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Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Friendship and Politics in the Age of XiTrumPutin

Friendship means something more in China than in the west. It is a different experience, a delight in its sincerity and intensity but also a responsibility. It is hard to explain to a westerner who has never come under its spell. It doesn’t require constant maintenance, but when it is renewed, even after years of separation, it is understood that it is not just a lifetime commitment, but one that can transcend generations if properly observed. WeChat helps maintain these relationships, but the recent tightening of political control coming out of the 13th National People's Congress seems to be putting a damper on what we can say. You can just feel it, even though nothing is explicitly expressed. I know I will not lose touch with my friends anymore, but it feels like we are descending into another period of political estrangement, and even though our "WeChats" are innocuous and bland from a stranger's perspective, there is an undercurrent that wasn't there last year.
The major difficulty with maintaining friends with Chinese people in times like these is the fear that my publicly proclaimed opinions about, and strong disapproval of the dictatorial actions of the CCP will somehow taint my Chinese friends, cause some loss of preferment or other subtle punishment that can affect them. They claim when you see them not to be bothered by it, but just the same I try to be careful when chatting, even though if looked at objectively what I say is not related to them in the least. I know a bit about Chinese history, (with 3,000 years of continuous historical records - who can say they more know than “a bit”?) and I know it is presumptuous to judge that kind of continuity too hastily, but there is a ying and yang to that history, a cycle (天降大任) related to mandate of heaven, (天命) that China can't seem to escape. The curbs on political freedom in China deeply sadden me, and the harsh repression of those who break out of silence in China infuriates me. I hear the voices of those inside and outside China risking everything in their call for change. And I acknowledge those who say that to ignore or gloss over it, is to be complicit with it on some level.
Still - it isn’t really all that simple. I speak Chinese well enough to converse with non-English speakers on more than a superficial level, and what I heard when I was there last year was not outrage so much as resignation and a willingness to give the devil his due. I talked to strangers in restaurants, people on trains, people who helped me in ways small and large and the sum of it was - they know what is happening, they have an awareness of the repression but always put it in the larger context, the crux of which is - it is so much better now than before. Right now China is more prosperous than it has ever been. That it is freer in an economic sense cannot be denied. People can rise based on their own merits in ways that were never possible before. China is respected on the international stage and there is pride in that. This is no small thing.
It is clear to me that CCP is from an internal perspective a patriotic organization, and the majority of its pronouncements and policies are aimed at benefiting the majority of the Chinese people. It is, for the most part, rational and not driven by racist hate or even xenophobia. After our most recent election, perhaps, the CCP says, and I can not disagree, we liberals in the US need to fix things at home before we go looking for evil on the other side of the world to oppose. Besides, the last fifty years should teach us all that pressuring China on its domestic policies doesn’t work.
I can go on and justify China’s domestic policies by looking at its history and how it has reaped a lot of harm from western ideas that got warped when transferred to a Chinese context (see the underlying “Christian” ideology of the Taiping, whose revolt in the mid-19th century might have killed more people than any war in history. Or, even consider Marxism, another “Western” idea). But I have already stained myself in the eyes of some as a dupe of the Chinese Communist Party so perhaps I should just stop here. Being a cowed useful idiot is not something anyone who wants to think himself to be. I have read Ma Jin's scathing criticisms of Westerns who kowtow (磕头)to Beijing. It is very easy to understand his viewpoint.
But for me, I want to be with Zhivago, and move to the countryside with Julie Christie, and pretend none of it is happening. As I get older I find my active politics ends at the shores of the US. I feel perfectly justified at raging against the US government and everything Trump is doing, vilifying him, satirizing him, calling for his impeachment and the jailing of him, his family and henchman at the soonest moment possible. But other than shaking my head sadly at the rise of dictators elsewhere, I stay out of other countries' business.
You can make the old “What about Hitler?” argument. If I had been alive in the 30s, would I have condemned the Nazis for their racist, anti-semitic policies in the years before we knew about the Holocaust? Would I have called for boycotting everything German in those days? If the world had united and condemned them at the time, might it have had an effect? (I stare back blankly, sheepishly…acknowledging that standing against evil might really not be as complicated as I pretend.)
But contrariwise, look at Mesopotamia in the post-Bush(Jr) era. Look at what American Exceptionalism led to - maybe a million dead and a society destroyed. Many people the world over are tired of American “do-goodisms” and see us sticking our noses in other countries affairs as insulting and in the long run counterproductive to the long-term struggle of the people who actually have to live in the countries involved. I can’t see that far ahead, and history is always a surprise, so we make our choices and take our chances.
Anyway, for those of us who care about the well being and happiness of our friends to the exclusion of protesting against the government's they live under, we probably have a lot to answer for, but would in any event anyway.  

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Review of "Red Mandarin Dress" by Xiaolong Qiu

This review was originally published December 31, 2012 on

An old man, soon to be forced out of his old familiar Shanghai dwelling by a developer of high rising, expensive apartments finds a young woman's body, her legs askew, barefoot, without underwear, clad only in a torn red Mandarin dress, (qipao). This opening scene of the Inspector Chen crime novel 'Red Mandarin Dress', illustrates the theme of the old and new China colliding with painful consequences. The Mandarin dress, is a perfect vehicle of this clash, as it was once a symbol of elegance in the China before Mao, then a symbol of decadence, only to re-emerge in the post Deng Xiaoping era as a chic symbol of wealth and status. Qui makes the dress his serial killer's calling card and the search for the killer is a trek through 20th Century China itself.

Inspector Chen, a famous Shanghai detective, is getting pressure from his Communist party bosses to take on a political case to protect the Party from embarrassment in a real estate corruption scandal. Chen, who has translated several famous Western Detective novels into Chinese, is a lifelong amateur scholar and is finally getting serious about his hobby. He wants to avoid the dirty real estate case by trying to plead off by saying he is too busy with a literature class. A noted human rights lawyer has the party in his sights again, this time by suing a crooked real estate mogul who is pushing people out of their homes. The Party wants to bring him down. Chen's maneuvering to avoid the real estate case is a classic illustration of the social mores that dictate relationships in official China. Chen is not brought in to investigate the murder until a second one occurs with the same MO - the disheveled body, suffocated, in an identical, old style, hand-made Mandarin dress. Neither one of the bodies had evidence of sexual activity.

The politics of the Chinese police play a central role in the novel. Li, the party leader, sees everything through the lens of the pre-boom China. "Check with the neighborhood committee' he says, clearly oblivious to the fact that Shanghai life had changed - at least for the wealthy. People had their own apartments now, and were not under the thumb of the old Party ladies who controlled everyone's life with gossip and 'motherly' intrusion. The real cops barely give Li lip service while moving ahead with the case based on the reality of the evidence and their available resources. Li is of course concerned because of the public nature of the crimes, because the bodies are being left in the most populated areas of the city - right on Nanjing Rd, in the center of town. The information starved daily news papers are speculating in a way worse than anything readers of Fleet Street or the NY Daily News could even conceive. Sex and Murder in a town where politics can't be seriously discussed are big stories.

There are a host of secondary characters in the novel - Chen's colleagues Liao and Yu,Yu's wife, Little Zhou, the department driver and Hong a pretty young police woman ho is assigned to the case. All are devoted to Chen and help him by doing whatever research etc that he needs. Inspector Chen also has a host of other allies, business men and restaurant owners who vie for his favor. He even has a young woman, White Cloud, whose salary is paid by Gu, who wants Chen to quit and work with him in his business. White Cloud would be anything Chen wants, but her main tasks is checking up on Chen's mother, who of course wants him to marry.

There are others too - the literature professor he studies with and his daughter, and all of the people Chen meets as he investigates the crime. Beijing (the Central Government, hated by Shanghai) continues to pressure him on the first case too, so he investigates the human rights lawyer who is suing the real estate crook.

Chen only begins to devote himself to the case when someone close to him is killed by the serial killer and we start diving into the real story of the Red Mandarin Dress. Chen is a weak man in the Western sense of the word. He is constitutionally the opposite of the typical American hard-boiled detective. He can't handle coffee much less booze. He has a serious nervous condition and he has to steel himself constantly to push on to solve the case. Chen is constantly moving in his thoughts from the past to the present and seemingly gets side-track on the most obscure points of literature. Because Chinese people have a deep respect for teachers and scholars his foibles are tolerated. Even Li the Party leader leaves him alone. As much as money drives this new China, a man like Chen retains real power because deep down, the Chinese really don't respect 'Big Buck'  guys even though they fear them. Confucius remains the model man.

The case has roots in the Cultural Revolution, which deeply scarred China and in large part, this novel is about that scarring. Chinese policy, after Cultural Revolution finally ended in 1979, was about forgetting. Too many were guilty for a full accounting. If you think of how the Vietnam War still affects the US, with division, mistrust and anger, and multiply it by ten thousand - even that, I think, would not come close to the affect that that period of discord had on China. The novel intersects the Cultural Revolution with the modern changing Chinese society in a way that is startling and yet is restrained and understated in the 'Chinese manner'.

Westerners who come to this book thinking of the other detectives whose adventures have been like Chandler's Phillp Marlowe or Hammett's Sam Spade or any of the detectives of Elmore Leonard might be frustrated by this novel. While all of these authors have their digressions - think of the long section about the history of the Maltese Falcon that Dashiell Hammett invented - still their digressions are 'hard links' to the main story. Sometimes Qui's digressions are 'soft links' - they kind of sort of fit into the big puzzle, but not directly. The novel is a bit of a scholarly romp though the history of Chinese poetry, a deconstruction of ancient stories that are told again and again, each time changing, the history of Chinese clothing - and the details of the organizational structure of the Cultural Revolution and its affect on real people. Another words, its not a detective potboiler. If you want to know who done it, you have to wait, (even though it is easy to guess about 2/3 of the way through)and if the scholarly romp doesn't interest you, then it might not be your book.

The murderer, when he is finally found, will not be an unsympathetic character. You could say that Hannibal Lector had some good qualities, but this goes way beyond that. So, once again, it is not a book that fits between the lines normally found in the genre.

Novel's like this - hybrids - are difficult to judge and grade. In math - X + = -. So if it is a good scholarly romp but a bad pot boiler - well that is a minus. I liked it - and give it 4 stars, but it has to find the right audience. I think anyone who knows China and loves it for what it is will appreciate it. If you are new to the Middle Kingdom - then be ready to adjust your expectations about what a detective novel is about.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Mother doesn't like me - Blues from the Streets of Xian

Last spring on the Streets of Xian I heard two musicians who were within a half mile of each other.  An erhu player on a freeway overpass that in 1985 was a little not-too-busy intersection.

In my novel Farewell the Dragon, my main character encounters an old, poor erhu player, about 1/4 mile from where this fellow was playing.  My erhu player would eventually become a sensation in pre-internet China - but that was just fiction.

"The next morning when the blind erhu player arrived at Xiao Zhai, I broke away from my breakfast of tea and lamb and barbecued pork on unleavened bread, and cold noodles with vinegar and cheap white liquor and found a spot to sit. He was dressed like a monk, except for his porkpie hat and fifty cent-piece sized dark round glasses. He alternated from very sad to madcap delight, matching the mood of the piece he played...I was put in a trance by the music, it was something so different from my past reveries that I was almost able to shed my so-called objective view of life.  There really is a Dao (道)...and the erhu music rode on the currents of the Dao, pulling me in..."

Click links below 

Erhu player in Xiao Zhai, Xian China


And just down the street - a kind of Chinese blues - My mother doesn't love me...


Saturday, March 3, 2018

Introducing the Second Edition of Farewell the Dragon

The Second edition is ready! The book is available on Amazon and other bookstore outlets.  Here is a bit of an introduction to the novel.

See what others are saying here.

Farewell the Dragon Reviews

Buy it here.

Farewell the Dragon

Farewell the Dragon?

What is this novel, Farewell the Dragon (FTD) about and why should you read it?

Now in 2017, it is historical fiction, a slice of life from three decades ago, in a place and time unlike any we are likely to see again.

The Cold War was on its last legs, and just before the novel begins, Reagan had asked Gorbachev to "tear down this wall!"

China had just woken from the Cultural Revolution, and its scars are still fresh, but the anticipation big change was everywhere.

The events of Tiananmen in June of 1989 were still a couple of years away, but the clues to its genesis littered the scene. China was at the apex of Dong Xiaoping’s 改革開放; Gǎigé kāifàng; literally: "reform and opening-up" policies. Westerners with liberal arts educations were welcomed to teach with almost complete freedom, to travel, to socialize and even, if they were careful and used discretion, to love.

China was, technologically, (compared to the West) still in the 1930s. At the university where I worked, in Beijing, there was one telephone on campus, and the easiest and fastest way to quickly communicate with the outside was to send a telegram. There was one shower house, that nearly everyone had to use, for the entire faculty/foreign student side of the campus. Mass media consisted of one or two TV stations that constantly reran shots of factories, that appeared to have just been cleaned, with neatly filled bins of indeterminate raw material being dumped into recently polished cauldrons, all managed by nervous technicians dressed like Chicago meat cutters expecting a visit from the FDA inspectors. The voice over, a monotone staccato, probably spoken by unsmiling young women in clear-framed glasses and loose-fitting dull blue pants and blouse, praised local officials for raising production for the tenth year in a row. Then, in mid-sentence, the video would jerk to a painfully awkward ribbon cutting ceremony, where portly middle-aged men in Mao jackets applauded each other...

The first thing I noticed living with authoritarian propaganda is that the more governments lie and oppress free expression,  the more people will value the truth, any truth. As a foreign teacher, I was exempt from the petty Party induced paranoia that my Chinese students and colleagues had to endure, and was greeted with universal warmth and goodwill. The freedom I had, to teach what I wanted and spend my free time as I wished was the dream of everyone around me, colleagues, students, and the campus workers. My existence was a model, a thumb in the eye of the party that had decided to endure for the sake of Deng Xiaoping's grand policy statements.  It was a huge responsibility, and I squandered it with proper elan and panache to the delight of the audience that was almost always cheering. This open-door gilded cage I lived and worked in had the effect of burning out the western cynicism that I had carried around with me before coming to China. For the first time in my life, I felt like everything I did really mattered.

Thinking back, I realized I had never been so close to the people around me, especially now when we can console ourselves with fake social media-driven lives. It is ironic that enforced isolation opens people up. The thrill was amplified by China itself because the incredible physical change to China, the make-over of the cities with endless skyscrapers of recent years had not begun. In the 80s, Beijing was still, for the most part, a flat, one or two storey city of alleyways, or "hutongs". But the psychological change was already rolling through the city like a slow moving tsunami. Clothing styles were morphing overnight. Mao jackets and blue work jackets were changed to blouses, skirts, and jeans. Arrogant attitudes and sexually tinged postures were being tried out, basement dance clubs started appearing in the outlying reaches of the city, reverberating with nasty metal-rock from cheap Taiwan-made boomboxes. Secret clubs for foreign businessmen and their special Chinese friends were rumored to be opened at certain hours on certain days. The feeling was electric and affected everyone, from students to workers, and the Party itself. Foreigners were becoming more numerous and you could see the effect it was having on the Chinese people.  But the oppression of the Cultural Revolution still held sway, psychologically if not in fact.

The FTD story takes place between August and October 1987, primarily in the university section of Beijing, in the northwest corner of the city. The main character doesn’t really want to leave China but circumstances are making it increasingly inevitable. Nathan Schuett, a former liberal American Democratic party political operator in his mid-thirties, has put himself into a fix by quitting his teaching job before securing the next one as a software businessman. Worse he has allowed his romantic life to become too complicated. 

But when he finds the nearly naked bodies of two university colleagues, both shot, things really begin to spin out of control. A West German woman and Hungarian man who may or may not have been romantically linked lay dead in her apartment, where Nate looks briefly for clues to a crime that no one seems to want to solve.

Nate is a man of his generation, a man who understands women’s liberation to mean sexual liberation for himself. Thirty years previously, in the 1950s, and thirty years later, (now), he would be seen for different reasons, as a disgusting philanderer. But the eighties, the disco-cocaine years before AIDs, was the high watermark in male-centric promiscuity. As Rodney Dangerfield put it at the end of Caddie Shack. "We're all going get laid!"

The double standard still applied though. He suspects that his American girlfriend has returned to the US in order to have a tryst with her former beau, and he intends to use the time apart to get his own. The authorial inspiration for his outraged jealous lust was partially inspired by Sir Harry Flashman, a bounding 19th Century Englishman, made famous in George McDonald Fraser’s Flashman novels. Flashman sees any sexual opportunity in the same the way that a Bedouin crossing the desert sees an oasis. Flashman, who also had a romantic adventure in China in one of the novels, (see “Flashman and the Dragon”), was the hilarious fictional epitome of “white Privilege”, and Nate was consciously meant to be his fictional descendant.

The other literary inspiration for FTD was Victor Selgalen’s novel “Rene Leys”, a much under-appreciated tale of the last days of the Qing Empire, the story of a young Belgian man who comes and goes, in and out of the inner chambers of the Forbidden City.

Nate is an English teacher, but also an aspiring business man.  He was a seemingly reasonable and obliquely patriotic, if mildly left-wing American, surrounded mostly by students and officials on sabbatical from the Soviet Empire. By all accounts, Nate was a model teacher at the Beijing Foreign Language school. He can get by in the Chinese language but is no scholar. After finding the bodies, he tells his story to a couple of Beijing cops investigating the circumstances surrounding the deaths of the two foreigners. On the surface, it appears like a murder-suicide, or possibly a double suicide. But for some reason, Nate knows it is more complicated than that.

When not being interrogated, there are tantalizing anecdotes told over drinks at the Friendship Hotel bar to go with the endless gossiping about amorous escapades, bizarre encounters at an illegal Beijing Bordello, forbidden East/West love, as well as a cameo or two by some famous personalities of the era.

For Nate, China is a self-imposed exile from Reagan's America. Now, in January 2017, we are entering a new era that has echoes of the 1980s. Back then, a reactionary old white man with huge gaps in his apparent knowledge had been elected President, and he threatened to undo much of the liberal fabric of the country. During the 80s, the income gap had soared, labor unions were being decimated, death squads were supported at the edges of the American Empire and the rich and powerful were made more so. For those that don’t remember the 80’s, well, it appears we are getting a chance to relive those years (in Marxist terminology, the sequence occurred first as a tragedy, and now seemingly somewhat farcically). Maybe "Farewell the Dragon" will inspire more self-imposed exiles, which in the long run, will only bring the world closer together. Remember Dante wrote the Divine Comedy as an exile.

Friday, March 2, 2018

Is China Changing Direction?

Many China watchers seem to have come to the conclusion that China is no longer on the road toward moderate, semi-democratic liberality, but is passing into a point of no return toward permanent strongman dictatorship.  
The change is clearly related to Trump’s election, although the reasons why this is true are somewhat complex.  The event that most illustrates this sea change is the recent CCP decision to remove the term limits on its Premier.  Everyone seems to assume that this is solely Xi Jinping's decision and that he wants to be the "Maximum Leader" for life, whether as Premier, head of the military or Party Chairman or all three.  But, as far as western analysts go, no one really knows exactly why this was done, or even if it is definitely a done deal. Nor does anyone know what it really means for China’s future.
There is a multitude of China pessimists on the scene now, you see them on Fox and some of the financial networks. They have been emboldened to criticise those who had more or less subscribed to the theory that as China’s middle class prospers and becomes educated and connected in various ways with the west, that it would slowly become more democratic, and liberal regarding human rights, censorship, and economic policy.  
While I worry about recent trends being fostered by Beijing, I am not convinced that there will be a major retrenchment in the political culture that has taken hold there, especially in the affluent cities. China has come too far and is too highly integrated with the west to risk becoming isolated again.  Relationships on every level are still in place, and while the computerized control of information is pervasive (not just in China), computerized tools, such as private VPN's needed for business, also allow people to know more about what is going on both inside and outside their country. That newly minted class of professionals doesn’t and I believe will not accept blatant propaganda anymore. People can only live with falsehoods so much before the absurdity can no longer be tolerated. I do believe this is true in China, but that it will express itself differently than how we would expect it to unfold in the West.

We can't fool ourselves and whitewash history. Ten thousand people died in the streets of Beijing in June 1989, and the Chinese people, for the most part, know that. But those events proved that they are not a fearful people, and they don’t have infinite patience, particularly if they begin to lose any ground economically. There are real limits to what the CCP can do.
Perhaps it is time to change the context of the conversation. The United States has been the prime mover in China’s sudden rise and in my opinion, especially on a people-to-people level, the Chinese know and appreciate this.  They know we were responsible for beating Japan in 1945 and ending its occupation of China.  The US gradually opened its markets, its universities, and its corporations to China over the last 30 years.  In the 19th Century, the US was perhaps the least egregious in its grabbiness toward the weakened Qing Dynasty. We never had any territorial claims on China, and in fact, John Hay’s Open Door policy was the only Western initiative that respected China's administrative and territorial integrity.  In many ways, China’s reclamation of its own destiny began with that.
The CCP has moved on from its revolutionary paranoia and jingoism and now for better or worse, represents historical China. The Party functionaries are chosen primarily by merit now and they understand the importance of stability and continuity in its relationships with the outside world. Taking the long view, China through its history has not had an inclination toward far-flung aggression.  They eventually overwhelmed Genghis Khan's Mongols by absorbing them, and they primarily see their real power to be based on its way of life and its people. While in the long run, this might actually be more threatening to "our way of life", that is something future generations will have to decide based on the cards they have to play.  One thing we do know is China is and will continue to be a fact of life. I am convinced our progeny will be worse off if we position ourselves as an enemy of China. 
China is really a vulnerable and fragile country, and that also will continue to be a fact. Its first responsibility is to feed its own population and to manage their own wealth gap that has massively widened in the last decade.  In that regard, they are not out of the woods yet, in spite of their fat bank accounts. It is a country at great risk for devastating drought, as its three major rivers all are sourced within a few hundred miles of each other in the Himalayas.  On their borders, they have potentially powerful and at times unfriendly neighbors in India and Russia as well as a host of smaller powers (Vietnam, Korea, Japan, even Taiwan) that are perhaps more dangerous.  China has very legitimate security concerns that have little or nothing to do with the United States.
China absolutely needs to keep exporting and depends on free navigation of the seas. While they are building a new navy, they are decades away from being able to militarily threaten the US, nor does that appear to be their aim.  Our two economies are in a symbiotic relationship, (or if you prefer, a mutual death grip, the fight between the snipe and the clam, 鹬蚌相争.)  This relationship between China and the US was Henry Kissinger’s legacy project in many ways, and if you read his book On China, published in 2011, you can see that while understanding the dangers, he doesn’t think that conflict is inevitable. 

We have to continue to forge a peaceful relationship with China. We have come too far to bail out now.   China will sink into chaos if we suddenly stopped buying stuff from them, and our bond markets will collapse if they stopped buying our financial paper.  Anyone who wants to take us to that point, (as Trump seems to with his tariff proposals) is the enemy of the majority of Americans who would (at best case) be sunk into penury as a result of those actions.  
It is true the United States soon won’t have overwhelming and unchallengeable power in East Asia.  To that I say, welcome to the normal course of history America. The last seventy years of American dominance has been the exception to history, and it is unsustainable. We are going to need sophisticated diplomats and a coherent long-term policy, that is clearly understood by all if our children are to thrive in the coming century. China, or any other country for that matter, has a right not be subject to threat and intimidation, and when we announce the kind of military expansion Trump is calling for, that is what he is signaling.   

If we do make it to a post-Trump era, we will have to become a normal nation that lives with the rest of the world as a neighbor, hopefully in a measure of peace and friendship.  The alternative is to live in a militarized state, with no say in the larger existential questions that hang over our society.  And if that alternative is the course we choose, then what exactly is it that we were complaining about regarding China?