Sunday, November 26, 2017
CRASHING THE PARTY: AN AMERICAN REPORTER IN CHINA
(Berkeley, CA: Soft Skull Press, 2016)
By SCOTT SAVITT
Rev. by Hugh Murray
Many universities have a junior-year-abroad or similar programs on the premise that living and studying in a foreign country will broaden the knowledge of the students who partake. Scott Savitt left Duke U. in North Carolina for a year of study at Beijing Teachers U. in China's capital in 1983-4?. His long-time girl friend had just died and he needed a change, and newly opened China certainly filled the bill. Scott brought his guitar, and his music provided entree to meeting many Chinese students, hungry for contact with Westerners. With help from his new Asian friends, Scott learned Mandarin, no mean feat. When he suggested taking one Chinese friend, John, off campus to a restaurant, he was shocked to discover there were no private restaurants at that time in Beijing. Beginning with some of Mao's reforms, there were ration cards and assigned places where each individual could eat; they were assigned to eat in the campus cafeteria. That was basically it.
To get around the restrictions, John invited Scott to his home for a meal, where the American met John's mother and older sister. During the Cultural Revolution John's father, a professor of literature, was soon among those categorized by Chairman Mao as one of the “stinking intellectuals.” Mao hoped to rid the New China of such decadent and Western influences, and the Red Guards were called upon to enforce Mao's judgment. They apprehended the professor, placed a dunce cap on his head, paraded him in the streets so all could mock the intellectual. While being interrogated, John's father “died.” John's sister, another suspect from such a tainted family, was also taken into custody by the Red Guards. She was questioned, but then “fell” from a 3rd floor window. She survived, but suffered brain damage and was no longer capable of speaking. (One wonders how John, coming from such a disreputable family, was ever admitted into BTU?)
At the end of the school year (1984?, why does the author refuse to reveal dates?), Scott returned for his senior year at Duke. He graduated but chose not to follow his father's wish to continue on to law school and then join the elder Savitt's firm. Instead, Scott took a job teaching English at BTU. Scott would earn $200 a week for teaching 5 hours in class, mainly to Chinese teachers of English. He was probably younger than most of his students. This left him with considerable free time and much more money than most of his colleagues or older students. Through one of his colleagues, he met another who had written underground poetry and essays stressing a free spirit. Like the underground samizdats of the old Soviet Union, literature not approved by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was circulated secretly among interested groups.
Lisa told Scott her story – during the Cultural Revolution she and her parents were sent to the countryside. Though she was at first enthusiastic, she realized that the local peasants were so poor that they resented the newcomers, who would have to be fed from their meager supplies. She was a teacher and taught the children and others who were illiterate. The school drop-out rate was high, as few could see a reason to learn the thousands of Chinese characters. What good would it do to know that? Lisa was literate, but she was also assigned to hard labor. Like elsewhere in the world, she learned that a young woman might gain easier assignments and be allowed trips to the city if she had a relationship with CCP officials. Lisa refused, and received no privileges. She told her story to Scott, who took proper notes.
One day after class, Scott returned to find his room ransacked and his notes missing. He learned quickly that Lisa, a colleague, had suddenly been assigned to teach outside of Beijing at a military university. In winter, bundles up, no one could tell he was Western, so he traveled to the military university, and got into her room when her roommates were elsewhere. She had tried to build a sheet-tent inside the room for privacy, and now, under that 'tent,' Lisa and Scott had sex. He quickly left and returned to Beijing. Lisa was stuck in the hostile, military environment. Perhaps, some of her roommates were too politically reliable, too involved with the CCP. Perhaps, they had overheard the liaison under the tent. Later, Scott heard that Lisa had been denounced as a traitor and had hanged herself.
Meanwhile restaurants were opening and hotels, with foreigners, were hiring young musicians to play Western music – a source of income for those seeking meaning and money beyond Party discipline. During some student protests in the next few years, Scott heard of one at the U. of Science and Technology in Anhui Province. Scott now had an extra job reporting for Asiaweek, and went to the UST to interview a famous dissident, Prof. Feng Lizhi. Feng was a native of Beijing, and had joined the CCP in the 1940s. In the 1950s, Chairman Mao called for people to openly criticize things, to let a Hundred Flowers Bloom. Feng said he and his wife wrote something mildly critical, and that was the greatest mistake of their lives. Mao reacted by cutting 99 of the flowers and smashing them so only the true CCP flower would flourish. Because of their letter, Feng and his wife did 20 years in labor camps. As a scientist, he was eventually rehabilitated and allowed again to teach at university (but not in Beijing). However, Feng continued to press for 'liberal' reforms, one of which would be as abhorrent to most American university administrators today as it was to CCP university administrators in the 1980s. Feng proposed free speech zones on campus where presumably more conservative voices might be heard and debated. More ironic, the ideological descendants of Mao's Red Guards shut down free speech, even denounce the very idea of free speech, in many American universities today, with the support of the “progressive” university administrators.
Scott interviewed Feng, and with publication of the article, the professor became better known both inside and out of China as a dissident. Scott continued his contacts with reformers and dissenters, as he followed protests that sporadically erupted during his stay in the 1980s. The culmination of this was the massive protest in Tienanmen Square in Beijing during the spring and summer of 1989. Scott, now working for United Press International (UPI, then the major competitor to AP), rode his red motor scooter from the UPI headquarters in the Embassy District to Tienanmen Square, back and forth, making contacts with protestors whom he knew, writing stories, and in the office getting them sent round the world.
Scott Savitt's story is fascinating. But he seems to be lost in the forest, observing only the nearby trees. Bluntly, had the regime not cracked down, would the Peoples Republic of China have survived? Shortly after the Chinese protests, in the fall of 1989 demonstrations erupted in Leipzig against the government of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany). The Communist German government chose not to suppress these demonstrations. Consequently, the Wall fell, and the GDR crumbled out of existence. Had there been no crackdown against the protestors in Tienanmen, would China have continued to exist as a single generally, unified nation state?
Furthermore, during the Tienanmen protests, there were reports of violence directed against African students in China. How widespread was this? How democratic was the “democracy” movement? What else might have been unleashed if the central government had collapsed? Scott ignores all such speculations. His picture of his personal activities is terrific, and heroic, but also limited to one person's experience. His red scooter could not stop any tanks, and they could easily have shot him dead had they decided to. He had chosen to get those stories to the UPI office and to the world, riding through great danger.
Scott lucked out in 1989. He was not apprehended for any activities concerning the protests or his publications about them. At the end of the 1990s, he pushed further to establish the first independent English-language newspaper in the Chinese capital, Beijing Scene. This required much work and dedication, both from himself and his crew. Despite bureaucratic difficulties, the project grew, and advertising revenue increased. In time, he enticed a newly arrived ABC (American born Chinese), a graduate of Columbia U. School of Journalism, away from a job as editor of a Chinese paper to his. He was delighted with her ability and with her. They became an item. Sharline produced her first cover of Beijing Scene on January 2000.
Beijing Scene was a success, even after the pay-offs which grew parallel with it. Scott had lived in Beijing enough years to know that to get such a newspaper off the ground, he would have to grease many hands, and by 2000, some grease reached $50,000. But, perhaps it was simply running a page-1 photo of workers resting while remodeling, smoking cigarettes, after removing a large picture of Chairman Mao at the entrance to the Forbidden City. Was the newspaper implying that the party of Mao should be replaced? Or, perhaps Scott had simply failed to bribe another important official. Who knows? Without notice, the offices of BS were raided, and all the expensive equipment – computers, color copying machines, everything, was carted off. Before they could cart Scott off, he jumped out of a low level window and escaped the area. But not long after, while driving with his pet dog, Scott was caught, interrogated, and incarcerated in a small, windowless cell. Finally, after a month of feeding mosquitoes, he was handcuffed, escorted to the airport, placed on the plane (only then were the cuffs removed), and he could see Sharline on board. He returned to the US after 17 and a half years in China.
In addition to the discomfort in the prison cell, the open hostility of the Chinese interrogator, and the fear that his incarceration might last much longer, there was the intimidation. When first questioned, the policeman demanded names of those involved with Beijing Scene. Scott refused. The cop ordered that Scott's dog be brought in – the pet had been in Scott's car when he was stopped by authorities. When Scott again refused to name others, the policeman ordered a subordinate to take the dog away. Soon Scott heard the high-pitched, piercing cry of the animal as its neck was twisted till death. Scott revealed what I had not heard before: “During one of Chairman Mao's Cultural Revolution anti-pest campaigns, dogs were targeted...and ordered killed on sight. Posses of men with clubs roamed city streets, seizing and beating to death in front of their horrified, traumatized owners...Bounties were paid for dead dogs delivered to government headquarters.”(246)
When Scott left that country, he concluded that “all of China is a big penal colony.”(266) It is not surprising that while Scott lay on the prison floor, he had nightmares. What is surprising is the form the nightmare took – he dreamt of his days in New Haven, visiting Yale campus, and then awaiting a bus following a late music or tennis lesson. But surrounding Yale and many ivy league universities lies Black ghettos. A white teen awaiting a bus in a Black area; a symbol of vulnerability, danger, anticipating possible humiliation, theft, violence, even death. Scott pretends he knows the trick, “show no fear,”(267) and nothing will happen to him. But to Black racist thugs, that “trick” does not dissuade, nor does it help countless white victims of Black crime in every big, Democratic dominated city in the US. Yet, Scott himself wakens from his dream “unnerved by the bizarre parallel between my dream and reality.”(267) Was it so bizarre? Or was it unnerving only because liberals, and the politically correct should never compare violent totalitarianism to the far more visible violence (especially when it comes to vulnerable whites) in Black ghettos? The problem of Black racism and crime is so taboo in the US that liberals can only confront it in their nightmares.
Scott's book is enhanced by photographs, but lacks an index, and aside from the Tienanmen protest era, he utterly neglects to give dates. This is a loss. When he notes the enormous change in a year or so, many more autos, private restaurants, chances for musicians to get paid for gigs in hotels, he does not state when that year was. (I calculate it was 1984-85, but I am using guess work.) He describes a trip to a mountain where a young boy stares at him, and the father explains, the lad has never seen a foreigner. Friends of mine taught at Nankai U. in Tianjin in 1989-90, and traveled to the countryside on occasion. Some adult country folk approached them wanting to feel the wife's hair, and others, the husband's hair on his arms. Whites were quite rare is many areas of China. Scott observed that no one celebrated Christmas in 1986-87. When I taught in China, 2006-2008, Christmas was not a holiday for the Chinese, but foreigners at university had the day off. Moreover, there was also a special program that night for the foreigners, with a meal, singing, and entertainment. I was in a city of about 2 million people, and the emcee proudly announced that over 80 foreigners were present at the city's gathering. To myself, I laughed. I had been living in an apartment building in the Midwest near a university, and there were probably 50 foreigners just in that one single building. Also, the years I was in China, in December in the malls, one could hear Christmas music, clerks wore Santa caps, Christmas trees, all kinds of symbols of the Christmas season were prominently displayed. True, there was only one church (and one mosque) but aspects of the Christmas spirit were visible. I do not mean that Savitt was inaccurate in his observation; but suggest that change had occurred over the decade – another reason dates are inportant.
Scott should have mentioned the dates of the anti-dog crusade under Mao. Had it been one of the years of severe famine, that may have made the extermination of dogs more understandable (if not excusable). If people are starving by the millions, perhaps food should not go to the dogs. Overall, one can learn much from Scott Savitt's book of personal experiences in China.
One area where I strongly disagree with Scott's assessment – when he asserts that “all China a big penal colony.” That judgment followed his month in a sweltering prison under extreme pressure. I doubt if most Chinese see it that way, and I certainly do not. There are differences, clearly, between the US and China; China is a one-party state. Also, think of the recent incident in China when 3 American basket ball players were arrested for shoplifting. They were facing 5 to 10 years in prison. LeVar Ball, father of one, dismissed the theft – shoplifting is inconsequential, “no big deal”. I find it amazing that someone can basically find little wrong with stealing. And that father is not alone – far too many of our liberal judges let so many thieves off with no punishment. My views on some aspects of justice are closer to those of the Chinese and the pre-WWII-America than they are to Ball's father.
Savitt judged China a huge penal colony. He arrived in 1983 as a student. Two years later, he returned as a teacher earning $200 a week. Later he supplemented by reporting for Asiaweek, and then worked full time for UPI. An entrepreneur, he scraped up funds to establish Beijing Scene. By the year 2000, he was bribing people with sums of $50,000. That sounds like a marvelous success story. All of that in China! Does that sound like a penal colony to you? Or a land of opportunity? But Scott was a man who played high-risk odds, which is often the case for those who rise quickly. He literally risked his life during Tienanmen on his red scooter riding on the narrow parallel road as the tanks were driving on the wide avenue beside it. Scott got away with getting around Chinese laws and formalities. In 2000, the authorities cracked down, and they cracked down hard. Scott lost everything. By American standards, it was unjust. Perhaps, by most standards. But most Chinese would not rise so quickly and arouse such notice and gain such influence and break so many rules in the process. Enormous penal colony? For all China? I do not see it.
Mao led China into and through many disasters of his own making, I would contend. But after Mao, even with considerable corruption, many were given some economic freedom, and they have performed miracles in a short time for a nation of some 1 billion 4 hundred thousand. I admire that. Furthermore, I probably had more freedom in my class teaching in China than I would have had in a pc American university. Admittedly, since I left, China seems to have taken up a more expansive foreign policy abroad while seemingly (I am not there) restricting some freedoms at home. Building islands in the South China Sea, disputes over islands with Japan, and land with India, narrowing what is allowed in Hong Kong, pressuring other nations to curtail trade with Taiwan, and at home banning google, facebook, and other social networks, banning gay net TV serials, pulling down crosses from churches, harassing various religious believers. Not good signs, but hardly a penal colony. True, one party rule might revert to the horrors of the Cultural Revolution – that is possible. But it is more likely that America will lose the right to free speech and freedom of assembly, even the right to self defense, under politically correct left-wing Democrats and “moderate” Republicans.
Scott Savitt showed great bravery in his friendships with protestors during the Tienanmen Square demonstrations, and before and after those events. He had a girl friend during Tienanmen who was working for the wife of the American Ambassador. He was trying to change the government of China. Was he affiliated with the CIA? Possibly. But most Americans, when abroad, carry our concepts of justice with us. One need not be CIA to simply exude individualism, initiative, criticism, - “why this way and not that” attitudes. One must admire Scott's bravery and his success in being himself, a free-spirited American, and how his example might inspire Chinese and others. He also produced a good book.