China, Part Two

I expected Tiananmen Square to be flooded with nationalist iconography. Unless selfie sticks are the new symbol of the People's Republic of China, it wasn't. The square was flooded with tourists — most of them Chinese — taking pictures of themselves, and taking pictures of each other, and taking pictures of each other taking pictures of themselves, and only occasionally taking pictures of the visage of Mao on the Tiananmen Gate. The most visible flags were the miniature ones a few of the Chinese tourists brandished. These were not treated with any great reverence; I saw an elderly woman swat her husband with one.

Mao's presence was most powerfully felt through the long line to view his body at the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall — "longer than the line for the Matterhorn," as my son put it. Our guide — a thirtyish man of impeccable English and clear affinity for Western culture — said that Mao's resting place is a very popular destination for the Chinese. His parents' generation view Mao "like a god," he said solemnly, while his view Mao as a great leader and national father. Many rural Chinese come to pay their respects to him, like a pilgrimage. Elaina — whose timing and sense of protocol will make her a diplomat in the fourth Trump administration — chose this moment to whip out her guidebook and aggressively display a picture of Mao's body to the group, visibly discomfiting our guide. It's like that, living with her.

I did see a young man wearing the red-starred hat of the People's Liberation Army. But he was wearing it with a Converse t-shirt, so any communist message was somewhat diminished. It occurred to me that we're likely to interpret national symbols worn by other people more seriously than we interpret our own. When someone wears an American flag t-shirt, you don't assume that he's a strong supporter of free speech or due process, or that he supported the Gulf War, or that he has particular views about the War on Terror. It's a cultural symbol as well as a national one. We don't assume that the twerps wearing Che t-shirts on American college campuses support jailing homosexuals or executing dissidents without trail — excepting the twerps at Oberlin, maybe. But we seem to assume that people in other countries wear symbols out of a specific and deliberate support for the policies associated with them. It's not necessarily so.

If nationalist symbols were relatively restrained, signs of the security state were everywhere. The immense square had posts every 50 yards or so, and those posts are covered in cameras.


Their likely purpose isn't to ferret out terrorism, but to allow an instant response to unlawful demonstrations — which is to say, demonstrations.

The square had more fenced-off areas and more soldiers than I remember from 2007. Our guide, too, admitted it had changed — as a boy he flew kites there with his parents, something that wouldn't happen now. But despite the omnipresent cameras, it wasn't a grim place. The tourists were more excited than reverent. A Chinese toddler in split pants rode his grandfather's shoulders, shrieking with laughter, little hands scrabbling at the craggy face for purchase. Stylish girls took selfies in front of soldiers, and frivolously-haired boys ogled the girls. I had heard that the soldiers don't like their pictures being taken, but this was not in evidence. Frankly I found it difficult to be too intimidated by them; they were so uniformly skinny, like a pre-super-serum Steve Rogers. Even the cops were skinny, which is simply unsettling to an American used to meatier law enforcement. The rest of China, though, was well on its way towards American proportions — I was often not the largest guy in the room, and big bellies, bared to the heat by hiked-up t-shirts in that unselfconscious Chinese way, were common.

Next we walked to the adjacent Forbidden City, traditional home of the emperor. The City is gigantic, a feat by any measure, but there's a sameness to it — one huge plaza after another, one large traditional rectangular building after another, all in nearly identical style: plain red walls and incredibly intricate roofs and rooflines.


The colorful rooflines helped conceal the omnipresent cameras:


The most interesting part of the City was probably the realpolitik reflected in its design — 180 acres in service of one dude and his crew and his stuff. The front buildings are devoted to the operation of the vast state; the rear buildings (including an area closed off to everyone but the emperor, women, and eunuchs) were for living. Our guides — perhaps because "politically correct" means something serious and potentially deadline in China, not just linguistic squeamishness — were not discomfited in explaining eunuchs to the nine-to-twelve-year-old-girls in our group. They explained the riot of symbolism spread around the place. There are dragons facing in, to remind the emperor not to spend too much time away, and to return to help lead the state, and dragons facing out, to remind emperors to get out once in a while and not forget the people. Apparently this was an issue; at least one emperor didn't leave the grounds for 20 years. Maybe stop sending in concubines? Just thinking out loud here.

Next up, hutongs and Chinese housing policy.

Last 5 posts by Ken White


  1. Scott Jacobs says

    When someone wears an American flag t-shirt, you don't assume that he's a strong supporter of free speech or due process

    In fact, I have found it to usually mean the opposite…

  2. Gregg says

    Thanks Ken for the posts. I've always wanted to go to Beijing and Xi'an but never made it. I spent the equivalent of a few months over several years in Shenzhen in the first half of the aughts, with visits to Wuhan/Hubei, and excursions to Guangzhou and Pudong/Shanghai. I always liked gauging the change from visit to visit; it's a dynamic place.

  3. pjcamp says

    executing dissidents without trail

    Every dissident should be made to take a hike.

    Just sayin.

  4. Michael Cox says

    …I was often not the largest guy in the room, and big bellies, bared to the heat by hiked-up t-shirts in that unselfconscious Chinese way, were common…

    Yeah, I've never been able to stomach this habit. (Sorry) also pant legs are often randomly hiked up. I don't like the heat either, but come on… Tummies and legs? Ewwww…

    OTOH, their taxes are apparently lower. In the purportedly communist country. Taxes *lower*. Argh.

  5. C. S. P. Schofield says

    @Michael Cox,

    "Yeah, I've never been able to stomach this habit. (Sorry) also pant legs are often randomly hiked up. I don't like the heat either, but come on… Tummies and legs? Ewwww…"

    This is exactly why I prefer winter to summer (and love Fall best); You can always put on another layer. There's a limit to how much you can take off before they arrest you. And you cross the line of good taste long before that.

  6. C. S. P. Schofield says

    "We don't assume that the twerps wearing Che t-shirts on American college campuses support jailing homosexuals or executing dissidents without trail"

    Actually, I tend to. They may not REALIZE they support those things, but they have been so brainwashed by the Academic (Un)Intelligencia that they blindly oppose any criticism of regimes that routinely practice mass murder, starvation as a tool of statecraft, and religious persecution. And if you point this out they tend to act like a bear with a sore paw.

  7. Dr. Dan says

    at least one emperor didn't leave the grounds for 20 years. Maybe stop sending in concubines?

    Send in the Ponies! (everyone run!)

  8. Rich Rostrom says

    The image of "Che" is not a nationalist symbol, it's a political symbol. Che wasn't even a Cuban – he was a free-range international radical. Anyone who flaunts his image is proclaiming allegiance not to Cuba, but to "The Revolution", and to Che's program of social change by mass murder.

  9. C. S. P. Schofield says


    I've long thought that the way to deal with "flag burning" and free speech is to apply the appropriate fire regulations. A flag the size of, say, a beach towel does not make for a small, controlled, fire. Especially if (like many flags) it is made of material made from petrochemicals. People who set such flags ablaze in a public place should not be arrested for insulting the flag, but for endangering the public. They should be required to get fire permits, just as the KKK is required to get such permits for a fiery cross ceremony.

    This has the bonus effect of placing Flag Burners on the same footing as the KKK.

    Where they belong.

  10. AH says


    As an Illinoisian, I'm hoping we can quickly get the embarrassment that is our state's censorship laws overturned. If Ken wouldn't mind, I'd appreciate him lighting up the Popehat signal.

    (I disagree completely with what the man said, but I firmly agree with his right to say it)

  11. TheInvisibleMan says

    @C. S. P. Schofield

    He did this on private property – his own.

    The irony of course is the flag stands for exactly the thing he was arrested for. And those who are calling for his punishment are those who understand the least of what the values behind that flag actually are.

    Using the force of law to go after someone burning the flag, is FAR more damaging to the values of the country than burning a colored piece of cloth in your own yard.

  12. Dragoness Eclectic says

    I'm confused–I thought flag desecration statutes were unconstitutional under the 1st Amendment, per some Supreme Court ruling years ago? When did this change? Or is Illinois just ignoring the Constitution (as usual)?

  13. Nobody you know says

    You cannot, legally, prevent the burning of the United States flag within any jursidiction in the United States, its districts, or its territories.

    The federal government does not prohibit it, and under certain circumstances, requires it. (Flag disposal, for one.) Since there is a requirement to burn the flag under at least one circumstance, a law at a lower level that makes doing so illegal is in conflict with federal law. And when there is a dispute, federal law wins.

    I'm sure there is a much more in-depth legal argument to be made on either side, but the nuts and bolts of it come down to that logical conclusion.

  14. TheInvisibleMan says

    @Dragoness Eclectic

    Yes, it is still legal to burn the flag.

    Yes, Illinois and in particular the Urbana police department, have decided to ignore the Constitution.

    They will have a quick reminder of a few tens of thousands of dollars to pay out to this kid to make sure they don't ignore it in the future. But as settlements usually go, the police don't have to actually pay for it, it just comes out of public funds. The residents get to pay more taxes to cover their inept local law enforcement.

    Yet another reason to put these types of settlements into a category where if found to be at fault, the penalty comes out of the police pension fund. I bet suddenly the local police start following the law far more often.

  15. C. S. P. Schofield says


    I despise laws that prevent acts based on meaning. on the other hand, ones that ban dangerous and rude behavior have my qualified support (I don't really TRUST governments).

    If he was on his own land, and consequently would not have needed a fire permit, then the cops are completely in the wrong. If a fire permit is required on ones own property, then they should have arrested/ticketed him on that basis.

    The only reason I am for cracking down on flag burning at all is a personal feeling that we give far too much leeway to the use of fire in "symbolic" protests. Fire isn't something to play around with, espcially in crowded and chaotic circumstances. The Protesters at Kent State thought it was fine and dandy to set fire to the ROTC building and then interfere with firefighters on the scene. Only dumb luck kept that from setting fire to most of the campus and the town.

    Sooner or later some hobby-protester imbecile is going to set a really devastating blaze.

  16. GeoffreyK says

    Personally, I've always been, I guess "entertained" is the word, given that I was taught in the Boy Scouts that the appropriate method for disposing of a worn out flag is to burn it. WikiHow goes to great lengths to describe the "respectful" burning that is generally called for, but it just highlights how the fundamental basis for any flag-burning law is the illegalization of "disrespect", which is… tricky, to say the least.

  17. AH says

    C. S. P. Schofield:
    "I despise laws that prevent acts based on meaning. on the other hand, ones that ban dangerous and rude behavior have my qualified support (I don't really TRUST governments)."

    You're a bit contradictory: being rude is pure meaning. The minute you start banning speech because it hurts your feels, you've become the oppressor. I have the right to tell you to go fuck yourself if I so desire.

    Setting fire to a building you don't own is arson. Setting fire to a flag you bought is speech. Can you see the differnce? One your burning something you don't own, the other you are burning something you do.

    The Urbana police are doing their job. This is the law in the state of Illinois, they enforce it. It's not their job, nor are they qualified to determine the constitutionality of the law. That's up to a court to determine. I don't fault them for it, it's the fault of the "wonderful politicians" in the Illinois legislature. If there were a fine, it should go to the state to pay (good luck with that, have you seen our books?).

    The end result is the state's attorney has dropped the charges and has requested the law be reviewed by the legislature. While, on some levels, I would have liked to see it go to court and the law be overturned, I certainly understand not wanting to incur the costs of a protracted legal battle and possible appeals. Tentatively, assuming they do the right thing, that's okay, I'm somewhat concerned that they won't.

  18. TheInvisibleMan says


    The Urbana police are doing their job.

    I disagree(of course). This is the equivalent of arresting someone for getting an abortion because your town had an ordinance for it written in the early 1800s. Or a Mississippi police officer trying to run a slave-trade because the state law allowed it until the state finally repealed it in 2013.

    If you've risen to the rank of police officer, it is not acceptable to not know this. Let alone that there was a period of HOURS between the police first contact with him, and when they finally came back to arrest him for the same 'offense'. That seems to point to the person in charge of the entire police department not even knowing this.

    While the above is certainly likely, it still doesn't excuse them for breaking the law not only in his arrest, but subsequent imprisonment.

    I like to hold my local officials accountable precisely because I don't want some clueless dolt to put me on the hook to pay for his/her mistakes when acting in a public capacity. While there have been some failures, there have also been some successes. Unfortunately, this requires paying attention to the local goings-on.

    Ignorance of the law is no excuse for the plebes. That door swings both ways, and in this case it will likely cost the city of Urbana quite a pretty penny – not nearly as much as that clown mayor in Peoria cost his city for his ass-hattery in using the police to raid a twitter critics home, but still.

  19. AH says

    That's absurd, the police weren't ignorant of the law, the Illinois law was quite clear: "A person commits flag desecration when he or she knowingly: … (4) publicly mutilates, defaces, defiles, tramples, or intentionally displays on the ground or floor any such flag, standard, color or ensign."

    The solution here isn't to make the police responsible for deciding if a law shouldn't be on the books. That should NEVER be in the hands of an unelected officer with no legal training. If you want them to be making that judgement, you need to give them the training to do that. For the record, that training would be, at minimum, a law education and passing the bar. Somehow I don't think you're willing to pay for that kind of training for all 31,230 LEOs in the state of Illinois, I know I'm not.

    You can say you want to hold your local officials responsible all you like, but at the end of the day, you need to hold the proper ones responsible. What you're doing is being mad at your mechanic for a traffic jam.

    To be clear, I'm more then willing to hold the police accountable when they screw up. Shooting up the wrong house on a no-knock raid, tossing flash-bangs in baby-cribs these are police screw-ups. This wasn't their screw up, it was the legislature's. You want to hold the responsible party accountable? I encourage you to: vote the bums out.

  20. TheInvisibleMan says


    I'm sorry, but anyone over 30 knows very well about flag burning. It's in the news every few years about someone trying to make it illegal, and there was pretty much nonstop coverage of it in the late 80s. There is no way that someone that has advanced up to the rank of Sergeant is not aware of the law(the officer that made the arrest). There is no way in the HOURS between their first contact, and their subsequent return to arrest him that nobody anywhere in the circle this spread to didn't know the correct law. My local police know this, because I've talked to them many times about it and similar topics prior to this. You wouldn't believe how many times people ask the police to do illegal things to 'get back at someone'. I don't think I'm an abberation with an especially wise police force, I think it comes with the job for those who take it seriously as a career and not just a paycheck.

    There is a local community near me that has a bylaw in one of the subdivision that says 'no whites allowed'. Are you trying to suggest it would not be the fault of the police for not knowing that making an arrest on that basis was unfounded and would land them in trouble financially?

    I'm not angry at the police for what they did, I'm angry because there is no way they weren't aware of what they were doing and simply tried to find some fluffed up reason to arrest this kid as 'punishment'. The details even say he was changed for disorderly conduct AS BOTH THE PERP AND VICTIM – of the same incident. They knew exactly what they were doing, although I can understand a willingness to give them the benefit of the doubt.

    For them, they get to waste hours of this kids life and drag him through the legal system knowing full well in the end nothing will actually happen to them, all as a part of their normal day. They also know they will not be held responsible if they find the 'right way' to do it, and the taxpayers are left footing the bill for the settlement.

    I really want to see cases like this paid out of the pension fund, and not the general city budget and/or insurance policy protecting the village/city/whatever. But yes, I realize the likelihood of that is slim to none – but that's not going to stop me from trying.

  21. AH says

    Do you have any contact with people outside this forum? I had to explain to someone the day I found out about it why the person won't actually be convicted of a crime. I'm well over the age of 30, and said person is the same age as my mother.

    You have an irrationally high opinion of the police's qualifications in law. It's not much better than a layperson's, because it doesn't need to be. Sorting out the legality of a law is not their job. Determining that a law is illegal is the job of judges and lawyers. Unless you're going to give law enforcement that kind of training, which they don't get now, they are still not qualified to make that assessment.

    Not only is no fine going to be paid by the officers themselves, but no fine is going to be paid at all. The state's attorney (a person who IS qualified to judge that the law is not actually valid) has chosen not to press charges. This isn't going to court. I suppose he can try to sue in a civil court, but it's unlikely a judge will grant him anything. Frankly, speaking as a local, it's even less likely that 12 randomly selected (but biased toward not doing everything they can to get out of jury duty) permanent residents in Champaign County would. As much as you may think of me as a defender of jack-booted thugs, most of the people I've encountered in Champaign county (who aren't students at UIUC) find I'm the opposite because I defend his right to burn the flag. That's not a particularly popular opinion, outside of civil rights attorneys and academics.

  22. TheInvisibleMan says

    (Dispensing with the need to address you directly)

    Yes, I have plenty of contact with people outside this forum, as I've said some of them are even police officers. It doesn't have to go to court for him to get compensated for an illegal arrest. It's still illegal if they drop the charges after the fact if the reason for the arrest is invalid. The arrest still happened, and it was illegal. There are no mulligans for the police here. I hope Ken will write about this, as my understanding pales in comparison to his, although I have actually been in a courtroom defending issues of free speech(and won), but I am fairly confident in my analysis of this.

    For the record, I am in IL as well.

    A few years back, something very similar happened in Missouri. The man was arrested for 'shredding the flag'. It was also an illegal arrest, and it didn't matter that it didn't get to court then either. It was decided by a federal judge, not the local yokels.

    "The federal judge ruled for Snider and later awarded him $7,000 in actual damages against the officer and $61,890 in attorney fees, plus costs, against the officer and the state."

    So while you are certain there will be nothing awarded to him, federal case law seems to have plenty of recent support to the contrary. I don't think you are supporting of jackboots, I just don't think you are taking into account all the laws they broke that make this far more than a local issue now, and thus out of their hands to undo. I do however quite strongly agree with your assessment of the knowledge of the average resident of Champaign county.

  23. Hillsborough Non-hipster says

    Oddly enough, your comment about big bellies comes on the same day my newsletter from the N.C. Cattlemen's Association notes that exports of N.C. beef to China are up 600% in the past 15 years. When I check on the herd this afternoon, I'll be content I'm doing my bit for world peace.

  24. C. S. P. Schofield says


    I don't want to ban rude behavior. I want to ban rude behavior that is dangerous. Setting fire to a beach-towel sized sheet of flexible petrochemicals in a public place is an obvious hazard. One of my favorite images of the post 9/11 era was of an Islamotwit who, while burning the American Flag, got caught in a sudden breeze and wrapped in his own flames. I sometimes wonder what he thinks Allah did that to him for.

    The material many flags are made from turns semi-liquid and sticky when burning. Lighting a sheet of that in a public place seems idiotic to me. I'm amazed we haven't had multiple nasty object lessons before now.

    Anyway; I'm against anti-flag-burning laws. I'm for enforcing no-fires-without-a-permit laws against people who do dangerous (if 'symbolic') things with fire in public places.

    I have doubts about the endlessly quoted "You can't shout fire in a crowded theatre" standard, but you certainly should be restrained from brandishing a lighted torch in a crowded theatre.

  25. Herr Doctor says

    Regarding the flag burning tangent… no one has mentioned that they use Ken's favorite move to justify the arrest: if he is allowed his right of free speech, other people might commit acts of violence against him (or his employer).

    Yes sir! The heckler's veto! Where the lowest denominator gets to control where free speech starts and stops.

    At the risk of dragging this conversation back on topic, flag burning is illegal in China…

  26. Damon says

    Dude, first rule of China, you do not take pics of the security services, cops, cameras, or any of that stuff. (So sayeth our tour director)

    I was there during the national holiday. Lot's of nationalist iconography then.

    I may have the numbers wrong, but I heard the gov't scaled back the numbers allowed into the forbidden city somewhat to reduce crowds. Say from 300k to 250k per frickin day. Anyway it was pretty mobbed when I was there.

  27. Camellia Law says

    Hi Ken, just came across your posts from China and appreciate your perspective.

    BTW, Cady D from Prep (my daughter) is studying in Beijing this summer. Maybe you'll run into each other.

    On our last China tour six years ago, I eventually got over the censorship ("what, no CNN on the TV!? No NY Times on the internet?"), but am still struck by the flagrant intrusions of the state on people's lives. With a simple question like -where is your family from- we heard about forced relocations during the cultural revolution, or of ethnic Han families sent to the Uyghur region to 'balance out' the population. The one child policy was an interesting but safe topic. Religion mentioned only in whispers.


  28. Encinal says


    And once again, we have some refusing to let their complete lack of knowledge stop them from pontificating on the internet.

    Cops have extensive legal training. What do you think Police Academy is for? Learning how to make sound effects with your mouth?

    Also, courts don't find laws are illegal. That's nonsensical. The law is, by definition, legal. The term "law" refers to the set of rules people have to follow. When the legislature passes a bill, that's a statute. If it's a lawful statute, then it's also law. But if it's an unlawful statute, then it's not law. The statute criminalizing flag desecration is unconstitutional, and is therefore not law. And cops absolutely should know what the law is. "There is a statute that says X is a crime" is not a valid excuse for thinking that X is a crime.

  29. A Hettinger says


    Do you know what a police academy actually entails?

    Are you really trying to argue that a beat cop has the legal training required to be an attorney? What do you think law schools and the bar is for? If all that was required to deeply understand the law is 480hr two week course ( why do think people like Ken have taken years to get a degree on the topic, followed by being professionally certified (passing the bar) for every state they practice in?

    "There is a statute that says X is a crime" is not a valid excuse for thinking that X is a crime.

    That's the most nonsensical thing I've ever heard. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson couldn't have done better.

  30. markm says

    @A Hettinger et al: When the statute is in direct violation of the Constitution, it is not a law. The Constitution is law. Any law in conflict with it is void – and flag burning statutes have consistently been found to be in conflict. This is basic civics, not specialized legal training.

    Not that cops don't also need some legal training, too. For any branch of government to hire and arm people and send them out to enforce the law without seeing to it that they know the laws is recklessly irresponsible. If this country had a true department of Justice, there'd be a criminal investigation of the leadership in this police department.

  31. jfb says

    The rest of China, though, was well on its way towards American proportions

    I was in Tokyo in the mid-90s, and I saw stark differences in size between the older WWII generation and the kids who grew up in the '70s and '80s. Not just fat vs. skinny, but size overall. It's amazing how much of an influence diet has when you're a kid.