Chinese Communists Plan Years in Prison for Lawyer-Journalist Who Documented Government Failings in Covid Crisis

(p. A15) In one video, during the lockdown in Wuhan, she filmed a hospital hallway lined with rolling beds, the patients hooked up to blue oxygen tanks. In another, she panned over a community health center, noting that a man said he was charged for a coronavirus test, even though residents believed the tests would be free.

At the time, Zhang Zhan, a 37-year-old former lawyer turned citizen journalist, embodied the Chinese people’s hunger for unfiltered information about the epidemic. Now, she has become a symbol of the government’s efforts to deny its early failings in the crisis and promote a victorious narrative instead.

Ms. Zhang abruptly stopped posting in May [2020], after several months of dispatches. The police later revealed that she had been arrested, accused of spreading lies. On Monday [Dec. 28, 2020], she will go to court, in the first known trial of a chronicler of China’s coronavirus crisis.

Ms. Zhang has continued to challenge the authorities from jail. Soon after her arrest, Ms. Zhang began a hunger strike, according to her lawyers. She has become gaunt and drained but has refused to eat, the lawyers said, maintaining that her strike is her form of protest against her unjust detention.

“She said she refuses to participate in the trial. She says it’s an insult,” Ren Quanniu, one of the lawyers, said after visiting Ms. Zhang in mid-December in Shanghai, where she is being held.

Ms. Zhang’s prosecution is part of the Chinese Communist Party’s continuing campaign to recast China’s handling of the outbreak as a succession of wise, triumphant moves by the government. Critics who have pointed to officials’ early missteps have been arrested, censored or threatened by police; three other citizen journalists disappeared from Wuhan before Ms. Zhang did, though none of the rest has been publicly charged.

Prosecutors accused Ms. Zhang of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” — a frequent charge for government critics — and recommended between four and five years in prison.

For the full story, see:

Vivian Wang. “Wuhan Citizen Journalist Faces Trial for Posts in Pandemic.” The New York Times, First Section (Sunday, December 27, 2020): A15.

(Note: bracketed dates added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated Dec. 27, 2020, and has the title “She Chronicled China’s Crisis. Now She Is Accused of Spreading Lies.”)

Communist Dictator Kim Jong-un Is “Really Sorry” for North Koreans’ Economic Suffering

(p. A10) “Our five-year economic development plan has fallen greatly short of its goals in almost all sectors,” Mr. Kim said in his opening speech to the ruling Workers’ Party’s eighth congress that began in Pyongyang, the capital, on Tuesday [Jan. 5, 2021].

. . .

. . . he had little to show on the economic front. He apologized to his people for failing to live up to their expectations. “I am really sorry for that,” he said, appearing to fight back tears. “My efforts and sincerity have not been sufficient enough to rid our people of the difficulties in their life.”

For the full story, see:

Choe Sang-Hun. “Kim Admits That He’s Failed In His 5-Year-Plan to Rebuild North Korea’s Feeble Economy.” The New York Times (Thursday, January 7, 2021): A10.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed date, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated Jan. 15, 2021, and has the title “North Korea Party Congress Opens With Kim Jong-un Admitting Failures.”)

Black Cuban Dissident Rapper: “Donald Trump 2020! That’s My President”

(p. A12) HAVANA — In another era, the detention of a young Cuban dissident may have gone completely unnoticed. But when the rapper Denis Solís was arrested by the police, he did something that has only recently become possible on the island: He filmed the encounter on his cellphone and streamed it live on Facebook.

The stream last month prompted his friends in an artist collective to go on a hunger strike, which the police broke up after a week, arresting members of the group. But their detentions were also caught on cellphone videos and shared widely over social media, leading hundreds of artists and intellectuals to stage a demonstration outside the Culture Ministry the next day.

This swift mobilization of protesters was a rare instance of Cubans openly confronting their government — and a stark example of how having widespread access to the internet through cellphones is testing the power balance between the communist regime and its citizens.

. . .

In a country hammered by U.S. sanctions, the politics of some in the group have raised eyebrows. Mr. Solís is a die-hard Trump supporter: In the video he posted of his arrest, he screamed: “Donald Trump 2020! That’s my president.”

For the full story, see:

Ed Augustin, Natalie Kitroeff and Frances Robles. “‘An Awakening’: Cubans’ Access to the Internet Fosters Dissent.” The New York Times (Thursday, December 10, 2020): A12.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated Jan. 11, 2021, and has the title “‘On Social Media, There Are Thousands’: In Cuba, Internet Fuels Rare Protests.”)

Communist Dictatorship Was Not Inevitable in Russia in 1917

(p. 14) A professor at Bard College, McMeekin argues that one of the seminal events of modern history was largely a matter of chance. Well-written, with new details from archival research used for vivid descriptions of key events, “The Russian Revolution” comes nearly three decades after Richard Pipes’s masterpiece of the same name.

. . .

Far from the hopeless backwater depicted in most histories, McMeekin argues, Russia’s economy was surging before the war, with a growth rate of 10 percent a year — like China in the early 21st century. “The salient fact about Russia in 1917,” he writes, “is that it was a country at war,” yet he adds that the Russian military acquitted itself well on the battlefield after terrible setbacks in 1915, with morale high in early 1917. “Knowing how the story of the czars turns out, many historians have suggested that the Russian colossus must always have had feet of clay,” he writes. “But surely this is hindsight. Despite growing pains, uneven economic development and stirrings of revolutionary fervor, imperial Russia in 1900 was a going concern, its very size and power a source of pride to most if not all of the czar’s subjects.”

Nicholas II — rightly characterized as an incompetent reactionary in most histories — is partly rehabilitated here. His fundamental mistake, McMeekin says, was to trust his liberal advisers, who urged him to go to war, then conspired to remove him from power after protests over bread rations led to a military mutiny. Even the royal family’s trusted faith healer Rasputin, the ogre of conventional wisdom, largely gets a pass for sagely advising the czar that war would prompt his downfall.

Although McMeekin agrees the real villains are the ruthless Bolsheviks, he reserves most criticism for the hapless liberals.

. . .

Having taken power, the Bolsheviks turned on the unwitting soldiers and peasants who were among their most fervent supporters, unleashing a violent terror campaign that appropriated land and grain, and that turned into a permanent class war targeting ever-larger categories of “enemies of the people.” Unconcerned about Russia’s ultimate fate, they were pursuing their greater goal of world revolution.

For the full review, see:

Gregory Feifer. “The Best-Laid Plans.” The New York Times Book Review (Sunday, June 11, 2017): 14-15.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date June 6, 2017, and has the title “A New History Recalibrates the Villains of the Russian Revolution.”)

The book under review is:

McMeekin, Sean. The Russian Revolution: A New History. New York: Basic Books, 2017.

Chinese Communists Arrest Journalist Who Wrote on “Tiananmen Massacre”

(p. A17) The journalist, Du Bin, 48, was detained on Wednesday by police officers in Beijing, said his sister, Du Jirong. Police officers told Ms. Du on Thursday that her brother had been placed under administrative detention for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” The vaguely worded offense is one that the government often uses to quell activism and discussion of social and political issues.

Friends of Mr. Du, who worked in the past as a freelance photographer for The New York Times, say they believe his detention may have been connected to several of his recent book projects.

One book, published in Taiwan in 2017, was a historical account of what is known as the “siege of Changchun,” when Communist troops blockaded the northeastern Chinese city in 1948 to starve out their rival Nationalist soldiers, leading to the deaths of at least 160,000 civilians.

. . .

It is not the first time that Mr. Du’s work has provoked the ire of the authorities in China. In 2013, he was detained for just over a month after releasing a documentary about a Chinese forced labor camp and after publishing a book, “Tiananmen Massacre,” about the government crackdown in 1989 on pro-democracy protesters in Beijing.

For the full story, see:

Amy Qin. “Beijing Police Hold Journalist Critical of Communist Party.” The New York Times (Saturday, December 19, 2020): A17.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Dec. 10, 2020, and has the title “Chinese Journalist Who Documented Communist History Is Detained in Beijing.”)

Zoom, Based in China, Censored Meetings Honoring Victims of Tiananmen Massacre

(p. B4) In a novel case, federal prosecutors on Friday [Dec. 18, 2020] brought criminal charges against an executive at Zoom, the videoconferencing company, accusing him of engaging in a conspiracy to disrupt and censor video meetings commemorating one of the most politically sensitive events in China.

Prosecutors said the executive, Xinjiang Jin, who is based in China, fabricated reasons to suspend accounts of people in New York who were hosting memorials on the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre and coordinated with Chinese officials to identify potentially problematic meetings.

He is accused of working with others to log into the video meetings under aliases using profile pictures that related to terrorism or child pornography. Afterward, Mr. Jin would report the meetings for violating terms of service, prosecutors said.

At least four meetings commemorating the massacre this year — largely attended by U.S.-based users — were terminated as a result of Mr. Jin’s actions, according to prosecutors.

For the full story, see:

Nicole Hong. “U.S. Charges China-Based Zoom Executive.” The New York Times (Saturday, December 19, 2020): B4.

(Note: bracketed date added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Dec. 18, 2020, and has the title “Zoom Executive Accused of Disrupting Calls at China’s Behest.”)

Lenin, Not Stalin, Started “Severe Censorship” and “Terror Against Political Enemies”

(p. 15) With all the inevitable attention on the Bolshevik takeover in October 1917, when Lenin and Leon Trotsky seized power from the ill-fated provisional government, the extraordinary events of February and March should not be forgotten. It was then that unexpected riots over lack of food and fuel by thousands of people in the imperial capital of Petrograd and the ensuing mutiny by garrison troops compelled Czar Nicholas II to abdicate, ending 300 years of Romanov rule and handing political authority to a group of high-minded liberal figures. “Russia became the freest country in the world,” Merridale writes, “as the new government granted an amnesty for political prisoners, abolished the death penalty and dissolved what was left of the detested secret police.” (It also abolished the infamous Pale of Settlement, which had required the czar’s Jewish subjects to live within a defined area of the country; they were now made equal before the law.)

The provisional government inherited power from a discredited autocracy that had resisted any sensible move to establish a constitutional monarchy. Leaders like Alexander Kerensky, Paul Miliukov and Georgy Lvov tried in vain to establish a stable government and withstand the appeal of extreme forces. But the Romanov collapse was so sudden and so thorough that it left no credible institutions capable of governing effectively, let alone in the midst of widespread social turmoil, an imploding economy and the devastations of World War I.

. . .

. . . it was Lenin himself who made it clear that the Bolsheviks would reject democratic values. He “had not traveled back to join a coalition,” Merridale writes, but to undermine the provisional government and establish a dictatorship in the name of the proletariat. It was Lenin who instituted severe censorship, established one-party rule and resorted to terror against his political enemies. Stalin took these measures to further extremes for his own sinister purposes. Merridale is right to recall Winston Churchill’s famous observation about Lenin’s return. The Germans, Churchill wrote, “turned upon Russia the most grisly of all weapons. They transported Lenin in a sealed truck like a plague bacillus from Switzerland to Russia.”

For the full review, see:

Joshua Rubenstein. “Fast-Tracking the Revolution.” The New York Times Book Review (Sunday, June 11, 2017): 15.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date June 9, 2017, and has the title “Lenin’s Return From Exile Put Russia on the Fast Track to Revolution.”)

The book under review is:

Merridale, Catherine. Lenin on the Train. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2017.

Even Alibaba Entrepreneur Jack Ma Cannot Speak His Mind in Communist China

(p. A1) Chinese President Xi Jinping personally made the decision to halt the initial public offering of Ant Group, which would have been the world’s biggest, after controlling shareholder Jack Ma infuriated government leaders, according to Chinese officials with knowledge of the matter.

. . .

In a speech on Oct. 24 [2020], days before the financial-technology giant was set to go public, Mr. Ma cited Mr. Xi’s words in what top government officials saw as an effort to burnish his own image and tarnish that of regulators, these people said.

At the event in Shanghai, Mr. Ma, the country’s richest man, quoted Mr. Xi saying, “Success does not have to come from me.” As a result, the tech executive said, he wanted to help solve China’s financial problems through innovation. Mr. Ma bluntly criticized the government’s increasingly tight financial regulation for holding back technology development, part of a long-running battle between Ant and its overseers.

. . .

During his 21-minute speech, he criticized Beijing’s campaign to control financial risks. “There is no systemic risk in China’s financial system,” he said. “Chinese finance has no system.”

He also took aim at the regulators, saying they “have only focused on risks and overlooked development.” He accused big Chinese banks of harboring a “pawnshop mentality.” That, Mr. Ma said, has “hurt a lot of entrepreneurs.”

His remarks went viral on Chinese social media, where some users applauded Mr. Ma for daring to speak out. In Beijing, though, senior officials were angry, and officials long calling for tighter financial regulation spoke up.

After Mr. Xi decided that Ant’s IPO needed to be halted, financial regulators led by Mr. Liu, the leader’s economic czar, convened on Oct. 31 and mapped out an action plan to take Mr. Ma to task, according to the government officials familiar with the decision-making.

For the full story, see:

Jing Yang and Lingling Wei. “China’s President Personally Scuttled Record Ant IPO.” The Wall Street Journal (Friday, Nov 13, 2020): A1 & A9.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed year, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date November 12, 2020, and has the title “China’s President Xi Jinping Personally Scuttled Jack Ma’s Ant IPO.”)

Censored Chinese Liberals Admire Trump’s “No-Filter Approach to Free Speech”

(p. A27) People like the Hong Kong-based media tycoon Jimmy Lai think a return of the Washington consensus would be a mistake. A fervent supporter of the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, Mr. Lai is also a staunch Trump supporter.

“Biden will try to make progress through trade-offs, but that hasn’t worked in the past,” Mr. Lai told me by phone recently. “Trump has succeeded by playing hardball.”

Mr. Lai pointed out, for example, that Mr. Trump had dramatically increased weapons sales to Taiwan, a self-governing island off China’s coast that China claims as its own, a move that could help deter an attack from the mainland. Past U.S. administrations had tiptoed around weapons sales for fear of angering Beijing, arguably weakening Taiwan’s defenses in the process.

Yet these diplomatic issues are secondary to what really interests many Chinese liberal intellectuals: the American culture wars, in which some see a reflection of the debates about the limits of free speech in China. Given how robust public discussion is in the United States, the comparison may seem overdrawn. But it speaks to the intensity with which many Chinese thinkers want Western liberal democracies to remain free.

The issue of political correctness in particular fascinates them, with many seeing in it uncomfortable echoes of their own experiences in a society where speech is severely constrained. They perceive Mr. Trump as embodying the sort of no-filter approach to free speech that they dream of, while viewing American liberalism as having strayed from its core values.

For the full commentary, see:

Ian Johnson. “Why Chinese Liberals Like Trump.” The New York Times (Friday, November 20, 2020): A27.

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date Nov. 18, 2020, and has the title “Why Do Chinese Liberals Embrace American Conservatives?”)

Chinese Communists “Denounced Pet Dogs as a Self-Indulgent Trend Imported From the West”

(p. A13) HONG KONG — In a southwestern corner of China, walking a dog can potentially get the animal killed by the authorities.

After receiving complaints of dogs biting children in Weixin County in Yunnan Province, officials have said they would ban dog walking and put in place a harsh three-strike penalty system.

For pet owners who flouted the ban the first strike would be a warning. Caught a second time, they would be fined. For a third offense, their dogs would be seized and killed, according to the new rules, and apparently regardless of the dogs’ behavior. The ban is set to take effect on Friday [November 20, 2020].

. . .

As recently as 2014, an op-ed in People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s official newspaper, denounced pet dogs as a self-indulgent trend imported from the West and a blight on “social peace and harmony.” It said that the animals’ droppings were like “land mines” on China’s streets.

For the full story, see:

Tiffany May and Amy Chang Chien. “For Some Dogs in China, A Walk Is a Capital Crime.” The New York Times (Friday, November 20, 2020): A13.

(Note: ellipsis, and bracketed date, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Nov. 19, 2018, and has the title “A Chinese County Aims to Curb Dog Walking by Threatening to Kill the Dog.”)