Monday, June 25, 2012

The Great Leap Forward from Myth to History

This post originally appeared at Asia Times.  It can be reposted if AT is acknowledged and a link to AT is provided.
The Great Leap Forward, a calamity that killed tens of millions, afflicted China with the misery and morals of a concentration camp, and spawned the Cultural Revolution, was once a shunned and shameful topic.  

But convenient myths—such as the threadbare explanation of “Three Years of Natural Disasters”, fingerpointing at the Soviet Union, and exculpatory emphasis on quixotic but seemingly admirable revolutionary enthusiasm—are now crumbling as a new generation feels enough distance to confront the painful past, and at the same time races to record the memories of the citizens who suffered through the period before they pass on.

Through the efforts of Chinese and foreign researchers, a more complete history of the Great Leap Forward is emerging from archives and personal accounts, as a parade of folly, viciousness, and cruelty.  This history—and the current regime’s incomplete willingness to confront it—is finding resonance in the campaign to discredit Chongqing neo-Maoist firebrand Bo Xilai, and the effort to shape the agenda of the new leadership cadre that is expected to assume power in 2013.

In the process, the era of the Great Leap Forward and its aftermath is acquiring a new name: The Great Famine.

The Great Leap Forward was born of hubris: Mao Zedong’s bet that his version of socialism could unleash unprecedented productivity from the Chinese economy and show the supercilious commissars of the Soviet Union who was the best and greatest Communist leader.

In 1958 and 1959, China was convulsed by massive, disruptive labor projects, collectivization, and a mad rush to steelmaking.  Agriculture was disrupted by diversion of labor and misapplied programs of deep planting, marginal land recovery, and over-irrigation.  At the same time, local leaders made extravagant claims of increased agricultural output attributed to the new socialist system, figures that were further padded as they traveled up the chain of command to Beijing and, fatally, became the basis for central government grain requisitions.

Things turned very dark very quickly as local cadres emptied granaries in order to meet their requisition targets and demonstrate their ability, zeal, and loyalty to their superiors.  

One county in Henan claimed production of 7 billion jin of grain—but actually produced only 2 billion jin—of which 1.6 billion jin was requisitioned.

By the late months of 1958, throughout China communal kitchens—where farmers in the new collectives went to get fed—were either handing out thin gruel or were no longer bothering to light their fires at all.  People began to starve.

Despite concerted efforts by local and provincial leaders to cover up, it was soon apparent at the center that something was seriously amiss.

And things got worse.

Mao Zedong adopted the self-serving explanation that the shortfall in grain was the result of a counter-revolutionary resurgence in the Chinese countryside, with ex-landlords and rich peasants conniving to conceal their bumper grain harvests from the state.

Ironically, his convictions were buttressed by the party secretary of Guangdong province, who conducted a successful campaign to root out one million tons of grain hidden by desperate peasants.  His name: Zhao Ziyang.

As the situation deteriorated in the Chinese countryside, therefore, the afflicted areas were not regarded as disaster areas needing outside assistance; they were nests of anti-state criminals who had to be compelled to give up their ill-gotten grain.

Then things got even worse.  As news of widespread suffering trickled up to the party leadership, sub voce dissatisfaction with Mao’s policies was amplified at the Lushan plenum in the summer of 1959 as open criticism of the Great Leap Forward as a whole by defense minister Peng Dehuai and party elder Zhang Wentian.

Mao interpreted the criticism at Lushan as an attack on himself by a cabal of candidate Khrushchevs and launched an all-out political war, loyally abetted by Zhou Enlai, Lin Biao, and most other senior leaders, against Peng, Zhang, and any cadre that presumed to criticize the Great Leap Forward.

The full human and political dimensions of the Great Famine—and a damning portrait of Mao as a leader who was happy to slay the messengers, by the tens of millions, rather than endure the humiliation of acknowledging the failure of his policies before his peers in China and the Soviet Union, or accept diminution of his authority and political power—are found in the book Mao’s Great Famine by Dr. Frank Dikӧtter (New York: Walker & Co., 2010).

In the words of Dikӧtter:

Had the leadership reversed course in the summer of 1959 at Lushan, the number of victims claimed by famine would have been counted in the millions.  Instead, as the country plunged into catastrophe, tens of millions of lives would be extinguished through exhaustion, illness, torture, and hunger.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Wall of Fear Rebuilt in Syria

In the summer of 2011, foreign reportage and commentary on the Syrian uprising noted that the “wall of fear”—popular unwillingness to speak out against the government out of fear of reprisal by the government’s brutal security services—had crumbled, thanks to the sense of safety and empowerment (and, most likely, anonymity) provided by burgeoning mass demonstrations.

From July 2011:

Joshua Landis, director of the Centre for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, says people are beginning to lose their fear of the regime.

"The president appears to be hesitating, torn between a bloody crackdown and hoping the protests will run themselves out and he can stay in power," he said.

"People can smell his fear and are making calculations that the likelihood of getting killed amongst tens of thousands of protesters is far smaller. Bashar does not want to be his father[the former president Hafez al-Assad], and your average young Syrian man will be emboldened if he thinks he might just get thrown in jail for a few days. The numbers game has changed."

Well, fear has made a comeback.  Google the two words fear and Syria and you get 106 million results.

There’s a reason for that.

The Syrian government has conducted an extensive program of state terror in an attempt to regain the political initiative in Syria’s restive areas.

Amnesty International recently issued a report titled “Deadly Reprisals,” describing atrocities committed by the Syrian army during its pacification activities.  It is based on in-country reporting and contains moving first-hand testimony such as this example, from a town called Sarmin:

According to their family and local activists, the brothers, all construction workers, were not fighters but were active in demonstrations. Their mother told Amnesty International:

The army came on Thursday [22 March] and so all the youths were trapped in the town. My
boys were at home. On Friday [23 March] early morning, at about 6-6.30am, soldiers came and
banged on the door. We were all asleep and Bilal went to open the door. They said they want to
search; they asked about the small motorcycle in the courtyard and Bilal said it was his. He
gave his ID and one soldier took it and put it in his shirt pocket without even looking at it.
Yousef came out of the room into the courtyard and Talal also came out of his room, still
wiping his eyes from the sleep. He gave his ID and a soldier also put it in his shirt pocket
without looking at it.

“They took Bilal and the motorbike outside to the street. There was a group of them searching
everywhere and many others outside in the street. I could not see those outside but could hear
many voices. The soldiers did not find anything in the house. They only grabbed a pair of
military type trousers and said my sons are with the FSA [the opposition Free Syrian Army] but
I told them everyone is wearing those trousers and they are being sold at the market. They did
not take anything else.

“They dragged Yousef and Talal out to the street. I tried to go after them but a soldier pushed
his rifle against me and told me to go back. Every time I tried to go outside they stopped me.
About an hour later, after the soldiers had moved from the street, my relatives and neighbours
called asking for water to put out a fire. We filled buckets of water and I ran out barefoot and
my daughter who had run out ahead of me screamed ‘my brothers are burning’.

“Yousef and Bilal were burning on the ground with several motorbikes piled over them. Yousef
was shot in the side of the head and Bilal in the forehead, and Talal was lying face down, shot
in head and in the back and burning from the waist down. Their hands were folded back, from
how they had been tied. They were about 20 metres from the door of our home but we had to
run back into the house because of heavy shooting and we could not recover the bodies until
the about 7pm in the evening.


“At about 2pm soldiers broke down the door and burst into the house. There were at least 10
of them. The men of my family were hiding because it was believed that the army was taking
and/or killing any young men they found. They grabbed my son Uday and asked for his ID. I
told them that he does not yet have an ID because he is just 15.

“They left and went next door and found my brother Mohamed Sa’ad. He had shrapnel injuries
in the arms and legs which he had sustained in the morning of 24 March, when he was in the
market and the army came into town and many residents were injured by shooting and shelling.
He was not involved with the resistance; he did not even go to demonstrations and was not
wanted; he had no problem passing the army checkpoints on his way to and from Aleppo
University and home. The soldiers brought him back to the house and we told them he was not
involved in anything; I told them to check and if they found that he had done anything I would
hand him over myself. We showed them his university card and they tore it up without even
looking at it…

“I was trying to protect Uday behind my back and they pointed their rifles at me. I tried to
reason with them and we begged them and kissed their feet but they took both Uday and
Mohamed Sa’ad away.

“I tried to follow them outside and was screaming at them and they got angry and grabbed my
other child, who is 10 years old and handicapped [learning disabled and mute], and threatened
to kill him. As they left they set fire to the house. With my relatives we eventually managed to
put out the fire, but by then my parents’ home was mostly burned down. We could not go out
for fear of being shot. Only in the evening, after the army left the area I went out with some
relatives and found the bodies in the street, around the corner, less than 100 metres from the
house. There were nine bodies. Uday had been shot in the head and Mohamed Sa’ad had his
hands tied behind his back and had been shot in the chest.”

The report is describes numerous incidents of extra-judicial killings, and includes dozens of photos of the victims: identity cards, candid photos, formal portraits, smartphone snaps of boys and young and youngish men regarding the lens with a mixture of expressions of happiness, suspicion, or blankness, but all lacking a hint of the horrors that would soon overtake them.

People who question the veracity and motives of anti-Assad reporting may be inclined to offer the usual caveats concerning anti-regime propaganda orchestrated by the Syrian opposition’s indefatigable and ethically untrammeled media operation.

However, the Amnesty report looks like the real deal, and not just because of the wrenching verbal and pictorial testimony.

It’s because the report provides a complementary and explanatory picture to what’s going on in the government’s counterattack against the insurgency.

Readers have noted that the report describes extensive atrocities by the Syrian army, not the mukhabarat (security services) or the shabiha (pro-government irregulars).

Judging from incidents of the type reproduced above, the violence is not a carefully-planned death squad operation against selected targets.  Instead, the violence is, beyond the fact that it is directed almost exclusively at young men of military age, arbitrary to the point of randomness.

Like the seemingly random shelling of Syrian towns prior to military assaults.

It is difficult to see what military or political objective, at least according to the “hearts and minds” theory of weaning the undecided away from the insurgency by ostentatious solicitude for the innocent--is served by lobbing a few shells into a village or massacring some young men who might have been insurgents—but also peaceful demonstrators, disgruntled wannabes, or innocent bystanders or even regime supporters.

Unless “randomness” is regarded as a feature, not a bug.

The picture I get from the Amnesty report is of a counterinsurgency strategy that wishes to return the Syrian population to its pre-2011 state of fear through frequent exercises of state violence that make little serious attempt to discriminate between (in its terms) the deserving, the undeserving, and the terminally wronged.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Russia and China Try to Draw the Line on Saudi Hegemony in Syria

I have a long piece up in Asia Times about sectarian aspects of the Syrian crisis.  But first, updates on some interesting elements.

In the piece, I wrote:

The narrative of escalating Syrian government brutality is important to Assad’s enemies, as it counters another, more embarrassing narrative: the increased flow of money and material aid to the rebels…
A sure sign of the increased flow of aid to the rebels was the deployment of publicly unsubstantiated accusations by the US State Department that Russia was sending attack helicopters to Syria.  Perhaps the State Department has unique insights into the flow of military materiel from Russia to Syria, but the key change in Syria is not in the order of battle of the government forces; it is the increase in military capabilities of the local rebels thanks in significant part to foreign supply of arms. 

And today, via Jason Ditz at

It turns out Russia was telling the truth, and the US State Department today admitted that the helicopters they were railing about were actually already owned by Syria and that they had just been sent to Russia for repairs.

Presumably the United States was acting on the principle, to paraphrase Mark Twain, that a righteous lie will make it around the world to every receptive media outlet before an inconvenient truth manages to get its butt out of bed.

Another matter I touched on was how different things would have been if Syria had a nuclear program, like North Korea:

Today, there is no international consensus and a shrinking domestic commitment to sustaining Syria—a diminished, artificially constructed rump with almost no oil and no atomic bomb (with hindsight, Assad’s failed clandestine attempt to get Syria into the nuclear business appears wise instead of reckless)—as a successful multi-ethnic state.

We can apparently thank Israel for that.

Elliott Abrams, everybody’s favorite foreign policy felon, told the Jerusalem Post that George W. Bush and Condoleezza Rice decided to use diplomacy on the Syrian nuclear reactor project at al Kabir but the Israeli government went ahead and bombed it on their own kick.

Commenting in response to a government wrist-slap delivered by Israel’s State Comptroller to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu concerning the bloody Mavi Marmara incident, Abrams made the important point that theprocess of painstaking fact-finding and sober, multi-faceted analysis will sometimes yield an incorrect outcome.

Incorrect, as in Elliott Abrams doesn’t like it.

Abrams, however, used the Syrian nuclear facility issue to illustrate that what is more important than thorough preparation and a good process is the right people making the right decisions. He also said that some of the best White House meetings were informal ones where no notes were taken.

He said that his preferred option in the summer of 2007, when intelligence information emerged that the Syrians were building a nuclear facility, was for Israel to take it out in order for Jerusalem to rebuild its deterrence capability following the Second Lebanon War a year earlier. He added that then-vice president Dick Cheney argued for the US to bomb the facility itself to rebuild America’s deterrence capability.

Insert your own joke concerning right [wing] people making right [wing] decisions here, and the interesting stretch of the definition of “deterrence” to include “aggression.”  

Final takeaway of the Asia Times piece addresses the destabilizing role of Saudi Arabia intransigence in forestalling a resolution of the crisis that might leave Assad a share of power—which has elicited determined Russian and Chinese opposition to the Kingdom’s reckless neo-Clean Break strategy to roll back Iranian power and impose some sort of Saudi hegemony on the Middle East:

In other words, if Saudi Arabia, the homeland of 15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers, could pause from beating up Bahrain long enough to look in a mirror, it might see an overreaching, overfunded theocracy that is more the cause than the victim of the instability it reviles.

After the break is the full text of the Asia Times piece.  It can be reposted if Asia Times copyright is acknowledged and a link is provided to Asia Times Online.

Monday, June 11, 2012

China Battens Down the Hatches

This piece originally appeared at Asia Times on June 2, 2012

 The entertaining ruckus over CCTV talk show host Yang Rui’s anti-foreign comments obscures a rather significant trend in Chinese government policy.

It appears that the CCP is winding down its five-year charm offensive meant to bolster its international legitimacy and standing, and is turning inward to focus on pressing domestic social, economic, and political concerns.

Disturbingly, China has a limited number of effective policy levers to deal with these issues.  The few they have are ugly in conception and application—like xenophobia.

China’s economic miracle, typified by the spectacle of the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the titanic stimulus program of 2009-2010 (which is credited with forestalling a prolonged global recession), never elicited the Western respect that the Chinese leadership felt was its due.

With the election of President Obama, the West rediscovered the impeccable moral self-regard it had forfeited during the Bush II years and, instead of acknowledging Chinese regional suzerainty, cobbled together an alliance to “pivot” back into Asia and contain China.

International policy toward China is inseparable from criticism of China’s human rights record, its neo-mercantilist economic policies, and its heightened security profile in East Asia, and the hope and expectation that China will fall on its behind before the West (excluding Greece, probably Spain, and perhaps Italy) does.

“Soft power”, in other words, hasn’t won China much breathing space.  As the CCP turns its attention to a fraught leadership transition complicated by smoldering inflation, simmering public discontent, slowing economic growth thanks to the dysfunctional Eurozone, and a spate of opportunistic bitching over uninhabited island groups by its maritime neighbors, perhaps xenophobia is the most effective way for the Party to seize the initiative in the public sphere.

In recent weeks, public opinion has been entertained and inflamed by such diverse exhibition of foreign misbehavior as 1) arrogant Russian cellist putting his feet where they didn’t belong on a Chinese train 2) brain-melted foreign tourist trying to undress a hapless Chinese woman on a busy Beijing street 3) North Korean “pirates” holding Chinese fishermen for ransom.

There was a lot of palaver about what the kidnapping said about the North Koreans and their possible unhappiness with Chinese criticism of their weapons testing.  Remarkably, there was very little discussion of why the Chinese media chose to give this event (which, quite possibly, was simply the most recent of many shakedowns by North Korea’s cash-hungry/smuggling-happy coastal security forces) front-page treatment.

The xenophobic piece du resistance, however, was a May 16 Weibo screed by CCTV’s Yang Rui, sneering at “foreign trash”.

One can safely assume that Yang was supporting the party line on pesky foreigners.  It also appears that Yang put a lot of himself, too much, in fact, into his 140-character ramble, including accusations that foreigners were shacking up with Chinese women in order to make maps and send out GPS coordinates to overseas intelligence services (coordinates of what, Yang failed to enlighten his readers).

What caused Yang’s anti-foreign assault to backfire, however, was his use of the term “po fu” to describe Al Jazeera Beijing correspondent Melissa Chan.

Chan,a well-regarded reporter who had aired pieces on black prisons and illegal land grabs that the Chinese government certainly found uncomfortable, was expelled (technically, her request for a visa extension was refused) in early May.

Yang lumped her together with the foreign trash, declaring:


We kicked out the foreign po fu, closed down Al Jazeera’s Beijing office, so those who demonize China shut their mouths and beat it.

Global Times translated “po fu” as “crazy”, which is pretty far from the mark.  The Wall Street Journal translated “po fu” as b*tch, which is closer to the truth, if not quite accurate, and helped feed the expressions of quivering outrage by expats in China who tweet.

Yang tried to explain that his insulting characterization actually means “shrew” in English, and he does have a point.  “Po fu” started out as a literary term coined by the Qian Long emperor.  During one of his southern tours he saw two women fighting and said something along the lines of (adjusting for the dense meaning of individual characters in classical Chinese), “when you’re talking about fierce, unreasonable, and incapable of engaging in elevated moral discourse, that’s women.”

In essence, therefore, Yang appears not be saying that Ms. Chan was a b*tch (a bad woman), but the unfortunate but entirely predictable manifestation of female shrewishness in her reporting prevented her from scaling the highest peaks of respectable journalism (already occupied, perhaps, by certain smugly condescending male CCTV presenters).

Sometimes, when you’re in a hole, it’s time to stop digging.

The furor over “po fu” also distracts attention from the more interesting question of why Ms. Chan’s visa was not renewed.  

The conclusion of Yang’s Weibo blast (so those who demonize China shut their mouths and beat it) implies that the Chinese government made an example of a free-wheeling reporter at a second-tier news outlet in order to pass the message to top-line media outlets that nettlesome reporting will have consequences for individual reporters and, perhaps, entire news operations (in addition to not renewing Chan’s visa, the Chinese government has so far refused to accept a replacement and the Al Jazeera Beijing bureau is, at least for the time being, defunct).

The impression of Chinese xenophobia was also accentuated by the announcement of a three-month drive to crack down on foreigners residing or working in China without proper documentation.

Needless to say, it is an unpleasant experience to be regarded as potential “foreign trash” and go through the degrading transaction of presenting one’s papers to the local police on demand.  It is also an indication that the security system’s relatively kid-glove treatment of foreigners is the latest victim of China’s growing political and economic uncertainty.

Chinese policies toward improperly documented aliens bear a remarkable resemblance to laws in Arizona and Georgia that have integrated immigration policy into police operations largely in response to xenophobic sentiment and political unease in a deteriorated economic climate.  

The real issue may not be the outraged feelings of foreigners today; it may be making the scapegoating of foreign troublemakers, journalists and otherwise, an available option against the day when the political climate inside China worsens for the CCP.

If and when bad times come, the CCP seems to have a decreasing number of tools available to deal with the situation.  In particular, there are sticks available, but not a lot of carrots.

This restricted toolkit apparently applies to dealing with domestic dissatisfaction as well as pesky foreigners.

A remarkable object lesson in the financial and systemic hazards of contemporary Chinese authoritarianism is illustrated by the remarkable extralegal detention of Chen Guangcheng and other dissidents.

It takes a village, apparently, to button up a lawyer-activist in China, and the amounts expended on supervising and harassing Chen—estimated at over 8 million RMB—are a source of wonder.

What is perhaps an even more remarkable source of wonder is the fact that variants of this extravagant system are applied to perhaps 1 million Chinese that no one has ever heard of.

As reported by Charles Hutzler of AP, hundreds of thousands of Chinese activists, dissidents, miscreants, parolees, and suspicious characters are kept under intensive surveillance similar to Chen’s.

The operations are funded by “stability maintenance” funds from the central government, part of the $110 billion the government spends each year on domestic security and order.

The article recounted the case of Yao Lifa, a schoolteacher who ran afoul of the system when he tried to run as an independent for a local political office 25 years ago.  The current system of tight surveillance has been in place for a year or so.

Yao told AP how his surveillance is managed, including a significant outsourcing to gym teachers in the school he used to teach at:

Anywhere from 14 to 50 people a day are on the local government payroll for his round-the-clock surveillance — what he calls the "Yao Lifa special squad." They get 50 yuan, $8, for a day shift and twice that for night work. Often, he said, hotel rooms, transport, meals and cigarettes are thrown in.
The sums add up in Qianjiang, a city of struggling factories and one million people set in the center of the country. Basic pay runs about 1,000 yuan, or $160, a month for an entry-level teacher and goes to three times that amount for a veteran, Yao said.

"This isn't bad for teachers," said Yao. "An English teacher probably wouldn't take it. They can earn extra money giving private tutoring. But gym teachers can't do the tutoring. Besides, their superiors have told them to do this. They can't not do it."
He said he heard the school and education bureau were arguing over $48,000 for his surveillance.
"I have many acquaintances. Some of them work in police stations," Yao said. "They tell me 'Really we could use a Yao Lifa. If we had one, we could make more money.'"

According to Hutzler, an article in Caijing reported on a village in south China in which a quarter of the local government personnel were on the stability payroll.

This would appear to be more than “stability maintenance”.  It’s a form of central government support to shore up the finances and legitimacy of the local government i.e. the local Communist apparatus.

Call it CCP welfare, or “workfare”.  Well, maybe call it “goonfare.”  

It is, to put it mildly, not a good thing for the CCP when the local face of the party is a crew of musclemen hassling schoolteachers.

To add to the problem, and the perception, for many local officials the temptation to graft off the imperfectly supervised “stability maintenance” funds is reportedly irresistible.

Now that this system is in place, it is difficult to see how the central government can abolish it—unless, in addition to howls of protest from local cadres, it is interested in dealing with a surge of local unrest and disgruntled petitioners, and a legal system that is not up to the task of protecting the rights and serving the aspirations of its citizens.

The fundamental problem is that, contrary to the party’s hopes, breakneck economic growth over the last decade has not translated into an outpouring of gratitude or support for the Chinese Communist Party.  “Socialism with Chinese characteristics” like another triumphant economic system we all know and love, has inequality built into it. 

In Western capitalism, the power of the “1%” is diffused, anonymous, entrenched in every institution, and embedded in every political party.  Even after the colossal rich man’s cock-up of the 2008 financial crisis, for instance, 99% Americans were unable to summon up the united political will to confront Wall Street, let alone engage in a satisfying politico-economic jacquerie against the moneyed elite.

However, in China, the political problem is much more severe because inequality clearly benefits party members—and princelings within the party—disproportionately.  Overall GDP growth, that scorecard of economic success that infatuates state planners, foreign businesses, and economists alike is, for China, a two-edged sword, since it ineluctably widens the perceived income and social justice gap.  

Therefore, there is a lot of anxiety inside and outside the party about closing the wealth and justice gap ranging from traditional command economy nostrums like subsidized housing to fancy free-market panaceas like reforming the pampered, cash-rich state run corporations through private corporate competition and public wealth sharing through increased stock ownership.

In fact, it would be useful to consider that China is now trying to turn away from macro-economic management of the economy, with its implication of passively waiting for the tide to lift all boats, to politically targeted financial and investment policy meant to selectively grow vulnerable sectors of the economy at the expense of industries and institutions that have emerged as political liabilities.

However, these solutions don’t go very far in addressing the disgruntlement that suffuses Chinese society like a toxic fog: the idea that Chinese wealth creation is primarily an exercise by which the CCP enriches and entrenches itself.

It’s not easy—or perhaps even feasible—to remove the dead hand of the party from economic and political life, or from the consciousness of the Chinese citizenry under the current system.

Things are less than ideal even after—and, to some extent because of—a decade of rampant growth.
Now, of course, China is looking at a period of slowed growth as a matter of policy as well as necessity, one that will presumably leverage even greater perceived economic and social injustice onto the shoulders of the resentful Chinese citizenry.  

The West’s faltering effort to free itself of the incubus of its failed economic policies means a Eurozone crisis and bad news for China’s export economy.  At the same time, China is still dealing with the inflation and real estate bubble hangover from its massive 2009-10 stimulus and cannot risk fueling inflation by dumping a lot of money into the economy.

If the CCP finds itself unable to finesse the looming economic and political crisis through a savvy combination of political and economic policies, the alternative—a bout of xenophobia and domestic repression that reveal the party in its least attractive light both to the world and its citizens—is not going to be pretty.

"Bo Fu" image from

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Brave New Worlds: The Difference Engine and The Murder of the Century

London, Summer 1821. Charles Babbage (1791-1871), inventor and mathematician, is poring over a set of astronomical tables calculated by hand. Finding error after error he finally exclaims 'I wish to God these calculations had been executed by steam'. 

I recently had the good fortune to read two excellent and complementary books in tandem.

One was The Difference Engine, a famous piece of sci-fi alternate history by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling.  It takes place in Victorian England—a different Victorian England, still driven by steam and innocent of electricity, but one in which Charles Babbage’s machine for mechanical computing has been perfected.  New but oddly familiar vistas of technology, pollution, wealth, crime, control, and oppression confront the characters and the reader.  Gibson has said that The Difference Engine remains his favorite among his books and the only one he re-reads.  Coming from the author of Neuromancer, that’s no small claim.  Unsurprisingly, the book has become something of a touchstone for the steampunk movement, which it anticipated by about a decade.

The other book is Murder of the Century, by Paul Collins.  It reads like a prequel to The Difference Engine, with the added advantage that it is both strange and true.  The murder in question was the quite mundane if gruesome liquidation and dismemberment in 1897 New York City of a German immigrant, William Guldensuppe by his lover, Augusta Nack, and her other lover, Martin Thorn. What made it the murder of that century was the central role it played in the New York tabloid wars and the rise of William Randolph Hearst.

The Guldensuppe murder made Hearst.  Through a combination of luck, energy, and money Hearst’s upstart New York Journal rode the case to victory over the Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World and mastery of the New York newspaper universe.

Hearst did not only report the case—he made the case.  His “Wrecking Crew”—a pack of reporters whizzing around the city on that new-fangled invention, the bicycle, to scoop the competition—not only kept ahead of the World; it stayed a step ahead of New York’s not-too-impressive police department, unearthing clues, accumulating evidence, interviewing suspects, and keeping the prosecutorial ball rolling.

At the time, New York was a big city, but as yet deficient in the big city mechanisms of control and consent meant to convey the unassailable authority of the government.  The suspect, Martin Thorn, was trundled to and from the courthouse on the trolley by his police escort; when it was time to go up the river to Sing Sing, he was loaded on the public ferry to be ogled, consoled, insulted, or interviewed by any passenger who had the inclination.

The whole book reads like a steampunk artifact from when the cage of science, modern laws, and bourgeois morals had not yet been completely erected around the human passions, but the modern hive mind fostered by capitalism, population density, and the omnipresent media had already emerged.

Even as Hearst’s hyper-modern steam presses thundered out multiple daily editions to overwhelm The World, and Linotype operators in the printing plant received direct telephone feeds of the courtroom testimony in their headsets, The Journal’s crack sketch artists relied on Aeolus, Flyaway, and Electra—three U.S. record-holding racing pigeons hired by Hearst—to deliver the latest pictures from the courthouse to Newspaper Row.

Throughout the book glides the sensuous and sinister figure of Mrs. Nack: an uneducated German immigrant who deftly navigated 19th century New York as a single woman by skillfully juggling and exploiting multiple lovers, and through her talents as a midwife and alleged abortionist.  She played the press like a fiddle, doling out scoops, interviews, and accusations that kept her the center of sympathetic attention.  Although Mrs. Nack, according to Collins’ reconstruction, killed Guldensuppe in the most intimate manner conceivable with Thorn’s assistance, she blithely and easily rolled over on her accomplice by turning state’s evidence.

Augusta Nack emerged from prison ten years later and, after a flurry of media interest and interviews, disappeared forever.

Martin Thorn went to the electric chair at Sing Sing.

In true steampunk irony, the electric chair, still in its infancy, only delivered a modest jolt of 1750 volts at ten amperes.  After the sentence was executed—accompanied by a smell that a witness described as resembling “an overheated flatiron on a handkerchief” -- Thorn was pronounced dead.  Reporters dashed out to file their stories and Dr. Joseph O’Neill of the New York School of Clinical Medicine came forward to examine the body.

Collins describes the aftermath:

O’Neill bent over and rested the stethoscope on Thorn’s skin.  There was a motion underneath—a faint thrill in the carotid artery…With swift and practiced movements, the doctor examined the cremasteric reflex, which retracted or loosened the testes; it was still working.  O’Neill…pulled back Thorn’s left eyelid; the pupil contracted beneath the blaze of light.

“If required, I should be very reluctant to sign his death certificate,” the surgeon announced.
The prison doctor pointedly ignored O’Neill and directed two attendants to carry the body to an autopsy room.  Thorn’s skull and chest were quickly opened…

Aghast, Dr. O’Neill fired off a dispatch titled “Who’s the Executioner?” to the Atlantic Medical Weekly.  “The law requires post-mortem mutilation…as it reveals no cause of death and teaches nothing of interest to science, it is evident that its purpose is to complete the killing.

Relishing his victory over The World and Joseph Pulitzer in New York City, Hearst quickly moved on to leverage his talents, ambitions, and media assets on a truly global stage.

His chosen sensation: the sinking of the USS Maine in Havana Harbor in 1898.  The objective: war between Spain and the United States.

The outcome: well, the rest is history.  Modern history.

 The Computer History Museum has an on-line exhibit on Babbage and his engine, which provides the quote in the header.  The first full feature difference engine ever built in our world was constructed in 2002 and weighed 5 tons.

Here’s a link to purchase Murder of the Century at Amazon.

The Library of Congress has a page on the Guldensuppe case in its Chronicling America series with links to contemporary news accounts that one may view, clip, and download to one’s heart’s content.  The picture above came from the November 11, 1897 Salt Lake Herald.