Richard Bernstein was Time’s bureau chief in China and a foreign correspondent for The New York Times. His most recent book is China 1945: Mao’s Revolution and America’s Fateful Choice.

 (November 2014)

Nail Salons: A Reply to the ‘Times’

On July 25, the NYR Daily published a post by Richard Bernstein on the first part of a New York Times investigation into workplace conditions at New York City nail salons, which Bernstein argued was a “misleading depiction of the nail salon business as a whole.” The editors of the Times have published a letter responding to Bernstein’s post. Richard Bernstein replies here.

What the ‘Times’ Got Wrong About Nail Salons

A nail salon on New York's Upper West Side, November 3, 2014

As a former New York Times journalist who also has been, for the last twelve years, a part owner of two day-spas in Manhattan, I read the Times’s recent exposé of the nail salon industry with particular interest. But it was troubling to discover that many of the story’s claims and sources, on which sweeping conclusions were based, were flimsy and sometimes wholly inaccurate.

Thailand: Beautiful and Bitterly Divided

A Red Shirt supporter holding pictures of Thailand’s ousted prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra and her brother, former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, at a rally in Bangkok, November 2013
Thailand has long had the image of a benign, stable country, which is a chief reason it has long been seen, at least by Americans, as a great hope for the future in Southeast Asia. But for the past eight years, it has been in the grip of an extraordinary political crisis, pitting two intransigent mass movements, known as Red Shirts and Yellow Shirts, against one another, each ready to take to the streets whenever it feels that the other has gained the upper hand.

From China to Jihad?

A Uighur man watching a convoy of Chinese paramilitaries in Urumqi, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, May 23, 2014

Among the many stories concerning foreigners setting out to fight in Syria, the allegations about Chinese Uighurs arrested in Thailand—many of them women and children—stand out. They have triggered a quiet tug of war between China, which is pressuring Thailand to send them back, and the West, which has argued that deporting them would expose them to savage mistreatment.

Thailand: Revolution by Motorcycle?

Supporters of Thailand's Red Shirt movement in a protest against the Constitutional Court, Bangkok, May 8, 2013

When 300,000 protesters from Thailand’s Red Shirt movement occupied Bangkok’s main commercial district in 2010, they were helped by an unusual ally: motorcycle taxi drivers. Able to navigate barricaded streets, the motorcycle taxis carried messages, money, and the makings of Molotov cocktails to protesters. Now the resilience of groups like the taxi drivers is likely to make it difficult for a new military junta to maintain control.

The Insoluble Question

A scene from Rithy Panh’s film S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine showing the painter Vann Nath, one of the survivors of the Tuol Sleng prison
Sometime early in the reign of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979, Rithy Panh, who was thirteen years old, was digging a ditch on one of the regime’s brutal collective farms when he hit his foot with a pick-ax. His wound didn’t seem very serious at first, …

Cambodia’s Unseen Horrors


How to depict the grisly reality of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge regime, during which the only permitted images were those of a controlled propaganda machine? In The Missing Picture, his documentary about the KR years, Rithy Panh uses small clay figurines, hundreds of them, painted, clothed, with individual expressions on their faces, and placed in meticulously detailed dioramas that he seems to have reconstructed from the memories of his youth. These clay statuettes cannot, of course, fully depict the horror of the Khmer Rouge story. But as Panh’s narration proceeds, the statuettes take on a reality of their own, a voodoo-like power, their individual features an aid to avoiding what might otherwise be a kind of depersonalizing abstraction.

The People’s Republic of Rumor

Pedestrians stand on a flooded street caused by heavy rain in Beijing, July 21, 2012

The official Chinese media have reported that seventy-seven people died as a result of torrential rains last week, but the Chinese blogosphere tells a different story: of hundreds and possibly thousands of deaths, and widespread damage and chaos. Apart from describing the flood itself, these reports suggest that, once again, Chinese officials were striving to downplay the scope of a disaster to avoid public dissatisfaction. China is a country where there is no truth, though there is certainly plenty of anecdotal evidence that if there is a truth on a subject deemed sensitive, whether about the feelings of Tibetans or the number of dead in a storm, it is to be found online, not in official accounts.

The Chinese Are Coming!

A ceremony in Sichuan Province, China, sending off an engineer battalion of the People’s Liberation Army on a peacekeeping mission to Lebanon, January 2011
The day after the Russian parliamentary elections in early December, the Chinese publication Global Times, an English-language newspaper and website managed by People’s Daily, the official organ of the Communist Party official, ran an editorial on how little credit the West gave to Vladimir Putin’s Russia for becoming a democratic …

China’s Tibetan Theme Park

The Kangxi Ceremony in Chengde

In the international press, China’s tensions with Tibet are often traced to the Chinese invasion of 1950 and Tibet’s failed uprising of 1959. But for the Chinese themselves, the story goes back much further—at least to the reign of Kangxi, the Qing Dynasty emperor, who ruled for sixty-one years (1661-1722) and, in the official Chinese view, incorporated many lands, including Tibet, into a glorious Chinese empire. One of the most important symbols of those events, moreover, lies not in Tibet but thousands of miles east in the city of Chengde, near Beijing. There, Kangxi’s grandson, the emperor Qianlong, built one of the more astonishing architectural monuments in China: a Tibetan Buddhist temple housed in a scrupulously detailed scale model of the Potala Palace in Lhasa, the seat of Tibetan cultural and spiritual power. This Little Potala, as it’s called, was intended as an architectural expression of the great unity of China under his rule. In recent years, the tourist authorities have used Chengde to create a sort of national monument to Kangxi, and, through him, to advance China’s contemporary position on Tibet.

A Very Superior ‘Chinaman’

Warner Oland as Charlie Chan in Charlie Chan at the Race Track, 1936
Charlie Chan, the fictitious Chinese-American detective from Hawaii, makes his first appearance in the movie Charlie Chan in Egypt (1935) looking out the window of an airplane while flying over the Pyramids and the Sphinx. We next see him, looking awkward and unhappy, on a donkey, which takes him to …

Beijing’s Bluster, America’s Quiet: The Disturbing Case of Xue Feng

Xue Feng

Quiet diplomacy, as it’s called, has served for years as the principle guiding US relations with China: the theory is that it is far better to engage the Chinese government quietly, behind the scenes, rather than through more robust public confrontation. This approach, recommended by most influential experts on China, has been followed in political and economic dealings, and even when the human rights of American citizens are at stake. But how effective is quiet diplomacy in practice? Two cases have made this question urgent.

Booming China, Migrant Misery

Zhang Changhua, Chen Suqin and their daughter Zhang Qin in Last Train Home

At the beginning of September, a Beijing criminal court announced a decision that called attention to the difficult and sometimes tragic circumstances of millions of migrant workers in China who have left their countryside homes to work for low wages under deplorable circumstances in the cities. The court gave a three-year jail sentence to a man who ran an unlicensed, low-cost kindergarten for the children of these migrant workers. He was found to have left a group of such children without supervision in a locked room. A fire started. Eight of the children were saved by the owner of the building who, providentially, happened by at just that moment to collect unpaid rent, but one died. There are an estimated 130 million nung-gong, or peasant workers, in China, making up what Lixin Fan, in his powerful documentary Last Train Home calls “the world’s largest human migration.”

The Empire of Sister Ping

Chinatown, New York City, July 2008; photograph by Simon Lee from the cover of Patrick Radden Keefe’s The Snakehead
The headquarters of what was once the global people-smuggling operation of Cheng Chui Ping, aka Sister Ping, who is serving thirty-five years at a federal prison for women in Danbury, Connecticut, is now the Yung Sun seafood restaurant at 47 East Broadway in Manhattan, serving the specialties of China’s Fujian …

At Last, Justice for Monsters

Tourists looking at photographs of Khmer Rouge victims at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, Phnom Penh, Cambodia, February 13, 2009
On February 17, a sixty-six-year-old man named Kaing Guek Eav, aka Comrade Duch, appeared before a mixed Cambodian-international tribunal—formally known as the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia—charged, in the words of the indictment against him, with “murder, extermination, enslavement, imprisonment, torture, rape, persecutions on political grounds, [and] other …

The Death and Life of a Great Chinese City

Prospective buyers looking at a model of a residential housing project at the Beijing Real Estate Fair, April 3, 2006
Judging from the evidence of Michael Meyer’s portrait of life in a narrow backstreet of Beijing as China prepared for the Olympic Games, old Beijing has been vanishing for a very long time. “Peking you simply would not be able to recognize except by its monuments,” the British journalist George …

Good War Gone Bad

On March 7, 1951, at a press conference, Douglas MacArthur, commander of all United States forces in the Pacific, spoke contemptuously of the way his commander in the field, Matthew B. Ridgway, was fighting the Korean War. Ridgway, MacArthur said, was following an ineffectual strategy, gaining a little here, losing …

How Not to Deal with North Korea

Instead of threatening northeast Asia and the California coast with nuclear weapons, North Korea by most reasonable expectations should have ceased to exist years ago, in part because it seemed so reasonable and logical that it would follow other recent examples of Communist regimes gone defunct. East Germany went out …

Guilty If Charged

This fall on the campus of the University of New Hampshire there suddenly appeared a set of five dramatically large posters that spelled out the sins against which war would be officially waged. “Sexism has no place at UNH,” one poster said. “We seek not only to be a diverse …

French Collaborators: The New Debate

In December 1942, the Pétainist journal France: Revue de l’Etat Nouveau published an article by François Mitterrand, who was then twenty-six years old. He had escaped from a German prison camp and was working for the Vichy regime in the office that helped other returned prisoners of war adjust to …