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Archive for the category “History”

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.

Playing the Meritocracy Game

升官圖

A Shengguan Tu Board.

The latest issue of Foreign Affairs has dueling articles by Eric X. Li and Huang Yasheng titled “The Life of The Party” and “Democratize or Die”, respectively arguing for the CCP’s enlightened non-democratic meritocracy and its imminent destruction if it fails to implement democracy. Both have their fair points as well as their strawmen and sleight-of-hand, and others have effectively critiqued Li and his Canadian tag-team partner, Daniel A. Bell, for a flawed definition of “meritocracy.” While Bell and Li have avoided claiming this meritocratic process is the latest in a long historical tradition, the connection is implied when the mechanisms Li describes, from the national college entrance exams to the various level of bureaucratic rankings and evaluations, are so similar to the the imperial keju system, which Professor Mark Elliott argued in the New York Times was hardly “meritocratic”. He pointed out what mattered was family connections and money. In fact, this was so common it was a board game – Imperial China’s answer to Monopoly.

In a class on “Gaming in Libraries” (yup, that’s a thing now), I had to build a basic web game using MIT’s Scratch platform (most librarians aren’t programmers – yet). Years ago, in Richard Smith’s China’s Cultural Heritage, I had read about a Chinese board game called Shengguan Tu (升官圖), or “Promoting the Officials,” where players assume the of an aspiring mandarin, moving through the imperial examinations and through the bureaucracy, eventually rising to the “Da Nei” or inner sanctum Grand Secretariat in the imperial household. Along the way, players pay “donations” to higher ranked players in each department.

There are few English sources on Shengguan Tu, and almost no Chinese sources online (1). The best source I’ve found is Carole Morgan’s article on the game in Journal of the American Oriental Society in 2004 (subscription/paywall access), which draws on the work of gaming ethnographer Stewart Culin and a pamphlet published in Taiwan in the 1980s, whose author Cai Ce admitted he wasn’t clear on the rules either. Some highlights from her article (and Carole, drop me an email if you read this):

  • The game has existed in some form since the Tang Dynasty, when a precursor was invented by a Henan official named Li He 李郃.
  • There’s alot of variety, with versions alternating between square and round boards, tops and dice, and varying numbers of bureaus and positions.
  • Rules on movement and payment vary, but the dice/tops always have four possibilities: dé 德 (virtue), cái 才 (talent), gōng 功 (ability), and zāng 赃 (bribery, general skullduggery). Depending on your current post, any of these could be either beneficial or disastrous for your career.
  • Shengguan Tu and its ancestors, including Daoist versions where you climbed through the ranks of the heavenly bureaucracy, were gambling games.
  • One legend says Ji Yun, an editor of the Qing Dynasty encyclopedia Siku Quanshu, stayed up late gambling with his friends and showed up late to an appointment with a pissed-off Emperor Qianlong. To wiggle out of trouble, Ji told the emperor he was up late studying government administration and as proof showed him the game board. If that’s not true, it ought to be.

I picked up a cheap kid’s version of the game on Taobao and built the game below – it still has some bugs in the payment system, there aren’t clear rules on the amount of payment except once you’re in the Grand Secretariat, and the board I bought had typos – I think I caught all of them. Most of the title translations come from Charles O. Hucker’s Dictionary of Official Titles in Imperial China, and in a few places I fudged it. I wouldn’t call the online version fun (with some VC money I could make it awesome, I swear) but playing the real thing with family for pocket money isn’t a bad way to spend an afternoon during the Chinese New Year holidays. It’s no mahjong, though.

Learn more about this project

Notes:

  1. The now dead websites http://www.shengguantu.com/ and http://geocities.com/lswk/, available in the Internet Archive, were among the few sites about the game. A Baidupedia entry has some information about the game as well.

Hu Jintao and the Ghost of Mao

Hu Jintao is wandering the Great Hall of the People during his last nights in power.  Drunk on baijiu and hubris…he hallucinates that he sees Mao before him…

Yo Mao! I would tell you we only changed the drapes but actually we messed up your whole world.

Sure there might be a couple of useless tools who run a bookstore and (until recently) a website called Utopia…they’re still into you, but the rest of the kids who spent their formative years shoveling shit while you were sampling teenage minority girls now have their own children to think of, ones with investment portfolios and overseas addresses.

(Any Leftist wannabes unhappy with my brand of Socialism should just let me know and I’d be happy to ship their pseudo-intellectual asses to Pyongyang.   The North Koreans will work them like $5 Tijuana hookers on rent day.)

25 years at “The Helm” and all you left us with is a bunch of buttons, a warehouse of red books, and a signed souvenir photo of Henry Kissinger in drag.

And it could have been worse!  Jesus, best thing that ever happened to this country was your kid getting blown up in Korea.  A Mao Dynasty?   I wake up at night in a hot sweat sometimes just thinking about it.

Your morbidly obese grandson keeps running around protecting your legacy and for some reason the PLA brass keeps promoting him.  Frankly, when they get enough tin on his chest we’ll use it for ballast and drop him in the Bohai Gulf.  Screw the brass. They never liked me anyway.

(Maybe I’ll nuke Hanoi just to mess with them.  HowulikemenowPLAbeeyatches!!!!)

Everything we built is DESPITE YOU.  You crazy paranoid syphilitic bastard.  My society is harmonious.  Your idea of harmony was tuning up Liu Shaoqi by having your goons apply an iron pipe to different parts of his cancer-riddled body.  No wonder Lin Biao wanted to snuff you. If it wasn’t for the druggy son, he might have succeeded. After all, you were pretty out of it toward the end.   Papa Doc Kissinger once told Deng Xiaoping that the only time he ever saw anybody shake that badly was when Judy Garland played the White House while trying to quit Quaaludes.

Because you see…nobody liked you.  We still love Deng.  Saved the country.  Lifted millions out of poverty and definitely knew his way around a tank division.  And you? I’m seriously considering my last act to be ordering your orange desiccated corpse ground up and flushed down a hutong.

Wait…where are you going?  Damn hallucinations wearing off.  I have more to say.  Xi Jinping likes women’s clothes!  We once tricked Wen Jiabao into embracing a fully-erect capuchin monkey by telling him it was a suffering earthquake victim!  Bastard!

I will not fade into history.  I WILL NOT FADE!!!

How Shanghai Saved the Jews

I spent National day in Shanghai with my family, our first leisure trip back since we lived there in 2007. Like Beijing, Shanghai has caught a serious case of fabulous in the past five years. The French Concession, already precious when I lived there, now has more coffee houses, boutique bakeries and fashionable bars per hectare than San Francisco’s Mission District, which is no mean feat given SOMA’s hipster factor.

Case in point: the street behind the apartment I lived in while I was in Shanghai used to be a wet market where you could have your Sunday chickens slaughtered and plucked while-u-wait (very convenient). It’s now a strip of coffee houses, boutique bakeries and fashionable bars. The apartment block itself is as dingy and miserable as ever, but I’m sure rents have gone up.

I have no philosophical objection to this transformation. Wet markets and Shanghai summers go together exactly like you’d expect a bunch of unrefrigerated animal carcasses, dismembered frogs and fish innards to go with 35C temperatures and relentless humidity. And I have a taste for coffee and fine baked goods. Anyway, such is progress.

My mom, who had never been to Shanghai, was in tow, so we made a round of The Sites, braving the staggering holiday crowds at the Bund, Luzjiazui, and so on. But one place where the crowds were not staggering was the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum, in stubbornly un-fabulous Hongkou district. Jews, it turns out, have an extensive history in Shanghai, originating from the Iraqi Jews who established trading houses there in the 19th century. Although I’m not observant, I am mostly Ukrainian Jew by ethnicity — Moss comes from my great grandfather, Abraham Mosiusnik, who emigrated at the turn of the 20th century — so it seemed something worth exploring.

Before and during World War II tens of thousands of Jews fled Europe and arrived in Shanghai. Stateless, and disconnected from the established Jewish communities, they were settled in a ghetto in Hongkou, north of Suzhou Creek. Constructed in 1927, the elegant, brick Ohel Moishe synagogue served the Russian Jewish refugee community in the ghetto. About ten years ago it was converted to a museum with the support of the Shanghai city government.

I don’t generally hold Chinese museums in high regard (though there are some exceptions, such as the Shaanxi Provincial Museum in Xi’an). Many Chinese museums have spectacular artifacts, whether lacquerware or locomotives, but, regardless of language, they are often bad at explanation and storytelling and beholden to the imperatives of The Official Narrative. This is a minor tragedy. The Forbidden City should be one of the great museums of the planet. It’s not. It’s a glorious structure holding a bunch of disconnected and poorly explained stuff. And, no, it’s not because Chiang Kai Shek took a lot of the good stuff to Taiwan (although he did).

Following a Chinese volunteer docent on a tour, it didn’t take long to see that the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum suffers from a variety of the Chinese museum syndrome. Among other things, the tour led off with a comprehensive review of the awards and honors that have been bestowed upon the museum by Jewish groups and diplomats, and a recounting of the Chinese notables who have graced the premises. Always a worrying sign.

The museum does, however, have a very clear and effectively transmitted narrative. It is this: the east-European Jewish refugees were saved by the charity and benevolence of China, welcomed in Shanghai when the so-called leaders of the free world, the United States and the United Kingdom, turned them away. This point is drummed home by multiple exhibits, including a brief but eye-catching movie presented on multiple overlapping translucent screens.

The story is accurate, insofar as it goes, but as with many Chinese museums the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum is interesting less for what it includes than for what it elides. For example, it is true that Shanghai accepted the Jewish refugees at a time when the US and UK shamefully didn’t. But that was because Shanghai didn’t require an entry visa, so anyone could (and did) land there. Left unmentioned is that the open borders were the result of Shanghai’s status as foreign treaty port under the infamous Treaty of Nanking (the same one that ceded Hong Kong to the British after the First Opium War – and we know how the Chinese felt about that).

Also absent is a full explanation of the reason why the Hongkou Jewish ghetto wasn’t liquidated late in the war, as the Germans were demanding. The decision to spare the Jews was made by the Japanese, who actually administered the city during the war. As the story goes, the Japanese were persuaded by the Shanghai rabbi Shimon Sholom Kalish. When asked by the Japanese government why the Germans hated Jews, the rabbi replied it was because, “we are orientals.” Or words to that effect; exactly what he said is a matter of dispute. But Chinese museums aren’t in the business of giving credit to the Japanese. It’s not their thing.

Finally, due recognition is given to Ho Fengshan, the Chinese diplomat in Vienna who defied the orders of his superiors and distributed possibly thousands of exit visas to European Jews, allowing them to depart Europe for Shanghai. Nowhere, as far as I recall, is it mentioned that he was a Nationalist diplomat (or that he retired to the United States). This strikes me as a missed opportunity, given that defying the orders of your Nationalist superiors in support of something the Communists claim as a triumph would seem worth mentioning. (It’s also possible I misremember that display, as I didn’t take notes when I was there.)

Whether or not the museum is worth a visit depends upon what you’re looking for. The ghetto is still there, in a row of tenements with graceful, Georgian facades, but it’s an unreclaimed Chinese ghetto now. The building housing the Ohel Moishe synagogue is beautiful, and some of the exhibits are interesting despite the layer of Chinese-style political correctness. The third floor is a sort of mini-Holocaust museum, which doesn’t add much to the story of the Jewish refugees in Shanghai, but does illustrate the perfidy of Europeans toward each other and explains why the refugees fled. The history of the Jews in Shanghai is genuinely interesting, and I was inspired by the museum to learn more about it, which is a good thing.

Ultimately the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum may teach you less about the Jewish ghetto in wartime Shanghai than about how the Shanghai government wants to use that part of history in service of its own agenda. Still, if you’re willing to read between the lines, that’s pretty interesting in itself.

Hongkou Ghetto

In the ghetto…

 

Sacred Maos

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

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.

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.

On an Island

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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