About Richard Burger

Richard Burger

Richard Burger is the author of the China blog The Peking
Duck pekingduck.org, which has been publishing since 2002. The Peking Duck's posts on hot-button issues generate energetic comment threads from all sides of the political spectrum, and the site used to be a target of nationalist Chinese blogger trolls who criticized Burger for his views on China, which were often critical of the government.

Burger became an editor at the newly launched English edition of the *Global Times* in 2009, a Chinese newspaper that has a reputation for leftist, nationalist content. He is an Accidental Expat who has made his way from Hong Kong to Beijing to Taipei and finally back to Beijing.


Latest Posts by Richard Burger

Why Political Reform in China Is Inevitable

October 18, 2010 by  

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Tom Friedman, one of my least favorite columnists, has a worthy enough (if typically simplistic) column today about the need for China to embrace political change. It all boils down to economics. The country simply can’t prosper until it’s instituted meaningful political reform.

Can China continue to prosper, while censoring the Internet, controlling its news media and insisting on a monopoly of political power by the Chinese Communist Party?

I don’t think so. To be sure, China has thrived up to now — impressively — by permitting its people only economic liberty. This may have been the sole way to quickly take a vast country of 1.3 billion people from massive poverty to much-improved standards of living, basic education for all, modernized infrastructure and even riches for some urbanites.

But the Nobel committee did China a favor in sending the tacit message with its peace prize: Don’t get too cocky and think that you have rewritten the laws of gravity. The “Beijing Consensus,” of economic liberty without political liberty, may have been a great strategy for takeoff, but it won’t get you to the next level. So this might actually be a good time for Beijing to engage peaceful democracy advocates like Liu [Xiaobo], who is now serving an 11-year sentence, or the 23 retired Chinese Communist Party officials who last week published an open letter challenging the government to improve speech and press freedoms.

As China ages, Friedman contends, it has to move from low-wage manufacturing jobs to more “knowledge- and service-based jobs.” Has to. So you have the usual conflict: a government that wants to control everything and shape its people’s thinking, countered by market forces – China’s growth can only go so far without a problem-solving, innovative workforce.

Dovetailing with this column today is this new piece by my friend and fellow blogger Paul Denlinger on why Wen Jiaobao is thinking along the same lines, and why he will push for more political reform. Denlinger argues that you can’t balance so much social change with so little political change. I’ll just snip two of his seven reasons as to why this is so.

4. China’s president, Hu Jintao, is obsessed with social harmony and stability as his legacy, but Wen thinks that this is a pipe dream. Wen thinks that social change is happening faster than the party, government leadership understand.

5. Wen feels that the current leadership continues to think that economic growth is the answer to China’s problems when past growth rates are no longer possible.

This topic seems to be taking on a life of its own. I think that Liu Xiaobo’s winning the Nobel Peace Prize will continue to fan the flames, and that those who said Oslo’s choice would have no ramifications in China are dead wrong. China’s fate depends on more liberty. Wen knows it, Liu knows it, I know it. Manufacturing can’t and won’t soar forever. What’s next? China has to prepare for the inevitable.

Did Liu Xiaobo deserve the Nobel Peace Prize?

October 10, 2010 by  

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This columnist for the Guardian seems to think he doesn’t, and contends the choice may hinder the reform efforts of those in China who are more deserving of the prize.

But there are many unsung heroes – within the Communist party and “official” media, as well as among NGOs and the academy – who are working for incremental political reform, increased “public participation”, greater economic and social equality and negotiated compromise between competing interests in the complex and stratified society that is developing. These are China’s real peacemakers. They typically eschew the adversarial approach of activists like Liu – whose Charter 08 movement threw a gauntlet down to the authorities – not out of fear, but because they feel there are more constructive ways to achieve peaceful change in the Chinese social, cultural and political context.

The Nobel award will embolden those in China who are most inclined to confrontational tactics. It may well also prompt renewed state security surveillance of reform-minded academics and NGOs, which may, in turn, nudge some more of them over the line from pro-reform advocacy to outright dissidence.

Beyond doubt, though, it will strengthen the argument, within China, that the west is determined to derail China’s progress by promoting internal strife.

Like Hu Jia before him, Liu Xiaobo has done a masterful job of capturing the eye of the media. Despite the relatively small number of signatures on his Charter 08 petition, a day hasn’t gone by in the past year (when I started getting Google alerts for Charter 08) without at least one, and usually more, stories in the international press about it.

As for the complaint that the selection of Liu Xiaobo will only reinforce the CCP-cultivated mindset that the West is “against China,” all I can say is that shouldn’t be a consideration in the selection of the Nobel Peace Prize winner. Just about everything the West does confirms they are “anti-China” in the eyes of the Chinese, and once we let our sensitivity to this type of charge determine our actions you’ll know the West has totally sold out. I mean, should Aung San Suu Kyi not have received her Sakharov Freedom Award because it would turn Myanmar further against the West?

My personal feelings about the prize going to Liu Xiaobo: He’s a courageous man and he has to be credited with turning the spotlight on human rights and political reform in China. Was he the best choice for the prize? I’ll leave that up to you. What I will say is that I find articles like this to be irritating in that they follow the Shaun Rein model of treating China like a teenage boy and advocating that we tiptoe around any destruction the adolescent with raging hormones leaves in its wake. How low must we bow in order not to “hurt the feelings” of China?

Most irritating sentence in the article:

But it is hard to see what contribution he has made to peace, in China or beyond, or how this award will further peace.

Dude, it’s about awareness. What did Martin Luther King or Mother Teresa do that contributed to world peace? What they did was elevate the consciousness of millions around the world to injustices. While Liu may not have been my No. 1 pick for this honor, it should be clear why he was chosen: like him or not, he brought the need for political reform and human rights in China to the forefront of the global psyche. His selection may not have been the best, but it can easily be justified.

For a splendid piece on Liu Xiaobo and the Peace prize please go here. The journalist, Gady Epstein, first notes that there are many unknown dissidents languishing in the maze of China’s legal apparatus. Most of these activists who disappear are all but forgotten. Living in China, where authoritarianism is taken for granted, it’s easy for us to become “desensitized” to their plight. From there, Epstein arrives at a splendid conclusion:

This has been the unfortunate fate of most Chinese dissidents, to be remembered by only a few and known to very few of their own countrymen. Chinese writer Zha Jianying wrote movingly of this in a 2007 New Yorker article about her imprisoned dissident brother Zha Jianguo, posing the existential question of what good her brother’s sacrifice has done.

This Nobel Peace Prize helps answer that existential question. It has been awarded to one man, and his wife, Liu Xia, is rightfully proud of her husband. She will never have to worry that her husband will be forgotten, and she knows that many around the world and some within her country will learn what he stands for. But the award also confers a proud legacy to so many other Chinese dissidents who have been forgotten. More people around the world and inside China will know what they all stand for, and for a time will remember them and their cause a little better. That is one deeper meaning of this prize.

Who can say it any better? I hope the Guardian columnist finds time to read it.

China’s Mystifying National Holidays

October 3, 2010 by  

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Last week I arrived in Beijing after a few days in Hangzhou and met up with some old colleagues at our old office. It was a Saturday, but they were all working – the price they had to pay for the three-day Mid-Autumn Festival holiday. Get three weekdays off, but pay back one of those days by working on the weekend. One Chinese colleague lashed out at the government for what she called the world’s most irrational holiday system.

I was delighted to see a piece in yesterday’s NY Times that captures just how strange a system it is.

Beyond the frustration of overloaded transportation and jam-packed tourist attractions, there is the problem of figuring out what has become a decidedly confusing rubric of work and vacation days.

According to a government-mandated holiday schedule that took effect in 2008, workers were given three consecutive days off last week for the Mid-Autumn Festival, but they were required to make up two of those by working the Saturday and Sunday on either end of the holiday.

This give-and-take arrangement is then repeated for the National Day holiday, with employees enjoying seven straight days off — Friday through Oct. 7 — except only three of those are official free days. (The four “gifted days” will be made up over the weekends before and after.)

If you have trouble with the math, you are in good company…. A cheat sheet that has been making the rounds on the Internet sums up the pattern as such, beginning Sept. 18: One day off, three days on, three days off, six days on, seven days off, two days on, one day off.

Confusion aside, many Chinese resent having to pay back some of their vacation days.

The article does a good job of explaining how China’s “Golden Weeks” got started and how they’re being changed, and why so many Chinese feel exasperated with such a complicated mess.

New “Super-Bus” To Solve Beijing’s Traffic Woes?

August 25, 2010 by  

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They’re saying this contraption can ease Beijing’s infamous traffic by up to 30 percent, though special track will need to be laid everywhere. Where was it when I was living there?

A prototype of the super bus is expected to roll out onto the road by December, three months after the 40-day-long design phase is completed, the official Global Times newspaper reported today.

It is expected to commence trials on a six-km stretch of road along the West Sixth Ring Road in Mentougou district.

The concept of the ‘straddle’ bus is unique as cars could drive under its huge uplifted passenger compartment between its 2.2-meter-long legs. The two bus legs leave a ‘tunnel’ wide enough for two lanes of small or medium-sized vehicles — 1.55 to 1.6 meters high, in general — to drive right through under the moving bus.

This is definitely an “only-in-China” type of innovation, where size truly matters. More power to them if the eco-friendly super-bus actually works.

Update: Speaking of traffic in and around Beijing, it’s interesting to see that this story of China’s 60-mile traffic jam has gone mainstream.

China and U.S. Debt

August 19, 2010 by  

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For anyone who has the time and fortitude, there’s a very long, detailed and brutal post up on Zero Hedge about China’s insane (in the author’s eye) purchase of US debt and its long term implications, all of which, he says, are terrible.

Not being an economist or a prophet, I can’t say whether he’s onto something or not, but it sure makes for some interesting reading. I’m just going to quote the opening and closing grafs for their sheer evocativeness:

Some people in Asia burn joss paper, also called ghost money, on the Lunar New Year, to give their deceased ancestors something to spend in the afterlife. Because ghost money doesn’t represent a claim on any actual goods or services in this world, there is no reason for its issuers to exercise any particular restraint, and in Singapore it is possible to find notes issued by the First Bank of Hell, with the mythical Jade Emperor’s picture on the front, in denominations ranging into the millions and billions of dollars. Perhaps we’re counting on this charming tradition to make Asian investors comfortable with the prospect of continuing to add to their holdings of European and American sovereign debt, despite the obvious fact that the money they’ve already lent us is money they’ll never get a chance to spend in this life….

In fact, despite its façade of capitalism and modernity, the Party is still making Mao’s mistake of acting first and thinking later. Lending a lot of money to people who will never pay you back is only a symptom of the underlying folly – you have to believe in something that isn’t true to believe that such an insane project is going to work out in the way you want it to, and any fixed untrue belief will eventually injure you somehow….

So modern China is a sort of suicide machine, a train to nowhere with no emergency brake. It is deliberately designed to prevent the passengers from being able to avoid a crash. Not only does the Party espouse false beliefs, it seeks to prevent Chinese people from forming their own, true beliefs in the light of all the available information. Now it turns out it has had them all working long days these last many years just to pile up credit with the Jade Emperor. And who’s down there in Hell, spending it all, no doubt on dancing girls and lavish banquets, and laughing uproariously at your present difficulties? Perhaps the Great Helmsman himself, with Jiang Qing pouring out the wine

In order to see how/why he arrives at this extreme conclusion you need to wade through the whole thing.

Let me say straightaway that I have serious issues with this article, which has a decidedly ethnocentric anti-China slant (though it’s none too kind to the US either). Despite the author’s being a post-doctoral fellow at Princeton, the piece is riddled with ridiculous assertions (anyone who disagrees with the CCP’s policies gets sent off to work camps) and asinine references to Tiananmen Square and Chinese history. But his core point about the danger of China’s strategy-free purchase of US debt and where it might lead is quite interesting, and it’s definitely a fun read (as are the comments).

Rich China, Poor China

August 17, 2010 by  

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The day we all knew would arrive is here, and according to Evan Osnos of the New Yorker, China doesn’t know quite how to respond.

How did China respond to the exhilarating news that it has sprinted past Japan to become the world’s second largest economy? Here’s what the Global Times newspaper says today, “The world ranking has brought China jealousy and vigilance…. Despite growth in G.D.P, which is only a number, natural disasters will continue to hit China, and American warships and Congress will continue to be aggressive towards China.”

Um—so you’re saying there won’t be cake? While the story has rated front-page treatment in the U.S., it has sent China into a frenzy of self-flagellation, in the hope of reminding people that it is still home to a lot of very poor people.

Obviously China’s new No. 2 status puts the country in a bind and reinforces the conundrum that China is an unbelievably rich and a desperately poor country. It’s awkward for the propagandists who on the one hand want to gloat about China’s ascending status, but who must also make sure the people understand that China doesn’t have the resources to end poverty.

Of course, real poverty (the kind that leaves people morbidly malnourished or even starving) has been all but eradicated in China, but, to put it in the words of a former Washington Post bureau chief, much of China remains “a third-, fourth- and fifth-world country” with a majority of its population living below the poverty line. On the other side of the spectrum we have examples everywhere of those with money to burn. China is so rich, and so poor.

Of course, this is in some ways the oldest story on earth, and we have an increasing and inexcusable divide between the haves and the have-nots here in America, an open wound that’s only going to deepen and fester as unemployment continues to rise in what seems to be direct correlation with the salaries and bonuses dished out on Wall Street. The contrast in China, however, is a bit more dramatic, and the middle class a far smaller segment of China’s demographic. Osnos illustrates this point:

[E]very full-time China observer has had the experience of greeting a giddy visitor for dinner, after he or she has done the Shanghai-Beijing loop or visited a top university. You inevitably end up playing the role of the local grump, trying to talk your glassy-eyed guest down from the chandelier. Standing outside the bus station in Xining earlier this month, watching the migrants stream in and out, I made a note to bring guests who want a fuller picture of China. It’s only a couple of hours by plane from Beijing, and it’s not a red herring. To reverse the roles for a moment, a visit to the Port Authority bus terminal might not showcase America’s best angle, but if I were a Chinese investor trying to understand how America lives beneath the top-line measures of its strength, I would probably want to make the visit.

China’s spin doctors are going to face an even tougher balancing act now as they send out the message that the country has reached a new economic milestone, yet remains in many ways poor and helpless. I like the way James Kynge expressed this contradiction in China Shakes the World back in 2006,

Although China is poised to overtake the UK to become the world’s fourth largest economy, on a per capita basis it ranks just above the world’s poorest nations, with an average income of just over $1,000 a year. Even if the country’s gross domestic product one day becomes as large as that of the US, simple mathematics ordains that its people at that time will on average be only one-sixth as wealthy as Americans.

Look at how far China has come even since then. And none of this is to take away from China’s huge successes and unparalleled growth trajectory. It’s just an important reminder that there’s more than one China, and that as China’s GDP grows, the higher the tightrope will be strung for China’s propagandists who need to convey two distinctly discordant messages. I don’t envy them their jobs.

A Great Leap Forward

July 20, 2010 by  

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The Great Hall of the People, Beijing

Richard McGregor’s book The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers, is yet another must-read book on contemporary China and probably the single best book on the CCP you can find.

I can’t say there was anything truly shocking to be found in its pages, but maybe that’s because there’s nothing the CCP can do that would shock me anymore. What McGregor does beautifully is demystify the CCP and its “relevant organs” through a masterful combination of anecdote and analysis that keeps the book taut, even exciting. His now-famous description of the “red phones” that sit atop the desks of 50 or so ueber-elite Chinese executives, and all that the phones represent – secrecy, privilege, control – is a great example of why this book is so entertaining, even when it’s scary.

I love the way McGregor writes.

China under Mao Zedong had much in common with other totalitarian systems. To borrow the oft-used phrase, terror was the system for extended periods of Mao’s rule. In the last three decades, the Communist Party has turned that formula around. Terror is just a side effect these days, used relatively sparingly and, in large part, reluctantly. In modern China, the system runs on seduction rather than suppression. It aims to co-opt, not coerce, the population. But even so, terror remains essential to the system’s survival and is deployed without embarrassment when required….[This resorting to terror] is evidence that behind the Party’s boisterous, boasting exterior lies a regime with a profound appreciation of its limited legitimacy and fragile mandate.

The book is rich in examples and clear-headed analysis of an array of (relatively) recent phenomena – the San Lu cover-up, the institutionalized corruption, SARS, the harassment of lawyers, the hyper-paranoia over public perception of the party. And it is remarkably balanced. McGregor never portrays the Party as evil, though it is certainly something to fear.

I’m not formally reviewing this book because there are many excellent reviews out there and I can’t add much to them. I did want to focus briefly, however, on one chapter that captivated me, titled Tombstone, about a book of that name written by a former Xinhua journalist, and one who was particularly high up, Yang Jisheng. For me, this was by far the most intense chapter in this whole intense book.

One of the most popular fenqing arguments, and one I’ve heard from Western friends as well, is that the estimated 30-40 million Chinese who died in the famine during the Great Leap Forward was a number pulled out of thin air by CCP-hating Westerners, and that the number bears little correlation to the facts. Sometimes I wondered myself; I had read that the estimate of 35 million dead was from Chinese sources, but it wasn’t until I read this chapter that I fully understood where the number came from and how it was arrived at.

This chapter tells a story of incredible bravery, and also one of hope. What Yang did would have been a capital offense under Mao, and probably under Deng. He performed more than a decade of research and meticulously chronicled the deaths from the famine, and he did something that in China can be dangerous in the extreme: he told the truth about history and challenged the Party narrative. McGregor spells out the risks:

On events such as the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, the suppression pf the Tibet uprising in 1959, the pro-democracy protests in 1989 and so on, the Party simply announced it verdict after intense deliberations. Party officials are bound by these pronouncements on history, whatever they think as individuals…You either support the decision wholeheartedly or you are out. The Party’s verdict then, in theory, becomes the collective opinion of the entire country and its 1.3 billion people. Chinese who wish to agitate publicly for an alternative view do so at their own risk.

And yet Yang wrote and published Tombstone (in Hong Kong – two volumes, more than 1,000 pages) and he was not punished. Needless to say you won’t find many copies of it for sale in the Mainland, but Yang was never arrested or even harassed. China simply doesn’t do that anymore, McGregor explains. If you aren’t directly threatening todays CCP with threats,real or perceived, that might undermine its power, you can pretty much say what you want (and I know, there are some egregious exceptions).

The descriptions of what the peasants endured during the GLF, familiar as they are, are still heartbreaking. And forget about the line that it was simply another naturally occurring famine. No, not at all. It was a man-made event, and had it not been for Mao and his ego and his dogma it wouldn’t have happened.

I wrote in the margins of every page in this chapter. It was a scene of mayhem and death and cannibalism the likes of which we can never imagine. I had read about Tombstone last year, but never knew the full story behind it. Its publication highlights the Party’s increasing toleration. But always, of course, within limits.

I meant for this to be a very short post and seem to have wandered all over the place. Bottom line: Buy the book if you want to really understand how the Party manages to keep on going, and how its mind works, complex and secretive, yet almost always predictable.

One last quote:

China has long known something that many in developed countries are only now beginning to grasp, that the Chinese Communist Party and its leaders have never wanted to be the west when they grow up. For the foreseeable future, it looks as though their wish, to bestride the world as a colossus on their own implacable terms, will come true.

That should get each of us thinking. Like it or not, China continues more than ever to shake the world.

Pressure on Chinese Gays to Marry Guarantees Lives of Loneliness

June 28, 2010 by  

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This is not a new topic. But it’s not one you normally see in your US newspaper, and I was surprised to see a syndicated article on it today in the front section of my local rag, the Arizona Republic. It was a topic I was all too familiar with.

They think that Yu Xiaofei, with her cropped black hair and dark-rimmed glasses, looks too much like a tomboy, and they think that Jiang Yifei’s distaste for children is suspicious.

So what are these young Chinese women to do? They’re 24, out of college, employed, living at home – and they’re in love with each other and desperate to find a way to stay together.

“The most important thing is that we cannot hurt our parents,” Yu said. “They put a lot on us.”

That means finding two men in a similar predicament. Their plan is simple. Yu and Jiang will find a gay male couple, arrange a living situation and lay down some ground rules. Then, they’ll pair off with the men and get married, just as their parents expect them to do.

They still have time, and they’re using it to take in every last kiss and touch before these gestures become even more complicated than they already are. Still, their proposed arrangement is no grand tragedy for the pair – it’s practical.

Beneath it all are the Confucian family values that still underpin Chinese society: As a son or daughter, it’s your duty to maintain and carry on the family line by having children.

“We have to – that’s tradition,” said Jiang, who sports long caramel-colored hair and clinking bangle bracelets. “That’s what (our parents) think we should do.”

The story does not have a comforting ending. Yes, in Shanghai and maybe some other big cities it’s possible to live a relatively open life. But for those without the means to get there and live there, there are few good options. China is more liberal and open now than ever before, but social stigma remains a powerful force.

Few topics about China have disturbed and fascinated me as much as the tragic situation most gay Chinese face due to family pressure to marry. I actually debated writing an extended article or even a book about it during my last few months in China but gave up the idea for the simple reason that there wasn’t enough to write about – nearly everyone I interviewed about it had the same point of view: We have to get married. We cannot disappoint our parents. The few that decided never to marry were aware they were putting their family to shame. They felt bad about it but decided they couldn’t lead a double life, one that would inevitably cause terrible suffering to the woman they married. I respected them for this. But this forced them to be totally dishonest with their parents. To keep up the act, they developed a script to dodge the questions about when they were getting married. It, too, was an act of deception. To the day their parents passed away, they would have to lie to them.

Before this blog had any readers, I wrote a post back in 2002, when life for gays in China was much, much different. I described their lives as a plight. The social safety net then was less wide than it is today, and things have improved a thousandfold. But still, there is an element of plight to the lives of most gays in China. The pressure to marry makes it virtually inevitable.

One of the most common and, to the Western mindset, most bizarre arguments I heard from gay friends I knew in China was that this was a temporary situation, as if they were “going through a phase”: When it is time for me to marry I will. I will love my wife and I will have children and I will never be gay again. I didn’t argue back, or say I thought this was impossible. I tried to ask questions, like, “Do you really think you can simply change your sexuality the way you would a light bulb? Do you think this would be fair to your wife, to hide from her such a key a part of yourself?” The response was usually the same. I will become straight.

Again, if you are in Beijing or Shanghai it’s easy to get a very skewed perspective of this situation. I remember talking on the phone to a friend in Hefei who was sobbing hysterically. “Why did I have to be born in Hefei? Why couldn’t I have been born in Beijing?” I cannot put into words the misery of this conversation. It was nothing less than seeing one’s life as a death sentence, as torture, as a life without a future.

I gave up the idea of writing at length about this for two reasons: experts like Li Yinhe were much more qualified to do this sort of thing than I, with my intermediate-level Chinese, and because of the uniformity of the responses I heard – too similar to sustain an entire book. Not all were hysterical or hopeless, like my friend in Hefei. But nearly all the responses boiled down to this: we have no choice but to marry, to do something we know is wrong, that goes against who we are, and that sentences us to a life of duplicity, desperation and unfulfilled dreams. And yes, it’s better than it used to be and it’s better in the big cities. But for the vast majority of gay men and women in China, life promises to be a well of loneliness.

By nature, anyone who is gay needs to come to terms with shame. The shame of bullying, of knowing they are different, of having to create a double life, of knowing they are disappointing their parents. Despite the idiotic arguments of Focus on the Family and moralists on the far right, no one ever chooses to be gay. No one chooses bullying, deception, stigmatization and pain. So being gay is hard enough as it is, no matter how liberal your society. But to be gay in China is a unique tragedy, especially for those who can’t afford to live and study overseas or to live in a city like Shanghai.

As the article says, maybe there will be some years of freedom, a short time in the life of gays in China when they can be themselves, before the time arrives when they need to marry.

Yu Jing said that despite the hardships she’s suffered with her parents – watching her father cry, her mother screaming at her – it’s these youthful days without weighty expectations that she’ll recall throughout her life.

“I think it’s worth (dating girls),” she said. “Maybe five years later I’ll be a very normal person in this society, but I can still remember my past.”

How terrible, to have only a memory of a brief, happy time when you were free to be yourself – until the day comes when night falls like a hammer, and for the rest of your life you are sentenced to live a lie.

There is so much I love about Chinese culture. The fixed notion of family and face before all else is not one of those things.

Update: If this topic interests you, you absolutely must read this piece from several weeks ago by my friend Zhang Yajun.

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