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Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas accepted gifts worth millions of dollars over 20 years, analysis finds

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Associate Justice Clarence Thomas poses during a group photo of the Justices at the Supreme Court in Washington, April 23, 2021.

Erin Schaff | Pool | Reuters

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas accepted millions of dollars’ worth of gifts over the past two decades on the bench, a total nearly 10 times the value of all gifts received by his fellow justices during the same time, according to a new analysis. 

Thomas received 103 gifts with a total value of more than $2.4 million between 2004 and 2023, the judicial reform group Fix the Court said in a report Thursday.

In contrast, Thomas’ fellow justices over the same period accepted a total of just 93 gifts worth a combined value of only about $248,000, according to the nonprofit group.

Thomas’ fellow conservative justice Samuel Alito accounted for the lion’s share of that value. Fix the Court’s analysis found that Alito accepted 16 gifts worth a combined $170,095.

Fix the Court identified another 101 “likely gifts” — with a total estimated value of almost $1.8 million —that Thomas received in the form of free trips and lodging from billionaire businessman Harlan Crow, and at the exclusive Bohemian Grove club.

Counting those gifts, Thomas’ total two-decade haul is valued at nearly $4.2 million.

Fix the Court’s analysis is largely based on investigative reporting by the media outlet ProPublica over the past year, which has been focused on Thomas and Alito and which has sparked calls for ethics reform at the Supreme Court.

The group also factored in data from the Congressional Record, the justices’ annual financial disclosures, other news sources, and its own law clerk-led research.

The value and number of gifts Thomas received also eclipsed those accepted by eight retired or dead Supreme Court justices whose tenures overlapped his service on the court, which began in 1991.

The late Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who served more than 34 years on the court, received 73 gifts until she retired in early 2006, putting her in second place behind Thomas in total number of gifts.

But the combined value of O’Connor’s gifts was less than $36,000.

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and Justice Samuel Alito attend a private ceremony for retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor before public repose in the Great Hall at the Supreme Court on December 18, 2023 in Washington, DC. 

Jacquelyn Martin | Getty Images

Antonin Scalia, a conservative justice who died in 2016 while on the court, accepted 67 gifts worth about $210,000 during his tenure, which began in 1986.

The late Chief Justice William Rehnquist, whose career on the court spanned 33 years until 2005, accepted just six gifts, with a total value of less than $13,000.

“Supreme Court justices should not be accepting gifts, let alone the hundreds of freebies worth millions of dollars they’ve received over the years,” Fix the Court’s executive director, Gabe Roth, said in a statement.

“The ethics crisis at the Court won’t begin to abate until justices adopt stricter gift acceptance rules,” Roth said.

Fix the Court noted that the total figures it calculated for gift values are likely lower than the actual values because the analysis erred on the low end of the cost of some gifts, such as free travel or tickets to sports events.

Its tally also makes some assumptions. The group assumed the cost per hour of a flight on a private plane is $10,000, for instance, and it counted each leg of a roundtrip flight as a separate gift.

The Supreme Court did not immediately respond to CNBC’s request for comment on Fix the Court’s findings.

ProPublica first revealed that Thomas had accepted years of luxury trips from Republican megadonor Crow without reporting them on his financial disclosures, which ethics experts said he was required to do.

Thomas said his judicial colleagues had told him that he did not have to disclose those travel expenses.

The analysis nevertheless provides fodder for the Supreme Court’s increasingly vocal critics who have called for reforms in the wake of a series of politically incendiary rulings and ongoing ethics scandals.

The court under Chief Justice John Roberts has made some concessions, including adopting a formal — though unenforceable — code of ethics in November.

The court in that document aimed to “dispel” the “misunderstanding” that the court’s nine justices “regard themselves as unrestricted by any ethics rules.”

The federal judiciary, meanwhile, implemented new rules this year requiring Supreme Court justices to disclose the value of travel-related gifts on their financial disclosure forms.

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acdha
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He’s not one to settle for second place
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Q&A: Xiao Qiang on the anniversary of Tiananmen Square and the right to information in China

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Thirty-five years ago this week, the Chinese Communist Party sent troops into Tiananmen Square, in central Beijing, to suppress a student protest. With global media present and filming, soldiers opened fire on a crowd of activists that had amassed in the same location where Mao Zedong founded the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Armored vehicles drove over barricades, crushing protesters; Jeff Widener, of the Associated Press, captured iconic footage of one man’s momentary stand against the might of the military. The protesters demanded political liberalization and freedom of information. The “June Fourth Incident,” sometimes called a massacre, became a symbol of authoritarian control trouncing public freedoms—broadcast live for the world to see. 

That spring, Xiao Qiang was a graduate student in the US, studying physics, but he flew home to China two days after the massacre; he felt compelled to go back as a personal statement of solidarity with the protesters. When he returned to the US two months later after what would be his last visit home, it was as a full-time activist. Throughout the nineties, he ran Human Rights China, an information network collecting and publishing details and stories about political prisoners; later, he joined the faculty at the University of California, Berkeley, where he initially taught in the school of journalism and is now a research scientist in the school of information. In addition to teaching, he is the founder and editor in chief of the China Digital Times, a bilingual news site that documents and curates information on Chinese social media, focuses on censorship and the resistance to it, and aggregates human rights reporting. Much of Xiao’s research is dedicated to circumventing the “Great Firewall”, a government-backed internet blockade that ensures, among other things, that what really happened at Tiananmen is scrubbed from people’s browsers. 

It is because of this work that Xiao joined Circle 19, a group of independent media experts dedicated to fostering freedom of information within China, in 2020. Supported by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), the group has collaborated over the past year on a “Statement of Principles for the Right to Information in China,” a succinct manifesto that was published yesterday to mark the anniversary of Tiananmen Square. The document states that the right to information is an integral part of Chinese history; that the one-party state exerts a malign influence on the free flow of information; and that the scarcity of reliable information poses a threat to China’s future. It also pledges Circle 19’s support to the people of China and urges the international community to support them, too. 

Xiao describes these points as “common sense,” and yet such ideas are forbidden within China. RSF ranked China 172nd out of 180 countries and territories worldwide in the latest edition of its World Press Freedom Index, in part because the CCP jails more journalists than any other government in the world. Chinese officials have also harassed students studying abroad and pushed to rewrite laws in Hong Kong enforcing repressive media controls. Jimmy Lai, a media mogul in Hong Kong, has been on trial since last December for publishing pro-democracy news. Just last week, officials in the territory arrested six people under recently reinforced national security laws. 

On Monday, ahead of the Circle 19 manifesto’s release, I spoke with Xiao about the launch, the threats of speaking openly against the Chinese regime, and the country’s desire, never fully realized, for freedom of information. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.


KL: Can you tell me how Circle 19 came to be and how the statement of principles was written? 

XQ: This idea of a campaign to promote the rights of information came into discussion among many Chinese colleagues in the diaspora and my staff before the pandemic. There were a number of issues considered, including responding to how the Chinese state uses “cultural relativism”—this idea that freedom of information is not the Chinese people’s inherent practice or desire. That’s certainly wrong; that desire is not obvious only because of repression. It’s important to remind the world that this effort still not only exists, but that the underground momentum is still going strong. Circle 19 is a strategic coordination for all these efforts—everybody’s approach is different—trying to express a common message. 

At the Circle 19 launch meeting, you referred to the principles in your remarks as “common sense.” Yet, in this context, these fairly straightforward suggestions come across as radical. How can this be? 

When I use the words “common sense,” or you say “straightforward,” it’s because they are really not new. They are not groundbreaking. This message as a Chinese political statement started almost a century and a half ago. Chinese intellectuals started looking at the encounter between traditional China—including the political regime, society, and culture—and the socially modern world, and wondering what China needs to do to change: What does Chinese society need? From that, freedom of information naturally comes. But if you look into the Chinese Communist Party in the forties, its ideological work battled against the KMT dictatorship [the governing party of China before the revolution]. At that time, the Chinese Communist Party was a kind of rebel and, to mobilize mass support, adopted language supporting democracy and freedom of expression. Freedom of media was written into its documents—articles handwritten by Mao himself. But after they took power? They become dictators, an autocracy. They became another dynasty. And they crushed the rise of freedom. So this desire in Chinese society is genuine. But the political power was always repressive and still is today. Chinese people deserve what we call “liberal values” but are essentially universal values. Circle 19 is just another effort in this continuous spectrum.

The first principle is that “the right to information is an integral part of Chinese legacy.” Why did you and the other authors feel it was necessary to place these rights in a historical context?

That is a response to the Chinese state: it’s forbidden; it’s a dangerous thing to say in China. The difference between today’s China’s ruling party and the dynasties is that they had some kind of coherent legitimacy narrative: Why is the next emperor an emperor? Because he’s a son of the first emperor. Today’s China—or any modern autocracy—cannot just say that. North Korea is inherited by blood, but they don’t say it; it has to call itself something of a democracy. China is the “People’s Republic of China” even if it’s not a people’s republic. They must construct a narrative to support legitimacy, but the narrative cannot really survive in an open information environment. These straightforward, nothing-new principles are a fundamental threat to this gigantic authoritarian regime. No matter how many missiles they have or how much GDP, they cannot afford to let the Great Firewall dysfunction. These principles are that dangerous. They have the potential to transform Chinese society.

Why is taking down the Great Firewall such a threat to the ruling party? 

For the past twenty years, [I have followed] what’s happening in Chinese social media. Is there a pattern of what’s being expressed? What’s being suppressed? They don’t delete everything, but they do certain things. What kind of things? It’s all about the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party. Why are you ruling China without an election? Who do you really represent? Who makes those decisions? Does that decision come from the people affected? Do people participate? In a modern society, you don’t need to argue about what a government is: government makes decisions based on taxpayers’ money. But China never structured it that way. Any challenge—Tiananmen is the most visible example—leads to a military crackdown. If you take down the Great Firewall, the first thing you’ll see is Tiananmen Square footage everywhere. The next thing you’ll see is the people’s disagreement with Xi Jinping staying in power as a permanent leader—there is plenty of criticism and opposition to it. It’s not just the Great Firewall; it’s the entire censorship and propaganda mechanism inside of China controlling the media, controlling social media, every institutional agency. But if the Great Firewall comes down, all this suppressed content could potentially be accessible to the Chinese public. I think the regime’s judgment is correct—the Great Firewall is an essential component of what it calls “regime security.” 

Not every member of Circle 19 has listed their name. What kind of risks are you taking by speaking so freely and critically and in support of freedom of information? 

Today’s China is dangerous. That’s why so many people do not use their real name as a spokesperson. The few of us who put our names have been in this field for a long time—but, of course, we’re living overseas. That does not mean the Chinese regime does not go beyond its borders, exerting its power and targeting individuals that it sees as a threat. We have [seen] many incidents: from oppressing your family all the way to harassment, to more severe threats to the individuals that raise their voices.

Have you ever experienced anything specific that you’d be willing to share?

Of course, I can’t go back to China. There’s a price for my family members, who are under close surveillance and the harassment of the Chinese security apparatus. I have been approached many times—explicitly or in a sort of hidden [way] on behalf of the Chinese government. The messages [reached] me, whether it’s the manipulating ones or the threatening ones. Or the real attacks, including cyberattacks. The more visible you are, the more you become a target. But in China, you can die in prison for something like this. Most of the time, you have to privately talk to people and they will agree, but it cannot be open. Therefore, someone has to do the job of bringing this message out into the open. 

What does Circle 19’s statement of principles most hope to achieve? 

The most important thing to achieve is to keep this message alive. That is its own achievement. Concretely, to get the people in China more access to information blocked by the Great Firewall. The individuals in China actually number in the millions who are using VPNs or proxies to keep that information flowing between the inside and outside of China; that resistance continues, and many of us are archiving articles [that are] being censored, identifying individual journalists who need to be supported, or writing articles about themes in Chinese society that cannot be openly discussed. 

The basic perspective is to look at this as a form of resistance. It’s the small effort aggregating to some sustainable movement. What you’re up against is the world’s second-largest GDP—a one-person dictatorship with every state capacity that you can have. It’s not measured by a symmetrical power measure; it’s measured as a symbolic voice. As long as it continues to exist [and be] visible, then this movement will never die. China’s desire for greater freedom of information has been expanding. The desire of Chinese people for fundamental human rights has never been truly crushed, but it’s never been fully realized.

How does Circle 19 plan to help facilitate access to information behind the Great Firewall? 

Mainly through each participant’s own work. They all have their own projects: some people are doing this documentation of censored materials; others are developing circumvention technologies; and some are commentators outside of China. There’s a network of efforts, and some cannot [talk about] theirs explicitly as they would be too easy to target. This is also a nature of political resistance—it’s not a matter of the specific achievement until you look back someday. 

Your colleague Chang Ping made an impassioned reference to presidents Kennedy and Reagan speaking out against authoritarian Communist regimes at the Berlin Wall, and hoping that similar statements might be made against Xi Jinping. Do you feel that such positions could be adopted by world leaders in today’s geopolitical space? 

Chang Ping is absolutely correct to make a comparison between the visible symbol of freedom and non-freedom which is the Berlin Wall, and today’s invisible, but no less substantial, information wall that is the Great Firewall. Without the physical Berlin Wall, the people of the Eastern Bloc would have just crossed the border; if [repressive institutions] cannot stop people from walking across the street, people will leave and people will choose freedom. It is the same on the internet and in people’s minds: people will leave, people will choose freedom, people will come to the conclusion that China deserves a different political system. Whether today’s political leaders in different states are willing to openly make that their central message to Chinese leaders—they are in a different context. But the Chinese Great Firewall is certainly today’s Berlin Wall in this new geopolitical era.

Do you have any parting thoughts you’d like to share with our readers?

Your readers must have great concern for the quality of democracy and the quality of journalism in American society. To look at what’s happening in China, at people being deprived of those rights, that should give the American people and your readers more reason to protect theirs. In American society, so many factors make up democratic governance, including the quality of journalism, the quality of information. That is a never-finished, ongoing effort. Americans cannot fail that challenge. 


Other notable stories:

  • President Biden—who has been criticized for his apparent reluctance to do formal interviews with major mainstream news outlets—sat down with Time magazine at the White House. (The same publication recently interviewed Donald Trump; both interviews were promoted on its front page under the same headline: “If He Wins.”) Among other newsy remarks, Biden took a few shots at the media, including over what he sees as insufficient coverage of Russia’s “freaking decimated” military. Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal published a major story, based on forty-five interviews, focused on Biden’s age and mental acuity. (The headline: “Behind Closed Doors, Biden Shows Signs of Slipping.”) Politico notes that the White House and other observers pushed back strongly on aspects of the story; the Journal said that it stands behind it.
  • The Earth Journalism Network is out with a new report, completed in collaboration with researchers at Deakin University in Australia, assessing the global state of climate and environmental journalism based on input from journalists in a hundred and eight countries. “Journalists reported that the volume of coverage of climate change and the environment is increasing in most places—though this is set against a backdrop of shrinking newsrooms, reductions to media freedom in some jurisdictions, and an expansion of misinformation and disinformation,” the report concludes. Among other findings, 70 percent of those surveyed said that they were most likely to approach their climate coverage through the lens of health. You can read the report here.
  • And Ben White—a veteran economics journalist for outlets including Politico, CNBC, the New York Times, and the Washington Posthas died following a short illness. He was fifty-two. Politico’s editor in chief, John Harris, credited White with “spreading wisdom into every corner of Washington and Wall Street.” Speaking on air last night, MSNBC’s Stephanie Ruhle paid an emotional tribute to White, who had been a regular guest on her show, calling him a “good man, a proud father, and an accomplished reporter.”

ICYMI: The Brits are coming. Again.

Kevin Lind is a CJR fellow.

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Censorship, Surveillance, and Detentions in Hong Kong Ahead of 35th Anniversary of Tiananmen Massacre

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For decades on June 4, Hongkongers rallied in their thousands at the city’s Victoria Park to commemorate the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre. Hong Kong was the only location in China where such large-scale public vigils could take place. But following the imposition of the 2020 National Security Law, authorities have prohibited the annual ritual and forced Hongkongers to find ever more subtle ways to highlight this sensitive date without incurring legal punishments. The lead-up to this year’s June 4 was no exception. 

Several pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong told the Associated Press that police inquired about their plans, and one was asked not to go to “sensitive places.” Last year on June 3rd, performance artist Sanmu Chan was detained by police in Causeway Bay while shouting “don’t forget June 4” and “Hongkongers don’t be afraid.” This year, as the Hong Kong Free Press reported, Chan was detained on the same day and in the same place while doing a piece of performance art:

Dozens of uniform and plainclothes police officers were stationed across the shopping district, concentrated around East Point Road, Hennessy Road and Lockhart Road. An armoured police vehicle was briefly seen parked outside SOGO mall.

HKFP reporters witnessed Chan write the Chinese characters for “8964” with his finger in the air, referencing the date of the 1989 crackdown.

He also mimed pouring wine onto the ground to mourn the dead, per a Chinese tradition, before police moved in.

Over 30 police officers took Chan away for questioning and created a cordon to separate the artist from the media. [Source]

Chan was later released from custody, but others were not so lucky. On Monday, police arrested a man for sedition in connection with Tiananmen Massacre anniversary posts. Describing police’s increased presence ahead of the June 4 anniversary, Jess Ma and William Yiu from the South China Morning Post reported on the arrest:

The force’s National Security Department, meanwhile, arrested a man on Monday on suspicion of helping to publish material linked to the crackdown, making him the eighth suspect in the first sedition case under the city’s domestic national security law.

Police said the 62-year-old man was arrested in Sha Tin on suspicion of committing offences with seditious intent, which came on the back of the first arrests made last week under the Safeguarding National Security Ordinance.

A source confirmed the man was a maternal uncle of activist Chow Hang-tung. Chow and her mother, Medina Chow Lau, were also arrested last week. [Source]

On its Facebook page, the Hong Kongers in Leeds exile group posted, “On the eve of a sensitive date that officials won’t mention, a group of Hong Kongers has scaled the mist-shrouded slopes of Lion Rock to shine glory on the summit,” alongside photos of lights making up the numbers six and four to denote June 4. AFP also reported that a university students’ publication axed its campaign to collect people’s accounts of the crackdown due to “factors we cannot resist,” and an independent bookstore said on its Instagram that several police officers took down names of customers after its staff had put “5.35” on its window, a coded reference to June 4. 

The Christian Times, a Hong Kong Christian paper that traditionally has published commemorations of the massacre before each anniversary, left its front page blank this year. A small notice in the center of the page stated: “This issue’s front page feature could not be published due to reasons. We hope that readers can forgive us!” The paper published an editorial explaining the decision, that CDT has translated in full. Titled, “Praying Atop the Shoulders of Collective Memory,” the editorial decried Hong Kong’s current political environment and argued that historical memory should continue to be protected: 

The edge of spring and summer of that year is the collective memory of a generation of Hong Kongers — it inspires and defines our political ethic. It will live forever in collective memory. An honest reckoning with history is not intended to prolong hatreds, still less to defame or incite, but rather to provide the basis for repentance and reconciliation, to allow society to see the truth, learn from its mistakes, and prevent the repetition of the same errors. When the writers of the Bible wrote on historical personages, they recorded all the failures in their lives without omission—no matter how close their relationship with God. Israelites were God’s chosen people and the writers of the Bible were unsparing in recording their faults and crimes. Honest reckonings with the past are the only way to face the future with the grace and forgiveness of the Lord of history. 

Those days, striding towards ‘97 and the millennium, were not fleeting. Focus on the passing of those years has, naturally, risen and fallen. The commemoration [in Victoria Park] was also once mocked as “karaoke” and “an empty exercise.” It is only in recent years that Hong Kong society has changed. The world has been turned upside down. The future is fettered by circumstance. Even a prayer offered from historical memory might become subject to official “attention.” The experiences and memories of certain people have become extraordinarily sensitive. It is our duty as a media outlet to live up to history and our readers—the only way to do so in the current situation is by turning paragraphs into blank boxes and a page of whiteness. 

Memorializing victims and caring for survivors is a form of basic human decency, and an expression of benevolence and charity. For the faithful, memorial and care expressed from the heart and prayers for a more just and peaceful future society will certainly be heard by the Lord—no matter how lonely the voice, no matter its provenance. 

Christianity does not endorse any set political system. Rather, it asks: are a political system’s assumptions about human nature in accord with observations from a faithful perspective? Under different political systems, what is the tolerance for the practice of justice and mercy in society? Will the population living under that system have their darker natures balanced out or will they be exacerbated, even to the point that they turn against their neighbors? Faith has something to say about all these points. One thing remains unchanging; we must pray for wisdom and humility in hope that the system might respect the truth, endorse the righteous and punish the wicked. More importantly, we pray for the people in hope that the country will be peaceful and just, and that neighbor watch over neighbor. 

Casting our eyes towards the long flow of history, a few decades is but the blink of an eye, and there is but little an individual can do. That being said, when looking from the broadest historical perspective, even if one cannot see clearly what the Lord of history has in mind, one can always divine the workings of good and evil in society and trace the path of a life lived with God in an imperfect world—it’s the path of others, and our path too. Who knows how the Lord will use history or today’s faithfulness to write the final chapters of history? Let us protect historical memory, stand on Her shoulders, and pray to the Lord. [Chinese]

Printing blank pages has been a form of protest against censorship since at least 1924, but it has had special salience in China since the 2022 White Paper Movement. Across China, mass mourning for the victims of a deadly fire in Urumqi turned into protests against COVID lockdown measures, and, in some places, demonstrations for increased freedoms including democracy, freedom of speech, the right to remember history, and the downfall of Xi Jinping. 

In an article published in Catholic newspaper the Sunday Examiner, Hong Kong’s top priest, Cardinal Stephen Chow Sau-yan, also memorialized the massacre. At The South China Morning Post, Ng Kang-chung: 

Hong Kong’s top Catholic priest has called on residents to “proactively forgive” those who inflicted wounds during the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown and move on from “the dark space of unending sadness and resentments” caused by the event for the sake of “reconciliation and healing”.

Cardinal Stephen Chow Sau-yan, in an article published on Friday in Catholic newspaper the Sunday Examiner, also reminded readers that “to forgive is not to forget”, though he did not explicitly mention the June 4 incident.

[…] The incident “left a deep wound in parts of our psyche, though it has been buried and scarred over. Yet it remains a sore spot that requires proper attention for healing”.

The cardinal said his own feelings about the military crackdown on the protests “remain alive”, but his faith prompted him to “forgive whoever and whatever” had caused harm. [Source]

While discussing the recent Article 23 arrests revolving around Chow Hang-tung, formerly one of the main organizers of the Tiananmen Massacre vigil in Hong Kong, Secretary for Security Chris Tang referred to the anniversary only as “an approaching sensitive date” and claimed that “[t]he date itself is not important.” But as Evan Osnos wrote in The New Yorker, “In truth, as a landmark in the history of authoritarian politics, June 4 has rarely been more important.” At Global Voices, Oiwan Lam described how Chow Hang-tung planned to push back against authorities’ attempts to censor vigils and rewrite history:

What’s so seditious in the posts published on Chow Hang-tung’s club Facebook page? Many pointed to a post published on April 1 2024, which invited people to share their stories related to June 4 so that she could present them as testimony during her subversion trial (the post is written in both Chinese and English):

“The evidence that the prosecution currently intends to rely on includes leaflets and publications issued by the Alliance and other organizations since 1989, as well as video recordings of candlelight vigils… If they claim that everything that has happened over the past thirty years is evidence against us, then all participants in the past thirty years can be our witnesses….if you have been one of the candlelight bearers in the past thirty years, whether on stage or off, inside or outside the venue, locally or overseas, I sincerely invite you to leave your testimony in this trial…”

The Facebook page tagged the call “A memory battle against the rewriting of memories” #記憶和改寫記憶的抗爭, and Chow started presenting her own testimony/memories about the June 4 commemoration beginning April 30, 2024 — the date marks a 35-day countdown for the 35th anniversary of June 4 crackdowns.

On May 10, she was placed in solitary confinement in prison. However, her written June 4 memories continued until the six were arrested on May 28. [Source]

At The Diplomat, Yaqiu Wang argued that the Hong Kong government’s persecution of Chow reflects its intent to stamp out memories of the Tiananmen Massacre:

Beijing’s determination to crush Hong Kong’s freedoms and to erase history is illustrated by the multiple, years-long prosecutions against Chow. However, Chow’s courage and resolve in the face of this repression exemplify Hong Kongers’ collective determination to fight back.

[…] The fact that the authorities keep throwing new charges at Chow for the one thing she did – organize commemorations to honor those killed by their government for peacefully demanding freedom and democracy – only speaks to the insecurity that she inspires in her own government and in Beijing.

While others arrested under the NSL chose to plead guilty and accepted gag orders in exchange for shorter prison sentences or bail releases, Chow refuses to be silenced even behind bars. She wrote in a 2021 letter from her cell to her supporters: “I reject [the characterization of me as] unfortunate… It is actually a great fortune to be able to fight for one’s own ideas. How many people in the world have such an opportunity? Against the biggest communist dictatorship in the world, no less. What a challenge.”

The last time I saw Chow Hang-tung was in a crowded restaurant in Hong Kong at the end of 2019, when local pro-democracy protests were raging. I’ve forgotten what we said to each other, but I will always remember the self-assurance and serenity that radiated from someone who knew she was doing the right thing. [Source]

In May, Elaine Yu from The Wall Street Journal profiled Rowena He, a scholar of the Tiananmen Massacre, whose eviction from Hong Kong reflects the shrinking space for academic freedom in the city:

Before leaving Hong Kong two years ago for a fellowship in the U.S., Rowena He shredded the work of her students and wiped the hard drive on her computer.

The prominent scholar of China’s bloody 1989 crackdown on democracy protests in Tiananmen Square said she feared she could be arrested and forced to turn over their work.

“It’s so brutal and cruel to have to burn your students’ papers, to erase everything in my computer,” He said in a recent interview. “My job is to document history, but personally, I have nothing to hold on to.”

A year later, as she was preparing to return to Hong Kong, immigration officials denied her visa and the Chinese University of Hong Kong fired her from her teaching position, said He, who is a Canadian citizen.

The historian’s story reflects the narrowing space for academic freedom in this former British colony, once a freewheeling bastion of scholarly debate. [Source]

Alexander Boyd contributed content and translations to this post.

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The Real Benefit of Training Jiu-Jitsu

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Martial arts training obviously teaches you techniques, combinations, strategies and tactics of the art itself.

And if you train against resistance (like you would in BJJ, boxing, wrestling, judo, MMA, etc) then it’ll ingrain those techniques deeply enough so that you can use them in a real fight against a real attacker.

​​​​​​​Which is great.

But arguably, the biggest effect of training is something else.  Something more than technique.

Hard training over an extended period of time makes you more resilient, more tenacious, and more perseverant.

Even though the skills you’re trying to learn in jiu-jitsu are fiendishly difficult, you stick with them.

Even though it takes forever to get a belt promotion, you don’t quit.

You might get injured, but you come back.

That regular practice of stick-to-itiveness creates a tenacity that has carry-over to the rest of life.

If you can grind week after week on your half guard until it becomes your go-to position, then you can grind through that course you have to take at university.

Time spent suffering while learning how to escape from under people twice your size means that you can dig a little deeper when you’re facing that impossible deadline at work.

Sparring until your lungs burn and your fatigued hands feel like flippers makes you a little more able to keep your shit together when your colicky baby is crying for hours.

Keep on grinding in class, and when times get tough in the rest of your life know that you’ve already proven that you can keep on going when others quit.

The post The Real Benefit of Training Jiu-Jitsu appeared first on Grapplearts.

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How I make news comics

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Page one: In 1963, William Lewis Moore set off on foot from Chattanooga, Tenn., to deliver a letter to the governor of Mississippi, urging him to end segregation. Moore, a white man wearing a buttoned-up shirt, peers down a wooded highway road. Only two days into his journey to Jackson, Miss., Moore's act of civil protest would cost him his life. Moore’s bloodied hand lies on the road next to his letter. Page two: A historical marker now stands along the highway in Alabama where he was murdered. What’s in a historical marker? Despite their official-looking appearance on roads, on buildings and in public areas, anyone can put one up. You just need an idea and money. These aforementioned words float around a common marker template: a rectangular sign, with a rounded top edge for a state seal.

This April, I published a comic with NPR’s Investigations team as part of a larger investigation into the often fractured and confusing landscape of historical markers in the United States.

The comic tells the story of William L. Moore, who was murdered on a civil rights protest walk. The silence around the murder bothered one man for years, until he campaigned to put up a marker about it.

It’s the longest comic I’ve ever made, and involved the most research and reporting. Now that it’s out, I wanted to document my process, in case it’s helpful for future me or anyone else interested in comics journalism.

Step one: Ideas, research and reporting

In August 2023, Laura Sullivan and Nick McMillan from the Investigations team reached out about potential graphics for their historical markers project. We brainstormed ideas for showing a selection of various interesting markers to readers, which eventually became this.

Reading through the stories behind different markers featured the project, I proposed a comic that would dive deeper into one of them. As a medium, a comic would be uniquely suited to depict the interplay between present and past going on in many of the stories. We had photos of the markers and some of the present-day folks involved, but with a comic I could fully illustrate previous events and how they intersected with the present. I chose Moore’s marker because it centered a specific person’s journey, was an emotionally compelling narrative, and had enough existing historical material to craft a standalone narrative.

I also was inspired by “Searching for Maura,” a Washington Post comic investigation that had recently been published about a Filipino woman whose remains were kept by the Smithsonian.

Before I started writing, I pored through the reporting that Laura had already done, combed through previous coverage of Moore, and read two books: his autobiography A Mind in Chains, and Mary Stanton’s Freedom Walk, a book about his life and death. I also interviewed Stanton.

Step two: Writing

I like to have the words finalized for a comic before I really dig into illustrating it. It helps me focus on the narrative, and make sure it’s strong and cohesive. For me, it’s also easier to edit and potentially restructure text than it is to redraw panels, which is important in a news editing context. (And this went through many layers of edits before I even started drawing.)

I usually draw my comics as a series of images, with each image (or “page”) containing several panels. Many of my previous comics for NPR are exactly 10 pages long, because that’s the limit on how many images you can upload to an Instagram post. Comics do pretty well on social media, so I and other comics journalists at NPR usually try to tailor things to that format.

When I work on a 10-page comic, I usually

  • Write a bulleted list of important points
  • Spread them out across ten pages
  • And then flesh out each point into a couple of sentences.

There’s only so much text that can fit on an image without it becoming unreadable, especially considering how it might size down on a phone. And comics are an interplay between text and images, so there needs to be space for visual information as well. You’d be surprised how much information you can fit into ten pages though — it’s a lot like a radio story in some ways.

But there was no way this story would fit into 10 pages. After some experimenting, I adapted my writing process:

  • I first wrote all the text in paragraph form, as if I was writing a digital story, while trying my best to stay as concise as possible.
  • I made notes in the doc about information that I knew I could convey via illustration instead of text.

Step three: Thumbnails

Thumbnails are rough drafts of what I’m thinking of drawing for the final illustrations. They help me conceptualize paneling, composition, pacing, and other important details. They’re also helpful for my editors (who often aren’t used to editing comics) to get a sense of what the comic will look like.

They don’t need to be good illustrations, just rough drawings that convey a visual concept. To minimize any confusion in editing, I’ll also write image descriptions next to each thumb after collecting them in Google docs.

Left: a rough pencil sketch on paper. Right: A crack in the night, and Moore’s shocked face. At 8:59 p.m., the Alabama Highway Patrol reported a body at the side of the road near a picnic area. Moore was found dead, with bullet wounds to the head and throat. He was about 300 miles from Jackson. The highway appears out of the darkness, with Moore’s bloody hand and letters spilled across it. The road ends here. An example of my initial thumbnail vs. the final page

I usually draw my comics using the program Procreate on my iPad. However, since this comic was longer and would be mainly read on a story page instead of Instagram, I wanted to play with the flow between images more, like a scrolling webcomic. This proved hard to do in Procreate, so I switched to pen and paper, lining up each page on top of each other on my floor.

Thumbnails spread across my floor

This is my favorite part of the process, because this is where it starts to feel like a comic! I’m making decisions about what to draw and how to split up the written draft into pages and panels, and everything feels shiny and full of possibility.

Once I had a finished draft, I shared it with my editors and other colleagues for rounds of feedback and edits. I’m super grateful to the reporters, editors and fact-checkers who caught errors and/or made helpful suggestions.

A photo of a thumbnail paired with this text: His face, looking scared, a shadow falling across him. At 8:59 p.m., the Alabama Highway Patrol reported a body at the side of the road near a picnic area. Moore was found dead, with bullet wounds to the head and throat. He was about 300 miles from Jackson. The highway appears from out of the darkness, with the letter spilled onto it. The road ends here. A section of my draft

Step four: Drawing

After finishing these edits, I moved on to drawing the comic.

First, I pulled photos of my thumbnails into Procreate and added text to each page. This way, I know early if I need to cut or change text based on what fits on a page. If I was unsure, I exported the page and looked at it on my phone.

Then I spent some time collecting additional reference pictures of people and locations. I ended up tracing several historical photos, so I also worked with our photo team to license those images.

Finally, then it was time to draw! For shorter comics, sometimes I ink all the pages first before going back and doing colors. For this one I finished each page (inks, color and text) before moving onto the next. Working this way, especially with the first couple pages, enabled me to make decisions early, like:

  • Figuring out the color palette and illustration style: I decided to use a limited palette with a realistic inking style to keep things simple.
  • Panel outlines: I decided I wanted to play with panel outlines as a visual nod to how we construct history. In the final comic, the only panels that are outlined in black ink are either historical markers or preserved historical documents – definitive physical evidence of the past, compared to my illustrated recreations of scenes.
Timelapse speedpaint of a page (total time: 4 hours)

Step five: Finishing touches

I did the bulk of the final drawings in a week, and then sent off the draft for another edit, including more fact-checking. (I want to give a special shoutout to copy editor Preeti Aroon.)

As part of the final draft, I also wrote alternative text for each page. Alt text is a text description of visual details in an image, written for visually impaired people. It’s usually a part of image metadata or added to a specific box prior to posting on social media. On a published image or social post, it isn’t visible to the naked eye, but a screen reader program can read it out loud or display it in an alternate format. (This blog post from Veroniiiica is a great resource for those interested in learning more.)

Since each one of my comic pages gets published online as a flat image, it’s crucial to write alt text so that low vision or blind readers can also understand the comic. Here’s an example:

Alt text: Days earlier, King had been arrested and had penned his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Soon, police would unleash fire hoses and dogs on young Black protesters, shocking the world. Moore stepped off a bus in Chattanooga and started to walk. He wore a sign with anti-segregation slogans and carried a sign calling Jesus a “revolutionary, consorter with criminals and prostitutes.”

As you can see, replicating all the information in the page above is difficult, since our CMS has a 400 character limit for alt text. I welcome any ideas for how to make our comics more accessible.

As a final finishing step before publishing, I typically flatten and compress all my comic pages to help minimize the file size for a shorter load time.

And that’s it! You can read the final comic here.

Here are some other comics I’ve made:

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chrisamico
13 days ago
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Ken Burns: “Be curious, not cool. Insecurity makes liars of us all.”

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“Be in nature, which is always perfect, and where nothing is binary. Its sheer majesty may remind you of your own atomic insignificance, as one observer put it, but in the inscrutable and paradoxical ways of wild places, you will feel larger, inspirited, just as the egotist in our midst is diminished by his or her self-regard.”

Photo Credit: Gaelen Morse

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chrisamico
15 days ago
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