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Greeted as Liberators

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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.

In Praise of @BeijingAir

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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.

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.

No meaningful change in China without state sector reform

You can’t deny it.  Along with the high PM counts, there’s something positive in the air here in Beijing.  Recently, I’ve had more than a few conversations that demonstrate some kind of an uptick in confidence in China’s prospects post 18th party Congress.  Housing sales are rebounding which could suggest that the dismal drop in retail sales for the first 3Q in China could bounce back in the run-up to Spring Festival.  Xi Jinping is telling us about a China Dream and a Great Revival.  The ice seems to be cracking over the One Child Policy, and corruption exposés are on the rise.  It kind of feels like Christmas is coming in China.  And China’s Santa can buy a few more imported goodies this year for girls and boys given recent appreciation (less than 1%) of the RMB.

But the road to real change in China is a long one and can’t be equated to a once a year visit from a fairy tale character.  Real change in China will involve putting the country back on the road to reform and undoing many of the imbalances, failures, and negligence of the Hu-Wen regime.

I believe the most critical sector to watch is reform of China’s State Owned Enterprises (SOEs).  In 10 years, the Hu-Wen government essentially did nothing to deepen or strengthen the 1994 Company Law which set out to privatize and bring efficiencies to the state sector.   Now with the Youth League clique backpedaling, Xi and the Princelings will have a chance to rein in state-owned industrial sector. – after all the Princelings built the party profit machine in the 1990s vis-à-vis the SOE system.  The new leadership team will have direct line to 100+ central level SOEs in strategic industries as the Politburo holds power over the SOEs by guiding State Council policy and appointing firm managers.    Some firms rank among the largest and most powerful firms in the world.  In 2008, SOE profit alone made up 3.7% of GDP before the global economic meltdown and profitability increased at 10% rates year-on-year in 2010 and 2011.  SOEs are taxed at an extremely low rate so in a sense they are free to plow their profits back into their enterprises which helps sustain inefficiencies.

A successful SOE reform plan would seek to reduce corruption and inefficiencies while increasing profits.  Currently it is too simple for SOE managers and high-ranking officials to set up loose subsidiaries owned by their own relatives who then have access to state channeled resources and monopolistic conditions.  Further failures of the Hu-Wen reign are evident. In the prior decade SOEs and the party machine were unable to function on the world stage and purchase a foreign major firm like Unocal or move on Rio Tinto.  China is still a low-middle income country by most standards, but SOE executive salaries (government officials) now match the earnings of Western Fortune 500 CEO salaries, and they enjoy a grey bonus/share ownership structure that may eclipse those of their Western counterparts.  Stories abound of SOEs using their foreign subsidiaries or construction investments in Africa and Southeast Asia to funnel money to tax shelters in the Caribbean. Despite expressed government oversight, SOEs have been accused by domestic critics of conducting their own foreign policy.  And despite government demands to invest with overseas partners to promote learning by doing, reportedly the only recent successful partnership to date is the joint investment with Holiday Inn.   Here in Beijing, the largest food-producing SOE in China gets a majority of its income through real estate development.  How’s that for Socialism with Chinese Characteristics?

Richard McGregor reveals in his book The Party that CCP officials in the post-Tiananmen 1990s took on a  new philosophy towards party survival: the linchpin of further economic reform was maintaining public ownership of certain industries.  In other words, despite the downsizing of the state sector in the last twenty years, the Party will not survive without the state sector.  If the Party could come good on its commitment to curb corruption, close the income gap, and increase wealth and opportunities in the country’s interior, perhaps normatively the cacophony of discontent from the masses might simmer down.  In other words a new social compact would arise that permits the Party to get rich as long as it governs well.  But easier said than done.  And in China there exists an obligatory and moral code of obligatory helping your friends get rich (family run subsidiaries), and conspicuous consumption (hence the luxury watches and Ferraris).  Patronage lines will only be strengthened and fattened until death (or China Spring) do they part.

A major obstacle to reform is CEOs of SOEs are governed by two masters:  the State-owned Assets Supervison and Administration Commission (SASAC), the nominal owner and legal supervisory body over SOEs plays second fiddle to powerful CCP.  CEO appointments of the biggest SOEs are directly made by the Politburo.  SASAC is ill-funded and not able to set up respectable advisory organizations with teeth to fulfill its mandate, so it’s squeezed to satisfy a single function: ensure profitability of the SOEs.  With the profit motive and loose supervision, CEO’s can steer their firms virtually any way they wish as long as they please the Party patrons who put them in the driver’s seat.  Essentially, CEOs’ motivations are only curbed by the Party controlled selection system which determines their promotional prospects and political careers.  Party groups also penetrate deeply inside of the structure of SOEs to force party based decisions on the SOE’s business model.  Check out the story of Singapore Airline’s failed bid for China Eastern in 2007 to further understand the mechanics of how the Party trumps SASAC.

Many reform-minded critics have chastised Li Rongrong, former head of SASAC for his 2003 declaration that a state controlled economy was the foundation of CCP governance (p27), but perhaps Li is remembering lessons taught by Deng Xiaoping who implied in the post-Tiananmen era that party survival is based on forms and degrees of public ownership. Perhaps Li was really pointing a finger at the Party by implying SASAC needs to do be more effective in making sure the Party does not go too far in its abuses of SOES.  Misusing the state sector for personal gain threatens Party survival.

So from our perspective standing outside of the walls of the big black box, there are a few indicators worth keeping our eyes on over the next year that will demonstrate whether or not the darling Party Princelings act to continue to fatten themselves or choose the more tempered route of sticking to the SOE reform plan as laid out during the Jiang era for the sake of Party survival.  We should be watchful of regulations or announcements that boost the supervisory power of SASAC.  Check on the strength and composition of listed SOE’s boards of directors to get a feel for the rise or falling power of the Party’s grip on SOE leadership.  We can monitor whether SOEs are diversifying or consolidating core business competencies to correct market failure.

Further, it’s easy to follow changes in the corporate income tax rate (to SOEs or firms in general) or the profit dividend rate to SOEs.  Both taxes have been suppressed and low through the Hu era providing SOES with nearly bottomless and unchecked war chests. Increases in either of these rates would demonstrate a rising negotiating power of SASAC and provide SASAC with funding it needs to set SOEs on a pathway that would better ensure Party survival not party implosion.  Allowing the RMB to appreciate will force efficiency measures in SOEs and deepening financial institution liberalization could decrease the cash injections easily delivered to SOEs through the party patronage system.  Thus opportunities leading to corrupt practices could be curbed.

Let’s also watch for the first mention of the 1994 Company Law from official Chinese media outlets.  It’s been nearly 20 years since introducing the law which promised to deliver the good results listed above but it hasn’t been touched in a decade.  At the 2012 Caixin Summit, top China economist Barry Naughton received an accordant round of applause when he said that if executives of CEOs cannot implement the Company Law in their SOEs they should be fired. Kudos to Naughton for a bold and simple statement, and I couldn’t agree more.

Perhaps we should also use this measure to appraise Li Keqiang’s performance as well.  If Li can’t do it, then he can take a hike or what’s known in China as a ‘vacation style medical treatment.’

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss? Xi Jinping and the future of political reform

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The Super Seven – New members of the Standing Committee of the Politburo

by James Cuffe

Obama’s brief post-election message “Four more years.” became the most forwarded tweet of all time, but we won’t see a similar expression of delight on China’s weibo platform. Although people appreciated Xi Jinping for appearing warmer and more human than Hu Jintao, not a difficult task to be sure, there was less enthusiasm for his policies or for the future direction of political reform. The Party’s new leader received a positive – if cautious – welcome from China watchers and the media, but he is recognised more as a steady hand than as a reformist. The absence of Wang Yang and Li Yuanchao compounds the conservatism of the new team making it extremely unlikely we will see any major reforms over the next five years.

Li was appointed to the CCP Central Organisation Department in 2007 granting him the powers to modify the rules and framework for promotions within the party and is recognised as an advocate for political reform. Wang, through his experiences as Party Secretary of Chongqing and subsequent promotion to Party Secretary of Guangdong province (both regions economic powerhouses) showed him to favour economic reforms that are market orientated and business friendly. With these figures losing out we see political strategist Zhang Dejiang who was trained in economics in North Korea and Zhang Gaoli, a statistician with expertise in the oil industry making the leadership team. Both are supposedly protégés of Jiang Zemin.

Much is being written about Jiang Zemin’s recent public appearances and continued influence at the highest levels of informal politics. His recent appearances and presence at the Party Congress should be considered the norm. As a previous leader he offers a ‘guiding hand’ and ‘sage advice’ during such uncertain political practices – uncertain as the leadership transition process is still not well institutionalised. It suits foreign spectators who do not have full access to the processes that decide the leadership to turn the event into a factional power struggle between two opposing sides. (It is how we play and understand sports.) Examples of this are media reports citing the continued influence of Jiang Zemin represented in the new nominees. Jiang’s authority alternatively seen as an acquiescence by Hu Jintao and a sign of his weakness in the face of the old guard.

Too much can be read into factional support between the candidates. While factional politics is certainly at play, this largely plays out behind closed doors and speculating as to who is on which team can quickly turn analysis into guesswork. It is worth being aware that the seven men who walked out on stage on Thursday will know each other extremely well having worked together and moved in similar political circles for years if not decades. The overlap between factional politics and personal networks ensures that when one is emphasised over the other we will have more attractive, more defined conclusions albeit on far shakier ground. We need to resist the desire for neat answers in order to better understand processes that are not yet fully out in the open.

Liu Yunshan was considered a supporter of Bo Xilai and earlier this year there was a petition calling for Liu’s removal by 16 retired members of the CCP in Yunnan. Yu Zhengshen’s brother defected to the United States in the 1980’s being denounced as a traitor yet both Liu and Yu have made the top seven despite these events. These facts point to the difficulty in knowing how relationships are played out politically within the CCP and at times how the importance of personal networks wins out over both ideology and factional politics.

Wang Qishan appears to be taking the discipline portfolio, a hint that some attempt is being made to tackle corruption, His financial expertise would lend him to reforming the financial sector but as the team appears conservative and his appointment to the disciplinary office might suggest he is better able to enforce some manner of curtailment of the endemic corruption eating the CCP from the inside.

Seven men, no women; to many people the absence of the only female candidate will be a surprise. Liu Yandong ticked all the boxes for a promotion and it is hardly her gender that kept her out in the end. The argument for her inclusion highlighted her contacts to both major political factions, family ties to Jiang Zemin and professional ties to Hu Jintao via the Communist Youth League. With Bo Xilai’s removal there appeared to be a space for contention between her and Wang Yang yet neither in the end were successful. Gender at such a high level of politics with so much at stake is not as relevant as one’s power base and personal networks and ability to command authority. Presumably she was out-manoeuvred or even uninterested in the closing months.

The most interesting aspect of the new line up is the ability for the Xi-Li partnership to bring in a new team in five years time when all but these top two Standing Committee members will have to retire. It allows Xi-Li to enact a real legacy over the fortunes and direction the PRC will take during the next decade. And the next decade is shaping up to be a tumultuous one. The challenges that China faces are many and are changing year on year. At the next Party Congress in 2017 there is a window of opportunity for the leadership to change direction more radically. Their power and authority will have infiltrated the lower echelons of the Chinese political world. In five years time there will be a generational shift in China with those born in the 1980’s entering their late 30’s – not having the memories of China that the current leadership are wary of.

Xi Jinping is all too aware the dangers that mass campaigns and poor governance can bring. During his speech Xi stated: “To be turned into iron, the metal itself must be strong.” – a clear reference to the experiences of those under the Great Leap Forward and his own  experiences. During the Cultural Revolution he was “sent down” to the countryside living in a cave while his father – purged by Mao – spent 16 years imprisoned. A period of history he has referred to as a mood:

In the past when we talked about beliefs, it was very abstract. I think the youth of my generation will be remembered for the fervour of the Red Guard era. But it was emotional. It was a mood. And when the ideals of the Cultural Revolution could not be realised, it proved an illusion.”

– Interview with CCTV in 2003

Such quotes about darks periods of Chinese history show a willingness to engage diplomatically with China’s shadows. Before China can truly enter a new stage of development, China needs to come to terms with her past. Xi has the experience, the memories, and ten more years to do so.

James Cuffe is an anthropologist interested in the impact communications technology has on social change, specifically interested in current developments in China. Currently associated with IES Abroad in Beijing, Irish Institute of Chinese Studies at University College Dublin and Editor of the Journal of International Political Anthropology.

Hu Jintao and the Ghost of Mao

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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

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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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Seriously Hooked on Nationalism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dude, Where’s my…Emperor?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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