "Red Guard" organizations in secondary schools, though the merger was never realized.
  • The Communist Party and Youth League formally revoked "Red Guard" organizations on August 19, 1978.
So, theoretically, the second generation "Red Guards" could have existed through August 1978.  On the other hand, I have found no citations suggesting their activities lasted beyond 1976, the year the Cultural Revolution ended.

In my discussion with the younger friends in Chongqing early this week, they believed that, by 1975, the "Red Guard" organizations were no longer mandatory for all schools. Thus, different schools might have done things differently, and differences might also have existed between high schools and middle schools.  This again reminds me the danger of generalization from one's own experience, something I try to be vigilant for but still sometimes let down my guard. Also, while I do not remember any Red Guard activities when I was in high school, it is possible that my memory serves me wrong.

As such I would like to invite my Chinese readers to help the fact-checking process:  if you were a secondary school student in China between 1971 and 1978, could you please let me know when was the last time you were aware of "Red Guard" activities in your school?  If you don't like to leave comments, you can email me.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Fact Checking on Fu Ping's Controversial "Red Guard" Photo

(posted from Chongqing via a proxy)

First, full disclosure:  I have not read Fu Ping's memoir, Bend, Not Break. The book, advertised as a "rags to riches" story, is not the kind that interests me, thus was not on my reading list. I had glanced at a few criticisms online in January, but did not read them carefully because I was busy writing.  In early February, before I left Boston, a friend got very angry at Fu after reading some articles about her book from a US-based Chinese website, and talked to me about it. She urged me to read those articles, but I did not get the time.  After I arrived in Chongqing to spend the Spring Festival with my parents, another cyber friend wrote and invited me to add an independent voice to the discussion.  But my father, who's 87, was hospitalized on Chinese New Year's eve, and caring for him took priority.

As my father's condition was improving, I checked out a few articles two days ago.   Among them, I found a Guardian report informative and balanced.  Sounds like Fu will have quite a number of things to explain to her readers.

To be fair, however,  I have to say Fu was not wrong in the following quote:
A photograph supplied to media by Fu shows her posing with a little red book, Mao badge and armband. Michel Bonnin of Tsinghua University and Prof Yin Hongbiao of Beijing University said it showed she was not disgraced as a "black element" at the time, as she claimed; Fu said it was common for children to be pictured pledging allegiance to Mao, "whether 'black' or 'red'".
As a child of "Capitalist Roader" parents, I wore a Mao badge and held the "little red book" during the Cultural Revolution. Every kid I knew did that, regardless of their family background.

In another photo that caused outrage, Fu and other students wear armbands before a Red Guard flag. I don't know when that photo was taken, but if Fu was born in 1958, she could only be 8 to 10 from 1966 to 1968, when the violent Red Guard movement was ongoing, and she herself would be too young to be one of them. If the photo was taken after she entered middle school, then it would be no earlier than 1969, which was the year middle schools resumed classes. By that time, the Red Guard factions involved in the early years of the CR no longer existed, and their members either had gone to the countryside, were in factories or had joined the army. 

After middle schools reopened in 1969, however, another kind of "Red Guard" came into being, this time organized by school authorities. Because the Communist Youth League was still paralyzed at the time, the authorities needed another official student organization as a substitute, so the name "Red Guard" was borrowed. But this "Red Guard" is not that Red Guard; the two generations were completely different in nature despite the common name. I was one of those who entered middle school in 1969; almost all kids in my class were members of the new generation, official "Red Guard" organization, except one or two mischievous boys. I don't know about other schools, but we didn't have armbands.

After high schools reopened in the fall of 1971, the Communist Youth League resumed activities and the official "Red Guard" organization began to exit the stages of history. It is unclear when the aforementioned photo was taken.  I checked with a friend who has a digital copy of Fu's book and learned that the photo is undated. If it was taken in the late 1970s, then the armbands and the flag in it could have been some sort of props for performances.

So the question is: when was the photo taken?

I have a few more things to discuss but I'm running out of time right now. If you can read Chinese, please check out my post on Sina blog.

(Updated on 2/19)

Friday, January 25, 2013

The 2012 Awards for the Top 10 Books in China

The annual awards competition for the 10 best books published in China was launched in 2005. It is co-sponsored by Hong Kong Phoenix TV's book channel and Beijing's Publishers magazine. The 2012 results, divided into five categories, are translated below.  Notably, the list includes 4 foreign books (links provided) translated into Chinese, two of them I'm familiar with. It provides a glance into what kind of foreign books are catching the attention of Chinese readers.

I'm reading some of these books written by Chinese authors, and plan to follow up with reviews. Brief summaries are provided for the Chinese titles that are not self-explanatory.

Literature and Fiction  (3):

1. Where Is Home: Old Town, Old Friends, Old Stories, essay collection by Ye Fu
Tragic and romantic stories of the author's relatives and friends, which also reflect China's transition through recent decades

2.  At The End of the Big River, novel by Li Yongping
The physical and spiritual journey of a 15-year-old Malaysian Chinese boy tracking the headwaters of Kapuas River

3.  Love in the Time of Cholera, novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (2007), Chinese translation by Yang Ling  

Culture and History (3 ): 

4.      River Town by Peter Hessler (2001), Chinese translation by Li Xueshun 

5.      Rewinding the "Red Wheel":  Russian Intellectuals' Spiritual Journey by Jin Yan 

6.      Revolution by Yang Kuisong
Four volumes of research on the less known history of China's Communist revolution in the first half of the 20th century, especially the relationship between Mao Zedong and Moscow 

Scholarship and Philosophy (2):  

7.      You Can Never Wake Up One Who Pretends to be Asleep by Zhou Lian
 A collection of commentaries on happiness, justice, virtue, democracy, freedom, and morality 

8.      The Spectre of Comparisons:Nationalism, Southeast Asia, and the World  by Benedict Anderson (1998), Chinese translation by Gan Huibing 

Life and Arts (1): 

9.      Rip It Up: The Radically New Approach to Changing Your Life by Richard Wiseman (2012) , Chinese translation by Li Lei 

Finance and Management (1): 

10.  Stories of Wang Er's Economics by Ge Kai
Economic theory explained through the stories of a fictional character

Friday, December 28, 2012

Chongqing Police: Before and After Wang Lijun's Downfall (2)

Wang Lijun sounded like such an arbitrary person. One question the Chinese reporter asked was really good. – Xujun

[in translation; continued from the previous post]

Southern Weekend: The Women’s Traffic & Patrol Special Detachment that was set up under Wang Lijun, will it be disbanded?

Chongqing Police Official: The Women’s Traffic & Patrol Special Service Detachment, the idea for the future is to maintain a normal institutional structure, there will be men and women, some women will be diverted to other departments. Let some women comrades join the Traffic & Patrol for nonviolent law enforcement, that's all right, but to set a special women's detachment, we do not quite agree. Especially, the design of a special uniform for them was a serious breach of regulation, something that had never happened in the history of China's public security. Since May 1st of this year, the Women's Traffic & Patrol Detachment has changed the uniform.

SW:  Any results after you made ​​the above adjustments?

Chongqing Police Official: Of course. The police platforms emptied manpower from the stations, and the basic work in public security was very weak, that was why the "3 • 19 gun-robbery" case was not solved for a long time. When solving the Zhou Kehua case, we did not make big noise. In less than four days Zhou Kehua was [found and] shot; police from stations played a direct role in this, and the masses provided important clues, which proves the importance of public security grass-roots work.

SW:  After a series of twists and turns, has the operational capacity of the Chongqing Public Security declined?

Chongqing Police Official: Objectively speaking, in recent years the Chongqing police's  operational capacity has declined somewhat, but it's hard to say how much. There are several reasons: First, the 2010 "institutional reform" made a mess for cadres. Institutional restructuring was originally required by the central government and the city, and the requirement was legitimate. However, Wang Lijun required all 308 division-level cadres and 2544 subdivision-level cadres be dismissed. All had to start over and try regain their positions through competition. Because he did not trust the local cadres, Wang Lijun also required 200 division-level cadres to be transferred in from outside, but we had only a total of over three hundred posts at that level. The complete overturn was to pave the way for outside cadres. At the time, the comrade who was heading the Political Department said that, according to regulations, administration personnel are appointed but not hired, thus they can't be simply dismissed from employment.   Wang Lijun thought about it and said, "Then lets call it 'dismiss from tasks'.". That was how this new term was coined by Wang Lijun. In this way, all human resources were disrupted, a large number of highly skilled cadres effectively became rookies, and needed time to get familiar with their new jobs. Secondly, 11,800 new police were recruited and placed in their posts directly, which caused the poor quality of case-solving in recent years. Now we have decided to start career training for the new police.

SW: I heard that you recently restored posts for some police officials at division and subdivision levels who had failed to regain employment through competition.   Does this mean you let some unqualified officials return to their posts?

Chongqing Police Official: According to the regulations, in institutional reform, the filling of posts should first consider existing qualified cadres, and then use any vacant posts for employment through competition.  But he overturned everything.

When giving examinations, he made ​​it clear one test that must be included was whether police had studied Bo Xilai's and his speeches.  After some struggle, we managed to also include some professional questions. Overall, the quality of cadres who passed the exams was not too bad.

In the end, 159 division level and 968 subdivision level cadres were not used. Most of those were either not allowed to participate in the competition because Wang Lijun put trumped-up charges on them, or they passed the competition but Wang did not like them and did not want to use them. Recently, this group of cadres went through re-examination, and 76 division level cadres and 299 subdivision level cadres were reappointed.  For those who have reached the retirement age, their treatment is retained but they no longer work on key posts. For the few with very low public acceptance and poor performance, we did not reappoint.

1123 police demanded vindication

SW: Recently, we keep hearing that the Chongqing police launched a large scale internal vindication. How many police have been vindicated?

Chongqing Police Official: In May, we set up a special review team headed by a Deputy Chief, to specifically accept and review complaints of police who had been punished. So far we received a total of 1123 police complaints. Because some of the cases involve multiple individuals, the number of police that require review is 2202. So far 1796 have been reviewed; 78% of the original decisions were overturned, 13% retained,  and 9% modified. A number of departmental, division and subdivision police have resumed their duties and received retroactive wages.  So far 133 resumed their leadership positions, including 48 at the division level, and 85 at the subdivision level. Among another 9 cadres at deputy departmental level who had been dismissed, 3 have resumed their positions, and another six are under review.

SW: Why have so many police officers been punished? In what situations have the original decisions been overturned, retained, or modified respectively? With so much revocation, it's tempting to think some problematic police are returning to their posts.

Chongqing Police Official: Let me give you a few examples:

One, in 2010 a middle school student drowned in Yongchuan District. The district police investigated and concluded it was suicide. But the family refused to accept the conclusion, they posted on the internet and  advertised on the streets offering a reward. After Wang Lijun learned about this, he called the district police chief and demanded an immediate arrest of that family. The district chief did not make the arrest, instead he let the family and school negotiate compensation.  Later the family went to petition the Municipal Police Bureau. Wang Lijun got very angry, he called the district chief to his municipal office, scolded him, and requested the family members of the deceased to be sent to labor camp.  The district chief did not follow Wang's instructions.  Soon Wang Lijun removed him from his position and transferred him to the command center to work as a common police for nine months. Only after the new municipal police chief arrived this year, was he able to resume his position. He now serves as the director of the police coordination department.

Two, cadres were indicted for little things. Once, Wang Lijun went to Kaixian County for an inspection, and the county police bureau's reception for his visit did not meet his high standard.  Wang was very unhappy. After he returned, he immediately let his deputy chief Tang Jianhua form a work team to investigate the county police bureau's leadership. In the end, they listed more than 50 counts of crimes and removed most of the county police leaders and a large number of cadres. Another time, Wang Lijun passed by the Discipline Committee's office and saw the toilet window's blinds were broken, he dismissed the entire office. Anywhere he went, even out of Chongqing, he required his office staff to tell hotel staff that, when pouring wine for him, the wine must be substituted with water. Sometimes the hotel staff made a mistake and poured wine instead of water, Wang would get mad and punish a bunch of his office staff.

Cases that have been overturned were mostly this kind of small mistakes, not enough for Party discipline or administrative sanctions. At that time, Wang Lijun used "admonishing talk" for actual punishment to affect police's normal promotion. For example, after one year of service, if the person got an "admonishing talk," he would not get a formal position. After investigation, we revoked the sanction on those comrades.

On the other hand, 13% of the police whose sanctions are maintained did have problems. For example, some police drove a police car to beat up civilians. The director of a police station didn't go to the [crime] site after receiving reports, instead he demanded the off-duty deputy director go; the delay caused the suspect to flee and run over a person. These people, under Wang Lijun or not, must be punished by law. In some cases of over-punishment, charges were reduced after our investigation.

On police vindication, the former secretary of the Politics and Law Committee, Liu Guanglei and the current secretary, Liu Pu, all gave specific instructions and guidance. They requested us to do a good job on ideological work.  The Municipal Commission for Discipline Inspection, the Organizational Department, and the Politics and Law Committee all gave us a lot of support. Currently, Chongqing's police force has gradually stabilized.

SW: Recently, there has been news that the Chongqing police had often used torture to extract confessions, is it true?

Chongqing Police Official: Recently some people were talking about Tieshanping. (Editorial note: According to media reports, a militia training base located on top of  Chongqing's Tieshanping Forest Park had been used as the "outsourced interrogation base" for the "smash black" campaign). Whether there existed torture is under investigation by the People’s Procuratorate. I won't comment on specific cases, but let me make two statements:  first, the police departments must serve their duties to fight against crime and protect the people, any cases violating the criminal law and endangering people's lives and property, the police must handle in accordance with law. Second, any cases handled by Chongqing police, no matter when, no matter what kind, as long as there is a complaint, we will strictly and carefully review according to law, fairly and justly deal according to law.

SW: I feel you now blame Wang Lijun for lots of the problems; Why didn't the Chongqing Police Bureau's Party Committee play its due role of supervision and discipline?

Chongqing Police Official: I'll give you a few more examples. Because a policeman from Wushan County petitioned,  Wang Lijun punished the entire leadership of the county's police bureau. The news was spread on the internet, then a bunch of comrades in the Propaganda Division were punished.  At a Party Committee meeting, a committee member suggested that "We shouldn't overthrow a large number [of cadres]."  Wang pounded the table, "XXX, screw you! Shut up your stinky mouth!"
When Woman's Traffic & Patrol Police was established, the uniform they used was not the one regulated by the Ministry of Public Security, but was designed by the order of Wang Lijun. One of the Party Committee Members suggested that the Ministry of Public Security has clear regulation on uniforms, and this [design] resulted in a serious breach of the regulation. Wang Lijun was very angry: "XXX, do you mean only you understand the Ministry's regulations but not me? Only you follow the decision of the Ministry but not me?" The committee member had to say: "I didn't mean that, I was just doing my duty as a deputy." Wang Lijun said, "It's okay to make suggestions, but always think twice before you do."

Wang Lijun publicly claimed at a Party committee meeting: "Let me tell you, I can remove, even arrest, the entire leadership of the Party Committee within a day." At a police General Assembly, Wang Lijun also said publicly: "All of you (in the audience), including those leaders on the stage, I can get within a day."  That sort of thing, first you are unable to change, second you'd do yourself in.

SW: We always say that the current regulations are all very good, then why did those things happen under such a good system?

Chongqing Police Official: This is for individual reasons. Under the same system, why do we perform well now?

SW: Aren't there things worthy of rethinking?

Chongqing Police Official: Power was not restrained, power was abused. The lack of monitoring is what led to some lawless things happening in the Chongqing Municipal Police Bureau.

SW:  Did Wang Lijun have some good aspects?

Chongqing Police Official: Some things seem like his merits. For example, he requested that, if a police officer has a traffic accident, whether it's the police's responsibility or not, he must be detained. Of course some people supported this.  Public support is of course a good thing, but sometimes the law was violated in order to win some people's support, which shouldn't be done.  On the other hand, even though Wang Lijun punished a lot of people, sometimes he would use capable individuals who had offended him. #

(You can read the Chinese text here.)

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Chongqing Police: Before and After Wang Lijun's Downfall (1)

For the first time since the downfall of Bo Xilai and Wang Lijun in February-March this year, a high-rank Chongqing police official comments on changes in Chongqing's police force, in an interview with the Chinese paper Southern Weekend.  The Chinese reporter asked very good questions, and the official gave almost straightforward answers. The interview is quite long and I'll post my translation in two parts.

I have asked questions in this space before on what would happen to Chongqing's police platforms and "mounted" policewomen.  You'll find answers in this interview (and also the accurate cost figures).  Note the fact that it was under Wang Lijun that Chongqing's traffic and patrol police forces were consolidated; apparently this structure will be kept. – Xujun

Feb. 7, 2011 ceremony of Chongqing's Traffic & Patrol Police

[in translation]

Southern Weekend (SW): Since March, we keep hearing that Chongqing's public safety is relapsing. What is the actual situation now?

Chongqing Police Bureau Official: Since March 15, some netizens have been concerned about a relapse in Chongqing's public safety. To address this we carried out a series of actions to ensure that "crackdown intensity is not weakened, precautionary measures are not decreased, public security does not deteriorate, the public's sense of safety is not reduced." Currently, social order in Chongqing is generally steady.

On one hand, we have stepped up precautionary measures, the total number of criminal cases from January to November 2012 fell by 8.4% compared to the same period last year. Among them, the eight major categories including murder, robbery, injury, rape, arson, bombings, hijacking and kidnapping cases decreased by 27.9%. On the other hand, we have also increased the strength of our crackdown, with the number of cases prosecuted increasing by 7.7%.

SW: Over the past three years, Chongqing published lots of data to prove the [criminal] case reduction and the public's sense of safety. Now you are releasing data that say major criminal cases are fewer than then, how can the public believe this is true?

Chongqing Police Official:  The police bureau's data on the eight major categories of criminal activity are relatively accurate, but the data on other ordinary criminal cases are less reliable. The increase in the number of prosecuted cases is also proof that police strength and their ability to solve cases are improving.

In the past, guided by an erroneous view of political performance, in order to achieve short-term personal objectives, the Chongqing Police Bureau exaggerated some public safety data and embellished propaganda: 

First, without any factual basis, some made-up data were issued. For example, saying that the "smash black, banish evil" campaign reduced  110 [emergency number equivalent to 911 in the US] calls in the major urban areas of Chongqing by 40%, or that 80% of the people used real names when reporting crimes, or that street crime rate dropped 40% after the establishment of the Traffic & Patrol, etc.  But in fact, after the establishment of the Traffic & Patrol in 2010, street crime fell by only 2.96% compared to 2009.  

Second, in some cases, data for one point or one time were amplified. For example, saying "Since the establishment of the Traffic & Patrol, Chongqing for the first time in 21 years, had zero incidence of street robbery during one day." 

Third, non-professional polling data were touted. In December 2010, a Chongqing media outlet published opinion polls on public safety satisfaction. The rate of satisfaction was as high as 98.81%.  This non-professional, flamboyant data was used in propaganda as a measure of achievements.

SW: Why was it done that way then?

Chongqing Police Official:  If the data reported by various departments did not satisfy Wang Lijun's requirements, [those involved] might be punished, so some departments reported false data. If our statistics department sent in actual data, they would be in trouble, too. If the reported street crime rate did not decline, or even declined less than Wang Lijun expected, Wang would keep giving statisticians tight shoes to wear. In this situation some departments were forced to cater to Wang Lijun with falsified data.

SW: I've also heard this: Some people feel that, in the past, Wang Lijun governed the police very strictly, and the police were very warm and responsible to citizens, but now some police are no longer as interested in helping people as before.

Chongqing Police Official: Chongqing has a police force of nearly forty thousand, certainly there are problems that exist.  Some individual officers treat public needs coldly or push them away.  But even under Wang Lijun, there were also cases such as police losing their guns, letting suspects slip away because of delays, drunk driving, and  dereliction of duty. But he suppressed such negative information, and expanded the positive messages. The Bureau's new Party committee has attached great importance to complaints involving police. Any complaints through 110 calls and internet channels about police dereliction of duty, will be carefully investigated and handled justly by relevant departments.

SW:   You say public safety has not deteriorated compared to the past, then why is it that people feel differently from what you say?

Chongqing Police Official:  In the past, Chongqing's public security was good, but not as good as the propaganda said. The propaganda magnified it. For example, the portion of burglary cases was the highest among all criminal cases, this was true before Wang Lijun became the police chief, and when he was the police chief, and is still true now with He Ting as the chief. Criminal cases have their own patterns. However, in the past if anyone dared to say on the internet that Chongqing's public security was not good, they would be punished. Now, there are no such worries, and people can say anything they want about the quality of public security.

On the internet some people expressed dissatisfaction with individual cases that have occurred recently in Chongqing, such as smashing car windows and theft.  After we solved these cases, we found that the majority of perpetrators were minors, for whom we couldn't give criminal penalties. After we arrested them, we still had to release them. This is a problem that causes headaches for police across the country. The end of the year is also generally a high occurrence time for criminal cases and accidents; recently we have been taking targeted measurements to deal with pickpocketing, burglary, robbery, etc. based on public reporting.

Public order cannot be improved by one or two crackdowns, or by extreme pressure from police every day. Public order is a societal issue. For example, why would one want to be a pocket-picker?  Police have important responsibilities to solve cases, but crime is a comprehensive reflection of various social conflicts, and prevention of crime must rely on comprehensive governance and management. This is the fundamental way to solve crime.

SW: I saw that some police platforms have disappeared. I also heard that the platforms will be gradually withdrawn. What is your plan really?

Chongqing Police Official: Police platforms will be kept, but they must be mobile. Currently, we have equipped some large police vehicles as moving platforms. The fixed platforms will be gradually optimized.  In some key areas fixed platforms will remain, and others will be changed to regular posts.

SW: Many Chongqing residents think that after the police platforms were set up, public safety was improved. Why do you have to withdraw?   Is it because they are not financially sustainable?

Chongqing Police Official:  The consolidation of traffic and patrol police is a very good idea, but it is worth discussing whether fixed platforms are needed. First, the current platforms lack mobility. The dictate of public security work is that, because crimes are not in a fixed place, the police force must follow the cases. Police should go where criminals are. A lot of crimes occur distant from the platforms. If you let the masses go to the platforms to report, what does 110 do?  The Traffic and Patrol Police are like the hospital registration room and the emergency room,  they are responsible for registration and emergency first aid, but can't treat serious illness. Those cases must be assigned to specialists. Our own requirement is that as soon as the public calls, we go to the crime scene

Second, the police platforms take up a lot of manpower. Each platform requires 20-30 officers, and Chongqing has 500 platforms that use nearly 14,000 police.  This is more than 1/3 of the total manpower. Most officers at police stations and community offices were transferred to the platforms. Chongqing originally had 803 police stations, and 2904 task rooms, but because manpower was deployed to the platforms, 220 stations were merged and 926 task rooms were unable to operate normally. The Ministry of Public Security requires that, police stations should account for 40% of the total force. But early this year, Chongqing’s had only 24%, no one to do the work at the stations. For example, transient population, released inmates, drug abusers and those with mental illness were poorly managed. The early warning information on crimes could not be collected. Since March of this year, we have restored 104 police stations and more than 900 task rooms.

To place a lot of the police force on the streets can only treat security problems superficially. People see so many police on the streets and feel safe, happy, that is understandable. But a big number of police does not equal good public order.  In the Liberation Monument area, with the presence of Traffic and Patrol Police, there are still lots of pickpockets. Thus after setting up police platforms, we still had to organize a team of several hundred to specifically deal with pickpockets.

Third, the fixed platforms are too wasteful. One platform costs 300,000 yuan for fixed equipment, and 800,000 annually for operational expenses. Chongqing has 500 platforms, and a year costs a total of 4 billion. The long-term effect is to waste a big amount of fiscal funds.  If they are changed to mobile platforms, to buy a Iveco truck needs only 200,000, and all the equipment can be moved into the vehicle. The monthly cost for each vehicle is 60-70,000 less than a fixed platform. Do the math, how much money can be saved?

In addition, a fixed platform operates in the open air, it's hot in the summer and cold in the winter for both the public and the police. That's not very humane. Mobile platforms have heating in the winter and air-conditioning in the summer. (To be continued)