Thursday, January 29, 2009
Mr. Wang told me that the call the previous night was from one of the Red Guard students at the school at the time. He said that the caller told him the last name of one of the girls who had participated in the beating. Mr. Wang told me that he had suspected this girl and tried to confirm the identity by her first name, but the caller denied that the girl was the one Mr. Wang had suspected.
Mr. Wang had brought some photographs with him to show me. The photographs had been taken a few years ago when he had hosted Weili Ye and Liu Jin in his apartment. As I looked at the photographs I asked Mr. Wang why they had wanted to meet with him, but what I really wanted to know was why he would want to meet with them.
Liu Jin had been one of the leaders of the Red Guards who had murdered Mr. Wang’s wife, one of those who had presented Mr. Wang with the “official” document on Bian’s “death.” She was the one who had informed the students the next day over the loud speaker,
“Bian Zhongyun is dead. That’s it. There’s no reason to talk about it.”
In the conversation that followed Mr. Wang said, “In China, human relationships are more important than human life.”
As foreign as that was to this foreigner personally, I told Mr. Wang that I understood the sentiment. I was thinking of something similar that I had heard a number of times in my job.
A lot of murders are committed in families or among friends. The victim, the perpetrator, and the witnesses all know each other and are close. When the murder occurs, they call the police of course. But after their loved one or friend has been in jail for a while awaiting trial, the mentality develops, “So-and-so is gone, we can’t bring him back. We have to look after the living now.” That is what I had thought about when I told Mr. Wang that I understood his statement.
When I got back to the States I pondered Mr. Wang’s statement further. He was not related to Weili or Liu. I found it utterly implausible that they had become friends over the years. And Mr. Wang had not used the word “friends,” that was my interpretation of what he meant. He had used the word “relationships.”
I tried to fit every variety of “human relationships” that I could think of into his statement but still couldn’t make sense of it.
Finally, I went back to the source. What Mr. Wang had meant was that “common Chinese” know that they have to keep up good relations with the privileged classes, or at least not offend them. He also felt that this mentality was why witnesses to Bian’s murder would not come forward.
It was the “slavish mentality” again, and the “please mentality” variant in the third meeting and Mr. Wang’s wish to provide me with information that he knew I wanted.
This was my last meeting with him and in the back of my mind I still wondered if he had something important to tell me. Perhaps he hadn’t told me in the first meeting because he was nervous or afraid, and then afterwards regretted it and asked for the second meeting, and the cycle then repeated itself. So I decided to ask an open-ended question with a wistful beginning.
“Mr. Wang this is the last time that I will ever see you. You and I aren’t getting any younger. Is there anything else that you want to tell me?” Ms. Ye translated.
“Benjamin, do you think that I am going to die soon?”
We all laughed. I asked the question different ways a couple of more times but he didn’t tell me anything more. So we just chatted as friends. He said that he wanted the two of us to write a book together. I was touched but I couldn’t help but think that maybe in part this was what he and everyone else had in mind when they asked me, “Why are you doing this?” Because I wanted to write a book, or make a movie, become famous, make money. I told him I’d be happy to.
Mr. Wang saw us to the door. We shook hands, and I embraced him. This is the last time that I will see this extraordinary man, I thought to myself. We were on the fourth floor of a walkup. I took my leave of him and walked down the first flight of stairs. I stepped onto the third floor landing.
“Benjamin.” I turned around and looked up at him. He was smiling just as broadly as he was the first day I met him in Ms. Ma’s apartment.
“Benjamin, see you again.”
Monday, January 19, 2009
I went incognito. Before leaving on the trip, I had gone to a costume shop in Washington and picked out a disguise: a fake mustache, big round black-rimmed glasses, a fedora, and a cane to hobble about on. I wore my hair un-gelled to further alter my appearance. I certainly had succeeded in that, but instead of the distinguished, older, enfeebled, gentleman I had envisioned invoking a moment's sympathy in Song and giving me my opening, I looked like a guy who had gone to a costume shop.
My un-gelled hair was too long for the fedora and curled beneath the rim. The glasses were unnaturally big. The mustache glue gave a little every time I moved my facial muscles. I was afraid it was going to drop and hang from one end in the manner of a character in a slap-stick comedy.
Song's office was in Beijing, my hotel was in Beijing, so with no thought whatsoever to the distance between the two I hopped into a cab. The distance was great. It was about 9 am, morning rush hour. We crawled along the highways, the minutes passed, and the meter kept running, and I had to go to the bathroom. Nervous perspiration beaded on my forehead and upper lip, loosening the mustache glue. We kept driving. The cab driver got lost. Twice. And had to stop to ask for directions. "Tibet, Next Exit," the thought flashed through my mind. Did I have enough yuan to get from wherever I ended up and back to the hotel?
At 11 am, two hours after I had left the hotel, I finally alighted that cab in front of Song Binbin's building with a stiff back, a thin wallet, a mustache of uncertain adhesion, and a full bladder.
I went into a nearby restaurant to use the facilities. The restaurant was not quite open but the hostess showed me to a table. I ordered a pot of green tea. And went to the men's room.
I returned to my table and began drinking the tea. The steam was having a deleterious effect on the mustache glue so I took out Ma Lisen's book and read while the tea cooled.
As I was reading, the manager called out something in a loud voice. The staff came scurrying. They gathered round and the manager addressed them, giving them some sort of instructions it was clear. At one point the staff responded in unison. I looked and caught the eye of one young staff member who looked away sheepishly. I remembered seeing the same thing once at the hotel. A little later there was a second response in unison.
The staff didn't sit while the manager addressed them, they stood. They stood, not exactly in military formation, but in an orderliness and with body language that was "regimental."
It seemed to me (I don't know for certain because I do not understand Chinese) that the meeting was part inspirational and that the unified response was group affirmance of the ideal expounded, something like,
Manager: "THE CUSTOMER IS ALWAYS RIGHT!"
Staff: "THE CUSTOMER IS ALWAYS RIGHT!"
The purpose of the meeting was not, I am quite sure, limited to informing staff of the daily specials. To an American observer the regimented nature of these sessions was unusual (American manager: "THE CUSTOMER IS ALWAYS RIGHT!" American staff: "ONLY WHEN HE'S A BIG TIPPER!"), and I think the staff member whose eye I had caught knew that I thought it was unusual.
I finished my tea, paid the check, and went to the men's room for one last mustache adjustment.
Song's building was just around the corner, the omnipresent manned guard station at the entrance. Emboldened by the experience that Carmen and I had with the guards at Bian's school, I confidently walked up to the guard in my clown outfit and showed him the piece of paper with the address. He pointed to the building entrance.
The doors were the standard double-glass and entered into the linoleum-tiled elevator waiting area. There were two elevators with standard metal doors. It was a standard building in every respect.
The elevators delivered me directly to the waiting area of Song's office. It had the look of a front, not a real office. There was no one in the waiting area and no one behind the drab linoleum desk when I first entered. Within moments a receptionist came from around the corner. I showed her my Public Occurrences business card and told her that I was here to see Song Binbin. She picked up the phone.
"No, Song's not going to come walking around the corner, is she? It can't be this easy," I thought to myself. The receptionist spoke into the phone, there was brief conversation, and then she gave the phone to me. A young man identified himself as Ms. Song's Assistant in the pleasant voice appropriate to Assistants.
I identified myself and explained that I was there to interview Song for Public Occurrences. He said that she was not in. I asked him where she was. I asked in a tone of slight annoyance that I thought he would find authentic for an American in the situation. He replied, in the tone of solicitous concern that I had expected, that he would call her.
He picked up another phone and tried to reach Song. After several seconds He got back on the phone with me and said that she was not answering. "Where is she, I have an appointment to interview her?" "I'm sorry, Mr. Harris, she may be at her apartment in downtown Beijing. I will give you her cell phone number."
"No, he's not going to give me her cell phone number," I thought, but he did. He asked me if I had an appointment with her and, stupidly, I said that I did, for 11:00am. Song then called back. "That is her now, Mr. Harris, one moment please."
Assistant: "...(unintelligible Chinese)...Benjamin Harris..."
Song: "Benjamin who?" (gleaned from context)
Assistant: "Harris...(unintelligible Chinese)"
Song: "What does he want?"(gleaned from context)
Assistant: "He says he has an appointment with you." (gleaned from context)
Song: "I don't have an appointment with anyone at 11."
Assistant: "Mr. Harris, she says she didn't have an appointment with you."
Me: (in appropriately annoyed tone of American but realizing I had blundered in claiming that I had an appointment). "I emailed her from the States and set up this time for the interview with her," continuing my blunder.
The assistant and Song spoke.
Assistant: "She says that she had no appointment with you Mr. Harris. She is currently at the hospital with her mother."
Me: (seeing a way out of my blunder on the appointment). "Well, if she's at the hospital with her mother I can understand how she could have forgotten about the appointment. That's understandable. If it is all right I will leave my business card here at the front desk and we can reschedule."
Assistant: "Yes sir, please do. What was it that you wanted to interview her about, Mr. Harris?"
Me: "I'm doing a story on the Girls Middle School that she attended. It is one of the best schools in China, as I am sure you are aware. The school has named Song a distinguished alumnus and I wanted to interview her about one of her teachers, Bian Zhongyun."
Assistant: "What was the name again, Mr. Harris?"
Me: "BIAN ZHONGYUN." (authoritative tone).
Assistant and Song then talked.
Assistant: "Ms. Song will not talk to you about that Mr. Harris."
Assistant: "She does not wish to speak to you, Mr. Harris."
I gave the receptionist my business card and left, satisfied, that I had at least made Song Binbin know that I knew where she was and wouldn't give up investigating Bian's murder.
Friday, January 16, 2009
“An era ended."
In context I understood Mr. Gao to mean that madness and violence was finally over. Others have expressed similar views. Ms. Ma told me that “the root cause [of the violence] lay with Mao’s CR ideas and policy,” and she and others saw the beginning of a new, bright era,
The disaster of the CR taught the Chinese people the importance of universal values like human rights, democracy, freedom and equality.
We took Kitty back to Renmin with us in our cab. Her boyfriend at university had come from the countryside and had grown up very poor. She was very proud of how far he had come.
I asked her what she thought of China’s future. “I am very proud of my country,” she said in her soft voice. She then spoke at length and with great knowledge of the inequality between city and countryside, of how workers come from the countryside, do the same work as city dwellers, but are paid less by the government. The discrimination against country folk is well-known and of ancient practice in China. I asked her why she thought her government would do that. Her response indicated that the communist government of China had adopted a tactic of exploitative capitalists. “People in the country are so poor, and the wages that the government does pay are so much greater than what they can make in the country, that the government can get away with paying them less.”
One of the most memorable exchanges I had with anyone in Beijing occurred with Kitty in that cab. I asked her what the Chinese people thought of the election of Barack Obama as president. Kitty was sitting to my left. There was a brief pause and then she turned and looked at me with her big eyes and said, “It is a miracle.”
She said that it had been inconceivable to Chinese that a black man could ever be elected president given America’s history of slavery and racial discrimination. She told me that Chinese students are taught in middle school to memorize Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech.
Kitty had made me proud of my own country.
The night of the 26th was when Ye Youyi called me to say that Mr. Wang wanted to meet again because he “has something to tell you.”
Carmen was right, there was no naming of names, but I learned more about whey there was no naming of names. I think I also learned much more.
The venue for the second interview of Mr. Wang had to be changed because of a logistical snafu. The surreal alternative setting was the waiting area of a Bally’s fitness center. Tape-recording this session was hampered by the pump-you-up background music so I took notes as a backup.
After my first interview with Mr. Wang I made it a point to ask others for their thoughts on individual responsibility. I asked indirect and open-ended questions to guard against being told what people thought I wanted to hear. Mr. Wang and I were talking about Mao’s responsibility for the Cultural Revolution violence and the effect on individual Chinese. He said to me that Chinese have a “slavish mentality." I started at the phrase because I had read others using similar phraseology. (1) I had once begun to write an article on it, my formulation was "slave's mentality." Mr. Wang also said that he thought that the slavish mentality was changing.
I do not think that Mr. Wang spoke literally, that all Chinese have a slavish mentality. We speak more simplistically than we really mean.
Human beings are complex things. Societies are more complex. The earliest of our species recognized the utility of simplifying the complex in order to understand. We continue to utilize the tool of simplification but most of us realize that its powerful attraction can pull us far off the path of understanding and onto that of misunderstanding.
Simplifying and simplistic both have the same root.
But neither imprecise speech nor the pitfalls of simplification should deter us from using a construct that truly does contribute to understanding.
Maoist China had characteristics of a slave state. Literal slavery did exist. Mao’s regime may have been the most totalitarian regime in human history. The extraordinary oppressiveness and the constant attempts at thought control help to explain how one could walk to the gallows without protest, or watch one’s wife walk to her death without intervening.
However, simplifying Maoist China by calling it a slave state is simplistic. The control of the master over the slave is more personal, the danger of disobedience more immediate; the slave has even less freedom, and no opportunity for advancement out of his position.
There was a subtle but significant distinction between the two formulations of the idea. My word was “slave;” Mr. Wang’s was “slavish,” “slave-like.” His was much better.
The effects of oppression are not uniform. A victim (Bian) is affected one way, the loved one of a victim (Mr. Wang) another. Perpetrators (Red Guards), uninvolved witnesses to violence, the state, and the general populace are all affected differently.
The first time that I went to Beijing in 2006 I was astonished at how western the city looked and how western was the behavior of the residents. Deng Xiaoping had said “To be rich is glorious,” and by God Beijingers sure seemed fully committed to the glory of getting rich.
How could this be in a country that had been arch-communist under Mao, where even Russian communism was considered “revisionist?” How could people so suddenly and completely shift from hatred of capitalists to being uber capitalists? Because the leading authority figure in the country had said so. A “slavish mentality” produces obedience. This, I suggest, helps explain the abrupt one hundred eighty degree turn.
A key corollary follows: If Mao was obeyed because he was the leading authority figure in the country and Deng was obeyed because he was the leading authority figure in the country then Beijingers were communists then and are capitalists now out of obedience, not out of commitment to the ideals of communism or the benefits of capitalism.
Ye Youyi once said to me with disappointment and disapproval, “Chinese don’t think for themselves, Ben.”
Where there is oppression one would also expect to find passivity and passive-aggressiveness. An author has made the observation that Chinese are neither confrontational nor argumentative. I would offer up the behavior of urban motorists as an excellent index of aggression among a people.
New York City taxi cab drivers will cut you off, honk their horns obnoxiously to get you to move (when there’s no place for you to move), and will get out of their cars and scream at you if you want to argue. “Road rage” is well known among ordinary drivers in the U.S. Many people have been murdered for the offense of cutting another driver off in traffic.
Beijing taxi drivers are as aggressive as their Manhattan brethren. However, they rarely honk their horns. I have thought on many occasions that a collision with another vehicle or a pedestrian was imminent but the Beijing drivers seem to have some secret Chinese anti-collision device planted somewhere. If there is such a device it is not connected to the ocular nerves however. They don’t look at each other, classic body language of the passive. Drivers don’t look at other drivers or pedestrians and pedestrians don’t look at drivers. But somehow, and often at the last possible opportunity, doom is averted. And the result of these near misses is never road rage.
Chinese have a reputation for being polite and my experience is consistent with that. I have communicated with a good number of Chinese in the Great Wall of Silence project. No one has ever been argumentative. All of this would seem to be good: no road rage, no traffic accidents, no arguments.
However there are downsides. I read somewhere that one has to be careful when interviewing Chinese people because they are so conditioned to say whatever they think their interviewer wants to hear. Agreement negates confrontation, which precludes punishment. Agreement of this kind requires no thought.
I would suggest a “please mentality” as the term to apply to those conditioned by oppression to agree or please. I think that Mr. Wang said he wanted to tell me something because he knew that it would please me.
During the American civil rights movement northern white volunteers went into the Deep South to register African-Americans to vote. The former slaves or descendants of slaves would unfailingly accept the registration forms enthusiastically and promise to fill them out and mail them in. Civil rights workers were therefore astonished when few new eligible voters showed up on the registration rolls. The oppression of Jim Crow conditioned them to avoid anything that could lead to a confrontation with white people. They followed up on the avoidance with the passive-aggressive behavior of not registering to vote to avoid confrontation with Southern whites.
Wouldn't a please mentality also be consistent with the Chinese government's actions vis a vis the Beijing Olympics? The government badly wanted the imprimatur of world approval that conferring the games on Beijing symbolized. They remade the city, bull-dozed the hutongs and replaced them with modern buildings. They had artifically reduced air pollution by shutting down factories and restricting the driving of ordinary Beijingers. They instructed Beijingers to smile, not expectorate, and taught them this amount of English (while smiling): "Welcome to Beijing."
The Chinese government did all of this to please, to please the International Olympic Committee, and foreign visitors.
These are all gross generalizations. One can not talk or write seriously about a Chinese mentality. However, I would suggest that there is a sense in which one can seriously talk or write about an American mentality; or an English, Japanese, French, or Indian mentality because those societies freely choose their leaders. The results of an election are at least a meaningfuly snapshot of the mentality of a society. A span of elections over a century or more does, I suggest, enable meaningful generalization about the mentality of a people, their hopes, values, ideals, and taboos.
Chinese don't have the freedom to choose the kind of government that they want. If they ever get that freedom the choice that they make, and its chances for permanent success, will require political freedom of thought. Chinese don't have that freedom either. What will that free election show the hopes, values, ideals, and taboos of Chinese to be?
In the second interview with Mr. Wang I saw that there is still fear. I had been concerned about using the Bally’s waiting area for the interview as soon as we sat down. Here were two Chinese people talking to two foreigners, the foreign man in the suit asking all the questions and the foreign woman holding a microphone. However I didn’t voice my concern since Mr. Wang and Ye Youyi, or interpreter, had chosen the site. Still, I paid attention to other people in our vicinity.
Mr. Wang spoke freely at first. People walked by but didn’t seem to pay us any mind. After about an hour a man sat down in our vicinity. He was to my right but directly in Mr. Wang’s line of vision. I turned to check him out. Mr. Wang paused and with squinted eyes looked carefully at the man. We continued to talk for a little while but Mr. Wang was no longer at ease and we finished up and left.
Fear produces false agreement. Fear also produces silence. One would expect false agreement and silence to be most pronounced in people of Mr. Wang’s generation, who lived through all of the brutality of Mao. The Great Wall of Silence surrounding the murder of Bian Zhongyun is a consequence in part of present fear and residual fear from the past.
There is also evidence to support the second part of Mr. Wang’s statement that the slavish mentality is changing. There was no evidence of a slavish mentality in the protests of Spring 1989. Those were bold, courageous, and widespread in participation and public support. The protesters of 1989 had the mentality of those willing to rebel against oppression, just as their forefathers had in 1644, 1911, and 1949. The June 4 massacre showed that Deng Xiaoping's regime still had a "slavish mentality," that is the mentality of the slave's master. The problems that the current regime has had in the countryside demonstrate that some Chinese still have the will to rebel.
However, there seems insufficient evidence for Ma Lisen’s positive assessment of the change. China is free only in the economic realm. Precisely the values that Ms. Ma mentioned--human rights, democracy, freedom, equality--are those that are still missing. China remains a civic communist state.
Human rights is a misnomer in a sense. A people have to demand them. Human rights cannot be gained by pleasing those who deny them.
(1) This and the other footnotes in the next post on this subject are in no way intended to be comprehensive. Dr. Li Zhisui, in The Private Life of Chairman Mao, uses it in a variety of contexts, as it is used in this post also: On the general public: " 'The people' were nothing but a vast multitude of faceless, helpless slaves [to the C.C.P.]" (355); On Zhou Enlai: "Suddenly, I realized that Zhou Enlai was Mao's slave..." (258);” 'We shouldn't do everything according to the books, slavishly copying every word,' “quoting Mao.”He traced the party's slave mentality to China's Confucian past." (234)
Tuesday, January 13, 2009
Kitty, don't look.
Dictators: Harris in foreground; Hitler, Hussein,
Pol Pot, et al in background.
The next day, November 26, I interviewed Ma Jisen in the morning and Mr. Gao in the afternoon. Ms. Ma was an unexpected bonus on this trip. She had hosted the first interview with Mr. Wang and had translated for us, but has lived an extraordinary life in her own right and is now writing about it. Her late husband Ran Longbo is the author of Zhou Enlai: A Political Life.
Ms. Ma worked in the Western European Department of the Chinese Foreign Service during the Cultural Revolution and had recently written the first book ever written by someone inside that agency, which was thrown into such chaos during the period.
Ms. Ma is a true intellectual and her book, The Foreign Ministry During the Cultural Revolution is an important work. Crucially, it corrects much of what has been written elsewhere about the Foreign Ministry at the time. With the same generosity extended to me by everyone that I met in Beijing, Ms. Ma gave me the only English copy of the book that she had. Unfortunately I only had time to skim it before my interview with her.
With the diplomat’s caution, Ms. Ma declined to have the interview tape-recorded, stating tactfully that she did not find it “necessary.” I had noticed some interesting things in Ms. Ma’s book and we briefly talked about them. However it was not until I got back home and read the book that I had a chance to follow-up in more depth. Fortunately for me, Ms. Ma and I have continued our conversation via email. That conversation is ongoing and this account will be supplemented at a later time.
Ma’s book touches on the issue of how the Cultural Revolution affected the moral system of the Chinese people. For example, she wrote that Mao’s various political campaigns,
…had carried with them the reversal of what many believed to be right or wrong. (16)
From the very start of the Cultural Revolution, ideas of right and wrong were turned upside down. (405)
These statements are very important to a western trained lawyer because “right and wrong” are legal terms of art that go to the very heart of criminal law and individual responsibility. In my conversations with Ms. Ma I am trying to determine if the meaning that she attributes to these terms has any significance to international legal principles.
A person cannot be held responsible for any crime, even murder, if he did not know the difference between right and wrong. For example, a child who picks up a loaded firearm thinking it a toy cannot be prosecuted for murder if he shoots his playmate. The example illustrates the rare class of cases to which it applies. If the mind is disarranged in whatever way, through trauma, chemical imbalance, or external forces, the effect must be so profound as to obliterate the most fundamental distinction that we are taught as human beings, that it is wrong to hurt someone.
Frederich Nietzsche once wrote “Madness is the exception in individuals and the rule in groups.” However, Nietzsche was no lawyer (he was mad, though). The madness of mob behavior is not the madness that excuses criminal behavior. It seems to me that the madness of Red August was the madness of the mob, not legal madness. But I wasn’t there. It was Mao Zedong’s intent to redefine right and wrong. If Mao succeeded in affecting a “reversal of what many believed to be right or wrong,” if Ms. Ma’s words are true in the legal sense, then those affected could not be held responsible for their crimes.
We took a cab from Ms. Ma’s flat to Renmin University where we picked up Kitty. Of course, I had told the cab driver just to take us to the university without specifying what part of the campus. I called Kitty when we arrived. Of course (because of me), we had gotten dropped off at the precise point the furthest away from where Kitty was as possible. I felt horribly and told Kitty on the phone that we would walk to where she was. She of course said, no, no she would come to us. I was cranky that morning for some reason and already feeling guilty and while on the phone a campus policeman right in front of me decided to test his car siren. Although I am a law enforcement official and work with police officers daily I have this need to buck authority. At inopportune times. The police siren sent my temper from 0-60 mph in one second. Furious, I lowered my cell phone down to my side. I took two...slow...steps toward the policeman, caught his eye, and glared in open-mouthed rage.
Now, in America what would have happened next is the policeman, reading me correctly, would have walked toward me quickly and menacingly, and would have shouted "WHAT THE F!@# ARE YOU LOOKING AT!" He would have pushed me or even just touched me. We then would have gotten into a fight, I would have taken the silver medal to his nightstick and gotten hauled away to jail.
The Chinese police officer turned off his siren. And I felt more guilty.
Carmen had walked away in Latin fury at me, cursing in Spanish, which like Chinese I also do not understand. I apologized to her and she began speaking in English again.
It was a blustery day and in the 40's Fahrenheit. I had on a sports jacket and slacks and was comfortable. However Carmen's comfortable temperature range is no lower than 72 and no higher than 75. She was dressed as for the Arctic.
Kitty came walking around the corner of a building to meet us, her eyes watering from the wind. She is such a waif that I feared she might be blown away.
We drove to 798, the art district on the outskirts of Beijing. Kitty knocked on the door to the Gao Brothers studio and Mr. Gao opened it. His, and his brothers, work started right inside the door. When I looked at the first piece I said, as in awe, “Wow,” but what I thought was “Holy Shit!” I thought we were going to be arrested. To the right of the door was a white life-size statue of Mao pointing a rifle with fixed bayonet right at me. Further inside were a number of busts of Mao, with busts, women’s breasts. Mao’s face was rendered in malevolent madness.
Were the state art police on lunch break? Might they come back to work soon? It was the only time on the trip that I felt security-conscious. I had never expected to see attacks like this on Mao in Beijing. I had known that the art police had raided a Gao Brothers exhibition at 798 the previous year and confiscated some art, one of them the moving “Swimming Mao.” What Mr. Gao had on display inside his studio was much more hard-hitting than “Swimming Mao.”
I asked Mr. Gao, “The police don’t confiscate your work?” He replied that he kept it in his studio and didn’t exhibit it publicly. That was not a direct answer to the question. People don’t grow marijuana in their backyards in the U.S. either. They grow it inside their houses in hydroponic labs. So, the police get a search warrant, break down the door, seize the plants, and arrest the occupants.
There was a blue sculpture of a woman with her legs spread open, her genitalia realistically depicted. I think Mao’s face had been substituted for the woman’s but I glanced away. I wanted to cover Kitty’s eyes with my hands.
I have seen art like this in exhibitions in America many times (just substitute George Bush’s face for Mao’s) but graphic nudity does make me a little uncomfortable in the presence of women and I was differently discomfited that I was in the presence of this graphic nudity with Mao Zedong’s face superimposed in the damn People’s Republic of China!
There was one painting that I particularly liked. It was a group of people. On the face of each person was superimposed that of a notorious dictator. Mr. Gao was impressed that I recognized Pol Pot.
My skittishness at being jet-planed subsided, as did my concern for Kitty’s sensibilities and we sat on a couch and I began to interview Mr. Gao. I asked him The Question. He replied that he wants to “de-idolize” Mao. I asked him why he portrayed Mao with female anatomy. He said that Mao called himself the mother of the country so he wanted to give him the equipment for the role.
I then began asking about individual responsibility.
I fear that I was rude to Mr. Gao. I had been interviewing people for several days getting similar answers to questions or similar quizzical looks, I hadn't had time for detached contemplation, I was cranky and I think I let my impatience show with Mr. Gao. I was more blunt in asking him questions than I had been with others but I think I was too prosecutorial, I think I made him feel cross-examined and besieged. In the photographs taken during the session his arms are folded, a classic sign of defensiveness.
I started by making a statement, as the point seemed too obvious to pose as a question:
“You hold Mao responsible for the crimes committed during his time.”
“Do you hold anyone else responsible?”
“Did you personally suffer during the Cultural Revolution?”
“Yes, my father was kidnapped and killed.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. What about the person who actually, physically laid hands on your father, does he, in your opinion, have any responsibility?”
“The communists caused him to do it.”
I then gave the example of Adolph Eichmann to illustrate the point that underlings have responsibility too but Kitty didn’t know who Eichmann was and I had to explain and when Kitty re-asked the question Mr. Gao seemed not to understand and didn’t answer and I got impatient.
So I switched from inquiring about the personal responsibility of perpetrators to that of onlookers. I told him about Mr. Wang watching Bian walking off to her death. It was an unhappy switch because the last time I talked about it I had huffed in typical American male fashion and I was in an even less understanding frame of mind now.
He replied that the communists had caused that non-intervention mindset too.
“Let’s say that you are about to attack Kitty (No, that's insulting)…Let’s say that a person is about to attack Kitty (This made Kitty feel uncomfortable and she laughed nervously). I see the person grab her; I hear her scream. I’m going to come to her defense! Do you think that people should defend innocent people from being harmed?”
“Was it ever important to you or your brother to find out who had physically laid hands on your father?”
“We found him.”
“You did? How did you find him?”
“We asked around and with our contacts we found out the man’s name. He still lived in our neighborhood.”
“What did you do?”
“We went up to his house and knocked on his door. As soon as he saw our faces he knew, and he started shaking with fear.”
I was very impressed with this and softened my tone. I told Mr. Gao that I wasn’t making the case for vigilante justice but that I was glad that he had gotten the satisfaction of identifying the man and seeing him scared.
“We didn’t harm him. We thought that living with what he had done and knowing that we knew was punishment enough.”
I told him that that was a kind of justice and I was trying to do justice for Mr. Wang. I immediately felt that that was an incorrect statement but I didn’t know why at first. When I thought about it, I realized: Mr. Wang had never asked me to do justice for him; he had never even told me that he wanted the kind of justice that I was talking about—where the perpetrators in Bian’s murder are identified—from anyone.
“They don’t care about it. If they don’t care about it, why do you?”
Sunday, January 11, 2009
Professor Xu Weixin in his studio.
"It all began at Beida." A somber visit to Peking University.
The entrance to the school, and its new name
The hospital across the street.
Wanting only the best for Harris Binbin.
I didn’t interview Professor Xu and Mr. Gao because they had any information about the murder of Bian Zhongyun. They didn’t. I took the opportunity of interviewing two artists to get other opinions on the concept of individual responsibility that had been uppermost in my mind since my first interview with Mr. Wang.
Professor Xu’s oeuvre is the victims of the Cultural Revolution. Mr. Gao’s oeuvre is the perpetrators. Their work is consistent with the approach of other Chinese. Dr. Youqin Wang has devoted herself to keeping the memory of the victims alive. She has painstakingly recreated as much about their lives and how and where they died as she can. Professor Xu has created a remarkable series of paintings of the victims based on photographs from the period. Symbolically, he has enlarged them to the size of Mao’s portrait that hangs at the entry to the Forbidden City. Among those he has memorialized is Bian Zhongyun.
Mr. Gao identifies the same perpetrator in his work as did Mr. Wang and the Chinese government, Mao.
Professor Xu is vice dean of the Renmin University School of Arts. We met in his studio. He had just returned from an exhibition of his work in New York. His studio could have been that of a New York based artist. Large and spacious to accommodate the size of his paintings the studio was well appointed with a modern desk, chair and computer, and a comfortable black sofa. The floors were blonde wood, natural light pored in through the windows and the artificial lighting maximized the ability to paint and see.
Professor Xu is a man of dignity and courage. He is charismatic and energetic. He is also a philosophical man. As an artist he undoubtedly has been asked the question, “Why are you doing this?” more than I ever will, and we each asked the other. Professor Xu explained that five or six years prior he had begun to interpret his thought on the individual. He had chosen individuals from the Cultural Revolution as subjects because he wanted to “transfer individual memory to collective memory.” This is consistent with Dr. Youqin Wang’s motivation in creating her website “The Cultural Revolution Memorial.” I asked Professor Xu how he had chosen the particular individuals that he had. He said that he first chosen those who had suffered.
At lunch he asked me The Question. My answer was, “Justice” and I briefly explained the importance that identifying and punishing the perpetrators has in American and international jurisprudence. Professor Xu vigorously nodded his head and pointed at me in agreement. I felt very comfortable talking with Professor Xu about the “meaning” of what I do and the meaning of his work, and felt that he understood better than most.
In mid-afternoon I went to Peking University. So much had happened there in the twentieth century. The May Fourth movement, an intense period of self-examination, began there. The Spring 1989 protests for democracy began there and many of the university's students were murdered in the culmination of the protests on June 4th. And I had always remembered a sentence from Mao’s Last Revolution, that whatever the causes of the Cultural Revolution, “It all began at Beida.”
When I get interested in a piece of art, or in a particular artist, sometimes I will read all that I can about the subject before I go to the museum so that I can better understand. But sometimes I deliberately go without reading beforehand. Art can be “felt,” perhaps more than it can be understood. I went to Beida without a guide or a map, I hadn’t read anything beforehand, I had no idea where I was going; I just walked around and felt.
The campus was deathly quiet. There was plenty of green space around a pond but no one was enjoying the tranquility. Indeed, rather than tranquility, there seemed an air of abandonment. The flora at water’s edge grew wild; it had not been trimmed in a long time. The water was dead still, its surface neither rippled by fish beneath or fowl above. The pathways were careworn, the buildings looked as unused as those in the Forbidden City, and much more in need of a coat of paint. I had never been on a university campus so devoid of energy, of life. Maybe the students were on break; maybe I had stumbled onto a part of the campus that was going to be rebuilt, but it was a somber place and my thoughts of what had happened here were somber and I walked around feeling somber.
We then took a taxi to the school. The former Girls School Attached to Beijing Normal University is shoehorned into a neighborhood not far from The Forbidden City. The school abuts a tree-lined street whose leaves and branches shelter it protectively. The school has been renamed; it is now the Experimental School Attached to Beijing Normal University. The hospital where the murderers had wheeled Bian Zhongyun’s lifeless body in a basket, was right across the street, just as Hu Jie dramatically showed it in Though I am Gone.
I wanted to go onto the grounds but the school was gated with a manned guard station. Reacting rather than thinking we decided to just go up to the guard station and ask where the admissions office was. The guard pointed the way and let us pass. I no longer felt somber. Although I was on a murder scene I felt the adrenalin rush of being sneaky. But Carmen and I now had to come up with something to say when we got to the admissions office and we had only the time it took for us to cross the basketball court to come up with it. Inevitably we bumbled.
I had hoped to meet the principal, a Song Binbin supporter, but only got as far as the vice-principal. We walked into the office and were greeted by a surprised receptionist. We made her understand that we wanted admissions information. She summoned the vice-principal to help with communication. We told the vice-principal that we were American lawyers and our law firm was transferring us to Beijing. No, we were in-house lawyers for an American corporation that was transferring us to their Beijing office. We said that we had a fifteen, no, a thirteen year-old daughter who would be in need of a good school and we had heard a lot about this school.
The vice principal explained that they couldn’t accommodate students who didn’t speak Chinese but we quickly assured her that Harris Binbin spoke fluent Chinese. With a quizzical look she asked us if she had been born in China. Yes, I said, we had adopted her. When she was ten years old, interjected Carmen helpfully, thus enabling little Binbin to have learned Chinese as a youngster. Anyway, we really had to run, did they have some literature that we could look over and take back to show our daughter? They did and gave us two impressive brochures. I leafed through one and saw a photograph of Bian in a section that I gathered was on the different principals who had served the school. The vice-principal invited us to come back in December with Binbin so that everyone could meet everyone. We said that we would.
Back at the hotel I told Carmen to go up to our room without me; I was going to stop in the business center briefly to check email. When I got up to the room Carmen told me that the air-conditioning had been fixed. Such good news, the engineer had fixed it. She then told me to come around the side of the bed. There was a plastic wastebasket filled with melting ice. One on the other side of the bed too.
Ye Youyi and Long Yue Yuan outside a restaurant
I couldn't meet again with Mr Wang until November 27 because I had already booked up earlier days other interviews and activities.
Ms. Ye had a fundamental goodness about her that was apparent at first meeting. She felt morality at a visceral level. Right and wrong were clear moral values to her, not intellectually complex concepts, as they were to her cousin and the Red Guards and the Chinese government. Ms. Ye has written movingly of how she once loved and idolized Mao, and of how she came to be disenchanted. Her account has been reprinted here.
One exchange with Ms. Ye particularly touched me. She asked about divorce law in America. I explained that most states had what are called "no-fault" laws, meaning that there does not have to be an allegation of wrong-doing by one party of the other. A simple declaration of "irreconcilable differences" suffices. With a sincerity on her face that was so natural with her, she asked, "Ben, is that law available to all classes in America?"
I explained that the laws in America applied to everyone equally. What I thought, but didn't say because I didn't want to get off on an entirely different topic, was "She thinks there are classes in America."
The following paragraph is a combination of personal opinion and fact, labeled as such. The personal opinions are vigorously disputed by others.
There are classes in America, of course, but not in the way that Ms. Ye used the term. (opinion) The observations of Tocqueville down to present day survey research have uncovered the American's belief in class fluidity. (fact) That is, "Today's pauper can be tomorrow's millionaire;" "Anyone can grow up to be president." (fact as to the belief; opinion as to the reality) Americans do not believe that the classes in America are immutable. (fact) Most Americans, do not resent the rich, for tomorrow, or in the next generation, one or one's offspring could be the rich. (fact as to the belief) For this reason, class appeals are not often successful in American politics. (fact) The rich are admired for their achievements, not resented for their privilege (as a very general statement, fact). The American's belief in opportunity could not be sustained if there were laws, de jure or de facto, that applied to different classes, as Ms. Ye thought. (opinion; many argue that the laws are de facto different for different classes or interests)
Ye's personal story of devotion and disenchantment is consistent with that of many other memoirs that have been published. Mao was loved by many ordinary Chinese. His policies were supported by many ordinary Chinese. That love and support were drummed into the people daily. To express even tepid enthusiasm for Mao was dangerous. But there was still genuine love, personally felt, admixed with that fostered by state coercion.
The perpetrators of Red Terror violence were not forced to beat and murder. Mao created the Cultural Revolution, he encouraged revolution in the schools, he validated it after it had begun, but he and the state did not force the students to be violent. The Red Guards were created by the students themselves, not by the state. The students as individuals, and self-led groups of individuals, committed violent acts that they, individually and in self-led groups, chose of their own free will.
The government, the aging Red Guards who committed violence, and their supporters, exonerate the perpetrators as having no individual responsibility because the Cultural Revolution was a mass movement; the perpetrators did not have the free will to act otherwise.
Many, many students never committed any acts of violence, however. Rongfen Wang did not commit any violent acts, Youqin Wang did not commit any violent acts. Jang Chung did not commit any violent acts. Contrary to what Song Binbin said in Morning Sun, her presence on the rostrum of the Forbidden City on August 18 was not happenstance. She had chosen to become a Red Guard, she proudly wore its armband and ecstatically fastened a Red Guard armband onto Mao.
The government, the former Red Guards, and their supporters do not claim that the violence was right, they claim that the wrongs are not the responsibility of individuals.
This is a crucial point because it acknowledges that the perpetrators still knew the difference between right and wrong. In societies governed by laws a person cannot be held responsible for a crime if he or she did not know the difference between right and wrong. The Red Guards knew that hurting and killing people was wrong. Still, they made the personal choice to hurt and kill.
In societies governed by laws participating in a violent mass movement is called a riot; it is not a defense to individual acts of violence. Nor does state coercion exonerate an individual who has committed violent acts. The Nazis defense at Nuremberg, of having "just followed orders" was rejected. The Chinese government rejected this defense in the "Gang of Four" trial. Jiang Qing defended herself as having just followed orders: "I was Chairman Mao's dog. I bit whoever he told me to bite."
On the day between the two interviews of Ye Youyi we went to the Forbidden City. In the Imperial Garden two smiling Chinese women approached us with a camera. Of course we would take their picture. But their actions indicated that there was some misunderstanding. After several seconds of hand-gesture communication we understood that they wanted to take a picture of us. They wanted a picture of the foreigners as a memento and to show their friends.
I remembered that a similar thing had occurred in Tienanmen Square when I visited in 2006. We noticed a woman taking a picture of these unusual looking foreigners, the tall man and the blonde woman. We smiled at her and she smiled back, a little sheepishly.
Perhaps they were not unsophisticated Chinese photographing the exotic. Perhaps they were undercover state security officials who were photographing any and all foreigners.However it was, the idea of The Foreigner has always been prominent in China's relationship with the rest of the world. Non-Chinese indeed would have been a startling sight worth documenting inside the Forbidden City in imperial times. China was a walled country, Beijing a walled city, the Imperial compound a walled section of that city.
All of those physical walls have come down now but there are still psychological walls. China's Great Wall of Silence refers to these barriers. I remember a conversation with a Chinese emigre who was reluctant to speak with me. He said that he had casually told an American colleague of the Red Guard background of a fellow Chinese, also living and teaching in the U.S. Word had gotten back to the former Red Guard and he had warned against saying such things in the future to "white people."
On the morning of the 25th, we tried again with the air conditioning. The hotel had assigned a personal representative to us. Whenever we needed anything we had our own contact person. We called Summer. She came up to our room. She spoke perfect English. We explained to Summer that we needed a little winter. She asked us if we were leaving and if so when we were coming back because she was going to have an engineer look into the problem. We had a full day planned and told her the room would be empty. Summer said it would be taken care of by the time we returned.
Saturday, January 10, 2009
Wearily, Carmen responded that that’s not the way it is in a country like China, to a lesser extent that is not the way it was in her home country, Cuba. I had no way of understanding that, she said, because I had been spoiled living all my life in America. I huffed with typical American male indignation.
I spoke to an American woman on the plane back to the U.S. (She said that she had enjoyed her stay in China but, unprompted, stated, “Our hotel was so stuffy and there was no air conditioning!”) She had been in a city south of Beijing where her daughter went to school. She told me that her daughter had been out walking when she saw a man beating his wife. He knocked her to the ground. Several people were standing around watching, not stepping between them, not saying anything. The young American woman instinctively ran to the man’s wife and shielded her. The wife was bleeding profusely and several of her teeth had been knocked out. She shouted, in Chinese, “Why aren’t you doing anything? Call the police!” No one in the crowd said anything. The young woman called the police herself.
All human behavior exists on a continuum between the poles of the ideal and the taboo.
A society's choice of the ideal and the taboo establishes its value system. Bian Zhongyun’s murder is of historical importance. It was at the very beginning of the Cultural Revolution and the “Red Terror” violence of August 1966. It is also historically significant because the leader of the school at the time of the murder, Song Binbin, became famous thirteen days later when she pinned a Red Guard armband onto Mao Zedong, thus signifying Mao’s approval of the Red Terror.
But the importance of the murder is only partly historical. The murder continues to haunt that generation of Chinese, especially women, because it broke taboos. Teachers hold a special place of reverence for Chinese. The Girls' Middle School was a preparatory school for those who wished to become teachers. Yet it was a teacher, the principal of the school, who was murdered. And it was an elite school: the children of some of the highest-ranking officials in the Chinese Communist Party attended, Deng Xiaoping’s daughter and Liu Shaoqi’s daughter most prominently. “Daughters”: girls had committed this murder, “good” girls.
Throughout his reign Mao Zedong attempted to change the ancient Chinese value system. In breaking taboos, he attempted to break the most fundamental societal ties that create taboos. During the Great Leap Forward he attempted to replace the nuclear family with the commune. Loyalty to the party was decreed the highest loyalty, over the loyalty of parent to child, husband to wife, pupil to teacher. He attempted to replace personal names with numbers. As the cult of Mao developed, love for Mao became the highest form of love.
Mao once sanguinely contemplated a world after a full-scale nuclear war with the comment that if one-third of mankind would be killed, the other two-thirds would be socialist. He attempted to redefine the value of individual human life.
The decisions of the party were right because the party made the decisions. He attempted to redefine right and wrong.
When we got back to the hotel we had a message from Ye Youyi that Mr. Wang wanted to meet with me again. I was very excited. However Carmen was not. She pointed out that I had gotten absolutely no information from five hours of conversation that day with Mr. Wang on the identities of those involved in Bian's murder. I was deflated but she was right. She thought that Mr. Wang wanted to chit-chat, not provide information.
At 9:30 Ye called again. I answered and she told me that Mr. Wang wanted to meet again because "has something to tell you." We agreed on a date and time. I got off the phone and was elated. What could that mean except that he was now willing to name names? Carmen didn't believe it. There would just be more chit-chat. If Mr. Wang knew anything, he was not going to tell me. "They don't care about it," she said, referring to Chinese generally. "If they don't care about it, why do you?" I felt foolish, but again it was a valid point.
After forty-two years if Mr. Wang truly did not know the identies of even one of the several people who had actually struck Bian, it seemed foolish to believe that I, a foreigner, could learn their identifies. And if Mr. Wang did know, he hadn't told me after five hours of conversation.
As Carmen and I were talking I remembered something else that Mr. Wang had said. Song Binbin and Liu Jin had come to Mr. Wang's flat to give him the official document on Bian's "death." I had asked him if he had ever, then or since, asked who had done what to his wife. He said that he hadn't asked. That reinforced all that Carmen had said (but of course I didn't tell her that).
Mr. Wang seemed to enjoy our conversation also and at his suggestion we met on two other occasions. The length and ease of our conversations allowed me to learn more about the concept of individual responsibility in Bian’s murder. By talking with Mr. Wang I could examine the concept as it applied to the perpetrators and the things they did and didn't do, and also as applied to Bian and Mr. Wang, and what each of them did and did not do.
In the war against the Japanese the Chinese communists were renowned for fighting when captured. Handcuffed, they would kick. Fully restrained, they would spit and curse. Even when being led to their execution they would resist however they could. Bian Zhongyun went to school on August 5, 1966 knowing that she was going to be killed. The Chinese soldiers resisted the invader to the death but Bian was facing execution by her own people and passively obeyed their judgment.
I knew what Mr. Wang did and did not do that summer as the danger to Bian escalated from my reading and especially from Hu Jie’s film Though I am Gone. However I wanted to see and hear Mr. Wang tell it because I wanted the horrific facts to be in his mind when I asked the next series of questions: why he had done certain things and not others. What follows is what he said in narrative form but he did not narrate. I asked specific questions and he gave specific answers.
Mr. Wang told me that Bian was first “struggled” against on June 23, 1966. Posters had been put up on the walls and doors of the flat where he and Bian and their children lived. These posters contained crude insults and threats of violence. He showed me the photographs. Bian was beaten again on August 4. He told me she took a bath that night because she wanted her body to be clean when she was killed. He said that the next morning they said goodbye to each other by shaking hands. He told me that he watched Bian walk to the school until she disappeared from sight. In the evening he was informed that she had been killed. He showed me a picture of the body.
This is what Mr. Wang had told Hu Jie also. In Though I am Gone, Hu Jie filmed Mr. Wang standing in the spot where he stood and watched Bian walk away and the corner she turned when he saw her saw her for the last time. As I watched this painful segment the question paramount in my mind, then and ever since, was why he had let her go.
It’s an insensitive question and I would have felt badly if Mr. Wang had been offended. But I asked it, in many ways, because it was crucial.
I asked why the family hadn’t moved away after Bian had been beaten on June 23. Mr. Wang told me that that was impossible because the government controlled who could go where, which was consistent with what I had learned elsewhere.
I asked what would have happened if he had gone to the school with Bian, he said that he would not have been permitted to accompany her.
I asked him directly why he hadn’t fought back, he said because he, his children and his relatives might have been killed. That was also consistent with what I had read.
Mr. Wang had not been offended and answered with no apparent shame. I think now that guilt or shame could not have occurred in Maoist China in 1966 because of the degree of state coercion and brainwashing. I think I think that now but I am not sure, but I did not think that after this first meeting with Mr. Wang.
We stayed in a five star hotel on the outskirts of Beijing. The cool November air suited me much better than the June heat of my first visit. Though November, our room was warm so we called the front desk. They promptly sent someone up. We told him the problem; he didn’t understand. We took him over to the thermostat and pointed. He examined it, moved the switch and turned to us with a look that said, “There’s nothing wrong with it.” We mimed. We fanned our faces with our hands; we pulled on our shirts. He studied us intently but still could not grasp the nettle. Carmen took a bottle of water out of the refrigerator, put her hands around it and sighed with relief. The man’s face lit up. Carmen and I smiled at each other, pleased with our communica-tions skill. With purpose, the man walked across the room to the window and cranked it open. He turned to us and smiled with a look of satisfaction on his face at a job well done and then strode out of the room.
I spoke to seven people for approximately twenty-five hours in total. Five of those individuals were formally interviewed in seven sessions of about thirteen hours in all. Six of those sessions were at least partially tape-recorded. There are approximately eight hours of tape. There was additional informal discussion in restaurants and the like.
When the tapes are properly formatted I will make them available in their entirety by posting a link here. I am also having verbatim written transcripts prepared of some of the formal interviews. I will also post a link to them.
Everyone who I formally interviewed asked me a question: “Why are you doing this?,” and my answer was also the basis for my questions of them. Bian Zhongyun’s murder is historically significant in China, but I would not have become involved had not so many Red Guards, including, Song Binbin and Liu Tingting, immigrated to the United States. That turned the murder from a purely internal Chinese matter into one of proper to concern to Americans, or at least to this American.
The murder was also of professional interest since I am an American-trained lawyer and one whose entire career has been spent prosecuting murder cases. I could call on my professional experience in reading, researching, interviewing, understanding, comparing.
I can safely generalize about this: there is Chinese criminal law, there is American criminal law, and the differences between the two are profound. The American focuses on the individual: individual protection, individual responsibility. The most important goal in is that no innocent person ever be charged with a crime in the first place; second that that no person ever be convicted unless with overwhelming evidence and third, that the individual perpetrator(s) be identified and punished.
The Chinese government has never arrested anyone for the murder of Bian Zhongyun, nor was the case ever investigated to my knowledge. Yet the circumstances of the murder would have made for an easy prosecution. The murder occurred in broad daylight and over a period of hours, affording witnesses an ideal set of conditions to make accurate identifications of the perpetrators. In addition, witnesses knew the perpetrator(s), and there would have been dozens of eyewitnesses.
Thus, no evidentiary obstacle stood in the way of arrests. Rather, arrests were not made because the Chinese government ruled that the murder occurred in the context of a mass movement; therefore no individual persons were responsible. Only society was responsible.
The Chinese government made this ruling in a suit brought by Wang Jinyao, Bian’s widower. It reached a similar verdict on the Cultural Revolution generally: it was the greatest catastrophe in the history of the Chinese Communist Party, and was instituted by Mao Zedong. Significantly, this verdict was made in 1981, five years after Mao’s death. Thus not even Mao could be held responsible.
Long before going back to Beijing I had encountered this philosophical difference between the two systems many times in my reading and communication with others. The people whom I interviewed taught me a great deal more about this difference.My first interview was with Mr. Wang Jinyao, the widower of Bian Zhongyun. I believe that I am the first foreigner with whom he has spoken about the case. I was deeply honored that he had agreed to meet with me and discuss Bian’s murder. He is a courageous man and I admire him greatly. He has stood up for the truth since the day that his wife was murdered. He bought a camera and documented the injuries on Bian’s body, an excruciating act of devotion. For forty-two years he has kept the dress that Bian wore that day in a suitcase under his bed, along with her wrist watch, the photographs, and evidence, such as the document given him as formal acknowledgment of Bian’s “death,” signed by, among others, Song Binbin.
In the cab ride over to the meeting I was pre-occupied and a little tense. I had come all this way and had this one chance to talk to him. Ma Jisen, an author and former foreign service official had graciously agreed to host the meeting and serve as our interpreter.
Ma greeted us warmly at the door. Carmen and I gave her a basket of flowers as a small gift of appreciation. Ma said that Mr. Wang was already there and led us the few steps around the corner into the living room. Mr. Wang was sitting in an easy chair at the opposite end of the room. He rose slowly and with a wide smile. I hurried to help and got to him just as he was straightening up. We shook hands warmly and, instinctively, I hugged him.
I had brought him a gift too, one suggested by Youqin Wang, a statue of Justice. It was the perfect suggestion. I had thought of some brief prefatory remarks before giving Mr. Wang the statue. I was pleased with what I had come up with.
I told Mr. Wang that as a prosecutor, I have no client other than justice. I told him that I admired President John F. Kennedy and that President Kennedy had once said that when one man is denied justice, all men are denied justice. It gave me particular pleasure, I said, to present him with this statue of Justice on the forty-fifth anniversary of the president’s assassination. At which time my Cuban girlfriend, my Chinese hostess, and my Chinese interlocutor all simultaneously corrected me: tomorrow was November 22.
I explained to Mr. Wang the meaning of the statue. Justice was blindfolded to show her impartiality to both sides. The scales she held high in her left hand were to weigh the evidence of each side. She held the sword of punishment in her right hand, but down at her side, symbolic of the presumption of innocence, and of caution, that no one is punished unless proven guilty.
Very quickly I came to like Mr. Wang immensely. I enjoyed his company, our conversation, his personality. The meeting lasted five hours.
I prepared for all of the interviews in the same way I do in my job as prosecutor. I make notes of the subjects that I want to inquire about but I keep the interview free form so that it can develop naturally. The answers that I get and how the person answers them will change what and how I ask succeeding questions. I try to gain insight into the person by observing body language and facial expressions.
When asking questions I change subjects frequently rather than take a linear or chronological approach. Some questions I ask in an open-ended manner—“Tell me about such-and-such.,”—some call for a specific piece of information—“What did so-and-so say to you?” I will ask the same question in both ways. Some questions I write out verbatim because I want to ask them in just such a way. These are common, and commonsensical, techniques to direct the interview and to try to get accurate and truthful answers.
I decided to ask Mr. Wang in our first meeting, “Whom do you hold responsible for your wife’s murder?” I wanted to see his reaction to such a blunt question. I wanted the question to be personal: “you,” “your wife.” I chose “hold responsible” rather than “Who kicked, punched?” “Hold responsible” because I wanted him to think about general responsibility and answer based on everything that he knew, thought and suspected. I could then follow up with more specific questions to see if there was sufficient basis for his judgment. Not “Who kicked, punched?” because many lay people, both in China and America, think that a person can not be held “responsible” without personally striking a blow. Also because Mr. Wang did not witness the crime, so a perfectly honest answer would have been, “I don’t know.”
I asked the question. Without hesitating, and pointing for emphasis, he replied, “Mao.”
Friday, January 09, 2009
China is the most continuously great of the world's civilizations.
Egypt, Greece and Rome each dominated their known worlds but thereafter fell into steep decline. China has never been the greatest civilization but it has never fallen from the top tier because of its vast geography and immense population.
I took one course in Chinese history in my freshman year at college. That is the extent of my formal education on the subject. It was not a course of study that stimulated my interest in China, nor even a stirring lecturer in one class. It was the subject, for to be interested in China is to be interested in the world.
But it is so awfully far away and I had never seriously considered going. One Saturday evening in March 2006 my then girlfriend and I were relaxing over some drinks at her house. We began to talk about where we should go on our first big vacation together. We each nixed certain countries and kept others in play. I mentioned that I had always wanted to go to China.
We had another round of drinks and got on the computer "just to see." With each drink the distance to China seemed to shorten and Sunday morning we woke up the bewildered but excited possessors of reservations for two weeks in Beijing in June.
I was strictly a tourist in 2006 but never got out of Beijing, not even for the de riguer trip to the Great Wall. I became obsessed with the hutongs and my girlfriend and I spent our vacation walking these mazes and photo-documenting* them before they were all destroyed.
When I got back to America I went to a bookstore to get a serious book on China. Serious was the only criterion. MacFarquhar and Schoenhals Mao's Last Revolution had recently been published and was on the bookshelf. It was a big, thick book, from which I deduced it was a serious book and so I bought it.
That was the beginning of all this.
When I went back to Beijing in November 2008 I had a new girlfriend and a little knowledge of the Cultural Revolution. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing and the urge to generalize from the specific is powerful. I was mindful of this danger with every sentence that I wrote here. Generalizations and speculation are clearly identified rather than presented ambiguously as if they might be fact. When my observations are consistent with those made by others I note that consistency. When I make a general statement it is only when I am sure in my own mind of its correctness.
*See posts June 25-July 2, 2006 here.