Photo: Jeffrey Wasserstrom, Shanghai, March 2013.
From Maternity Wards to the Bird Flu Beat: A Q & A with Mara Hvistendahl
My first contact with Mara Hvistendahl, a talented Shanghai-based journalist who is a contributing editor and writer for Science and the author of the acclaimed book Unnatural Selection, goes back to 2008. At the beginning of that year, we both grew fascinated by Shanghai’s first Not-In-My-Backyard protests. The goals of most Chinese NIMBY actions have been to force the closing or relocation of toxic factories, but early 2008 was an effort by residents of central Shanghai to stop the extension of the city’s magnetic levitation train line into their neighborhood. Crowds took to the streets, in part because they were worried about the noisy superfast train hurting local property values, in part because of vague rumors about the lines posing health risks, but largely because people living in the affected area simply felt that they should have had a chance to weigh in on an urban redevelopment project that would have a dramatic impact on their lives. The protests succeeded: the line has never been built. This high profile action also probably helped inspire some of the other demonstrations in different Chinese cities that have taken place since early 2008, just as 2007 protests in Xiamen that succeeded in forcing a noxious chemical plant to be relocated played a role in emboldening the Shanghai protesters.
As a long-term tracker of Shanghai protests, the 2008 events intrigued me for their own sake, but I also remember them now in part because trying to keep up with them from California made me aware of the smart reporting Mara was doing on environmental themes in Shanghai. Since 2008, I have continually come across Mara’s byline and learned from her coverage of issues that intrigue me, from how the momentous events of 1989 are remembered—and forgotten—to the way that new technologies of communication are transforming China. We’ve had several enjoyable private conversations over the years in Shanghai—and one memorable public one at UC Irvine, where she took part in one of the conversations between journalists and academics we’ve been holding on campus. (You can find a podcast of that here; information on recent UCI events of a similar kind can be found here.)
A final prefatory note is in order about Mara’s two contributions to the Los Angeles Review of Books. One of these was as an author: she wrote a smart piece for the publication last December, “China’s Singular Sexual Revolution”, which focused on the book Behind the Red Door: Sex in China. Even before that appeared, though, she had contributed to the publication in a less direct way: by introducing me to Megan Shank, the Brooklyn-based writer and translator who I brought on board as co-editor of the publication’s Asia Section after Tom Lutz invited me to oversee that part of the review.
With several issues covered by Mara making headlines recently, this seemed a good time to zap her some questions and give her a chance to make a third type of LARB contribution. - Jeffrey Wasserstrom
Jeffrey Wasserstrom: Back in January, you wrote a piece for the Atlantic, cleverly titled “Enter the Dragons”, on how tough it was to find a hospital bed in a maternity ward early this year, due to how many parents wanted to have babies born under a particularly desirable sign of the Zodiac. My first question naturally is, how did it all turn out? When you went into labor, could you find a bed? When your daughter, who I was very pleased to get to meet in March, was born, was she a “dragon” or had the year of the “snake” already started?
Mara Hvistendahl: Our daughter is a dragon, but just barely. She arrived a week before Chinese New Year – and a week later than we expected her. The maternity ward at our hospital was packed. I got a bed while I was in labor, but afterward I had to recover in another ward. And other women weren’t so lucky. I heard about one woman laboring in the hospital library.
I’d heard worse stories while reporting my article – last fall papers in China reported that a pregnant woman in Nanjing was turned away from a hospital and ended up giving birth in the parking lot. But I had somehow expected that the situation at our hospital, which caters to expats and wealthy Shanghainese, would be different.
I was hoping to have a natural birth, but after over 36 hours of slow-moving labor I had to have an emergency C-section. As it happens, I’d looked into China’s high C-section rate for an article I wrote for Slate last year. At the time I didn’t expect I’d be having one. But shortly before I was wheeled into the operating room I remembered joking with my mother that at least medical workers in China are experienced at performing C-sections.
JW: When I saw you in Shanghai in March, you told me about a bookstore you liked whose name, “1984,” naturally caught my attention, given my fascination with Orwell. Based on your recommendation, I sought it out before leaving town, but while I managed to take the photo of it included at the top of this post, the store was closed when I got there, so I couldn’t see what it was like inside. Can you tell LARB readers a bit about what I missed? The fact that it exists in a Communist Party-run country is quite something, of course, given that Orwell was a taboo author in the Soviet bloc during the Cold War. What’s it like inside?
MH: 1984 is one of my favorite spots in my neighborhood. The store has a lot of Orwell books (in Chinese translation) on offer, as you might expect, but there are also shelves lined with a very odd assortment of old books and magazines, and an assortment of old tables where you can sit and drink drip coffee from the excellent Japanese coffee shop next door. In some ways the place reminds me of the Minneapolis coffee shops I hung out at in high school — mismatched furniture, laid-back staff, a few resident cats. No one seems particularly interested in making money or hurrying customers along, which is refreshing in Shanghai.
JW: One story you’ve covered for years now, which naturally figures centrally in your book on skewed sex ratios across Asia is that of China’s birth limitation policies. There’s been a lot of talk lately about dramatic loosening or even abandonment of the so-called “one-child policy” (a bit of a misnomer, due to the leeway that’s often been given for some couples to have second children). What do you make of all this? Do you think that something dramatic will happen anytime soon?
MH: I think it’s significant that the Chinese National Population and Family Planning Commission, the agency that used to enforce China’s one-child policy, was recently merged with the Ministry of Health. The family planning commission was the main obstacle to reform, primarily because the bureaucrats who work for it want to keep their jobs. It has become increasingly difficult to argue that the policy is at all necessary; as I pointed out in an article I wrote for Science on the topic in 2010, on the 30th anniversary of the policy’s introduction, studies have shown that many Chinese only want one child. But some influential officials, including a man named Song Jian who was in many ways the architect of the policy, remain opposed to reform. I went into Song Jian’s story in Unnatural Selection, and this recent piece by Sui-Lee Wee and Hui Li does a great job of explaining the influence he wields behind the scenes.
JW: You are working for Science now, so I know you are closely tracking developments associated with the latest Bird Flu scare, which was the subject of a recent “China Blog” post by Maura Cunningham. I’ve seen a lot of tweets by you and at least one piece you’ve done on the topic. I know it’s a rapidly evolving situation, so it’s hard to go on the record about anything specific in an interview that might not appear immediately, but can you point readers to one or two blog posts or articles on it that you’ve found particularly illuminating or interesting?
MH: Rapidly urbanizing areas where people live in close contact with animals are ground zero for outbreaks of zoonotic diseases like avian flu and swine flu — and that’s why China has seen so many of them. One thing I’ve found fascinating in covering H7N9 is that there is an extensive online network of people spread out around the globe who are tracking it in real time, using automatic translators to decipher Chinese news reports (see the site FluTrackers, for example). But there is also a lot of misinformation out there. I’d recommend the work of Helen Branswell, a Canadian journalist who specializes in covering flu. Here’s a great summary she wrote about H7N9 for Scientific American.
JW: When I thought of interviewing you, I had Bird Flu and birth control policies in mind, but now it strikes me that yet another topic you’ve covered has been back in the news: Chinese hackers. What do you think is truly novel about the recent reports on the topic? Is it just more of what we’ve seen before, or is something genuinely new going on in terms of cyber espionage and worries of cyber warfare?
MH: When I wrote a feature on the topic for Popular Science back in 2008, there was a lot of speculation linking hacking attempts originating in China to the People’s Liberation Army but not much substantive evidence to prove a link. I aimed to show that the relationship between hackers and the Chinese government is much more fluid than in the popular imagination — the government benefits from a stable of young, nationalistic computer geeks willing to take on targets in the U.S. and elsewhere, but those geeks aren’t always carefully overseen. At the time there were a number of freelance operations.
In February the computer security firm Mandiant released a report on the subject (detailed by the NYT here) suggesting that there is in fact a definite link. The thing that struck me about the Mandiant report is that it portrays the PLA as organized but not entirely sophisticated. Some hackers logged into Twitter or Facebook while at work.
In a separate investigation, my colleague Richard Stone managed to speak with a man who said he worked for a PLA unit. So now that part of the story, at least, is less hazy.
JW: Thanks for your time. I’ll look forward to seeing you next time something brings me back to Shanghai—or you back to Southern California.