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February 8 - 12, 1999

Tuesday, February 9, 1999

Killing the messenger

"Here begins our tale." Even today, every Chinese student knows the words: "The empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide. Thus it has ever been."

So begins Three Kingdoms, the magnificent Ming-dynasty novel that chronicled, in the 15th--16th centuries, the disintegration of the mighty Han dynasty more than a thousand years earlier. Its theme, if there is one, is that humans do as they must, but everything passes in time. The Han dynasty fell, and the country was riven into the three kingdoms of Wei, Wu and Shu, only to reunify under the house of Jin. An intricate interweaving of tales --- of betrayal and heroism, of greed and self-sacrifice --- traces the rupture and its subsequent repair, becoming an integral part of Chinese culture in the same way that Shakespeare's plays insinuated themselves into every aspect of Western life, from polished theatrical performances to common, unacknowledged turns of phrase.

In the early 20th century, a young American boy, traveling through China by sedan chair, noticed the bearers would cluster around a storyteller when the party stopped for tea. "Probably something from Three Kingdoms," his father explained. And years later, when he read the novel himself, he realized that all he had seen while growing up in warlord-ruled Sichuan --- "the dramatic posturings and righteous manifestoes, the unending intrigues and sudden changes of alliances, the forays and retreats and occasional battles, even the actual tactics used" --- had a familiar ring, as if they were drawn from the pages of the ancient story.

I wonder if he found similar resonances in the "unending intrigues" that imprinted his own life.

"John Service, a Purged 'China Hand,' Dies at 89," the headline in last Thursday's New York Times announced. "John S. Service, who" --- the obituary in the Chronicle began --- "became famous as a target of Senator Joseph McCarthy because of his controversial views on U.S.-China relations, died of heart disease Wednesday."

In a footnote written in 1984 to his mother's memoir, Golden Inches, Service offered a characteristic understatement of the tangled events that led to his indelible notoriety. Grace Service and her husband, Bob, had traveled from Berkeley to China as YMCA missionaries in 1905, and her book, painstakingly edited by her son and published posthumously by the University of California Press, re-creates the rigors of life in central China until the family was forced to return to the United States in 1940. In 1908, she recalled with pleasure, "Mr. and Mrs. J. P. Davies of Kiating visited us...with their young John."  In the note, her own John recalled his close boyhood friendship with fellow "China-born" John Paton Davies, adding with the detachment of an active participant that later, "during World War II we were both attached to the staff of General Joseph W. Stilwell, commanding American forces in the China-Burma-India Theater. As observers on the scene, we came to the conclusion that the Chinese Communists would win the coming struggle for power in China. This led, in the strange logic of the McCarthy days, to our being prominent in the list of those responsible for 'the loss of China.' And this led, finally, to our both being separated from the Foreign Service."

Service's "crime" consisted of speaking the truth at a time when people in power preferred propaganda. In his reports to Stilwell, he characterized the government of Chiang Kai-shek as "selfish and corrupt, incapable and obstructive" in the battle against Japan, and the hardy rebel band that had gathered with Mao Zedong at Yanan as "open, direct and friendly." Dangerous words in a world where communists lurked behind every post, where China was ours to win or lose. How distant it all seems now. Stephen Schwartz, writing the Chronicle obituary, felt compelled to remind readers unfamiliar with the senator's nasal excoriations --- "Mr. Chairman, I have here in my hands a list of 205..." --- that Joe McCarthy was "a demagogue who sought to use the issue of communism to advance his political future." In fact, many readers might have welcomed a quick definition of "communism" as well, so far have Cold War issues receded into the background in this age of global capitalism.

Under fire in the early 1950s, Service fought back. A photograph shows him testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a handsome man with high cheekbones, an aquiline nose and the bearing of an athlete; his clear eyes stared straight at his inquisitors. Ultimately, he was exonerated by the Supreme Court and reinstated by the State Department, but --- as obituaries written 40 years later demonstrate --- no official volte-face could completely remove the stigma that scarred his good name. Worse, this man of honor, whose parents had imbued him with a proud sense of individual responsibility, forever bore the pain of knowing that his actions had damaged the careers and reputations of relatives.

Despite the purge, Jack Service survived.  Energetic and intelligent, with perhaps the Calvinist's distrust of idle hands, he plunged into a series of positions, first as a member of the U.S. consulate in Liverpool, then as librarian at UC Berkeley's Center for Chinese Studies. After his second retirement, he offered his services to the University of California Press, applying his acute comprehension of Chinese society and a felicitous prose style to a host of other peopleís manuscripts. And he wrote his own books as well.

He survived with grace and dignity. Perhaps at times he reminded himself of the lessons learned as a boy in Sichuan, where "great importance was put on self-control and restraint. This was regarded as a sign of maturity and strength." Perhaps, like the poem that brings Three Kingdoms to a close, this long-distance runner simply saw human actions in a different perspective:

The world's affairs rush on, an endless stream;
A sky-told fate, infinite in reach dooms all.
The kingdoms three are now the stuff of dream,
For men to ponder, past all praise or blame.


--- Copyright Betsey Culp 1999
Wednesday, February 10, 1999

How frozen cold

A stark announcement, delivered almost inaudibly: At 12:04 a.m., Jaturun Siripongs received the first injection. At 12:19, all signs of life ceased and he was pronounced officially dead.

A little before midnight, the chanting outside San Quentin had stopped. Several hundred people turned toward the prison gates and stood silent. Their cheeks stung as pellets of rain beat upon them. An icy wind, unrelentingly violent, rattled chain-link fences and stiffened the demonstrators' soggy blue jeans.

Toward the entrance, closed by low temporary barricades, about fifty people sat motionless in meditation, as they had throughout the four long hours of the vigil. Occasionally, one stood up and left, to be replaced by another somber-faced man or woman. Otherwise, no one in the tiny group stirred. They remained, apparently oblivious to the storm around them, focusing an almost visible beam of concentration on the unseen activities taking place inside the prison.

A row of seven guards maintained their own watch inside the barricades, feet planted firmly on the ground, hands clasped at groin level. Their well-insulated weather-repelling black uniforms merged with the dimly lit background, except for star-shaped badges and clear plastic visors that reflected the copper glow of two or three nearby streetlights. Replaced by a new, dry contingent every hour, they appeared more comfortable than the bedraggled civilians they faced.

They waited, the demonstrators, the meditators, and the guards, in a symbolic life-and-death standoff. A muffled drum, echoing the rhythm of the human heart, beat softly. In the final moments, more guards arrived, standing impassively, four deep, before the entrance. The rain stopped, leaving the wind to whip almost noiselessly through the unmoving ranks of witnesses. Behind them, toward the freeway, a small delegation of indefatigable hellfire-and-brimstoners barked through a bull horn, "For the wages of sin is death." A human chain stretched, arms linked, across the road between these zealots and the group whose message of mercy they were protesting. The calls for repentance and retribution dissipated quickly in the night air, leaving many people simply puzzled by the noisy, incomprehensible intrusion.

Midnight arrived. Even the angry din of the sermonizers subsided. The drumbeat stopped as well, and a lone soprano softly invoked the relief of long-awaited rest.

Suddenly, there was movement behind the barricades. At a command delivered from person to person, like a grown-up game of telephone, most of the guards filed out. The drumbeat resumed, filling the time --- yes, killing time --- until the watch ended. At last, a faint announcement almost whispered from the demonstrators' microphone that Jay Siripongs had indeed been executed. Immediately, the quiet clear tones of KTVU's Faith Fancher echoed it, as she --- who had reported unobtrusively all evening from inside the gathering --- relayed the news to the outside world.

In twos and threes, the people who had convened outside San Quentin began to return home. They said little, clutching sodden parkas around them and stepping carefully over puddles. Prison guards in bright yellow jackets clustered next to a few side roads, but no one seemed interested in provoking them.

The wind grew fierce. On the bay side, the surf surged and eucalyptus trees waved long menacing branches. Inland, where bare trees lined a hillside, the sky let loose a deafening howl. Simply walking forward became a serious task, and later, on the Richmond Bridge, cars crept along cautiously as their drivers fought to follow the road.


* * *

In the gelid rain that fell on Point San Quentin Monday night, symbols came almost too easily. It was undeniably a place where, as Dante says of the ninth and innermost ring of the underworld, "the frozen spirits as in glass / Were covered wholly, and there like straw they shined." And indeed, a certain hell does dwell in that forlorn setting.

But it is a hell created by human beings, not by divine decree. The prison system in the United States is a realm gone berserk, a territory in which political ends and economic greed parade as rehabilitation and security. As a system, it is immoral, expensive and inhumane.

And its crowning glory is its endorsement of capital punishment.

For decades, thoughtful citizens have presented arguments against the practice --- good strong arguments. You've heard them: Murder by the state is no more acceptable than murder by individuals. The prospect of execution does not deter prospective criminals. There is always the danger of executing an innocent person. The death penalty is not applied equitably. The process of putting a criminal to death is actually more expensive than the cost of life imprisonment. Despite the recent emphasis on providing closure, executions provide little solace to the relatives of murder victims. For these reasons and basic moral concerns, most Western countries have abandoned the practice, leaving the United States to be condemned --- along with Iraq and China --- by human rights groups like Amnesty International.

But on this issue, Americans' ears are extremely deaf. Or so we are told. When politicians like Gray Davis position themselves firmly on the pedestal of law and order, they love to claim the support of their constituents, citing recent polls where pro-death advocates prevailed by a margin of 3-1.

I'm sure the polls are accurate. But let's read a little between the lines.

These Americans are saying that something dreadfully wrong is happening to this country, and they are afraid. In a simplistic request for help, they are asking that the offending parts be cut off. Any responsible observer --- which should include our politicians --- will tell you that the true solution is far more complex.

Capital punishment to preserve public safety is as much a cop-out as impeachment to preserve public morality. It signifies the government's abdication of its proper function to find constructive ways to ensure domestic tranquillity. And it sends a terrifying message --- that we care so little for the welfare of our citizens that we are not willing to treat every single one as a human being.

--- Copyright Betsey Culp 1999

Friday, February 12, 1999

Foreign dispatch

As my colleague Betsey Culp reminded the other day in her graceful paean to the life of her friend John Service, the diminution of the Cold War issues which lie at the root of global capitalism's pernicious advance hampers our ability to view contemporary economics in proper perspective.

Service's controversial views on U.S.--China relations ended his diplomatic career. His cables during WWII describing the corruption and banditry of Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist forces and his conclusion that the Communists would prevail in the anticipated civil war, was the grist with which Joe McCarthy ushered Service and his fellow "China Hands" out of the State Department.

In time, our hostility toward Mao would result in confrontation with China in Korea. Later, with the Vietnam War raging on their border --- and which recent scholarship reveals could have been averted had President Truman bothered to answer Ho Chi Minh's requests for a postwar deal similar to the one we had made with the Philippines --- Chinese geopolitical suspiciousness reached its zenith. The subsequent maniacal Cultural Revolution sought to weed out all vestiges of improper thought and action, and the "glorious" pursuit of wealth which has followed as a consolation for that traumatic era and which has deposited 100 million unemployed wanderers across the polluted Chinese landscape, is where we are presently.

All of which points up the value of first-hand observation of the real world, pursued by knowledgeable people who feel at home in it, as distinct from desk-bound warriors and policy priests shielded by chauffers and pliant aides-de-camp. I should mention that I have a paradoxical approximation of my friend Betsey's relationship with Jack Service, having witnessed my father toil on behalf of Chiang and his warlords. In the mid-1950s, as a CIA officer staioned on the island of Saipan, my father trained Kuomintang guerrillas for sabotage missions on the Chinese mainland. His description of his charges --- "Soldier-of-fortune scum" --- was one of the few times I ever heard the old Cold Warrior deviate from the norm. I used to watch Chiang's generals nightly as they milled about in front of the base movie theater --- the huge Rolexes, the white-on-white dress shirts, the manicured-to-perfection nails, the flinty eyes lancing the tropical air. They prepared one well for the host of other caudillos, foreign and domestic, on view in the years to come.


* * *

Speaking of Saipan, UNITE and three organizations in the Bay Area --- Sweatshop Watch, Global Exchange and the Asian Law Caucus --- have launched a campaign in response to revelations of gross labor rights violations in the Northern Mariana Islands. They also have filed a lawsuit seeking compensation from The Gap and 17 other U.S. clothing manufacturers and retailers for immigrant workers toiling as indentured servants in the U.S. Commonwealth. The companies import clothing into the mainland duty-free, with "Made in the USA" labels.

The organizations are demanding that The Gap and other apparel firms doing business on Saipan guarantee that contractors comply fully with overtime requirements of the Fair Labor Standards Act and compensate those workers illegally denied overtime pay in the past; adhere to all U.S. labor laws, including the federal minimum wage and laws protecting freedom of association and collective bargaining; abolish the use of labor contracts that deny workers their basic human rights; abolish the system of recruitment fees, repay such fees for all present and former workers and pay return passage for any current or former worker who wishes to return home; and set up a credible independent monitoring system, with timely public reports, to ensure an end to abuses.

A national day of protest at Gap stores is planned for March 6.


* * *

If you're like most Americans, you're sure to want to do the very best you can for "the kids," so this will be of interest: The workers at Haiti's Megatex factory in Port-au-Prince, which produces clothing for Disney, wrote to Disney CEO Michael Eisner on January 18 asking him to intervene in their ongoing problems with management over pay, pay discrepancies and high production qoutas.

Because the $2.15 per day wage does not cover workers' basic needs, employees have had to resort to loans from the company. At year's end, Megatex owner Michel Liautaud announced to workers who had borrowed money from him that he was going to withhold two weeks of their pay. The following day, after workers organized a work stoppage, Liautaud gave in. Since then employees have experienced a regular pattern of petty harassment from management.

On January 21, the day before a general strike called by opposition parties to protest President Preval's decision to dismiss parliament, the Megatex production manager ordered workers to show up in the morning as usual, promising that there would be transportation. When the workers arrived, Liautaud informed them that the factory was closed and they should come back the next day. Liautaud refused to compensate the workers for that day, and only agreed to pay them after a two-hour work stoppage, but deducted the two hours they were idle.

The Disney annual shareholder meeting will be in Seattle on February 23. Large protests against Disney sweatshop practices at earlier shareholder meetings at their Anaheim headquarters have forced the company to vary its annual meeting sites. For the past three years a group of socially responsible investors and religious investor organizations have introduced a shareholder resolution concerning Disney's overseas labor practices. Shareholders with web access can vote instantly now at, or by phone at 800-690-6903. Non-shareholders can sign the letter to Michael Eisner posted on the As You Sow Foundation website,, which will be transmitted automatically to Disney. The foundation's number is 415-391-3212.


* * *

On January 20, Moises Caicedo Estrada, the leader of Colombia's Sintra Ponce II trade union, was assassinated in the town of Medellin. Members of human rights organizations who supported the union have received death threats and have repeatedly been attacked.

In Bogota, Tarcisco Mora, President of the Colombian teachers' federation (FECODE) was the victim of an attack on January 22. During a day of action last October to protest unemployment he and six other national trade union leaders received threats.

On January 23 in Cali, Oswaldo Rojas Salazar, a Cali union president, was also the victim of an attack. And on January 29 four human rights activists in Medellin were kidnapped by a paramilitary group

In 1998, more than 90 Colombian trade unionists were assassinated and 500 others were displaced by force. It sounds a bit like China today, under the rule of the good guys.

--- Coyright John Hutchison 1999

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