Tracking The Beijing Scene

Beijing, December 1999

Ganbei!" ("Bottoms up!") Crystal shot glasses clink, and I toss back the clear, 90-proof Chinese firewater spiked with snake venom. I am sitting at a banquet table in a private room at Beijing's exclusive Capital Club. The cast of characters surrounding me could come straight out of a 1930s Chinese gangster movie, except this is real-life, dawn-of-the-twenty-first-century Beijing.

In the seat of honor is a local kingpin I affectionately refer to as the Cadillac Man, for the collection of vintage Sedan de Villes in which he tools around Beijing. To his left is a Minister of Propaganda, a rotund, soft-handed man with thick glasses and his zipper half undone. To my right, in a black leather jacket, barking orders into a cell phone and dictating notes to his lithe young "assistant," is the acting editor of the Communist Party's official newspaper, the People's Daily.

The feast arrayed before us is a smorgasbord of endangered species: platters of crispy mamba snake, rock lobster sashimi, braised Himalayan bear paw, baked Yangtze tortoise, and shark's fin soup. A stream of silk cheongsam-clad waitresses constantly replenish cups of steaming green tea.

We are consecrating an exclusive Internet and print publishing agreement between my offshore shell publishing company and a consortium of these "Red Princes"-the influence peddlers of China's new ruling class. All those around the table expect the deal to add significantly to their already well-padded overseas bank accounts. I have the additional incentive of being a writer living a story that the most imaginative novelist would be hard-pressed to invent.

Rallying for reform: Beijing University students are marching to Tiananmen Square to commemorate the reformist leader [Hu Yaobang]'s death" (Credit: Scott Savitt)

Welcome to the world of easy money, convenient alliances, and shady deals that is today's "Communist" China. There is nothing that money can't buy, and the underground economy is so well-entrenched that it is routinely calculated as part of the official GNP. Indeed, if not for all the graft, money laundering, and under-the-table wheel-greasing deals, the world's fastest-growing economy (projected to surpass the United States in size in the first half of this new century) would grind to a halt. When the Communists came to power fifty years ago, they were going to eradicate corruption, prostitution, drug addiction, abject poverty, and dramatic income disparity-problems that are omnipresent today and seem certain to result in the system's collapsing on its own rotten core. But I have been saying that continuously for my fifteen years as a foreign correspondent here.

Duke, August 1982

Like many "China Hands," my first encounter with the Middle Kingdom is completely fortuitous-but, of course, traditional Chinese philosophy sees fate as nothing more than the confluence of character and circumstance. That outlook on fate accurately sums up how my first love, mountaineering, leads to my life's work, China.

After leading Duke's Outward Bound-affiliated backpacking/rock-climbing freshman orientation in the mountains of North Carolina, I return to campus to choose courses for my sophomore year. A bulletin-board flier catches my attention: "Study Abroad in China." I visit history professor Arif Dirlik, who gives a persuasive pitch for the new Duke Study in China program he is leading to the People's Republic the following year. Duke is the first American university to establish a student exchange with China following the normalization of relations between Washington and Beijing after more than three decades of Cold War hostility. The program requires a full year of intensive Mandarin study, every morning at eight o'clock. Fresh from grappling with the intimidating crags of the Appalachian mountains, I feel equal to the challenge.

Besides rigorous Mandarin training, program participants are required to complete Dirlik's year-long "History of the Chinese Revolution" course. Enhancing the appeal of this fresh field of study are daily headline news of China's dramatic reforms and the knowledge that I'll be experiencing these changes firsthand in eight short months. I approach the workload with enthusiasm, and contemplate a possible career course in academic study of China or another, as-yet-undiscovered, field.

Beijing, June 1983

My first night in China. After dinner, in the fading light and lifting breeze of a spring evening, I stroll across the Beijing University campus with my guitar slung over my shoulder. Shadows lengthen in the twilight, and the setting sun casts an orange glow. Grandparents laugh and play with toddlers. Young couples stroll side by side, hands occasionally brushing (holding hands is deemed an immodest public display of affection). Students kick soccer balls and head in groups toward showers (there's only one hour of hot water a day). I sit down on a patch of grass under a large sycamore tree and begin plucking a slow blues tune on my guitar.

A young Chinese guy strolling down the dirt path comes over. He listens intently for a minute before asking in hesitant English, "Where are you from?" "Meiguo," I answer in carefully enunciated Mandarin, meaning "beautiful country," or America. He informs me that I am the first American he has ever met. I ask if he plays the guitar and he says no. So I continue strumming. After a few more minutes, I set the guitar aside to wipe sweat from my forehead. He asks if he can check out the guitar. I nod and, before I know it, he is picking out a Beatles song with note-for-note accuracy and singing in a high clear soprano:

      Blackbird singing in the dead of night


      Take these broken wings and learn to fly


      All your life


      You were only waiting for this moment


      to arrive...



When the final sweet note fades, I applaud with amazed appreciation and ask his name. "John, after John Lennon," my new Chinese friend replies. John and I immediately become inseparable. Every free moment, he shows me around his beloved Beijing. I, of course, am a bottomless well of information on everything Western: Bob Dylan, the Beatles, how to make pizza.

John is a typical member of China's "lost generation," the pawns in the perpetual political campaigns of Mao's Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976. His earliest memories are of attending "struggle" sessions of his teachers, rather than school, and witnessing public executions at Beijing stadiums. Then the campaign cruelly turned on John's family. His father was a Beijing University professor, and his family was told that he "died while under interrogation." His sister suffered brain damage in a fall, trying to escape solitary confinement in a classroom building.

I spend every day with John, eventually moving out of my student dormitory into the small apartment he shares with his mother and invalid sister. It is the most profound experience of my teenage life. Though from opposite sides of the globe, with starkly contrasting socioeconomic circumstances (why would a family need more than one TV? he ingenuously wonders), we bond like brothers. I seriously consider staying on in China after the program ends. But I promise my family to return to Duke, to get my degree, and then see if Beijing still exerts its pull. On the day of my departure, I present John with the gift of my cherished guitar. Wiping tears from his eyes, he says with characteristic humor, "I'll take good care of it. I know you'll be back for it."

Duke, Spring 1984

Two semesters in China have irrevocably altered my worldview and life plans. Duke feels painfully privileged, isolated from the dire difficulties of the one-fifth of humanity I have just been living and traveling among. Despite the hopes of my father (Herbert S. Savitt '52, J.D. '57) for a new law partner, I remain committed to returning to China after graduation. I never seriously reconsider.

Beijing, Spring 1985

Diploma in hand, I return to China immediately. I've secured a coveted foot in the door in my chosen field of journalism, an internship in the Los Angeles Times' Beijing bureau. I am determined to make the most of the opportunity; after three diligent months, I am promoted to staff reporter. The period of the mid- to late 1980s is regarded as the golden era of China's reforms. Deng Xiaoping's market-oriented policies dramatically raise living standards, and people hope China is finally on the path to prosperity. In addition to economic progress, the relatively liberal post-Mao political atmosphere spurs a cultural revival. Avant-garde Chinese cinema takes the international film world by storm. Beijing gives rise to a gritty rock-and-roll underground, with its own anti-establishment anthems. Provocative and strikingly original modern art attracts the attention of cultural connoisseurs worldwide.

It would be the story of a lifetime for any foreign correspondent, not to mention a cub reporter fresh out of college on his first assignment. The irony of China's brand-new opening to the West, and Duke's early student exchange, is that I am the youngest member of the foreign press corps but have more experience in China than any other American journalist. I make the most of this advantage, obsessively documenting what is arguably the most dramatic transformation of a society in human history.

The benefit of working for a foreign news bureau is that your beat is the whole country. I cover pro-Dalai Lama demonstrations in Tibet, handover talks in Hong Kong, the revival of stock trading in Shanghai, and ethnic independence efforts in Mongolia. I am one of the first foreigners to travel over the "Sky Highway" from Sichuan province to the Tibetan capital of Lhasa, where I join an American mountaineering expedition to Mount Everest. In many places I visit in the previously off-limits Chinese hinterland, the locals have never seen a foreigner before. Though Mao has been dead for a decade, the fundamental conflict between a Marxist-Leninist dictatorship and a market economy's need for checks and balances and rule of law intensifies Beijing's notorious political infighting. Despite anodyne assurances by the state-run media and their government spokespeople about the "unified Party Center," it is an open secret that hard-line Maoists and reformers are waging a fierce, behind-the-scenes battle for power, in which not only careers but lives are at stake.

The long night: "my immediate response is meiyou hao xiachang: "This will end in tragedy" (Credit: Scott Savitt)

Beijing, April 1989

I have just transferred from the Los Angeles Times to a more senior position as assistant Beijing bureau chief for United Press International. My quiet morning ritual of reading news copy from the office telex machine is interrupted by an urgent news flash from the State press agency that recently purged Communist Party General Secretary Hu Yaobang has died. The popular progressive was hounded out of power by hard-line rivals and, though his death is officially attributed to a heart attack, his untimely passing will surely become a symbol of martyrdom. The telephone rings. The somber voice of a student friend (who does not identify himself on my bugged office telephone) informs me that Beijing University students are marching to Tiananmen Square to commemorate the reformist leader's death. My China experience has sufficiently hardened me-my immediate response is "meiyou hao xiachang": "This will end in tragedy."

The next six weeks of million-protester marches, martial law, and the final tragic massacre encompass both the most hopeful and ultimately heartbreaking series of events I ever expect to experience. My intimate knowledge of Beijing proves crucial in covering the demonstrations. Racing from end to end of the sprawling capital on a motorcycle (a car could never get through the huge crowds), I call in hourly updates on a mobile phone. When the protesters occupy the square full time, I camp out with them. Despite government threats of imminent violence, a festive mood prevails. The students play guitars, sing, and dance. I witness a wedding and a birth. The atmosphere provides a brief glimpse of what this society might be like with the weight of fear and willful ignorance lifted. Though the Western media use simple soundbites to portray the students as struggling for "freedom" and "democracy," savvy Chinese see a much more convoluted shadow play unfolding. Small initial protests are quickly co-opted for politicians' personal ends. Inertia plays into the hands of hard-liners, who use the inevitably increasing crowds to justify a crackdown. The students ultimately become unwitting pawns in a party coup. Once the military is mobilized, those familiar with the blood-stained background of the old men in charge of China know violence is inevitable.

Tiananmen Square, June 4, 1989, 4 a.m.

I am sitting on the steps of the Monument to Revolutionary Martyrs in the center of Tiananmen Square. Surrounding me are several dozen students, all that remain of the millions who demonstrated here against Communist rule during the past six weeks. My clothes and hands are soaked with blood from carrying assault-rifle victims to hospitals throughout the night's violence. I have just bicycled the ten-mile length of the Avenue of Eternal Peace, watching thousands of soldiers and hundreds of battle tanks mow down unarmed civilians blocking the army's approach to the square.

There is an ominous calm in this hour before dawn. The troops and tanks have fanned out to surround the ten-acre expanse of Tiananmen and are standing at attention under floodlights, awaiting orders to complete their mission. The gravity of the situation gives rise to gallows humor among my companions. A student from Beijing University quips, "I just got into medical school; this is a very inconvenient time to die!" Nervous laughter is of momentary solace, but it quickly fades and a pall of terror returns.

After watching these soldiers fire burst after burst of automatic gunfire into crowds at short range, I am understandably apprehensive that they will punctuate the carnage with a massacre of the last defiant students. The unbidden thought that seizes my attention is: "Am I willing to die here and now?" And my life in China, during and after my time at Duke, passes before my eyes.

Tiananmen Square, June 4, 1989, 5 a.m.

A student leader negotiates a compromise with the military commander, and the students and remaining few journalists are permitted to leave out the back of the square. Many are silent, or crying quietly, knowing what a tragedy this outcome represents for their country and that the Communist Party is certain to "qiu hou suan zhang," or "settle accounts after the harvest." Their college careers, their youth, indeed their lives as they know them, are over. As we walk out of the square, battle tanks begin rumbling in and a rapid cacophony of machine guns begins firing at the speaker system the students have rigged to the monument. Ironically, the music they silence is the proletariat anthem The Internationale ("you have nothing to lose but your chains...").

Summer 1989

I spend the next days and months shell-shocked and working non-stop. It is more human-rights reporting than journalism, documenting a numbing continuum of executions, arrests, and exile. I do as much work for Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch as I do for my UPI bureau in Washington. A twisted fact of the media frenzy is that journalists benefit from this atrocity. Many of my press-corps colleagues go on leave to write instant books. My byline appears on headlines across the world, I am featured regularly on National Public Radio, and the highlight of my fifteen minutes of fame is an appearance with Ted Koppel on ABC's Nightline.

A couple of months after the massacre, I find myself unable to sleep. I lie awake all night staring at the ceiling, the nightmare images repeating themselves like a loop feedback horror show. Tanks, fire, guns, blood. Only dawn makes the nightmare recede.

Autumn 1990

After more than a year documenting the machinery of state power, which is grinding all who dare oppose it in its bloodthirsty gears, I start to break down. I know I need some distance to preserve my physical and mental health, and I accept a job with Fortune magazine covering business and finance in Hong Kong. The weather is warm, the pay is good, and, for at least a while, the nightmarish images fade.

Beijing, Spring 1994

Reporting on initial public offerings and insider trading engages my interest for a while, but ultimately the story in Hong Kong is reducedto the transfer of money from one pocket to another. How can that compare to the drama of more than one billion souls wrestling with and redefining their national identity?

Meanwhile, China is slowly but surely recovering from the Tiananmen trauma. Immediately following the massacre, foreign investment plummets, and critics make dire predictions of the death of China's reforms. But sustained economic prosperity in the West fuels record flows of foreign investment into China again.

I return to Beijing as the bureau chief for Asiaweek magazine and find that time away has given me valuable perspective. The first obvious fact is that the Western media are much more preoccupied with Tiananmen than the Chinese themselves. No one has forgotten the tragedy, and most are convinced it will ultimately be vindicated as an important patriotic movement. But people are pragmatic, focused on building better lives for themselves and their children.

The Communist Party, its reputation in tatters following Tiananmen, now derives its sole legitimacy from its economic performance. That necessitates reducing the inefficient state ownership of industry, and increasing economic autonomy for individuals. The tacit agreement between the Party and the People is that, except for direct challenges to Communist rule, individuals will be free to pursue life, liberty, and the almighty dollar. It is a pragmatic policy, but one with huge hidden costs. China's stressed environment is deteriorating as short-term economic growth is emphasized over sustainable development. Official corruption is at an all-time high as rapidly expanding investment and aid increase the opportunities for graft. Crime rates soar and the social order disintegrates as increasingly large populations migrate in pursuit of economic opportunity. The age-old scourges of prostitution, drug addiction, and social diseases naturally follow.

All of this plays out with an alarming absence of public debate, since the state maintains its iron grip on the media. Television, newspapers, magazines, and radio continue to spout a mind-numbingly uniform Party line. Yet, in this information vacuum, I see an opportunity to promote change. China has challenged my hallowed journalistic "objectivity" before. During Tiananmen, I laid aside my notepad and camera to help carry gunshot victims to hospitals. Now, reducing this story to clichés like "human rights" and "democracy" for a Western readership accustomed to a spoon-fed view of reality seems a dishonest distortion. And the most sophisticated, concerned, potential audience for news on China-local readers-remains neglected. My simple but incendiary idea is to establish an independent newspaper in Beijing.

Beijing, December 1994

The very audacity of my idea is perhaps its greatest hope for success. Any Chinese attempting this would be arrested immediately. But the Communist Party is unlikely to want an American prisoner of conscience; I figure the worst that can happen is my getting deported.

I produce the first issue of Beijing Scene on a Macintosh computer in my living room. It is a twelve-page, black-and-white, tabloid-sized newspaper with a feature article on the Peking Opera, translations from the Chinese press, a restaurant review, a question-and-answer column written in the voice of a busybody Chinese auntie (taking on matters of the heart, hearth, and home in vastly foreign China), a column on humorous aspects of foreigners trying to master Mandarin, a cultural-events calendar, and classified advertisements. I encounter no difficulty getting it printed at a local press, and friends and I distribute 10,000 copies to hotels, bars, and restaurants around Beijing. The critical response is overwhelmingly positive. The authorities don't seem to deem it a threat. What becomes apparent is that, in this artificial void, the paper will not only publicize cultural and community activities but also help create and promote them. Suddenly there is a proliferation of new art exhibitions, film screenings, dance performances, experimental plays, classicalmusic recitals, and rock-and-roll concerts, all publicized in the Scene. Advertisers quickly respond, and the paper pays for itself after only a few issues. I don't agonize long over the decision to quit my journalism job to produce the paper full-time.

Perhaps one protection for Beijing Scene is a perception that its English-language content is read exclusively by foreigners. But reader response-eventually confirmed by an independent reader survey-indicates that more than half of its audience is local Chinese. This stands to reason: While there are more than 100,000 foreign residents of Beijing, the English-reading Chinese population is many times larger. English is the language of career advancement, and young people eagerly consume anything written in native English. Now, every week, they have a free publication featuring stories on local culture not covered in the official press-as well as job listings, a calendar, and advertisements for new bars, restaurants, and dance clubs.

Eventually the authorities do come knocking. In lieu of a publishing license, or any procedure for obtaining one (all media remain exclusively state-owned, so individuals need not apply), I am at their mercy, and I pay "protection" fees on a regular basis. We are prevented from distributing in some government-run guesthouses, and, on several occasions, bureaucrats come and help themselves to computer equipment (one time even having the nerve to try to resell them through our classified pages). But all of these exchanges are non-threatening, even surrealistic. The individuals carrying them out unanimously express support for the idea of a "free press" and just claim to be following orders. I treat the losses as an irritating surtax and vow to carry on this interesting experiment in civil disobedience.

Beijing, December 1999

Back at the Capital Club, I look around at the Cadillac Man, Minister of Propaganda, and People's Daily editor and toast the future of our cooperation. China's recent accession to the World Trade Organization finally renders Beijing Scene legal. It is now licensed as a joint-venture Internet content provider, with the print publication a free promotion for the website. Beijing Scene has just marked its fifth year of publishing. It is now a full-color, bilingual (English-Chinese), twenty-four-page weekly with a readership of more than 100,000 and a website ( averaging half a million page views per month. Advertising revenue is healthy, and investors are expressing interest in funding expansion.

Had I known the emotional rollercoaster I would be riding, I'm not sure I would have embarked on this particular publishing path. But its mere survival qualifies Beijing Scene as a successful startup business, and the fact that Beijing boasts more cultural diversity than at any time since Tiananmen testifies to its social impact.

As I raise my glass and toss back another shot of snake venom, I can't keep an ironic smile from crossing my lips. Marx said capitalism would produce the rope to hang itself. Perhaps "socialism with Chinese characteristics" will do the same to the Communist Party.

Savitt '85 ( is the editor and publisher of Beijing Scene.


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