Street of Eternal Happiness

Street of Eternal Happiness

When the Chinese renamed these French streets, those running south to north had been named after Chinese provinces or provincial capitals, while streets running east to west were named after prominent Chinese cities of the time, which themselves had been auspiciously named so many dynasties ago.

Rob Schmitz, Street of Eternal Happiness. Kindle Edition. loc. 188-190. Accessed: 4/18/2020

As teenagers, CK’s parents were sent to the countryside to farm for several years, a fate typical for city kids under the policies of Chinese leader Mao Zedong. Mao dreamed of a China where urbanites worked alongside farmers in a proletariat utopia; but when he died in 1976, his dreams went with him. Most “sent-down youth” promptly dropped their hoes and returned home to their families. Upon their arrival, the Party stepped in again, assigning them jobs at local state-owned enterprises. By the time they turned thirty, CK’s parents hadn’t yet made a single career decision for themselves.

Rob Schmitz, Street of Eternal Happiness. Kindle Edition. loc. 259-263. Accessed: 4/18/2020

The system had turned out exactly as CK’s father had explained it to him as a boy: it was there to restrain and control you, rather than to enable you to learn and grow. But as his father got older, he began to realize the importance of money, and the stability that the system provided. “When I started working at Pearl River, he suddenly embraced the system. I didn’t know how to talk to him about escaping it.”

Rob Schmitz, Street of Eternal Happiness. Kindle Edition. loc. 376-379. Accessed: 4/19/2020

Maggie Lane was brutally wiped off the map, but the perpetrators weren’t Japanese. They were local officials. And they did so sixty-four years after the Battle of Shanghai. In 2001, the city was developing faster than it ever had. Construction cranes crowded the horizon, and news of violent showdowns between local residents and demolition dominated headlines. That year, Beijing had been selected to host the Summer Olympics of 2008, and now Shanghai was locked against Yeosu, South Korea, in a neck-and-neck bid to host the 2010 world’s fair. Members of the Bureau International des Expositions, the Paris-based organization that would choose the winning city, were concerned with Shanghai’s human rights record. How would the proposed theme of “Better City, Better Life” fit with the frequent news of enraged Shanghai residents being thrown out of their homes to make way for the city’s development? Responding to that criticism, municipal officials tried a kinder, gentler development path that year called “Urban Renewal.” Should an old neighborhood be designated an appropriate project, the developer was required to set aside homes for former residents on the same lot. In return, the developer was exempt from paying land use fees, a savings of millions of dollars. Maggie Lane was designated as one of Shanghai’s first Urban Renewal projects. By the new decree, residents were supposed to be given the right to live on the land following demolition and rebuilding. In February of 2002, Xuhui District officials auctioned the land to a developer named Chengkai Group. In the summer of that year, Chengkai slipped paper notices under the doorways of Maggie Lane residents: they were to be permanently relocated to an outer district of Shanghai—banished to the boonies. Residents protested. They had a right to return, they said. The Urban Renewal project promised this. But they’d been hoodwinked. Chengkai had saved millions of dollars by developing Maggie Lane as an Urban Renewal project, but district officials had quietly changed its designation to reserved land. It was December 2002. A group of city politicians—including Shanghai’s own mayor—was accepting bribes and making shady land deals that would eventually send them all to prison. Party officials had tricked thousands of Maggie Lane residents out of their homes. And Shanghai had won its bid to host the 2010 world’s fair. The winning theme was “Better City, Better Life.”

Rob Schmitz, Street of Eternal Happiness. Kindle Edition. loc. 538-555. Accessed: 4/19/2020

Old Kang spoke as if I had a say in the matter. Maggie Lane residents had sued the district government, but a local judge had dismissed the suit. They had filed petitions with the government, but those were ignored. The Party controlled the judiciary and the press, so people who had been dealt injustices by the government typically sought out the only people who refused to be influenced by the Party: foreign journalists. Unlike local media, which were strictly censored in their coverage, I was allowed to report whatever I wanted under the protection of a foreign journalist visa. When I first met Old Kang, I wondered how much he told me “truthfully reflected the truth.” Was he embellishing some of the details to attract the government’s attention? Officials had the chance to refute his story when I contacted them, but they didn’t—they refused interview requests. Later, I found police reports that corroborated his story. Plus, the physical evidence was right here, directly above us: a massive hole in his roof in an empty neighborhood of demolished homes. “I’ve been without a home for more than eight years,” Old Kang said as we hiked over a pile of rubble, walking away. “Do things like this ever happen in your country?” I thought about the eminent domain cases I had covered back in the United States. “Yes,” I said, “but contractors aren’t allowed to harass people in the process. That’s against the law. And people usually don’t end up homeless.” “That’s the big difference between your country and mine,” said Old Kang, nodding. “We have laws here, but none of them are enforced. Nobody has rights here. It doesn’t matter how developed China is—the system is what’s important. If they don’t change the system, economic development is useless. The government only seems to care about progress in science and technology or the economy, not in its overall system.”

Rob Schmitz, Street of Eternal Happiness. Kindle Edition. loc. 646-660. Accessed: 4/19/2020

In the early-morning hours of January 9, 2005, three men from the demolition crew arrived carrying canisters of gasoline. The previous year, the group had threatened and intimidated most of the lane’s residents out of their homes; in the weeks leading up to that evening, they set more than a dozen fires to scare those who remained, but residents had learned to have buckets of water at the ready to put them out. On that January night, the three men sprayed gasoline throughout the ground level of an elderly couple’s home. Zhu Shuikang and his wife Li Xingzhi were in their seventies and had lived in Maggie Lane for more than sixty years. Zhu was a retired veteran who had fought with the People’s Liberation Army in the Korean War. According to court documents, at one o’clock in the morning, the men ignited the gasoline. Within minutes, flames consumed the house. Zhu’s and Li’s charred bodies were found in what was left of their bed the following morning. Months later at trial, Zhu and Li’s daughter-in-law told the judge through tears that her father-in-law had survived a war, yet he and his wife, aged and defenseless, were murdered on the orders of corrupt local officials. The judge found the three men, all employees of Chengkai Group, guilty. Wang Changkun and Yang Sunqin received reprieved death sentences and Lu Peide was sentenced to life in prison.

Rob Schmitz, Street of Eternal Happiness. Kindle Edition. loc. 679-690. Accessed: 4/20/2020

When I first arrived in China in the mid-’90s, the country was emerging from four decades of luohou economic policies. It didn’t take much to resurrect it. “To get rich is glorious,” announced Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping in the early 1990s. To this day, historians quibble over whether Deng actually coined the phrase, but it didn’t matter: The masses attributed it to their diminutive and feisty leader, nobody in the Party appeared to refute it, and the phrase stuck. In 1992, Deng boarded a train for a monthlong journey through Southern China. At each stop, the leader encouraged workers to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, promising that the government would get out of their way. After decades of being forced to follow one harebrained campaign after another, the Chinese could finally make some money. “Gaige Kaifang” was the term Deng repeated: “Reform and Opening.” Reform our economy, Deng pronounced, and open the country up to the outside world. China’s Communist Party called this “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics.” Others called it capitalism.

Rob Schmitz, Street of Eternal Happiness. Kindle Edition. loc. 783-791. Accessed: 4/20/2020

Chinese law required students to sit for the national college entrance exam in the place tied to their household registration permit, forcing them to attend high school there, too. Zhao thought about all the work she had done so that her children could have better lives, the hopes she had for Big Sun, and the promise he had shown. All of it—the endless studying, his high class rank, his prize-winning writing—suddenly seemed like a big waste. Big Sun was going to have to return to the coal mine.

Rob Schmitz, Street of Eternal Happiness. Kindle Edition. loc. 920-924. Accessed: 4/20/2020

IN 2002, Zhao’s oldest had gone as far as he could in Shanghai with a Zaozhuang hukou. Big Sun moved back to the Zaozhuang mining bureau to start the tenth grade. His father was working double-time at the coal mine, so they rarely saw each other. China had just entered the WTO, and the Olympic committee had selected Beijing to host the upcoming 2008 summer games. A record amount of coal would be needed to fuel China’s growing economy—an average of one coal-fired power plant would be built each week to maintain the country’s growth. With his father at the mine and his brother away at a special education school, Big Sun tried to fend off loneliness by focusing on his studies, something he excelled at in Shanghai. He’d outshone his Shanghai classmates, and he figured high school in a luohou place like Zaozhuang would be a cinch. “I’ll be one of the top students in my class,” Big Sun guessed. But on his first day of school, he panicked. His new classmates were years ahead of him. He showed his instructor a physics textbook from Shanghai. “My teacher paged through the book, started to laugh, pointed to the worst student in class, and said, ‘You could be first in class if you moved to Shanghai!’ The rest of the students laughed out loud.”

Rob Schmitz, Street of Eternal Happiness. Kindle Edition. loc. 987-997. Accessed: 4/20/2020

When she was nine, her father was labeled a counterrevolutionary. They’d attended a town meeting where every farmer was expected to give a speech praising the collective. Instead, her father, a stubborn, no-nonsense farmer, spoke his mind. “He told the leaders more food was needed. The people weren’t able to feed themselves properly. They were too weak to work for the collective,” Auntie Fu said. Villagers respected Auntie Fu’s father, but they were too afraid to publicly agree with him. Doing so would amount to treason. “He stuck his neck out for the farmers, and they accused him of hating communism.” Her father’s name appeared on a list nailed to the communal canteen. His name was among those of other “class enemies, counterrevolutionaries, and rightists.” He was forced to sit among them during village meetings. When work shifts were announced each morning over the crackly village megaphones, he was relegated to the worst of them, with multiple back-to-back shifts and evenings worked alongside former landlords and other “enemies of the people.” In the end, it was too much work and too little food. He collapsed in the field. He died at thirty-seven. “I blame his death on Chairman Mao,” Auntie told me. “Mao instigated people to fight against each other. He launched one campaign after another, and anyone who had the know-how to come up with a better way to govern was killed.”

Rob Schmitz, Street of Eternal Happiness. Kindle Edition. loc. 1345-1356. Accessed: 4/22/2020

Prisoners at the time were allocated 250 grams of raw wheat if they completed their daily work quota, but they rarely received that. The only way to survive, he recalled, was to swipe food and quickly eat it before you were caught and shot. “I stole from the field. Others stole from the warehouse, and some from the kitchen. When we harvested the wheat, we would steal some and bury it underneath the ground.” The squirreling strategy was the only way they would live through the winter. Not all were as lucky as he had been: “I remember one prisoner going out in the morning to bask in the sunlight, leaning on the barracks wall. When the sun went down that day, we found him, dead. That sort of thing happened a lot.” Many new arrivals died within weeks, said Professor Wei. “Our guards were starving, too. After the wheat harvest, I remember men crouching down to eat the remaining grains, but they were hard to digest. So we would sift through our own feces to eat the undigested wheat.”

Rob Schmitz, Street of Eternal Happiness. Kindle Edition. loc. 1687-1694. Accessed: 4/22/2020

At a camp 150 miles north of Delingha, a little more than 500 of 3,000 inmates survived after subsisting on worms, rats, animal waste, and at the height of the famine, organs from dead inmates. By the end of the famine, Wei estimates a third of the prisoners in his company at Delingha had starved to death. According to the letters, it was clear Wang Ming suffered, too, but by the end of the famine, he had survived. China had experienced the deadliest famine in recorded history: An estimated 36 million people had died of hunger within the span of just four years—more than the total number of people who had been killed in World War I. “Westerners don’t understand why we Chinese greet each other by asking ‘Have you eaten?’ ” Professor Wei told me, half-joking.

Rob Schmitz, Street of Eternal Happiness. Kindle Edition. loc. 1695-1700. Accessed: 4/23/2020

“What happened to your job at the golf course?” I asked him. “Sheer exploitation of cheap labor,” he responded. “It was terrible. The salary was low and the food was lousy.” His bosses had lured him with the promise of becoming a golf coach and possibly a manager someday, but he gradually realized they had been lying. Eventually, he and his colleagues left. “A lot of Chinese companies behave this way—they promise you a great future, but it’s hopeless.” Zhao clipped white rose stems, listening intently. I thought about Zhao’s first factory job making televisions. Her bosses certainly didn’t promise management positions. They just expected her to work hard, and she did. Twenty years later, inside the flower shop she had worked so hard to establish, here was her firstborn complaining about his job at a golf course. Flowers had also been unworthy. “I don’t want to deliver flowers in the rain,” he’d said. Big Sun’s generation felt more pressure to find jobs that conveyed status than working on an assembly line or at a construction site—jobs typical of their parents’ generation. In doing so, they were limiting their options. In Big Sun’s case, he had followed a shifu—a master—to Hangzhou to learn how to become a hairdresser. He didn’t have many customers yet, he admitted, but he was still studying the craft. Zhao broke her silence. “Big Sun argues with me a lot. He places a lot of hope in our new president. He tells me he’s a good leader. I said, ‘How good is he if I’m losing business because of him? Is he your grandfather? Is he filling your stomach?’ ”

Rob Schmitz, Street of Eternal Happiness. Kindle Edition. loc. 2263-2275. Accessed: 4/23/2020

At fourteen years old, Weiqi had lost his father, his home, and now his mother would be away for a while, too. Hardly anything scared him anymore. He stepped over the splintered mess, walked through the naked entryway, down the stairs, and out onto the street where he found a handyman. A new door was in place before he tucked himself into bed that evening.

Rob Schmitz, Street of Eternal Happiness. Kindle Edition. loc. 2963-2965. Accessed: 4/25/2020

In a carefully executed career from low-level bureaucrat to local leader to provincial leader to national leader, Comrade Xi had consumed decades of vague and clumsy Party catchphrases, and he was now regurgitating them, restoring what seemed to be an intriguing slogan to the familiar Communist drivel people had grown accustomed to. It didn’t take long for scholars to offer a concise explanation of Xi’s long-winded definition. Sinologist Geremie R. Barmé summed up the above portion of the speech in seventy-seven fewer words than its official English version: “The Chinese can realize their individual dreams only if they also accept the common national goals derived by the Chinese Communist Party.” Most of my neighbors didn’t hear Xi’s speech. But the people I knew along the Street of Eternal Happiness had heard of the slogan, and the consensus was that the Chinese Dream had a good ring to it, whether they understood it or not.

Rob Schmitz, Street of Eternal Happiness. Kindle Edition. loc. 2984-2991. Accessed: 4/25/2020

Chen had gone to the Xuhui government office and asked the same question the day after he had lost his home. “I told them that the Japanese didn’t steal our house in the 1930s, the Nationalists didn’t take the house in the forties, and it survived the Cultural Revolution. But now a gang of outlaws has taken it from us.”

Rob Schmitz, Street of Eternal Happiness. Kindle Edition. loc. 3050-3052. Accessed: 4/25/2020

Xie took out a letter the couple had written to the Xuhui government and read it aloud to me. “ ‘As long as you have power, you can trample the constitution and insult and humiliate people, as well as violate your people’s human rights. We’ve been overly naïve to believe in the reports in the newspapers and television about the government’s propaganda and false promises to the people. You can take the people’s land, but what you lose is our trust, the cornerstone of this Republic.’ ” I thought about my last meeting with Chen before I had left for the United States. He was upbeat about his prospects of getting a fair settlement, confident the new president was finally rooting out corruption. It had been six months since the unveiling of the Chinese Dream, and now here he was, homeless. He looked out the tiny hotel room window and began to cry. “My wife has lost her dignity. We’ve both lost any sense of security we’ve ever had,” he said through tears. “It’s all gone. The government talks about the Chinese Dream. Whose dream is that?” It is rare to see a Chinese man cry, and it was clear from the way Xie looked at her husband that he was no exception. After a decade of fighting, he had finally lost everything he owned. Xie put her hand on her husband’s shoulder. “They just want us to keep dreaming,” she told him softly.

Rob Schmitz, Street of Eternal Happiness. Kindle Edition. loc. 3052-3062. Accessed: 4/25/2020

Other thought purification methods are employed, too. In a letter dated January 14, 1969, Wang Ming complains of suffering from repeated bouts of the flu and a bloated stomach, a sign of malnourishment. His close-cropped hair is turning gray and the sturdy physique of his younger years has been reduced to skin and bones. Instead of treating his physical ailments, the camp doctor gives him narcotics. “I later learned this old doctor was treating me for having ‘thought problems,’ ” writes Wang. “I continued to have stomach problems. Sometimes on Sundays I play poker. I recently won the price of a stamp. I ate very happily that day, and I didn’t have any stomach problems. That was a good day.” Eventually, he discovers the root cause of his stomach ailment and treats it himself—with “Chairman Mao Thought”: “First, I diligently studied ‘Fight Privatization, Criticize Revisionism,’ a reading issued last year…” Wang tops it off with Mao’s writings on the role of the family in Communist China. “Before we raised children to take care of the elderly,” observes Wang in a letter to his uncle. “But now we raise them to prevent revisionist thinking. In the past I became overly obsessed with the traditional idea of a ‘happy family,’ and I became mired deeper and deeper until I couldn’t relieve myself from its grasp. “Once I tasted the sweetness of the great works of Chairman Mao,” concludes Wang, “my stomach problems haven’t returned! “But are the Chairman’s thoughts embedded firmly enough in my head?” Wang asks himself in the letter. “Not necessarily yet. Old thoughts sometimes return uninvited. So I must further my studies in order to embed these thoughts more firmly.” Reading this made me wonder what was going on inside Wang’s head. Was he writing this to please authorities who would be inspecting the letter? Or was it the drugs talking? Did he really think “Mao Zedong Thought” was curing his illness? Harry Wu, who spent decades inside a Chinese labor camp near Delingha at the time, explained it this way: prisoners of that era endured so many study and self-criticism sessions that most of them believed Mao was God. Wu talked to me over the phone from his home in Washington, DC. It was a gradual transformation, he said, and it evolved alongside emotional deprivation, hunger, fatigue, and isolation. “Today you say, ‘Long Live Chairman Mao!’ and I say, ‘Bullshit,’ ” Wu explained. “Tomorrow you say, ‘Long Live Chairman Mao!’ and I say, ‘I’m tired.’ The third day you say ‘Long Live Chairman Mao!’ and I don’t respond. The day after that you say, ‘Long Live Chairman Mao!’ and I ask ‘Why?’ The fifth day you say, ‘Long Live Chairman Mao!’ and I’m interested. The sixth day you say, ‘Long Live Chairman Mao!’ and I repeat it. “And then when Chairman Mao dies,” concluded Wu, “I weep.”

Rob Schmitz, Street of Eternal Happiness. Kindle Edition. loc. 3137-3160. Accessed: 4/25/2020

Several months ago, the leaders from our daughters’ factory went to your labor camp to check on your behavior and your progress. The feedback was bad. According to your file, you routinely violate the rules of the camp and are not dedicated to labor. They said that sometimes you have even skipped work to go out and trade cigarettes that I’ve sent you for other things from locals in the nearby village. Apart from that, they heard that you often talk about returning to Shanghai and living on government subsidies meant for the ill and disabled. I was so heartbroken to hear this. You should behave yourself, not only for your own good, but also for the future of our children. They all have worked very hard and are consistently praised by their colleagues. It hurts them so much to hear how their father has failed them. I hope you will take real action to make a change for your children and for me. Next time, think twice before you speak. I will never send you cigarettes again.

Rob Schmitz, Street of Eternal Happiness. Kindle Edition. loc. 3197-3205. Accessed: 4/25/2020

The final year of Wang’s prison sentence was 1973. His release proved to be incredibly short-lived. Just a little over a week after he returned home, police escorted him to the Shanghai Railway Station and put him on a train that would take him two thousand miles back to Qinghai. They’d denied his application for a Shanghai hukou. Without a residency permit, his presence in his own hometown was illegal. After a brief taste of freedom, Wang returned to the place of his hukou: Delingha labor camp. He continued to labor. He had finished serving his sentence, but he had no other choice but to continue to serve time, work hard, and study Mao Zedong Thought. That is, until Mao Zedong died.

Rob Schmitz, Street of Eternal Happiness. Kindle Edition. loc. 3205-3211. Accessed: 4/25/2020

I asked him when he first saw his father: 1973, Wang said, when his father returned home briefly before being sent back to the labor camp. “I was a teenager,” Wang recalled. “I went with Big Sister to Shanghai Station to meet his train from Qinghai. I didn’t know who I was looking for. I was just a baby when he left, and after the Cultural Revolution started in the 1960s, my mother had burned all of his photos. It was a time when people were being investigated for their family backgrounds, and ours wasn’t good, so we were afraid of having any evidence of him around. I had no idea what he looked like. Big Sister was nine years old when he left home, so she had a vague memory of his face, but that was when he was in his thirties. “When the train arrived, people scrambled this way and that, and we stopped an older man who we thought might be him, but it wasn’t. In the end, we missed him completely. Neither of us knew what the other looked like. When we got home, there he was—my father had taken a public bus, alone,” said Wang. It was a vivid memory and his recollection of it was stutter-free. “His hair was gray; about seventy percent of it had turned white. His skin was dark from working outside for years,” he said. “But he had returned empty-handed. He had no job, no income.”

Rob Schmitz, Street of Eternal Happiness. Kindle Edition. loc. 3240-3250. Accessed: 4/25/2020

A year later, Wang Ming managed to find work through some old friends in the industry, paid on commission to help find new business for metal-recycling enterprises in his rural ancestral home outside Shanghai. He was fifty-seven years old, three years away from being eligible to collect retirement benefits. In order to do so, though, he first had to submit a petition to a local court to rectify his name, clearing himself of his crime. The petition was his final self-criticism, the last remnants of Wang’s submission to the Party: If you examine the root cause of my actions, it’s clearly because my worldview had yet to be reformed. That is to say, I didn’t study enough at the time; I didn’t stand firm and I was too obsessed with my own selfish needs. I can only blame myself. If only I could have used my experience in recycling silicon steel and devoted myself wholeheartedly to the socialist cause after the public-private partnerships were formed, if only I could have built wealth for the country rather than for myself, then even if I were arrested, I could have explained my actions in the firm belief that I would be treated fairly. “The court rejected his petition,” Wang Xuesong told me over the phone. “His original crimes still stand today.”

Rob Schmitz, Street of Eternal Happiness. Kindle Edition. loc. 3271-3281. Accessed: 4/25/2020

Wang’s mother was eighty-eight years old and in the late stages of Alzheimer’s. Mother Liu was confused more or less all the time now. Wang removed his wallet from his jacket pocket and showed me a black-and-white photo of her. After reading dozens of her letters, I had formed an image of Liu in my mind’s eye, and I was surprised to discover it was nearly identical to the woman I was looking at now. She was pretty—a long, thin face graced with high cheekbones. Like Wang, she had small, kind eyes. There was an anxiety in her gaze, like someone who was lost. “This picture is from last year,” Wang told me, “around the time she escaped from home.” Wang was making breakfast for her one morning when he noticed she had left the house. He ran up and down the street shouting her name, but he couldn’t find her. He called the police. Officers brought dogs to sniff her pillow for a scent and then they followed them through the neighborhood, but they couldn’t locate her. That night, police dispatched a helicopter with a spotlight to search the surrounding neighborhood, but still there was no sign of her. The police finally found Mother Liu at a local hospital where she was being treated for bruises on her face. She had likely fallen down a stairway somewhere. “The police in America are very good,” Wang said, impressed. “That search must have cost a lot of money. They would never go to those lengths in China.”

Rob Schmitz, Street of Eternal Happiness. Kindle Edition. loc. 3396-3406. Accessed: 4/25/2020

Watching the gala while making dumplings is a New Year’s Eve tradition for tens of millions of Chinese—the program attracts more viewers than the Super Bowl—but this year’s gala had been mired in controversy. Chinese rock musician Cui Jian had been invited to perform, but authorities withdrew the invitation when they learned he was only interested in playing one song: “Nothing to My Name,” an anthem of the 1989 Tian’anmen Square protests.

Rob Schmitz, Street of Eternal Happiness. Kindle Edition. loc. 3471-3474. Accessed: 4/25/2020

As one scholar who studied pyramid schemes in China put it, China’s Communist Party has always kept a close watch on these direct sales networks for good reason. “The growth of [these] grassroots networks is very similar in some ways to the Party’s own early organization and its early fervor. They harken back to the sects and cults that have traditionally thrived in the Chinese countryside, where the Party once found its most zealous supporters.” That’s why I worried about Auntie Fu. She had grown up an uneducated peasant in the mountains of Sichuan. She was recruited by the Party to farm a desert in Xinjiang. Then she followed her husband across the country to the wilds of Shanghai, a place where money seemed to be everywhere besides her own pocketbook. Like so many people of her generation, she didn’t know how to make money in this new China, so she gravitated toward what was familiar to her from the Mao years: a smiling recruiter promising a path to happiness and prosperity. And, just as a wide-eyed village girl was an ideal convert for Party recruiters in the 1960s, a poor elderly woman with little education and no access to the Internet was even easier prey for scam artists in twenty-first-century Shanghai.

Rob Schmitz, Street of Eternal Happiness. Kindle Edition. loc. 3761-3770. Accessed: 4/25/2020

China called its state health insurance program “universal,” but in practice, it covered only the most basic of health problems. Appointments with a specialist were barely covered, and if you didn’t have a Shanghai hukou—the situation that most people in this room found themselves—you’d have to pay even more out-of-pocket costs at city hospitals. Even if you had saved enough to see a specialist, you’d be fortunate to receive thorough care. Chinese hospitals were typically overcrowded and underfunded. Doctors were considered government employees and were paid an average salary of less than a thousand U.S. dollars a month. It wasn’t unusual for doctors to expect patients to hand over red envelopes stuffed with cash to perform any type of specialized procedure so that they could supplement their meager incomes. Doctors also routinely received kickbacks from pharmaceutical companies in return for prescribing their drugs. The practice was so entrenched in the system that it had coined the popular Chinese phrase Yi Yao Yang Yi: “feeding hospitals by selling drugs.”

Rob Schmitz, Street of Eternal Happiness. Kindle Edition. loc. 4517-4525. Accessed: 4/26/2020

“At what point do you just give up?” I asked him. “When do you stop fighting and move on?” He bristled at the question. “Impossible,” he blurted. “We’ve agreed among us neighbors that we’ll keep fighting. We just have to keep finding new ways to fight.” “What does your brother in the United States think of all of this? He grew up in the house, too,” I said. “We talk every day on the phone. He’s also asked me whether I’d just take one step back and compromise, maybe ask for homes in the countryside as compensation,” Mayor Chen said. “Wouldn’t that be a better solution?” I asked. “Why would we do that?” he asked. “We’re not slaves. We’re the masters of our house. It belonged to my father, and now it belongs to my family. It’s ours. The government has no legal right to it.” “But these laws you’re talking about,” I said, “they may be written down somewhere, but the Party is above the law. If you’ve got a legal dispute with the government, these laws are as good as jiade.” The word meant “fake,” and Mayor Chen shook his head vigorously at the sound of it. “No!” he shouted. “These laws are real. The government in this case just refuses to follow them. How about the Chinese constitution? I suppose that’s not real, either? You can’t just say these things are all fake. Even the Party insists they’re real.” They were real—for the Party. The Party had created these laws and the Party’s leadership—not China’s 1.4 billion citizens—had the final say on how they should be interpreted. If any legal disputes arose between the citizenry and the state, it didn’t take a genius to figure out who would win. A WEEK AFTER my visit to Chen and Xie’s new apartment, a court in Beijing heard the case of a local legislator who called on the Party to enforce its own constitution on behalf of its citizens. It was January of 2014. The man’s name was Xu Zhiyong, a forty-year-old who carried the physique of a marine and a mind that had made him one of China’s brightest lawyers. In 2002, state television had named him one of the “Top Ten Figures in the Rule of Law.” In his work as a legal activist, Xu had called on the government to give children of migrant workers better access to educational opportunity, the sort of thing that had dimmed the hopes of Zhao Shiling’s sons Big Sun and Little Sun back on the Street of Eternal Happiness. Xu had also made a public plea for China’s leaders to disclose their assets, a sensitive topic for leader Xi Jinping, whose family members were discovered by Bloomberg to have amassed hundreds of millions of dollars in assets. Xu had formed a group called the New Citizens Movement. It sought to push for reform from within China’s system to ensure the rule of law. At the time, his demands weren’t that different from those of China’s leadership. Key figures in the government were also pushing for educational reform, and Chinese president Xi Jinping had overseen an anti-corruption campaign that had removed thousands of corrupt officials from office and brought them to justice. Yet when Xu called for an end to corruption, he was arrested and removed from his second term in office as a representative to the National People’s Congress. And on that cold day in January, he was sentenced to four years in prison. As Xu was led away by guards, he told those present, “The court today has completely destroyed what remained of respect for rule of law in China.” When I saw the headlines of Xu’s imprisonment on foreign news sites the next day, I thought of Mayor Chen. He fought with the same zeal and sense of righteousness as Xu did. Would he end up in prison, too?

Rob Schmitz, Street of Eternal Happiness. Kindle Edition. loc. 4667-4695. Accessed: 4/26/2020

GRANDMA WAS NINETY years old. CK had heard her tell stories about her privileged childhood. She was the daughter of a banker and the family chauffeur would escort her to a private girls’ school each day. After she graduated, she married a literature professor. She was twenty-five years old when the Communists took China, seized her family’s assets, and slapped the label of “landlord class” onto her family. The Red Guards assigned her family a new label several years later: “counterrevolutionary.” As a young man, CK’s grandfather had been recruited as a soldier for the Kuomintang, who had seized control of his hometown, and fought the Communists. At the height of the Cultural Revolution, Red Guards knocked on Grandpa and Grandma’s door at three o’clock each morning to question and threaten him. This happened every night for months. Grandpa lost sleep and the stress drove him mad. “There was no way to fight against the system,” CK told me. “Either you killed yourself, which a lot of people chose to do at the time, or you just suffered. There was no other way. Everyone was brainwashed, and everyone was afraid.” By the time CK was born, Grandpa had moved out, choosing to suffer alone in a tiny, smelly room downstairs from his family’s apartment. Grandma would go to his room every day to cook for him. “He couldn’t think straight,” CK told me. “His body was always shaking, and he was always scared of people knocking on his door at night to come and take him away.” Human interaction had made him sick.

Rob Schmitz, Street of Eternal Happiness. Kindle Edition. loc. 4868-4880. Accessed: 4/26/2020