"Tracking the Beijing Scene": Update

Savitt Then, China Now: "Tracking the Beijing Scene," Duke Magazine, January-February 2000
March 31, 2004
Duke Magazine Cover

This spring will mark the fifteenth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square military crackdown in Beijing. At the time, Scott Savitt '85 was a twenty-six-year-old journalist, the newly hired Beijing bureau chief for United Press International.

As he wrote in Duke Magazine in 2000, he remembers the night well: his clothes soaked in the blood of students he carried to the hospital, the bursts of gunfire into crowds, and that "ominous calm" of waiting for a massacre.

Five years after Tiananmen and a brief stint covering business for Fortune magazine in Hong Kong, Savitt returned as Beijing bureau chief for Asiaweek. Meanwhile, China had taken a step toward reform and a free market. "The tacit agreement between the Party and the People is that, except for direct challenges to Communist rule, individuals will be free to pursue life, liberty, and the almighty dollar," wrote Savitt. "All of this plays out with an alarming absence of public debate, since the state maintains its iron grip on the media.... Yet, in this information vacuum, I see an opportunity to promote change....

My simple but incendiary idea is to establish an independent newspaper in Beijing."

Tracking the Beijing Scene

He did. And for a time, he was successful. His English-language magazine, Beijing Scene, the first privately owned newspaper in China, reported on "cutting-edge economic, social, and cultural development in China's rapidly transforming capital"; the debut issue included "a feature on the Peking Opera, a restaurant review, a question-and-answer column written in the voice of a busybody Chinese auntie."

Chinese authorities did not perceive the magazine as a threat. It was permitted to continue. By 1999, it had a readership of more than 100,000, robust advertising revenue, and a popular website. The future, it seemed, was promising.

"Traditional Chinese philosophy sees fate as nothing more than the confluence of character and circumstance," Savitt wrote in Duke Magazine. As fate would have it, only months later, twenty of China's secret police arrived at his offices. "We didn't resist," says Savitt. "They confiscated our computer equipment and interrogated our forty Chinese employees."

After ten years and 300 issues, Beijing Scene was finished. Savitt was jailed for thirty days and subsequently deported. "In Chinese, it's called 'killing the chicken to frighten the monkeys,' " he says.

But Savitt was not deterred. Over the last three years, his passion and drive have lent the publication new life. In the summer of 2003, while working as managing editor of Contexts magazine in San Francisco, he established new production offices for a reincarnated Beijing Scene. His writers and photographers in Beijing dared to reconvene. The result is China Now, a magazine devoted to chronicling "the real Cultural Revolution taking place every day in China, progressive change that is not adequately reported in the corporate-controlled Western media."