Wednesday, January 14, 2015


My connection to China goes back 35 years. The country is a part of my life and always will be.

But at times the connection grows thin. I last visited in September. Not that long ago, but it feels distant. The third Ellie McEnroe book (my series set in China) is finished, save for a review of the page proofs when they are available. I don't know if or when I'll write another one. Not for business reasons, but for creative ones. Ellie had a story, and while I won't say that her story ends with Dragon Day, a chapter in her life definitely does.

Meanwhile, I'm writing a book set in the exotic US and am in the final third of the draft, the point where my creative focus narrows to the extent that I really can't think about much of anything else. Doing laundry, getting my car smogged, my teeth cleaned, my hair cut, all of this minutiae feels huge and overwhelming. And you know, it's just not that hard to get your car smogged.

The book I have tentatively planned to write next is also set in the US, so it's going to be a while before I return to China, at least in a novel. Physically, I hope to make my annual trip later in the year. Fingers crossed on that one.

I do keep up on the news from China. And lately, it's been pretty depressing.

A lot of people had high hopes for incoming president Xi Jinping. Especially after the years of waiting for predecessors Hu Jintao and "Grandpa" Wen Jiabao to do…something. To make good on their promises of political reform, of addressing income inequality and corruption, to ease net censorship and open intellectual discourse. But Hu was a bland character in public, cut from the cloth of bland bureaucrats who recited canned speeches and never had a dyed-black hair out of place.

Xi came in with the promise of something different. He had charisma, a famous folk-singing wife. And he began an anti-corruption campaign that promised to go after both "Tigers and Flies," the powerful and the lowly alike. While it's true that many officials have been sacked and some high-level "Tigers" brought low, it is still unclear to what extent this is an anti-corruption campaign and to what extent it is a consolidation of power. But most China watchers agree that Xi represents a break from the overall rule by consensus that had governed China since the days of Deng Xiaoping, and that he has amassed more personal power than any Chinese leader since…well…

My first time in China was in 1979, only a few years after Mao's death and the end of the Cultural Revolution. The changes in China since that time are staggering, almost unimaginable. It is nearly impossible to imagine that anything like a Cultural Revolution could happen in today's China, where there are Starbucks and Gucci boutiques in every major city in the country, well, most of them, anyway. But I have friends there who worry about the personality cult building up around Xi. Crackdowns on dissidents occur with depressing regularity in China, but what has been going on recently is deeper, broader and more alarming, with the definition of "dissidents" expanding and the circle of acceptable public discourse shrinking. This recent New York Times article discusses what's happening in China's universities, and it's not pretty:

“Since Xi came to power, the pressure and control over freethinkers has become really tight,” said Qiao Mu, a Beijing journalism professor who was demoted this fall, in part for publicly espousing multiparty elections and free speech. “More and more of my friends and colleagues are experiencing fear and harassment.”
Two years into a sweeping offensive against dissent, Mr. Xi has been intensifying his focus on perceived ideological opponents, sending ripples through universities, publishing houses and the news media and emboldening hard-liners who have hailed him as a worthy successor to Mao Zedong...
...The latest directive, Document No. 30, demands cleansing Western-inspired liberal ideas from universities and other cultural institutions, according to Song Fangmin, a retired major-general, who discussed it with dozens of veteran party officials and hard-left activists at a meeting in Beijing in November. The directive formed a sequel to Document No. 9, which Mr. Xi authorized in April 2013, launching an offensive against ideas such as “civil society,” General Song said. 
There's much more, and I suggest you read the entire thing.

I don't know what all this means for China. Is it possible to be a successful, modern nation that suppresses intellectual discourse and open minds? Obviously China has been remarkably successful at many things—bringing millions out of poverty, modernizing infrastructure, doing a credible job at developing green technology and building a high-speed rail network that will soon connect the entire country together.

I watch this happen at a time when American infrastructure is critically underfunded, out-of-date and literally falling apart, when we have freedom of speech but our words are rarely heard through a cacophony of spin and lies and all the noise that millions upon millions of dollars buys, where corporations are people, and actual people are disengaged from the political process, where we're shouting at each other across political and cultural divides that seem impossible to bridge.

I don't know the answers to our own national dilemmas either. But I'm wrestling with some of the questions, in fictional form. And I'm hoping the results will be entertaining.

Lisa…every other Wednesday...


  1. At the risk of sounding horribly provincial, Lisa, though I appreciate the looming storm over societal direction enveloping China, I'm far more concerned about the deteriorating state of our country so poignantly described in your penultimate paragraph. Congratulations on finishing Ellie #3!

    1. Thanks, Jeff! Very happy to have it in the can. It was a real challenge to wrap up the series, if not forever, at least for now, and to tie up all those emotional loose ends.

      And I've had a lot of fun on this current WIP, in spite of (because of?) the serious issues at its core. There's nearly always humor to be found, I guess.

  2. I find your writings interesting and informative. I now so little about China so I learn through you. I look forward
    to the next Ellie.

    1. Thanks, Lil, I really appreciate that!

      Ellie #3 comes out on Aug. 4, but I should have a cover and all that exciting stuff soon...

  3. I had to do a search to find out what "getting your car smogged" meant (not a requirement in our little metropolis, though sometimes I think it should be...)

    The U.S. and China are definitely on opposite sides of the "social experiment" teeter-totter. I think it's (unfortunately) unlikely that any society will be able to maintain a 'central' and 'balanced' position on the teeter-totter, if it ever manages to achieve it. Goes back to my comment on Jeff's Saturday blog regarding greed (for money, power); there's always destabilizing forces pushing away from the center. Sigh.

  4. Thesis + antithesis = synthesis, as Kant would have it!

  5. What I find sort of ironic, Everett, is that these very different social experiments have led to some similar outcomes in some areas: namely, wealth and power are highly concentrated in the hands of a few. The Gini coefficients (measure of inequality) of China and the US aren't all that different, IIRC.

    1. Which brings me back to greed. Has there been a society that managed to maintain somewhat egalitarian spread of wealth for more than 50-100 years? I can't think of any (but I'm not the All-Knowing-Oz that Jeff thinks I am).

      Much as I dislike many things about the state of the U.S. society, I'd still rather suffer the inequities that allow me the most personal freedom. Who cares if society has glittering cities and highways if I have to live the life of a Morlock? Of course, if I have to live the life of a Morlock, what do I care if the Eloi have glittering cities and highways?

      Classes have seemingly always been with us, and I wish I knew a way to reduce the differences a LITTLE bit.

    2. I think the US did a pretty credible job of it from post-WW2 through the 70s. There are ways to ensure a healthy middle class and working class, and I think we actually know what most of them are. But it takes tremendous political will and an ability to articulate the message, because we as a country have gotten so far away from the kinds of policies that help bring about economic justice.

    3. I should add that you don't have a prosperous working and middle class by magic or neglect. It seems pretty clear that it takes deliberate acts of policy to create them.

    4. I absolutely agree on all your points. Unfortunately, there's always the folks that are greedy for money and power that destabilize things. We know what needs to be done, the hard (impossible?) part is KEEPING society on that path (ie, resist those parts of society that want an unreasonably large portion of the pie at the expense of everyone else). That seems to be what's nigh-on impossible. Sigh.

  6. A fascinating insight, Lisa. Did you know when you started your first Ellie book that it would be a trilogy, or did you realise later that you felt her story was sorted in the three books (so far)?

    And I feel much the same way about the state of the UK as of the US. Everything that seems to matter -- bits of the health service, the railways, the water companies -- have been taken out of public hands and sold off. If they're successful, the money disappears into the companies who bought them. And if they're not, the tax payer ends up bailing them out anyway. The western world seems to be in a sad and sorry state. Not that I think the eastern world is any better organised ...

    1. Zoe, when I wrote Rock Paper Tiger (the first Ellie book), I hadn't thought of it as a series at ALL. It was just a book that I wrote. 2 years later, I thought, hmmm, here's an idea for another story with that character, and there were plenty of open plot elements to work with as well. That second book, when you reach the end it's pretty clear that there's another to follow.

      But when I got to that third book, well, for one thing, I don't do well on that "get a book out in the series every year" model, at least not so far in my so-called writing career (I think I could WRITE a book a year, but just not with the same series/setting). Also, because I'd never intended the books to be a series in the first place, there were elements that I'd never intended to spell out (they were METAPHORS, dammit!) and when I kind of needed to to make the next book work and seem plausible, I realized that it wasn't plausible or desirable to continue them out much past a third book. Plus, I didn't know if the MC could continue to carry the load of a series. This is a troubled person, and I felt like it really would be stretching credulity for her to continue to get involved in trauma -- at least not without giving her a break!

      (sorta long-winded there but it's something I've thought about a lot)

      As for the second part of your comment, yeah. The whole devaluing of The Commons is a tragedy, IMO. The privatization of everything leads to a breakdown of community. How could it not?

      Anyway, thanks for asking! :)

    2. Hi Lisa. Thank you for such a great explanation. And I know what you mean about wanting to write more than series books. I loved doing the standalone because it's made returning to my series seem like a homecoming after a journey. If you don't take a break from it, you don't appreciate the familiar.

      And yeah, the words "hell" and "a hand basket" spring to mind ...