DATE April 20, 2004 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Shane Sellers discusses his appearance in the upcoming
HBO documentary "Jockey" and his racing career
DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily
News, sitting in for Terry Gross.
When the Kentucky Derby runs May 1st, my guest Shane Sellers will once again
be in the saddle. One of the top riders of thoroughbred racing, Sellers will
ride in his 15th Derby. He's had more than 20,000 starts and has won two
Breeders Cups. But he's also endured the physical punishment riders often
inflict on themselves to keep their weight low enough to compete at racing's
highest level. And he was out of racing for two years after a devastating
A new documentary about the sometimes grueling life of the racetrack premieres
Monday on HBO. It's called "Jockey," and Sellers is one of three riders
featured in the film. Sellers is spearheading a campaign to raise weight
limits for riders and improve their working conditions. Some racetracks are
raising their minimum weight limits from 113 to 116 pounds. It's only three
pounds but a big difference to riders struggling with their weight.
A recent five-year study of the overall health of jockeys found they have five
times the rate of respiratory infection of the general population and 10 times
the incidents of kidney damage, caused by chronic dehydration and
One of the jockeys featured in the HBO documentary is Randy Romero. He's been
nominated this year to the Racing Hall of Fame. He's currently waiting to
be put on the donors list for a kidney. Another is a young apprentice jockey,
(Soundbite of "Jockey")
Mr. CHRIS ROSIER (Jockey): People quit smoking; people quit drinking. But
eating is the hardest thing, to me. It's the hardest thing in the world to
quit. I've tried dieting. I've tried quitting but it only seems--just when,
you know, you think you're doing good, somebody wants to go and eat and you're
sitting there and you're looking at the menu, it's like, `I want this big
cheeseburger. I want this steak.' And, you know, it's hard. And it's
something that I wish I would have never started. And a lot of my old riders
told me, `Never start it.' But it's something I grew up around watching and I
wanted to do it bad enough. So I took the easy way.
DAVIES: I spoke to Shane Sellers last week.
Well, Shane Sellers, welcome to FRESH AIR.
Mr. SHANE SELLERS (Jockey): Thank you.
DAVIES: You mention in the HBO piece that a lot of jockeys don't have a lot
of education and this is sort of their way out. Was that true with you?
Mr. SELLERS: Yeah. Well, I went to the 12th grade. I mean, I didn't have no
choice. My dad made me promise that I'd finish high school and I did. I went
to--at least I went to two weeks before graduation and he saw that riding--I
was riding racehorses at night, going to school in the morning. Well, I'd get
up in the morning and actually go and work horses, galloping them in the
morning and go straight to school, come home and then we would have night
racing at Delta Downs. And so it was--so I did the both of them until--well,
again, two weeks before my graduation and then he just saw that riding was
going to be my life and he let me quit.
DAVIES: Tell us what it's like to be riding a thousand-pound animal at
blinding speed around a track in a pack of people. What--give us a sense what
it feels like to ride in a race.
Mr. SELLERS: It's quite a rush and the thing about it is that you're on such
a big animal and you only weigh 112 to 115 pounds and you have to guide that
animal. And you're surrounded by other horses and you're depending on those
riders on those other horses to guide those horses around. And it's an
adrenaline rush, I mean, especially when you're in a position that there's a
certain point in the race where you just know you're going to win. And
there's a point in time when you know that you're not going to win. So it
goes both ways. But there's no feeling like it.
DAVIES: There's a ton of noise. You get mud coming up in your face.
Mr. SELLERS: Yeah. Yeah. If you're in back, there's a lot of mud thrown
back at you. Somedays, if it's muddy, it's really sloppy, and you've got to
wear more goggles and hopefully you don't run out of goggles and--yeah,
there's noise, but I don't think you really hear the noise because you're so
concentrating on what you're doing at the time. And I'm paying attention to
the horses in front of me and particularly where the horses I think are that I
have to beat in the race are. Say in some instances I'm stuck behind two or
three horses that I know are dying in a race, not really dying but I mean are
just out of horse and they're backing up in my face and I need to find a way
to get out from around them and get back into the race.
You know, if I see a horse that's going to--stuck behind a horse and he gets
out and makes a move, I want to take that position. You know, just
positioning yourself to win, you know, and it's not the easiest thing to do
and sometimes it's not exactly like you planned it out in your head. I mean,
you know, you always go out there with a game plan, but sometimes--and most of
the times when the gates open, sometimes, you know, those plans are out the
door right away. Say your horse stumbles out of the gate, you thought you was
going to be the speeder racer and, oops, my horse stumbles. And now I'm
laying fifth. Now what do I do, you know, and so sometimes you've got to go
to plan B and you have to think of many different scenarios and run that race
different kind of ways in your head because it doesn't always happen the way
you think it's going to happen.
DAVIES: That moment that we've all seen when the horses are in the gate and
there's a minute or so when they're getting everybody settled in, ready to go,
what are you feeling at that moment?
Mr. SELLERS: Oh, I'm just, first and foremost, trying to be calm on my horse
because they're so fractious in the gate. All they know is run and they're
waiting for that gate and anticipating that gate to open. So some of them get
high strung, so, you know, there's a calmness you have to have in you and the
calmer you are on your horse, the calmer he's going to be. But at the same
time, your mind is running different ways. You know, what's going to happen;
what I'm going to do here. I'm playing that race out in my head, you know.
I'm wanting to do this; I'm wanting to do that. And you're still playing that
race out in your head. That way when the scenario does happen, you know
exactly what to do and you don't have to think about it because you don't have
time to think about it. And that's, I think, what makes some riders better
than others. They don't think. They just react upon their instincts.
DAVIES: You mentioned the horses are jittery because they want to run. How
do you communicate that to them, that they need to calm down? Is it by
patting them? Is it talking to them?
Mr. SELLERS: Different ways, just a calmness. You know, you're tense on a
horse, then they'll tense up. And, you know, we--horses have a mane and you
have to hold on to that mane when they break. Well, I never grab the mane
until right before, because when you grab that mane, they know that you're
fixin' to kick them. And, you know, that's one thing I don't do. I
don't--and I see some riders grabbing mane right when they go in there and you
can see that horse is just starting to get jittery with them, and I don't. I
don't touch that mane until right before the last horse has gone in. I kind
of grab it really soft and then--and try to lead there. So, you know, it's
just being calm. Just a calmness. Horses know. They're not stupid animals.
And you get on and you have a calmness about you, you can just feel them. You
can just feel them relax. It's like they take a deep breath and (exhales),
you know, everything's all right, you know.
DAVIES: What weight did you ride at or do you ride at? Yeah.
Mr. SELLERS: I used to ride at 113 until I got hurt and when I came back
after my injury, we were all fighting to change the weights and I honestly
couldn't do 13 anymore. I mean, I had never been off riding more than two or
three weeks, you know, on a vacation. And I was off two years, so my body
blew up to probably what my normal body weight was, 135 stripped. That's, you
know, naked. And so to get back to riding to do 13, I had to get down to 110
pounds and I just couldn't lose it. And then at the same time, I wanted to
practice what I preach. If I was going to fight for the weight being--what we
was fighting for was trying to make it 116 minimum, and I said, `Well, that's
what I'm going to do. I'm going to weigh 116.'
And so what I ride at now is 117. It's comfortable for me. I still have to
get in the box and pull a couple pounds. But I don't have to heave; I don't
have to take Lasix anymore. And I'm much stronger when I go into the box
and I'm much stronger when I ride and it hasn't hurt my business one bit at
DAVIES: Now you used a couple of terms there, `the box,' `Lasix.' Let's back
up a little and when you were trying to ride at 113, you know, if I'm doing
the math right, that's 22 pounds below what might have been your normal body
weight. What did you do to keep your weight down?
Mr. SELLERS: Oh, there was many methods. What I did early in my career was
I was taught to heave, which is regurgitate your food, and--which is
unfortunate. I was a young kid and I didn't know how to--I mean, when I first
started, I weighed 116 and I needed--as an apprentice, you get in lighter than
a journeyman, so I had to weigh 107, 108 with my pack. So that meant I had to
be 104. And I said, `Well, what am I going to do here?' And the older riders
just--they taught me how to heave.
DAVIES: What is the box?
Mr. SELLERS: The box is a hot box, a sweat box, a sauna. You know, some
people might go in for five or 10 minutes to loosen up. We get in them for
hours, you know, a day to lose three, four, five pounds. Now you go sitting
there and you--I've never seen you, but I'm sure if, you know, you go in there
and try to pull a pound and you see how it feels. And you're talking
about--we get in there and we're already starving to death, you know, when we
go in there. We're already underweight and then we go in there and stay in
there and pull two and three pounds. It's tough. It's tough.
And we do it because we love the sport. And if we didn't do it, there
wouldn't be no horse racing. You know, bottom line, if you took the hot boxes
out of the jocks room and everything else and you said, you know, that riders
are not going to heave, they're not going to take Lasix, you'd have a handful
of riders who could ride. You'd have maybe a handful.
DAVIES: You take Lasix. What is that? What does it do to you?
Mr. SELLERS: I don't take Lasix anymore. I did. Lasix is, I guess, what
they give to heart patients to take fluid off. And if you take a Lasix, I
mean, you urinate very, very much.
DAVIES: So it's...
Mr. SELLERS: I mean, you could lose two, three pounds taking one Lasix.
DAVIES: So when you were...
Mr. SELLERS: But it's not good for your body at all. I mean, it's horrible.
DAVIES: So when you were doing this before, and you'd ride several races in a
day, would you heave every day? Would you heave several times a day?
Mr. SELLERS: Sure. Early in my career, I would heave, I would hit the box,
sometimes I would do all three...
Mr. SELLERS: ...and go out and ride seven, eight, nine races a day.
DAVIES: What are the long-term effects of that kind of behavior?
Mr. SELLERS: I really don't know. Well, I'll tell you the longer-term
effects is what's happening to Randy Romero right now.
DAVIES: He is one of racing's best-known and most-successful jockeys.
Mr. SELLERS: Right.
DAVIES: And he's quite ill, right?
Mr. SELLERS: Very ill, yeah.
DAVIES: There's a scene in the HBO film where you walk through a training
room; I believe you called it jail. It evokes a kind of a queasy feeling for
you to go in there, right?
Mr. SELLERS: Yes, that's the hot box. That's the hot box. That's the...
DAVIES: And there's a special tub for--special kind of commode, I guess, for
heaving--Right?--that tracks have installed. Right?
Mr. SELLERS: Right. Well, some tracks have, yes. Most tracks have. I mean,
Churchill Downs have a heaving bowl; Arlington Park has one. So I mean,
racetracks know that--they're not naive about what you're doing. You know,
they put the facilities there for you to do what you have to do to take your
DAVIES: My guest is thoroughbred jockey Shane Sellers. We'll talk some more
after a short break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: My guest is one of thoroughbred racing's top riders, Shane Sellers.
He's one of three featured on the new documentary film, "Jockey," which
premieres next week on HBO.
Shane Sellers, tell us what the rules are about a jockey's weight and who sets
Mr. SELLERS: Well, every state sets them. The Horse Racing Board in every
state sets it and, you know, it's according to what they want. Now in the
last year or two, there have been places that made the bottom 16. I know at
Keeneland, they make the bottom--you don't see many horses get in with
anything lighter than 116. Arlington Park, New Orleans--fairgrounds in New
Orleans, but there are some racetracks that don't want any.
And the CHRB, which is the California Horse Racing Board, they're going to
make changes and they're going to make significant changes to the weights
because of the studies that are there. Now it's going to be fascinating or
interesting to see how many racetracks other than them are going to do it.
DAVIES: Let me ask you, you've said that you need to get the minimum weights
changed. Why is that?
Mr. SELLERS: Because there--I really don't care what they do with the top
weight. I just want the minimum changed, because I don't want to have to
do--you know, if the bottom's 13, well, then if I've got a guy that's willing
to go and kill himself to do 13 and I do 17 and we're fighting for the same
horse, well, that owner says--if he's ...(unintelligible) with 13, he'll say,
`Well, I'll ride with Joe Schmo because he can do 13. I'm not going to ride
Sellers because he's 17 and I'm going to have to carry three pounds over.'
Some guys are willing to risk their health to make 13.
I wanted to--we wanted--all riders wanted to bring the minimum up so we don't
have to have that--you know, that fight amongst each others. If the bottom's
16, it's 16. You can't do no lighter, you know. That way, it puts us all in
the same boat. And you know what? Racing--it'd be much better for racing if
we have stronger hor--trainers would have stronger riders and it'd be much
more better for horse racing, in general.
DAVIES: I got to tell you, 116 sounds awfully light, still, to me. Is that
where it should be?
Mr. SELLERS: It is. I would--you can't make it too heavy. I mean, you can't
go out there and have linebackers up on your horse. I'm not that naive, and
we're not that naive. But the scale of weight has been for 100 years.
DAVIES: So the only way to have a fair competition is to say, `You can't ride
unless you're up to a certain weight,' because if you're allowed to come in at
a lower rate, then the owners will pick the lighter-weight guys forcing people
like you to abuse your bodies.
Mr. SELLERS: Exactly. Most of us ride at 2 to 3 percent body fat, and
anything below 5 percent is detrimental to your health. What we're trying to
do, and what we will do eventually, is grandfather the guys that are in
already that have been riding, but you know--like, in 2005, we're going to try
to make it to where any jockey that gets a license cannot ride under 5 percent
body fat, 'cause it's detrimental to your health. And that's what we're going
to fight for. Not Shane Sellers, not Randy Romero, but every rider in America
as a jockeys organization, as our Jockeys' Guild, our organization, is going
to fight for that, that a rider--he cannot ride if he's under 5 percent body
weight. And that's for the young riders coming in to protect them from doing
any more harm to their bodies.
DAVIES: Shane Sellers, tell us about the injury that took you out of racing.
Mr. SELLERS: Oh, the injury happened at the fairgrounds in Louisiana. And I
was aboard a two-year-old for Claiborne Farms and trained by Frankie Brothers,
who was my main client. And he spooked from another horse. He had never run
before. He was, you know, a very young horse and he spooked from a horse and
unseated me, which I landed on my feet. But in fear that he would hurt
himself or hurt somebody else, you know, 'cause he--you know, they'll get to
running around and just don't have nowhere to go. And I grabbed him on the
off side and by the rein and I held on to him and he drug me for a piece. And
I probably should have never have grabbed him. I should have just let the
outrider grab him. But you know, again we love these animals, we love the
game of horse racing and I didn't want to see anybody get hurt. And I grabbed
him and I held on him. I used bad judgment and I held on him way too long,
and I fell underneath him and he stepped on my left knee and just ruined my
DAVIES: What did it feel like?
Mr. SELLERS: It was a horrible feeling. I remember him stepping on the left
side of my knee and just like a cracked block, it just ripped everything in my
knee. And it was the most horrific pain I've ever had in my life, and when it
happened, I--you know, when you're walking around, you bump your arm on
something or, you know--the first thing you want to do is rub it off and make
sure everything's OK. And when I felt it, I got to my feet and I just
thought, `Let me get to my feet and see if I can walk.' And when I took a
step on my leg, my kneecap went the other way and I just fell down. And then
I just cried from the pain and I cried because I just--I knew at that moment
my career was over.
DAVIES: What was it like to be out of racing? I mean, you were--you had to
get operations, I assume, and a lot of rehabilitation and for that time you
had to be away from the track, or at least know you're not going to ride
again. What was that like?
Mr. SELLERS: It was horrible. I went through depression. I went through--my
family suffered, you know, because I was home all the time. You know, I just
got to where I couldn't get out of the house. I didn't want to get out of the
house. I never knew nothing else but riding horses, and the thought of me
having to do something else, I didn't know what to do. And it was a pretty
scary, scary moment in my life, probably the scariest moment in my life.
DAVIES: Were you financially in--were you financially strapped?
Mr. SELLERS: No. No, I had a great career and I saved my money. I mean, it
wasn't--and thank God that I had a disability policy, which most riders can't
afford. But I've had some good people, thank God, point me in the right
direction financially and forced me to get a disability policy and I had one.
So I had an income every month.
But that's another thing that riders can't--you know, 80 percent of riders
cannot afford a disability policy. And if you don't have one, when you fall,
you have no income coming in. But I was fortunate enough to have a disability
DAVIES: One of the characters in the HBO documentary is a youngster named
Chris Rosier, who wants to become a jockey. And, you know, you and some
others kind of give him some advice. I'm wondering if your kids wanted to
pursue a career as a jockey, would you let them?
Mr. SELLERS: Never. Never. And I've purposefully kept my kids away from
horse racing; not because I don't like the game, but in fear that they would
want to ride. And I don't want to see them go through what I go through every
day. I'll do it. I'll do it because it's what I've done. But there's just
too many things. I mean, a month ago one of my friends got killed riding, you
know. Fell in an accident and he got killed. You know, it's a very, very
DAVIES: Have they shown any interest, your kids? I mean, they must be
Mr. SELLERS: No.
DAVIES: ...at what their dad does, no?
Mr. SELLERS: They are. But they don't have any interest at all. They like
horses, but I keep them away from it. I let them come for the big days, but I
always tell them, `Just enjoy watching Daddy. And you're going to do
something else. You're going to play baseball or you're going to play
fo--you're going to do whatever. You're going to be a kid. You're not going
to be anything remotely close to a jockey.'
DAVIES: Well, Shane Sellers, thanks so much for speaking to us.
Mr. SELLERS: All right. Thanks a lot.
DAVIES: Thoroughbred jockey Shane Sellers will be riding Cliffs Edge, one of
the favorites at this year's Kentucky Derby. Sellers is one of three riders
profiled in the documentary "Jockey," which opens tonight at the Philadelphia
Film Festival and appears Monday on HBO.
I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of song)
Unidentified Man: (Singing) I disappeared one morning, left without a
warning. Some thought I was finally gone for good. Those doubters just got
rattled, 'cause I'm back...
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: Coming up, stories of ordinary Chinese citizens fighting the
Communist government. We'll talk with Ian Johnson, author of "Wild Grass:
Three Stories of Change in Modern China."
And John Powers reviews two recently released DVDs: Sofia Coppola's "Lost in
Translation," and Quentin Tarantino's "Kill Bill: Volume 1."
(Soundbite of music)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Ian Johnson discusses his book, "Wild Grass: Three
Stories of Change in Modern China"
DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, sitting in for Terry Gross.
It's been 15 years since Americans watched in horror as Chinese troops crushed
student protests in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, killing hundreds. My guest,
journalist Ian Johnson, writes the Chinese authoritarian, one-party state is
again beset with protests, the product of economic reforms that have given
Chinese families more income, more education and new aspirations.
As Beijing's correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, Ian Johnson won a
Pulitzer Prize in 2001 for his reporting on the government's repression of the
Falun Gong spiritual movement. He's now The Journal's Berlin bureau chief.
Johnson's new book, "Wild Grass," tells three stories of Chinese citizens
who've taken on the government over excessive taxation, corruption and denial
of religious freedom. We began with a reading.
Mr. IAN JOHNSON (Author, "Wild Grass"): (Reading) `China's rulers have
developed a bad case of the nerves. Unemployment is high, corruption
permeates daily life, and relations with the outside world result in recurring
crises. Often these tensions erupt in small protests, sometimes against the
government; oftentimes against outsiders. They usually end after a few days,
often crushed, sometimes petering out when a few ringleaders are arrested and
the protesters' demands partly met. But they are never resolved, surfacing
like a corpse that won't stay under.
When the anniversaries of these protests come around a year later,
commemorations are held and petitions delivered. Some of these grudge dates
are intensely local: a family's memory of its house torn down to make way for
a corrupt real estate project or a village that commemorates a local leader
arrested for standing up to abuse. Other commemorations are shared by
millions: the killing of students or the banning of a popular religion. The
government, ever watchful for challenges to its rule, tries to keep track of
all of them. Protests, arrests, detentions--each year the victims try to
commemorate these disasters, and each year the government tightens up around
these days. Slowly the country's mental calendar has become a series of
overlapping scabs and sores.'
DAVIES: Ian Johnson, welcome to FRESH AIR.
Mr. JOHNSON: Thanks.
DAVIES: The three cases that you detail in your book "Wild Grass" all
involve--there are different kinds of content. We have peasants who are angry
about unfair taxation in one story. In another we have people who are
protesting the way development's happening in Beijing, where they're being
thrown out of their homes and not getting compensation. And then you have the
repression of the kind of religious and spiritual group the Falun Gong. But
in each of these cases we have citizens who go to court to seek redress of
their grievances. I mean, they're allowed to file petitions and seek some due
process. And I think a lot of Americans, who know relatively little about
China, would be surprised to hear that there are courts they can go to.
What's the state of due process there for citizens?
Mr. JOHNSON: Well, that's one of the contradictory and really fascinating
developments in China, that there is a legal system that's being developed.
China has passed scores and scores of laws: marriage law, contract law, all
kinds of laws. And it's set up a sort of rough-and-ready legal system. And
in some cases people can challenge the government. I mean, you don't sue the
government for fundamental human rights or constitutional rights, but you can
challenge the government on some basic problems: that maybe the government
has made a bad decision in assessing your taxes or hasn't fairly compensated
you for tearing down your house, something like that. In those cases, you can
challenge the government in court.
DAVIES: Well, one of the successful challenges occurred in the mid-'90s.
There were these peasants--and I may get the name wrong--Pei Juwon(ph). Do I
have the name right?
Mr. JOHNSON: Yeah, that's about right.
DAVIES: They felt that they were being overtaxed by corrupt local officials.
They hired a lawyer, drafted a petition and won.
Mr. JOHNSON: Yeah. It was a really interesting case. There had been a
drought that had wiped out the crops in this region of China, this western,
remote, hilly region. And the local officials had simply demanded the normal
taxes. The locals said, `We don't have any money to pay the taxes.' And the
officials had simply gone into their homes and taken away their private
belongings, things like televisions or whatever they owned, and said, `OK
we're taking this in lieu of taxes.' And the peasants got angry, pooled some
money and hired a lawyer and were able to sue the government and win.
However, when another group of peasants tried to do the same thing the next
valley over, they lost.
DAVIES: Now was the case that they had as strong as the successful complaint
by the peasants in Pei Juwon?
Mr. JOHNSON: Yeah. It was basically an identical case. What had happened
was the party had a campaign going at that time to tell local officials that
they shouldn't abuse their power with the peasants and they shouldn't overtax
the peasants. And so the first case won. And then, all of the sudden, all
these other groups of peasants said, `Well, we want to sue, too. We were also
overtaxed.' And the government went, `Holy smokes, we have potentially
millions of peasants suing us.' So they just cut it off and said, `OK, one
group can win. We can use that for a little propaganda campaign. But we're
not fundamentally going to allow a precedent to be set here.' And so they
DAVIES: When the peasants formed a group to press their case for relief from
these burdensome taxes, it's interesting, they gave it a name. They called it
The County Farmers Anti-Corruption and Reducing Tax Burden Volunteer Liaison
Small Group(ph). Now that's a quaint-sounding name, but I gather that that
set of words was intended to convey particular messages. What did the name
Mr. JOHNSON: Well, the name was, first of all, a couple of slogans. They
were reducing the peasants' burden, reducing the tax rate, which was an
official government policy. And, also, by using the words `small group,' it
makes it seem like sort of an unofficial--not some sort of an organization
because all organizations have to be registered with the party. So they
called it a small group to make it seem like some sort of informal meeting of
people and make it seem less threatening to the government.
DAVIES: Now when Mr. Ma, the attorney for the peasants, made his way to
Beijing, he wasn't just greeted with argument, right?
Mr. JOHNSON: No. He was beaten and sent to prison and sent back to this
region where he came from, where he was then put on trial.
DAVIES: When you interviewed his wife, she had a knapsack with a
towel--Right?--and some documents.
Mr. JOHNSON: Yeah. She had his bag, his sort of briefcase, and it was filled
with--you know, it had the article in the Legal Daily, which he carried around
very proudly to show that he wasn't doing anything wrong. And it had a couple
of books on rule of law in China, on the legal system. But it also had this
bloody towel that he'd used to staunch the bleeding in his mouth.
DAVIES: When the criminal trial for Mr. Ma occurred, there were some pretty
outrageous abuses of due process. I mean, witnesses were intimidated. There
was denial of access to records. I mean, it really looked like a sham. And I
found myself wondering why would the government hold a trial at all. I mean,
isn't it more damaging to their credibility to kind of offer a forum that
appears to grant some kind of fairness but then make it a sham? Why not
simply rule by fiat? Why not simply throw people in jail without trials?
Mr. JOHNSON: Yeah. That's one of the paradoxical developments in China. The
government is trying to set up this legal system, and so they feel they have
to use it. So they had a trial for him. And, as you say, it was largely a
sham, but it gave Mr. Ma a chance to write down a fairly impassioned defense,
one that was later photocopied and passed around among lawyers in that part of
the country. And, you know, I guess the government--the basic problem is the
government uses the legal system to rule the country. It's sort of the
concept of rule of law, and that's where the law is supreme; everybody has to
follow the law. Here, the government is following rule by law, where it uses
the legal system to rule a country. And I think here you see this is quite an
DAVIES: Tens of thousands of peasants signed this petition, and I'm sure
dozens were actively involved, maybe hundreds, maybe thousands. And they saw
their economic grievances ignored and their leaders jailed. What do you think
the long-term effect was on them and their sort of political consciousness?
Mr. JOHNSON: Well, when I talked to peasants there, to use the cliche, they
felt empowered. They felt that they had really stood up to the government.
And even if they lost the case, they still felt--and I think it's probably
true--that local officials wouldn't treat them again in such a cavalier
fashion; that they would think twice before breaking down their doors and
taking away their possessions because they had created such a ruckus. OK,
they lost, but you can argue that change happens often, but the people at the
cutting edge of change aren't always successful. But in the long run they do
push the envelope of change.
DAVIES: My guest is journalist Ian Johnson. His book is "Wild Grass: Three
Stories of Change in Modern China." We'll be back after a short break. This
is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: My guest is journalist Ian Johnson. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 2001
for his reporting on China. His new book, "Wild Grass," tells three stories
of citizen activism in modern China.
Well, Ian Johnson, a very compelling story in your book involves the Chinese
repression of the spiritual group Falun Gong. Remind us of what this group is
and why they appeared to be a threat to the Chinese government.
Mr. JOHNSON: Well, Falun Gong sprung up in the early 1990s, a period when the
Chinese people were looking for some sort of meaning when the collapse of
communism left a spiritual void. It's a quasi-religious system. Some people
may debate whether it's a religion or not. I would see it as a kind of
religious system focused around one man and his book that tells people how to
live a good life and also exercises that help improve one's health. And
throughout the 1990s it just grew and grew, and you couldn't go to a park in
Beijing or any other city in the early morning without seeing Falun Gong
people practicing. But then they decided to protest in front of the
government offices in early 1999 because they felt that there had been a
sleight against them in one of the local newspapers, and they wanted the
government to quit harassing them. So they protested, and the government
DAVIES: Your story begins with a woman from the city of Weihai--and I guess
sort of a midsized Chinese city--who attempted the simple act of traveling to
Beijing to engage in one of these protests, a small one. Tell us just, if you
can, that scene where she goes to the capital, a strange place for her, and
how does she encounter authority? She's going to go to a park and look for
some other followers.
Mr. JOHNSON: Yeah. People, as I said, had been practicing Falun Gong in
parks, and she thought, `Well, maybe if I go to a park early in the morning, I
can find some other practitioners and ask them where we can go and protest.'
She was quite a naive person, quite a simple person. She'd been in a factory
her whole life. She had had very little formal education and was, you know,
basically barely literate. So she goes to this park, and she's looking around
to see, `Do I see any people practicing Falun Gong?' And she's completely out
of place here. She's dressed in a simple sort of peasant outfit. And these
police officers come up to her and ask her, `Are you an adherent to Falun
Gong?' And one of the things that Falun Gong teaches is that you're not
supposed to lie, and she said, `Yes, I am.'
DAVIES: And that was enough. She was in jail.
Mr. JOHNSON: That was it. She was detained, yeah.
DAVIES: Eventually, after returning to Beijing a couple of times and is
persistent, she ends up in more serious trouble and in this local re-education
center. And you learned some rather chilling details about circumstances
there. Give us some of that.
Mr. JOHNSON: Right. She was held in one of these centers, re-education.
They were called transformation centers where they tried to transform you to
get you to change your mind, to renounce your belief. And she refused to.
They asked her again and again. They held her there. They called her
daughter and said, `Look, you need to come down and get your mother to change
her mind. You need to pay a big fine.' And the daughter was, at that point,
frankly, a little ticked off at her mother, and she couldn't understand, `What
is up with Mom? Why won't my mother just recant? I mean, what's the big
deal? Why does she insist on believing in this thing?' And she didn't go
down, and so her mother was held another night. They tried to get her again
to recant. She wouldn't, and they began to beat her. And I was able to talk
to witnesses in the cell and people who had smuggled letters out of prison who
describe how she was beaten and ultimately beaten to death.
DAVIES: Now the repression of the Falun Gong was a national issue for the
Chinese government. I mean, it got a lot of attention in the Western media.
You wrote about it for The Wall Street Journal. Was the brutality and the
killing of Mrs. Chen an aberration? Was it an isolated occurrence?
Mr. JOHNSON: Well, not really. By conservative estimates, thousands of
people were detained for their belief in Falun Gong, and dozens of people were
killed. Falun Gong claims that hundreds of people were killed. That's hard
to document. But human rights organizations and conservative estimates would
show that certainly dozens of people died in police custody.
DAVIES: Now why was the repression of Falun Gong so brutal in this city of
Weihai where this woman you profile--because it seemed that there was a
disproportionate number of deaths there. Why was that?
Mr. JOHNSON: Well, the government used a system that it used actually for
economic reforms. It sort of holds the lower-level person responsible for
fulfilling goals. And it's like that with, say, if you want to reform the
economy, you say, `Well, you have to privatize so many companies.' The
lower-level official actually signs a contract with you and says, `OK, I
promise to fulfill X-Y-Z goals,' and they do it. With Falun Gong, the
government called all the provincial leaders to Beijing and said, `You have to
stop people from coming to Beijing. We don't care what you do. "No measure
is excessive,"' to quote the order that they gave, `but you just stop people
from coming to Beijing and protesting.' And so the provincial officials then
went down to the county, went down to the city and on and on and just sort of
said, `You have to stop people from coming from your county, from your city,
from your village.' And so the local officials just had a very strong
interest in preventing anybody from doing anything like that.
Now in this particular city, it's not too far from Beijing, so it was possible
for people to take a bus. Some people even rode their bicycles to Beijing.
And some people even walked. And so they had a large number of people who
were going to Beijing, and then they just implemented very harsh tactics
against them. Basically they just beat the faith out of people. If they
didn't repent, if they didn't give up Falun Gong, they were beaten, and
several people died.
DAVIES: You actually spoke to some local officials who thought that the
repression was a terrible mistake, right?
Mr. JOHNSON: Yeah. Many people, many local officials, felt really bad about
what had been happening. They knew a lot of the people who were involved, and
they thought that this is not the smartest way to handle things; that, you
know, these people were, at worst, sort of maybe religiously obsessed or
whatever, but they weren't criminals. They didn't need to be thrown in jail
DAVIES: And they thought it detracted from other valuable tasks that they
needed to be performing, right? Like patrol...
Mr. JOHNSON: Well, China has so many things that it needs to do. I mean, it
still has so many people living in poverty. It's trying to modernize its
economy, etc, etc. There's a lot of worthwhile things that the government
could be doing with its time rather than cracking down on a religious group.
DAVIES: The Internet's had an enormous democratizing influence, some would
argue, throughout the world. I'm wondering, do Chinese have the same access
to the kind of range of opinions and material on the Internet? And what's the
Mr. JOHNSON: Well, I think the first thing one has to remember is that China
is still largely a rural country and still very much a poor country, and the
Internet use is not that wide, not as wide as in some countries, like in the
West. But in the cities it has had an impact, but the material is controlled.
Sites are blocked. Anything with sensitive material on human rights or Taiwan
or Tibet or any issues like that, they're all blocked. And chat rooms and
things like that are often monitored, so that there's like often a 15- or
30-second delay in a chat room. And if there's anything really bad or
something that somebody's written, the government can just snip that out.
DAVIES: When you communicated with the Falun Gong people, you ended up having
to send encrypted e-mail.
Mr. JOHNSON: Yeah. You can do that, or you can download encryption software
off the Internet, freeware, and that's an effective way. But you still have
to be careful because you can still tell where the e-mail was sent from, which
computer. So it's still--if the government wants to keep a lid on something,
they can still do it, despite the Internet.
DAVIES: Well, Ian Johnson, thanks so much for speaking with us.
Mr. JOHNSON: Thanks a lot.
DAVIES: Ian Johnson is the author of "Wild Grass: Three Stories of Change in
Coming up, critic John Powers on two recently released DVDs. This is FRESH
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: New DVDs "Kill Bill: Vol. 1" and "Lost in Translation"
DAVE DAVIES, host:
Two recent popular films are now out on DVD: "Kill Bill: Vol. 1," which sold
two million combined DVDs and videos on its first day of release, and "Lost in
Translation." Critic at large John Powers says these strikingly different
movies have a lot in common.
JOHN POWERS reporting:
When I was a teen-ager in Omaha, it drove me crazy that there were movies I
could never see. I'd read that "Bonnie and Clyde" had been influenced by the
French New Wave, but films by Truffaut or Godard didn't play in Nebraska, so I
couldn't see how until I went off to college. Things are totally different in
the DVD era. Now everything is becoming available to everyone. If you can't
rent "Jules and Jim" at your local video store, you can do so by mail or even
buy it for the cost of two tickets to "Scooby-Doo 2." And that's not the only
These days the biggest jolts of cultural energy no longer come from across the
Atlantic. Where the '60s were driven by the British invasion of music and by
European art films, American culture today is increasingly excited by Asian
pop, from video games and Hello Kitty, who surpassed Mickey Mouse as the
modern icon of cuteness, to the hyperkinetic brio of Hong Kong movies. This
influence was striking in two of last year's best American pictures, both of
them new to DVD.
Now you hardly have to be a genius to find the Asian theme in "Lost in
Translation." Sofia Coppola's delicate comedy about the brief-chased fling
between Scarlett Johansson's confused young woman and a world-weary movie star
played by Bill Murray. After all, the story is set in Tokyo. But what you
may not know is that Coppola's movie is filled with the artistic DNA of the
Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai, who is for today's young American filmmakers
what Fellini or Bergman was to an earlier generation.
In fact, if you liked "Lost in Translation" in the theater or on the DVD, you
should probably check out the DVDs of Wong's two most popular movies:
"Chungking Express" and "In the Mood for Love." Not only are they uncommonly
enjoyable, but they're revealing. You'll discover the origin of Coppola's way
of shooting Tokyo. And, more surprisingly, you'll see the scene that
obviously cued "Lost in Translation"'s famous final bit when Bill Murray
whispers something mysterious into Johanssen's ear.
To Coppola's credit, she hasn't tried to hide Wong's influence. She even
named him in her Oscar speech. And her borrowings are far more an act of
homage than theft. It's a question of legacy. In fact, she approaches Wong
Kar-wai with the same affection as she approaches her star Bill Murray, who
incidentally has some delicious behind-the-scenes moments on the DVD.
"Lost in Translation" is also about Murray's legacy. You can feel the decades
winding backwards in the triumphant scene when Murray sings karaoke to
Johanssen, putting a romantic spin on his sleazy lounge-singer bit from
"Saturday Night Live."
(Soundbite from "Lost in Translation")
Mr. BILL MURRAY (Actor): (Singing) I could feel at the time there was no way
of knowing. Falling leaves in the night. Who can say where they're
blowing as free as the wind, hopefully learning why the sea on the tide has no
way of turning. More than this. You know there's nothing more than this.
POWERS: If "Lost in Translation" is tinged with urban melancholy, you get the
opposite end of the emotional spectrum in "Kill Bill: Vol. 1." It's a
revenge story about the bride, played by Uma Thurman, who sets about exacting
mortal justice from those who had left her for dead after slaughtering her
wedding party. Her search for vengeance takes her to Japan, where she gets
involved with Japanese gangsters, or Yakuza.
Although this dazzling action picture was the bloodiest movie of 2003, it was
also the most obsessed with cinematic legacy in combining samurai pictures,
gangster movies and Hong Kong chop-saki, not to mention old Hollywood
Westerns. Quentin Tarantino was trying to create the ultimate action film,
the "Gone with the Wind" of Asian exploitation pictures. And to do it, he
borrowed freely from earlier movies, movies like "The Street Fighter,"
starring the great Japanese action star Sonny Chiba, who has a role in "Kill
Bill"; like Seijun Suzuki's delirious gangster movie "Tokyo Drifter," which
Tarantino copies in "Kill Bill's" nightclub climax; and like "Battle Royale,"
which created the psycho schoolgirl Gogo Yubari, who becomes one of the
bride's deadliest foes. All of these movies are on DVD.
It's always been one enjoyable feature of Asian pop culture that it has a
shameless magpie spirit. You steal a little bit here, a little bit there and
you weave it into something new. That's one reason why today's Asian movies
have a passionate verve and a sense of fun, largely missing from so much of
today's Hollywood product, which seems to come from a corporate cookie cutter.
And that's why young American directors are so turned on by them.
The same exuberant spirit animates "Kill Bill: Vol. 1." And like Sofia
Coppola, Quentin Tarantino makes no bones about where he got his ideas. He'll
cheerfully order you to watch the movies he strip-mined for his film. He
doesn't say, `I'm making everything up new.' He says, `I'm taking something
old and doing something brand new with it.' Isn't that really cool?
DAVIES: John Powers is deputy editor and media columnist for LA Weekly.
DAVIES: For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.