Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Great Wall

(originally published March 5 at Murder is Everywhere) 

I had planned to write about the Winter Olympics in Sochi. Then the Ukraine crisis and invasion of the Crimea happened. I still wanted to write about the Olympics but struggled with how to put that all in context.

Then something happened that I really don't want to write about, but feel that I must: The Kunming train station killings.

If you have somehow missed this dreadful story, between 8 and 10 armed attackers (accounts vary) dressed in black and wielding long knives descended on the Kunming train station and began to indiscriminately attack people waiting to buy tickets, killing 29 and wounding more than 130. Four attackers, three men and one woman, were shot dead by police and one was captured (a woman).  The attackers were immediately identified as Uighurs, a Turkic people who primarily live in China's northwestern Xinjiang Province.

It is a shocking, horrible thing (This is a good roundup of eye-witness accounts and a range of Chinese viewpoints on the attacks). I've been to Kunming a few times. I've been to that train station. Kunming's nickname among Chinese is (or used to be, the first time I visited in 1980) "The city where it's always spring"— a place known for its good weather, a pleasant city that's becoming a regional powerhouse, in one of China's poorer but most beautiful provinces, diverse in terms of its landscape and its people. Imagining that kind of violence there is hard. Particularly violence committed by Uighurs, whose homeland is very far away.

But there has been a history of conflict between China's Uighurs and the Chinese state. It has mostly been confined to Xinjiang Province. The most significant incident in recent years were the riots and subsequent crackdown that began in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, in July 2009. The inciting incident was a demonstration to protest the deaths of two Uighur migrant workers in far away Shaoguan, a demonstration that turned violent (whether the demonstrators or the police provoked the violence is up for debate). The resulting casualties were mostly Han Chinese, attacked by Uighur mobs, but this too is a matter of some debate: Uighur advocacy groups claim that the Uighur arrest and death toll was greatly undercounted, and it is true that the Chinese government's reporting on these matters is, shall we say, far from transparent.

Why the violence?

One of the things I found upsetting in the aftermath of the Kunming train attacks were the knee-jerk comments by Americans and other westerners that this was another manifestation of global Islamic jihad, with plenty of cracks about "the religion of peace" thrown in. Yes, a majority of Uighurs are Muslims. Most are moderate Sunnis. Yes, there are Islamist organizations in Xinjiang, and yes, odds are the attackers were Islamic extremists (though we don't know this for certain). And I want to say very clearly: there is no excuse or rationalization for this horrific act of terrorism. It is criminal, it is inhuman, and the only causes it advances are hatred and fear. But reducing the conflict between Uighurs and the Chinese state to "Islamo-nazis!" is dangerous and just wrong.

Questions of who "owns" Xinjiang, the legitimacy of Uighurs' claims, and so on are complicated, at times murky, and far from my area of expertise. What I can say is that this an ethnic conflict that is multi-faceted, where religion is just one factor, where the larger issues are self-determination, cultural suppression and economic justice.

On a very basic level, Uighurs look very different than the Han, who make up some 92% of China's population. They are visibly "Other."

All of this has been greatly exacerbated by recent Han migration into Xinjiang. For the last couple of decades, the Chinese government has been encouraging this migration, to the extent that the Uighurs are now a minority in areas where they used to be the majority. This has caused a considerable amount of resentment, especially among the majority of Uighurs who are not fluent Han speakers and who are not doing as well overall economically as the recent Han migrants and who do not hold the majority of government positions and political power (that, again, would be the Han).

There is a lot to be said about Chinese government policy toward Uighurs and "ethnic minorities" (the Chinese government's terminology) but rather than me trying to badly paraphrase it, I'll offer some links to articles written by experts.

Check out this piece by Evan Osnos written for the New Yorker: "After the Kunming Massacre: The Dangers of China's Ethnic Divide."  For background, see James Palmer's "The Strangers." For a more personal response, read long-time Xinjiang resident Josh's "5 Questions about Xinjiang and the Kunming Terror Attack." 

And for an example of how the Chinese state's policies persecute exactly the sort of people who might serve to help bridge this divide, see this BBC article about China Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti, who has been arrested on separatism charges.

I also recommend this short film about Uighur life in China's cities, which is often marked by alienation and prejudice. See this post, "Dispatches From Xinjiang: Battle' And Uyghur Life In Chinese Cities' for background.

ETA: Here is a NYT piece, "Opposing Narratives in Piecing Together Kunming Attackers' Motives" with some new information and good background.

A few words about my own brief experiences in Xinjiang. I visited there in February 2009, just a few months before the riots. I was astounded by the place. The landscape was beautiful (I made it up to Yili, not far from the Kazak border). The mix of cultures, fascinating. The people I met, from many ethnic backgrounds, some of the warmest and most welcoming folks I've ever encountered. There was an epic drinking and dancing night that…well…some other time.

It's a place that I long to return to.

But there were hints of trouble if you looked for them. Here's an experience I had that might explain what some of the conflict is about, from a post I wrote in March after my return to the US. For background, I was visiting a friend who taught at the university in Yining. I called the post "Ethnic Dances":


The students - and the teachers - here don't encounter a lot of Western foreigners, so my coming was seen as an opportunity to meet a real, live American and get some English practice with a native speaker. I'd done this kind of thing thirty years ago, but this was one of the only places I'd been to in China recently where I was really a rarity, a novelty.

I loved the students. They were enthusiastic, sweet, a little shy but not so shy that it stopped them from asking questions, excited to have a foreign guest and to share their culture with me.

I went to their "English Corner." They'd arranged a presentation with me, all about Xinjiang, about the local foods and customs, and the particular cultures of Xinjiang's "ethnic minorities."

This was a mixed group of students. Most were Han, but there were Kazaks and Uighurs as well. Now, everyone seemed happy and excited to participate. But...the MCs, the kids doing the explanations and introductions, were Han. "And now this Kazak girl will show us the Kazak dancing!" The Kazak girl did, with a big smile. A Uighur couple did a traditional dance, acting out the roles, having fun with it. All the performers were really good - I learned later that they were either enrolled in the arts school at the University or were at members of the dance club or the music club. Then, a young Kazak man played a song on the dombra, the Central Asian lute. He was dressed head to toe in black, his hair spiked like an early 80s punk, his collar turned up. He played with fierce concentration. No pro-forma smiles here. When he finished, he made a little, abrupt bow, stone-faced, and left shortly after. Elvis has left the building, I thought.

It was just a little strange, hearing these Han kids talk excitedly about the quaint local customs, introducing the "ethnic minorities" to perform in front of me.

There was one particular Uighur girl there, outgoing, a live wire, wearing a sweater with some slogan spelled out in sequins, I forget what it was. Regardless, she sparkled. After an explanation from the MCs about several aspects of Uighur culture, she stood up and explained things from the perspective of an actual Uighur. "This is why we make the chuanr on iron and not wood." "This is why we eat this dish with our hands." She laughed a lot, seemed to be close to many of the other, Han students. But she was not shy or apologetic about explaining her own culture in front of them.

When it came time for questions, she stood right up. Her first question I couldn't exactly understand. It had something to do with how young Europeans were portrayed in films and television that she'd seen. The gist of her question was, were they really as sexually active as they appeared? Did they kiss and do such things on busses, in public?

Perhaps, I said, it's true that Europeans are more sexually active at a younger age than most Chinese, but I am not an expert. Perhaps they are more demonstrative in public as well. But different European countries have different cultural norms in this area. And of course, films and television tend to exaggerate.

Her second question: "Is it always true that the more powerful people in a country will always cover up the less powerful? Will the less powerful always lose their culture? How do you solve this problem?"

I paraphrase, but this was the gist.

The other kids in the class reacted, but I wouldn't say they overreacted. No one passed out in astonishment; I didn't get the sense that anyone was running out to inform the local Party representative (though who knows, really?). Still, I was impressed by her fearlessness. There's no more loaded an issue in China than anything smacking of "splittism."

As a member of the majority culture in my own country, what could I say? Well, that, to start. I'm in the Han position, you know?

And: "It's a very difficult problem. And it's really up to you and your children, how much you can preserve your culture, what's really important to you." I couldn't say, "too bad the Chinese government doesn't support an official bilingual policy, so if you have to learn Mandarin to advance in education and government and business, maybe the Han should have to learn Uighur or Kazak too." I don't know, maybe I could have said that, but I didn't think of it then. The whole issue of whether Xinjiang was "Chinese" or whether it should be something else, East Turkistan, maybe, well, I wasn't going to get into that.

What I did think of to say was this: "You know, it goes both ways. In America, African Americans are a minority, but African Americans' contributions to culture are so significant that African American culture really is a huge part of American culture - all Americans' culture." I talked about Chinese people in California - "that cultural influence is a part of our larger culture as well. Maybe here in Xinjiang, it's a little similar. Maybe Han people are also influenced by Uighur culture and by Kazak culture - maybe you are creating a new culture, that is a blend of all the people here."


It was the best I could do at the time: Sadly optimistic, uninformed and naive, especially now, when that cultural gulf seems wider than ever.

Lisa…every other Wednesday...

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Taxi Stories

(originally published on Murder Is Everywhere)

When I go to China, I can always count on a couple of good taxi driver stories. Okay, I realize that taxi driver stories are kind of a cliche, but hey, Thomas Friedman has made a pundit fortune on them, so why not me?

Here's my first of the trip...

Story #1. BEIJING.

I needed to take a cab to get to the Beijing South Railway Station for a high-speed train to Shanghai. It's a long drive at best, in the far south of the city. Traffic across Beijing is generally pretty horrible (why I almost always opt for a subway), but I was leaving about noon for a 2:30 train, and I figured that time of day, it wouldn't be bad.


"Do you mind if I go a different way?" the cab driver asked me, meaning, not the typical direct route. "It's longer, but we'll get there faster."

Fine by me, I told him. You know better than I do.

I put him to be in his early forties, short, buzzed hair with only a little gray, tanned skin just starting to weather. We got to talking.

"You know what the problem with new Beijingers is?"

"You mean, waidiren?" People not born in Beijing. Migrants.

"Yes, waidiren. They aren't friendly. They don't really care about Beijing."

By this, I assumed that he had been born in Beijing, but I asked him anyway.

Yes, he was a Beijinger, he told me. Born and raised there. I've always enjoyed talking to Beijingers, because I was first in Beijing so long ago that I have some understanding of how drastically the city has changed. So we tend to have some things in common in spite of our differences, a memory of the city that the great majority of Chinese don't share.

We talked about a lot of things, some of them pretty typical: Are you married? Do you have children?

No, I told him.

"But why?" he asked me. "It's good to be married. My laobanr—" —basically, my old lady, my wife—"she is my best friend."

I gave him the usual answer. Life circumstances. You never know how things will work out. And so on. We talked more about family, about children, about age. About China versus America. The usual stuff.

"You know what the one of China's biggest problems is?" he said at one point. "Too many people."

This too is something that I've heard from a lot of taxi drivers. And no wonder. They're out there every day, trying to make a living driving through congested, smog-choked cities, where traffic laws tend to be more traffic suggestions, where there are just too many people in too many cars, and they aren't paid very much to do it.

You'll hear a lot of complaints from foreigners about Chinese taxi drivers, how they aren't friendly, how they'll rip you off, and I've had some of those experiences, but I've had more positive interactions than negative. This driver really knew his stuff. Suddenly we swooped onto a ramp that curved to the right, and there it was: the Beijing South Railway Station.

 "Bucuo!" I told him, impressed. "Really fast."

He grinned back. A guy who liked doing a good job.

Greetings from Beijing….

(originally published on Murder Is Everywhere)

I just got to Beijing last night after a long plane ride next to an adorable toddler…who unfortunately spent about half the flight wailing inconsolably. I'm on a train to Shanghai tomorrow, so my posting window is narrow and my energy is low—this will of necessity be short.

The Beijing air today was "very unhealthy" according to my handy iPhone app. Yeah, there's an app for that. "Protection is recommended." I did buy a mask before I left the US, but I haven't worn it yet. I'm saving it for "Hazardous" air, which is occurring with alarming frequency these days.

In spite of the bad air, I took a long walk around Gulou/Houhai, up Andingmen and then over to Yonghegong. These are the neighborhoods where I usually stay when I come here. They are some of the last old hutong neighborhoods in Beijing, and every time I come, I wonder what old landmark will be gone this time.

The city planners (I use that term loosely) here deemed most of these old neighborhoods unsightly, impractical, unprofitable—not modern enough for China's capital. Most have been replaced by anonymous high-rises and malls. In some, the old buildings were replaced with brand new "historic reproductions" -- not actual siheyuan (courtyard buildings) but an incredible simulation! Inevitably the new versions house trendy upscale stores, Starbucks and the like. It's true that a lot of the hutong areas were rundown slums and probably not practical to refurbish, but they were also living, breathing neighborhoods.

The Gulou area in particular has a lot of character. Gulou itself, the Drum Tower, is one of my favorite landmarks in all of Beijing, and the area around the Drum Tower and the Bell Tower is full of life: Small shops, bars, restaurants, markets, boutique hotels in old siheyuan. Locals come out after the tourist crowds have gone and walk their dogs in the plaza separating the Drum Tower and the Bell Tower. Old men gather around chessboards, sitting on small stools, and play games I can't identify. Hawkers ride their bike carts around, calling out their services.

(yes, there are hipsters, too. This is near Yonghegong, the Lama Temple. Click to embiggen)

For the last few years, the "planners" have wanted to "improve" Gulou. For a while the idea was to knock most of the hutongs down, rebuild them and add a shopping center and a "Time Museum." That got shut down, but some new plan is in the works. I don't know what it is. I'm not sure who does know.  Whole areas have been flattened, surrounded by steel construction fences, battered blue panels that travel from demolition site to demolition site. Some of it is for a new subway line. The rest of it? Time will tell I guess. Right now the plaza between the Drum Tower and the Bell Tower is fenced off. The locals sit on their stools next to the battered blue panels, playing their card and board games.

My favorite coffee shop is still there, at least. Last year, the fuwuyuan told me, her eyes tearing, that they would be gone in five months. A different worker was there today. She said they had at least five months, because construction there "is very complicated." Maybe they will get to stay. She doesn't know. It's not up to them.

Meanwhile, I'm trying to figure out who this guy is…

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Feeling So Vibrant I Gotta Wear Shades...

I'm headed to China shortly and should have some fresh, China-related material to post soon, Great Firewall permitting.

In the meantime, I've been thinking about more mundane matters. Specifically, where the hell am I going to live?

I moved out of Venice Beach after 25 years last November. When I moved to Venice in 1987, one of its nicknames was "Slum By the Sea." It was a cheap place to live, a bohemian refuge, in part because it wasn't exactly safe. There was gang violence. A lot of people living on the streets, many of whom had mental health issues, substance abuse problems. I was very lucky during my years there, overall. I was nearly mugged once, another time followed by a creep in a truck who thought I might want to f*** him (and called me a "hippie c*** when I yelled that I had his license plate number and was calling the cops).

I lived in a building where weird shit happened, where cops where frequently called, where the SWAT team showed up once, where there were needles on the stairwells, where guys would steal a microwave from the 5th floor and knock on my door on the 1st floor at 8:00 AM and ask me if I wanted to buy it. I was at times the person who intervened, who waded into weird situations because, I don't know why. I just did. Weird domestic violence case with two incredibly drunk, naked people that I christened "Blue Velvet in Real Life"? Yeah, I was the person who walked through the door and told the little creep to stop hitting his girlfriend. I guess I was pretty dumb, except I figured, "they're both really loaded, and he's a skinny little dude, and he's naked, so it's not like he's gonna pull out a gun out of his butt."

Venice stories, I haz them.

During that time, I did a lot of stuff. I played in a band. I wrote screenplays and weird, unpublishable novels. And I held down a full-time job at a film studio. I started as a clerk and worked my way up to a position that I used to refer to as "mid-level studio bureaucrat." Eventually I bought a tiny house that I called "Shack by the Sea." I went through a lot in Venice, but ultimately, I was happy there, or my last few years were, anyway. It was a place that was rough at times but that encouraged creativity.

As I started doing better in my life, as I started making more money, established myself as a professional (albeit an eccentric, fringie one), Venice gentrified around me. By the time I left, Venice had become a very desirable, and very expensive, place to live.

Which, you know, has its plus sides. I liked being able to walk all over the place at night. Liked having groovy bistros and wine bars a few blocks away. Loved it when the Whole Foods moved in.

But ultimately, a novelist like me couldn't afford to live in a place like that.

So, I sold Shack By the Sea, and I've spent nearly a year ping-ponging around, exploring other places, trying to figure out where I wanted to be.

I thought, San Francisco. I love San Francisco. I mean, who doesn't? But talk about insanely expensive. It's gotten to the point where you literally cannot find an apartment for less than $2000.00 a month, and if you do (there's a huge rental housing shortage), it's a tiny studio. The gentrification there has become  a civic crisis, as long-time residents are priced out of the city that many of them were born in. This New Yorker piece may sound a little bitter and over-the-top, but from my experiences, it expresses how a lot of people are feeling; also, the clueless entitlement of the wealthy who look at the city as their personal playground.

I recently went to Albany to attend Bouchercon. Albany is an interesting city. It's a combination of grand civic buildings befitting the capital of the state, lovely, old row houses and homes built in the 19th and early 20th century, and de-industrialized blocks where industry fled and not much has come in to fill the vacuum.

I had a great time tromping all over the place in Albany, but it was sad to see these abandoned blocks with shells of beautiful buildings, with urban renewal projects that had failed.

After Albany, I went to New York for an event and for meetings with my publishing peeps. I decided to stay in Brooklyn, because I'd hardly spent any time there. I ended up in Williamsburg, which is just a bridge away from Manhattan. You can walk from Williamsburg to Manhattan in about 40 minutes, not that much longer than a subway ride. It's a beautiful walk across the bridge spanning the East River, into Manhattan. And Williamsburg, it's nice. Another community with industrial spaces that were colonized by artists and are now way too expensive for most artists to afford. Cute streets with bistros and bars and coffee houses. I liked it a lot. But I doubt that I could afford to live there.

Manhattan, of course, gentrified long ago, taken over by finance barons and Masters of the Universe. For a lot of folks, it's become a City Museum, not a living, breathing, creative place, but an Incredible Simulation! Walking on Manhattan's streets, it doesn't necessarily feel that way, at least not to me, but it's true that I could never afford to live there. And a life long Manhattan resident told me: "Parts of Manhattan, you used to walk on those streets and they were packed with people. They're empty now."

Because the people who own the co-ops, who rent the apartments, they're very wealthy, and they only live in Manhattan part-time.

So, where does that leave writers and artists? Queens? Vallejo? Detroit?

As a sidebar, I have to share an article I just read that inspired the title of this post. It's by the incredibly brilliant Thomas Frank, who wrote "What's The Matter With Kansas?" This piece is about the buzzword "Vibrant," and how encouraging artists and colorful creative types has basically become a substitute for addressing real, structural problems in the US economy. Instead, it's "let them eat art," where:
We build prosperity by mobilizing art-people as vibrancy shock troops and counting on them to . . . well . . . gentrify formerly bedraggled parts of town. Once that mission is accomplished, then other vibrancy multipliers kick in. The presence of hipsters is said to be inspirational to businesses; their doings make cities interesting and attractive to the class of professionals that everyone wants; their colorful japes help companies to hire quality employees, and so on. All a city really needs to prosper is group of art-school grads, some lofts for them to live in, and a couple of thrift stores to supply them with the ironic clothes they crave. Then we just step back and watch them work their magic....
...Vibrancy is a sort of performance that artists or musicians are expected to put on, either directly or indirectly, for the corporate class. These are the ones we aim to reassure of our city’s vibrancy, so that they never choose to move their millions (of dollars) to some more vibrant burg. An artist who keeps to herself, who works in her room all day, who wears unremarkable clothes and goes without tattoos— by definition she brings almost nothing to this project, adds little to the economic prospects of a given area. She inspires no one. She offers no lessons in creativity. She is not vibrant, not remunerative, not investment-grade. 
(I'm not doing this piece justice with these quotes. Just go read the whole thing)

I know that cities change and evolve and gentrify. Or decay. It's one of those life-cycle things. But what does it mean when a city like San Francisco, a city that has always been a refuge for the eccentric, for writers and artists, is no longer affordable for the people who were so essential to creating its character?

What happens when cities lose the qualities that made them what they are?

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

To the surprise of no one...

(originally published on Murder Is Everywhere, 10/2/13, with a few additional thoughts added here)

Bo Xilai was found guilty.

(Bo is over 6 ft. tall, so those are some very tall cops!)

For those unfamiliar, I wrote a little about Bo Xilai and his criminal case here and here. It truly is one of the most bizarre, Byzantine and fascinating political scandals of...maybe ever, but at least of the modern political era. I won't recap it again here (for one thing, I just got back from Bouchercon and a few post-Bouchercon events and...well, if you've been to Bouchercon, you'll understand! I need to sleep for about a week). But since my second post, a few more highlights of the trial were: Bo called his wife "crazy" (she's the one who supposedly murdered British businessman and fixer, Neil Heywood) and accused his once loyal righthand man, ex-police chief Wang Lijun, of having an affair with her. So, there's that.

What did surprise many observers was the severity of Bo's sentence -- life in prison, with the possibility of parole after a decade or so. Many had expected he'd get closer to 10 - 20 years, given his high "princeling" status. Also, the evidence presented in court was not terribly compelling--it was the sort of petty corruption that as one internet wag remarked, didn't even rise to the level of village headman. 

But there were many factors at work here. 

The first was the manner in which Bo proclaimed his ambitions before his downfall. While there might be some sympathy for his neo-Maoist politics (how deeply Bo believes in them is another question) Bo, with his American-style glad-handing, crowd-pleasing style, openly campaigned for high office. This. Isn't. Done. Decisions are made behind closed doors, and the battles are largely unseen. 

Another was the current regime's desire to prove to the Chinese people that they are serious about tackling corruption, that they are willing to take down as high profile a leader as Bo Xilai, the son of an "Immortal." This is problematic, because the public suspects that most if not all Chinese leaders are in some measure corrupt, and if they aren't corrupt, they are so privileged that the distinction really doesn't matter. In fact, much of Bo's popularity stemmed from his anti-corruption campaign in Chongqing, and I can't really say if his downfall increases peoples' cynicism that "they're all the same," or if it reinforces a belief that anyone who really takes on the system will be brought low. Probably both, depending on who you talk to.

I think that Bo Xilai's unpardonable sin in the eyes of the current leadership was that he openly campaigned for high office. It threatened the hard-fought, behind the curtains consensus that has governed the succession process since Deng Xiaoping. His use of Maoist tropes suggested that he was willing to mobilize "the masses" to gain power, and that is a red-hot button for the leadership. They do not want to see a return to the violence and chaos of the Cultural Revolution period, but more to the point, they do not want to see a leadership selection process or the rise of a populist movement that's outside of their control.

Bo might have gotten a lighter sentence if he'd accepted his fate, admitted his guilt, thrown himself on the mercy of the court, but he did none of those things. He challenged the government's case every step of the way and loudly proclaimed his innocence. Now, he is appealing his verdict. How that will work out in a legal system largely designed to reinforce the Party's will is anyone's guess. 

But most observers agree that the government didn't do a very good job of presenting the case against Bo, that when it came to the charge of abusing his power, they weren't willing to dig very deeply at all. From all accounts, Bo's anti-corruption campaign was also a tool used to punish his political enemies and to extort money from businessmen who were not his allies. The abuse of power was very real and very deep. But the real facts of Bo's case too clearly illustrate the arbitrary nature of authority in China. And apparently the new leadership isn't ready to tackle that.

Monday, September 02, 2013

Vacation-style medical treatment

(originally published on Murder is Everywhere, 8/18/13)

I've been wanting to write a post about the Bo Xilai scandal, which has to be one of the strangest, most over-the-top political scandals of all times. In fact, I wanted to rip it off for the plot of my next book, but I decided that no one would believe it. Even trying to write a post about it boggled my mind, because it's so bizarre. But here's a brief whack at it.

Bo is the former Mayor Party Secretary of Chongqing and was a very powerful fellow who had ambitions of becoming a member of the Politburo Standing Committee, the highest decision-making body in China, and maybe even premier or president, and he might have done it. He was charismatic, popular, a guy who used old-style Maoist propaganda and "Red Songs" to appeal to the masses of Chinese who feel left behind in the current "to get rich is glorious" hyper-capitalism that runs the country these days. Bo had the reputation of a man who got things done, who cleaned up Chongqing, cracked down on organized crime and corruption. He combined this with the outspoken, glad-handing style of an American politician, something of which the gray men of the CCP did not approve, accustomed as they are to doing things behind the scenes and by consensus.

Gu Kailai and Bo Xilai

Then it all fell apart. His anti-corruption campaign was as corrupt and as lawless as the forces it fought against. The nod to Maoist propaganda frightened many who'd been through Maoist excesses like the Cultural Revolution, even though Bo mostly seemed to be using this as a way to rally the masses, as opposed to resurrecting struggle sessions, violent battles between different factions of Red Guards and "Smashing the Olds."

And then his wife, Gu Kailai, a lawyer once known as the "Jackie Kennedy of China" murdered a British businessman.

At least, that's the story.

The victim, Neil Heywood, was a man with longstanding ties to the Bo's. He was a fixer of sorts who helped get their son, Guagua, into Harrow. He also is suspected to have helped the family move millions out of China and into offshore accounts. Oh, and there's a villa in Cannes involved. None of which is out of the ordinary for prominent Chinese politicians and the wealthy, for reasons beyond  corruption (though there is a LOT of corruption) -- many do not believe that their money is safe in China, and their lack of confidence in the long-term stability of the country might give pause to those who are convinced that China will rule the world.

But I digress.

Bo Guagua

The story goes that Heywood and Gu Kailai had a falling out, with Heywood demanding more money for his services and threatening to reveal the family's overseas business dealings. On top of that, Gu Kailai feared that he endangered her son. So, naturally, she lured Heywood to a Chongqing hotel, where she and an assistant poisoned him with cyanide. 

Neil Heywood

If this is what happened, she might have gotten away with it, if not for the head of the Chongqing Police Department (and vice-mayor of Chongqing), Wang Lijun. 

If you're thinking this sounds like the kind of murder story where a heroic police chief defies and confronts the powerful in his pursuit of the truth, well, not exactly.

Wang Lijun

Wang had been Bo's right hand during the crackdown on organized crime (and people Bo didn't like—the crackdown had also served as as a handy way to extort millions from businessmen on the wrong side of the political fence) but apparently they'd had their own falling-out, which might have been precipitated by corruption on Wang's part, or because he'd investigated Heywood's death and discovered the involvement of Mrs. Bo in same and confronted Bo with it. In any case, after being abruptly demoted by Bo, he fled to the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu, where he stayed for a day, possibly trying to defect, or maybe just looking for a safe refuge from Bo. He left on his own accord and was then escorted to Beijing by State Security. The Chongqing Municipal Government insisted that everything was fine and that Wang was undergoing "vacation-style medical treatment."

Gu Kailai was convicted of Heywood's murder last August. She received a suspended death sentence, and it's not clear how long she'll serve time. But even though the trial was a carefully choreographed affair, it had its own bizarre aspect. Namely, that the person standing trial was maybe not Gu Kailai. 


It's not uncommon for rich people in China to hire a person in need of money to stand trial and receive punishment in place of the accused, and when photos from the trail were published, rumors flew around the Chinese web that a body-double stood in Gu Kailai's place.

You be the judge

Meanwhile, Bo Xilai was stripped of his positions and thrown out of the CCP. His trial is expected to begin next week. The charges against him are expected to be taking bribes, embezzling state funds and abusing his power -- altogether, not as serious as some expected. But it was always a difficult line to walk. Bo was not only very popular and a leading representative of the "New Left" in China, he is also a member of CCP royalty, the son of one of the "Eight Immortals," revolutionary heroes who were highly influential in running the People's Republic until their deaths (Deng Xiaoping was one of their number).  Oh, and another one of the dynamics in all of this is that Bo's family warred with the family of the current president, Xi Jinping, and that Bo and Xi are long-time rivals. There's a nifty short book by John Garnault called "The Rise and Fall of the House of Bo" that explores this angle. 

The latest wrinkle? Well, three. Neil Heywood's mother has asked the Chinese government to compensate the family, particularly his two children, for his death. Bo Xilai's six brothers and sisters are quarreling about how the case should be handled and their relations with Gu Kailai's family (which is also a powerful "Princeling" family naturally).

Bo is said to be furious (not too surprising) — he didn't provide evidence against Kailai in her murder trial, even though they reportedly almost divorced a decade ago. But Kailai's motivation, supposedly, is to protect son Guagua from any prosecution by the Chinese government (Guagua has stayed in the U.S. through all of this). 

Mr. Bo, who didn't testify against his wife, is angered that she is now providing evidence against him and has threatened to disrupt proceedings and demand a divorce if she testifies in court, or via video, rather than in written form... 
"She will provide evidence--that can't be avoided--but the question is in what way," said one person familiar with the Bo family. "If she appears in court, who knows what could happen."
Given the facts of this case? I can't even begin to imagine.

Did I mention the French architect who also helped buy the Cannes villa and who once shared a residential address in England with Gu Kailai?

Sunday, August 18, 2013


Originally published on Murder Is Everywhere, Aug. 11 2013

Greetings from scenic Buttonwillow, just east of the I-5. I'm driving to San Diego from San Francisco and I don't like trying to do it in a day, so here I am at a Motel Six, where the sheets are clean, the air conditioner is loud enough to drown out the trucks zooming up the freeway and there's a pupuseria next door. I find places like this pretty fascinating, actually. All these little farm towns and pit stops for travelers and truckers. A great location for some kind of suspense sequence, I'm thinking.

But I'm not here to write about Buttonwillow, or even Coalinga! No, I'm going to talk a little about the Chinese phenomena of "shanzhai." -- 山寨。"Shanzhai" literally means "mountain fastness, a fortified mountain village." Colloquially it means "outside of government supervision," and "pirated or knockoff."

Shanzhai products in China are legion. Everything from fake iPhones to entire fake Apple stores.

(Starbucks knockoffs are a particular favorite)

But in China shanzhai goes way beyond fake brands or phony stores. In China, we have entirely pirated cities! 

Here's a place I visited outside of Shanghai called "Thames Town." It is an almost deserted subdivision that seems to get the most use as a location for wedding photo shoots. 

 (A nice day for a red wedding)

Not too far away from Thames Town is a fake Swedish town -- I can't remember the exact name but I think it translates to "Northern European Style Village." 

Also close to Shanghai is an entire "Little Paris," complete with Eiffel Tower. Do check out this amazing photo essay--here's a sample: 

There are so many shanzhai developments like this in China that it's hard to keep track of them all. But so far the winner has to be the Chinese real estate developers who duplicated the entire Austrian town of Halstatt. 

Then there's the plan to duplicate Manhattan just outside of Tianjin. The city, Yujiapu, would serve as a new financial center for a new China. It's one of the largest construction sites in the world and includes replicas of Lincoln and Rockefeller Centers. But with the slowdown in China's economy, the success of this massive project is far from assured. And if it doesn't succeed? A Manhattan-sized ghost town of half-completed skyscrapers probably isn't going to get much use as a location for wedding photo shoots.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Who dunnit?

I'm just going to say right off the bat that I'm not going to talk about Edward Snowden and his somewhat bizarre decision to seek asylum in Hong Kong, which is still a part of China, "two systems" or not, and how China has even more pervasive surveillance than the United States with no legal restraints on how it's used.

It would lead me to talking about how the institution of universal surveillance with questionable oversight and weakened legal protection is probably not a way that we should want the United States to emulate China. How according to someone who should know, Ai Weiwei*, the United States is doing precisely that, except that our citizens live under a rule of law that shields us from the worst impulses of the state.

*Chinese contemporary artist who helped design the Bird's Nest stadium in Beijing and later ended up getting a hood over his head at the Beijing Capital Airport and dragged off to a semi-legal three month detention. The charges brought afterwards were tax evasion

Then, how the erosion of our Constitutional principles and the outsized influence of money in our political system is leading the US ever further down a road of increasingly seamless integration of state and corporate influences, where profit is the ruling principle, and power is only limited by the amount of it one has and one's willingness to use it. But if I say stuff like that without presenting some evidence, I worry about sounding like a candidate for a Reynolds Wrap chapeau.

And, I just read this very interesting and persuasive article about how metadata is a means of social engineering that could be used as "a tool for a plutocracy." For example, your opinions, buying habits and tax bracket might make getting credit just slightly more difficult. Or slightly more expensive.

The author of this particular piece is Jaron Lanier, an American computer scientist and internet visionary who popularized the phrase, "Virtual reality," and has written critically of "Web 2.0." Among other things, he refers to the so-called "Wisdom of Crowds" as "Digital Maoism," which is the kind of thing that I would like to say but fear would get me labeled as an out-of-touch elitist. 

But I'll say that there's a problem with creating "all the infrastructure a tyrant would need" and "counting on having angels in office," as this cogent piece in The Atlantic puts it:

...we're allowing ourselves to become a nation of men, not laws. Illegal spying? Torture? Violating the War Powers Resolution and the convention that mandates investigating past torture? 
No matter. Just intone that your priority is keeping America safe. Don't like the law? Just get someone in the Office of Legal Counsel to secretly interpret it in a way that twists its words and betrays its spirit. 
You'll never be held accountable.

And, that what I'm thinking lately is, if you want to understand what has happened to the American economy and why we are where we are politically, approach it like a murder mystery. 

In a murder mystery, somebody gets killed, and the central question is motivation. 

Who benefits?

And, oh yeah, I have a new book out.

Sunday, June 09, 2013

Mystic Yeast!

It's a little over a week till my next book launches, and I'm kinda crazed. This will be my third published book, so the process is sort of familiar but still new enough to be pretty, well, new! And the whole thing is kind of overwhelming.

So right now I have the brain space of a caffeinated flea. Meaning that....

It's time for more Chinese signs!

           Seen at the Qingdao Beer factory...I want a T-shirt!                              

Strange stones indeed! (click to embiggen)

Because you don't want to be pulled over by a cartoon policeman

"Eating the World-Wide Delicious!" (click to embiggen)

 I promise, I will sidewalk! 

And I won't occupy while stabling.

 But would you want to live there?

This sign means, "Be Careful When Tossing Food to the Gulls," I think. 
I am not sure what "mew" has to do with it.

Yes, this is what you think.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Train! The Train!

I have an arm injury that makes driving uncomfortable (Also typing, thus my photo-heavy posts as of late). So, when I needed to go to the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books recently, I took the new Exposition Line from my friend's house to get there.

What a revelation! Instead of fighting traffic and searching for expensive parking, I rode in a shiny new light rail that dropped me off at the USC campus for $1.50. It was a wonderful way to experience Los Angeles. I lived in LA for over 25 years, and I keep thinking about what a huge difference having an actual transit system like this would make for the city. Suddenly it feels more accessible. More tied-together.

To get back to San Francisco, I took Amtrak's Coast Starlight train.

Amtrak gets a bad rap, which I feel is not entirely fair. Okay, not fair at all. The problem with Amtrak is that as a country, we do not fund it adequately. We subsidize driving in all kinds of ways, but the idea of a national rail system sends some people into screaming fits about socialism. I've ridden a lot of trains in other countries, and it's absurd to me that the US doesn't take more pride into supporting and expanding rail. There's no better way to get from city to city, and no better way to actually see a country than to ride its trains.

The Coast Starlight is a spectacular ride. Once you head north out of Los Angeles, the route hugs the coast, at times so close to the ocean that it feels like you can dangle your feet in the waves:

The route roughly parallels the 101, so after a time you head inland, through the Middle Kingdom around Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo:

Past San Luis Obispo, you experience some of California's agricultural and industrial heartland:

You get to experience all this sitting in comfortable coach seats (way more room than the cattle car ambiance of most air trips these days) or hanging out in the observation car, where strangers will ask you if you want to share their bottle of wine, or in the dining car, where you get to eat decent meals with real silverware. If you're lucky enough to travel first class, you have your own compartment (I'm doing this, I swear).

You ride the train, you can read a book. Take a nap. Stroll to the observation car. Visit the snack car, where the Amtrak worker announces over the PA that "there's pizza and beer, come on down!"
If you choose to eat in the dining car, you share a table with other travelers. This can be a mixed experience. But it's never boring.

During lunch, one of my table mates said something that I found pretty profound:

"Other forms of travel take time. This gives you time."

She was so right.