Preview: Local Author Scott Savitt Discusses His New Book "Crashing the Party: An American Reporter in China"


Scott Savitt

Crashing the Party with local author Scott Savitt.

Former foreign correspondent Scott Savitt, who’s called Ann Arbor home for a little over a year now, is celebrating the release of his new book Crashing the Party: An American Reporter in China with local appearances on Tuesday, November 1 at 7 pm at Nicola’s Books, and on Tuesday, November 29 at 7 pm at Literati Bookstore.

The book starts with Savitt’s harrowing account of spending 30 days on a hunger strike in a Chinese prison; and it later explains how the tragic death of his high school girlfriend set him on the path to spending years of his life in China. But the last section he needed to write to complete the manuscript – about Tiananmen Square, where Chinese political protesters were confronted by tanks and military force in 1989 – may have demanded the most courage.

“I had never revisited that, even in all the years since it happened,” said Savitt. “You have to move on somehow. And speaking as a journalist, the story continued. People were arrested, people went into exile – you had to keep covering the story. … So I wrote that section last. My publisher got to a point where he said, ‘Maybe you just can’t do it,’ and I said, ‘No, I can.’ So I finally cranked it out one sleepless night, and then the next morning, I read it to [U-M faculty member Dr. Rebecca Liu], and I started sobbing uncontrollably. It just made me realize how repressed that emotion was. It was still there. I don’t like calling things ‘syndromes’ but post-trauma – that’s real, and I still have it for sure. … It was something people are not built to see.”

But Savitt’s unique journey began when he was a freshman at Duke University. One Sunday night, he spoke by phone with his girlfriend, a high school senior, and 12 hours later, after suddenly becoming ill, she lay comatose in Yale University Hospital. She died one week later.

Shortly thereafter, Savitt was back on campus, leading a wilderness survival training program (Outward Bound), when he heard about Duke’s new student exchange program with China. The requirements were rigorous and included taking an intensive Chinese language course five days a week for one school year.

“I feel pretty certain that, if not for that untimely death, I wouldn’t have done something like that,” said Savitt. “I could have shown you China on a map, but otherwise, I didn’t have that mindset at all. I just felt like, ‘I want to get out of here.’”

So Savitt left for China in 1983. First, he was a student, but he then began working as a journalist – first for Asiaweek Magazine, then The Los Angeles Times, and United Press International. At age 25, he become the youngest accredited foreign correspondent in China.

“I’d never really thought about being a journalist for my career,” said Savitt. “ … But at that time, in China, there were very few ways you could stay there when you weren’t a student. You had to get a job visa. You could teach English, and I did that, too. But getting a job in the foreign news bureau was the best job you could get, and it would utilize my Chinese language skills and my writing ability. … It was really easy to sell articles then.”

After witnessing, and reporting on, the events surrounding Tiananmen Square in 1989, Savitt founded his own independent, English language newspaper in China, called Beijing Scene – which eventually led to his 30 day imprisonment in a small dark cell, in solitary confinement, and then deportation.

“The compliment I usually get from all sides [about the book] is that I’ve really tried to be fair about China, because having those experiences – it would be easy to become embittered,” said Savitt. “But I’m not. By the time those events happened, I was ready to leave, anyway.”

But Savitt’s sustained residence in China, fulfilling a number of different roles, lends him a far more comprehensive view of this huge, complicated country than is normally available to journalists.

“We rely on (journalists) to tell us what’s happening in places, but in many cases, they don’t exactly know,” said Savitt. “It’s not that easy. If I’d never started a business, there would be stuff about China I just wouldn’t know. … There are very few Americans or journalists who’ve seen the inside of a prison cell, or seen how business gets done – which involves paying bribes for pretty much everything.”

Given Savitt’s deep knowledge of, and vast experience with, China, you might wonder what we, and our political leaders, get wrong about the country.

“What I get the most is, ‘Oh, I thought China was going to pass us like we’re standing still – that China is the future, and we’re the past,’” said Savitt. “I would disabuse people of that notion. China’s used to highlighting our own shortcomings, but it’s never going to pass us on per capita income. … The general consensus is that China will grow old before it grows rich. In many areas, it’s still a third world country. Yes, the cities people have visited are modern, because they leapfrogged other parts of the country. But many places never had landline phones to begin with, so they went from no phone to cell phones, which saves a lot on infrastructure. … But the main thing I always say to people is, if they’re the future, how come thousands of Chinese people line up every day to move here, and no one is lining up to move there? Nobody who’s not from China stays there permanently. And when people are making a decision about where to raise children, the vast majority of people would rather be here.”

Jenn McKee is a former staff arts reporter for The Ann Arbor News, where she primarily covered theater and film events, and also wrote general features and occasional articles on books and music.

Scott Savitt discusses his book at two local appearances: Tuesday, November 1 at 7 pm at Nicola’s Books, and on Tuesday, November 29 at 7 pm at Literati Bookstore.