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.

CCTV’s overseas push

Posted: October 27, 2011 in media
Tags: ,

Last week CCTV (China Central Television) held its “First international forum for audience & seminar” where they tried to get advice from foreign journalists on how to expand their international influence. CCTV International, which comprises six channels in six languages, is setting up more foreign bureaus and trying to increase its access to overseas viewers.

This is mostly part of an attempt to expand China’s soft power. According to the Wall Street Journal, China’s media is in a “45 billion yuan ($6.6 billion) push to have a greater influence abroad and counteract what they see as biased reporting from the foreign press.”

CCTV representatives repeated several times at the forum the idea of showing “the Chinese perspective” to the world. This, I think, is the fundamental problem with CCTV’s expansion goals.

How often do you watch France 24? Probably never, because they had the same premise. The TV station launched in 2006 with the stated mission “To cover international current events from a French perspective and to convey French values throughout the world.” They hoped to one day compete internationally with CNN and BBC.

The problem is, in spite of what they’ll tell you, most people don’t actually want to hear others’ perspectives. They want their own perspectives reinforced. It’s called Selective Exposure Theory. This is why Fox News is among the top rated cable news channels in the US, even though studies have shown their viewers are among the most misinformed. It’s a place where conservatives can congregate to have their views reinforced and avoid information that contradicts their beliefs. The same rings true with liberals and MSNBC. For both, it’s good business. They both have large audiences. But who outside of China is going to want information from the Chinese view? Pakistan? North Korea maybe?

Beyond a very niche market, most don’t want another country’s “perspective.”  CNN and BBC’s international channels have succeeded because of extensive resources around the world that can cover events faster and better than others. They’re certainly not 100% objective but they’re not explicitly promoting the American or British “perspective” either. When I watched news of the 2008 Tibet riots, I didn’t really need CCTV’s perspectives like “Any attempt to split China is doomed to failure.” I just needed to know what the hell was happening.

The advantage CCTV has over France 24, or even BBC, is that a lot of people around the world actually care what’s happening inside China. Bloomberg Editor-at-Large Lee Miller said, “You [CCTV] have resources that we can’t compete with. You can access people that we can’t.”

But that comes to the most obvious problem: credibility. While the foreign journalists at the forum talked about some practical business and coverage strategies, it inevitably kept coming back to that same implicit issue.

Even if CCTV ditched the “Chinese perspective” and just tried to report objective news nobody else had access to, could anyone trust the government controlled outlet? The English channel often makes token overtures to prove they’re provocative to foreign audiences but they still mostly rely on the dry traditional “leaders are busy, people are happy, foreign countries are in chaos” format. Then there’s the whole thing with CCTV’s Chinese channels faking interviews and largely neglecting to report their own massive downtown Beijing fire.

Li Bin, a representative of CCTV, assured the audience that they’re dedicated to improving openness and objectivity. The crazy thing is I actually believe him. Al Jazeera was cited by the host of the forum as a good model at one point. They managed to overcome perceived anti-American bias in the wake of 9/11 to launch Al Jazeera English in 2006. Earlier this year my eyes were glued to the station as they covered the Arab Spring, simply because they had access and resources in the Middle-East  nobody else had. Their success in the region has let them expand to the point that they can compete with CNN and BBC in many other places around the world. I remember during the first few hours of the Japanese earthquake their coverage was much better than both those outlets.

It’s obvious those at CCTV International know they have very little international credibility under present circumstances. And from talking to some CCTV reporters, I think they honestly do want to become a true spotlight on the good and the bad of China.

However, there was another English media outlet in China that had the same idea two years ago. They hoped to one day print overseas and compete with foreign outlets. They caused a stir when they ran two pieces on the Tiananmen Square 20th anniversary at a time nobody else in China’s media would mention it. The reporters of this outlet were excited with the freedom they thought they’d have and many (including myself) thought this could be the beginning of a provocative new chapter in China’s media.  That outlet was Global Times.

I don’t want to say CCTV has no chance of making it internationally. They have the resources and interest on their side. But even if the government says they’ll untie CCTV for the international channels, I suspect the first time something truly embarrassing is aired the propaganda department will throw the lasso back on – just like they have with Global Times. It’s a shame. Having an objective international media outlet would do much more for China’s soft power than having a propaganda machine that nobody watches.

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

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

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

Law

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

Religion

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

Education

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

For those who haven’t heard of the horrific incident in Foshan, here’s a link with a video that will absolutely ruin your day and faith in humanity. It shows a two-year old girl getting run over TWICE and ignored by 18 bystanders. She’s not expected to live.

It’s hard to say how much of the bystanders’ ambivalence was universal human psychology and how much can be attributed to distinctly Chinese characteristics, but it’s becoming harder to downplay the latter. This is just the latest in a string of despicable stories to come out of China in recent years.  Consider these, some of which are just one instance of recurring events:

This list, unfortunately, isn’t even close to being exhaustive. It would be very tenuous to connect these all directly to any single factor, as most regard fear of legal liability as the main culprit in the Foshan story, for example, while the one-child policy is oft-cited for the child-trafficking problem. And of course, these things happen in other countries too, but their sheer scale and consistency in China is hard to write off, as many Chinese themselves have noted. There could be one thing at least partially contributing to all of this:

Hell.

Or rather, a lack of it.

I’m a devout atheist and tend to think dogmatic religion plays a largely negative role in society, but I can’t count the number of times in China I’ve shaken my head and wished more people believed in hell.

In any collectivist society, shame among peers tends to have much more influence than internal guilt. So if it’s unlikely that they’ll be caught, punished and shamed, people have less incentive to refrain from despicable actions. There’s even a Chinese proverb alluding to the idea saying “Neng pian jiu pian” (If you’re able to cheat, just cheat). You can couple this with the moral void that’s been left in the wake of socialism’s demise and the tunnel vision focus on money that emerged in the 1990’s.

The idea of hell as a means to keep people honest might be pretty intuitive (if not a bit Machiavellian) but University of British Colombia psychologist Ara Norenzayan published a study entitled Mean Gods Make Good People: Different Views of God Predict Cheating Behavior. He gave subjects a math test they could easily cheat on and those who believed in a vengeful god typically chose not to cheat. “Fear of supernatural punishment may serve as a deterrent to counter-normative behavior, even in anonymous situations free from human social monitoring,” the study said.

Studies by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis and Harvard have also separately found a correlation between belief in hell and lower levels of corruption and higher economic growth.

According to the Boston Globe, “[Harvard researchers Barro and McCleary ] collected data from 59 countries where a majority of the population followed one of the four major religions, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, or Buddhism.[…] Their results show a strong correlation between economic growth and certain shifts in beliefs, though only in developing countries. Most strikingly, if belief in hell jumps up sharply while actual church attendance stays flat, it correlates with economic growth. Belief in heaven also has a similar effect, though less pronounced. Mere belief in God has no effect one way or the other.”

“The expectation that there is a cultural belief in hell or perpetual and eternal punishment for wrongdoing will act as a disincentive to wrongdoing,” Eileen Lindner, deputy general secretary of the U.S. National Council of Churches, told USA Today.

The Chinese Communist Party has traditionally held a less than hospitable attitude toward religion and regarded the Marxist view that it’s “the opiate of the masses” as a bad thing. But there are signs they’re starting to see the (again, perhaps Machiavellian) advantages to the opiate concept. This seems especially true with Christianity, given its belief in hell and less potential for the political complications associated with Islam in China.

In Nanjing the government has built a 5,000 seat mega church and given other funding to help boost Christianity. In the manufacturing hub of Wenzhou, where it’s estimated as much as 20% of the population is Christian, the government is starting to seriously study the link between Christian enterprises and economic success. One Christian factory owner told BBC, “I’m not saying those people who aren’t Christians are all bad, but from the percentage of the workers who are Christians, they seem to be more responsible. Also when they do things wrong, they feel guilty – that’s the difference.”

During the Mao-era, throwing the doors open to religion would have been unthinkable. Communism was the religion and Mao its god. Any other faith would have been competition. But now, with the death of religious socialism, supernatural religion’s spread is inevitable and SOME in the now strictly utilitarian Party seem to be recognizing that that might be in their best interest.

For many of China’s tens of millions of religious followers, the repression of their faith itself is the biggest grievance with the Party. Standing aside or even assisting religion would likely pay the government far greater dividends than holding the Maoist religion-as-a-threat attitude. It seems it could also have very real economic and socially-stabilizing benefits.

In a 2006 interview with Reuters, Li Junru, deputy head of the Communist Party School  made a very telling statement. When asked why India can handle democracy while China needs an authoritarian government, he explained that India has religion to control the people.

One has to imagine the Communist Party sees the appeal of biblical verses like Hebrews 13:17, which says, “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you.”

Last week the US senate passed a bill aimed at punishing China for currency manipulation with tariffs, which is stupid for a number of reasons, but I want to talk about the underlying narrative that springs up every election cycle in Washington: Those cheating abusive Chinese commies are stealing our hard-earned American jobs!

Dozens of congressional candidates ran ads to this end in 2010. Perhaps the most articulate was this one for Ohio Congressman Zack Space, where it shows a crowd of a dozen Chinese people and says, “Gibbs (his opponent) wants more free trade with China to increase their standard of living.”

Then it cuts to a lone white man and says, “…but what about Ohio?”

It perfectly captured the attitude many Americans, and ergo the politicians that depend on their votes, have that they’re entitled to these jobs as Americans. Protectionist bills like what the senate just passed enjoy wide populist support because we need to protect American jobs for Americans damn it! Well let’s look at one simple statistic:

Average manufacturing job hourly wage

USA: $22.30

China: $3.10

(Source: Time Magazine)

On average you can hire seven Chinese workers for the price of one American. I’m a proud American, but if one of us loses a job to seven Chinese, I don’t see much problem with that; especially when you consider a few other things.

Things aren't so hot for white collar Americans either

That average Chinese worker making $3.10 an hour probably didn’t just waltz over to the local car factory. Odds are she left her entire family behind to work in a distant manufacturing hub like Dongguan or Wenzhou where she lives in a dorm and sends the bulk of her paycheck back home to support her child and parents, whom she’ll be lucky to see once a year.

She might work 10-12 hours each day, maybe taking only one day off per month. Say what you will about human rights, but this is usually by choice. If she’s already this far away from home, there’s no sense wasting time. She wants to work as much as possible. So she’s happy to ignore overtime regulations if it results in more hours. And she’s very grateful for this job. It gives her far better prospects than she’d have back home.

(Read: Factory Girls by Leslie Chang. An excellent chronicle of the lives of Chinese factory workers)

This doesn’t just apply to factory workers. Ask a random waitress or cleaning lady in a big city like Beijing. Chances are they’re not from Beijing and they have a similar situation to the factory worker.  How many laid-off Ohio workers do you imagine would be willing to leave their family behind and move to Florida to live in a dorm and work at a waitressing job?

You can point to abusive working conditions, defective products or intellectual property theft. These things certainly exist, but they’re more a shameless excuse for protectionism than they are a significant detriment to America’s economy. They’re no justification for boxing out all Chinese manufacturers. And yes, China manipulates its currency, but it has appreciated 20% since 2005. And no matter how much it appreciates, it won’t even out the mammoth manufacturing cost imbalance.

In the latest Republican debate Honeywell CEO David Cote pointed out that, “Twenty years ago there were a billion people actively participating in the global economy.  Today there are more than four billion active participants in the global economy, with China, India, former CIS states and other emerging economies now in the game. While that is a good and peaceful phenomenon, it also means we need to compete more strongly than we did in the past.”

People like Mitt Romney are pushing the American victim of red China narrative because it’s what Americans want to hear. Telling them the truth would be political suicide; that their previous lifestyles were superficially inflated and that they need to brace for permanent sacrifice and dramatically lower their living expectations.

There are plenty of things the US government can do to make the country more competitive in education and clean energy that don’t need to resort to protectionism, but ultimately it’s on Americans to accept the tough reality of having to sacrifice more for less money. The global playing field is balancing out. For emerging economies like China’s, that means an upswing in quality of life. Unfortunately for the US, it means a fall down to the world mean. When viewed objectively, that’s not a bad thing.

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.

I don’t want to get in the habit of rebutting every idiotic Global Times editorial that’s printed. That would be a full-time job comprising an entire blog. But recently they’ve somehow sunk below the bar that was already on the ground. There was of course the call for war, but there’s more. This time they’ve managed to piss all over something that should be good news to everyone but racists.

In response to the US senate apologizing for historical discrimination against Chinese with policies like the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, Global Times yesterday ran an editorial titled Senate apology masks sense of superiority. It makes some token concessions about the positive nature of the bill, but the title pretty well sums up the intended takeaway.

Global Times running inflammatory editorials over things like Liu Xiaobo’s peace prize or any criticism of China, no matter how well-founded, is understandable. It’s what they do. But spinning such a conciliatory and positive gesture like this into yet another Western “wolf in sheep’s clothing” narrative is a new low. Now why would Japan ever give China the parliamentary apology it wants for World War II atrocities? The Chinese media has just demonstrated it’ll likely spit on it and use it for stirring up even more nationalism.

A few weeks ago Global Times ran another piece called Locke’s lifestyle and new mission which admonished the Chinese admiration of US Ambassador Gary Locke for buying his own coffee and flying economy class. They’re not letting the US (and ergo that one country called “The West”) get away with anything positive. It all must be spun in a way to keep everyone suspicious of the West’s constant all-encompassing anti-China agenda.

Global Times isn’t a (direct) spokesman for the government, but these editorials can give a pretty good clue of what the government wants people to think, and I would expect to see a lot more of this in the coming year. China faces a tough leadership transition in late 2012 and having unfavorable comparisons drawn to Western democracies is the last thing the CCP wants during this process- which in no way involves input from the people. And nationalism is the fail safe source of legitimacy that boosts the Party’s credentials in the short-term. It’s liberal use will give them strength through the transition.

So I predict these editorials are a preview of bigger things to come in the next year. The US (and “the West”) will do no right. The successes will be spun into failures and the failures into uber-failures that highlight the correct socialist path China has chosen. Yes, this already happens to a large degree, but we ain’t seen nothing yet. The US election, which will happen right in the midst of China’s power handover and inevitably feature very real China-bashing, will antagonize the whole situation. So I’d prepare to lower your expectations for both Global Times editorials and amicable Sino-US relations…if that’s even possible.

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?

Me: USA

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.

Today Global Times ran a piece called “Time to teach those around South China Sea a lesson.”  It basically says it would be a shame to waste an opportunity to wage some small scale battles in the South China Sea to teach mosquitoes like Vietnam and the Philippines a lesson. Tom Lasseter and Laowai Times have already written up pieces giving it the ridicule it deserves, so I’ll leave that part to them. As Laowai Times pointed out, “It’s hard to tell where stupidity ends and satire begins sometimes.” As satirical as it sounds though, the author of the article has what appears to be a real name and job, and the same piece ran in the Chinese edition of Global Times a few days ago. They’re not typically known for printing (intended) satire.

That people have this idea about war with Vietnam or the Philippines isn’t very surprising though. I’ve written before on how the South China Sea would be the perfect place for a little shock resuscitation of nationalism-based legitimacy if the party were ever backed into a corner. I’m sure there are plenty of hardliners in the government pondering the very suggestion the GT piece put forth.

But that this was printed in a national newspaper  in a country that constantly emphasizes “peaceful development”  …and then translated into the English version for the world to see is truly dumbfounding. I wrote a column for Global Times for a year-and-a-half (which I recently quit) and also did an internship this summer with the op-ed department. I always try to defend the paper  because a lot of wonderful people work there that write very intelligent, hard-hitting pieces. It’s just a shame that they have to come up with about a hundred of those pieces for every asinine editorial they run just to hold on to any kind of credibility.

Out of professional courtesy I won’t say anything about day-to-day operations there or the editorial process, but I’ll say that, in spite of all the incredibly dumb stuff they routinely print, this piece blew my mind. I really have no good guess as to how this made it in. Nothing that I’ve ever experienced gives me much of a clue; especially given that it’s not an editorial and the guy who wrote it is an analyst with some outside think tank who doesn’t even directly work for the paper. So if any readers out there are more discerning and analytical than I am in this case, please share.

Today there was a collision between two trains on Shanghai subway line 10. Some very bloody pictures emerged from the scene and now the number of injured has been reported at 224, 20 of them seriously hurt. No deaths so far.

According to early reports, there was a failure in the signaling system at around 2:30 so the line switched to manual signalling. Then at around 3:00 one train rear-ended another. One of them (probably the one that was hit) had allegedly been sitting at Laoximen station for 30 minutes. Caixin has reported the signaling system was made by a company also involved with the system in the Wenzhou train accident that killed 39 people and also used in subways in a number of other major cities.

Making things worse is a report from 2005 that’s been discovered bragging about how there will never be a collision thanks to Shanghai’s advanced signalling system.

Early signs show that the government doesn’t intend to create an aftermath debacle  like with the Wenzhou accident. Reporters are being given access to the scene, and Shanghai metro jumped out in front of the issue with what appears to be a very sincere, responsibility-accepting apology. [Update: They’ve actually posted two apologies which were subsequently deleted. Both are available at this Shanghaiist link]. But no matter how well the aftermath is handled, it’s going to be bad.

Within two hours of the event, it was the #1 topic on Weibo. Three months ago this story would have been relatively trivial given that there doesn’t appear to be any deaths. But thanks to Wenzhou, it will be under the public microscope. People are already crying foul and demanding answers as to how this was allowed to happen. Here’s some comments from Weibo:

“The Wenzhou railway incident hasn’t been forgotten and now the Shanghai subway incident happens. How could people trust you or believe you?” [温州铁路事件还没让人民忘记,现在 上海地铁 又发生了地铁相撞,你们还让人民怎么再相信你们?]

“I wonder if the authorities are hiding the true casualties.” [这次不知道有没有隐瞒伤亡情况.]

“The Shanghai subway incident has once again proved that living in China safely is a miracle.” [上海地铁事故再次证明:平安活在中国是奇迹]

“Could you please take people’s life into consideration and learn lessons from irresponsible incidents? Living in the current China is already a tragedy, so please don’t do more to make people suffer.” [能不能为人民的生命着想,不负责任的事情引以为戒,生活在这个时代中国的子民已经很不幸了,就请不要再做民不聊生的事情了!]

“Is there any country like China? Is there any  railway department like China’s? It makes me mad. It’s not a problem and humiliation of a department, it’s a country’s problem and humiliation!!” [哪有一个国家、哪有一个国家的铁路运输部门像中国这样?!真让人气愤!这不仅仅是一个部门的问题和耻辱,这是一个国家的问题和耻辱!!]

Man: I’m so glad you weren’t poisoned (to death) by gutter oil, Sudan red, lean meat essence, or toxic buns! Your house didn’t catch on fire! The bridge in front of your house didn’t collapse, right? You’re so lucky that the escalator didn’t malfunction when you went to work! It’s wonderful! We survived another day! Woman: I was so worried you’d get run over by someone supposedly going 70 kph on your way to work! Or get stabbed eight times in a row! My gravest fear was that you would be accidentally injured by chengguan who were beating up someone else! I was also worried you would need to ride the high speed train! But I didn’t dare to call you, because I was afraid your cell phone would explode!

Recently the picture to the right made rounds on the Chinese internet (translation by Danwei). Everything the couple says alludes to some danger that’s common in China or has happened in recent months demonstrating how people were already on edge about the safety of their food, products and especially their transportation. If it’s true that subway operators voluntarily switched to manual signaling and the crash happened almost immediately after, that would appear to be an act of Wile E. Coyote incompetence that even the Wenzhou accident couldn’t match.

Whether there’s anything sketchy with the companies, officials or operators involved isn’t yet known and may not be fully known. But what really happened isn’t nearly as important as what people perceived happened…and if Weibo is any indication, many already assume the worst.

That this happened in Shanghai is especially damning. Last November a fire engulfed a residential building in the city killing 58 people. It was found that corruption was definitely the cause and involved everyone from contractors and welders to government officials. In the end 26 were charged.  Then there was former Shanghai mayor Chen Liangyu who was ousted in 2006. He had been the highest player in a Shanghai cesspool of corruption and misuse of power at the time, and one of the highest officials to ever “fall off the horse” in China.

I remember once while I was walking on the street in Beijing with my girlfriend I stepped in a gaping pothole. “It’s probably there because of corruption,” she said laughing. She wasn’t really kidding though. In a culture that breeds corruption through lack of accountability and independent supervision at every level of society, there’s no telling what damage it does, what safety regulations get ignored, what corners get cut, which important jobs are given to horribly unqualified people, or what sensitive public works contracts are given to companies that can’t deliver. The Shanghai building fire represented a compounding of common corruption at many different levels that came together in a perfect storm.

There may very well be no foul play involved in this subway crash, but if that’s the case, good luck selling it to the public. As the one Weibo commentator noticed, things like this don’t tend to happen in many other countries; at least not with the frequency that they do in China. And with an unbroken string of safety issues in the past year directly attributable to corruption, suspicion in this case will be unavoidable and nearly impossible to pacify. It will be one more straw on the camel’s back of a public that’s been incredibly patient with a system whose transgressions (and attempts at covering up those transgressions) are becoming more and more visible, and seemingly more and more frequent with the emergence of tools like Weibo. People are seeing the harsh details of the system that’s screwed its people in every imaginable way, with the exception of providing raw economic growth. Those content with the system the way it is had better hope that growth lasts forever.

Over the past few months I’ve been interviewing dozens of Chinese aged 18-24 for a few articles exploring how the Communist Party is trying to maintain legitimacy among young intellectuals. But the other day a behavioral psychologist I spoke to highlighted a trend in my interviews that had completely slipped under my radar.

When I told him what some of the people were saying, he asked if I’d been speaking to them in Mandarin. I had with several, but I’ve been drawn more to interviewees who speak English well for in-depth interviews. Partly for convenience, but partly because they’ve tended to say more interesting and unexpected things. This wasn’t surprising at all to the doctor.

“Learning a different language, especially a western language, is already engaging in divergent thinking,” E. Thomas Dowd, the behavioral psychologist, explained to me. “When you speak a different language you begin to think differently. People who speak more than one language tend to have a broader range of cognitive abilities, they think more divergently, they’re more creative, and can converse better with people of more diverse cultures.”

When I taught university English in Nanjing I noticed this with my students to some extent. The English majors tended to think much more critically and liberally (ie. against the Party line) than my non-English major students. I always chalked this up to the fact that English majors have foreign teachers and often use western English media to study.

But after talking with the psychologist, I went back and looked at my interviews. Even the good English speakers who hadn’t spent any time with foreigners or viewing western media seemed to have liberal tendencies, suggesting the mere act of acquiring a foreign language played a big role. Meanwhile, the people that spoke little or no foreign language had ideas most similar to the government line. Looking at individuals, the young man who spoke the most idiomatic English said stuff that could probably get him arrested, and one girl who speaks English and Russian said some incredibly critical things too. If I were to make a chart of all the interviewees comparing English ability to thinking that contradicts government scripting, the correlation would be pretty apparent.

There were exceptions and undoubtedly other factors in play. The sample was also too small (around 35) and unscientific to make any concrete conclusions, but there have been studies that show, to a certain extent, language shapes how you see and interact in the world. For instance with German, if you want to say you met your neighbor last night, the language compels you to reveal the gender of that neighbor.

The suggestion that simply learning a foreign language makes you more liberal-minded was news to me though. Important news. It’s tempting to go for the subjects that can speak English well, but it would seem that that doesn’t really give a good representation of Chinese opinion; even in articles that focus on educated elite. It’s good reminder for journalists, but maybe just as importantly, to foreigners who come to China to visit or teach English.

The bulk of their real exposure to Chinese opinion is from foreign language learners. Thus, it’s pretty natural to marvel at how unexpectedly liberal and open-minded Chinese are in these situations; especially in regards to politics. But that picture is likely pretty skewed. If you can speak Chinese and take a walk over to a non-foreign language department of the university, you’ll probably get a very different impression.

Today, as Libyan rebel forces close in on Tripoli, it seems yet another nation will overthrow their authoritarian rulers in the Jasmine Revolution. Since the movement broke out in December, political forecasters have devoted plenty of ink to speculation over if and when China’s authoritarian government will collapse.

For the record (and anyone at the Ministry of Truth who may stumble upon this), I don’t at all wish for a collapse or overthrow of the Communist Party. Gradual reform leading to real public accountability would be much better than the abrupt dismemberment they’re setting themselves up for with the current iron fist approach.

But in the fairly-likely event that they do dig their own grave, where does that leave a post-Communist Party China?

The Party would have you believe that the country would dissolve into absolute chaos; that they’re the Elmer’s glue holding the whole rickety apparatus together. Without them, people would take to the streets to pillage, rape, torture, kill, etc.  Plenty of foreign observers share that bleak outlook too.

But a few weeks ago I spoke with Uri Dadush, former World Bank director of international trade and author of the book Juggernaut: How Emerging Markets Are Reshaping Globalization. He said China’s GDP is projected to grow at around 5% annually for the next 40 years. “Even if there is a political crisis, that doesn’t mean that China will not grow,” he said.

In economic terms, revolutions aren’t as catastrophic as they appear to be, especially in recent history. This chart maps Egypt’s annual GDP growth for the past 50 years. This measure shows how much the GDP grew in a given year compared to where it was the previous year. It’s good for highlighting economically disruptive events.

Clearly, Egypt has always been a fairly turbulent country capable of enduring crises and quickly bouncing back, never dipping below 0% growth. But the most significant part is if this chart were extended to today. It would show a dip to 2% growth in the fiscal year ending this June, which included the Jasmine Revolution. Before the revolution, it was predicted to grow at around 5%. The government overthrow may have very briefly slowed growth and had some opportunity costs, but it was hardly chaos. Now Egypt’s economy is humming again and will probably hit 5% growth again by year’s end.

Here’s China over the past 50 years:

The two largest dips were during government directed campaigns; the Great Leap Forward being especially catastrophic. Then in 1987-1988 there was massive (over 20%) inflation of the Yuan which partly enabled the Tiananmen Square uprising. The crackdown did scare away some investment. Growth slipped a bit but remained positive and quickly rebounded.

An even better indicator of national well-being is per-capita GDP, because this shows how the wealth of the average person is growing or stagnating. A flat line here is bad; people aren’t getting any wealthier. A downward slope is very bad; people are becoming worse off. If you look at China by this measurement the story is very promising.

There’s a very gentle negative slope during the 60’s and the power struggle of the late 70’s, then it’s all upward. Tiananmen didn’t even leave a mark.

Let’s look at another country’s per capita GDP growth and see if you can spot when the revolution took place:

There’s a sharp decline beginning in 1996 ravaging the average person’s net worth by over 33%, but if you think that’s where the political upheaval was, guess again.

The Asian Financial Crisis devastated Thailand, but when a military coup a decade later overthrew the ruling Prime Minister after a year-long political crisis, there wasn’t even a blip. Per capita income continued to grow to its highest levels ever.

These economic charts don’t tell whole story, but they do tell a lot of things. They tell that, even in the midst of political crisis, people still buy things and people are still working at the store to sell to them. Then there’s a whole network of manufacturing and investment behind those people that continues to expand. So the idea that a political crisis throws the country into violent chaos is greatly exaggerated. And what may have caused a serious disruption even 30 years ago might be hardly noticeable now thanks to globalization.

Mr. Dadush explained, “The drivers of economic growth are very fundamental. They are much deeper than even big political developments. They have to do with technologies and ideas that have already been invented. Once they’ve been invented it’s very difficult to stop their spread. If you have more or less the conditions and you have educated people you can absorb these things and you will have economic growth. Educational openness to the world, the absorption of ideas and technology are very fundamental forces. They can be delayed by political disaster but they cannot be stopped.”

There are plenty of non-political things that can tank the economy, like a housing bubble, demographic decline, foreign financial collapses, protectionism, environmental catastrophe, natural disasters, etc. But contrary to what the Party would like everyone to believe and what all those (totally existent) foreigners who dream of seeing China in chaos believe, political upheaval doesn’t seem to be a serious threat to the economy or the common person’s well-being.

This doesn’t necessarily apply to developed countries as strongly though. Once they’re developed they rarely see more than 5% growth in a given year and become more vulnerable to market and political fluctuations, as you can see in this chart of the US and Japan:

But it will be a long time before China gets to that point as a nation; around 40 years according to Dadush. So China could bounce back much more easily from any political crisis than these nations could.  A prolonged civil war might be different, but that’s very unlikely. Even then, it wouldn’t be as destructive as one would imagine thanks to the fundamental global business presence.

Whatever replaced the CCP would certainly have significant long-term economic impacts, but the simple act of a power switch (non-violent or otherwise) would hardly knock growth and the institutions supporting it out of place. Even in a country that, as we all know, has its own “special circumstances.”

I’m sure economists (which I am not) and others can poke holes in this theory. Tunisia isn’t bounching back quite like Egypt, but it wasn’t growing as much to begin with either. And Libya is still in a drawn out civil war (again, extremely unlikely in China) and its recovery is yet to be seen. But none of these countries come close to having the business apparatus and distribution network in place that China does, which are both hedges against “chaos.”

However, the most important thing these economic charts don’t address is happiness during and after a revolution, which obviously doesn’t equate with economic stability. Economic growth still allows for unchecked corruption, wealth inequality, trampling of human rights, perversion of justice, unfair trade practices, arbitrary violence and wholesale withholding of important information. It would indeed be a shame if the Chinese people were ever subjected to that.

_______________________________

Chart Sources: World Bank data powered by Google Public Data Service (a great resource for comparing countries’ economic and social aspects)

Tom from Seeing Red in China just ran a great piece called “This system cannot last forever – China’s coming change” where he uses nice graphs and timelines to illustrate what many already suspect: the Communist Party’s economic-based legitimacy check is almost fully cashed. This graph tells the story best:

This shows that, in spite of incredible economic growth, Chinese aren’t any more satisfied with their lives now than they were 12 years ago. The post-1979 boom that lifted people out of poverty is bringing diminishing returns to life satisfaction.

It makes sense. Compare someone who lived through the Japanese invasion and Mao’s idiotic campaigns to someone born in the 90’s who grew up watching American movies and having their teeth brushed for them. The latter, which takes their economic standing for granted, could very well be the undoing of a Party that derives its legitimacy from pulling the nation out of poverty. So if that happens, what comes next? Here’s a few possibilities:

Scenario #1: The Party says, “This absolute power thing has been swell, but now it’s time allow real freedoms, which will move our economy up the value chain. It’s also time to give the public a real check on our power by allowing them a mechanism to throw out those who don’t represent them.”

It’s possible, but anyone who’s studied basic world history can figure out about how likely that is. Especially given that the only Politburo member who even pretends to want substantial reform is leaving next year.

Scenario #2: Give Marxist ideology another whirl.

That crapped out about the time Mao died, but the New Leftists are trying to revive it as a source of legitimacy. This might make for some fun nostalgia, but not very likely to sustain the government on its own. And it’s not like the CCP hasn’t been vainly trying to convince the public that socialism is still relevant all along anyways.

Scenario #3: That just leaves the CCP’s fail-safe pillar of legitamacy: Good old-fashioned nationalism. Anti-Japanese, and to a lesser extent Anti-American and European nationalism have worked wonders thus far. The “Century of Humiliation” narrative has left latent animosity toward these places and embedded a sense of gratitude toward the Party that rescued the country from the foreign imperialists.

But how far can this same old tactic go when it’s not accompanied with economic legitimacy? Not very. If the Party thinks its power has a clear and present existential threat, desperate times might call for desperate measures – wag the dog-type measures that seek out the nationalistic furvor a war brings.

The tried and true enemies of the US and Japan wouldn’t work for this. Either case would be economic suicide and put the Chinese Navy up against the US’s. Getting an naval ass-kicking wouldn’t do much to endear the Party to the people.

There’s Taiwan, which might make more sense. But again, economics and the possibility of a US military intervention makes it unlikely – on top of the fact that it could turn into a drawn out occupation with a resistant population. A failed attempt at taking Taiwan would just make matters worse for the CCP.

So that just leaves the South China Sea with a big target on Vietnam. China claims pretty much the entire sea, so military enforcement of these claims would be seen as perfectly legitimate and non-imperialistic by Chinese. The international community would cry foul, but if it got to this point, a bad reputation would be the least of the CCP’s concerns. And American military intervention on behalf of Vietnam would be tough sell to the broke American public.

Vietnam regularly patrols the sea, so getting a USS Maine-like incident to spark a war wouldn’t be hard. China is already the biggest baddest navy in Asia and has just rolled out its new aircraft carrier. It could be combat ready in five years, with a supporting fleet in ten – right about the time China’s economic growth is expected to slow considerably and the post-90’s kids will be adults.

Keeping the war naval would keep civilian casualties low, the PLA would get to show off its new toys, victory would be swift, and the average Zhou in China would get a patriotic hard-on. It would be the Persian Gulf War on steroids.

There would even be the added benefits of complete control over the sea’s resources and a warning to other neighbors that China is serious about its claims.

This strategy would only be a temporary solution to the Party’s legitimacy predicament though. The Persian Gulf War sent George H.W. Bush’s approval rating soaring to almost 90%…then he lost his re-election bid the following year. But, as James Fallows put it, China’s government is basically guiding a raft down white water rapids. It does everything it can to avoid the rock in front of it, which just allows it to confront the next rock behind it.

Wagging the dog would buy the government time, which would allow them to regroup and think up the next hair-brained scheme, which if history (or present) is any indicator, would involve a Stalinist clampdown. OR they could go back to scenario #1 and initiate substantive reforms. Hell, they could even do that now and avoid the whole thing. But if I were Vietnam, I wouldn’t get too attached to the South China Sea.

Sven Englund

Today a Swedish student at Fudan University named Sven Englund  was deported because of a blog post written in Chinese where he called for a flash mob in Shanghai Pudong’s bund. Global Voices has translated the original post here. Based on his blog (translated from Swedish) here and here, as well as his twitter feed over the past two weeks, which alternates between Chinese, English and Swedish, here’s a rough timeline of what happened:

June 27th: Englund posted a blog entry addressed to President Hu Jintao inviting him and anyone else to form a “freeze flash mob” in Pudong on July 1st (the Communist Party’s birthday) where everyone would freeze in place for five minutes. Inspired by Ai Wei Wei, he suggested Hu write “Freedom” somewhere on his body. The gathering would be an attempt to protest for freedom in China. Englund posted it on his twitter for some Chinese friends.

June 30th – In a class, Englund’s Chinese teacher arrived late and later mentioned the blog entry, asking him to delete it. Englund then found out that she was late because she was being put up to talking to him by a Communist Party leader at the school. Englund talked with the teacher for several minutes saying that he’d be happy to talk with the leader directly, but didn’t intend to take down the post.

Later that afternoon Englund got a call from the teacher saying that the leader wanted to meet him for coffee and a talk. Englund asked to delay the meeting until the following day. He later found that his blog could no longer be accessed, so he started a new one. He copied the original contents onto it and spread word of what was happening to his growing list of twitter followers.

July 1st – A woman and two men came to his apartment in the morning saying they had some kind of bill for Englund. He was skeptical about who they really were since they could have just put the bill in his mail slot.

Twitter: “Three persons in uniform just knocked on my door, and wanted to give me some kind of bill. Very suspect.”

Later that morning he left to go to the gym but saw two men (his blog says two men, twitter says only one) by his elevator that popped up with interest upon seeing him. They followed him in the elevator. When they got down, Englund stayed in, as did the men. They went back up. Englund got his phone from the apartment, tweeted and then went back down again…with the men.

Twitter: “One guy is following now, sitting outside the apartment and waiting for me. I went down the elevator, and the directly up again, so did he.”

When he got down a third man was waiting with a police car and said they would be going to the university (no time for the gym). Englund asked to go to his apartment again to get something. Inside he tweeted and emailed his embassy. He also put on a hidden voice recorder and started recording. He heard a knock on his door. The men and the teacher were there.

From the car he called his consulate (or embassy). He was taken to a room with seven people; among them two or three who appeared to be police. They all urged him to cancel the plan for the flash mob saying it was illegal and he needed to apply at least 15 days in advance to organize something like that. Englund asked them to show him the law. It doesn’t appear that they complied. They continued to question him and took his passport. They said he would be responsible for whatever happened and that he should cancel the event. Finally they sat him down at a computer. They quibbled over exactly what he should write. Finally they settled on something along the lines of saying that he wouldn’t be at the flash mob because he has not applied and “it seems it is illegal.”

They continued to question Englund. He assumed it was to keep an eye on him and prevent him from making further blog entries or going to the bund. They asked for the password to his blog account to which he refused, saying it was against his human rights. This was the only question he refused to answer. The police yelled and threatened him at several points, saying that he could be sent home and that he legally had to answer every question. Englund eventually had to sign and fingerprint the six pages of his answers that the police had written down. They refused to give him a copy. They said they would keep his passport until the following Monday and decide what to do. Until then, he should be careful.

He was given a certificate that , according to the Global Sources translation, says, “Sven Englund is suspected of ‘being harmful to social

management’ and has violated article 55 of the ‘PRC social security management law’. The interrogation was set on July 1, 2011 at the school general office.”

The whole ordeal lasted 9-10 hours. Englund started to worry he might be arrested. He then discovered his voice recorder had been running the whole time.

Twitter: Filip forehead What can I say, done well and done well. This country has their backs. But I’m home, albeit a little hungry.”

July 4th (Monday) – Englund was supposed to receive his passport. He was told it wouldn’t be ready until Thursday.

July 5th –  Englund still uses twitter to call on people to go to the bund with “Freedom” written on them. His followers increase by about 400 people.

July 7th – No word on the passport so Englund goes to the Fudan office where it’s being held. He’s told they will have a meeting the following morning.

July 8th – Englund gets his passport back with his residence permit stamped with “Length of stay shortened.” He now must leave by July 10th.

July 9th – Englund leaves China for Sweden (UPDATE 7/11 – According to Taiwan’s New Tang Dynasty Television, he was escorted to the airport by police.)

Twitter: “I hope I can come back at least when this country has gotten an legal government, that respects it’s citizens.”

Final Tweet from airport: “Time for boarding! Thank you all! And also thank you National security bureau for giving me that experience.”

Analysis

I did my best to make sense of all Englund’s writings through Google translate, but keep in mind, I’m not a Swedish speaker and I’m a haphazard Chinese speaker. So if there are any errors, this is my disclaimer. But I think it’s true to Englund’s words.

I first saw this story as a tweet by @cyberzombies saying, “As of 30 minutes ago, Fudan University @svenenglund has officially been kicked out of China as a result of a blog post.”

That sent a chill through my spine. Like probably most bloggers in China who write on politics, expulsion is something I constantly worry about. People have been sent to labor camps for writing much less serious things than some of what I’ve written. I know as a foreigner that would never happen to me, but deportation is a definite possibility. When I got a little deeper into the story though, I relaxed a bit.

The guy seems to really support the cause of freedom, but he also didn’t seem to have much to lose. He must have known that organizing a peaceful protest wouldn’t be taken lightly, but it almost certainly wouldn’t result in jail time for a foreigner either. According to the Global Sources article, he was planning to leave China on July 27th anyways, so the expulsion really only cut his stay by about two weeks…and he still had time to finish his tests while his passport was being held. It also seems that he was given several opportunities to save his hide after the blog was discovered, but he remained antagonistic to the end.

I seriously doubt his fate would ever be shared by a mere English-language blogger like me (my visa was just extended yesterday for another year by the way). This guy was pretty much asking for it, so I’m not at all surprised this happened; especially being on the Communist Party’s huge pat-themselves-on-the-back anniversary.

Still…it’s another sign of a paranoid party making an international embarrassment out of a situation that would have otherwise amounted to absolutely nothing; save a handful of people standing still on the bund for five minutes confusing onlookers. Deporting Englund when he was going to leave in two weeks anyways was just the cherry on top. Now it could even turn into a copy-cat movement emboldening sympathizers to stage similar protests to mock the party.

So is the government really that stupid? Or could they be trying to send a message to other potential foreign troublemakers? Who knows? Both scenarios have ample precedent, but I would guess the former. It seems like it was just local officials at Fudan University responsible who were probably just playing it safe from their perspective.

Englund is on a plane  back to Sweden right now as I write this so there will undoubtedly be more that comes out when he lands. Hopefully that includes the recording of his interrogation and explanation of just what the hell he expected would happen.

[UPDATE 7/11] Mr. Englund is back in Sweden now and seems to be enjoying his 15 minutes of fame and doing a lot of interviews, which he has been advertising on his Twitter feed. Here’s a video from a Taiwan news agency called New Tang Dynasty Television that gives some more up to date info (with English subtitles) and comment from a very supportive Chinese dissident.

As more of the world’s sensitive activities and information travel through the wires of the internet, vulnerability to distant hackers is unavoidable. China can’t be blamed for feeling especially susceptible as an emerging power with the world’s highest internet population. But over the past few years, an interesting countermeasure has been discussed from time to time in the Middle Kingdom: Building an independent Chinese internet.

A June 21st Global Times article said, “90 percent of people believe China should strengthen its cyber defenses and build its own internet system.”  This was based on a phone/online survey by the Global Poll Center affiliated with Global Times.

Wording and/or sampling bias probably played a role in that unusually high 90 percent figure, but we’ll assume that a significant number of Chinese do think an independent internet is a good idea. Iljitsch van Beijnum, research assistant at Institute IMDEA Networks who’s written two books about protocols underlying the internet, helped explain some of the implications of this idea.

He said there are basically two kinds of cyber attacks: those that depend on a volume of hackers and those that can be done individually. An independent internet would do little to stop the latter. “Simply using a CIA operative in a Beijing internet café” would do the trick according to Beijnum. “Or of course by paying someone in China to inject a worm.”

Large volume cyber attacks are a different story though. One famous international example was in 2007 when the nation of Estonia removed a Soviet war memorial, which enraged Russians. A wave of cyber attacks subsequently hit Estonia disabling the websites of government ministries and a number of other industries. Recently, similar hacks between China and Vietnam have seen nationalistic images and phrases posted on government websites of both sides because of the South China Sea territorial dispute.

These attacks could indeed be prevented with independent internets. So in this sense, it is a viable solution for cyber warfare. But it would basically be killing cockroaches with dynamite.

Setting up the network infrastructure of an independent internet would be easy enough technically because, in a nutshell, it would only require leaving out the international connections. But this would immediately cause some practical problems.

There will always be systems that need to connect to both the independent network and the global internet. The Domain Name System (DNS), which translates IP addresses into domain names, needs to have a foot in the international web to function in its present form. Some kind of a bridge linking the systems should be possible, but even if that was worked out, there would be bigger problems.

“What about all these factories that need to talk to their foreign customers?” Beijnum said. “Universities that want to publish papers? What about Hong Kong? Would it also be cut off? Or would Hong Kong connect to both the independent and the open networks? What about Chinese people abroad? Will there be a way for them to talk to family and friends?”

If Chinese internet users had foreign software like Windows, they couldn’t receive updates on it. Anything outside China’s borders would become inaccessible which would have serious economic and communication consequences, effectively killing the internet as China knows it.

Similar proposals have been made in Iran and Russia, but they face the same practical problems, which is probably why they haven’t gotten off the ground. While cyber security may be a legitimate concern, if the Chinese people were to actually experience being cut off from the international internet, it wouldn’t take long for that 90 percent support to plummet.

Whether or not this is something the Chinese government is seriously considering is anyone’s guess. I contacted the reporter who wrote the Global Times article and she didn’t know why the survey was done or any other information beyond what she wrote. I was also assured by a different Chinese reporter friend that if this was indeed something under consideration, everyone involved on both the government and technical sides would be sworn to secrecy until some kind of an official announcement was made. But the fact that the poll was carried out shows some people are thinking about it, and it’s hard to imagine the government hasn’t entertained the idea.

Now, I’m sure this hasn’t even crossed their minds, and it may hardly be worth mentioning, but there is another implication of an independent internet.

“It would certainly make life for censors easier as they don’t have to block sites on a case-by-case basis now that everything is blocked,” Beijnum said.

But using national security concerns as a cover for enhancing censorship capabilities in this way would be a desperate act by a paranoid regime, and downright dishonest. Fortunately, that would never happen in China.

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.

In a somewhat philosophical departure from this site’s usual content, I want to look at some of the ideological foundations of China’s “New Left.” Since Reform & Opening Up began in 1979, outsiders have tended to think true socialism in China is dead and exists in name only.  For the most part, Chinese leaders have outgrown the lust for socialism and the New Left, which advocates a return to Maoist egalitarianism, is a regressive force that wants to undo China’s capitalist development. But China has never really taken its eye off the ball of true socialism.

To understand where the New Left and the entire Communist Party are coming from you have to understand Marx’s stages of human development (abridged courtesy of Wikipedia):

  1. Primitive Communism:  Co-operative tribal societies (hunter-gatherer clans).
  2. Slave Society: a development of tribal progression to city-state; aristocracy is born.
  3. Feudalism: aristocrats are the ruling class; merchants evolve into capitalists.
  4. Capitalism: capitalists are the ruling class, who create and employ the proletariat.
  5. Socialism: workers gain class consciousness, and via proletarian revolution, depose the capitalist dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, replacing it in turn with dictatorship of the proletariat through which the socialization of the means of production can be realized.
  6. Communism: a classless and stateless society.

It’s important to note the difference between the socialism and communism stages. Communism is the ultimate endgame when the entire world has embraced socialism and there’s no longer a need for classes or countries. Communist Parties like China’s hoped to inspire international revolution with their socialist model and eventually achieve communism. But this doesn’t look to be on the horizon any time this millennium and is no longer any kind of immediate focus for China.

Moving to the socialist stage is still very much China’s intention though. China’s initial socialist movement, as well as every other that’s been attempted, failed to adhere to Marx’s order of development. They all tried to jump straight from feudalism to socialism without ever mastering capitalism. This was one of the implications of Mao’s “Great Leap Forward.” He hoped China could successfully leap over the capitalist phase into a socialist utopia. We all know how that turned out.

So when Deng Xiaoping initiated “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics” (AKA capitalism) it was an acknowledgement that China couldn’t rewrite the laws of Marxism. They’d have to go through the capitalist phase before they could achieve socialism.

Marx wrote that capitalism will then slowly dig its own grave because the rich will keep getting richer and the poor will keep getting poorer. Eventually the workers will notice the “unpaid labor of the working class” going to the capitalists (like seeing their bosses and leaders buy lavish homes which would take them several lifetimes to afford). The workers have then gained “class consciousness” and see the capitalists for the exploiters that they are. This is when they take back the fruits of their labor and achieve socialism through revolution.

Back in modern China, with inflation, corruption, environmental degradation, and already enormous income inequality worsening, the New Left thinks the time has come to transition from the capitalist stage of Marxism to the socialist egalitarian stage. There are those die-hard Maoists in the movement who never wanted to embrace capitalism, but for much of the New Left, they simply think this is the right time in history to take the step which was taken prematurely under Mao.

But there’s a problem. In Marx’s vision, the capitalist stage of development is under a democracy that’s basically controlled by the capitalist businessmen (sound familiar?). After the workers overthrow this system, the socialist stage dissolves the state and becomes a grouping of autonomous collectives, each democratically governing itself. Mao tried a bastardized version of this which was both premature and under central government control.

The problem is that China straddles these stages now. There’s no democracy to overthrow in the Marxist sense – only a failed socialist system that now has all the symptoms of an exploitative capitalist society…minus the democracy.

Some believe that socialism can be achieved through evolution without revolution, which is what the CCP is banking on. But traditional Marxists would say that’s impossible, since those leaders guiding the evolution would be corrupted and simply become capitalist oppressors themselves (again…sound familiar?).

So the Communist Party is in a sticky philosophical situation. How can they fall in line with the Marxist view of development? China has gone through many cycles in history where the ruling dynasty is overthrown by a peasant movement which then redistributes the wealth. Then that government inevitably becomes too tyrannical and corrupt, then the process repeats itself.

Wen Jiabao seems to think democratization first is the key. “Without democracy, there is no socialism. Without freedom, there is no real democracy,” he said recently in an interview with Xinhua. “Without the guarantee of economic and political rights, there is no real freedom. To be frank, corruption, unfair income distribution and other ills that harm people’s rights and interests still exist in China. The best way to resolve these problems is to firmly advance political structural reform and build socialist democracy under the rule of law.”

He also once repeated the words of Deng Xiaoping saying, “It will take a very long historical period to consolidate and develop the socialist system, and it will require persistent struggle by many generations, a dozen or even several dozen.”

Wen may see democracy as an end in-and-of-itself, or he may honestly believe it’s just the next step toward socialism. But either way he doesn’t seem to think the time is ripe for the socialist stage now. However, New Leftists like Bo Xilai seem to think they can guide a socialist transformation under the current authoritarian apparatus and start it now.

I’ve written before about both Bo and Wen, whom I suspect as individuals are using a lot of empty rhetoric and gimmicks for their own purposes. But their stated ideology is worth looking at because it represents two competing views within the Party.

So could either of their views altering Marxism work in China? Or could the true Marxist vision of socialism work?

Most would probably be inclined to say, “No, just look at history.” But again, socialism has never been tried in the way Marx laid it out. Attempts have always been bastardized in some form. Some would argue socialism is already starting to happen with the Scandinavian countries of Norway, Denmark and Sweden. They have some of the world’s highest tax rates, greatest income equality and all kinds of socialized welfare programs. Interestingly enough, they’re also ranked among the highest in per-capita income and happiness. And they’re evolving this way naturally – without the Marxist need for a revolution.

However, there are plenty of fundamental problems with Marxist socialism. He never anticipated how connected and interdependent the world has become. It isn’t clear how a nation of autonomous communes could be reconciled with an international market that depends on uniformity in currency, law, communication and transportation. And how can there ever be a Marxist revolution without some individuals hijacking the ideology in order to carry out their own agendas – as has happened with every other attempt? (See: Mao Zedong, Joseph Stalin, Kim Il Sung, etc.)

Then there’s the classic Achilles heel of socialism: Greed. Marx’s vision included “labor vouchers” that would be awarded to workers based on the amount of labor they contribute, which could then be exchanged for goods. Marx thought that this would be liberating for the formally exploited, as it would give them freedom to pursue their own interests and develop their own talents. But it failed to address what would motivate someone to spend seven years in medical school if their quality of life would be comparable to a high-school dropout.

So the pure Marxist vision of socialism would probably have to be tweaked if it were ever to work in practice, if indeed it ever could work. The New Left is convinced it can work, and will work, sooner rather than later. But with China still far from catching up to even the developed capitalist societies of the world, it’s hard to imagine a successful transition anytime soon. And it’s very hard to imagine China’s Communist Party will be the one to break the historical cycle both in China and the previous socialist movements of the world.

But to assume it’s totally impossible and that true socialism is dead in the world would be a bit hasty. The Communist Party still sees it as the ultimate prize and is being much more patient and flexible in its approach than any other nation ever has been. On the other side of the world, The U.S. and the PIIGS (Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain) seem like they’ll continue to vote and protest themselves lower taxes and greater benefits until they’re bankrupt; which seriously calls into doubt Francis Fukuyama’s “End of History” theory that capitalist democracy is the end-all-be-all of human development.

Of course, it’s very possible that no system will work in the long-run and humanity is screwed. People at the bottom of any system may continue to want more than they can produce. Those at the top may continue do whatever gives them with the most power – whether that means pandering to those at the bottom or using an iron fist and bastardized ideology keep a hold over them. It would be presumptuous for any ideology to declare victory now or for the foreseeable future, but whatever happens, it should be an interesting century for philosophers.

I recently did a feature for Asia Times about China’s Graduate School entrance exam which can be seen here. These are some select translated questions leftover from my research that came from from the 2010 and 2011 Chinese graduate school entrance exams. Exams are different based on school and major, but there’s a politics section which is uniform across most of the country and accounts for 20% of the final score. The “correct” answers to the multiple choice/multiple mark questions are highlighted in bold, but often the “incorrect” answers are just as telling. You’ll notice several questions are extremely long and seem more about making a point then testing knowledge. But overall I think these questions give a pretty good picture of exactly what the government wants  young people to think.

2010

13) In 2001 the CPC Central Committee issued the “Implementation Outline for Improving Civic Morality,” which explains the main content of civil morality. It focuses on_______

  • A. Patriotism and abiding by the laws
  • B. Honesty and trustworthiness
  • C. Diligence and self-improvement
  • D. Unity and friendliness

[Study guides refer to this as a “memory question.” It tests a very specific time, governing body, or policy that must simply be remembered. Educated guessing doesn’t help.]

14) Our Constitution clearly stipulates the implementation of the rule of law in building a socialist country. The root of the rule of law is______

  • A. that according to the law, the law must be observed and strictly enforced
  • B. to safeguard citizens’ right to information, participation, expression and right to supervise
  • C. an open legislature, public enforcement, and a public judiciary
  • D. legalized social life and democratization

[Study guides refer to this as a “common sense question” that should be easy to guess from the wording]

15) On March 28, 2009 in Tibet, thousands of people from all circles of life dressed in their holiday best to rally at the Grand Potala Palace Square in Lhasa. This was to celebrate_____

  • A. The 58th anniversary of the peaceful liberation of Tibet
  • B. The 44th anniversary of the establishment of the Tibet Autonomous Region
  • C. The Second Session of the Ninth National People’s Congress held in the Tibet Autonomous Region
  • D. The first annual Serf-Liberation Day in Tibet

19) There is a fable about a fox who served fish soup in a flat plate and invited the crane to drink the soup “equally.”  But it turned out the crane couldn’t drink at all and the fox drank all the soup. This fable shows us that the bourgeois declare “everyone is equal before the law”, but_____.

  • A. Nominal equality in laws conceals the true inequality
  • B. This form of equality is the essence of capitalism
  • C. Its nature is to legalize the inequality of economic interests between employers and employees
  • D. The right to equality is built on the basis of the property rights of inequality

[Using animal fables to illustrate political points is a standard question format on exams at all levels]

20) In 1989, former U.S. State Department advisor Francis Fukuyama dished out the so-called “End of History” theory which says the western democratic system is “the end of human progress in social formation” and “the last regime of human society.” However, 20 years of history has shown us that history didn’t end. What ended was the Western sense of superiority. On November 9th, 2009, 20 years after the collapse of the Berlin wall, BBC published a survey of 27 nations. More than half of the respondents were dissatisfied with the capitalist system. One of the organizers of the survey was a company called “Global Scan” whose President Miller told the media that the survey shows the fall of the Berlin wall didn’t bring a landslide victory for capitalism. The financial crisis especially supports this point. So the bankruptcy of the “End of history” theory shows: 

  • A. Social and natural law both function blindly
  • B. Setbacks in the development [of socialism] in human history will not change its progress.
  • C. Particular regimes in some countries and societies cannot change the universal law of historical development
  • D. People’s understanding of a particular social development stage cannot replace the whole process of social development

[Test agency analysis: The universal law is that socialism will overtake capitalism. There are some special cases that seem to contradict this but overall the law cannot be stopped. Westerners think capitalism is great, but it can’t change the laws of social development.]

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

  • A. The Chinese Communist Party’s great creation of combining Marxism and China’s reality
  • B. The Chinese Communist Party’s achievement of leading Chinese people through a long struggle
  • C. A reflection of the common interests and aspirations of the people of all nationalities in China
  • D. The inevitable choice in the social development of modern China

[Study guides refer to this as an “informative question.” All the answers are correct and it’s basically just meant to make a point to students]

24) China is a multi-ethnic country. Dealing with ethnic issues in the socialist period, the basic principle is ____

  • A. Protecting regional national autonomy
  • B. safeguarding national unity
  • C. Opposing ethnic separatism
  • D. Adhering to ethnic equality, national unity, and multi-ethnic co-prosperity

[This is another kind of “memory question.” Choice A is indeed very important, but not the “basic principle.” Students would need to recognize this distinction.]

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

30) In 1955, Qian Xuesen overcame numerous obstacles and finally returned to his cherished motherland. When someone asked him why he returned to the motherland he said, “Why do I return to the motherland? The reason is simple. Since the Opium War Chinese have been working hard and fighting for a stronger China. They’re even willing to sacrifice their lives. As a Chinese I will follow their example and keep exploring, disregarding all other things. Think about the founders and builders of the Republic. They’ve worked hard on this poor nation which has suffered national poverty and an international embargo for years and years to make the new China stand tall in the East. Thinking of this, why can’t I sacrifice personal interests?” Qian’s heartfelt words tell us what about practicing patriotism in the new era?

  • A. Science has no borders but scientists do have a motherland
  • B. We should connect personnel ideals and dreams to national destiny
  • C. Patriotism and loving socialism are synonymous
  • D. Patriotism is a combination of patriotic emotion, patriotic mind and patriotic action.

[Qian Xuesen is regarded as the “Father of Chinese Rocketry.” He did work for the U.S. army and space program, and applied to become a U.S. citizen in 1949. But during the Red Scare of the 1950’s he had his application and security clearance revoked out of unsubstantiated fears he was a communist. When he subsequently decided to return to China, he was put under house arrest for five years but eventually was returned to China in exchange for 12 U.S. pilots captured during the Korean War. Given his circumstances the authenticity, or at least the sincerity, of this statement is highly questionable. ]

31) Political rights and freedoms include______

  • A. personal freedom
  • B. freedom of speech, press, assembly, association, procession, demonstration, voting, and standing for election
  • C .freedom of religion
  • D. Political freedom

[Test agency analysis: Choice B and D are political rights guaranteed by China’s Constitution. Choices A and C are also fundamental rights of citizens, but do not match with the wording of the question.]

Essay Prompt

October 1, 2009

At 10 a.m. sharp in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, the celebration marking the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China commenced. Soldiers and civilians had huge parades and mass rallies to celebrate this grand festival for the great motherland.

In the middle of Tiananmen Square the red walls were draped with a huge color portrait of Mao Zedong, the founder of the new China. The Monument of the People held a portrait of Sun Yat-sen, the great revolutionary forerunner. Wide electronic screens to both sides of the monument said “Long live the great People’s Republic”, “Long live the great Chinese Communist Party” and other eye-catching slogans. To the east and west sides of the square there were 56 images depicting people of all nationalities dancing in a pillar of national unity… a symbol of China’s 56 nationalities, hand-in-hand, celebrating the great motherland’s prosperity and strong foundation.

Hu Jintao delivered an important speech. He pointed out that “60 years ago today, after 100 years of bloody battles, the Chinese people finally won the great victory of the Chinese revolution. Chairman Mao Zedong solemnly declared to the world the establishment of the People’s Republic. Chinese people have stood up. With the Chinese nation’s 5000 years of civilization we have now entered a new historic era of development and progress.”

-Excerpts from the October 2, 2009 “People’s Daily

Questions:

(1) How do we interpret what [Sun Yat-sen’s wife] Soong Ching Ling said about “Sun Yat-sen’s efforts finally bearing fruit”?

(2) Why did the establishment of the People’s Republic mark the “Chinese nation entering a new historic era of development and progress”?

2011

10) On September 10, 1953, Peng Dehuai  [a Chinese General in the Korean War] wrote in a report, “For hundreds of years western invaders could occupy a country by laying down a few cannons. The Korean War victory brought this era to an end. The victory of the war_____

  • A. ended the hegemony of western powers
  • B. broke U.S. forces’ undefeatable miracle
  • C. Laid the basis for national independence and people’s liberation
  • D. was China’s first complete victory in fighting against foreign aggression in modern times

16) On March 16, 2003, the U.S. and its allies launched the Iraq war, which up to this point has lasted 7 years and caused a serious disaster for the Iraqi people. On August 19, 2010, the U.S. military withdrew the last of its combat troops from Iraq. This indicates that under the pressures of the world, the United States has_______

  • A. realigned its military deployment
  • B. changed its pre-emptive strike strategy
  • C. shifted their anti-terrorism focus domestically
  • D. abandoned unilateralism

[Test agency analysis: The United States believes Iraq is no longer a threat. The growing economic and military power of China and Russia pose a threat to America’s global hegemony. The U.S. redirected its troops from Iraq to Central Asia and the Asia-Pacific region to enhance the strength of their strategic encirclement of China and Russia.]

18) In a capitalist society, the banks’ monopoly on capital and the industrial monopoly on capital combine to produce a new type of monopoly capital: Financial capital. On the basis of that financial capital, a financial oligarchy came into being. These oligarchies use which means to control society?

  • A. They achieve domination in the economic sphere through the “participation system” [participation system =  when a handful of companies buy up shares of many companies in order to control the economy as a whole]
  • B. They achieve control of the state apparatus through the “personal union” of the government  [personal union= when companies hire a lobbyist to speak for them in congress or become official themselves, bribe government officials, or hire high officials in their companies ]
  • C. They influence foreign and domestic policies through policy consulting institutions
  • D. They achieve unity of ideology through controlling the media

27) During World War II, Which of the flowing documents clarified Taiwan and Penghu shall be restored to China?

  • A. Tehran Declaration
  • B. Cairo Declaration
  • C. Yalta Agreement
  • D. Potsdam Declaration

[The Cairo Declaration and Potsdam Declaration both actually say Taiwan shall be restored to “The Republic of China”, not simply “China” as this question states. The Republic of China is the current ruling government of Taiwan]

Essay Prompt

Cheng Siwei, a famous economist, former Democratic National Construction Association Central Committee Chairman, and former Vice-Chairman of the 9th and 10th Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, commenting on our country’s party system, he observed:

“The Western party system is like a football game. One team must defeat the other. Ours is like a singing chorus. The democratic parties and the cooperation of the Chinese Communist Party work for a common goal in order to maintain social harmony. For a chorus, we must have command. In terms of history and reality, the Communist Party of China is the only competent one to command.”

People overseas have commented that China’s democratic parties in government are mostly just “filling empty space” and “have no real power.” Cheng said that this does not reflect the actual situation of China’s democratic parties. They’re not simply a “political vase.”

“When serving as Vice Minister of the Ministry of Chemical Industry, I was responsible for our own work and completely had the right to make decisions. As Vice-Chairman of the NPC I am responsible for securities law, law enforcement and inspection of rural finance. I’m like the Communist Party’s vice chairman, but also work independently.”

QUESTIONS:

(1) From the “playing football” and “singing in a chorus” comparison, demonstrate our political party system’s characteristics and advantages. (5 points)

(2) How do China’s democratic parties have a role of political participation within socialist construction? (5 points)

Analysis 

Contrary to what some might think, you can’t just go into Chinese political exams with the basic mindset of:

  • The CCP/Marxism/the motherland/various social policies = Good
  • The U.S./capitalism/ethnic separatism/Taiwan independence = Bad

Obviously that mindset is necessary, but if that’s all it took, it’d be too easy for cynics to fake their way through. I cherry-picked what I thought were the more interesting questions, but most questions on the full test are like the first one I listed. They test some minute detail of an obscure speech or policy made years ago…and they often try to trip students up with redundant choices and trick wording. As such, getting through the test is a crapshoot unless you’ve memorized hundreds of pages of speeches, laws, anecdotes, and political fables…often written in Mao-era ideological language.

This is undoubtedly the real endgame for test writers. In theory, once those slogans and thought processes are etched into students’ minds, they can subconsciously resurface in pre-packaged, government-dictated form later whenever some incident or foreign country shows conflicting information. From the government’s standpoint, it’s pretty useful for keeping a firm control over the ideology of the educated population, but not exactly conducive to building the scientific and creative capabilities they also crave. But it seems it’s hardly effective. If you read my Asia Times piece, there’s interviews with students studying for this test and some Chinese political expert opinions, as well as more about it’s role in China.

Lately Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai has grabbed the attention of anyone with a stake in China. He’s come to embody a movement some have deemed China’s “New left” by resurrecting Mao-era egalitarian ideology. He’s done so with some practical measures like focusing on narrowing the income gap, fighting corruption and building low-income housing; but he’s has also taken a propaganda approach with mass text messages quoting Mao, patriotic song competitions and sending cadres to spend time with peasants in the countryside. He’s clearly caught Beijing’s attention and is considered a front-runner for a seat next year on the nine-member Standing Committee of the Politburo, China’s highest government body

Many Chinese intellectuals and foreign China-watchers are appalled, seeing his actions as a regression toward Cultural Revolution days. A Diplomat article even suggested he’s the antithesis to Wen Jiabao, who’s spoken on the need for Western-like political reform and democratization.

But politically, Bo and Wen are fraternal twins. Like any other Chinese leader who’s risen to high power, Bo is presumably well-versed in The Thirty-Six Stratagems, an ancient Chinese list of tactics for overcoming adversaries.

One of these tactics instructs to “Borrow a corpse to resurrect the soul” (借尸还魂, Jiè shī huán hún). The idea is to take a long-discarded custom or ideology and revive it to suit your own needs.

Disdain for the Mao socialist era is starting to morph into romanticism thanks to modern problems like endemic corruption, wealth disparity and social inequality. Even those who lived through Mao’s dystopia have seen enough time go by that the period’s redeeming qualities like social equality, unity and simplicity are starting to trump the horrors in their memories. When someone has their home seized in a corrupt real estate deal and then sees their Party secretary drive a BMW, it’s natural to miss the equality of socialism, even if it was equality in poverty.

Bo Xilai knows this. Wen Jiabao uses strategic photo-ops and compassionate speeches to present himself as a champion of the common folk. Bo just takes a slightly different approach by playing to common people’s nostalgia for a time when there were no nouveau rich to make them feel inadequate and cheated. And regardless of whatever else was going on at the time, those mass rallies of the red era gave people a sense of belonging and euphoria. Song competitions and quotes from Mao are away of recapturing some of those feelings.

This is why Bo has gotten Beijing’s attention. By the time the Soviet bloc collapsed in 1991, socialist ideology had become bankrupt in China. The Communist Party’s legitimacy has since rested in nationalism and economic growth.  Sometime soon though, the economic growth will slow, then nationalism can only be pushed so far before impeding trade. So if someone can revive some of the lost government legitimacy socialist ideology brought, then that’s more than enough to earn a Politburo seat.

I’m not worried by people like Bo though. He talks the red talk, but he’s not about to close the markets and shove people back into communes. He’s not stupid. It’s a power play, pure and simple. By winning the hearts of the people, he’ll win the hearts of Beijing…just like Wen Jiabao did.

I’m certainly not endorsing Bo, but his propaganda efforts so far have seemed relatively harmless. It doesn’t seem like he’s tried to enhance the Communist dogma in the education system or tried to scapegoat foreigners as many leaders do in their power plays. And if he wants to crack down on corruption and give some poor people better opportunities during his power play, I really don’t see a  problem with that either.

There are plenty of people in China’s radical left that passionately support Bo, but these die-hard Maoists will be disappointed when Bo becomes just another moderate Politburo member.

The Politburo is like the US presidency. It might lean to the left or right in any given cycle, but it’s not going to move radically in either direction. The people voting on the members are too diverse. If “leftists” like Bo are on the politburo, there may very well be some superficial “red” aspects brought in, and there probably will be more emphasis on egalitarian measures to narrow the income gap and pacify the poor. But there won’t be a radical socialist transformation any more than there’s been a radical democratic transformation under Wen Jiabao.

While doing research for an article, I stumbled upon this gem from Global Times from a few months ago about some innovative and practical new anti-corruption measures. Here’s some snippets:

All civil servants in Tongzhou district of Beijing will be wearing a pin on their lapel from now on as a reminder to turn down bribes and stay clean. As the first branded anti-corruption campaign in China, the Tongzhou government spent a year deciding on a logo and has high hopes for the scheme.

The logo will also appear on bookmarks, calendars in government offices and billboards, “so civil servants are constantly reminded of self-discipline and anti-corruption,” said Song.

The next step in the campaign will feature anti-corruption sculptures in Qingfeng park, a small area in Tongzhou Forest Park, to be built next year.

Anti-Corruption lapel pins and sculptures! Why hasn’t anyone thought of this before?!  If people simply have subtle reminders that corruption is wrong, they won’t do it. Well in the spirit of the new campaign, I’ve thought of a few more ideas for Tongzhou’s anti-corruption efforts:

  1. Make school kids write “I will not be corrupt” 1,000 times on the chalkboard.
  2. Have restaurants serve fortune cookies with the message “You will meet someone new…and not accept any bribes from them.”
  3. Build towering hundred foot statues of Mao looking down accusingly over every city.
  4. Change the currency itself to have Lei Feng’s disappointed looking picture with the caption: “Would I do what you’re about to do?”

I wouldn’t put any of these ideas past the Tongzhou or national government. Some other

Wow, someone has already started implementing one of my ideas. Kudos Changsha

slightly more practical measures in other cities have included showing scare videos of fallen officials on death row, adding “external” supervision agencies (which are still accountable to the Communist Party), and anti-corruption computer software. They’re willing to try almost anything to stop China’s rampant corruption…so long as it avoids what are inevitably the only real solutions: A free media and an independent judiciary.

Ever-harsher punishments have been the most trusted solution for years to the point that life imprisonment and even death sentences are now common for serious corruption offenses. The problem of course, is that very few are caught and even fewer are prosecuted.

The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace did a report in 2007 which concluded based on disciplinary records “the odds of a corrupt [Chinese] official going to jail are less than three percent, making corruption a high-return, low-risk activity.”

I consider myself a pretty upstanding individual, and in principle I’d like to say I would never abuse my job for personal monetary gain. But if I’m staring at a briefcase containing ten times my annual salary, it doesn’t matter if the punishment for getting caught is the rape, torture and execution of me and my entire family. If I have a 97% chance of getting away with it, I’m going to have a hard time pushing away that briefcase.

That’s why public oversight and accountability are the only ways to counter human nature…and not the watered down illusions of oversight synonymous with government campaigns. You can make every official cover himself head-to-toe with anti-corruption pins and set up a hundred “external” supervision agencies hoping they’ll monitor themselves, but as long as they and their Party pals have the power to shut up the press and tell judges how to rule, corruption won’t ever go away.

The government realizes the graveness of the situation and they’ve admitted numerous times that corruption is the biggest threat to the CCP’s power and China’s sustainable growth. But at the same time they know allowing a free press and independent judiciary could open a whole other can of worms they’re not prepared to deal with.

If there were suddenly a free press to expose wrong-doing at every level and a judicial system that would impartially enforce laws on everyone, there’s no telling how many would fall in a country where corruption has been wired into the culture for decades, if not centuries.

The official rhetoric about it destabilizing the country does hold some water. You can’t blame them for wanting to avoid that…even if saving their own necks is their primary concern.

Impatience with corruption is rising fast though. With the widening wealth gap those who aren’t cashing in are getting more envious of those who are; which makes people even more inclined to abuse their job in order to catch up. This means the lowest strata of society will continue to get perpetually screwed over.

And when someone gets screwed over by losing their house to real estate developers or drinking poisonous water because their local Party boss has taken kick backs, these gimmick solutions might pacify them for about five minutes…until they realize that absolutely nothing has actually changed. Whether this ever reaches a nationwide tipping point is anyone’s guess though.

So in the long run it seems like the government might be damned if they do and damned if they don’t in separating themselves from the press and courts. I wish I had a good suggestion, but that’s just one fat dilly of a pickle. Maybe there really isn’t a more viable solution than lapel pins.

Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Jiang Yu has become quite the darling of the foreign press. Answering for the actions of the Chinese government isn’t an easy job but she always manages to pull it off with grace, charm and consistency. Here’s a list of gems from her lips…

“The Chinese Government protects its citizens’ freedom of speech according to law and gives full play to the scrutiny role of the press and the public.” May 10, 2010

“What law lets you interview anyone you like?” March 3, 2011 (See: Article 17 – China Reporting guidelines)

“As far as I know, over the weekend the Beijing police properly handled the incident at Wangfujing.” March 3, 2011 (Responding to a question about foreign journalists being detained and beaten)

“Foreign journalists at Wangfujing were adversely affecting traffic and order.” March 3, 2011

Reporter: Can national laws on foreign journalists in China be superseded by local authorities?

Jiang Yu: “No. But check with local authorities” March 3, 2011

“Governance according to law is the best guarantee for human rights,” September 28, 2010

“I have not heard of that person.”(When asked the whereabouts of Chinese-Australian political blogger Yang Hengjun)

“Chinese people enjoy human rights and basic freedom according to law. This is a fact obvious to all.” June 13, 2006

“Don’t use the law as a shield.” March 3, 2011

“The real problem is that there are people who want to see the world in chaos, and they want to make trouble in China. For people with these kinds of motives, I think no law can protect them.” March 3, 2011

“A handful of monks chanted slogans in front of foreign journalists yesterday? Isn’t it a proof of their freedom of speech?” April 14, 2008

“The Nobel committee is orchestrating an anti-China farce by themselves . […]We are not changing because of interference by a few clowns.” December 7th, 2010

“It is in the interest of Japan to face up to history and deal with issues of history correctly, which will help Japan to improve its international image. We always believe that on issues of history, we should take history as a mirror for the benefit of the future. We are ready to develop friendly China-Japan relations from generation to generation on the basis of facing up to the future and drawing lessons from history.” April 23, 2008

“About the political issue you mentioned … there has already been a clear conclusion.”(Responding to a question about the Tiananmen Square crackdown) June 3, 2010

“Don’t even think of isolating China by not attending the Olympics.” April 4, 2008

Reporter: “I think China has changed its position on the issue of boycotting the Olympics. Now China opposes boycotting Olympics for political reasons, then why didn’t China take part in the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow?”

Jiang Yu: “The Olympic Games is a major event for people worldwide. We are firmly against boycotting the Olympics.” April 4, 2008

Reporter: “An Indian news report says that two Indian border guards were injured two weeks ago by bullets fired from the Chinese side. Can you confirm?”

Jiang Yu: “I have not heard of the scenario you mentioned. You may check with competent authorities. I have noticed, however, that Indian media has been releasing some groundless information recently. I wonder what their intention is.” Septemeber 15, 2009

“Do not ask the same questions over and over again. Please think carefully before you ask.” March 3, 2011

UPDATE:

“We urge the so-called ‘US Commission on International Religious Freedom’ to abandon its prejudices, respect facts and stop intervening in China’s domestic affairs by means including issuing reports.” May 4th, 2011

“Mentioning China in the same breath as other countries in West Asia and North Africa where volatility and turmoil have occurred recently is inappropriate. Anyone who attempts to bring the Middle East turbulence into China and to change the development road that the Chinese people have chosen for themselves is on a fool’s errand,”  May 14, 2011

“With the foreign press expanding their agencies and increasing their personnel in China, your freedom of reporting activites around China have also been expanded. This is a very objective fact,” May 19, 2011

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.

Now that it’s evident foreign coverage of the attempted protests in China and the government backlash against them isn’t simply going away unnoticed, it’s time for Beijing to resort to the one-size-fits-all response they use in any similar situation:

Foreigners who show interest in the events want to see China in chaos.

Global Times, China Daily, the Foreign Ministry, and numerous netizens have flaunted this claim. Basically, foreign reporters who showed up to Wangfujing to do their job were hoping to see demonstrations because they, and their viewers back home, want to see China implode. Committing journalism is evidently proof of willingly agitating upheaval.

I won’t deny that most of the journalists who showed up probably were hoping for demonstrations. It does make for exciting news. I also won’t deny that many in the West do cheer on the kind upheavals happening in the Middle-East without really understanding their long-term implications. It’s inspirational to film statues of dictators toppling over, but after the initial party most media don’t stick around for the ugly clean up.

The Chinese claim goes way beyond any of this though. It suggests people in the West want to see China in chaos just for chaos’ sake. Then their countries can carry out their own devious political objectives without the benevolent Chinese counter-weight.

Pictured: Typical foreign journalist

It was exactly the same during the Tibet and Xinjiang riots, as well as the Nobel Peace Prize saga. Foreign media showed implicit support for the events simply by covering them. And again, foreigners who showed any kind of approval wanted only to disrupt the peace of China.

In those cases, the government was even able to blame the initiation of unrest on underground anti-China conspiracies (which TOTALLY exist) who fund and pull the strings of misguided local villains like the Dalai Lama, Rebiya Kadeer or Liu Xiaobo.

In the government narrative, there’s no middle ground for supporting peaceful protest or calling for reform and transparency. You can either silently trust and submit to them totally, or live in absolute anarchy. In most cases, this false dilemma sells pretty well to domestic audiences. After years of schooling emphasizing western arrogance, foreign occupation and the “century of humiliation”, it’s generally accepted that foreigners who say otherwise really do want to see China collapse, or at best, they simply “don’t understand China.”

After living in China through all these events, I’m getting pretty tired of being told I don’t understand China because I advocate transparency in the government and media . I don’t appreciate the idea that I’m labeled anti-China because I don’t think Liu Xiaobo is Hitler. And most of all, I’m dumbstruck at seeing the Chinese media say that I must wish to see the country I’ve made my home erupt into chaos since I condone peaceful public demonstration as a means of airing grievances.

So Chinese government and media, find a new scapegoat already. I know we foreigners are an easy target to use in consolidating nationalistic support for your actions, but please stop making me refute all the bloodthirsty bullshit you ram down your people’s throats about us.

The Chinese government just released an extended 17-minute promotional video entitled “China on the Way” which can be seen here. After all the criticism of the 1-minute video playing in Times Square, the extended video is an improvement in that it contains more than just people standing around. To its credit, it actually shows diverse scenery and cultural Chinese scenes while focusing on common people rather than celebrities.

But like the shorter PR video, this one seriously neglects its target audience and runs more like a domestic propaganda film. It’s packed with questionable, misleading, and outright false statements accompanied by a lot of subtext praising the Chinese government and nipping standard foreign criticisms of China in the bud. These are a few of the claims from the video that stuck out.

“Chinese people know that our beautiful country and children’s future are too high a price to pay for economic development”

Maybe Chinese people know that, but it’s certainly not reflected by China’s top leaders with statements like “economic development is China’s top priority.” Refusal to submit to binding carbon emissions reductions and join international environmental treaties take a bit of credibility away from this statement.

“People can transform from poverty to riches in a single day, but it will never change the respect and love between people”

You only have to spend a few months in China to realize how absurd this statement is. It’s a standard mantra in China that a man must have a car and a house to even be considered by a woman for marriage. Ask a group of Chinese people who they admire most, and you’ll almost certainly hear Bill Gates named. There’s a direct correlation between how much money a person has and how much love and respect they receive in any country, but this is  especially true in China. The Chinese themselves are usually quick to admit that. Apparently the government is trying to shed the country of the materialistic image it’s gaining.

“While celebrating China’s 60th anniversary, the government demonstrated the value of thrift”

What?! Here’s a few pictures from the celebration which illustrate that thrift:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The government spent a “frugal” $44 million on the National Day Parade. This was allegedly scaled back from an original budget of $2.3 billion in the wake of the financial crisis. So by using price anchoring that would make Steve Jobs jealous, maybe it would be fair to call the celebration a demonstration of thrift. After all, it was less than half the $100 million spent on the Olympic opening ceremony.

“In Beijing, migrant workers’ children have their own special educational arrangements”

There’s not much you can criticize about this statement in terms of accuracy. Migrant children certainly do have their own “special educational arrangements.” These arrangements include not being allowed to step foot in the high-quality public schools reserved for children holding a Beijing Hukou. The video shows this classroom:

But in reality migrant schools usually look look more like this: Only about 20% of these schools in Beijing are even sanctioned and legal. The rest rarely, if ever, get any funding from the government. While the statement about migrant children having a “special educational arrangement” is technically true, it’s laughable that it was included in a promotional video.

“Minorities enjoy relative liberal regulations allowing them to pass their unique heritage on to children. Such freedom adds to our cultural diversity.”

“Relative liberal regulations”? What does that even mean? Are they trying to say that their regulations are only liberal compared to the regulations on the Han majority? Maybe that’s true…unless you count the millions of Buddhists who are prohibited from even having a picture of one of their most sacred leaders.

“Around 900 million people in the Chinese countryside enjoy village voting rights. The world applauds such training for democracy.”

It’s possible that the 900 million figure is accurate…maybe.  But the second sentence is again quite laughable. The outside world is the audience of this video and they’re being told what they think. Clearly this thinking includes a mental standing ovation toward China for stumbling along on it’s democracy training wheels.

“We spend less on food and drinks in daily life and we pay more attention on the enjoyment of spiritual life and personal accomplishment”

This isn’t only funny because of the recent rapid inflation of food prices in China, but because the phrase is taken verbatim from Chinese school textbook propaganda. So either the woman who said it in the video was told what to say, or is regurgitating a phrase that’s been hammered into her mind subconsciously. Either way, it’s not much testament to her spiritual awakening.

Like the Times Square PR video, it’s probably safe to assume that this one was made more for Chinese consumption than for foreigners. The Chinese subtitles and the feel of a government propaganda film don’t do much to improve foreigners’ view of China. However, it might boost Chinese national pride to see that a very pro-China video is being shown overseas.

It’ll be interesting to see what Chinese people think though. The majority seemed to dissaprove of the Times Square video because of the cost and the inclusion of non-Chinese celebrities. My guess is the first thing they criticize is the fact that the narrator of this video clearly isn’t Chinese, but still says “we” throughout the video when talking about Chinese people.

But there was one lightly-veiled slap in the face to the West in the video that’s hard to ostracize:

“China can back it’s development with strong financial reserves”

Touché China…touché

After Forbes Magazine named Chinese President Hu Jintao the most powerful person in the world this week, a China Daily article had some guesses as to why Forbes chose to unseat Barack Obama as the reigning number one in favor of Hu:

“Forbes magazine has named President Hu Jintao as the world’s most powerful person, a move that analysts say shows global acknowledgement of China’s contribution to the world’s economic recovery.”

“China’s peaceful rise on the world stage is also likely to have been a decisive factor.”

“Another significant factor in Hu’s ranking was China’s stable social development and its ability to overcome natural disasters in recent years. The effective measures taken by the government also earned credits for Hu.”

“Analysts said China’s burgeoning economy might have tipped the scales in Hu’s favor. They noted that China’s remarkable contribution to the world’s economy helped it gain a strong international reputation.”

During all these analysts’ analyses, it seems they forgot to analyze what Forbes Magazine itself actually said regarding why they awarded the number one spot to Hu:

“Unlike Western counterparts, Hu can divert rivers, build cities, jail dissidents and censor Internet without meddling from pesky bureaucrats, courts.”

The Chinese media’s coverage of the Forbes list marks a noticeable contrast from the coverage over the past few weeks of the Nobel Peace Prize when everyone involved from Liu Xiaobo himself, to the Nobel Committee, to the entire country of Norway were directly
attacked. The approach to the Forbes list shows the more traditional propaganda department approach: spin and repress.

Spin the event into something flattering to China while quoting some unnamed “analysts” or “experts”, then repress any information that disproves their assertions. Even with the internet, stories like this are usually easy to apply this approach to. Patriots and nationalists within China are all too willing to accept the new harmonious version of the story which casts China in a superior world position. They have no desire to see conflicting information, so unlike with the Nobel Prize, they won’t bother to seek it out.

This summer I had the daunting task of moving across China. Having already lived in China three years, I had accumulated a treasure trove of souvenirs, gifts, cheap clothes and a host of other things that stretched well beyond the capacity of the two suitcases I arrived with. I’m not the type to easily part with anything so moving involved much more than simply buying a train ticket. So for those of you who also must face the challenge, here is a step by step account of how I did it in what I believe is probably the most painless and inexpensive manner.

My move was from Nanjing to Beijing; a distance of about 1,000 kilometers (600 miles). In the USA where I’m from, usually the best solution in this situation would be to hire a moving company or rent a moving truck, so this is what I looked into first. But every Chinese person I asked thought this was insane. For a cross-town move this would be okay, but cross-country… you may as well burn your money.

Using the highways alone, which are notorious for having an overabundance of toll booths, can set you back a couple thousand yuan for a cross country trip. There are a few well known moving companies as well as mom and pop operations with a single truck (these are usually cheaper). I’ve heard you can ride along with the driver and save yourself a train ticket (as well as keep an eye on the goods), but still…you’re looking at paying several thousand yuan. Maybe not bad by American standards, but the way I moved had a price tag that never cracked 4 digits.

Trimming the fat

I mailed most of my stuff, and more on that later, but first I had to get rid of the crap I didn’t feel was worth bringing and the stuff that was too big. In China, it’s never hard to unload extra stuff…and you can usually make money on it. For my bigger things (a couch, electric scooter, shelves, etc.) I first went to my foreign friends. I was lucky to be teaching at a university with several teachers who were staying on another year so I took pictures of my things, emailed them to every foreign friend I had staying in town and auctioned them off. I listed the price I bought each item for and let them bid with each other. I sold nearly all my big things this way among my pool of eight foreign friends with roughly a 50% return on what I originally paid for the items.

For the smaller things I didn’t feel were worth bringing (old books, clothes, various knick knacks) I was able to sell to Chinese students. Again, I was lucky to live at a university at the end of the school year so there was a 3-day “market” set up for leaving seniors to sell their stuff. I’ve heard this is almost universal at universities. For 15 yuan I rented a space in the market. Luckily, I had a Chinese girlfriend who helped me with this, but it wouldn’t be hard to hire a student (or ask one nicely) to help you.

I sold about 80% of my remaining “worthless” stuff this way. I came out with about 300 yuan…not much but good for stuff I was going to throw away anyways. The remaining 20% of my stuff I left on the curb and it was gone within 5 minutes.

Mailing the stuff

I had an embarrassing amount of stuff that I still wanted to hold on to and since I didn’t have a moving truck to just toss it into I had to get a little creative. I mailed things three different ways based on what it was. Here’s how:

1. China Post

This was for stuff that wasn’t fragile or important. This included the bulk of my things. China Post is the official post office of China and they have branches nearly everywhere. To mail a lot of stuff you have to use a special bag which you can kind of see in the picture here. This bag can be a bit tricky to find. Some China Posts sell other bags you can use, so try asking first. The CP I used didn’t have them so I found mine at a big market that specializes in home furnishings. The bags zip up nicely, but they aren’t especially durable so don’t pack them to the brim (like I did).

Altogether, I filled eight of these bags and they varied in weight from 20 kilograms to 34 kilograms. I got them to China Post by taking them one at a time on my electric bike. Once there the person inspected each bag and then I had to sew them shut with a needle and thread that they provided. At this point I found out a lot of what I packed wasn’t allowed and it seemed very arbitrary. But here’s what I was denied from shipping:

  • “Dangerous” liquids – This included cleaning solution, alcohol, vinegar (?), any container that might break or leak, and anything that didn’t have a Chinese label (because the inspector couldn’t read it).
  • Batteries
  • Sharp things – I did send numerous knives that were safely enclosed in a plastic box. The inspector never saw them though so I’m not sure if they’re technically allowed.
  • Paper that was written or typed on – You can send books, but not anything you have written or typed yourself. This is because they don’t want you sending things in bulk rather than sending letters the conventional (more expensive) way. This part was the most annoying as I had years of class notes I wanted to send.

These things seemed totally subject to the whims of the inspector and I’m sure it’s not all inclusive. The inspector got impatient and inspected the last few bags much more laxly then the first. When I noticed this I just wrapped some of the things listed above inside clothes and put them in the last bag. She never noticed.

Finally they weighed all the bags and for the whole lot of them (which together weighed over 200 kilograms) I paid 450 yuan. This varies based on the distance they travel. There’s a tool here you can use to calculate the cost by putting in the weight and the zip codes of the cities you’re going between. They told me it would take somewhere between a week and a month to arrive in Beijing, but to my surprise they arrived 3 days later! My guess is that the bigger the load you send, the faster it gets shipped out. Also Nanjing to Beijing has to be a fairly common route, so don’t count on this happening.

When the bags arrived most of them had tears in them and a few things were broken. One bag was inexplicably wet and had almost fallen completely apart. But nothing of any real value was damaged and nothing was lost. You can buy insurance for 1% of whatever you claim the total value of the goods to be and in theory you could get reimbursed for any damage or losses, but if you have anything they deem breakable (which included several things including a bicycle helmet) they make you sign a liability waiver or they won’t let you ship it. So really the only way you could collect on this is if they lose the bags completely.

When they arrived, I hired a rickshaw guy (pictured above) for 20 yuan to take all the bags from the Beijing China Post to my new apartment…which he miraculously did in one trip.

2.  Private shipping companies

This I would recommend for breakable things or large, irregularly shaped things. For me this included a printer, an oven, and a workout bench (pictured to the right). This way is significantly more expensive, but you can be fairly confident that your stuff won’t get broken.  It’s also the only way to send some things since China Post wouldn’t send my workout bench. It cost 10 yuan for the first kilogram and 8 yuan for each subsequent kilogram for my shipment, which for these three items ended up at about 200 yuan (most of which was from the workout bench). You can often bargain though.

The nice thing about this arrangement was that the company picked up the stuff from my Nanjing door and delivered it to my Beijing door. They also spent a fair amount of time packing everything up nice and tight (which cost an additional 10 yuan). The stuff was shipped by air and arrived two days later. The company I used was STO, Chinese name:申通(Shentong). But there are many others.

3. Shipping by train

This method is somewhere between the last two in terms of price and care. The only things I sent this way were two long distance cycling bicycles. They would have been too expensive to send through a private company and China Post wouldn’t send them. Nearly every train station has a service where you can take your items to the train station and they put them in a cargo car of a train going to your destination. If you’re taking a train there yourself, sometimes you can get the stuff put on the same train as you, but usually you have to go back and pick it up later.

Bicycles were a flat rate of 70 yuan each no matter the size. Other items you can ship are similar to China Post. They charge by the kilogram and there’s a host of things they refuse to ship. I wanted to ship my electric scooter, which they said they could do, but it couldn’t have the battery, nor could I bring the battery with me on the train so I opted just to sell it.

The bikes arrived the next day with several new scratches, the chains unshackled, and one unimportant piece chipped off. So this method isn’t especially safe, but probably better than China Post. Here’s a tool you can use to calculate rates using this method. Definitely more expensive than China post, but if you absolutely need to receive your things quickly in the new city or have certain big items, it’s not a bad choice.

For smaller fragile things, I packed them in my two big suitcases and took them on the train with me. This included an air purifier, hot plate, humidifier, and various small breakable items. There’s no limit to how much you can take on the train, but you may have trouble finding a place to put it if the train is full.

When all was said in done, shipping everything was about 800 yuan and my train ticket was 120. From the first day I started sending things to the day I had everything in my new apartment took four days. It was a terribly busy and laborious four days, but that’s the price of saving money I suppose.

Finding an apartment

A lot has been written online about how to find an apartment in China so I won’t beat a dead horse. If you’re moving to Beijing here’s a site that gives some great advice – I’ll give a few key pieces of advice though.

  • If you’re a foreigner you are going to pay more. When my Chinese girlfriend and I went together to agents, we noticed the price was very high. Then when I stopped going with her the price miraculously fell. When we finally found an apartment, the landlord told her directly that we were smart to do that. He would have definitely charged us 200 yuan more per month and not a penny less.
  • If you have a lot of time you’ll find a much more reasonable place – We were on kind of a time restriction so we had to find an apartment within a week. We got so frustrated and tired after looking in the July heat that we settled for a place after 3 days that cost 400 yuan more per month than our original maximum budget. So if you take your time and visit lots of places and call lots of numbers, you’ll find a much better deal.
  • Agents have no souls – Maybe a bit unfair to say this, but our experience with agents was not good. The apartment we ended up renting was advertised online for 3000 yuan but when we met the agent to look at it, he told us the real price was 3700 and that they only put that online to attract people. In the end, my girlfriend bargained it down to 3400. Many agents told us outright lies which were obvious (Ex: “It only takes 10 minutes to ride your bike to Tsinghua.” When it obviously took more than 40). Most agents are usually paid a full month’s rent for their services and it’s usually paid by you. The agency we used was Century 21. They were paid a flat fee by the landlord of about 2000 yuan which was much less than most agencies. But again, they weren’t exactly trustworthy. If you have the time to call random numbers you see posted, you’ll probably get the best deal that way, but you also don’t know what you’re dealing with in terms of the landlord. At least with an agent you have some recourse if the landlord is awful.

So there it is. It was the worst few weeks of my life but looking back, I’m glad I did it this way rather than splurge on a moving company. My experience was made infinitely easier thanks to my girlfriend so if you have a Chinese friend who can help you or you speak good Chinese, this will make the whole process much much easier. Feel free to contact me or post in the comments if you have any questions. Good luck!