Melinda Liu

Stories by Melinda Liu

  • Great Leap To Space

    When China first started up a manned space program 11 years ago, the authorities were so keen on keeping a low profile that they didn't even bother to give it a name. Instead, they gave the program a number--Project 921--and kept a tight lid on every scrap of information. Launch dates, for instance, have been treated like state secrets. Chinese tourists are allowed to visit the launchpad, in the remote Gobi Desert, but never if there's a chance they might actually get a close look at one of the rockets going up. It's not that anybody would bother to spy on the technology, which is decades old. Rather, the secrecy has more to do with the vanity of China's authorities and the inherent risks of rocketry. No matter how proven the technology, there's always a chance that a rocket will blow up on the launchpad, to the great embarrassment of leaders in Beijing.The first crack in this Great Wall of Secrecy appeared last week. It came from, of all places, a tourist agency. Chinese...
  • Field Of Dreams

    Liu Yonghong had never seen--or heard--anything like it. A little more than 10 years ago this migrant worker from Sichuan walked into a supermarket in Hangzhou, 75 miles from Shanghai. All the goods were neatly arranged on the shelves, the aisles were clean and "nice music was playing in the background," he recalls. While toiling away in a local silk factory, Liu decided he wanted to be his own boss. So in 1997 he returned to his hometown in Santai County and opened the first of five supermarkets. In one store, smiling salesgirls in crisp pink uniforms welcome customers and say "thank you" in unison. If patrons prefer, the store will deliver purchases to their homes--and, yes, tinkling Chinese Muzak plays in the background.It may not sound like much, but Liu's supermarket chain is a revelation in China's vast, underdeveloped interior. Today, the very migrants who have fueled an eye-popping manufacturing boom in factories along the Chinese coast are fomenting a quiet revolution. They...
  • Petitioning The Emperor

    Not long ago Hua Huiqi lived quietly with his family in a Beijing courtyard house, minding his own business. That changed when authorities forcibly evicted him and his elderly parents in September 2002 to make way for a new development. Almost overnight, Hua became an activist. Now he makes the rounds of government offices and other gathering places every day, meeting with irate groups of Chinese protesters from all over the country who've converged on Beijing--as one puts it--to "petition the emperor." (Hua tells the out-of-towners to phone him if they need help, then hands over a card that reads YOUR BUSINESS IS OUR BUSINESS.) "We're trying to coordinate with people from all of China's provinces," says Hua, as a friend fields mobile-phone calls from various demonstrations around the city. "Already protests are developing the way they did in the spring of 1989."That may be an exaggeration: it's hard to imagine the motley assemblage of provincial protesters in Beijing--between 500...
  • Return Of A Killer

    In late summer, the live-animal markets of southern China are usually buzzing with street vendors and their wares--a flurry of fur, scales and feathers, blood and gore, and the inevitable stench. This year, though, the markets are preternaturally quiet. In the Baiyun district of Guangzhou, half the 290 wild-animal stalls are shuttered. The vendors who remain have plenty of time to catnap, wash their laundry, cook for themselves and lament the long list of delicacies people rarely buy now due to SARS: tufted deer, water dragons, porcupines and crab-eating mongooses. Even the trade in legal animals has dropped off. "I'm near bankrupt," says Luo Aimin, a 56-year-old vendor who's throwing a handful of snakes into a sack. "If SARS comes back, I'm finished."China's stern measures last winter to combat the SARS outbreak, which included a ban on the sale of 54 different live animals, has taken its toll on the poor farmers, butchers, traders and cooks who cater to the Cantonese taste for...
  • The Dalai Lama Looks Home

    The Dalai Lama landed in America to the usual swirl of praise and protest. After receiving an honorary degree from UC San Francisco last Friday, he is scheduled to meet with George Bush, attend a reception on Capitol Hill and deliver an open-air speech in Central Park to a crowd expected to number in the tens of thousands. Even before the whirlwind began, the government of Beijing's new President Hu Jintao was protesting his planned visit to the White House and scrutinizing the Dalai Lama's every word and deed for "separatist tendencies." It's a ritual that attends every one of the Buddhist leader's visits to America, but an especially important one this year because of changes underway back in Tibet.The Tibetan capital of Lhasa has metamorphosed into a brash Chinese city with a few pockets of traditional architecture. The 358-year-old home of the Dalai Lama, the Potala, now overlooks a glitzy five-star hotel, pulsating nightclubs and numerous brothels, most of them run by ethnic...
  • Uneasy Neighbors

    Within the last two weeks a large number of Chinese soldiers have poured into the remote northeastern frontier bordering North Korea. Troops are preparing for another grim winter, when the Tumen River freezes and desperate North Korean refugees dodge Chinese patrols to escape into China. In the late '90s, fleeing North Koreans won local sympathy with their heart-rending tales of repression, famine, even cannibalism. But Beijing cracked down on the influx in 2001, and this year China has beefed up border security to what one local professor calls "an unusual, abnormal degree." Over the next month, NEWSWEEK has learned, troops will move into five newly constructed barracks in key frontier towns, replacing smaller border-police units. Their mission: to repel the expected waves of refugees this winter--and to quash escalating violence involving North Koreans on the Chinese side of the border.Chinese authorities are losing patience with their northeastern neighbor. For decades Beijing...
  • Nukes And Crime: China's Borderline Troubles

    China's patience with North Korea is wearing thin. The trouble isn't only Pyongyang's crash program to create a nuclear arsenal--although that's caused plenty of sleepless nights in Beijing. Thanks largely to heavy diplomatic pressure from China's president, Hu Jintao, negotiators from Pyongyang are scheduled to begin talks in Beijing this week with representatives from China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the United States. But the Chinese have a more urgent reason than anyone else at the table to want major reforms in Kim Jong Il's regime without delay. Hunger and oppression inside North Korea have spawned an epidemic of violent crime on the Chinese side of the border. "The North Koreans aren't afraid of anything," says one area resident. "Now we're the ones living in fear."Although Beijing has mostly kept the crime wave out of the papers, it's no secret to anyone who lives in the area. More than 100,000 illegal North Korean refugees live in China in hiding, under constant threat...
  • A Bitter Friendship

    In July, Chinese tour groups of Korean War veterans returned to North Korea to commemorate their sacrifices on the battlefield. The conflict that bound the two socialist allies "as close as lips and teeth" left 360,000 Chinese dead when it ended in a stalemate 50 years ago. Yet when four Chinese vets visited their old headquarters in the North, they were shocked by what they saw: a massive painting of Pyongyang's late "Great Leader" Kim Il Sung grandly instructing Korean officers into battle--with just one Chinese officer on the sidelines. "This isn't true!" fumed one Chinese veteran. "Kim came here only four times. Where are all the Chinese?"North Korea has been thumbing its nose at China for years, but what was once an irritation for Beijing is becoming a matter of serious concern. Since last October, Pyongyang has gone from restarting its mothballed nuclear facilities to bragging about reprocessing 8,000 spent nuclear-fuel rods into weapons-grade plutonium--enough to build at...
  • Behind Shanghai

    Staring at the rubble of his neighbors' row houses, Chen Guo-fang says he won't budge. Like more than a hundred residents who protested outside Shanghai's city hall last week, Chen is one of 2,000 homeowners who say that collusion between city officials and a big developer cleared the way for the reportedly $600 million housing project that is now bulldozing their homes. It's the biggest scandal to hit Shanghai in decades, and the victims demand fair compensation. "They can break my fingers but I won't sign any papers," says Chen, a 53-year-old laid-off engineer. "I don't have anything to lose."At first glance, the scandal enveloping Shanghai Land Holdings sounds like business as usual in post-Mao China. The country's embrace of "cowboy capitalism" has triggered corruption probes from Shenyang to Xiamen to Beijing. But look again: the Shanghai investigation appears to have got off the ground with a letter from the angry homeowners to President Hu Jintao, who is emerging as a...
  • The 'Wolf' Who Would Be King

    At first glance, the scene inside the presidential suite of Baghdad's Ishtar Sheraton hotel seems almost, er, presidential. Armed bodyguards, tribal leaders and hangers-on mill about as a man in a well-tailored suit signs official papers and huddles with aides. The boss is Muhammad Mohsen Zubaidi, a former Iraqi exile who slipped back into town even as the regime was collapsing; immediately after liberation, he began acting like the new power broker in Baghdad. One member of Zubaidi's throng last week was a new assistant with a sheaf of papers. His job: moving families who'd become homeless during the war into houses abandoned by aides and bodyguards of deposed dictator Saddam Hussein.Zubaidi's freshly printed stationery states only that he heads "the executive council of Baghdad," and many in his entourage insist they're just volunteers. Someone has even removed the words "presidential suite" from the presidential suite (nail holes leave an imprint that can still be read). Yet...
  • 'America Can't Rule'

    The Iraq Hunting Club, which features a run-down outdoor movie theater and dilapidated tennis courts, used to be a favorite haunt of Saddam Hussein's elder son, Uday. Now it's the Baghdad base of Ahmed Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress. Last week Chalabi sat outside near a giant bingo board with two NEWSWEEK reporters to discuss his political ambitions and his ties to America. Guards hovered nearby with Kalashnikovs slung over their shoulders.NEWSWEEK: You've returned to Iraq after 45 years in exile. What have you been doing [since you got back]?CHALABI: I've met leaders from every tribe around Baghdad--also business people, lawyers, justices and bankers. I've been proclaiming the end of the regime and the need for de-Baathification, emphasizing that this does not imply violence. I want to start the process of democracy and establish institutions of civil society. We've apprehended people on the U.S. wanted list, interviewed intelligence officers and people involved in weapons...
  • The Saddam Files

    At The Iraqi Intelligence Service, A Man Walked Up With A Grimy Sack Of Documents And Tapes. 'Tell The World What Happened Here,' He Said
  • In Revolution City

    After three weeks of war, Saddam City looked to me like an Arab version of "Blade Runner." Donkey carts and rattletrap taxis trundled through the vast Baghdad slum last week, crammed with anything that could be removed from the capital's abandoned ministries. My car inched past trash-choked alleys, burned-out vehicles and barricades thrown up by hard-eyed local vigilantes guarding their own neighborhoods from pillaging mobs. Even at the height of Saddam Hussein's power, his underlings seldom dared venture into the district that had been renamed for the dictator. Long before the U.S. invasion, this place was a revolution just waiting for a final provocation.There is no law in Saddam City. The closest thing to central authority is inside Saddam General Hospital, the only major medical center in Baghdad that has not been stripped virtually bare by looters. Residents now call it Revolution City Hospital, --from the district's pre-Saddam name. When the bombing began on March 20, the...
  • A City On The Brink

    Night after night, since the start of the war, the message boomed into the darkness from the loudspeakers of Baghdad's 14th of Ramadan Mosque. Sometimes the haunting, hypnotic baritone almost drowned out the fearsome din of the air war: "God is great!" the voice repeated. "God is almighty!" In person, the mosque's assistant imam, Murtadha Mustafa al-Zaidi, is a soft-spoken 30-year-old in a long gray robe and dusty flip-flops. "Residents from the neighborhood come to me and thank me," he said on a sunny afternoon last week as U.S. ground forces prepared to enter the capital. "They say my message makes them forget their fear." Birds were chittering in the trees outside. He added: "The Americans are attacking Iraq, thinking they are the world's greatest power. But we remind them that Allah is even greater."A night later the loudspeaker went silent: Baghdad's electricity had been cut. According to U.S. officials, the Iraqi regime had turned out the lights. Whatever that ploy was...
  • 'The Americans Have Come'

    For the first time in many days, there was no dawn chorus of aerial bombing or thudding artillery in Baghdad. I awoke today to a hot, scratchy breeze rustling through date palms and the muted chirping of birds.Very occasionally, distant warplanes or a muffled boom reverberated in the distance. The lack of nearby sounds of combat reassured many journalists here at the Palestine Hotel. But to me it also marked what, for us, had to be the most dangerous phase of the war.Yesterday, a senior Iraqi Press Center official told me glumly that "the American soldiers will be coming here. They'll be coming to talk with you journalists." I asked if he would stay, and he shrugged ambiguously. Later in the day, he made the rounds to many foreign television crews, asking them to pay their outstanding debts to the press center. One TV reporter, whose company coughed up $14,000, estimated the apparatchik must have personally collected about $200,000. Did he give any receipts? "Are you joking?" the...
  • The Mind Of The Iraqis

    It's impossible to know exactly what hit the Shaab market in Baghdad last Wednesday morning. The Iraqi government says the explosions killed at least 14 civilians, and dozens of others were injured. Having visited the site a few hours afterward, I have no reason to doubt those figures. The dead and wounded had been taken away, but agitated residents pointed out pools of blood, severed body parts, even the spot on the ground where some swore they had seen a severed head. "We are all civilians, and yet many people were killed here," said Hamdia Ahmed Hussein al-Reccabe, a 35-year-old schoolteacher in a flowing black abaya. "My brother, his wife and my mother are all injured." Then she blurted: "All Iraqis are Fedayeen [freedom fighters] for President Saddam Hussein--God bless him!"Al-Shaab is a working-class Shiite area, the kind of place where U.S. military planners expected strong grass-roots support for the war to topple the Iraqi dictator. It might have been that kind of place...
  • Live From Baghdad

    Saturday was a quiet spring day in Baghdad. Early in the morning I drove around town to look at the effects of the previous night's "shock and awe" airstrikes. Just a few hours before, the night sky had pulsed with crimson fireballs and Iraqi tracer fire, the concussion had knocked the plaster from my hotel's ceilings and an entire riverbank of government buildings had disintegrated as I watched from an upper floor. Now, the streets were mostly empty, except for groups of Iraqi soldiers digging trenches and bunkers for a last stand against the Americans. The July 14 Bridge was strewn with bits of shrapnel, perhaps the remains of the huge military complex that once stood at its southern end. A palace on the other side appeared intact, but a water main or hydrant had burst in front of it, turning the street into a lake. An acrid, burning smell hung in the air. I saw coalition aircraft flying overhead, but the air-raid sirens had stopped for now, and the antiaircraft guns were silent...
  • Babylonian Booty

    It had been conquered and re-conquered a dozen or more times, by (among others) the Akkadians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Macedonians, Parthians, Arabs, Ottomans and British, and in February 1991, yet another foreign power raised its flag over the ancient city of Ur, near the mouth of the Euphrates: the Americans. Daring the allies to bomb the birthplace of the patriarch Abraham, Iraqis had parked their jets near Ur's 4,000-year-old ziggurat, but the planes were shot up all the same. American soldiers toured the ancient tower, then got out their entrenching tools and began digging for souvenirs. A forlorn Iraqi gatekeeper ran among them, wailing protests in Arabic, until U.S. officers put a stop to the looting. Last week, when NEWSWEEK visited the site, it was virtually deserted, except for a lone guide, the son of the old gatekeeper, keeping a wary eye on the American and British warplanes streaking overhead. "Ninety-nine percent of Americans don't know the country they'll...
  • 'The Early Stages'

    "Will the war begin tonight?" asked Mohamed, an Iraqi friend, "tonight for sure?" For weeks he'd asked me the same question and for weeks I'd answered: probably not yet. But on Wednesday, I had to say, truthfully: 'yes, maybe tonight or perhaps tomorrow, the bombing might begin.'"I can't wait until tomorrow," he blurted out, "Iraqis have waited too long. Saddam Hussein will be finished and people will all come out in the street to celebrate. Just you wait and see." He laughed and almost started dancing a jig himself, then and there.We'd figured all along that war would trigger panic, desperation and, yes, jubilation among Iraqis. After weeks of denial and feigned indifference, raw and complex emotions had began pouring out in recent days. After decades of censoring their every word, some citizens now dared to speak out (albeit still privately in most cases) against the regime of Saddam Hussein. "He killed everything that was beautiful in Iraq," said Mohamed (a pseudonym), "The...
  • The Will Of The Tribes

    The sheik and his men still chuckle about being captured by the Americans. Back in 1991, as Iraqi soldiers retreated from Kuwait, a revolt erupted in cities across southern Iraq against President Saddam Hussein. In the district of al-Battha, not far from the ancient Biblical city of Ur, Iraqi tribal warriors led by Sheik Kadhim Al-Menshab Al-Habib rallied to the side of Baghdad's troops to crush the rebellion. But afterward, on the dusty highway home, the sheik and 14 of his men suddenly found themselves surrounded by about 50 U.S. soldiers.As hereditary leader of one of Iraq's biggest tribes, Sheik Kadhim is a vital supporter of Saddam's regime. His capture would have been bad news for the Baghdad government. But he lied to the Americans. "I said we were rebels," the sheik says. "So the U.S. soldiers returned our weapons and told us how to find other antigovernment forces in the nearby marshes. I guess they hoped we would regroup and destroy more cities." He and his men drove a...
  • Babes In Saddamland

    Looking out from the top of a red double-decker bus careening through Baghdad, American antiwar activist Ken O'Keefe sees the whole world as on his side. "How can The New York Times say Iraqis are hoping for war?" asks the California-born veteran of the Persian Gulf War, busily videotaping himself with a minicam, "How do you explain all those Iraqis waving and clapping out there?"On the street, local Iraqis seemed at first startled, then bemused, at the bizarre convoy snaking through their suburbs. Led by buses festooned with peace slogans, Beatles pictures and a panoply of mostly European antiwar activists, the convoy was headed to a power station, where some "human shields" would hunker down to try to thwart possible U.S. bombing. As someone strummed a guitar, a long-haired Turkish hippie, dressed in a patchwork jacket embroidered with tiny mirrors, flashed peace signs out the front window of the bus in between tokes on a marijuana cigarette.More than 200 international human...
  • Boom Before The Bombs

    Mahmoud Yassin never thought of himself as a real-estate speculator. But 11 years ago the Baghdad hardware dealer couldn't resist the low prices for property in Karbala. Thousands of inhabitants had fled the city during Desert Storm, and even more had surged out during the subsequent anti-regime revolt and the merciless government crackdown that followed. Yassin (a pseudonym) bought three houses cheap. Two weeks ago he sold one, a spacious bungalow with a garden, for 12 million Iraqi dinars ($5,000)--more than 36 times his initial outlay. In the preceding two weeks alone, the house's market value had jumped nearly 15 percent. "The buyer was in a rush," says Yassin. "He wanted to hand the cash over right away. But it would have taken me two hours to count all the bills."Iraqi real estate may sound like a terrible investment right now. Yet the market is booming in all but a few places like Safwan, on the Kuwaiti border, where people worry that the soil is dangerously contaminated with...
  • Imagining The Day After

    The old U.S. embassy in Baghdad hasn't hosted an American ambassador since April Glaspie shipped out just before the 1991 gulf war. Located down an alley in a bustling commercial area of Baghdad, Glaspie's office has been preserved just as she left it. But last Wednesday, the Polish diplomat entrusted to look after U.S. interests in Iraq closed down the office and left the country. It was a move watched with no small amount of interest by the rest of the jittery diplomatic community. The next tenant, they know, could be the man who is in line to administer postwar Iraq: retired Army Lt. Gen. Jay M. Garner. If so, Garner will find a handy reference book still sitting on Glaspie's shelf: a gold-lettered volume of "American Caesar," William Manchester's biography of the lordly occupation governor of postwar Japan, Gen. Douglas MacArthur.Back in Washington, U.S. officials who are quietly--and gingerly--making plans for postwar Iraq dismiss comparisons to the imperial MacArthur. The last...
  • Letter From Tikrit: Native Son

    About 110 miles from Baghdad, lampposts suddenly appear alongside the dusty highway snaking north--and each one has a portrait of President Saddam Hussein attached to it with neat little brackets. Here lies the city of Tikrit, hometown of Iraq's leader and a stronghold of loyalty to the regime.Over the weekend, the town showed its devotion to Iraq's strongman with a special parade. And while many Iraqi cities have hosted similar events in recent weeks, Tikrit's demonstration of devotion can only be described as a tribal lovefest for Saddam.About 30,000 Baath party civilian volunteers--led by groups of ululating women draped in long black abaya that reached down past their knees--marched in a vast plaza before sparsely populated marble viewing stands. Just as one group of volunteers from Al-Siniya district marched past wearing ominous-looking gas masks, another crowded into the grandstands shouting pro-Saddam slogans and waving rifles in the air.One militiaman ran around brandishing...
  • Psy-Ops And War Prep

    Dr. Muthafar Adhami, a prominent Iraqi academic, was watching TV at home not long ago when his 14-year-old son Farad suddenly stopped surfing the Internet and said, "Daddy, come see this." Adhami had received an unusual e-mail titled "Important Information," transmitted by U.S. psy-ops specialists. It warned Iraqis to "protect their families" by reporting any information about weapons of mass destruction to U.N. inspectors--or face "grave personal consequences." The e-mail also urged Iraqis to sabotage any WMD they know about--or at least to ignore any orders to use them.Is President George W. Bush's message getting through to the Iraqi people? Adhami told NEWSWEEK--in the presence of a government-assigned "escort"--that the e-mail's message "was so funny it made me laugh. If any other country had sent a similar e-mail to Americans, they wouldn't accept it either." Given that Baghdad has a formidable secret-police apparatus, Adhami also did what any smart Iraqi would do: he reported...
  • The Man Who Will Run China

    Hu Jintao has a trait that's rarer than his photographic memory: the more power he has, the more enigmatic he becomes. Even longtime colleagues in the Politburo are stumped by the flawlessly smooth exterior of China's new party chief, who is scheduled to assume the presidency in March. His uncanny skill at keeping a low profile, no matter how high he climbs, has served him well on his way up. China specialist Murray Scot Tanner of Western Michigan University says: "Hu has shown himself able to simultaneously impress people on both the right and the left, and to be promoted when his nominal patrons were at each other's throats." Yet that same unassertive approach has also led critics to label Hu an apparatchik and a flunky. They wonder if he is really up to the job of leading a country of 1.3 billion that is fast emerging as Asia's dominant military and economic power.He's plainly nobody's fool, and proves that every time he opens his mouth. China's top officials can be painfully...
  • Learning From China

    "A Western doctor would say you are perfectly healthy, but you are not!" proclaims Nan Lu, a doctor of traditional Chinese medicine in New York's Chinatown. Dr. Lu has just examined a reporter's tongue and taken her pulse--or rather pulses, one for each of 12 organs. The diagnosis: an "energy leak" from the heart, causing insomnia. "The heart governs the mind," Lu explains. "You have too many thoughts. You can't get them out of your brain when you want to sleep." This feels like a palm reading, but the doctor's description is accurate. OK, says the reporter. What's the remedy? According to Lu, it will require acupuncture, qigong (Chinese yoga), meditation, dietary --modifications and herbal remedies--in short, major lifestyle changes. The journalist leaves with three herbal formulas containing green orange peel, sour-date seed and licorice root along with dozens of exotic ingredients, and promises to come back for a qigong class. Acupuncture? She'll think about it.If traditional...
  • Party Time In Beijing

    China last week had its first orderly transfer of power since 1949--perhaps a bit too orderly. Communist Party boss Jiang Zemin, still a sprightly 76, stepped aside in favor of a new party chief, 59-year-old Hu Jintao. Half of the Central Committee was replaced with younger faces (average age: 55.4). And the party Constitution was even revised to welcome into its ranks private entrepreneurs, once reviled as capitalist "exploiters." When members of the new Politburo Standing Committee finally appeared in a neat chorus line before hundreds of journalists, they were a picture of bland uniformity. Even their outfits matched: somber navy suits, white shirts, red power ties.One among them, No. 5 in the lineup, beamed and waved at the media like a celebrity, as if the moment were his. And in some ways, it was. Zeng Qinghong has long served as Jiang's protege and hatchet man, and he had helped his boss engineer a quiet coup. Two thirds of the new Standing Committee's members are allies of...
  • China's Princelings Problem

    The time had finally come. China's new Politburo Standing Committee--in effect, the country's nine most powerful men--emerged from behind a carved wooden and lacquer screen to meet the nation. Every detail had been carefully scripted to give these leaders a proper debut as they lined up in a neat symmetry. Even their outfits matched: somber navy suits, white shirts, red power ties. China's new party chief, Hu Jintao, who was taking the helm from his predecessor, Jiang Zemin, introduced his colleagues in order of rank. One of them, No. 5 in the lineup, just couldn't restrain his grin. Zeng Qinghong beamed and waved at the media like a celebrity, as if the moment were his.And in some ways it was. As Jiang's longtime protege and hatchet man, Zeng had just engineered a political coup. Two thirds of the new Standing Committee's members are Jiang allies, ensuring that the 76-year-old former leader will be a formidable presence as the party's elder statesman. China's first orderly...