The Soul of a Country5 min read

Grant Newsham reviews Crashing the Party by Scott Savitt

In 2011 – more than a decade after journalist Scott Savitt’s 20-year career in China ended with a month spent starving in a Beijing prison cell – Henry Kissinger published his diplomatic memoir On China, a 500-page tome stuffed with insider stories of opening China and, according to one review, “efforts by Kissinger to get us to think of him as a major geopolitical thinker proved right by history.” While On China has been described in turns as magisterial and bloviating, something is missing from it. And that is the Chinese people themselves. Indeed, Chinese citizens outside a narrow elite with whom the Kissinger seems to deal exclusively come across as wraithlike irrelevancies whose suffering doesn’t matter much.

Savitt’s memoir, the picaresque, poignant Crashing the Party, takes us beyond Zhongnanhai, the seat of Party rule, and brings us closer to the “soul” of the country. It is all about the Chinese people: protesting students, hermetic monks, Communist Party apparatchiks, leading dissident intellectuals, the author’s friends. Crashing the Party takes us beyond Zhongnanhai, the seat of CCP rule, in a way On China does not.

Indeed, Dr. Kissinger and Mr. Savitt are akin to two people visiting Apartheid-era South Africa – a country which today’s China eerily resembles. But one person goes as a guest of the government and gets to know Afrikaner elites well. The other person – speaking the local languages – goes to Soweto and gets acquainted with “regular” Africans, as well as Steve Biko and Desmond Tutu types. Both observers offer useful and informed perspectives, but one of them gets closer to the “soul” of the country. Savitt’s China comes closer.

Mr. Savitt arrived in China in 1983 with a Duke University study abroad program. He improved his Mandarin quickly, helped by a musical ear, by wearing out dictionaries, and by spending much of his time outside the classroom. Uninhibited and persistent, he makes friends easily, including a young teacher at a nearby high school who goes by John. John shares a tiny one-room apartment with his older sister, who was crippled by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution, and his mother. John’s father “disappeared” during that decade of chaos. Throughout the book, John is present as a friend and informant on all things Chinese.

Savitt heads back to the People’s Republic after graduating from college, teaching English while he breaks into journalism. His fluency in Mandarin lands him a reporting job with Asiaweek. Later, he moves up the pecking order to the Los Angeles Times, then UPI – from which position he covers the 1989 student protests and their swift, bloody end.

Savitt plugs into China’s reformist circles, peopled by students, intellectuals, artists, and an investigative reporter or two. The reformists have quiet support from certain Party officials who believe the regime should relax its grinding control. In April 1989, the sudden death of a leading Party “liberal,” General Secretary Hu Yaobang, draws student protestors to Tiananmen Square. Crashing the Party offers a snapshot of this reform movement – disjointed, spontaneous, and often uncertain as to exactly what it wanted.

The Tiananmen Square demonstrations didn’t just appear out of the blue. Savitt covered a number of student protests throughout China in 1986 and 1987, with the general public sometimes joining in. Savitt witnesses student protestors hooting down future President Jiang Zemin (then Shanghai Party Secretary). Jiang has the diplomatic skills of a mob boss, afraid of debate and with at a loss when orders aren’t obeyed. It’s an illuminating vignette of a system terrified of its own citizens and based based, to this day, on coercion.

Savitt becomes acquainted with Fang Lizhi, a renowned astrophysicist and vice chancellor of University of Science and Technology in China who remains a leading force in reformist circles, despite the two decades he and his wife spent in and out of labor camps and every effort by the authorities to bring him to heel.

Liu Xiaobo also makes a brief appearance, mediating between the student protest leaders  and the military to spare the students’ lives in the early hours of June 4, 1989. Liu, later awarded the Nobel Prize for his efforts to promote human rights and consensual government in China, died of untreated liver cancer last July , years before the end of his fourth stint in prison.  Liu’s wife, Liu Xia, finally left China this July, after eight years of house arrest.

When the tanks start rolling through the streets of Beijing, Savitt puts himself right in the middle of the unfolding massacre. Flitting around on his motorbike and on foot, he describes first-hand the “rolling” mass killings as PLA units moved in from the capital’s outskirts to its center, Tiananmen Square.

In the wake of the crackdown, Savitt stays on in China, launching the first independent English-language newspaper in the country, with an eye towards nursing the spirit of reform that had been all but snuffed out. Savitt works out an arrangement of sorts with officials and the People’s Daily in exchange for a cut of the proceeds. Quixotic? Yes. But Savitt is successful – for a while. One day, the tide turns, and Savitt finds himself in a windowless cell. One month later, he is on a flight home, his name inscribed on China’s blacklist.

Admittedly, Savitt’s story happened some years back. But ask a human rights lawyer or Beijing’s “un-registered” residents, cleared out of town in the dead of winter, if China has improved since. Savitt’s account of a brief optimistic era of the 1980’s reminds us that things didn’t have to turn out this way, and more importantly, that the Chinese people understand and appreciate freedom as well as anyone else. The party-state’s social credit system and Xinjiang concentration camps suggest China’s leaders also know this perfectly well. But oppression is not the only alternative to chaos. ∎

Scott Savitt, Crashing the Party: An American Reporter in China (Soft Skull Press, November 2016). Also read the LARB China Blog interview with Savitt.