I recently caught up by email with New Orleans-based historian Rian Thum to ask him a variety of questions about topics he knows and cares a lot about, ranging from trends in publishing on Inner Asia to the curious ways that even seemingly arcane issues relating to the past can get intensely politicized in today’s China. Thum’s name should be familiar to regular readers of this publication, since both an excerpt from and an effusive Nile Green review of his prize-winning first book, The Sacred Routes of Uyghur History, ran in LARB. Continue reading
By Alec Ash
Wang Zhigang flew three hours just to see Mickey Mouse. In swimming shorts and a colourful umbrella-hat sold by peddlers outside the entrance to keep the sun off, he queued in 97 degrees heat for hours to get on the best rides. All because he made a promise to his son while Shanghai Disneyland was still under construction, that they would go when it opened. Wang Zhigang is a good father. Continue reading
Prelude: The Birth of a Blog
On a sunny day way back in the summer of 2007, when Kate Merkel-Hess was still a UC Irvine graduate student rather than a member of Penn State’s History Department, one of her professors posed an unexpected question to her. Would Kate, he asked, consider joining him and her thesis adviser, Ken Pomeranz, in launching a digital publication aimed at trying to bridge the gap between the way journalists covered and academic analyzed China. This could, he said, stumbling a bit over the word, be a sort of “blog.” Perhaps she could be its lead editor, he proposed, as she was the only one of the three of them with any actual experience “blogging,” having launched a personal blog during her just concluded year doing research in Chinese archives. He said that he and Ken had enjoyed reading her online commentaries, and this was part of what had inspired them to consider doing something similar, but with multiple contributors. Kate quickly said “yes,” and the rest, as they say, is history. Meaning, in this case, the start of a four year run of a blog, plus the publication of a spinoff book, China in 2008: A Year of Great Significance, of which Kate was the lead editor. Continue reading
Earlier this year, two literary scholars, Alfie Bown and Kimberley Clarke, founded the Hong Kong Review of Books, a lively and varied addition to the online publishing scene. I recently emailed some questions to Bown, whose name should ring a bell with readers of the China Blog due to his recent contribution to it, to learn more about their joint endeavor. Here are my questions and his replies. Continue reading
Whenever a new bout of state-sanctioned nationalist fervor in China makes headlines, I think back to the time in May 1999 when NATO bombs hit the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, killing three citizens of the PRC and triggering protests. I happened to be in China then and spent an eventful week observing responses to the deaths in first Beijing and then Shanghai. I visited campuses to read and take photos of wall posters denouncing the United States and Britain, the two countries that had taken the lead in the moves against Serbia. I went near the American Embassy to watch a rowdy demonstration, and a few days later walked by the Shanghai Consulate where I saw its outer walls still festooned with the tatters of placards denouncing Washington that protesters had pasted on them, but also saw police lined up to make sure there would be no more further demonstrations there. At a Shanghai campus assembly devoted to the event, the main speaker, a faculty member, lauded students for having expressed their patriotism. He also said, in step with the party line of the moment, that the time for street action was over. He noted in closing (lest he seem insufficiently patriotic) that at times like that, when China was being bullied, he was glad that Beijing was among the countries to possess nuclear weapons. Continue reading
Terry Lautz is the author of John Birch: A Life (Oxford, 2016). He is interim director of the East Asian Program at Syracuse University and former vice president of the Luce Foundation.
We’ll get to your fascinating book in a minute, but you’ve spent a long time thinking deeply about U.S.-China relations, both as a scholar and in your capacity until recently as a leading figure in the Luce Foundation, so I want to begin with some general questions relating to the tensions and ties between the two countries. We are at a delicate moment in U.S.-China relations and a tricky point in time when it comes to images that Chinese and Americans have of one another. What strikes you as most interesting and most dangerous about this juncture?
From a U.S. perspective, I think the most interesting development is a growing sense of disappointment, disillusion, and even alarm over China’s current direction. I’m wary of the growing chorus of pundits who say China has made an irreversible choice to reject more liberal policies. From a distance, Westerners tend to view China as a monolith that moves in lockstep on orders from Beijing. China is more like Dr. Doolittle’s pushmi-pullyu, an imaginary animal with two heads and two minds pointing in opposite directions. One is pushing toward openness and reform, while the other is pulling toward control and repression. At this juncture, the second head seems to be winning out, and we should be concerned about a more authoritarian direction under President Xi Jinping. But China is in a state of constant social, economic, and political change.
I think the greatest danger in terms of Sino-American mutual perceptions is the risk of a self-fulfilling prophecy. If both sides perceive the other as an enemy, it increases the possibility that we will actually become enemies. Despite significant mutual interests — ranging from trade and investment to climate change to nuclear proliferation — the relationship is in a downward cycle right now. So it’s more important than ever to stay engaged and try to address the sources of distrust. Americans need to adjust to China’s status as a major world power, and Chinese should understand the hazards of anti-foreign nationalism.
Do you hear echoes of past rhetoric about China in current discussions of the threat that the country poses to the United States?
The idea of China as a threat has been a steady theme in American perceptions, alternating with more positive, often romanticized views. Early on, it was the racist dread of a Yellow Peril. After Mao seized power, it was the specter of a Red Menace. These stereotypes assumed that all Chinese look and act alike. Fortunately, as our two nations have become inter-connected, U.S. public opinion has evolved. Stereotyping still exists, but Americans are mostly worried about practical issues such as the loss of jobs, trade deficits, and cyber attacks as well as China’s impact on the environment and its growing military power.
We hear a lot about China as a threat in the South China Sea. While this is a source of concern, I think it is mainly a test of wills. China is deeply ambivalent when it comes to the U.S. presence in East Asia. On the one hand, many Chinese believe that the United States opposes China’s rise and seeks to undermine its political system through “peaceful evolution.” According to this line of thinking, America’s arms sales to Taiwan are evidence of a U.S. policy to prevent China’s unification. On the other hand, China’s leaders realize that the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the region could lead Japan and South Korea to arm themselves with nuclear weapons. So Beijing resents the United States as a “hegemon” but understands the stability that continued U.S. presence brings to the region.
In terms of the rhetoric coming from the other side of the Pacific relating to pernicious “Western” ideas and values, how concerned are you about official pronouncements in China about the need to be more vigilant in protecting the country from these and about new regulations regarding non-governmental organizations (NGOs), a category that includes civil society groups and apparently also educational institutions with ties to the United States?
The current campaign against so-called Western values is perplexing. At the same time Chinese students are being warned about the risks of glorifying foreigners, they are flocking to Western universities in record numbers. China has become a global power, yet it practices extensive censorship of the internet. Contradictions like these reflect a confusing mixture of confidence and insecurity on the part of China’s leadership. What seems clear is Xi Jinping’s determination to avoid the fate of the former Soviet Union, which means that advocates for constitutional democracy and freedom of speech will not be allowed to challenge Party rule.
The recently announced foreign NGO management law looks like part of a broader movement to control and limit outside influence. International as well as Chinese organizations that support activities such as poverty relief, healthcare, and education should be able to continue their work. But advocates for legal and human rights will face an even more restrictive environment. The silver lining in this dark cloud may be that China’s civil society sector will grow stronger as it becomes more self-sufficient. It is worth noting that China is following others, including Egypt, India, and Russia, in limiting the influence of foreigners.
No one can predict the future, but a couple of things seem clear. First, China is no longer a weak supplicant subject to well-meaning American (or Western) paternalism. And second, there is no viable alternative to Communist Party rule in China for the foreseeable future. This means we have to revisit the longstanding assumption that sooner or later China will follow a liberal, democratic path and become more like us. Whatever the path, history tells us it won’t be a smooth and straight line.
Turning to your book, for Americans, like me, who grew up during the Cold War, the name “John Birch” immediately calls to mind one thing: a staunchly conservative organization. Your biography of the man shows, though, that the chain of associations conjured up by the term “John Birch Society” has little to do with the historical figure. Who exactly was he? And why did you feel that having a background in Chinese studies made you a particularly appropriate person to write his biography?
Like you, I grew up thinking John Birch was a right-wing fanatic, and was quite surprised to discover that he had absolutely nothing to do with naming the John Birch Society. Birch spent five years in China during World War II, first as a Baptist missionary and then as a military intelligence officer, working for Claire Chennault, who commanded the Flying Tigers and then the 14th Air Force. Ten days after Japan’s surrender in August 1945, Birch was shot and killed in an altercation with Chinese Communists in North China. It was later claimed that he sacrificed his life to show that the Communists were enemies of the United States, even though they were cooperation with the U.S. against Japan at the time. I argue in the book that Birch had no desire to be a martyr and his name was misappropriated.
I’ve long been interested in U.S. relations with China during the Second World War and the origins of the Cold War in Asia. This started when I lived in Taiwan as a teenager. After college, I served with the U.S. Army in Vietnam and concluded that Americans needed to learn much more about Asia. I was also drawn to the story of Birch as an idealist young man whose life personified the basic American impulses to save, rescue, and defend the Chinese people. Through various twists and turns, he then became a symbol of America’s fear and rejection of China.
The biggest challenge in writing the book was educating myself about the history of the U.S. conservative movement. I wanted to understand why the Birch Society, which is now viewed a predecessor to the Tea Party and even the conspiracy-minded Donald Trump, was popular with many middle-class Americans during the late 1950s and 1960s. I also wanted to know how it became so controversial.
By Alfie Bown
I CAME TO Hong Kong twelve months ago from a Europe in political turmoil. Fundamentalist attacks and the refugee crisis, symptoms of a failing global system, were hitting Central Europe the hardest, while the UK, my own place of birth and residence, was experiencing its own fallout from the same phenomenon: the rise of right-wing nationalism. One year on, I am still just beginning to learn about how nationalism and politics work in Hong Kong and China, so I can’t speak as an authority of any kind on the topic, but some things strike me about the situation in my new home that may be useful to bring into discussions of the place I left behind, which now dominates the news cycle due to the Brexit vote. It also seems only right that, since global crises require global solutions, we look for connections and possibilities wherever we can find them. What I suggest here is that the political identity proposed by some Hong Kong citizens might provide a hopeful alternative to trends we are seeing in the UK, other parts of Europe, and the US.
A period of crisis is also a period of great potential. When the old is folding and the new has not yet fully emerged, there is the chance to influence the new terms that will replace the old ones. Simultaneously, such times are periods of great potential danger: the wrong forces can easily take hold. The recent Brexit vote, where 52% of the British public opted out of the EU, is a perfect example. While non-nationalist voters who wanted out of the EU cited the exciting potential for change and increased freedom from European restrictions, those who wanted to remain in the EU were more attentive to the (plainly obvious) danger that the real winners from Brexit would be the hard right nationalists.
What most troubles me and many Britons I know who similarly identify with the Left is that in this threshold time of crisis when the new is out but the old is not yet in, the Right is having the most success in offering “solutions” to current problems and outlining a plan for the future. The Right’s plans are backwards-looking, seeking the return to the nation-state, demanding increased national sovereignty and tighter borders. Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, and Boris Johnson are perhaps the most prominent figures to harness this imaginary nostalgia for national serenity and sell it, on opposite sides of the Atlantic, as a solution to the present predicament. Most European nations, though, have a counterpart right-wing representative whose popularity is similarly on the rise. Brexit itself seems to have already emboldened some of them, such as Marine Le Pen in France. Hong Kong is a totally different context, but it is also in a fascinating moment in which we wait to see whether nostalgia for the nationalist past will dominate its political future.
To my mind, the most inspiring call to arms for the Left made in response to this problem is #ACCELERATE MANIFESTO, a 2013 philosophical tract by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, which implores progressives to embrace a speeding up of various forces. This manifesto takes the notion of “acceleration,” which critical theorist Benjamin Noys had quite rightly used as a negative descriptor of recent trends, and gives it a boldly positive new spin. The premise of the document, whose relevance for Hong Kong I’ll get to below, is that we should seek an internationalist anti-nostalgic and future-looking politics that embraces speed rather than trying to slow everything down in a protection of what we already have. In short, Srnicek and Williams are for everything that Trump and Farage oppose. They write:
In contrast to […] ever-accelerating catastrophes, today’s politics is beset by an inability to generate the new ideas and modes of organisation necessary to transform our societies to confront and resolve the coming annihilations. While crisis gathers force and speed, politics withers and retreats. In this paralysis of the political imaginary, the future has been cancelled.
Thus we are confronted with the task of overcoming a politics which looks only backwards and attempts to slow things down, tasking us with re-scheduling the cancelled future and taking control of what it might look like.
The BBC have already reported on the position of the Brexpat in Hong Kong, but I would like to give a different and more positive left-wing interpretation of the situation here. Hong Kong, despite the vast contextual differences with Europe, is also at a threshold moment, poised between the old and the new. Given Special Administrative Region (SAR) status in 1997 for a 50-year period, Hong Kong will officially lose its separate political system 30 years from now when it will become closer to Mainland China, a prospect explored so powerfully by Wong Kar-wai in the film 2046. Hong Kong is therefore a very clear example of a temporal space that is in contest, concerned about the dangerous forces that may take hold in the years ahead, but also aware of being in a moment that has potential for positive change.
This gives a sense of urgency to actions by Hong Kong youths, who have become increasingly politicized in the last decade in struggles dealing with everything from local, social, and educational issues to globalization and elections. In my first year of university teaching in Hong Kong, I have been struck most powerfully by some of the students’ willingness to change their minds about political issues — showing both the danger that the wrong forces could take hold and the potential for a powerful political force to do something positive. Most important, my students are willing to recognize the way that national identity is harnessed and used by politicians both here and abroad. While my former students in England might agree with me on this in class, they would immediately take to the streets to celebrate the Queen’s Jubilee or the wedding of William and Kate directly after our seminar. On the contrary, I’ve found my students here tend to develop a real suspicion of nationalism in all its forms.
It seems to me that while the Right has made concrete gains in the UK by looking backwards, Hong Kong has the potential to suffer less from nostalgia and to “#accelerate” more effectively via its global political identity. An internationalist solution to the present global crises is the only possible solution –— and is something Trump in the US is and the Brexit campaign the UK was working to prevent, instead using any crisis to justify and implement right-wing change. While there is at least one group at the other end of Eurasia, DiEM25, which has begun the task of building international collaboration in Europe and imagining a new European identity, Hong Kong is a place in both space and time that can potentially contribute to globalizing this struggle.
Neither “localism” nor “nationalism” is the word for this potentially radical construction of Hong Kong’s identity, which often — but not always — involves something more political than things provided by birthright, bloodline, or even citizenship. Some aspects of the pro-independence camp in Hong Kong are indeed nationalistic, and some regard them as not unlike Trump and Farage. One recent “pro-independence” group actually suggests that Hong Kong should first go back to British sovereignty before it claims its independent status, which is obvious nostalgia. Others still advocate a yearning for a China and a return to Chinese identity as it was before 1949, again looking backwards just as Britain tends to do. But there is also another possibility among those I have spoken to here, both teachers and students: a desire to develop an identity that refuses to look backwards, but instead looks to the politics of the future, accelerating away from nationalism. For these people, the “great traditions” of both British and Chinese identities are washed away by the combined influence of America, Korea, Taiwan, and others. Following this line, one academic suggested to me that Scotland might be a more useful model for Hong Kong to follow than England, since their independence bids are borne out of a political necessity to respond to its neighbors rather than nationalist “roots.”
Benedict Anderson famously showed that nation-states should be seen as “imagined communities,” and while the UK and US seem to have never realized this or to have recently forgotten it, believing in the essential Britishness or Americanness of the people once again, Hong Kong — if it can resist the tendency for its criticisms of other cultures to slide into apolitical dislike of the other and essentialist nationalism — has the potential to embrace its identity as something politically “imagined” and help envision new identities, restoring the cancelled future. Identity in Hong Kong can at least potentially be less about an essential connection to a “homeland” and more about the pragmatic choices we face in contemporary politics. While it is mainland China that is charging into the future economically, Hong Kong could #accelerate when it comes to political identity in order “to confront and resolve the coming annihilations,” rather than seeking solutions in the imaginary past.
I recently caught up by email with Kerry Brown, a prolific writer on Chinese affairs who has held a mix of diplomatic and academic posts and who recently moved to King’s College London to head its Lau China Institute. I was eager to get him to reflect on Chinese politics, the subject he studies and the focus of a new book. It also seemed only natural to slip in one question dealing with Brexit, which has been dominating the international news cycle.
Jeff Wasserstrom: A couple of years back, you published The New Emperors: Power and the Princelings in China, a book I reviewed favorably for the Wall Street Journal that was about a group of Chinese elite figures known as the “Princelings”—a term for children of revolutionaries leaders who were connected to Mao Zedong and the founding of the PRC. That book was partly an effort to explain how one Princeling, Xi Jinping, emerged as the group’s most powerful member. Do you see your new book C.E.O., China: The Rise of Xi Jinping, which is out in the U.K. and available in the United States as an e-book (with the hardcover version to follow soon), as a sequel to that earlier work, which brings in events of the last couple of years? Or did you view writing it as offering a chance to provide a different sort of explanation for Xi’s ascent?
Kerry Brown: Obviously we know a lot more about Xi Jinping and the contours of his leadership, his preoccupations, and driving vision now than we did in 2013-4 when I wrote and published The New Emperors. The mystery of his ascension to power, however, has not gone away. Xi was not a spectacular provincial leader – at least in terms of generating GDP growth. Nor was he a member of the A list of elite families – Bo Xilai really belonged to that class, with his father Bo Yibo a member of the so called “Eight Immortals” who had a huge impact on post-1978 China. The ways in which Xi Jinping has transformed into this seemingly all-dominating, all-powerful figure has been remarkable. It was hard to see this sort of drive before 2013. One thing I do wonder a lot about is what precisely the relationship is between Xi and the other so called princelings. In many ways, he seems to have attacked much of their vested interest, keeping the families of past leaders Jiang Zemin, Zhu Rongji, Deng Xiaoping and Li Peng under close tabs, and using the anti-corruption struggle to wrestle whole parts of the state sector away from their control. You might almost say that he is an “anti-princeling” leader, a much more populist politician, trying to derive his appeal and power to the public, and instill fear and obedience in the Communist Party leadership and membership through that.
The fact that Xi looks and sounds so authoritative, however, is also something we have to be a bit careful about how we interpret. Appearances can be deceptive. Making oneself the “Chairman of Everything” can simply hide feelings of vulnerability and weakness. The simple fact is that there are real limits to what Xi can do. Unlike Deng Xiaoping, whose reform and opening up pragmatism in many ways still shape China, Xi has not articulated a new body of ideas that are proving transformational – not yet, at least. This might happen, but it would need to be in the one area that Deng’s ideas did not touch – that of political reform. Here, of course, a Chinese leader can really reset the agenda. So far, Xi has made clear that he absolutely won’t countenance any competition from another organized political force with the Communist Party. So in many ways, despite the radical tone and feel of his leadership, he still operates within the template supplied by his predecessors.
Sticking with the connections between the two books, the earlier one used an imperial metaphor in its title, while this one employs one drawn from the corporate world. Could you tell us something about the thinking between those two choices?
Politicians everywhere like to create narratives and masks they can present to the world. Xi seems to me to be an ambiguous figure. The most difficult thing to work out is his relationship with the Communist Party of China. Is he its servant, or its master? People state that Xi is a modern Mao. But the China of Mao Zedong with its mass mobilization campaigns, utopian idealism, and separation from the rest of the world, is long gone. The memory of Mao’s China for Xi too would not be a happy one – he was living in the countryside for most of it, with his father under house arrest. The one thing that Mao does offer is the model of how a Chinese leader can emotionally connect with the people. But, of course, the danger is that a charismatic, all-powerful leader can also start to turn on the Party, in the way that Mao did in the Cultural Revolution.
Since 1978, the whole objective has been to ensure that this sort of elite leader domination never happens. Leadership has been institutionalized. Succession and term limits have been introduced. Collective leadership structures set in place. If Xi is indeed starting to dominate, and create a power structure parallel to, and one day possibly dominating the Party, then I am surprised that there has not been much more internal dissent at an elite level. There would be people in the Politburo and Central Committee who would see this as undermining so much work the Party has tried to do in the last four decades. So the imperial and corporate models of Xi’s power are trying to find some kind of model we can make sense of him within.
Switching gears a bit, a lot of commentators have played with the idea of imagining what a reanimated Mao would think of today’s China, and I recently wrote an op-ed that played this what if game with a focus on how the former leader might view his latest successor as head of the Communist Party. What, though, would you think that Deng Xiaoping, if somehow brought back to life, would make of Xi and the way he is steering the country?
Xi has not contested Deng’s central ideological position. In fact, he has sponsored the development of the idea derived from Deng’s mantra of market socialism, which is that the market is essential for reform, in the 2013 Plenum. He has also stuck by the utter centrality of the Party in China’s political life, and the need to maintain openness to the outside world on China’s terms. I don’t see Xi as being anything except a faithful follower of Dengism. He has articulated his central goals within the framework set out by Deng. So if Deng were to magically rise from his grave and look at what Xi is doing, I don’t see what he would object to. He certainly wouldn’t disapprove of the harsh treatment of rights lawyers, nor the clampdown on corrupt officials, nor the tolerance of a vibrant non-state sector. For people’s hearts, Xi might use the resources that Mao gives – but for their heads, he seems to me a Dengist through and through.
A final question, which brings in the issue making the most headlines globally just now. Given your assessment of Xi and sense of what makes him tick, how do you think he is likely to feel about the Brexit vote?
Xi reportedly stated to David Cameron when in the UK last October that he did not support an exit from the EU. Part of that was self interest. A UK which was potentially adrift from the European financial market and open trade area becomes a far less attractive investment and currency destination. The UK is the largest host of Chinese students in Europe, and one of the largest technology transfer partners. Exiting the EU makes life a bit more complicated for China, because unless the UK can arrange a deal which preserves the openness of these areas, China will presumably have to look for another launchpad within the EU main zone.
Politically, though, nothing that Xi will have seen of the chaos in the UK immediately after the vote on June 23 and the clear lack of a plan B by the politicians to deal with what was happening will have endeared democracy to him. But he might have been impressed by the fact that despite this, so far at least, the UK remained stable, people get on with their lives, institutions are still able to function. China of course would be far less robust in dealing with a crisis like this. But I guess Xi would argue that it would never end up in such a position in the first place.
By Qiu Xiaolong
As fans of the “Inspector Chen” novels know, the Shanghai detective not only excels at solving crimes and navigating the complexities of politically tricky situations but also writes verse. Now, thanks to Qiu Xiaolong, a poet and translator (as well as a writer of mysteries), a collection of Chen Cao’s poems has become available. Here we provide an introduction to the volume penned Qiu, who unquestionably knows Chen and his poetry better than any other person on earth does—or ever could—due to the crucial role he has played in chronicling the versifying sleuth’s cases and writings.
— Jeff Wasserstrom
Introduction to Poems of Inspector Chen
The poems in the present collection are compiled chronologically, to be more specific, in the order of their appearance in the novels in the Inspector Chen series. Less than half of the compositions in the collection appear in the novels, as fragments or whole poems, but even those published there in their entirety have been altered in small or substantial ways here. Also worth noting is that some of the poems that appear in the novels could also have been written earlier, even in the days before Chen became an inspector.
Chen Cao started writing during his college years in the early eighties, a period sometimes described as a “golden” one for modern Chinese poetry. After the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, a considerable number of young people burst confidently onto the literary scene. But Chen is more of an accidental poet. While majoring in English and American literature, he studied with the well-known poet and critic Bian Zhilin (1910-2000), and handed in several pieces written as a sort of homework. With Bian’s encouragement, Chen had them published in Poetry and other magazines. In the meantime, he started translating T. S. Eliot and other Western poets, which added to his visibility in the circle. While doing research for his thesis on Eliot, he fell in love with a young librarian named Ling in Beijing Library. Some of his early poems turned out to be idealistic in spite of the modernist influence.
It did not take long for a different tone to be discernable in his lines. He parted with Ling after learning about her father being a powerful Politburo member. He was concerned about his possible loss of independence in the event of such a family alliance. Then, after college graduation, he was assigned by the state to work at the Shanghai Police Bureau, an arrangement which was taken for granted in the then government policy: people were all supposed to work in the Party’s interests regardless of personal preference.
He worked as an unwilling cop, initially, translating police procedures, composing political newsletters, doing all sorts of odd jobs. His poems grew somber, leading him to be viewed as a “Chinese modernist,” a politically negative label. His membership in the Chinese Writers’ Association helped little. Among his colleagues, he was seen as an unorthodox cop not dedicated to his real job.
But another surprising turn intervened. The Party’s new cadre promotion policy came with an unprecedented emphasis on a candidate’s educational credentials, thanks to which Chen was chosen to rise in the ranks. There was whispered speculation about his off-and-on contact with Ling, with some saying this contributed to his ascension. He was admitted into the Party, given real cases, and rose rapidly in bureau. As the head of the Special Case Squad, Chen was fortunate enough to find a capable partner and close friend in Detective Yu. In the early nineties, Chen was made the Chief Inspector of the Shanghai Police Bureau. From then on, his investigations are represented in the nine novels so far in the Inspector Chen series.
Notwithstanding the strenuous caseload, he finds the police work widening the range of the poetic subject matter for him; case inspire him to compose lines in response to the unimaginable cruelties, irrationalities, corruptions, insanities as revealed in his investigations. In A Loyal Character Dancer, he comes to the crucial clue through a poem in the background of the educated youth movement; in The Case of Two Cities, a Prufrock-like parody helps to throw light on his predicament as a Party member cop; in Red Mandarin Dress, studies of comparative poetics lends insight into a complicated case; in Don’t Cry, Tai Lake, examining the pollution of the nature as well as of the human nature prompts Chen into a sequence with a spatial structure; and so on. In each and every Inspector Chen novel, poems are produced or recollected.
Chen’s style is shaped by his police work too. In When Red Is Black, he comes across an incomplete manuscript of classical Chinese poetry translation by an intellectual murdered during the Cultural Revolution. To keep his pledge to the dead, Chen edits the manuscript, adding in some of his own translations, and has this published. Inspired by this process, he also introduces into his own poems a sort of dialogue with the Tang and Song masters, and this interplay between ancient and present-day China and sometimes shows up in snippets of old poems being inserted into his correspondence.
In his line of duty, Inspector Chen has to walk a lot, observing, canvassing, and thinking, around the city of Shanghai, particularly in the old sections of the shikumen houses and narrow lanes, coming upon not just clues that aid his investigations, but also sights that spur reflection in this man who is an independent-thinking intellectual as well as policeman. He jots down fragments in a small notebook, like the Tang dynasty poet Li He who rode around on a donkey, dashing off the lines whenever obtainable, and dropping them into a cloth bag for composition later. That adds a touch of “found poetry” to Chen’s work.
In the meantime, poetry proves very meaningful for Inspector Chen in an unexpected way. It is not enough, he always believes, to merely focus on whodunit; it is imperative for him to try to reach a comprehensive understanding of the social, cultural and historical circumstances in which crimes and tragedies take place. With the Party’s interest put above everything else—above law—in the one-Party system, he cannot but face the dire politics involved in investigations, staring long and frequently into the abyss (which in turn stares back). There is no way of solving completely the conflict between a conscientious cop and a Party cadre, but poetry-writing comes to provide a temporary escape from the mounting frustrations involved in confronting this problem. He compares the momentary break to the Song dynasty poet Su Shi’s metaphor about staying on the moon, much higher, but also much too cold to stay for long, though a necessary change for the moment. A poetic perspective help keeps him from identifying himself with the authoritarian system, so that he may sees things from a much-needed distance.
His rise in the Party system brings about change in his experience as a poet. As an executive member of the Chinese Writers’ Association, he is often chosen as a Chinese representative to meet with western poets and writers, and on one occasions, to lead the Chinese Writers’ Delegation abroad, an experience chronicled in The Case of Two Cities. Chen has a poetry collection published, but he soon discovers that it is done through a large amount paid by a Big Buck (influential figure) associate in secret, something done to curry his favor in the omnipresent cobweb of connections in China. It comes as a terrible blow to his conviction about the relevance of poetry in today’s society.
During the period, changes also occur in his personal life. Like in a proverb, however, things go the wrong way eight or nine times out of ten, which cannot but somewhat inform his poems. But a follower of Eliot’s “impersonal theory,” he insists on separating the man who suffers from the poet who writes. In that, Chen also benefits from a tradition in the classical Chinese poetics, in which love poems are read as political allegories through the persona of a unrequited lover. For instance, “untitled poems” by Li Shangyin, one of Chen’s favorite Tang dynasty poets, are often interpreted like that, the way John Donne’s love poems are read for the metaphysical significance.
Along with the spectacular economic transformation in China, the literary scene too is changing dramatically. Not like in the early eighties, instead of being fashionable or politically meaningful with the authoritarian government persecution for any independent voice, a poet like Chen becomes marginalized. In the increasingly materialistic society, less and less readers have the time or interests for poetry. People no longer take it seriously. Even with occasional publishing still possible here and there, it’s more like decoration than anything else.
But with so much happening in the contemporary Chinese society, Inspector Chen has no choice but to continue investigating—and writing. He is becoming over time both a more cynical and disillusioned cop and a more cynical and disillusioned poet. He still remembers what his later father told him, quoting Confucius: “Knowing it’s impractical—almost impossible—to do it, you still have to do what you should do.”
Before my visit to Hong Kong in mid-October 2014, I was worried. The Occupy Movement was two weeks old and I’d booked a room at the Cosmopolitan Hotel, site of the Xinhua News Agency Headquarters and de facto PRC embassy before the 1997 Handover. It was a building rich in somber history, where mainland officials had worked during the Sino-British Joint Declaration in 1984 and Tiananmen protests five years later. The Cosmopolitan is located in front of a large cemetery, and to get to the rest of Hong Kong you need to take a tram or bus. But with the Occupy Movement in nearby Causeway Bay and Admiralty, the trams weren’t running and the buses were re-routed. When I arrived, I noticed the irony of banners near the hotel celebrating the 65th anniversary of the founding of the PRC, which occurred just days after students in Hong Kong shut down major thoroughfares around government headquarters in protest. I had a more immediate concern, however, than politics: How would my husband and I get to my three book events without public transportation?
We ended up walking to Causeway Bay’s MTR station for some trips and leaving an hour earlier than usual when traveling by cab for others. It wasn’t a big deal for four days. But what surprised me most about the Umbrella Movement was that my local friends — in their 40s,50s, and 60s — all seemed fine with the disruption. They encouraged us to visit Occupy and see the tent city on what was once the main artery of Hong Kong Island.
This was not the Hong Kong I knew in the 1990s when I was in college and grad school, and later an editor in academic publishing. Back then very few Hong Kong residents cared about politics, my field of study. In fact, not a few acquaintances declared my studies a waste of time. If one was going to give up precious work time to earn an advanced degree, they reasoned, it should be in business or finance. Protests weren’t unheard of in Hong Kong then. But the annual June 4 vigils in Victoria Park dropped from 150,000 people in 1990 (the first anniversary of the massacre, and my first year in Hong Kong) to 35,000 in 1995. I didn’t know anyone who went to the protests, or even talked much about them.
Two decades later, I found the atmosphere in Hong Kong drastically changed, as had the politics and Hong Kong’s relationship with China. I knew that students and other activists had taken to the streets in support of universal suffrage. But it wasn’t until I read Jason Y. Ng’s new book, Umbrellas in Bloom: Hong Kong’s Occupy Movement Uncovered (Blacksmith Books, 2016), which was recently published in Hong Kong and is the first significant English language book on the 2014 movement, that I fully grasped all that is now at stake.
During the protests, Jeff Wasserstrom reported on the events for the Los Angeles Review of Books. He also revisited the movement in a commentary, written during a return visit to Hong Kong one year on, in which he reflected on what a difference the intervening 12 months had made. He described a talk about the protest he gave at the Hong Kong International Literary Festival: “The intensity of the crowd’s interest was palpable — behind and informing all the questions and comments I received, including ones that challenged rather than supported my assertions, I sensed a genuine desire to think through the topic profoundly, and in a way that mattered.”
That also describes Ng’s book — thinking through the topic profoundly and in ways that mattered. Ng was a participant-observer. Although the Umbrella Movement is generally associated with student protesters, older activists, including legislators and clergymen, were also instrumental in starting it. Ng spent a lot of time in Admiralty, site of the tent city. He provided free homework assistance in English, essay writing, and law; he slept on the street and then returned to his law office during the day; his first-hand experiences of the Umbrella Movement bring his book’s pages to life.
Ng starts with a play-by-play account of September 28, 2014, when Occupy Central began. But he quickly moves into Hong Kong Politics 101, going back to the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984, the contract that set into motion Hong Kong’s handover to China on July 1, 1997. The political system in Hong Kong is odd, according to Ng, and I would agree. Of the 6.5 million residents at the time of the Handover, only 800+ people could vote for the newly created chief executive of Hong Kong, the successor to the old London-appointed Governors of the colonial system. Those numbers have both increased over the years: now Hong Kong has 7.2 million people, yet a mere 1200 people and groups elect the chief executive.
As Ng explains, the reason the Umbrella Movement blossomed was because in 2007 Beijing had promised Hong Kong residents that they would be able to choose their chief executive by direct elections in 2017 and that representatives in the Legislative Council, or LegCo, would be directly elected in 2020. But Beijing threw a curveball on August 31, 2014, issuing an edict on electoral reform stipulating that the central government would form a Nominating Committee that would, according to Ng, “nominate two to three candidates for the office of Chief Executive in accordance with democratic procedures. Each candidate must have the endorsement of more than half of all the members of the Nominating Committee…” So much for free elections: the candidates selected would surely be those most amenable to working with Beijing. It was this “8/31 Framework” that brought out student protesters a couple weeks later. Before a month had passed, the Umbrella Movement was paralyzing the central district, generating admiring headlines in the international press, and being denounced by Beijing as an illegitimate struggle creating “chaos” that was tarnishing Hong Kong’s reputation and bad for business.
Throughout his book, Ng writes about the different student groups involved, including both university and high school groups, and how there was never one single leader who could unify the protesters. (Joshua Wong, who has received the lion’s share of attention in the Western press, was one leader among many.) The author does a great job of outlining the structure of these groups and their leaders, and in a way that reads like a thriller.
The last part of the book includes an analysis of what went wrong, what went right, and what’s to come. The students and other activists Ng met were dedicated at first, but as time passed and the protesters and public opinion started to change, the lack of leadership left the struggle without a chance for the kind of success seen in places like Tunisia several years earlier, where protests brought changes in governing structures.
Politically, Hong Kong is unique, Ng stresses. It’s not a city-state like Singapore, and, he claims, only a tiny minority would wish it to become that. It’s also not like other big PRC cities: Britain and the Beijing agreed in the Joint Declaration that it could retain a great deal of autonomy for 50 years after the Handover, or until 2047. Hong Kong has its own currency, its own laws and courts, and its own regional government. Ng writes that the Basic Law, which protects these rights in Hong Kong until 2047, is vague when it comes to direct elections. It mentions one person, one vote, but doesn’t spell out how that’s to happen.
The year and a few months since the streets of Hong Kong were cleared have seen troubling incidents occur. A growing fringe element has turned to violence — against the government and mainland shoppers — although it receives very little public support. Five Hong Kong Chinese booksellers were abducted and detained in China at the end of last year; two held overseas passports at the time of their disappearance. The government has also made moves to repress discussion of the Umbrella Movement. When I contacted Ng, he told me that every one of the Chinese books published about the Umbrella Movement has been pulled from Hong Kong bookstore shelves — not just the ones that present the struggle favorably, they are not even stocking books that criticize it. “It is as if the Movement had never happened,” says Ng.
His publisher, Pete Spurrier of Blacksmith Books, had a difficult time securing a printer for Umbrellas, he says. He finally found a local one that would cooperate after two — one on the mainland, one in Hong Kong — had turned him down. But Spurrier never thought about withdrawing publication of Umbrellas in Bloom, which is the third book in a series of Hong Kong books by Ng. “Mainland authorities won’t worry too much about English-language books ‘spiritually polluting’ China,” Spurrier wrote in an email to me . “But still, I strongly feel that freedoms only exist while people continue to exercise them. We have freedom of speech and freedom of publication in Hong Kong, but the moment we feel too scared to exercise them, then they are gone. So we have to carry on publishing.”
At the end of his book, Ng sums up what I’d been thinking in Hong Kong during the Movement. People born after the 1980s are engaged in civic life more than ever before, with record numbers of registered voters. They are forming political parties and running for public office. As Ng writes toward the conclusion, “the seed planted by the Umbrella Movement…has taken hold.” The next Chief Executive election will be held next year, and still only 1200 people and organizations can vote. I will be interested in seeing what politically engaged Hong Kong youths do in the coming year, and know that, whatever tack they take, I can count on Ng, an astute tracker of local politics, to weigh in insightfully on their actions in essays and perhaps even in an epilogue to a second edition of Umbrellas in Bloom.