Chinese Communist Response to Covid-19 “Shows an Increasingly Nervous, Fragile Country”

(p. A7) LONDON — In January [2020], the Chinese city of Wuhan became the first in the world to undergo a lockdown to fight the coronavirus pandemic. In many ways this crucial period remains a mystery, with few images escaping the censors’ grasp.

A new film by the Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei helps fill in some of that missing history. Although now living in Europe, Ai remotely directed dozens of volunteers across China to create “Coronation,” a portrait of Wuhan’s draconian lockdown — and of a country able to mobilize huge resources, if at great human cost.

. . .

The overall impression, especially in the film’s first half-hour, is one of awesome efficiency. Crews quickly bolt prefabricated rooms together, I.C.U. machines beep and purr. The new party members are sworn in with their right fists raised up and the crematory laborers work so hard that they complain that their hands ache.

As the film progresses, the human costs become more apparent. A volunteer worker whose job is finished is not allowed to leave the quarantine zone, so he sleeps in his car in a parking garage. Mourners wail inconsolably at a crematory, and a man fights to be allowed to collect his father’s urn without government officials present — something authorities do not permit because they are afraid the mourning will turn to anger at the government for having allowed the virus to spin out of control.

. . .

The film is available in the United States on Alamo on Demand and in other parts of the world on Vimeo on Demand. Ai said he had hoped to show it first at a film festival, but festivals in New York, Toronto and Venice, after first expressing interest, turned him down. He said that Amazon and Netflix also rejected the movie.

He says his impression is that this was because many of these festivals and companies want to do business in China and so avoid topics that might anger Beijing, something other Chinese directors say is common.

. . .

Rather than providing the world with a model for how to govern, China’s response to the virus shows an increasingly nervous, fragile country, he said. In the scenes where mourners collect ashes, for example, Ai said viewers should note that all the people in white suits and full personal protective gear lurking in the background are members of state organizations trying to make sure that a lid is kept on the grief.

For the full story, see:

Ian Johnson. “‘This Is About China’: Artist Shines a Light on What Wuhan Went Through.” The New York Times, First Section (Sunday, August 23, 2020): A7.

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

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Aug. 21, 2020, and has the title “From Ai Weiwei, a Portrait of Wuhan’s Draconian Covid Lockdown.”)

Reuters Kowtows to Beijing Communists By Erasing Tiananmen Square Stories

(p. B3) A financial-information company partly owned by the news organization Thomson Reuters removed articles related to the June 4, 1989, Tiananmen Square massacre from the feeds of its data terminals in China last week. The move came under pressure from the Chinese government, Reuters reported Monday [June 3, 2019].

The data firm that complied with the censorship demands, Refinitiv, is Reuters’s biggest customer. It prevented some articles that included mentions of the pro-democracy demonstrations from appearing on its Eikon software and mobile app in China.

In a statement, Refinitiv pointed to legal realities in China, whose government previously blocked websites from publishing stories it deemed politically sensitive. The Chinese authorities have also denied visas to journalists working for news outlets that have published articles that were critical of the nation’s leaders.

For the full story, see:

Marc Tracy. “Reuters Partner Hides Tiananmen News.” The New York Times (Wednesday, June 5, 2019): B3.

(Note: bracketed date added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date June 4, 2019, and has the title “In China, a Reuters Partner Blocks Articles on the Tiananmen Square Massacre.”)

China’s “Great Firewall” Is the New Symbol of a New Cold War

(p. A11) At the United Nations Humans Rights Council in Geneva, 53 nations — from Belarus to Zimbabwe — signed a statement supporting China’s new security law for Hong Kong. Only 27 nations on the council criticized it, most of them European democracies, along with Japan, Australia and New Zealand. Such blocs would not have been unfamiliar at the height of the Cold War.

China has also wielded its vast economic power as a tool of political coercion, cutting off imports of beef and barley from Australia because its government called for an international investigation into the origins of the pandemic. On Tuesday [July 14, 2020], Beijing said it would sanction the American aerospace manufacturer Lockheed Martin over recent weapons sales to Taiwan.

. . .

A backlash against Beijing appears to be growing. The tensions are particularly clear in tech, where China has sought to compete with the world in cutting-edge technologies like artificial intelligence and microchips, while harshly restricting what people can read, watch or listen to inside the country.

If the Berlin Wall was the physical symbol of the first Cold War, the Great Firewall could well be the virtual symbol of the new one.

What began as a divide in cyberspace to insulate Chinese citizens from views not authorized by the Communist Party has now proved to be a prescient indicator of the deeper fissures between China and much of the Western world.

For the full story, see:

Steven Lee Myers and Paul Mozur. “Caught in ‘Ideological Spiral,’ U.S. and China Drift Toward a New Cold War.” The New York Times (Wednesday, July 15, 2020): A11.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated July 23 [sic], 2020, and has the title “Caught in ‘Ideological Spiral,’ U.S. and China Drift Toward Cold War.”)

“There’s No Wolf Warrior Coming to” Rescue the “Little Pinks”

(p. B1) When China came under attack online, Mr. Liu was one of the legions of Chinese students studying abroad who posted in its defense. He condemned the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, which he saw as an effort to split a uniting China. After President Trump called the coronavirus the “Chinese virus,” Mr. Liu turned to Twitter to correct those who used the term.

“I was a real little pink,” he said, using a somewhat derogatory term for the young, Communist-red Chinese nationalists who use the internet as a patriotic battleground to fight those who disparage China.

Then Mr. Liu, 21, discovered that the country he had long defended didn’t want him back.

. . .

Mr. Liu and many other countless Chinese people stranded overseas are, for the first time, running afoul of one of their country’s bedrock political prin-(p. B5)ciples: National interests come before an individual’s needs.

. . .

“Can you imagine what it was like when one day someone told you what you believed firmly wasn’t actually true?” Mr. Liu said.

. . .

“In the real world, there’s no wolf warrior coming to my rescue,” a Chinese student in Japan posted on Weibo.

. . .

While the students were outspoken in their anonymous social media comments, they were more reserved in interviews. Mr. Liu, for example, focused his frustration on China’s aviation regulator, which recently backed down after U.S. officials challenged its limits on foreign airlines. Ms. Leng, of Troy University, said she understood the regulator’s motivations.

But some admitted to what might be a new feeling: fear. The student from Japan who invoked “Wolf Warrior 2” said she feared retribution by the Chinese government if she spoke to me.

Then she invited me into a WeChat group of nearly 500 Chinese students exchanging information about flights, visas, schools and frustrations. They told one another not to give news interviews, not even to the Chinese media, for fear of government punishment.

When they sometimes couldn’t help curse the government or the policy, someone would quickly warn that they had better shut up or risk losing their WeChat accounts or even being invited for a chat once they’re back in China.

One student, after being warned, posted an emoticon of the 12 core socialist values that every Chinese citizen is supposed to live by, posting it five times in a row, as if pledging his loyalty to the surveillance state.

“I grew up under the red flag and received the red education,” Mr. Liu said to me. “But what can I say now?”

For the full story, see:

Li Yuan. “THE NEW NEW WORLD; Little Pinks’ Rethink China After Being Trapped Abroad.” The New York Times (Tuesday, June 30, 2020): B1 & B5.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date June 24, 2020, and has the title “THE NEW NEW WORLD; Trapped Abroad, China’s ‘Little Pinks’ Rethink Their Country.”)

Agnes Chow Is “the Real Mulan”

The first “Mulan” below is the Disney actress Liu Yifei, who has expressed support for the suppression of freedom in Hong Kong. The third “Mulan” below is Agnes Chow, the 23 year-old Hong Kong freedom activist who the Beijing communists arrested under their new Hong Kong “security” law.

Meme viral on Twitter.

(p. A10) HONG KONG — Soon after one of Hong Kong’s best-known democracy activists was arrested this week under the national security law imposed on the city by the Chinese government, supporters turned her into a “Mulan” meme.

The social media storm around the activist, Agnes Chow, coincided with Disney’s online campaign for its upcoming movie “Mulan,” about the Chinese folk heroine who disguises herself as a man to stand in for her ailing father in the army. Disney’s slogan: “The legend arrives.”

Supporters on Twitter quickly anointed Ms. Chow, 23, “the real Mulan.” One meme featured three images, each accompanied by text: the “Mulan” star Liu Yifei (“I want the real Mulan”); the cartoon version of Mulan from Disney’s animated 1998 film (“I said the real Mulan”); and Ms. Chow (“Perfection”).

. . .

Ms. Chow, a former leader of the now-disbanded pro-democracy group Demosisto, was among 10 people arrested on Monday [August 10, 2020] on suspicion of violating the security law. She was detained hours after 200 police officers converged on the newsroom of Apple Daily, a publication owned by the media mogul Jimmy Lai, who is a vocal critic of the Chinese government. He, his two sons and other executives from his company were arrested.

. . .

Ms. Liu, the Chinese actress who plays Mulan in the movie, drew a backlash last August when she sided with the Hong Kong police against the protesters on the microblogging platform Weibo, where she had nearly 66 million followers at the time. The police have been accused of excessive force in dealing with the protests.

When Ms. Liu shared the quote “I support the Hong Kong police, you all can beat me up now,” adding a heart and a bicep emoji, the blowback was swift, with supporters of the protests calling for a boycott of “Mulan.”

For the full story, see:

Elaine Yu. “Supporters of Activist in Hong Kong Draft Mulan.” The New York Times (Friday, August 14, 2020): A10.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date August 13, 2020, and has the title “After Agnes Chow Is Arrested in Hong Kong, a ‘Mulan’ Meme Is Born.” Where there are slight differences in wording between the versions in the passages quoted, the online version appears above. The online version does not list an author. I cite James Barron, who is listed as the author in the print version.)

“The Last Bastion of Freedom in the Chinese-Speaking World”

(p. A14) The new security rules for Hong Kong that China passed this week — without input from the city’s Beijing-backed leadership — have made Mr. Xi’s promise of autonomy under the “one country, two systems” framework seem hollow. And it has raised fears that China will move more aggressively to bring Taiwan, too, under its control.

. . .

In recent weeks, China has buzzed Taiwan’s territorial airspace almost daily. It accused Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, of carrying out a “separatist plot” by speaking at an international democracy forum. It has warned the Taiwan government to stop providing shelter to Hong Kong political activists, who are flocking to what they call the last bastion of freedom in the Chinese-speaking world.

For the full story, see:

Javier C. Hernández and Steven Lee Myers. “Taiwan Sees Ominous Signs for Its Own Autonomy.” The New York Times (Thursday, July 2, 2020): A14-A15.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date July 1, 2020, and has the title “As China Strengthens Grip on Hong Kong, Taiwan Sees a Threat.”)

Chinese Communists Threaten Foreign Universities That Screen Hu’s Films

(p. C5) For more than 20 years, the filmmaker Hu Jie has been trawling the deep waters of Chinese history to create a series of harrowing documentaries about the early years of Communist Party rule.

. . .

“Spark” — a film that has undergone many iterations, alternations and expansions — reconstructs the fate of a group of young people who started an underground journal 60 years ago. And “The Observer,” a documentary about Hu by the Italian director Rita Andreetti, is at once a sympathetic portrait of the filmmaker and an introduction to his films.

Both are being distributed by Icarus Films as part of dGenerate Films’ collection of independent Chinese movies, curated by the American film producer Karin Chien.

. . .

Hu’s films are personal takes on several critical turning points in modern Chinese history, especially the persecution of independent thinkers in the 1950s, the famine that followed it, and the Cultural Revolution a decade later. He hunts down survivors, finds rare written material, and creates a composite history in which he is also very much present as a narrator and judge, clearly taking sides with the victims of Maoist China.

Almost all of his films come across as radically low-tech. For years he used a battered Sony Handycam, and he almost never uses lights or multiple cameras — largely because he works alone, but also to give the feeling of authenticity and discovery, as if the viewer were on a journey with Hu to discover a forbidden past.

. . .

. . . he became famous among China’s intelligentsia for his 2004 film, “Searching for Lin Zhao’s Soul,” one of the films being released by Icarus. It recounts the story of a political prisoner who was executed in 1968 for refusing to renounce her political convictions. Hu traces Lin’s story through her classmates and friends, and especially through letters that she wrote with her own blood for lack of ink.

That led to “Spark,” about the magazine for which Lin Zhao wrote an epic poem describing the struggle for freedom from tyranny. First released in 2013, “Spark,” like all of Hu’s films, has been added to and re-edited, most recently to include testimony by a witness to the famine who wanted to wait until retiring to speak out.

. . .

. . . he said he hoped his films would resonate today. “Spark,” he said, shows how even in the darkest era of the Mao period — the great famine of 1958 to 1961, which killed at least 30 million people — some were willing to stand up and be counted.

“This story has great significance today,” Hu said. “This country is a country with a unified governing structure, so if no one dares speak truth, a mistake will continue for a long time.”

. . .

Though Hu’s critical works are now being made available to foreign audiences, pressure from the Chinese government makes it hard to arrange public showings there, Chien said.

This scrutiny began around 2015 when she and others put together a touring film festival called “Cinema on the Edge.” Hailed as “beyond the censors’ reach,” the film series ended up coming under intense pressure from the Chinese government. Filmmakers in China were warned to drop out and when the festival went ahead, but with less publicity, foreign outlets, especially universities, were told that screening the films could endanger their chance to work with China.

For the full story, see:

Ian Johnson. “‘To Show Reality as It Really Was’.” The New York Times (Monday, June 29, 2020): C5.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date June 28, 2020, and has the title “Excavating Chinese History, One Harrowing Film at a Time.”)

When Khrushchev Voted With His Feet for Freedom

(p. A23) Sergei N. Khrushchev, a former Soviet rocket scientist and the son of Nikita S. Khrushchev, the Soviet leader during the Cold War of the 1950s and ’60s, died on June 18 [2020] at his home in Cranston, R.I.

. . .

“I’m not a defector,” Sergei Khrushchev told The Providence Journal in 2001. “I’m not a traitor. I did not commit any treason. I work here and I like this country.”

Still, he said, he felt that becoming an American citizen had given him a new lease on life. “I’m feeling like a newborn,” he told The A.P. “It’s the beginning of a new life.”

. . .

Americans had a close-up look at the Soviet leader and his family in 1959, when he visited the United States at the invitation of President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

. . .

Sergei Khrushchev said years later, in the interview with The Providence Journal, that during that trip his family felt as if they had landed on Mars, seeing things they had never imagined. “It was palms, cars, highways, everything,” he said. He took home movies of it all, including Times Square.

They were especially baffled by the concept of Disneyland, then four years old but already a top attraction in Southern California. When told that his family would not be allowed to visit the park out of concerns for their safety, the premier exploded in anger: “What is it? Is there an epidemic of cholera there or something? Or have gangsters taken hold of the place?”

For the full obituary, see:

Katharine Q. Seelye. “Sergei N. Khrushchev, 84, Rocket Scientist and the Son of a Former Soviet Premier.” The New York Times (Thursday, June 25, 2020): A23.

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

(Note: the online version of the obituary has the date June 24, 2020, and the title “Sergei Khrushchev, Son of Former Soviet Premier, Dies at 84.”)

Ridley Quotes Petrovsky: “We Can’t Exclude the Possibility That This Came From a Laboratory Experiment”

(p. C3) What about the controversial claim that the virus may have originated in a laboratory? Both Ralph Baric’s team at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Shi Zhengli’s team at the Wuhan Institute of Virology have been working on SARS-like coronaviruses and testing their ability to infect human cells. They have for some years reported successful experiments in which they created new strains of the virus by manipulating the spike proteins that are now the focus of discovering the origin of SARS-CoV-2, and their research has included inserting furin cleavage sites.

The two teams made these so-called chimeric viruses in order to understand what makes viruses more or less dangerous and in the hope of being ready to protect people against a future SARS epidemic. In 2015 they published a joint experiment in which they combined parts of one mouse-adapted SARS-like coronavirus with a spike gene from a SARS-like coronavirus derived from Chinese bats.

In reporting their results, they expressed caution about continuing such risky experiments: “On the basis of these findings, scientific review panels may deem similar studies building chimeric viruses based on circulating strains too risky to pursue, as increased pathogenicity in mammalian models cannot be excluded.” They added: “The potential to prepare for and mitigate future outbreaks must be weighed against the risk of creating more dangerous pathogens.”

Nikolai Petrovsky and colleagues at Flinders University in Australia have found that SARS-CoV-2 has a higher affinity for human receptors than for any other animal species they tested, including pangolins and horseshoe bats. He suggests that this could have happened if the virus was being cultured in human cells, adding that “We can’t exclude the possibility that this came from a laboratory experiment.”

For the full commentary, see:

Matt Ridley. “So Where Did the Virus Come From?” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, May 30, 2020): C3.

(Note: I corrected a misspelling of Petrovsky’s name.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary was the date May 29, 2020 and has the same title as the print version.)

The manuscript co-authored by Petrovsky, and mentioned above, is reported in:

Sakshi Piplani, Puneet Kumar Singh, David A. Winkler, Nikolai Petrovsky. “In Silico Comparison of Spike Protein-Ace2 Binding Affinities across Species; Significance for the Possible Origin of the Sars-Cov-2 Virus.” May 13, 2020.

Disillusioned Cuban Communist Became Entrepreneur

(p. 7) . . . , Ms. Limonta’s faith in the revolution had been absolute. Born just three weeks after Fidel Castro started his uprising by beaching an old American yacht called Granma in a mangrove swamp on Cuba’s southern shore in 1956, she had fully embraced his promise to wipe out inequality and create a new Cuba.

. . .

As the revolution aged, contradictions grew harder to ignore. As her job took her around the country, she saw that the hospitals most Cubans went to were shabby reflections of the one where her mother was treated. Other Cubans waited months, sometimes years, for a wheelchair. They couldn’t count on oxygen being available. Vital equipment broke down. Medicines ran out. Doctors and nurses expected to be bribed.

The stark differences weighed on Ms. Limonta, weakening her revolutionary spirit as well as her heart. She was just 48 when she was rushed to the mediocre hospital to which she, as a resident of Guanabacoa, was assigned. But once doctors found out who she was, they insisted on transferring her to Cuba’s top cardiology center.

She got the pacemaker she needed, but the speedy treatment only deepened her doubts. Bound by a strict sense of social justice, she finally forced herself to see the truth. She and her mother had been pampered in their time of need not because they were equal to other Cubans. Not because they were socialists. Not because they loved Fidel. But because they were more important.

The surgery caused a nearly mortal infection in her heart. Emergency open-heart surgery left her scarred and uncertain about her life. She decided to quit her job, hand in her party membership, give back her state car and even renounce the Santería religion she had been practicing.

Standing before a mirror one day, she cried. The scars on her body made her look like she had been torn apart and sewn back together, which was how she felt about her life. She had turned her back on everything she once believed in and had no idea how to go on. She was not like her friend Lili, who led the neighborhood Committee for the Defense of the Revolution and whose faith in Communism was unshakable. Like many other Cubans whose support for the revolution lagged, Ms. Limonta had few options. She could dissent openly and invite harassment or persecution. She could throw herself into a raft and hope the sea breezes blew her to Florida. Or she could keep her thoughts to herself and focus on surviving.

Even with the subsidized rice and beans every Cuban receives, her $12 monthly pension guaranteed only misery. She needed to remake her life and found inspiration in the old treadle sewing machine that her mother had given her for graduation. Using discarded hotel sheets, she sewed crib sets for newborns that she covertly sold for a few dollars apiece. In 2011, when Raúl Castro cautiously allowed Cubans to start their own small businesses, Ms. Limonta became one of Cuba’s first legal capitalists.

Eventually, with help from a church-sponsored business incubator, she created her own company, rented space for a workshop, hired seamstresses and started turning out clothing of her own design. When President Barack Obama visited Havana in 2016 to see for himself how Cuba was responding to the opening he had set in motion, Ms. Limonta was among the Cuban entrepreneurs who met with him.

. . .

. . . , the old men who run Cuba cannot deny that they’ve lost even individuals like Ms. Limonta who once embraced the revolution. Cubans are not in the streets protesting, but they have no loyalty toward the men who took Fidel Castro’s place or the political system they keep propping up.

For the full commentary, see:

Anthony DePalma. “How Cubans Lost Faith in Revolution.” The New York Times, SundayReview Section (Sunday, May 24, 2020): 10.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date May 23, 2020 and has the same title as the print version.)

DePalma’s commentary, quoted above, is related to his book:

DePalma, Anthony. The Cubans: Ordinary Lives in Extraordinary Times. New York: Viking, 2020.

Honoring the Heroes of Hong Kong and Tiananmen Square

I posted the entry below to Facebook on Thursday, June 4, 2020, the 31st anniversary of the day when the Chinese Communists massacred those protesting for democracy and freedom in Tiananmen Square.

At 8 PM I lit a candle to honor the heroes of Hong Kong who dared to gather today to honor the heroes of Tiananmen Square. #6431truth #HongKongFreedom

Posted by Arthur Diamond on Thursday, June 4, 2020