Thursday, December 24, 2009

Thinking of Liu Xiaobo

We should end the practice of viewing words as crimes.
-Charter 8

This should be repeated as often as possible.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Copenhagen and China

The aftermath of the Copenhagen talks appears to have gone through three stages in quick succession: the first was an attempt to figure out what exactly the talks accomplished; the second a sort of stunned silence as the truth set in of how far we still have to go; and the last, a sudden outpouring of recriminations. This final stage, which has largely focused on China’s role at Copenhagen, is a reflection of larger issues at play as China takes its first major steps in asserting itself on the world stage.

The Chinese government’s behavior at the talks demonstrated a level of self-confidence that, to many western observers, seemed premature. Duke professor Liu Kang, in a different but related context, made this analogy: “China is like an adolescent who took too many steroids. It has suddenly become big, but it finds it hard to coordinate and control its body. To the West, it can look like a monster.”

The backlash in American and European media against China’s behavior in Copenhagen backs up this view. A Guardian contributor accuses China of intentionally sabotaging the talks in an effort to make western countries look bad. Britain’s climate secretary, Ed Miliband, made similar accusations, and Jiang Yu, China’s frustratingly obtuse press secretary, fired back in a typically ham-handed manner.

Some Chinese commentators have observed a conspiracy among western countries to denigrate China. Zhao Haijian, writing in the Guangzhou Daily, says, “Some western media have flattered China, and to some degree have affirmed China’s sudden rise and its influence. But behind this we can often discern the hidden intentions of western countries” (一些西方媒体如此“抬举”中国,在某种程度上是对中国崛起和影响力提升的一种肯定,但在这背后,我们常常会看到一些西方国家居心叵测的动机). Zhao argues that, by falsely flattering China, western countries seek to more easily put it in a bad light. A case in point, says Zhao, is Copenhagen, where the United States tried to inflate China’s importance so that China would have to foot a bigger part of the bill to fight climate change.

A preponderance of conspiracy theories usually indicates widespread misunderstanding about a complex issue. The backlash against China’s behavior at Copenhagen in western media, and the angry denials of the Chinese government and its supporters, seem to me to be natural reactions to China’s perceived “rise” in the world. The Chinese government undoubtedly feels it is in a period of momentum. China just held a successful Olympics, it’s about to put on a massive World Expo, and it seems to have weathered the economic crisis better than just about all western countries, at least for now. The government’s ego may be a bit inflated. It may believe it can throw its weight around more freely than in the past.

The Chinese government needs to learn how to negotiate more skillfully -- it’s unacceptable that Wen Jiabao skipped a meeting with Barack Obama and other leaders -- and, of course, it needs to work hard on its public relations. And western observers must come to grips with the fact that China is here to stay, and realize that its government is not always scheming how best to increase its influence while decreasing the power of western countries. The Chinese government, and even China itself, often comes off as monolithic, but it is full of contradictions and internal debate.

In the coming years and decades I suspect we’ll see more situations like the one in Copenhagen, as the world adjusts to countries like China, India, Brazil, and others that are willing to exert newfound global influence. Coping with this shift in global power structures will require patience, flexibility, and a willingness to understand the viewpoints of others.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Red Shanghai

The 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China is upon us, with all its tanks, missiles, mass demonstrations of patriotism, closings of sensitive areas, and the general outpouring of overdone pomp and propaganda that insecure governments everywhere feel the need to display. In celebration of this glorious holiday, here is a list of the most prominent red sites in Shanghai. If you’re in the city, why not commemorate the CCP’s Diamond Jubilee by visited some of these august locations?

The Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Centre

This museum is, blessedly, privately run, and so should perhaps not be considered a “red site” at all since it isn’t controlled by the government. But for those interested in Chinese communist culture, this memorial to the propaganda posters of the past is not to be missed. With refreshingly honest signage, the museum guides you through some truly incredible posters from 1949 to 1979. Because many of China’s propaganda posters were recycled during the chairmanship of Deng Xiaoping, the ones on display here are extremely rare. These aren’t the copies you find on the street. Be sure to check out the shop, where you can buy original posters if you’re willing to shell out the big bucks, as well as some good reproductions. Interestingly and unfortunately, the place seems to be known only to foreigners. I asked the attendant working there whether the museum gets more foreign or Chinese visitors. He replied that all of the visitors are foreign. This is a shame. As the museum itself states, “Today China’s economic path to prosperity is well defined. But with the shift toward a more modern and forward thinking China, it would be a mistake to forget our recent history.”


To get there: The museum is a little hard to find. It’s located in the basement of building 4, block B, at 868 Huashan Road, across from Wukang Road, inside a residential complex. The nearest metro stops are Changshu Road (line one), Jing’an Si (line two), and Jiangsu Road (line two). Ask the guard at the gate of the residential complex and he’ll give you a card explaining how to find the museum.

Longhua Cemetery of Martyrs

This is a must-see for those interested in how official history of the Chinese communist movement is written. The Longhua Cemetery of Martyrs memorializes those who died fighting for the cause of communism in the early 20th century. It is built on the site of a killing ground that Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalist Party used to murder communists, students, intellectuals, members of trade unions, and others deemed to be leftist in 1927. Later it was turned into a prison. Such museums have a habit of labeling everybody who resisted the fascist tendencies of the Nationalist Party as striving for communism, though in reality the situation in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s was more complicated than that. If you can look past the historical whitewashing, however, visiting this site is still a moving experience. As I have noted before, labeling the entire memorial site “propaganda” risks dismissing too easily the deep resonance such places can have. The people commemorated here are worthy of our remembrance, regardless of who is doing the commemorating.

To get there: The memorial is located at 180 Longhua Road, by the Longhua Temple (which is also worth a visit). There isn’t an adjacent metro stop, but the closest one is the Longcao Road stop on line three. After getting off the metro, walk northeast along North Longshui Road, which turns into Longhua Road.

Mao Zedong’s former residence

This one’s a no-brainer. Any tour of Shanghai’s red sites must include homage to the place where Mao Zedong lived in the mid-1920s. As a sign makes clear, Mao’s life was highly revolutionary: “In his youth, Mao Zedong cherished a lofty revolutionary aspiration, actively seeking revolutionary truth and joined in the revolutionary practice.” The place features recreations of some of the rooms of the house, and upstairs is a little museum with, interestingly, a room devoted to Mao Anying, Mao Zedong’s son who died in the Korean War. It also includes some wonderful Chinglish, such as this caption for a photograph: “Mao Zedong gave a banquet to labor representatives and crackerjacks at technical innovation of Shanghai on March 19, 1960” (1960319月,毛泽东在锦江饭店宴请上海的工人代表,技术革新能手).


To get there: Mao’s former residence is located at 120 North Maoming Road, near the West Nanjing Road metro stop on line two.

Zhou Enlai’s former residence

Zhou Enlai was Mao’s right-hand man, and the highest-ranking official to survive the entirety of his rule. His former residence in Shanghai acted more as an office for the CCP around 1946 than as a house. It’s a beautiful place, and well worth a visit.

To get there: Zhou Enlai’s former residence is located at 73 Sinan Road, near Fuxing Park. The nearest metro stop is South Shaanxi Road on line one.

Site of the founding of the CCP

‘Nuff said. In the heart of Xintiandi, it’s easily accessible by tourists, meaning the curators were extra careful to make everything spotlessly whitewashed. A must see for red tourism, but five minutes is probably enough.

See this interesting article at the China Beat for information about the history of the building.

To get there: Head to Xintiandi, near the South Huangpi Road metro stop on line one, and follow the tour groups.

Liu Changsheng’s former residence

Liu Changsheng is a relatively minor figure in Chinese communist history. He was a leader of the underground communist movement in Shanghai from 1937 to the establishment of the People’s Republic, and was important in the formation of the Party’s labor policy in Shanghai. The small museum in his former residence focuses on underground communist activities in 1930s Shanghai, and provides a good example of how the government writes the history of this period—largely ignoring the considerable intellectual ferment of the times and emphasizing instead the central role of the Communist Party.


To get there: Liu Changsheng’s former residence is located at 81 Yiyuan Road, close to the Jing’an Si metro stop on line two.

National Anthem Memorial Hall

The history of “March of the Volunteers,” the national anthem, is indeed pretty fascinating; unfortunately, this museum is too focused on making it a tribute to the Communist Party/Chinese nation. If you can get past this kind of language (“After 70 years of trial and hardship, ‘March of the Volunteers’ has become a part of the very blood of the Chinese people and the soul of the Chinese nation”), the place has a lot of interesting tidbits. For example, “March of the Volunteers” had a broad international following during World War II, including a rendition sung by the American singer Paul Robeson, and played a role in international anti-fascist sentiment. The museum leaves the nasty historical bits out, of course—no mention, for example, how Tian Han, the lyricist of the song, died in 1968 after being persecuted during the Cultural Revolution.

To get there: The National Anthem Memorial Hall is located by the Dalian Road metro stop on line four. Go out exit three; the museum is on the southeast corner of the intersection at Dalian Road and Changyang Road.

Sites appropriated into red history

The government has attempted to appropriate the figures associated with the sites below into the history of the Communist Party. In many cases that’s not far off the mark—Song Qingling, for example, certainly ingratiated herself with China’s new masters after 1949—but their lives are much more complicated than simple allegiance to the CCP.

Cai Yuanpei’s former residence: Cai Yuanpei had a prominent influence in the development of China’s educational system, and was a main figure in the May Fourth Movement. You can see his former residence inside Lane 303 on Huashan Road, across from the Hilton Hotel, near the Jing’an Si metro stop on line two.

Sun Yatsen’s former residence: Sun Yatsen is revered in both Taiwan and in mainland China. See the CCP’s version of his life at 7 Xiangshan Road, near Fuxing Park. The nearest metro stop is South Shaanxi Road on line one.

Song Qingling’s former residence: Song Qingling, the widow of Sun Yatsen, decided to stay in China after the communists won the civil war (in stark contrast to her sister). Her residence is a beautiful mansion with lots of interesting gifts from foreign dignitaries, and a backyard perfect for lawn parties. It’s located at 1843 Middle Huai’hai Road, not too far from the Hengshan Road metro stop on line one.

Lu Xun Park and former residence: Lu Xun, probably the most important cultural figure in 1920s and 1930s China, never joined the Communist Party, but he was close friends with lots of people who did, and supported many of its activities. The CCP regards him as an important figure in its history. In Lu Xun Park, by the Hongkou Stadium metro stop on line eight, you can see his tomb (with calligraphy by Mao Zedong) and visit a museum devoted to him. Near the park is his old residence, a charming place in a relatively out-of-the-way spot, where he lived at the end of his life. It’s located in Lane 132 on Shanyin Road, southeast of the park.

Duolun Road: Duolun Road is famous for being the site of the former residences of several well-known figures, such as Guo Moruo and Mao Dun, as well as the former headquarters of the League of Left-Wing Writers. Nowadays it’s touristy, but not too annoyingly so. It’s located just south of Lu Xun Park.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Beijing Olympics in hindsight

Susan Brownell, a frequent commentator on the Beijing Olympics, has a useful article up on Japan Focus looking at the Olympics in East Asia perspective. I tried to do this in a more limited way last year; her article is much more comprehensive. This, I feel, is an especially interesting observation:


"Western observers tended to dismiss Beijing's Olympic education as just another nationalist propaganda campaign, but I believe they were missing the important point: true, one major goal was patriotic education – but as in Tokyo, the old nationalist symbols were re-shaped by association with symbols of internationalism, the global community, and world peace.  This is the paradox of the Olympic Games – they reinforce nationalism and internationalism at the same time.  Perhaps the national identity itself is not greatly changed, but it is an important shift in orientation if the holders of that identity start to see their nation as an equal partner among friendly nations instead of a victimized nation among hostile nations."


Worth a read.

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Sunday, August 30, 2009

Learning about China, one region at a time...

In China, generalizations about foreigners are all too common. But why stop there? Below is a translation of a list of stereotypes about different provinces and municipalities that has been going around on the Internet (incomplete, though—several regions aren't listed, at least not in the copy I received). People in China love making jokes about other regions, but this list is a little different because it focuses on how people from various places are perceived to regard the rest of China; that is, generalizing about others' generalizations.


Beijing sees the rest of the country as grass-roots;

Shanghai sees the rest of the country as provincial;

Guangdong sees the rest of the country as poor;

Henan sees the rest of the country as naïve [because Henan is poor, and Henanese have a reputation for being tricky and adept at stealing];

Shandong sees the rest of the country as disloyal [because Shandong natives have a reputation for being forthright and loyal];

Jiangsu sees the rest of the country as undeveloped;

Zhejiang sees the rest of the country as waiting to develop;

Sichuan sees the rest of the country as lacking pretty girls [Sichuan is known for its spicy girls];

Shaanxi sees the rest of the country as without culture [because Shaanxi is thought of as the cradle of Chinese culture, which in turn is supposed to be many thousands of years old];

Xinjiang sees the rest of the country as too crowded;

Tibet sees the rest of the country as unreligious;

Shanxi sees the rest of the country as too elegant [because Shanxi natives have a reputation of being uncouth];

Liaoning sees the rest of the country as cowardly [because people from the northeast are seen as strong brave];

Yunnan sees the rest of the country as boring [Yunnan is a big tourist draw];

Ningxia sees the rest of the country as too busy [Ningxia has a reputation of being laid-back];

Inner Mongolia sees the rest of the country as lacking milk;

Hebei sees the rest of the country as in need of relocation [I believe this is because the Hebei government has a reputation of forcing residents to relocate to make room for big construction projects];

Hainan sees the rest of the country as too cold;

Qinghai sees the rest of the country as unable to hold its liquor.


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Tuesday, August 4, 2009

American democracy in China

An article written in Chinese by a Chinese-American describing her experience running for the state legislator in Virginia: State Department publicity promoting American diversity? Little-read blog quietly advocating for political change in China? Nope: Nanfeng Chuang, a Chinese magazine that can be found on every newsstand here in Shanghai and in other big Chinese cities.

In what is, in my view, yet another indication of the increasing range and openness of magazine reporting in China, the article lays out, in impressive detail, the steps necessary to run for statewide political office in the US. It's not written by a political scientist or a reporter but by a Chinese-American woman named Sasha Gong (Gong Xiaoxia 龚小夏), who gained the Republican nomination for state legislature in Virginia's 46th district (her campaign site is here). She lays out her purpose in writing the article:

"Though there are many news reports [about American politics], Chinese people are still often confused when they view the American political process. Where do American candidates come from? How are political activities organized? What function does money play in American politics? How much of a voice do ordinary people have in the political process? How do political parties and social groups work together? In the following piece I hope to use my own experiences while running for office to give readers a new insight [into American politics]. (虽然有各种各样的报道,中国人看美国政治经常会有一种雾里看花的感觉。美国的政治候选人是如何产生的?竞选活动如何组织?金钱在美国政治中起什么样的作 用?普通人在政治中到底有多少发言权?政党和社会团体如何运作?在以下有限的篇幅里,我希望能够通过自己竞选的一点亲身感受来给读者提供一些新的信息。)

The article isn't analytical or editorializing in tone―it's a straightforward explanation of the process by which someone goes from thinking about running for office to actually doing it. Gong doesn't try to idealize American politics, at least not here. She gets at the nitty-gritty of how it works―getting support from the local party leadership and a myriad of groups, raising money, going from door to door getting signatures, the necessity of proving you're not a carpetbagger, the necessity of keeping an eye on your opponents to make sure they're doing everything right (so you can disqualify them from running if they're not), the importance for a party to control the state legislature for purposes such as redrawing district lines, etc., etc. This is not the stuff of a starry-eyed democratic idealist nor of a cynic fed up with it all; it's a direct explanation of the messiness of democracy in a country where the process has, paradoxically, become somewhat calcified yet still offers the possibility for sweeping change.

Gong, who became an American citizen in 2001, originally came to the country in 1987. She's the kind of immigrant who makes Americans feel warm and fuzzy inside: she wrote a book called Born American: A Chinese Woman's Dream of Liberty ("Here in the United States, she says, she can be both American and Chinese"). In her Chinese article she writes, "The United States is a country of immigrants. Immigrants have shown outstanding success in every part of America, with the exception of electoral politics, which have been more difficult." (美国是个移民国家,外国移民在各行各业都有非常出色的表现,唯独竞选政治是最困难的一项。) She also has somewhat of an activist background, putting up big character posters in the 1970s and later getting detained. In one interview with an American newspaper she said, "The communists never succeeded to shut me up and shut me off." Definitely prime election material.

None of that kind of stuff, of course, makes it into the Chinese article, but the fact that such a person is publishing in a widely read Chinese magazine is impressive enough.

Incidentally, thinking about her candidacy from the American perspective, it strikes me that people like Gong might be the future of the Republican party. In the article she writes, "I clearly indicated to the [Republican] Speaker of the House that when it came to social issues like gay rights, abortion rights, and gun restriction, I lean more towards the Democratic party. But I support the Republican party's stance on conservative fiscal policy, resisting limitless government power, and the guiding principle of 'big society, small government.'" (我对议长表示了参选的愿望,并明确指出我在社会政策――同性恋平权、妇女堕胎权、枪支管制――这类问题上更倾向于民主党的立场,但是我支持共和党保守的财政政策,反对政府权力和规模不断扩大,坚持"大社会、小政府"的方针。) Similarly, in the American interview mentioned above, she says, "I came from the worst kind of big government. I'm naturally very suspicious of any government that grows too big. And I think our federal government is growing too big. I also want people with faces like mine―minorities―to have more voices." Many immigrants, after all, are conservative in many ways; if the Republican party can break away from its image as a white party and focus less its social messages, I bet it could attract more and more people like Sasha Gong.

But enough political analyzing. I'll end with translations of a few Chinese comments about Gong's article from this blog. I tried in vain to find a comment critical of the article, though this is just a small sample.

"Not bad, it gives Chinese people an idea of how American democracy really works, and makes it clear to Chinese what it means when power genuinely comes from the people." (不错,让中国人真正地体会美国的民主是如何形成的,让中国人明白什么是真正的权力来自于人民的含义。)

"This is what a real democratic election looks like! It's not at all like our muddleheaded electorate! American party discipline is loose [i.e. decentralized], probably because the state treasury doesn't squander all the public money? Ha ha ha…" (这才是真正的民主选举!不像咱们稀里糊涂当选民!美国的党纪律松散,大约是由于没有国库银子供挥霍的缘故吧?哈哈哈……)

"Very focused and thorough" (很有针对性呀.很透彻)

"Very interesting. Your experience should be required reading for the whole country." (有意思。你的经历会成为全国人民学习的教材。)

"A country's strength does not reside in how big its financial resources are! It resides in how well off the people are and how lofty their spirit is! A democratic system is the most desirable one! I hope more people can be introduced to American political life. Thanks for your article!" (一个国家 的强大不是体现在国家有多少财力!而是体现在人民生活的富裕和精神世界的高尚!而民主制度又显现最要的作用!希望楼主以后多介绍在美国的政治生活。谢谢你的文章!)

"[Quote from the article:] 'Local political organization and activities are very independent. There may be some interaction [with the national party] at the surface, but this does not involve receiving orders from above.' This is very important!!!! In China the higher-level authorities give orders to the lower level, and the result is that the lower level is the slave of the higher level! The activities of officials are all for the benefit of the higher authorities. Not even a little bit is for the common people!" ("地方组织的活动都是独立的,上面一级的机构可以作点建议,但是却不能下命令" 这点非常重要啊!!!!
中国就是上级命令下级,所以导致下级都成了上级奴隶! 中国官员做事都是为了上级的脸色,没有几个是为老百姓办事的!)

"In fact, everyone knows that in this world there is no perfect system and there is no complete justice. What we need is to guarantee the [integrity and rules of the] system and be relatively fair. But at the moment these two necessities do not exist in China." (事实上人人都知道这世上没有完美的制度和绝对的公平,我们需要的是有保障的制度和相对的公平,但目前的中国这两样都没有)

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Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Race and espionage

I have a post up on the China Beat about race and espionage:

What’s interesting about Chinese espionage operations in the US, however, is that they appear to involve strong racial and nationalist overtones. The Soviet Union tended to appeal to ideology, or simply offer money or other types of benefits to its agents; China, it seems, is mainly going after overseas Chinese communities in its efforts to recruit spies.

While I'm at it, the Onion issue that parodies China -- which has gotten an unbelievable amount of attention -- includes an article that taps into this widespread notion of Chinese-Americans as potential spies. When the Onion features something, you know it's worth paying attention to.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Canada for Chinese

Sometimes while traveling the information in guidebooks and what you actually experience is woefully mismatched, especially when it comes to “cultural” advice. The following is a cultural guide to Canada intended for Chinese people that I happened to stumble across today. I have no idea where it originated, but a quick search on Google reveals several variations of it scattered around Chinese travel advice pages (for example, here, here, here, here, and here)—it seems to be one of those apocryphal Internet texts that sound authoritative to the ignorant. As these things always are, it’s fascinating for what it emphasizes and for what it gets wrong. Makes you wonder how accurate English guidebooks are.

As always, any translation tips would be appreciated!

Canadian clothing is similar to Americans’, but is not as casual. During informal situations they wear whatever they want, such as T-shirts [?夹衫], round-collar shirts, and everyday dress pants. During formal occasions—such as going to work, going to church, going to a concert or a play, or attending a dinner—they pay close attention to their clothing, making sure it is neat and tidy. Men wear suits and women wear dresses. Women are not too particular about the material of their clothes, but they value good taste and originality, coordinated colors, and comfort.

Canadians are simple and honest (朴实), amiable, friendly, and warmly hospitable. When they meet they shake hands, while close friends sometimes hug. When they part they shake hands again. During introductions, the men are [first] introduced to women, younger people are introduced to older people, and lower-status people are introduced to higher-status people. When friends meet they address each other informally. When shaking hands, women, older people, and higher-status people extend their hands first. When chatting, a topic is chosen that everybody is interested in, such as Canadian economic and cultural development, the weather, sports, traveling, and [cultural] customs. It’s not appropriate to inquire about one’s age, income, family situation, marital status, body weight (for women), and other personal topics. Canadians don’t like to compare Canada and the US. They don’t talk about politics, family ancestry (世族), religion, language, and, above all, such sensitive social issues as the [situation in the] French region of Quebec.

Canadians have a strong awareness of time. When a time for an appointment is set, one should be punctual. Usually business is conducted in restaurants or social clubs. One ought to have a specific reason to give somebody a present, and should not give presents for no reason. During birthdays, weddings, and when parting from one another [for a substantial period of time], one should give a present. Pay attention to the wrapping of the present. Usually it’s best to use paper with lots of colors, to attach ribbons or other decorations, and to sign your name on a card attached to the present. When receiving a present, one should open it immediately and thank the gift giver. During family dinners Canadians are commonly welcoming towards guests. Guests should not arrive early, and should bring a bottle of wine, a box of candy, or a bouquet of flowers as a present, or give small presents to the hostess and children. If you give a bottle of wine, it is appropriate to drink it during dinner. Family dinners are usually buffet style: the food and drink are placed on the table, and every person helps himself and finds his own seat. Everyone chats while eating. On the day after the dinner, the guest should write a thank you letter to the hostess. After the dinner is over the guest should not stay for too long; usually one should leave before 10:00 on weekdays and before 11:30 on weekends.

In Canada the number 13 and Friday are taboos [as they are bad luck]. They abide by the 10 commandments found in the Bible, and do not address holy figures with disrespect. When going down stairs, Canadians avoid smashing glass products, and avoid overturning saltshakers [?人从楼梯下走过,忌打破玻璃制品,忌打翻盐罐]. Avoid saying the word “old,” avoid calling an elderly people’s home a “nursing home” [保育院], and avoid calling an elderly person an “old citizen” (高龄公民). White lilies are used during funerals, so don’t use them as everyday gifts. When at home don’t blow a whistle, don’t talk about inauspicious things, and while eating food don’t talk about sad topics. Avoid eating the insides of an animal and its fatty meat. Canadians are used to eating cold food and they attach the most importance to dinner. When eating with Canadians don’t urge them to drink alcohol [if they refuse]. Most Canadians don’t like fatty meat and hate shrimp paste, fermented bean curd, and other stinky food. Canadians avoid eating the insides of animals, as well as their feet. Canadians prefer to have even numbers [of guests] at banquets and dinners, and especially avoid the number 13. Black and purple are unpopular colors in Canada. White lilies are used at funerals, so don’t give them to people [as gifts]. When swimming small children should always wear bathing suits. In the summertime women like to sunbathe in their bikinis, so don’t be too astounded.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Evan Osnos, Xinjiang, and Chinese civil society

A quick plug for Evan Osnos's blog, for its well-researched takes on the Xinjiang riots. Though Osnos's history can sometimes be a bit fudgy (I took issue with his brief sum-up of race relations in China contained in this article), when it comes to current affairs, his knowledge and contacts are impressive. In his analysis of the unrest in Xinjiang, it is refreshing that he does not set up an automatic juxtaposition between the undercurrents of discrimination in Xinjiang, and the Chinese insistence that any problems are caused by outside agitators. That's the angle that most western reporting has taken. It's true enough, but it's not the whole story.

If one focuses solely on the government's stance towards minorities in China, or on the nationalist hysteria best represented by the "angry youth," the situation really looks bleak, with little hope of the kind of cross-cultural understanding and empathy that can improve race relations in a country. And if we compare the current situation in China to pre-1960s America (the kind of comparison that, though hopelessly problematic, is made so often that it becomes something one must address), the country does not appear to be on the brink of the kind of radical cultural shift that the United States experienced in the 1960s and 1970s, mainly because China, because of tight control and widespread nationalist thinking, does not have the kind of "marketplace of ideas" that enabled to the US to change so fundamentally.

And yet, when one ignores supercilious government pronouncements and actually reads some of the non-fenqing commentary on Chinese websites, as Osnos does, there does seem to be some hope. First, he notes (as no one else seems to have done) that the problems in Xinjiang aren't only about race; they are also a reflection of the economic and political inequality that has accompanied the rapid development of the Chinese economy. In addressing the problems in Xinjiang, China must also address deep-rooted problems with modern society that exist across the country. And in another post, Osnos summarizes an essay about the riots written by a well-known Chinese journalist and consultant, which takes the government for task for some of its acts of mismanagement of the riots.

Osnos's observations get at a phenomenon that has become increasingly apparent in the past couple years: though more and more moderate voices are having their say in China, both online and in mainstream publications, they are very rarely mentioned in mainstream western reportage about Chinese politics and society. Even venerable publications such as the New York Times tend to focus on the more shrill voices. This kind of reporting isn't inaccurate, but it is incomplete. Chinese civil society is becoming more diverse than many people realize—editorials, blog posts, and reporting, often in mainstream magazines and newspapers, are often surprisingly nuanced. But evidence of this is sorely lacking in English-language news about China.

Zhou Enlai and the Cultural Revolution

At the edge of a lake in the middle of Huai'an sits the Zhou Enlai Memorial Hall, a sprawling cement complex that, considering Zhou's broad popularity both inside and outside China, was surprisingly empty when I visited a couple of weeks ago. Huai'an, a small city in northern Jiangsu province, is Zhou's birthplace and is a delightful place in its own right, with lots to see and do, but the newest Lonely Planet neglects to mention it. So much the better for me! It's the kind of place where people do double takes when a white person walks down the street. They whisper to each other, they say "Don't look now but there's a foreigner behind us," they say "Hellllooo!," they point, they grin, they break into laughter at the sheer bizarreness of it all. In fact, one six-year-old boy who had never seen a foreigner before went a little bit crazy when he saw me. For about ten minutes he kept shouting over and over again, "I hate foreigners!" and "I don't like the foreigner!" At one point he said, "The foreigner will beat us!" His mother was embarrassed and apologetic, and kept trying to explain to her son that foreigners are people too.

There were hardly any other visitors at the Zhou Enlai Memorial Hall, just me and a couple Chinese tourists. Considering the size of the place, one had the sense that Zhou was somewhat of a forgotten figure—which, of course, couldn't be farther from the truth. He is credited for being responsible, sometimes wholly responsible, for the preservation of cultural artifacts during the Cultural Revolution, for saving the lives of various people, and for stopping acts of senseless violence as best he could. Red Guards threatening the ruins and Dunhuang? One call from Zhou will stop them from wreaking destruction. Over-zealous general on the brink of invading Hong Kong? Zhou injects some common sense into the deliberations. Zhou's hand seemed to be everywhere in the Cultural Revolution; the legend of his intervention seems to grow with every retelling.

So powerful is the legend that it even made it into an official museum dedicated to his memory. It's difficult to find any information at all about the Cultural Revolution in Chinese museums—nowadays, most discourse about it in the public space seems relegated to fiction or the odd editorial about how China needs to avoid "excesses," or is neatly brushed aside by being included in the "30 percent" of what Mao did wrong. But in Zhou Enlai's memorial museum I was surprised to see not only a reference to the Cultural Revolution, but several references to it. Not only that, but, in celebrating Zhou's efforts to rein it in, the museum seemed to imply that the Cultural Revolution was something negative. This isn't anything new, but it is rare to see the view expressed in a place devoted to nationalism.

Granted, it wasn't much. One big picture of Zhou had the caption "Devoting his entire energy and thought to the perilous situation during the 'Cultural Revolution'" (殚精竭虑 苦撑'文革'危局), and nothing else. A piece of paper elsewhere was, according to a caption, "A list of cadres who should be protected, drawn up by Zhou Enlai." Three other pieces of paper were "Zhou Enlai's three telegrams drafted in his own hand on protecting the leading cadres inside and outside the Party, as well as top democrats." A fourth plaque, in the tradition of Zhou's enigmatic nature, had only a quote elegantly concealing any opinions he might have had about what was going on: "In the midst of the 'Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution' I only had eight words: 'Spare no effort in one's duty until one's dying day' (鞠躬尽瘁,死而后已)."

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Roh Moo-hyun's suicide: Chinese views

News of the suicide of former South Korean president Roh Moo-hyun, who was, it seems, overcome by despair from the relentless investigation into corruption among his family, shook Korea and the rest of Asia, but drew relatively little attention in the US. The New York Times, after printing a very good overview of the political situation surrounding Roh's death, quickly moved on to other things. In China, however, the news of how he threw himself off a cliff after leaving a note for his family and supporters prompted cries of shock, empathy, and even some soul-searching in Internet forums and the press. The always dependable Chinasmack has translated several comments left by Chinese netizens about Roh's death. Many of the comments expressed admiration of Roh's honor in the face of corruption charges, standing as it did in sharp contrast with China's own miserable record on corruption. (My personal favorite: "If we here had this kind of conscience, I bet all of our cliffs would be filled up.")

And what of China's venerable editorialists? Before I started looking, I suspected that some mainstream publications would use the occasion as an indictment of Korea's democracy, and I was right. Lu Ning, writing in the Guangzhou Daily, argues that Korea's history of corruption problems and embattled presidents shows that it has too quickly embraced western-style democracy. Lu makes a point of placing Korea firmly within East Asian culture—it has ties of blood, village, literature, people—thus implicitly using its political situation as a guide for China. He does not mince words. Corruption is a part of the very soil in East Asia, he says, but more than that, a hasty embrace of western democracy is inappropriate for all countries outside North America and Europe: "We must face squarely the fact that it's not just South Korea. In East Asia, Southeast Asia, South Asia, the Middle East, and even all regions outside of North America and Western Europe, among all countries that indiscriminately copy and imitate western democracy and political systems … there is almost no example of [a country] that has made a smooth transition. Instead, their vitality has been sapped." (尤其不能不予正视的是,不仅仅韩国,整个东亚、东南亚、南亚、中亚甚至于北美和西欧之外的世界各国,那些照搬照抄西方民主政制模式的国家,不管其"脱胎"时间或长或短,其"换骨"的历史进程几乎没有顺顺当当的实例,而被弄得元气大伤的国家却比比皆是。)

Lu's opinion, however, is not ubiquitous. (A full description of the opinions expressed in China's countless Internet chat rooms, newspapers, and magazines is impossible, which is itself an encouraging thought.) In an editorial written by Zhou Yun and published in the Yangtze Daily, Zhou confronts Lu directly, accusing him of exaggerating the negative simply because it is so blatantly obvious. In fact, Korea's economy and society continued to develop rapidly after it became a democracy, argues Zhou, despite two financial crises and other problems. Roh's suicide will certainly damage the spirit of the Korean people, but it will not cause irreparable harm. Instead of focusing on corruption itself, Zhou emphasizes the fact that in Korea such dark practices are often brought to light: "[Korean politicians] are gradually realizing that in this kind of political system … it will ultimately be difficult to stop corrupt behavior from entering the court of public opinion." (他们会逐渐明白,在这种体制中受到的无处不在甚至"敌意"的监督下,任何贪腐行为最终都难以逃过公众的法眼。) Lu ends his editorial by pointing out that no political system is perfect, but people choose democracy because it has proven to be the best at advancing a country's economy and society, as well as curbing corruption.

Not too long ago, such bold views would not be permissible in a Chinese newspaper, and it's encouraging to see them published unhindered. What we are witnessing in this little editorial spat, of course, is not really about Korea. It is about China, and what path China's modernity should take. That is the dominant concern of modern Chinese intellectuals, and I wish them the best in figuring it out.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Remebering the earthquake

Tuesday was the one-year anniversary of the Sichuan earthquake, and memorial ceremonies were held throughout the country. For my part, I stumbled on a small one in front of the Shanghai Museum, attended almost exclusively by young people. It was organized, as far as I could tell from pamphlets that were handed out, by a group of students that used the Internet to spread the word.

A moment of silence:

Lighting the candles:

At another spot, after some discussion about which way was southwest, everybody stood in the proper direction and observed three minutes of silence:

Last year, Chinese nationalism stirred up by the earthquake merged with nationalism stirred up by the Olympics and the worldwide protests during the torch relay. The Tuesday ceremony was reminiscent of that phenomenon, as many people wore clothing intended to celebrate the Olympics and to proclaim one's love of China:

The girl with the megaphone led the crowd in several vows, such as vowing to love the motherland (zuguo) and to never forget the earthquake:

Friday, May 8, 2009

Fake doorways

It had to happen sometime. One of Shanghai’s most charming and interesting architectural features, the Shikumen, or Stone Entryway, has now entered the realm of the unreal.

A Shanghai Shikumen:

It really shouldn’t be surprising. Beyond its fake DVDs, fake Rolex watches, and fake Prada bags, China also has fake architecture, in the form of theme parks that recreate various wonders of the world, such as the Eiffel Tower and the Pyramids. China’s theme parks even recreate the country’s own tourist attractions. Too busy earning money in south China to make the trip to see the Great Wall? No problem: a theme park in Shenzhen has a miniature version, which not only is much easier to get to than the real wall but is easier to traverse as well, as it only comes up to your waist.

Still, my discovery of an underground reproduction of an old Shanghai street, complete with Shikumen, undated pictures of Shanghai in black and white, and, of course, shops selling fashionable clothes, led me to wonder exactly what the point was. Are people really too lazy to leave People’s Square, in the heart of Shanghai, to see some Shikumen? Are there any tourists who actually prefer cheap replicas to the real thing?

Most depressing of all is that, in the future, cheap replicas may be all we have. The current frenzy of construction and destruction in the lead-up to next year’s Expo is not an aberration in Shanghai’s recent history; it is simply an acceleration. This picture, which I took the same day I found the underground old street, has already been the fate of many of Shanghai’s wonderful Shikumen.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Cultural Revolution in the world

An exhibit of photography by Solange Brand, a French journalist, taken during the Cultural Revolution, has been getting attention from prominent blogs recently, and yesterday I stopped by to take a look. I’m glad I did: on display were some of the best photographs I’ve seen from the period, and in color!

(Photos from the China Beat)

Too often the Cultural Revolution is remembered as a kind of surreal, almost dream-like event that doesn’t seem to really have happened. It is surrounded by a chilly silence here in China, usually punctuated only by fiction or personal memoirs that don’t see wide circulation. It is also often treated somewhat abstractly—part of the official “30 percent” of what Mao did wrong. That’s why these kinds of photographs are valuable: they bring what happened down to earth.

However, what I found especially interesting was how the exhibit’s curator, Jean Loh, chose to frame the events depicted in the photographs. A blurb about the Cultural Revolution written by Loh briefly discussed the events in China, then offered an unexpected quote from John Lennon: “The sixties saw a revolution among youth, not just concentrating in small pockets or classes, but a revolution in a whole way of thinking; the youth got it first and the next generation second. The Beatles were part of the revolution.”

Why did Loh put a quote from John Lennon alongside photographs from the Cultural Revolution? The Beatles preached love and world peace; the Cultural Revolution saw the destruction of the careers and lives of millions of people, the devastation of valuable artifacts and ancient structures, and the blind vilification of foreign and domestic enemies. What on earth could they have in common?

I think Loh was getting at an insight that is really very valuable: that the Cultural Revolution did not happen in isolation; that it was part of broad transnational forces; and that it was complicit—and is still complicit—in more than what we might at first believe.

When we think back with nostalgia to the 1960s, the Cultural Revolution almost never enters the picture. Indeed, when we do think of it in relation to the period, it is usually treated as a source of shame. Bernardo Bertolucci’s 2003 film The Dreamers, for example, is about a small group of students that sequesters itself in an apartment in Paris in the summer of 1968, where they discuss revolutionary theory and, above all, cinema. Bertolucci portrays their affinity with the Cultural Revolution as a mere distraction, diverting his beloved young people away from what should be their real concern as 1960s students—mutual love and devotion to art, which Bertolucci treats as antithetical to the regimental priorities of the Cultural Revolution. Bertolucci’s 2003 portrayal of the 1968 movement in France absolves these students from any real involvement with the now discredited Cultural Revolution.

But is it really so easy to separate the two? Nowadays it’s almost taken for granted that the Cultural Revolution was a destructive, terrifying event; and indeed it was. But it was not simply that. It also served as an inspiration for millions of young activists around the world. Its origins were ugly, but the myth that it created became an important part of the sense of possibility and change that ran through the global movements of the 1960s, movements that fundamentally changed our world.

It is certainly not my intention to offer an apology for the tragic events that occurred in China during those years. But I do believe it is worth remembering that the Cultural Revolution was an event that informed radical movements around the globe, in a period that had sea-changing ramifications in world history. Perhaps it would be worthwhile to think of it, not just as “good” or “bad,” but also as a great historical force that had a significant influence on how we live today.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Daoism and conservatism

Just a quick plug for Sam Crane’s succinct dissection of American conservatives’ tendency to compare themselves to Daoists:

It's true that some Daoist sensibilities have some resonance with certain conservative ideas. Less government: the Daodejing moves in that direction. Just letting people do their things: to the extent that libertarianism is a part of the incoherent mish-mash that is contemporary conservatism, sure that's kind of like a Daoist orientation. But here's the big problem for conservatives: Daoism is not, and cannot, operate as a political ideology.

In general, I’m usually suspicious of attempts to relate ancient Chinese thinking, or any kind of ancient thinking, to modern issues. Such attempts tend to be overly simplistic and ignore the complex, and completely pre-modern, cultural, intellectual, and historical milieu in which such thinking developed. A character such as ren 仁, for example, is usually translated as “benevolence,” “humanity,” or something along those lines, but the ways in which we understand those words have been shaped by numerous historical factors that didn’t exist in ancient China.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Remembering Zheng He

While in Nanjing recently I visited the Jinghai Temple, in the northwest of the city, which was built during the Ming dynasty to commemorate Zheng He, the great Chinese mariner who made seven voyages to Southeast Asia, South Asia, and parts of the African coast in the early fifteenth century. Zheng He is usually remembered in contrast to European explorers, whose discovery of foreign lands was quickly followed by colonization. Zheng He’s fleets consisted of dozens of huge ships and tens of thousands of men, but the most he demanded was tribute to the Ming emperor. His voyages were not the harbinger of aggressive imperialist policies, unlike early European explorers such as Christopher Columbus, whom Zheng He is most often compared with.

Such historical imagery was probably not on the minds of the British when, in 1842, they negotiated the terms of the Treaty of Nanjing in Jinghai Temple, the first of the so-called “unequal treaties” that helped cripple the Qing government. It is somewhat ironic that the beginning of European imperialism in China—and, in many textbooks, the beginning of modern Chinese history itself—occurred in a place dedicated to what amounted to peaceful exploration (even if relations between China and other states in the fifteenth century assumed a culturally superior position on the part of the Ming).

If the British missed this implicit comparison between European and Chinese maritime exploration, the Chinese Communist Party certainly did not. In one part of the temple is an exhibit glorifying the peaceful voyages of Zheng He; in another, an exhibit denouncing, in a predictably hysterical way, the imperialism of the British. A full third of the exhibit is devoted to the reclamation of Hong Kong in 1997. The Zheng He exhibit, in contrast, emphasizes the friendly nature of China’s exchanges with other peoples, though what it leaves out is as interesting as what it includes: for example, there is no mention (at least that I could find) of the fact that Zheng He was a Muslim who was captured by the victorious Ming army at the age of eleven in what is now Yunnan province, made a eunuch, and brought to the Ming court, where he gained favor with the Yongle emperor. Perhaps that would complicate the image of him as a hero of the Chinese nation.

On the wall of the Zheng He exhibit is a set of three quotes that pretty aptly summarizes how China’s masters hope he will be remembered:

孙中山:乃郑和竟能于十四个月之中,而造成64艘之大舶,载运二万八千人巡游南洋,示威海外,为中国超前轶后之奇举;至今南洋人犹有怀想当年三保之雄风遗烈者,可谓状矣。 “And so when Zheng He was able to build 64 large ships in just 14 months, which carried 28,000 people to make a voyage around the southern seas [i.e., Southeast Asia], he demonstrated to the outside world the wonder of China’s advancement; the people of the southern seas, at least, still cherish the memory of [Zheng He’s] stately bearing [雄风遗烈者].” – Sun Yat-sen

邓小平:明成祖时候,郑和下西洋还算开放的。 。。。 不开放不行。你不开放,再来个闭关自守,五十年要接近经济发达国家水平,肯定不可能。 “In the time of our accomplished Ming ancestors, Zheng He’s voyage was one of opening up [开放]. … Not opening up does no good. If you don’t open up, and instead adopt a closed-door policy, it is impossible to come close to a developed national economy even in fifty years.” – Deng Xiaoping

江泽民: 就古代而言,中国对外交往可以追溯到公元前二世纪的‘丝绸之路’和公元十五世纪的郑和七下西洋,这些都给我留下了深刻的印象,这说明,中华民族在历史上就致力于同各国人民的友好往来,进行文化和经济交流,共同创造美好的未来。 “With regard to ancient times, we can trace back China’s relations with the outside world to the second century BCE, when the silk road [began], and to the fifteenth century CE, when Zheng He went to the western seas seven times. These [events] have given me a deep impression, because they show that the Chinese nation [中华民族] has historically devoted itself to establishing friendly contact with the people of every country, to carry out cultural and economic exchanges and to create a glorious future for everyone.” – Jiang Zemin

Friday, March 20, 2009

American voices in China

While in Shenzhen recently, I picked up the March 3 issue of Southern People Weekly magazine (南方人物周刊), whose main feature was intriguingly titled “America’s view of China.” The front of the magazine showed twenty covers of Time magazine that had to do with China—the first, I believe, from 1924, and the last from 2008. The implication was clear: Americans have always been interested in China, but what exactly does that interest consist of? What do they focus on when they look towards China?

I was expecting the feature to be a series of articles by Chinese experts on American politics and society, but I was surprised to find several pieces by well-known American writers. The familiar names included Susan Shirk, who writes about Chinese politics and recently published a well-received book on China’s rising status as a world power, and Peter Hessler, probably the best mainstream writer about China in English.

The ideas in both their articles would be familiar to those who have read their work. Shirk’s article focuses on American anxieties and expectations regarding China’s economic and political rise. She notes that many Americans fear Chinese competition and Americans often seek to impose their own value systems on China, while stating in general terms what people in the US hope to see from China: “Westerners hope to change China based on their own value systems; this is hardly a secret. Of course, we hope China will be able to develop gradually and peacefully; nobody wants China to experience a political crisis.” (西方希望按照自己相信的制度改变中国,这不是什么秘密。当然,我们希望中国能够渐进地,和平地发展,没人希望中国出现政治危机。) Her article is generally couched in these kinds of vague and general terms, but she does poke gentle, if familiar, criticism at Chinese politics: “We greatly respect the importance of stability, but to a greater extent [we hope for] what Mr. Clinton said in a speech at Beijing University in 1998: that true stability should come from below, and should be based on the agreement of the people.” (我尊重稳定的重要性,但正如克林顿先生1998年在北大演讲所说,真正的稳定应该是自下而上的,应该来源于人民的同意。)

In Peter Hessler’s article, he summarizes his experience in China and offers insights about differences between China and the US. As usual, his observations are right on the mark: Americans always think about political issues in relation to China, but Chinese people themselves often focus on completely different issues; Americans who visit China are often stunned by people’s freedom, at least their economic freedom; political change in China is the purview of Chinese people, which doesn’t only mean that Westerners shouldn’t meddle but also that Chinese people should, at some point, be more active in caring about the political health of their country: “I believe China needs political reform, but I don’t think this is America’s responsibility. It is Chinese people’s own affair, and they need to think about how to accomplish it. More contact with other parts of the world and with new ideas is beneficial. I also don’t think it’s a problem when foreigners criticize China. In America we also criticize the American government, so when Americans think China has a problem, they naturally state their views—I think Chinese people should realize this and work harder to accept it.” (我相信中国需要政治变革,但我不觉得这是美国的责任,这是中国人自己的事情,他们得自己想出解决办法。对于他们来说,更多地接触外部世界、接触新的思想是 有益的。同时,我也不觉得那些批评中国的外国人有任何问题。在美国我们也批评美国政府,所以美国人如果觉得中国人有问题,自然就要说出来——我觉得中国人 应该意识到并能够接受这一点。) Simple stuff, perhaps, but too little heard in this country.

Hessler also makes an interesting point about Chinese intellectuals: “It’s very difficult for me to have a close relationship with Chinese intellectuals. It’s very strange. Chinese intellectuals really care about history and international opinion [about China] … In fact, I think it’s easier for me get along with common people. … In China, there is a chasm between the intellectuals and the masses.” (我很难和中国的知识分子有密切交往。这很奇怪。中国的知识分子很关注历史,国际的观点 。。。我倒觉得自己更容易被工农大众接受。。。在中国,知识分子和普罗大众间的确有一条鸿沟。)

I’m often amazed by the insights foreigners can bring to a country—Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America is probably the most famous example in the United States—and I’m frustrated when Chinese people dismiss foreigners’ comments because they cannot possible “understand” China. It’s therefore gratifying to see intelligent American commentators given a voice in a prominent Chinese magazine. But the value of these foreign voices doesn’t just come from their ability to offer insights about the country that Chinese themselves may miss. It’s also useful for Chinese to gain an understanding of how foreigners think about their country—the framework in which we think about Chinese affairs.

In Susan Shirk’s article, for example, she mentions American interest in “patriotism” and “nationalism,” and talks about what these terms actually mean: “Of course, the word ‘nationalism’ has a slight derogatory implication. We always say, I am ‘patriotic,’ while you are ‘nationalistic.’ [Part of] nationalism’s inherent meaning is anti-foreign, and it can put pressure on the government, compelling it to make choices in policy that might not be consistent with the interests of the country.” (当然,民族主义这个词本身有一个略含贬义的隐喻,我们总是说,我是patriotic(爱国的),而你是nationalistic(民族主义的)。民族主义的潜在威胁是排外,它可能给政府压力,迫使它选择一些并不符合国家利益的外交政策。) Shirk is treading carefully here, but what it sounds like she’s saying is that Chinese people should ease up on their nationalistic outbursts, which often border on hysteria and which foreigners always react badly to. During such outbursts, of course, western media almost always talks about Chinese “nationalism,” never about Chinese “patriotism.” Chinese would do well to be more aware of how their “patriotic” activities are seen in foreign countries.