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Pro wrestling as American soft power so why not Jerry Springer?

In a piece this week on the Foreign Policy website, Justin D. Martin looks at the surprising popularity of pro wrestling in the Middle East.

Qatar is a conservative, Wahhabi-leaning country where alcohol consumption is illegal for citizens and Internet filters block pornography. Violent media content, however, is widely consumed and seemingly uncontested — a trend that permeates the broader Arab world. While sexual media is censored — the WWE show in Doha featured none of the dancing women seen at other venues — images of combat are ubiquitous.

I’m not a psychologist, and there are many reasons why that is, but it doesn’t take Siggy Freud to wonder at a possible casual link between repression of sex and a celebration of violence.

Makes me wonder though about whether pro wrestling — especially the American export version — might have a market in China.  People like fake things here.  People also like watching foreigners doing funny things.

But why not take the idea to its logical conclusion.  People might buy tickets to watch American pro wrestlers fake beat the crap out of each other, but at the end of the match it’s just hulking juicehead behemoths in masks and spandex.  It’s American sure, but is it America?

My feeling is if you’re going to go that route why not just say fuck it:  EMBRACE the stereotype.  Syndicate old episodes of the Jerry Springer or Steve Wilkos show on CCTV.

People would eat. that. shit. up.  Fat Foreigners Fighting would be the biggest show in CCTV history.  Get Li Yong and Yang Rui to provide color commentary and you would have empty streets each week at broadcast time.  Hell, it might be the most effective anti-America propaganda CCTV has shown in years, because God knows they could use some help right now in that department.

Passengers booted off of KLM plane

Anyone who has flown to or from China knows the drill.  Flight attendants on international carriers are often very…particular about following the safety guidelines.  Many upwardly mobile Chinese tend to believe that rules are for other people.  Hilarity often ensues.

KLM Royal Dutch Airlines confirmed Friday that one of its aircraft traveling from Beijing to Amsterdam was suspended from taking off after six Chinese passengers quarreled with flight attendants on Wednesday.

The Netherlands airline told the Global Times Friday that “there was an incident with Chinese passengers on board and that the aircraft returned to the gate,” but refused to reveal more details on the incident.

The Civil Aviation Administration of China was not available for comment by Friday due to the week-long Spring Festival holidays.

Six passengers, all in first class, were late for boarding and refused to wear their seat belts as well as turn off their mobile phones when the aircraft was preparing to take off from the Beijing Capital International Airport for Schiphol Airport, the Beijing-based The Mirror reported on Thursday.

A passenger on board surnamed Lin said in the report that he heard a fierce quarrel and a middle-aged female passenger speaking rudely and threatening to take photos and expose the photos online.

The report said the captain of the flight refused to take off until the passengers were taken away by airport security.

For some, the problem is unfamiliarity with the basic protocols of air travel.* And there’s always going to be a few people who, regardless of nationality, are just assholes.**  I flew back from Kunming this week and as soon as the wheels hit the tarmac in Beijing, the flight attendants were running around playing “whack-a-mole” with passengers who assumed that since the plane was not in a death spiral it was safe to get up and open the overhead bins.  I thought I saw one attendant actually tackle a dude.  And this wasn’t a language issue.  This was Hainan Airlines (one of my favorites) and Chinese passengers.

On Weibo, few are buying the “language barrier” excuse.  Most of the comments are deriding the KLM passengers who were removed from a plane, complaining that such boorish behavior is a loss of face for other Chinese travelers.  Others speculated that they must be members of a corrupt official family.  Still more lamented that money rarely seems to buy good manners among the 暴发户 baofahu, the Chinese term for the nouveau riche.

That said, in a lot of these cases language barriers do make the situation worse.  There are several unpleasant things that recur every year: my annual prostate exam, renewing my visa, and at least once every twelve months willingly placing myself in the surly and sometimes openly hostile embrace of United Airlines.

Say what you will about Chinese carriers, most of the staff speak a foreign language.  They might not speak it well, but they have functional communication skills in important topics like “coffee or tea?” “would you like a newspaper?” and “sit down, sir before your pink wheelie suitcase falls out of the bin and gives somebody a concussion.”   (Okay, I made the last one up but you get the idea.)

United Airlines? Chinese passengers are lucky if even two of the cabin crew speak their language.  Or any language other than English.  The route to and from Beijing must be a primo gig because the crew is always a senior group of hardened and jaded attendants.  You imagine if you met one out on the town, she’d be croaking through her menthol smoke about how she once made out with Neil Young.***

On my last flight on United, there were the usual shenanigans with people ignoring the rules.  I know this pisses off the attendants but the response was hardly a soft power win for the USA.  One attendant asked a passenger to put his seat back up.**** When he didn’t understand her, she — how predictable was this? — just talked louder and slower.  Then she started threatening him.  All the while the dude was looking around to see if anybody could tell him why the women with the horrible bottle dye job was screeching in his general direction.  Finally another passenger — a Laowai — translated for him and he complied.

So it goes both ways.  I have a hunch that the level of entitlement among passengers in the first class cabin on a flight from Beijing to Europe ranks somewhere between “God” and “The guy who has pictures of a naked Xi Jinping holding a goat.”  It’s the same impulse that causes drivers here to speed up when approaching a cross walk. (If pedestrians don’t want to be hit by a car, then why don’t they just stop being poor and buy their own car?) At the same time, international airlines, American carriers in particular, can do a better job about staffing their planes with more people who can communicate across cultural and language barriers.

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* h/t @MissXQ

**Why can’t this be the first line of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?

*** YJ once found half of a worm in her salad on a United flight. When she showed it to the flight attendant the response was “that sometimes happens.” After fuming silently for a few minutes, YJ turns to me and says, “Don’t ever bitch to me about ‘Chinese service standards’ again.”

**** By the way, one of my ALL TIME pet peeves — the compulsive recliner. I can’t even speak rationally about this.

Staying Safe During Spring Festival: A Teacher’s Advice to his Students


This is an actual email I sent to my students today.  I thought it also might be useful to any first time Spring Festival-ers out there.  

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Tonight is the beginning of Spring Festival.  It’s one of the craziest, happiest, and most exciting nights in the Chinese calendar, and I hope that you all have fun tonight celebrating the Year of the Snake*.  As you are doing so, there are some things you can do to stay safe and healthy.

Be careful with fireworks.  Think about the kind of attention Chinese manufacturers usually give to such things as “Quality Control” and “Product Safety.”  Now look at the explosive device you are holding in your hand and which you just bought from some dude in a tent on the side of the road.

Fireworks are part of the culture and they can be fun, but every year the emergency room is filled with horrible injuries. They are often the kind of injury that will mean answering to new and interesting nicknames like “Lefty,” “Three-Finger Joe,” “No Scrotum Li,” and “Holyshitwhereisyourleg Wang.”

Be careful not to get caught by friendly fire or become collateral damage.  I’ve seen people throwing exploding firecrackers out of fifth floor windows into the street below because it was “hen renao.”  I’ve also seen people who are a little confused about which angle is suitable to fire a bottle rocket (Safety tip: That would be UP!).  When walking around the city, keep your eyes open and be ready to hit the deck.  Seriously.

Be careful with the Baijiu.  First of all, it is perfectly appropriate (preferable, really) to say “no, thanks.”  Your host will not think you are being rude if you decide to stick to Sprite.  On the other hand, they WILL think you are being rude if you projectile vomit on their new sofa while sexually harassing their cat.

Second, baijiu is very much a “buy the ticket, take the ride” experience.  Once you get on that train and it has left the station, it can be hard to get off.  If you don’t think you can handle it, don’t start.  Remember that it is something of a game in China to pressure people to do things they wouldn’t ordinarily do just to be part of the group. (See: Revolution, Cultural)

Finally, NEVER get into a car with somebody who has been drinking.  The Beijing government is getting tougher about drinking and driving, but attitudes toward driving under the influence here are lax by US standards.**  Caution is also necessary when traveling around the city or walking in the area around campus.  It is an unfortunate reality that many drivers today and tomorrow will be lit up like a forest fire.  Be especially careful of black Audis.  Just trust me on this.

Have fun. Stay Safe. Happy New Year.

- Jeremiah

P.S. Yes, your host family will make you watch the 春节晚会. No, it’s not your imagination or the baijiu fumes…it really is that bad. Yes, it’s even worse this year than last.*** No, members of China’s ethnic minorities do not spend all of their time dancing and singing about how much they love the Party even if that’s what your host sister told you she learned in school.  Yes, that is Celine Dion. No, I have no idea what she’s doing there either.  Finally, yes…you MAY make fun of it. Everybody does.

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*As Zodiac animals go, only people who were actually born in the Year of the Snake get excited about it.  Souvenir sellers are especially hurting because let’s face it, everybody wants a stuffed monkey.  Not everyone is cool with a toy serpent.  Also there’s some history here.  Past Snake Years are 1989 and 2001.  ‘Nuff Said.

**Although last week a cop was so pissed at a petulant drunk driver that he pulled his gun.  The cop is now a hero on the Chinese Interwebs.

***Score bonus points with your hosts by asking them if they think the show will be the same this year without Zhao Benshan.

Why do we call it “Spring Festival”?

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For most of us 春节 chunjie or “Spring Festival” is an opportunity to enjoy a delicate mix of high-proof alcohol and shoddily made explosives.  There are also dumplings and television specials so neutered they make the Lawrence Welk show look like “Kid Rock Night” at Cheetah’s.

Speaking of neutered, has there ever been a blander term than “Spring Festival”? What the hell does it even mean? It’s held in the middle of winter. In North China that means we celebrate spring by huddling around in weather that is so goddamn frigid the sheep start voluntarily walking up to chuanr guys and saying, “Seriously fucker, let’s just do this.”

For thousands of years it was simply the New Year, at least according to the moon.  So what changed?

Well, the calendar for one.  On January 1, 1912 Sun Yat-sen declared the founding of the Republic of China.  One of the perks which carried over from the old imperial era was that the founder of a new government gets to decide on the calendar.  Sun chose the Gregorian calendar and to avoid any confusion declared January 1 “New Year’s Day. This required a re-branding of the Lunar New Year as something else and “Spring Festival” was born.  Of course by the time Spring Festival 1912 rolled around Sun had already traded the presidency to Yuan Shikai for a bag of dumplings and a vague promise that Yuan “would honor the democratic process or some shit like that.”

In 1928 Chiang Kai-shek decided to take it a step further and tried to sync the lunar and solar New Year holidays, declaring that henceforth Chinese New Year/Spring Festival would be held on January 1. This was another one of Chiang’s brilliant “But that’s the way they do it in Japan” ideas.  Japan still does it, in China it lasted a year.  Spring Festival 1929 was held according to the Lunar Calendar.

When the PRC was established in 1949, Mao decided to keep the Gregorian calendar and with it the name “Spring Festival” to refer to the Lunar New Year.  Over time however many of the more colorful customs associated with Lunar New Year such as the burning of the Kitchen God or visiting a temple to pray for luck and fortune gradually succumbed to government campaigns against feudal superstition.

During the Lunar New Year 1967, the first “Spring Festival” of the Cultural Revolution era, workers were encouraged to turn in their train tickets and celebrate with overtime. Village loudspeakers blared messages telling farmers that nothing said “New Year spirit” like digging irrigation ditches.  For the next thirteen years, few dared to openly celebrate the Lunar New Year. Instead people enjoyed new traditions like “turning in your neighbors for thinking mean things about Mao” and “Whack a Teacher with a 2×4.” Good times!

In 1979 an op-ed appeared in the People’s Daily asking “Where is Spring Festival?”  The next year the fireworks returned.  In 1983, the first 春节晚会 Spring Festival Gala debuted on CCTV and had people immediately wishing for a return of the Cultural Revolution.  Two hours into the first broadcast Deng Pufang tried to throw himself out of a window.

Stupid name or not, it is a special time.  Over the next few days, families will gather to eat, drink and remind everyone of all the horrible shit they’ve done to each other over the past year.  Then the whole family heads outside to toss lit firecrackers at loved ones.

I love it.  Even if spring still feels like it’s months away.

Sacred Maos

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Communiques from the CCP Politburo tend to be of interest to only the most committed China scholar or the most wretched insomniac.  With the 18th Party Congress just two weeks away, however, several recent policy statements including an article in the Chinese Communist Party’s main ideological journal Qiu Shi (Seeking Truth) on October 16 have managed to attract attention for what they fail to mention: reference to Mao Zedong Thought.

The theories of Deng Xiaoping and the concept of “Scientific Development” associated with Hu Jintao remain, but the absence of Mao has led to a round of speculation as to what the omission might mean for the upcoming 18th Party Congress.

Some see this as a sign that the Party intends to commit itself to deeper reform than was previously thought. On Monday, the Party announced plans to amend its constitution and several statements issued in the last two weeks have emphasized the need for greater reform and touting the Party’s commitment to “democracy” during the upcoming congress.  This has led to even wilder speculation that the party may be planning to drop Mao from the constitution altogether.

There are also suggestions that the omissions are the result of doctrinal feuds between competing Party factions, noting that Chongqing’s deposed Party Secretary Bo Xilai once wrapped his brand of leftist populism in the garb of Maoist nostalgia, the most famous example of which was urging citizens to sing “red songs” usually associated with the 1960s and the Cultural revolution.

But the decision to cut Mao from a few articles or party documents is not news. In the early 1980s, the Party rendered its historical verdict on the Mao years, proclaiming the Great Helmsman to have been 70% correct and 30% incorrect, even as Deng Xiaoping and his protégés were working to dismantle major parts of Mao’s legacy.  Since that time references to Mao Zedong Thought have been in steady decline, reduced mostly to boilerplate attached to speeches and Party documents.

The actual moment of their disappearance from key Party-published materials, while eye-catching, does not mark any major political shift away from current policies.  Rather it is a matter of rhetoric catching up with reality.  It was long time ago that the Party jettisoned the concept of class-based revolution in favor of gradualist reform.

Dropping Mao from a few documents is not a harbinger of great change, nor does it mean that the specter of Mao does not still loom large over Chinese politics.

Just last month, anti-Japan demonstrators held up portraits of Mao as they marched. The unspoken but unsubtle message to China’s leaders: The Chairman would never have let Japan get away with claiming our islands. Perhaps coincidentally the government called for an end to the protests a few days later. Mao’s image is often used by farmers protesting the seizure of their land by corrupt officials. He appears hanging from the rear-view mirrors of taxi cabs. Mao’s birthplace in Hunan sees millions of visitors each year. Every morning in Tiananmen Square, hundreds of people wait in line for a chance to enter his mausoleum and pay their respects. Many elderly Chinese, even those who suffered during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, see Mao as representing a simpler time, free from the corruption, avarice and inequality of today’s China.

 

While the Party may sometimes try to mask the traces of “Mao Zedong Thought” left in its DNA, it can never completely abandon the man himself. At the height of his paranoia, Mao feared that his fellow leaders would do to him what Khrushchev had done to Stalin. When Chinese president Liu Shaoqi was removed from power during the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, he was denounced for being—among other things—“China’s Khrushchev”. Yet the Party’s present dilemma suggests that Mao might have been worrying needlessly. Nikita Khrushchev could denounce Stalin because Khrushchev was always able to appeal to the ghost of Vladimir Lenin. Mao’s successors have no such luxury.

 

For good or ill, Mao is credited with founding the country and being the Party’s original leader. To denounce him is to undermine its historical legitimacy. Little wonder that the National Museum of China, which occupies most of the eastern flank of Tiananmen Square, contains room after room devoted to the horrors of imperialism, and to the glories of Deng’s Reform and Opening era, but relegates both the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap to a single black-and-white photograph each.

 

Mao continues to mean something in today’s China, but his absence from Party pronouncements is not as significant as some would suggest. It reflects the CCP’s ongoing effort to emphasize the progress and reforms made beginning with Deng Xiaoping. The 18th Party Congress is historic for marking the first generation of leadership chosen without the involvement of the revolutionary generation. Whether their ghosts linger to haunt the new leadership is another matter altogether.

Seriously Hooked on Nationalism

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Today was one of those perfect Beijing fall days, sunny, reasonably clear air and just the right temperature for a day-long hike of the Great Wall at Jinshanling….or for burning and pillaging your local Chinese-owned and operated Japanese restaurant. Whatever.

In fact combining the best of both fun activities, three separate groups of young Chinese marched along the wall today waving flags demanding the protection of the Diaoyu Islands from the dastardly Japanese.   One group was in yellow and waved a yellow flag.  Another was in red and held a red flag.  A third group split the difference and went with an all-orange look that confused a few Dutch hikers into thinking a football match was about to break out at the next guard tower.

On their way up, each group stopped to pay homage to a statue of Ming general Qi Jiguang.  General Qi is something of a patron saint around Jinshanling. He’s credited with organizing the construction of this section of the wall in the mid-16th century, but before that, Qi Jiguang was best known for his battles against Japanese ‘pirates’ along China’s coast.  Now he is the patron saint of seriously deluded Chinese nationalists out for blood over a chain of rocks inhabited by a herd of confused goats and an endangered species of mole.  Seriously.

Yes, I know thar’s oil and gas under them thar rocks, but the real concern is that the current storm of violent knucklehead patriotism no longer has anything to do with national interests and has become all about national pride and transition politics.

China’s leadership swap is in a few weeks and it’s fair to say that things have not gone according to plan.  A little bumptious distraction like, say, everybody hating on Japan for a week or two might seem like the perfect remedy.

But basically it’s just the Party self-medicating.

Sure, it’s taken a few hard knocks.  Felt a little off its game.  Maybe had its self-esteem dinged a bit.  So it tries some nationalism.  Not too much.  Maybe one of those ‘designer nationalisms,’ like a boycott of a Gucci store.  But that’s not enough. No, pretty soon you get hooked up with the bigger taste.  A little squabble off the Philippines.  But what to do when Manilla no longer thrills ya? Shoot a little Vietnamese fishing boat action.  Yeah, that’s the stuff.  Now, I’m feeling pumped.   But you know how that Vietnamese shit can hurt you.  After all, you tried it back in ’79 and it left you naked and greasy on a couch in Belushi’s apartment.  No more of that shit.  So you go to a classic.  Yeah, Japan.  Right where I left you.  Foreign devil smooth every time.  What’s that, just one more? Yeah, okay.  I was going to quit on Sunday, but hey…I can skip work Monday.  What? Tuesday’s a holiday? Mukden Incident? I’ll protest to that…

And before The Party can say “Remember May Fourth?” they’re in a meeting getting a hug from Lindsay Lohan’s AA sponsor.

This is the worst kind of dispute because everybody’s right and nobody’s right.  Japan and China have more than their share of nationalist nitwits, but nobody actually lives on these rocks and it’s not like you can go and ask the goats what they’re feeling.  (Apparently the moles tried to hold a referendum back in ’98 but backed down after Beijing threatened to bombard the island with missiles and large snakes.)

Frankly, every time I hear the phrase “history says…” I want to try and remove my own corneas with a shrimp fork.  History “says” a lot of things. For example,  China has never ever invaded another country.  The PLA did not invade Tibet in 1951 because Tibet has been part of China since at least the time of the Yuan which was not a Mongolian Empire but a Chinese Dynasty.   And China didn’t try to invade Japan in 1274 and 1281 because that was Kublai Khan who was, you know, a Mongol and not Chinese.

History is especially tricky when you take relatively recent concepts and constructions like the nation state and national sovereignty and apply them retroactively.

Of more contemporary concern though is the way the CCP, through the educational system and the official media, has made defending China’s ‘national sovereignty’ and ‘territorial integrity’ such an important and highly visible pillar of their legitimacy.  That leaves precious little room for negotiation or compromise in situations like the current stand-off with Japan.

The 20th century is littered with examples of anti-foreign, especially anti-Japan, demonstrations which went unexpectedly off-script and subsequently turned against the Chinese government.  Jeremy Goldkorn this afternoon tweeted that the demonstrators embrace of Mao was disturbing to this administration because it made Hu Jintao and the rest of the hair-dye shoe-lift brigade look like wimps.  The Helmsman would never have allowed Japan to take our rocks and goats, dammit.

If Hu is planning to use the instability as a pretext to retain some measure of control past 2013, he can’t be constantly graded on the same curve as The Chairman.

Perhaps even more troubling is that according to several sources Hu has never been tight with the brass. In a New York Times article posted Saturday, Ian Johnson speculated that the sabre rattling could well be a move by an increasingly rambunctious PLA to increase their profile and test some of the new high-tech weapons they’ve been working on the last few years.

As Charlie Custer wrote today, it’s hard to envision any of this happening without the tacit, and likely active, support of the government.  Playing to the mob and turning it loose has never been a winning strategy.  Hopefully the Chinese government sees that before it is forced to decide between compromising and thus potentially undermining its own legitimacy or a military adventure which would destabilize the region and undo decades of “Peaceful Rise” rhetoric.

Dude, Where’s my…Emperor?

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How do you lose an heir apparent? I mean…it’s not a like he’s a pet puggle.

“Have you seen my once-in-a-decade-transition leader?  If so, please send him home. You can’t imagine Hu’s missing him since Wen.”

Before China watchers get their tweed in a twist, it’s worth noting that Xi’s only been MIA for a little over a week.  Mao took naps that lasted longer than that.

Sure it’s a different era with Weibo and an active foreign press corps speculating wildly about everything from an infected hang nail to alien abduction, but in the pantheon of Chinese leaders going AWOL, Xi blowing off the Prime Minister of Denmark isn’t even top ten.  In the early 1990s Premier Li Peng went missing for months on account of the sniffles (Read: “heart attack”) and it barely registered.  Of course, that may have been because Li Peng is a douche.

In 1966, Mao kick-started a Cultural Revolution then disappeared from Beijing only to re-emerge several weeks later in a bathing suit swimming the Yangtze River.  If the rumors are true, and what the fuck let’s just assume that anything posted on Duowei and Boxun is the rough equivalent to Yahweh texting Moses, then Xi can’t even do one lap in a pool without throwing out his back.  Mao dove into China’s longest river and surfaced with the blood stained fin of an endangered river porpoise in his teeth. (No, not really. I’m speaking metaphorically.) They can’t stick a couple of Vicodin down Xi’s throat and prop him up for an hour?

There’s also Lin Biao, who was Mao’s closest comrade at arms and heir apparent…at least until Lin died in a plane crash fleeing the PRC after maybe, possibly, trying to launch a coup against his boss.  The  CCP spent months working up the courage (and the cover story) to account for why Lin Biao dropped — sorry, couldn’t be helped — suddenly out of sight.

Chiang Kai-shek was rather famously kidnapped and held hostage for two weeks by his nominal ally, the warlord Zhang Xueliang. It took Madame Chiang, Zhou Enlai, and an agreement to ally with the CCP against the Japanese before the Generalissimo was allowed to taste fresh air again.  Chiang, never a forgiving man, imprisoned Zhang Xueliang and held him captive for the next 55 years. He even packed him up and had him shipped to Taiwan where Zhang was held under virtual house arrest. (Shawshank Ending Alert: In 1993 the KMT finally let Zhang go. He moved to Hawaii and lived to be a 100.)

Nor are missing leaders a purely 20thcentury phenomenon.  Zhu Qizhen (1427-1464) was a young monarch who came under the influence of the eunuch Wang Zhen.  When a group of Mongols threatened Beijing, Wang Zhen convinced Zhu Qizhen to personally lead his troops against the enemy.  Despite outnumbering the Mongols by something like 50-1, the Ming armies were completely routed after a series of strategic blunders so impossibly stupid they make General Custer look like Sun Bin.  When the survivors finally bled their way back to Beijing, they looked around and noticed they were short an emperor.

The Mongols kept him around for fourteen months until they finally got sick of him and booted him back to China.  Meanwhile the Ming court had gone ahead and enthroned Zhu Qizhen’s cousin as the new emperor which made his homecoming…a little awkward.  A later member of the family, Zhu Yijun, who reigned as the Wanli Emperor from 1563-1620, would simply hole up in his bedroom for years at a time, abandoning any pretext of rule and refusing to see officials or visitor while the empire crumbled around him.  Ladies and Gentlemen…YOUR Ming Dynasty!

Just in case the more lurid rumors about Xi Jinping’s absence turn out to be true, it’s worth noting that according to legend, officials in the Qin Dynasty tried to cover up the death of the Emperor Qin Shihuangdi by carting his body around, even changing the clothes on his corpse. When the smell got too strong to hide, they began carrying a few buckets of fish as well to explain away the distinctive odor of decay.

(The new cologne inspired by Chinese History. The scent of power. The musk of ancient wisdom. From Calvin Klein comes a new fragrance for men…Rotting Tyrant.)

Tibetan religious authorities tried something similar after the powerful 5th Dalai Lama, Ngawang Lozang Gyatso died in 1682. His death was kept a secret until the 6th Dalai Lama had reached an age of maturity.

So while I know it is something of a deal when the leader-in-waiting of one of the world’s largest economies goes missing without so much as a peep from his government (although apparently yesterday the government did just that – it peeped) I’ll start worrying if and when Xi either a) is gone for longer than it takes milk to spoil b) Mongolia announces they have him or c) His Cadremobile starts being followed around by one of those sidewalk sushi carts.

Hong Kong’s Daddy Issues

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If the Hong Kong-PRC relationship were a marriage, it would be Ashton and Demi.[1]  Face it. The only crazier math than “One Country + Two Systems” is “27-year-old actor marries actress 15 years his senior with 3 kids and a psychotic ex-husband.” It was only a matter of time before Hong Kong – I mean, Ashton – started stepping out on his own leaving Demi/Beijing to wallow in a growing pile of recrimination, hurt feelings, and used whippet canisters.

When a marriage goes this badly, there’s not much left to do except see how profoundly you can fuck up the children.

This past Sunday, thousands of demonstrator marched to protest the “National Education Curriculum” planned for Hong Kong public school students.  The new materials, modeled after the “Patriotic History” taught in mainland schools since the early 1990s, have drawn sharp criticism from Hong Kong citizens concerned that it amounts to little more than pro-CCP brainwashing.

Who do you love, kids?  Tell the nice man.

First of all, the timing sucked. This has been a weird year for identity politics in the SAR.  In January, researchers at the University of Hong Kong released the results of a poll – one which has conducted every year since 1997 – that found nearly twice as many residents preferred to identify themselves as “Hong Kongers” as opposed to “Chinese.”  A month later, a bitter spat erupted on the InterWeb over a video showing Mainlanders cavalierly eating on the Hong Kong MTR and berating fellow passengers for not speaking Mandarin.  The kerfuffle reached a new low when an advertisement appeared in a Hong Kong newspaper depicting mainlanders as locusts and that reliable source of patriotic douchebaggery Kong Qingdong took another giant steaming dump on his family’s legacy by calling out Hong Kongers as “British Running Dogs.”

Earlier this month the carefully choreographed 15th Anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to the Motherland was upstaged by irate Hong Kongers who took to the street to protest…just about everything. C.Y. Leung. Hu Jintao. The Mainland. Housing Prices. The stagnant economy. The disturbing trend of people dying their dogs to look like pandas. Whatever.

While the new curriculum was in the works long before Beijing started sleeping on the couch, the Hong Kong government handled the announcement with all the subtlety of a fart in a bathysphere.  A fart which got just a little juicier when Jiang Yudui, a member of the pro-Beijing Civic Education Program, proclaimed that some brains did indeed need washing.

Parents were furious, opposition lawmakers smelled an opportunity for cheap publicity, and before you could say “But we saved you from the British you ungrateful curs” the streets of Hong Kong filled again with demonstrators this time waving signs channeling Pink Floyd (“We Don’t Need No Thought Control’) and wearing black and white to show, you know, that people in Hong Kong understand right from wrong.

Patriotic Education is of course nothing new in the mainland. Two decades ago CCP leaders – with their characteristic blend of denial, stupidity, and blinkered batshit paranoia – attributed the 1989 Tiananmen Demonstrations to a “failure of propaganda.” Basically all those kids in the 1980s who were reading “Pride and Prejudice” and listening to “Country Roads” needed to be reminded that Jane Austen and John Denver were the opium-soaked faces of naked aggression.  Oh, yeah and that Fang Lizhi was a bad, bad man.

The goal of “Patriotic Education” in mainland schools, at least in principle, is to boost the nation’s spirit, enhance national cohesion, foster national pride, and to rally the massses’ patriotic spirit to “build Socialism with Chinese Characteristics.”  In practice this means highlighting the crimes committed against the Chinese people by foreign imperialists and traitorous collaborators while skipping over atrocities of a more domestic vintage such as the Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution.

Now, I have no problem with calling out the imperialist powers for the damage they did to China in the 19th and 20th centuries.  Even the most gung-ho British apologist has to admit that going to war to turn South China into a Victorian-era version of Hamsterdam is pretty messed up.  Nobody should want to gloss over that or any of the other humiliating and atrocious crimes committed against China during the 100 years from 1840 to 1949.  But the problem with “Patriotic Education” is that focusing all the attention on “China the Victim” does little to actually encourage students to love their country or nation, instead it teaches them to fear and loathe other people while giving sole credit for all that is good and glorious in China today to the Party.

Lucien Pye once wrote that China is a “civilization masquerading as a state.” Allowing for a generous dollop of overgeneralization, the basic problem Pye identified would have been immediately familiar to Sun Yat-sen and other early state builders.  Before China could rise again, it needed to be unified. William Callahan, in his book The Pessoptimist Nation, argues that at the time nationalism based on shared culture, language, or ethnic identity would have been problematic because the Qing Empire was made up of many ‘national’ groups with almost nothing in common and little incentive to stick together.  Forging a nation would require the artificial imposition of a higher form of identity, one which eschewed narrow definitions of nationalism in favor of a strong shared identification with The State and, ultimately, The Party.

The new Hong Kong curriculum describes the Chinese Communist Party as “progressive, selfless, and united” while criticizing as sloppy and inefficient multi-party systems like the United States and, presumably, Hong Kong.  It presents history as a morality tale of venal foreigners with their native lackeys being defeated by the Party.  Historical actors are either “Patriotic Heroes” or “Race Traitors,” a sensitive subtext for a city which spent nearly 160 years under foreign rule and which continues to pride itself on being a bastion of cosmopolitanism.

Unfortunately for Hong Kong, it can’t just pull an Ashton and spend anniversaries cavorting with naked blondes in a $4000/night suite at the San Diego Hard Rock.  In fact, it can’t even move out of the house, so instead the uneasy coexistence between Hong Kongers and Beijing will continue while the grown-ups fight endlessly over just what to tell the children…

 


[1] Will suggests Tom and Katy because of the whole Scientology-brainwashing thing. I disagree. That’s over the top even for the CCP.  There’s crazy. Tanks in the Square crazy. Great Leap Forward backyard steel furnace crazy.  And then about three levels beyond that you get Tom Cruise and John Travolta.

Rectified.Namaste, Part I

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I am a large mammal from a cold climate.  Even Beijing in the summer is a challenge.  Last weekend – when the mercury in Beijing finally popped 100 – an hour of pick-up basketball left me gasping and wheezing and generally feeling like I was a bottle of tequila and a trio of Mexican hookers away from reenacting the final seven seconds of The Chris Farley Story.  So there’s really no rational reason for anyone in my condition to ever willingly visit India in the summer. The forecast is calling for daily high temperatures of 120 degrees, which I am pretty sure is the point where small animals — and possibly oxygen — spontaneously combust.  I’m either coming back 35 pounds lighter or in a box.

Today, I picked up my Indian visa, and to make up for all of the bullshit First World whining I am bound to do over the next week, let me say that the India visa processing center is a pretty slick operation.[1]  At least I think it’s a pretty slick operation.  When I went there to drop off my application, the place was almost empty.  I immediately regretted asking why that was.

“Don’t you know? It is extremely hot right now in India. Nobody wants to go there.”

Apparently, sane people do not travel to India in the middle of July.  Even the visa workers seemed surprised, and possibly a little alarmed, at my insistence that no, it’s for work, I’ve always wanted to go, and besides…how bad could it be?  It’s entirely possible that one of the many documents they made me sign was a waiver in the event I get off the plane, take three steps across the tarmac and then collapse in flames like the Hindenburg.

In any case, it’s probably to my benefit that the staff had some time on their hands.

I’ve applied for visas to many countries over the years, and I usually approach the process with a heady mix of flop sweat, hostility and fear – which is exactly the vibe you want to project when convincing a government bureaucrat to let you stay in their homeland for an extended period of time.  Part of the problem, okay most of the problem, is me.  As my first grade teacher at Pollard Elementary School in Plaistow, NH once wrote in a note to my parents, “Jeremiah does not follow directions and often refuses to take the time to listen to all of the instructions.”

Not much has changed, only now I’m allowed to make excuses like “Fuck it, I’m impulsive” that would not have been well received by my first grade teacher.

Unfortunately, this also means that when grown-up me applies for visas it involves an all-too-avoidable three-step process.  Step one: fill out the form in a hurry without reading the instructions. Step two: submit. Step three: find out from the visa office all the things I filled out incorrectly and/or forgot.  Repeat as necessary.  Actually, I’m lucky if it only takes three steps, I once spent a week in Hong Kong trying to get my China visa switched.[2]

I was therefore unprepared for how (relatively) painless it actually was to get a visa to India.

One of the best parts of the Indian Visa Experience are the Visa Sherpas.  Not real Sherpas of course, because calling them that would be culturally imprecise and Orientalist, but a team of chipper young staffers, all of them Chinese, who corralled me through the process, checked my documents, and were generally so eager to get me my Indian visa that I began to wonder if the office received a secret bounty of 150 RMB from the Beijing municipal government for every foreigner they shipped out of the country permanently.

Naturally I failed to read the directions regarding my “Letter of Employment Guarantee,” assuming, incorrectly as it turned out, that the letter should simply state how long I have been employed, where, and as what. Sign. Chop. Copy.

Nope.

I had forgotten to include a line stating specifically that I wanted to go to India, for how long, and using which passport number.  Totally my fault. But it was Friday. My office was closing early, and the idea of trekking back across town to reprint, sign, chop, and copy a new letter was not particularly appealing.

Fortunately my Visa Sherpa had a solution which, while perhaps not technically legal in the strictest sense of the word, at least didn’t require a round-trip taxi ride to Haidian.  We walked across the corridor where an old woman and her husband had set up a kind of photocopy/computer/photo kiosk.  The first thing we did was take a couple of quick snaps because I had – characteristically – brought the wrong size photos with the wrong color background.  Then through the magic of MS Word and some creative formatting with the printer, we added the missing information as an “addendum” onto the already chopped and signed letter.

For what it’s worth, all of the information was totally legit, and if our method of bringing it together into a single document was a little unorthodox, rest assured our motives were pure and the sanctity of India’s borders was in no way (okay, only in a very, very, minute way) compromised.

I’ll be posting from India this week, and I promise I will try to avoid making any Tom Friedman-esque sweeping generalizations about the future of the world or “Chindia” or “Chindamerica” or whatever based on five days of heat stroke and Delhi fever dreams.

I will however probably bitch a lot about the heat.


[1] Like many countries, India has outsourced its visa applications in Beijing to a Chinese outfit operating from the Beijing Inn on Chaoyangmen Nei.

[2] Of course, like any proper Lao Wai I’m going to shift some of the blame off of myself and onto the Chinese government.  The first time I went there I was missing form X and then the next day, when I returned form X in hand, I was told I was missing supporting document Y.  The following day, I brought in form X and supporting document Y and was told I was still missing supporting document supplemental form Z and at that point I think I cried a little.

On an Island

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While there will be considerable fanfare today commemorating the 15th anniversary of the British handover of Hong Kong to the PRC, it’s worth noting that this is also an important anniversary year in the history of another island.  2012 marks 350 years since Zheng Chenggong (better known outside China as ‘Koxinga’) landed on Taiwan and forced a Dutch garrison to surrender control of the island to Zheng and his family.

Zheng Chenggong was born in Nagasaki, the son of the Chinese merchant/occasional pirate Zheng Zhilong and a Japanese woman named Tagawa.  He grew up in Fujian province and spent his youth preparing to enter official service in the government of the Ming Empire [r. 1368-1644].

After the fall of Beijing and the Manchu invasion of 1644, his father threw his support behind Prince Tang, a member of the royal family and a claimant to the throne.  When the Manchu armies captured the Prince, Zheng Zhilong – ignoring the advice of his son – went over to the Qing side.  Zheng Chenggong continued his struggle against the Manchus, suffering a series of defeats which forced him across the Taiwan straits to Formosa, then under the control of the Dutch.

On April 30, 1661, Zheng Chenggong besieged the Dutch at Fort Zeelandia (near present day Tainan) with over 900 ships and 25,000 men.  The Dutch held out for almost a year, waiting for reinforcements and provisions from Batavia.  With no relief in sight and the fort parched for a lack of fresh drinking water, the Dutch governor of Formosa, Frederik Coyett finally had little choice but to surrender.

The Zheng family established a kingdom on Taiwan which lasted until 1683, when an armada led by Admiral Shi Lang, a former comrade of Zheng Chenggong, crushed a force led by Feng Xifan and Zheng’s grandson, Zheng Guoxuan. Both Feng and the youngest Zheng surrendered and were shipped off to Beijing to be enfeoffed (some of their followers were not so lucky and were instead exiled to Ili).

The Qing government then made Taiwan a prefecture of Fujian province, under whose jurisdiction the island would remain until 1887 when Taiwan became its own province. Thus 1683 marked the first time that Taiwan came under the direct administrative control of any dynasty. Even so, for much of the 18th and even 19th centuries, the island was still a rough and ready frontier of settlers, pirates, native peoples and foreign traders. (Think: “Deadwood with Chinese Characteristics. On an island.”)  It was known by Qing officials as an exotic but difficult, even dangerous, posting, and the island was never an easy place to manage.

The PRC – for obvious reasons – is adamant to refer to Zheng Chenggong’s victory as the “Recovery of Taiwan”, although there is little evidence that the mainland exercised any kind of control over the island until Shi Lang formally claimed the island on behalf of the Qing dynasty.

The excellent historian Tonio Andrade recently wrote of his frustrations getting his book Lost Colony: the Untold Story of China’s First Great Victory over the West translated and published in the PRC:

My erstwhile publisher asked whether I would acquiesce to omitting some “sensitive material” and changing some wording. It sounded like an innocuous request until I got to the details. Since Koxinga is considered a “positive figure in China,” my publisher informed me that the text would have to omit any discussion of torture by him and his soldiers. (Descriptions of Dutch atrocities were acceptable, though.) The book couldn’t refer to Koxinga as a “conqueror” or a “warlord,” and his “restoration of Taiwan” couldn’t be referred to as an invasion or an attack. Similarly, any mention of resistance by Taiwan’s aboriginal peoples (who, historical sources make clear, rose up and killed thousands of his soldiers), would also have to be excised, on the grounds that such episodes hint of “some sort of consciousness of Taiwanese independence.” The Chinese publisher said that if I refused to make such changes, the translation wouldn’t proceed. “Abridgement,” I was told, “is unavoidable.”

And so I set aside my dreams of renown and royalties and said no.

Hong Kong’s history is perhaps only slightly less contentious, seized by the British during the Opium War and expanded by the 1860 cession of Kowloon and the 1898 lease of the New Territories; the island remained – literally – a colonial thorn in the side of the PRC until 1997.

British troops first occupied the island in January, 1841 and British gunboats used it as a strategic depot and logistical base for further sorties against mainland targets.  Following an initial round of peace talks which began in 1841 both negotiators ended up fired over the issue of Hong Kong.  Aisin-Gioro Min Ning, The Daoguang Emperor [r. 1820-1850], was furious at the concessions made by his representative, Qishan, including the cession of Hong Kong. British Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston was equally irate that his negotiator had failed to exact harsher conditions on the Qing Empire, calling Hong Kong “a barren rock with barely a house on it.”  (Cited in Spence, 1999) Both representatives were dismissed — Qishan just barely kept his head — and hostilities resumed.  Finally, the island was permanently ceded to Britain as one of the stipulations of the Treaty of Nanjing (1842), the first in a series of unequal treaties forced upon the Qing government by foreign powers.

Convincing the British in 1984 to give back Hong Kong was one of Deng Xiaoping’s proudest moments although he passed away before the handover was finalized on July 1, 1997.

While some of the more dire predictions for the demise of Hong Kong’s cultural and legal independence fortunately failed to materialize, there has been no shortage of controversy over the ham-handed manner with which Beijing seeks to boost its influence in the SAR, most recently the neutering of the South China Morning Post, once one of the best windows into China.  There are also lingering issues of identity and culture which suggest 15 years later the ‘recovery’ of Hong Kong in name, the goal of reuniting Hong Kong with the mainland is only just beginning.

 

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