Archive for the ‘Chinese Culture’ Category

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.

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.

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?

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.

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:

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 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. 

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…



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. 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.

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.

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.

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.

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…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Maseratis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Conflict resolution in China

Posted: October 12, 2011 in Chinese Culture
Tags: ,

The Shanghaiist recently reported this story about a group of three teenagers who got in a tussle with two security guards at a Kunming KTV. The guards proceeded to call in 35 of their guard buddies who went to town on the kids with clubs and rods, killing one of them. The piece pointed out a tendency in China to not fight “mano-a-mano,” but rather involve everyone each party can recruit to come to their defense.

It reminded me of something that happened when I lived Nanjing a few years ago. Down the street there was a sports university that trains aspiring athletes. Two students (who were either boxers or some kind of martial arts experts, I can’t recall exactly) enjoyed picking fights, or at least intimidating people into taking their verbal abuse for no particular reason (you know the type, they exist in any country). So one evening they went to a very low-end bar patronized by migrant workers. They approached a table of two and proceeded to inform the migrants how uncivilized they were. Slaps started being thrown amidst the verbal insults. Eventually several other migrants at the bar jumped in to fend off the bullies, so they retreated…back to the dorm to recruit more people.

5 or 6 of their chums accompanied them back to the bar where the tables turned against the migrants.  But the migrant workers managed to call up more conscripts.  The migrants had the numbers but still lacked the muscle, so one decided to even the playing field. He stuck a knife in the side of one of the original instigating jocks.

As the kid laid on the ground bleeding out, he yelled at his buddies to run back to campus and get even more reinforcements. He bled to death while his friends tried to talk him into giving up. After that the university passed a strict rule that students can’t drink or smoke…as if that was ever the problem.

This story was recounted to me second-hand, so it’s possible liberties were taken with some facts along the grapevine. But several independently told me the same thing and the the story-line seems very plausible considering how fights often go down in China. It’s not about who the toughest kid in school is, but who has more friends; or rather who can round up more friends on short notice. And the term “friends” here is used loosely. This often involves friends of friends and their extended families.

But the conflict need not always turn physical. When one side’s show of force is obviously greater, then comes the next logical step in any Chinese dispute: an exchange of money.

This might seem obvious in fights that involve cash or property damage, but even schoolyard brawls and spats that grow from  insults might end in “compensation.” One posse encircles the other and the weaker side pays up to avoid a beating…or a greater beating than they’ve already received.  A friend told me once of a fight at his high school that began between two guys over a girl. Supporting crews amassed and, when one overwhelmed the other, the losing side of about six people dished out nearly 3000 yuan to settle the conflict. My friend couldn’t remember where the girl fell in the transaction.

So yet another of many good reasons for foreigners not to drunkenly get in stupid fights with Chinese locals. One way or another, things will end badly for you.

For the National Day holiday I went on a week-long bike trip from Beijing to my girlfriend’s hometown in Shandong, which I’ll be covering over several posts. The thing that stuck out most during the trip was actually a recurring incident I’ve noticed since I arrived in China that’s always fascinated me. It’s when local Chinese manifest things in their mind that their eyes and ears should contradict…and it almost always has to do with foreigners.

One night my (Chinese) girlfriend and I tried to go into a park to camp. A guard ran over to us and stood in my path while my girlfriend stood several meters behind. I started speaking to him in Chinese.

Guard: (looking at my girlfriend) You guys can’t go in.

Me: Why not?

Guard: (Doesn’t reply, continues to look to my girlfriend for help)

Me: What’s the problem? You can tell me directly.

Guard: (Looks to my girlfriend again) Can you translate what I said?

Me: She doesn’t need to translate, I heard you. I’m asking you why we can’t go in.

Guard: (Eyes dart back and forth between me and my girlfriend, still doesn’t talk)

Me: (Raise my voice) Are you able to speak?!

Guard: (Starts to speak, but hesitates. Looks to girlfriend yet again.)

Me: (Raise my voice almost to a yell and slowly pronounce each word) ARE YOU ABLE TO SPEAK?!

Guard: Yes

Me: Then please tell me why we can’t go in!

Guard: (Tells my girlfriend) No bicycles allowed in the park.

Another time we were eating at a restaurant and a nearby customer looked at me and laughed. “It seems he’s not accustomed to using chopsticks,” he said to my girlfriend. I was using chopsticks flawlessly as I have for the past four years at nearly every meal. My girlfriend assured me that my Chinese was flawless when speaking with the guard as well. But the customer simply believed that foreigners can’t use chopsticks. And the guard might as well have met a Chinese-speaking dog. Nothing about the situation made sense to him and his belief that foreigners can’t speak Chinese. Seeing or hearing things that directly contradicted their beliefs wasn’t enough to change either of their minds.

This was most prevalent in cities of about 50,000-200,000; pretty small towns by Chinese standards. While my girlfriend was inquiring about bus tickets in one of these towns called Qingyun in Shandong, some locals gathered around me and my bike – which is a run-of-the-mill 21-speed that you see anywhere in China, including in that particular town.

Local 1: The foreigner rides one of those professional bikes.  It must cost at least 5,000 yuan, probably more like 10,000.

Local 2: Yes, he must have brought it with him from Europe.

Qingyun foreign experts

Me: I bought it for 650 yuan in China.

Local 1: (Completely ignores what I just said) They can go as fast as a motorcycle you know.

Me: Believe me, it’s just a normal Chinese bike that cost 650 yuan.

Local 1: Impossible.

Illegal taxi driver: (talking to me) You know you won’t get any bus tickets. I’ll take you where you want to go.

Me: How much?

Taxi driver: 800 yuan. (The trip would never cost more than 400 for Chinese)

Me: Haha, don’t joke.

Taxi Driver: No joke, for you that’s not very much.

Me: Are you kidding me? I’m a student. I can’t spend that kind of money. It’s twice what we’ve spent this entire trip.

Local 3: You should just charge him 2,000 yuan. Foreigners don’t care about money.

[Conversation condensed slightly for brevity sake.]

In the countryside farming communities the people knew nothing about foreigners, and they recognized it. They were simply full of curious questions.  In the small cities however, the people still knew nothing about foreigners, but most regarded themselves as cosmopolitan international experts. I was just fodder for them to inform one another about the habits of foreigners. They’d never encountered a foreigner, but they had encountered plenty of TV shows and teachers that play up every conceivable stereotype. My white skin immediately made me a walking incarnation of their lifetime’s accumulation of stereotypes. What I actually did or said was of little consequence. My all time favorite instance of this happened on a bus once:

Girl I’ve never met: Nice to meet you. Where are you from?


Girl: Hehe, I like you. You are very humorous.

[Not condensed in any way]

I’ve seen foreigners visiting China just as prone to letting their preconceptions totally alter what their senses tell them. Kids walking home in army fatigue become veritable Hitler’s Youth enforcing marshal law in the Chinese police state. I also heard once about a foreigner who toured a computer chip factory and noticed the workers were grounded to their tables with Velcro bracelets to prevent static. The foreigner reported though that it was a sweatshop which tied its workers to their stations so they couldn’t escape.

These are just some of the funny little every day occurrences that happen when living in China…or any foreign country I suppose.  But over time it gets pretty annoying and makes you seriously wonder how long it will take the world to understand one another and function as a truly global community.

The Catholic church and Communist Party are once again at odds as China recently ordained a bishop that wasn’t approved by the Vatican. Both sides are especially touchy when it comes to sovereignty issues. The Vatican thinks it has sovereignty over all people, souls and things Catholic. The Communist Party believes it has sovereignty over everything within China’s borders…and often things well beyond. The Vatican is the only European country that never bothered to recognize the PRC diplomatically (it still recognizes The Republic of China, AKA Taiwan), which doesn’t help matters either. I always get a kick out of seeing these two squabble, because stubborn sovereignty claims are scarcely the only thing they have in common. Here’s a few similarities I can think of off the top of my head:

Communist Party

Catholic Church

Vast paralyzing bureaucracy

Vast paralyzing bureaucracy

Regular self-criticisms to higher officials make members feel inadequate and insignificant in the face of the benevolent Party

Regular confessions of sins to higher church leaders make members feel inadequate and insignificant in the face of the benevolent church

Assures outsiders that corruption and graft can be effectively combated internally without external oversight. Has been failing for decades.

Assures outsiders that child molestation can be effectively combated internally without external oversight. Has been failing for decades

Dogmatic political slogans regularly etched into the minds of school children with mind-numbing songs and chants

Dogmatic scripture regularly etched into the minds of church goers with mind-numbing songs and chants

Ideology and depiction of history full of contradictions and outright nonsense

Doctrine and view of history full of contradictions and outright nonsense

Used Cultural Revolution to weed out and kill millions of non-believers…along with countless bystanders

Used Crusades to weed out and kill millions of non-believers…along with countless bystanders

Creepy habit of displaying preserved corpse of founding leader

Creepy habit of displaying preserved corpses of many leaders

Why aren’t they better friends?
If you can think of other things they have in common, please add in the comments.

While disasters usually have a tendency to bring out the best in humanity, as soon as I heard about the massive 8.9 magnitude earthquake in Japan earlier today, I cynically predicted it would be the other way around here in China. I went to my Chinese Facebook and some forums and sure enough, I saw comments like this:

– “Japan earthquake, tsunami, oh ha ha ha ha ha. Brings satisfaction to everyone! Retribution, retribution ah!”

– “Japan earthquake, too cool”

– “Why did so few Japanese die?”

– We’re not small like Japan because we’re human beings, not pigs. Let little Japan suffer this little holocaust.

– Japan’s earthquake is worth celebrating. We should gloat. In the face of natural disasters, people are a country. Japanese people do not deserve sympathy. Give up the Diaoyu Islands, change the textbooks, then nothing will be wrong.

I was actually happy to see that comments like these only made up about 20% of the earthquake mentions. In fact some of the first comments I saw posted were preemptively imploring other Chinese to have self-respect and not celebrate the earthquake. After all, no Japanese celebrated the Wenchuan earthquake in 2008. In fact, they sent rescue teams and aid. But even those comments met responses like:

– “They didn’t laugh at the Wenchuan earthquake, but they killed 300,000 people in Nanjing. They were not so friendly and calm to the Chinese then.”

For three years I taught at a university in Nanjing and I must have heard the exact same thing a hundred times. Whenever I made someone justify hating Japan, they would inevitably cite what Japanese soldiers did 74 years ago in Nanjing. Then they would go on to say Japan never apologized and doesn’t teach about its atrocities in textbooks.

I tried showing evidence to the contrary, arguing that 1937-era soldiers don’t represent all Japanese, and even resorted to highlighting China’s own whitewashed history. It was like throwing stones in a pond though. It rarely made a lasting impact. Even when confronted with these things, most would still say, “I don’t know why, but I just have the feeling that I can’t accept Japanese.”

One year I started doing a stereotypes lesson and had students finish the sentence “Japanese people are______.” True to today’s form, about 80% would say neutral or positive things like “serious, hardworking, or efficient.” But there was always that 20% that would write things like “animals, pigs, garbage, brutal, or not human.”

The strange thing was that the 20% were very educated and internationally aware. Some of my smartest students would be the ones going off on the most belligerent and hateful anti-Japanese rants.

Criticizing the US was also common, but in that case, they were almost always able to separate the American government and military from the American people. Why couldn’t they do the same for Japan?

Anti-Japanese nationalism has been a staple of Chinese government legitimacy since the Party was seriously challenged in 1989. Graphic emphasis of Japanese atrocities in school textbooks and an almost universal downplay of anything positive has created a generation that hates Japan even more than the one that actually lived through the war.

When the lion’s share of the exposure you get to a country is seeing pictures of your dismembered countrymen killed at their hands, I suppose the hate isn’t surprising. And when there’s an out-group regarded as sub-human, it’s always tempting to decry them further together with your in-group as a cheap means of achieving unity.

In the last few years the Chinese government has seen this sentiment backfire violently and has backed off in fanning anti-Japanese feelings; but as some reactions today showed…there won’t be a dramatic shift in attitudes anytime soon.

But I have to give a lot of credit to the majority 80% for disproving the stereotype that all Chinese are brainwashed nationalistic drones. In the Chinese blogosphere there were many intelligent and sensitive responses that frankly surprised me. I’ll end with a few of those, and hope that this majority can influence the 20% still clinging to their senseless prejudice. Maybe some good can come out of this tragedy for China and Japan.

– *Sigh* Pray for the Japanese. There are so many narrow-minded nationalists shouting online.

– The Japanese launching a war several generations ago does not mean all Japanese should be dead now. Like China’s invasion during the Sui Dynasty of Korea and the Tang. The Yuan invaded numerous countries, but this doesn’t mean we are damned now.

– Blind hatred is irrational ignorant performance without virtue in the face of disaster. We have to overcome hatred. Under the conditions of the new era, patriotism is to have a sensible spirit.

– Remember when [the Sichuan] primary schools collapsed? Thinking of those children’s pain and fear, I feel sad. Hope that the Japanese victims can be saved as soon as possible.

– China as a great power should have power of mind.