Posts Tagged ‘China’

Getting “Educated”

Posted: December 30, 2013 in Education
Tags: , ,

I recently came across this documentary called “Education, Education” (released a year ago but new to me) exploring the hardship young Chinese are facing in leveraging their education for a decent job. It follows a college graduate struggling to find work, a poor rural girl deciding what she should do after failing the gaokao, and a recruiter touting a sham private college.

The film was advertised with the question, “Has higher education become a cause of poverty rather than a route out of it?” This, I think, is a depressingly relevant question to be asking in China today.

I’ve often said that what the country needs perhaps more than anything is education – the kind that opens minds and sparks a desperately needed innovative spirit. Unfortunately, what it more often provides is “education” – the kind that puts teachers at the front of classrooms but does little other than waste students’ time and embed them with a sense of entitlement.

The film’s depiction of the two students is compelling, but the sham agent is what really grabbed my attention. The man travelled from city-to-city giving talks to students who failed the gaokao, trying to convince them to attend the expensive “private college” he works for.

He gives inspiring speeches and rattles off quotes like “Learning is the noblest of all pursuits in life.” He’s actually preaching to the parents in the room, who’ve been taught their whole lives (and often seen firsthand) that a college degree can change a poor peasant’s fate.

Between speeches, the man explains to the filmmaker how he’s scamming them. He pulls up the PowerPoint presentation he uses to show pictures of the campus’s libraries, conference halls, labs and auditorium. “None of them exist,” he said. “Just images from the Internet. 90 percent of the tutors have no teaching qualifications or experience.”

He goes on to coldly describe how much the scam hurts its victims. “With the minimum monthly wage of 1,200 yuan and spending nothing, it would take five years for a student to pay back their debts. Look at me, I’m a qualified graphic designer but have to travel around selling a scam. What hope is there for the kids that I recruit?”

At first I couldn’t believe that he would admit these things on camera with his face shown, but it dawned on me that he was probably doing it out of guilt as a sort of atonement. “Nobody can do this for a long time, everyone wants to quit,” he said near the end of the film. “[The families] are so poor. Giving money to [our school]? What the hell? Where’s our conscience?”

Earlier this year I spoke to a group of young students from rural Henan who’d been lured into a nearly identical scam hundreds of miles from home. After they failed the gaokao, they were called by a recruiter to attend the inspirational pitch. They were incredibly poor, and thought some kind of education was the only way to change their family’s status. So they paid 10,000 yuan – nearly all the money their parents had saved – just for the first year at the “college.” They planned to borrow from other family and friends for the subsequent three years.

In villages like theirs, everyone knows one-another so few would dare try to swindle others. “People in the countryside are very honest,” one of the young men told me. “So we had no sense of law.”

The recruiter from the film acknowledged how he preyed on this naiveté. “The more simple they are, the more likely they are to be fooled by us,” he said. “The clever ones don’t fall for it so easily.”

Like the school from the film, the fake college that the Henan men attended eventually folded and the ringleader disappeared with all of their money. It stole a year of their lives and left them 10,000 yuan poorer with nothing to show for it but a keen sense of disillusionment. “The only thing I learned at that school was not to trust anybody,” one of them said. “I got hurt badly. My first contact with society was full of lies.”

It had happened three years prior to when I spoke to them, but they’d all been too ashamed to ever tell their parents.

Most stayed in the city, some toiling at low-end labor jobs as they kept studying for the gaokao hoping they’d eventually pass and skirt having to tell their families anything (one man had already failed three times).

Education scams like these have become ubiquitous in China. Earlier this year it was revealed that there were at least 70 of them operating just in Beijing. They prey on the sense that any “education” is better than nothing and can provide some social mobility. They prey on the desperation of those who can least afford it.

I had to wonder though, would the young men really have been any better off had they scored a few points higher on the gaokao and been admitted to a low-tier college? About one-fourth of those who graduate now are still jobless a year later.

A few months later I met a man who’d graduated from a second-tier provincial university with a degree in Chinese in 2009. He’d spent the following three years hopping across the country working in factories and grocery stores as he struggled to find white collar work. It wasn’t until after he cut his losses and paid 10,000 yuan for a four-month computer programming course that he found a decent-paying job in an office.

I suggested to one of the Henan men that perhaps he’d be better off cutting his losses and attending a shorter term technical school, since that’s where the most demand in China is. However, that just didn’t have the same appeal. “I thought about going to technical school when my college went bust,” he replied. “But my classmates criticized me. They said, ‘your parents saved for you to go to college. How could you use their money for technical school?’”

The long-running debate as to whether China will dethrone the U.S. as the world’s top superpower or buckle like Japan or the Soviet Union is heating up again. Slowing growth and a slew of ominous data has people talking about just how serious this crunch will turn out. You can check out two great discussions about this at ChinaFile and New York Times (or to simplify, just read the opposing viewpoints of Michael Pettis and Justin Lin).

Whether there will be a crash and what that says about China’s economic model is certainly very significant, but I think when looking at the big picture of China’s future, it’s hardly THE most significant issue. I don’t fear a Chinese hard landing nearly as much as I fear the hard long slog unfolding much more quietly.

Right now China is barrelling down the economic rapids trying to avoid crashing, but there’s already a hole in the bottom of the raft. Even if it avoids a crash, there are much worse things in store. And China doesn’t have just one big hole in its raft, it has (at least) four.

1.  The Aging Population
In 2010, about 13 percent of China’s population was over 60-years-old. Or in other words, there were five working age people for every retiree, and even that’s already causing problems. With China’s enormous “floating population” of migrant workers, about half of all elderly live by themselves or with just an elderly spouse. This leaves many migrants the choice of essentially straddling their hometown and work-destination in order to care for ailing parents, or paying to put them up in the city. Both options can cause huge financial strains, which is made worse by the fact that the one-child policy has left plenty of couples to solely support four parents. But as tough as it is now, we ain’t seen nothing yet:

population aging chart

That 5-to-1 ratio of workers-to-retirees will fall to 3-to-1 just by 2020 and continue to get worse from there until the over 60 crowd goes above and beyond a third of China’s population. Some may point out that this is very similar to what Japan and several other countries are going through, but there’s one very important thing to keep in mind:

 japan china gdp2

Thanks to the one child policy wreaking havoc on demographics, China is facing a first world problem while it still only has third world resources to cope with it. Japan may be able to afford it, but in all likelihood, China won’t. The facilities and the trained personnel to care for these elderly just aren’t there, and putting them there will be incredibly difficult with the meager means China has at its disposal. It will put unmanageable strains on families, pensions and China’s healthcare system…not to mention the economic dividends China’s large population of workers have been supplying over the past two decades.

2.  The Pollution
I don’t even know where to begin on China’s pollution problems. For starters, an estimated 750,000 Chinese die prematurely each year from air pollution-related respiratory diseases. Hundreds of “cancer villages” dot the countryside. And the country’s carbon emissions, which are already the highest in the world, aren’t expected to peak for at least another two decades.

But the most frightening implication of China’s pollution is what it’s doing to the food and water supply. Wall Street Journal reported last week that “anywhere between 8% and 20% of China’s arable land, some 25 to 60 million acres, may now be contaminated with heavy metals. A loss of even 5% could be disastrous, taking China below the ‘red line’ of 296 million acres of arable land that are currently needed, according to the government, to feed the country’s 1.35 billion people.”

Many farmers that used to produce healthy food are now growing food they know can’t be sold just so they can qualify for compensation from the government or polluting factories. Or worse, they’re growing food they know isn’t safe to sell, but they’re sellling it anyways. On top of this, desertification resulting from global warming and deforestation is claiming arable land the size of Rhode Island every year.

After decades of growth policies that used the “grow GDP first and clean up later” principle, China is realizing that it all may be too expensive to clean up. A researcher from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences has estimated that if you factor in environmental costs, China’s real annual GDP growth would be nearly halved. However, no matter how much money is thrown at the problem, there are some resources that may never be recovered…which leads to the next big problem.

3.  The Water Shortage
Demand for water in China is skyrocketing, while at the same time supply is dwindling and being contaminated.  The Tibetan glaciers, which supply the water for all three of China’s major rivers – The Yangtze, Mekong and Yellow – are disappearing by as much as 7% per year. About half of the rivers that existed in China in 1990 have already dried up, and of those rivers and lakes that remain, about 75% are severely polluted. 28% are so polluted that their water can’t even be used for agriculture.

The water shortage will also have severe effects on industry. As much as 17 percent of China’s water is now used by the coal industry and other power stations. And as you can see, China’s coal use has been shooting upward for the past decade with no promise of slowing any time soon.

 coal chart
Chart via U.S. Energy Information Administration

Over the next two decades, this water crisis is poised to come to a head with demand far outstripping supply by nearly 200 billion cubic meters. What this will mean for China’s economy and the everyday lives of its citizens is scary to think about, to put it mildly.

 waterrisk
Chart via Business Insider and China Water Risk

4. The Gender Imbalance
The one-child policy, a patriarchal culture and sex selective abortions and have come together in what will eventually create a population of surplus men that rivals the overall populations of many large countries. According to a Chinese population researcher from Xi’an Jiaotong University, the number of these “bare branches” aged 20 to 49 in China will reach 20 million by 2015 and continue to grow to around 44 million by 2040. At current birthrates, eventually one in five Chinese men will be hopelessly single. These numbers are unprecedented in human history, and experts are expecting very little good to come from it.

Times and places in history with large male surpluses – from the American Wild West to mid-19th century Northern China – have been marked by lawlessness and exploitation of women. Rises in violent crime rates have been attributed to the imbalance that already exists in contemporary China. And since those left without wives tend to be the very poorest men – who are increasingly finding themselves clustered in “bachelor villages” – other grievances could easily consolidate them into a violent force. This is exactly what scholars Valerie Hudson and Andrea Den Boer have argued preceded historical Chinese conflicts like the Nien Rebellion, the Black Flag Army, the Boxers and the Eight Trigrams Rebellion.

Furthermore, if the Chinese government gets worried about the social upheaval bare branches could cause, they may try to channel that angst into the Chinese army. In that case, it could result in ultra-nationalism and a foreign policy that’s “swaggering, belligerent, provocative,” as Hudson and Den Boer put it.

        *                                               *                                            *

I try to be an optimist. I have confidence that new technologies and targeted policies can mitigate some of these problems before they become catastrophic. But the fact that these four things are happening in concert is downright terrifying and presents the probable scenario that they’ll exacerbate one-another. The worsening health effects from pollution could make it more expensive to care for the elderly. The water shortage and soil degradation could cause food and utility prices to rise, making it harder to eke out a living and keep the bare branches content. You get the idea.

So by all means keep an eye on the present economic hurdle. It will certainly have enormous implications on the quality of life in China and the extent to which the country is able to address other issues. But don’t forget that even if China gets over this hurdle, there are much bigger ones on the road ahead. Keep a very close eye on these hurdles, because they won’t become apparent in any abrupt crash. But they have the potential to be much more crippling to the country’s sustained growth.

This week China’s chief media regulator issued a statement  outlining new regulations for media organizations. They basically boil down to the following:

  • News organizations may not cite foreign media without permission.
  • News organizations must file with authorities when setting up an official Weibo account and assign a person to insure that only kosher topics gets tweeted.
  • Journalists should offer proper guidance of public opinion under the principle of focusing on positive propaganda.
  • People without journalist permits are barred from interviewing or reporting under the name of a news organization.
  • Online news sites should not publish any reports from a news source, freelance writer or NGO before the facts are verified.

Nothing too earth-shaking here, and these directives are hardly enforceable. However, they do present a clear message: The Party’s grip on the media will not be loosening one bit. If anything, it will tighten.

For years now there’s been speculation over whether Xi Jinping (and the rest of the new government) will maintain the status quo, be reformist or even head in the opposite direction and roll back reforms. This is an oversimplified debate. These things will happen and are already happening.

These new media directives are one of many recent examples of an overriding principle that’s hardly changed since 1979: Nearly everything is eligible for reform and a Communist Party retreat, except for the “Three Ps” – Propaganda, Personnel and the People’s Liberation Army.

Over the past few months I’ve spoken with a number of experts in fields ranging from gay rights to the environment who are very excited about the new leadership, and with good cause. Everywhere you look in China there seems to be the beginnings of actual reforms, or at least hints that the rigid status quo is going to change for the better.

Measures have been put in place to make leaders less pompous and overindulgent. After 24 years, public discussion has been re-opened on Hu Yaobang. Behemoth state monopolies are being put in check. Homosexuality is moving away from being officially taboo. It appears the model of “GDP growth ahead of all else” is being dismantled. China is improving its environmental transparency. A raft of long-overdue economic reforms are kicking off. The list goes on and on.

It’s still too early to say for sure, but this could very well be a new spring for civil society and long stigmatized groups.

But before we break out the champagne, let’s consider a few other recent signals from our bold new reformers. Last year Xi Jinping ordered more “thought control” in universities. Several times over the past year, Xi has commanded the PLA to remain “absolutely loyal” to the Communist Party above all else. There was the infamous Southern Weekly Incident illustrating an increasingly overbearing propaganda department. In the past year, two foreign correspondents have faced de facto expulsions for the first time since 1998, while new foreign journalists are waiting over a year to get their visas in some cases. And last, but certainly not least, China’s internet censorship apparatus is becoming ever-more sophisticated at weeding out “harmful” content.

So what’s the deal? Are these new leaders reformers or not? Obviously, it’s complicated, but you can make a pretty good prediction on the likelihood of a given reform just by establishing whether it threatens the Party’s absolute control over who educates the public, who holds any kind of political power, and which way the guns would face in the event of an uprising (AKA – Propaganda, Personnel, People’s Liberation Army).

Since the 1990s, China’s communist mandarins have religiously studied the downfall of the Soviet Union. The conclusions they’ve reached are that democratizing, opening the press and losing control over the military opened floodgates that resulted in the regime’s collapse. Xi Jinping gave a private speech to this effect to Party leaders in Guangdong last December on what was supposed to be his nod to Deng Xiaoping’s “Southern Tour.”

Some have contrasted Xi’s private instructions to remember the Soviet Union with his efforts to align himself with Deng Xiaoping’s reformist legacy, but the two are hardly contradictory. Although he was unquestionably a real reformer that forever changed China for the better, Deng was also a firm believer in upholding absolute Party control over the Three Ps.

Xi, like Deng, recognizes that the Three Ps are non-negotiable in order to keep continued Party rule, and by extension (in their minds), a stable environment for other reforms to happen.

In some ways it may seem like the new government is more amenable to opening up the press. Xi has vowed to go after both “the tigers and the flies” (top leaders and low officials who are corrupt) and hinted that this involves more freedom for the press and the online public. But there will always be a cage over the press. If that cage gets bigger (and there’s been no meaningful indication that it actually will), it will be carefully designed to let reporters roam only in areas that serve the Party’s self-preserving interests. These new directives suggest that that the vetting process for those even allowed to roam in that cage is getting stricter.

So this is what we’ll need to get used to. Virtually everything outside the Three Ps is eligible for reform, and that’s good news. There’s still a lot of room for making China a better place within those confines. But the Three Ps will absolutely remain under complete Party control, barring some massive national movement that presents a crisis even greater than Tiananmen.

So far it seems that opening up and reforming in the allowable areas means locking down the three non-negotiables even more tightly so as to ensure the approved reforms don’t bring any unpredictability. So feel free to get your hopes up in many arenas. Just also recognize what’s not likely to ever happen.

Today around noon I saw Twitter light up over a report that CCTV would live broadcast the execution of a Burmese drug smuggler and three members of his gang convicted of killing 13 Chinese on the Mekong River.

At first glance I assumed the uproar was because CCTV would devote so much attention to the execution of foreign criminals; attention like Timothy McVeigh and Ted Bundy received when crowds gathered outside their prisons and cameras were rolling to capture the signal that they were dead.

That angle made sense. China devoted no such attention to the executions of its own serial killers like Yang Xinhai and Zhang Yongmin. It seemed to be yet another Opium War allusion to give the impression: “Vigilant CCP shows no mercy to foreign aggressors who attack China’s sovereignty and humiliate its people (especially through the drug trade).”

I soon realized though that that wasn’t what the uproar was about. People thought that “live broadcasting the execution” meant CCTV would literally bring cameras into the chamber and air the lethal injections.

For those familiar with the version of China gossiped about by grannies in Florida getting their hair done, that might seem conceivable. But for those familiar with the actual China, that proposition should sound completely absurd.

Contrary to popular belief, The People’s Republic of China has rarely put their executions out on display (vigilante Cultural Revolution killings aside). Sure, it frequently paraded condemned criminals around town and had execution rallies in stadiums right up through the 1990s. There was even a TV show until last year that interviewed death row inmates, sometimes just minutes before execution. But when it’s time to do the deed itself, criminals have almost always been taken to a secluded location away from public eyes.

In 2004, Boxun did a report on the death penalty in China featuring interviews with law enforcement who’d been involved with executions (Boxun is by no means reliable, but in this case there were very gruesome photos that seem to back up the interviews).

One man who’d been involved in “half a dozen” executions up until 1995 using the traditional bullet to the head method said, “There are no spectators at the scene of the execution.  We maintain three rings of security.  Outsiders are kept far away, such that they cannot even hear the gunshot sounds.  On our way back, nobody says anything because we are overwhelmed by the feeling that life can be so cheap.”

As satisfying as it may be for some to see a foreign aggressor get what’s coming to him, why would authorities regress below something considered too socially risky even by 1995 standards? Chinese censors routinely cut fictional violence from movies and TV – even to the point of disallowing the use of a knife to threaten someone – lest any fragile minds be influenced and disrupt social harmony. So why on Earth would the most viewed channel on the most viewed medium in China show a real person being killed live for millions of children to see?

It wouldn’t. Period.

All this uproar began with a piece in South China Morning Post titled “CCTV ‘to broadcast live execution of Mekong River massacre drug smugglers.’” John Kennedy, who wrote the piece, later said on Twitter: “CCTV said, unambiguously and in plain Chinese, it’s going to live broadcast the execution. I’m not going to put words in its mouth. If it turns out CCTV is deliberately misleading the public to boost viewership (and in a way or two I hope it is), that’s a story in itself.”

Indeed.

In the end, just about everything leading up to the executions was shown – from prepping the prisoners to transporting them – but cameras stopped short of entering the chamber. Doing so would have been socially risky, and therefore impossible; not to mention gratuitously vile on a level that even the Ministry of Public Security wouldn’t stoop to.

Were the bits that were shown morbid, exploitative and inhumane? Sure. Was it all shamelessly done as a political statement with unsettling xenophobic undertones? Absolutely. Was it warranted in order to deter such brutal criminal acts in the future? I’m sure a lot of people will make that argument. And I’m sure you’ll be reading elsewhere about all these things in the coming days, but all I can say is nobody took the enormous leap of showing the execution – something a lot of people who should have known better seemed to think was a real possibility.

[Correction: This previously referred to the Boxun report as being from 1994. It was actually from 2004.]

The Gaokao Highway to Hell

Posted: February 3, 2013 in Education
Tags: ,

China’s Gaokao college entrance exam, which heavily tests rote memorization and decides the fate of China’s youth, is objectively awful. Students know this, teachers know this, the government knows this, my aunt Agatha knows this. Recently though I’ve gained a new appreciation for just how horrific it is.

For the past week I’ve been in my girlfriend’s Shandong hometown staying with her aunt, uncle and 17-year-old cousin Emily.

Emily is a puny 90 pounds with the horrible eyesight common among Chinese youth.  If given the chance, she’ll talk to you for hours about soap operas and schoolyard gossip.

Two-and-a-half years ago she and her family came to visit us in Nanjing. It was a kind of celebration for passing the end of middle school test and getting into the town’s best high school. Since that trip, Emily’s life has been hell.

This summer she’ll take the Gaokao. So each day she goes to school from 7:30 AM to 10:00 PM with a two hour lunch. She gets Saturday afternoons and Sunday mornings off…usually.

Every night at 10:15, her mom waits anxiously at the front door. When Emily arrives on her electric bike, she leans on the horn in annoyance. Her mom bolts out the door to open the courtyard gate. No matter how fast she makes it out, Emily is irritated. She’s running on fumes already and vents at the routine setback of having to wait ten seconds to get in the house.

When she gets in the front door, her mom hustles her over to a warm footbath she’s prepared. Any precious second that’s wasted is a second Emily will lose from study or sleep. But once she sits down to her footbath, she has a few minutes to unwind. It’s the one window where I can talk to her. The topic, of course, is how miserable her day was.

After we chat for about five minutes, her mom hands her a textbook and I take my cue to head off to bed. This is just the beginning of Emily’s night.

The time that she goes to bed varies. On a rare good night, it’ll be a little after midnight. I once woke up to use the bathroom at 2:30 and found her passed out on a book. “I’m just taking a little rest,” she looked up and uttered pathetically, as if she needed to justify the catnap to me.

If she managed to get all her homework done, her mom will rouse her at 6:30 AM – at which point they’ll bargain over whether Emily can have a few more minutes of sleep. Emily never wins this negotiation. Once she’s up, she’ll do a little morning studying, make quick work of her breakfast and be out the door (This is what I’m told anyways. I’ve never actually been awake to see it myself).

Normally, the entire family treats me like a prince. They’ll bend over backwards to make sure I don’t lift a finger while I’m there. Meals are placed before me and trips are made across town to get any little thing they think I might want, no matter how strongly I object (I like to think this is just because I’m a guest, but realistically, I know my foreignness plays a role). All this princely treatment ends abruptly though when it conflicts with the schedule of the Queen.

After subtracting the commute, Emily has an hour-and-a-half at home for lunch. I’ve been told ever so politely (but in no uncertain terms) that I’m to be out of the house during this period. Emily doesn’t have time to be distracted by me. She’ll scarf down lunch in a matter of minutes and then go straight to bed for some precious afternoon Zs…unless of course she still has unfinished homework.

After several more hours of drilling and practice tests, she’ll come home and repeat. As I head to bed I tell her, “Don’t work too hard.” I’m the only one doling out such advice.

My girlfriend has persuaded Emily’s parents that the brain needs time to relax, and now they’re relatively easy on her. During her free Saturday afternoon, she’s allowed to watch soap operas and talk with me for a little while before being directed back to her study desk. Many of her classmates though have their faces stuffed in their books at every waking moment or have an outside tutor arranged during this time.

Teachers and parents are perfectly aware of how much stress this puts on the kids. They try to occasionally organize activities to relieve the pressure and allow some semblance of socializing. But these occasions are too little and too contrived. Recently they had a class dinner to celebrate the New Year, but it was more like being let out of the dungeon to have a nice dinner with the other captives. Yes, the students were happy to have it, but there wasn’t exactly a festive atmosphere. Everyone spent the evening complaining to one another.

Two years ago during the Spring Festival, after Emily’s first semester of high school, she was already feeling the heat. One night while everyone else was visiting a neighbor, she broke down and started sobbing on my shoulder. “There’s so much pressure,” she said. “Everyone wants so much from me. I don’t know if I can pass. If I don’t they’ll be so disappointed in me.”

Considering how high the suicide rate is for Emily’s demographic, I was glad to be the foreigner disconnected from her world that allowed her to uncork what she’d been bottling up.

When I think back to my high school life – the parties, proms, sports, pointless time-killing shenanigans – it kills me that Emily won’t have any of it. She’ll just have memories of soul-crushing routine.

But the lost memories, the stress, the bodily harm – it might be worth it if there were something worthwhile at the end of the tunnel; something truly enriching that sprouted from all that time and sacrifice.

Yesterday, while studying, Emily asked me when you should say “It’s my pleasure” and when you should simply say “My pleasure” in English conversation. It seemed like a pretty pointless question. There may be a very subtle situational difference, depending on who you ask, but in what scenario could that very narrow distinction possibly matter? Sure enough though, there was a “correct” answer to the multiple choice question.

I flipped through the textbook and found pages full of similar hair-splitting drivel that would in no way actually improve someone’s ability to communicate in English. I asked Emily what exactly they teach her in school all day. “We write many passages,” she said. “And then they tell us how we should write it better [for the essay portion of the Gaokao].”

“You know, it’s not like Mo Yan,” she continued. “He tells very interesting stories, but we can’t write anything like that. If I write what I want, I’ll fail.”

If you’re a reader of this blog, hopefully you already have an eye on the still unfolding events surrounding Southern Weekend. As I write this, the paper’s staff is reportedly still in negotiations with propaganda officials over what will happen next. Meanwhile, droves of students, celebrities and other media outlets have expressed their support for the paper online while a demonstration involving hundreds has taken hold outside its Guangzhou offices.

Zhongnanhai blog has done a good post saying that China watchers and correspondents have a tendency to over-interpret events like this. The author predicts it will be “a great story for a while until it fizzles out and becomes nothing more than an infrequently-viewed Wikipedia page.”

For the most part, I agree. But there are some aspects I think are pretty significant in the long term. So let’s iron out what this incident is and what it’s not.

What It’s Not
1) A bold stand by Southern Weekend against government censorship
The heart of this issue is that Guangdong’s propaganda head Tuo Zhen allegedly doctored Southern Weekend’s New Year’s editorial and sent it to press without the paper’s editors being informed. This is a highly irregular slap in the face to the paper. It’s one thing to tell editors they can’t print something. It’s very different though to put (highly embarrassing and inaccurate) words in their mouths that they only learn about when they pick up the paper. Southern Weekend is standing up against this disrespect and circumvention of the status quo. It’s not rejecting the idea of government censorship.

2) The first domino toward a mass free speech movement or a Tiananmen-like showdown.
The Telegraph ran a piece saying this “is arguably the most open and widespread display of dissent since the Tiananmen Square protests almost a quarter of a century ago.”

Maybe that’s technically true, but it oversells the significance of where we’re at now. When Wukan residents expelled their local government in late 2011, it was considered a huge deal and people (including myself) were wondering if it was a preview of things to come – either of further uprisings or a model for peaceful government accommodation.

It was neither.

There’s about a 90% chance the Southern Weekend standoff will fizzle out one way or another with a mild one-off solution. Protestors have been tacitly allowed to demonstrate so far, suggesting the government still isn’t entirely sure what to do. Guangdong’s new party secretary Hu Chunhua, as of now, is the favorite to replace Xi Jinping as China’s president in 2022. If he gets blood on his hands or gives an obvious victory to free speech agitators, his hopes could get dashed pretty quickly. It’s very unlikely there will be a violent crackdown or an agreement to ease media controls, but more likely some minor private concession (or effective threat) to the paper that only applies to present circumstances.

Simply firing Tuo Zhen would placate Southern Weekend and end the situation, but the government’s propaganda directives have suggested this isn’t going to happen. It would set an undesirable precedent (though not a disastrous one– as some have suggested. I think it still remains a last resort if the paper refuses to back down or protests strengthen). If and when this event fizzles out with some kind of uninspiring resolution, everyone will go home unsatisfied – but not furious. Then we’ll move on to other issues.

However, that doesn’t mean there won’t be significant takeaways.

What It Is
1) A surprising signal that many of China’s youth are primed to push for change
A few months ago when I was at the massive anti-Japan protests, I looked around and wondered if I’d ever see the day when Chinese would make similar emotional cries in public for something not on the government’s agenda. Seeing how firmly that angst was focused on Japan, I thought it would be at least several years. If you’d told me on that day that within four months, a sizeable crowd would gather to call for press freedom in China, I’d have said no way.

Southern Weekend staff may not be pushing for an outright end to censorship, but their supporters certainly seem to be. You can bet

Via Tea Leaf Nation: "One woman looked fear in the eye, and said, 'cheese'"

Via Tea Leaf Nation: “One woman looked fear in the eye, and said, ‘cheese’”

that more than a few parents across the country have been warning their kids to stay the hell away from any hint of subversive activity. Getting involved with something deemed “anti-government” can blot a permanent record and ruin career prospects. Yet, students across the country are voicing support to Southern Weekend online WITH THEIR FACES SHOWN. And even more unbelievably, hundreds showed up to protest IN PERSON against media censorship – one of the most unshakeable government priorities.

This is much different than your routine “mass incidents” over things like land grabs and pollution. These people in Guangzhou have no immediate stake in protesting censorship. They have very little to gain personally and a lot to lose. That indeed takes cojones that have rarely been seen since 1989. These protestors may be a very small, unrepresentative sample of China’s youth, but it’s a sample I didn’t realize existed yet.

But perhaps I should have realized it. When I got to China five years ago and spoke with young educated people about media censorship, some would say they opposed it, but more would voice support. They’d say things like “If the truth were revealed, China would collapse” or “Poor people must support the leaders if we’re to keep developing. They wouldn’t if the media could criticize the leaders.”

These days I hear fewer and fewer people say things like that. Thanks to Weibo, people are realizing that much of the things swept up in the censorship system aren’t just abstract embarrassments. They’re concrete things like poisonous food, pollution, land grabs, railway accidents and flood deaths – things that have a real impact on public safety and well-being; things that could be avoided if publicized.

2) Another sign of “de-facto democratization”
Weibo also probably means a more democratic resolution to the standoff then there would have been a few years ago. In 2003, Southern Metropolis Daily (also from the Southern Media Group), embarrassed Guangdong officials with reports on detention camps and SARS. This ended in a clampdown that saw two editors slapped with lengthy prison sentences on trumped up charges.

This is the traditional way of dealing with such brazen newspapers. But this has become prohibitively risky (perhaps for the first time with the unfolding events). It’s not impossible that a Southern Weekend reporter will end up in jail, but with as many sympathetic eyes as there are on the story, it’s not a realistic possibility. And the fact that the propaganda department is deigning to negotiate with the paper is a sign that it no longer feels able to just unilaterally bring down the hammer.

If the hammer does come down eventually and the paper is shut down or editors are fired, then the government will find itself at an all time credibility low and will meet strong public backlash. I don’t at all rule out this possibility. As stupid and self-defeating as that would be, the government has time and again stubbornly clung to repressive tactics that are 20 years out of date. Doing so here wouldn’t bring the masses to the streets, but it would bring them one step closer to ultimately dropping faith in the system entirely.

So no, this event in all likelihood won’t be a watershed for those hoping to see quick political reform. But it does represent a shift, however slight it may be, in the public’s consciousness and what it’s willing to tolerate. Even if the government is unwilling to engage in meaningful political reform, it’s already being pushed on an irreversible course of de-facto reform.

On Chris Buckley’s Ousting

Posted: January 1, 2013 in media
Tags: , ,

It’s just been revealed that New York Times reporter Chris Buckley failed to get his visa renewed and has been forced to leave the country. This is widely being viewed as retaliation by the Chinese government for an exposé the paper did on the hidden fortune of Premier Wen Jiabao’s relatives.

What’s especially raised eyebrows about the move is that Buckley had nothing to do with the offending report, while David Barboza, the author of the piece, had his visa renewed without issue. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs isn’t commenting on why it denied the visa, so any explanation is pure speculation. However, this is something I’ve thought for months could happen.

This year, without a doubt, has seen more muckraking from foreign journalists than ever before. Besides the NYT piece, Bloomberg reported bombshells like the wealth of Xi Jinping’s family and the enormous power descendants of the Eight Immortals still wield. And of course, western media reporting was integral to the fall of Bo Xilai.

These reports have proven it possible to dig up dirt on leaders at the very top, so one has to imagine other media outlets (or the same ones) are already working on more of these exposés. There are other very high leaders (who will remain nameless here) with rumors of extensive wealth and links to corruption that are likely even more vulnerable than Wen or Xi. It’s probably only a matter of time before somebody unacceptably high gets implicated in actual wrong-doing.

This leaves the Party with two choices: Address the issue systematically and accept the inevitable heightened scrutiny, or chop at the symptoms and try to scare people away from revealing the truth. Chris Buckley’s ouster makes pretty clear which choice is being pursued.

But why Buckley? It’s probably not as random as it seems. To expel David Barboza would be too explicit and make him a martyr. However, ousting someone at NYT unrelated to the damaging report sends a clear signal to the Western press, yet denies it the satisfaction of running headlines like “Journalist Behind Wen Exposé Expelled From China.”

But perhaps an even more compelling reason for ousting Buckley is the classic dissident’s dilemma. When Barboza started working on his Wen story, he must have known that it could result in his expulsion from China…or worse (Mike Forsythe received death threats after his piece on Xi Jinping). Yet he consciously accepted that risk and went ahead anyways. What’s harder to accept though is risking other people’s necks.

This is a technique the Party wholeheartedly embraces. It’s why Liu Xia (Liu Xiaobo’s wife) has been under house arrest for years despite not being charged with any crime. It’s why Chen Guangcheng’s family, right down to his six-year-old daughter, was held with him and virtually starved during his house arrest.

Dissidents and journalists accept (and often relish) the dangers of their work. Were David Barboza to be expelled, he’d have a pretty impressive claim to fame for the rest of his career. It’s much less impressive though to see a colleague pay for it by having to uproot his wife and young daughter from their home of 12 years.

If this is the case though, the CCP has (for the umpteenth time) completely miscalculated western journalists. This type of expulsion is the most it can do to scare them without causing a serious international incident…and it won’t work. Melissa Chan’s expulsion earlier this year obviously had no chilling effect and it’s unlikely Buckley’s will either. Instead, it’s nothing more than another bullet fired by the Party into the foot of its soft-power dreams.

Update:  Buckley was quoted in SCMP saying, “It’s a complicated situation, and I am not sure if you will use the word ‘expel’. I did not. My visa expired today and I did not receive a new visa. The situation is that I was working for Reuters until October, and then I took a new job with the New York Times. The visa that I was on was granted when I was working for Reuters, and I was in Beijing waiting for the Chinese authorities to grant me a new visa and accreditation to work for the New York Times. As of today, there was no word of approval.”

It’s within the realm of possibility that this was a bureaucratic trip up rather than a purposeful expulsion, and some folks at NYT have said they’re optimistic Buckley will be allowed back in. But given that NYT pushed the government to settle the issue before Buckley’s visa expired, the obvious political implications of the situation and the Foreign Affairs Ministry’s refusal to comment, it’s very hard to imagine there wasn’t intent to make Buckley leave.

Yesterday I read about a recently leaked government directive from 2011 concisely titled “Suggestions for doing a good job of resisting foreign use of religion to infiltrate institutes of higher education and to prevent campus evangelism.”

Washington Post did a great piece on the directive and the context, but I’d recommend also reading the full document. Basically, the government is concerned about Christian missionaries evangelizing on Chinese college campuses.

“Foreign hostile forces have put even greater emphasis on using religion to infiltrate China to carry out their political plot to westernize and divide China,” the document says. “Under the guise of donating funds for education, academic exchanges, studying and teaching in China, extracurricular activities, training, student aid, etc., they ‘market’ their political ideas and values, roping students into becoming religious believers.”

In a nutshell, the second part of that statement is fairly accurate, and the first part is fairly scary. A few months ago I did a piece on foreign evangelists who use English teaching as a means to enter China and proselytize. While researching, I spoke with nearly three dozen people including missionaries, their co-workers and students. I’d also previously encountered these kinds of evangelists personally while teaching.

As the document suggests, there are indeed thousands of these people in China; many of whom conduct activities that would raise legal issues even in Western democracies. I heard stories of teachers requiring students to attend Bible studies in order to pass their class. Many used Christian teaching materials and held English classes based on Biblical themes. I even heard about a teacher requiring his students to put on a play about the seven deadly sins that featured Jesus lugging a crucifix.

But a few things jumped out at me from this document. The first was how the government still fundamentally misunderstands what motivates Christian missionaries. To some degree, this is understandable. Chinese officials tend to be pragmatic worldly people with little exposure to religion. The idea that someone would spend so much time and resources changing others’ beliefs for no tangible reason makes no sense. That these missionaries feel duty-bound to a supernatural deity and believe they’re literally saving their converts just doesn’t register. Clearly, there must be some devious political agenda beneath that pious surface.

There are indeed those like Bob Fu who have explicit regime-change goals, but they seem to be a small minority. Most seem to consciously avoid even mentioning politics. They may expend disproportionate effort on students with political ambitions, but this is more in hopes of getting religious policy relaxed, not overthrowing the entire system.

The second thing that jumped out was how the government still so fundamentally misunderstands youth that might be inclined to convert. The document gives prescriptions for dealing with them, saying:

“Adhere to using the theory of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics to arm students’ minds. Extensively launch activities for the study, teaching, publicizing and popularization of core socialist values. Strengthen propaganda for and education in Marxist views on religion, the Party’s principles and policies for education work, and the relevant laws and regulations of the state.”

If you’re a standard human, you probably barely made it through that paragraph without falling asleep. And that’s just a small taste of the years of Marxist and political education Chinese students are required to take. The thing is, many of the young Christian converts I spoke to specifically cited the emphasis on empty Marxist dogma as something that pushed them to explore religion. So using Marxism to combat evangelism is like using a Ben Stein lecture to convince a kid he should go to school instead of play video games.

But for all the document got wrong about motivations, it did seem to have a firm grasp on the methods missionaries tend to use and where universities go wrong.

It tells schools to offer intriguing activities for students and provide mental health services. It says advisors should hold “extensive heart-to-heart talks” with students, help “guide their emotions” and “dispel confusion.” By doing these things, they won’t be so inclined to “cozy up” to foreign missionaries (who tend to be much better at offering emotional and academic support than the schools).

It then goes on to suggest strategically planning recreational and academic events during religious holidays. Indeed, Christmas and Easter are high season for conversion. Christmas is a perfect opportunity to talk Jesus. And in one case I found, a foreign teacher invited students over to watch an “Easter movie” that turned out to be The Passion of Christ.

It warns of academic exchanges organized by Christian groups. Some of these are set up to get Chinese students overseas for conversion, then returned to spread the gospel at home. Meanwhile, foreign missionary students are the exchanges that come to Chinese schools.

After previously thinking central government leaders were simply clueless about these things, I was surprised to see how much they seem to be aware of. But one thing that struck me while researching this story was that, in spite of China’s inhospitable stance on religion, these things tend to be tolerated even more here than they would be in the West at the local level. And the document seems to tacitly acknowledge that.

It says, “If serious problems arise because responsibilities were not performed or work is not properly done, you shall seriously investigate and look into the matters and call to account the responsible members and relevant leaders.”

The whole document repeatedly admonishes administrators to get off their butts and actively fight off foreign missionaries. The language was very similar to the routine pleas for corrupt officials to get clean. This, I think, is because this issue, like corruption, has a rather large gulf between central government goals and local cadre interests. And it may actually involve corruption.

The way many of these missionary teachers work is through larger organizations or churches based overseas. Working with donations, they take salaries from the schools that are a fraction of what independent teachers would be paid. In addition, they’ll sometimes donate teaching materials, student scholarships and outright cash aid to schools. Two sources I spoke with reported that one organization they know of even sponsors trips to the US for high university and local education officials. The organization wouldn’t confirm or deny this.

Then miraculously, when students or other teachers complain about proselytism to lower administrators, there doesn’t tend to be much action. Whatever vague national threats these “infiltrators” present are subservient to more tangible local interests.

Going beyond just the issue of evangelism though, the document also basically proved something I’ve started to realize in recent months, but have had a hard time fully accepting. It’s that the idea of “the US-led Western countries” conspiring to use things like religion to “infiltrate” China so they can “westernize and divide it” isn’t just jingoistic propaganda used for political ends. This is something that A LOT of people in China’s government seem to actually believe.

This document was issued by the United Front Department (a branch of the powerful Central Committee) and given only to senior officials. They were then to communicate it orally to their subordinates in order to hedge against the document being leaked. In other words, this wasn’t propaganda intended for the masses. It was an internal Party memo. That the same jingoistic language you’d see in Global Times was used here shows that the Party actually believes its conspiratorial fear-mongering, and that’s kind of scary.

China is currently in a push to build international popularity and respect through “soft power” mechanisms like media and the arts. One prominent medium in this push has been film. But failed attempts like Flowers of War have shown a reluctance to move past black and white nationalistic angles. Chinese films, under the direction of chief censor State Administration of Radio, Film & Television (SARFT), dissect and remove anything that’s vulgar, politically unpalatable, sends the wrong social message or portrays the Chinese people as anything but heroic and exceptional.

Not coincidentally, when you ask someone in China what their favorite movie is, they probably won’t name a Chinese film. In fact, most of the time they’ll name one of two movies: Forrest Gump or Shawshank Redemption. The movies depict military defeat, racism, corruption and perversion of justice – some of the darker aspects of 20th century America. Yet the final products show nuance and complex characters that inspire and win international acclaim. In other words, they’re soft power victories.

But what if the US had had its own SARFT with similar social and political objectives?

I don’t believe Shawshank Redemption could have been made. An innocent man being sent to a prison with officials dabbling in corruption and murder would simply be untenable. However, I do think Forrest Gump could have been made…with some major revisions. So based on leaked censorship instructions and years of watching Chinese movies, here’s hypothetical American SARFT’s verdict on the film:

1. In the beginning it’s revealed that  Forrest is named after Nathan Bedford Forrest – former leader of the illegal terrorist “Ku Klux Klan” organization. This is utterly contrary to the theme of the film.

2. The doctor tells Forrest that his back “is as crooked as a politician.” Remove this statement.

3. When bullies throw rocks and chase Forrest there’s no indication that they were caught and punished for their actions.

4. The bullies’ truck has a Confederate flag license plate. This is an illegal secessionist symbol and must be removed.

5. Forrest is denied from entering a normal school because his IQ is too low, which his mother refuses to accept. This distorts reality. America’s education system wouldn’t allow any student to be placed where they don’t belong. Furthermore, Forrest’s mother sleeps with the principal in order to secure Forrest’s admission. This is vulgar and unrealistic.

6. When African-American students enter the University of Alabama, some white students make remarks like “coon” and “nigger.” This gravely harms America’s image and may have negative social effects.

7. Regarding the scene in Jenny’s dormitory where she places Forrest’s hand on her breast, the effect of the length, imagery and sounds of this bed scene are strong, and bring about strong harmful sensual stimulation to people.

8. When Forrest meets President Kennedy he says that he “has to pee.” This is very offensive and disrespectful toward an American leader. Furthermore, Forrest discovers a picture of Marilyn Monroe in Kennedy’s bathroom. This alludes to false rumors and gravely distorts history.

9. When Bubba is describing his family’s history of serving white people, it alludes to slavery.  This may gravely hurt the feelings of the American people.

10. “Playboy” is an illegal pornographic publication that shows a naked woman. It must be removed from the film.

11. When Forrest arrives to Vietnam, American soldiers are shown drinking beer and barbequing, not taking their duties seriously. This gravely violates history and harms the image of the American military.

12. Forrest exposes his buttocks to President Johnson. This is disrespectful and absurd.

13. The Washington DC anti-government “peace rally” suggests American involvement in the Vietnam War was unjust. The theme and tone of the rally must be revised so that it doesn’t oppose the government. It also depicts convicted criminal Abbie Hoffman. It must be adjusted so that he’s portrayed in a more negative fashion and not wearing an American flag shirt.

14. The “Black Panther Party” is an illegal organization. Its depiction may stir up animosity among ethnic groups and have negative social consequences.

15. The scene after Forrest meets President Nixon alludes to the “Watergate Scandal.” Remove.

16. Filthy words appear repeatedly in the film and should be deleted.

17. The Jenny character is overly-complex and sends mixed messages. On one hand she appears kind and elicits sympathy, but on the other hand she does illegal drugs and has loose virtues. Good and evil must be clearly distinguished.

 

Desensitized in China

Posted: November 21, 2012 in Uncategorized
Tags: ,

A few years ago while living in China I went back home to Kansas City for a short trip. One day I was riding in a car with my mother and we passed a child about five years old sitting alone on the sidewalk.

My mom asked if I’d “seen that”. I had, but it didn’t register what she was referring to.

“See what?” I asked.

“That little boy,” she replied. “He was all alone there without his parents.”

“Oh yeah,” I said dismissively.

“We’d better go back and make sure he’s ok,” she said as she pulled onto the next street to turn around.

“K…” I answered, just starting to realize what the big deal was.

By the time we got to the boy, another woman had also pulled over to see what was up. We all walked around with the child looking for his parents until eventually we called the police. An officer showed up within ten minutes and took the boy to the station.

As soon as I saw that the other woman had pulled over, it immediately sank in what I’d just done…or rather, what I’d failed to do, and it made me sick. Had I been alone in the car, I would have kept on driving. I was ashamed because it’s not something I would have done just a few years earlier. China had desensitized me.

Last week five young Guizhou children were found dead in a dumpster from carbon monoxide poisoning after they’d climbed in and burned coal to stay warm. They’d been missing for three weeks after running away from home. Someone apparently even took a picture of them sitting in a public place the day before their deaths, but still, no social safety net caught them in time.

The five children (maybe) via Sina Weibo user @公民李元龙, via Beijing Cream

I wasn’t the least bit surprised. People wrote heartfelt messages of sorrow and disgust online, but I imagine if they’d walked by the kids sitting alone on the street themselves, most would have just kept walking by. It pains me now to say it, but I’ve done it dozens of times myself.

It’s not that people in China are heartless. The sight of children running around alone is just so depressingly common that it’s barely enough to raise an eyebrow. Sometimes they’re child beggars being exploited by a guardian watching from around the corner. Sometimes they’ve just been left to run about by parents who’ve never been warned by the always-harmonious media about China’s epidemic of child kidnappers.

These unaccompanied children are ubiquitous and there’s been very little done to educate society that this isn’t a normal or acceptable thing. Unfortunately, when I entered this society I gradually forgot this myself.

People have been quick to blame the parents, the school principals and local government officials for letting these kids slip through their fingers. Indeed, they all bear some responsibility, but so do all of us who’ve ever seen a child alone and kept walking. Most of all though, responsibility lies with the system that’s allowed us to become desensitized to something that’s clearly very disturbing.

On November 8th, Chinese President Hu Jintao will step down from his posts atop the Communist Party and Chinese government after exactly 10 years in power.

If one word could sum up Hu’s presidency, it would be stability. In policy and in character Hu has remained ever-wary of deviating from a steady, low-key approach to leadership. He lacks the cultish devotion enjoyed by Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, and the charisma of his predecessor Jiang Zemin. Hu’s approach has seen a near quadrupling of per-capita income in China, but little in the way of political reform.

“Without stability, nothing could be done, and even the achievements already made could be lost.” –Speech on the CCP’s 90th anniversary, July, 2011

Earlier this year, Hu’s comparatively liberal faction of the Communist Party seemingly won a victory with the fall of left-wing icon Bo Xilai. Hu has tended to keep Mao Zedong’s legacy and the more socialist tendencies of the Party at arm’s length. But he still pays homage to the ideology that the communist government was founded on.

“We never take Marxism as an empty, rigid, and stereotyped dogma.” –Speech on the CCP’s 90th anniversary, July, 2011

However, “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics” – perhaps more accurately known as authoritarian capitalism – has seen major side-effects come along with economic growth. Foremost among them is official corruption. Under a system that bars deep scrutiny of leaders through media or free speech, Hu has repeatedly pleaded with party members to keep themselves clean.

“Leading cadres at all levels should always maintain a spirit of moral character and be aware of the temptations of power, money and beautiful women.” April, 2010 in keynote speech wrapping up campaign aimed at educating officials.

Reigning in the excesses of economic development was the theme of Hu’s signature “Harmonious Society” socio-economic doctrine, which aimed to make Chinese society more balanced and just. However, wealth inequality has soared under Hu to its highest levels in PRC history.

“Without a common ideological aspiration or high moral standard, a harmonious society will be a mansion built on sand.” -Speech to high-level party members June, 2005

Another worry of the Hu administration has been that foreign culture and ideology may be usurping the domestic agenda. On several occasions he’s called for China to promote its own values and push for greater soft power at home and abroad through “cultural reform.” Earlier this year he wrote a strongly-worded essay on the issue, which was critically received by many foreign observers.

“Hostile international powers are strengthening their efforts to westernize and divide us. We must be aware of the seriousness and complexity of the struggles and take powerful measures to prevent and deal with them.”– January, 2012 – in the Communist Party’s magazine, Seeking the Truth

When speaking to foreign audiences though, Hu is always careful to downplay the threat of China’s rise and stresses that the nation is only interested in “peaceful development.”

“China’s development will neither obstruct nor threaten anyone but will only be conducive to world peace, stability and prosperity.” – November, 2005 to Vietnamese National Assembly

As the commander-in-chief of the world’s largest military, Hu has increased China’s defense budget by double-digits nearly every year he’s been in charge. Some have speculated that this is simply to keep the guardians of China’s authoritarian rule happy. Others have worried this may be part of a greater effort to exert military influence in Asia and enforce claims over long-disputed territories.

“[The navy should] accelerate its transformation and modernization in a sturdy way, and make extended preparations for military combat in order to make greater contributions to safeguard national security and world peace” –December, 2011 in speech to  Central Military Commission

For the entirety of PRC history, the most significant territorial conflict for China has been Taiwan. When the pro-mainland KMT candidate Ma Ying-jeou became president of the island, Hu redirected cross-straits relations from a course of tense provocation to one of engagement. Much to the consternation of hawks within the Communist Party and army, Hu opened more economic and people-to-people exchanges with Taiwan. The move tacitly took a military-enforced re-unification off the table for the foreseeable future.

“I sincerely hope that our two parties (KMT and CCP) can work together to continue to promote the peaceful and steady development of cross-strait relations, and make efforts for the bright future of the Chinese nation,” –Congratulatory remarks to Ma Ying-jeou on his election as chairman of the Kuomintang , July, 2005.

Beyond his professional life, little is known about Hu as a person. His image is meticulously crafted as a tireless servant of the people who devotes his life to conducting field inspections, speaking with peasants and meeting with foreign diplomats. A leaked US embassy cable from 2009 opened a window into the choreographed world of Hu by recounting how a seemingly spontaneous chat with a rural farmer was actually planned days in advance – with the farmer being told not to shave so as to appear more rustic. Under a heavily controlled media, going off-script is rare and details about leaders’ personal lives are scant. A journalist was once even fired for revealing that Hu is diabetic.

“We must adhere to the principle of party spirit in journalism, holding firmly to correct guidance of public opinion” –June, 2008 in speech dealing with news media

However, in 2011, one on-camera encounter was received a bit differently than planned. A recipient of subsidized housing told Hu that she paid only 77 yuan each month for her two bedroom home in Beijing – a city where rapid inflation sees even the humblest of homes now fetching thousands of yuan in rent. Hu replied by saying:

 “77 yuan each month – are you able to cope with the rent?”

Skeptical audiences mocked the obviously-scripted conversation, asking where they too could find such unbelievably cheap housing.

Perhaps the closest Hu ever came to making an actual gaffe though was in 2010 when a Japanese elementary school student asked why Hu wanted to become chairman. His answer raised eyebrows with those familiar with China’s power structure:

“Let me tell you. I have never wanted to become chairman. All the people of China chose me to be the chairman, so I could not afford to let them down.”

Confronting a Racist

Posted: October 14, 2012 in Chinese Culture
Tags: , ,

One of the things I love most about being in China’s countryside is that people are usually more curious about me than anything else. I don’t get the patronizing “HAAALLLLLLOOOOO!” cat calls that I do in the cities. And I don’t deal so much with people ignorantly informing me about the habits of all foreigners based on whatever stupid movies they’ve seen. In the countryside I usually just get earnest questions and hospitality. This is why I was so surprised in a small village last week when I received my first racial slur.

My girlfriend and I were riding our bikes past a group of four women and one man in their early-50s. As we went by, they stopped talking and just stared at us until we’d gone about 20 meters past. We then heard the man loudly say, “Look at the two guizi.”

Guizi, meaning “devil” or “ghost,” is a derogatory term for foreigners. It was a popular fixture at the recent anti-Japanese protests. I’ve read about foreigners (especially in the 80s and 90s) frequently being called this but I’d never actually heard it directed at me. I’ve experienced hostile comments that were racially-motivated before, but never been called a guizi…at least not to my face.

I turned my bike around and confirmed with my girlfriend that she’d heard it too. I can’t say I really felt hurt or offended, but surprising people with the fact that I’ve understood them talking about me is one of my guilty pleasures in China. In this instance, it could be especially interesting.

I pulled up to the group and asked in Chinese, “Who called us guizi?!”

Everyone looked to the man (confirming to us that it had indeed been him) and burst into the laughter that’s typical when people realize that the monkey can speak.

I got louder, showing I wasn’t amused, and zeroed in on the man.

“Did you call us guizi?!”

He held an uncomfortable smile and looked to the other women as a few other neighbors stuck their heads out to see what was happening. I softened my tone and stayed straddled on my bike a good five meters away so as to avoid the appearance of physically intimidating him.

“I heard you call us guizi. Would you like to call me that directly now?”

“You didn’t hear clearly,” he said, still with the uncomfortable smile.

“Ah, now that you realize we understood you, you’re afraid to directly call me that?” I said.

“Where are you guys from?” he asked, trying to change the subject.

“Nevermind that, we both heard you say guizi. You all heard it too right?” I asked, looking to the women.

They came to his aid, repeating his line that we just didn’t hear clearly.

“Then what did you say?”

“I should call you sir and madam,” he replied.

“Oh, now you become very polite. You should say that, but you didn’t.”

“You didn’t hear clearly.”

“Whatever. You should be careful. We guizi aren’t stupid.”

I rode away, satisfied that his cowering had been sufficiently highlighted to his neighbors.

As a white American male born to a middle-class family, I can’t pretend like prejudice (or anything else for that matter) has disadvantaged me in any way. Pushing the issue and purposely making a man lose face who likely has been disadvantaged was probably immature and unnecessary. And I probably came off just as badly as he did to the other villagers, reinforcing the foreign bully stereotype.

But still, I’m having a hard time regretting it. After being surrounded by racist bile at the anti-Japanese protests recently, it was very enlightening to see how quickly this man changed his tune when confronted face-to-face by the butt of his racism.

Every few months China has some kind of territorial spat with one of its neighbors – be it Japan, the Philippines or Vietnam – that gets everybody worried about war. As I was standing amidst the unusually vitriolic  anti-Japanese demonstrations recently, it felt like those worries had reached a fever pitch and that the government might actually cave to public calls for military action. Sometimes it feels like a miracle that it hasn’t already happened.

There are plenty of good reasons why China hasn’t invoked its military: The economic implications, the possibility of US military involvement, being perceived internationally as a belligerent bully. But there may be an even more compelling reason than any of these: The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) might not be up to the task.

There seems to be a widespread assumption that without US-backing, militaries from Japan, Vietnam or Taiwan would fall swiftly to the overwhelming might of the world’s largest army. China’s military spending routinely increases by the double-digits, far outpacing its GDP growth. Last year that spending amounted to $91 billion – a 12.7% increase over the previous year. It’s expected to be $106 billion this year.

Now I’m not a military expert by any means, but I have seen how major government monopolies tend to function in China. This might give us a better idea of the PLA’s capabilities than the raw numbers do. So let’s look at another major state monopoly: The Ministry of Railways.

This is a fiefdom if there ever was one. The opaque ministry has its hand in everything vaguely related to or surrounding railways, from construction and manufacturing to hospitals and schools. Corruption and nepotism thrive. There was the $2.9 million promotional film where funds were funneled away, the SINGLE official who was able to embezzle $121 million, and the series of photos showing absurdly marked up bullet train items that resulted from government procurement.

This week the ministry is back in the news as its $52 million online ticketing system continues to be worthless on the eve of another busy holiday. Netizens have demanded to know why the system cost so much, yet is worse than actually standing in line at the train station.

If I may throw out some wild speculation (based on overwhelming precedent): Perhaps a chain of railway officials outsourced the site design to increasingly cheaper (AKA – decreasingly qualified) designers while pocketing the difference and/or gave contracts to personal connections for wildly inflated prices.

Now shift back to the PLA, which is larger, more powerful and more secretive than the Ministry of Railways. So powerful and secret in fact that it operates as an entirely separate entity from civilian government and laws.

People tend to see the huge annual PLA budget increases as a threat to China’s neighbors, but to a large extent it’s a way to quell the PLA’s danger to the Communist Party.  Fear of a military coup has always weighed heavy on the party leadership and big budgets are one way of buying the military’s continued loyalty. It doesn’t take a big leap of faith to guess that a lot of that money is lost to corruption.

In spite of its many scandals, the Ministry of Railways gets its job done for the most part…horrible inefficiency and occasional disasters aside. The public can see many of its failings, which keeps it a bit more honest and efficient than it otherwise might be. And if Hu Jintao decides to seriously clean house of corrupt railways officials, he doesn’t need to worry about tanks rolling up to his office the next day.

With the PLA though, these things are all question marks.

John Garnaut did a great article earlier this year based on inside sources trying to explain how pervasive and destructive corruption is in the PLA. The problem is that because of its enormous power and complete secrecy, it’s impossible for outsiders (and insiders for that matter) to appreciate the true scale and what it means for battle capability.

With a naval/aerial engagement – which is what most potential conflicts would entail – victory would be decided more by hardware than troop numbers. It’s possible that even in the absence of US involvement, China’s military apparatus could falter when facing a presumably weaker opponent like Japan, or even Taiwan (See this in-depth analysis of a possible Sino-Japanese naval war).

If that were to happen, the Chinese government would have a tough choice. It could try to convince people that the US military was actually secretly involved and mitigate its failing, or it could try to answer directly as to why, in spite of a much better funded and staffed military, China got beaten by “little Japan.”

Neither option is very palatable, and the mere possibility of having to make that choice might be a major hedge against an all-out war.

For those expats in China distressed by the recent anti-foreign atmosphere online and in the media, you now something to be thankful for: You don’t live in South Korea.

Recently Korea’s MBC ran a program called “The Shocking Reality About Relationships With Foreigners” (Link has the full 5-minute segment with subtitles). The piece presents itself as an exposé on how foreign expats easily seduce Korean women, only to taint, abuse, rob them and leave them with AIDS. It completely forgoes any sense of journalistic integrity by using hidden cameras and adding wholly unsubstantiated commentary. At one point, a Korean girl is cold-called by the producer and asked if she was “a victim of a foreigner.” When the girl replies that she doesn’t know what the producer is talking about, the narrator jumps in to say, “Most victims avoid telling the truth.”

For all the times the Chinese media has hyped the non-newsworthy transgressions of foreigners in China, I’ve never heard of any newscast being this despicably ignorant and unprofessional. As much as it pains me to say it, we probably have China’s censorship apparatus to thank for that.

The Chinese government (and ergo the state media) needs a healthy dose of nationalism, but the key is moderation. In 2010, when anti-Japanese sentiment flared up over a Chinese fisherman being detained in disputed waters, I saw a first-hand manifestation of how the government tries to channel nationalism. At the Japanese embassy in Beijing, protestors were allowed to congregate – but only at a distance from the entrance. Periodically, police would let a handful of the most vocal protestors go right up to the gate and media were allowed to film it. But when the crowd gained a certain mass, it was broken up and told to leave – only to re-form again slowly with tacit police approval.

This push and pull-back of nationalism has become the rule after some past debacles. Some 2005 anti-Japanese demonstrations were gleefully allowed by the government…until they turned violent and Japanese businesses (many of which were Chinese owned) were destroyed. Back further in 1988, anti-Africans protests  broke out in Nanjing, which unexpectedly shifted to calls for the Chinese government to reform. The incident was one of the preludes to the Tiananmen uprising. Today, nationalism is still crucial and encouraged, but only to the point that it doesn’t affect stability and support for the authoritarian government.

Korea and China have similar histories of being subjugated by foreigners, and Korean leaders have likewise relied on nationalism in the past to achieve political goals. The difference now is that Korea has some lingering xenophobia combined with a free media wholly dependent on ratings for revenue. The result is this highly sensational and populist program targeting foreigners. If China’s (state subsidized) media wasn’t on its current leash, we’d probably see much more of the same here.

This is far far FAR from an endorsement of China’s media restrictions. The harm is much more compelling than any redeeming factors. But for this very narrow issue, expats can probably begrudgingly thank China’s censors.

Two weeks ago I had one of those occasional periods where I just didn’t want to be in China anymore. The nationalistic outcry against foreigners online stemming from the rapist, the rude cellist and the Beijing crackdown was palpable. Then CCTV’s Yang Rui added a “dose of poison” to it all with some insensitive comments, followed by a number of Chinese netizens telling Charlie Custer to shut up and get out of their country for his criticism of Yang. I half expected to meet a lynch mob with torches and pitchforks sniffing out foreigners when I walked out my Beijing door.

But then I did the best thing I could have done: I turned off my computer and actually walked outside. For the last two weeks I’ve barely looked at a computer screen, and it’s made a big difference.

I traveled to Sichuan and Shandong, meeting nothing but kindness and curiosity from locals. Nobody seemed the least bit influenced by the supposed anti-foreign atmosphere. (This blogger illustrates a similar experience with nice pictures).

On one bus ride I did encounter a middle-aged Chinese man who, as soon as I told him I was American, proceeded to rattle off every Chinese grievance with the United States from the past 60 years. Touching on everything from the Belgrade embassy bombing to interference in Libya, he said things like “America tries to rule the world. It’s really evil!” After several minutes, he got louder and inadvertently started replacing “America” with “you all” in his rant. When the rest of the bus started laughing at him though, he became self-aware, laughed along, grabbed my hand, and said, “…But you and I are just normal people. It has nothing to do with us. We’re friends.”

I’ve had dozens of similar conversations in China. Some expats get annoyed by them, but I find them quite endearing. Fiercely opinionated nationalists eagerly shotgun blast me with their political beliefs because I’m their first relevant audience. In the end though, they almost always delineate the difference between me and my government.

After that bus ride, I tried to think of the times I’ve actually met real life incarnations of the xenophobic vitriol I see on Weibo. There have probably been around ten instances where my foreignness entered the equation AFTER a dispute had already begun with a Chinese person. But I could only come up with two incidents where I encountered completely unprovoked hostility simply because I was foreign…and they were pretty mild. Not too bad for five years in China.

Several days ago I returned back home to Beijing– the epicenter of the recent xenophobia – and made the rounds with my father all over town. I still didn’t notice so much as a dirty look from locals, let alone open hostility.

Of course, this is anecdotal and I am a white foreigner – pretty different from being black or Asian. I have heard some secondhand chatter of expats in the capitol being accosted verbally or physically, but I’ve still never felt the need to keep my head down and avoid the outdoors for fear of being spit on – that is, after I lowered my intake of Chinese microblogs and media coverage of them.

This has illustrated that, for better or worse, Weibo is a pretty shotty gauge of Chinese public opinion. Roughly 250 million Chinese are microbloggers, which means over a billion are not. And that gets whittled down much further when you consider how few have an interest in politics (Yang Rui, a prolific political commentator, has only 800,000 followers), and many fewer still have enough passion to post comments or their own original content  (there were 1,600 comments on Yang’s infamous post). And then you have to consider what motivates those comments. Tea Leaf Nation recently did a great piece on how xenophobic Weibo tweets often perpetuate themselves in an echo chamber where dissenters flee, the foreign “punching bag” is mute and commenters engage in one-upsmanship to get noticed.

To be sure, diatribic Weibo commenters are an important demographic to pay attention to – no matter how relatively few their numbers are. They’re presumably the most likely people to take their grievances to the streets and push for change (whereas public opinion polls of voters are a better way to predict the political future of democracies).

But anecdotal evidence suggests that even that minority of nationalists screaming online is far more benign than their commentary would suggest. In 2008, an intensely nationalistic (and pretty scary) video was released as retaliation for a number of grievances with the West at the time. The New Yorker reporter Evan Osnos arranged an interview with the maker of the video expecting to meet a bully. Instead, he met a gracious young man who even offered to pay Osnos’ cab fare.

I personally knew a girl around the same time who railed against the “French bastards” online because of disruptions to the Paris torch relay. Several months later though, she had a French boyfriend. For xenophobic nationalists in China, I often get the feeling there’s some double-think stemming from conflicting ideas they’ve been brought up with.

Plural “foreigners” can be hated and scapegoated when they remain as disconnected abstract bogeymen.  But when Chinese nationalist meets singular foreigner face-to-face, the reality that this is a flesh and blood person kicks in and basic human decency takes over. After being exposed to several real foreigners, some will abandon the bogeyman outlook altogether, and some will just keeping flipping the switch between abstract enemy and individual foreign friend.

Like with any country, China has plenty of unmitigated racists. But at least for me, they’ve never amounted to anything more than a very rare nuisance in my day-to-day life. So if you’re not in China, don’t get the impression from recent events that the country is a cesspool of xenophobia and hatred. And if you are in China, try not to let the recent coverage of online opinion skew the way you see things. The status quo for Chinese opinion about foreigners has been and will be for a long time more or less the same: Somewhat ignorant, but good-natured and curious.

The 100-day crackdown on illegal foreigners in Beijing is now well underway and it seems the police aren’t messing around this time. Some have suggested this is a knee-jerk reaction to the alleged attempted rape of a Chinese girl by a British man. But both things may be part of a bigger trend we’re likely to see continue for the rest of the year.

Another story has made waves recently on the Chinese internet about a Russian cellist who put his legs up on a Chinese woman’s train seat and cursed her when she complained about it (He later apologized). Unlike the rape incident, this is not a crime; nor is it newsworthy. But that didn’t stop Beijing Morning Post from splashing the whole story on their front page this morning:

Then there was CCTV anchor Yang Rui, who made this tragically hilarious statement on Weibo. Here’s a blurb:

The Ministry of Public Security is getting rid of foreign trash right now, arresting foreign scum and protecting innocent Chinese girls from them. […]Foreigners who can’t find a job in their home country come to China and get involved in illegal business activities such as human trafficking and espionage; they also like to distribute lies which discredit China to persuade locals to move abroad. A lot of them look for Chinese women to live with as a disguise to further their espionage efforts.

Then finally, People’s Daily reported today that Baidu and mop.com have launched a campaign with Sina Weibo, “calling on internet users to expose bad behavior by foreigners in China.”

[Update: Kaiser Kuo, Baidu's director of international communications, said this:  "The People’s Daily story is erroneous. Baidu has launched no such campaign. It was something done originally on Baidu PostBar but not under official auspices and we have now removed it."]

A lot of people do bad things and break the law in China, regardless of their nationality. But this campaign intends to put the magnifying glass squarely over bad behavior – whether or not it’s anything remarkable – so long as the perpetrator is foreign. It implicitly calls on Chinese to look at foreigners with a suspicious eye while holstering a smart phone.

Recently I discussed how the Communist Party uses the “Century of Humiliation” as the cornerstone of its legitimacy. Foreigners invaded and defiled China for a hundred years until the CCP rescued the country from them – so the story goes. The government stays in the people’s good graces by constantly reminding them of this period and implying that the country still isn’t safe from the foreign menace.

I also predicted in that post that, as the increasingly complicated power transition draws near, “we can probably expect to see even more international events covered in China from an angle that harkens back to the humiliating century. And we might even see an uptick in coverage of scarcely-newsworthy events that portray foreigners in China as exploiters or aggressors.”

Trying to consolidate political support by taking a hard-line on foreigners in the country is hardly unique to China. It works the same almost everywhere. Foreigners make a perfect “them” to unite “us” against. They can be scapegoated and harassed without political liability because they’re too few, too vulnerable and, well, too foreign to defend themselves. In China, this tactic is a matter of survival for the authoritarian government.

These recent cases shining the spotlight on bad foreigners aren’t necessarily direct examples of this tactic though. After all, it was common citizens who first disseminated the British pervert and the Russian cellist stories. But both cases raise the “did the chicken or the egg come first” dilemma. Why did netizens frame the stories as a “bad foreigner attacking good Chinese” in the first place?

The subsequent actions by players like Beijing Morning Post and Yang Rui showed that they have every intention of making sure this cycle continues. They perpetuate the implicit anti-foreign angle, thereby assuring future incidents will continue to be framed as “peaceful Chinese vs. arrogant imperialistic foreigners.” That’s pretty good for creating very shallow Chinese unity and government support, but pretty awful for humanity.

After I visited Yellow Mountain a few years ago and had the worst day of my China life, I swore to myself I would never endure another tourist trap again. Never again would I stand in line all day and pay hundreds of yuan for the privilege. Never again would I go to a “historical” site, only to be surrounded by droves of flag-wielding guides herding around groups in matching hats. So two years ago my girlfriend and I bought some long-distance bikes in order to access places you’d never think to buy a train ticket to. It was the best investment we ever made.

For our last trip, I brought along a video camera and have put together this short documentary with the footage. So watch as we ride through Shandong’s countryside, meet old farmers, chat with Catholic peasants, and get an up close look at China’s housing bubble:

A few days ago I looked at the two options the Party’s PR apparatus had in responding to the Chen Guangcheng situation:

  1. Show restraint. Acknowledge, but downplay the story as best it can until it blows over. Perhaps even allow a few commentaries that aren’t hyper-critical of the event to show that the leadership isn’t so insecure.
  2. Actively retaliate with the full extent of police and media power.

It’s now become pretty apparent that they learned nothing from The Liu Xiaobo Nobel PR debacle and have decided to go all in on option 2.

Many of Chen’s extended family and rescuers are still unaccounted for, have been interrogated, beaten, or been placed under soft detention. And several journalists have been blocked from reporting.

Foreign Ministry Spokesman Liu Weimin whipped out the one-size fits all response to international disputes saying, “The US move is an interference in China’s internal affairs.”

The Chinese media is now on the offensive as well, using pretty much every official cliche you can imagine for responding to dissent and foreign involvement in China.  Here’s a few rough translations from recent Chinese media commentaries:

Beijing Daily:

Chen Guangcheng has become a tool and a pawn of the U.S. politicians to discredit China.

Chen doesn’t represent the interests of the majority of people, just the interests of his boss: The Western Anti-China forces.

Chen has been made famous and labeled as a “hero” and a “freedom fighter” by the US and western media – An anti-society, anti-establishment figure.

Paraphrase [kind of an awkward translation]: Chen and the people supporting him are very naïve to think they can use this event to interfere with and blackmail China. It won’t get any response from the 1.3 billion Chinese people, who are mature enough to realize it’s a conspiracy.

Just think if other countries’ embassies became highly interested in the “Occupy Wall Street” movement, giving support to the people to revolt and reinvent the image of America. How would the US respond?

Ambassador Locke, since taking office, has used his duties to strain relations between China and the US instead of being devoted to the development of Sino-US relations. He rode economy class on his plane ride, he carried his bags himself, and used coupons to buy coffee – all as a show. Then he monitored Beijing air quality and published readings at the embassy, creating debate in Beijing city administration. Now he dares to bring Chen – a Chinese citizen – into the US embassy. These things are not in line with Locke’s role as an ambassador, but are meant to stir up contradictions in the whirlpool and it’s very obvious what motive is behind his behavior. [Loosely paraphrased from Chinese parable]: This farce directed by the US embassy gives a lesson to Chinese citizens: The US has ill intentions toward China.

Beijing News:

Diplomats from foreign governments stationed in other countries have the obligation to comply with the laws and respect the culture of the host country. The Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations does not give ambassadors the right to intervene in domestic issues and doesn’t give them “extraterritoriality” to flagrantly interfere in the internal affairs of other countries.

Since World War II, marks of colonial rule like “extraterritoriality” and “consular jurisdiction” have been thrown in the trash bin of history.

When exploring the new power between China and the United States, one cannot simply use the Cold War mentality to look at how to deal with the differences between the two countries.

Beijing Youth Daily:

Chen Guangcheng left the US embassy in China on May 2nd, Ambassador Locke sent him to the hospital in person, pushing the wheelchair under the foreign media’s spotlight. He went beyond his duties as an American ambassador. Under normal circumstances it’s understandable that American officials give help to ordinary Chinese citizens, but Locke used American values to judge Chinese society and forced China to accept American values. His actions were a “show” and “performance” to attract attention, which is typical Western politician behavior. It’s impulsive and hypocritical. It’s not only offensive to Chinese, but the American media also criticizes such behavior.

In recent years, human rights has been relegated to a very secondary position in Sino-US relations. The era in which the US finds fault with China’s human rights should belong to the past. We are willing to make concessions to the relationship with sincerity and goodwill to maintain the overall situation of Sino-US relations. Any behavior that damages the overall situation of Sino-US relations has no future.

Beijing Times

The US is already stretched too wide and too thin in other countries, but it still shows too much concern about Chinese domestic issues. Under the flag of humanitarianism it interferes with other countries’ issues showing its intention of being the master of the world. This kind of behavior totally betrays international law and the principle of non-interference. But if other countries interfere with American internal affairs then the US will retaliate. This kind of logic is pure hegemonic logic.

The countries who have such logic always deliberately look for some tools to flaunt their own rights and the mistakes of others. In this case Chen Guangcheng is their new tool. When he was at the US embassy, he couldn’t find justice but only found himself being used by the US, which left him only frustration and disappointment. Any country during the period of transition and reform will face a lot of conflicts and contradictions. But during the past 30 years after Reform & Opening Up, China has not passed on its problems or contradictions to other countries, but rather it solved a lot of problems on its own and achieved great accomplishments and progress. But some individuals and countries with ulterior motives intend to exaggerate Chinese domestic contradictions in an attempt to discredit China. But this one of the contradictions that Chinese can solve on its own as it did in previous years without the need of others to intervene.

During the “Century of Humiliation” from 1839 to 1945 China was taken to its knees by foreign imperialists. The country was carved up, exploited, looted, raped and dethroned as the world’s greatest superpower. Only in 1949 when the communists triumphed over the Kuomintang in the civil war did China become whole again and begin the road back to its former greatness.

This is the Communist Party’s narrative of history. It’s the message that’s taught in textbooks and reinforced in the media, museums and movies every day throughout China. The elephant in the room that this narrative ignores of course is what happened for the first 30 years of communist China. And it also ignores the damage done by wholly domestic forces during the Century of Humiliation. The below charts show the relative death tolls inflicted on China by domestic and foreign forces over the past two centuries.

The first breaks down the major deadly events.

Getting an accurate count on these events is notoriously difficult*; especially when looking back to the 19th century. But even when we look at the range of estimates the picture is pretty obvious. The next chart shows when we combine these events into a simple Chinese vs. foreign-caused death comparison.

Here’s what it looks like when you just compare deaths caused by the Communist Party’s policies to the events of the Century of Humiliation (This graph doesn’t include the Communist Revolution).

In just 27 years the Communist Party managed to kill significantly more Chinese than all the foreign aggressors did in the previous 106 years combined.

Now in many ways these graphs miss the point. Killings were only one of the grievances over the Century of Humiliation. The damage done to the Chinese psyche was caused more by foreigners stealing territory, imposing unequal treaties, looting cultural relics, exploiting Chinese people, and of course, the heinousness of Japan’s war crimes. But making other considerations goes both ways. During the party’s first 30 years it took the personal property and land of millions, destroyed countless historical relics, denounced and humiliated people for the crime of being intellectual, and enabled violence often every bit as vile as what the Japanese committed. But these death tolls simply provide one objective measurement of the damage caused to China, and they have some important implications.

The nationalism derived from the Century of Humiliation legitimizes the party’s rule and unites the people against a common enemy. China’s education system emphasizes the greatness of China’s 5,000 year civilization and in many ways promotes the idea that Chinese are exceptional people by nature. Take this question from a college entrance exam:

25) Since reform and opening up, China has successfully embarked on improving national conditions and adapted to the road of peaceful development. Adhering to the path of peaceful development is in line with China’s historical and cultural traditions. This is because______

  • A. The Chinese nation is a peace-loving nation
  • B. Peace and development is the trend of the times
  • C. In foreign exchange the Chinese people have always stressed “loving neighbors” and “finding common interests among diversity “
  • D. Chinese culture is a culture of peace. Longing for peace has always been a spiritual characteristic of the Chinese people [A,C, & D are "correct"]

China was the greatest nation in the world and only lost its footing because of incompetent leadership and war-warmongering foreigners who don’t share China’s peaceful values. The party kicked out the imperialists for good (according to its version of history) and still takes an aggressive stance on any whiff of foreign insult or interference with China. Therefore, the Communist Party is “The inevitable choice in China’s social development.

However, to acknowledge that much of what derailed the country in the first place was home-grown violence would take a lot of wind from that idea’s sails. So would the implication that the rescuer (the CCP) did far greater damage to the country than those it needed rescuing from.

These numbers also matter for low-level foreign relations. Chinese businessmen have been known to invoke the Century of Humiliation as leverage with Western counterparts in getting a better deal. You’ll sometimes even hear common street vendors use historical grievances to justify overcharging foreigners. There remains a strong sense that China is still poor because foreigners set China’s progress back a century. So when there’s a chance to balance the scales a little bit, some try to seize their due compensation.

In the coming months as the party begins its difficult power transition (which just became even more complicated) and tries to grab whatever legitimacy it can, we can probably expect to see even more international events covered in China from an angle that harkens back to the humiliating century. And we might even see an uptick in coverage of scarcely-newsworthy events that portray foreigners in China as exploiters or aggressors. It would be a travesty to deny the damage that foreign powers did to China in the past two centuries, but when talking about setting back China’s development, these numbers suggest that foreigners’ role was slim next to certain other “parties.”

*The main sources for these charts are listed on necrometetrics.com here and here and were compared to a few other independent estimates to get a reasonable range. Some of the “various internal uprisings” have very scant data with only a single (likely unreliable) number though and should be taken accordingly. 
 

Over the past week I’ve been biking through the Shandong countryside. As is always the case on these trips, the biggest challenge was finding a place to sleep. A hotel has to have special approval to accept foreigners – which most have in major urban centers. But once you get to smaller cities, few, if any are allowed to house someone without a Chinese ID.

Many think that this is to “save face” by preventing foreigners from staying in dingy dives or from going to underdeveloped areas altogether. That may be a secondary concern, but this trip made pretty clear what the primary objective is: surveillance. And it also became clear that it’s becoming more intense.

Hotels are required to have a computerized system that scans IDs. Legally, everyone staying there – foreign and Chinese alike – must be registered. In the past I just tried to avoid cities of around 100,000 or more people. The smaller towns didn’t bother with the system and hotel owners usually had never seen a foreigner, much-less realized they weren’t allowed to rent rooms to them. This was the case just six months ago when I took a similar trip through Shandong. Things seem to have changed since then.

One night I went to a little mom and pop guesthouse on the side of the road and, to my surprise, they had the system in place. The owners told me that they’d recently been obligated by police to install and pay for the system, which costs over 7,000 yuan ($1,100). To put that in perspective, I paid 20 yuan ($3.17) for the room that night. Thankfully, the owners preferred to take the money rather than follow the rule and turn me away. Not every hotel was so lax though.

I pulled into one town shivering in the rain with the temperature hovering around freezing as the sun went down. I got turned away from the first place being told I’d have to go 12 miles further up the road to find the nearest certified foreigner hotel. I tried another place around the corner and was given a room. I settled in, relieved that I’d once again skirted the rule. Later that night though, three police officers knocked on my door.

The hotel owner had called them, unsure of what she was supposed to do. Fortunately, they understood my situation and said I could stay, provided I register with them. They spent the next 20 minutes taking down every imaginable piece of information about me – my home address, my school, what airport I’d entered China though – and finally they took my picture. The police were very nice and admitted that they thought it was all a silly hassle, but it was what they were required to do from above.

This rule is nothing new, but enforcement to this degree seems to be. In all but one of my six nights on the road, I stayed in the kinds of towns I’d never seen the computerized registration system in before. And every time, no matter how small the town or hotel was, the system was in place. This is very anecdotal and it’s possible I’ve just been lucky in the past, but I got the distinct impression from talking to hotel owners that hotel surveillance has increased for both foreigners and Chinese since my last bike trip in October.

Last summer Beijing instituted a somewhat similar rule that requires any business providing Wi-Fi internet to buy a $3,100 system to register users’ identities. Expanding the reach of government surveillance, often at the cost of small business owners, certainly seems to be the trend of the times.

With the recent Bo Xilai saga, fault lines in the façade of Communist Party unity are emerging in a very public way. After the split between the Zhao Ziyang reformist camp and Li Peng’s hardliners in 1989 emboldened Tiananmen protestors, the Party now rightfully worries about the public sensing any weakness in the top leadership.

Even if the events around Bo hadn’t unfolded, the party would still be very much on edge. Later this year it will pass the torch to a new group of authoritarian leaders; and it’ll do so amid simmering social tension and unprecedented channels of mass communication. To protect itself, the party has recently taken measures demanding loyalty and respect for its relevance.

In January, President-in-waiting Xi Jinping called for more “thought control” over university students. This week, China ordered all lawyers to make a pledge of loyalty to the Communist Party. And yesterday, People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Daily ran a commentary opposing “indiscipline” in the army saying, “To resolutely do what the Party asks, and not to do what the Party asks not to do, is the most straightforward measure to oppose indiscipline.”

Army personnel, lawyers and students are real threats to the party. Student intellectuals were behind the Tiananmen Square uprising. Lawyers tend to have an affinity for the written law rather than the whims of leaders – which undermines authoritarian rule. And the military, well, they have guns.

The last group is especially worrisome.

The past few days have seen rumors of a Beijing coup circulating online. While these rumors are unfounded, the idea of a military coup is hardly far-fetched. Worry of this scenario within government ranks became apparent even before the rumors with a series of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Daily articles calling for “opposition to the ‘erroneous views’ of military nationalization, military de-politicization, and non-party affiliation of the Army, and putting ideological and political construction first.”

The PLA, by law, is bound to protect the Communist Party first – not the country. Calling for the army to be loyal to the nation rather than a single political party was one of the things that landed Liu Xiaobo in jail.

When Deng Xiaoping started to hand power over to Jiang Zemin in the early 90’s, he reportedly had some sage advice for his successor: “Spend four out of five working days with the top [military] brass.”

For a party which then had neither socialist nor democratic-based legitimacy, the loyalty of the military was the only guarantor of continued rule. Jiang listened and did manage to stay in the good graces of the military throughout his tenure by consistently increasing military spending and taking a hard-line on Taiwan. When Hu Jintao came to power he continued the military buildup, but took a softer stance on the island. The Beijing-friendly Ma Ying-jeou was elected president in 2008, allowing Hu to engage Taiwan culturally and economically – which tacitly took a military takeover off the table for the foreseeable future. This wasn’t good news for PLA hawks anxious to use their toys.

Last year, the PLA gave a subtle indictment of Hu by launching an unannounced test of the new J-20 stealth fighter during a visit by US Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Xi Jinping will take control this year lacking even the degree of support from the military that Hu has. He’ll likely have to spend at least the first year consolidating power and PLA loyalty – assuming the leadership transition goes smoothly to begin with. But if the factional fractures become too deep, military hawks could decide to settle the matter themselves.

Whether the party’s rather pathetic demands for loyalty during this contentious period will be enough to maintain unchallenged authority remains to be seen. But whether they’re students, lawyers or soldiers, people aren’t getting any dumber. What they are getting is better connected and less patient with the political status quo. As one of the PLA Daily commentaries aptly points out, “Historical experience shows that, when the Party and the country are facing big issues, hostile forces at home and abroad always stir up trouble, noises in the society also increase, and the people’s thinking becomes more active.”

Translation: People are starting to think beyond what they’re told – and that’s bad news for the party.

I recently came across two great websites for anyone interested in the scope of internet censorship in China. The first, called greatfire.org, tracks what searches and sites are being blocked behind China’s “Great Firewall.” The second, called Blocked on Weibo, is run by a graduate student who systematically tests terms on Weibo (China’s Twitter-like microblog) to see what stops a tweet from going through.

The banned Weibo list includes many expected political and sexual terms, along with several surprises like “The Exorcist.” Much of the list was compiled last December so yesterday I logged on to see what’s still blocked. I tried posting terms one at a time and, to my surprise, most are now allowed. To be more efficient, I started combining them into phrases like “Warlord Li Peng[1] and dissident Wu Bangguo[2] blow flute political prisoner sex party.”

It passed.

To the bemusement, I’m sure, of my five Weibo followers, I got progressively more twisted until a post was finally stopped (“Tokyo hot Liu Xiaobo incest at Tiananmen with exhibitionist Xi Jinping” was the one that did it).

Since I’ve already complied with Weibo’s real name registration requirement, I deleted the posts after they passed (mostly out of embarrassment). But if I’d left them up it’s possible they would have been manually deleted by a human censor eventually. Still, I couldn’t believe what was being let through. Jason Q. Ng, the curator of the Blocked on Weibo site, told me that indeed most of the blocked terms from December were unblocked by late-January.

Over the past few weeks some interesting unblockings have been noted in the Great Firewall. When the Wang Lijun saga was unfolding, discussion was sporadically blocked and unblocked online. Then a few weeks later, the Baidu Baike (similar to Wikipedia) entry was opened for Zhao Ziyang, the Tiananmen-sympathizing party secretary that died under house arrest.

Internet censorship in China is hardly controlled by some central figure at a Beijing supercomputer. It’s much more complicated and elastic. There are sensitive terms like “Falun Gong” that you’ll probably never see unblocked, but surprise blockings/unblockings like what my childish trials found can happen for a number of reasons. Here’s a few:

Factional infighting

This is most likely what explains the Wang Lijun and Zhao Ziyang openings. In the run-up to the leadership transition later this year, factions within the party are still jockeying for power. Free discussion of these figures might give a slight boost to the liberal wing by embarrassing conservatives. The back-and-forth on Wang Lijun suggests the different factions may have been trying to outmuscle one another for control over censorship.

Social stability

Whenever sensitive events (ie. Wukan) are unfolding, relevant terms are blocked in order to maintain social stability (AKA – the party’s hold on power). Sometimes it goes the other way though. Pornography is usually so banned that people are paid for snitching on online pornographers. But for a period in 2010, many porn sites mysteriously became accessible.  After a spate of school yard stabbings carried out by frustrated older men, it was theorized that porn could be a kind of emergency release valve.

Censorship for hire

After the Sanlu milk scandal broke out in 2008, Baidu, China’s largest search engine, was accused of accepting 3 million yuan ($474,000) from Sanlu early on to bury damning reports about the company. Baidu denied the charge, but a leaked US embassy cable suggests the practice of corporate payment for censorship is widespread in China.

[Update 3/13] Here’s a new report on the many companies who arrange censorship for a fee.

Good ole’ guanxi

Again, the important thing to remember is that there’s no central decision maker with his finger on a censoring button. It’s thousands of people across scores of government agencies, private search engines, microblogs, web forums, news sites, etc. Even if an entire institution isn’t censoring  a certain term, one of the many cogs in the machine can – for pay or as a personal favor.

A Chinese academic affiliated with the propaganda department once told me about when he found his colleague was being unfairly ostracized on Weibo. He just picked up the phone and called some of his friends at Sina. Problem erased.

And these are just the things we know about. The government and private companies who engage in censorship aren’t about to advertise their rationale to the public. Three months ago, apparently Weibo wouldn’t let you type a single term from the phrase “Muslim Yujie[3] and plug-in Zhou Yongkang[4] protest adultery and cannibalism at the liaison office.” Now, as I confirmed, you can type the phrase in its entirety. We’ll probably never really know why.


[1] Li Peng was the Politburo leader that ordered the 1989 crackdown on Tiananmen Square

[2] Wu Bangguo is currently number 2 on the Politburo Standing Committee, behind Hu Jintao

[3] Yu Jie is an author very critical of the Chinese government. He’s been beaten, arrested and now resides in the US

[4] Zhou Yongkang is currently number 9 on the Politburo Standing Committee

This week we’ve looked Christianity’s potential in China to provide morality, work ethic, and possibly an opiate to keep people working through exploitation. The Chinese government has noticed these things and many within the party seem keen to enjoy the benefits of Christianity. So they’re doing what they know how to do best: Throw money at it.

The government is approving, funding, or outright building churches across the country. Party leaders are more than happy to let you worship…as long as it’s at one of their churches. Lest any religious organization go off the grid and pull a Falun Gong or Taiping, no church is allowed to operate without approval and constant oversight. So as a matter of logistics, official churches tend to be few in number and large in size.

Several months ago I went into one of these churches in Anhui. Sure enough it was magnificent. It was six stories high, capable of holding thousands of worshippers and the interior resembled a European cathedral. But I was less impressed once the service started. The sermon was boring, people went through the motions, sang a bit and left. And I’d guess about 90% of the churchgoers were over 60 years old. It’s the kind of place I’d go just to fulfill a religious obligation.

A few weeks later in Beijing, I met a Chinese girl in her late 20’s in an elevator. After some small talk, she pulled out a card with directions to her church and invited me to check it out. I asked if I was welcome given that I’m an atheist, and even worse, a journalist. She laughed and replied, “Then you should definitely come.”

Her church was in fact a little studio apartment in Beijing’s Zhongguancun district – a stone’s throw from where several Shouwang Church Evangelicals were arrested last year. And like the Shouwang church, this one was technically illegal.

About 25 people showed up, almost all in their 20’s or 30’s. They sat in rows before a pulpit where the preacher, Brother Xing, pounded on the podium and yelled throughout his sermon. He was a firebrand that would never get approval to preside over an official church. But for the young adults accustomed to hearing docile scripted speeches from school and government officials, he was an inspiration. They swayed back and forth as they sang hymns while some occasionally started tearing up.

At the end several people stood up to give testimonies about how faith was helping them through their lives. As they all stuck around for socializing afterwards, it became obvious why most choose this over official churches – where spontaneity is barred and sermons must be pre-approved.

The party sees the value in developing religion, but like it does with film, art, education, and just about everything else, it thinks money is a substitute for freedom. In its insistence on maintaining complete oversight and control, it neuters the institution and ensures the full benefits aren’t reaped.

There are of course risks with religion’s spread other than threatening the party’s rule. With religious freedom, there’s always the potential for cults to emerge. But current circumstances hardly protect against that. In fact, by forcing these churches underground the government just gives cult leaders the perfect excuse to keep congregations in the shadows.

Then there’s good old fashioned dogma. I once met some Chinese Christians who’d done Bible study with American missionaries. They spewed bile about the sin of homosexuality and the need to take evolution education out of schools. It yanked me right back to the worst of what I thought I’d left behind in Kansas. With the success of any religion comes the chance that its influence will lead to social and scientific regression.

But the government has more pressing issues.  An increasing eat-or-be-eaten mentality in an overall system of corruption undermines the country’s ability to sustain itself though development. The political risks of religious liberalization pale next to the potential. I’ve noticed (and the experts I’ve spoken with have agreed) that Chinese Christians seem mostly disinterested in politics with the exception of one issue: Religious freedom. They just want to worship how they want without being bothered. Then they’ll have peace of mind.

 

Christianity series Part 1: Can Lei Feng compete with Jesus?

Christianity series Part 2: The new Christians

Christianity series Part 3: Divine economics

Christianity series Part 4: What Marx may have gotten right

 

As worries of a banking crisis have started to weigh on China in recent months, economists’ eyes have been fixated on Wenzhou. Entrepreneurs in the Zhejiang business hub tend to forgo the banks and simply lend money to each other. This has traditionally served the city well, as it allowed small enterprise to thrive. But now trouble is brewing.

Overinvestment and a slowing economy are starting to see many defaults on loans in Wenzhou. Scores of business owners have already fled the city or committed suicide to escape their debts to shadow lenders. In one case, the daughter of a businessman was taken hostage by a creditor to insure repayment of debt. Because of the growing network of shadow lenders across the country, as well as over-lending by official banks, Tsinghua economist Patrick Chovanec has said Wenzhou is the “canary in the goldmine” for China.

Those interested in the implications of Wenzhou’s economy may do well to look at the city’s other claim to fame: Its Christians. The city has around a 20-30% Christian population – abnormally high for China. Cao Nanlai, Hong Kong University professor and author of Constructing China’s Jerusalem: Christians, Power, and Place in Contemporary Wenzhou, recently told me how religion and economics relate in the city.

He said that Wenzhou Christian entrepreneurs tend to take loans from one another because of the trust and shared values they’ve cultivated together in church. When the city’s debt crisis began, preachers started giving sermons about God’s punishment for greed and telling congregants to keep this in mind in their business dealings. “Wenzhou Christians tend not to put on pressure to repay loans, while their secular counterparts may have resorted to extreme measures that caused an exodus from the city,” Cao said. “In this sense, Christian values and networks do have a very positive impact on Wenzhou’s regional economy.”

In 1905 German economist Max Weber introduced the idea of a “Protestant work ethic.” It said the religion was instrumental in the development of many western countries because of the Calvinist emphasis on honest hard work that would lead to worldly success – a sign that one was heaven-bound.

Recent research has suggested even further economic benefits to religion. A study last year found that people who believe in a vengeful god (ie- one that might send you to hell) cheat less often. And another study that looked at economic data in 59 countries over 20 years found that rises in a belief in hell, and to a lesser extent heaven, correlated with spikes in economic growth.

In 2002, Hong Kong University Professor Wang Xiaoying wrote on China’s “post-Communist personality” and how the country is suffering the excesses of capitalism. Becoming rich is the focus and any attempt at moral guidance is scorned. “Nothing better represents such problems as the sheer scale of corruption and the ineffectiveness of all measures to keep it in check,” Wang writes. “Whatever the intrinsic flaws of capitalism as a social system, China’s social problems seem to come as much from the failure to establish a viable capitalist social order.”

Wang fears China doesn’t have the established social order that the west did during its development to reign in the capitalist excesses. Religion might be one effective way to establish this order and perhaps even turn a few corrupt officials honest. “Christianity may play a very important and positive role in the public sphere at the local and grassroots level,” said Cao Nanlai. “An informal local network of churchgoing relatives and friends can embed local officials within a shared emotional structure, shaping their moral values. This is certainly the case in Wenzhou.”

But religion’s potential in helping China develop might not just be about stopping the strong from exploiting the weak. It could be just as much about keeping the exploited quiet and working through the excesses of development. We’ll dig deeper into that tomorrow.

 

Christianity series Part 1: Can Lei Feng compete with Jesus?

Christianity series Part 2: The new Christians

Christianity series Part 4: What Marx may have gotten right

Christianity series Part 5: Communist Christianity

The new Christians

Posted: March 6, 2012 in Religion
Tags: , , ,

For Chu Zhen, all it took to spark his interest in Christianity was the movie Forrest Gump. The 21-year-old Nanjing college student was struck by a scene where Gump recounted his trip to China on The Dick Cavett Show. Another guest, John Lennon, found it hard to “imagine” that the Chinese don’t practice religion. “We don’t understand why Americans are surprised that Chinese don’t have faith,” Chu said. “We think that that’s very normal.”

Chu started going to church and Bible studies around campus out of curiosity. Within a few weeks, he was a full-fledged Christian. But if Forrest Gump hadn’t nudged over that first domino for Chu, something else almost certainly would have.  He said that before he found peace of mind in his church community, he was a misfit and heading in a dangerous direction. “I used to be aggressive,” he said. “I did a lot of bad things…to my friends, parents, and people who care about me. At that time I just wanted to find a belief.”

When China’s markets were opened in 1978, the socialist economic system started to break down, and with it went the socialist moral framework. The idea of striving for Communism and putting the needs of the masses ahead of personnel interests started to fall by the wayside. Role models like Lei Feng that embodied this spirit gave way to the Steve Jobs’ of the world.

These days, young people like Chu Zhen often feel conflicted about where their responsibilities lie. On one hand they’re still taught to serve the motherland and be honest altruistic citizens, but on the other they see people becoming highly revered in society for getting rich – even if it’s through less than honest means. And as a young man Chu Zhen has the difficult task of attracting a wife and finding ways to fulfill his filial obligation to support his family. Doing what’s “right” isn’t a clear choice.

“In sociology we have a term called ‘anomie’ when many people in society feel kind of lost and don’t know what to do,” said Purdue Professor Fenggang Yang, author of Religion in China: Survival and Revival Under Communist Rule. “Many people felt lost in this market transition. But then they somehow ended up at a church and realized Christianity provides a clear set of values and moral standards, and that it’s good living a life where you know what you should do and shouldn’t do.”

Besides socialist ideology, Chinese have also traditionally looked to Confucius for guidance. But that too is often lacking in today’s China.  Confucianism consists of several hierarchical relationships. Fei Xiaotong, a Chinese sociologist and anthropologist, described relationships in China as the surface of a lake after a rock has been thrown in. The distance of each circle from the center represents social and emotional distance. Blood connections are closest, followed loosely by hometown people and then those with a similar social identity (rich, poor, urban, rural, white-collar, blue-collar, etc.). [1] The further someone is outside your circles, the more they’re seen as a tool to benefit those within; or simply disregarded.

Christianity, however, introduces a concept largely absent in today’s China: Loving strangers. Naomi, a 22-year-old student from Chonqing, was led to conversion through this route. She’s the youngest of three children in a family that didn’t always take the time to show their love. Her father has unspecified “problems” and her mother is constantly worrying about him. Her sister only completed middle-school before later getting married off and having a baby. “She just lives for her family,” Naomi said, as tears started rolling down her cheek. “And my brother isn’t good at communicating with others.”

When Naomi went to college she started spending time with some Christians from Singapore and Hong Kong who were on the same scholarship as her. “They were so kind,” she said. “They came to Nanjing to see me and have dinner with me. They really care for me.” She started going to church with them and remembers that it took exactly six visits before she declared herself Christian.

On an average day, an estimated 10,000 Chinese will follow in converting to Christianity. In a transitioning society with a unique hybrid of authoritarianism and capitalism, the reasons are many. And unlike the local religions of Buddhism and Taoism, Christianity has the benefit of being western and trendy.

In fact, several Chinese converts reported being told by European or American missionaries who converted them that the West owes its success to Christianity. And if China hopes to duplicate that success, it too must embrace the religion. This bold claim invites scoffs from the not-devoutly-Christian, but there may indeed be some truth to it.

Tomorrow we’ll look at how.

 

Christianity series Part 1: Can Lei Feng compete with Jesus?

Christianity series Part 3: Divine economics

Christianity series Part 4: What Marx may have gotten right

Christianity series Part 5: Communist Christianity


[1] Wielander, Gerda. (2011). Beyond Repression and Resistance – Christian Love and China’s Harmonious Society. The China Journal. 65 (1), 119-139

Yesterday I looked at the case of the Japanese cyclist, which raised the question of a whether there’s a Chinese inferiority complex when dealing with foreigners. Global Times ran a piece along these lines saying, “A simple bike has seemingly reflected an embarrassing situation, namely that Chinese still cannot view foreigners equally. People are still too sensitive to foreign evaluations of the country and confined to an inferior mentality.”

Long ago China regarded all other countries as tributaries to itself and actually had a very blatant SUPERIORITY complex. In 1792, King George III of England sent a delegation to show the Qianlong emperor some British goods and persuade him to open China to greater trade with the West. The emperor responded with a sufficiently condescending refusal  that labeled foreigners barbarians and included passages like: “You, O King, from afar have yearned after the blessings of our civilization, and in your eagerness to come into touch with our converting influence have sent an embassy across the sea bearing a memorial. I have already taken note of your respectful spirit of submission.”

By cutting itself off from the ever- globalized and technological world, China was left vulnerable to the Opium Wars. Then the end of the 19th century brought the ultimate slap in the face. China was pummeled in the First Sino-Japanese War after the little “barbarian” island seized the opportunity China had brushed away. This was all part of the greater “Century of Humiliation,” which is oft-cited as the root of China’s inferiority complex with foreigners and hunger for international validation.

So many Chinese regard it as shameless historical kowtowing when foreigners are perceived to get special treatment – like in the case with the Japanese cyclist. But do we foreigners really receive elevated treatment above our Chinese peers?

Yes and no. Global Times was absolutely right in saying Chinese still cannot view foreigners equally, but it goes both ways. Some take the 19th-20th century inferiority outlook and worship foreign things and people. But quite a few take the opposite 18th century chauvinistic attitude.

I’m often invited to stranger’s homes, bought drinks, taken to dinner and offered high-paying jobs by virtue of having a foreign face. That I can’t deny.

But I’m also overcharged for everything (by normal merchants and government policy). I’m used as a pawn in guanxi-maneuvering and treated like a performing monkey. I live in constant fear that I’ll be booted out of the country if I flub up some bureaucratic procedure. A few people have tried to talk my girlfriend out of dating me because of the indignity it brings to China. And I’m reminded on a daily basis that my entire identity is nothing more than 外国人 (outside-country person). And if that’s all a Japanese visitor deals with, he’s very lucky.

Obviously most foreigners feel like they come out ahead in the end, or they wouldn’t still be here. But being a foreigner entails trade-offs many Chinese don’t recognize.

Today I read a very interesting piece in the Economic Observer giving a very different take on the Japanese cyclist. It said, “Is the problem that police neglect ordinary people or that ordinary people let themselves be neglected? Government is always blamed for discontent, and social problems are always ascribed to mismanagement by officials. But there are plenty of people acquiescing in this. […]Why do foreigners always get special treatment in China? Is it because, unlike many Chinese who are willing to put up with the way things are, they insist on making a fuss?”

In the graduate program I’m in currently in Beijing, we’re separated into a class of only foreigners and a few classes of only Chinese. A few weeks ago a Chinese classmate was told by an administrator that she wouldn’t get credit for a class she’d completed. It had been approved as an elective at the beginning of the semester but, at the end, the administrator (who my friend says hates her) arbitrarily decided the course wouldn’t count.

On the other side, we foreign students are accommodated at every turn. Administration holds regular meetings to hear our feedback on what we like and don’t like about the program. And if someone has beef with a teacher, they’ll usually get their way. On the surface this probably looks like blatant special treatment for foreigners.

But I remember last year many of the foreign and Chinese students had plans to go out together one night.  However, a few hours before, the Chinese students said their teacher had scheduled a last-minute meeting to go over pointless drivel…at 7:00 on a Friday night.

“So?” I said. “Tell the teacher tough shit. You already have plans.”

“No, she’s making us go,” my friend replied.

“Is she holding a gun to your head or something?” I pushed. “Tell her she needs to give you a respectful amount of notice if she expects you to show up.”

“We can’t,” my friend scoffed gently. “I’m sorry.”

The reason for the “special treatment” of foreign students became pretty clear. Another Chinese student would later talk about the administration saying, only half-jokingly,“They come and bully us because they’ve gotten so used to getting bullied by you foreigners.”

A few months ago I asked if this kind of innate submissiveness is traditional filial culture, or if it’s been hammered in from above by an authoritarian system. But wherever it comes from, in the end, people will only receive the treatment that they stand up and demand.

A few days ago this story came out about a Japanese cyclist who was trying to ride around the world, only to have his bike stolen in China. When he described his plight on the web, netizens and Wuhan police snapped into action and his 13,000 yuan bike was recovered days later. Predictably, many Chinese weren’t so pleased with this happy ending.

It was a relief to see very few comments gratuitously invoke the Nanjing Massacre, but there were plenty of responses like, “A foreigner losing his bike and appear on television and become news, but what about when a local Chinese person loses his bike? Who would report that?”

People’s Daily urged local authorities to serve the needs of the common Chinese people in the same way that they did the Japanese cyclist. And Global Times ran piece saying, “A simple bike has seemingly reflected an embarrassing situation, namely that Chinese still cannot view foreigners equally. People are still too sensitive to foreign evaluations of the country and confined to an inferior mentality.”

People’s Daily is absolutely right that authorities should extend much more effort for common Chinese. Since the media usually isn’t free to expose police ineptitude or corruption, many forces are lazy do-nothing outfits that won’t raise an eyebrow unless there’s something in it for them.

But the anger over this particular story has gotten a bit out of hand. First of all, the way the story unfolded was very tongue-in-cheek. Bored netizens found their cheeky cause of the day and managed to deliver on their largely satirical mission – which is what made it newsworthy.

Also, this wasn’t just an everyday bike theft. This was a foreign traveler who lost his means of transportation an ocean away from home. I often travel in this way and dread the day when my bike gets stolen in the middle of nowhere. You can’t just go to the local bike shop and pick up a new one. In Nanjing it took me weeks to find and soup up a bike capable of long-distance travel. And the logistics of just returning home would be a nightmare. There’s awkward-to-carry gear, unexpected costs, and who knows how many legs of travel would be required.

If I heard a foreign cycler was travelling through Kansas City and had his bike stolen, I’d expect police to devote more attention to the case than a standard local theft. He’s alone and stranded in a strange land. The bike’s importance is much more than its cash value.

Still, there are plenty of Chinese in much more desperate situations that go completely ignored. But I don’t think the case of the Japanese man paints a very realistic picture of foreign vs. local treatment. In Nanjing I once had a 2,000 yuan electric scooter stolen. When I reported it to the police they filled out the standard paperwork and went about ignoring it just like they did with the Chinese.

Yes, foreigners in desperate need of help from authorities probably are more likely to get it in most situations; but that’s not really unique to China. Police are typical human beings. A person in trouble who’s alone and can’t speak the language or navigate the cultural complexities will usually elicit more sympathy than a local with family, friends, and a grasp on how things are done.

But are foreigners given special treatment in general by Chinese because of an inferiority complex?

We’ll look at that tomorrow…

 

 

One of the major factors re-enforcing China’s wealth gap is the disparity in education between children of the rich and the poor. This piece in Time from a few days ago underlines how the educational failure in rural areas could seriously damper China’s growth in the near future. Since the 1990’s, the proportion of rural students in China’s universities has been dropping steadily. The percentage at Peking University has fallen from 30% to 10%. And at Tsinghua, rural students make up only 17% of the student body in spite of accounting for 62% of the entrance exam takers.

Last summer I interviewed analyst Pablo Zoido with the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)– which is affiliated with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. He has conducted studies specifically on how disadvantaged students can overcome their socio-economic background and perform on par with their affluent peers. Obviously adequate funding and getting good teachers to these poor schools is very important, but there are many relatively cheap measures that can be taken which produce big results. Zoido shared some interesting (and somewhat counter-intuitive) findings regarding the role of standardized testing, confidence and how some Chinese cities are actually leading the world in fostering educational equality.

Question: What have your studies shown is the most important factor in closing the gap between rural and urban students’ performance?

Zoido: The first thing is opportunity to learn. Across many different countries disadvantaged students tend to spend less time at school and that obviously has an impact on their performance. Having an extra hour of class time also seems to benefit disadvantaged kids more than advantaged. It could be the fact that it keeps disadvantaged kids from doing something else that wouldn’t be particularly beneficial for their performance; whereas advantaged kids not being in school might just mean that they’re learning something else or getting support at home where they tend to have more educated parents and more educational resources.

Q: Your report also indicates self-confidence is a major factor in performance.

Zoido: Kids being more debated, more engaged, interested, and self-confident in their abilities is related to performance. Motivation is important for all kinds of kids regardless of their background and it could be key to improving their performance. Incidentally there’s a lot of evidence in our studies that educational aspirations play a big role in bridging this gap. But this works across all kinds of students. So any sort of policy should be targeted to disadvantaged kids to overcome support that advantaged kids get at home.

Q: How can you foster this motivation?

Zoido: In terms of educational expectations, kids can be given clear information about the types of opportunities they’ll have in the future. Also role models in the kinds of professions they might want to aspire to later on.  Encouraging disadvantaged kids to participate in, or even organize, extracurricular activities like science or math clubs can also help.

Q: Does having a single standardized test like the Gaokao have any bearing on the urban-rural gap?

Zoido: There’s no sort of evidence for that. Memorization of course is something we always find doesn’t help performance and is sometimes negatively related. But in our studies, we don’t test kids on the knowledge they acquire at school but whether they can use that knowledge in novel situations in a somewhat creative way. Chinese students perform very well on these sorts of tests. So we think that this suggests the myth that Chinese or Asian education just focuses on rote-memorization isn’t completely right.

Q: One of your studies found that Hong Kong and Shanghai top the world in the percentage of disadvantaged students who overcome their background and perform on par with their advantaged peers. This seems counter-intuitive.

Zoido: What’s really surprising and extraordinary in the performance of Shanghai and Hong Kong is that, in spite of having populations very diverse in terms of socio-economic background, kids do well across the board. So there’s a very weak relationship between socio-economic background and performance there.

There was a case study of Shanghai and it found one of the main driving forces for the good performance was collaboration across schools. Whenever there’s a weak school, stronger schools will send their management teams and teachers to these weaker schools to turn them around and make them a success. It also happens that this becomes a particularly good career promotion for the people involved in turning the school around. So there seems to be a whole system in place to ensure that, rather than having a huge school that does very well, all schools do well more-or-less at the same level. That’s our best guess but we don’t have a lot of evidence on exactly what’s driving that.

Q: Could internet education in the countryside help close the performance gap?

Zoido: We have a report looking at this and I think the main message was how hard it is to take advantage of internet education technologies. We think the key there isn’t only providing more access and more opportunity for kids but also training teachers in how to use it effectively and how to integrate it into the overall pedagogy of the curriculum. It’s a tricky issue.

Q: Do you think affirmative action initiatives like extra points on the Gaokao for rural students are good ways to bridge the divide?

Zoido: What other countries show is that, when you’re at the university level, it’s probably already too late. What seems to be happening in countries that do very well across the board like Finland and Canada is that there are sort of early warning mechanisms for schools to identify kids who are, perhaps not already doing very poorly, but are at risk of doing poorly. Once these kids have been identified they spend extra time in school or are taken into smaller groups and given support for the particular subject where they’re falling behind. Not waiting until it’s too late with rural students is important.

One of the great misconceptions from people who’ve never been to China is that Chinese long for western-style freedoms. More often than not, when I talk with Chinese friends about the enormous problems facing China and the desperate need for political reform, I get a similar response:

“Most Chinese people don’t care about things like freedom of speech. They just want stability and food in their stomach. Things have gotten so much better in the past 20 years, so these chaotic freedoms would be a stupid risk.”

To them, “freedoms” are totally abstract and irrelevant to their lives. I counter by saying, “You’ve never been totally screwed with absolutely no recourse.”

Imagine your town’s party secretary said your home would be demolished to make way for a public water park. You have the option of accepting cash worth far less than the market value of your home or taking a worse apartment several miles out in the boonies.

After demolition, it’s announced that the water park plan will be scrapped and expensive luxury apartments will be built instead. You and the residents cry foul and seek help from local courts and media only to find they’re under the thumb of the same person who took your home.

So some people try contacting Hong Kong’s Phoenix TV, where they’d seen corruption exposés before. Days later, Phoenix TV’s service is cut from the whole city. You consider going to the provincial capital or Beijing to petition. You seek advice from friends in other cities but they retell stories of people getting fired, harassed, detained or even killed for trying to do this. You decide giving up is probably the smartest choice.

For all the attention we foreigners call to instances like this, relatively few Chinese actually experience them. Most go on normally with steadily growing incomes, so it’s understandable that they don’t want a political shake up. I recently talked about this with my girlfriend’s father – an admitted laobaixing (commoner) – who agreed that freedoms and political reforms are luxuries too risky to trifle with.

This wouldn’t be surprising except that a few years ago he and his neighbors went through the exact situation I just described.

I asked how he of all people could still be averse to political reform. He replied that he had indeed been screwed, but if the kinds of freedoms I was talking about were allowed, the Communist Party would collapse and there would be chaos. If things ever do get really terrible, THEN the government can make reforms. But for now, it’d be a pointless risk.

This attitude is pretty common among laobaixing and, it seems, the government too. I’d compare it to saying global warming isn’t worth addressing until there’s some sort of major environmental catastrophe. It’s already hurting a small minority, but most are living the best quality lives anyone ever has. So why slow down this rocket ship before its engine blows? That’s exactly what’s happening right now in China economically and politically. Let’s look at some ways how:

The Stability Bicycle

 

Scenario 1: Local party cadre takes bribes, levies illegal taxes and uses his power to favor businessmen he has guanxi with. Everyone below him knows this but he doesn’t care. He’s elected from above and has control over the town’s police, courts and media. He knows that less than 3% of corrupt officials go to jail, because even if his superiors catch wind of his transgressions, they’d just assume not dirty their hands unless they’re backed against a wall. Indicting him could be an indictment on themselves and the system that feeds them.

Other government workers see this cadre getting rich and it makes them envious. The local factory inspector decides he too will take bribes. Now those who aren’t getting rich are losing face and opportunities to attract good wives. So everyone starts seeking out and abusing any kind of authority so they don’t get left behind. Those at the very bottom bear the heaviest burden of all this corruption and become increasingly resentful. Eventually, even honest business owners have to cut serious corners just to stay afloat. This leads to…

Scenario 2: Local factory poisons a river. Local party secretary (who has perhaps been bribed by the factory) prevents local media from reporting it in order to keep his job and city stability. Stability is indeed maintained and, operating on the precedent of impunity, the factory continues to pollute the river. Commoners are getting sick and some are dying. Perhaps they connect the dots and take to the streets. Perhaps they don’t.

True story

Very plausible ending to the story: The national government lets some egregious cases get reported, but they bury most small scale incidents like this (if they even find out) in order maintain public confidence and stability. People therefore see very few examples that might help them connect the dots in their own local situations.

This happens repeatedly up and down the river and many others for several years to the point that the water is now unsafe to even touch; much less drink. China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection has acknowledged this is already the case with HALF China’s lakes and rivers. Similar circumstances unfold with medicine, food, infrastructure safety, air pollution, and deforestation. Try as they might to stop it with their “iron fist,” the central government’s internal policing is about as effective as fighting a cornfield mouse infestation with a baseball bat.

Cases like Sanlu that are patently obvious to the whole country get wide attention, but most situations fester slowly out of the public view until they’re well beyond the point of no return. Eventually these things compound and millions get screwed, thirsty, hungry or poisoned. As people often do when they’re screwed, thirsty, hungry or poisoned, they revolt and the government’s attempt to keep social stability has backfired tremendously.

Scenario 3: In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, the national government wanted to ensure social stability by keeping high investment and GDP growth, so it pushed down interest rates and engineered a lending boom that expanded the country’s money supply by two-thirds. Keeping money in the bank became pointless for the rich since interest rates are below inflation rates. Many people (especially those who’ve come into their money illegally) stash their money by buying multiple apartments. Thus there is huge demand for high-value real estate.

So we return to local party secretary who needs some quick money; maybe for himself, but maybe just to achieve the kind of raw economic growth demanded of him by national leaders who see 8% annual growth – no matter what – as the key to keeping stability. So he does this the easiest way he knows how: tearing down old cheap apartments and selling the land to developers to build luxury apartments nobody will ever actually live in.

Very plausible ending to the story: local party bosses across the country do the same thing until there are more luxury apartments than people can possibly buy. Prices crash and people who’ve already bought these homes lose their massive investments. Developers who haven’t yet sold their new buildings default on their loans en masse. This has a domino effect which causes much of the other $2.7 trillion in recent loans to go bad.

Rumors spread on the internet that banks are running out of money. Official channels deny this but people have long since stopped believing the stability-maintaining cheery propaganda. So commoners swarm to withdraw their savings and start hording goods. This causes even greater inflation and regular Chinese suffer worse than at any point during the 2008 financial crisis. The government’s attempt to keep social stability has backfired tremendously.

Scenario 4: In order to keep social stability and firm support, the government bases its education system on making students obedient. It teaches them to accept the material without challenging it. This material often includes subjective nonsense, so students are trained to think in a way to find the safe answer rather than the true or innovative answer. This begins with politics and history classes but spills over into other subjects. Students are afraid to express ideas beyond the status quo and teachers are afraid to teach them.

Meanwhile, international collaborative platforms like Twitter are blocked or heavily censored (in order to preserve social stability), so Chinese researchers are kept in a virtual cocoon. Manufacturing wages are starting to rise, so China’s economy needs to move up the value chain like Japan’s, Taiwan’s and Korea’s did before it. But because of the education deficit and lack of intellectual freedom, China isn’t equipped to do this.

Very plausible ending to this story: As this decade nears an end, demographic shifts put huge pressure on the young working generation as they must support aging parents. China’s best and brightest see the writing on the wall so they go overseas to get educated – where they mostly stay after graduation.

China’s “Indigenous Innovation” initiative relied more on protectionism and siphoning last year’s IP from foreign companies than it did on creating the right conditions to innovate at home. Under the standard policy of throwing money at a problem, several of the most brilliant Chinese minds manage impressive accomplishments in spite of the anti-intellectual atmosphere, but those exceptions are indeed exceptions. For the most part, Chinese companies stay perpetually one step behind their foreign competitors.

Scores graduate from universities to find their education was useless. Manufacturing positions are now fewer because of rising wages and technological improvement; and bosses don’t want factory workers with degrees anyways.

Like unemployed youth in the Middle-East did in 2011, young Chinese take to the streets. The government tried to avoid another Tiananmen by making sure universities didn’t become independent hotbeds for radical thinking. But their attempts to maintain social stability have backfired tremendously.

Conclusion

These scenarios aren’t just possible, they’re already happening. Many I speak to say these endings won’t happen because the central government will step in and prevent the worst. But in spite of what many Chinese and most foreigners seem to think, China has one of the weakest central governments in the world. It must oversee tens of thousands of local fiefdoms, so even when the top leaders try to do the right thing, their orders get diluted, reinterpreted or ignored through multiple levels of corrupted bureaucracy.

Like most groups throughout history though, the party is reluctant to give up any of its absolute power. It clings to the notion that it can use its power to launch internal crackdowns and scare corrupt officials straight. But this approach has been failing for decades. For every situation it rectifies, dozens more pop up.

Only by outsourcing its supervisory role to commoners and media empowered by a rule of law enforced from the top can China’s model become sustainable.  China is the frog in heating water and time is running out. Hopefully the laobaixing will realize stability at all costs is usually the most potent recipe for chaos.

How economic growth happens

Posted: January 31, 2012 in Economics
Tags: , ,

For years now the debate has been going on about the superiority of China’s economic model. China has averaged around 10% annual GDP growth for the past 30 years while, on a very good year, western capitalist countries might see something like 3% – and that’s on a very good year. Yesterday Global Times ran an interview with Ding Chun, a member of the Global Agenda Council on Europe of the WEF, and asked, “Do you think the West should learn from developing countries like China?”

He replied, “I believe so. The West used to praise highly the Washington Consensus. Then they promoted the so-called conscientious market economy. Now the economic situations of developing countries are better than those of Western countries.”

The Chinese government loves to tout the idea that, since Western countries are suffering and China’s economy is soaring, it means capitalism is bunk and Socialism with Chinese Characteristics (AKA authoritarian capitalism) is superior. China is lucky to have the Communist Party ruling it.

I’m not an economist, but I have taken one entry-level economics class – which is one more than anyone who would make a claim like that has taken. China’s meteoric rise would be completely predictable to any economist worth giving himself that title. Let’s dumb down growth for developing countries to its most basic form. Essentially, it’s turning this:

into this:

A poor developing country isn’t very productive, so after people save up enough money from picking wheat, they buy a machine to improve productivity and income. Eventually they can buy the most productive machine there is and learn how to use it most efficiently. Then with all the new money, industries that never existed before (ie-tourism) can also bloom. Voila! Growth.

China is massive and there are still a lot of people doing things the old-fashioned way. So it’s completely normal that, as long as the government doesn’t get in the way, there will be large growth for a long time. But China’s government did get in the way from 1949 to 1979. Then Deng Xiaoping had the wild notion that if you let people reap the direct benefits of their work rather than force them to slave for the good of the motherland, they’ll be more productive. So I suppose you can credit China’s government for the huge economic growth of the past 30 years. Just like if I won a marathon I could credit the guy who was bear-hugging me at the beginning of the race for finally letting go.

To be sure, China’s development under authoritarian capitalism has been much faster than, say India’s democratic capitalism during this stage (although not necessarily better). But what happens when everyone finally has the biggest, most productive machines? Then they have to innovate and make an even better machine or method if they want to keep growing. This is what western capitalist countries are doing now – and it’s much slower.

In fact, this is what they’ve been doing for more than a hundred years because they were the first to build these big machines. Late-comers like China only needed to buy (or pilfer) this technology and learn these methods that already exist – a big 2nd mover advantage. So naturally, its development has been much faster than the West’s was.

Now that developing countries like China, which are more numerous and have much larger populations, are getting these machines, their workers with lower wages and less stringent labor/pollution laws are making it cheaper to produce basic goods while developed countries struggle with ways to make them more efficiently.

During this struggle, developed countries are losing production they’ve traditionally had, yet their people have still clung to the quality of life they’ve grown accustomed to. Hence, many are going into debt. They’re trying to make up for this with even more innovation at the frontier, but again, it’s slow-going. So given China’s huge population, it will indeed continue to grow until its GDP is well past any western capitalist country. However, China’s growth is already slowing because of it’s diminishing returns in increasing productivity. So what happens when China eventually gets everyone the newest, most efficient machines?

Then even less developed countries will take away many manufacturing jobs and China will go head-to-head with developed capitalist countries in innovation. It will come down to who has a better education system and more intellectual freedom.  Given the current atmosphere, who would you put your money on as more sustainable in the long run?

I’ve just returned from spending the Chinese New Year with my girlfriend’s family in Shandong (apologies for the lack of recent updates). A few weeks ago I wrote on China’s marriage trap and over the holiday I got to experience first hand a little bit of why Chinese often rush into marriage.

This was my third Chinese New Year at her home. As is Chinese custom and social assumption, the first time I went was essentially signaling our intent to get married. The idea that I was a just a foreigner with no place else to go for the holiday wasn’t something that crossed many people’s minds. The second year, things were set in stone when one uncle went so far as to host a semi-official “welcome to the family” dinner (unbeknownst to me ahead of time). Keep in mind, we never said a word to anyone about marriage plans. This year, everyone’s attitude was basically, “What the hell are you waiting for?”

My girlfriend’s family is about the most liberal you could ever ask for. Nobody ever gave her one bit of grief about dating a foreigner and we even sleep in the same bed while staying at her parents’ place (completely shocking to most Chinese friends I tell). But that didn’t make us immune to the marriage pressure. There was no playful insinuation or beating around the bush. Every relative’s and friend’s home we visited, we were asked directly, “When are you getting married?”

I would just cop-out with the always useful “我听不懂” (I don’t understand) card and make my girlfriend answer. She’d just say we didn’t have plans yet – that I’m still finishing school and there’s no reason to rush, which is true. That was good enough for most, but not all. We went to visit a friend of the family who’s my girlfriend’s “godmother” and made a critical error.

Godmother: When will you two get married?

Girlfriend: We’re not sure.

Godmother: Then when will you have a baby?

Girlfriend: Haha, I’m not even sure I want a baby.

Godmother: (Jaw drops) But you must have a baby.

Girlfriend: Haha, I don’t know.

Godmother: You don’t have to have it right away. You can just be married for a year and then have it.

Girlfriend: We’ll see.

Godmother: You don’t even have to plan it. Just stop using birth control and see what happens.

…And that’s about the point I decided I wouldn’t be returning to her hometown until I put a ring on her finger.

There seems to be a common fear in China that if you wait one day past your 30th birthday to have a baby, it’ll have disastrous health effects for the mother or child. So now that we’re certain we won’t be breaking up, it’s just baffling to some that we aren’t actively planning the wedding and fixing to get knocked up on the wedding night.

For us it’s not a big deal. We’re strong-willed and most of the family is open-minded enough that we don’t feel tempted to bow to this pressure. We’re all but certain we’ll get married eventually anyways, so it’s easy to brush off. But it’s easy to see how many Chinese just throw in the towel and jump into a life they’re not ready for.

When I first moved to Beijing from Nanjing, I hit a snag at the police bureau. I’d just returned from a trip back home and had two days to get a student visa before my old working one expired. But it turned out my school had given me one wrong document (which was nearly identical to the correct one). I asked if they could let it slide but obviously that was out of the question. So I asked if I could pay to extend my current visa; something I’d done before and knew I could still do. Here’s how that went:

Visa woman: You think this is a game? You can just get whatever visa you feel like?

Me: No, there was just a mix-up with the school so I want to extend my current visa until I can get it straightened out with them. I’ve done it before.

Visa woman: No, you’ll just need to go back to the US and apply through the Chinese embassy.

Me: Are you fucking kidding me?! I just got back from the US. I’ve extended my visa before, I know I can do it.

Visa woman:  (Shakes head dismissively, waves me off and refuses to say another word)

I began to understand why there was a bulletproof glass barrier between her and me. I made some calls and got my school to hash it out, but I later learned I was totally right about extending my current visa.  The visa woman was ready to make me go thousands of dollars and a few weeks out of my way just so she could avoid two minutes of extra work.

She’s the disinterested bureaucrat who’s paid to sit there and she’ll be damned if she’s going to do anything more. She’ll abuse her miniscule authority to create shortcuts for fixers and anyone else willing to make it worth her while, but those expecting her to just do her job are about to get their day ruined. If you’ve ever tried to get something done in one of China’s infinite state-run monopolies, you’ve met her.

But I went to open a bank account a few days later and discovered a little invention that could revolutionize China in the most profound way since Reform & Opening Up:

It’s a customer service rating machine. After your interaction, you simply press your level of satisfaction and the total results affect the employee’s job. By no coincidence, the service at the bank was fantastic.

I had similar results when I called to get my internet hooked up. The first two reps I called talked to me like I was a moron for wasting their time in trying to patronize their company. But the third couldn’t have been more helpful. I found out why when, after the conversation, there was an automated feature that asked me to hit a number corresponding with my satisfaction level.

Imagine if every bureaucrat, secretary, doctor, police officer, petitions office worker, train ticket clerk, inspector, etc. had incentives tied to meeting a certain quota on one of these machines. Customer service and efficiency would skyrocket and petty malfeasance would drop precipitously.

After the scheme’s success is proven, who knows, maybe these machines could even be put in little booths every 4 or 5 years and be tied to people in even higher positions of power.

I call on the government to begin immediate production on tens of millions of these machines. I can’t imagine a better investment for the country’s continued development.

 

The marriage trap

Posted: January 16, 2012 in Chinese Culture
Tags: ,

Recently many of my girlfriend’s single acquaintances have been scrambling to find spouses. They’re all around 25 and have entered the 2-3 year window before they’re at serious risk of being “leftover.”

In her increasingly frequent role of matchmaker, a few months ago my girlfriend was given these requirements by a friend for a potential husband:

  • Has Beijing hukou (residency card)
  • Rich family with capability to buy a house
  • Has “ambition” (doesn’t need to have a high-paying job now, but must be on the track to one)
  • 1.8 meters tall (5’11”)

But now the girl’s mother has given her the “final notice” to find a man. Hitting 25 was like watching from the terminal as your plane’s propellers start to spin. So her standards have become much more modest. This is all after long ago breaking up with a boy that she actually liked because he didn’t quite live up to all the previous requirements.

On the other side, a guy friend broke up with his girlfriend whom he really loved last year.  She was from the south and his family wanted him to marry a hometown girl so he wouldn’t ever be tempted to move. Now he’s set to marry a local that his family introduced him to just a few months ago. He’s already bitter about it, always changing the subject whenever the topic of his fiancée is brought up.

Once my girlfriend set up two friends with each other who actually hit it off. The guy was rich, the girl was pretty and they seemed to get along really well. So I was surprised when the girl ended it. She was from the countryside and felt inferior to the guy. She thought marrying him would permanently cause her family to lose face to his.

All these cases have been thoroughly depressing to watch; especially after seeing a window into their future. When I worked at an English mill, several students were affluent middle-aged housewives studying English as a kind of status symbol and way to meet people.

One day, one of these women was laying on innuendo pretty heavily with one of the older foreign teachers. When he failed to respond she began crying and flat out asked him to sleep with her. The teacher tried to console her as she went on about how her husband hadn’t touched her in months. He’d just come home late and slip into bed, then leave the next morning without saying a word.

This is what frequently happens with these kinds of rushed marriages where meeting and engagement are just weeks (sometimes days) apart. Another of my girlfriend’s friends has never so much as kissed a boy, but now she’s going through suitors like job applicants – desperate to fill the open position. With the perception of a ticking clock that stops at age 30, there’s only room for social and economic considerations.

Housing prices are ridiculous and inflation is pretty terrible in general, so the concern for economic security is somewhat understandable. So is considering implications of the marriage on the family, given China’s Confucian filial piety tradition. But when you see someone who’s rich financially and in filial duty burst into tears begging a near stranger for sex, that’s a pretty good indicator of misplaced priorities. And she didn’t even get the worst of it.

A friend’s aunt quickly married a man who, on paper, seemed pretty suitable.  Then she quickly found out he was a sociopath who kept tabs on her 24/7 – beating her severely for talking to any other man. The stories go on and on…

Some of these kids today will luck out and end up with someone they really like, or can at least tolerate. But unfortunately, a lot won’t. It’s a problem one would hope can improve with economic development and women’s empowerment, but I’m not so sure. In a country with such a skewed gender imbalance and emphasis on face, I think we’ll be seeing plenty of miserable marriages for a long time to come.

Why do Chinese care about Taiwan?

Posted: January 12, 2012 in Chinese Culture
Tags: ,

If you’ve ever been to the mainland and said something that could be remotely construed as implying Taiwan isn’t part of China, you’ve probably been called on it. I’ve had two separate people tell me a nearly identical story that sounds something like this:

Chinese 1: What countries have you been to?

Foreigner: Japan, Korea, Thailand…

Chinese 1: Thailand isn’t a country. It belongs to China!

Foreigner: Um, what?

Chinese 2:  她说泰国。不是台湾  (She said Thailand. Not Taiwan.)

Chinese 1: Oh, sorry. Hehe.

People taking something so personally that has no obvious effect on their lives is usually a bit jarring for foreigners. Often when I talk about this with Chinese friends, they’ll say something like, “Well how would you feel if Hawaii tried to become independent?”

They tend to be surprised when I say I couldn’t care less if Hawaii becomes independent…or Puerto Rico…or Texas for that matter.

After four years I’m still trying to figure out exactly why normal Chinese care so much about their sovereignty over the island. Like many cultural differences of opinion, it’d be easy to chalk this up to China’s education system and call it a day. The emphasis on Taiwan is indeed huge in Chinese schools, media, and official rhetoric. It certainly plays a very big role, but to say it’s the only reason would be like saying Americans care about freedom and liberty because they’re educated to.

I would argue that stability and territorial integrity are the core Chinese values – values which are complementary. Much like freedom and liberty to Americans. I think the Hawaii analogy illustrates the opposing ideals between the countries well.

I can’t speak to other countries, but America is defined by its political system more than anything else. It’s more of a concept than a geographical location. There was certainly history on the land before the United States was established, but “America” was effectively born on July 4th, 1776 in the eyes of most Americans. 99.2% of the current population is non-native and the freedoms the political system gave are what are credited for the country’s success. Geography has never been especially important. The country expanded west for 150 years and even today it enjoys land far more abundant than it needs.

So if Hawaii wanted to secede, the national government would certainly care, but you’d have a hard time getting individual Americans too upset about it. Sure we see Hawaiians as every bit American as we are, but we don’t feel any deep historical or ethnic ties. At the end of the day, if they’re not happy being part of our system, they’re free to show themselves the door.

China however, is nothing without history, geography and ethnicity. It’s seen political systems come and go – some of which lasted longer than the entire span of United States history. And land has always been critically important. With little arable land compared to the massive population, geography is something you cling to for dear life. It’s still common to meet families in the countryside who’ve been tied to the same patch of land for hundreds of years and generations as far back as they can remember.

Chinese haven’t had the luxury of being able to just pack up and head west if circumstances shifted beyond their liking. They hold on to their land or die trying.

In the past 200 years, Americans have endured exactly four years of significant upheaval at home. It would be hard to put such an exact number on China, but it’s safe to say the years of unrest outnumber the years of peace. And if you look back at the big scheme of history, land was always shifting hands violently between Chinese. Then in the past two centuries it was often stolen violently by foreigners.

Hence, the complementary values of territorial integrity and stability. In spite of his enormous failures, Mao is still very revered for being able to unite the whole of China and usher an era of relative peace (Cultural Revolution aside). But Taiwan was the one that got away. The historical umbilical cord was cut and an imperialist western power provided the scissors.

Chinese also have a strong tie to the island since “Chinese” is an ethnicity more than a nationality. If I, a white man, were born in China and raised by Chinese parents to be 100% linguistically and culturally Chinese, I would still never actually be considered Chinese. But an ethnically Chinese man born and raised in Pittsburg could come over and be considered by many as a compatriot that’s just been on a long trip. I spoke with a Chinese friend once who said she could bear Tibet being separate from China, since it’s completely different culturally and ethnically. But she just can’t accept the idea of Taiwan separating.

So a foreigner telling a Chinese that Taiwan isn’t part of China would be like someone coming to America and telling locals that they’re not allowed to criticize their political leaders. Chinese education, very influential yes, but you’ll meet plenty of very intelligent, non-brainwashed Chinese who share the same defensiveness on Taiwan.

Today New York Times ran a piece by an American named Jonathan Levine who recounted seeing his old self in Occupy Wall-Street protesters who are “fed up with the economic status quo in the United States.” To the protesters he had a suggestion. “I say vote — not with the ballot, but with your feet. Now that your encampment has disbanded, don’t just leave Zuccotti Park: leave America. For China. At least, that’s what I did. It was the best decision I ever made.”

He’s been in China for less than a year teaching at Tsinghua University and went on to emphasize China’s many benefits for foreigners (job prospects, hospitality, food, friendships with eager students) and then downplayed the problems. He said, ” For my money, CCTV News English, a channel offered by China’s major state television broadcaster, is more fair and balanced than Fox News.”

Fair enough – if you’re going to scrape the bottom of the American media bucket and compare it to China’s English-language station.

“Pollution is bad. Beijing, like much of China, is often enveloped in what local residents euphemistically call ‘mist.’ But there are nice days, too, more than you might think.”

Eh, alright.

“Many critics have rightly pointed out the shocking failures of the Chinese food safety system — the most famous being the tainted-baby-formula scandal of 2008. But what you may not know is that China meted out swift justice in that case to the perpetrators. That is more than can be said for the handling of many corporations in the United States that have harmed their consumers and remain unpunished.”

I saw a bit of my old self in Mr. Levine while reading. When I first came to China from the US, I shared his outlook for at least a year-long honeymoon period. Like him, I was fed up with the US in many ways when I left it. We’d re-elected George W. Bush, my home state of Kansas had revised its science teaching standards to cast doubt on evolution, and nothing constructive seemed to ever get done politically.

Now China…there was a place that got things done. I knew full well China’s political drawbacks, but still, it seemed an efficient and scientific alternative. And one would be coy to deny the automatic benefits being a western foreigner bring.

But as time went on, holes started getting punched in my naivete. The long-term effects of the pollution started to build up psychologically as I wondered just what years of living here were doing to my insides. Routine food scandals have also compounded in my mind. It’s all fine and good when perpetrators are punished after the fact, but that doesn’t give me much peace of mind when I put three meals and eight glasses of water in my mouth each day.

And sure, the perpetrators in the baby formula case were “meted out swift justice.” But it was justice calculated from a very simple formula: Does this help the ruling body’s ability to maintain control?

X amount of danger + Y amount of already public knowledge = Yes. So in that case, the event was publicized and the perpetrators punished.

But when this formula was used during the initial spread of SARS, the answer was no. Just as it is in many other routine instances like coal-mining accidents, protests over corruption and pollution offenses.

Like Levine, I was also disgusted with the Fox News’s of the West. They do indeed provide much of the poison in today’s toxic American politics.  But then I went to work for an English language media outlet in China (which will remain nameless). It quickly became clear that journalism and truth come second to providing the state’s definition of “social stability” and the nationalism needed to prop it up. I wonder when Levine can expect to open a Chinese newspaper to see an op-ed advising people to protest a broken Chinese system by moving to the US.

And while China is certainly incredibly hospitable, it starts to become depressing when you realize that, no matter how long you stay, most will always delineate your entire identity simply to “foreigner.”

In spite of all its setbacks though, China’s redeeming factors have obviously been more than enough to keep me here. It is a great place to live and undeniably has better opportunities for some people than the US does. But the drawbacks Levine mentioned don’t need to be downplayed…especially to those thinking of making a long-term move. I suspect the longer he stays, the more those things will begin to weigh on him.

It’s worth noting too that I’ve known Chinese who thought the US was a land of total equality where it’s easy to get rich. Then they arrived to learn it’s not nearly the utopia they’d imagined; so they returned home without looking back. Getting disillusioned with the home country and becoming completely gung-ho for the new one is a trap I’ve seen many fall in to.

Recently Vice-President Xi Jinping called for more thought control over university students and lecturers. “University Communist Party organs must adopt firmer and stronger measures to maintain harmony and stability in universities,” he said. This is presumably to ensure his transition to president later this year goes smoothly.

However, this is unlikely to have much of an impact and could actually backfire to some degree. Universities are already packed full of political education. To get an idea of what students are already contending with, here’s a question from last year’s grad school entrance exam:

23) In September 1954, the First National People’s Congress held its inaugural meeting in Beijing, marking the establishment of the people’s congress system. This is China’s fundamental political system where people are the masters. This system is_____

  • A. The Chinese Communist Party’s great creation of combining Marxism and China’s reality
  • B. The Chinese Communist Party’s achievement of leading Chinese people through a long struggle
  • C. A reflection of the common interests and aspirations of the people of all nationalities in China
  • D. The inevitable choice in the social development of modern China
[All answers are correct]
(Click here to see more translated questions from this exam)
Students usually must take “philosophy” classes that extoll the merits of Marxism, Leninism and Maoism while only mentioning other ideologies to highlight their inferiority. And students are regularly required to attend meetings with timely political aims. One such meeting I remember from my time teaching was after the 2008 snow storm when all the students were gathered to watch a video glorifying the PLA’s rescue efforts and top leaders’ management of them.
These political initiatives in universities seem to be tolerated by students, but rarely embraced. In fact, they’re often viewed quite cynically and mocked. Over the past few months I’ve interviewed dozens of college students specifically about these things for pieces on political testing and military training. A few bought into the dogma wholesale, but overall students seemed to be aware to some extent that the political education is subjective at best…complete nonsense at worst.

I should note though that only a handful were overtly opposed to the political education. While many said they hated it personally, they said it was necessary to keep unity in ideology among others – which ensures harmony.

But I’m not sure what Xi Jinping has in mind to increase “thought control” further. If this means more political seminars, he’ll only be increasing awareness of the party’s insecurity and blatant propagandizing while giving students more to snicker about.

And perhaps more seriously, it could mean another step backwards in the attempt to get Chinese students to be more creative. When I asked Dr. E. Thomas Dowd, president of the American Academy of Cognitive and Behavioral Psychology, about political questions like the one above, he said, “People are constrained to think only in certain ways. So I guess by definition you can’t have much creativity under those conditions. In fact, in Hitler’s Germany a lot of thinkers of all kinds fled the country. Not just because they were Jews or communists or other unwanted groups; it was because they couldn’t exercise their creativity in that sort of state where only certain things were acceptable.”

A Marxism professor who teaches political subjects at a test-prep academy in Beijing told me straight up, “They’re not testing the ability to recognize fact. They’re testing the ability to recognize the correct opinion. The goal is to make the students achieve the same opinion and choose according to what they learned instead of their own mind.”

To a large extent, I’ve found Chinese students to be incredibly creative when put in the right situation. But when students are taught that opinions are fact, then they aren’t thinking in a way to find truth. They’re thinking in a way to find the answer they think  the higher-ups want to hear. The ideas may be there but the confidence to act on them isn’t.

So Xi Jinping’s idea to increase political indoctrination in schools seems to be self-defeating all around. But maybe these political seminars aren’t what he has in mind. “Young teachers have many interactions with students and cast significant [political and moral] influence on them,” he said. “They also play a very important role in the spread of ideas.”

So maybe his aim is to better monitor teachers and remove the ones that put forward unsavory ideas. If that’s the case, I think it’s time to stop and have some serious self-reflection on the path he’s setting the country on.

At the risk of sounding alarmist, China is in trouble. China watchers from all kinds of backgrounds would probably agree with this statement to some extent. It’s “trouble” in the abstract sense, since we don’t know exactly how it will play out. But it’s hard to look at political, social, economic and environmental trends without getting the feeling that a perfect storm of sorts is brewing. I’ve put together this infographic to try and bring together some ominous signals from several different fields. What it all means, I can’t say for sure, but it’s apparent that in the very near future China will meet challenges unprecedented in the history of mankind. For the sake of China, and realistically, the rest of the world, let’s hope the 5th generation of leaders knows what they’re doing.

Feel free to use this image, please just link back to this site.

Upon news of Kim Jong-Il’s death today, Chinese netizens on Weibo had reactions pretty similar to those from the West. There was a lot of mocking, some concern about what this will mean politically and a lot of celebratory remarks. Many have also started asking “who’s next?” amid the stream of high-profile 2011 deaths. There are notable differences though at opposite extremes.

One weibo user said, “Kim Jong-Il, an old friend of the Chinese people, has died.” Another lamented that yet another “Anti-Western hero” has fallen.

On the other side some are making sarcastic references to China’s government. A netizen named S_uper Dian tainment said, “Kim Jong Il done for? who’s next? Chavez, Ahmadinejad? [In accordance with relevant laws, regulations and policies, some names were not shown.]“

In the past I’ve often asked Chinese their views on North Korea out of curiosity. True to today’s form, opinions of China’s little comrade to the east are all over the place. Historical issues, stereotypes, modern propaganda and reality jockey for influence in shaping Chinese opinion of most foreign countries; and North Korea is certainly no exception.

In school, most students will learn about North Korea when they study the Korean War, or as it’s called in China: “The War to Resist American Aggression and Aid Korea.” The official account is that the “People’s Volunteer Army” was sent to defend China and aid the helpless Koreans. It ended with a glorious victory against the militarily superior American forces.

After that, it’s a bit awkward. The modern juxtaposition of North and South Korea makes this victory look a bit hollow, so the war is generally where the official education on North Korea ends. But the country also offers a nice contrast to China in some respects. Reform & Opening Up and Chinese leadership look especially impressive by comparison. So there’s mixed signals.

Just about everyone I’ve talked to in China realizes North Korea is very poor. But not many have said much about deplorable human rights or a Stalinist government. I showed a documentary on the country to a friend once who was pretty taken aback by it. These kinds of things don’t tend to get much coverage in China – no matter where they happen.

The most common reply I get though when I ask Chinese friends about North Korea is, “It’s like China was 30 years ago.” That seems fairly accurate, but sometimes it’s not necessarily meant as a negative statement. Chinese fed up with the pressures of capitalism and growing inequalities are increasingly looking back to the Mao-era nostalgically. This is especially true with those who weren’t yet old enough to appreciate the hardships of the time. In people’s tendency to romanticize the past, Mao’s time seems relatively simple and egalitarian.

North Korea offers a modern day incarnation of that period. The bulk of foreign tourists to North Korea are Chinese, largely for this reason. When I was in Pyongyang this past summer I chatted with a Chinese man in the karaoke room of our hotel who had his own export business. It was his third trip and you could tell by the way he talked he was loving every minute of it. With no phone or internet he enjoyed the chance to throw himself back into real socialism for a few days without the pesky distractions of materialist China.

But that’s a fairly extreme view. In my overall experience, most Chinese have some vague negative notions of North Korea, but have never really been provoked or cared to learn much more. All in all, probably not any more misinformed than most Americans – just maybe from a slightly different direction. And who’s to say who’s right? If there’s one thing I learned from going to North Korea, it’s how little anyone really knows about it – including those who have been there.

Here’s a few other posts from Weibo I found interesting. (I can’t speak to the authenticity of the quotes supposedly made by Kim) :

Obama is truly a great president. Few others have accomplished so much. In his term: Osama Bin Laden, Gaddafi, and now Kim Jong-Il.

The Chinese people’s old friend Kim said: “The nation’s greatness does not lie in its vast territory, or long history, while the leader guides the nation’s greatness.  Only when there is a great leader and great party leading the country will the nation be brilliant and let individual honor shine.” If other old friends hear this, they will clap until their hands go red!

When the Chinese people’s old friend Gaddafi was in a hopeless situation and his fears became reality, the few remaining old friends of the Chinese people, Kim Jong Il , Mugabe, Chavez, Castro, and Lukashin had an emergency telephone meeting and reached a consensus: They decided to cancel the “old friend of China”  title of honor. They agreed that the title is too damn dangerous.

In the Korean primary school textbook Grandfather Kim’s Work is Most Tense, Kim said to the pioneers, “Chinese people are still grateful. Now, the Korean people also assume the responsibility to defend the safety of Chinese people. We must defeat the U.S. imperialist running dogs in Taiwan to a complete return of the Chinese people in Taiwan. Do you have confidence?” The young pioneers all confidently replied, “We have the idea and have confidence!”

Chinese people’s dream: 1. School is free 2. You can get a job without guanxi (connections) 3. Doctors don’t sell drugs 4. Food is not poisonous 5. No lies in news reports 6. Professors are not idiots 7. Officials don’ t take bribes 8. Chengguan don’t beat people 9. People who take off pants can’t get popular 10. People who brag can’t get famous  11. Houses are not demolished by force 12. People are not afraid of power 13. The environment is not polluted 14. Officials don’t have privilege. If you agree, please tweet “Kim Jong Il died” “Anti-soccer corruption””anti-radiation clothes” 

 

 

 

After last week’s “Microcosms” I decided I like the idea of doing a mini-series of articles, so I’m starting another irregular one I’ll add to from time to time portraying “foreigners who ruin it for the rest of us.”

For a brief period of my life I’d rather forget about, I worked at a private English academy in Nanjing. These places have a (frequently deserved) reputation for milking every dime they can out of students and teachers alike, putting profit ahead of any sense of ethics or honesty. These places are also notorious for taking nothing but skin color into consideration when hiring foreign teachers. So naturally, some interesting characters end up there.

When I started, there was another teacher who was single, in his 50’s and so obese that he had trouble walking. He insisted on being called Dr. Lowe (because apparently a Ph.D in trumpet entitles you to that prefix). Of course I wondered what the hell he was doing teaching English in China. He clearly didn’t come to enjoy the scenery. But I didn’t think too much of it. I’ve grown accustomed to seeing people in China with that exact description and have learned not to pass judgment. A lot of them have just struck out with women or careers back home, but there are actually a fair amount that genuinely have a (non-sexual) interest in China.

However, another teacher who had been working with the man for several months sensed something was up by the way he interacted with some of the younger students. He ran a search on the US national sex offender registry and sure enough:

In retrospect I'm not sure how I ever missed it.

The good doctor had been convicted in three states of sex crimes against minors and child pornography. The teacher who discovered this immediately alerted the boss – who quickly sprang into action. And by that I mean she did nothing for over a week until that teacher threatened to inform the police.

When I first came to China a foreign friend told me a saying that floats around in the expat community: “Foreigners who move to China are either looking for something or running away from something.” I think we can safely assume Dr. Lowe was doing both.  He taught kids as young as seven at the school, and even worse, tutored several children unsupervised in his home – which explicitly violates parole rules for sex offenders.

Places like China and Southeast Asia are very enticing for people like this. They can easily get teaching jobs with no questions asked and escape the stigma of their home countries where they’re publically announced as sex offenders. But most disturbing, China offers a much safer venue to commit their crimes. In most cases, if a child is abused, their family doesn’t dare tell anyone about it. The stigma of sexual abuse leads many to see the kids as “damaged goods.” And even if the family does want to go public with an incident, hush agreements with cash payment are often made to keep families and media quiet.

Besides the obvious heinousness of the crimes themselves, what bothers me is that in the eyes of most Chinese a foreigner is a walking embodiment of his country, or of “foreigners” in general. I take my coat off, and it’s “Ah, I think Americans must like the cold,” according to a former student.

So when there’s a disproportionate number of these creeps coming into the country, they strongly reinforce the idea that we westerners are all depraved sexual deviants. I think it’s only a matter of time before the Chinese media latches onto a case like Dr. Lowe’s and creates a nationalistic shit storm like what happened in South Korea in 2007.

And what’s the solution? Private schools can’t be trusted to weed out these people and miss getting their hands on a genuine vanilla face. So basically that leaves background checks for foreigners when getting their visas like South Korea started shortly after its 2007 incident. And if there’s one thing I love, it’s another layer of bureaucracy when trying to get something done in China.

So Dr. Lowe, that’s why you’re one of the foreigners who ruin it for the rest of us.

Today I stumbled across two statistics I thought were worth putting next to each other. The first is that by 2020, it’s estimated there will be 24 million more marrying age Chinese men than women, due largely to the one-child policy. No big surprise there.

The second stat was what intrigued me. The number of gay men in China is estimated at 25 million; and as many as 90% of them get married to unwitting heterosexual women – so sayeth a University of Shanghai sexologist.

Granted, it’s something very hard to get an accurate stat on. Another professor from Qingdao University put the number at 80%. But either way, it’s a long stretch from the 15-20% of American gay men in sham marriages with straight women.

Family and societal pressures usually force men in China to get married and have a kid, regardless if that’s what they want. But that’s only scratching the surface of the problem. In a country where homosexuality is so taboo, many gay people fail to even admit to themselves that they’re gay or that their feelings are normal. Sex education is dismal even for heterosexual topics. Homosexuality wouldn’t be touched with a ten foot pole.

But let’s review:

  • 24 million excess bachelors
  • 25 million gay men (20-22 million of whom appear to be nabbing up straight women they have no interest in being with except to satisfy perceived social obligations)

Given these two numbers, you would think the government would encourage gay men to be as gay as possible so they can free up some of the precious few women. Then they could maybe avoid some of the huge social problems predicted to come with the gender imbalance – like a 5% increase in crime for every 1% increase in sex ratio.

So what is the government doing? Breaking up gay festivals, banning men from participating in foreign gay pageants, shutting down gay nightclubs and banning movies with homosexual themes.

China isn’t a religious country and throughout history it was relatively tolerant to homosexuality. It could easily alleviate the number of gay men snatching up straight women by legalizing gay marriage, teaching in schools that homosexuality is normal, or at least, you know, stop treating it as criminal activity (which it actually was until 1997). But the government is choosing to placate traditionally-minded Chinese who, at worst, would be a little shocked by these measures. And they’re doing so at the expense of mitigating a worsening social crisis that could pose a challenge to their authority.

Presumably if they did take measures to erase the stigma of homosexuality, lesbians would offset a lot of the gains made by taking homosexual men out of the competition for wives. I wasn’t able to find as many stats on lesbians in China, but the same Qingdao professor mentioned earlier estimates there are half as many lesbians in China as gay men. And international studies tend to agree that lesbians make up a significantly lower proportion of the population than gay men in general. So this suggests de-stigmatizing homosexuality in China would be a net positive for the gender imbalance.

All these statistics are admittedly questionable. It’s hard to get reliable stats on anything in China, let alone on something like homosexuality – which has notoriously sporadic findings around the world. But if helping mitigate the side effects of the gender imbalance isn’t a convincing enough reason for the government to take measures at de-stigmatizing homosexuality, they could at least do it for the millions of innocent heterosexuals who stumble into loveless, sexless marriages.

Recently I got a call from a friend offering me an interesting day job. She wasn’t clear on the specifics but it had something to do with businessmen and she assured me I wouldn’t have to do anything seedy. Foreigners in China often get offered these kinds of mystery jobs where you don’t really know what you’re getting into until you’re halfway through it. But they’re usually at least good for some entertainment and writing material, so I agreed.

I was whisked away in a Mercedes to the Diaoyutai Guesthouse – a government compound where foreign dignitaries stay and meet with top leaders like Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao.

It was for a social networking company to formally announce its plan to go public on Nasdaq. They were pulling out all the stops to impress the investors. As I somewhat suspected, my job was to sit there and be a white guy. Sketchy, yes, but I was just happy they didn’t expect me to pretend I was part of the company or an investor like many of these white-guy-in-a-tie jobs do. I just had to sit and be foreign to enhance the prestige of the event.

But the prestige didn’t stop with me. The Diaoyu guesthouse must cost a small fortune for private companies to rent out. Everyone in China has heard of it. The investors lined up to be photographed next to the podium bearing the compound’s name.

There were cameramen and reporters from several of China’s major media agencies, but I find it hard to believe they had any real interest in covering the event. This was just some two-bit social network that will never compete with the established juggernauts. The ceremony itself was an excruciatingly ordinary chain of executives giving each other face and making flowery speeches.

It’s quite common in China for companies to pay reporters to show up and cover their event…even if there’s no intention of actually airing any of the material they get (that costs extra). Photographers conspicuously snapped away hundreds of pictures of the executives and, during the three minute question & answer period, two journalists were called on to lob softball questions at the panel. But the investors came away with a lot of face and confidence in their investment. The number of people who will actually purchase shares on Nasdaq remains to be seen.

It was reported last week that a Chinese cave somehow managed to get listed on the New York Stock Exchange through a series of backdoor schemes. The lengths and expenses some companies go to in order to bestow prestige and recognition upon themselves in China often goes to a Loony Tunes level of absurdity. I have a little more hope for this company to make a ripple in the stock market than I do the cave, but not a lot.

The money quote of the day came when an Australian investor who was backing the company said, “If you invest in the internet industry, you will achieve great success.”

I can’t say I know anything about this company, but I couldn’t help feeling a bit guilty while wondering how much the crowd, largely rich middle-aged Guangdong housewives, actually knew about “the internet industry.” I wondered how much my presence was contributing to China’s .com bubble (or rather, .cn bubble). And how many companies routinely put on shows like this wooing investors who, like Japanese of the 1980’s, think this rocket ship of economic growth will keep soaring forever.

Perhaps the most distressing thing I thought about while watching was how many Chinese Enrons there might be out there. How many companies are already seeing cracks, yet will keep aggressively pushing for investment until the house of cards comes crashing down?

I don’t know, but I’ve decided to cool it for a while with these mystery jobs.

In my last post I looked at the factors in today’s China that could be ingredients for a Tiananmen-like rebellion.  If that happened, it could go a million different directions in the aftermath depending on what catalyst brought it about. So rather than make a pointless prediction of what exactly would happen, today I want to look at some general things that might come into play in a post-uprising China.

Scenario 1 – The party successfully puts down the rebellion.

The party is much more paranoid than it was in 1989 and now spends more money on “internal security” than on national defense. One has to imagine they have very sophisticated contingencies in place to respond to any number of uprising scenarios. But if a serious challenge happened and the party survived, it would indeed be a wakeup call in the same way Tiananmen was. It would probably be followed by a brief clampdown followed by accelerated reform.

Scenario 2 – The party is overthrown.

Ok, so what happens next? Liu Xiaobo and his pals are busted out of prison to draft a constitution and a representative democracy is established? Not likely.

Americans are especially susceptible to thinking this could happen because their own country was founded in this manner and it turned out pretty well (eventually). But few appreciate how truly exceptional that was in world history.

More often leaders hijack popular sentiment to seize their own power (see: Lenin, Mao, Castro, Pinochet, Pot – to name a few). Even when democracies are established in theory following an overthrow of the former system, it doesn’t tend to work out quite like you’d hope. Afghanistan’s “democracy” is nearly 10 years old now. How’s that working out? Well, besides the constant violence, one woman is jail for being raped and can only get out of her 12 year sentence by undoing the “adultery” and marrying her rapist. So there’s that.

It’s yet to be seen if the other freshly “democratic” Middle-Eastern states will fare any better. But it’s important to remember this isn’t the first time they’ve had popular uprisings. Somehow a tyrant (or group of tyrants) usually ends up back in power. The big Asian democracies of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan are all successful, but they developed as American protectorates – and still had long messy (often violent) transitions to functional democracy.

So where does that leave the exponentially larger and more diverse China?

One of the reasons Tiananmen failed was because there was no clear aim. Everyone was pissed off for different reasons. The students wanted faster reforms while the peasants felt they’d been left behind by overly-rapid reforms. No decisive leaders ever emerged. Not a lot’s changed in terms of those interests except that now there’s an ultra-nationalist wing who thinks the government is too weak on foreign affairs. So if someone were to ascend to power they’d have to focus on the grievances that are shared by the most people across different demographics.

Throughout Chinese history, most revolutions have looked somewhat similar. After a dynasty has been in power for a long time, wealth inequality gets worse and worse. People become frustrated by the privileged class flaunting their wealth and the leaders building frivolous projects on the backs of the peasantry. An uprising is started by leaders who promise to take land and wealth from the rich and redistribute it among the poor. This majority tyranny is enough to propel the leaders to power whereupon they fulfill their promise and reward the peasants. Then over time the leaders are corrupted. They give way to even more corrupt later generations. Land and wealth slowly aggregates back into the hands of a few and the cycle starts over again.

Wealth inequality and corruption are grievances shared by most people across the board in China today. If the Communist Party were overthrown, things could actually get a lot more communist. The Chinese rich seem to already have this worry, as many are now flocking to get foreign passports.

Then there’s the issue of the People’s Liberation Army. It’s hard to imagine that those with all the weapons won’t try to find a place for themselves in the new order. Besides, no one is going to lose support by pledging a hardline on territorial issues and “The West” like the PLA tends to do. Like most militaries, they’d prefer to use their toys outside a simulation setting.

A PLA general discussing how China would respond if America interfered with an invasion of Taiwan once said, “We Chinese will prepare ourselves for the destruction of all of the cities east of Xian. Of course, the Americans will have to be prepared that hundreds of cities will be destroyed by the Chinese.”

Delightful. And we all know how well military governments tend to work out anyways (See: Libya, Myanmar).

Again, it would be pointless to speculate on the specifics of the aftermath of a theoretical a revolution. There are too many wild cards. But given today’s (and most of history’s) situation anyone who would ascend to power would likely have to appeal to nationalism and disgust over the wealth divide. The country could split apart into separate states, but I doubt it. Chinese are pretty sensitive about territorial integrity. Keeping China together would most likely be included as part of the nationalist platform of any viable leader.

As I’ve written before, I don’t buy that the entire country would erupt into chaos under most scenarios.  The fundamental business apparatus is in place and I suspect most people would opt to keep going to work rather than taking to the streets to hurl bricks. However, any new political system would have profound long-term effects. And try as I might, I’m struggling to imagine a plausible scenario where an overthrow of the current system has a happy ending.

A western-style democracy would be very unlikely to spontaneously emerge and it could cause more problems than it fixes anyways. I buy the official line that China’s couldn’t handle an abrupt transition to nationwide elections. There are too many avenues for tyranny and deception. The democracies that evolve from existing systems over time tend to be much more successful than the ones that come suddenly from revolution. Slow (but consistent and visible) reform in giving the people a meaningful voice under a rule of law is the best route.  Hopefully the current Chinese leadership does what’s in everybody’s interest and addresses the substance of what could lead to rebellion.

Hint: that probably doesn’t include the iron fist being upgraded to a stronger metal.

Click here to see another perspective on this issue.

When haphazard attempts to start a Jasmine Revolution failed comically in Beijing early this year, discussion over whether or not China is ripe for revolution was popular. The conclusion by most was that it’s not. But it seems that in just a few short months the situation has changed somewhat. While an uprising doesn’t look to be imminent, there seems to be many similarities between circumstances unfolding today and those that preceded the Tiananmen Square rebellion of 1989. So I want to look at some key parallels between then and now:

Corruption

Then: There was always corruption in the PRC, but Reform & Opening Up made it much easier and much more visible. In the 80’s, many price controls were lifted, but not all. The shortages of some goods allowed people with the right connections to buy at the artificially low prices and sell at market rates for huge windfalls. So naturally, the already-powerful became even more powerful. The inequality of opportunity and obvious abuse of power were two things immediately visible to those affected and were direct causes the Tiananmen protests.[1]

Now: You can click here to see a visual approximation of China’s Gini Coefficient wealth inequality over time (0 means perfect equality, 1.0 means one person has all the wealth).  In 1989 it was hovering around 0.36. It took a dip that year but has since soared to over 0.47 – well past the 0.40 danger level. China’s crony one-party capitalism and massive economic growth since Tiananmen have only increased the amount of capital involved with corruption and allowed the powerful to get exponentially wealthier.  This is perhaps best felt when local officials make illegal, undercompensated land grabs to raise capital for their city (and often take kickbacks from developers). A recent survey found the number of disputes over these land grabs is at an all-time high. Favoritism, graft and inequality of opportunity are in some ways better than the Tiananmen era, but in many ways much worse.

The Media

Then: The Chinese media of the 1980’s covered issues that had never been touched in the PRC previously; even dabbling in corruption cases. Single essays or TV programs could stir up fiery political discussion on college campuses. A documentary called River Elegy played on CCTV in 1988, which subtly criticized Chinese culture and sparked nationwide debate. When the protests themselves started, the press covered them extensively and even portrayed the student protestors sympathetically. These factors shined a light on many issues intellectuals were concerned about and brought together like-minded activists.

Now: Though the official press was reigned in after 1989 – where it’s more or less stayed ever since – new avenues of disseminating information have sprung up. Mobile phones, blogs and microblogs have put reporting in the hands of those directly affected – shining a light on things never before seen by most common people. Shrewd online political commentary on these issues by bloggers like Han Han may be playing a role similar to programs like River Elegy in the 80’s.

Education Failure

Then: After the Cultural Revolution, universities re-opened and were a sure ticket to a better life. However, with further reform and opening of the markets in the mid-to-late 80’s, many college students graduated to find their education gave them no real advantage in the new business landscape. In 1988, the system that assigned college graduates jobs was also amended to where private companies could reject those top students assigned to them in favor of those who had connections inside the company.[1]

Now: Educational prospects improved after Tiananmen, but now the situation is coming to resemble 1989 again. An overabundance of college graduates has left one-fourth of them unemployed without any better prospects than those who didn’t go to college. Many have also criticized the university system as useless, largely focusing on theory and failing to give students useful practical guidance. With labor wages rising China needs to move up the value chain in order to keep its people employed. Some think the innovation and collaboration needed to achieve this won’t be possible under the current intellectually repressive atmosphere.

Inflation

Then: Inflation was at an astounding 18.5% in 1988 because of panic withdrawling and buying on rumors of what relaxing price controls would mean. [2]

Now: Inflation is sitting at about 5.5%, down from a high of 6.5% in July. Not nearly as bad as pre-Tiananmen, but food is getting less affordable and housing is off the charts. With a roughly 32 million surplus of marrying age men, great pressure is being put on those who need to buy a house (and often a car) to compete for potential wives. And the poorest of the poor are having to cut food from their diet in order to stay on top of their finances.

Competing Party factions

Then: In the lead up to Tiananmen there was an obvious rift in the party between progressives like Zhao Ziyang and Hu Yaobang and hardliners like Li Peng. This rift was absolutely apparent in the days leading up to the crackdown. The protestors saw this split and sniffed weakness; which emboldened them further.

Now: After Tiananmen the party learned to present a united front in public and keep disputes between factions – or even the existence of factions – behind closed doors. That era seems to have ended now though with Bo Xilai’s left wing and Wang Yang’s right wing both making very public criticisms of each other’s models. The bulk of the Chinese public has yet to express an interest  (or knowledge) in this feud, but that could change as factions push harder for influence and citizens begin to take sides.

Banking System Cracks

Then: In the late 80’s Chinese banks flooded the market with loans. As could be expected, a great deal of them went bad and an estimated 1/3 of factories were unprofitable.[1] The government brought this to an abrupt halt in 1988 by cutting the cash flow – a kind of austerity measure many didn’t take too kindly to.

Now: Take that same situation and multiply the figures involved to equal more than seven times China’s entire 1989 GDP. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, China pumped $586 billion into the economy as a stimulus. This is part of an overall $2.7 trillion Chinese banks have extended in loans over 2009 and 2010. Up to now that stimulus has looked pretty good in economic recovery terms, as it always does…until the loans start going bad.

The Street recently had a piece that said, “Economic-related news coming from China is a page-turning thriller. Ponzi schemes, zombies, off-balance-sheet reporting, subprime and mafia-style lending; rising inflation, declining asset values, slowing growth — it’s all there. Add in government meddling in market mechanisms and official denials and China sounds like it has the makings of a perfect economic storm.”

Wenzhou has recently had dozens of bosses flee bad debts – something that’s being read as a preview of larger things to come. Tsinghua economist Patrick Chovanec has said he’s not sure if China can make it through next year’s power transition before a major banking crisis hits.

Key differences between Tiananmen era and now

Nationalism and affluence

Since Tiananmen the government has pretty successfully educated nationalism into the youth and trained them to regard any talk of democracy or human rights as a western ploy to make China implode. The relatively well-off youth of today also seem far more interested in video games and pop stars than politics anyways. And the population as a whole is undeniably better off than they were in 1989 (though some studies suggest they’re not any happier). Most have a lot more to lose than they did at that time.

A paranoid and highly technological government

The technological improvements may work to the Party’s advantage more than any would-be revolutionaries. The government has the capability to monitor and immediately clamp down on dissent – a capability that improves by the day. If they were truly threatened by a spontaneous movement, they could temporarily shut down cellphone service, microblogs like Weibo, or even the entire internet – as they did in Xinjiang in 2009. And as the Beijing attempt at a Jasmine Revolution earlier this year demonstrated, the government will come down hard on any threat – real or imagined. And they’re very careful not to allow any large gatherings that they can’t fully control; as the turnout for Hu Yaobang’s funeral in 1989 was the final spark for the Tiananmen Protests.

Conclusion

Given the vast similarities between now and 1989, another go at a revolution seems possible. If history is any indicator, an iron fist can’t succeed by itself if grievances are too great and you have the right catalyst to bring the disenfranchised together quickly.

Probably the only leader popular enough to create this Hu Yaobang-like catalyst in death would be Wen Jiabao. But again, if that happened the party would be overly cautious; and it probably wouldn’t be enough anyways. It would have to be something big that directly affected a huge number of people.

A large scale disaster that could be linked to corruption or official incompetence might do it. The Wenzhou train crash earlier this year and Shanghai fire last year made a lot of people angry and concerned for their safety. They weren’t big enough to spark an uprising, but they were two of many small aggravators that are slowly ebbing away people’s patience with corruption and government cover-ups. If something like a nuclear meltdown, a mass public health incident or a large dam collapse happened, that just might break the camel’s back. In 1975, the Banqiao Dam in Henan collapsed killing 171,000 people. And if you think that’s something relegated to the incompetence of the Mao-era, an average of 68 dams still collapse every year in China, according to one official.

But an even more likely scenario would be a poorly timed financial crisis; one like the aforementioned banking crisis that many are predicating. Life is already getting rough for the post-80’s/post-90’s kids who grew up spoiled taking economic security for granted. The job market is shrinking, their time/money intensive education is often useless and the gender imbalance is leaving many men hopelessly single. To make matters worse, the 2010 ratio of five workers for every elderly person will drop to 3-to-1 by 2020 in what Time Magazine has called “China’s Demographic Time Bomb.” For many only children that means completely supporting two parents financially and physically amid some of the least affordable housing prices in the world.

If a housing bubble burst robs these people of the investments they’ve become slaves to, they might all-of-a-sudden take a very keen interest in politics. And if there’s a banking crisis, it would likely cause a run on banks and panic buying similar to what caused the massive inflation of 1988. Fitch has estimated there’s a 60% chance of such a crisis by mid-2013. If it comes any earlier than that, it would be right during the leadership transition when the party is at its most vulnerable.

I’ll give my standard disclaimer for any internet police or fenqing that might be reading: An uprising isn’t something I’m hoping for. It’s not even something I’d venture to predict. Predications of a CCP collapse have a way of making you look like a fool (See: Gordon Chang).  And even if an uprising did happen, it doesn’t mean the party wouldn’t survive it. But there are many cracks beginning to show – financial, political and social; figurative and literal. The Beijing Consensus of authoritarian led economic growth has delayed the Party’s need to address their legitimacy shortfall for a solid 22 years, but one way or another that growth eventually has to slow and the legitimacy issue has to be addressed. If I were in charge I’d focus a bit less on the iron fist and a bit more on the root problems distressing and disenfranchising those without financial and political influence.

Non-linked sources

[1] Silenced Scream: a Visual History of the 1989 Tiananmen Protests. Donna Rouviere Anderson, Forrest Anderson. p. 1

[2] Dingxin Zhao. ‘’The Power of Tiananmen: State-Society Relations and the 1989 Beijing Student Movement’’. Chicago: University of Chiacgo Press, 2001. ISBN 0-226-982600-2. pp.127.

A new set of maternity laws has been drafted in China, which includes extending maternity leave from 90 days to 98 and requires employers to assist in medical fees; either through insurance or out of their own pockets. While on the surface this seems good for Chinese women, it’s exacerbating a major flaw in China’s maternity system that heavily tips the odds against them when trying to find jobs.

Whenever a woman goes to a job interview in China, she’ll inevitably be asked questions like, “Are you married?” “Have you had your baby?” or “When do you plan on having a baby?”  The employer will usually shy away from any woman with a pregnancy risk. I even had a friend who handed an HR guy her resume at a job fair and got it immediately brushed back. “You’re not a boy,” he said.

Employers’ fear of enduring both the direct costs and lost productivity involved with maternity leave very often prevents them from hiring or promoting women. So while the law is good for those who’ve managed to get a job, it’s detrimental to women’s progress in general.

Ironically, the best thing the government could do for women would be to give men more rights. Giving men an equal amount of paternity leave would take away the incentive to hire them over women. Shenzhen made a move in this direction earlier this year when it bumped the amount of paternity leave from 10 days to 30. With a very high proportion of female workers in the city, it was intended to let men pick up some of the slack of child care. And why shouldn’t they?

I’d argue that this would be better all around, even if they had to decrease the number of maternity leave days for women in order to give men more. Say the country follows Shenzhen; adds the 30 days paternity leave to the 90 days of maternity and divides that total 120 equally between the  mother and father. That gives them each 60 days with the baby – paid.

It would be unfortunate for the women, who undergo the real physical hardship of childbirth, to lose 30 days maternity leave. But that problem would be peanuts next the gross inequality of opportunity for women in China’s workforce that would be alleviated. And when you compare that proposal to the US’s maternity/paternity system, which mandates a total of zero paid days for men and women alike, it looks even better. In addition, there’s a number of social benefits that have been suggested arise from equal paternity/maternity leave.

Of course, this wouldn’t solve gender inequality in China’s workforce, but it would almost certainly help. What do you think? Would it work?

A few days ago I talked with a Communist Party acquaintance who has a fairly high position in the propaganda organ  (by “fairly high” I’ll just say he’s on speaking terms with several Politburo members). We got to talking about the upcoming power turnover and I asked whether he thinks the government will shift to the left with the likes of Bo Xilai’s neo-socialists or to the right with the Wang Yang progressive crowd. “Neither,” he replied. “It will go in a third direction. Domestically it will go to the right and in foreign policy to the left.”

This basically means further reform in freedoms at home while taking a more hawkish approach abroad. This seems like a very plausible scenario. He also said he worries that some current players vying for greater power could be catastrophic for China, were they to be put  in charge.

While speaking with him I realized that when you hear about the Communist Party through only certain mediums, it’s easy to form the idea that they’re a unified monolith; when actually nothing could be further from the truth. He’s a very rational guy who pretty well represents an unsung wing of the Party – a wing that didn’t necessarily get into politics to abuse their power and line their own pockets. He has most of the same concerns I do about China’s future. He worries about nationalists hijacking the government and letting the current situation deteriorate further. Some would criticize him, saying that since he’s part of the system, he’s complicit in the bad that it does.  But he seems to sincerely believe the Party’s power can be channeled for good; that people like him can steer it in the right direction from the inside.  He and I don’t agree on a lot of the methods to get this done, but his heart is in the right place. However, sometimes forces from the outside make it harder for people like him.

This week there was a great piece in New York Times called “Why China won’t listen.” The piece cited a congressional ammendment to express support for Chen Guangcheng, who’s under house arrest in Linyi, saying:

“Beijing does not indiscriminately reject all such ‘interference’; China and the United States conduct a dialogue on human rights through diplomatic channels. But Chinese leaders believe such dialogue belongs behind closed doors. The Chinese are saying to Americans, if you grant me face, I can be reasonable; if solving the problem will help me, I’ll consider it. But don’t expect me to make concessions under pressure.”

This is a dead-on assessment. Much of the foreign criticism toward China’s human rights is counter-productive. It backs Chinese leaders into a corner and forces them to take a hawkish anti-foreign attitude and even double-down on the practices being criticized. It drowns out the voices of reason who are trying to lead the country’s development in a positive direction. This, perhaps, is partly why there may be opposite directions for domestic and foreign policy with the new leadership.

This isn’t to say foreigners should stop criticizing China. Far from it. However, things like congressional censures, which do more for US politicians’ campaigns than China’s human rights, are the opposite of constructive. A lot of the other criticisms over Chen Guangcheng were perfectly legitimate, but still counter-productive.

It’s important to realize that substantive change in China can never be inflicted from the outside. The government and people alike would reject it on principle. The foreign media plays an important role in covering issues that Chinese media are either too scared to report or are directly barred from reporting. Dissemination of information is good. Calmly arguing how current policy is bad for Chinese people is good. But making fruitless public admonishments of the government is pointless and usually harmful. Every time a protester in San Francisco holds up a “Free Tibet!” sign they’re pushing the rational people in China further into the arms of the hawks. Things like petitions to free Chen Guangcheng and human rights groups blasting the government – their hearts are in the right place but their actions often result in the opposite of what they’re fighting for.

Rational people within the Party need to have some room to maneuver and get their voices heard over the shouting of the hardliners. They’re the only ones that have any hope of reforming the Party constructively. And while it might be satisfying to see the corrupt bureaucrats and iron fists get their come-upins in a full-on rebellion, steady reform within the confines of the current system would be much safer and better for everyone.

The Party isn’t some Darth Vader-run empire of evil. As much as I, and many others focus on the absurd and horrible things some quarters of it carry out, there are a lot of good people in the Party trying to get good things done. Reporting, objective analysis and pressure from foreign governments behind closed doors are the only things foreigners can really do to help those people improve China’s situation.

One Wednesday afternoon while at my university teaching job I got an email from my laoban  (the person who helps and coordinates with foreign teachers). She informed me that the coming weekend I would be attending eight hours of English presentation rehearsal each day for students and faculty presenting research findings at an international conference. As one of a handful of native English speakers on campus, few others were qualified to critique them.

In China, things are routinely sprung at the last minute. Very little is planned far in advance and it’s even worse for foreigners – who are inevitably the last to find out about anything. I once had a student tell me she was looking forward to the lecture I was giving that evening on religion to a hundred students …a lecture she had just unknowingly informed me about.

I’m willing to adapt to a lot of cultural differences, but this usually isn’t one of them. When people throw things at me on such short notice, I tend to have the attitude that if they’re asking something of me, they can follow my custom. So I replied to my laoban’s email simply saying, “Sorry, I already have plans this weekend.”

The following email exchange went something like this:

Laoban: I understand your feeling, but the vice-president of the university wants you to go and we can’t really say no to him.

Me: I’ve never met the vice-president of the university and I have no problem saying no to him…especially when he asks me to sacrifice my weekend on three days’ notice. Just give him my email or number if he has an issue with that.

Laoban: Yes, but the vice-president is one of the highest people at the university. I think you’d better think again.

Me: Well in spite of how high-ranking he is, he’s asking a huge favor of a person he’s never bothered to introduce himself to – which I’m under no obligation to carry out. Just give him my number. I can tell him this directly.

Laoban: I understand it’s not convenient, but the vice-president has a lot of power and influence here. It’s best you just do it.

Me: I don’t care if he’s the vice-president of China. My contract includes nothing about coming in to work 16 extra unpaid hours on the weekend. If he wants me to do this he needs to ASK me earlier in advance; and should really be man enough to do it personally.

Laoban: Please. If you don’t do it he’ll blame me and it will be trouble.

Me: *sigh* Fine. I’m applying for graduate school, so I’m sure since I’m doing him this huge favor he won’t mind doing me a small favor and writing me a recommendation.

[No reply. The recommendation letter never happened]

This little episode demonstrated two things that drive me crazy about Chinese culture. The first is the expectation of absolute adherence to the power of the hierarchy, regardless of what the written rules are. The second is using a leather glove to protect the iron fist.

The laoban was a very sweet woman in her early 30’s that I’d become good friends with. I didn’t want her to get in trouble, or even lose face with her superior – which in all likelihood is all that would have happened if I ultimately refused.

I’ve come to call people like her “honeybuns.” They’re very nice, well-intentioned, sincere, young women whose chief function (unbeknownst to them when they’re hired) it is to form a sweet pastry barrier between the head honcho and anyone who might be upset by his bullshit.

Give me a hypothetical situation like the one I encountered with the university vice-president and as a matter of principle I would never acquiesce to such an ostentatious power play. But throw guilt and sympathy into the mix and I found it very hard to stick to my guns.

Every job I’ve ever taken in China has had a form of the honeybun system. It’s much more necessary with foreigners; ostensibly because they need a logistical agent for the alien culture and language, but the other function is a shield for the higher-ups against those who don’t tend to submit blindly to the gravity of prestigious job titles. But the tactic very much exists between Chinese too.

At an English mill I briefly worked at, customers would often complain that their services were changed halfway through the class packages they’d bought. The boss was perpetually cutting back to save money. But the honeybun, who had befriended many of the students, told them (truthfully) that they were right to be mad, but begged them not to raise a stink or she could get punished or fired. She’d pass along the message to the boss (who never showed his face at the center or allowed any channel of direct communication) but admitted he’s a tyrant who wouldn’t change his mind. Most would relent and eventually the honeybun would quit in frustration and be replaced.

But honeybun or not, when the chief abuses his power his underlings will usually complain behind his back, but ultimately submit. Any suggestion of protest or legal action is met with scoffs and depressing resignation. And so it goes…

Last week China launched the Shenzhou 8 rocket, marking the first step toward its space station. The world’s population also rolled over 7 billion. Both things got me thinking about the future of mankind and how China could either rescue it or destroy it completely.

Fair Warning: From here this article gets very far-forward looking, theoretical and weird.

If you’ve never heard of the Kardashev scale, I highly recommend you watch this video, or read this excerpt from Dr. Michio Kaku’s book. It’ll be a few minutes very well spent. Basically, it’s a theoretical scale that rates civilizations (Earthly or otherwise) as Type I, II or III based on how much energy they consume.

According to Kaku, “A Type I civilization is one that controls the energy resources of an entire planet. This civilization can control the weather, prevent earthquakes, mine deep in the earth’s crust, and harvest the oceans. This civilization has already completed the exploration of its solar system.”

Type II controls the energy of their sun and is beginning travel between star systems (think Star Trek).  Type III controls the energy of a galaxy (think Star Wars). Of course, this is all highly theoretical, but, unlike most future predictions, this is based on the laws of physics and realistic requirements for attaining the needed energy. In fact, many films and tv shows like 2001: A Space Odyssey have been based on this scale.

At this point, we’re Type 0. We get energy mostly from dead plants (coal and gas).We haven’t achieved Type I, but we’re well on our way and might get there in the next century or two.

Some probable pre-requisites for a Type I civilization are an international language, culture and political system. We can already guess that the language will be English, and, in all likelihood, the culture will be largely Western influenced. But we have little idea what the political system will look like and if it will even be possible. Blocs like NAFTA and the European Union are forming, but eventually, we’ll probably need some kind of authoritative international governing body that essentially tears down physical political borders.

This is important chiefly because, under the current international system, protectionism runs rampant (of jobs, currencies, resources, etc). If I’m an American leader, I care only for my American constituents and will do what benefits them…even if it’s at the expense of other nations. Every country is the same and it makes most everyone worse off than if every leader were internationally-minded. This is most obvious with climate change action. No country wants to be the first to seriously address it and put itself at an immediate competitive disadvantage. So everyone is looking toward other countries to take their baby steps first.

There are quasi-regulatory bodies like the WTO and UN, but they don’t have the teeth to enforce real political action.

The other important reason for an international authority is simple efficiency of people and resources. Developed countries are headed toward major demographic imbalances that will see labor shortages and an aging population while most developing countries will see population explosions leaving a whole lot of able-bodied adults without jobs. If borders were torn down and free movement was easy, migration would benefit just about everyone. Then there’s China ,which fiercely regulates childbirth while underpopulated Russia is paying people to have babies. This current inefficiency may not yet be critical, but it sure as hell will be in a world of 12-15 billion – which is where it’s predicted to be by century’s end.

The worrying thing for scientists is that they see no evidence of any type of civilization when they look into space. This could be because there’s no other intelligent life in the universe, but it’s much more likely that other civilizations have been wiped out by routine extinction events or destroyed themselves before they ever made it to Type I – where they’re basically safe from extinction (until their sun explodes or they make it to Type II).

So why the hell am I talking about this on a China blog? Because China could largely determine whether we make it to Type I or kill ourselves on the way.

How China might save the world

Controlling the weather – In the (nearly 100%) likely scenario that we fail to get a hold on run away carbon emissions, we’ll have to come up with another way to stop Earth from turning into Venus through the greenhouse effect. Research is already underway on a host of measures in the geo-engineering field, which uses science and artificial means to alter the planet’s weather. Measures include things like using steam-emitting boats to enhance cloud cover (and reduce sunlight), sprinkling iron in the ocean to boost carbon-eating plankton growth, sending up space-based reflectors to deflect sunlight and several other measures.

A cloud maker

None of these have been attempted yet as they’re all very controversial. Unforeseen side-effects and irreversibility are the main worries. However, China has already shown a ready willingness to tinker with the weather. For years cloud seeding has been routinely used in China to induce rain for fighting droughts and pollution. With its massive population and scarce resources, China is already feeling a lot of the effects of climate change, from drying rivers to the Gobi desert slowly advancing on Beijing.

You can bet that while western governments are debating the ethics and side-effects of mass geo-engineering, China will already be in the process of implementing it. This could be catastrophic, but if they get it right, the Chinese might just come up with a way to get the weather control part of a Type I civilization down and save the planet from Venus’ fate.

Making use of outer space – While the American space program has no real goal and is quickly losing support, China’s is just getting warmed up. China hopes to finish its space station by 2020, land men on the moon by 2025 and travel out to Mars thereafter. To be sure, nationalism plays a large role in all of this, but China also sees space as a long-term solution to its resource needs. They’re even considering trying to mine the moon for minerals.

Left: Part of the solar energy is lost on its way through the atmosphere by the effects of reflection and absorption. Right: Space-based solar power systems convert sunlight to microwaves outside the atmosphere, avoiding these losses, and the downtime (and cosine losses, for fixed flat-plate collectors) due to the Earth's rotation. (From Wikipedia)

However, the real prize in space is energy. To meet the energy needs of a Type I civilization, we need to give up our dependence on dead plants in favor of the ultimate energy source: the sun. But solar energy in its present form isn’t going to cut it. Ground-based solar collection is horribly inefficient. To get real energy returns, we need to put our solar panels in space where they’re unimpeded by clouds and ozone.

But getting panels into space with rockets at the scale needed would be horribly expensive and bad for the environment. This is where a space elevator comes in. Using an ultra-thin carbon nanotube ribbon attached to a counterweight in space, a climber powered by a ground-based laser pulls the “elevator” into space for less than 1% the cost per pound of using a rocket.

This system could get the solar panels into space and beam the energy back. It could also build spacecraft in space, preventing the need for them to waste fuel on breaking Earth’s gravity. This would enable the inter-stellar travel of a Type I civilization and China’s desire to mine the moon.

Here’s the kicker of the space elevator: If someone threw any kind of significant research funding at it, it could probably be started relatively soon. One problem is that the nerds backing this idea haven’t managed to get anyone excited about building it. But China can only exploit its own resources (and Africa’s) for so long before needing a new solution to its energy needs – which are growing right off the chart. Necessity is the mother of invention and China will have the necessity and resources (not to mention the penchant for over-the top, literally earth-shaking, engineering projects) to get it done.

But just because China could do these things doesn’t mean they’ll do them in time. There are plenty of…

Ways China might destroy the world before it can save it

Pollution –  China already has the highest carbon emissions in the world, which are still growing in pretty much a straight vertical line if you look at that graph. The situation is already dire, but those emissions from China aren’t expected to peak for at least 20 years. The ways China could save the world could get drowned out in the pollution before they can ever have a chance to make a difference. The whole world is in a race with the clock on global warming and China’s attitude that it has a free ticket as a developing country is making that clock turn a lot faster. And it’s not likely to stop because…

The Communist Party will do anything to hold its power- Remember that part earlier about a Type I civilization being under a single international political system? The Communist Party will  never sign on for that. They snap at the slightest hint of interference with China’s sovereignty. The government and the people alike are extremely unlikely to do anything that actually weakens their political authority – especially on the verge of their re-emergence as the world’s superpower. It pushes too many sensitive historical buttons.

And the CCP puts holding its power over the country ahead of all else anyways. While it may be possible to get resources from space, they’re just as willing to find them at the expense of the rest of the world if it means keeping “social stability” (Aka “their power safe a bit longer”). That geo-engineering idea can be abused. It can melt glaciers, steal rain from other countries or divert rivers. A Chinese scientist once even proposed using 200 nuclear bombs to punch a hole in the Himalayas in order to get some sweet air circulation from India.

There will be plenty of problems with an international political body outside of China and certainly plenty of other countries pollute much more per capita. However, the world’s most populous, energy consuming and carbon-spewing nation has been educated to be nationalists hyper-sensitive to sovereignty threats under a Party of crony-capitalists perpetually holding on to their absolute power just a little longer at any expense. Getting them to go in the needed direction will be a challenge to say the least.

Conclusion

So those are a few ways China could sway the future of mankind. Again, this is very theoretical. If you look for holes in this admittedly very strange and sci-fi-ish article, there are plenty. Any number of unforeseen wrenches could be thrown in for better or worse. Like there’s the fairly plausible idea of technological singularity, where artificial computer intelligence surpasses that of humans and figures out the whole mess for us (or takes us out Terminator style). So it could turn out ok, but I’m personally trying to make the most of my time right now and be thankful I was born in this generation rather than the next. Let’s just hope China gets its ducks in a row before it’s too late.

Today I came across a great piece from The Chronicle of Higher Education and The New York Times called The China Conundrum which explores a multitude of issues American universities face in recruiting Chinese students. Unsurprisingly, one of the biggest difficulties is academic dishonesty.

Each autumn when I taught in Nanjing I would have a gush of students (most of whom I’d never met) come to me for help with their overseas college applications. While it wasn’t true for everyone, the vast majority were doing something considered academically dishonest.

Some asked me to write a recommendation for them as their Chinese teacher who would later sign it – not a terrible request as most Chinese teachers don’t know English well enough. Then some would ask me to edit “their” essay which was usually a patchwork of pieces from the internet that they wanted me to smooth over. They were often confused when I handed them the paper back and said, “I’m not helping you cheat.” In their minds, they had created an original essay by cutting and pasting several separate passages together.

Then there were those who straight up asked me to write their paper for them. Usually it wasn’t so explicit. They might ask me to write an “example” for them, or help get them started. The New York Times piece talked about agents who write papers directly for students at a price. I’ve also been offered one of these “ghostwriting” jobs.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. For every step of the application process there’s a shortcut. Don’t think you can pass the SAT or GRE entrance exam? You can hire people to use your ID and sit the exam for you. My girlfriend (who was an English major) got offered a job doing this. She’d get paid 3,000 yuan a pop and a free flight to whatever city the test was in. Not small change for a university student who would make 8 yuan an hour at KFC or 20 yuan tutoring. She was told by the agency not to worry because if she got caught there’s no punishment like there is for the Gaokao, given that it’s a foreign test.

Once you’ve got the test and the essay you can get a fake transcript easily, or even better, get the real transcript changed. I met yet another student once who didn’t think his scores were good enough to get into an American grad school, so he used his connections at the university to have them officially changed on his transcript. Bribery would have yielded the same result. Need extracurricular activities? Awards? Honors? Lie, fake, fake.

The distressing part with all of this was that students would tell me exactly how they were going to cheat the system without an ounce of shame. A girl once asked me to look over an essay an agent had written for her, which I could immediately tell was completely plagiarized. “How could they cheat me like that?! I’m so angry,” she said without a trace of irony.

For these students, cheating was a no-big-deal no-brainer. I try to avoid sweeping generalizations but if you ever teach a writing class in China, you WILL have at least one student plagiarize. And giving an in-class writing assignment doesn’t help. Chinese students can memorize pages and pages of text verbatim. And if you only have one cheat, you probably either haven’t looked carefully enough or you’ve stumbled across one of the most upstanding writing classes in the country. I had six cheaters in the first writing class I taught, which, after reprimands and several long-winded lectures on what plagiarism is and why it’s wrong, dwindled down to two by the end of the semester. And those two were still shocked as to why I failed them.

One of the only students I ever let get by without failure managed to do so by warming my heart with what I think was an honest email. (Honestly, I was also a bit worried she might kill herself):

Dear Eric,
I am terrible sorry for that. I konw it was a serious mistake that I was taken.I also afraid that you will never forgive me.I am so regretful and shameful now. :( Just beacause busy with pereparing my  National Entrance Examination for Master’s Degree ,I searched the information from the Web and pieced some of them to form a “essay” to save time.
    My English writing skill is not good,and I need more time than others to write an essay.What is the worse,even though I spend one day to write an essay,I have a srong sense of inferiority when I compare it to others’.I never feel confident with my English.That is why I never rise my hand in your class.I really hate such a myself.But it cannot be a excause,I know.Whether or no I should not have treat my essay in that way.I will write another two essays on my own to remedy the mistake.And my deed is so unpardonable that it is nessary if you do not forgive me.I just want you trust for my new essays again.I will be very thankful if you do so.
   In this universy,foreign teachers are always my favorite teachers.Beacause you treat students equally without discrimination.That is why now I feel so sorry and shameful than I have been ever before.:(
I will never do such thing again. I will keep my words in future.

In their other classes, Chinese teachers will often turn a blind eye to cheating. As I later found out, it causes them all kinds of trouble. One of the students I failed got his parents to complain to the university, who in turn told me to retest the student. I told them that retesting him wouldn’t undue his cheating and would only burden me for his dishonesty. I never heard back. His score was simply changed from above.

One complaint I heard was that students are never taught how to do things like research and write a thesis, so the teachers who’ve failed them implicitly expect them to cheat. They won’t be running plagiarism check software like this hard-ass foreign teacher did. I can sympathize with this to some degree, but I just wonder what the end-game is in students’ minds. Sure, the ones in China get their degree and better job prospects, but I really can’t understand what those cheating their way into foreign universities are thinking.

A fellow foreign teacher at my school had a very wealthy student who could barely say his ABC’s, but he hired an agent who managed to cheat his way into a British university…which he promptly dropped out of when he predictably couldn’t make sense of a single class or throw his money around to get what he wanted. In a nutshell, this is what I tried to tell all these students. Nobody’s going to be impressed that you dropped out of a great foreign university and wasted tens of thousands of dollars. But hey, I guess that’s what fake degrees are for.

Whenever a Chinese holiday roles around, I usually like to travel by bike. The hassle of using public transportation along with the rest of the country is the biggest reason, but it’s also cheap and you stumble on places you’d never see otherwise. It has plenty of drawbacks though.

Maybe one of the most frustrating things about living in China in general is seeing how flagrantly some of the most important laws are ignored (ie – Article 35 of the Constitution) while the most arbitrary and pointless rules are carried out to the letter.

In the past when going on these trips I’d just find a hotel each night, but China has a law that foreigners can only go to specially-licensed hotels. Nearly everyone in big cities has the licence and villages are too small to be concerned with it, but the mid-sized towns are a problem.

One night last year I ended up in a town about 30 miles north of Beijing with only one hotel allowed to house foreigners; which is often the case. As you might guess, it was outrageously expensive – 780 yuan ($122) per night. But since I left my briefcase of cash in the trunk of the Maserati we laowai all have, I tried to find another place.

If you think this is just a paper law to be circumvented with a little sweet talk and extra money at one of the many non-registered hotels, think again. Every place was the same story: A computerized scanner that checks the ID of every single guest. If a foreigner is caught in the hotel during one of the frequent checks, it’s a 10,000 yuan ($1,567) fine to the proprietors.  Three places turned me away before one offered to call up the police station. They explained that I was a student traveling by bike who couldn’t afford the approved hotel and asked if they could make an exception just this once. The police officer said absolutely not and offered to give me directions to the expensive hotel.

I rode around some more, passing two brothels operating in broad daylight. I tried about five other places, offering a more pathetic and desperate story each time. Just when I was on the verge of settling for a park bench, I found a hotel willing to let me stay…provided I pay 50% more than the standard rate, leave at sun up the next morning and house myself like Anne Frank on the empty top floor – draping myself in curtains in the event of a raid.

The Maseratis

This National Day vacation, as a remedy and a form of silent protest, I decided to buy a tent. But that didn’t make things especially easier. Every park or apartment complex I asked permission to camp at had the same answer: Bu xing (No way). Back home in the states, even if you’re technically not allowed, you’ll still usually find about one person in five who will say something like, “You’re not supposed to, but just don’t make any noise.” or “If my boss comes, I never saw you.” Surely these people exist in China, but I didn’t meet any.

At one apartment complex, my girlfriend asked the guard if we could camp in the courtyard. He was immediately pissed off and just kept yelling, “To do what?!” each time she tried to explain what we were doing. We then rode outside and saw “Kill son of a bitch developer Li” and some quote from Mao about land-distribution spray-painted on all the fence posts. The complex was luxury apartments that had just recently been built. I’ll let you connect the dots on that one.

Eventually we just started setting up wherever looked good and learned an invaluable lesson: Never ask permission. After that decision we never had any problems. I’m certain several places (especially public parks) where we were refused do allow campers, or at least have no explicit rules against them. To refuse us though was the safe, no-liability answer.

But with most China frustrations, a counter-balance will quietly present itself somewhere. While we were biking we struck up conversations with three separate strangers who offered to let us stay at their house for the night – something I can’t imagine happening back home. The timing never worked out for us to accept any of their generous offers, but next time we know to spend more time chatting up friendly-looking strangers rather than scouring hotels or places with a decent patch of grass.

As arbitrary, and dare I say awful, as China can feel sometimes, recognizing these counter-balances when they appear is important to staying sane and understanding just how the hell this society has managed to stay afloat for 5,000 years.

Little Yueyue, victim of the double hit and run, succumbed to her injuries on Friday, but the debate seems far from over. Many people and media outlets are trying to pin down a simple answer as to why 18 bystanders ignored the fallen child. I put out a piece where I argued that the lack of hell may have played a role, but I believe that’s only a small piece of the very complex puzzle. I would still argue that universal human psychology played a predominant role.

And I would also argue that the issue is overblown a bit. This video was put together that highlights plenty of instances where Chinese did rush to aid those in peril. When we ignore these counter-examples it makes us susceptible to confirmation bias and overestimating how serious the trend is. And then you have to imagine how many other incidents have played out just like Foshan around the world where there were no CCTV cameras rolling to capture the sickening tragedy.

Still, as I noted before, this is just one of many abnormally despicable events in China in recent years. So whether it’s universal human factors or Chinese factors, it’s undeniable that there’s a morality problem. So how can it be addressed?

Law

Many have mentioned the idea of a good Samaritan law  to protect, or even require, assistance to those in danger. This would be a good step but one has remember the general regard for the law in China. It’s questionable how well this would be enforced in China’s always arbitrary law-enforcement and judicial systems. Still, if some examples of strict enforcement through huge fines or jail time got high level media attention (think Seinfeld finale), it could counteract the Nanjing Peng Yu incident to some degree.

Religion

I think it’s only a matter of time before the Chinese government realizes what other rulers have known for thousands of years: religion can be a powerful tool to control people and keep public order. Of course, religion has just as much potential for evil as it does good.  But regardless of what the government does, religion is going to keep spreading in China. So I don’t know that there’s much to be done on this front.

Education

Should morality be taught in schools? In fact, China has an extensive moral education in public schools from elementary through grad-school. College entrance exams have questions testing morality.

"Follow Lei Feng's example; Love the Party, Love Socialism, Love the People"

There’s even a holiday dedicated to being a good Samaritan. March 5th is “Learn from Lei Feng Day” celebrating the PLA soldier who did selfless deeds like giving his train ticket to a desperate man who’d lost his. The catch with all of this though is that “morality” is usually in the socialist context. Lei Feng implausibly kept a diary with flowery praise of the Communist Party saying he did his deeds for love of the motherland.

The rest of the moral education isn’t much different. My girlfriend remembers learning in Chinese high school and college philosophy courses that human beings aren’t born selfish.  In primitive hunter-gatherer (communist) societies everyone shared everything and it wasn’t until classes emerged that people became selfish. So the logical conclusion is that socialism lets people be the altruists they were born to be.

I suspect this kind of “morality” education gets discarded with all the other political white noise students have to mindlessly memorize for tests, but never actually think about.

Then there’s this interesting take that Chia-fu Chen from Ministry of Tofu, who was educated in China for 18 years, wrote on the comments section of my hell article:

Sure, we have a lot of education on morality, and we were taught to be like Lei Feng. However, this is neutralized, and even reversed by our parents’ informal teaching: don’t help others unless the act is somehow beneficial to you, otherwise you are acting like an idiot. Many of the Chinese parents constantly give their kids this kind of mental reinforcement. Over time, kids of average IQ will learn this implicit rule:

Protect yourself by agreeing with the social norm, but never BUY INTO IT.

I’m not saying this only happens in China, but I have not seen another country where such parenting practice is so prevalent. Correct me if I’m wrong about this.

Politics

When the Beijing Consensus emerged in the wake of Tiananmen, the basic thinking by the Party was, “We need to get the people rich and do it fast if we have any chance at holding on to power.” This breakneck economic growth has had huge side effects like corruption, wealth disparity and pollution. In China’s face culture, if you’re not well-off now, you’re worthless. This has very practical implications when trying to find a wife or being able to educate your kids in the now ultra-competitive society. So naturally people take shortcuts to get ahead. And with as little government and media transparency as China has, this can be quite easy.

The government realizes this and knows that the current growth-at-all-costs model can’t go on much longer. Hu Jintao tried to address this to some degree with his “Harmonious Society” socio-economic doctrine, but obviously it’s had limited success.

When the power handover happens next year, the politburo could go the left with people like Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai, who wants to address the problem by maintaining a very powerful authoritarian role and using it to clampdown on corruption and distribute the wealth more equally through measures like subsidized low-income housing. It also includes very emotional measures like replicating the rallies of the Mao era.

Guo Baogang, author of the book China’s quest for political legitimacy, recently told me, “It’s effective in some ways. If you look at it in Chinese context a lot of people still have a good memory of those good old days prior to the reforms during the 1950’s, 1960’s. At that time they believed there was no corruption or minimal corruption. Everything was kind of egalitarian.”

Or the politburo could go to the right with people like Guangzhou Party Secretary Wang Yang, who appears to want to address the problem by making transparency and exposure of wrong-doing easier through political reform in free speech, free press and intra-party democracy. This could give some much needed transparency and rule of law that would lessen the need, and the ability, to to resort to immoral behavior to get ahead.

However, Wang is looking more and more like a long shot for the politburo standing committee and definite members Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang are fairly moderate. “Looking at Xi Jinping and Li keqiang, they‘re sort of like the current leadership,” said Guo Baogang. “They’re very stability concerned people so they’re not going to rock the boat and do something crazy or have a major shift. They’ll probably continue to move in the incremental changes.”

So it seems politics could improve the moral situation on the ground, but not dramatically.

Conclusion

In a morbid way, maybe the best thing that could happen is exactly what happened in Foshan. Tragic as it was, it’s thrown a mirror up in front of China, and really, the entire world. It’s been publicized and debated as much as Peng Yu ever was and will undoubtedly be cited for many years to come. Whether it’s human psychology or Chinese society responsible, it’s shown more vividly than any example in history that people have this fundamental problem. Hopefully recognizing it means they can consciously overcome it.

And more practically, the event has highlighted the increasingly universal presence of the CCTV camera, as Kenneth Tan at the Shanhaiist has pointed out. So coming back to Earthly vs. supernatural punishment, I would venture to say that hell hath no fury like an angry Chinese mob with human flesh search capabilities.

Update 10/25: This video was posted yesterday which shows Shanghai citizens rushing to the aid of a fallen pregnant woman. Hopefully this is  a sign that Yueyue really is having an impact on people’s behavior. Hopefully it lasts.

Update 10/27: …and it turns out that previous link was a staged hoax, no further comment needed.