It’s 1983. Scott Savitt, one of the first American exchange students in Beijing, picks up his guitar and begins strumming “Blackbird.” He’s soon surrounded by Chinese students who know every word to every Beatles song he plays. Savitt stays on in Beijing, working as a reporter for Asiaweek Magazine. The city’s first nightclubs open; rock ‘n’ roll promises democracy. Promoted to foreign correspondent for The Los Angeles Times and then United Press International, Savitt finds himself drawn into China’s political heart. His girlfriend is the assistant to Bette Bao Lord, the wife of the U.S. ambassador. He interviews people who will become leaders of the democracy movement.
Later, at 25 years old, Savitt is the youngest accredited foreign correspondent in China, with an intimate knowledge of Beijing’s backstreets. But as the seven-week occupation of Tiananmen Square ends in bloodshed on June 4, 1989, his greatest asset is his flame-red 500cc Honda motorcycle—giving Savitt the freedom to witness first-hand what the Chinese government still denies ever took place. After Tiananmen, Savitt founds the first independent English-language newspaper in China, Beijing Scene. He knows that it’s only a matter of time before the authorities move in, and sure enough, in 2000 he’s arrested, flung into solitary confinement and, after a month in jail, deported.
Savitt’s extraordinary memoir of his two decades in China manages to take an extremely complex political-historical subject and turn it into an adventure story. —Soft Skull