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Archive for the month “May, 2012”

America remembers its veterans, why not China?

WOLFEBORO, NH

Today is Memorial Day in the US, which is not only the unofficial start of summer here in New England, but more importantly is a time for Americans to remember and show respect for the soldiers fighting for their country in all of its many wars.

Yesterday, we walked to a little diner in the center of Wolfeboro for breakfast.  There I saw some  elderly veterans dressed up in suits covered with all of the medals they had earned in the service. Other people, even complete strangers, would stop at their table just to say “Hi” or to say “Thank you” to the old men for their contribution to the country.

Later this morning, Wolfeboro will have a ceremony and parade for Memorial Day.  Of course, local veteran groups played a key role in organizing the ceremonies and  will walk in the front of the parade. I was talking about this with some local residents and during our conversation they mentioned that if Mitt Romney, the US presidential candidate, who has a summer home in Wolfeboro, wanted to walk in the parade he would need to walk in the back, with the other citizens and not necessarily be given some place of high honor.  After all, they said, he’s only a politician.

As a foreigner who comes from a country where the government ignores certain wars, such as China’s 1979 war with Vietnam,  and history education is all about politics, I was amazed by people’s voluntary gratitude and respect to veterans.  When I was a student, our school organized student visits to Martyrs’ Cemetery and to present wreaths. However, for us it was more like part of patriotic education, rather than a real commemoration. I don’t think my teachers really cared all that much either.

In Wolfeboro, the parade and the ceremony isn’t organized by the government or a party, it’s organized by local merchants and veterans’ groups.  In China, the government would never let something like this happen without wanting to take charge, and local officials would all jockey for position to march in the very front.

Once in Beijing, I ran into a taxi driver who claimed to be a veteran of the 1979 China-Vietnam war.  He talked about how his brigade went through all kinds of tough battles, humid weather, and dangerous ambushes in Vietnam. He said, “Many young people don’t even know about our Vietnam War any more”, he sighed.  “We once sacrificed our lives for the country, but right now nobody cares. Now we are in our 50s, we just have to work fourteen hours to make ends meet.”

To be fair, veterans can face many tough challenges coming home to the United States as well, including dealing with injuries, or mental illness, or finding it difficult to get a job and readjust to civilian life.  But in the United States, the media frequently does stories and features on veterans’ issues, and puts pressure on the government (and society) to do more to help veterans returning from overseas conflicts.  In China, the veterans of embarrassing wars are forgotten, with barely a mention ever in the media or by the leaders.

Born in the early 80’s, I never learned much about the Vietnam War. I kind of remember a song called “Xueran de fengcai”(血染的风采)  commemorating the war heroes  of the War with Vietnam. However since then, the war has barely been mentioned in public like it never happened. Of course, “Peaceful Rise” is the current government line. A war with a neighboring country which occurred over 30 years ago doesn’t fit this theme.

It is quite amazing to me that in China we spend all this time and energy constantly condemning the horrible Japanese invasion and the vicious American conspiracy against China. Our government operates a whole propaganda machine to make sure that this hatred will be passed to the younger generation. However, we don’t have the time to show our respect to the soldiers who sacrificed for their country or the money to make sure that the veterans have decent lives.  They are the true patriots.

Okay, seriously…one last Yang Rui story

Editor’s note: We really meant for YJ to have the last word on L’Affaire Yang Rui, but friend of the blog Luke Hambleton sent us an email describing a recent close encounter of the Yang kind.  It was too good not to post.  Enjoy. – JJ

———————–

Last summer, I was in the studio audience on a brand new Chinese culture show hosted by Yang Rui on a Chinese language CCTV channel. Yang ‘warmed’ the audience up by admitting that none of them would know him and then spent ten minutes chatting ‘at’ me in English, which was clearly nothing more than an effort to show off. You could tell he was very sensitive about his lack of fame among ordinary Chinese, but that he holds his ‘communicator with the great laowai masses’ role in very high esteem.

As the show went on it got better (worse) with Yang making frequent Chinese mistakes, mostly messing up lines of poetry that were corrected by heckling from the audience. We frequently had to shoot bits again due to Yang tripping over chengyu or the odd couplet or three. Yeah, Tang poetry can be obscure, but these were famous pieces every middle school student should know.

The subject of the show was an interview with Li Xiangting 李祥霆, one of China’s greatest guqin (zither) masters. When it came to studio Q&A with the master, he turns to me and, in English, starts asking me about my favorite part of the show. I reply in English that I liked the tune the master played, one that had been composed in the Han dynasty supposedly to commemorate the attempted assassination of Qin Shihuang, to which Yang switches into condescending mode, speaking in a laowai voice: “Ohhh…you know Chin Shhii Huuuang?!” He then invites me onto the stage for me to put my questions to Master Li.

We step-up together and he places himself right between us ready to translate and I begin: “李老师,您好!”With this the audience claps and cheers and Yang looks like I’ve just winded him in the stomach. Before I can ask my question he gives a closed-lip smile and accuses me of ‘tricking’ him into thinking I couldn’t speak Chinese. No, Yang, you never asked (by the way, how the hell he thought I understood the Qin Shihuang bit, I’ll never know).

I then ask the master a couple of questions about what advice he might have for people outside of China wanting to learn the guqin.

But it wasn’t over. I had taken away Yang’s position of ‘laowai whisperer’, he needed to reassert his face and authority. So, very unprofessionally, he turns his back to Master Li, the focus of the show, and starts grilling me (almost literally under the heat of the studio lights) about the innate differences between YOUR Western music and OUR Chinese music and how Western music is so suibian but Chinese music should be played with the soul – how could a non-Chinese ever achieve this? I began answering in Chinese but he pressed me, I kid you not, to stop and answer in English. So I gave an answer about music being fundamentally based on the same principles etc. He didn’t like my answer and didn’t bother to translate, just told me to sit down.

The whole sorry episode ended up on the cutting room floor, with only my question and Master Li’s answer making it into the final show.

On the way out the door I overheard audience members engaged in fierce agreement over Yang’s unimpressive Chinese skills and how poorly the show was hosted: “Master Li was awesome, just a shame the host came across as so uneducated!”

 - Luke Hambleton is a difangzhi monkey and real ale enthusiast residing in Beijing.

 

“Pofu” or no “Pofu,” Yang Rui is just an idiot

As the only Chinese and the only girl on the masthead, the boys from rectified.name kindly asked me to write a piece commenting on Yang Rui’s statements from a women’s perspective, especially his calling Melissa Chan a “泼妇”, a word Brendan and others translated as “bitch”.

It is very sweet of them, and I feel bad for what Yang Rui wrote about Melissa, but let’s be clear, there is no women’s perspective, there is only the universal sense that this guy is an IDIOT.

First, Yang’s Chinese is very bad. I don’t think anything Melissa did deserves the word “泼”. She didn’t sit on the ground yelling or screaming. She was just really good at her job. Where does the “泼” come from?  I feel Yang, as an anchor for an influential Chinese TV station, should improve his Chinese and find a more suitable word to describe a peer, especially one who does actual journalism, rather than showing off his sort of English language skills in a TV studio and writing shameful microblog posts.

Second, I don’t care whether he is xenophobic or nationalist or racist, as long as he keeps those thoughts to himself. Who the hell cares what this guy thinks? In China we have many so-called journalists like this and they are not the pride of my country.  It would be nice if they didn’t go out of their way to put their naïve and simple ideas on Weibo and the Internet. Weibo posts are public. People, both Chinese and foreign, will judge the quality of Chinese journalism on the stupidity of the brainless “patriotic” few.  It’s not fair because, trust me, there are many good Chinese journalists.

That’s all I have to say about this. I am not going to waste my time on Yang Rui. Guys, 散了散了。There are better things to worry about.

This Week in Douchiness: Oppressed Minority Edition

Last week both the Wall Street Journal and the Telegraph had articles about the World Uyghur Congress holding a conference in Tokyo, and China delivered its usual autonomic response, although, interestingly enough, they tagged in rumored Bo Xilai supporter Zhou Yangkang to do it. Western media coverage somehow managed to skirt past the fact that right-wing Nanjing massacre revisionist and nationalist MP Takeo Hiranuma spoke at the conference, and Rebiya Kadeer visited the Yasakuni Shrine. The Chinese press, of course, didn’t miss this at all, and frankly these are significant events that ought to have made it into the Telegraph and WSJ articles. Not only is the Uyghur movement associating itself with a Japanese politician who opposed a woman’s ascension to the Chrysanthemum Throne because “If [Princess] Aiko becomes the reigning empress and gets involved with a blue-eyed foreigner while studying abroad and marries him, their child may be the emperor… We should never let that happen,” but Kadeer’s visit to the Yasakuni Shrine is quite simply just spitting in the eye of not just the Chinese government, but the Chinese people. The only apparent purpose it serves is as a gesture to Japan’s right wing, which hardly seems of any value in the long-run if you’re seeking actual solutions to the discrimination and oppression faced by Uyghurs in Xinjiang. UPDATE: It appears that Rebiya also donated 100,000 yen to the Tokyo government’s fund to buy the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. At this rate I wouldn’t be surprised if she releases a statement next week endorsing the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. SECOND UPDATE: Word is that the reports of far-right funding were erroneous, and that the Uyghur dissident groups were “unaware” of the importance of the Yasukuni Shrine. Not clear whether the reports of right-wing Japanese politicians speaking at the event were also erroneous, but being unaware of the impact of a Yasukuni Shrine visit smacks of geopolitical naivete. Do they know how this game is played?

Meanwhile, the Dalai Lama has reported “rumors” of a Chinese plan to assassinate him via poisoned scarves, a delivery system that Wired’s new science blog Elemental throws some cold water on. Once again, I find myself in the awkward position of agreeing with the Global Times, who said “Let’s put it simply: If the central government wanted to “eliminate” the Dalai Lama, why has it waited for such a long time? Isn’t it foolish to take action against Dalai at such an old age?” And as Wired’s Deborah Blum pointed out, “In that interview with the Telegraph, the Dalai Lama did emphasize that he was just repeating a rumor, nothing that had been verified. So why, you might ask, even bring it up?”

Meanwhile, I heartily recommend Autonomous Region, an excellent Xinjiang blog (and one of the few left still posting regularly) where Batur has lately been turning up several good Taobao finds, including organic free trade fruits and nuts direct from Kashgari farmers, that Xinjiang consumers purchased the most numbers of bikinis and bras via Taobao in 2011 (and also the largest cup sizes compared to all other Chinese provinces), and an awesome t-shirt. Batur is also reliable for news on things like ethnic discrimination in government hiring, the upcoming Urumqi metro, the expected return of Uyghur BBS Uighurbiz, which was shut down after the 2008 riots, a Uyghur movie site, and the problem of Chinese transliteration and name-length limits for Uyghur names on ID cards and plane tickets. A must subscribe for Xinjiang news bites.

To close out, here’s a clip of American bluegrass musician Abigail Washburn jamming in Urumqi.

It’s Not Just Yang Rui

Is Yang Rui a xenophobe? Wait, back up. The sort of people who read this blog will almost certainly have heard about Yang Rui, the anchor of CCTV International’s program “Dialogue,” and his postings on Weibo and the shit-storm that ensued, but if you haven’t, you can bring yourself up to speed by reading WSJ Realtime, James Fallows, and ChinaGeeks‘ takes on the whole sorry situation, and Bill Bishop’s run-down on Sinocism. Or you can get the same effect more quickly and less harmfully by ramming your head into the wall a few times as hard as you can; it’s your call.

Now that we’re all on the same page: is Yang Rui a xenophobe? Has CCTV picked a racist to head up one of the highest-profile programs in its bid for international media relevance? The WSJ post translates one of Yang’s Weibo postings — the one that started the whole mess — but there is more to Yang’s outburst than that, and since I failed Mind Reading 101 in college and have not got access to the inside of Yang Rui’s head, it seems fairest to let him speak for himself via his Weibo updates, which I’ve translated below as fairly and directly as I can.

公安部要清扫洋垃圾:抓洋流氓,保护无知少女,五道口和三里屯是重灾区;斩首洋蛇头,美欧失业者来中国圈钱贩卖人口,妖言惑众鼓励移民;识别洋间谍,找个中国女人同居,职业是搜集情报,以游客为名义为日本韩国和美欧测绘地图,完善GPS;赶走洋泼妇,关闭半岛电视台驻京办,让妖魔化中国的闭嘴滚蛋
5月16日 06:55

The Ministry of Public Security must clean out the foreign trash: catch foreign lowlifes and protect innocent girls (Wudaokou and Sanlitun are the worst-affected areas). Eliminate foreign human traffickers,1 unemployed Americans and Europeans who come to China to make money by selling people abroad, misleading the public and encouraging them to emigrate. Learn to recognize the foreign spies who find a Chinese girl to shack up with while they make a living compiling intelligence reports, posing as tourists in order to do mapping surveys and improve GPS data for Japan, South Korea, the United States and Europe.2 We kicked out that shrill foreign bitch3 and shut down Al Jazeera’s office in Beijing; we should make everyone who demonizes China shut up and fuck off.4
— May 16, 6:55 AM

我十年前就碰到过中文暴粗口的美国人。扫洋垃圾必要,但也要警惕排外情绪,警惕义和拳运动的变异。反省一下自己,许多中国人的种族歧视也很严重,歧视自己,有自卑感,忙崇白人,对其他有色人种颇有微词。
5月18日 14:23

[In reference to Oleg Vedernikov] I first came across Americans who were foul-mouthed in Chinese ten years ago. It’s important to sweep away all the foreign trash, but we must be cautious of xenophobia and new variations on the Boxer Uprising.5 We should reflect on our own shortcomings. Many Chinese people are seriously racist: they look down on themselves and have a sense of inferiority; they bow and scrape before white people while being more than a little dismissive of colored peoples.
— May 18, 2:23 pm

说到中国如何和平崛起,如何二十年后综合实力接近美国。越琢磨越觉得TMD和平二字被人利用了。我们忍气吞声埋头建设尽量与邻为善,结果恶邻蚕食鲸吞我们的岛礁,我们韬光养晦,他们以为我们不作为怕惹事,于是兴风作浪!其实,和平崛起也必须声明不要妨碍我和平,别折腾我,不然老子不客气!
5月18日 23:38

So far as the “peaceful rise” of China and how China will be similar to the United States in terms of overall power in another 20 years: the more I think about it, the more I feel like the word “peaceful” is just being f-ing exploited by people. We keep quiet and swallow our anger; we keep our heads down and build our country; we do everything we can to treat our neighbors well, and our malicious neighbors encroach on our islands and reefs one nibble and bite at a time. We choose to hide our capabilities and bide our time, and they take that as a sign that we’re afraid to start things and as license for them to run rampant! Peaceful rise or not, we must make a statement: don’t try to break our peace; don’t try to mess with us; or it’ll be no more Mr. Nice Guy!
— May 18, 11:38 pm

清扫洋垃圾,华尔街日报这么在意?暗示我排外,扯吧!在华的外国人渣不少,优秀的友好的和尊守中国法律的外国人也很多。甄别一下,打扫卫生,理性相处,中国人是非常好客的,有些好客得有些媚外,丧失了人格和国格。周末愉快,buddies, have fun on weekend 5月18日 23:47

Why does the Wall Street Journal care so much about cleaning up foreign trash? Implying that I’m xenophobic? Bullshit! There’s no shortage of foreign scum in China, and there are also plenty of outstanding, friendly foreigners who respect Chinese law. So filter them out, clean things up, and let’s coexist rationally. Chinese people are extremely hospitable — sometimes so hospitable that they worship foreigners to the detriment of their own personal and national nature. Have a good weekend, buddies, have fun on weekend
— May 18, 11:47 pm

看到菲律宾军人荷枪实弹逼着中国渔民脱下上衣,在烈日下暴晒,若非海监船及时赶到制止他们的辱华行为,这些在自己的领海附近捕鱼的中国人又得被扣,罚个倾家荡产,有的中国渔民甚至直接被杀,沉尸灭迹。这些西方媒体不报道,我说些真相,他们指责我是monologue, 意思是独白,不是对话Dialogue.
5月19日 00:37

Philippine soldiers forced Chinese fishermen at gunpoint to take off their shirts under the baking sun. If the [Chinese] maritime patrol boat hadn’t gotten there in time to stop their humiliation of China, these Chinese people who had been fishing near their own country’s territorial waters might have been arrested, fined everything they owned — some of them might even have been killed and thrown into the ocean to hide the evidence. Western media doesn’t report that. I tell the truth, and they accuse me of engaging in monologue, not “Dialogue.”
— May 19: 12:37 am

我们搁置争议,越南大肆开发,组织各界人士登岛劳军,要把南海据为己有。海洋局的专家说,河内在玩圈地运动,中海油的钻井台立足未稳,越南就组织几十艘船搞狼群驱赶,我们军方不在,中海油的弟兄们只好撤!败退!越南还故意鼓励渔民挑衅中方,一旦被抓,就煽动反华和民族仇恨
5月19日 01:20

Setting aside the controversy for a moment, Vietnam is stepping up development on a large scale and mobilizing people to settle islands and ramp up troops so that they can make the South China Sea their own. An expert from the State Oceanic Administration says Hanoi is pursuing a policy of encirclement: it doesn’t yet have enough of a footing to drill a well, so the government organized several dozen ships to drive away other vessels. Our navy isn’t there, so our brothers in CNOOC have no choice but to pull out! To leave in defeat! Vietnam has also deliberately encouraged fishermen to provoke Chinese [vessels]; if they get arrested, Vietnam will fan the flames of anti-Chinese and racist sentiment.6
— May 19, 1:20 am

求证:菲外长罗萨里奥可能持美国护照,是美籍人士,一个月来他烈士一样的激烈言辞,想必认为他的祖国美国会无条件保护他客居的菲律宾?同理,2008年格鲁吉亚总统萨卡什维利下令军队镇压邻近俄罗斯的阿布哈兹和南奥塞梯自治省,他毕业于哈佛大学,美国律师出身。结果他败得很惨,俄不尿他,美不理他!
5月19日 08:47

Seeking confirmation: Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario may hold a US passport and US nationalist. For the past month he’s been delivering impassioned speeches like a wannabe martyr — doubtlessly because he thinks his motherland the US will unconditionally protect his right to live abroad in the Philippines? In 2008, using the same reasoning, the Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili ordered his troops to suppress the nearby Russian autonomous regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. He graduated from Harvard and worked as a lawyer in the US. In the end, he lost badly: Russia paid no attention and America ignored him!”
— May 19, 8:47 am

(I chose the last post as the ending point because everything after this is written in light of Charlie’s petition to get Yang Rui fired. Up until this point, Yang was carrying on, except for the mention of the WSJ post, more or less under the impression that he was talking to his usual audience, so these posts may be a fairer representation of his thoughts.)


So is Yang a xenophobic racist? Yes and no — well, mostly yes, really — but “nationalist” might be a more accurate term. (Yang uses the word himself in one of his more recent posts.) The racism and xenophobia are subordinate to the nationalism in a way that will be familiar to anyone who’s spent much time on the Chinese internet. None of what Yang Rui said is particularly beyond the pale for nationalist discourse online. It’s slightly surprising to hear it coming from a public figure supposedly involved in international dialogue, but frankly the only really astonishing part has been the surprise at his outburst.

I’ve translated Yang’s Weibo posts above as fairly as I can, but in the interest of full disclosure, I should say that I have never found Yang’s show to be balanced, intelligent, or intellectually honest. I last paid attention to “Dialogue” in spring 2003 and distinctly remember an episode from that period — a time when the Beijing government was actively lying about and covering up SARS fatalities, and Chinese and foreigners alike were eager for any scrap of accurate, unbiased information — in which Yang spent most of the show badgering a foreign epidemiologist into saying that SARS could possibly be of foreign origin, as if that was what really mattered. This was pretty typical of the discussion, as I recall — almost exclusively point-scoring, zero-sum, yes-but-one-Rod-Blagojevich-equals-one-Bo-Xilai whataboutery.

It may be embarrassing from a soft-power standpoint to have an allegedly cosmopolitan TV host speaking this way in a public forum, but Yang is basically a human weathervane with a bad William F. Buckley impression, and he wouldn’t be saying these things if he didn’t think the political winds were at his back. His rant showed up in the context of a lot of other nationalist wharrgarbl about the Philippines and Vietnam — topics that have been notably prominent in the media recently as part of an overall campaign to unify public opinion in the face of what can only be described as “interesting times.” Some aspects of this (particularly the recent hyping of videos showing a drunken British would-be rapist and a jerk-off Russian cellist mouthing off in Chinese) have been stunningly successful; others (particularly the Beijing Daily’s repeated bullseye shots at its own feet) have been less so.

It’s hard to see Yang suffering any serious repercussions from this.7 His opinions are not new or rare or particularly extreme in the context of fenqing nationalism, and if the current climate is any indication, I suspect we probably will have a lot more of this stuff to look forward to in the coming months.


  1. The WSJ’s translation renders this literally, as “Cut off the foreign snake heads,” but “snakehead” is a term used for human traffickers, similar to “coyote” w/r/t Mexicans entering the US.
  2. Boy, has he ever got my number.
  3. I threw out the question of how to translate 泼妇 to a table of translators and interpreters yesterday afternoon. Consensus was “bitch,” since terms like “shrew,” “scold,” “blowen,” “harridan,” etc. are no longer in common usage, but the native speakers of Chinese — both female — said that it actually struck them as nastier than “bitch” in this context, since it is possible to be a reasonable bitch but not a reasonable 泼妇.
  4. 滚 on its own is a rude-but-common term meaning “piss off.” 滚蛋 is more in “fuck off” territory.
  5. Is it too late to make “The Fists of Righteous Harmony” the standard translation for this? Because it’s more accurate and way cooler.
  6. Slightly ropier on this translation as I’m not entirely clear on what incident he’s talking about here. Corrections very welcome.
  7. From CCTV, that is. One hopes that people invited to appear on his show will think twice before doing so, and ask themselves if this is really a person they want to be associated with by the entire Internet-using foreign population of China.

An Expat Comes Back From the Homeland

After a one month stint in the Twitter detox clinic in beautiful, sunny Jersey City (no, seriously), I returned to Beijing to find that China kicked the infinite improbability drive up to 11. The Party might delay Xi Jinping’s ascension, the Philippines has always been an inseparable part of China, and oh yeah, a blind guy pulled a Steve McQueen on state security, but I can’t really bring myself to write about any of it, for three reasons: first, I’ve reset to zero in the China Cycle of Funk*; second, unlike when I started blogging back in the Cretaceous Age (2003), there’s an embarrassment of riches when it comes to smart commentary and reporting on China available on the Internet, for free; third, although in cases like the Bogu/Heywood kerfuffle we may never know what’s what, I can feel Twitter and Google Reader beckoning to me: What new developments are there? Did they find Bo Xilai’s secret fembot army that would’ve been buried with him in his tomb? Has Ai Weiwei base jumped nude into the US Embassy? Did Chen Guangcheng get to second base with Hillary? I need to know! And that seems more like compulsively picking at a scab than keeping up-to-date.

I never knew China without the internet, but the internet is just the latest delivery system for the information crack that expats invariably get hooked on. Raised in countries where speech is comparatively free and governments understand the rudimentary basics of public trust and information flows, we can’t help ourselves when we end up immersed in a Newspeak environment where officials try to pummel us into weary submission by hypnotically repeating the world “relevant.” Before the internet, the typical delivery systems for information and mutual commiseration were (and still are) caffeine and alcohol. But as so many of us remember when we travel back home, that shit is not good for you. There’s a fine line between being informed and being obsessed, and from time to time we cross it. We quit our jobs, even if we really can’t afford it, because we can no longer deal with the logic pretzels, jingoistic human robocalls, or toddler-esque outbursts that some Chinese employers or clients serve up whenever they encounter a nuanced political event, or even worse fail to commiserate with us when together we encounter obfuscation, bureaucracy, connivery, or just incompetence that stands athwart the completion of some basic task, like fixing your air conditioner.** We get soused or hyper-caffeinated or fat on overpriced cheeseburgers washed down with Watney’s Red Barrel*** and rage against the machine in chorus and five-part harmony, which in fact isn’t really more emotionally mature than the fenqing pouting and foot-stomping we look down on. We’ve all felt it, and I imagine most of us have seen at least one or two colleagues or friends get crushed or nearly by it.

The reality that I don’t think we grapple with quite enough is that living here is hard. It’s hard living in a political environment that resembles something like Lord of The Flies re-enacted by drunk nursery school children, and even worse to realize that we’re impotent to do anything about it. In some ways its harder for mainland Chinese, since for the most part they can’t leave, but I think there’s a case to be made that its harder for us since as non-natives our immune systems didn’t develop any resistance to the various strains of astonishing bullshit that flourish here. Americans, in particular, with our almost vicious insistence on a partially-imaginary egalitarianism, are hard hit. This isn’t simply a matter of democracy and free speech, it goes down to the personal relationship level too. While the US of A may have a rather large Gini coefficient and a storied history of people owning other people, when I walk into Best Buy in New York City there’s an unspoken agreement that while I might be a billionaire (I am not) and this service person works at Best Buy, she’s a human being with dignity and a sense of humor and deserves to be treated with respect, and she’ll do her best to get me what I need. And if I don’t, she’ll chew me out and her manager will ask me to leave. Service culture in China, on the other hand, is often based more on feudal lord-serf relationships, complete with melodramatic decrees and groveling along with the occasional peasant rebellion, and we’re never 100% comfortable with it, although who doesn’t like to have their every whim taken care of? Maybe it’s easier if you’re Russian.

Where was I? Oh right, so since we get served far more than the FDA recommended daily serving of brain-melting nonsense here, its wise to cut back on the political news. All things in moderation, because if there’s one thing China is not, it’s moderate.

*As Will has previously mentioned, the Cycle of Funk was one of the great lasting contributions of the Talk Talk China blog.

**Key phrases for mainland Chinese who must work with testy, emotional foreigners that will calm them: “Dude, that sucks”; “That’s unbelievable”; “No fucking way”; “I hate that shit.” With these, you too can be a Laowai Whisperer.

**I started this post thinking I was Palin begging for mercy, but by the end I was channeling Idle.


On the Yak trail in Southwest China…

“I’m not from here
but people tell me
it’s not like it used to be
they say I should have been here
back about ten years
before it got ruined by folks like me”  – James McMurtry

I travel to Yunnan at least twice each year, and yes, there are worse ways to earn a living than spending three weeks a semester hiking in the mountains, wandering around various “Old Towns” (however new), and hanging out in Tibetan villages swapping yak jokes with the locals.  This past April I spent another three weeks on the “Yak Trail” going from city to city, impressed as ever by the enormous changes going on in Yunnan.

I first went to Yunnan in 2003. True old timers tell me that the place was already ruined by then, that Lijiang was well on its way to becoming a kitschy tourist trap, package tours were inundating scenic vistas with screeching megaphones and hat-matched lemmings, Dali was passé, Zhongdian was Sinified, and that Kunming was becoming just another third-tier provincial city, devoid of charm or history, transformed into block after block of white façades and KFCs.

Well, now that I am something of a China old timer, it pains me to say that it was all true then and even more true now.  Obviously the Dali/Lijiang/Zhongdian Triangle has been done to death.  In Zhongdian it’s easier to find a decent quesadilla than actual yak meat.  (Most of the yaks in the area have been replaced by larger, better tasting cattle-yak hybrids.) Not that I miss eating yak.  I like my cultural experiences as much as the next guy, but I’ve always found eating yak meat to be somewhat akin to chewing on a catcher’s mitt, with the mitt featuring a more appealing flavor profile.

Lijiang has been completely overwhelmed. What little Naxi culture was there before has been swamped by cookie cutter souvenir shops and discos promising ‘cultural shows’ featuring either “Reverb Guy Warbling with Guitar” or “Sexy Minority-ish Girls Dancing Chastely.” It seems the city leaders and the tourism development board have a vision, and that vision is to transform this World Heritage site into Yunnan’s answer to Branson, MO.

As the purpose of my trip was to co-lead a group of students taking an Environmental Studies course, it’s probably worth noting that while all of this tourism in Yunnan has been a boon for the local economy, having millions of tourist tramping through the same gorges and lake shores can’t be good for the environment.  Yunnan has the greatest biodiversity of any province in China, and with terrain ranging from high mountain peaks and alpine lakes to rich tropical lowlands, the province boasts an astonishing range of ecosystems and biozones.  Of course, like much of China, all of these habitats are under excruciating pressure from modern development as well as from those who are trying to preserve older cultural practices and traditional modes of production.

Northern Yunnan is also in the midst of a serious drought. The “Black Dragon Pool,” one of Lijiang’s more famous landmarks, was completely dry and other lakes and rivers I had visited in past springs were at historic low water marks.  This is now year three of drought conditions and people are really starting to worry.  Village wells and springs which for generations had provided sufficient water for crops and homes are running dry.

During our two-week trip, we have met with representatives from the Nature Conservancy, the Yunnan Environmental Protection Agency, and the Yunnan Forestry Department. All groups recognize the problem, and each proposed similar stop-gap measures (encouraging ‘greener’ technology, educating the people about the importance of conservation) but few seemed to have concrete answers to the fundamental problems facing the province. What does a modern Yunnan look like? Is there a place in that modern Yunnan for all ethnic groups to take part in that modernity to the extent they wish while continuing those cultural practices they (not the tourist companies) feel are important? Can all of this be done and still preserve Yunnan’s rich ecological legacy?

For those of us who live in China’s cities, the pressures of modernization are all too familiar.  Kunming certainly hasn’t caught up with Beijing in terms of automobile usage and post-consumption pollution, but by Jeepus it’s trying.  Right now Kunming is still in the “Holy Shit! Mopeds are Cool! You can Drive them Anywhere!” stage of development.  Frankly, I’m not sure which is worse: Beijing’s soul crushing traffic or Kunming residents riding their mopeds over and on every available surface and space.

The problems of rural Yunnan are more complicated and less about consumption than about the difficulties of balancing development and conservation, although there are some success stories.

In central Yunnan, a national park has been established with the help of the Nature Conservancy to protect the endangered Yunnan Golden Monkey.  Bearing a not-so-slight resemblance to Steven Tyler, these alpine primates have been under extreme pressure since the 1950s and 1960s when villagers, facing starvation as a result of government ‘rural reform’ policies, slaughtered the monkeys in the thousands for food.  Now down to fewer than 500 individuals, most of the remaining population lives within the borders of Laojun Mountain National Park.  The key to the park’s success was the decision to utilize local knowledge and retrain local hunters, most of whom are Lisu, to work as park rangers.  Unlike the lowland Naxi, the Lisu have long been more accustomed to hunting the hills central Yunnan than being settled in villages.  While the Lisu are no longer allowed to (legally) hunt, the National Park gives the them a chance to put those skills to use in conservation.

The problem, as always, comes down to money. Where does it come from and, more importantly, who gets it?

Almost all of the national parks, ecological preserves, and scenic areas are controlled financially by tourism development companies.  These companies bid for the right to develop the areas, construct the necessary infrastructure, and then flood the zone with enough lodging, restaurant, entertainment options to make back their investment.  A carefully constructed mountain path is fine, but a chairlift brings in the tour buses and tour buses bring in the RMB.

Several spectacular national parks and ecological preserves have been constructed in the last few years.  They look great and so far seem to also have a good relationship with local communities.  But look closer and you notice a lot of half-finished lodges, exhibition halls devoid of much to exhibit, and ticket booths collecting anywhere from 80-200 RMB per entrance with that money going directly to the tourist development companies not the local community.  When I asked about this, I was told that the development companies took the risk and made the investment and so need to get their money back first, plus there are supposed to be trickle-down benefits to local residents in terms of jobs and ancillary income.   But as presently planned, most of these sites are not going to make the kind of money necessary to repay the costs of development.  As that happens, the companies priorities are likely to change, becoming a) even less interested in sharing revenue with other stakeholders and/or b) “Hey, I’ve got an idea…fuck the monkeys, what this mountain needs is more hotels and a goddamn chairlift!”

Naturally, local residents have their own ideas about revenue sharing and some are less patient than others.  At world-famous Tiger Leaping Gorge, we were told that our minivan wouldn’t be allowed to travel through the gorge.  We would need to use local minivans…at whatever rate the drivers saw as appropriate.  This was all in addition to the official ticket fee.  The officers manning the ticket checkpoint seemed embarrassed by this brazen attempt to shake down tourists, but not embarrassed enough to do anything about it.  I’m guessing too that they must get a cut.

Now, I’m sympathetic to the plight of local residents because over and over again the story in Yunnan seems to be the same: the money goes elsewhere, locals get screwed.  I remember too a few years ago when the Tibetan villagers around Napa Hai (near Zhongdian in northwest Yunnan)  decided to supplement their income from illegal logging with a series of crude toll booths to waylay passers-by.  It’s easy to be frustrated by this poorly disguised brigandry…except that it’s an obvious example of the problems of conservation and environmental protection in Yunnan.

Until the benefits of modernity and development are equally distributed, and the responsibilities for conservation and protection shared among all stakeholders, then the rich and fragile ecosystems of Yunnan – and all of China – will remain under grave threat.

Of quackery and rhinos…

Earlier this month, stories in the Korean media sparked concerns in China and abroad about – almost unbelievably — the possible processing of stillborn and aborted babies into powder and used as traditional medicinal food supplements.

Chinese authorities have asserted that past and current investigations have not found any instances of such illicit trade, and that Chinese law strictly prohibits such practices and regulates the institutions that handle medicinal materials, including the placenta, which, unlike corpses, has historically been legitimately used to make medicine, although the effects of doing so have never been particularly well explained.

Accusations of child cannibalism have been long practiced as a method of demonizing people and groups all over the world. In the 19th century, missionaries in China were accused of purchasing babies to make medicine and lurid tales of kidnapping and mutilation for the purposes of medicine or sorcery can be found in many cultural and historical contexts.

In the late 1990s, installation artist Zhu Yu’s provoking cannibalism-themed pieces caused a furor in China and abroad. Inside China, domestic conspiracy theorists pointed the finger – naturally – toward Guangdong.  Abroad, critics of China used the accusations to paint all of the country in the worst possible light.

The allegorical significance of consumption of human flesh along the lines of Lu Xun’s “A Madman’s Diary” should also not be missed. Children have to be protected from the agents of a decrepit social system hell-bent on eating them, the Madman implores the reader. Of course, the guy himself is mad, and the people around him wish only the best for him, or do they?

Parts of human bodies do indeed get used in traditional medicine in China. Ming Dynasty scholar Li Shizhen devoted a whole section in his monumental Compendium of Materia Medica to various human parts that can be used for medical purposes.

Li himself, though, makes a distinction between human sourced materials that are morally acceptable and those which are repugnant. Li states that human flesh and other abhorrent materials get used by magicians and he only lists them so that the discerning reader can make a decision for themselves.[1]

While the current media and online furor could — and probably should — be dismissed as one of the many rumors and otherworldly accusations floating around the Internet, it does point to a striking failure of science as it relates to traditional Chinese medicine. How to separate the quackery from the possible, particularly in regards to practices which so abominable as to be nearly unbelievable, but also debunking medical myths involving the use of ingredients — such as bear bile, rhino horn, and tiger portions — which do great harm to biodiversity and the protection of endangered species.

Traditional medicinal practices which are popular far beyond China’s borders — but are seen as inherently Chinese by both the PRC government and Chinese society at large — rely on an interpretation of human physiology that is largely incompatible to the conventional understanding of anatomy. It also sources materials that are complex and their chemistry and effects are not well-understood.

Particularly since the founding of the PRC in 1949, Mainland Chinese science has attempted to quantify and discover both the effects and chemical workings of traditional medicinal medicals practices. With increased prosperity in China since the 1980s, domestic demand has increased tremendously exerting pressure on both domestic suppliers and foreign sources of various materials, some of which have led to environmental destruction and a rise in illicit trade.

It is not surprising that desperate people in poor health would be willing to spend significant amounts of money to buy life-saving medicine, however such people should also be protected in terms of the safety of the treatment they are receiving. So should those who purchase remedies for lesser ailments, be it a cold or impotence. They should have the right to know whether there is any chance of actually seeing results from such a treatment.

While the moral impact of a middle-aged man spending prolifically on concoctions to enhance his amorous life seems benign (as long as he stays away from the damn rhinos!), what to make of the 2007 half a year prison term to Guangdong parents who stole another couple’s deceased child to make a healing soup for their sickly child?

While it’s easy to brand their actions as backwardness and ignorance, especially since such practices have been dismissed already by ancient medicinal masters not least Li Shizhen himself, it’s not too much to ask from those in the know, how one is to figure out the difference between medicine and superstition.

This is partially addressed by making a distinction between TCM, which has a long written history, and “folk medicine”, which is passed down generations orally and is usually local. The latter is usually seen as based on superstition, but then again, it can sometimes be tapped for advice.

Although TCM is practiced around the world, the PRC has willingly taken on the role of the main proprietor and the guardian of the TCM, and as such, received justified and unjustified criticism for the harm caused by poaching rare animals, such as tigers and destroying fragile ecosystems when plants are overharvested.

This puts Chinese government officials in the uncomfortable position of having to speak up for a medicinal industry that the Chinese state controls only partially (not least because Taiwan’s position in international conservation cooperation is tedious due to the sovereignty dispute). Demand for medicines that contain rare species or other questionably sourced materials puts pressure on the government to permit such trade. As a result, the trade goes on illegally but somewhat openly.

If sound qualitative data of the clinical results of using rare animal species as medicine would be available, this could be used as a way of addressing demand for them directly. After all, who would buy tiger bone liquor if its benefits for sexual potency were shown to be non-existent?

If it were possible to show (run a T-test, or do whatever else is needed to get one of those pesky ”something significant”) that tiger bones, or baby powder for that matter, kills cancer cells or kills a disease of your choosing, then we could decide if it’s worth looking at selling and buying this stuff.

Of course, as with the white crow which might show up any time to disprove the truth that crows are black, it’s harder to prove that something is not effective than to show its efficacy, because we might simply not have the necessary technology yet.

Oh wait! It is actually possible to run those T-tests. However, in addition to the abovementioned difficulty to disprove things using the scientific method, such results are not being published because either (1) good old publishing bias that preferences positive results rather than inconclusive ones, and more likely (2) because such research is not performed, which has been the view to ethnobothanists I have talked to personally.

Research is driven by funding, and there is little if any money to be made in knowing whether something is not an effective medicine. In addition, when it comes to traditional medicine, there seems to be reluctance to invest in research that rejects tradition, even if it means rejecting superstition.

For now, the man who is willing to shell out cash for tiger bones, is being let down by science, which has not managed (or perhaps not wanted) to assess the efficacy of such treatment. Equally, science has let down the Chinese government which simultaneously faces accusations of lackluster dedication to protecting endangered species while at the same time satisfying the demand for them by the public.

Everyone is left hanging, and when preposterous accusations like this current infant powder cannibalism report arises, have to resort to awkward denials. Even worse, the specter of another Lu Xun masterpiece haunts everyone involved: spending the last bit of money to buy a lousy hunk of steamed bread dipped in the blood of the righteous and vulnerable; and all that for nothing.

——————

Karlis Rokpelnis is a PhD Candidate in Ethnoecology at Minzu University in Beijing and earned his MPhil from the University of Cambridge.  Karlis would like to thank two of his fellow students for the discussions which led to this essay. 



[1] See page 189.

The Devil’s Air Conditioner and Other Tales of Woe

Sometimes life in Beijing is like one of those Japanese game shows where they see how much torture people are willing to endure for surprisingly mediocre prizes. Picture the following and you’ve more or less got it:

“Mr. Ishihara, for a new desktop dumpling fridge you’ve been strapped naked to a hospital gurney in the burning sun for twelve hours. You’re pinking up nicely. Do you wish to continue?”

“Yes!”

“Then it’s time to raise the bar! Here comes a team of lingerie models to glue Gabonese fire ants to your testicles!”

“I can take it! Must…have…tiny…fridge!”

“Great! While they prepare the ants, let’s watch this secretly recorded video of you confessing erectile dysfunction at last week’s office drinking party!”

That’s us on the gurney. We’re all in it for the rush and the dubious prize while an oddball assortment of it-could-only-happen-here, Rube Goldberg discomforts repeatedly jabs its three-fingered cartoon glove into our sensitive bits. As long as you can take it, you live in Beijing. When, like Popeye the Sailor Man, you can’t stands no more, you pack up and head for more congenial shores. With a dumpling fridge, if you’re lucky.

This weekend’s finger to my sensitive bits involved the air conditioner in my apartment.

Let me tell you a bit about my apartment. Nominally in a “luxury” development, it’s horrendously expensive and situated in one of Beijing’s most fabulous areas. The amenities are good. There’s even a French bakery in the courtyard. But construction-wise it’s less luxury and more like what would happen if you got a pack of wild monkeys just drunk enough on Snow Beer to almost read a blueprint and fenced them into ten hectares of land with a pile of grade-B residential fittings and free-flow concrete. The caulking wanders off in random directions, the hot and cold indicators on the faucets are reversed, the “hardwood” flooring buckles in weird places, the towel racks droop, and when the wind blows, a majestic assortment of Jurassic aromas billows from the drains. There’s more, but you get the idea.

Still, I was hardened by a year in Shanghai, so in most ways I consider it pretty good as Chinese apartments go. The worst that can be said of the landlord is that she’s totally disinterested, which is way better than totally venal, which is always a possibility here. The landlord situation reminds me a bit of the shopworn parable about Confucius, the widow and the tiger:

One day the Master came upon a woman weeping at a grave. He said, “You weep as one afflicted by great sorrow.”

The woman replied, “It is true. My husband’s father was killed here by a tiger, and my husband also. Now the tiger has killed my son.”

“Why do you not leave this place?” asked the Master?

The woman replied, “The government here is not cruel.”

Replace “government” with “landlord” and it’s still more or less valid.

But the air conditioning problem is serious. Our apartment is hot and stuffy year round. Even in Beijing’s Siberian winter we pick up so much waste-heat from the neighboring apartments and poorly insulated piping that we often end up running a fan in our bedroom at night. As for summer, well, if you haven’t experienced August in Beijing you can simulate it by tying yourself to a burning coal stove and then having your friends hurl you into an open sewer. If you actually try this, put it on YouTube so everyone can benefit from your sacrifice. That’s how knowledge is born.

Anyway, we rely on our air conditioner. This sucks for us, because it is an enormous, fiddly contraption that looks like what might happen if Lockheed Corp. and Hubei People’s Steam Propulsion Systems Factory No. 182 jointly bid on air conditioners for TEPCO. This model, which is standard in our apartment complex due, one can only assume, to graft, is approximately the size of a 1968 Volkswagen Camper, and takes up the entire balcony outside my son’s room. Unlike a Volkswagen Camper, it uses water as a coolant, making it complex and prone to breakdown. But it does have the Camper’s woeful lack of power and tendency to choke in the face of modest demands.

In a masterstroke of engineering, our air conditioner also manages to combine the worst attributes of central and split air conditioning. Like central air conditioning, it has to be switched from “heat” mode to “cooling” by the property office, which puts us at the mercy of the government rather than the climate. The switchover involves one big button and just enough fiddling with valves to be complicated, but the good news is that regardless of official dates the property office usually folds in the face of a little hectoring.

Like a split aircon, however, the compressor draws on our household electricity (our breaker box emits an alarming buzz every time it turns on), and coolant pipes run through the ceiling to the vents in all the rooms. In our previous apartment, in the same complex, the pipe over the kitchen dripped condensation. During summer it reliably shorted out the gas leak detector in the kitchen ceiling about once a month, usually at three in the morning (we ran the aircon at night), triggering an electronic shriek that could curdle the fluid in your eyeballs. I would deal with this problem by blearily jamming a screwdriver into the alarm until it shut up, and then having the property office replace it. If we’d ever had an actual gas leak, the sparks created by my screwdriver surgery would have blown us all into the courtyard like Ed Norton’s furniture and condiments in “Fight Club.”

The compressor unit on the balcony is wired to a set of high-tech thermostats, all of which insist that every room in the house is always 25C regardless of actual temperature. When the sun expands into a red giant and incinerates the Earth a billion years from now, these thermostats will insist it is 25C right until the moment they evaporate. Whether you set the thermostats to 30C or 5C (which is where ours are all set), you get the same anemic trickle of semi-cool air from the vents.

But we take what we can get. Spring in Beijing is a season of hot days and cool nights. And dust and fuzz and pollution. The apartment warms up during the day and stays warm pretty much all night, forcing us to run the air conditioning even though the outside temperature has dropped. Any cooling is better than no cooling.

At 2AM on Saturday night I woke up bathed in sweat. The outside temperature was a crisp 12C, but our room had crept up to a broiling, humid 28.5C. The aircon vent was cheerily pumping out a stream of toasty, warm air.

Well, you say, turn it off and open the windows, genius. And in many places in the world this would be sound advice. But on Saturday night the air pollution AQI reading was 212. In China an AQI of 212 counts as “moderate,” but in the rest of the world it’s more like, Holy Jesus, Martha, it’s the apocalypse! Get the kids into the fallout shelter while I shoot the dog! You don’t really want to sleep in it. What’s the point of having $3,000 worth of Swedish air filters (yes, really) in the apartment if you’re just going to throw open the windows and let the scuzz in?

We let the scuzz in, at least for a while. But that led to another problem. Our previous apartment faced the courtyard from the 7th floor. Other than the occasional raving drunkard or 160db Phil Spector wall-of-sound throat-clearing hawk, it was reasonably quiet. On the rare clear-air nights we occasionally slept with the windows open just for the hell of it (although always with the risk of waking up to find the loess plateau in our bed).

Our current apartment faces the road between our complex and the neighboring ultra-mall. This road is small, but punches way above its weight in terms of congestion, perma-honking and random cacophony. To add insult to injury, when they built the mega-mall they somehow neglected to design in a loading dock. The result is that all deliveries to the mall are made at the entrance to the parking lot, which is just below our 16th floor apartment. This happens at the only time when they can partially block the road, which is the middle of the night.  For a mall that sells a huge amount of really expensive stuff, these deliveries are not gentle. They often sound like someone backing a flatbed truck with busted shocks and a full load of plate glass and live hogs over a row of two-by-fours.

As long as our hermetically-sealing, double-paned windows are buttoned up, the noise doesn’t bother us. And, anemic as it is, if the air conditioning is working, we can keep the windows closed. But if the air conditioning fails, our choices rapidly dwindle to dying of heat exhaustion in our own bed, opening the windows and admitting the din and miasma of Satan’s workshop, or suicide.

At two in the morning, suicide doesn’t look all that bad, but we resisted. After my wife went out and poked futilely at the buttons on the compressor for a while, we went for heat exhaustion, turning off the compressor but keeping the windows shut. On Sunday morning the property office showed up, declared that we had somehow switched the air conditioning unit to “heat,” switched it back, and left. On Sunday evening the aircon ran refreshing and cool, as much as it ever does. Maybe it was our fault, I thought. Maybe we did something wrong.

And then Sunday night at 2AM we woke up bathed in sweat again. With a flashlight I went out to the balcony where the Beast lives and examined the controls. Outside it was pleasantly cool. The air conditioner had switched itself to “heat.” I switched it back to “cool.” The mechanics might be complex, but the controls are simple. There are only three buttons: On/Off, Heat and Cool, and an LED that displays “HE” or “CO” and the coolant temperature. It ran in “cool” mode for a minute or so. I watched the coolant temperature drop. And then it switched itself back to “heat.” I repeated this five times. Every time the air conditioner switched itself back to “heat.”

On top of all its other problems—the fiddly complexity, the anemic output, the buzzing breaker box—this cursed thing apparently thinks it’s smarter than us. When it’s warm outside, in the early evening or right at dusk, it chugs along merrily in cooling mode. The moment the temperature outside drops too much, it figures we must be freezing in our booties, and spontaneously switches itself into heat mode. Damn the thermostats (25C), full speed ahead!

Or, worse, it’s actually trying to kill us, like the possessed laundry press in the old Stephen King story, “The Mangler.” It wants to roast us to death in our sleep and let the cats feast on our remains, just for the sheer sport of it. I don’t know what happened to the previous tenant in our apartment. I do know that he left a fair amount of his stuff behind when he “moved out.” Coincidence?

I just made the last rent payment on our current contract. In about two months, we have to decide whether to move or to stay in the same place and accept the inevitable rent increase. On the one hand, the apartment is expensive and noisy and the air conditioning unit is apparently possessed by Satan and determined to destroy us all.

On the other hand, there are croissants downstairs and the government is not cruel.

It’s a tough call.

Mangler

But it's refreshingly cool!

“Authoritarian modernization always works until it quite suddenly doesn’t”

Among China watchers there has long been a holy schism/false dichotomy between those who argue China’s model is inherently doomed to fail and those who are more bullish about the future.  Where one stands in this debate can depend on a host of factors including (but not limited to):

  1. Political inclinations
  2. Confirmation of pet economic theories
  3. A pathological need to know that, deep down, my country/system of origin is just better.
  4. The extent of China-based investments (stocks, start-ups, restaurants, real estate, or modern art collections)
  5. Wanting to sell books, no matter how dubious the research
  6. Wanting to piss people off on Twitter, no matter how dubious the tweet
  7. Because blogging (Read: Writing for free) is much more rewarding when people hate you.
  8. Because the mustache needs feeding.

We need not name names but I think you get the idea.

Central to the debate is how an authoritarian, one-party government can continue to provide the benefits of economic growth, development, and modernization to a growing number of people while maintaining a tight grip on power.  Faced with this conundrum, most watchers react in one of five ways (and yes, I’m oversimplifying):

  1. It works. People are happy. Besides, what we are seeing is sui generis, past economic/historical models don’t apply.
  2. It kinda works. Most people are happy (especially if you have an urban hukou, some real estate, and good connections) but does anybody else think it’s weird that all my friends — especially those who claim to be so happy and that they support the government — are applying for Canadian citizenship?
  3. It works but it’s completely immoral.  People need democracy and human rights.  Waaaaahhhh.
  4. It doesn’t work.  It’s all a façade which will come crashing down in…wait…hold it…just a little bit longer…and….oops, one more second…let’s all count down together….3….2…1…1/2….1/4…..
  5. White people suck.

Sticking with number one, for a moment, while it’s hard to argue against the efficiency of the system, those who say that this is a novel and fresh approach to government tend to remind me of the people I knew in back in college who thought Guns ‘N Roses had written “Knocking on Heaven’s Door.” (Best parallel metaphor, a friend who thought everybody else was an idiot, because he had the Clapton album with the “original version” on it. And again, I’m not naming names.)

Walter Russell Mead posted a long-ish piece yesterday on this very subject in which he argues:

Authoritarian modernization always works until it quite suddenly doesn’t; many observers hailed Stolypin’s reforms in late Czarist Russia and spoke in awe about Russia’s rapid industrial growth in the years before World War One. At Via Meadia we’re not able to give assign a date to the China correction that lies in store; the current slowdown could be a blip on the screen or the start of something more consequential.

I know there will be people (see above) who are going to nitpick Mead’s argument, but you have to give him credit, he attacks a basic supposition of contemporary China with a fury most people reserve for malfunctioning, poorly maintained office equipment* and there are sure to be plenty of people who are going to be upset by this comparison:

China babble has reigned among exactly the kinds of people who used to marvel at Hitler’s autobahns, Stalin’s steel mills, and Mussolini’s ability to make the trains run on time.

Nothing like risking invocation of Godwin’s Law to spark a little debate. For what it’s worth, I’m not quite as pessimistic as Mead, but I do think the cracks are showing and the incoming leadership will need to make some difficult political choices if it is to continue pursuing its twin goals of economic development and one-party rule.

—————–

*Even over a decade after I first saw it, few scenes in film history can make laugh out loud as reliably as this one.

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