China Needs More Chocolate Tins of Postage Stamps

brown paper 2I just wanted to read the paper and lay low today so I got the New York Times and a sandwich. I let the afternoon pass me by, all the busy people of the world and their clang and roar of automobiles and delivery trucks, their short tempered cell shouts and the flick of butts.

I was perfectly content with just the right amount of food (chicken salad on whole wheat) and just the right amount of news (US weighing policy options against Assad) and none of it good, exactly, but all of it just hitting the spot. 

It’s great if you can let time pass, let your mind wander, not look for much of anything, take things as they come. A sandwich and a newspaper—probably two of the most ordinary things in the world.

The story of Matthew Schrier, a 35-year-old freelance photographer who recently escaped seven months of rebel captivity in Syria, was devastating, matched or topped only by the stories of everything else going on in Syria right now. It’s hard not to read the paper these days and get this sense of, ‘Oh yeah, well, that’s nothing because did you hear about this?’ As if each article is a separate entry in some big misery competition that does not nor ever will have a judge or jury.

Right, so. Sandwich, newspaper, tea, some light jazz. I might as well have been reading about life on Mars— there was an article on that too. But even the stuff here on Earth felt a million miles away from me. I don’t know how these daily journalists do it, willingly trolling the world for the worst of the bad, bad news that we urgently need while I just sit here, stuffing my unassuming gob, turning pages, reading a bit about Egypt now, or trying to understand why something on the air conditioning in New York City museums would warrant front page coverage in the arts section. But then, the Brooklyn Museum really might just be the most pleasingly cool, comfortable place in the world to stroll and stare. It really might remind you “like when you’re getting into a pool,” as one patron put it. Sounds great. So—bite, crumbs, art, air conditioning, gas, gas attacks, next page, bite, crumbs, pools, repeat.

I didn’t expect pages A14 and A15 and when I got there I leaned over and scrutinized the spread. I even had to look up again at the top to check and make sure—is this still the New York Times? Did I grab some botched edition from the bodega? Nope, yep, still the Times.

But China Daily, China’s leading English language mouthpiece, had bought, published and seamlessly woven into the so-called Paper of Record a couple articles of their own, presented to look just like all the other articles in the Times. The first, “China’s Place in the World” features an all-male chorus of academics, pundits and head-scratchers on the future of China’s influence. They seem to conclude, roundly, that China’s influence will be considerable but not the sole determinant of world power. Stop. The. Press.

The second page details investment opportunities in Fujian and reads more like the flat-out propaganda it is. I understand the New York Times is in decline and there is the sense—and the hard numbers—that show fewer and fewer people soil their fingertips with the print of daily paper. It’s amusing that neither of these pages appear in the paper’s online edition today, further evidence that the Times is distancing itself from its own print edition and that it is, literally, for sale to whatever highest bidder—propaganda and otherwise—because hey, you can nearly hear the editorial board reason, what else do people do with real newspaper these days but line their litter boxes with the stuff, maybe wrap some fish? The big cats are online now.

But you can still get a sandwich and sit down with the gray wad and feel, finally, the shudder and shame of one of the world’s great papers in such a bald-faced act of self-sale.

Several years ago I worked as a research reporter for the New York Times’ Beijing bureau. One of the best trips I took, alongside another reporter, was to Zhengzhou in Henan province. We were there to visit two HIV/AIDS activists—Hu Jia and Gao Yaojie. Gao was under house arrest at the time and Hu was taking his own chances, about a year out from being sentenced to nearly four years in prison for state subversion. The four of us crowded into Gao’s little one bedroom walk-up. Gao put a kettle on and chatted about her goals for the afternoon—mailing out books and resources on HIV/AIDS to libraries across the country. I remember she had this old chocolate tin full of string and postage stamps. She just needed our help to bundle up the packages and affix the right stamps to each parcel.

Hu spoke admiringly of Gao’s work; she really did seem like this lady pioneer of social action, speaking out against the ignorance and intolerance that was spreading HIV/AIDS in China. And we had a fine time of it, wrapping and bundling and tying up her packages. We were not bothered at all by the two dark cars parked out in the courtyard or the guys who got out, stretched their legs, lit cigarettes, tossed empty noodle boxes into Gao’s garden.

Once we had everything ready, the four of us walked downstairs again and hailed a taxi. The driver slowly navigated the Zhengzhou traffic while the plainclothes police officers puttered along close behind. We made a careful little caravan of it and everyone found parking at the local post office. Inside we got the packages organized again while the plainclothes loitered by the door, pretending to check out commemorative stamp collections or just stare out the window, blowing smoke against dirty panes.

Hu filmed the whole thing and the other Times reporter helped Gao while I was equal parts fascinated by the scene in front of me and the one all around us, not knowing if I should watch the people I was with or the people who had also come to watch the people I was with, or if I should just watch the people I was with pointedly not watch those we knew were watching us.

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Now Gao has given up her life in China to live out the rest of her days in exile near Columbia University, where she continues to write about the policy imperatives still needed to control HIV/AIDS in China. But she suffers the plight of all exiles: irrelevance, obscurity, time. Hu, for his part, has remained in China. He didn’t have much choice in that. Shortly after I met him, the activist would serve nearly 4 years in prison on charges of state subversion. In July Hu was again detained, this time on the occasion of his own birthday celebration.

The Times’ insert from the China Daily reads like the saddest obituary to journalism I’ve seen: death by one long tape worm of forgetting and obfuscation snuggled deep into the center of the Paper of Record.

I think again of Liu Xiaobo, the world’s only Nobel Prize winner who is currently in prison. And I think again of all those packages Gao Yaojie prepared. And I think of the New York Times own China Daily dispatch today, all that hot air blowing across page A14: “China’s fast developing private equity market in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Shenzhen will give Chinese companies huge financial firepower to make acquisitions around the world. They will then be able to acquire the innovation capability and global brands.”

But will that ‘firepower’ and ‘innovation capability’ be strong enough to safeguard the real battle—the contest of ideas that, at one time, relied on nothing more and nothing better than one old woman’s beat up tin of postage stamps?

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