Archive for the ‘Do Something Useful’ Category

Weekend reading and viewing

July 13, 2013

1. First up, a farewell piece from Evan Osnos, China correspondent of the New Yorker. All about his poet bin-man friend.

A BILLION STORIES

POSTED BY 
Osnos-qi-290.jpg
In my neighborhood, near the Lama Temple, the men and women in fluorescent orange jumpsuits work for the district sanitation department. Many are migrant workers from the countryside; they sweep the alleys, clean the public restrooms, and collect the trash. Some wear straw farmers’ hats that cast a shadow across their faces, and, I admit, the matching uniforms make it difficult for me to keep them straight. I don’t know if there are three of them or thirty.
One afternoon not long ago, I was chatting with my next-door neighbor, a retiree named Huang Wenyi—a proud Beijinger, born and raised—when one of the sweepers in an orange jumpsuit wandered by. He had tousled hair, sun wrinkles around his eyes, and a smile of jumbled teeth. He approached and pointed to a gray flagstone at our feet. “Can you see the emperor on that rock?” the sweeper asked.
I thought I’d misheard. He said, “I can see an image of the emperor right there on that rock.”
Huang and I looked at the rock and back at the sweeper. Huang was not interested. “What are you bullshitting about?” he asked. “You have no idea what you’re talking about.”
The sweeper smiled and asked, “Are you saying you think I’m not a cultured man?”
“What I’m saying,” Huang said, “is that you’re not making sense.”
The sweeper gave him a look, and turned, instead, to face me. “I can look at anything, and pull the essence from it,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how ordinary something is; in my eyes, it becomes a treasure. Do you believe me?”
Huang was irritated: “Old man, I’m trying to have a chat with our foreign friend here. Can you not disturb us, and go back to your work?”
The sweeper kept talking—faster now, about ancient Chinese poetry, and the great modern writer Lu Xun—some of it too fast, and the references too obscure, for me to understand. He sounded somewhere between interesting and bonkers. Huang had had enough, and he poked fun at the man’s countryside accent. “Come back after you’ve learned to speak Beijing dialect,” he said.
Under his breath, the sweeper said, “As long as it’s a dialect of human beings, it’s legitimate.” But Huang didn’t hear him. He’d waved him away and wandered into his house.
I introduced myself. The sweeper’s name was Qi Xiangfu. He was from Jiangsu Province, and he said he had come to Beijing three months ago. Why did you come, I asked.
“To explore the realm of culture,” he said grandly.
“What kind of culture?”
“Poetry, mainly. Ancient Chinese poetry. During the Tang Dynasty, when poetry was the best, every poet wanted to come to Chang’an,” he said, invoking the name of the ancient capital, the predecessor to Beijing. “I wanted a bigger stage,” he said. “It doesn’t matter whether I succeed or fail. I’m here. That’s what matters.”
It was getting late; before I went inside, Qi said he had competed in poetry competitions. “I won the title of ‘Super King of Chinese Couplets.’ ” In his spare time, he had taken to hosting an online forum about modern Chinese poetry. “You can go online and read about me,” he said.
That night, I typed his name into the Web, and there he was: Qi Xiangfu, the Super King of Chinese Couplets. In the photo, he was handsomely dressed in a bow tie and a jacket; he looked young and confident. Chinese poems are hard for me to understand, and many of his, especially, were impenetrably weird. But I appreciated some moments of grace: “Earth knows the lightness of our feet,” he wrote. “We meet each other there / Between heaven and earth.”
To my surprise, the more I searched about Qi Xiangfu, the more I found of a life lived partly online. He once wrote a short memoir, in which he described himself in the third person, with the formality usually reserved for China’s most famous writers. He wrote that his father died young, and Qi was raised by his uncle. He wrote, of himself, “The first time Qi read Mao’s poem ‘The Long March,’ he resolved that Mao would be the teacher to show him the way. Later, he studied the poetry of Li Bai, Du Fu, Su Dongpu, Lu You, and others, and he made a promise to himself: Become a master of literature.”
He described the first time he ever presented one of his poems to a large group—it was played on a speaker at a construction site—and he described a bus trip in which he met, as he put it, “a girl who sympathized.” They married and it “ended his life of vagrancy.” There were hints of trouble in his life—at one point, he wrote a plea for donations, saying, “Alas, Comrade Qi is having a difficult time”—but something in the spirit of his online persona captivated me.
So much of it was impossible just a few years ago: the journey to the city, the online identity, the interior life so at odds with the image he projected to the world. When I first studied in China, seventeen years ago, the Internet was only a distant rumor. It had reached China two years earlier, but hardly anyone had access. When I brought a modem from the U.S., and tried to plug it into my dorm-room wall in Beijing, the machine emitted a sickly popping sound and never stirred again.
When I moved to Beijing, in 2005, to write, I was accustomed to hearing the story of China’s transformation told in vast, sweeping strokes—involving one fifth of humanity, and great pivots of politics and economics. But, over the next eight years, some of the deepest changes in the lives around me have been intimate and perceptual, buried in daily rhythms that are easy to overlook. A generation ago, foreigners writing about China marvelled most at the sameness of it all. Chairman Mao was the “Emperor of the Blue Ants,” as a memorable book title had it. But in my years in China, I have been seized most of all by the sense that the national narrative, once an ensemble performance, is splintering into a billion stories.
Living in China at this moment, the stories bombard you with such fantastical vividness that you can’t help but write them down and hope to make sense of them later. Writing about China, in The New Yorker, for the past five years, I’ve tried to capture something of this age, to grab a few of these stories out of the air before they slip by. The complexities of individual lives blunt the impulse to impose a neat logic on them, and nobody who stays here for some time remains certain about too much for too long. To impose order on the changes, we seek refuge, of a kind, in statistics. In my years here, the number of airline passengers nationwide doubled; sales of personal computers and cell phones tripled. The length of the Beijing subway quadrupled. But the longer I stayed, the less those impressed me than the dramas that I could never quantify at all.
On Sunday, my wife, Sarabeth, and I are flying out. I’ll be on leave for the next couple of months, wrapping up a book about a few individuals I’ve come to know in China. It will be published next spring, and I’ll be saying more about that later. I’ll resume writing for the magazine this fall, based in Washington, D.C. China is not leaving my blood stream; I’ll be back to write pieces, and, in between, I’ll be writing at Daily Comment and elsewhere about how China looks from afar.
Since we launched this blog, in January of 2009, I’ve written about five hundred posts. This will be the last for a while, and I want to thank you for visiting over the years. There will be much more to come on China on this site, and in the magazine, so I won’t pretend to sum things up. For now, I’ll mention only the fact that returns to me more often, perhaps, than any other: never in modern history has China been more prosperous and functional and connected with the world—and yet, it is the only country in the world with a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in prison. Contradictions like that have been the essence of this moment.
After I met the street sweeper Qi Xiangfu, I started bumping into him frequently. We swapped phone numbers, and he would send me a poem, now and then, by text message. He typed out the characters on his phone, with the help of a magnifying glass to aid his eyes. Many of his poems were heavy with Communist fervor; others were oracular and strange. But I sympathize with anyone trying to make sense of this place in writing, and I admired his persistence. “I’ve experienced every kind of coldness and indifference from people,” he told me once, “but I’ve also given myself knowledge, all the way up to the university level. I don’t have a diploma. People look down on me when they see me.”
A few weeks ago, Qi told me he had been reassigned to the sanitation department in another part of town; he said he would come back when he could. The last time I saw him, he wasn’t wearing his uniform; he was in street clothes—a crisp white shirt and a black jacket—on his way to see his daughter who worked at a restaurant nearby. He had a book under his arm: “Ten Contemporary Authors of Prose.” For the first time, I saw the two personae, online and real-world, in one. What inspires you, I once asked him.
“When I write,” he said, “anything becomes material. In life, I must be practical, but when I write, it is up to me.”
Photograph, of Evan Osnos and Qi Xiangfu, courtesy of Osnos.
2. Next, a bit of Australian fun. A Kath and Kim movie came out last year. It got terrible reviews, so don’t go see it. However this appearance on Sunrise is pretty funny. Seems like good background to the Ashes series.
3. Next: Oh. Bama! Just to keep piling pressure on the liberal president, here is a Guardian piece about the sale of ambassadorial positions. Sort of Lloyd George goes to Washington. You might want to watch Lou Reed talking about Snowden and Obama again, (if only to watch the put-down of the obsequious female journalist at the end).
4. Now something serious. Christopher Wood, one of the best (perhaps the best) equity analyst in east Asia, doesn’t like his weekly missive reposted. So I am just going to quote a couple of bullets about the income distribution effects of the QE approach to stabilising the global financial crisis. I was banging on about the same thing soon after the crisis hit in 2010 and the QE started:
<The practical way unconventional monetary policies work is to lead to ever more extreme wealth distribution. Wealth distribution would have become much less extreme as a consequence of the 2008 crisis if losses had been imposed on creditors to bust financial institutions in line with capitalist principles, as opposed to the favoured ‘bailout’ approach pursued for the most part by Washington. The ‘great reckoning’ has been deferred to another day as the speculative classes have continued to game the system by resort to carry trades actively encouraged by the Fed and other central bankers. The leverage taken on in such trades is highly risky because of the underlying deflationary trend.>
5. More serious and interesting stuff is Philip Stephens in the FT (sub needed) parsing the Anglo Saxon-created disaster story that is the Middle East.
6. Looking at the Stephens’ canon, I see a piece from June (sub needed) making the case for shutting down the UK Treasury. It would save money and get rid of dangerous incompetents whose follies we, the taxpayers, must finance. I would just add that in shutting the Treasury to save money, government could also shut the Foreign Office, another black hole of self-regarding incompetence. George Osborne is right that we should not waste money. Mainly on people he went to school and university with.
7. Finally, this looks like something useful to do if any UK university students read this blog:
Hi there, My name’s Jonathan Goggs – I’m from an organisation called Team Up, who are establishing a student committee at Cambridge for 2013/14. I would very much appreciate it if you, or one of your colleagues, could circulate the following blurb into an email to all students in the business school, including the enclosed attachments as well. Do let me know if there are any questions from students by responding to this email, or copying me in. “Team Up is passionate about improving social mobility and transforming the prospects of bright young people and we are looking for outstanding university students from Cambridge to join one of our accredited leadership programmes next year. You will be trained in the highly sought-after professional skills to make a genuine difference and empower young people in your community to academic excellence. We believe in developing our university students to foster the skills they need to tackle the UK’s biggest social problem (social mobility) and secure exceptional careers. That’s why, once we’ve processed your application and conducted a short interview, we’ll be running master classes and networking opportunities, in partnership with leading businesses and charities, to give you the tools to lead, inspire and excel. The programme runs for 20 weeks, alongside your degree, and an overview of the year is attached, together with descriptions of the roles you can apply for. Last year our programme partners were Teach First and Bank of America Merrill Lynch and next year we will be partnering with even more organisations in management consultancy, education, social enterprise and finance. Places are competitive, so early applications are encouraged. Over the past two years we’ve received over 2,000 applications and some incredible student feedback – 9 out of 10 students said they enjoyed the programme. At Team Up, we think it’s a tragedy that so many young people are still disqualified from leading universities like Cambridge and fulfilling careers, because they come from low-income, socially disadvantaged backgrounds. If you think the way we do, we’d love to hear from you. To apply, click here.” Kind regards, — Jonathan Goggs Programme Officer | Team Up 18 Victoria Park Square, Bethnal Green, LONDON | E2 9PF E: jonathan.goggs@teamup.org.uk | W: www.teamup.org.uk

Weekend reading and viewing

June 21, 2013

Just started watching The Bridge, but I imagine the whole world has seen that by now. Not too bad. Below is the first 14 mins, enough time to decide if you like it.

What journalists deserve when they ask incredibly stupid questions. We’ve all been there as hacks. But this woman really cops it from Lou Reed. An interviewee after my own heart. See the very end.

Martin Wolf’s piece on Greece (sub needed) stuck in my mind this week.

The death of Michael Hastings in a car crash made me read his remarkable Rolling Stone story about Stan McChrystal in Afghanistan. It was the end of McChrystal in Afghanistan. He is now reduced to speaking with me at a conference in Wisconsin next week.

Booked my tix for the Young Lions, below, in the Django Rheinhardt festival in NY next week. What is not to like?

Only thing you can really say against them is that the original guy had two less (functioning) fingers

Just in:

US government files sealed complaint against Snowden. Britain’s government and GCHQ are mindless lickspittles (again); with their own, non-existent moral bottom line.

The Snowden White House petition will go through 100,000 signatures today, 22 June. If you are an American, sign this thing. You’ll have something that makes you proud to tell your kids.

Obama (below) does a good job of defending what has been going on (though he weasles around the hard bits). But in the end, he is wrong. Because he is defending a means of opposing terrorism that rests on intrusion into privacy and the support of despotic allies, with money and guns, instead of solving the problems that create terrorism in the first place. He needs to break out of this way of thinking. If he wants to be the greatest American president since Truman — and he should want that — he needs to go back and look at the way in which the United States headed off insurgencies in the 1945-52 period by supporting land reform programmes and tackling the root cause of poverty and anger in the third world. Think bigger. Drones and snooping are not the stuff of a great American leader.

The full Johnson, No.1

February 16, 2013

Who else but Ian Johnson to go see this character up a tower block in Chengdu. Want to feel better about your life? Find out how to send Huang Qi some money, and send some.

 

Ni hao, Kafka

August 18, 2011

Just before Europe blows, here are three things worth reading that go to China’s lack of institutional development.

 

A.

The first is the latest on blogger Wang Lihong, detained since March, and subject of Do something useful No.1. That post contains all kinds of links you can follow to learn more about and to support her case.

Wang’s ‘trial’ took place on 12 August and involved some nice touches. It was declared an open trial, but requests to attend were refused. The courtroom provided only five seats for observers. Two were filled with uniformed cops. Two were filled with goons. And one was taken by Wang’s brother. According to the lawyer, when Wang or her lawyer spoke, the judge interrupted, repeatedly. Two witnesses for the defence were detained en route to the trial by police, one in Beijing (and was then held in a illegal jail) and the other at an airport in Fujian province. Perhaps 20 Wang supporters were detained outside the courthouse…

The below is from From Chinese Human Rights Defenders.

Wang Lihong’s Trial Marred by Procedural Violations; At Least 20 Supporters Taken Away by Police 

The trial of human rights activist Wang Lihong (王荔蕻) for “creating a disturbance” in Beijing on August 12 took just two-and-a-half hours and was beset by violations of the Criminal Procedure Law, according to one of her defense attorneys, Han Yicun (韩一村). Hundreds of people—supporters, uniformed and plainclothes police, journalists, and diplomats—gathered outside the courthouse. At least 20 of Wang’s supporters, including a petitioner in a wheelchair, reportedly were taken away by police before the start of the trial. The presiding judge stated that the verdict would be announced at a later date.

After the trial, Han Yicun spoke in detail about how the proceedings were procedurally flawed. Han said that he was hindered in his defense arguments since prosecutors were given more time during extensive cross-examination of Wang and because he was frequently interrupted by the judge. He noted that Wang was unable to complete her final defense statement since the judge interrupted her many times as well. In his written defense statement arguing for Wang’s innocence, Han described the prosecution of Wang as political persecution rather than a legal proceeding, and argued for the necessity of judicial independence in China to ensure due process and the protection of citizens’ civil rights.

There was a large police presence outside the courthouse; one eyewitness counted approximately 20 police vehicles. Petitioners and other supporters chanted slogans or held signs in support of Wang, and some shared information about injustices they had experienced. Around the entrance, police cordoned off an area that included both officers and several foreign journalists, and a large number of national security officers and plainclothes police kept close watch over the large crowd.

Although the court had declared the trial open to the public, virtually all applications to attend the proceedings had been rejected, including from foreign diplomats as well as petitioners and activists from all around the country. Han noted after the proceedings that the courtroom was extremely small—with far too little space to accommodate the number of people who wished to observe the hearing—and that the court had essentially created the atmosphere of a “closed” trial. Only five seats in the courtroom were designated for observers, but two of them were occupied by uniformed police and two by plainclothes police; the other one was occupied by Wang’s son, Qi Jianxiang (齐健翔).

In the days and weeks leading up to the trial, Chinese authorities had warned potential witnesses not to testify and restricted the movement of several other individuals, most notably defendants from the “Fujian Three” netizens’ criminal defamation case from last year. (Wang’s trial for “creating a disturbance” stemmed from her participation in protests outside the sentencing hearing for these netizens in April 2010 in Fuzhou City, Fujian Province.) In the evening of August 11, Wu Huaying (吴华英), after eluding Fujian authorities and making her way to Beijing, was seized by interceptors and then held at the Duxinyuan Guest House, a “black jail,” along with three other petitioners from Fujian. Also on August 11, national security officers in Fuzhou prevented another one of the “Fujian Three,” You Jingyou (游精佑), from taking a flight to Beijing.

 

B.

John Kamm gets the full treatment visiting Dongguan Prison

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s a new piece from the blog of veteran China human rights campaigner John Kamm about Xu Zerong. Xu, a Harvard- and Oxford-trained academic specialist on the Korean war, was sent down for 13 years for ‘leaking state secrets’ in relation to his research. He thought various documents related to Chinese tactics in the 1950-3 conflict were legally in the public domain after 40 years. The People’s Liberation Army and the judge had different  ideas. Still, sounds from the Xu interview at the end like Kamm managed to get him into some of the more cushty Chinese prisons…

Xu Zerong: With American Attention … All Prisoners Benefit

In recent years, visits to Chinese prisons made by representatives of foreign governments and non-governmental organizations have been reduced to a trickle. This is due in part to the reduction of Sino-Western bilateral rights dialogues and the elimination of visits to custodial centers that these dialogues once fostered. Consular visits to individual prisoners aside, the International Center for Prison Studies visited prisons in Anhui and Hubei in March 2009; Dui Hua visited the Beijing Juvenile Detention Center in May 2010; and an international humanitarian organization visited two Chongqing prisons in the spring of 2011. No United Nations officials have been allowed into Chinese prisons since Manfred Nowak, the special rapporteur on torture, returned from a visit in late 2005 to condemn its palpable “climate of fear.”

Though dwindling, visits by foreigners to Chinese prisons play an important role in ensuring the humane treatment of prisoners. In a recent interview with Hong Kong’s Open Magazine, Xu Zerong discussed how he ended up serving 11 years in prison and how overseas intervention improved his life in custody.

In November 2002, Dui Hua Executive Director John Kamm visited Dongguan Prison in Guangdong Province. A few months later, Xu was transferred there to serve his sentence for “trafficking in state secrets.” The following is an excerpt from the Open Magazine interview detailing prison conditions and the impact of international concern on the treatment Xu received.

Writing Got Him Through the Prison Years

Cai Yongmei, Open Magazine, August 6, 2011

[Translated Excerpt]

問:與花都相比如何?

Open Magazine: How was [Dongguan Prison] compared to Huadu [National Security Detention Center]*?

徐澤榮:好多了,在花都關在只有一兩個人的牢房中,現在一間牢房有十至十二人,有人說話。東莞監獄是廣東的模範監獄,管理比較文明。這也有美國人的功 勞。中美對話基金會的康原(John Kamm),於一九九九年十一月來參觀過,由司法部外事處的人陪同,監獄小報有報導。有了美國人的關注,監獄環境得到改善,犯人都是受益者。

Xu Zerong: Much better. At Huadu I was held in a cell with just one or two people. [At Dongguan] each cell had 10 to 12 people, so there were people to talk to. Dongguan Prison is a model prison in Guangdong Province. Management is relatively civilized. This is also to the Americans’ credit. The Dui Hua Foundation’s John Kamm visited [Dongguan Prison] in November 1999 [sic] along with officials from the Ministry of Justice foreign affairs bureau; this was reported in the prison newspaper. With American attention, prison conditions improved, and all prisoners benefited.

問:康原對你的案子一直很關注。

OM: Kamm remained very concerned about your case.

徐澤榮:是的,這年十一月我從東莞監獄調到環境更好的廣州西村監獄,我認為是康原幫的忙。廣州西川與東莞這兩個監獄都被評為廣東部級文明監獄,由於西村 是廣東勞改局直接領導,生活上對犯人更要文明一些,加班也沒有東莞厲害。在東莞由於勞動時間長,沒有時間寫東西,我要半夜起來寫。西村監獄十五個監區,一 個關香港人,一個關澳門台灣人,還有一個關外國人,但沒有西方人。我是關在大陸人的監區內。牢房中都有衛生間。一個緬甸人說感覺很好,好像是住賓館。○五 年二月還把我與老弱犯人關在一起,免於勞動,使我有時間寫東西,都是康原與當局交涉的結果。他還給我寄了五本書,是關於美國外交和國際關係這類,還收到他 一封短信。

XZR: Yes. In November of that year I was transferred from Dongguan Prison to Guangzhou Xicun Prison, which had even better conditions. I believe this was [due to] his help. Both the Guangzhou Xichuan [sic] and Dongguan prisons are considered Guangdong’s most civilized prisons. Because Guangdong’s prison administration bureau directly supervises Xicun [Prison], prisoners’ living conditions were even more civilized [there], and [mandatory] overtime labor was not as severe as in Dongguan. Because work hours were long in Dongguan, there was no time to write—I had to wake up in the middle of the night to write.

Xicun Prison has 15 cell blocks, one for Hong Kong people, one for Macanese and Taiwanese people, and one for foreigners, but there weren’t any Westerners. I was detained in the cell block for mainland Chinese. There were bathrooms in the cells. One Burmese said it felt nice, like staying in a guesthouse. In February 2005 I was even put together with weak and elderly** prisoners and waived from doing labor, giving me time to write. All of this was the result of Kamm’s negotiations with the authorities. He even sent me five books about things like US diplomacy and international relations. I also received a short letter from him.

問:你坐牢期間,海外對你的救援是否知道?

OM: When you were in prison, were you aware of the support you had overseas?

徐澤榮:我聽律師講到海外有人聲援我,聯署簽名。也有後來入獄的犯人說在香港電視上看過報導。我最為驚訝的是在廣州監獄收到美國硅谷寄給我的一張卡,有 八個人簽名,其中一位叫周鋒鎖,我覺得名字很熟悉,我查官方出的六四書《新中國大波瀾》,發現他是北京天安門學生領袖,心裡很震動。還收到國際筆會從美國 寄來的四封聖誕卡,也感到意外。你們獨立中文筆會頒獎給我,姪女也告訴我了 ,還把獎盃的照片交給了監獄方面。這些對我都是很大的鼓勵,知道在這個世界上有很多人不認為我是犯罪的。我真的是很感謝大家。

XZR: [My] lawyer told me that there were people overseas who were supporting me and signing a petition [on my behalf], and prisoners incarcerated afterward said they saw reports [on my case] on Hong Kong TV. The most surprising thing for me was when I was in Guangzhou Prison and received a card from Silicon Valley signed by eight people including someone named Zhou Fengsuo. The name sounded familiar so I looked in an official book on the June 4th incident, New China Review, and discovered that he was a student leader at Beijing’s Tiananmen. I was extremely moved.

I also received four Christmas cards sent from the United States by International PEN, which were unexpected. When your Independent Chinese PEN Center gave me an award, my niece told me and even gave the prison a photo of the trophy. All of this was of great encouragement to me, knowing that there are many people in this world who don’t think that I committed a crime. I am really very grateful to everyone.

*In the interview, Xu says Huadu National Security Detention Center was established in 1995 to house special operatives, political prisoners, and Guangzhou municipal officials ranking at or above deputy level. He said conditions at Huadu are better than at other detention centers, noting en suite air conditioners and televisions and good food.

**Prisoners age 55 and older are classified as elderly.

 

C.

Finally, an interview by the Quiet Canadian in the anorak. Pulitzer prize winning Ian Johnson interviews poet, book writer and serial reporter Liao Yiwu. Liao, currently in Berlin, is one of thousands of Chinese who are either explicitly or implicitly exiles (in his case the government has not actually torn his passport up). He says he’s saving his mum trips to prison bringing him food…

The interview is posted on the blog of the New York Review of Books.

‘I’m not interested in them; I wish they weren’t interested in me’: An Interview with Liao Yiwu

Amid the recent crackdown on dissidents by the Chinese government, the case of Liao Yiwu, the well-known poet and chronicler of contemporary China, is particularly interesting. For years, Liao’s work, which draws on extensive interviews with ordinary Chinese, has been banned by the authorities for its provocative revelations about everyday life. In early July, amid a worsening atmosphere for artists and intellectuals critical of the Chinese government, Liao fled to Germany via a small border crossing to Vietnam in Yunnan province.

Liao first came to prominence in 1989 when he recorded an extended stream-of-consciousness protest poem called “Massacre” about the Tiananmen Square crackdown. He was subsequently arrested and spent four years in prison, where he met the series of outcasts and misfits who became the protagonists of his first book on China’s underclass. Written in the form of questions and answers, these stories became symbolic vignettes about people from a range of offbeat and unusual professions or situations. Some of them were translated in The Paris Review in 2005, and they were collected and expanded in the 2008 book The Corpse Walker: Real Life Stories, China From the Bottom Up.

Now, one of Liao’s other three books, God is Red: The Secret Story of How Christianity Survived and Flourished in Communist China, is about to be published in the United States in September. It tells the story of Christian persecution in the early Communist era, mostly in minority areas of Yunnan province. He has also written a memoir of his four years in prison that has just been published in Germany to wide acclaim. His fourth book, on China’s new underclass, has yet to be published.

I recently spoke with Liao at Berlin’s Literaturhaus, where he easily blended in amid the tourists and would-be hipsters. His head clean-shaven, he appears younger than his 53 years, a short, powerful man who often lapsed into a thick, Sichuanese dialect. He talked about his decision to flee, his new book, and how he plans to continue his work from afar.

Ian Johnson: The Chinese newspaper Global Times said Liao Yiwu is not in exile. It said you’re just on holiday and that nowadays it’s not so strange for Chinese to go abroad for extended stays. They say your decision to go to Germany has to do with marketing your books. Are you really in exile?

Liao Yiwu: I never said I wanted to go into exile or flee. It’s just because if I didn’t my books wouldn’t get published. I guess I won’t go back for a while. I’m doing publicity for the prison book now, then I’ll go to the US for my Christianity book. Then Taiwan for the Chinese edition of the prison book. Then back to Germany, where I have a one-year DAAD fellowship in Berlin. So when that’s all over, I’ll see if they haven’t forgotten me.

What did the authorities tell you?

They said, “two books of yours can’t be published overseas.” One is the prison book. The other is the God book. They said both are unacceptable. So I talked with them and asked why. They asked me to sign a paper [promising not to publish]. They said these were “illegal cultural products.” They said these two books disclosed secrets.

Is political repression more severe than it has been in the past?

Yes, especially the first half of the year. Ahhh, I don’t know. I think it’s the government’s own problem. That call for a Jasmine Revolution. They took it so seriously but it was just something someone posted on the Internet. It didn’t exist, but after it was posted they came by all the time, asking and asking. No one had heard of it! They’re nervous.

My writing is illegal…I don’t know. I’m just writing something and now have broken their law. I don’t want to break their laws. I am not interested in them and wish they weren’t interested in me.

So why are they?

The prison book is pretty cruel. I was serving time in Chongqing. At one point they tortured me so much I smashed my head against the wall to try to kill myself. I passed out and then over the next few days the non-political prisoners came by and said, “Hey buddy, if you really want to kill yourself that’s a stupid way to do it. A better way is like this: you find a nail sticking out of the wall and smash your temple against it. It’s much more effective, believe us.” So this book is maybe more cruel than the others. The authorities said to me: “If you publish this book we’ll send you back to Chongqing.” There’s no way I’m going back there. That’s too terrifying. They said we don’t care about the Mao era. You can write about that. The 50s and 60s are okay.

But then the Christianity book should be okay. It’s mostly from that era.

Yes, but the religious question in China is so great that it’s also forbidden, especially the subject of Christianity. I didn’t consider this when I was writing it. Haha, if I had thought of that I wouldn’t have written it [laughs]. They say it’s illegal to publish it abroad. This is strange. It’s a secret if foreigners read it, but not if Chinese read it. So it’s a secret for Ian Johnson to read, but not for me [laughing].

Why did you write about Christians and not, say, Buddhists?

Me, I’m the kind of person who doesn’t have a definite plan. I had this opportunity to meet the Christians and it moved me so I did it.

How was it interviewing these Christians? You’re not a Christian, right?

It’s like this. I was in Yunnan trying to interview the last landlords of China, the ones who were persecuted in the early communist years. I met some people who told me about these Christians. I went to meet them. It was a really poor place. Unbelievably poor. No electricity, no roads, no telephone. We walked four or five hours to get to one village. But I thought this was so unbelievable. You’d get to a village and there’d be a church. Westerners had been there before, a century earlier, and built these churches. It was remarkable. They worked in these villages until 1949 when the Communists took over. The foreigners were expelled and a lot of the Christians killed. The stories are unbelievably cruel. In one case the father was executed and left on the side of the road. The family wasn’t allowed to pick up the corpse. When I heard this I cried.

What will you do in Germany? Your sources of information, your interviews—it’s all back in China.

There are too many stories about China! People say, “you won’t have anything to write about here,” but the problem is I can’t write them all. There are too many.

How do you work? Did you record the interviews?

In some of the other books, no. But in this case God is Red) I did. But when I write down their answers I try to make it sound as good as possible. I’m a writer so I want to use all my skill to write their stories.

How about the prison book? How did you remember all that?

I had a copy of [the classic Chinese novel] Romance of the Three Kingdoms and made tiny notes that I put in the book. It was really difficult, but in this way I was able to recover a lot of memories. These books are different. God is Red was difficult because I had to walk a lot of roads and eat a lot of bitterness, but I was glad to be able to write it. They were moving stories. But the prison book was difficult to write. It was painful.

And the fourth book is finished?

Yes, on the new underclass: some of them are unemployed, others simply don’t fit into society. But I’ve got more. I have seven or eight books I can write. I have a lot of material on me. I don’t lack material.

But from now on you can’t interview anyone, since you no longer live in China.

I’m already 53 years old. I’ve lived through a lot. The 1980s were a golden age for Chinese thought and literature. Then came 1989. Then came the reforms and the economic growth. No one thought the Communists would be so tough and strong. It’s caused all these waves of immigration. After they took over there was a big wave of immigration as people fled. Then after 1989 there was another wave of about 100,000 who left. Now there’s a new wave of people leaving, even though the economy is so good. At least among many artistic people it’s like this. You can’t do anything meaningful in China. If you return you have three choices: flee, sit in prison or shut up. I had to flee. Liu Xiaobo and Ai Weiwei weren’t able to flee but I was. It’s probably because I interviewed a lot of these underclass people so I understand how the police think. That allowed me to figure a way out. I have contacts in the underground.

Can you get used to living abroad? You don’t speak German or English.

Sure, communication is never a problem. I like Berlin. East Berlin has a lot of underground bars that remind me of China. There’s one street there with a lot of prostitutes. I’ve been there many times to observe and watch how different German prostitutes are from Chinese prostitutes. The Germans are more polite. If you don’t want to, they leave you alone. In China, several will fight over you.

Some people ask why you publish so much overseas.

I’d like to publish in China but since 2001 I haven’t been able to. In the 1990s it was difficult but then after 2001 nothing at all. There is a lot of illegal, underground publishing. Most is related to sex. A friend told me I’ve got some good news for you: your book on the underclass is competing with the sex books! That was funny. But the two books coming this year are the ones I most value. They are the most personal and have moved me the most.

Do you still have relatives back home?

Yes, my mother, brother and sister.

Did you tell them ahead of time that you were leaving?

No, you cannot. I was the only one who knew.

Can they understand?

[Sighs] Slowly they’ll understand. For example, if I’m arrested they have to deliver food to me in prison—it’s a burden for them [laughing]. All those trips to the prison [laughs]. I’ve spared them those trips …

Does your mother understand what you do, your writing?

She does, but she wishes I wasn’t mixed up in politics. But I’m not. I’m not interested in politics. I’m not like Liu Xiaobo. I didn’t write a Charter 08. I did sign it. The police asked me why I signed it and I said I don’t know, I just felt like it.

You seem to have a knack for finding sensitive issues.

Yeah, I don’t know. I don’t really mean to but somehow it happens.

August 15, 2011 11:15 a.m.

What they teach you in school these days

August 11, 2011

(Do something useful No.2)

Bloomberg has a great story today about academics from some of the leading US universities being banned for political reasons from China and their universities doing nothing, or less than nothing, about it.

If you are a student or graduate of one of these esteemed schools, you might like to write a letter to the top lady or gentleman of the institution, telling them how impressed you are.

If not, or in addition, send this on to someone connected with one of these institutions.

 

Lest I be accused of being unfair to China, here are a couple of links to a well-known cases of the US beating up on academics. 

Tariq Ramadan was banned from taking up a professorship at Notre Dame (Michigan) in the US by the Baby Bush administration.

Adam Habib was deported from the US upon arrival for alleged ‘links to terrorism’.

In the more distant past, writers including Graham Greene, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Pablo Neruda, and Doris Lessing were banned from America for their political views. Sill, there is no real moral equivalence (I believe) with China, from where thousands of Chinese people have now been exiled because of their beliefs.

Here is an article about Hong Kong and Macau ignoring their mandates to operate different ‘systems’ to PRC and policing academics in a similar way.

 

 

Do something useful

July 19, 2011

(Do something useful No.1)

 

Just back from China and from pretty much getting latest book finished. Except for a small hitch, about which I will blog later.

Meantime, I am adding a new Category button called Do Something Useful. I will use it to file interesting miscarriage of justice and political persecution cases about which readers of this blog might want to do something. Like onpass the cases to friends, sign petitions, even write letters. Imagine how good you will feel if someone you decide merits your support gets let out of prison…

Please only support cases that you have read. Do not assume that me posting stuff automatically means people are innocent of what they have been accused of.

Most of the cases will come from China and Italy since they are — in institutional terms — the Third World countries in which I spend most time. But let’s not pretend nothing ever goes wrong in the UK; there is just a lot less of it. At some point I will go through previous posts and link ones like Knox and Sollecito into this new category.

Our starter for ten today is a lady from China called Wang Lihong. Read on. The link to her case on the Global Voices campaign site is here.

China: Campaigning for the Release of Female Activist Wang Lihong

The Chinese government has been arresting human right activists and political dissidents since February 2011 under the pretext of the Jasmine crack down. Many of the detainees have been released, including the prominent artist activist Ai Weiwei. However, a female activist, Wang Lihong has been detained for 117 days, with the court finally deciding to prosecute her last week.

A number of prominent bloggers have decided to break the silence and campaign for the release of Wang Lihong even though the political climate is still tense. Independent documentary maker, Ai Xiaoming has written a biography [zh] for Wang Lihong in her blog:

Who is Wang Lihong?

Wang Lihong

王荔蕻,1955年10月出生于青岛一个军队干部家庭,在北京读完小学和中学。1975年4月赴陕北延安插队,1978年10月至1982年7月就读于延安大学中文系。大学毕业后回到北京,在北京市某机关工作。1991年起离职,后下海经商。2008年王荔蕻退休后居家,有了更多时间上网并开始参与公益活动。

Wang Lihong was born in October 1955 in an army family in Qingtao and finished her elementary and secondary education in Beijing. She was sent to serve the rural society in Shaanxi in April 1975 and enrolled in the Chinese Department of Yanan University between October 1978 and July 1982. She returned back to Beijing upon graduation and worked there. She left her job in 1991 and became an entrepreneur. She retired in 2008 and started participating in social welfare activities online.

Wang was arrested on March 21, 2011, under the charge of “inciting social unrest”. Later in the official arrest document issued on April 22, 2011, the charge has been changed to “disturbing public transportation in a crowd”. Many believed that the police referred to the “surrounding gaze” flash mob action in Fujian, back in April 2010 (see below).

Below is an incomplete list of social activities that she has participated in since 2008.

  1. The police murder case of Yang Jia on July 1 2008. She visited Yang Jia’s mother and interviewed her and blogged about Yang Jia’s case.
  2. Together with another blogger, Temple Tiger, she helped the homeless people around Tienanmen square.
  3. The Deng Yujiao self defense murder case in May 2009. Wang Lihong travelled to Hubei to join the “surrounding gaze” flash mob in order to pressure the court for an open and fair ruling on Deng’s case.
  4. On May 2009, Wang campaigned for a visit to petitioner, Yao Jing, who was seriously injured by local government officials from Linyi who tried to intercept her petition in Beijing. Together with a group of bloggers, Wang raised donation for Yao Jing’s hospital and lawyer expenses.
  5. Campaigned for human rights lawyer Ni Yulan, who was prosecuted by Beijing authority soon after she was released from jail.
  6. Participated in the “surrounding gaze” flash mob action in support of the three Fujian netizens who was accused by local authorities for defamation in their citizen reports about a suspected rape case in March and April 2010.
  7. Celebrated the Nobel Prize award to Liu Xiaobo in October 2010. She was detained for two weeks and was under house arrest for several months.
  8. In March 2011, she visited two activists in a Henan detention center, Wang Yi who was sentenced to one year labour education for writing a tweet and Tian Xi, an AIDS activist.

Wang’s citizen practice

During her detention, the police have asked Wang to make three promises for a probation arrangement: 1. to never meet sensitive people again; 2. to never travel to sensitive regions again; 3. to never get involve in other people’s business again.

She refused to sign the document and made a statement instead (via @Wanyanhai [zh]):

我是一个有良知的人,我不能保证面对苦难时保持沉默,我不能保证面对像钱云会、唐福珍、李淑莲……这样的悲惨事件假装看不见。 假如我面对苦难和恶行保持沉默,那么下一个被恶行打倒的就是我自己。

I am a person with a conscience. I cannot guarantee that I can keep silence in front of others’ suffering. I can’t guarantee that when I stand in front of Qian Yunhui, Tang Fucheng, Li Shuling… I can pretend that I do not see their miseries. If I keep silence in front of all these suffering and evil deeds, the next person beaten down by evilness will be myself.

Prominent citizen reporter, Tufuwugan, has encountered with Wang in various public incident since 2009 and he has written a blog post on his impressions of Wang [zh]:

是的,我和她两种风格,她总是据理抗争,一点妥协都不愿意。我和这帮流氓打交道总是嬉皮笑脸,胡说八道,玩世不恭的态度。正因为这种原因,我喜欢这个耿直疾恶如仇的大姐,喜欢她那种纯粹,喜欢她那种喜怒写在脸上的大姐,喜欢她的对人的真诚不做作。…她是一个真正的优秀公民,但她是那些没人性不是娘生的混蛋眼里的眼中钉肉中刺。

We have completely different styles. She likes to argue for the truth and never compromises while I like to hang around with a [flash mob] group and joke around. That’s why I really like her righteousness and simple mindedness. She has everything written in her face and never lied about her feelings… She is a really engaging citizen and a thorn in the eyes of those mother f**kers.

What Tufu and Wang have been doing all these years has opened up a new political space in China. Ai Xiaoming wrote another blog post about the significance of Wang Lihong’s citizen action [zh]:

但他们由于网络相识,开始身体力行地履行公民责任。全国敢于为底层发声的专家学者,也许屈指可数,但无数普通人以网民的身份参与,带来了新的政治。这正是这个国家不曾有过却已然开始的美好生活,公民通过网络连接起来,参与公共事务。无论地位身份如何,人们以网友的名义聚集在一起,无需相识,无需实名,只要有共同的关注。代之以无力感和麻木不仁的是,网友觉得无名小卒可以做一点事情,哪怕是为无辜入狱的网友喊一嗓子。“围观改变中国”的想象在推特上传扬,2010年,福建马尾法院开庭审理期间,法院门口聚集了来自全国各地的网民,而在网上凝聚起来的签名关注更达到五千之多,正是源于这样的想象。北京独立纪录片导演何杨的作品《赫索格的日子》详实记载了这场前所未有的政治景观,人们凭着朴素的信仰,自八九之后第一次(至少在我是第一次看到)走上街头高呼:言论无罪,自由万岁!

They get to know one and other through the Internet and collectively practice their citizen rights. We have so few experts and scholars who are willing to speak for the grassroots, but countless netizens participate [in grassroots movements] and create a new climate for the new politics. This is something beautiful that we have never had before: citizens are collected through the Internet and participate in public affair. Regardless of their background, they come together without knowing each others’ real identity. They are connected through common concern. They feel that they can do something to make change, little things such as yelling out for innocent netizens [who have been wrongly prosecuted]. “Surrounding gaze will change China” has become a belief spread across the Chinese Twittersphere. In 2010, outside the Fujian Mawei court, hundreds of netizens travelled across the country to present themselves on the spot and there have been more than 5,000 signatures collected for the campaign. He Yang’s documentary work has recorded the whole political scene. This is the first time since the 1989 incident [Tiananmen Square] that I have seen people marching in the street, calling out “Speech is not a crime, Long live freedom!”

Free Wang Lihong

A blog, Free Wang Lihong [zh], a Facebook event page [zh] and a Google Group [zh] have been set up to collect articles and news reports about Wang and campaign for her release.

Back in Twitter, @weiquanwang has created a signature petition page [zh] for the release of Wang Lihong. Children’s rights activist @zhaolianhai [zh] also helps collecting signatures via a Google Spread Sheet [zh].

Some netizens have claimed that they will surrender themselves to the police if the court sentences Wang to imprisonment. @tufuwugan [zh] is among one of them and there are more, he reports via Twitter:

刚才云南朱承志大哥来电话说,如果王荔蕻大姐被判,他准备去自首,叫我了解一下自首法律相关问题,是的,我也是这莫须有罪里的主犯,大姐如果有罪,我们也是有罪,我们会陪她有罪,不就是想通过治罪让人害怕吗?那我们主动接受你们的迫害,满足你们这帮畜生的迫害人的欲望。

Just now I received a phone call from Chu Chengzhi saying if Wang is founded guilty, he would surrender himself. He asked me to get some legal advice first. He is right. I was also involved similar “crimes”. If she is guilty, we are all guilty, let us all be guilty. They just want to terrify people through prosecution. Let’s take the initiation to take your prosecution, to fulfill your animal thirst for prosecuting people.

Yin Longlong has written a poem, ‘Search for Wang Lihong‘ [zh] to pay his tribute to Wang. Below is the translation of the poem’s first verse:

我寻找我的骄傲,一把锉
一根绳子。宫殿外面的海已经没过摩天大厦,公主和美人鱼
在上上世纪
我只寻找王荔蕻,告诉她王朝的飘零
告诉她我们选择了沉默是因为他们不值得聆听
告诉她泥土里有姊妹死亡的气息
告诉她
夏天牢房里的动物昆虫

I look for my pride, a steel file
A string. The sea has submerged the skyscrapers, princesses and mermaids outside the Emperor’s hall
In the century before the last one
I look for Wang Lihong, only to tell her that the Dynasty is falling apart
Tell her that we have chosen silence because they are worthless to listen to
Tell her that there are still breathes under the earth of our dead sisters
Tell her
Animals and insects are inside the summer prison cell


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