By now, most China watchers have probably seen this piece by David Shambaugh cogently arguing that “the endgame of communist rule in China has begun.” If you want to see an equally cogent argument lead to a very different conclusion, you can see Arthur Kroeber’s piece from December about how Xi Jinping and his governing style are here to stay.

Both make for interesting reading, as do the countless other pundits who’ve made similar arguments on both sides of the CCP endurance question over the years. If they hadn’t wrapped all their interesting points together into a grand thesis predicting the future of the Communist Party, they would have been quite insightful. However, they did make rather firm conclusions, and that’s rather pointless. That’s because…

We really have no idea what’s going on in China right now

In November 2011, The Telegraph ran an exclusive report on a self-immolation that had happened in Tiananmen Square three weeks earlier. The paper only learned of it when they received a photo from a British tourist who’d been there and was surprised he hadn’t yet seen anything about it in the news. Despite the hundreds of people who’d been present snapping their own photos, no record of the incident could be found anywhere in Chinese media, Weibo, or anywhere else. It happened in perhaps the most trafficked and photographed place in China, it was during the heyday of Weibo, and it was walking distance from where hundreds of foreign correspondents were stationed. And yet, we just narrowly missed never hearing about it at all. It makes you wonder how many important things we are missing completely in China.

Hundreds of the best foreign correspondents in the world are stationed in China (the lion’s share based in Beijing, with most of the rest in Shanghai), but unfortunately they have no hope of collectively reporting more than a very small fraction of the important things happening in the country every day. They’re a few hundred covering 1.35 billion people living across 3.7 million square miles. There are of course Chinese journalists and netizens finding things out, but self-censorship and multiple levels of government censorship stop a lot of that from ever reaching the outside world’s comprehension. And a lot of the trends that could influence the CCP’s survival are simply unknowable.

How stable is the financial system? How significant are the hundreds of thousands of annual “mass incidents?” What exactly is going on behind closed doors at Zhongnanhai? How much is corruption affecting the military’s capability and loyalties? Is there any threat of some public grievance gaining collective appeal among different social groups? What questions are we not even thinking to ask? The Communist Party is in a better position than anyone to know these things, but even it’s probably clueless on a lot of these big questions. Things get garbled through five levels of government bureaucracy while hundreds of thousands of personal interests obscure things for their own purposes before they have any hope of being digested accurately. Despite the enormous strides in reporting and communication, we’re still very much in the dark. Which is why…

We have even less hope of possibly knowing what will happen in the future

After Bo Xilai’s sensational purge in 2012, many China-watchers (myself included) presumed that the incoming Politburo Standing Committee would take a turn toward the more liberal wing of the CCP. Then Ling Jihua’s son got in a Ferrari accident and New York Times exposed Wen Jiabao’s family wealth, making a mockery of any predictions on the PBSC’s composition. Totally unforeseen events (that we still don’t fully understand) changed everything, which should itself have been foreseeable.

That was just one small arena of Chinese politics. Imagine the present day stable of China pundits being transported back to 1986 and trying to predict what would happen over the next five years (then repeat that exercise with 1976, 1966, 1956 and 1946). Let’s even help them out a bit and presume they have access to all the information the CCP did. Does anyone honestly believe any of them could have predicted anything resembling what actually unfolded? If not, why should we think they’re any more capable today?

Political winds can shift on a dime in China, influenced by completely unforeseeable variables. The Tiananmen movement, for instance, was the result of dozens of different incidents and trends that came together in a perfect storm. Alter any one of those variables slightly, and things could have turned out very differently. You can conscientiously gather every bit of information available, every apparent trend and make a conclusion about where China is headed. Then something will almost certainly happen tomorrow that rips your thesis to shreds.

Perhaps either Shambaugh’s or Kroeber’s prediction will ultimately be proven “correct,” but that doesn’t mean it was a good prediction. If someone is tasked with predicting a coin toss, they could analyze the wind, the person tossing, the texture of the ground, and all sorts of other random variables. But whatever system of analysis they come up with will be utterly lacking. Perhaps someday a computer system will be able to meaningfully sort these variables, but it’s beyond any human’s capabilities. So even if the coin is tossed and their prediction is correct, that doesn’t make them a proficient coin toss analyst. Crass as the analogy may be, CCP soothsaying is similarly an exercise in futility that’s made fools of many “experts.”

But prediction sells. It’s harder to get media outlets to give you op-ed space or air time if you just say “things are complicated and we don’t really know what’s going to happen.” Making a bold prediction gets noticed and it has little downside (especially if you hedge, as Shambaugh did, without giving a deadline on it). Gordon Chang, perhaps the most extreme example, has set several firm deadlines on his CCP collapse theory that have turned out utterly wrong. And yet, he still enjoys “China expert” status along with regular columns and TV appearances.

Whether the Communist Party will survive or collapse in the short-term is THE question in China, so it’s not surprising that we see pieces arguing both sides. There’s nothing wrong with exploring the possibilities, and it’s certainly worth tracking events and trends that could influence this question. But when I see someone pulling an arbitrary set of indicators together to make a grand conclusion, I take it with an enormous grain of salt. You should too.

ChinasMillennialsC1Over the past two years on this blog, I’ve occasionally alluded to a big project that’s perpetually been “a few months” from completion. Well today I’m happy to announce that the project is finally finished! As a few discerning readers have already guessed, it’s a book. It’s called China’s Millennials: The Want Generation and it’s set to be published by Rowman & Littlefield on June 1st.

The book has roots back in 2007 when I began three years of working with college students in Nanjing. That was an exciting period for China, especially for its youth. The economy was still growing by double-digits each year and the upcoming Beijing Olympics signified to many Chinese that their country had reclaimed its place as a world power. Then immediately after the Olympics finished, the global financial crisis hit, sucker-punching “the West” and its supposedly superior political system. China, on the other hand, appeared to steam ahead unscathed.

In 2009 leading up to the 20th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square suppression, a common refrain appeared in foreign media about Chinese youth of today. Unlike their idealistic predecessors, who were willing to lay down their lives for democracy, this generation was largely content with authoritarian capitalism. They’d been subdued by a combination of torrid economic growth, materialism and the government’s reemphasis on Chinese nationalism.

There was certainly a lot of truth to this narrative. As the West was struggling, there seemed a sense of inevitability that China’s return to the world’s power center was just around the corner. People were living better and better lives and the country’s rulers were triumphantly leading the nation through rough waters. The confidence young Chinese had in their country had probably never been higher.

But then cracks started surfacing. In 2010, Weibo took off and began shining light on many of China’s deeply serious problems. Meanwhile, demographics and the economy were taking a turn for the worse. There was (and remains) a growing gender imbalance, an aging population, increasingly visible environmental degradation, a slowing economy and a shrinking job market for college graduates. The gravity of these and many other problems in the eyes of China’s leadership has perhaps best been illustrated by the severe (and worsening) crackdown on dissent that Xi Jinping launched after coming to power.

Still, when the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen movement rolled around in 2014, the narrative about the politically content, materialistic and nationalistic youth was dusted off once again. But this time I wasn’t so sure. Like most things in China, there is indeed truth to that simple storyline, but the full picture is infinitely more complex. What I’ve tried to do with this book is explore some of that complexity.

Over the span of three years I traveled around China talking to a diverse set of Chinese youth born in the late 1980s and early 1990s (aka millennials) trying to understand where they’re coming from and what they’re worried about. In the book I profile youth navigating China’s education system, the workforce, contentious social issues and those who are pushing back against the status quo in various ways.

In Shenzhen I spent time speaking with factory workers and a young reporter who went undercover in Foxconn during the height of the 2010 suicide controversy. In Shandong I met a group of rural Henan youth who fell prey to an education scam that upended their already difficult lives. In Nanjing I spoke with young Christian converts about why they felt compelled to turn to religion. In Beijing, I interviewed the founder of a popular nationalistic website about his role in a nationwide uproar. In Guangzhou I spoke with environmentalists trying to contend with heavy-handed authorities. I tell the stories of young social activists, journalists, civil servants, migrant workers, jobless graduates, frustrated farmers and tech entrepreneurs (to name a few). I tried to give voice to a wide range of subjects including both urban and rural youth (the latter tend to get far less coverage than their urban counterparts).

In talking with all these young Chinese and a raft of scholars and other experts for this book, a picture started to emerge that wasn’t nearly as simple as youth being bought off by materialism and distracted by nationalism. While there were indeed many signals of contentment, political apathy and material pragmatism, there were as many stories of struggle, disillusionment, insecurity, political doubt and dissatisfaction with the way things are. Many youth appear to be pushing back—whether consciously or subconsciously—against the status quo while China’s leaders scramble to keep them in line, and increasingly, scramble to adapt when youth refuse to conform.

Pontificating about millennials has become a cottage industry in the US, with a cascade of books and columns dissecting and predicting this group’s supposed habits. I consciously tried to avoid writing a book like that. I keep the pontificating holstered and make no predictions. I just wanted to capture this moment in time and try to paint an (admittedly partial) picture of what Chinese youth are up against, and do so though their own stories. I weave these stories in with data, academic studies and commentary from sociologists, political scientists, journalists and other experts. The idea was to present compelling personal stories of young Chinese alongside their greater context at this point in history.

Anyways, I hope you’ll understand why this blog has been on life support for the better part of two years now. But hopefully it will be worth the wait. I also want to take this opportunity to thank all of you long time followers for reading and sharing this blog since I started it in 2010. The interest and feedback I’ve gotten here was a major driving force in convincing me that this book was worth writing. So thank you! I hope if you’ve enjoyed what you’ve seen here, you’ll check out the book.

(See more at the publisher or at Amazon)

Mark Zuckerberg meets Lu Wei with a copy of Xi Jinping’s book on his desk. (Photo: China Network)

Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently had a jovial meeting with China’s Internet Czar Lu Wei, where Zuckerberg claimed he bought Xi Jinping’s biography for colleagues so they could “understand Socialism with Chinese Characteristics.”

The meeting, which many have deemed “kowtowing,” appeared to be another signal that Facebook is making a play toward China after being blocked in the country since 2009. This comes on the heels of Zuckerberg’s China visit in October and the company setting up a Beijing sales office in May. Chinese state media has even started taking a Facebook entry seriously, suggesting that if it wants to come in, it will probably have to find a domestic partner.

Under Xi Jinping, there’s been an intense crackdown on pretty much every sector of society—media, education, NGOs, etc.—with the Internet being foremost among them. So if China is seriously considering letting Facebook enter, why now?

One important thing to understand is that sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have been blocked not only to censor their political content, but also as a means of boosting local Chinese counterparts. This has clearly worked, allowing social media industry jobs to remain in China while making sure that the most popular networks are the ones most easily controlled by Communist Party authorities.

In the past half-decade since the big foreign sites were blocked there’s been a golden age in Chinese Internet development. Weibo and WeChat, China’s two largest social networks, have seen their user bases grow from nothing to hundreds of millions, making them the clear social media winners. So if an outside contender is allowed to enter now, few, if any, Chinese users would adopt it as their social network of choice. It would simply be something to use on the side if they want to connect with people internationally. Thus, there’s little commercial threat in letting an outside player like Facebook re-enter at this stage.

On the contrary, there are some compelling reasons for the Chinese government to allow Facebook in. One is financial. If, as state media is starting to suggest, entry would require partnership with a local counterpart, it could be a shot in the arm for a struggling domestic network like Renren. Since Facebook no longer has any hope at achieving Internet supremacy in China, its entry represents little more than creating jobs that otherwise wouldn’t exist. It could also be an opportunity for a local Chinese company to collect foreign technology and techniques.

But perhaps an even more compelling reason is image. If Facebook entered China, it would be a PR coup for the CCP. Chinese leaders and media could point to the unblocking both domestically and internationally as proof that its internet is opening. Of course, it would be nonsense. If Facebook were to enter, it would have to be on Beijing’s terms, which would entail the same rigorous self-censorship and oversight by authorities that domestic Chinese sites are subject to. It could even require turning over user information. But Zuckerberg’s “kowtowing” to the very man in charge of this apparatus suggests this is something Facebook is entertaining. The question is: is it worth it?

From a moral perspective, it would immediately open Facebook to condemnation around the world for compromising on freedom of expression. The company could take the optimistic stance that Google once did, saying that being in China under restrictions would still have a more positive impact than not being there at all. But this wouldn’t likely appease human rights activists. The company could even get dragged before congress in the U.S. to answer for its moral compromise, much like Yahoo was in 2007.

From a financial perspective, it’s a bit murkier. If Facebook thinks it’s going to join the ranks of Weibo and WeChat as a major social media player in China, it’s in for some severe disappointment. But in a country with an internet population of 650 million and rapidly growing, even carving out a small niche could make the decision to enter viable. But again, the question for the man already worth $30 billion, is it worth it?

Most of us China watchers have done it at some point. We see a bellicose, inflammatory or otherwise head-scratchingly strange editorial in the nationalistic Global Times newspaper, and we re-tweet it out of mockery or disbelief. Today we all had a good laugh when GT declared that the Scotland independence referendum is “a tremor shaking the whole Western system” and shows that “the tide of secessionism is rising in the West.” Sometimes we go even further than just sharing these stories. When GT called the U.S. a “mincing rascal” for its computer hacking claims against China, it was a gift for the many media outlets that were able to draw up entire articles about it. But we really need to stop, and here’s why:

Global Times gives incentives to troll
A few weeks ago on Twitter, a Global Times employee revealed that the company gives traffic-based bonuses and also “bonuses for mentions in foreign media, good or bad, and for comment volume, positive or negative.” This was later confirmed to me by other GT employees (Global Times itself responded to my email for comment, but never replied after I asked about its incentive schemes). By a long shot, the articles in Global Times that get re-shared and covered most frequently by foreign media are the ones that say the most absurd things.

It would appear this is something the paper has taken note of, as we seem to be seeing these editorials becoming crazier and more frequent. So in effect, whenever we share or write an article about one of these pieces, we’re playing right into Global Times’  hands. We’re encouraging trolls and taking opinions at face value that likely have financial incentives driving them.

Another thing people usually fail to account for is that the English editorials go through foreign editors. So when you see highly quotable and alliterative terms like “rampant rascality” or “prancing provocateurs” used, they may have come from a mischievous foreign editor rather than a Chinese ideologue. As a separate GT employee said, articles drawn up to flag these crazy statements are “essentially click bait feeding off click bait.”

The only way to kill a troll is to ignore it
These editorials routinely defame dissidents, report outright false information and rile up nationalism and racism. In most situations, it’s just not worth putting a megaphone in front of these messages.

Sometimes it’s inescapable, like when these editorials have real world effects. One particularly vitriolic editorial against Japan in September 2012 may have helped incite actual violence. In cases like that, media can’t help but quote GT.

However, most of these editorials are quoted or re-shared simply for their insanity.

I no longer bother flagging conspiracy mongering drivel from partisan talking heads in the US, even if only to debunk or mock them. I’ve come to realize that they only feed off that type of attention and make money from it. So I don’t know why I should treat pundits in China who do the same any differently. As media watcher Song Zhibiao put it, “The reason that the Global Times is difficult to defeat is not that it is truthful, but rather that it shows such contempt for the truth. The Global Times is hard to insult because it knows no shame. By tearing down the standards of what is right, it sets itself ‘free.’”

He added, “If we cannot stop it, we must then quarantine it. If we cannot quarantine the crowd, we can at least quarantine ourselves. That way, we will not become its carriers and unintended promulgators.”

Global Times does NOT represent the official Communist Party line.
Whenever the Communist Party is mum on an issue and journalists are scrambling to interpret Chinese leaders’ views on it, you’ll inevitably see “the state-owned newspaper Global Times” quoted…often from the English edition (which is pretty different from the Chinese). The implication is that it’s some sort of proxy for the official party line. But this isn’t really the case.

In some situations it is. When Global Times ran an editorial in January 2013 condemning the Southern Weekend stand and defending the government’s media censorship, newspapers across the country were ordered by propaganda authorities to reprint it. But this was a very rare event.

A Chinese media outlet being state-owned doesn’t mean every word it prints represents the party line. Global Times is owned by the Communist Party flagship People’s Daily, but that doesn’t mean they share the same editorial principles. One Tsinghua media professor I spoke with likened People’s Daily to a highly disciplined, but poor father and Global Times to his belligerent wealthy son. GT’s populist nationalism makes it one of the better selling newspapers in China, and thus, makes People’s Daily money.

I would liken GT more to what Glenn Beck is to the Republican Party, or what Michael Moore is to Democrats: It makes A LOT of money for itself, it’s mostly in agreement with the party platform and it’s fairly useful for the party among certain demographics, but it’s sensational, extreme, misleading and polarizing to the point that the party will usually keep it at arm’s length. From time to time, GT’s approach to the news is useful from the government standpoint, but for the most part, the bellicose editorials seem to be tolerated by the government rather than assigned by it. For instance, when Ai Weiwei was arrested in 2011, the official line was silence, and later that the arrest was simply for tax reasons. But GT basically acknowledged, and defended, that it was his politics that landed him in hot water. As one Global Times editor put it “Best to think of GT editorials as one end (usually) of the small range of permitted public opinions on a topic.”

I believe Global Times English does some good reporting in other sections (again, GT English is largely separate from GT Chinese). I have no qualms about linking to those stories (here, here, here, here, here, here and here for instance). But the editorials have rarely contributed any meaningful information or well-reasoned standpoints. On the contrary, they’ve routinely proven false and insidious. Unless these editorials have some influence on actual events, I see no reason to continue gifting them any extra attention.

China’s Troubled Media

Posted: August 11, 2014 in media
Tags: , ,

Over the past few months, those who thought the state of Chinese journalism couldn’t possibly get any worse have sadly been proven wrong. A few weeks ago China’s chief censorship agency told Chinese reporters that they can’t pass information on to their foreign counterparts, nor can they independently publicize stories they find through their work. This is on top of newly required courses in Marxist journalism (AKA journalism that props up the Party). While it’s unlikely these regulations can or will be universally enforced, the intended message to journalists is clear: fall in line and keep your heads down.

This all fits with Xi Jinping’s overall approach since assuming power of squashing every hint of potential challenge. In the Telegraph, a well-known journalism professor recently estimated that “the number of journalists responsible for ‘independent, public-interest, negative or sensitive’ reports has fallen by 66 percent in the last three years.” This fits exactly with what I’ve seen. Among all the Chinese reporters I knew who were doing real investigative journalism two years ago, all but a few have shifted to more vanilla beats or left the field altogether.

Once upon a time, it was good to be an investigative journalist in China. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, we saw arguably the best officially sanctioned media atmosphere in PRC history. Muckraking private outlets like Caijing and Economic Observer sprouted up. Investigative journalist Wang Keqin came to prominence with stories on AIDS villages and securities fraud. And the Southern Media Group did a series of hard-hitting reports that actually prompted changes to long-standing government policies.

However, when Hu Jintao came to power in 2002, a gradual regression began to take shape. New rules against cross-provincial reporting emerged that culled watchdog media; a few editors in the Southern Media Group were slapped with lengthy prison sentences on trumped up charges; Caijing was put under pressure, prompting its star editor-in-chief Hu Shuli to jump ship; and Wang Keqin was unceremoniously pushed out of two separate newspapers.

Xi Jinping’s new government now appears to be accelerating this trend. But politics is only half of the story in the regression of Chinese journalism.

The internet has had the same disruptive effect on traditional media in China that it has in much of the rest of the world. Weibo, WeChat and a host of other social media sites, blogs and pseudo media have sprung up, grabbing market share from the traditional press. This is coupled with independent watchdog papers being watered down. The same provocative stories officials don’t want printed are usually the same ones that make people buy the papers. When repressive politics meet disruptive technology, it means tight budgets for independent papers that don’t get government subsidies. This trickles down to journalists who see their income squeezed and jobs cut.

One implication of this is journalists from respected independent media getting funneled out and ending up at state media (where they can have more money and better resources, but more ideological oversight and censorship). I’ve known of a few journalists that couldn’t bring themselves to leave journalism – either out of passion or because they lacked the skillset to go into another industry – so they reluctantly took jobs at state media after work at independent outlets dried up.

But what looks to be an even more acute implication of the current media atmosphere is good reporters getting pushed out of the industry completely. One of my former Economic Observer bosses, who’s been reporting for the past two decades, recently reflected on trends of the past few years saying that we’re seeing perhaps the biggest media brain drain ever. “People with dignity and passion get driven out of the newspaper business,” he told me.

In 2012, Jian Guanzhou, the reporter who’d broken the Sanlu milk powder scandal four years earlier, drove this point home when he finally decided to call it quits. “I have been at the Oriental Morning Post for 10 years, during which I have poured the most precious years of my youth, my sorrow, my dreams and feelings into the purest of ideals,” he wrote on Weibo. “Now my ideal is dead, so I’ll get going. Take care, brothers!”

Working within China’s tightening media system entails an endless stream of moral dilemmas. If a story could be killed for political reasons, for instance, it might make a reporter think twice about pursuing it in the first place. In most cases, they get paid based on how much they publish. If the story isn’t published, they don’t get paid for it. Even if they’re willing to risk their necks to investigate and print these sensitive stories, the scope of allowable topics is shrinking, leading to moral and financial frustration. Many just can’t do it anymore and quit journalism to go into something more stable or morally straightforward. On the grand scale, as this happens and honest reporters with a moral compass get sifted out, corrupt and sycophantic peers take over.

There are no meaningful statistics, but in talking to several Chinese journalist friends over the past few months, there seems to be a feeling that the entire industry is getting dirtier. Making money through good honest reporting is a lot harder than it once was, meaning the allure of taking bribes and colluding with (or extorting) special interests becomes greater. So there may be some semblance of legitimacy to the government’s ostensible drive to “clean up” the media.

A sullying of the industry may be the downside, but this atmosphere is certainly conducive to keeping the CCP unchallenged. The days when the Party had to seriously worry about shutting down watchdog newspapers and clipping the wings of renegade reporters might be drawing to a close. Instead, it can just watch the papers struggle to stay afloat and the journalists sort themselves into less threatening positions…or out of the industry completely.

There are of course plenty of fantastic Chinese reporters still out there pushing what they can for the pittance they get in return. One friend reporting in the Southern Media Group recently told me that the tightening atmosphere makes him regret not pushing harder in earlier years when things were more open. But this is the new reality, which only looks to hold more heartbreak ahead. “For us reporters, new changes must happen,” he told me. “I just don’t know how they’ll go.”

In psychology, there’s something known as an “availability cascade” where something complex and not easily explainable is elucidated in a very simple and insightful way; never mind that it’s wrong. But because of the explanation’s simplicity and plausibility, everyone including political leaders and journalists latch on, creating a self-reinforcing cycle of false credibility. Few issues are as susceptible to availability cascades as “suicide spates.”

In China, we first saw this with the Taiwanese factory Foxconn in 2010, when 14 workers committed suicide allegedly due to “harsh working conditions” (the story was dusted off again last year). That year media started ticking off suicides and hundreds of reports questioned whether people could in good conscience buy Apple products. Never mind that, given the factory’s 1 million-plus employees in Mainland China, you were 16 times more likely to kill yourself if you were a typical American living in Montana that year.

Then a few weeks ago some journalists noted that four Chinese media executives had killed themselves over the previous few months. This prompted “speculation that these tragic incidents may be linked to Beijing’s ongoing anti-graft campaign,” according to one outlet. Never mind that there are more than 300,000 Chinese journalists in state-media agencies alone (not including the hundreds of private outlets), and China’s annual suicide rate is 22 9.8 per 100,000 people (compared to 12 in the United States).

Now it appears there’s another availability cascade brewing; this one suggesting that Chinese officials might be committing suicide en masse because of pressure from Xi Jinping’s corruption crackdown. There’s not an agreed upon number of suicides in this demographic. Wall Street Journal said it was 23 last year. Then this week New York Times said it was “at least 15” over the past 18 months. Either way, these are pretty paltry numbers when you consider that China has over 7 million civil servants.

Caixin actually appeared to draw the most compelling evidence that something was amiss when it said that official suicides more than doubled from 21 in 2012 to 48 in 2013. But then you notice a big flaw in the reasoning. Those numbers are based on media reports of suicides, not any actual empirical data. The article said, “An increasing number of officials are committing suicide, if media reports on the topic are any indication.” They are not.

This is the great flaw in all these supposed “suicide spates,” because it’s really only once a spate narrative has been established that people start paying attention, counting suicides and reporting them. We know for instance that there were at least 14 suicides at Foxconn in 2010 because people perked up and plugged each new death into the established storyline. But we have no idea how many there were in 2008 because this narrative didn’t yet exist to prompt reporting. This is the case with officials now. We don’t really know how many cadre suicides there were five years ago, but if anyone kills themselves now, you better believe they’re about to become a narrative-reinforcing statistic. It’s very easy to find “suicide spates” almost anywhere when you’re looking for them.

The ironic thing is that all this coverage of suicides might play a greater role in causing them than whatever supposed causal factor is being explored. It’s been well-documented that wide publicity of suicides encourages copy-cats (known as the “Werther Effect”). David Phillips, one of the most prominent sociologists to study this trend, told New York Times in 1987 that “Hearing about a suicide seems to make those who are vulnerable feel they have permission to do it.” One famous illustration was when Marilyn Monroe’s 1962 death was followed by a 12 percent nationwide spike in suicides.

This effect has been documented in China too. After the 2010 Foxconn suicides, researchers from Hong Kong and Australia found that there was actually a brief period with a slightly abnormal rapid-fire succession of suicides. This wasn’t because of harsh working conditions, but because coverage by Beijing-based media and rapid news dissemination within Foxconn influenced copycats.

Still, whether it’s factory workers, journalists or cadres, we’ll have to see dozens, if not hundreds more suicides in these groups before we can entertain the notion that something is seriously abnormal. When we’re able to pluck out several suicides with a common denominator, it’s tempting to assume a trend, grasp for convenient answers and then blow it all out of proportion. Perhaps work stress is a factor in some factory worker suicides, or anti-graft campaign pressure with some officials and journalists. But to suggest that suicides in these groups have skyrocketed in a short period due to a single factor is patently silly. Last year I spoke with Michael Phillips, a Canadian psychologist and executive director of the World Health Organization’s Suicide Prevention Center in Beijing. “[There’s an] idea that there are unique stressors that cause suicide,” he told me. “But suicide is always the result of a variety of factors – social, genetic and psychological. The press loves simple answers for complicated problems.”

[Correction: A more recent University of Hong Kong study found that China’s current suicide rate is 9.8 per 100,000 people, rather than the older 22/100,000 figure]

In the lead up to the Tiananmen crackdown’s anniversary, there have been a lot of articles looking back on the event – some with new interesting angles, some just dusting off stories from five years ago. But in reading this stuff, I’ve noticed that some things tend to get overlooked or remembered in a skewed way.

I think oversimplified media coverage of the protests at the beginning plays a major role. Images of Tank Man and Democracy banners in the heart of Red China offered a narrative too appealing to complicate with the finer details. This list (which is admittedly also pretty simplified) is a reminder of some of those details that we tend to neglect about Tiananmen and its legacy.

1. The whole event was much messier than it looks in hindsight
In popular memory, the Tiananmen movement was a brave stand by Democracy-hungry youth against the tyrannical Communist Party; but the reality was a bit more complex. Since the late-70s, the Party had been touting Reform and Opening up, so as the 80s progressed, political discourse became more open and “safe.” But the “reform” being touted was vague. It was akin to an American politician running on a platform of “change.” “Yeah, great,” most people thought. Just about everyone can agree to that. But once you start dissecting exactly what “change” or “reform” means and how far it should go, opinions start to diverge pretty radically.

By the time 1989 rolled around, just about every social group in China wanted some sort of “change.” Some thought the reforms had gone too fast, others not fast enough. There was a widespread feeling that, in one way or another, many government leaders had dropped the ball and were corrupt to the point that they were holding China back. But there was really no coherent set of demands among protestors about how to address this; in fact many of their demands were contradictory.

Names now synonymous with the movement like Chai Ling and Wu’er Kaixi probably didn’t mean much to the average protestor. In a sea of people, their influence stretched about as far as the sounds from their bullhorns could reach. These “student leaders” went through their own power struggles and quickly factionalized. Whatever control they had over the movement was confined to very small pockets. There were too many divergent demands for anyone to exert any meaningful leadership.

As the Beijing spring went on, the Tiananmen protests became a major social event that was seen by the public as a patriotic continuation of the May 4th Movement. People from every point on the social ladder and political spectrum – most of whom weren’t otherwise politically active – joined in with the herd. Even uber-nationalist and Confucius Peace Prize founder Kong Qingdong jumped in on the festivities, if that tells you anything. People tend to think the movement was for “Democracy,” but that’s a gross oversimplification. There wasn’t even a clear definition of what “Democracy” meant. Is it direct national elections, or is it just greater transparency within the CCP?

Few actually wanted to overthrow the CCP and replace it completely. After all, the protests started with an outpouring of support for a fallen Communist leader, and many of the protestors were Communist Party members themselves. But ultimately, there wasn’t really any agreed upon message or motive for the movement – just that it was patriotic.

2. The movement was a blessing for the CCP
With everything the Communist Party does to erase Tiananmen from history, it seems odd to think that it was actually the movement’s greatest beneficiary. The divergent demands emerging in the late 80s left the Party increasingly challenged by the public with shrinking room to operate. When hundreds of thousands of protestors took to the streets for seven weeks without any coherent set of demands, it was the perfect excuse to clamp down and re-assert absolute control. It was especially convenient for the hardliner faction of the CCP and the likes of Li Peng. They were able to pin blame for the “chaos” on liberal opponents who’d taken a soft-line on student demonstrations. Extreme measures – like purging the very highest ranked Party official, Zhao Ziyang – can only be taken in extreme circumstances. Tiananmen provided exactly this. The Politburo was cleared of those pushing for aggressive political reform, and agitators among the public were silenced. The now conservative-controlled CCP enjoyed two decades of the greatest prosperity it had ever experienced.

3. Tiananmen had some very nationalistic roots
It’s become popular to compare young Chinese of today unfavorably to the Tiananmen youth. The latter erected the Goddess of Democracy to stare down Mao, while the former throws eggs at the Japanese Embassy. But blind xenophobia/nationalism and fierce criticism of the government aren’t at all mutually exclusive, and in fact, can be directly related. This has been the case in political uprisings from the Boxer Rebellion to the May 4th movement. In fact, xenophobic protests were one of the undercurrents that led straight to Tiananmen Square.

In December of 1988, two African students at Nanjing’s Hehai University wanted to bring Chinese girls into a school dance, but were rebuked by campus security. The exact facts are disputed, but some sort of large brawl between groups of Africans and Chinese broke out. False rumors spread that Chinese women had been raped or kidnapped and a Chinese man killed. In response, hundreds gathered outside the foreign student dorm clamoring for blood, but they were dispersed by police.

This was just the latest in a series of race-fueled conflicts at universities over the preceding decade, and it incensed Chinese students. They were kept under strict control, while foreign classmates had all sorts of special privileges. Now, these Africans were apparently getting away with murder and being protected by traitorous officials. It was an infuriating highlight of China’s weakness.

The story wasn’t true, but the issues it represented struck a nerve for the students who felt corruption and disrespect all around them. They wanted to stand up and defend their country’s dignity, but once again they were thwarted by bought-off officials and an unjust legal system. It was just as their ancestors had felt before May 4th, 1919.

Thousands hit the streets with chants like “Down with the black devils.” But slogans like “protect human rights” and calls for political and legal reform soon slipped in. News spread to Beijing and Shanghai, where local students piled on the “anti-African protests.” Then with the death of Hu Yaobang four months later, the volume of these calls was cranked up at Tiananmen Square. (link)

So when you see Chinese youth of today written off politically because of their “nationalist” tendencies, it’s worth asking how much nationalism really hedges against challenges to the CCP.

4. There are side-effects from the state-induced Tiananmen “amnesia”
The Tiananmen Square Massacre raises very unwelcome questions about the Communist Party’s legitimacy, so it’s no surprise that it’s tried (pretty successfully) to airbrush it from public memory. We now frequently see reports highlighting the ignorance or ambivalence of young Chinese toward the events, and it gives a pretty sad commentary on how the rebellious idealism of youth has ebbed. But that’s an old story. What’s becoming an increasingly interesting story is the other implication of that “amnesia.”

When the CCP decided to put down the protests, it could have done so with riot gear or rubber bullets. It instead opted for machine guns with live ammunition. The bloodbath that ensued was a message that this sort of dissent wouldn’t be tolerated again. For the following two decades, that message was received loud and clear. But what happens when the next generation is shielded from it?

It’s an exaggeration to say that young people today don’t know anything about 1989, but most are indeed pretty sketchy on the details. I’ve even talked to a few students who didn’t know why it happened, but assumed the protestors must have had it coming if the government saw fit to kill them. They don’t fully grasp how the CCP was willing to send in soldiers to indiscriminately massacre hundreds, perhaps thousands, when it felt its legitimacy was threatened. And most of those protestors didn’t even oppose the CCP; they simply challenged it to reform.

These days, it’s becoming apparent that the next generation of youth isn’t as scared of speaking out (so long as they avoid directly attacking the CCP’s legitimacy). We’ve seen a steady stream of environmental street protests, a large demonstration against censorship, and recently, a dozen college students uploaded pictures of themselves supporting jailed civil rights attorney Pu Zhiqiang. In all these cases, teenagers and 20-somethings have been front and center.

This is still a relatively small segment of Chinese youth, but it’s one that’s obviously growing. None of these things were happening a decade ago. There are of course more social factors in play here than 6/4 amnesia, but as the memory of Tiananmen drifts further away, so does the instinctive fear it was meant to instill.

Meeting the Press

Posted: March 15, 2014 in media
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This week Chinese Premier Li Keqiang gave his annual “press conference” to cap off the National People’s Congress.

Photo: Xinhua

Photo: Xinhua

I put “press conference” in quotations because it’s hardly anything of the sort. Journalists must submit questions for Li well in advance and then negotiate with press handlers on the precise wording of how the question will be delivered. This year there were reportedly a few topics like Zhou Yongkang and the Kunming knife attack that were totally out of bounds and would result in a “blacklisting” if mentioned.

This has been going on for a long time and last year several reporters started getting fed up with it. At the Foreign Correspondent’s Club of China annual meeting last year, no topic was debated more vocally than how to respond to this issue. So I was hoping we’d see few, if any, foreign (and ideally, Chinese) reporters show up to the charade this year. But if they had to attend (after all, bombshells have been dropped there before), I hoped at the very least no foreign reporters would legitimize the farce by reciting pre-approved softballs for Li to bunt. Unfortunately, my naïve hopes went unfulfilled and an unprecedented nine foreign/non-mainland reporters were called on.

In 2012, Australian “reporter” Andrea Yu was called on repeatedly to lob disappointing softballs at officials, and it was later discovered she was being fed her questions by the Beijing-controlled media outlet she worked for (and it seems the same organization is still sending similar shills this year). After that episode, real foreign journalists were understandably miffed. But when you think about it, what she did isn’t much worse than being complicit in the way Li Keqiang’s press conference works.

Li gets to leaf through hundreds of questions and pick exactly what he wants to answer, has compliant foreigners recite their lines, and then scores big points with viewers for being bold enough to face presumably more critical reporters. This is a major point of pride for CCP leaders (former President Jiang Zemin once boasted to Hong Kong reporters about how he’d taken on Mike Wallace and Barbara Walters).

The questions that are chosen are either completely benign or just barely edgy enough to seem “sensitive” (ie – relating to corruption, pollution or hacking). At best, Chinese viewers understand what’s going on and it makes the international press corps look like hapless wusses anxious to devour any meatless bone the Chinese leadership deigns to toss them. Famous Hong Kong reporter Luqiu Luwei wrote an op-ed in Financial Times saying that “the Best Actor Award” this year must go to the foreign media.

But at worst, Chinese viewers don’t understand what’s going on and think it’s a legitimate press conference. In that case, the compliant journalists are actively helping Chinese leaders gloss over actual tough issues that viewers should be aware of.

Casual Chinese observers who catch the CCTV press conference might not ever bother scaling the Great Firewall to see what’s really going on, but they expect foreign reporters to ask tough questions. They’ve had it hammered into their heads that foreign journalists are out to smear China’s leaders and cause the country’s collapse. But when the toughest question they see is some abstract mention of debt risks, they might mistakenly get the impression that these are China’s most pressing issues. But in fact, there was no mention of Tibetan immolations, the foreign journalists who’ve been expelled, the tightening grip on domestic media, Document 9, the extra-judicial imprisonment of people like Liu Xia (Liu Xiaobo’s wife) who haven’t even been found guilty of any crime, the enormous wealth of NPC members and potential conflicts of interest, the stalling of official assets declaration (and prosecution of those who’ve loudly called for it), dissatisfaction with the political situation in Hong Kong, prostitution crackdowns that leave already vulnerable young women with even greater exposure to exploitation and violence, or the offshore holdings by the families of powerful leaders. I could go on… That none of these things were mentioned raised some serious eyebrows from foreign and domestic observers alike.

Several of the foreign reporters who were called on to ask questions are among the best in Beijing, and I have the utmost respect for them…but I think they made a bad call here. I understand that this practice also happens in many Western countries, but that doesn’t make it right there either.

I wouldn’t expect anyone to go back on their word and ask an unapproved question, but it wouldn’t be such a bad thing to refuse participation in the performance…or just skip the presser altogether, as many reporters opted to do.

As Luqiu Luwei put it: “The good thing is that foreign media finally experienced the Chinese media’s situation. Under the same pressure they had the same choice. From an ethical perspective, the choice they made deprived them of any right to be proud. Only media that didn’t attend the press conference can still talk about sticking to journalistic ideals.”

China Hang-up Relaunch

Posted: January 9, 2014 in Uncategorized
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For those of you who didn’t know I co-host a podcast, hey there, I co-host a podcast. It’s called China Hang-up and it focuses on a lot of the same Chinese sociopolitical and economic themes I cover on this blog. Just wanted to announce that we’ve moved to a new home at Project Pengyou.

Since I first announced the podcast here in 2012, it’s morphed into more of a round-table discussion on issues of interest to young China watchers. Our inaugural episode with Project Pengyou looks at one of my favorite topics: the political mindset of Chinese youth today. I’ve said before that it would be a fool’s errand to try and gauge something like this among such a large diverse population, so naturally we’ve stepped up to take on that errand. Helping us do so is someone far less foolish than ourselves: Beijing-based post-80s journalist Helen Gao. We look at how the political education system has changed since Tiananmen and whether an apparent uptick in youth-led demonstrations in recent years indicates the stirrings of a political re-awakening.

For anyone in Beijing, we’re having a re-launch party to celebrate the new partnership this coming Sunday evening at 4corners. We’re hoping it’ll be a good chance for China hands – young and old – from around the city to rub elbows over drinks. Hope to see some of you there.

China Hangup Party Flyer Link (if the picture doesn’t show up)

On separate note, I’m knee-deep in the later stages of a project I’ve been working on for the past year-and-a-half, which is why updates here have been (and will likely continue to be) sparse. But we still plan to put out a podcast every two weeks, so I hope you’ll check that out instead.

Getting “Educated”

Posted: December 30, 2013 in Education
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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?’”

On Xia Yeliang…

Posted: November 26, 2013 in Uncategorized
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Note: This post is in regards to an article I published in The Atlantic on October 22 about dismissed Peking University Professor Xia Yeliang. After receiving excessive scorn, I wrote this post a few days later, but ultimately decided it was too long-winded and canned it after I was invited on Sinica to discuss the issue. However, even more than a month later, people continue to misrepresent what I actually wrote and said. Given the gravity of the case, I decided to go ahead and publish it (with a few tweaks). Apologies for the long-windedness…

One thing I’ve learned over the years I’ve been writing about China is that people love simple narratives. In fact, they often demand them. Things are black vs. white, good vs. evil or a brave freedom-fighting David taking on a wholly-despicable Goliath. So if you introduce a little gray, the white camp sees you as representing everything they hate about the black, and vice-versa.

Several years ago at the university I taught at in Nanjing, there was an English professor (a Chinese woman) who would constantly use her classes to aggressively proselytize Christianity to the point that she’d sometimes stand at the podium and tell students they were hell-bound if they didn’t embrace Jesus. Over the years, there were floods of student complaints about her. The school warned her repeatedly, whereupon she’d cool down for a bit, and then quickly return to her old habits. Eventually, she was fired.

But why? This teacher had some fans (many of whom were Christian themselves). There was another, better-connected teacher in the department who did more-or-less the same thing, but she kept her job; whereas the teacher who was fired wasn’t well-liked by her colleagues. And if she’d just as aggressively preached atheism in class, I find it highly unlikely she would have been dismissed in the end. So what did her in? Was it the student complaints, her Christian faith, national politics, office politics, or more likely, some combination of all these things?

I can’t say for sure, but I think it would be a gross over-simplification to yell “religious persecution!” and call it a day. However, that’s exactly what some people on campus did.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve seen a similar thing play out with the case of Xia Yeliang – the Peking University (PKU) economics professor and political dissident who was recently dismissed from his post.

Most people (myself included) initially assumed this was a clear case of political persecution. Given all the very real political persecution happening throughout this country, it wasn’t an unreasonable assumption. A few weeks before the dismissal, I had even asked the head of a Sino-foreign joint venture college in Shanghai how foreign schools could justify “making a deal with the devil” when there are cases like Xia’s.

But then a few days before Xia was officially terminated, I was chatting with a friend studying at PKU. When I mentioned Xia, she said, “Actually, a lot of students at the school are upset with the way the media’s been covering that story.” She said that he was exceptionally unpopular because of his terrible teaching.

Intrigued, I thought I’d follow up on the story and see if it led anywhere. I figured I’d find some fans and some critics, and then pit them against each other in an article. Unfortunately, that’s not what I found.

When I was seeking out students of Xia’s, there were a few types of people I wanted to avoid. Obviously, I didn’t want anyone arranged through Xia himself or PKU. I also didn’t want to cherry-pick commenters on Weibo who, for whatever reason, had self-selected themselves to speak out on the issue. I tend to avoid Weibo and online forums like the plague when reporting – too many people with disingenuous motives. For the same reason, I sure as hell wasn’t going to quote anything or anyone dredged up online where I couldn’t verify that the person was actually a PKU student who had taken Xia’s class. I also didn’t really want to spend time trying to find current students. Xia had known since the beginning of summer that his job was in danger and his dismissal vote was coming up. If it were me, I’d dramatically alter my teaching methods this semester.

I wanted to choose random people who hadn’t yet expressed an opinion and contact them out of the blue. So starting with some contacts I had from PKU (none of whom were employees, Communist Youth League members or anyone with a vested interest or political axe to grind) I started making some calls and sending out queries to try and track down Xia’s students. The secondhand sources I muddled through were relating similar accounts that Xia was widely disliked. Eventually, I landed on four students who had actually taken his classes across several years.

I contacted them out of the blue and separately from one another. Had they started listing the exact same bullet points and buzzwords, I would have been suspicious. However, that wasn’t the case. They all had their own complaints, but there were some consistent themes: that Xia was boastful, dogmatic and preachy in his political beliefs (which he argued incoherently), that he was awful at teaching the subject matter, and that he would spend huge tracts of class time on completely irrelevant topics.

As I was wrapping up the story, PKU came out with a statement (here’s a later English translation) which more-or-less seemed in line with what the students had already told me (in terms of the specific complaints; nobody’s quite sure what’s up with the procedures used to oust Xia).

Had I found a single student that said a positive (or even neutral) word, I would have quoted them in a heartbeat. Unfortunately, I didn’t find this, and I wasn’t about to “balance” out the students I’d methodically sought out in order to avoid bias by quoting an unverifiable and easily manipulated source found through far less methodical means.

I don’t doubt Xia has fans out there though. I can’t think of anyone in history who’s had a 100 percent disapproval rating. But since I didn’t find any of them, I decided I would still present the segment of the student population that felt their voices were being ignored (a segment that seemed pretty large) and then give plenty of room for Xia to respond (but it seems a lot of people missed the half of the article where I laid out Xia’s side of the story).

In the end, I was only able to convince one of the students to use her (English) name in the article. This is something I wrestled with. No journalist likes to use anonymous sources – especially in a situation where they’re criticizing someone else. But having interviewed scores of Chinese students before, I knew that – even on completely benign stories – insistence on anonymity isn’t unusual. Whereas in the West, people are instinctively excited by the prospect of seeing their name in the paper, in China it’s often the opposite – especially among educated people who are well-aware of the country they’re living in (Helen Gao recently did a great piece exploring this). I considered myself lucky that the students even proceeded to talk to me when I said I was a reporter.

This case was extremely politically charged, but the students were more worried about being indicted by the greater public outside of PKU, which was firmly in Xia’s favor. They worried about being labeled wumaodang “50-centers” or CCP-stooges (labels I’ve unsurprisingly been given several times since). So I weighed the gravity of the case, the students’ reasons for wanting anonymity, Xia’s stature as a public figure and the fact that numerous people independently told me similar things. After weighing these things, I decided the story was much better off being told than shelved.

Some have dismissed what I found, saying it was “just a handful of students” and can’t be representative. I agree that it’s not at all on par with a comprehensive scientific survey, but I don’t think it’s negligible either. When two people corroborate the same things, maybe it’s a coincidence; three, a big coincidence. But when you have four people contacted randomly and separately without forewarning corroborating the same things, then that’s enough to make me comfortable that they represent a fairly sizeable group.

This is not the type of article a journalist gets excited about publishing. David vs. Goliath stories are straight-forward and a slam dunk in terms of public reactions. When you report that David might be flawed, however, many people don’t take very kindly to it. I knew I’d get backlash, and that publishing this story would bring me nothing but headaches. But when you find a story like this, you do a great disservice by sitting on it. I knew it would be a lonely few days, but I was more than confident in my reporting. I expected that eventually others would come out and confirm the same things I did, which is indeed what ended up happening (and here and here).

Still, even weeks later, the backlash continues to trickle in – some fair, some absolutely absurd.

The most frequent criticism I’ve gotten goes along the lines of “How can you rule out politics with all the other political repression going on in the country and all the other terrible teachers who are never fired?!” As it turns out, I never did rule out politics. But again, people like latching on to black and white views.

The debate after my article was framed as “Xia Yeliang: bad teacher or victim of politics?” Of course, that’s a false contradiction. There are plenty of possible scenarios involving varying degrees of both of those things. There are indeed countless terrible teachers that are never fired in China, but there are also outspoken dissidents that aren’t fired. Nobody knows for sure why Xia was dismissed though except for his superiors. You can’t rule out politics as a factor or definitively say it was the only factor.

You also shouldn’t ignore aspects of this case just because they complicate the nice neat David vs. Goliath narrative. Academic freedom is an important cause– one that I’ve written on many times – but letting an incomplete narrative prevail doesn’t help that cause; quite the opposite in fact.

Another criticism that I’ve received goes along the lines of “Yes, students are saying these things, but this is China. They’re either brainwashed or being instructed on what to say.” Another variation of this criticism involves the fact that I used to write for Global Times (a newspaper I quit writing for in disgust over two years ago and have written critically of many times since).

According to a group of surprisingly influential professors in the U.S., this is all some conspiracy wherein students were instructed on what to say and, being the government stooge that I am, I gleefully went along with the ruse (never mind that the majority of what I’ve written in the past is critical of the Chinese government – in Global Times, this blog, several Western media outlets and the newspaper I worked at for 18 months that’s nearly been shut down by the government several times).

If it’s easier for you to believe in a massive conspiracy than it is to believe in the possibility that there are real complaints about Xia’s teaching, then fine. I learned long ago not to waste time trying to sway conspiracy theorists.

Were the students told what to say though? Given the way I contacted them (and the other reports that have come out since mine) that would have to involve the university sending out unique instructions to thousands of different students going back seven years – many of whom aren’t even at the school anymore – without the instructions being leaked. If you think that’s a possibility, I suggest you read what happened when this obscure Chinese high school tried that route.

Are the students just brainwashed nationalists taught to hate people like Xia? I suppose I can’t definitively rule that out except to say I bore this possibility in mind while interviewing, and the students I spoke to certainly came off as very open-minded and intelligent.

The students all told me they’re happy (or at least tolerant) to see liberal politics discussed in the classroom in general. Two of them said they were huge fans of He Weifang, a PKU law professor and signatory to Charter 08 who’s been aggressively critical of the government in the classroom.

I appreciate all the people who emailed to inform me that China is under a Communist dictatorship (who knew?), to tell me what Chinese universities are REALLY like, and to explain that I was duped into writing this piece. But to anyone who’s spent even a cursory amount of time in a Chinese university over the past few years, the idea that Chinese college students are all programmed conformist robots that would unanimously fall in line when pushed to do so should be patently absurd.

While plenty do ride the herd mentality, there are A LOT of independent individualists out there today that wouldn’t think twice about speaking out against injustice if they saw it. Again, see what happened at this much lesser school when administrators pushed students to fall in line. And let’s not forget about the college students across the country that uploaded pictures of themselves with their faces shown to support Southern Weekend in the name of free speech and democracy last January.

Also, if you’re going to believe the “brainwashed” angle, you have to believe that Valentina Luo, a former researcher for The Telegraph and AFP, is also brainwashed (or in on the massive conspiracy with me).

Some have said since Xia has been branded a political pariah, students who support him wouldn’t dare speak out now; so it’s useless to try and get balanced comment on his teaching from student interviews. This seems like a big cop out to me – one that conveniently allows people to dismiss information that challenges their views. Why not try to randomly contact multiple students out of the blue and see what they say? I know that in the internet era, which allows people to simply quote from Weibo and “report” in their pajamas, actually speaking to people has become a novel concept. But catching them off guard is the best way to get their true feelings. So if they really loved Xia, perhaps they’d say so. See if they’ll even say something supportive anonymously. Heck, even if they hang up the phone, that would tell you something.

Tracking these people down takes effort though – a lot more effort than it takes to track down Xia Yeliang. But if people wanted to challenge what I and other reporters have found, this seems like the best way to do so.

Still, the debate goes on…which it should. There are many unanswered questions. There are ideological politics, office politics, and at Chinese state-run institutions, often a very blurry line between the two. I don’t doubt for one second that there are political components to Xia’s story. As I addressed in my article, Xia sees some big irregularities in the university’s position and the dismissal procedures, which need to be clarified.

Skepticism is good. I absolutely welcome RATIONAL skepticism of my piece and my work in general. But in the absence of any concrete evidence, skepticism should be divvied out to all sides. People who are skeptical of my piece should ask themselves honestly if they applied that same skepticism to earlier reports that sourced nobody other than Xia himself.

People (especially those not actually in China) should also remember that even though the country has scarcely changed politically in the past few years, it’s changed by leaps and bounds socially.Things can get more complicated than we’re able to fully comprehend. This government does indeed give us plenty of clear cut black and white, good vs. evil stories. So it makes it all the easier to miss the complications when things aren’t so simple. The story I did is certainly a complication I would have missed had it not been for a random conversation I had with a PKU student.

That conversation allowed me to realize that my initial knee-jerk bias meant I wasn’t as critical of the prevailing narrative as I should have been. When a fair number of people who had firsthand experience with Xia challenged my assumptions, I REPORTED what they said (which is quite different than ENDORSING what they said). You can make your own judgments about why they said it or if it warrants a dismissal. I expected to get quite a bit of heat for this piece, but at the end of the day, self-respecting reporters can’t sit on stories just because they don’t like their implications. I believe I did this story fairly and as thoroughly as the circumstances allowed, so I stand by it without regrets.

On one of the first mornings after I’d just moved to China in 2007, I was awoken at 6am to People’s Liberation Army marching songs being belted out by university freshmen. When I walked outside, I was taken aback by the droves of students decked out in camouflage intently walking in lock stop – that is, before they saw me and broke out into giggles. Ever since then, I’ve been more intrigued by Junxun than just about anything else I’ve seen during my stay in China.

Junxun refers to the military training all Chinese university freshmen must go through when starting college. What’s intrigued me is how in many ways it seems to be a microcosm of how Chinese youth today both embrace and subconsciously resist the carrots and sticks that the Communist Party uses to keep their support.

Two years ago I did a feature for Foreign Policy on Junxun. After returning to Tsinghua again this year to take some pictures of the new “cadets,” I thought it’d be worth making a little video based more-or-less on that feature. Perhaps I’m reading too much into it, but I think if you get a feel for what goes on during Junxun, it makes it a bit easier to understand the wider relationship between the Communist Party and the “Post-90s Generation.”




Link (if the embed doesn’t work)

Will Zhou Stay or Will He Go?

Posted: September 1, 2013 in Politics
Tags: ,

For the last several days I’ve been keeping an eye on rumors that China’s former security czar Zhou Yongkang might be in the crosshairs of the anti-corruption authorities. If Zhou were charged, it Zhou Yongkangwould be BIG. Until last year, he was on the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) – China’s most powerful body – where current and former leaders have been safe for the past four decades.

Unreliable overseas Chinese rumor mills like Boxun have been reporting that Zhou’s downfall is imminent for more than a year-and-a-half, so I don’t tend to give much weight to these rumors. But now there’s good reason to suspect he really is in danger. He seems to be getting painted into a corner, as his allies are being placed under investigation for corruption one-by-one. It’s just been reported that Jiang Jiemin, head of the State Assets Supervision and Administration Commission (SASAC) and previous chairman of the China National Petroleum Company (CNPC), is on the chopping block. This is a very high official and a very close ally of Zhou’s. Before him several other officials from CNPC – China’s biggest oil producer – were placed under investigation.

I remain skeptical that Zhou himself will be taken down. The government is just beginning to breathe a sigh of relief now that the whole Bo Xilai affair is over. Taking down Zhou would be unprecedented and would risk stirring up the pot again. However, it would make sense in a lot of ways.

Xi Jinping has claimed he intends to go after both the “flies” and the “tigers” in his corruption crackdown. Contrary to what state media would have you believe with cases like Liu Zhijun and Bo Xilai, I would argue that a tiger has yet to fall. Bo Xilai was close, but he was a mere member of the 25-person Politburo. Its members have proven expendable for the past 15 years.

Taking down a former PBSC member though would be a strong signal that indeed nobody is above the law (that signal wouldn’t reflect reality, but that’s irrelevant). Xi and his campaign would be given serious legitimacy.

But more important, I think, is that taking down Zhou could actually have some practical effects. U.S. Embassy cables released by Wikileaks in 2010 appeared to confirm what many had long suspected: that some of China’s highest level leaders have extreme vested interests in certain monopoly industries. Li Peng’s family reportedly controls electricity, Wen Jiabao’s family the precious stones trade and Zhou Yongkang China’s oil monopoly (he used to head CNPC).

Xi Jinping has made it pretty clear that he has little intention of launching serious political reforms. In lieu of that, he appears to be pushing some fairly serious economic reforms. But even that’s fraught with landmines.

Serious economic reform requires breaking up, or at least dramatically overhauling these state-owned monopoly juggernauts that are controlled by some very powerful vested interests.  Going after any of these industries is politically risky, but now that Xi has more-or-less consolidated his power, Zhou and his oil cronies offer a good first target.

In March, after People’s Daily ran an attack piece on Apple called “Smash Apple’s Incomparable Arrogance” Caijing asked Chinese consumers in an online survey which arrogant company they’d like to smash. China’s big three oil companies were all voted among the top.

The big oil companies have been very slow to invest in cleaner technologies because they haven’t really had to. In practice, they’ve had more power than the Environmental Ministry that’s theoretically supposed to regulate them. This no doubt comes in part from the industry’s powerful patrons.

Many see the oil companies as largely responsible for the horrible air pollution in cities like Beijing. Indeed, more of Beijing’s local PM2.5 pollutants come from vehicle emissions than any other source. Then on the other side, you have people who despise the inefficient and highly-corrupt oil monopolies for making gas prices higher than they need to be.

Going after one of China’s top oil companies and its patrons sends a message that business as usual for vested interests won’t be tolerated like it has been in the past; and that if reform comes a knockin’, these vested interests better not stand in the way. That message might already be working. As all these CNPC executives started being placed under investigation, Sinopec, one of China’s other big three oil companies, announced it would be upgrading its fuel standards three months ahead of schedule.

Then there’s Zhou Yongkang himself. South China Morning Post said taking down Zhou “could send even bigger political shockwaves through Beijing than the trial of Bo Xilai,” but I don’t think so. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more hated leader than Zhou – the man who was at the heart of China’s violent and frequently law-breaking “stability maintenance” apparatus. Bo Xilai was a high-profile populist leader who had a lot of detractors, but also a lot of fans. Zhou Yongkang on the other hand quietly and ruthlessly ran China’s security apparatus with an iron fist. If someone in China knows enough about Zhou to have an opinion about him, that opinion is almost certainly negative.

Zhou probably doesn’t have many supporters within the government either. Allegedly, because he supported Bo Xilai and had overseen the security apparatus so recklessly (and incompetently. See Chen Guangcheng), Zhou was forced to informally give up most of his powers months before he formally retired. If this is true, it’s unlikely he has many high-level friends left that would stick their neck out to protect him. The writing has been on the wall for some time now that Zhou could be a political pariah. It’s doubtful that Xi would face too much resistance in taking him down.

Again though, as many good reasons as there are for targeting Zhou, I’m still pretty skeptical that it will actually happen. The Communist Party is very risk-averse and Xi could still accomplish a lot just by dismembering Zhou through his allies rather than beheading the man himself.

If it does happen though, don’t get your hopes up for any other high leaders to follow. Nobody else at the top is nearly as vulnerable as Zhou. And if Xi starts picking off multiple officials who were thought to be above reproach, it’ll spook a lot of powerful people. Xi could then become the one with a target on his head, and not necessarily a figurative one.

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.

I assume that most readers of this blog also follow ChinaGeeks and its founder Charlie Custer, but in case there are any of you who don’t, you need to watch the documentary he just released online about the tens of thousands of children that get kidnapped and trafficked in China each year:

[Link if the embed doesn’t work]

The film follows three families, each of which lost their children to very different kinds of traffickers. Many might be familiar with the situation of the first family depicted, whose male toddler was stolen and presumably sold to a new family. But the second and third families in the film, who lost an adolescent girl and boy respectively, will send a chill down your spine. In all likelihood, the girl was sold into a life of forced begging or prostitution and the boy into slave labor. At best the authorities in these stories are lazy and incompetent. At worst they actively protect and profit from the trafficking rings.

The film’s title “Living with Dead Hearts” – which was coined by the mother of the adolescent girl – perfectly captures what the families go through. Having no idea what became of their children, and lacking even the closure that learning of their death might provide, the families have no choice but to spend every waking moment and every penny they have on the search for their child – a search that will almost certainly yield nothing but financial and emotional ruin.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of people in China will never be able to see this film, which is part of what makes this tragedy so pervasive. But this is also why it’s so important for the rest of the world to see it. It isn’t easy to watch and there’s no happy ending. The dark reality of the issue doesn’t warrant a happy ending. But I hope everyone will force themselves to watch and share it with others.

Balance vs. “Balance”

Posted: June 15, 2013 in Politics
Tags: ,

After a few months of slumber, venture capitalist Eric X. Li has predictably popped his head up once again to deliver his one-hit wonder on the superiority of the Chinese political model and the inevitable demise of Western-style democracy. This time it was at a TED Talk.

Li’s premise, which has previously been printed by the likes of New York Times, Huffington Post, Christian Science Monitor, Financial Times and Foreign Affairs, is that China’s system is meritocratic, efficient and totally legitimate since surveys show most Chinese are optimistic about the future. Meanwhile, extensive individual rights will be America’s undoing. The Chinese model is destined for prosperity and Western democracy is destined for failure.

I’m not going to bother listing the numerous holes in Li’s arguments. That’s already been done here, here, here and here. I want to talk about why pundits like him (and people on the opposite extreme) get so much media attention – attention that some people mistake as proof of credibility.

Respected media outlets (like those listed above) laudably try to be balanced. Unfortunately, this balance can sometimes come in lazy or sensational forms. If an outlet has published a series of pieces by China bears, printing a piece by someone like Eric Li brings instant “balance.” Print his work and nobody can accuse you of being pro-American propaganda or having an anti-China slant.

Balance could come in nuanced form from several balanced individuals of varying shades of gray, but that’s not nearly as titillating as getting “balance” from pitting black against white. Readers don’t respond to nuance in the same way they respond to conflict.

This is where the Gordon Chang-grade doomsayers come in. Chang has arguments equally questionable to Li’s coming from the other side; ie – The CCP has little if any redeeming qualities and it will DEFINITELY collapse  by 2011, the end of 2012, sometime in 2013. Chang has a media presence just as large as Li’s and for the same reasons.  Their extreme opposing views create “balance” while drawing far more attention than more modest and nuanced commentators can. Getting a re-tweet out of mockery or disbelief counts just as much to advertisers as a re-tweet out of respect.

But there’s an even more fundamental reason these types of commentators thrive. Eric Li isn’t sought after because of his qualifications (he has none) or the depth of his reasoning. He’s sought after for the simplicity of his argument and the concrete conclusion it leads to.

Ask any respected China scholar or journalist whether they think the Communist Party will collapse; or ask whether they think China will rule the world in 30 years or implode from internal issues. They should all give pretty much the same answer: who knows?

The more you learn about China the more you realize what you don’t know and can’t possibly know. Most people probably have an opinion, but making any kind of firm prediction on these things is a fool’s game and extremely arrogant. Just trying to paint an accurate picture of the overall situation at any given moment is pretty much impossible, let alone painting a picture of the future.

But taking a modest and cautious stance doesn’t cut it for most people.

The average person reading a New York Times op-ed or attending a TED Talk is probably highly-educated. They probably know that China is becoming very important and want to know something about it, but they probably don’t have the time or care enough to immerse themselves in the finer points of China’s banking environment or its stability maintenance apparatus. That’s no shame on them. Nobody has time to become an expert in everything.

But this is why pundits like Eric Li and Gordon Chang get so much attention. They offer simplicity and certainty on a very complex issue with arguments that sound just intelligent enough to seem plausible.  On an issue where people aren’t experts, their brains gravitate toward simplicity and clear-cut answers, not toward complex nuance and humility.

And this is why they’re also dangerous. I’ve met my fair share of businessmen in China short-term who’ve echoed both men’s arguments. Either, “Chinese leaders are a menace to the world and they will be overthrown any day now.” Or, “The Chinese will be our masters in the very near future, so we’d better jump on the authoritarian capitalism bandwagon NOW.”

I don’t dismiss many of the over-arching points these people make. American-style democracy definitely has a host of problems that could lead to its undoing if they go unreformed. And the CCP certainly has many dangers that will be ignored at its (and the world’s) peril. But these particular pundits aren’t capable of making these arguments in a sound way. And their work certainly isn’t commensurate with the attention it’s been given. They don’t acknowledge what they don’t know and they brush over enormous complexities that would make their crystal clear pictures quite a bit murkier.

Perhaps these people offset each other and bring a form of “balance,” but I think somebody who just reads Eric Li and Gordon Chang is worse off than if they hadn’t read anything at all.

I don’t fault newspapers for printing them. They certainly do spark discussions, which is what op-eds are supposed to do. But at this point, they’ve both been printed so much that they’ve spiraled past that critical mass and become qualified as experts BECAUSE they’ve been printed so much. So don’t confuse that attention for value – especially the kind of value one would assume is a prerequisite for a TED Talk.

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.

Unquestionable Truths

Posted: April 4, 2013 in Politics

Last week a Tibetan in Gansu self-immolated, bringing the total number of those who’ve done the same since 2009 as a protest of the Chinese government to 114.

As the toll consistently climbs higher, the government just as consistently increases its security presence, locks down certain areas and institutes a raft of Orwellian regulations. The thinking seems to go that more repression will somehow end protests against repression.

It’s natural to stand back from afar and think how ridiculous and self-defeating the government is being. But this is thinking very big, when it’s perhaps more useful to think small.

About a year-and-a-half ago I was speaking with an acquaintance that has a mid-level position in the Communist Party propaganda apparatus (not high, but he has been on speaking terms with Politburo members). At that time there had been a string of Tibetan self-immolations. Naturally, the Party blamed the Dalai Lama, and by extension, his Western anti-China backers. In this routine narrative, the Tibetan people are uniformly happy unless misled by these forces who want nothing but to see China collapse.

I asked my acquaintance if anyone in the Party leadership actually believes this narrative – that there’s really this vast underground conspiracy that’s single-handedly causing all the Tibetan unrest.

He replied, “They believe it because it’s 100% true.”

At the time his response shocked me, but it was incredibly enlightening. This man is very intelligent. I have no qualms about saying he’s much more intelligent than myself. He’s often spoken about the need for transparency and reforms in the Party and harshly criticized nationalists. But on this issue, from the bottom of his heart he bought the Party line.

This, I believe, is because joining the Party in a context where you’ll actually wield power within the government or any of the bodies under its direct control is much like joining a religion. When joining, the key is to be incredibly humble and praise the Party to almost a farcical level (See this music video on joining the Party, which, according to some Party member friends of mine, isn’t much of an exaggeration on what you have to say when applying).

Once you’re a member though, there are many things up for debate; like how much democracy there should be, or how much media freedom. But like religion, there are certain areas where suspending your disbelief is crucial; not only to be accepted within the group, but also to justify membership to yourself. Questioning these fundamental “truths” amounts to blasphemy.

Here are some of these truths for the Communist Party:

  • Taiwan, Tibet and every other disputed territory must be an inalienable part of China. Anyone who believes differently simply can’t understand the indisputable evidence in China’s favor, or they have ulterior motives.
  • While it may not be absolutely perfect, the Communist Party is the only group capable of leading China’s social development and defending its national honor. Any system that doesn’t involve its overriding authority would lead to chaos and humiliation.
  • Minority regions like Xinjiang and Tibet have truly benefited from and been civilized by the Party. Therefore, any opposition to the Party within these regions is the result of a conspiracy of agitators with ulterior motives (usually backed by “hostile outside forces”).

It’s much like people in the West who, in spite of extensive education and otherwise impeccable reasoning capability, can believe dinosaurs and humans co-existed at the dawn of time 6,000 years ago. Believing otherwise would knock down the core pillars of the doctrine they’ve based their lives on. Being part of this group, by definition, requires them to suspend their disbelief on many issues.

There are of course people within the Communist Party’s ranks that have their doubts about the “unquestionable truths,” but they keep those doubts securely locked away in the back of their minds. Letting these doubts venture outside would subject them to severe censure from their peers, or worse.

But unwaveringly believing these things isn’t just a matter of self-preservation within the Party. More importantly, it’s a matter of being able to sleep at night.

Like the heavenly rewards and social circles that religion offers, being a Party member with authority provides many famous benefits. Even those who aren’t corrupt can count on a very comfortable life. But being able to enjoy those benefits (or the promise of them) requires belief in the fundamental truths.

Very few people within the Party will think, “Well, what I’m doing with my authority is evil and wrong, but by going along with the crowd, I’ll get a boatload of money and women!”

No. More likely it’s, “What I’m doing with my authority is absolutely correct and righteous. And because of that, I’m entitled to this boatload of money and women.”

Few people are fundamentally evil and totally embrace the fact that they’re evil. It’s all a matter of rationalizing. Believing in those three fundamental truths is critical for powerful Party members in being able to rationalize their place in life.

So imagine a group of leaders sitting around a table deciding what to do about the Tibet self-immolation issue. The instinct is to double down on security and “stability maintenance.” If anyone disagrees, they’ll find themselves very isolated. But more likely, nobody will disagree. Admitting that the repression is wrong and that it’s government policy leading to the immolations rather than hostile outside forces could be a slippery slope toward all three of those fundamental truths crumbling.  And that would make it a lot harder for the people around that table to rationalize the power and very comfortable lives they’re leading.

Upton Sinclair said it best. “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his job depends on not understanding it.”

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.

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.

At the 18th Party Congress over the past week a mysterious Australian journalist has been called on at official press conferences more than any other foreign reporter.

In each of these golden opportunities, she’s lobbed disappointing softballs like, “Please tell us what policies and plans the Chinese government will be implementing in cooperation with Australia.”

ABC caught up with the reporter, Andrea Yu, and found out that she’s not quite a foreign reporter, but works for the majority Chinese-owned AMG, which “has close links to Chinese government-controlled media organizations and supplies Beijing-friendly radio programs to community stations in Australia.”

So it seems she’s little more than a CCP shill at the congress.

I think this raises some interesting issues about foreigners working for state-sponsored Chinese media. Here were a couple reactions that caught my eye on Twitter:


With a notoriously competitive media landscape in the West, getting a foot in the door through Chinese state media is a route many aspiring journalists take. I’ve been there. Indeed, several fantastic China correspondents have been there.

But when you work for state media, at what point do you cross a line where your journalistic integrity is compromised.

Some people would say it’s the moment you do any kind of work for them. This was certainly the theme of much of the hate mail I got when writing for Global Times (where I was once accused of “prostituting myself to a propaganda rag”). The thinking here goes that foreigners lend legitimacy to these biased and often misleading organizations. Any reporting that they do, whether it’s flattering or critical of China, is strategically used in order to meet broader propaganda objectives.

I completely disagree with this assessment. Despite what a lot of people seem to think, official outlets like China Daily, Global Times, CRI and even CCTV push the envelope quite often and are full of great journalists. Having foreigners in these organizations makes that envelope get pushed even further and improves the entire industry. And if a foreigner, from the bottom of their heart, believes they’re being completely honest in their reporting – whether it’s flattering or criticizing the party line – then I can’t see a problem with that.

It’s true that if you print something supporting the party line in Global Times, it’ll inevitably be held to a completely different standard than if it were in New York Times, but that’s the breaks. I don’t think journalistic integrity has been damaged in the least.

But Andrea Yu seems to have gone beyond that as a complacent party shill. Her role was to give the appearance that officials were bold enough to take a foreign reporter’s questions, when in fact, they knew they’d be getting a chance to flatter themselves. In this sense, Yu caused people to be misled – especially the Chinese who will never learn about her connection to the government. This is the opposite of what journalism is supposed to be.

Yu seems to be aware of her role. She told Wall Street Journal, “[Officials] know my questions are safe … I’m representing a Chinese-Australian company, so I need to ask questions they want me to ask. Believe me, I would have other questions to ask if I could.”

So she’s laid down her sense of journalistic duty and restrained herself from asking what she and her viewers would actually like answered. She’s too eagerly fallen into her role as a stooge, and thus, compromised her credibility.

But it’s easy to sit and condemn from afar. Being in her shoes is undoubtedly a much stickier situation than it seems. Here’s an excerpt from her interview with ABC:

STEPHEN MCDONNELL: But what do you think about it though? Do you feel that you’re being used in that way?

ANDREA YU: Well, it’s been a bit difficult because there are layers. When I first entered my company, there’s only a certain amount of understanding I have about its connections to the government. I didn’t know it had any, for example. So I find out more and more as time goes on. It’s quite difficult as a foreigner, when you first, at least for me in the last month, to know exactly because you get told things not all at the beginning, so that side of it is challenging.

This comes off as kind of air-headed and oblivious, but I understand the point she’s making. Some of my experiences and those of several acquaintances at Chinese companies (not just media) were just like this. It’s not as if you’re told up front what your real job and unethical responsibilities will be. It comes in ways that aren’t immediately obvious and in steps so small that it’s easy to descend into something you’d never intended. What seem like opportunities (ie – covering the biggest political event in China) are in fact situations where you’re being exploited. By the time you look around and realize what you’re doing, you’re in too deep and it’s hard to climb back out without seriously disrupting your life.

Yu could put her foot down with her bosses and go with her journalistic instincts (like the intrepid reporters over at Chinese Teenagers News), or better yet, take her services to another outlet. But that’s much easier said than done. Imagine doing that with your own job. And then imagine it’s in an ultra-competitive industry where you’re not sure you’ll get another break.

As Tom Hancock pointed out, Yu is in the state media coal mines. I doubt she ever made a conscious decision to head down the especially dark tunnel she ended up in. Unfortunately, she did end up there and compromised her credibility. But I think more than anything else she’s a victim of a cold system that’s all too happy to push people around like pawns in order to mislead the country and the world.

What do you think? At what point does a state media job become a liability for budding foreign journalists rather than an asset?

Over last few weeks the Apple supplier Foxconn has been in the news yet again for the usual reasons: fights, strikes, riots, underage workers, etc. Every few months the same sweatshop narrative comes up about Foxconn (because apparently it’s the only manufacturer in China), and every time unverified and wildly exaggerated media reports hastily come out (and that doesn’t even include super-fraud Mike Daisy).

I’m always disappointed when this happens; not only because of the eagerness to jump on a largely bogus narrative, but also because it overshadows what I think are the much more interesting nuances of factory life in China. Yes, the hours are long, life is hard and conditions aren’t enviable, but there are deeper issues than that.

Last week I recorded a podcast (listen here) with Liu Zhiyi, a former intern from Southern Weekend, who got a job at Foxconn’s Longhua factory for 28 days in 2010 in order to do undercover reports.

One of the big misconceptions resulting from the sweatshop narrative is that workers are routinely forced to work ungodly hours. In fact, the workers themselves usually demand as much overtime as they can get. While at Foxconn, Liu described this saying, “For the workers desperate for making money, overtime is like ‘a pain that can breathe.’ Without it, the days without money make them ‘suffocate.’”

They’ve travelled so far from their hometowns to work that any idle time not spent making money is seen as a waste.

The conditions are another misconception. At Foxconn, they’re pretty good – especially compared to other factories. (James Fallows recently posted some photos from the same factory Liu worked at – here, here, here and here).

Liu said about the factory, “I have entered a system, and the system can provide everything that I need for my body. We have gymnastics, swimming pool, exercise room… The only thing they don’t provide is time.”

Because of the long hours (which remember, the workers desperately want and will seek elsewhere if they don’t get), it’s easy to lose touch with some simple human needs. Liu explained how roommates are always turning over or working different shifts, so it’s hard to make friends (or even learn people’s names). And because different departments are usually skewed one way or the other toward a single gender, it’s even harder to find a lover. He said the resulting emotional imbalance and conflicts over girls are often what spark fights in the factory.

The thing that surprised Liu most though, and what he sees as the biggest problem, is how workers seem completely puzzled about their futures. Earlier he wrote: “They often dream, but also repeatedly tear apart their dreams, like a miserable painter who keeps tearing up his drafts. ‘If we keep working like this, we might as well quit dreaming for the rest of our lives.’”

He says they’re almost all focused foremost on making a lot of money, but they don’t know how much is enough or what the next step is after making the money. They hope to move up in the world through their hard work, but they often don’t know where the path is, or if there even is a path. This, he says, could be a major problem in the future if society and the government can’t address it.

Anyways, Liu was very insightful about his time in the factory. I hope you’ll listen to the full podcast.

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.”

After reading about the chaos at tourist destinations and the impossibility of getting train tickets during the recent National Day holiday, I straddled my traveling bicycle even more smugly than usual as I rode around the Shandong countryside.  I try to take these bike trips any time there’s a holiday. It’s partly to avoid crowds, but more because it gives the reality check that anyone who does commentary on China should have periodically.

Two things were especially reinforced on this trip. The first was the second-class feeling that farmers have, and seem to mostly accept.

It’s a bit cliché now to talk about “the diversity of China” but when you spend even a little bit of time in the countryside – which still comprises about half the country’s population – you get a feel for how there really are (at least) two Chinas. This isn’t simply a natural cultural occurrence. It’s cemented into law.

Every Chinese citizen must have a Hukou (household registration) that ties them to their place of birth. It affects opportunities in everything from education and healthcare to employment and it’s divided into two distinct categories: urban and rural. Obviously, those with urban Hukou are at a much greater advantage.

Traveling around these villages, it was apparent that there’s often an inferiority complex among rural farmers when meeting urban dwellers. At one point my (Chinese) girlfriend and I stopped to rest alongside a group of farmers harvesting corn. We heard someone say, “Ah, look at their skin. They must be urban citizens.” (They then debated as to whether I was urban Chinese or foreign. They eventually came to the correct consensus).

In conversations, the farmers were very deferential to both of us, sometimes almost in awe. One young woman told my girlfriend how smart she must be. She lamented that she didn’t know anything.  In several instances, even when I wasn’t with my girlfriend, she’d ask people where the cheapest hotel was. They’d tell her things like, “The hotels here are really too poor for you. You should go to [the nearest city].”

The obvious gap in urban-rural incomes is of course a big part of this. But the mere existence of separate rural and urban hukou wreaks of the “separate but equal” American segregation policies of the early 20th century. The 1954 Supreme Court decision abolishing it correctly stated that “separate but equal” is inherently unequal. When one group is obviously disadvantaged compared to the other, separating them through law resigns them to a self-fulfilling expectation of social inferiority.

The second thing I felt on the trip is how separated these rural farmers tend to be from the items that typically dominate the news cycle about China. I met several who had either faint ideas or no idea about things like Bo Xilai and the Diaoyu Island dispute.

This was the height of corn harvesting season, so farmers were especially busy, but I got the sense that the average rural farmer’s daily schedule goes something like this:

Sunrise-noon: Farm work
Noon-2:00: Afternoon Siesta
2:00-Sunset: Farm work
6:00: Dinner
7:00: Watch provincial dance/singing/dating program
8:00: Bed

You’ll notice nowhere on that schedule is anything like “debate one another on the merits of Communist Party rule” or “scour Weibo for juicy tales of official corruption.” Most have simple lives that focus on extracting the most they can from their two-acres of land. Political developments outside those two-acres are non-issues.

Most young people in their 20s and 30s go out to do migrant work and undoubtedly have more complex lives than that. What I found interesting about this trip was that there were a lot more of these people helping with farm work than I’d seen in the past. I’m not sure how much that has to do with it being the holiday and peak harvest season and how much is a result of the economic slowdown.

We made a point of talking to several of these young people, but none expressed too much concern. Even if the economy stagnates and jobs are hard to find, eventually something will come along. They can help out their older parents with the farm work until then. At least that’s what they seem to believe.

These are just some simple observations from one rural corner of Shandong. I don’t mean to generalize them completely to all of rural China, but they come from the type of area foreigners don’t tend to go to. When pondering China’s social/political/economic future, it’s important to remember that nearly half of China lives in areas very similar to this.

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.

Check out the EO Podcast

Posted: September 18, 2012 in Business
Tags: ,

Over the past several weeks updates to this blog have been regrettably sparse. I’ve been laying the groundwork for two long-term projects (both China related) and have unfortunately only had time to juggle so much. But I can now happily announce one of those projects.

From now on I’ll be hosting a regular podcast at Economic Observer where I chat with people doing interesting work in China.

It will be a bit different than the content on this blog. In keeping with EO’s general content, most guests will be business-related; from execs at multinational corporations down to mom and pop startups (whom I find equally interesting).  But I’ll certainly have occasional politically and socially-oriented guests. For instance, I’ve already recorded an episode with Daniel Bell, where I ask what was up with those recent op-eds in NYT and CSM.

The premise will usually be to explore how these people ended up in China and how they’ve tried to navigate China’s consistently inconsistent market. But it’s also meant to look at the wider industries/fields that the guests are part of; altogether lasting about 15-20 minutes.

In the first episode I speak with an internet security consultant turned Beijing’s first microbrewer. We talk about the countless roadblocks involved with setting up shop, whether the dream is dead for young people trying to do business in China’s increasingly foreigner-unfriendly market, and finally discuss China’s wider alcohol industry. That episode and all future ones can be downloaded here.

Some of the other tentative guests I’ve lined up are a green urban planner, a film director who’s done a US-China co-production, the man who oversaw the NBA’s expansion in China from 2003-2008 and is now trying to bring Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) to the country, and a guy who started a magazine, a guitar shop and plays in a Beijing Beatles cover band on the side.

As you might imagine, I’m not an expert in any of these fields. I don’t intend to make podcasts that are figure-heavy or full of content that would only interest businessmen. I’ll try to make them smart, but accessible and story-oriented.

As I mentioned, I’m also in the early stages of another big China project, but I’m a LONG ways away from announcing that one. As far as this blog goes, I’d love to pretend like the frequency of updates won’t be affected, but it already has been. This is a one man operation, so I hope you’ll understand if there’s a slightly less steady stream of updates for a while.

Anyways, thanks for reading (and hopefully listening). Now back to your regular sociopolitical speculation…

I’ve hastily thrown together the below video from the protests at the Japanese Embassy in Beijing today. Pictures and account are in my last post. In the video you see when it got a bit violent after some people started throwing rocks, and when I briefly talked with one of the rock throwers. Also has a bit where the crowd unexpectedly starts chanting “Fuck the USA.” Several of the other signs and chants are subtitled.

Today saw huge demonstrations in front of Japan’s Embassy in Beijing to protest Japanese claims over the Diaoyu Islands. Two years ago when tensions last flared over this issue, I checked out the Japanese embassy in Beijing, where there were no more than about 50 people. This time, turnout was exponentially bigger and more serious.

I got to the embassy at about 1:00 this afternoon. The roads around it were all closed off to traffic with a few hundred riot police, regular police, public security volunteers and lord knows how many plain clothes officers. I estimate there were at least 2,000 people while I was there, although it’s unclear how many actively came to protest and how many were just curious onlookers.

In the middle of the street there was a partition with police directing people to parade around it in long circles. People had huge Chinese flags and banners saying things like “Fuck little Japan.” What I was most surprised by were the number of Chairman Mao posters floating around. I asked a few people about this and the consensus was “Mao would never let Japan get away with this.”

As the crowds paraded around, they sang patriotic songs, chanted “Little Japan, fuck your mother,” “Chairman Mao 10,000 years,” “China 10,000 years” and most significantly “Communist Party 10,000 years.” (“10,000 years” basically means “Long live…”)

This mass outpouring obviously had official sanction. The police’s presence was to direct the protests rather than try to hamper them in any way.

Later things started to get a bit more intense. While the crowds circled around they were allowed to stop briefly in front of the Japanese embassy itself. It was guarded by hundreds of riot police with helmets and shields. At first protestors threw water bottles and eggs at the embassy, which police made no attempt to stop. But gradually rocks and (I assume Japanese) cell phones started to be thrown. Many of them hit the Chinese police, who were covering themselves with shields.

One man brought a bucket full of rocks, which police came and confiscated somewhat violently. After a man chucked a rock, an officer wrestled him away and said, “Enough, they’re Chinese.” He then let him go. I caught up with the man and asked him what had happened. He said, “I just wanted to fuck Japan.”

Finally I went to interview a man on the side of the road holding a sign. As I was speaking with him a police officer grabbed my shoulder and turned me around. “What are you doing,” he asked forcefully in English.

I said I was just talking with people and taking pictures. He pulled me toward a small police post on the side of the road and demanded my passport. He looked at the visa page, handed it back and then seemed to get distracted with something else. I slowly but steadily walked away.

It was very strange. It seemed like coverage was being encouraged. I didn’t notice any of the other foreigners who were taking video/pictures being hassled. I’m not sure why I was singled out.

That was about the time I headed home.  If you didn’t understand what the people were chanting, the whole atmosphere of the protests seemed very festive. People chanted things, others laughed. Families with little kids were out, young people, old people. It kind of felt like a 4th of July parade…until things began to be thrown at the embassy.

This whole uproar is a godsend for the Communist Party. I never imagined I’d see people marching down the street with pictures of Mao Zedong chanting “Long live Mao, Long live the Communist Party.” It was a bit surreal. (Though several people were chastising the government for sitting by too idly)

It’s interesting to speculate on how much of this was deliberately egged on by the CCP. The whole thing erupted when the Japanese government bought some of the islands from a private owner. The move was intended to put the islands under national control so Japanese activists could be prevented from planting flags on the island and stirring up tensions. But it seems that was a huge miscalculation by Japan on the eve of China’s 18th Party Congress.

The Chinese media could have lauded the move as an attempt to ease tensions and work toward a peaceful solution, but it went hard in the opposite direction, portraying it as an illegitimate slap in China’s face. It’s no wonder so many are riled up.

It is important to note that when you see Mao posters being paraded, it’s probably a pretty poor representation of Chinese people. And it’s hard to say how many people present at the protest were active nationalists, how many came because they thought it’d be cool or interesting, and how many just happened to walk by and stuck around.

But there was a lot of intensity. Whenever someone started a chant, most joined in. This is clearly the most serious clash between China and Japan in a long time, and it could be far from over. A few days from now will be September 18th, the anniversary of Japan’s invasion of Manchuria. Unless there’s a police clampdown, the protests are likely to continue through at least that day.

With Xi Jinping back and all this intense anger directed toward Japan, I predict China’s leadership transfer can now go off without a hitch.

[Update: Below is a video I threw together of the protests with subtitles. See the rock chucker and hear a “Fuck the USA” chant]

 Pictures

“Angry eggs, free to take (everyone take 2)”

Notice the egg stains on the embassy

[If you want to use any of these pictures for anything, please either leave the watermark on or contact me to send you the original]

Behind the Great Oz’s Curtain

Posted: September 11, 2012 in Politics
Tags: ,

Over the past few days we’ve been given a few key illustrations as to how much the Communist Party intends to reform – and seen approximately what decade they think they’re living in.

China’s president-in-waiting Xi Jinping has been MIA since September 1st. In typical Communist Party fashion, the government is pretending like nothing is amiss.  Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said, “We have told everybody everything” – which of course means they’ve told nobody anything.

The Chinese government also recently asked that a Taiwan/Tibet Independence symbol be taken down…in Oregon. The Chinese consulate in San Francisco asked the Corvallis local government to force a Taiwanese-American to take down the mural he’d painted. It would have otherwise been shrugged off by the handful of people that happened to drive past it. Instead, the Chinese government has made yet another cringe-worthy soft power fail.

Both cases show the CCP’s go-to response for unpalatable events: Suppression. It’s hardly changed throughout its 63 year tenure.

It’s wholly delusional about the time it lives in now though – a time where a hefty hunk of the world’s population holds in their pockets the ability to take photos and video and then spread them and whatever other information they wish for the world to see. After a steady stream of unsuccessful attempts at covering up damaging events over the past few years, the CCP still hasn’t learned that sometimes transparency is in its own interest.

Take Xi Jinping’s mysterious absence. 10 years ago if anyone in the public happened to notice, they’d hardly have the capability to inform others. Suppression made sense. But today we all know something is up. And by trying to keep the lid on it completely, the government is egging on absurd rumors that are much worse than whatever it is they’re trying to hide. (Could whatever actually happened really be any worse than rumors of a double assassination attempt by Bo Xilai loyalists?)

In trying to hide things that are already partially or completely public knowledge, the party is highlighting its own insecurity and weakness, which is never good for authoritarian rulers.

10 years ago if I tried to spread pictures of a forced abortion or take part in a village uprising over illegal land grabs, I’d be disappeared and my family scared into silence. 99 times out of 100 nobody would ever be the wiser. The officials responsible and the greater system that enabled their actions would be left unscathed.

But in today’s world, the government – after trying vainly to cover them up – had to capitulate completely in cases like those of Feng Jianmei and Wukan. If I’m an activist in today’s China, I’m a lot less frightened to speak out against government injustices than I would have been even three years ago. If I protest and am hauled off, I know there’s a good chance somebody will catch it on video or can alert the weibosphere, ensuring my safety. The government’s attempts to hide these things used to be terrifying. Now they’re just pathetic.

For nearly the entirety of the CCP’s rule, it’s projected the image of an all-powerful monolith that’s not to be fucked with. Refusing to acknowledge that top leaders are encumbered by personal lives or bodily functions like the rest of us is part of this image. This probably explains the instinctive suppression of what could be no more than a back injury.

But today’s China is showing (much to the chagrin of the CCP) many of the features of a transparent democratic society where leaders must bend to the public will – even if it’s not in their own interest. They could jump on the inevitable wave of democratization, but officials who’ve enjoyed an elevated status in society for decades are loathe to do so. So we still see this instant inclination toward suppression.

I’m reminded of the scene in Wizard of Oz where Dorothy and her pals are confronted by the enormous “great and powerful Oz.” But they eventually discover that it’s just a weak man pulling levers as he pathetically implores the gang to “pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.”

When you peak behind the CCP curtain, it’s full of scared and vulnerable people, wondering what badly-needed moves toward transparency will mean for them and the way they’ve lived their lives.

 

Since Reform & Opening up (and to an even greater extent after the Tiananmen uprising) the Communist Party has used China’s torrid economic growth to justify its absolute unchecked power. By pointing to slower growth in emerging economies like India and the recessions of developed democracies, the CCP can proudly tout the superiority of its system.

But things are changing. Just about every economic indicator for China is headed downward. Mass factory layoffs/closures, sharply declining steel production, a pile up of unsold cars…you name it. Serious questions are being raised over the “superiority” of China’s command and control economy, which pushed down interest rates, forced excessive loans (MANY of which are starting to go bad) and created what could be the biggest real estate bubble in history.

Over the next few months we should start to see an answer to the “hard vs. soft landing” question. Since talk of a possible hard landing began, I’ve often wondered how China’s propaganda apparatus would respond if and when China’s economy takes a sharp turn south.  The party can’t exactly just say, “Oops. I guess our system is deeply flawed and not as superior as we led you to believe.” Its legitimacy lies almost completely in the idea that efficient economic growth is a result of its authoritarian model.

A few weeks ago People’s Daily gave a little clue as to how the party might be planning to address this issue. Unsurprisingly, it looks like it will go with the standard approach of “It’s not that bad; and anyways, it’s the West’s fault.”  The piece said:

The Chinese economy is slowing down due to both international and domestic factors.

Internationally speaking, the weak growth in developed countries caused by the global financial crisis has had a marked negative impact on the Chinese economy. China’s trade surplus rebounded greatly in the second quarter, but not due to the acceleration of export growth or slowing down of imports. In fact, the growth of China’s exports to the United States, Japan, and Europe has slowed down markedly, becoming a major constraint on economic development in the eastern regions.

Domestically speaking, China’s economic slowdown is a legacy of the global financial crisis. In order to resist the crisis, China introduced a large-scale economic stimulus package, which created objective conditions for subsequent inflation and soaring housing prices. The country then adopted a series of macro control measures to curb the inflation and cool the overheated property market, when the contribution of consumption to its GDP growth failed to increase markedly. This countercyclical action has inevitably caused a slowdown in domestic demand.

So whether it’s domestic or international problems, no fault lies with China itself. The rest of the piece downplayed the idea that China’s economy is in serious trouble anyways, with a touch of “look on the bright side” (inflation is falling). It seems a likely double-pronged approach: Pretend that a hard landing isn’t happening and blame foreign countries for the minor economic hiccup that has to be acknowledged.

Many of the points the piece raises are valid. If it wasn’t for the US-created 2008 financial crisis, China wouldn’t have injected its $586 billion stimulus (which has largely gone into fruitless projects) or required banks to give out a ludicrous $2.7 trillion in loans (ditto). So in that sense, a fair amount of blame does belong to the US for setting the stage for China’s potential hard landing. Europe certainly hasn’t done anything to help matters either.

But the mismanagement of the economy by the Chinese government is where the lion’s share of the blame rests for China’s economic woes. When faced with an economic crisis and potential unrest, the government opted (as always) to secure short-term stability at the cost of long-term sustainability by throwing cheap money at the problem and trying to guide the invisible hand of the market too forcefully.  “The debt-ridden western countries are to blame” argument can only stretch so far.

But accepting blame and owning up to deep systematic flaws with its economic model aren’t in the CCP playbook. So it’s likely we’ll see that argument stretched to its very limit.  The question is, will people buy it?

On this blog I often write about the systematic nature of corruption in China and how it’s become something that people now just take for granted. To be clear, the lion’s share of the responsibility lies with the system. But to be fair, there are certain aspects of Chinese culture that make corruption much easier. And they’re unlikely to disappear anytime soon, even with significant reform.

Let’s say for instance that Mr. Li runs a widget factory. One day he receives an invitation to the wedding of Mr. Guo’s daughter. “How nice,” you might think. Mr. Li hardly knows Mr. Guo and he’s never met the daughter. But Mr. Li isn’t too pleased. It so happens that Mr. Guo is one of the official regulators responsible for Mr. Li’s factory.

When he arrives at the wedding, Mr. Li brings a hongbao (red envelope) full of cash, as is the custom at Chinese weddings. Normally for a casual acquaintance Like Mr. Guo’s daughter, the amount could be as low as 100-200 yuan ($16-$31). If it were a close friend, several hundred. If it were immediate family, maybe one or two thousand.

But Mr. Li’s hongbao contains 10,000 yuan, maybe more. When he enters the wedding hall he hands it off to someone specially designated to collect them along with dozens of other guests doing the same. Later, after the ceremony, Mr. Guo comes to Mr. Li’s table, gives him a cheery drunken pat on the back and toasts him. Mr. Li’s factory continues to churn out widgets without problem – regardless of what regulations he might be breaking. Not a single word was explicitly spoken about the transaction that just occurred.

Nobody besides Mr. Li and the Guo family will ever know how much was in the hongbao. Even if they did, what could they do? It was a simply a “wedding gift” that Mr. Guo never even asked for.

Perhaps it wasn’t his daughter’s wedding. Maybe Mr. Guo had a party celebrating the hundredth day since his nephew was born, or a birthday party for his mother.  And perhaps it wasn’t so high level. Maybe Mr. Li just runs a small shop and instead of giving Mr. Guo a pile of cash, it was a 500 yuan pack of cigarettes (which Mr. Guo won’t actually smoke, but use later as a gift for his superiors).

Whatever the “special occasion” and whatever the amount involved, from the moment Mr. Guo made the announcement and Mr. Li received it, both sides knew what it was about.

When we think of corruption in China we tend to think of handing over huge briefcases of cash in tense, shady backroom deals. But this is what’s far more common and far harder to do anything about. As much as genuine systematic reform would accomplish in stamping out the major corruption cases, these low-level “understandings” are much more engrained in the culture and will take much longer to get rid of.

First they gave us anti-corruption lapel pins and statues. Then they gave us ethics classes. Now the CCP is throwing out another bone to pacify public impatience with corruption while craftily avoiding anything that might check its absolute power…or actually do anything to curb corruption.

In this case, China is starting a new five-year plan to tackle corruption, Bloomberg reports.

It isn’t immediately clear what this new plan will include, but it sounds awfully familiar to an earlier pronouncement (via Austin Ramsey) entitled “China to Rein in Corruption within 5 Years,” which said:

An official from China’s top discipline watchdog reiterated in Beijing that the country will effectively curb corruption cases within 5 years as effective legal and structural measures become more perfect.

China’s heavier clampdown on corrupt officials during the past several years, including the execution of deputy legislative speaker Cheng Kejie, is preventing officials from thinking of corruption.

That was from January 2001. In case you haven’t noticed, more than a handful of officials have thought about corruption since that five year deadline expired.

So why does corruption persist in spite of all these measures? In my affinity for dumbing things down to very crude analogies, this is China’s anti-corruption apparatus:

 

“We admit that the whole thing doesn’t quite fly and there are still problems to address,” the government says. “But we’re initiating some bold new reforms over the next five years to effectively curb these problems once and for all”:

Trying to stop corruption but refusing to allow for the rule of law through truly independent police, courts AND real public oversight through a free media is like trying to build a functional airplane but refusing to entertain the concept of lift.

Bloomberg quoted Zheng Yongnian, director of the East Asian Institute at the National University of Singapore saying, “In the past ten years, the more they fight corruption, the more plans and agencies they set up, the worse the corruption gets.”

By now this should be patently obvious. Anti-corruption initiatives usually consist of two things: parading harsh punishments of the few that are caught and touting greater oversight through some new anti-corruption authority. But the basic systematic framework is still in place, so these agencies just get in on the corruption themselves. The problem now involves more people and more money.

So this looks like the latest in a long long line of nearly identical initiatives meant to appease the public and quell calls for real reform.

He Guoqiang, head of the CCP’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection and #8 man on the Politburo said, “The work of constructing a system of punishing and preventing corruption has shown to be effective.”

The day that ranking officials up to and including himself can be criticized, investigated and indicted by the public is the day we can believe him.

When I used to teach in Nanjing, a regular discussion topic I’d give my students was to describe the happiest day of their lives. Without fail, I’d always have a few students in each class who said their happiest day was July 1st, 1997 – the day Hong Kong returned to China. For the past few days I’ve been in Hong Kong asking locals the same question to see if the feeling is mutual. It pretty clearly is not.

When asked what their happiest day was, those Hong Kongers I talked to said things like when the day they graduated college, the first time they went out drinking with friends, and a Dragon Boat Festival. Unsurprisingly, not a single person mentioned the territory’s handover to China. The more interesting part however was what they said next. I’d tell them I was asking because many young mainland people would say Hong Kong coming to China was their happiest day. When I said this, there was uniform laughter. Here’s a few of the responses:

Of course they say that. It’s like if you give someone a diamond necklace. It’s the happiest day for them maybe, but not really for you.

We remember that as the day dark clouds came over Hong Kong [Note: The day of the handover was literally very cloudy and rainy].

That’s ridiculous.

It doesn’t mean anything to us.

England, China – there’s not much difference. We’re still just Hong Kong.

Ha, more like the worst day of my life.

I just talked to about two dozen people at bars and my hotel and they were all under 35, so this is by no means a fair representation of greater public opinion. But I think it’s pretty telling that not a single person had positive things to say, even after I tried to nudge a few in that direction. Just more to suggest Beijing has a very long way to go in winning the hearts and minds of Hong Kong.

Over the past week I’ve been in the process of collecting meaningless documents, paying extortionate prices for official translations of meaningless documents, and capping it all off with a wholly arbitrary and costly trip to Hong Kong. As I’ve been going through this process of changing my Chinese student visa to a working one LEGALLY, I’ve forced myself to stay away from this blog; lest I succumb  to posting a cliched or hateful rant. But this week I found a shimmering glimmer of hope a midst it all that’s allowed me to sit down and write this overdue post.

Whenever you go to a train station to buy tickets in China, you can almost always count on at least 1 or 2 people for every ten standing in line to just cut right to the front. This gets even worse in lower tier cities or when there’s abnormally long lines. This week though when I went to buy my ticket to Hong Kong I found this:

It’s a one-way turnstile with surrounding guardrails that allow people in line to get through, but prevent cutters from getting close enough to the teller to slap down their dirty dirty money. Sure enough, as I neared the front, one confident jerk approached the front out of nowhere, only to be thwarted by the device. He tried to reach his money over the turnstile and yell to the clerk, but alas, he was out of reach. He sighed in exasperation, looked around for a few seconds mulling his options, and then begrudgingly walked to the back of the line. I had to restrain myself from applauding as a slight tear formed in my eye.

I’d never been to this particular train station before so I can’t say whether or not this device is new, but I’d never seen one before. A few months ago I wrote about an equally impressive customer service rating machine that could revolutionize the country’s economy. I can only hope potentially game-changing innovations like these will continue to emerge in China and spread to every train station, hospital, post office and bureaucratic institution. A thousand pieces of flowery propaganda can’t come close to achieving the same sense of satisfaction and renewed appreciation for China’s development that these simple, yet tangible, measures bring about.

This week President Hu Jintao touched millions of his compatriots by pulling a sticker off his shoe. At a G-20 photo-op, he and all the world leaders had a small sticker of their national flag on the floor marking where they should stand. As they were leaving, the Chinese flag sticker got stuck to Hu’s shoe, so he bent down to pick it up. The story reported in the Chinese blogosphere and media, however, was that Hu so revered the Chinese flag that he felt compelled to respectfully and gingerly bend down to save it as the other world leaders coldly discarded theirs.

“I am deeply touched and proud of being a Chinese,” People’s Daily reported one netizen saying about Hu’s bending over two feet to the ground, as China’s first female astronaut continued orbiting hundreds of miles overhead unnoticed.

The fawning over this incident reminded me of this lesson that Chinese children are taught in school. Perhaps there’s a connection:

In 1990, UNICEF invited Beijing middle school students to visit the Netherlands in order to participate in “Children of the World for Peace” activities. Liang Fan flew to the Netherlands to represent Chinese children. She stayed in a comfortable hotel and met many little brothers and sisters from all around the world. It was a very happy time!

As the activities began, banners of more than 50 countries were raised in front of the hotel.  Liang Fan looked for the Chinese flag, but couldn’t find it. So Liang Fan immediately went to the organizer and solemnly demanded, “The Chinese national flag must be raised since I’m here representing China.”

Later, it was almost lunch time and the Chinese flag still hadn’t been raised yet. So Liang Fan brought the organizer to the table, pointed at the pink tablecloth, and said, “If you cannot find a Chinese national flag, it’s ok. I am going to paint this red and make it into a flag!” Liang Fan’s patriotism touched the organizer deeply and the news spread quickly, which caught the organizing committee’s attention. They ordered somebody to find a national flag for the People’s Republic of China and raise it in front of the hotel. Liang Fan was admired by representatives from the other countries who praised her as a qualified representative of the People’s Republic of China.

What can we learn from this?

Last week this horrific photo went viral in China showing a dead baby beside its mother after it was forcibly aborted in its 7th month. This was because the family failed to pay a 40,000 yuan ($6,280) second child fine. To be honest, I didn’t initially take much of an interest in the story. It seemed to be a tragically common case that simply had vivid pictures attached to it.

Then BBC asked me to discuss the story on-air along with some other guests including Chai Ling – Tiananmen Square protest leader turned crusader against the one-child policy. She basically ignored the host’s questions, opting instead to give a detailed description of the incident’s brutality and go on a rant about how evil China’s government and the one-child policy are. That seems to be the prevailing reaction to this whole thing, but I think this misses the greater significance – which is what ultimately got me interested in this story.

As awful as this incident was, the overall situation has been getting better. China has been gradually relaxing the one-child policy for years by chipping away at the number of people subject to it. In 2007, one official estimated that less than 40% of China’s people are currently bound by it.

The central government could cease using population quotas as a basis for promotion of local officials – which would definitely reduce incidents of forced abortion. Other than that though, the gradual relaxation of the one-child policy over many years (as we’re seeing now) is probably the best anyone can hope for. Ending it outright all at once could cause a baby boom with demographic consequences down the road just as bad as those that resulted from the policy in the first place.

So for most intents and purposes, the forced abortion problem is probably better than it was 10 or 20 years ago and improving slowly but surely. The takeaway from this latest incident though is that, as far as public opinion is concerned, none of that matters.

For most Chinese, the one-child policy’s unpopularity comes simply from the fact that they can’t have as many kids as they’d like. Social side-effects like forced abortions have been largely non-issues because the censorship apparatus doesn’t allow them to be issues. For Chinese, unless you personally know of someone who experienced brutality in the name of population control, you probably don’t appreciate the seriousness and ubiquity of the problem. That is, until last week.

The nauseating images of the dead baby spread like wildfire – drawing over a million comments on Weibo. In almost the snap of a finger, masses of people (numbering at least in the seven digits) were slapped across the face with an issue the government has pretty successfully kept under the rug for decades. Thanks to the growing prevalence of cameras and microblog users, the brutal side-effects of the one-child policy have almost instantly entered public consciousness and debate.

Over the past two years or so a string of equally captivating images have gone viral sparking awareness and debate most unwelcome by the government; ranging from a petitioner crushed under a truck (possibly murdered) to the attempted cover up of the Wenzhou train crash. The government is losing control of public discourse and any sense of credibility. Decades of secrecy and censorship is coming back to bite it hard. Before people can even digest and get over one shocking image, another one pops up that confronts them with some new horrible issue. So even if things are actually getting better, they appear to be quickly getting much worse.

Nobody can say whether something like this forced abortion photo will ever push the nation past a tipping point, but what is certain is that these images are forcing leaders to take unprecedented measures – like actually enforcing laws that aren’t in their own self-interest. You might say a kind of de-facto democratic reform is unfolding.

This week two former chiefs of China’s soccer association were sentenced to ten-and-a-half years in prison for taking bribes. This is being marked as the cap to a two-year crackdown on corrupt club officials, referees and players that’s seen 56 people put in jail – all part of an effort to improve the soccer prospects of a country with 1.3 billion people that can’t manage to throw together a team better than North Korea’s. Even if you don’t care about soccer, this is a story worth paying attention to.

I’m hardly the first to note the similarities between the problems Chinese soccer faces and those of China’s government. In a nutshell, the organization of people indulging in the bribery and corruption is the same one charged with policing and disciplining itself. It seems just about everyone can see the inherent problem with this arrangement – except those on the inside.

Much like the government does when faced with endemic official corruption, Chinese soccer is tackling the problem with a one-off crackdown and parading the stiff prison sentences that the prosecuted receive. This is essentially like deploying a Kleenex to battle pneumonia and then showing off the huge snot-wad it removes. It temporarily takes care of the most obvious symptom and looks impressive, but there’s a lot more snot inside that didn’t make itself so obvious. And since the systematic problem hasn’t been addressed, the body will remain a perpetual snot, cough and phlegm-producing machine.

In both the government and soccer league there’s obviously a fair amount of self-delusion from those who genuinely do want to clean things up but think they can do so without giving up any power. “If only we can find the right recipe of role-models, stern warnings, harsh punishments, guilt-tripping, gimmicks and (non-independent toothless) anti-corruption commissions, then we won’t need truly independent watchdogs keeping us in check and slowing down our grand vision,” they imagine.

Now we’ll get to watch what happens in the aftermath of this soccer crackdown and perhaps make some wider conclusions about where China’s authoritarian system as a whole is headed. Some bold democratic reforms have been proposed for the league, so we’ll see if there’s enough support to actually get any enacted and enforced. Either way, if this relatively small corner of Chinese governance can’t be cleaned up, what chance does the greater national system have? If rampant corruption seeps back into the league and the country remains awful at soccer, then it’s probably safe to conclude that the long-term prospects of “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics” in its current form are equally grim.

A Curious Sense of Justice

Posted: June 12, 2012 in Chinese Culture

Last week Global Times reported a story of one Shanghai woman’s very shitty day. While walking home with her son, she was all-of-sudden hit by a blob of falling poop. After complaining to the neighborhood committee, it was determined that the feces-flinger must have come from one of four apartments above where the woman was hit. She was awarded 600 yuan in damages (the article didn’t make clear by whom) but since the exact perpetrator couldn’t be nailed down, all four apartments were ordered to pay 150 yuan each.

The story shows one of the peculiarities of China’s legal rationale that’s presumably a remnant of socialism, or perhaps even Confucianism. Several years ago I read a very similar case (which I can’t find now) where a woman was hit by a falling plant vase and sustained nearly 100,000 yuan’s ($15,749) worth of injuries. But investigators could only narrow down the origin of the plant to 30 balconies, so, you guessed it, the residents were all ordered to share the burden at about 3,300 yuan ($520) a piece.

Over the years whenever I’ve gotten on legal topics with Chinese friends, I’ve mentioned this case. To my surprise, more often than not, they support the verdict. When I ask how they can justify punishing 29 completely innocent people, they’ve basically said “100,000 is so much money for that one innocent woman to pay, but 3,300 is relatively little for the others.” They admit that they’d be very upset if they were one of the 29 innocents, but in the end 3,300 yuan would merely inconvenience their life, whereas 100,000 yuan on top of debilitating injuries could very well ruin the victim’s life.

I can’t say I agree with this rationale at all, but it is intriguing. It’s especially interesting imagining what other circumstances are influenced by this collectivist mindset – where suffering is spread equitably and manageably at the expense of complete fairness.

Foxconn: A Very Quiet Riot

Posted: June 7, 2012 in media
Tags: ,

Over the past day or so several foreign media outlets including Huffington Post, Business Insider and Bloomberg TV have been reporting that dozens of workers at a Foxconn factory in Chengdu were arrested after clashing with security at a dormitory. Some said that “workers with a grudge against the security guards prevented them from catching a thief. Soon up to 1,000 workers were ‘throwing trash bins, chairs, pots, bottles and fireworks from the upper floor of the building and destroying public facilities.’”

These outlets cited a single source: Want China Times – a Taiwanese agency which routinely prints stories based on single, unreliable sources (here, here and here, for instance). In this case, WCT cited Molihua – a democracy and human rights advocacy group. Of course, claims that there were 1,000 rioters had to come with evidence. This is it:

Most of the media reporting this story and netizens on Weibo have included this picture with reports of the violence. If you can spot a riot here, you have much better eyes than I do. A couple searches for “Foxconn riots” also bring up this picture:

I can almost hear the crickets chirping.

Bloomberg TV however managed to obtain a much more sensational picture depicting a fire and people in surgical masks:

 

…but it turns out that picture actually came from an explosion that happened at Foxconn’s Chengdu plant over a year ago.

It’s now been three days since this supposed riot started and this is all we have. No other pictures, no videos, no interviews from rioters. That’s pretty amazing considering “Foxconn riot” is NOT blocked on Weibo and there were allegedly 1,000 people involved.

I got in touch with Foxconn Technology Group and they sent this press release:

We were informed by local law enforcement authorities that late Monday night, several employees of our facility in Chengdu had a disagreement with the owner of a restaurant located in that city. We were also informed that the employees subsequently returned to their off-campus residence, owned and managed by third-party companies, at which time a number of other residents also became involved in the disagreement and local police were called to the scene to restore order. Foxconn is cooperating with local law enforcement authorities on their investigation into this incident.

They didn’t list any numbers, but this seems a far cry from what’s been previously reported.

It’s too early to say definitively that the original Want China Times report (and all those that based their reports entirely on it) were completely wrong, but I think it is safe to say they jumped the gun. Some outlets even tied the alleged violence to poor working conditions, which is completely unsubstantiated. Huffington Post went so far as to title one piece “Foxconn Workers Riot In Chengdu Over Minor Incident, Leads To Massive Uprising” and listed several unrelated conditions at the factory (They’ve since printed a retraction).

Foxconn has been the whipping boy of the media for quite some time now. In 2010 some outlets were ticking off suicides as they happened at the company. The estimated 14 suicides that year do indeed sound bad…until you consider there are over 800,000 employees and that that suicide rate is well below China’s national average (and the US’s for that matter). Both the suicide and rioting over poor working conditions angles fit nicely into the pre-established narrative that Foxconn and its Apple overlord run a repressive sweatshop. Unfortunately for those outlets that perpetuate these angles, there’s just not much evidence to support them.

Update 6/8: Reuters published a story this morning which said:

Seven workers at a Foxconn factory in Chengdu went to a restaurant near their dormitory, but began making a ruckus after an argument between the eatery’s owner and his wife “affected their meal”, said a statement on the Sichuan government website (www.scol.com.cn) released on Thursday.

After the restaurant owner called the police, the workers ran back to their dormitory shouting “they are beating us”, upon which around 100 of their colleagues came in and joined the disturbance, throwing bottles, the statement added.

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:

The Party’s Insecurities

Posted: May 10, 2012 in media
Tags: ,

Insecure governments are much like insecure people. They overcompensate for their weaknesses by making a big fuss about how strong they actually are in those areas. For instance, if you’re an ashamed closet homosexual, then you might become an Evangelical anti-gay crusader. Likewise, if you’re an authoritarian government that operates on the whims of un-elected leaders, you might stress how adherent you are to the “rule of law” again and again and again and again. So if you want to see what the Chinese government is insecure about, you usually need look no further than the propaganda.

All over China you see slogans like “Happy Guangdong” or “Civilized Chaoyang” that call attention directly to what leaders feel those places are lacking. And chengguan – the city management officers responsible for stopping illegal street vendors – have an often-deserved reputation as being thugs who use their little power to terrorize poor migrants. So all over Beijing we see signs like this:

“People’s City, People’s Administration” (A play on the word “Chengguan” )

With this principle in mind, I’ve been watching Xinwen Lianbo over the past few weeks. This is CCTV’s flagship news program that runs simultaneously on most channels every evening at 7:00. This program most consistently reaches the largest viewership throughout China, so it’s perfect for gauging the government’s biggest insecurities.

The program’s traditional schedule is widely recognized and mocked by Chinese. It consists of three segments: The leaders are busy, the people are happy, and foreign countries are in chaos.  I vaguely recall when I first got to China in 2007, you could almost set your watch to it most days. When images of top leaders shaking hands with foreign diplomats or doing countryside field inspections shifted into minorities and peasants enjoying favorable government policies, it must be 7:10. When those happy faces faded into American gun violence or Middle-East bombings, it must be about 7:20.

These three segments can be seen as compensation for the Communist Party’s three biggest fears: That the leaders might be seen as illegitimate, corrupt and self-indulgent; that the peasants and minorities might feel exploited or repressed; and that countries under different political systems might be viewed as preferable alternatives.

What I’ve found interesting from watching the program over the past few weeks – and ticking off the kinds of stories that are shown – is that the traditional format has been shaken up. To its credit, individual stories are now more diverse and often contain news without apparent political aims. However, the “leaders are busy” portion now often stretches out 15-20 minutes of the 30 minute newscast, with an average of 5 separate stories each program. This might suggest the leadership is REALLY keen on proving its legitimacy as the power handover draws near.

The “people are happy” and “foreign countries are in chaos” segments are also still cornerstones, with an average of 2.3 and 3.6 stories respectively each night. But two other segments seem to have become regular additions: “China is innovative” and “the economy is looking good.”

Each have been averaging one story per night. Chinese innovations like an aerospace medical lab and the world’s quietest washing machine are shown; as are detailed explications (often digressing into virtual PowerPoint presentations) leading you to feel that China’s economy is strong and will stay strong.

China is facing some major economic bubbles, coupled with bleak growth prospects if its businesses can’t move up the value chain while wages increase. The Chinese education system’s failure to produce the creativity needed to do so has been a concern for years. If, and how badly the bubbles will burst, and whether or not China can get creative, remain to be seen. But if Xinwen Lianbo is any indication, they’re things the government is pretty worried about.

SEE UPDATES BELOW

The past few weeks have been especially embarrassing for the “rule-of-law” touting Communist Party as a blind activist (not actually charged with any crime) escaped house arrest. Well now Global Times has released a new narrative on what’s happened in Chen Guangcheng’s village over the past few years that puts the situation in a very different light.

In an op-ed entitled “Chen trump for US in human rights game,” Sima Pingbang, a “blogger and grass-roots intellectual” claims that he actually visited Chen successfully last December. This is a pretty bold claim since we were previously under the impression that no journalist had successfully broken through Chen’s guards to see him. It’s also quite strange that we haven’t heard anything of this visit until now – at a time when finding some actual wrong-doing by Chen would be very convenient for the party – which brings us to the even bolder claims of the article:

According to other villagers, Chen’s imprisonment a few years ago had nothing to do with his work. It was actually a pretty common local conflict.  They told me that Chen built a deep well using funds he received from a British source. But that well sucked out water from other wells in the village, which meant Chen effectively controlled the village’s water.

They claimed that Chen charged high fees for the water and caused discontent from villagers, some of them then openly voiced their unhappiness and that angered Chen. So he asked his family members to attack the village committee and blocked public roads in order to vent his anger.

So rather than being a feeble human rights defender, the piece says Chen is a water-hoarding, price-gouging, vengeful rabble-rouser.  For some reason, a British source funded a blind man’s water monopoly on a random village in Shandong.

[Update 1: Another article today from The Daily Beast mentions that there was in fact a British-funded well. It says, “After his environmental fight against the paper mill (in the late 1990s), Chen contacted Western media, diplomats, and NGOs in an effort to help improve villagers’ access to clean water. When the British Embassy agreed to bankroll a new 180-meter-deep well, Chen was proud of what his little hamlet of Dongshigu had achieved.”] 

Sima Pingbang, the author of the GT piece, is a somewhat famous left-wing Maoist who last year penned an essay entitled “Support American People’s Great Wall Street Revolution,” which said events in the US will herald a global revolution that will bury capitalism. It inspired some short-lived protests in support of the movement in China.

On scouring over Sima Pingbang’s Weibo tweets from the month of December, I found nothing about a visit to Chen Guangcheng’s village. When contacted about how the claims were verified for print in Global Times, op-ed section reporter Gao Lei explained that Sima Pingbang did indeed visit Dongshigu in December with two others named Liu Yang 刘仰 and Yi Qing 一清 from a “blogger association.” Gao said that the group was approved by local authorities for the visit because they said they were “not there to cause any trouble, but looking for a peaceful solution.”  They then related this all to Gao Lei with some others from the association over dinner sometime after their return.

It seems that the “blogger association” (which Gao didn’t name) these men belong to is April Media 四月传媒 at m4.cn – formerly Anti-CNN.com – a nationalistic site that’s railed against Western media distortions of China since 2008.  It has an English sister site called the 4th Media. All three men have written op-eds on Chen Guangcheng in the past three days (here, here and here). Yi Qing backs up the trip to Dongshigu, but Liu Yang just talks about how Chen is a sympathetic figure who’s been exploited by the West. It’s not quite in line with the conniving water baron Sima Pingbang’s article portrays.

Gao Lei also said that these men have written about their trip before, but I wasn’t able to find anything about it dated before the past few days – which is odd if they did in fact go last December.

So it seems Sima Pingbang either A) Really found a story that the entire foreign press has somehow missed, B) went to Dongshigu, actually talked with villagers and Chen Guangcheng, but was lied to – perhaps by the thugs guarding Chen – and swallowed it all wholesale, or C) made things up.  Since Chen Guangcheng is gone now anyways and these new revelations, if true, would neutralize the government’s supposed wrongdoing, surely Dongshigu authorities will want these things independently verified by journalists – like those from CNN –  who might try to visit the town.

[Update 2: Yaxue Cao from Seeing Red in China, who first broke the news on Chen Kegui’s altercation with thugs, has informed me that Sima did go to Dongshigu with Liu and Yi, as well as Politburo member Li Yuanchao, to convince Chen to reach some kind of compromise – which he refused. This site shows that Li was in Linyi at the time, though it naturally doesn’t mention anything about Chen. The presence of a Politburo member would be nothing short of incredible and would explain the others not writing about the trip earlier.

Yaxue also adeptly pointed out that, while there was indeed a British-funded well, the idea of Chen siphoning the water away from the rest of the village is stupid because of (among other things) the principle of communicating vessels.]

[Update 3: He Peirong, Chen’s rescuer, has told me that Li Yuanchao never met Chen. So if Li did have any involvement with Chen, it wasn’t direct.]

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.

If you want to get an idea of how well a city’s economy is doing in China, one quick way is to look for how much one-child policy propaganda there is. China’s public welfare system is lacking and, for the poor, children are usually the most reliable social security insurance (and male children are investments with greater potential returns). This is why poor villages like Chen Guangcheng’s often must resort to brutal methods like forced abortions and sterilizations in order to meet their family planning quotas.

Recently I went biking through Shandong – where Chen Guangcheng fought these practices. When going from cities to villages, there’s a pretty obvious inverse correlation between the income of local people and the number of signs urging them to only have one child (and not to abort if that one child is female). These signs range from the spray-painted and depressing to the fancy and poetic. Some are so absurd I figured they must all just be made up on the spot by desperate local officials (ie – “Plant more trees, have less children and you’ll become rich”).

Well it turns out many of these slogans come directly from the National Population and Family Planning Commission – a State Council agency. In 2007 the commission worried that many local slogans were “cold and tough, lacking humane care and people-oriented thinking” and may “lead to ambiguity.” Then there were some slogans which “have content that isn’t wrong, but are too blunt and indifferent. They not only fail to warn and educate, but also can easily lead to resentment of the masses, leading to conflicts and disputes.”

Getting them right is important because “even with today’s highly developed mass media, slogans still inspire, guide and unite the people on the principles and policies of population and family planning.”

So the commission took the liberty of putting together this list of 190 recommended slogans.

Many go beyond just birth control. They touch on issues indirectly related to the one child policy; like discouraging aborting girls, encouraging care for the elderly (implying that you won’t need a bunch of kids to take care of you when you get old) and discouraging anything that might cause birth defects (which would prompt you to have more kids).

Here are some choice translations:

16. Do everything possible to solve the population problem, focus on building a harmonious society.

30. Mother Earth is too tired. She can’t bear too many children.

34. Control the population, protect the environment and cherish the planet.

40. Advocate the scientific premarital examination and the prevention of birth defects.

55. In nature there are mountains and water. In human society there men and women – balanced and harmonious.

61. Maintain a balanced sex ratio at birth and build a socialist harmonious society.

66. It is strictly prohibited to drown, abandon or abuse baby girls. According to the law protect the rights and interests of women and children.

72. Migrant workers, do not forget family planning and health services are always with you.

78. Respecting, caring for and helping the elderly are virtues of the Chinese nation.

80. Children are the flowers of the motherland. The elderly are the wealth of society.

96. Bare fewer children and run faster toward a moderately well-off life. Build a harmonious new countryside.

104. Break the thousands of years of old feudal customs. Set up new marriage and reproduction culture.

124. Girls and boys are the hope of the nation.

146. Family planning services send sincere emotions. Law-based administration warms hearts.

155. Family is a boat, love is the sail, and reproductive health is the harbor of your happiness.

157. Contraception, informed choices, and reproductive health warm you and me.

173. Family is a boat, love is the sail. A healthy husband and wife will reach the other shore.

181. Citizens have the right to reproduction, but also the obligation to practice family planning according to law.

184. No inter-family marriage. Premarital check is essential.

I should add that the more poetic slogans aren’t even done justice through the English translation, but you get the idea.

Now, five years later, it seems these suggestions have indeed found their way down to the villages. Here’s some of what I saw on my trip:

Give fewer and better births, be happy the whole life.

Ban non-medical sex determinations and sex-selective abortions.

Delivering girls is just as good as delivering boys. Girls are descendants too.

When going out for migrant work, don't forget your birth control.

Men should also participate in the family planning. Both husband and wife build a harmonious society.

One town even thought it prudent to add English translation themselves:

Strictly control the population growth. Accelerate the social economic development.

Yesterday it was reported Chen Guangcheng escaped from house arrest in Linyi. Now, the blind self-taught lawyer who defended villagers forced to undergo abortions and sterilizations is at “the 100% safe location” in Beijing – presumably the US embassy, but we still don’t really know. He’s also released a 15-minute video where he details the beatings and deplorable treatment he and his family have received while they were detained by upwards of 80 guards. His family remains in Linyi under their watch.

This comes at a terrible time for the Chinese government. The Communist Party has been trying desperately to parade Bo Xilai’s arrest as evidence that China is under the rule of law. People’s Daily recently mentioned “the law” 23 times in a single editorial. There’s perhaps nobody that makes a mockery of this more than Chen Guangcheng.

Chen spent four years in prison on trumped up charges of “damaging property and organizing a mob to disturb traffic.” In the 18 months since his release he’s been under house arrest despite never being charged with any additional crimes. His family – including his 6-year old daughter – has also been detained.

Over the past few years Chen has become a folk-hero among activists in China, perhaps only second to Ai Weiwei in fame. The Shawshank-like escape of the blind dissident through dozens of state thugs is a metaphor that won’t be lost on his supporters

What happens next will be very interesting. The most comparable event in recent memory is when Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in late 2010. Then and now there’s really no positive way the government can spin it. And the Party now basically has the same choices it did then:

  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.

You’ll notice there isn’t a third option of officially ignoring the event and trying to block out any mention of it. We’ll probably see that for several days, but the internet has made it an impossible long-term strategy for a story as sensational as this.

In Liu Xiaobo’s case the second option was taken. Liu’s wife and several activists were detained, people were stopped from leaving the country, and we got a daily barrage of inflammatory editorials portraying the prize as a farce concocted by the West to keep China down.

The episode was a PR disaster. The official response only reinforced everything that the award was criticizing. Had the Chinese government taken the first option, it still would have been embarrassing, but some semblance of dignity and face would have been saved. Now we get to see if anything was learned from the Nobel affair.

If the same strategy is used now, it’ll face some big challenges. In this case, the government has no foreigners to blame. As belligerent as it seemed to outsiders, the official response to the Nobel Prize whipped up some nationalistic points for the government. It’s unlikely any such points can be won here. The US could be criticized for “interfering in China’s internal affairs” by sheltering Chen, but that invites some very risky juxtapositions between the two governments.

That leads to the most important difference with the Liu Xiaobo case: Liu was tried for a law he did actually break – a horribly unjust and poorly-defined law, yes, but still a law that’s on the books. What can the government say in Chen’s case? There’s no legal justification to point to. Chen served his time and is legally a free man.

For the past 18 months the central government has been largely able to keep its hands clean of Chen by leaving local Linyi officials to do the dirty work. But now he’s found his way to the central government’s backyard and has already begun to tell the world his story.

National leaders have some important decisions to make in how they respond to Chen, his rescuers, and his family. So far it seems they’re maintaining the status quo by tacitly approving of local authorities’ suppression. Chen’s family has already been retaliated against and his rescuer has reportedly been detained in Nanjing. The Communist Party can either live up to the rule of law it’s been trumpeting and ensure the  freedom of these people, or it can make a hypocritical spectacle of itself at a time when official credibility is already hanging by a thread.

 

Sometime last year Bo Guagua, Bo Xilai’s son, reportedly pulled up in a red Ferrari to meet Jon Huntsman’s daughter at the US ambassador’s residence in Beijing. The car was a symbol of the wealth gap in China and the all-too-common privileges afforded to China’s young political princelings. Some have even suggested it was one of the contributing factors to Bo Xilai’s ultimate downfall.

But did it actually happen?

On April 24th The Harvard Crimson printed a statement by Bo Guagua addressing many of the rumors floating around about him. One of the points said:

I have never driven a Ferrari. I have also not been to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing since 1998 (when I obtained a previous U.S. Visa), nor have I ever been to the U.S. Ambassador’s Residence in China. Even my student Visas were issued by the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu, which is closer to my home of five years.

This echoes the denial his father made at a press conference last month shortly before he was sacked.

Yesterday I contacted Jon Huntsman’s press office asking about the Ferrari incident and was simply told, “Unfortunately the Governor is not commenting on this story.”

I next contacted the US Embassy in Beijing. Richard Buangan, the embassy’s press secretary, told me by phone that he couldn’t confirm anything.

It was never previously confirmed which of Huntsman’s three adult daughters Bo Guagua supposedly met, but today New York Times reported that they had contacted one of the girls. The article stated:

[Abby Huntsman Livingston] said her sister Mary Anne did share a ride with the younger Mr. Bo after dinner one night but did not notice the make of the car. Ms. Livingston added that she and a friend of Mr. Bo’s were also at the dinner that evening. “He was a very nice person,” she wrote. “I can’t confirm that a Ferrari was involved because I didn’t see it.” She did back up one thing Mr. Bo said: contrary to published accounts, he did not pick up her sister at the ambassador’s residence. “Not sure where the story originated from to be honest, nor does my family,” she wrote.

I tried contacting all three Huntsman sisters myself via their Facebook and Twitter pages, but there was no reply.

The Ferrari story was first exposed in an article by Jeremy Page in Wall Street Journal last November with no names or titles of sources given, citing only “several people familiar with [the episode].”

Anonymous sources are a fact of life with government/embassy officials who aren’t officially authorized to comment. But I emailed Jeremy Page to see if he could give some clarity about the sources he based his report on. I asked  how many sources there were, who they’re affiliated with and if he approached them independently of one-another. Page sent a reply, not answering my questions but directing me to a Dow Jones (WSJ’s parent company) PR rep in New York. She said, “We don’t publicly discuss sources but we’re confident what we reported is true.”

Jeremy Page is a very reputable reporter (whom I and several other journalists have recently said deserves a Pulitzer for his Bo coverage). There’s little reason to doubt that reliable sources did indeed give him the Ferrari information, but who are they? Why do their accounts conflict so greatly with those of the parties directly involved? The issue has serious implications, not only for the Bo family, but also in how the ruling elite and their offspring are viewed in China.

Unfortunately I have more questions to offer at this point than answers, and until one of Page’s sources decides to speak up, it will probably stay that way.

I’m a bit late to the draw with this one, but last Friday, April 13th I noticed something interesting on CCTV. That morning People’s Daily had run an editorial on the Bo Xilai affair that was on the front page of nearly every major newspaper. That evening Xinwen Lianbo – the 7:00 PM national CCTV newscast – presented its routine fantasy world where people are moved by the empty speeches of leaders and the masses are engulfed with heated discussion of People’s Daily commentaries. On this day however, the program appears to have gone above and beyond just having anchors report the PD editorial’s contents. Several men-on-the-street were interviewed to get their takes on the Bo affair. When you set their comments next to the People’s Daily pieces, there are some pretty striking similarities:

Guo Hui, Haikou engineering maintenance worker

People’s Daily:  [The Bo decision] fully illustrated the Chinese Communist Party, which represents the people’s fundamental interests and shall never allow any “special party member” to be above the discipline of the party or the law of the country. Everybody is equal before the law and there is no privileged citizen or exception in the system. 同时也充分说明,代表人民群众根本利益的中国共产党,决不允许有凌驾于党纪国法之上的“特殊党员”;法律面前人人平等,制度面前没有特权、制度约束没有例外,

Worker: From the decision we can see the clear stand of the Party and government to safeguard party discipline and the laws of the state, that is to say, no matter what their position is in the party, nobody can be above the discipline of the party or law of the country. 从这个决定中我们可以看出,我们党和政府在坚决维护党纪国法面前的一个鲜明态度,就是说,在党内不管职位高低,不管任何人,都不能凌驾于党纪国法之上。

Yu Xingshou, Chongqing citizen

Chongqing citizen: As a party member, no matter how high your position is, whoever violates the law should be severely punished by the law. This treatment reflects equality before the law. 作为一名党员,不管你职位多高,干部多大,谁触犯了法律,都应该受到法律的严惩。这次的处理体现了在法律面前人人平等。

Chen Zhiwei, Changsha farmer

People’s Daily: China is a socialist country under the rule of law. The dignity and authority of the law cannot be trampled on. Whoever is involved, whoever broke the law shall be dealt with according to the law with no mercy. 我国是社会主义法治国家,法律的尊严和权威不容践踏。不论涉及到谁,只要触犯法律,都将依法处理,决不姑息。

Farmer: Our country is a socialist country under the rule of law. No one can be above the law and corruption will surely be punished severely by the law. 我们在法治社会主义国家,任何一个人不能凌驾于法律之上,有腐败行为的一定会得到国家法律的严惩。

Yang Fengcheng, Renmin University professor of party history

People’s Daily: Strict organizational discipline is a distinctive feature of our party. One of the party’s advantages is that organizations and members at all levels strictly obey the party discipline and consciously accept it. 严密的组织纪律性,是我们党的一个鲜明特征;党的各级组织和全体党员严守党的纪律、自觉接受党的纪律约束,是我们党的重要优势,

Renmin Professor: The Chinese Communist Party has a distinctive feature: that is strict discipline.  We say everyone is equal before the law, so to a Communist Party member, every member is equal before the party discipline.  中国共产党它有一个鲜明的特点,就是有着严明的纪律。我们讲在法律面前人人平等,那么在党纪面前,对于党员来讲那就是党纪面前人人平等。

Sun Fei, Deputy director of research at the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection

People’s Daily (from earlier April 10th editorial): [The Bo decision] fully reflects the spirit to stress facts and rule by law. It complies with the party’s concept to discipline itself strictly and rule the country according to law. It demonstrates the party’s firm determination to keep its purity.  这充分体现了重事实、讲法治的精神,完全符合我们党从严治党的根本要求和依法治国的执政理念,表明了我们党保持自身纯洁性的坚定决心,

Discipline inspection researcher: The decision by the CPC Central Committee to initiate an investigation of Comrade Bo Xilai’s serious disciplinary problems fully reflects the party’s determination to discipline itself strictly. It fully reflects that the party will never tolerate any corruption and that its ruling concept is to rule the country according to law. It also demonstrated the party’s firm stand to keep its purity.党中央决定对薄熙来同志严重违纪问题进行立案调查, 充分体现了党要管党,从严治党的决心,充分体现了我们党对腐败现象绝不容忍的政治态度,体现了依法治国的执政理念,表名了党保持自身纯洁的坚定立场。

It seems to me one of three things happened here:

  1. CCTV reporters did some serious shoe-leather reporting in several different cities across China in the space of a few hours, managing to find interviewees that happened to have nearly verbatim opinions to the People’s Daily editorials.
  2. The whole country truly was engulfed by the heated editorials and their spirited points rolled off the tongues of all those CCTV approached.
  3. CCTV told interviewees what to say.

I know I know. Chinese state media lacking journalistic integrity…truly breaking news.  Last year a leaked uncut video showed a farmer being told what to say on camera by a reporter, and CCTV has had plenty of its own fake interviews exposed. But having the audacity to do it with five back-to-back interviewees speaking from a single source openly available to the public is a bit surprising; especially for a network now trying to build credibility for its ambitious overseas expansion plans.

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. 
 

The party chief of one of China’s largest metropolises and member of the all-powerful 24-man Politburo went for a meeting in Beijing. Little did he know, he wasn’t to return home. He was sacked from his positions and awaits certain imprisonment. This is widely regarded as the result of factional party infighting ahead of a coming leadership shuffle and has been dubbed a “big bomb” for Chinese politics by one analyst.

But wait. This isn’t 2012 and we’re not talking about Bo Xilai. It’s 2006 and I’m describing former Shanghai Party Secretary Chen Liangyu, Jiang Zemin’s old “Shanghai Clique” brethren. He found himself on the wrong side of a politically-motivated corruption investigation launched by Hu Jintao’s Beijing clan while posturing for the following year’s 17th National Congress (China’s mid-term leadership shuffle). At the time, foreign media sank their teeth into the sensational political drama.

But wait. If we rewind further to 1995 we find that Beijing mayor and Politburo member Chen Xitong was taken down for corruption and embezzlement. He was in the Beijing faction and a rival of then paramount leader Jiang Zemin. Oh, and the scandal unraveled following the mysterious death of one of Chen’s close associates.

Are we noticing a pattern here?

Bo Xilai’s unfolding scandal is very similar to these past instances, but of course it’s different in one critical way: A lot of Chinese people know about it.

Yesterday morning it was the talk of the Beijing subway and a Chinese friend told me politics has replaced celebrity gossip around her office water cooler. This has forced the government to face the public with the scandal to a degree never before seen.

On April 10th, China’s official Xinhua news agency released a short, but explosive statement announcing that Bo had been officially stripped of his titles and his wife was suspected in the British businessman’s murder.

The embarrassing thing for Xinhua (and ergo the government) was that Reuters had broken this news hours earlier. And microbloggers on Weibo reported it (in one form or another) hours before that. In fact, the whole Bo saga unfolded on Weibo as the state media released only occasional terse statements.

When the Chen Liangyu scandal hit the light of day in 2006, there were about 130 million Chinese internet users and precisely zero of them were microbloggers. Today, over 500 million Chinese are online and half of them microblog. Imagine what those numbers will look like at the next leadership shuffle in 2017.

One can’t deny the sensational theatrics of late night foreign embassy runs, a dead (possibly ex-spy) foreigner, and a flamboyant neo-socialist. At its core though, Bo’s case is hardly unprecedented. But if we look back at the cases of Chen Xitong, Chen Liangyu and now Bo Xilai, we see that each incident has shaken the central party apparatus successively harder.

The party has been thrown off balance, but at the end of the year it will in all likelihood still be standing with its new leadership. But when China’s shadowy power politics inevitably spill out again into the increasingly connected and decreasingly trusting public, can things possibly remain as stable?

The unremarkable case of Bo Xilai: Part I

We’ve now learned via Xinhua and Global Times that Bo Xilai has been officially stripped of his government positions and his family is being investigated for the murder of former British business associate Neil Heywood. What’s important to remember here is that a litany of crimes, possibly including murder, committed by one of China’s 25 most powerful leaders isn’t what’s remarkable about this story. What’s remarkable is simply that the government is acknowledging it. But why?

Step back for a moment and consider some of the events that led to where Bo is today:

  • In February suspicions were raised over a death which had occurred three months earlier. This dead person happened to be a foreigner, ensuring that people outside the controllable domestic media and police would take an unyielding interest.
  • Wang Lijun, Bo’s Chongqing police chief, apparently ran into trouble while investigating Neil Heywood’s death and/or activities by Bo’s wife, yet he persisted.
  • Wang Lijun was fired by Bo and fled to the American consulate in Chengdu drawing international attention to the affair.
  • Uncensored information was allowed to run wild on microblogs, making much of China aware of the Bo saga.
  • Bo fell on the opposite side of the political spectrum from some of the top leaders in the Communist Party (ie. Hu Jintao, Wen Jiabao).

The Titanic didn’t sink simply because it swiped an iceberg. Any colossal disaster is the result of multiple, mutually-aggravating factors that come together in a perfect storm. Subtract any one of these factors and it’s highly possible Bo would be sitting in one of the most powerful positions in the world one year from now. He was very unlucky.

It would be very naive though to think that Bo’s crimes are anything extraordinary in a system where the same people who wield complete political control also control the police, courts and media theoretically responsible for indicting them. Consider that Bo’s replacement as Chongqing party secretary, Zhang Dejiang, almost certainly had a hand in concealing from the world the breakout of a dangerous, highly-infectious disease, which caused incalculable deaths and illnesses. Several other high-level leaders were sacked. Zhang wasn’t.

Jia Qinglin presided over Fujian Province during the Yuanhua case – one of the biggest corruption scandals in China’s history. He was widely expected to be taken down with several other high officials who were jailed or executed. Instead, he became the 4th most powerful man in China. Then there’s Jiang Zemin, who’s had several close ties convicted in major corruption scandals – including the mastermind of the Yuanhua case. And these are all just the most powerful and publicly visible leaders. Imagine how easy it would be for lower leaders to imprison (ergo discredit) or kill off potential aggravators.

The Chinese media is already hailing the Bo case as evidence China is under the rule of law. The Xinhua piece that broke the latest news was titled “Police reinvestigate death of Neil Heywood according to law” It and the Global Times piece contained phrases like, “Police authorities paid high attention to the case, and are reinvestigating the case according to law with an attitude to seek truth from facts” and “[A senior official said] the incident would neither disrupt the Party’s 18th National Congress in fall nor the country’s long-term political and social development.”

When the state media uses statements like these so gratuitously, it’s a flimsy way of compensating for the fact that the opposite is probably true. You can be sure that at every turn in the Bo case, legal considerations were made only in the context of their political implications.

We don’t know how guilty any of the other leaders mentioned above are, and we may never know. The media and individuals aren’t allowed to touch them with a ten foot pole, despite the fact that the law clearly says they are.

In China, political winners and losers are decided by unpredictable backroom tactical cunning rather than the ballot box. In the internet age though, anyone with a bone to pick or rival to eliminate can leak damning information easily and anonymously. Cases like Bo’s will inevitably become more common and destabilizing in the future without political reform.

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.

Last night,TechinAsia reported that internet companies like Sina and Tencent would be punished for permitting the spread of online rumors (most likely referring to rumors of a Beijing coup and perhaps speculation over a Beijing Ferrari crash). This report came from Xinhua citing a spokesman from China’s National Internet Information Office. Well today it looks like we know at least part of what that punishment is. This notice was posted on Weibo this morning:

It says,

Weibo Notice

Microblog Users,

Recently on the comments threads there’s been rumors and other illegal and harmful information. In order to concentrate on cleaning up, from 8:00 on March 31st to 8:00 April 3, the comments functions will be suspended. After cleaning we’ll re-open the function.This cleaning is necessary and aims to provide a better communication environment for users. Hope you understand. Thank you for your support

-Sina Weibo

3/31/2012

As far as “punishments” go, this seems pretty light – if it is in fact government imposed. This just means that when somebody posts something, other Weibo users won’t be able to comment on it. As Kaiser Kuo tweeted, this essentially just makes it like Twitter for the next 72 hours. It’s perhaps a gentle – yet very visible – slap of the company that hasn’t seemed to be taking it’s censorship responsibility very seriously.

Interestingly though, on one of my Weibo accounts I still haven’t complied with the real name registration requirement imposed by the government that was supposed to take effect March 16th, yet today I’m still able to tweet. Many have noticed this over the past two weeks, and at this point, it’s probably safe to say it isn’t a glitch. We’ll see if this among the things that get “cleaned up” over the next 72 hours at Weibo.

UPDATE: Netizens have already begun mocking this measure. Here are three posts that are fairly representative of what many Weibo users are saying on the issue:

 “Good for you! For the next three days nobody can criticize my posts.”

“…Now I’ll just switch to the “Forward” function…”

“Is this a big April Fools joke?”

I’ll soon be making some video content for this site, so to test my capability I’ve subtitled my favorite music video of all time for you. In it, a young man sings about how he summoned the inspiration to write his essay for applying to the Communist Party. After seeing this guy perform on CCTV recently, I confirmed that this is NOT a parody. It no doubt reflects the reality of how young students come to join the party. Enjoy.

 

If you want to learn this for KTV (as I’m sure you do) here are the Chinese lyrics. It’s called “入党申请书” (Application to join the party) by Jiang Tao 江涛,

The lessons of history

Posted: March 29, 2012 in Politics
Tags: ,

Wen Jiabao gave a press conference a few weeks ago where he said that without reforms in China, “such historical tragedies as the Cultural Revolution may happen again.” Most have assumed that this was a swipe at Bo Xilai and the left-wing of the Communist Party, which indeed may be the case. Bo led a number of red rallies in Chongqing that had a distinct whiff of Cultural Revolution. But Bo was no fool. His red revival was more of a power play tugging at people’s nostalgia than anything else. Wen’s words may have had a broader and more significant target than just Bo.

The official account of the Cultural Revolution that’s taught in Chinese textbooks is that unseemly figures like the Gang of Four manipulated Mao and the entire country into complacency with the campaign’s excesses. In reality, it was directly overseen by a paranoid Mao as a means to keep control.

Hermann Goering, designated successor to Hitler, once explicated the political tactic that would go on to describe the Cultural Revolution perfectly:

Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.

Hitler had the Jews, McCarthy had communists, and Mao had “counter-revolutionaries.” But after suffering badly through the Cultural Revolution, is China really susceptible to making a similar mistake? In a word, yes.

Since 1989, the only real sources of legitimacy for China’s authoritarian government have been economic growth and nationalism. If the economy slows or abruptly halts, then the void will have to be filled somehow. That could be done through political reforms that give direct accountability to the people, or some kind of scapegoat could be used to consolidate angst in a direction away from the government. I suspect Wen Jiabao’s calls for the former are in hopes of avoiding the latter.

But political reform isn’t the only issue. The generation born after the Cultural Revolution is reaching the age of influence. Since Chinese students aren’t taught the mechanics of how authoritarian leaders like Mao hold power, they aren’t equipped to guard against it. And while it was Mao that initiated the Cultural Revolution campaign, it was actually common people on the ground who were responsible for its greatest horrors. Like the Salem Witch Trials before it, many were happy to use the witch hunt as a pretext for settling personal scores or engaging in downright sadism. Here’s one telling account from that period:

In early September 1966, the gang of Red Guards mercilessly beat an old man accused of once having been a landlord. That same day, fearing more torture, the old man killed himself. But the guards weren’t finished. They gave the corpse to his three sons, demanding that the boys parade it around the village. Then they told the boys to chop the body into three pieces and place them in pigpens. If any of them had refused, they all would have been dubbed ‘evil spawn of the feudal class’ and destined for persecution.[1]

Chinese students are taught in gory detail about the atrocities the Japanese carried out in Nanjing, but history books stop short of showing that Chinese (like any other nationality) are capable of inflicting these horrors on one another. We all like to think that we could never do such despicable things, so it’s painful when we learn that fellow countrymen just like us became monsters. It tacitly shows that if circumstances were different, we might not be the people we think we are.

Because political reform has stagnated, many of the same circumstances that preceded historical tragedies are in full force in today’s China: Jingoism, political dogma and blind obedience that are hammered into students from birth, rampant conspiracy theories promoted by the government, shielding of information that comes from the outside world, and strict censorship of the media and individuals who might highlight these things critically.

There’s been recent talk of re-evaluating the Cultural Revolution and even the Tiananmen crackdown. For China’s sake, hopefully it will come to fruition. A full account of history isn’t just critical for the sake of truth, but to teach awareness of those who might try to repeat age-old violent power plays. History’s most important lessons though aren’t the horrid policies that leaders enacted, but how otherwise good people were led into becoming instruments of evil.


[1] Pomfret, John. Chinese Lessons: Five Classmates and the Story of the New China. New York: Holt Paperbacks, 2007

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.

Bo Xilai today stepped down from his job as Chongqing Party Secretary and was promptly replaced by Zhang Dejiang. This choice of a successor is an intriguing one for a number of reasons. Most notably, because Zhang’s got plenty of his own political baggage.

First and most obviously, Zhang studied economics at Kim Il-Sung University in North Korea. We’re not sure yet exactly why Bo fell from favor, but if it was for being too socialist in his policies, the Party is sure sending an interesting message here. Bo’s egalitarian-centered Chongqing Model may not be as dead in the water as Bo himself is.

Zhang Dejiang’s main claim to fame though is his involvement in suppressing news of the SARS outbreak as Guangdong secretary in 2002. In the end, he escaped official blame and firing – unlike many other high Guangdong officials. This was likely because he was too high of a figure to be allowed to fall off the horse; and the fact that he was an ally of then-President Jiang Zemin probably didn’t hurt either.

Then in 2003, the Guangdong newspaper Southern Metropolis Daily (SMD) reported the story of a man who was arrested for not having his ID card and then beaten to death in custody. The story was huge – so huge that Beijing abolished the detention law under which the man had been arrested. Guangdong leadership wasn’t pleased though. Police lost out on the revenue they gained through these kinds of detentions and many local officials were disgraced.

The Guangdong government under Zhang Dejiang started pressuring the paper through indirect warnings and pressing advertisers to come up with evidence of corruption against the paper. Then in late 2003, SMD further embarrassed Guangzhou leaders by reporting that a new case of SARS had resurfaced – before the government acknowledged it. Zhang subsequently approved a full-on corruption probe of the paper. Eventually, two of the paper’s editors were given 6 and 8 year prison sentences on trumped up charges – effectively neutering SMD’s muckraking.

During the rest of Zhang’s tenure in Guangdong, a few other notable things happened under his watch:

In July and August 2005, two major coal mine disasters killed 139 people in the province. It was later found that they were owned by government officials who didn’t follow required safety protocol. Dozens of officials were punished, including four high level provincial leaders.

Also in July 2005, residents of the Guangdong village Taishi assembled to protest a corrupt land grab. Hundreds of police were dispatched and opened fire, killing several people and injuring dozens more. The incident was one of several similar ones to hit Guangdong that year.

Then, to cap off an already hallmark year, a state-owned smelter dumped loads of poisonous cadmium in the Beijiang River.

While it’s not clear how much blame Zhang deserves for these things, by early 2006, many were calling for his ouster. In February that year he allegedly accepted responsibility for Guangdong’s problems and made an offer to the Politburo to resign – which it declined. He ended up stepping down as Guangdong secretary in 2007, but he remained on the Politburo where he’s been Vice-Premier since 2008. Before his series of Guangzhou debacles, he may have been a contender for the Politburo Standing Committee at the 17th National People’s Congress.

According to a 2007 Asia Times piece:

Guangdong officials and general public have mixed feelings about Zhang’s five-year [Guangzhou] rule. The southern province is continuing its high-speed economic growth of the past five years, a period when it is said Zhang protected corrupt Guangdong officials, fearing that harsh crackdowns on corruption could hurt the economy. He reportedly promised Beijing that Guangdong would “clean its own house”, begging that the central government not intervene by sending its own anti-graft busters to the province, while at the same time warning his officials to behave themselves.

Interestingly, Zhang was succeeded in Guangdong by Wang Yang, who’s seen as a reformer because of his support for more freedom in speech and media. Wang’s Guangdong Model is the rival of Bo Xilai’s now heavily-bruised Chongqing Model – which maintains a strong authoritarian hand to institute egalitarian measures and corruption crackdowns.

From the limited available information, it seems that Zhang Dejiang, like Bo, embraces the authoritarian hand and has no desire to liberalize speech or press freedom. And past actions also seem to suggest that, unlike Bo, he uses the authoritarian hand to protect corruption rather than fight it.

If Beijing was looking for a safe clean replacement for scandal-tainted Bo, it sure made an interesting choice. But, for all Zhang’s drawbacks, he led steady economic growth and didn’t draw too much attention to himself. This has indeed traditionally been the way to rise through the party ranks. As BBC reported, he may end up on the Politburo Standing Committee after all.

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

 

One of the biggest misconceptions about China is that it’s given up on socialism in all but name – that by embracing capitalism, the Communist Party has tossed aside Marx, only invoking his name as lip-service to the CCP’s revolutionary roots. In fact, socialism is still the goal. It’s simply the next step on Marx’s stages of development, which consists of:

  1. Primitive Communism
  2. Slave Society
  3. Feudalism
  4. Capitalism
  5. Socialism
  6. Communism

Marx devoted a lot of ink to the 4th stage, where he said capitalist oppressors exploit the underclass and use religion as an “opiate” to keep them content with their repression. Eventually when stage 5 arrives, equality will make religion obsolete.

In 1949, China was more-or-less at stage 3. Mao thought he could just make a “Great Leap” to stage 5 by enforcing the tenants of a socialist society with an authoritarian hand. This included wiping out religion. The next 30 years under this policy were unsuccessful to put it mildly.

Eventually though, Deng Xiaoping came to power and acknowledged that stage 4 is kind of important. So along with a capitalist economy, he accepted religion with the expectation that it would gradually die out on its own through the natural progression of Marxism.

Fast forward 33 years to now and China is living through the worst of the capitalist excesses Marx wrote about. Recent stories on Foxconn have illustrated that, in spite of some improvements in recent years, China’s workers still endure conditions deplorable by western standards. Last month, Elizabeth Economy also revealed statistics that show how the land grab epidemic and exploitation of farmers is getting worse. And last week, Bloomberg highlighted China’s mammoth wealth inequality and marriage of money and politics. Their report said that the 70 richest delegates in China’s National People’s Congress have a combined $89.8 billion. This compares to $7.5 billion for all 660 top officials in the U.S. government.

When faced with such problems, there’s one thing people around the world tend to turn to: Prayer. To see an extreme example of the power of faith during times of exploitation, we can look back to American and European slavery.  By the time the American Civil War came, the slave population was almost entirely Christian. Masters encouraged this because it gave slaves hope for the next world. With the promise of heavenly reward for hard faithful work, inclinations to seek freedom in Earthly life were subdued.

In one form or another, exploitation continued through the industrial revolution as the lower class created capital that mostly went to the upper class. But then the West eventually reached “development.” Some governments have even stepped in and made healthcare and education universally obtainable, which has helped push down wealth inequality. Several western countries are now moving toward what some might consider socialism through these policies. And a funny thing is happening: Religion is shrinking. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Scandinavia.

Those countries have pushed down wealth inequality to the lowest levels in the world, while per-capita wealth and happiness are among the highest. These countries also now happen to be the least religious.

Marxism is lacking in many areas, but it may not be as discredited as previously thought. Pitzer College sociology associate professor Phil Zuckerman has done research that compares religiosity and societal health. His findings show that countries with higher levels of organic atheism do indeed correlate with better indicators of a healthy society. I asked Zuckerman how this fits with Marx’s theory of religion and development.

“Research does support Marx,” he said, regarding religion. “At least to the extent that we know that societies that are ‘secure’ — people have enough to eat, somewhere to live, access to education, health care, and they live in free, open democracies (unlike China!) — such societies tend to be less religious. Conversely, societies that are poor, chaotic, wracked with warfare, instability, etc. — these societies tend to be more religious.”

Whether it’s Weber’s work ethic, Marx’s opiate, or a little of both, data suggests religion plays a role in developing societies and allowing the accumulation of capital. But then affluence, education and equality largely make the supernatural aspect obsolete. So when talking about morality or social effects, secular countries like China – where atheism has been forced from above – are a world apart from secular countries like Sweden. Sweden may be secular now, but it did develop under a religious moral framework.

Nobody can yet say whether the religious work ethicmoral framework or “opiate” are absolutely necessary for China to develop to the level of Western countries, or if Confucianism will be able to pick up the slack. But the developed club is so far overwhelmingly made up of countries that have gone through periods of majority religious populations.

The Chinese government isn’t blind to this. Many in the still-very-authoritarian Communist Party see the potential for religion and want to guide its development…on their terms. But, as Zuckerman pointed out, China’s capitalism is still missing one key ingredient from Marx’s scheme: Democracy. Tomorrow, we’ll wrap up this series by looking at how that’s affecting the potential of religion in China.

 

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 5: Communist Christianity

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

Today marks “Learn from Lei Feng Day” in China, where citizens are reminded to follow the lessons of the young soldier who selflessly served the motherland through good deeds to strangers in the early 1960’s. This year the holiday seems to be receiving special attention. A slew of Lei Feng publications have been commissioned, which China Daily proclaimed will boost altruism. And CCTV has been airing several pieces on modern Lei Fengs, like Chinese workers in Africa.

Yesterday, one of these segments caught my eye about a “foreign Lei Feng. ” An American in his 40’s named David is teaching in rural Gansu and has been living in poor areas around China for the better part of two decades. The segment said that after getting hired at one school, David asked to be paid 1,000 yuan less each month so that his salary was the same as the Chinese teachers.

I dug a bit deeper and found David has been the subject of other TV segments celebrating his Lei Feng-ness. He wears shoes with holes in them, only has a backpack’s worth of worldly possessions, and during an interview when he was asked how much he usually scores during basketball games (he’s quite tall), he replied, “I don’t score very much. I just like to pass to other people. Watching them score makes me happy.”

And if the parallels to Lei Feng still aren’t obvious enough, David also hangs a Chinese flag wherever he lives and the “interests” portion of his résumé says “serving the people.”

David’s image seems almost cartoonishly contrived, but still, there’s no faking living in one of China’s poorest areas for over a decade for basically nothing. David’s M.O. seemed a bit familiar, so I dug even deeper on Google and sure enough, I found what was absent (almost certainly on purpose) from the CCTV bit: David is a devout Christian. One former student even blogged about how he and several others had been led to Christianity by David.

This is where Lei Feng and David are a world apart. Lei Feng’s legend says that he did his good deeds for the good of the nation. He praised the efforts of Mao and the party and helped others so that China may ultimately achieve Communism. But expecting people to sacrifice so much for nothing in return is why “learning from Lei Feng” is ultimately just as doomed to irrelevance as Communism itself.

But as David’s converts prove, religion has much more potential to make a splash. While on the surface people like David seem just like Lei Feng, they actually get something big in return for their sacrifices. They get the promise of heavenly reward from a higher power who’s always watching. And unlike socialist ideology, their scripture won’t easily be discredited by political or economic shifts.

Tomorrow, we’ll look deeper at Christianity’s potential in China and why so many young people are converting.

Christianity series Part 2: The new Christians

Christianity series Part 3: Divine economics

Christianity series Part 4: What Marx may have gotten right

Christianity series Part 5: Communist Christianity

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.

Every newspaper makes mistakes. It’s an unfortunate fact of life in an industry that has to deliver a wide range of information every day. But that’s what corrections are for. Just acknowledge and rectify the mistake and readers will usually trust the paper even more for it. I’ve never seen such a correction in Global Times…until today.

Last month Global Times ran piece called Australians uncertain about China’s new power, which cited a 2008 incident where Chinese students protested Tibetan and human rights activists at the Canberra Olympic torch relay. It was printed under the name Rory Medcalf, program director of international security at the Lowy Institute for International Policy.

But it turned out Medcalf had just been interviewed by Global Times and, unbeknownst to him, his ideas were patched together into an op-ed with his byline slapped on.  The phrase “[…] triggered by Tibetan separatists’ attempt to block the event” was also added, despite the fact that he never said it.

Medcalf wrote a post about the incident concluding, “The fact remains that someone on the newspaper’s staff thought it was perfectly acceptable to put words into my mouth to suit the Communist Party line. This is a real pity, since in principle it is a good thing for a Chinese newspaper to reach out to international audiences and to devote space for foreign commentators to communicate in their own words. The Global Times undermined this potentially positive initiative through some failures of basic journalistic standards.”

Today, the Global Times editor responsible for the incident, Gao Lei, made an unprecedented move and agreed. Global Times published an apologetic response where Gao explained that it was wrong to ever put Medcalf’s name on the byline to begin with. As for the “separatist” part, Gao explained that he had in fact been studying in Australia in 2008 and organized a counter-protest in Perth.

“My mind flashed back to the days when Western media gave what I saw as biased reports around Olympic torch relay and I tossed off the word ‘separatists’ with outrage,” said Gao. “I used the word unthinkingly, as it is the term commonly used by Chinese media source. It ended up in the article appearing as Medcalf’s words. Of course professionally I made an extremely serious mistake. Medcalf wrote a blog post to clarify his opinions and I am truly sorry for the distress my misrepresentation caused.”

For regular Global Times readers (or readers of most any Chinese media outlet) this honest acknowledgement of letting personal bias interfere with journalistic ethics is quite remarkable. This was an obvious contrast to Hu Xijin, the paper’s editor-in-chief.

In this excerpt from a 2010 piece in the Sydney Morning Herald, John Garnaut recalls an interview with Hu Xijin:

In our interview he didn’t seem to care whether his missiles were aimed at me personally or my profession, my country or the wider Western world. Australia was too insignificant to lecture China: ”You are driving a cart and we are driving a truck.” Ditto for Japan, given its entire stock of highways was no greater than China could build in a single year. And the New York Times was ”full of lies”.

On the subject of lies, I mentioned that his paper had egregiously misrepresented some of my own stories written in the Herald. He reassured me of his great personal commitment to truth and to pushing the boundaries of free speech. Earlier he had told me that Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel peace prize winner, deserved to be in prison for being ”a liar” who advocated ”Australian-style” democracy.

Again, contrast that to Gao Lei, a junior editor, who said about her mistake:

What I see from this unfortunate incident is the challenges Chinese media, and China as a whole, face in the expanding international engagement. Among issues where the West and China has profound disagreements, Tibetan situation is one of them. For both sides, a simple word can carry heavy political weight.

As a junior editor, I still have much to learn. Meanwhile, I remain optimistic that open dialogue and exchange of ideas will still help reduce long-held misperceptions.

Today I saw this campaign ad, which ran during the Superbowl, for Michigan Republican Senate-hopeful Peter Hoekstra. In the ad, an Asian [presumably Chinese] woman says:

“Thank you Michigan senator Debbie Spend-it-now. Debbie spends so much American money, you borrow more and more from us. Your economy get very weak. Ours get very good. We take your jobs. Thank you Debbie Spend-it-now.”

And if that weren’t enough, the website for debbiespenditnow.com is full of stereotypical Chinese imagery interlaced with statistics about how the red menace is eating our lunch thanks to the Democrats.

It doesn’t upset me so much that the campaign could afford a Superbowl commercial, yet couldn’t be bothered to find an actual Chinese person to act in it – instead opting to use an American-accented woman offensively feigning Chinglish. What bothers me is that the old foreign menace political tactic is still being used as much as it was 50, 100, and 500 years ago… and it’s still working.

This election season is already shaping up to be the most xenophobic ever (and given the 2010 election, that would be quite a feat). In a special election last summer Nevada congressman hopeful Mark Amodei ran an ad with the PLA marching on Washington and hoisting the Chinese flag atop the capitol building – suggesting a scenario that could not conceivably happen. Sure, plenty of people decried it; just as they are now for this new Hoekstra ad. But in the end, Amodei won in a 58-to-36% landslide.

Throughout history, when a hopeful leader has nothing real to put on the table, caricaturizing and exaggerating a foreign rival to whip up nationalistic support has been a go-to short cut to power and influence. None of the great progress in technology and education has changed that. So we still see plenty of modern democratic leaders using the same playbook as some of history’s greatest monsters.

Every time I see this tactic employed in the US toward China, I think of routine statements by Chinese leaders like Hu Jintao – who said last month, “We must clearly see that international hostile forces are intensifying the strategic plot of westernizing and dividing China.”

For leaders that are supposedly so ideologically different, they can look pretty similar sometimes.

[UPDATE 1: Apparently Peter Hoekstra’s Facebook page started deleting negative comments on a thread with this video today until the link was finally taken down completely. When I said he and Chinese leaders look pretty similar, I didn’t realize it was this identical.]

[UPDATE 2: Pete “Spend-it-not” Hoekstra spent $75,000 for the Superbowl slot this ad ran in. This out of an at least $1 million campaign fund]

[UPDATE 3: A February 5th  press release on this ad from Hoekstra’s campaign website (highlights added by me):

“Holland, Mich. – Hoekstra for Senate today launched a new television ad and website that calls attention to Debbie ‘Spend-It-Now’ Stabenow’s dismal record on spending, the national debt and jobs, which has increased our reliance on foreign countries, including China.  The ad and DebbieSpendItNow.com contrast Stabenow’s big-spending policies with Pete Hoekstra’s penny pinching agenda.

‘Debbie Spend-It-Now has increased our national debt, cracked the foundation of our economy, and bolstered our reliance on foreign countries like China,’ said Hoekstra.  ‘The growing dependence on China, which Stabenow’s policies have fostered, weakens our economy and jeopardizes our national security.  We can’t afford it any longer and it’s time to hold Debbie Spend-It-Now accountable for her reckless agenda.  My views on the economy and jobs could not be more different.  I will be a penny pincher in Washington, working to not just pass a budget, but balance the budget so we can break free from our reliance on China and other countries.’

The $150,000 ad buy begins on Sunday, February 5, and will run for two weeks. To view the ad, please click here.”]

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?

Today Global Times ran an editorial called “Human rights award misses point of China’s social progress.” It was about Chinese lawyer Ni Yulan being given the Human Rights Defenders Tulip by the Dutch government for her role in fighting forced demolitions. Following standard GT editorial protocol, it opted to forgo any use of objective figures or examples to substantiate its claims. Instead it chose the basic approach of “fuck you Western media for calling attention to China’s problems rather than playing cheerleader to the overall progress it’s made.”

A few months ago I vowed not to rebut every dumb GT editorial that I came across. After all, I have to eat and sleep some time. So rather than rebutting, I’ve decided to help GT out with a little copy-editing. I’m in journalism school currently and one of the key principles we’re taught again and again is “show, don’t tell.” I know it’s been a long time since journalism school for Editor-in-Chief Hu Xijin, who usually writes these editorials, so I’ve taken the liberty of re-writing it so that it has a chance of actually influencing some people toward GT’s viewpoint. It can even keep the same title and lead:

Human rights award misses point of China’s social progress 

Ni Yulan has been awarded the Human Rights Defenders Tulip 2011 by the Dutch government after her actions against forced demolition in Beijing, becoming the latest recipient of a foreign human rights prize. An unverified report said that Wednesday, Ni’s daughter Dong Xuan was not allowed to fly to the Netherlands to accept the award on behalf of her mother, who is still awaiting trial.

Ni has served a positive role in helping those who’ve been wrongfully, and often violently, dispossessed of their homes gain awareness of their rights and seek redress. She indeed deserves recognition for the hardships and debilitating physical harm she’s endured in her crusade to help the underclass.

However, coverage on cases like Ni Yulan tend to leave a somewhat unbalanced impression of forced evictions in China. In the focus on individual stories of suffering, it’s easy to miss the greater good that many demolitions are achieving.

There are essentially two types of land seizures now happening on a wide scale in China. The kind Ni has fought against are illegal and often the result of corrupt real estate deals. These unjustly throw commoners out of their homes with inadequate compensation and often feed a speculative bubble that threatens serious harm to the economy. The central government is indeed aware of this troubling trend and should continue to take proactive measures to mitigate it.

The second kind of demolition, however, gets less attention and is actually very good for China. Currently, roughly half of China’s population lives in rural areas. These areas usually consist of single-unit houses which use coal directly for cooking and heating. The houses also often have paper windows or other deficiencies that make them very energy inefficient. This contributes to high levels of both carbon emissions and local pollutants like sulfur.

Moving these people to the cities will put them in more efficient homes and on China’s electric grid, which is quickly cleaning up its energy production. Even when coal is the energy source, plants are becoming 25-50% more efficient and are retrofitting with devices that cut 95% of sulfur emissions.

Once these people are moved from their rural homes, the land is freed up for an even more pressing concern: food. China is about the same size as the US, but has 82% the arable farmland with 420% the population. To make matters worse, desertification is claiming this land at a rate comparable to the size of Rhode Island each year. It’s no wonder 150 million Chinese still don’t get enough to eat.

If we look at a developed country like the United States, a hundred years ago farmers made up 30% of its population. In 1945, on average, it took 14 labor-hours to produce 100 bushels of corn on two acres of land. By 1987, thanks to technological development, it took under 3 labor-hours and just over one acre of land to get the same result. Today, only about 2% of Americans are farmers and they produce much more food than the 30% did a hundred years ago.

China is going through the same process now with its current 35% farming population. Moving farmers from the countryside to cities moves them up the value chain and frees up land for more efficient mechanized farming. According to Geographical Society of China President Lu Dadao, China took only 22 years to increase its urban population from 17.9% to 39.1%. It took Britain 120 years and the US 80 years to accomplish this. So it can be said that China’s development is much more impressive.

It’s estimated that China’s urban population will surpass 70% by 2035, bringing it closer to developed status. It is regrettable that the power entrusted to local officials in order to reach this goal is sometimes abused. The recent resolution of the Wukan situation showed the government’s progress in dealing with these situations, but of course, there remains work to be done.

In this long march forward, it’s inevitable that many toes will get stepped on. Many will be uprooted amidst this progress. However, we shouldn’t let the setbacks completely overshadow the critical overarching goal. After all, keeping people fed is the most important human right of all.

See, I’ll bet you came a lot closer to sympathizing with GT’s main point here than in the original piece. It’s still bullshit, but I think you’ll agree it’s much less rank bullshit. 

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.

 

Last October the story of little Yue Yue captivated China for several weeks. In the search for answers as to why 18 bystanders ignored a dying toddler, Peng Yu was frequently cited. He was the young Nanjing man who, in 2006, allegedly helped a fallen old woman to the hospital who turned around and sued him, saying he had knocked her down. This case has been cited again and again, even before Yue Yue, as the reason Chinese don’t lend assistance to hurt strangers.

But today a story came out that, if true, is kind of a bombshell. It says Peng Yu was guilty all along.

China.org.cn reported

Now it has been revealed that Peng lied at the court hearing and he had, in fact, knocked Xu down, Outlook Weekly magazine reported yesterday.

Peng admitted accidently pushing Xu as he was getting off a bus, and agreed to pay her 10,000 yuan compensation in a settlement reached in March 2008. The two sides withdrew their appeals and came to an agreement that they would not disclose details of the case, Liu Zhiwei, director of Nanjing Political and Legal Affairs Commission, told the magazine.

Liu said he was disclosing the agreement because the case had been seriously misunderstood and was said to have been a turning point in moral standards.

Liu said he had the consent of Peng and Xu to do so, the magazine said.

Just like scores of people on Weibo, I was pretty skeptical on reading this. There have been numerous incidents of non-assistance in past five years allegedly inspired by Peng Yu. Why come out with this now? Especially three months AFTER all the hoopla about Yue Yue. The knee-jerk reaction was that the government probably stepped in to “maintain social stability” by discrediting the Peng Yu case.

But in retrospect, everyone did seem to take for granted that Peng Yu was innocent from the beginning. In Peng Yu’s original version of the incident, he was the first to get off a bus and saw the fallen woman. He accompanied her to the hospital, gave her 200 yuan and stayed with her until after her treatment – saying she didn’t need to repay the cash. The woman said that he had knocked her down while getting off the bus.

Suppose you hadn’t been previously been influenced by the presumption that the woman was an extortionist. There were no other witnesses, so it’s her word against his. I wouldn’t hold Peng liable in the absence of hard evidence, but I’d still probably suspect he did it. (Of course, hindsight is 20/20 though)

The judge initially ruled that “according to common sense” it was very possible Peng was guilty and that he would have just left the hospital after dropping the woman off  “according to what one would normally do in this case.” So the judge ordered him to pay 40% of the medical costs (45,000 yuan).

According to the new information released this week, during the appeals process a year later the two settled with a non-disclosure agreement for 10,000 yuan.  Nothing here seems too unbelievable. I wouldn’t have awarded the money originally, but then I come from the American legal system. The Chinese system is much more egalitarian and prone to favor the weaker party.

I recall reading a case where a flower pot fell from an apartment complex and hit a woman, but no one could determine whose room it came from.  Rather than leaving the injured woman to fend for herself financially, the judge ordered all 30 of the tenants who might be responsible to share the medical costs equally. I’ve frequently mentioned this case to Chinese friends; the majority of whom agreed with the verdict.

So if Peng Yu was probably guilty (even though there wasn’t physical evidence), the judge’s ruling wasn’t so outrageous by Chinese legal standards. But the media has run with the story framed from Peng Yu’s perspective again and again. And the fact that the settlement was a year later and confidential just allowed the story to keep running.

Now however, someone involved with the case apparently finally felt the need to make it public. But that person wasn’t Peng Yu. I just wonder where he’s been this whole time. Surely he’s noticed that he’s become somewhat of a folk hero from his name being mentioned by so many over the past five years as the reason for bystander ambivalence.

I’m not totally convinced the new revelation wasn’t crafted by higher powers, but either way, now that his non-disclosure agreement has been voided, Peng Yu has some explaining to do.

 

 

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.

Phoenix, China

When trying to do any kind of reporting in China, being ethnically foreign automatically closes a lot of doors. But then sometimes it opens doors you weren’t even looking for.

Over the New Year’s holiday, my girlfriend and I went to visit an old student in Anhui. One day we hopped on a bus to the countryside to see the nearby village of Phoenix (“Fenghuacun” in Chinese), which has a population of 6,000. On the way there another passenger started asking my friend about his foreign acquaintance (me) and offered to show us around.

When we arrived, he grabbed a friend/business associate from a nearby house who happened to be the communist party secretary of the village. In Chinese cities there’s a mayor and a party secretary at the top of the government apparatus. But since the CCP oversees the government, the party secretary is the one with the real power.

As we started walking toward the village, the secretary yelled to the driver of a nearby Buick, telling him to drive us all to the town center.  He complied.

Phoenix lies in a small nook surrounded by mountains. Like most villages that size, it consists entirely of one or two story homes and is largely self-sufficient – using every open patch of land for agriculture. Nearly everyone under 40 has left in search of higher paying work in the cities. However, the local economy has done pretty well for itself. A few years ago the village decided to devote a large chunk of land to growing flowers instead of vegetables. This brought in more money and had the unexpected side-effect of bringing in thousands of tourists to see the flowers blossom in spring.

As we walked around we passed a woman washing clothes in a creek. The secretary told her to go make lunch for all of us. “Ah ok,” she replied. “I’ll prepare several dishes.” And she ran off, set on her mission.

The two men explained how the village remains somewhat of a collective with the government owning all the farmland. Villagers are paid by a manager to tend to the flowers and other crops. Many of the villagers also grow a type of tree that’s used as Chinese medicine to help blood circulation. The medicine is exported, mostly to Russia, but the financial crisis has put a damper on sales the last few years. To continue development, the village currently has ambitious plans to build an enormous Buddhist temple and two lakes – which it hopes will boost tourism further.

While we were touring, several people came outside, offering the party secretary tea, cigarettes or lunch. I was kind of surprised that they seemed more enamored with him than me.

My friend, me, the businessman, the party secretary

When we went for lunch at the home of the woman we’d met earlier, baijiu (white liquor) started flowing and political discussion commenced. “The US and China are like a young couple,” the secretary told me. “They quarrel a lot but they can’t leave each other.”

He asked about the US’s local government structure and pointed out how similar the Chinese system is.  He said he himself had been elected to his position with 3,500 out of 5,000 votes and serves in 3-year terms. He’s now 57 and in his eighth year as party secretary.

We tried to get deeper into comparing political systems, but neither of the men could quite grasp how the American two-party system worked. The businessman asked, “Which party controls the political education?”

It’s the kind of question you would only hear in the countryside – where the party secretary regularly holds meetings to educate villagers on how to safeguard “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics” and carry out new directives from higher government organs. Even with a foreigner, much of the way the secretary spoke was in archaic ideological language that only a government official would use. And in typical fashion, he had nothing but self-congratulatory remarks to make about his village.

“The US is the most developed country in the world,” he said. “But we say our living conditions are very good – no worse than America’s.”

“Just look at the food we eat,” he said as he pointed to the lamb on the table.

My friend challenged him, pointing out that there are still many poor people in the village.“They gamble,” the businessman chimed in. “Yes, it’s their personal problem,” the secretary added. “They themselves are to blame. They’re poor because they’re lazy.”

When it came up that I’m a journalism student, the secretary had a suggestion for me. “You should start your own media company in America,” he said. “Then you can write positive stories about China.”

While I’m not sure he would win my vote, he certainly seemed to have the adoration of the villagers. The driver and the cook looked happy to help when he told them what to do. And others around the village jumped up in excitement when he rounded the corner.   Of course it’s still possible that, like many officials, he dabbles in some sort of corruption. But he already commands the respect of the whole village and I imagine almost anything he needs is comp’d by insistent constituents. To engage in overt or coercive corruption would be exceedingly greedy and self-defeating on his part.

In reality the town’s improving living standards probably have less to do with his policies than with the state simply getting out of the way and allowing greater private enterprise. But I doubt many see it that way. Given the town’s relative seclusion, all politics is local. So crediting the highest government official in the village for development makes sense.

But I imagine life in Phoenix is still pretty similar to what it was in Mao’s time; and the time before that. People now have enough disposable income to buy satellite dishes, hot water heaters and any number of other personal conveniences, but life is still very collective and laid back. In a sense, Phoenix is enjoying the best of capitalism and socialism. It’s been fortunate to be able to support itself economically without resorting to real estate deals. But what percentage of China’s countryside looks like this and what percentage looks like Wukan is hard to say.

There may be some slumps in the future and eventually the party secretary will be replaced by another – perhaps from a totally different political body. But regardless of what happens on the outside, I suspect places like Phoenix will go on more-or-less the way they have for centuries: as quiet farming communities separated from the outside world by geography and a lack of any real interest.

The other night in Beijing I had somewhere to be at 7:00 that should take about 15 minutes to get to by bus on empty roads. But given that it’s Beijing, I left at 5:30…and I was still 20 minutes late. In related story, the next day I opened my pollution mask to change the filter. The one on the right in that picture is a new one. The one on the left is what it looks like after a month of casual (maybe an hour per week) use in Beijing.

Some problems in China are so complex and ingrained into habit that solving them will take decades; if they can even be solved at all. This is not one of those problems.

There was recently a hilarious report that claimed Beijing commutes have been slashed from an average of 145 minutes to 60 minutes since this time last year. This incredible 170% drop supposedly happened thanks to the odd-even license plate system that’s been in effect for three years – and it happened while over 240,000 new cars hit the road. I can’t imagine a single Beijinger (who hasn’t been bed-ridden for the past year) who believes this.

The 240,000 new cars are actually down from over 900,000 new ones last year, thanks to a new annual quota on licenses. But after doing extensive calculations of all the traffic reduction measures [looking at them], I found a common fatal flaw: they still allow the number of cars to go up.

If they actually wanted to solve the problem once and for all, it would be as simple as charging a toll to drive in the city. Singapore has a brilliantly simple system where drivers have a pre-paid card on their dashboard that overhead cameras scan, deducting money automatically as they drive around town. Prices are higher during weekdays and during rush hour. If traffic starts getting a little too congested, the price goes up and, magically, less people are on the roads.

The Singapore minister of national development said, “It’s not rocket science to know that if you charge people to use certain commodities, that use is managed and controlled.”

No, it’s not rocket science. It’s freshman economics 101. Use incentives and disincentives properly to achieve the desired result. Yet this is a concept that continues to elude many governments around the world.

While the number of cars has surged parking prices have naturally followed. The average cost of buying a parking space in the Beijing is now around 140,000 yuan ($21,726) while some spaces are fetching upwards of 800,000 yuan ($124,316). So what is the government doing? Accommodating the upset drivers by building 200,000 new spaces. If they had attended said economics 101, they would realize that when this measure makes parking more abundant, more people will have incentive to buy cars. Ditto if more roads are built. The problem will be solved very briefly, and then become worse. This is why several major cities have put caps on the number of new spaces that can be built.

The current measures being taken to alleviate traffic are all essentially gimmicks to pacify the greater public while avoiding too much agitation of car manufacturers and drivers. China doesn’t want to miss out on the boon that an auto industry gives the economy and the government doesn’t want to upset drivers – who are quickly becoming as whiny as Americans in defending their “need” and “right” to having a car.

Then there’s the social stability concern. Several drivers have beaten, and even killed, parking attendants over high fees.  But, to put that in perspective, the average life-expectancy of a Chinese traffic cop is 43. And how many others are having their lives shortened with blackening lungs each day and dying in traffic on the way to the hospital?

A Singapore-type measure wouldn’t solve Beijing’s horrific pollution completely, but it would help immensely. And it would, without a doubt, solve the traffic problem. In fact, it would work in any city that has a decent public transportation infrastructure. It would dent China’s auto industry, but if the government thinks it can develop the car culture the same way America did, we may as well all start digging our graves now.

Drivers would be upset, but frankly they can cry me a river. Why shouldn’t they pay for their negative externalities? It would be an egalitarian measure all around that does good for the maximum amount of people. Is there something I’m missing here?

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” 

 

 

 

Bo and Wang new BFFs?

Posted: December 17, 2011 in Politics
Tags: ,

Recently during a routine exchange between Guangdong and Chongqing officials, Wang Yang and Bo Xilai, the party heads of the respective regions, started lavishing over-the-top praise on each other. Bo went on about how Wang “laid the foundations” for the present conditions of Chongqing while Wang talked about a special Chongqing tree he keeps – which reminds him of the municipality and the progress it’s making. This seemed especially odd given that the two men are obvious rivals for the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) and have made subtle public jabs at one another in recent months.

Russell Leigh Moses from Wall Street Journal ran a piece explaining the love fest as a prompt from Beijing to quell any public impression of an inner-party rivalry. He speculated that the two men recited their scripts reluctantly, since they still see themselves very much as competitors.

I’m guessing it was something Beijing wanted, but I’ll venture to say perhaps it wasn’t done reluctantly by either side. For months foreign media has been speculating on this rivalry and what direction the PSC (and ergo China) might go. Bo Xilai has become fairly famous through his red campaigns and awareness is growing of his and Wang’s competing models – especially among intellectuals.  This awareness has perhaps become great enough that putting either one on the PSC  would create expectations the greater party doesn’t want to commit to. With Bo, people might expect tough egalitarian measures, or with Wang, greater freedoms. Putting either on now would be a strong a signal of intent to head in one direction or the other.

If that’s the case, it’s either both or neither for the PSC. And putting both on is risky. Having such a public disparity of ideology sitting in the top nine could suggest a break in the unified front the party tries to convey at all times. Radically divergent views between hardliners led by Li Peng and progressives by Zhao Ziyang in 1989 gave protesters a whiff of weakness that they seized upon. That’s hardly a time bomb the party wants to risk planting during this sensitive era.

So perhaps that’s what’s behind the new affections. Bo and Wang are trying to hold hands and show they can work together without stirring up the pot. They’d rather both make the cut than neither of them.

But both men have fallen from their pinnacles. Bo peaked this past summer amid the 90th anniversary of the CCP where he thrived in the greater attempt to reinforce party legitimacy. Since then he’s slid to wild card status after many compared him with Maoism and wondered if the Chongqing model could work on a nationwide scale. So Wang took the spotlight; but with the events that have unfolded in Wukan this week under his watch, it’s hard to imagine he has much of a shot left.

So it looks increasingly likely that neither man will be tapped for promotion. But who knows what could happen in the months ahead.

Usually when a sensitive event happens in China, the government takes the scalpel approach to censoring it. Certain key words are blocked from search engines and social media; and if images or comments alluding to the event are posted, they’re manually deleted. This is a minor annoyance, but usually just something to scoff at and forget about.

However, the situation unfolding in Wukan has prompted the government to holster the scalpel and whip out the hatchet. Entire social media accounts of those reposting information about the events are being systematically deleted. You can imagine how you would feel if you lost your Facebook or Twitter account and years of accumulated contacts.

It illustrates the graveness of the situation compared to other “sensitive” issues like the Wenzhou train accident or the Nobel Peace Prize. While those were embarrassing for the government, they didn’t represent an immediate existential threat.

For all the hoopla that came out about being unable to cover up the Wenzhou accident, the government seems to be locking down information about Wukan pretty successfully. And the Chinese media hasn’t featured so much as a Global Times editorial blaming foreigners for hyping the event. The only Chinese friend I’ve spoken to who has any idea what’s going on is a political science professor who studies this kind of thing.

I asked a Chinese computer programmer friend last night about it. He had no idea and, in pretty typical fashion, dismissed it saying, “There are many things the government doesn’t let us know about.” He wasn’t too bothered by the fact that rebels had taken over an entire Chinese city for the first time in PRC history.

It’s hard to understate the significance of this. It’s not the beginning of a system-wide collapse but it’s probably a sneak peak of things to come. And however it ends, it will set a precedent. As China’s economy slows and housing prices drop, local governments who are already on the way to bankruptcy will become more desperate. Land grabs will be more aggressive, and so will the resistance to them.

People in Wukan are wisely trying to keep a wedge between the national government and local leaders while avoiding too much contact with foreigners that could be used against them later. Adrienne Mong from NBC reported speaking with a villager who said, “We don’t want American media to get involved. We have our great leaders, like Wen Jiabao, Hu Jintao.”

This is a common tactic in these situations. People who’ve been evicted often plaster pictures of Hu or Wen over the homes about to be demolished, hoping that will save them. But you have to imagine those leaders are scrambling for a way to make this whole thing go away without seeming cruel or weak. While people at the local level don’t recognize this as a national problem, they don’t necessarily need to in order for it to spell disaster for the Communist Party.

Outside of the big cities, China is essentially a patchwork of fiefdoms run by local bureaucrats. In Wukan the same head had been in power for decades. If this uprising ends with anything but a massacre or mass imprisoning of the villagers, people in some of the thousands of other fiefdoms across the country could be emboldened Arab Spring-style if and when the economy goes sour – assuming their own circumstances don’t independently lead them to the same actions anyways. And how many fiefdoms can fall before the authoritarian bureaucracy has to reform or die?

So I can’t say I blame the party for clamping down on news about this so harshly. Throughout Chinese history, rebellions have often started this way in the countryside.  But if things get too desperate the government still has even greater measures up its sleeves – like temporarily shutting down entire social networking platforms or mobile phone service.

And they should do whatever they can to keep the bureaucratic system in place with a strong state hand at the helm of each village. As we all know, without it these uneducated peasants would erupt into chaos. See this tweet from McClatchy’s Tom Lasseter, who’s clinging to dear life amidst the anarchy of the police-less, government-less Wukan:

“It’s striking that in the vacuum of security/government, life in Wukan is pretty orderly. Worries about food [have] not led to looting, etc.”

I’m reminded of 2004 when newly-elected Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili got fed up with police corruption, so he up and fired roughly 80-90% of the cops in the country. Then, even without a police force for three months, things got better. Turned out it was the police causing most of the trouble to begin with.

Tom Lasseter also interviewed a 27-year-old man in Wukan who said, “We are a civilized people. Even without a government we are capable of behaving in a civilized manner.”

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.

China Daily recently reported  on new compulsory ethics classes for government officials. It said, “The ethics campaign, which will be ‘of great significance’ in lifting public confidence in the government and in civil servants as well as in consolidating the Party’s governance position, will be carried out from 2011 to 2015”

Lift public confidence in government? Maybe. Consolidate the Party’s governance position? Uh, I guess…if somehow that isn’t already 100% done. Do anything to actually improve officials’ ethics? *crickets chirping*

Any economist will tell you that the only thing that changes behavior on a wide scale is incentives. I’ve written about these absurd campaigns before and how they always neglect the only two things that actually deincentivize corruption: An untied press and an independent judiciary.

So I always wonder who these campaigns are really for. Are they just a show to pacify a public increasingly aware and intolerant of corruption? Or does the Party genuinely believe that officials can be trained to act ethically without actual public oversight?

I often think the latter is possible. Though absolute power has proven to corrupt absolutely time and time again, people always think they can be the ones to break the pattern. Hell, if you put me completely in charge I bet I’d create a utopia given my benevolence and 100% correct beliefs. So maybe the higher-ups see the Party as a flawed entity which can consciously overcome its shortcomings and become the benevolent force Mao (supposedly) envisioned.

But that same China Daily piece had another quote that shed further light: “Laws overlap ethics, but the law cannot fully cover all ethical issues, such as extra marital affairs, which tend to lead officials into corruption.”

While I’m sure there are exceptions, the idea that affairs “tend to lead officials into corruption” seems completely backwards. That’s not what the Party wants people to think though. They love showing how many mistresses fallen corrupt officials had; or how frivolously they lived. It shows that their corruption is a personal level moral issue; not a nationwide systematic one.

Lai Changxing, who was responsible for the “biggest economic crime in the history of the People’s Republic of China” in a black market import racket, used to keep an extravagant mansion/brothel where he’d entertain government officials with wild sex parties. After they all fell off the horse, the mansion was turned into a museum open to the public to showcase Lai’s and the officials’ depravity. (It was later shut down after guests swarmed in and marveled at how awesome being a corrupt official is).

So this new ethics plan seems to target the alleged route of corruption in the Party’s narrative: immoral lifestyles. That’s the narrative they’ve been pushing so now they have to show they’re doing something about it.  And they’ve given themselves five years to implement it – probably about as long as they can plausibly draw it out.

But the real question is if, and for how long these campaigns can actually placate the masses’ impatience with corrpution. Stay tuned…

This week Vladamir Putin was announced the winner of the *ahem* prestigious Confucius Peace Prize. Many have already been quick to point out the irony of “The Butcher of Chechnya” getting a peace prize. I think, however, this is a very apt metaphor for the greater political discourse in China.

The Chinese committee who awarded this is obviously pretty nationalistic, as the entire premise of the Confucius Prize is a rebuke to the Nobel Peace Prize awarding to Liu Xiaobo. And to many Chinese nationalists, awarding Putin a peace prize makes perfect sense. He had the courage to stand up to renegade separatist territories like Chechnya and Georgia to ensure Russia’s territorial integrity and peaceful unity. The subtext here is pretty obvious.

During the class discussion question “What would you do if you were president of China?” I would always inevitably have 2-3 students say something like “send the military into Taiwan” (and sometimes into Japan). Chinese nationalists would love to see their leaders have the brass to reclaim the island and other disputed territories.

But this is obviously not something the Chinese government wants. They’re smart enough to realize that vastly superior military might doesn’t necessarily translate into a swift conquest (See USA vs. Iraq/Vietnam). So as much as the government likes to selectively use nationalism to prop themselves up, they don’t want it getting out of hand to the point that they’re forced into a war they’re not ready for; or even suffer large scale business disruption. So they tone down this kind of sentiment as often as they inflame it to ensure it’s at the appropriate level.

The Confucius Prize wasn’t endorsed by the government. In fact, the organizers defied a direct order not to continue it. Guessing why the government tried to shut it down would be pure speculation (The Peking Duck has some good analysis). And who knows if they knew the winner would be Putin ahead of time (although they definitely knew he was nominated). But if you look at it from the Chinese perspective, Putin does make the Chinese government look fairly weak by comparison. It’s hard to imagine they’re happy about this.

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…

A tale of two Tibets

Posted: November 6, 2011 in Politics
Tags: ,

Last night while watching CCTV, a documentary about Tibet came on. It started with the narrator asking the question that’s on everyone’s mind right now: “Why do Tibetans have such a strong sense of happiness?” It then cut to a professor who said, “We should explore why Tibetans are so happy. Where does this happiness come from?”

A farmer who’d just bought his 8th car, which he parked in his 400 square meter house, was shown. Then an old shop keeper came on to exclaim, “I can’t even recognize Lhasa with all the new roads! Society has become so beautiful and harmonious.” Then the original question was implicitly answered when the woman said,”Thanks to the government we have healthy and safe houses.” It went on to show how the government basically throws sacks of money at Tibetans with free or highly-subsidized public transportation, college scholarships and housing.

Last week I read something  that painted a very a different picture. Here’s an excerpt from a November 1st piece by Tom Lasseter in McClatchy: “The young man’s hands began to shake, and he tugged at his fingers to keep them still. The 20-year-old ethnic Tibetan was terrified of the police finding out that he’d spoken about the Buddhist monks who’ve been burning themselves alive. ‘They’re doing it because they want freedom,’ said the man, a livestock trader who asked that his name not be used because of safety concerns.”

I’ve never been to Tibet personally. I was planning to go in 2008, and again earlier this year, but foreigners were abruptly barred from entering both times (perhaps because all the spontaneous happiness going on at the time would make us ashamed of our own countries). So I can’t honestly say I know which of these two depictions comes closer to the actual outlook of an average Tibetan. But if I put my critical thinking cap on, I reckon I could make a pretty good guess. What do you think?