The New Yorker magazine has played a not insignificant role in my life. As my interest in traditional Chinese thought and contemporary politics burgeoned in my teenage years, my grandmother, who spent six months annually with her twin sisters who lived in Forest Hills in Queens, introduced me to the cartoons that were a feature of that weekly magazine.
Later, when I was pursuing my interest in the kind of ‘casual essay’ 小品文 championed by Lin Yutang 林語堂 and other non-aligned writers in Republican China, I learned that Lin had modelled two of the journals he published in Shanghai on The New Yorker, even then known in Chinese as《紐約客》, Niǔyuē kè. The Analects 《論語》and Universal Variety《宇宙風》, both fortnightly magazines, enjoyed considerable commercial success, although their anti-politics was the object of considerable po-faced ideological rancour, the effects of which would be felt in China’s literary world well into the 1990s.
In 1937, The New Yorker spoke to Lin Yutang, by then living in Manhattan, for ‘Talk of the Town’. It was just before his book The Importance of Living was published to considerable acclaim (a copy even found its way into my mother’s library; it was the first China-related book I read in the late 1960s). In ‘Talk’, Lin described his old magazine The Analects and spoke about The China Critic, founded in 1928, a prominent Chinese owned and edited English-language weekly. He jokingly referred to himself as a ‘Chinese hustler’ and his levity inspired Cornelia Otis Skinner to write a spirituous sketch entitled ‘The Importance of Cocktails; Or Oil From the Lamps of Lin Yutang’, which appeared in The New Yorker in May 1938.
Jonathan Hutt, a doctoral scholar who studied jazz-age Shanghai and its literary demimonde with me in the 1990s, delved into another 1930s New York-Shanghai connection, one between Emily ‘Mickey’ Hahn — ‘American journalist and good-time girl’ — and Sinmay Zau (Shao Xunmei 邵洵美). The two shared a taste for opium and, for a time, they enjoyed a romantic liaison. In a series of sketches published in The New Yorker, Hahn transformed Zau, a noted literary celebrity, publisher and urban sophisticate who was despised by Communists, into ‘Mr. Pan’. Hahn’s burlesque-like oriental bon vivant immediately caught the fancy of American readers. (See: Jonathan Hutt, ‘Monstre Sacré: The Decadent World of Sinmay Zau 邵洵美’, China Heritage Quarterly, Issue 22, June 2010; and, Taras Gresco, ‘Getting to the Bottom of a Mickey Hahn Mystery’, The New Yorker, 11 April 2017)
Over the decades, the China-related work published by The New Yorker has always been varied, although never dull. In recent times, reports, profiles, investigations and commentaries continue to reflect the finely honed skills of the magazine’s contributors and editors. Today, I regularly read the full, weekly version of The New Yorker, as well as ‘The Daily’, an online delivered-to-your-inbox selection of ‘opinions, arguments, and reflections on the news’.
The 17 August 2020 issue of The New Yorker featured ‘How China Controlled the Coronavirus’. It was a report from Chengdu, the provincial capital of Sichuan, written by Peter Hessler, a seasoned journalist whose work has appeared in that magazine’s pages for many years. It was also published online, on 10 August.
The day I read Mr Hessler’s Sichuan report in The New Yorker ‘Those who take meat from the table’, a poem by Bertolt Brecht, happened to be doing the rounds on the Chinese internet. It was a not-so-subtle riposte to Xi Jinping’s latest directive instructing the nation to cut down on gustatory extravagance and food waste. Xi’s appeal signalled an untoward revival of the ‘Clean Plate Drive’ 光盤行動 and, to many, it raised questions about the country’s food security and disaster preparedness.
Brecht’s poem was from War Primer, a collection of images and poems published in 1955:
Those who take meat from the table
Those for whom the taxes are destined
Those who eat their fill speak to the hungry
Of wonderful times to come.
Those who lead the country into the abyss
Call ruling too difficult
For ordinary men.
The poem in turn inspired the title of my own epistolary comment on Mr Hessler’s essay. Originally composed as a Letter to the Editor of The New Yorker it is reproduced below.
‘The Good Caucasian of Sichuan’ is a ‘mashup’ of the titles of two of Brecht’s best known plays — The Good Person of Szechwan and The Caucasian Chalk Circle. The expression ‘Kumbaya China’ is self-explanatory.
I emailed my Letter to the Editor on 20 August and received an electronically generated notice of receipt in response. Given its unwieldy length, I was not surprised that my soliloquy went unanswered. Instead of simply talking to myself, however, I’ve decided to share my reaction to Mr Hessler’s coronavirus report with readers of China Heritage.
The formatting of the letter has been retained and it appears here as a chapter in China Heritage Annual 2020, the theme of which is ‘Viral Alarm’. It will also be included in our series ‘Watching China Watching’.
— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
1 September 2020
- Jiayang Fan, ‘How My Mother and I Became Chinese Propaganda’, The New Yorker, 7 September 2020
- Geremie R. Barmé, ‘Living with Xi Dada’s China — Making Choices and Cutting Deals’ (16 December 2016), published in China Heritage, 20 July 2017
- The Editor and Others, ‘Homo Xinensis Ascendant’, China Heritage, 16 September 2018
- ‘Watching China Watching’, China Heritage Annual 2018
- ‘Viral Alarm’, China Heritage Annual 2020 (12 February 2020-)
- Geremie R. Barmé, ‘A Letter to the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China’, The China Story Journal, 31 December 2012
A Letter to The Editor
of The New Yorker
Geremie R. Barmé
20 August 2020
Dear David Remnick,
Editor, The New Yorker,
In early July, around the same time that Peter Hessler was handing in the final grades for the class in nonfiction writing that he was teaching at Sichuan University in Chengdu, [https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/08/17/how-china-controlled-the-coronavirus] a police team dispatched from that city was carrying out a consequential university-related task of its own in Beijing. On the morning of 6 July, in coordination with the Public Security Ministry and the Communist Party administrators of Tsinghua University (“China’s MIT”), some twenty members of the Chengdu police arrived at the apartment of the legal scholar Professor Xu Zhangrun. Accused of “soliciting prostitutes”, Xu was detained and taken in for questioning. [See: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/06/world/asia/china-detains-xu-zhangrun-critic.html]
In “How China Contained the Coronavirus”, Peter Hessler, The New Yorker’s reporter at large in China, tells readers that he “had returned to Chengdu in the hope of reconnecting with Chinese education”. The latest account from this veteran journalist is, like his previous work, composed in a winsome first-person style that focuses both on the close-at-hand and on individual stories; like much of his other writing, it is also framed in a manner that suggests broader lessons about life in the People’s Republic. In this case, along with an engaging narrative, Mr Hessler gives us pen-portraits of his students. The predations of the coronavirus had left most of them sheltering in place in other cities and classes are conducted remotely. As a result, although Mr Hessler’s account is about Chengdu, by necessity it casts its net wide.
Mr Hessler had moved to Chengdu in August 2019, having lived in Sichuan two decades earlier when he was in the Peace Corps. [See: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/03/16/the-peace-corps-breaks-ties-with-china] He is now one of the handful of writers working for the American press still able to operate in China following the tit-for-tat expulsions of media personnel from March, something that resulted in the majority of accredited journalists working for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post being forced to leave the country. [See: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/17/business/media/china-expels-american-journalists.html] Twelve months is more than enough time for Mr Hessler to have boned up on the realities of higher education and intellectual life in China today.
Xu Zhangrun, an award-winning expert in jurisprudence and constitutional law, had also been in Sichuan recently, having travelled there in November 2019 at the invitation of friends who were anxious to offer him a break from the relentless pressure he was under from his university and the state security apparatus following the publication in July 2018 of a lengthy and damning critique of Xi Jinping’s government. [See: http://chinaheritage.net/journal/imminent-fears-immediate-hopes-a-beijing-jeremiad/] His detention by the Chengdu police in early July on suspicion of “solicitation” ignited a furore both in China and internationally. The accusation was in stark contrast to Xu’s unsullied reputation and, for many, it brought to mind previous cases in which “solicitation” had been used as a pretext for the detention, shaming and abuse of other dissidents, including the environmental activist Lei Yang who, nabbed by Beijing police in early May 2016, died in mysterious circumstances. [See: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/23/world/asia/china-lei-yang-police.html]
On 12 July, Xu Zhangrun was released by his Chengdu captors without charge. Tsinghua University, however, had taken advantage of his detention to terminate his employment and strip him of his teaching credentials. In what is now a novel twist in China’s constantly refined “death-by-a-thousand-cuts” torment of those who dare to speak out, the university also confiscated the pension fund he had accumulated over the decades. [See: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/12/world/asia/xu-zhangrun-china-xi.html]
Professor Xu is only the most famous educator to have been vilified, silenced and punished in China recently. In March 2019, for example, Tang Yun, an associate professor at Chongqing Normal University, located in a city not far from Mr Hessler’s own institution, was stripped of his position and teaching credentials after students reported him for making comments deemed to be “injurious to the country’s reputation”. [See https://www.rfa.org/english/news/china/professor-demotion-03292019135331.html] And, as I write this, Professor Cai Xia, who had taught at the Central Party School in Beijing for fifteen years until 2012, was stripped of her professional standing, expelled from the Communist Party and also deprived of her pension. In July, Professor Cai had, like many others, spoken out against the catastrophic misrule of Xi Jinping, focusing in particular on the era leading up to the disastrous coronavirus outbreak from last December. [See: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/18/world/asia/china-cai-xia-expelled-communist-party.html]
In his account of how China handled the coronavirus, Mr Hessler offers a blancmange view, one that elides any discussion of how the Party’s response to the coronavirus has also been used to intensify its remorseless attacks on the country’s long-embattled civil society. Not only is Mr Hessler diplomatically coy about the origins of the crisis (“China was the first to experience the pandemic, and it was also among the earliest countries to control the spread and enter what would now be considered normal life”), he makes no mention of the widespread outrage of February-March regarding the way Xi Jinping and his government first ignored and then mishandled a major health emergency in Wuhan, the provincial capital of Hubei province, that would soon spread out of control around the world. I would observe that, insofar as Mr Hessler ventures any comment about the Chinese government, he employs a technique best called “third-person euphemism”, that is, he leaves it for others to mention, obliquely, harsh realities. For example, Serena — one of the students that he dubs “Children of the Corona” — “realized that in the past such devoted and hardworking neighborhood officials had been turned against groups like the Catholics and the gay community.” (My emphasis)
Hessler’s elision is instructive, in particular since prominent educators like Xu Zhangrun and the noted sociology professor Guo Yuhua had pointedly spoken out at the time of the viral outbreak. [See, Xu Zhangrun: https://www.chinafile.com/reporting-opinion/viewpoint/viral-alarm-when-fury-overcomes-fear; and, Guo Yuhua: https://chinaheritage.net/journal/professor-guo-yuhua-on-the-poison-in-chinas-system/] But they were only two of a number of daring truth-tellers — others included on-the-ground-reports from the Wuhan novelist Fang Fang, now noted for her diary-account of living with the virus in the epicentre of the outbreak, as well as the daring citizen-journalists Chen Qiushi, Fang Bin and Li Zehua. Back in Beijing, Ren Zhiqiang, a man known as “Cannon Ren” for his outspokenness and who is a prominent businessman and member of the Party elite, spoke about what the virus and its mishandling revealed about China’s party-state. And, in a lengthy open letter composed in the southern city of Guangzhou, Xu Zhiyong, an internationally regarded legal scholar and civil activist, went even further when he called on Xi Jinping to accept responsibility for his maladministration and step down. [See, Xu Zhiyong: https://www.chinafile.com/reporting-opinion/viewpoint/dear-chairman-xi-its-time-you-go]
[For English translations of relevant material published in February-March 2020, see:
- Xu Zhangrun: https://www.chinafile.com/reporting-opinion/viewpoint/viral-alarm-when-fury-overcomes-fear;
- Xu Zhiyong: https://www.chinafile.com/reporting-opinion/viewpoint/dear-chairman-xi-its-time-you-go;
- Chen Qiushi: http://chinaheritage.net/journal/the-heart-of-the-one-grows-ever-more-arrogant-and-proud/;
- Fang Fang: https://chinadigitaltimes.net/2020/03/translation-as-long-as-we-survive/; and, https://chinadigitaltimes.net/2020/04/translation-backlash-to-wuhan-diary-reveals-a-serious-problem-society-must-correct/;
- Li Zehua: http://chinaheritage.net/journal/holding-fast/;
- Ren Zhiqiang: https://chinadigitaltimes.net/2020/03/translation-essay-by-missing-property-tycoon-ren-zhiqiang/]
As bilateral tensions between the United States and China escalate, there is no doubt that balanced reporting from China is more important than ever. Yet, when limning the carefully curated dimensions of the smaller picture, the contextual bigger picture is also more crucial than ever. It is true that Mr Hessler does indeed note the enhanced role of the Communist Party in Chinese society (“After President Xi Jinping came to power, in 2012, he set about strengthening Party structures, including a new emphasis on neighborhood committees. This process was accelerated by the pandemic”), but in the resulting disquisition he chooses to compare and contrast so as, by inference, to highlight the egregious failures of the response to the coronavirus in the United States. From his report, Mr Hessler does not appear to be aware of just how far the Party has gone in aggressively re-inserting itself into every aspect of the nation’s life, something further licensed by Xi Jinping in early 2016 when he declared: “Everything in China is under the direction of the Communist Party: party, state, army, civilian life and education, and at all points of the compass” [In Chinese: 黨政軍民學，東西南北中，黨是領導一切的. See also: http://www.xinhuanet.com//politics/2016-01/07/c_1117705534.htm; and, http://chinaheritage.net/journal/tsinghua-university-gets-a-lecture-on-leadership-from-the-central-party-school/] Then again, maybe he just does not want to go there. Nor, indeed, does he say anything about the ubiquitous role of Party organizations in university departments. Must we presume that his host-employers don’t involve him in any of the numerous meetings attended by all, or inform him about the constant downward flow of documents and directives issuing from the university Party administrators? Such selective elision is telling and, for this reader at least, it undermines the piece as a whole.
Although Mr Hessler notes the enhanced reach of neighborhood committees, something that has proved to be efficacious in local policing during the coronavirus outbreak, he shies away from any hint that these organizations are also part of an insidious nexus of 360-degree surveillance that includes the recent ramping up of what Xu Zhangrun has dubbed “big data totalitarianism” and “WeChat terror”. In what is now a famous analysis of Xi Jinping’s disastrous mishandling of the coronavirus in early February this year, Xu wrote:
“Through the taxes the masses are, in fact, funding a vast Internet police force dedicated to overseeing, supervising, and tracking everyone and all of the statements and actions they author. The Chinese body politic is riven by a new canker, but it is an infection germane to the system itself. As a result, people live in a state of constant anxiety; they are keenly aware that the Internet terrorism is by no means merely limited to personal WeChat accounts being suspended or shut down entirely, nor to the larger enterprise of banning entire WeChat groups [which are a vital way for individuals to debate issues of interest]. Everyone knows that the online terror may readily escape the virtual realm to become overtly physical: That is when the authorities use what they have learned online to send in the police in real-time. Widespread anxiety leads to relentless self-censorship; people are beset by nagging fears about what inexplicable punishment may suddenly befall them.” [See: https://www.chinafile.com/reporting-opinion/viewpoint/viral-alarm-when-fury-overcomes-fear]
In its annual survey of academic repression published in November 2019, based on data collected as a result of heightened university surveillance and student informants, the Scholars at Risk Network recorded a spike in dismissals of academics, as well the harassment and jailings of intellectual activists. [See: https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/warning-sudden-spike-repression-academics-china; and, https://www.scholarsatrisk.org] In recent years, leading Chinese educators in the humanities and social sciences have also described the stultification of campus life under reinvigorated Party control and the dictates of what is known as “Document Number Nine”. [See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Document_Number_Nine; for Chinese academics on the subject, translated into English, see: http://chinaheritage.net/journal/tsinghua-university-gets-a-lecture-on-leadership-from-the-central-party-school/; http://chinaheritage.net/journal/my-tsinghua-lament/; http://chinaheritage.net/journal/the-professor-a-university-the-rule-of-law/; http://chinaheritage.net/journal/a-breach-of-the-law-a-betrayal-of-autonomy-no-way-for-a-university-to-act/; and, http://chinaheritage.net/journal/how-the-humanities-and-social-sciences-are-holding-china-back/] Among other things that document imposed a ban on the teaching, research into or study of seven dangerous Western values, including human rights, media freedom, constitutional democracy and judicial independence. Circulated within the Communist Party’s ruling institutions at Xi Jinping’s direction in 2012, over the years the spirit and letter of “Document Number Nine” have been enforced with ever greater rigour. Its message was further enhanced by the introduction of new legal controls when, in November 2018, the Chinese Ministry of Education announced a slew of ideological strictures and guidelines for university teachers. [For the official text of these, see: http://www.moe.gov.cn/srcsite/A10/s7002/201811/t20181115_354921.html]
Taken together the aim of such directives and the activities of those devoted to their imposition is the systematic undermining of the intellectual independence and creativity of teachers, researchers, students and publishers. Indeed, for Chinese educators living and working in an educational world which Peter Hessler also inhabits, not only are they subjected to punitive regulations and punishments for ideological deviance, they also have to reckon with a dedicated workforce devoted to their policing. It is one that includes specialist appointees within university Party committees at every level, weaponised personnel departments and campus-based security organs, along with vanguard student Party activists and secretive class spies (euphemistically dubbed “rapporteurs”). The student informants are aided and abetted by CCTV camera surveillance in lecture halls and, where necessary, local police units and state security operatives who have access to an internet intelligence network that covers online as well as telephone communications.
Anecdotal evidence would suggest that these suffocating strictures are not universally experienced, nor are they necessarily noticed by the numerous “foreign experts” employed in China’s educational institutions for their professional expertise and linguistic acumen. Mr Hessler, however, is no rookie foreigner in China, nor, given his long years traveling around and reporting from the People’s Republic, could he possibly be unversed in such discomforting realities. However, his latest account leaves readers like me, as well as colleagues and friends in China, with the distinct impression that in telling this story in this way, Mr Hessler highlights the kind of unexamined Caucasian privilege familiar to many long-term China specialists.
Of course, not every account about China today should be expected to touch on the Uyghurs amassed in Xinjiang’s “re-education” camps, ceaseless cultural and religious repression in Tibet, the harassment of dissidents and civil society activists throughout the country, or the anti-democracy crisis in Hong Kong. But a lengthy work of reportage that is couched in terms that claim a broader valence about the country’s response to the coronavirus, and one that chooses to ignore the voices of protest and warning issuing from that country’s brave men and women of conscience while preferring to depict a kind of “Kumabaya China”, must surely raise serious concerns.
In the heavily curated environment of online China, Mr Hessler is praised as a “good American” for his writing; indeed, he’s just the kind of American that in today’s fractious environment official China finds palatable. And therefore I would note that a translated version of his report has been circulated widely on the Chinese internet with official sanction. I would suggest that Mr Hessler is to my understanding engaging in unaccredited reporting, something that, strictly speaking, is illegal in China. Therefore, by extension, it only stands to reason that if this piece had been critical, there is little doubt that the authorities would have reacted very differently. At the least one very much doubts that he would have been showered with praise, or enjoyed the kind of cross-platform promotion that has occurred in recent days. Moreover, I can’t help thinking that such a possibility would not have escaped Mr Hessler himself.
I must admit that, at times, Hessler’s writing brings to mind another American journalist, a man who reported from another authoritarian country nearly a century ago. A Pulitzer-prize winning journalist who served as the bureau chief of The New York Times in the Soviet Union for over a decade, Walter Duranty evinced an overall sympathy for the Soviet experiment and, over time, he acted as an apologist for the country’s harsh social engineering something, he argued, that could be best understood as the modern evolution of traditional “Asiatic” collectivism. Anyway, Duranty reasoned, the heavy hand of Stalin was actually a reflection of a “Russian mindset”, the default mode of which, as his on-the-ground informants assured him, is autocracy. For that writer, Western values were best seen as another form of colonialism and, although he readily admitted that the Soviet system could be brutal, its overall cruelty could be justified by the benefits that it would inevitably bring its subjects.
Discussing the nature of reporting and editing in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States, Wesley Lowery, a very different kind of Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, has written incisively about the contested nature of journalistic balance and objectivity. “ ‘…objective journalism’”, he notes, “is constructed atop a pyramid of subjective decision-making: which stories to cover, how intensely to cover those stories, which sources to seek out and include, which pieces of information are highlighted and which are downplayed. No journalistic process is objective. And no individual journalist is objective, because no human being is.” Lowery has spoken about the “failures of neutral objective journalism” and argues that a self-aware approach to reporting and editing is one that requires “moral clarity”. It is an approach that consciously rejects the well-honed arts of a trade that can all too readily “let powerful bad actors off the hook.” [https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/23/opinion/objectivity-black-journalists-coronavirus.html]
In their recent discussion of “moral clarity” in The New Yorker, Masha Gessen quoted a tweet from Lowery:
“Questioning someone powerful from a place of ‘neutrality’ often, in practice, results in journalism that is inappropriately soft in its framing.” [See: https://www.newyorker.com/news/our-columnists/why-are-some-journalists-afraid-of-moral-clarity]
As Professor Xu Zhangrun — unemployed, under surveillance and becalmed in Beijing — remarked to me after reading the Chinese version of Mr Hessler’s report:
“It’s just the kind of thing that the Communists welcome, of course… such a befuddled view of things reminds one of the Western Leftists who sang hosannas for the Soviet Union. It’s regrettable!”
When the soft-ball questioning relates to a party-state whose authoritarian policies repress and silence independent-minded academics, students and civil activists, the issue of framing is of crucial consequence, be it for an author, his or her publisher, and their readers.
Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
Emeritus Professor of Chinese History
The Australian National University
Australian Centre on China in the World (ANU)