Some unreasonable men (and women): Beijing’s weiquan community soldiers on, insensitive to incentives

Last month, Li Jinxing saved a man’s life.  He didn’t heft a car or hurl himself in front of a bullet.  But, considering the history of capital cases in China, he did something just as extraordinary:  he delivered a “not guilty” verdict for his client, Lei Lijun.

Mr. Li is a criminal defense lawyer and a veteran of Beijing’s slowly-developing weiquan (rights) scene.  To call him a “lawyer,” however, may give western readers the wrong idea.  In America, this profession carries with it a certain prestige, not least because of the princely sums many lawyers earn.  In China, by contrast, most lawyers earn a living and not much more.  Only a few, retained by big, multi-national corporations, ever get really rich.

In America, moreover, lawyers face relatively little personal risk:  one performs legal duties, then goes on with one’s life.  This is fairly axiomatic in the world of patent law, or M&A, or private equity, etc.  But even those representing terrorists, pedophiles, and other “low-lifes” are generally accepted as an important part of America’s adversarial legal system.  Sure, American attorneys who invest heavily in a case, à la A Civil Action, open themselves up to heartbreak.  Still, they can show up to work secure in the knowledge that certain extreme forms of retribution—having loved ones abducted, for example—are off the table.  Beijing’s weiquan lawyers, on the other hand, have learned from experience that everything is in play.

*  *  *

I traveled to Beijing last Christmas to meet Liang Xiaojun, a 12-year veteran of criminal defense law.  We had been introduced several months earlier by a British NGO that works to strengthen rule of law and increase access to justice in China.  Mr. Liang is known for defending members of the Falun Gong, a religion that earned itself “illegal” status in China when members spoke out against the Party.  As one of the charity’s most active “men on the ground,” he was simultaneously involved in a handful of projects, including one (rather long-term) to abolish the death penalty in China.

As an intern at the aforementioned NGO, I was assigned to research and write up theoretical and practical arguments against capital punishment.  When that report was finished, I interviewed program officers and other personnel at organizations sympathetic to our cause—Human Rights Watch, Reprieve, Amnesty International—to better understand the inner workings of their campaigns.  Did they think similar campaigns could succeed in China?  They did not.  What did they think of China’s prospects for abolition?  Answers ranged from “Forget it, as long as the [Chinese Communist] Party is in power” to “Give it 100 years; then we’ll talk.”  Their less-than-rosy prognosticating aside, Mr. Liang devoured my reports without waiting for the translation.

For several months, on Skype, I helped him unpack and understand the capital punishment literature and experiences of other abolitionist orgs in Asia.  On a few occasions he has interrupted our sessions, apologetically, to answer the door.  While the video call continues, the camera aimed at the white-washed wall of his apartment, I can make out his painfully polite conversation with the policeman off-screen:  “No, I won’t stay in Beijing throughout the Party Congress.  Don’t worry.  I will leave tomorrow for my hometown.  I’m sorry, I can’t talk now.  I have an English lesson.  My teacher is waiting.  I’m sorry.”

Mr. Liang tells me the police “invite” him for coffee every couple of weeks to inquire about his movements.  “What are you doing these days?” they ask.  “What are your plans for the next few weeks?  Are you in touch with any foreigners?”  Like the other lawyers I speaks to, Mr. Liang doesn’t disguise what he does.  He says he answers the authorities’ questions truthfully.  He considers himself fortunate that he has not been worked over more thoroughly, and attributes his “luck” to the straightforward, a-political manner in which he represents his clients.

*  *  *

The sleeper train from Shanghai approaches Beijing Train Station at quarter-past-eight in the morning—right on schedule.  I dress, as best I can, in the tiny confines of my top bunk and clamber down to join the locals slurping their noodles and tea.  Based on past visits, I am astonished to look out the window and see blue sky.  The great, gray grid of the Chinese capital wears a shabby trim of snow, which fell a few days earlier.  The cold is intense.  I call Liang Xiaojun from the train station, who directs me to the law offices of Li Jinxing.

Emerging from the subway, I recognize Mr. Liang from our video chats:  a kind-faced Hebei-native with thinning hair and even thinner glasses.  He greets me with a wide, slightly asymmetrical smile—which gathers one side of his mouth into a dimple—and a torrent of “Very nice to meet you”s, his fluency leaving him in the excitement of the moment.  Together, we ascend 17 floors to Mr. Li’s office; the crowded lift stops several times along the way, and each time grim-faced locals force their way on, repeatedly setting off the “overweight” alarm.

Li Jinxing’s office consists of three private side-offices arrayed around a center room, all white-washed and tastefully furnished with dark wood desks.  It is deliciously warm—in northern China, where the winters are punishing, the government runs boiled water through the walls in pipes.  A group of lawyers have congregated—whether because of my visit or as a regular bit of fraternizing, I am not sure.  I recognize another collaborator from Skype:  Mr. Wen Haibo.

Mr. Wen is an earnest man in his early thirties with a round, almost child-like face.  In the months we had worked together, I had been struck by his self-possession and evenness of temperament.  Although younger than the others, he has a wife and child.  His formal career as a lawyer has already ended, too.  After earning his law degree in 2001, he moved to Beijing and began representing small businesses.  In 2004, he met Goa Zhisheng, the now-disbarred rights lawyer famous for his dauntless defense of journalists, Falun Gong, Christians, and just about everyone else.  It was a transformative meeting.  Mr. Wen dropped everything and joined Mr. Gao’s practice.

It did not turn out to be a smart career move:  unlike Liang Xiaojun, Mr. Gao was never shy about his political opinions.  While the two were colleagues, Mr. Gao excoriated the government in one open letter after another, published a memoir detailing his weeks of detention and torture, and urged the E.U. and U.S. to boycott the Beijing Olympics.  His free speech spree ended as they typically do in China—with imprisonment and more torture.  Because of his ties to Mr. Gao, the Bureau of Justice forbade Mr. Wen from taking any more “special cases.”  However, when Mr. Wen began his search for a new law firm, rejection after surprise rejection drove home the truth of the matter:  the Bureau had blackballed him for good measure.  After an unaffiliated period, per Chinese law, Mr. Wen was stripped of his license to practice law.

*  *  *

My host, Li Jin Xing, got his start in intellectual property law and eventually built up a thriving Beijing practice.  Today, this side-project brings in enough money to finance his rights work, much of which is unpaid.  Despite his humble beginnings in the weiquan community, Mr. Li says, cops are now his constant companions.  They tail him most everywhere he goes.  Often, when he meets with clients, police camp outside the door.

At the time of my visit, he seems to be inviting more of the same with his new enterprise, the Shu Bin Legal Aid Center.  Mr. Li wants to hand-pick a team of China’s most capable rights lawyers—a sort of weiquan All-Star Team.  With so many bright lights gathered under its banner, he hopes the Center will attract donations from all corners of civil society.  The funds will enable his squad to take any important rights cases that come along, regardless of defendants’ ability to pay.  It has the distinct feel of a rights NGO, in a country where such organizations are verboten.  Mr. Li is well aware of the government’s disdain for such projects.  Yet, when I ask, he is adamant that he will not compromise his vision for the Center.  “As the head of this operation,” I observe, a little too obviously, “you will be the first to get a visit when your lawyers defend a political enemy.”  “Yes,” he agrees, with a resigned shrug.  “I will probably get a lot more attention.”

At dinner that evening, Mr. Liang, Mr. Wen, Mr. Li and I are joined by another of their lawyer friends, a vociferous, wiry, man with scars on his face.  He pays me little attention as he and Mr. Li engage in a fast-paced exchange about something or other; I do not even catch his name.  Mr. Liang leans over and gestures at the man.  “He has been tortured,” he observes.

*  *  *

Considering the modest compensation and outsized personal risk, it is fair to ask what draws people to this field.  In fact, I learned, criminal law did not feature in these lawyers’ early career plans.  Mr. Liang spent three years as a teacher in his home province of Hebei, but found he lacked passion for the work.  He became a lawyer, he tells me, simply because he had friends in the field, and it seemed more glamorous than teaching.  Mr. Wen became a defense lawyer after a chance encounter with Gao Zhi Sheng. Mr. Li spent his early career as a government clerk.  “Most Chinese people are miserable,” he tells me, and during that time he counted himself among them.  One day he took stock of his life and decided that “being a lawyer [would be] the happiest profession.”

I can relate to switching fields in search of meaningful work.  But this group, I can’t help thinking, gives new meaning to the term “thankless task.”  When I ask about memorable moments in their careers, the lawyers grow somber.  I imagine them mentally reviewing the countless men and women they had represented, along with their respective verdicts: guilty; guilty; guilty; guilty.  Even Mr. Li waves my question away with a Chinese phrase I do not grasp.  “He does not want to talk about the past,” my translator explains.  “It makes him feel sad.”

And yet, when I ask whether they’ve ever thought about giving up, Mr. Liang, Mr. Wen, and Mr. Li each respond immediately, forcefully:  “No.”  “Why would I quit?” Mr. Li asked me, puzzled, as if we hadn’t just spent an hour discussing his daily harassment.  When I ask Mr. Liang how long he thinks he can continue, he shrugs.  “I will keep doing this,” he says, “as long as I can.”

Noting the lateness of the hour, Mr. Li offers me a mattress on the floor of a toasty-warm corner office.  I gratefully accept.

*  *  *

During our conversation the next day, Mr. Li suddenly rises to his feet, crosses the room, and bends to pick something up.  He returns to the table with a hunk of rusty black rock, which he places between us.  It is iron ore, he explains, salvaged from a mine in China’s Yunnan Province.  He went there to investigate the case of forty-odd miners—the mine’s entire complement—who were all hit simultaneously with trumped up charges.  With the mine “abandoned,” the Communist Party was free to swoop in and nationalize it.  He hauled the rock back to Beijing, Mr. Li says, as a reminder to be strong.  A nice symbol, perhaps, but strength is not derived from symbols alone.  What keeps these men going?  After two days in Mr. Li’s office, I was stuck for an answer.

Suddenly, I remember the Mr. Li’s recent victory in the capital case of Lei Lijun, which had been the subject of some congratulatory ribbing when I first arrived.  “What about Mr. Lei?” I ask.  “Chinese courts have returned such a verdict only once or twice in the past decade.  Aren’t you proud of yourself?”  The mood in the room shifts instantly as Mr. Li tilts back in his chair, a schoolboy’s cheeky smile on his face, and ventures a rare answer in English:  “Of course.”

This article was researched in December 2012.


In one week, two wildly different perspectives on Chinese social media giant

Sina Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, announced on February 20 that it had surpassed half a billion users — more people than live in South America, and approximately the population of North America. Thickly-settled Europe edges out Weibo by about 230,000, but the micro-blogging platform blows away Australia in this  regard. In any event, we are talking about a membership on the order of continents — a remarkable fact, given that, unlike Facebook, its usership is almost exclusively Chinese.

As many readers will be aware, Facebook and Twitter are among the Western platforms inaccessible in China, thanks to the government’s so-called Great Firewall. Internet blocks create a vacuum that domestic entrepreneurs have rushed to fill. In China, chat client QQ provides a service comparable to the west’s AIM or Windows Live Messenger. Then there are the ailing Facebook imitators — Ren Ren, Pengyou, Kaixin001 — which have struggled to sustain their respective user bases in recent years. Weibo, meanwhile, has steamrolled competitors to become the social networking service (SNS)  of choice for China’s growing bourgeoisie. It is now, as the Death Star’s commanding officer would say, the ultimate power in the universe.

Sort of.

On the heels of Sina Weibo’s announcement comes speculation that its achievement may be a hollow one. According to TechinAsia, Sina admitted in its 2013 post-report earnings call that only 46.3 million (about ten percent) of its virtual content of Weibo users log on every day. This lack of fervor could be forgiven if Weibo users maintained a steady pitter-patter of activity, logging on, say, a few times a week. Alas, on that same earnings call, the micro-blogging platform said that roughly the same nine to ten percent of its users are active over the course of a year. What’s going on?

The discrepancy between membership and active users may be due, in part, to the “zombie” phenomenon. With the rise of social media, China has seen an outbreak of cowboy enterprises that generate online accounts for money. These accounts are not tied to any real person; they post no content of their own. Rather, these “zombies” can be automatically deployed to follow a particular user, re-post that user’s comments, and generally create “buzz.” In effect, wealthy individuals or organizations can parlay financial resources into instant “popularity.”

To further explicate the gap between counted and active users — and to add another supernatural metaphor — Weibo also features an untold number of “reincarnated” users. Per government censorship policies, employees at Sina Weibo regulate users’ conversations. If a user posts something controversial, he risks having his post deleted — or, in an extreme case, losing his account altogether. This user may “give up the ghost,” only to come back as another user with a slightly different handle (often the same name with “Life2” [ 二世] or “Life3” [ 三世] appended). Reincarnation buys him a period of anonymity to speak more freely — until censors catch on again. It also means Weibo may be counting users more than once.

There are other, more banal possibilities, of course. It could be that real, flesh-and-blood people join Weibo, participate for a time, then simply lose interest, deciding they have better things to do than “follow” and be followed.  Maybe they reach a point of exhaustion with Sina Weibo’s interface or functionality. Users may be lured away by sexy up-and-comers like WeChat, which many believe will eventually overtake Weibo in popularity. Or maybe Chinese netizens are inherently fickle, and no amount of clever web-design can hold their attention for long. No one seems to know for certain. But, from a developer’s point of view, these possibilities are all equally discouraging.

Compare Sina Weibo’s numbers to Facebook’s user activity stats. As a truly global site, Facebook squashes its Chinese counterpart with an estimated 1.06 billion users. But, more importantly, Facebook reports, 50 percent of its users log on every day. Among the key 18-34 year old demographic, nearly half do so within minutes of waking up, 28 percent before they even get out of bed. These mind-boggling statistics hint at a sort of addiction, which may set off alarm bells for some.  But they also constitute resounding proof that the fuss about Facebook is genuine. When Facebook went public last year, Mark Zuckerberg had money — not zombies — on the brain.

Western nations are not necessarily above e-necromancy. In early 2011, it surfaced that the U.S. government engaged private intelligence firms to create zombies on Facebook, Twitter, and anachronistically, MySpace in a covert effort to influence public opinion. Still, the “genuine article” is perhaps harder to find in China than anywhere else: the country has graduated from counterfeit designer goods to whole retail operations, from fake Apple and Ikea stores to a knock-off Disney World outside Beijing. As such, it is hardly surprising that the latest milestone from China’s social media giant may be more sizzle than substance.

Forgotten in the center of China

The geographic center of the world’s most populous country sounds like a busy place.  But if you stabbed a finger at the middle of a map of China, you would most likely find yourself pointing at a sparsely-populated region once known as Tibet.  Today, Tibet lingers on officially only as the TAR (“Tibet Administrative Region”), while the rest is divided into the Chinese provinces of Qinghai, Sichuan, Gansu, and Yunnan.  While urbanites in these provinces are, to some extent, riding the wave of China’s newfound affluence, farmers and nomads of the Tibetan Plateau, just a few kilometers away, inhabit a different world.

There, yak-herders eke out a living as they have for millennia, returning at night to mud huts with the approximate proportions of a walk-in closet.  There is little infrastructure:  the lone paved road, winding thousands of meters up and down mountains, inevitably gives way to rutted byways that connect three- and four-building “townships.”  The region’s dismal schools are scattered at great intervals, and teachers have been known to show up drunk.

I recently visited the Amdo region of the Tibetan Plateau as part of my fellowship with the Shambala Foundation, an NGO that has been working to alleviate poverty in the region since 2006.  At the Foundation’s modest headquarters in Xining, the capital of Qinghai Province, I met Chosyang Gorje and Choba Jeb, ethnic Tibetans who would be my drivers and guides.

“Craig” and “Ricky,” as they prefer to be called, braved the school system and emerged at the top of their respective classes.  Their performance earned them free English training from ETP, another fixture of Qinghai’s NGO community.  After six years’ study, the pair graduated in 2009.  Within a few weeks, they had joined the Shambala Foundation as social workers.  Today, at the age of twenty-two, they each earn 3,000 RMB per month.

Craig and Ricky are modest about what is, in point of fact, an enormous accomplishment: by finishing school, developing job skills, and landing stable, salaried positions with an international NGO, both young men have effectively lifted their families out of the poverty that gripped them for generations.  At the same time, they signal to Amdo’s youngest generation that the obstacles arrayed against them can be overcome.  In short, they represent the success story that the Shambala Foundation wants for each of its current 650 orphans.

* * * * *

L1010869After a lunch of noodles, we piled into a van and began the four-hour drive to Seku County, where a handful of the Foundation’s orphans live with foster families.  At first, the land sloped up and away from us on both sides, dotted with clusters of Han-Chinese graves and colossal electrical installations.  But, as we drove further, the graves and electrical towers fell away, and the landscape became desolate, almost lunar.  I thought of the badlands of Nevada.

My guides cranked up the CD that was to be our soundtrack for the next four-and-a-half hours:  Credence Clearwater Revival.  Craig kept the mood up, flitting from one topic to another.  “Movies,” he prompted.  “I like ‘Forrest Gump.’  ‘Life is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you’re going to get’.”  Words I never expected to hear on the Tibetan Plateau.  Next, the inquisitive pair asked me to tell them “everything [I] know about the Holocaust” (another surprise), then, what I liked best about America.  Sick of censorship after 14 months in China, I said freedom of speech, and returned the question.

Craig and Ricky professed strong attachment to Tibet’s traditional beliefs:  reincarnation; wandering ghosts who possess if they aren’t trapped.  I looked around:  stuppas loomed over every hill, their tethers of bright prayer flags pinwheeling in all directions; the smoke- and dust-filled air of Xining behind us, the peaks on all sides were outlined in brilliant blue.  It was easy to imagine spirits in the vicinity.


Our route took us up, then down into the Yellow River Valley, then precipitously up again onto the Plateau.  In the relative comfort of the heated van, I was struck by the sheer distances in play.  Townships were spaced thirty or forty minutes apart, with literally nothing in between.  At last, with the sunlight slipping away, we entered Seku County and stopped in a puny township for more noodles and a Tibetan staple, mutton.  Once outside the van, it was hard to notice anything but the searing cold air thick with smoke.

I had been warned about the cold at this altitude.  While Xining is perched 2200 meters above sea level, this part of the Tibetan Plateau is closer to 4000.  It’s enough to trigger headaches, nausea, and vomiting in some visitors.  I had taken the precaution of wearing two pairs of long underwear, supplemented by a thermal top, sweater, overcoat, and hat and gloves that never came off.  I needn’t have bothered.  Even with the wind down, the cold cut right through my layers, leaving me shivering within seconds.

The smokiness, of course, is a simple consequence of people trying to survive here.  Locals burn coal at a prodigious rate:  when we finally reached the frigid guest house, an ayi promptly shuffled into our room with a big bucket of the stuff and began shoveling it into the small stove by the door.  A fair amount of smoke trickled out of the vent pipe to hang heavily in our room.  The poorest families rely on a free and abundant resource for heat:  yak dung.  It has the caloric content to keep a blaze going—but only if fed into the caste-iron stove non-stop.  Essentially, families have to choose between sleeping or staying warm.  As I lay in the guest house, fully clothed inside a sleeping bag and thick blankets, the Plateau struck me as a tough place to survive.

* * * * *

Apparently, famers and nomads agree with my assessment:  an alarming proportion of Amdo children drop out of primary or middle school to support their families in any way they can—taking construction jobs, in the case of boys, or scavenging for “caterpillar fungus” prized by CTM practitioners.  At high school age, dropout rates spike as new, higher school fees kick in.

This was the fate of Lhamo Tso, a twelve-year-old girl from Qinghai’s Gonghe County.  Lhamo’s parents divorced when she was small and, starting new families, left her in her grandparents’ care.  At the time, the elderly pair was living on less than 1000 RMB ($150) per year, much of it donated by neighbors.  In theory, the government assists people like Lhamo’s grandparents through the Di Bao (public support) system—one “need” tier provides about 400 RMB / year; another provides 800.  In reality, however, funds are released to often-unscrupulous village leaders, who divert them toward their own kin.

Lhamo’s grandparents tried their best to put her through school, where she showed tremendous promise.  By some metrics, she was the top student in a school of three hundred.  But the financial strain proved too great:  the nearest school was kilometers away, which meant Lhamo would have to board; it closed for six days every month, which meant she would need transport there and back.  Finally, although they are fully-funded and should be free, many schools in the area demand additional fees for books, meals, etc.  In Lhamo’s case, these fees totaled 500 RMB—roughly half of her family’s yearly income.  These factors alone would have spelled the end of Lhamo’s education.  Then her grandfather fell ill, and his treatments plunged the family into debt.  He passed away a few months later.

The Shambala Foundation was keen to help.  Then came a report from one of its Gonghe social workers:  unable to pay her creditors, Lhamo’s grandmother had reluctantly committed the little girl to an orphanage.  She soon learned it was less of an orphanage and more of a cash cow:  ownership uses its population of orphans to requisition ever-greater sums of government money, pocketing the majority while cutting corners on food, clothing, and care.  Education is out of the question.  When Lhamo’s grandmother, horrified, tried to get her back, she was referred to the contract she had signed; Lhamo will remain at the orphanage for three years, barring a 10,000 RMB contract “buy out.”

uxG7xgqdksca11tlvm4nONpE-ikskAtL7ehWhP4T6M8The Communist Party, seeking to regulate life in these heretofore “Wild West” regions, is unwittingly making education even more unattainable for Tibetan children.  The CCP is boarding up township schools and opening new ones far away in urban centers.  Massive subsidized housing projects spring up around these urban schools, intended to lure farmers and nomads down from the Plateau.  With greater resources and trained teachers, there is no question that the quality of education would be a step up.  But no one has yet proposed a viable means for illiterate farmers and nomads to earn a living in an urban setting.   Forced to choose between surviving on the Plateau and starving in the city, locals are staying put.  Their children forego even the most basic education.

In the farming and nomadic communities of Amdo, I gathered, education is viewed as a luxury.  The trouble is, it’s not.  Chinese society as a whole is surging ahead, while Amdo’s inhabitants—poorly positioned to begin with—fall further and further behind.

* * * * *

Morning brought with it the same astonishing cold.  Outside our guest house Craig and Ricky, clad in ludicrously inadequate windbreakers, conferred in the white billow of their breath.  To maximize time with the orphans, they agreed to split up.  I would go with Ricky, in the van, in search of a little girl and her nomadic family a few miles to the north.  As we drove, I quizzed Ricky on their background.

Tsomo never knew her father, who was what Tibetans call a “night visitor.”  Her mother suffered from mental illness, leaving the child in the care of her octogenarian grandmother.  When the Shambala Foundation learned of her case, in 2010, the family was living on about 800 RMB per year (just over $100).  On his first visit, former SF social worker Sanggji Drolma found Tsomo filthy, malnourished, and sick.  Without treatment, she was unlikely to live.  Delicately, with what soothing words he could find, Sanggji had pried the little girl away from her grandmother and brought her to Xining for medical attention.  With a healthy diet and supplements, the little girl recovered.  She returned to the Plateau, and to school.  With the Foundation’s support, Tsomo is alive and well—and about to finish 4th grade.  If she keeps up her grades, she will receive Foundation scholarships to attend high school, vocational school, or even university.


The nomadic community was located several kilometers off the paved road.  We moved at a snail’s pace, the van bucking and listing crazily to one side or the other as we traversed the wagon-way.  Every few minutes, Ricky leapt from the van to peer at the scant offering of landmarks—a township; a stuppa; a solitary Tibetan burning incense—and beg his nomad contact for fresh directions.  After an hour of off-roading, we came upon the red-faced nomad with the cell phone.  We had arrived.

The place was familiar from the photos I had seen.  Here was the grandmother, her face as brown and deeply-lined as a walnut, her storm-gray hair in wild tangles.  She moved with the slowness of age, but the fretful twisting of her hands and mouth betrayed that responsibility weighed on her also.  Suddenly, from behind her, a pink blur:  Tsomo, in matching boots and jacket, came running from the hut, grinning, and bearing a quart of yak’s milk her family had set aside to say thank you.


Yang yang: China’s wildly imbalanced gender dynamic


In June, I found myself placing a call to the Shanghai police.  My twenty-year old friend, Lily, slumped on a nearby couch with her face in her hands.  She would not call herself, she said, because “The police will not do anything.”  Given her ex-boyfriend’s abusive past, and his incessant calling, texting, and stalking, I insisted that the authorities would have no choice.

I had met this young woman and her Shanghai-nese boyfriend, Adam, a few months earlier.  Though more than ten years her senior, he seemed decent enough:  the three of us played cards together and even went out on a few occasions.  But, as Lily and I got closer, she confided her misgivings about the relationship.  As Adam’s parents aged, she said, there was mounting pressure for her to marry him and start a family.  She wasn’t ready for the commitment.  “And besides,” she added, “sometimes we fight.”  “Every couple fights,” I told her.  “Well…” she continued, sensing I had not understood, “sometimes he hits me.”  And then added, hastily, “But he is a good man.”

As time wore on, her assessment of Adam’s character rang increasingly false.  On a visit to the apartment she and Adam shared, she pointed out a shattered pane in the glass divide between the living room and the balcony.  “I broke that,” she said with self-reproach, “when he locked me out there for a day.”  On another occasion, when we went to the park, a heavy layer of foundation, a silk scarf, and sleeves could not hide the cuts and contusions on her lips, neck, and arms.  When she finally fled his apartment one summer evening, she arrived at my place bearing a tiny, immobilized terrier, its hind leg broken when the boyfriend flung it against a wall.  The more I learned about their relationship, the more it seemed like a nightmare, rather than a marriage waiting to happen.

Someone at the police station answered.  I asked for an English speaker, and was heartened to hear a woman’s voice on the line.  I endeavored to explain the extent of the abuse, and how Lily’s ex-boyfriend was, as we spoke, putting the screws to every one of their mutual friends in an effort to discover her new address.  The policewoman listened for a minute or two, then asked if she could speak to my friend.  I passed the phone.  I must have turned my own face to the floor, because I was startled moments later by Lily’s shriek and the sound of her cell phone shattering against the wall.

Lily took a few minutes to calm down.  Apparently, the officer had explained that the calls, texts, and stalking were all ways of showing love.  “He obviously cares about you and wants to be with you,” the policewoman reasoned.  “You should go back to him.”

My friend Lindsey also acquired an admirer at the age of twenty.  As he was a complete stranger, she did not accept his letters or little gifts of flowers and chocolate.  Undeterred, he started throwing them through her open window.  The gesture lost some of its romance over the months that followed—especially after Lindsey learned the man had been watching her shower from the building opposite.

Throughout this one-way romance, she told me, her message was clear:  “I am not interested in you.  Please leave me alone.”  But, rather than leaving her alone, the young man became more and more obsessed.  He started showing up at her apartment and pounding on the door.  Lindsey ignored him.  One muggy afternoon, when she propped the door to get some air, her suitor crept inside.  When Lindsey caught him rummaging through her things, he started; wild-eyed, he snatched up a knife and started slashing her chairs, pillows, and bedclothes.  Lindsey said she ran down the hall, banging on her neighbors’ doors until one finally opened.  She hid inside.  Moments later, her suitor arrived and threatened to stab the bewildered neighbor if he protected her again.

At this point, Lindsey, like my Shanghainese friend, called a Hail Mary:  she went to the police.  “Flowers and chocolates?” came the response.  “This guy must really like you!  Don’t you think you should give him a chance?”  When Lindsey insisted she had no interest in the man—and, at this point, had good reason to fear him—the police dug themselves deeper:  “Well, if this has continued over time, you must have given him some encouragement.”  In the end, Lindsey had to threaten a lawsuit to get the police’s cooperation.  Her stalker was instructed to stay off the floor where she lived.  She continued to see him around the housing complex.

Two accounts can only carry so much weight.  Yet the striking similarities between them suggest something disturbing about gender dynamics in China.

Firstly, these accounts reveal a reluctance to label any behavior, however heinous, “harassment” or “abuse.”  Lindsey endured months of unwanted attention, involving the police only when her stalker ransacked her apartment.  Lily was battered, physically and emotionally, all the while insisting her boyfriend was “a good man.”  As with many victims of abuse, naïveté played a role.  But she did not arrive at this character assessment alone.  She had plenty people around her—people she considered friends—who knew of Adam’s violent episodes and yet urged her to marry him.  After all, didn’t he keep a roof over her head?  In China, the “normal-ness” of violence toward women caused Lindsey and Lily to set their respective thresholds for “harassment” and “abuse” far too high.

Then, when they found the strength to call “abuse” by its proper name, the badge-wearing mandarins of China’s “Harmonious Society” took no heed.  In both cases, they dismissed, de-legitimized, and otherwise explained away my friends’ trepidation and terror.  Shouldn’t the cops have shown a little more concern—if not out of human decency, then out of professional obligation?

But the cognitive process behind their indifference may be most alarming of all. Though fundamentally about abuse, my friends’ accounts also contained details which, if taken out of context, reflect well on their respective tormentors (e.g. chocolates; love letters). When one officer after another urged these women to give their abusive partners “a chance,” it was as if they had only registered these endearing sidenotes.  They weren’t willfully ignoring everything else—the savage beatings, the stalking. These things simply made no impression, like a footprint in the sea.  Both male and female officers evinced a profound misogyny, like a filter, through which only certain information could pass.

In the past month, gruesome violence against women in India has exploded into international news.  Messily, in the streets of New Delhi, that society has been forced to grapple with its eons-old favoritism of one gender over the other. Meanwhile, China serves as an uncomfortable reminder that a lower-level, smoldering violence, when coupled with institutional indifference, is more than enough to keep millions of women living in fear.

Note: All names in this article have been changed

Three years after her mother’s murder, Li Ning’s quest for justice is moving forward


March marks the start of the National People’s Congress in Beijing, one of the Communist Party’s most important annual events.  On March 5, 2012, a twenty-year-old college student named Li Ning caused uproar on Weibo, China’s Twitter, when she strode into Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, removed all her clothes, and knelt on the cold paving stones.  She was promptly arrested.

Before her March 5 statement, Li Ning had spent two years trying to tell her mother’s story.  Her mother, Li Shulian had owned a pair of profitable clothing stores in Jinan, the capital of Shandong Province—so profitable, in fact, that they became targets for official graft.  Mrs. Li resolved to expose this corruption.  Knowing that Shandong officials would cover for each other, she made the 200-mile trip to the central government in Beijing in June of 2009.  Jiefang agents followed.  They apprehended her in the capital, stripped her naked as punishment, and transported her back to Jinan.  Undeterred, Mrs. Li made a second pilgrimage to the seat of the Party in September of 2009.  Once again, she was followed; this time, she did not return.  On October 3, 2009, Li Ning received word that her mother had hung herself while in custody.

Li Ning was incredulous:  her mother would not do such a thing.  A perfunctory viewing of the body did little to put her mind at rest, especially when officials declined to release the autopsy results.  Li Ning began to suspect that, in fact, her mother’s tenacity had spooked security agents to the point where they beat her to death.  Then, in a shocking case of institutional “crossed wires,” Jinan officials admitted as much:  three security personnel, they said, had been prosecuted for the death of Mrs. Li.  Li Ning has received neither names of these agents nor any evidence of their prosecution.

Li Ning was enrolled at Renmin University of China when her mother died.  Grief-stricken, she visited every government office she could find, pleading for answers.  Each time, she was flatly informed that the case was “closed.”

At last, her Tiananmen Square statement had the desired effect.  Moved by her story, rights lawyer Zhou Minghai penned a Weibo post that drew 30,000 hits (it was hastily removed by government censors).  It also captured the attention of Li Zhuang, the renowned rights lawyer barred from practicing after he defended Chongqing-nese accused of organized crime.  Unable to take the case himself, Li Zhuang reached out to fellow rights lawyers.  So it was that, on December 26, I met Li Ning and her aunt in the Beijing offices of lawyer Li Jinxing.

Li Ning is a tall, slim, serious young woman possessed of a bright, if occasional, smile.  On the day we met, she wore block heels, black jeans, and a discolored white parka to ward off the cold.  Her maternal aunt, a tight-lipped Shandong native with penciled-on eyebrows, dressed in shades of lavender.  They tell me the pain Mrs. Li’s death, three years earlier, has been compounded by the callousness of people around them.  At the time of the murder, Li Ning was working for Vanke, China’s largest real estate developer, to support her studies.  When he learned of the incident, her boss tried to cut her loose.  Li Ning refused, citing the three-year contract she had just signed.  The company relented; Vanke waited until her contract expired, then let her go.  Meanwhile, her aunt, furious about Mrs. Li’s fate, began seeking legal recourse.  Afraid of repercussions, her husband filed for divorce.  The authorities have twice rejected his divorce petition, Li Ning’s aunt said, hoping to leverage his fear to secure her silence.

Having finished some other business, the attorney Li Jinxing joins us around the long mahogany table that serves as his desk.  Mr. Li is a broad-shouldered man in his late thirties with hair cropped close in the Chinese style.  His hospitable nature is often in evidence:  since I arrived a day earlier, he has gamely tried to engage me in English, inevitably turning to an assistant for help midway through his first sentence.  As he picks up steam in his native Mandarin, his right hand hovers like a hummingbird with an earthenware teapot, topping off everyone’s tea.  With a wave, he directs Li Ning’s attention toward a wall covered in photos.  In each, he poses with another famous Chinese lawyer:  Li Zhuang; Mai Li; Zhou Ze.  His message is clear:  you are in good hands.

For a few minutes, the trio discuss the latest news out of Shandong, the province all three call home.  Then, Mr. Li circles back to the murder.  It turns out Li Ning and her aunt have already petitioned courts at both the county and provincial levels to take their case.  They have asked for 5,000,000 RMB in damages, a sum which will help pay for Li Ning’s studies and support her after graduation.  Thus far, they have nothing to show for their efforts.  Mr. Li shows little emotion and no surprise as they speak, only nodding at intervals to show he is listening.  “I will take the case,” he says when they finish.

He outlines his plan:  round up a team of rights lawyers, travel to Shandong Province, set up an office.  In order to keep expenses to a minimum, the team will eat, sleep, and conduct legal research there.  More comfortable accommodation is out of the question:  as with roughly half his legal work, Mr. Li will not receive a fee.  However, he urges Li Ning and her aunt to find what money they can to cover the cost of the lawyers’ travel and food.  If they cannot raise enough for these necessities, Mr. Li says, they will ask the community for donations.

After ninety minutes or so, the meeting comes to a close.  As she rises to leave, Li Ning’s face shines with gratitude.  For almost three years, her mother’s body has lain in a Jinan morgue.  At last, a qualified team will delve into the specific circumstances of her death.  Once the truth is out, Li Ning and her family will be able to decide their next move.

Even if the investigation ends with a wrongful death suit, Li Jinxing knows he is not likely to win.  The Communist Party controls the courts, and no amount of evidence or legal argument can guarantee a just verdict.  Yet he does not fixate on this fact.  No one can restore Li Shulian to life.  But, by taking her case as far as possible, Mr. Li can keep her story alive in the public consciousness.  “Whatever the outcome,” he tells Li Ning as they make for the door, “our struggle will be a victory.”

Dirty secrets: How China manages perception, not pollution


In March of 2008, the New York Times announced that marathoner Haile Gebrselassie would skip his signature event in the Beijing Olympics.  After the news leaked, the world-record holder told reporters bluntly, “The pollution in China is a threat to my health.”  Organizers countered that they had halted production at Beijing’s dirtiest factories and pressured neighboring provinces to reduce the airborne particulate count.  From one perspective, their efforts paid off:  most of the Olympic hold-outs eventually crossed the picket line; international observers deemed the Games a success.  But, from another, the damage was done:  China’s record of environmental abuse was broadcast to the world.

For all its tough talk and posturing, China cares desperately what the world thinks of it.

Four years and 700 miles removed from the Beijing Olympics, in Shanghai, efforts to massage international opinion are ongoing.  As recently as twenty years ago, the east bank of the Huangpu River was a patchwork of fields dotted with oxen.  Then canny city planners realized that, to be considered a world-class city, Shanghai would need a world-class skyline–something that could be plastered in silhouette on T-shirts, coffee mugs, and key chains.  And so Pudong was born.  At breakneck speed (remember the plywood Rockridge replica in “Blazing Saddles”?), a welter of daring new structures sprung up opposite the Bund’s Baroque grandeur.  The message was clear:  forget the fields full of coolies, the wandering livestock; forget everything you thought you knew about Shanghai.  This is a modern city:  prosperous, cosmopolitan, striding confidently toward the future.

There is still a fly in the People’s Ointment.  For days or even weeks at a time, the iconic skyline is barely visible behind a blanket of smog.  At such times, Shanghai’s best impression of a western metropolis wears a little thin; the plywood cutouts crash to the ground.  This is simply not a problem in New York or Paris.  The Golden Gate Bridge has been known to vanish–but only because of natural mists rolling in from the bay.  And so, with every tour group that visits the Bund, only to return “tsk tsk”-ing with photos of formless blobs, officials at the Shanghai Tourism Bureau grind their teeth a little lower.  Those tourists will return home, as tourists are wont to do.  And, when friends and neighbors ask about China, “pollution so bad you can’t see” will surely get a mention.

Luckily for the CCP, what “worked” four years ago in Beijing has the potential to “work” better in Shanghai.  That is, without an international sporting even to attract media attention, it can be done inconspicuously.  As I write, Shanghai is carrying out a plan conceived a decade ago, when the 25 heaviest polluters along Xinghua Road were shuttered, their production shifted to Anhui, Henan, Hubei, and beyond.  Since that time, nearly 100 facilities per year have vanished from Shanghai’s outskirts, only to pop up like mushrooms in occidental townships that attract fewer visitors.  Thus situated, they resume poisoning everything that lives, out of sight and out of mind. 

Such is the case in Xinglong, Yunnan, one of China’s estimated 400 “cancer villages.”  The once-idyllic farming community was designated a site for industrial relocation in 2003.  Shortly thereafter, residents noticed the rivers running red and yellow, crops withering, and cattle dropping dead.  Still, without any alternatives, villagers continued to drink the water and walk in their fields.  Finally, in 2011, the staggering incidence of lung, liver, and stomach cancer attracted the attention of environmental NGOs, both international (Greenpeace) and domestic (Friends of Nature).  They found that, rather than driving to a processing plant in neighboring Guizhou, employees at Yunnan Luliang Peace Technology Company had dumped an estimated 5,000 tons of chromium-6—one of the substances most harmful to human health—all over the region.  Over time, most of it leached into the reservoir.  When Greenpeace rapid response personnel tested the drinking water, chromium-6 levels were too high for their instruments to measure.

The media firestorm drew a grudging response from the Communist Party.  Local authorities fenced off the worst pollution and rounded up a few scapegoats at Luliang.  But, when villagers tried to protest the continued operation of the Luliang City Industrial Park, they were waved away because “the factories contribute to the local economy.”  Xinhua News Agency conveyed the government’s official position:  “No human deaths have been attributed to the chromium pollution.”

Back in Shanghai, industrial relocation proceeds according to the Party’s plans.  Tourists a few years hence will stroll euphorically through the tree-lined streets of Shanghai’s French Concession, bathed in dappled sunlight.  On the Bund, they will marvel at modern architecture sharply outlined in cerulean blue.  “I feel like I’m in Paris,” they will murmur, and Party members’ chests will swell with pride.

Hundreds of miles to the west, chests draped thinly with threadbare garments will swell with the natural motion of respiration, then contract in violent paroxysms of coughing.

There is a heart-breaking truth to 21st century China:  reality always comes second to perception.  The masterminds behind industrial relocation have no intention of reducing overall pollution or improving public health.  They know their toxic game of musical chairs is creating new Xinglongs all the time.  But how many tourists, investors–even journalists–make Xinglong a stop on their tour of China? 

Too few to influence international opinion.  In other words, too few to matter.  This is the callous calculus that powers modern China.

Protected: Caution is for the mainstream media: Predicting the demise of the Republican Party–or at least its Reagan-era base

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Four more years

I want to commend my countrymen for electing President Barack Obama to a second term.

In 2008, he ran on a platform of hope and change.  Over the course of his trying first term, Obama delivered on some promises and defaulted on others.  But, as time wore on, the consensus seemed to be that anemic job growth and a mounting deficit did not represent the kind of change his supporters had had in mind.  Personally, I believe Obama’s underwhelming performance can be almost entirely explained by America’s sclerotic two-party system, which empowers the opposition to obstruct, obstruct, obstruct, rather than governing in good faith (see Mitch McConnell’s October 2010 interview).  But this conversation could fill books, and I don’t mean to delve into it now.

Whatever the reason, then, Obama’s first term did not live up to expectations.  But, on election day 2012, the majority did not resort to petty vindictiveness.  Rather, they recognized Obama as a man of ability, integrity, and sincerity; a man who, unlike his challenger, has made his personal convictions clear.  And they said “Let’s give him a second shot.  Let’s see what he can do in the next four years, with experience under his belt, and (crucially) without having to maneuver for reelection.”

In short, they looked within themselves and found hope again.  A lot of things may have suffered during Obama’s first term: supporters’ confidence in the system, for example, or their confidence in the man himself.  But not hope.  Hope does not evaporate when things don’t go according to plan.  Hope looks ahead instead of looking back.  Hope sees something ephemeral in the distance, knows it may not materialize, but reaches for it anyway.

Mr. President, not everyone expects great things this time around.  But we hope for them.

Protected: Finding Neverland: Why the CCP’s “Diaoyu Island” statements suggest an underappreciated international relations prescription — Grow up

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