Select pieces of nonfiction

In search of spirit in China’s wild west, The China Project, December 14, 2021

There is a cliché — among the many clichés about China — that to know the real China, you have to venture out into the countryside, as if its major cities were fake. I think what people mean is, you would be foolish to believe China is only its pompous modernity, its skyscrapers and Western-educated office workers. But “real” isn’t the right word. To know China’s diversity, its breadth, you have to place yourself among the people, in the landscape. Remove the frame, along with any preconceptions.

Scenes from Hong Kong’s anti-extradition protest, The China Project, June 10, 2019

The two-mile march was clean and orderly, with demonstrators cheered on by spectators on footbridges and overpasses. For the most part they stayed within designated protest zones, and it was possible, if one was two blocks away in either direction, to not notice the history-making protest. By midnight, most of the demonstrators had dispersed, though scuffles did break out near the legislative council offices.

Video by Anthony Tao

Also see: Whispers of ‘Umbrella Movement II’ as protesters gather in Central, Hong Kong, June 12, 2019

Video by Anthony Tao

Hong Kong Protests Surge Amid Growing Tension, Falling And Rising Barricades, Beijing Cream, October 14, 2014

Beijingers are tired but resigned to COVID zero, The China Project, October 21, 2022

Across the city yesterday, neighborhoods were sealed up, all because of a couple dozen cases (some imported, some “local,” i.e., found while under quarantine observation). To be clear, this is not a citywide “lockdown,” not even close to what Shanghai experienced in April and May, and not — as I have argued — a reason for panic. But if you want any indication that authorities are serious when it comes to enforcing COVID zero, look no further than the resources being mobilized during this period, as the country’s leaders hold their meetings three miles away.

Also see: China’s COVID zero is going to look very different soon, November 4, 2022

Scenes from Wuhan post-lockdown, May 28, 2020

Poem by Anthony Tao, music by Liane Halton (Poetry x Music), footage from Andrew Braun

Pro wrestling in China is ready for its comeback, The China Project, June 28, 2023

But things are only heating up. During a tag team contest between C2NY and Bad Boys, fans chant, “Let’s go, Buffa,” while — even half a world away, conditioned by years of WWE audiences screaming at John Cena — others reply, “Buffa sucks!”

Midway through, everyone hushes: Buffa and his opponent, Zhào Jùnjié 赵俊杰, engage in a strong-style exchange, with Zhao knife-edge chopping Buffa in the chest and Buffa swinging an elbow into Zhao’s jaw. They do this repeatedly.

The elbows are stiff. Purposefully stiff.

Very stiff.

Zhao’s neck turns red, then purple, drawing oohs and ahhs from the crowd, then murmurs. You can almost hear people wondering, “What’s going on?” Zhao chops, Buffa cranks. The smacks resonate through the venue.

During a later match, one of the ring girls in the VIP section offhandedly remarks about the in-ring action, “Too fake.”

Zhao and his tag team partner, Wāng Xīnxuān 汪鑫轩, are standing nearby and overhear this. Wang points to Zhao’s neck, which is discolored and swollen. “Does that look fake?”

The girl doesn’t reply.

The Lone Wolf Goes to China, Deadspin, February 3, 2010

THE CAPITAL CITY OF SHANXI PROVINCE, in north-central China, is a golem of a metropolis called Taiyuan, population 3.5 million, which lurches awake each morning to a skyline dotted with smokestacks and construction cranes (the national bird of China, as the joke goes). What culture might exist here, after centuries of serving as the dynastic capital for multiple emperors, is buried somewhere beneath a retreating pile of bituminous coal. Taiyuan is the archetypal modern Chinese city, which is to say it is unapologetic about its devaluation of human worth, its embrace of commercial mercenaries, and its worship of high-rise infrastructure. This is a city for fans of right angles, inflatable arch gates (red, of course), and block calligraphy. You would have to be a little crazy, in other words, to love the place.

Stephon Marbury landed last Tuesday and immediately became the Chinese Basketball Association’s biggest star. Eight days later, I am unable to say whether he loves Taiyuan.

No, 10,000 were not killed in China’s 1989 Tiananmen crackdown, The China Project, December 25, 2017

The exact casualty figure has never been pinpointed — accurate information was hard to come by in the chaos, and there were many actors with agendas to advance (some even within the Chinese cabinet, one might say) — but no five-digit number has ever, at any point since June 4, 1989, been in serious discussion. There’s simply no corroboration, not from the scores of Western journalists on the ground that fateful night, not from the Tiananmen Mothers who are still lobbying for the truth today, not from anyone.

“Catching up with Barbara Romack,” Sports Illustrated, October 31, 2005