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Archive for the category “Current Events”

Greeted as Liberators

I recall it as being Sunday, March 17, 2003, that the administrative liaison called all six foreign English teachers to a meeting in one of our on-campus apartments, but it might have been Monday, since I also remember that the visit was precipitated by President George W. Bush’s 48-hour “High Noon” ultimatum for the Hussein family to leave Iraq or face invasion. There were six of us: three Americans, two Australians, and a Canadian, and for most of us it was our first year in China. A Chinese English teacher provided translation:

“You may have heard that your president” – the Australians and the Canadian immediately bristled – “has announced the United States will invade Iraq on Wednesday. We would like you to not go outside once the war begins. If you have any shopping to do, you can give us a list and we’ll get it for you.”

All of us had been at the school, a private K-12 headed by a former provincial deputy education minister that catered to cadre children, for little more than one semester. It was ostensibly modeled after Eton, or so they kept telling us, but as far as I could tell the similarities stopped at “expensive boarding school.” I had been in China for a total of five months, all in Urumqi save 24 hours in Beijing registering at the consulate and getting fleeced by an “art student.”

“First of all, three of us aren’t Americans,” said one of the Australians. “He’s not our president.” We had fair warning this discussion might happen, and decided to tease out exactly what the school was thinking. “Why don’t you want us to go out?”

“Well, it could be dangerous.”

“Why?” The answer was, after some deflection, basically “Muslims.” We refused to promise we wouldn’t leave campus, arguing that we weren’t going to hide in the school and that besides, we didn’t feel any threat. Eventually the administrator gave up on trying to hold us there, though they’d try again later when news of SARS belatedly reached the school. The fact was that every time we went out, we were often approached by Han and Uyghurs who were intrigued by foreigners or wanted to practice their English. And most of the Uyghurs, in my experience from 2002-2005, tended to view Westerners as a closer cousin than the Han. I heard more than once that “at least Americans believe in one God,” as opposed to the Han alternatives of atheistic Communism and overlapping polytheisms of Daoism, Buddhism, and traditional Chinese spirituality. I sometimes heard cruder, more dubious and flat-out racist theories as well, but the common denominator is that they could speak to a Westerner with less fear of getting in trouble. Reluctant and afraid to speak about religion, ethnic discrimination, politics or history with their Han Chinese neighbors, colleagues, and classmates, a fair number of Uyghur students, teachers, and professionals sought out Westerners to serve as sympathetic ears. In 2004, when pro-American feelings seemed to peak among the Uyghurs I met, a man in his 50s who loved to talk politics proclaimed in what seemed all seriousness “after Afghanistan and Iraq, George Bush will come to liberate us.”

While China’s version of affirmative action allowed Uyghurs to have more children and enter university with lower test scores, unspoken rules resulted in disadvantages in other arenas. One friend vented when, at university job fair, he was told “no minorities” before he even sat down. Another engaged in civil disobedience by inviting us to his home in Kashgar, where we only found out we had overstayed the number of days foreign house guests were allowed when all three of us were pulled into the police station. They took a long statement from him – who we were, where we met, what we did, where we would usually hang out, why we were here – and had him place his thumbprint and signature at the end while our passports were faxed to the head office for review. We chewed him out afterwards; we would never have come, or at least overstayed, if we knew it would get his family in trouble with the authorities. “My family decides who gets to stay in our home,” he said. Late one night at Fubar, an expat pub opened by friends near the center of town (now closed), with loud music blaring, a young Chinese woman at our table stood up, raised her glass and yelled “Fuck the Communist Party!” and proceeded to condemn half the Politboro Standing Committee. The young Uyghur man sitting next to her immediately stood up, raised his glass, and starting yelling “I love the Communist Party! I am a patriot! Long live the Party!” with panicked fear on his face. I don’t know if he ever went back to that bar again.

My Han friends and students, on the other hand, sometimes appeared incredibly disconnected from the Uyghur society around them. An entire university class of Han students (my English classes at the university level were almost entirely segregated, with Han students receiving better facilities and textbooks) didn’t know the Uyghur word for banmian (laghman), the staple noodle dish, the equivalent of going to UC San Diego and never learning the word “burrito.” I have lost count of how many times I heard a Han Chinese person express befuddlement at the idea that Uyghurs did not eat pork, and several occasions when someone was pressured to eat pork or drink alcohol by a superior within their company who wouldn’t take no for an answer. Han high school students eagerly took myself and another teacher on a tour of the city, only to refuse to join us in entering the Uyghur quarter south of the city center, and hastily beat a retreat looking genuinely scared, and I knew a few adults who were frightened as well, even on major streets in broad daylight. One Han professor became a drinking buddy, introduced by a Singaporean teacher who worked hard to serve as cultural interpreter. One boozy night in 2005, at his apartment, the professor asked me “Aren’t you afraid of the Uyghurs? You’re an American, they’re Muslim. They hate you.” Frustrated that for nearly three years both sides had been frank with me but never with one another, and thinking we were now drinking buddies who could tell it like it is, I looked him in the eye and said “No, they don’t hate me. They hate you.”

He went quiet. We left soon after, and my Singaporean friend said I had been way too harsh.

“Friends are honest with each other,” I argued. “He’s a smart guy, I didn’t say anything he doesn’t know.”

“Yes, he knows it, and you and I know it, but you can’t say it to his face. It’s too much.”

The professor didn’t invite me drinking again, and I left Xinjiang not long after. By then, any fondness I heard from Uyghurs in Xinjiang for Bush was dissipating as images of the ongoing violence in Iraq piled up in the media and, perhaps more importantly, as China and the U.S. aligned on many elements of the “War on Terror”. China embraced WoT rhetoric in its campaigns against real and imagined separatism in Xinjiang. The fact that Uyghur prisoners in Guantanamo Bay were not handed over to the P.R.C. showed there was still daylight between the two countries’ perspectives on Xinjiang, but after that I never heard of anyone entertaining the idea of America swooping in to liberate Xinjiang. At the time, I thought the man who told me Bush was going for a trifecta with Xinjiang was delusional; now I think he might not have meant it as a genuine prediction, but a wish that it was true, that someone was coming, or maybe just that I would understand how he felt. That someone would listen.

Moving the Capital, or, The Unbearable Heaviness of Beijing

Government officials are planning to move the capital of China to Xinyang, a little city in Henan you’ve never heard of! I know this to be true because some guy on Weibo said it a couple of weeks ago. Tea Leaf Nation has a post up about the chatter.

This isn’t particularly new. Wang Ping, a professor at Capital University of Economics and Business, suggested relocating the capital in 1980, and there have been periodic stirrings of discussion ever since, generally following hard on the heels of dust storms, airpocalypses, floods, city-wide traffic jams, and other reminders that good feng-shui or no, there are real downsides to living in a smog basin at the edge of the Gobi Desert whose water table dropped about 10 meters over the past decade and whose post-1949 renovations could be used to teach urban planning courses in Hell. 1

Baidupedia says a group of 479 National People’s Congress delegates submitted a proposal to move the capital in March 2006, about a month before a sandstorm that dumped 330,000 tons of sand on the city overnight — but there doesn’t seem to be any record of this, and people don’t submit proposals to the NPC here on Earth One. If it did exist, the proposal would have been one of 5,030 submitted for discussion that year, alongside proposals recommending more attractive Xinwen Lianbo anchors, body-weight limits for government officials, and a requirement that foreigners marrying Chinese nationals be able to guarantee the cost of a return ticket to China in the event of a divorce.
In April 2006, the economist Hu Xingdou sent a proposal to the central government, the State Council, and the NPC urging that the capital be relocated to central China or the region south of the Yangtze. Action was swiftly not taken. Two years later, Hu co-authored the Report on the Relocation of China’s Capital with Qin Fazhan. The report recommended a “one country, three capitals” strategy with Beijing as the cultural and technological capital of the nation, Shanghai as the economic capital, and some new city as the actual capital capital. Hu and Qin concluded that the Nanyang Basin in Henan and Hubei provinces would be the only sensible place to build a new capital; other commentators have suggested Xi’an, Luoyang, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Chongqing, Nanjing, Zhengzhou, Lanzhou, Wuhan, Linxi, Xiangyang, Liaocheng, Kaifeng, Chengdu, Hanzhong, Haikou, Yueyang, Xinyang, Changsha, Jingmen, and Anyang, the last capital of the Shang dynasty, as more suitable locations than Beijing.

Meanwhile, the Beijing urban planning office cannot even be arsed to move to the east Sixth Ring Road.

Not that there wouldn’t be recent precedent for a move. The Republic of China bounced back and fourth between four capitals (Nanjing to Beijing to Nanjing to Wuhan to Nanjing to Chongqing and back to Nanjing) during its brief stay on the mainland, and for 21 blissful years, Beijing — laying low and going by the name Beiping — was out of the limelight. When I read the Tea Leaf Nation post, I thought immediately of this passage from Qian Zhongshu’s novella Cat (猫), a very thinly veiled roman a clef about the intellectuals who made the city their home during that time:

…For in those last years before the war, Beiping — the Northern capital scorned by Tang Ruoshi, Xie Zaihang, and other literary worthies of the Ming and Qing dynasties as Peking, lowliest and filthiest of all cities — had become generally recognized as the most cultured, most beautiful city in all of China. Even the dust that lay three feet thick over Beiping on windless days had taken on the hue and fragrance of antiquity, as if it held the last traces of the Mongol, Ming, and Qing dynasties, and museums in the younger European and American countries sent specialists to collect vials of it for display. After the capital was moved south, Beiping lost the political function it had so long served, and became — in the way of all useless and outmoded things — a curiosity, an item of historical value.
Take a dilapidated junk shop, call it a venerable antique store, and without the slightest change in the facts of the matter you will effect a marvelous transformation in the mind of the customer. Imagine the wretched embarrassment of having to pick through junk shops for cheap items! How different from the wealth, the zeal, the discernment of antique lovers! In the same way, people who would never stoop to visiting a junk shop now came to browse curios, and people who had had no choice but to browse junk shops now found themselves elevated to the dignity of antiquarians. Those living in Beiping could now count themselves worldly and cultured, could look down their noses at friends from Nanking or Shanghai as if the mere fact of their residence conferred rank and status. To claim that Shanghai or Nanking could produce art or culture would have been as ridiculous as averring that the hands, feet, and gut were capable of independent thought.
The discovery of “Peking Man” at Zhoukoudian was further demonstration of the superiority of Beiping residents. Peking Man, in his day, had been the most advanced of all monkeys; so, today, was Beiping Man the most cultured of Chinese. The newspapers of the day heralded the rise of the “Peking Set,” and the local intellectuals traced their spiritual lineage back to Peking Man — which was why they never called themselves the “Beiping Set,” even though the name of the city had changed. The Peking Set were Southerners, almost to a man, and they were as proud of their newfound home as ever any Jews were of their adoptive countries. It was very nearly the only thing they ever spoke of. Since moving to Beiping, too, Mrs. Li’s athlete’s foot had cleared up — an unexpected side-benefit of living in the cultural center of the nation.

So will the Chinese government actually move the capital, as Some Guy on Weibo says? Hey, from your lips to the NDRC’s ears — but I wouldn’t hold my breath. Not any more than I usually do in Beijing, anyway.

  1. The desire to burn Beijing to the ground and jump up and down on the ashes has at least -5000-years- 600 years of recent history, going back to the Ming, which set up a capital in Nanjing, sacked Khanbaliq, renamed it “Beiping,” then changed their minds 30 years later and started building the whole thing over again, except moved a few feet to the left. The Yongle Emperor changed the name of the city back to “Beijing” in 1403 and made it the principal capital of the Ming empire in 1420.
    Come to think of it, this goes back even further: the Mongols who started building Khanbaliq/Dadu in 1264 did something of a number on the abandoned Jurchen Jin capital of Zhongdu (which lay more or less where the Xicheng and Fengtai districts of modern Beijing are) when they sacked it in 1215.

    On the subject of more recent depredations: Wang Jun’s book 城记, now available in English as Beijing Record: A Physical and Political History of Planning Modern Beijing, is a great read for anyone interested in a history of some of the completely avoidable things that were done to Beijing after 1949. The sketches of the rejected Liang Sicheng/Chen Zhanxiang proposal — which would have kept the city walls as a public park — will break your heart. The only scrap of comfort is that things could always have been way worse.

In Praise of @BeijingAir

June 19, 2009June 22, 2009

June 19, 2009 (left) and June 22, 2009 (right). Images courtesy of ChinaAirDaily - they need new photographers in Beijing and other cities!

There's talk over at ChinaFile that the air quality issue has reached a tipping point as a public health crisis in China, and it's worth taking a moment to remember that the US Embassy played a major role in increasing awareness - possibly one of the State Department's most effective public diplomacy moves in years, albeit unintentionally. According to a 2009 State Department cable released by Wikileaks back in 2011:
At the request of the Ministry of ForeignAffairs (MFA), ESTH Off and MED Off met on July 7 with Mr. WANG Shuai of MFA's Office of U.S. Affairs to respond to MFA's concerns about recent publicity in international and local press surrounding an air quality monitor installed on the Embassy compound. MFA registered complaints on behalf of the Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau (EPB) and the Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP), saying that making this data (which in their view"conflicts" with "official" data posted by the Beijing EPB) available to the general public through an Embassy-operated Twitter site has caused "confusion" and undesirable "social consequences"among the Chinese public. MFA asked Post to consider either limiting access to the air quality data only to American citizens,or otherwise identify a suitable compromise. ... In August 2008 the Embassy began posting corresponding "real time" air quality index (AQI) numbers,which are generated according to definitions set by the U.S.Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), to an Embassy-managed Twitter site (http://twitter.com/beijingair) on an hourly basis. While the initiative originally was primarily geared toward informing the Embassy community about levels of pollution in immediate proximity to the compound, consular "no double standard" requirements prompted Post to create the Twitter site as a user-friendly platform so that private American citizens residing and traveling in Beijing are also able to access the data. ...local and international press coverage spiked after Time Magazine published a story online about the Embassy's air monitor on June 19. Since June 19, the site's number of "followers" has increased from approximately 400 to the current total of 2500+, with at least 75 percent of the new followers being Chinese (judging from the screen names used). Additional press articles have appeared in the South China Morning Post, China Daily, and other outlets, with major local online forums like Sina.com ablaze with Chinese "netizens"commenting on this issue.
Twitter was blocked on June 1 2009 in the follow-up to the June 4 anniversary, then Liu Xiaobo was arrested on June 23 for releasing Charter 08 six months earlier, and then to top it all off the Urumqi Riots started on July 5. On July 7, China shut down local Twitter clone Fanfou as well as others. Sina Weibo launched in August 2009 after China put a lid on Xinjiang and cut off its Internet, giving it a big head start over its major rivals Sohu, Netease, and Tencent, who didn't launch microblogging until the following year. But @BeijingAir had enough Chinese followers and struck such a chord in a Chinese public afraid for the health and mistrustful of government data, and as soon as Sina launched the US embassy numbers were being hoisted over the firewall. China began promising to upgrade reporting to include PM2.5 nanoparticles, which it previously didn't measure.

Chart courtesy of ChinaAirDaily.com, on the job since 2007.

With the latest "air-pocalypse" in Beijing, it's not just expats but everyone talking about air purifiers the way that teen-age boys talk about cars. PM2.5 is basic vocabulary and a key fashion choice is whether to go with a knitted cloth mask (don't), 3M N90 disposable mask (reliable, cheap, ugly) or the Respro masks that make you look like Bane from Dark Knight Rises (Expensive, less data on effectiveness). Now you can buy Spaceballs-style cans of air! As recently as last June, government officials were complaining that @BeijingAir was unscientific and unlawful, which is not completely unfounded but no longer tenable. It's going take years to clean up the air, and @BeijingAir didn't create the issue so much as give people information in plain English (literally) that they could use to articulate what they already knew. But that's actually pretty cool. Bonus: Check out China.aqi.greatnumbers.org, courtesy of Frederic Blanc-Brude of the EDHEC-Risk Institute, offering a nifty chart and open data on AQI levels in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Chengdu.

Blue Devils on the Silk Road

Ministry of Education Preliminarily Approved Since December 2012.

Ministry of Education Preliminarily Approved Since December 2012.

The Duke Chronicle has reported that Duke Kunshan University, a joint venture university between Duke University, Wuhan University, and the city of Kunshan (connected to nearby Suzhou and farther Shanghai by high-speed rail),  has stalled due to communication and funding problems, the fifth delay in three years since Duke made its first agreement with Kunshan authorities in 2010. Although construction had begun by mid-2011 (in 2009, Duke announced the campus would open in Fall 2011), Duke didn’t suspect anything was amiss until early 2012 and didn’t find out that the developer, Kunshan Science, Technology and Education Park, was hiring unskilled workers and lowballed cost projections, leading to corner-cutting. Now they aim for a Spring 2014 launch.

Much of the campus’ construction has been plagued by information failings and lost or simply ignored requests. Communication between contractors and designers—sometimes between 40 and 50 different groups—was poorly managed, and there was no Chinese government team specifically charged with managing K-STEP’s progress on DKU, said Duke project manager Dudley Willis.

Duke committed $5.5 million toward design and construction oversight for the project in 2010. The money pays for several private American-based firms, including Gensler, Syska Hennessy Group, Thornton Tomasetti and Jones Lange Lasalle. The latter firm currently has five on-site people—up from three in earlier years. The firms identified problems but did not have the authority to effect change. Although Duke officials visited the campus every two or three months, there was no representative on the ground in China consistently through the first few years of construction.

For all readers who have experience working on projects in China, I’ll give you a moment for the déjà vu to pass. Credit where credit is due, though, since Duke is sticking to its guns about not only facilities, but having unrestricted internet on campus. Construction apparently wasn’t the only cause of delay, since the Ministry of Education didn’t even give DKU preliminary approval until December 2012, and the quickest they expect final approval is the end of 2013, cutting it a bit close for a Spring 2014 first semester.

DKU will initially roll out a Master of Management Studies (MMS) from Duke’s Fuqua School of Business and a Master of Science in Global Health through the Duke Global Health Institute for mainland students. Duke no doubt expects these top-shelf credentials in business and bio sciences, targeted at élite professional mainlanders, will make the entire operation profitable. It’s possible, however, that Duke’s biggest battle yet will be with its own faculty, who will submit course recommendations this month. Notice the precious usage of “unique” and “special” here:

In planning courses, the committee is on familiar ground in some respects but also will meet unique challenges as a consequence of the campus’ location in China, Robisheaux said. The committee will emphasize quality, aiming to make every course offered at DKU similar in difficulty and subject matter to those offered on the Durham campus. The Faculty Committee on Courses is following its usual procedures to approve courses while applying them to the special circumstance of DKU.

Two Duke faculty also raised concerns about the project and problems faced by other “Anglo-Saxon universities” (one of them is a German professor) in 2011, when the Duke Chronicle also urged administrators to “get the faculty on board.” It’s true that elite universities in Beijing and Shanghai enjoy much greater freedom of access to information, online and offline. I don’t know if Wuhan, though in the top-tier, has the clout of a Renmin, Peking, or Tsinghua, which boast the highest number of graduates in the 18th Communist Party Central Committee [ZH]. Duke was originally partnered with Shanghai Jiaotong University, which is higher in the lists than Wuhan both in Party bigshot alumni and overall school rankings.

Meanwhile, NYU Shanghai’s inaugural class of mainland and international undergraduates begins this fall. Their institutional partner is East China Normal University, which ranks way below Jiaotong or Wuhan, but then again the host city government is Shanghai/Pudong, which has a bit more weight to throw at these problems than Kunshan – not to mention that I bet NYU has a thriving MBA alumni program in Shanghai, whereas Duke alums are thin on the ground in Kunshan. Stanford, meanwhile, opened its program on Beijing University’s campus last spring. Duke took the hard road choosing to build an entire campus in a location comparatively deprived of wealthy elites – we’ll see if it pays off. It’ll be interesting to see, particularly with NYU and Duke’s mixed student bodies, how they navigate Chinese and American student’s differing expectations not only about curriculum, but for dormitories, student services, and off-campus activities. Which group’s norms will be the standard?

As President Obama visits Myanmar, China needs to rethink its strategy in Southeast Asia

Barack Obama makes a historic visit to Myanmar this morning.  On his fourth visit to the region in as many years, he is including stops in Myanmar and Cambodia, marking the first time a sitting US president has traveled to those two countries.*  It is a move sure to get China’s attention.

Myanmar and Cambodia are the two top recipients of regional Chinese aid.  China is Myanmar’s top trading partner with 39% of total Myanmar exports sent to China, much of it conducted over newly constructed overland routes linking the two countries together. China’s economic boom has driven high rates of growth in Southeast Asian states, and China’s economic links with SEA will continue to deepen faster than that the US’ due to China’s proximity and politico-cultural overlaps.   US investment in Southeast Asia will never eclipse or even come close to China’s.

By revisiting its role in SEA, the US has an opportunity to advise and guide democratic and rule-of-law based institution building in regional governments and between regional organizations.  Of China’s five neighbors in the Mekong Sub Region,  all but Thailand are transitional states with weak and inchoate institutions.  All five have variant and high levels of corruption in government which tend to stunt the high rates of growth emerging from the region.  Furthermore, it is only in the last ten years that the SEA nations have made a concerted effort to try to get along with each other.

The United States has an opportunity to play a role in the region that helps states mitigate problems and create regional synergy.  This is a role that China has been trying to play behind the curtains but is loath to express publicly since it contradicts the driving principles of its own foreign policy: not to meddle in the affairs of other states and not to become hegemonic.  The US in its hubris, has never had a problem with these conditions, and Southeast Asia has since the end of the Cold War generally (if not universally) welcomed the US as a benign and constructive force.

SEA states are also rightfully concerned over Chinese development aid.  Their leaders and constituencies see reports of high-speed railway crashes due to faulty construction and lack of oversight inside China’s borders as they look out their windows to see a Chinese construction company building their capital city’s airport.

Officials in SEA have rising security concerns and expend political capital to put out fires caused by Chinese construction projects that exclusively send resources to China, as shown by the 2011 skirmishes between Kachin rebel forces and the Burmese national army at the Myitsone dam site on the Irawaddy River.  Burmese troops died because China’s foreign policy does not dictate the projection military or security forces across borders to protect its national interests, projects or own citizens who build those projects.

Leaders also see the CCP playing its hand in regional decision making as Cambodia, China’s closest client state in the region, forced the collapse of the key ASEAN talks in July 2012.

They watch China’s dams go online upstream on the Mekong River while fishery depletion downstream in their backyard creates food security issues threatening to alter domestic food production and threatening to disenfranchise large swaths of the poor populations of these countries.

With these events in mind and trends playing out, there is no wonder that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is concerned about the completion of a $2.5 bn, 2380 km long natural gas pipeline built by the Chinese government from the Burmese coast to the city of Kunming in Yunnan Province.  Despite the enormous level of income that the pipeline will generate for Myanmar at a critical time of its development, she is concerned about security of her country and meeting the needs of the Burmese people at a basic level first.

It wasn’t always this bad.  Joshua Kurlantzick wrote of China’s “charm offensive” with its neighbors in a book of the same name.  His chronicle of China’s soft power expansion from roughly 1995 to 2006 showed an astute and energetic China needing to positively improve its regional identity in order to quell the fears of it becoming a powerful, temperamental dragon.  China also went on a mission to patch up its diplomatic issues to ensure its domestic development needs would be met via ties abroad.  It was a charm offensive consisting mostly of extravagant state banquets that made heads of state feel like kings regardless of the distance from Beijing or the size of the country’s pocketbook.

The decade saw an impressive volume of aid delivered to SEA from China and the Chinese-sponsored funding of infrastructure development projects across borders that positively changed the way the region links up.  As a result, the region saw huge jumps in trade growth in general and across borders and China began to send its masses southward to seek out business opportunities.  Confucius schools dotted the region as Mandarin became the new hot regional language.

Kurlantzick finished his book prior to the 2008 election but he outlined the issues clearly: US foreign policy was distracted with wars in the Middle East and had lost ground on soft power in SEA, China moved in to fill that void, arguing that the US should reconsider its strategy.

But now with failing investment projects abroad and a tenuous leadership transition in China plus a mere testing of the waters and an elegant two-step by Obama, it is clear that the tables have turned. China clearly needs to revisit its strategy toward the region.

First, China should reconsider the bundle of conditions that come with aid and investment – stop saying that investment comes with no strings attached because it never did.  These projects simply reward elites in both China and abroad even as the failure rate of Chinese ventures damages China’s credibility.  In order to save face, the Chinese leadership continues to pump state money into these failed and empty projects that is then channeled into the pockets of Lao and Myanmar officials.  In other words, China needs to practice what it preaches by truly treating its neighbors to the south in an egalitarian fashion as its expressed foreign policy ideals dictate. By taking an unrealistic approach to subordinating these countries, China only looks and becomes weaker.

China should realize that the incremental returns on state banquets are always diminishing and develop plans with countries south that clearly serve the economic and social needs bilaterally in a win-win fashion.  China needs to take on a larger role in multilateral institutions such as ASEAN (likely) and the Mekong River Commission (unlikely).  Chinese foreign policy toward its neighbors needs to break the trend of approaching multilateral situations with bilateral solutions because that’s not the way the ASEAN community rolls in the new century.  China, by making the right strategic choice here, will only strengthen ties with the US who seeks also to increase its leadership role with ASEAN.

And to toss in two more simple pieces of advice for China: encourage your diplomats to speak English.  Of all the regional meetings I’ve been to, the Chinese delegations are the only ones that refuse to speak English, instead using exclusively Mandarin even when they are able to speak English and converse directly with their counterparts.  Yet Myanmar, the black-sheep-turned-little-darling of the region has its crack delegations muddle through English.

Finally as Myanmar opens up, don’t get too distracted from a level approach to the region.  Maintain and healthily strengthen your commitments to all southern neighbors, especially Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, despite the great sucking sound coming from Burma.  The US and Barack Obama should do the same.

*Jimmy Carter visited Cambodia in the 2009, and Herbert Hoover owned and managed silver mines in northern Burma 100 years ago.

 

Is Mo Yan a Stooge for the Chinese Government?

Spoiler alert: in keeping with the general rule about headlines posed as yes-or-no questions, the short answer is ‘no.’ The more interesting question is: why are people insinuating that he is?

Yo, man, Mo Yan. Even before the Swedish Academy announced Mo Yan as the 2012 Nobel Literature Prize winner, the Chinese internet was abuzz with discussion of his work and his relationship with the Chinese government. (Raymond Zhou’s October 9 piece in the China Daily gives a good, even-handed overview of the discussion.) The announcement on Thursday night that Mo had become the first Chinese citizen to win the Nobel for literature set off a miniature firestorm of criticism, almost all of it from liberal-minded Chinese Twitter users, that seems mostly to have centered on several issues: Mo’s silence (now broken) on Liu Xiaobo, his vice-chair position in the China Writers’ Association (作协), his role in an unbeliev– all-too-believably boneheaded event in which 100 authors copied out Chairman Mao’s Talks at the Yan’an Forum on Literature and Art, his behavior at the 2009 Frankfurt Book Fair, and a bit of Weibo doggerel that he allegedly wrote in support of Bo Xilai. Some of the criticism is fair, but much of it isn’t, and I feel honor-bound, as a translator and as an EU citizen and fellow Nobelist, to point out which is which.

There’s no question that Mo’s win was welcomed by the Chinese government. CCP propaganda chief Li Changchun wrote a letter to the CWA congratulating Mo on the win, coverage occupied front pages of newspapers across the country, and foreign media coverage of the win was translated in Cankao Xiaoxi (albeit in censored form, as Bruce Humes shows). Given China’s Nobel complex, however — or, more charitably, China’s sense that a country with more than 2,000 years of literature under its belt should have a slightly higher profile on the international literary stage than China currently does — a win by any novelist not banned outright would in all likelihood have been welcomed just as warmly.

Mo may not be a ‘dissident’ in the model of Liu Xiaobo or Vaclav Havel, but his work is filled with depictions of the venality, cruelty, and stupidity of power and authority. The Garlic Ballads (天堂蒜苔之歌) opens with a farmer who organized a protest against the corrupt local government being arrested in front of his blind daughter. In The Republic of Wine (酒国), one of Mo’s more experimental works, the protagonist is invited by Diamond Jin, the corrupt Vice-Minister of the Liquorland Municipal Party Committee Propaganda Bureau, to a boozy banquet at which the pièce de résistance is braised child. The still-untranslated Frogs (蛙), whose heroine is a midwife turned abortionist, is an explicit critique of China’s one-child policy. Red Sorghum (红高粱家族), the novel that made Mo Yan (and Zhang Yimou) famous more than 20 years ago, depicts the Communist guerrillas in a decidedly unflattering light, and they don’t come off much better in his 1996 novel Big Breasts and Wide Hips (丰乳肥臀). His more recent Life and Death are Wearing Me Out (生死疲劳) begins its survey of the past 50 years of Chinese history with the protagonist Ximen Nao being unjustly shot in the head in the land reform struggles that followed the establishment of the PRC in 1949. One of the recurring themes in Mo’s novels is the juxtaposition of personal tragedy with the long, slow-motion tragedy of history, and whether you think he does this successfully or not, it’s hard to imagine coming away from his novels thinking that they are encomia to the Communist Party.

Mo’s position in the China Writers’ Association is discomfiting to observers, but the CWA is a big and diverse organization containing talented, edgy authors as well as Audi-riding talent vacuums. Mo has written movingly about growing up as a hungry, lonely child in an impoverished backwater, and his novels show a keen awareness of the smallness of individuals in the face of forces beyond their control. Given this, it seems unsurprising that Mo would prefer the security of a position that offers him some kind of official cover. As Mo said in 2009:

“很多人说莫言是官方作家,我在中国文化部艺术研究院有一份工资,余华、苏童都有,享受福利医疗。这是中国现实。国外无论在哪都有保险,在中国如果没有职业,生病我治不起啊。”
In the NYT’s translation:
“A lot of people are now saying about me, ‘Mo Yan is a state writer.’ It’s true, insofar as like the authors Yu Hua and Su Tong, I get a salary from the Ministry of Culture, and get my social and health insurance from them too.
“That’s the reality in China. Overseas, people all have their own insurance, but without a position, I can’t afford to get sick in China.”

He is, of course, not just talking about health insurance here.

Mo Yan’s role in the CWA likely explains his public silence (until the day after the Nobel announcement) on Liu Xiaobo and his copying-out of Mao’s Yan’an Talks on Literature and Art. It most certainly explains his leaving the stage at the Frankfurt Book Festival when Dai Qing tried to ask a question. CWA authors, even very well-known ones, are told in no uncertain terms what they are and are not to say internationally — so much so that at the London Book Fair earlier this year, one normally brash author was almost comically careful not to be photographed with the dissident author Ma Jian — and Mo said as much in the 2009 Chinese interview linked above, immediately before the “health insurance” remarks:

没有办法。我看有的人说秦晖教授怎么没有离席,他是单独由德方邀请的。我是新闻出版署和作家协会他们让我去的,我属于代表团团员。
I didn’t have any choice. Some people have said that [historian and public intellectual] Qin Hui didn’t leave the stage — but he was invited on his own by the German organizers. I was sent there by GAPP and the CWA as a member of their delegation.

Some of the strangest criticism is revolving around a snippet of doggerel that Mo posted on his microblog on November 8, 2011. The verse, addressed to one or more “literary friends” (文友) in Chongqing, is being cited as a sign that Mo was a fan of Bo Xilai, the unbelievably corrupt, fantastically twisted former Party secretary of the municipality. Seeing Red in China has a translation of the poem, but the translator’s reading is based on the assumption that the poem is in fact in praise of Bo. I’ll put up a longer post about the poem with an alternative gloss within the next couple of days, but for now I’ll just say that the poem can be read, Rorschach-like, either as a paean to Bo Xilai or as a suggestion that the reader not get mixed up with either the pro-Bo or anti-Bo crowds. The latter reading would seem more consistent with Mo’s personality.


T.S. Eliot was a stone-cold anti-semite. Ezra Pound was a fascist-sympathizer who spent the end of WWII in a cage. Roald Dahl was mean to just about everybody. If we’re willing to accept The Waste Land and the Cantos and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory as the works of flawed men, men who were subject to all of the limitations of their condition, then it seems grossly unfair to condemn Mo Yan for the lesser sin of keeping his head down. The fact of the matter is that there are many excellent Chinese authors who are not banned or in jail. They choose to work within the confines of officially acceptable discourse, pushing at the boundaries wherever they can, because the alternatives are banning, or jail, or at best an honorary professorship in Berlin and the lonely irrelevance of the exile. The people insinuating that Mo and other CWA members are lightweights incapable of writing lasting or eternal literature seem to be saying that such privations are a prerequisite for literary legitimacy — for Chinese authors, at least.

Exceptional courage is a rare quality. It may be admired and praised in others; it cannot be demanded of them. People might feel better about Mo Yan if he were more publicly outspoken, but I wonder if the people now calling Mo a lapdog of the Chinese government have given much thought to the very real costs that he would pay were he to do so. His remarks on Liu Xiaobo’s case may be a sign that the Nobel will inspire him to speak up on behalf of Liu and other censored or imprisoned writers, but it seems unfair to demand that he join their number in order to make himself more immediately appealing to outsiders.

Mo Yan is a serious writer with a substantial body of work, much of it dealing with Chinese social and historical issues as directly as he dares. We might wish as readers that he were more daring, but we don’t get to make that call — he does. He has chosen to ensure that he will have the freedom to keep writing and publishing. Mo’s novels and stories do his speaking for him, and they do so eloquently and forcefully.

Seriously Hooked on Nationalism

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?

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.

A Tale of Two Songs

Tyler Cohen got his B.A. from McGill, is starting his J.D. at the University of Toronto, represented Canada at 汉语桥 in 2010 and has been plagued with dreams/nightmares of Yunnan monkeys stealing peanuts from his pocket since 2007. He’s worked as a translator, researcher and marketing manager, and also put in his time in the wilderness of ESL. Tyler’s new blog, The Yamen, will be opening soon.

Interest in the ‘Soft Power’ question in China seems to have hit an all-time peak. From the Bo Xilai scandal to the ongoing hassling of Ai Weiwei, from Chen Guangcheng to Shanghai Metro’s recent double down on the ‘she was wearing a short skirt’ defense, 2012 has been no less disastrous a year for the China PR crew than any other. As necessary and plainly fun as it is to point out how events ranging from the tragic to the absurd take a toll on China’s ability to develop soft power abroad, I’d like to turn back to one question on cultural soft power often answered superficially.

Soft Power & Art (and I use both terms lightly…)

The reason most often cited for China’s struggles in producing art that makes people overlook self-immolations in Qinghai is “censorship”. Whether it’s Joseph Nye or the NY Times, articles often begin and end with, ‘How can Chinese artists produce great art with the censorship regime?’ I find this a rather unsatisfying question/answer – while all art may intrinsically be political and in some sense subversive, love of God, State or the authorities has produced great and/or popular art in every corner of the Earth. Gospel can draw the most ardent atheist to a church, and Pearl Harbor somehow pulled in over $250 million outside the States. The difficulty the Chinese state has with its contemporary artistic offering to the world is, at least in part, more basic and subtle than the censorship question.

When poor Jack asks wealthy Rose to close her eyes and feel the wind in Titanic, he’s asking her to see the commonality of their experience – despite coming from “two different worlds,” they share humanity. When Jagger complains about not getting no satisfaction, it’s not “British” satisfaction that he lacks, but the base urge to have hoards of satisfying groupies that we all feel. Even Pearl Harbor, for all its inane nationalism, tries hard to communicate the usefulness of American values to world goals. In their soft power offerings, America, Britain, France, Germany, etc. hope you realize you are part of the same human experience they have, and that you find their cultural norms and forms the best tools to explore that experience. The art that the Chinese state has chosen to put forward to represent itself sends a very different message. Instead of asking you to find the shared humanity you have with China and then explore that humanity through Chinese tools, the art put forward by the Chinese state asks you simply to marvel at Chinese tools. (To be fair, they do hope you find yourself having something in common with China – a love of China.) A quick comparison of the two most recent Summer Olympic songs shows the stark difference in the two approaches.

Say what you will about Muse’s Survival – I’ll wait till the laughter dies down. One thing it can’t be accused of is being about Britain. The official video accompanying it makes this even more radically clear, as images of Britain don’t even appear. The video and song are about sport – the pain, the heartache, the glory, the determination, the abject tears of loss and startled triumph of victory. It’s in English, obviously, and has an implied link to Britain. It hopes that through recognition of the commonly shared experiences of pain, glory and all the rest, the viewer will (a) watch the Olympics and boost ad revenue, (b) understand that you and Britain share the human experience of sport in common, and that Britain’s representation of it is awesome.

Nothing could be more the opposite of this than the video for ‘Beijing Welcomes You’. Most obvious is the fact that it has almost nothing to do with sport, being entirely about China. It is essentially an ode to the belief that China is a great marvel to see, that you will enjoy being its guest,that everyone runs around in cheongsam writing poems, and that the air quality is totally fine, trust us, it’s cool, we’ve taken care of it.

The Muse video does a number of things inconceivable from the point of view of the Chinese state. First is the aforementioned lack of Britain in song and video; were the CCP or SARFT in charge of London’s video, I would half expect to see Shakespeare jumping hurdles as a chorus of Dickens’ characters led by Mr. Bean sang atop the Tower of London. Beijing’s video is about traditional poetry and calligraphy, clean air and Chinese hospitality. Britain’s video is actually about sport. Where London’s offering could be the video for any other country’s Olympics, ‘Beijing Welcomes You’ could be the video for any other Chinese event.

Second, it puts the pain and hardship of loss in the same frame as the glory of victory. When two bikers spin out of control after a crash, there’s an implied recognition of the fact that victory doesn’t come without loss. Chinese artists couldn’t get away with that in anything made officially for the Beijing Olympics – (a) the gold medal push was so important that anything implying Chinese athletes might not win was quieted, (b) loss seems to fall under the same category as ‘negative news’ in Chinese state thought. Instead, ‘Beijing Welcomes You’ says, bluntly, that “as long as you have dreams, you’re awesome” and “as long as you have courage, miracles will happen”. The idea that one can try hard and fail is not part of the narrative Beijing would allow about itself, let alone celebrate.

Third, whatever attraction towards Britain it tries to create in viewers – the soft power feature – is done through an overt claim to the universality of experience overlaying an implied claim that Britain is a great place to explore this experience. Viewers are encouraged to revel in the eternal glory of sport, and because you already know the Olympics are in London, to associate that emotional connection to sport with your connection to Britain. China’s offering was an overt claim to Beijing being a great place to explore…Beijing, overlaying the suggestion that all of us being together is pretty cool. The video and song work hard to make viewers feel they would be welcome and comfortable guests in the home of something amazing – the eternal, though changing, China.

That more subtle thing that the Chinese state has yet to get, or doesn’t wish to get, is that cultural products become effective soft power resources only when they first appeal to the commonality of human experience. It’s not, as Nye says, trying to make others find your values attractive,but trying to show them that they always were shared values. You can call this surreptitious or slimy marketing or genuine faith in universalism – the point is that it’s effective. Titanic works because we all want to be allowed to marry above our pay grade or find someone who cares about us rather than our family background. After accepting Jack’s fundamental wish, we’re then open to the suggestion that good old fashioned (American) straight-forwardness and honesty of emotions is the right way to fulfill that wish.

So the answer is still, in some sense, ‘censorship’. But censorship takes many forms and has a wide array of effects, not all of which constrain the ability to create art effective as soft power. All religious institutions are involved in censorship, and a Baptist church would likely ban any song that doesn’t overtly glorify God. So gospel appeals first to our shared concerns: that life is painful, that answers are hard to come by, that the personal future is unknown, and that the world can be beautiful. And then it makes sense of these emotions by way of its own answer (God), inviting you to adopt its approach. Gospel sells itself as human-first, Christian second, and Titanic as human-first, American-second. Chinese soft power makers will struggle as long as they put China first and humanity second.

Update: I was as happy to see Mr. Bean appear in the opening ceremony as I was disappointed to not see Shakespeare competing in track and field. The opening ceremony, as opposed to the song, is traditionally, and since the 1980 Olympics increasingly so, intended to celebrate the local country’s culture and history. I don’t argue that the U.K. or U.S. aren’t ever capable of crappy ‘soft power’ products with lame themes, just that the Chinese state both makes an art of it and seems incapable of the human-first approach.

Hong Kong’s Daddy Issues

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.

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