Protests in China: Read, Listen, Watch

During the weekend of November 25-27, protests broke out in many Chinese cities, immediately lighting up the China Twittersphere and leading to endless speculation about threats to Xi Jinping’s authority or the prospect of a violent crackdown like the one carried out on June 4, 1989. Chinese government authorities quickly quashed the demonstrations, but the protests are no less meaningful for their brevity. I’ve spent the past 10 days consuming as much as I can about the gatherings, and below I’ve collected a selection of reporting and analysis that I think is especially helpful for non-specialists seeking to understand the story beyond the headlines.

The Big Picture

The immediate catalyst for these protests was a deadly fire at an apartment building in Urumchi, where it’s likely that pandemic lockdown measures impeded the ability of firefighters to control the blaze or rescue residents.

Notable among the protesters was the prominence of students and women. Jessie Lau writes for Novara Media about the students who spoke out, and at Semafor Karina Tsui explains the importance of gender in these demonstrations.

At the New York Times, Li Yuan interviewed more than a dozen young protesters to understand the concerns and frustrations that prompted them to speak out against the Chinese government. CNN has a visual explainer showing the size and spread of the protests.

Eva Rammeloo was on the scene at protests in Shanghai on the night of Sunday, November 27 and writes about the demonstration for the Economist. AP journalists Dake Kang and Huizhong Wu also report from Shanghai, tracing how a vigil attended by only about a dozen people blossomed into a protest of hundreds.

Longtime Beijing residents Jeremiah Jenne and David Moser joined the Sinica Podcast to provide firsthand accounts of the situation in China’s capital. In an episode of the Sharp China podcast, Sinocism newsletter author Bill Bishop offers a comprehensive analysis of the protests and Chinese politics. In an episode of On Point, the host has an excellent conversation with Yangyang Cheng about the protests—if you only listen to one thing for explanation and analysis, this is my pick.

“Organizing in China isn’t as simple as posting an event announcement to an online forum or a rallying cry on social media.” So how did the protests come together? At Rest of World, Viola Zhou and Meaghan Tobin explain the covert, low-tech, and offline tools used to spread the word.

One of the most important sources of information on the protests has been the Twitter account of “Teacher Li,” a Chinese artist living in Italy, whom Han Zheng profiles at The Nation. At MIT Technology Review, Li recounts to Zeyi Yang how he became a clearinghouse for real-time protest news—as well as the risks he has taken in doing so.

Zero COVID

While the fire in Urumchi proved crucial in driving people to protest, the demonstrators were also expressing dissatisfaction with the PRC’s long-running zero-COVID policy. What is “zero COVID,” and why did so many in China publicly reject it after almost three years?

Journalist Michael Schuman explains the policy and backlash against it at the Atlantic, while at Foreign Affairs political scientist Yuen Yuen Ang looks at the politics behind the government’s stubborn insistence on sticking to it. Political scientist Jeremy Wallace writes for the Washington Post about the importance of zero COVID’s quantitative emphasis. Prior to the protests, the New York Times assembled a collection of videos that showed how zero COVID has been enforced, often to extreme lengths, and this week the newspaper followed up with a similar story in photos.

Corresponding with students he taught in rural Sichuan in the late 1990s, Peter Hessler explores the many facets of public opinion about COVID and the zero-COVID policy.

Today (December 7), the Chinese government announced that it would relax, though not eliminate, zero-COVID measures. Prior to the announcement, public health scholar Yanzhong Huang wrote for the New York Times about what it could look like for China to put aside the zero-COVID policy.

Zero-COVID has further stunted China’s already slowing economy, causing anxiety and frustration among younger generations. Economic concerns were among the reasons for the protests, as Stella Yifan Xie reports for the Wall Street Journal.

Reporting for the New York Times from Guangzhou and Shenzhen, Vivian Wang describes how COVID lockdowns and the economic slowdown have affected workers in a region that powered China’s economy for decades.

In-Depth Analysis

A ChinaFile Conversation features comments from a variety of experts, who address topics ranging from the Urumchi fire to what the protests could mean for Xi Jinping’s rule over China.

Council on Foreign Relations fellow Ian Johnson writes for Foreign Affairs about the sudden, stunning emergence of large-scale protests only a month after Xi Jinping secured his third term in office, and what he and the CCP could do to address the grievances of Chinese citizens.

The path forward is also a topic of this New Yorker column by Evan Osnos, who considers how making concessions could play out in two ways for the CCP: “As Xi’s government deals with additional demands, it may face a classic authoritarian dilemma: Will concessions fuel good will, or will they breed more public demands?”

In a Chinese Whispers podcast recorded on Monday, November 28, historian Jeff Wasserstrom and journalist Isabel Hilton talk with host Cindy Yu about China’s history of protest—and make the eerily prescient prediction that the death of Jiang Zemin or Hu Jintao could add a twist to how the situation might play out. Following up on that prediction’s realization, at the Atlantic Isabel Hilton considers how the death of Jiang Zemin came at a particularly inconvenient time for Xi Jinping and the CCP, as they walk the line between quelling protest and avoiding any admission of failure in the zero-COVID policy.

As historian James Millward writes at the New York Times, it’s important that a fire in Xinjiang served as the catalyst for protests elsewhere in the country:

The sight of Han Chinese protesting the deaths of Uyghurs is unusual and poignant, because for years, the Chinese party-state has justified its Xinjiang policies by demonizing Uyghurs as terrorists and religious extremists, or at least as ignorant peasants in need of forceful “vocational training.” And now, the images from the Urumqi fire have humanized and normalized Uyghurs for the entire country.

Lynette Ong, a political scientist at the University of Toronto, has written an analysis for Foreign Policy that examines the CCP’s approach to maintaining “social stability” over the past decade and how it contributed to the recent protests.

Spectator journalist and podcaster Cindy Yu has a powerful commentary, “Why I’m Grieving for China”:

The hand of the state now reaches into every part of people’s lives – the Communist party dictates where they can go and who they can see. Add to that the Covid shocks to the Chinese economy, record youth unemployment and a teetering property market, and you don’t have to be a pro-democracy activist to see that, for too many people, the CCP is not meeting its side of the deal.

Manya Koetse of What’s on Weibo writes about online discussions of “coming out politically” in China—publicly admitting to one’s political leanings.

In a commentary for CNN, Jeff Wasserstrom and Chris Rea take a serious look at flashes of humor in these protests, and consider the symbolism contained in the blank sheets of paper many protesters have held:

A blank sheet, too, speaks volumes. It makes fun of a censorship regime in which virtually any word can become taboo. It makes the individual illegible to a mass surveillance state, denying that state its invasive prerogative. When an individual says nothing, their words cannot be taken away.

Header Image: “Wulumuqi Road [Shanghai] After Protest,” November 27, 2022. Photo courtesy Wikimedia user Cinea467 and used under a Creative Commons license.

Burying Books versus Praising Them

When asked as a child to name my hobbies, my usual response was “books.” I wasn’t athletic or artistic; I couldn’t play a musical instrument or entertain an audience on stage. My skill was reading, and I honed it daily: on the bus ride to and from school (two hours a day just to read! I didn’t appreciate that luxury then), in breaks between classes and during recess (which got me a reprimand for not being sufficiently social), while I ate dinner and before I fell asleep at night (I joined the Bad Decisions Book Club at a very young age and have maintained my membership ever since). I churned through books, making weekly trips to our local branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia to replenish my supply and spending any money that came my way on new acquisitions at Encore Books and Borders. My tastes were eclectic: I devoured series like the Bobbsey Twins and Nancy Drew, then moved on to Baby-Sitters Club and Sweet Valley High; I developed my interest in history through both fiction and non-fiction; I eventually acquired another hobby by reading about baseball (that hobby was watching baseball, not playing it—I still wasn’t at all athletic).

I didn’t only enjoy reading books, though—I loved to share them. My Aunt Marge, a librarian, invariably asked me what I was reading and prompted me to tell her what I liked about the books I had chosen, then recommended others that she thought I might appreciate. I thrilled at the opportunity to deliver book reports at school, erroneously convinced that my over-zealous summaries and analysis would persuade apathetic classmates to love these volumes as much as I did. I was constantly trying to spread the word, not about the Good Book, but about all good books.

It’s little surprise, then, that years later I gravitated toward a profession that revolves around books—reading them, discussing them, writing them. I came to the study of Chinese history through reading books about the country, finding myself enthralled and intrigued by the stories told in volumes by writers like Jonathan Spence and Peter Hessler. I wanted to read more and discuss what I’d read with other people who were as interested in the topic as I was. So I went to graduate school.

And then … I went to graduate school.

Grad school, especially the first few years of a humanities Ph.D. program, is all about books. In the United States, at least, students begin with “coursework,” which lasts 2-3 years and involves a number of seminars (3-4 per term) requiring participants to read one or multiple books per week and show up prepared to discuss them for three hours. Depending on the professor, you might be expected to submit written responses to the books, or prepare questions in advance if it’s your week to lead the seminar. Sometimes, there are snacks. In theory, grad seminars are incredibly dorky book club meetings (with grades).

I attended three graduate programs (two masters [one unfinished] and a doctorate) at three different institutions, spending nearly six academic years of my life in seminars. What I quickly realized—though in some ways I only see it with true clarity now, nearly a decade after leaving my last seminar meeting—is that most seminars aren’t about nerding out over books and discussing all the reasons they’re great. It is, in fact, deeply uncool to show up prepared to gush over the week’s reading.

The focus in seminars is to engage in critical analysis of the books—and grad students put the emphasis on “critical.” Many students approach seminars as an opportunity to demonstrate their academic prowess by systematically eviscerating every book on the reading list. As Oxford University Press editor Susan Ferber writes in a recent essay for the American Historical Association’s Perspectives magazine,

There was a lot of posturing and trying on of academic jargon to convey ideas in a way that we thought would impress our professors and each other. By the end of each class session, it almost always felt as though there was no value in those books: that the authors had structured them badly, their research questions were inadequate, their archival source base was too thin, the analysis had failed to take into account all the strands it should, and overall they were bad reads.

Some professors would counter the students’ arguments, or at least play devil’s advocate as a way of pushing us to articulate our critiques more convincingly. I had professors who would re-orient a discussion when it got too negative, or who would point out that they had assigned the book for a reason and we should consider what it could teach us. But more often than not, my memories of grad seminars are of me arriving in the classroom excited about the week’s reading and then, three hours later, going home convinced that I hadn’t actually understood the book at all. I thought the book was really good, I would mourn, but I guess I just didn’t see all the problems with it.

This, obviously, is one way to develop a raging case of imposter syndrome, which in turn led me to adopt the practices I saw modeled around me. Like everyone else, I analyzed critically. I absorbed the lesson that any modest praise of course readings needed to be heavily couched in reservations expressed about its approach, methodology, evidence, and/or conclusions. I learned to look for problems as I read, to focus my comments on weaknesses rather than strengths.

Reading Ferber’s explanation of how dissatisfaction with this approach led her to leave grad school and embark on a career in publishing has helped me think through some of the reasons that I now rarely remember grad seminars with fondness. I wanted to read engaging and inspiring works and talk about what made them great with other people who shared my interests. Instead, I often felt that my problem was I liked the books too much, making me a Bad Academic.

Admittedly, there are good books and bad ones, strong books and weak ones. Occasionally a professor admitted that yes, they had assigned a particular work because they thought it had problems and would serve as a useful case study for us to discuss. Some of what we read was badly in need of critical analysis, and it would have benefited the author to get more of that before the book went to press. But my classmates and I tore apart our course readings with a focus and determination that most of these works didn’t deserve (and, I should add, with a frankness that we would have never expressed to the author’s face, or in a public book review). With time and distance from the classroom, I can see that those years inculcated a negativity in my approach to reading that wasn’t easy to shake. I wasn’t enjoying books; I was looking for ways to undermine them.

Like Susan Ferber, through this experience I gained a better understanding of what I enjoy and what I want to spend my time on. I love to edit and help other people strengthen their work; even more, I love to share the books that excite me, which I can do through book reviews and social media posts. I never pass up the opportunity to celebrate a good book and encourage other people to read it. And fortunately, I now have somewhat more success in accomplishing that than I did back when I was delivering over-enthusiastic book reports in front of my grade-school classmates. The medium and audience might have changed, but my inability to keep quiet about a good book will never go away.

Feature photo: A selection of books in the China pile on my desk that I’m eager to read and/or share with others. I’ll have the opportunity to talk about one volume very soon: on Friday, February 12 at 7:00pm Eastern Time, I will be in dialogue with Silvia M. Lindtner about her new book, Prototype Nation: China and the Contested Promise of Innovation (Princeton University Press, 2020). This is an online event hosted by Ann Arbor’s Literati Bookstore and open to all—no preregistration needed. Get all the details on how to join us at Literati’s website.

Getting to Know the Gusset

Bay City State Park

Michigan is referred to lovingly as “The Mitten” for the way its shape resembles one of those cold-weather accessories the state’s residents normally wear from October through April (at least). In the four years since I moved here, I’ve traveled almost the width of the mitten’s cuff, from Detroit in the east to Kalamazoo in the west, and I’ve been to a number of places in the palm. I’m still steeling myself for a long drive to the fingertips, and I briefly considered going up there on a road trip for the five-day fall break/birthday vacation I took in the middle of October. But I felt like I wouldn’t have quite enough time to really relax and explore in between the journey up and back, so I decided on a day trip instead and turned my attention to part of the state closer to home but still unknown to me: what I think of as “the gusset.”

Public domain map of Michigan. Source.

In knitting terms, the gusset is a wedge of stitches that shapes and allows for movement in a mitten’s thumb. In Michigan terms, the gusset almost perfectly maps onto the stretch of I-75 that angles northwest from Detroit nearly up to Saginaw Bay, passing through Flint, Saginaw, and Bay City along the way. A quick detour off the highway north of Flint leads to what was originally my only planned destination of the day, Frankenmuth—Michigan’s “Little Bavaria.” Frankenmuth was established as a German Lutheran missionary colony in 1845; today the town is a popular tourist destination, even without a rowdy Oktoberfest celebration this year.

Frankenmuth is only about 80 miles from Ann Arbor, and as I scrutinized the visitor bureau’s website I started to think that I didn’t need to spend a whole day there—if I walked around, had lunch, and did some shopping, that wouldn’t take up more than a long afternoon. Casting my eye northward on Google Maps, I saw that Frankenmuth is only a short drive from the beach at Saginaw Bay, which dips in to define the “Thumb” of the Mitten. If I left early, I thought, I’d have plenty of time to do both. And if for some reason I slept late or didn’t feel like jumping behind the wheel first thing in the morning, I could still go to Frankenmuth and leave it at that.

Not only did I not sleep late, I woke up so early and so antsy to get on the road that I was defrosting my Subaru by 7:00am, watching a thin layer of ice crystals slide down the windshield as I waited for the car to heat up and checked out the route on my phone. Head up US-23 N until it feeds into I-75 N, exit onto M-13 and within a few miles I’d be at Bay City State Park—total travel time about 1 hour 35 minutes. But then I stopped to think: it was ridiculously early. I had nowhere to be and no schedule for the day. The idea behind this trip was to see more of Michigan, not barrel along a series of monotonous freeways at 70mph while too intent on monitoring other drivers to enjoy the trip. Why should I care about taking the fastest route? I opened the Google Maps route options preferences and slid “avoid highways” to the right, increasing my expected travel time by nearly an hour but also increasing the possibility that I’d see something interesting along the way.

It was still too dark at first to see much as I navigated the familiar roads of Washtenaw County and started working my way north, but by the time I encountered a construction zone around Brighton I had to slide on my sunglasses; it was shaping up to be a brilliant, if chilly, mid-October day. Driving through miles and miles of farmland with the radio cranked up and red-orange-gold trees lining both sides of the road, I laughed to myself, feeling like I’d landed in a cheesy tourist ad touting the attractions of Pure Michigan in the fall.

With the exception of Detroit, Ann Arbor, Flint, and a few other scattered counties, Michigan went for Donald Trump in 2016, and I was driving through areas that had gone red, in some places by rather decisive margins, four years ago. What surprised me on this trip was how not-decisive the 2020 election was clearly going to be in those same areas. I saw lots of Trump-Pence lawn signs, yes, but it seemed that nearly every one was canceled out by a Biden-Harris sign planted in the grass next door, or across the street. It became my version of a road trip game: for each Trump sign, could I find a corresponding Biden one that evened the count? As I drove onward, I realized two things: (1) this election was going to be really close (not news, but I felt like I was seeing concrete evidence in a new way), and (2) the communities I was passing seemed deeply divided—literally neighbor versus neighbor. I wondered how this contentious election year had affected relationships in areas that were more politically cohesive four years ago.

In what seemed like no time at all, I was passing a funeral home that advertised drive-through viewings and entering Saginaw, where I followed the sparkling Saginaw River and drove under the I-75 bridges that could have carried me not through the city but over it (way over it; seeing the height of the freeway made me glad I had stuck to solid ground). Mile after mile ticked by on my odometer as I left Saginaw behind and navigated past Bay City, heading not for the town itself but the state park that lies to its northwest.

Much as I had genuinely enjoyed the drive, I was glad to have arrived when I turned off the ignition and could finally stand up and stretch. I took a quick tour through the park’s visitor center, which has a small exhibit on the area’s natural environment and wildlife, then grabbed the thermos of coffee and breakfast burrito I’d packed and started following the signs directing me toward the beach.

Bay City State Park

I knew not to expect a beach like the ones I’ve spent time on in Delaware or California: no boardwalk, no ice cream or funnel cakes, no surf shops. I could spot a handful of other people walking at different spots in the distance, but I was entirely alone at the northern end of the stretch comprising the state park. The shore at Saginaw Bay extends right up to the treeline, and fallen autumn leaves were crispy under my feet as I sought purchase on dry mounds of sand that collapsed as I stumbled over them. The difference between this beach and others that I didn’t really absorb for a few minutes was the quiet. No crashing waves; instead, the bay gently lapped at the coast, calm and nearly silent. As I sat on a log to eat my breakfast and gaze at the water, all I could hear was the wind rustling through the trees.

In a fit of optimism that morning I had packed a beach towel and my Kindle, thinking that if I dressed warmly enough I could sit in the sun and read on the beach for a while. By the time I finished eating, though, I knew that plan wasn’t going to work: that breeze causing a gentle rustle in the trees was also making me damn cold, and my clothes weren’t offering quite enough protection against the chill while I sat still. Wishing that I had brought gloves and a knit hat, I decided that the only thing to do was walk.

While it might not have ice cream or funnel cakes, the beach at Bay City on a sunny October Friday is the perfect place to walk and think. I moved down to more firmly packed sand that wouldn’t shift under my sneakers and started making my way south, stopping occasionally to take a photo or watch birds hop around at the edge of the water. A power plant glittered in the distance, and somehow even that intrusion on the coast’s natural beauty didn’t mar the vista. I walked and I gazed and I thought and could practically feel the wind blowing 2020-induced cobwebs from my brain.

I reached the southern end of the park’s beach a mile and a half later and turned around to walk back to my car. In addition to the beach, Bay City State Park is also linked to a wildlife refuge, Tobico Marsh, that has its own nature trails and observation towers; if I’d planned to spend the entire day in the area I would have ventured in that direction next. A glance at my watch told me it was closing in on noon, though, and I wanted to make sure I had plenty of time to see all that Frankenmuth had to offer. Once again, I slid behind the wheel and set my course in Google Maps, this time for a relatively short trip southeast estimated at 35 minutes.

The beach had been so deserted that seeing what at first appeared to be throngs of people on Frankenmuth’s sidewalks startled me as I drove into town. I had thought that I’d avoid crowds (or the 2020 version of them) by coming on Friday rather than the weekend, but I started to worry that this might not be the best idea after all. Driving cautiously down Main Street, scanning both sides to assess both the parking situation and potential for coronavirus exposure, I began to relax. The sidewalks, I realized, weren’t actually crowded; scattered pairs of people and small family groups walked together, but otherwise everyone was giving their fellow pedestrians a wide berth. Nearly all were wearing masks outside. A few well-known restaurants—Frankenmuth Brewery, Zehnder’s—had lines of people waiting outside for tables (in fact, it was the line at the brewery that had first given the appearance of a crowd), but when I entered the large public parking lot at the southern end of town, it was nearly empty. Yellow lines of paint marked off spots stretching way into the distance, revealing the disparity between Frankenmuth’s usual expectations and the reality of tourism in the time of COVID. I’m not in the habit of taking risks, but it seemed more than possible to walk around Frankenmuth while also keeping my distance from other tourists. If I wasn’t comfortable with the situation after all, I decided, I’d go home.

Holz Brücke in Frankenmuth

I parked, slipped on my mask, and started toward the Holz Brücke, or Wooden Bridge, that crossed the Cass River separating the parking lot from the rest of town. I’d seen pictures of this covered bridge before—it’s one of Frankenmuth’s most photogenic spots—and had thought it was a legacy of the town’s 19th-century German residents. As I approached it, though, I could easily see that even to my untrained eye the wood wasn’t that old; maybe it was a replica of a previous bridge, I thought. But then I spotted a plaque on the bridge’s peaked roof dated “1979,” underneath another displaying the name “Frankenmuth Bavarian Inn,” and realized that the structure actually belonged to the hotel and restaurant sitting at the edge of the parking lot. The bridge might have nodded to the town’s history, but it was deliberately constructed to facilitate tourism by connecting the main Bavarian Inn complex with the heart of downtown Frankenmuth.

That blend of actual history and Disney-fied infrastructure continued as I turned right onto Main Street and started walking north. Various plaques narrated the town’s past: its founding as a missionary enclave (unsuccessful, one placard noted with breathtaking blandness, because the local Indigenous groups “moved away”), its decades as a farming community, the woolen mill that opened in 1894 and was once Frankenmuth’s largest employer. While the village is still surrounded by farms and the Frankenmuth Woolen Mill continues to turn out bedding for consumers across the country, the downtown commercial district appears to have re-oriented itself toward attracting tourists in the 1980s; even the famous Oktoberfest only dates to 1990. As I climbed the gentle slope of Main Street, the stucco-sided buildings topped with dark timbers reminded me not so much of anything I’d seen in Germany, but rather of the Dutch Wonderland amusement park we used to go to in Pennsylvania’s Lancaster County when I was a kid. Everything was just a little too smooth, a little too picture-perfect. With a bright-blue sky dotted by fluffy white clouds overhead, though, I couldn’t deny that the town looked ready for its close-up.

Frankenmuth Bavarian Inn

I made two slow loops of Main Street, window-shopping at stores selling beer steins and lederhosen, checking out the menu for Zehnder’s “world-famous family style chicken dinner” (all you can eat fried chicken and sides, followed by ice cream or orange sherbet for dessert, $27.95 per person), watching a lone horse and carriage carrying two tourists clip-clop along the road. While I was never a fan of large crowds in pre-COVID times, there was something eerie about Frankenmuth feeling so slow and empty on such a beautiful fall day. The lines of diners waiting for tables at some of the restaurants were clearly a function of the state’s restrictions on seating capacity (limited to 50%), rather than an actual glut of customers. I endured a lengthy wait before I was seated for lunch at the Bavarian Inn, but once I ordered my Reuben sandwich came out so quickly I wondered if the kitchen had actually toasted it. (They did; it was delicious.) When I stopped in at the Covered Bridge Gift Shop for a souvenir magnet before returning to my car, the salesclerk confirmed that my impression was correct: “It’s totally dead around here,” though she expected the weekend might be slightly busier.

I found more of the same at Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland, where the parking lot offers over 1,000 spots but only a couple dozen were occupied when I pulled in shortly before 6pm. Claiming to be “the world’s largest Christmas store,” Bronner’s sits on a sprawling complex just south of downtown Frankenmuth; the parking lot is adorned by holiday light displays and includes a replica of the Austrian chapel where “Silent Night” was first sung in 1818. The retail store itself is almost overwhelming. When I first stepped inside I felt frozen by indecision—stunned by the lights, the Christmas carols, the enormous stretch of displays before me. In addition to religious ornaments and the usual array of Santas, snowflakes, candy canes, and reindeer, Bronner’s prides itself on its vast selection of ornaments catering to niche interests. If you name a profession, hobby, animal, food, nationality, sport, or life milestone, Bronner’s can probably supply you with an ornament.

Entering Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland

After a minute I shook off my daze and started browsing the nearest display, quickly getting sucked in by the Bronner’s holiday spirit. Behind my mask I sang along to Christmas carols, my eyes skimming over dozens of ornaments that ranged from delicate and beautiful to the ones that I think of as “only in America.” (“Ranch is my favorite food group,” declared one bauble in the food section; “I ❤️Ravioli” stated another.) The store was so large that the small number of other shoppers and I rarely crossed paths, though I heard more than one parent instruct their child to “look with your eyes, not with your hands,” and I wondered how much inventory Bronner’s loses to breakage in a given year.

I meandered through the store, looking more closely at some displays than others—to really scrutinize everything would have taken hours, and I was on a targeted search mission for ornaments pertaining to some specific interests among my family members. Bronner’s is most definitely one of those stores where it’s easy to buy way more than planned, though, and more than once I started reaching for an ornament that had caught my eye before sternly telling myself to leave it on the hook. Overall, I decided when I felt I had looked at everything I needed to look at, I had exercised impressive restraint: the basket I carried toward the checkout counter contained fewer than ten items.

In case anyone wants to memorialize 2020 with a Christmas tree ornament, Bronner’s has a few options—including hand sanitizer captured in glass.

Like the parking lot, the Bronner’s checkout areas are built to accommodate large crowds of shoppers, with one terminal after another lined up behind a new plexiglass barrier. On this October evening, however, only two lanes were open, and I walked right up to the cashier. Still, Bronner’s is bracing itself for a busy holiday season: a small cluster of new employees attired in red vests stood behind the registers, listening to one of the other staff members explain where certain items were located, and my cashier worked slowly as he showed a trainee how to wrap and box the fragile ornaments I had selected. Christmas 2020 isn’t going to look or feel like any holiday in my memory, but Bronner’s is preparing for a typical shopping season—at least, to some degree—nonetheless.

I got back into my car and poured a fresh cup of coffee from the thermos I had prepared more than 12 hours earlier, fortifying myself for the drive back home. The sun was setting as I exited the Bronner’s parking lot, the Christmas light displays around its perimeter just starting to stand out, and a billboard bade me farewell from Frankenmuth with an “Auf Wiedersehen!” Soon I was once again cruising past long stretches of farmland interrupted by the occasional strip of stores, still listening to the radio but not at the same volume or with the same energy as I had when I set off in the morning. I considered cutting over to I-75 to speed up the return trip south, but then discarded the idea; I was feeling too relaxed to insert myself into the chaos of tailgaters and sudden lane changes. The local route suited me just fine.

I won’t end this on any sort of cavalier note: “So go out and visit places! As long as you wear a mask it’s okay.” Nope. A leisurely drive up Michigan’s gusset, a long walk on the beach at Bay City—these were wonderful ways for me to relax and see more of the state. But in Frankenmuth I was ever-vigilant, starting from the minute I drove onto Main Street and worried that there were more people in the town than I was comfortable with. In a previous time, I would have likely browsed through every store, gone into the historical society to see their exhibit on Frankenmuth’s past, and lingered through a long lunch at whatever restaurant caught my eye, not the one that seemed to have the best COVID protocols and the fewest people. It was interesting to walk around and see a new place, but it wasn’t relaxing. I felt like I spent the afternoon on high alert—monitoring how close I was to others on the sidewalk, checking to see if people were wearing masks properly (it goes over your nose!!), carefully entering only the few stores that offered items I knew would be good Christmas gifts. While I never felt like I was in the “wrong” situation, I also wished I had taken the time to drive up to Frankenmuth before this year, so I could really see and enjoy everything.

One last look at the beach.

I woke up early again the next morning, and for a split second allowed a thought to run through my head: I could be back on the beach at Bay City in under two hours. I brushed the thought aside; I wasn’t in the mood for another long drive, and I had plenty of other things on my to-do list. It seemed silly and wasteful to go all the way up there two days in a row, when there are plenty of nice parks and walking trails near Ann Arbor. And so forth. But I was struck by how, in the space of a single day, I started thinking about time and distance differently; these places that for so long had seemed far away, required too much effort to reach, were actually … well, not close, exactly, but within the bounds of an impulse decision to get away and go somewhere for a day. Local route or express, all it takes is a drive up the gusset.

In Memoriam — But Not Yet

Six years ago, I spent the evening of June 4, 2014 in Hong Kong’s Victoria Park. Rain-heavy clouds had hovered over the city earlier in the day but then moved on without bursting; by the time I arrived at the park around dinnertime the night was clear, though muggy and hot, as is typical for a Hong Kong summer. The prospect of forsaking air-conditioned apartments and offices for the oppressive humid heat of the park didn’t deter people, who streamed onto the hard-surfaced soccer fields. As one pitch filled up the crowds spilled over to the next. Families and solo individuals and groups of friends milled around; eventually, as the starting time for the event grew closer, people found spots on the painted turf and settled in. Later, I would read that I was one person among a sea of perhaps as many as 180,000.

We were all there for Hong Kong’s June Fourth vigil, an annual public gathering to memorialize victims of the 1989 massacre in Beijing. Hong Kongers had held the vigil every year since 1990, even after the city transitioned from its status as a British colony to Chinese Special Administrative Region on July 1, 1997. Public commemoration of June Fourth—even discussing June Fourth—was impossible just over the border on the Chinese mainland, yet in Hong Kong the assemblies persisted, a communal expression of the freedoms its citizens still held under an arrangement known as “One Country, Two Systems.” Hong Kong was officially part of China, but Beijing would not impose the same restrictions it enforced on the mainland—on the press, on religion, on free expression—until fifty years after the handover, in 2047.

In fact, back on that stiflingly hot night in June 2014 Hong Kong had already started to feel the weight of pressure from Chinese Communist Party leaders in Beijing, who wanted to accelerate the timetable for fully integrating the SAR into the PRC. Every move from Beijing was met with resistance and reminders of that 2047 deadline, and the CCP seemed to grow impatient with Hong Kongers and their insistence on maintaining the “high degree of autonomy” they had been promised. Within months of the 2014 vigil I attended, an attempt to ensure that only candidates pre-approved by Beijing could stand for election as Hong Kong Chief Executive had resulted in massive protests, soon to become known as the Umbrella Movement and notable for the youth of many of its leaders.

Last year’s June Fourth vigil marking thirty years since the massacre drew a crowd of approximately the same size as the one I had attended five years earlier. Only days later, more than five times that number took to Hong Kong’s streets in a massive demonstration protesting a proposed bill that would permit extraditions to mainland China. The June 9 march was the start to a summer of protest, an extended display of Hong Kongers’ unwillingness to bend to Beijing’s will.

This year, COVID-19 provided the Hong Kong government with a convenient pretext to block the June Fourth vigil; on Monday police officially denied the event’s permit application, citing concerns over public health. But events in late May made it possible that this would not be a one-off interruption to the annual gathering: China’s National People’s Congress has voted to impose a “national security law” on Hong Kong, and once that law is written and goes into effect it will vastly increase Beijing’s control over the territory and its ability to exercise power in the name of protecting state security and maintaining national unity. The June Fourth vigil, which both commemorates those killed by that state in 1989 and also expresses Hong Kong’s distinct local identity, could easily become illegal in the future.

Vigil organizers asked people to mark the occasion by lighting a candle at home or meeting up in small groups instead, and throughout this week social media and news reports have lamented the likely end of the enormous gatherings of recent years. When I woke up early this morning and started scrolling through Twitter, I saw a number of posts I expected: photographs of empty soccer fields in Victoria Park, blocked off by waist-high metal fencing and signs reminding people to “Observe the prohibition on group gathering.”

But as the Michigan sky lightened outside while I drank my coffee and continued to refresh Twitter, I began to see an unexpected story unfold in real time: photos and videos of masked Hong Kongers overturning or pushing aside those barriers around the park and walking onto the hard-surfaced soccer pitches, lighting candles, displaying signs, chanting slogans. Even without a permit, the vigil was taking place—on a much smaller scale than in prior years, and with clumps of people spaced apart to maintain social distancing, but it was taking place nonetheless. While I saw reports of police presence nearby, officers didn’t storm into the park and arrest everyone in sight (though there were arrests at another gathering, in Mong Kok, where the police also used pepper spray on demonstrators). Thousands of people participated in the Victoria Park assembly, and more showed up at vigils elsewhere in the city. Hong Kong has once again stood firm against the winds of change coming down from Beijing.


Of course, my Twitter feed this morning did not only unfurl a story of commemoration and resistance halfway around the world. Other threads highlighted the past and present we struggle to acknowledge and resolve here in the United States: racism, inequality, violence, oppression. The New York Times saw fit to publish an op-ed by Tom Cotton, a U.S. Senator, with the headline, “Send in the Troops.” That it appeared on the anniversary of the very day the CCP did just that—to international outrage and condemnation—seemed an especially tone-deaf coincidence, but there’s no day when Cotton’s message would be appropriate. Many American lawmakers have condemned the violent moments in China’s past while ignoring our own. As Rui Zhong writes in a powerful essay at Foreign Policy,

Tiananmen in the American imagination is something fantastic and distant, deliberately placed far away and long ago. It is otherized in a collection of stories of crushed overseas rebellions that can’t happen at home. It is a black mark against the Chinese state alone, rather than a possibility in America itself. Only under a dictatorship could such things happen, we say, forgetting Ocoee, Opelousas, Tulsa, or Kent State.

Oppression and resistance. Violence and protest. Amnesia and commemoration. Indifference and compassion. Pessimism and optimism. I feel like on any given day the balance in our world shifts, see-sawing between darkness and light multiple times, and I’m never sure which end of the spectrum will dominate my thoughts when I finally click off my phone at night. I was prepared for today to weigh me down—and it has, but not as heavily as I had expected.

Thousands of people showed up at Victoria Park to knowingly take part in an unauthorized assembly. Thousands of people defied authority and bore witness to a dark day in history. Their presence spoke to the importance of free expression, of open debate, of engaging with and remembering the past, of education. This year’s vigil, though fragmented and many times smaller than the one I attended in 2014, struck me as even more powerful; unexpected and unlawful, it embodied the risks we should all be willing to take to fight for the society we want to live in.

The CCP is still intent on imposing its will on Hong Kong, and the day may arrive when that does come to pass. But it wasn’t today.

Bookshelf: The Scientist and the Spy

Ask me about places near my house that might be likely targets of industrial espionage operations and my mind would turn south. Head down Nixon Road and follow it a mile or so; at the second roundabout hang a right onto Huron Parkway, then start looking for the sign announcing the entrance to Ann Arbor’s Google campus. Or follow that same roundabout around to the left instead and cross Plymouth Road to arrive at Mcity, the University of Michigan’s autonomous vehicle testing grounds. Venture deeper into Michigan’s North Campus and you’ll see lots of buildings labeled “research facility” and “laboratory”; eventually you’ll come to Michigan Medicine, the sprawling hospital complex that houses innumerable world-class physicians working to identify and cure diseases many of us have never even heard of. For anyone seeking the secrets of Ann Arbor’s thriving advanced science and technology sectors, the neighborhood just below mine is a target-rich environment.

I wouldn’t think similar opportunities would lie to the north, where a scattering of recently constructed subdivisions like mine quickly gives way to expansive fields studded with weathered red barns and heavy-duty farming equipment. In summer months, signs announcing the availability of fresh produce and eggs at small farm stands appear at regular intervals as I drive along the narrow rural roads of Washtenaw County. Blue skies stretch above green cornstalks, meeting in a flat line at the distant horizon. Southeast Michigan is most famous for its factories, but agriculture continues to play an important role in the region’s economy.

Those farms I drive past might not seem like potential targets of espionage, but for a certain kind of spy the crops growing in their fields can be just as desirable as the latest vehicle technology developed at Mcity. And if those spies happens to be working on behalf of a Chinese company, they could find themselves at the center of a sprawling and expensive years-long FBI investigation.

That’s the unexpected story told by science journalist Mara Hvistendahl in her compelling new “corn espionage thriller,” The Scientist and the Spy: A True Story of China, the FBI, and Industrial Espionage (Amazon affiliate link). Focusing on the case of Robert Mo, a PRC national working in the United States on behalf of Beijing-based agricultural company DBN, Hvistendahl widens her gaze to raise thought-provoking questions about the implications Mo’s case and others have for scientific collaboration between the United States and China in the 21st century.

In short, tight chapters Hvistendahl weaves together the stories of three men: Robert Mo; Kevin Montgomery, an Illinois seed breeder whom Mo hired as a DBN consultant and who later served as an FBI informant; and Mark Betten, the FBI agent in charge of the investigation into Mo. Hvistendahl’s narrative moves between industry and government, as she explains (with welcome clarity) the science of corn breeding and questions the long history of spying accusations lodged against Chinese American scientists.

Robert Mo is hardly James Bond. An engineer who studied the mechanics of boiling, Mo was among the thousands of Chinese students who came to the United States in the 1990s for a graduate degree. After completing his PhD, however, he failed to secure stable academic employment; eventually, his sister prevailed on her husband, DBN’s billionaire CEO, to give Mo a job. Though Mo knew little about agriculture, he needed the money. Working as DBN’s international business manager provided him with a six-figure salary, enabling Mo to purchase a large house in Boca Raton, where he lived with his wife and two children. And while he might have secured the position through family connections, Robert Mo wanted to prove himself a hard-working and valuable addition to DBN.

His eagerness to please eventually led Mo to an Iowa cornfield in the fall of 2011. Mo and two DBN employees from China had snuck into the field—a research plot for the agricultural giant Monsanto—in search of loose ears of genetically modified (GMO) corn. When a farmer called the sheriff’s department to report that he had spotted the three men, the incident seemed odd, but minor, to the deputy who responded: Mo politely explained that he and his colleagues were agricultural researchers “driving across the Midwest looking at crops.” The deputy let them off with a warning not to enter fields without first getting permission from their owners. Something about the incident, however, didn’t sit right with the deputy, and he filed a short report of “suspicious activity.” That report would later be the first clue to the FBI that Mo and DBN were up to something.

Genetically modified crops are not yet legal in China, but DBN wanted to be prepared for the day when the government changed that regulation. (As a powerful and well-connected corporation, it’s likely DBN’s leadership had hints from government insiders that such approval was on the horizon.) Rather than spend time and money developing its own GMO seed lines, the company’s chief scientist decided that Mo would source them in the United States and send samples back to Beijing. As Hvistendahl wryly notes, “Real research takes time. Theft is expedient—especially if there is little chance of getting caught.”

But Robert Mo is a hapless figure and there was almost no question that he would get caught sooner rather than later. Economic espionage (only made a federal crime in 1996) is one of the FBI’s top priorities and China its biggest foe. Once Mark Betten stumbled upon Robert Mo’s name and that Iowa police report, his investigation of Mo’s activities was relentless and ever-expanding: The Scientist and the Spy details low-speed pursuits across flat expanses of Midwestern farmland, expensive aerial surveillance missions, and tenuous warrant applications (in one, Betten listed the fact that Mo spoke in Mandarin with another U.S.-based Chinese national working in agriculture as “probable cause”). Over the course of two years, the case involved 73 agents and yielded “four gigabytes of surveillance video, seventeen thousand intercepted emails, detailed GPS logs, boxes of documents taken from Robert’s home, transcriptions from hundreds of hours of audio recordings and intercepted telephone calls, and numerous FBI 302s—the bureau’s official accounts of interviews with sources.”

In the end, the FBI got its man; Mo was arrested, charged, and sentenced to three years in prison when he accepted a plea deal. (Having served his time, Mo is currently awaiting deportation back to China.) Six of his DBN colleagues remain wanted by the FBI, but since the United States has no extradition treaty with the PRC, they’ll remain free. DBN never skipped a beat; Robert Mo was merely one small cog in the corporate machine.

This isn’t the story of an innocent man: Robert Mo committed the crimes he was accused of. Yet, it’s also difficult to read The Scientist and the Spy and not conclude that the FBI’s investigation of Mo and DBN was a wise use of time, money, and resources. Was the theft of corn seed—from Monsanto, a private company now owned by Germany’s Bayer—really that significant a threat to American national security? How much of a competitive edge was DBN ever going to gain? And did DBN even know what it was doing with this whole scheme? As Kevin Montgomery explained to Hvistendahl, “If DBN wanted to steal seed, the approach its executives had chosen was the least efficient one he could imagine,” and whatever GMO technology they managed to acquire would be obsolete within a few years anyway; seed companies constantly seek to improve their products. “Where the FBI saw an elaborate effort to steal intellectual property and threaten national security,” Hvistendahl writes, “Kevin saw a collection of inept criminals bumbling around cornfields.”

But the specter of China, of communism, of competition hovers above this entire story, inviting questions about how far the FBI has really come since the Red Scare of the J. Edgar Hoover years. Hvistendahl looks back at that history, when any scientist with Chinese ancestry who came into contact with Mao’s PRC could fall under suspicion of spying for the enemy. In the post-Cold War years, FBI leaders became convinced by a theory that Beijing relies on “non-traditional collectors”—average people not employed by state security—to carry out its clandestine operations, whether for national security or industrial espionage. “Taken to its natural conclusion,” Hvistendahl explains, “the theory meant that the Chinese government commanded a network of amateur spies and that all incidences of trade secret theft, whether of widgets or weapons, traced back to the Chinese Communist Party.” FBI Director Christopher Wray has also spoken of Chinese students studying at American universities as potential clandestine actors and described the United States as facing “a whole-of-society threat” posed by Chinese espionage.

When investigators start, even unconsciously, with the presumption that anyone from the PRC, or of Chinese descent, or with ties to China might be working, even unofficially, for the CCP, innocent actions can look suspicious, and small infractions can be cast as treason. This was the case with Wen Ho Lee, a Taiwanese-born scientist at Los Alamos in the late 1990s who was arrested for leaking nuclear secrets to the PRC. The charges against Lee quickly fell apart; ultimately, he pleaded guilty to a single count of mishandling classified information.

Wen Ho Lee is the most famous example of a recurring issue: U.S. Attorneys bringing espionage charges against ethnic Chinese defendants, often to big headlines, and then dropping them later due to lack of evidence. “One minute the accused were enemies of the state, and the next minute it was as if nothing had happened,” Hvistendahl writes, leaving the so-called spies with tarnished reputations and little ability to erase these blemishes.

I finished The Scientist and the Spy regarding Robert Mo as an inept corporate spy, attempting to carry out an absurd mission on behalf of his underhanded employer. I didn’t see anything to suggest that his actions were in service to anything but corporate greed and a desire to cut corners. But, as Hvistendahl argues, we can view his case, as she did, “as a lens that refracted growing hostility between the United States and China.” The long shadow cast by the downward spiral of U.S.-China relations over the past decade could have influenced how the FBI handled Mo’s case—the broad scope of the investigation, the dogged pursuit of an amateur criminal. And when people read about Mo’s crime, they might have been more likely to view it as one example of a pervasive and insidious foreign threat rather than a quirky and unsuccessful attempt at industrial theft.

We often treat that downward spiral in the bilateral relationship as something happening at the highest levels of government: Donald Trump versus Xi Jinping, the Foreign Ministry sniping at the State Department and vice versa. We don’t always realize how poor relations at the top affect other sectors outside the government. As the United States and China normalized relations in the late 1970s, science and technology were a nexus of exchange; now, though, such collaboration is hindered by suspicion and an over-simplification in the U.S. that can equate all actions by Chinese nationals, institutions, and firms as carried out on behalf of their government—and, by extension, the Chinese Communist Party.

China, of course, has spies, just as the United States does. And its government does seek to capture American scientific knowledge through efforts such as the Thousand Talents program, which provides substantial research funding and income to foreign scientists who set up labs in Chinese institutions. (Researchers at Moffitt Cancer Center, MD Anderson, Harvard, and elsewhere have found themselves under investigation for taking Thousand Talents money, often because they failed to disclose their connection with the program to U.S. funding agencies.) Any engagement or exchange must be carefully scrutinized to ensure it’s not contributing to CCP human-rights violations (as with the recently dissolved research partnership between MIT and Chinese artificial intelligence firm iFlyek, which has supplied technology used in the surveillance of Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang).

We are in a moment, however, when it feels easier to put the kibosh on all collaboration rather than expend the effort necessary to distinguish which exchanges are reasonable and legitimate and which are not. By warning about the pervasiveness of “non-traditional collectors” and the “whole-of-society threat” they pose, the FBI and other law enforcement agencies make the United States a less welcome place for Chinese scientists, discourage American scientists from working with colleagues in the PRC, and make it less likely that the two countries will join efforts on any projects, from developing autonomous vehicles to growing better corn.

Reading Round-Up: China, Coronavirus, and Quarantine Theater

For most of us who work in the China field, there’s a lull at some point in January or February as the entire country takes an extended vacation to celebrate Chunjie, or the Lunar New Year. Factories shut down, foreign correspondents and businesspeople go on home leave, and the streets of Chinese cities are uncharacteristically vacant. I’ve always enjoyed being in China for Chunjie—there’s both celebration (so many fireworks!) and quiet (obligation-free days to spend binge-watching a TV series or binge-reading books).

Chunjie 2020 was different, as I could tell even from a distance of 7,000 miles away. The novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) that has spread throughout China and elsewhere in the world over the past two months changed the nature of the holiday break. Factories were shut down for longer than usual—and aren’t fully back online yet—which will strike a significant blow to the country’s economy, with global repercussions. The streets were empty because people across the country were in self-quarantine at home. And while plenty of foreigners left China, both Chinese and foreign journalists have been working overtime to cover the outbreak.

While following new stories on Twitter is convenient, the constant churn of articles and commentaries means that many get posted and forgotten. Here, I’ve collected a wide array of pieces about 2019-nCoV and the effect it has been having on China’s society, politics, international relations, and economy. As usual when I do these occasional reading round-ups, my focus is on big-picture pieces that put current events into context, rather than day-by-day reporting on the subject, and I favor pieces that are broadly accessible over ones written for specialist audiences.

For the latest updates, see coronavirus coverage at the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Caixin, and Guardian, all of which have been doing an outstanding job while reporting around the clock. The Sinocism and SupChina newsletters are always worth the price of a subscription, and they aggregate news story links on a daily basis throughout the work week.

Background Reading

If you’re not an epidemiologist, start with this helpful explanation at the New York Times of what the coronavirus is and how it spreads.

The epicenter of the 2019-nCoV outbreak is Wuhan, a city of 11 million people in Hubei Province that is most famous, to me, for being a major base of the 1911 Xinhai Revolution. University of Bristol historian Robert Bickers shares more of the city’s history in a post at his blog, writing that “Wuhan’s direct entanglement with the world beyond Hubei province’s borders is nothing new.”

Ma Tianjie has a very helpful overview post at his Chublic Opinion blog, in which he provides a timeline for the outbreak in Wuhan, comparing and contrasting it with the SARS epidemic in 2003.

Get two wide-angle explanations of the strengths and weaknesses of China’s public health system in these posts at the Monkey Cage blog: Joan Kaufman, “Why China’s politics makes it easier — and harder — to control disease outbreaks,” and Elanah Uretsky, “Is China ready for this major global health challenge?”

In Hong Kong, the memory of the 2003 SARS epidemic is pervasive as the city braces for a possible rise in 2019-nCoV cases. At NPR, Jason Beaubien reports on the lessons learned from SARS in Hong Kong (though I think there’s also a strong undercurrent of anti-Mainland sentiment in many people’s attitudes toward the coronavirus that Beaubien—a science journalist, not a China specialist—doesn’t address).

Physicist and writer Yangyang Cheng has a wide-ranging essay at SupChina, “In Sickness and In Health,” that begins with the Chinese healthcare system and then moves on to discuss scientific research, bioethics, and politics:

By accounting for only one variable in a complex scenario, the simplistic approach creates more problems than the one it’s trying to solve. Shutting down a city may slow the spread of a virus, but at what cost? Without means of transportation, how do people get groceries, take care of the elderly, or go to the hospital? Stretched thin on a good day, how are hospitals handling the sudden influx of patients, and what is the impact on care for other medical needs? When the disease has common, flu-like symptoms, what is the effect of the lockdown on the public psyche, and how are healthcare workers handling stress and fatigue? When desperate folks try to break the quarantine, what measures might be used against them? In the aftermath of a natural disaster or terrorist attack, citizens turn to powerful organizations, usually the government, for help and protection. During a public health crisis, reliable institutions are especially critical. Without a trusted source for information, people resort to hearsay, and conspiracy theories fester.

(I had a really difficult time settling on only one quote from Yangyang’s essay—I definitely recommend reading the whole piece!)

Life Under Lockdown

On January 23, government officials ordered that Wuhan be locked down, attempting to contain the spread of novel coronavirus by preventing travelers from leaving the city. At the LA Review of Books China Channel, Xiaoyu Lu has written two dispatches about life under quarantine (both translated by Allen Young): “They Shut Down the City” and “Another Day of Life in Wuhan,” in which he writes this poignant passage:

Messages flood in, asking what the state of affairs is in Wuhan. No one has a clue, not even here. No one dares to go outside. No one dares to go to the hospital. No “locals” are left. We’re still here, living on the same ground, but it’s as though we’re suspended in mid-air, feet not quite touching the ground. Like people on the outside, we rely on social media to sift fact from fiction, to find out what’s happening just a kilometer away. We read about the world’s anger, sympathy, and indifference, and try our best to go about our lives as before.

Also at the China Channel, Lauren Teixeira reports from Chengdu on how the epidemic affected life in that city during the Lunar New Year holiday.

For those who have fallen ill in Wuhan, being isolated has further exacerbated the stresses on an already overwhelmed public health system. Emily Feng and Amy Cheng have a powerful print story at NPR’s website on how the city’s hospitals struggle to keep up with demand.

Within China, people whose identity cards identify them as registered in Wuhan—regardless of how recently they’ve been in the city—have found themselves subject to isolation and harassment, Paul Mozur reports for the NYT:

In the northern province of Hebei, one county offered bounties of 1,000 yuan, or about $140, for each Wuhan person reported by residents. Images online showed towns digging up roads or deputizing men to block outsiders.

See more on this topic at the Associate Press website, where Dake Kang reports on “The Shunned.”

You absolutely shouldn’t miss watching this stunning drone footage, produced by ChinaFile and the NYT, that shows (a) the scale of Wuhan and (b) just how empty a city of 11 million people can get.

Journalist and Wuhan native Xinyan Yu writes at The Atlantic about watching her hometown undergo lockdown from afar.

In Shiyan, a Hubei Province city seven hours from Wuhan also under lockdown, Lavender Au writes for the New York Review of Books, “There is the online reality, the reality portrayed by state media, and the reality I’m living.”

“Should we leave?” This is the question that Frankie Huang and her husband ask each other as they sit in their Shanghai apartment, unsure of what information to trust or how much risk they really face.

Coronavirus and the CCP

“Politics first. Stability preservation first. In such an environment, science can only sit by and watch. The scientific results could not be clearer, and the authorities likely had a decent grasp of the real situation. But nevertheless they could not speak the truth, and they spared no effort in keeping the outbreak under wraps.” So writes Wuhan-based journalist Da Shiji at China Media Project, explaining why Party officials kept the extent of the outbreak under wraps for many weeks.

That’s also the topic of two important investigations, at the New York Times and the Washington Post. At the NYT, Chris Buckley and Steven Lee Myers detail how “As New Coronavirus Spread, China’s Old Habits Delayed Fight”; the WaPo story, by Gerry Shih, Emily Rauhala, and Lena H. Sun, analyzes “how a bureaucratic culture that prioritizes political stability over all else probably allowed the virus to spread farther and faster.”

Li Yuan explains in this NYT commentary how the CCP’s bureaucracy and emphasis on party loyalty over technical abilities hindered information-sharing and open discussion of the threat 2019-nCov poses to public health.

At China Media Project, Qian Gang assesses what state media reported on during the month of January instead of sharing news about the coronavirus.

Despite censorship and the bureaucratic disincentives to allow information about the outbreak to circulate, some independent Chinese media outlets did manage to report on the coronavirus, as communications scholar Maria Repnikova explains in a commentary at the New York Times. “Journalists and activists,” she writes, “have demonstrated an impressive ability to mobilize in order to capture this complex story and, at times, challenge the authorities’ handling of the epidemic.”

But that period of openness was a brief one, as David Bandurski writes at China Media Project: “We have now entered a new phase in which propaganda authorities are making a renewed push to secure the source of information and wrestle back control of public opinion.”

Security theater is the practice of implementing elaborate but largely ineffective measures to signal commitment to public safety—such as American airports requiring passengers to remove their shoes when passing through TSA checkpoints. When I read this New York Times piece by Ian Johnson detailing the enforcement of often illogical anti-epidemic practices in Beijing, I tweeted that the Chinese government is practicing “quarantine theater.” As Johnson explains, the Chinese Communist Party is doing so because “Instead of having an adult conversation with the population about the virus and putting in place reasonable policies that have been used effectively elsewhere, the Chinese state has gone into full lockdown mode.”

To what extent is the coronavirus a problem for Xi Jinping? Analysts have been scrutinizing Chinese propaganda and social media for signs of which way the wind might blow for Xi and the CCP—if the 2019-nCov epidemic offers them an opportunity to demonstrate their capabilities in the face of a crisis, or if this will be the event that brings down China’s government (while I’m iffy on the former, I think there’s almost zero percent of the latter). At ChinaFile, Yale Law professor Taisu Zhang considers the ramifications coronavirus could have on the CCP’s legitimacy.

While I expect the CCP will weather this crisis, there’s no denying that last Friday saw an outpouring of anti-government public sentiment after the death of Dr. Li Wenliang, who tried to warn others about the dangers of 2019-nCov back in December but was silenced by authorities. At SupChina, Jordan Schneider and Pieter Velghe translate an essay by Wuhan resident Fang Fang in response to Dr. Li’s death:

Those who have not been in Wuhan will not understand. We’re not suffering because we’re being confined to our homes and can’t go out. What the people of Wuhan need most is consolation and the space to get things off our chests. Is this why the death of Li Wenliang has the people of Wuhan feeling so broken inside, and has made them want to cry and shout hysterically? It’s because the people think they and Li Wenliang are one and the same, that he is one of them, someone who was also trapped at home.

On the other hand, maybe this is a serious threat to Xi Jinping’s hold on power, as Jeremy Page and Lingling Wei consider at the WSJ.

Get both sides of this argument, plus much more, at a ChinaFile Conversation about the 2019-nCoV epidemic, which features short commentaries by an array of experts on Chinese history, politics, and society.

Also at ChinaFile, “When Fury Overcomes Fear,” an impassioned essay (translated by Geremie R. Barmé) by Tsinghua University law professor Xu Zhangrun.

For Those Who Prefer Podcasts

“Wuhan Goes Viral”Bonnie Glaser of the Center for Strategic and International Studies interviews China public health expert Yanzhong Huang at her China Power Podcast.

“Understanding China’s Coronavirus Crisis” — Asia Society Executive Vice President Tom Nagorski speaks with Johns Hopkins School of Public Health expert Thomas Inglesby at the Asia In-Depth podcast.

“Life at the Epicenter” — Another Asia In-Depth episode, this one featuring ChinaFile editor Susan Jakes interviewing ChinaFile visuals editor and Wuhan native Muyi Xiao about how the crisis is affecting her hometown.

“Outraged by the outbreak: Citizen journalism and coronavirus censorship” — China Econ Talk host Jordan Schneider interviews Quartz journalist Tony Lin.

“Coronavirus update with Yanzhong Huang” — Another conversation with Yanzhong Huang, in dialogue with Sinica Podcast co-hosts Kaiser Kuo and Jeremy Goldkorn.

“Wuhan Coronavirus: Impact on China Tech” — TechBuzz China hosts Rui Ma and Ying-Ying Lu discuss the effect that the outbreak could have on China’s tech industry, especially given Wuhan’s position in that sector.

“The Plague”Strangers in China hears from people all around China about how they’re dealing with fear and anxiety—and boredom—in the face of the coronavirus.

“China 2020 Foresight”Steve Stine speaks with Jim McGregor about economic fallout from the coronavirus, at the Inside Asia podcast.

Final Thoughts

The spread of the coronavirus has also resulted in a reprehensible display of anti-Chinese racism around the world; needless to say, we must all push back against any such expressions in our own communities. If you’d like to show support in another way, head to a Chinese restaurant—it might be seeing a hit to its business as coronavirus fears keep people away. This short piece by Philadelphia Magazine reporter Victor Fiorillo explains the muddled thinking behind such avoidance.

And wherever you are: please, please, please wash your hands.

Top image: Illustration of the 2019 novel Coronavirus, by Gianluca Tomasello, via Wikipedia.

2019 Top 9 (And Another Top 3)

Happy New Year! As is my regular practice, I’m kicking off 2020 with a renewed resolve to write more, in both volume and frequency. Will I? We shall see. I’ve set a relatively modest goal of writing for 30 minutes every non-holiday weekday and so far I’m four for four on meeting that, so if I put words on a page tomorrow we’ll officially have a streak going. Fingers crossed.

If you’re on Instagram, the past week has been full of people posting their 2019 “Top 9”—a three-by-three grid of their most-liked pictures from the year. The idea, of course, is that those nine images somehow sum up, or at least capture the essence of, one’s life over 365 days. Since I’m no more immune than anyone else to the lure of a social media trend, I also downloaded the required app and directed it to create my own 2019 Top 9. Voila:

To a certain extent: sure, yes, this is a pretty good overview of my year. But like all social media, it’s incomplete, only a partial reveal of what happened in my life during 2019. Interestingly, it doesn’t capture what I consider the most significant things I’ve shared on Instagram, indicating that what’s important to me isn’t necessarily what my followers find likable. Still, these nine images do help me think about what I did in 2019 and what I’d like to do more/better/differently in 2020.

Starting with the top left corner and working clockwise so we finish in the middle square:

I cut my hair. Actually, this probably seemed more dramatic to others than it felt to me: since high school I’ve been letting my hair grow long-ish, cutting it short, trying a bob, growing it out, etc. But the last time I had a really short cut was in 2011, so I guess it did look like I had made a stunning change when I emerged from the salon in February with a short asymmetrical style. I like it, at least for now; find me in two years and maybe I’ll be back to a bob. The nice thing about hair is that no changes are really permanent.

I reviewed books for the Wall Street Journal. I did not get a whole lot of writing done in 2019, especially since during the second half of the year I spent a large portion of my daily writing time reading what others were saying about the ongoing protests in Hong Kong. But I did publish four book reviews with the WSJ and hope to continue doing so in the future. Here are links to each of my pieces:

“The Chinese Cyber-Padlock,” review of The Great Firewall of China: How to Build and Control an Alternative Version of the Internet, by James Griffiths (March).
“A Chinatown Safe House,” review of The White Devil’s Daughters: The Women Who Fought Slavery in San Francisco’s Chinatown, by Julia Flynn Siler (June).
“A Glimpse of a Far Land,” review of The Chinese Lady: Afong Moy in Early America, by Nancy E. Davis (July).
“Money, Power and China,” review of Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister: Three Women at the Heart of Twentieth-Century China, by Jung Chang (December).

Speaking at the Rutgers University “Tiananmen at 30” symposium, April 2019

I did a lot of public speaking. I didn’t anticipate this at the beginning of the year, but what can I say—people want to learn about both China and careers. In addition to the “Tiananmen at 30” symposium at Rutgers University pictured, I also gave talks on China’s past and present at Central Michigan University, the University of California, Irvine, Kalamazoo Valley Community College, and Saint Joseph’s University, and I spoke at both Central Michigan and the University of Michigan about non-academic career paths for humanities PhDs. I already have a few events scheduled for 2020, too—those are all listed on my “Wanderings” page, though I don’t have details for everything just yet.

I finally saw Ghostbusters on the big screen. I can’t say this was an absolute highlight of 2019, but I did enjoy it; Ghostbusters is one of my top-five movies of all time. And there’s a story behind the t-shirt I’m wearing in the picture: way back when the movie was first released in 1984, my father bought me a similar shirt with the Ghostbusters logo on it … and was then disappointed that the ghost scared me so much I wouldn’t wear the shirt. (In my defense, I was two years old.) I’m happy to report that thirty-five years later, I ain’t afraid of no ghost.

I went to Denver and found it … meh. The Association for Asian Studies had its annual conference in Denver last March, so I spent eight days in this new-to-me city (five working, three vacation). People who know me and are familiar with Denver assured me I’d love it—lots of craft beer, mountain views, what has to be the largest per-capita number of Subarus in the country … sounds like my kind of place. But I started off the trip with bad altitude-induced headaches and never really felt like I adjusted to the elevation, which I think in turn affected my experience. I did my best to get out and walk around, thinking that would help me warm up to Denver, but the city and I just didn’t click. Maybe I need to try again, or maybe Denver just isn’t my kind of place.

Bangkok, Thailand, July 2019

I went to Bangkok and loved it. On the other hand, I didn’t expect much from Bangkok (where we held the AAS-in-Asia conference last July) and wound up wishing I could stay longer (despite developing a whopper of a sinus infection at the trip’s end). Throughout the years I lived in Asia, I never had any strong desire to visit Thailand; it seemed the destination of choice for either hipster backpackers or corporate expats, neither group one I belonged to. Admittedly, I was only there for a week, and I spent most of that time in hotel conference rooms, but whenever I could get out and walk around Bangkok I loved it—the slow pedestrian traffic alongside streets buzzing with mosquito-like motorcycles, the ferries constantly criss-crossing the Chao Phraya River, the food vendors whipping up quick meals at stands lining the sidewalks (which are now under threat from city planners). At the end of a trip my train of thought is generally, I’m glad I got to see a new place; now, where to next? But until visiting Thailand, it had been a long time since I sat in an airport wondering, How soon can I get back?

I acquired a lot of books, most of which I didn’t read (yet). This photo is of my haul at the American Historical Association’s conference in Chicago last January, but I could have probably produced a similar one in every month following. I just … like books. I actually buy comparatively few of them these days—my reading needs are more than fulfilled by review copies sent by publishers, Kindle Unlimited, and the Ann Arbor District Library—and I read a lot but my stacks of unread volumes, both digital and physical, never seem to get any smaller. I used to think that I simply needed some uninterrupted time to “catch up” on reading; now I’m reluctantly beginning to accept that I’m never, ever going to catch up.

I … did a crossword puzzle (?). This picture was the one in my Top 9 that surprised me the most, and in fact I barely even remember posting it. I like crossword puzzles. Sometimes I find it helpful to work on one first thing in the morning as a kind of wake-up for my brain. At some point in 2019 I seem to have decided that it was worth documenting this practice. Apparently, my Instagram followers found it very likable.

“I am unable to quit,
as I am currently too legit”

I drank endless cups of coffee, tea, and hot water out of this, my new favorite mug. The mug appeared in our office kitchen at some point—a free giveaway from one of our vendors—and one day I just happened to grab it off the shelf, never realizing that it would immediately become my new favorite mug. This mug is perfect. Not only for its stilted, geeky rendition of M.C. Hammer’s famous line, but its size, volume, weight, shape, feel in my hand … everything about it is just right. And there might be no clearer sign that I’m quickly approaching forty than the fact that I can explain so specifically that I have a favorite mug and why it’s my favorite.

But when I think back on 2019 in a few years—or even a few months—will those nine things be what stand out most clearly in my memory? Probably not. (I mean, the coffee mug is pretty great, but …) So here are my own personal not-pictured 2019 Top 3 memories that I think will endure:

Painting in Progress, July 2019

I painted a wall. This one might seem banal to some readers, but it was a very big deal for me. When I bought my house three years ago, the one thing that I truly disliked was the weird tan-brown paint color that the previous owner had chosen for several of the rooms. Everything I saw on HGTV and read in Better Homes and Gardens assured me that painting is easy! It’s cheap! It’s the easiest, cheapest way to transform a room in only a few hours! But I had never painted anything before, and the fear of trying something new meant that I kept taking tiny steps toward picking up a brush and then delaying the actual moment for, admittedly, weak reasons. Last summer I finally told myself that I was being absolutely ridiculous, watched a dozen YouTube videos, collected the paint and supplies I’d bought an entire year prior, and painted the feature wall in my bedroom. And it looks … not terrible … so next in line for a transformation is the master bath. I’m slowly getting more confident in this whole homeowner thing.

At the Electric Bolt 5k in Ann Arbor, July 2019

I learned that it’s okay to walk a 5k, so I did 25 of them. I’m working on a whole separate post about this, but the short version of the story is that I wanted to get outside and exercise more, and 5k races have turned out to be my favorite way of accomplishing that goal. Participating in them has also been a wonderful way to better acquaint myself with Michigan; over the past year I’ve driven all over the central and southeastern parts of the state, visiting small towns and gaining a better understanding of what lies beyond Ann Arbor and Detroit.

Governor’s Palace, Williamsburg, VA, October 2019

I went on vacation with my parents in Williamsburg, Virginia. This was the first time in a very long time that I took a dedicated vacation, rather than tacking on a few personal days at the end of a business trip. My parents and I were all first-time visitors to Williamsburg and we made the most of it: walking through the historic sites downtown, watching the Fife & Drum Corps perform, a driving tour of Yorktown, afternoon tea for my birthday at the Williamsburg Inn, the best pulled chicken I’ve ever had at Old City Barbecue. Much as I appreciate getting to travel for work, having a true vacation was better—and, to end on a sentimental note, so was hanging out with my parents during it. (Hi, Mom, I know you’re reading this.) More of that in 2020, please.

Three Tips for Nonfiction Authors

In the space of only a few days, Michigan’s fall has gone from “crisp, sparkling, riot of color” to “gray, raw, endless rain,” meaning that we’ve now entered the season of meeting people for long afternoon talks in cozy coffee shops. That’s exactly what China media scholar Aynne Kokas and I did Wednesday afternoon, chatting for over an hour about Chinese tech, U.S.-China relations, academia, and writing. Aynne is working on her second book and I’m reading a never-shrinking pile of academic and trade nonfiction volumes, so she asked me a great question: If you could give nonfiction authors three pieces of advice, what would they be? In other words, what are the most frequent mistakes I see as a reader and book reviewer?

I hadn’t ever thought of this specific question, but I very easily came up with my top three tips and talked them over with Aynne. When I got home I shared those tips in a short Twitter thread, which has gotten a lot of engagement—enough that I decided to write up a slightly longer version of those tweets and post it here. For each tip, there’s a free option and one that requires some funds.

So here they are, my three top tips for nonfiction authors:

(1) Fact-checking is important. While some magazines, like the New Yorker, are famous for their rigorous fact-checking, book publishers have traditionally put the burden of this work on the author, with sometimes problematic results. As a writer, I fact-check to an admittedly compulsive degree, even things that I “think” I know. This is surely a manifestation of anxiety and imposter syndrome, but it’s also because as an editor and a reader I catch factual errors all the time. I get it: everyone is working too much, too quickly, and it’s easier to keep writing rather than stop and google something that you can retrieve from memory.

Except memory is imperfect, and some of those things in your memory? They weren’t right to begin with. As a book reviewer, I’m not going to come down too hard on someone who has mistyped and says that Mao Zedong died in 1975 instead of ’76 … but if an author writes that so-and-so was the first woman to do XYZ and I can very easily verify that’s not the case, I mentally mark down that author’s credibility a point or two. Enough of those errors and I reach two conclusions: (1) the author is sloppy, and (2) they don’t know this subject as deeply as I expect of someone who writes a book on it. The latter might not actually be true, but that’s what I think due to the former.

If I were reviewing that book, I would probably note the author’s carelessness and potential lack of expertise, and ultimately my review would get published and put on the internet for anyone to see. I’m generally a kind reviewer and not likely to get too snarky, but there are plenty of others out there who will write a nasty takedown based on factual errors, even small ones like in what year Mao died.

So don’t leave yourself exposed to those reviewers: fact-check. Even if you think it’s dumb, even if you’re 100% certain that every single word you’ve written is 100% correct—FACT-CHECK. If you’re an academic fortunate enough to have institutional funding, hire a professional fact checker; it will be money well spent.

(2) Two shorter chapters are preferable to a single long one. Long book? Fine. Long chapter? UGH. My personal reasons for saying this are both psychological and structural. Psychologically, seeing a 50-page chapter looming in a table of contents makes me dread it; before even reading a word of the book, I’m mentally preparing myself for a slog. Structurally, my time is very compartmentalized as I balance my writing work, day job, household tasks, and the rest of my life. If I’ve allocated an hour to reading before I head to the office and can’t finish one chapter in 60 minutes, I feel frustrated. I have a discrete block of time, I want to read a discrete block of material—a chapter—not get halfway through and then return to it later.

To make this less personal … I also tend to find that chapters longer than 20-30 pages suffer from a lack of narrative and analytical cohesion. They get bogged down in tangents or are stuffed with material that the author wants to include but doesn’t know where it should go. Academic writers might feel like they “need” chapters to be a certain length; as author Jonathan Chatwin commented to me on Twitter, “one of my tutors during my PhD said they thought short chapters felt ‘journalistic.’” I, obviously, have no problem with “journalistic,” but many academics would read such a description as a ding on the author’s scholarly bona fides. They need to get over that and embrace the short chapter.

As an author, you should be aware of a chapter’s length and pay attention to its structure and flow. What’s your main point? What evidence are you using to make it? Is your analysis concise and direct? Have you included an anecdote that you absolutely love but which doesn’t truly fit? Kill your darlings. Read your own work as critically and dispassionately as you can. Trade chapters with another writer and comment on each other’s drafts. If you have the resources to hire a developmental editor, they will help you work through these issues.

(3) Read the whole thing aloud. Whether I’m editing a draft for someone else or preparing my own writing for publication, my last step is always to read the entire work out loud. It’s not really fun. It can feel like an unnecessary extra task when I’m ready to be done with something and move on to the next piece. But the practice of vocalizing and listening to my writing always, always helps me identify awkward phrases, repetitious words, and “did I really write that?” moments. Taking the time to read your work aloud will make you a better writer, I promise. Make sure you have a large glass of water on hand, and break up longer projects into several sessions (this is also why it’s nice to have shorter chapters!).

A good number of Twitter colleagues endorsed this idea but noted that they prefer to use text-to-speech software rather than do their own reading. I also know of at least one academic author who hired someone to read their manuscript back to them—that might be a greater expense than most of us can handle, but depending on how you think and process language, it could be worthwhile.

So there they are—my top three tips for nonfiction writers. They might not be the magic key to publishing bestsellers, but all of them are important steps toward producing solid work that engages readers and stands up to reviewers’ scrutiny. You want them to focus on your argument and analysis, not get distracted by avoidable errors or clunky prose—or fall asleep in the middle of a chapter.

And did I read this entire post aloud before pressing “Publish”? Absolutely. Twice, in fact.

Screen: Angels Wear White

Pouring cups of tea and speaking in the practiced staccato common to tour guides and salespeople across China, a young woman wearing a nurse’s uniform outlines the advantages of hymen-reconstruction surgery. Lily, a newly single hotel receptionist in her early twenties, listens nervously. The nurse ends her pitch with the assurance that Lily will find the procedure “absolutely painless.”

She is, of course, lying to make the sale: the next shot cuts to Lily drunk and doubled over in agony as she is dragged up a narrow flight of stairs by her younger co-worker Mia, who somehow manages to wrangle Lily into the small room the two share at the seedy seaside motel where they work. Sobbing, Lily curls up in bed and peers at Mia through her tears. “I don’t want to be reborn as a woman,” Lily chokes out. “Not all over again.”

Indeed, being a woman seems a terrible fate for all the female characters in Angels Wear White (嘉年华 Jia nian hua, 2017), a tense, haunting examination of gender relations, sexual objectification, and violence in China written and directed by Vivian Qu.

When the movie begins, Lily has convinced Mia to cover the motel reception desk for the night so Lily can sneak off to see her sleazy boyfriend, Jian. A black luxury sedan—the kind favored by Chinese Communist Party officials—with local license plates pulls up to the motel’s entrance, and a middle-aged man accompanied by two laughing 12-year-old girls in sailor-dress school uniforms registers for two rooms. Dispassionately, Mia carries out her duties and delivers beer to the girls’ room when they call down for it. But she clearly understands the situation, keeping a watchful eye on the security monitors, and when the man forces his way into the girls’ room a short time later Mia captures his actions on a cellphone video.

The plot of Angels Wear White unfolds from there. The man is revealed to be Commissioner Liu, a high-ranking police official, and the two girls he has raped are Xin and Wen. Xin’s parents just want to make the situation go away; Xin’s father is one of Liu’s underlings and knows that pursuing a case against his boss will only serve to destroy his own career. Wen’s single mother blames her daughter for the assault and shears off the girl’s hair in punishment. Wen runs away to her father’s house—and though he is introduced as an inattentive deadbeat dad, he turns out to be one of the only adults motivated by a desire for justice, not money.

The other is Wen’s lawyer, Attorney Hao; a no-nonsense but kind advocate, she has spent 15 years working on behalf of assault victims. Hao is the only adult who understands the trauma that Xin and Wen have undergone and that it did not end when they left the motel. The girls are violated again and again during the three-week investigation into their case, as they are interrogated, blamed, and overall treated as perpetrators by the police. There’s no victims’ advocate by their side during the brusque hospital rape exam, no explanation that they might experience post-traumatic stress disorder, no offer of therapy. (And, of course, those practices are still not always standard everywhere in the United States, either.)

Mia, an underage runaway with no official identity card, wants nothing to do with a police investigation, but she quickly realizes the truth of Jian’s assertion that “Information is money.” Whether that money comes from Attorney Hao or Commissioner Liu—whether the information she possesses gets justice for Xin and Wen or not—doesn’t matter. But Mia isn’t as tough as she imagines herself: when she tries to profit by playing the same game as all the corrupt men she sees, her victory doesn’t last because being a woman makes her vulnerable. She’s smaller, weaker, and slower than the men around her and can therefore be physically dominated by them.

Only after watching Angels Wear White for the third time did I realize that one line, seemingly a throwaway, kept standing out to me as Wen’s parents argue over whether or not she should stay with her father after running away. “It’s her choice, not mine,” he mutters—a rare moment in which one of the movie’s male characters treats a female one as an autonomous being capable of making decisions about her own life. Other men of Angels Wear White constantly take away the agency of women, from the schoolmate who posts a photo of Xin and Wen on social media without their permission, to Jian, who pimps out Lily to his boss to curry favor. Even the film’s most unsubtle symbol, a massive statue of Marilyn Monroe (wearing her famous white dress from The Seven-Year Itch) that stands alongside the beach, is dismantled and moved by an all-male construction crew.

Angels Wear White premiered in September 2017, just before the #MeToo movement launched an international discussion of sexual assault and abuse of power. The Chinese Communist Party has worked hard to squelch #MeToo in the PRC, as leaders are surely aware of the many cases involving officials like Commissioner Liu that would come to light. Still, such stories manage to get told, and Qu’s film emphasizes the need for not just systemic but societal change in dealing with rape; the police aren’t the only ones who conspire to tell Xin and Wen they’d be better off forgetting what was done to them. There’s an extra layer of menace when the Party-state denies and silences women, but as the #MeToo outcry around the world has clearly demonstrated, these violations are not at all unique to China.

Angels Wear White is available on Amazon to rent, or stream for free with Prime membership.

May Fourth at 100: A Reading Round-Up

On May 4, 1919, university students gathered in the center of Beijing to protest the Treaty of Versailles. China had sent 100,000 laborers to Europe in support of the Allies during World War I*, and many in the country had expected that in return the postwar negotiations would deliver German concessions on the Shandong Peninsula back to Chinese control. Instead, officials at the Paris Peace Conference secretly decided to hand the land over to Japan, giving the rising power another foothold in China. (For a short version of that story, I recommend Paul French’s Penguin Special, Betrayal in Paris: How the Treaty of Versailles Led to China’s Long Revolution*).

Beijing’s students were not only angry at the foreign diplomats who had traded away a piece of their country with no regard for the principle of self-determination espoused by Woodrow Wilson. They were also fed up with China’s own government officials, who had failed to live up to the promises of the revolution that had brought down the Qing Dynasty in favor of a republic nearly eight years before.

Carrying flags and banners, approximately 3,000 students marched on the street beneath Tiananmen, the Gate of Heavenly Peace, decrying the weakness and corruption of their leaders. The students took special aim at three officials whom they accused of being Japanese collaborators, and burned down the house of one of them. Police beat, arrested, and jailed a number of the protesters. Students and sympathizers in other cities took to the streets as well, and in June they organized a general strike in Shanghai, which caused sufficient economic paralysis to force a resolution. The imprisoned students were freed, the Chinese government refused to sign the Treaty of Versailles, and the three officials were dismissed from office. Japan, however, did retain its new land holdings in Shandong.

The protests launched what became known as the May Fourth Movement (五四运动 wusi yundong), which was folded into the iconoclastic New Culture Movement that had begun four years earlier. The May Fourth Era that followed saw the emergence of new forms of art and literature, politics, and social institutions, particularly the role of women. Young May Fourthers condemned the rigidity of Confucianism and encouraged inquiry and experimentation; they called on their fellow Chinese to welcome “Mr. Science and Mr. Democracy” as they sought to reinvent their country.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was founded in 1921, born amid the romanticism and tumult of the May Fourth Era, and it has long cited the protests as one of the forces that brought the Party into being. The Monument to the People’s Heroes, an obelisk planted in Tiananmen Square, bears a bas relief of May Fourth protests, indicating the crucial role they played in leading up to the creation of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Yet the CCP also treats May Fourth gingerly: mass movements and student protests at Tiananmen, of course, are two of the many activities now verboten in the PRC. During the past week of centenary commemoration, Xi Jinping and the Party he leads have walked a fine line of praising the May Fourth legacy of nationalism and revolution while clearly communicating that no attempts should be made to replicate the actions of the previous century.

Among China scholars and journalists, of course, the one hundredth anniversary of May Fourth has been a moment to mark with conferences and commentaries. I participated in one of the former at UC Irvine last Friday; below, links to many notable examples of the latter.

* * *

■ I renewed my subscription to The Diplomat just to get access to its cover story on May Fourth, written by historian Sebastian Veg. Veg begins by humbly admitting that it’s hard to find something new to say about the May Fourth Movement—but manages to do so anyway, in “attempting to scrape off the commemorative varnish of the last century” and consider how the protests affected Chinese political culture moving forward.

■ At the New York Times, Jeff Wasserstrom considers the successes of the May Fourth Movement and how the symbolism of May Fourth has been invoked at different times over the past century.

■ Also at the New York Times, Chris Buckley and Amy Qin report on the speech Xi Jinping delivered to mark the May Fourth centennial—the gist of which is summed up in Xi’s declaration that “Chinese youth in the new era must obey the party and follow the party.”

■ “For China’s aging political leadership,” Jiayang Fan writes at the New Yorker, “certain anniversaries teeter between the emblematic and the problematic.” No day requires the CCP to oversee a tightly controlled commemoration more than May 4.

■ In a post for the New York Review of Books, Ian Johnson writes about the public intellectuals who continue to speak out in China today, despite the increasing consequences under Xi Jinping’s rule for doing so.

■ Eric Fish has produced a long article for SupChina about the history of student protests in China.

■ At the Washington Post Monkey Cage blog, James Carter outlines the history of May Fourth and explains why it poses a problem for the CCP today.

■ “May Fourth—modern China’s most potent symbol of national expression—has been stripped of its aspirations and sanitized into a reliable party talking point,” writes Dan Xin Huang in an essay at Foreign Affairs that examines how the May Fourth legacy has been reshaped multiple times by the CCP over the decades.

■ Historian Shakhar Rahav takes the May Fourth focus off of Beijing and describes how the movement played out in other cities around China. He also considers the international angles to May Fourth, in an essay for the LA Review of Books China Channel.

■ At the South China Morning Post, Lijia Zhang asks what happened to Mr. Democracy during the past century.

■ And in her latest column for SupChina, physicist/writer Yangyang Cheng examines the fate of Mr. Science in China since May Fourth.

■ Yangyang is also among the experts Scott Tong interviewed (along with Rana Mitter and Orville Schell) for his Marketplace story on May Fourth and “China’s move to scientific relevance in the world.”

Fabio Lanza considers “the complex political legacy of May Fourth,” particularly the figure of the student protester, in an essay for Jacobin.

■ At Dissent, Alec Ash writes about the tradition of youth protest that was launched on May Fourth—a tradition that the CCP has at times celebrated but more notoriously has quashed. Despite this, Ash points out, the embers of the May Fourth spirit continue to smolder among some Chinese youth.

■ China Media Project editor David Bandurski dissects how the May Fourth spirit has been subsumed under CCP ideology, particularly during the Xi era.

■ Historian Klaus Mühlhahn has recently published a sweeping history of modern China, Making China Modern: From the Great Qing to Xi Jinping*. I haven’t read the book yet (it’s on my shelf!), but the excerpt about May Fourth published at ChinaFile suggests that the volume should move up my to-be-read list.

■ “In a myriad of ways … I’ve spent the past forty-five years in the thrall of the contending spirits of May Fourth,” writes Geremie R. Barmé in the introduction to a pair of May Fourth posts—the second of which recounts a bold act of protest staged in Beijing just ten days ago—at the China Heritage site.

■ And for those who have institutional access, the journal Twentieth-Century China just published a special issue on the legacy of May Fourth.

*Amazon affiliate link.