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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have fun. Stay Safe. Happy New Year.

- Jeremiah

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


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

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

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

Why do we call it “Spring Festival”?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To Gift or Re-Gift: The Art of Reciprocal Exchange in China

Ski MaskLast month I received an awkward and unfitting Christmas present from a close Kunming friend. It was a huge, grey knit hat-scarf-terrorist-mask-thing that would look better on a resident of Tatooine than on me. When gift-giving holidays come around, regardless of the country or culture, it’s common to get gifts like unwanted golf shoes, ugly stuffed animals, off-color ties, or odorous perfumes that we never asked for and never will use. Just as many of us have been thinking about how to handle awkward and unwanted Christmas gifts, I too was presented with the dilemma of what to do with this hideous fashion mistake.

When living in China one always receives gifts from friends. Gifts serve the purpose of warming up the friendship and sharing mirth. In a different vein, when a person has power to make decisions, serves in a leadership capacity, or provides services for others, gifts come with a string of expected returned favors attached to them. I’ve been in leadership positions in China for more than ten years, yet I’ve have always had trouble personally consuming gifts I receive from people who expect me to do something for them.

I’m always happy to lend a hand where I can, and when appropriate I’ll accept gifts openly. When a gift comes with an expected request like assistance looking at a contract or a distressed mom seeking advice for sending her child to college abroad, I always follow through to the best of my ability. I know to never open the gift in front of the giver so he or she doesn’t lose face with my potential negative evaluation. But I never feel good using the gift. To me gifting is unnecessary – I’m happy to help without the gift, but nonetheless it is customary to accept the thing.  Upon receipt, the givers heart is settled knowing that the favor I performed for them was met with some level of equal reciprocation.

Recently, I changed jobs and had to clean out my office closest. I found six years worth of unconsumed gifts – little trinkets and key chains from points in China far and near, coffee beans from Mexico, a decorative tin of fine tea among other things. Most of these gifts were from colleagues thanking me for supporting their ideas and professional development. The gifts were a return favor for being a benevolent manager, I guess. My excavation also unearthed a pile of various liquors that I received in return for using the services of particular businesses over the years! None of the gifts was extravagant or expensive – in fact, no individual item had a value higher than twenty or thirty dollars – truth be told the pile of liquor was ample in quantity to summon Freddie Mercury incarnate to a KTV party a few weeks ago.  Seriously.

Even though I struggle with personally consuming gifts, years of living in China have taught me a golden rule of dealing with gifts: when appropriate, pass it on and re-gift.   Applying this rule, the liquor was shared with friends, and I dispensed the other gifts to my employees in a transparent and fair fashion.

On certain levels, passing a gift that was meant for you to someone else may sound cheap and disingenuous, yet in Chinese reality, re-gifting is a perfectly acceptable behavior. You may think that the giver thought long and hard about the perfect gift, or you may also believe in the adage that it’s the thought that counts, but in China it’s the action of giving the gift that counts and not the object itself.  Re-gifting an unwanted gift actually brings you more benefits. Passing the gift on is an action that requires the receiver to reciprocate for you further down the road.  So in many ways re-gifting is the gift that keeps on giving.

To illustrate, a few years ago the manager of a bus service that my organization employed called me saying that he would be arriving at my office in five minutes to give me something. My spidey-sense detected a gift was coming, but I couldn’t run away or say I was out of the office to avoid the gift (remember, I’m loathe to receive these). So I walked down to the front of our building as he pulled up in his 50 seat tour bus and waved my hands that I didn’t need any gifts today. However, he insisted and thrust a package in my face.  There was no other choice than to accept especially since a gaggle of Japanese tourists, with cameras ready, was watching the exchange unfold and not accepting the gift would have been an act of disrespect toward my friend.

Upon inspection, the package was a set of expensive Japanese knives most likely given to him by one of the tourists; I knew that if I took them home, my workmates would think I would use the knives for personal purposes (word always gets out fast about these things), so I donated the knives to the staff for use in our staff kitchen. The result was smiles all around because the office really needed a new set of knives. In another instance, a business partner who runs a tourist agency offered to give me a sizeable cash kickback after the completion of our first travel contract. I told him that I wasn’t interested and that he should plow the kickback into future trips to provide for use in better services for those who actually participated in the trips.

So back to the gift of the unsolicited funky head-wrap. Applying the logic of re-gifting that had worked so many times before, I rewrapped the hideous thing and served it up as a secret Santa gift at a party with friends on Christmas day. Unsurprisingly, the gift was received with as much gratitude as when I accepted it, but lo and behold, my friend, the receiver, actually liked it and thought it perfect for her tastes. Tomorrow she returns to her galaxy far, far away. I wonder what souvenir she’ll send me?

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.’

Imagethief: I’m Leaving China and It Doesn’t Mean a Thing

Note: Originally posted at

It started with the oven. In Singapore in 2001 I bought a used Sharp R-8H50(B)T Rotisserie combination microwave and convection oven from my buddy, Tuck Wai, for S$200. Say what you will about the Sharp Corporation, which is struggling, but that oven was The Bomb. It followed us from Singapore to Beijing to Shanghai and back to Beijing, proving its worth repeatedly in a country where most apartments don’t have ovens. It even survived one front panel change. It was the best S$200 I ever spent in my life. Tuck always regretted selling – a sure sign of a good deal.

Earlier this year the panel started to fail again, and no transplants were available. It was a protracted death, like a person with progressive organ failure. One by one, over the course of a couple of months, the buttons stopped working, slowly narrowing the list of things the oven could do. First we lost the grill. Then the convection function. Then the microwave time entry. The last gasp was the quick start. Goodnight, sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.

Anyway, I’m not superstitious, and I don’t generally believe in portents, but if the death of our trusty Sharp Rotisserie isn’t a sign that change is in the wind, what is? So after eight and a half well-documented years in Beijing and 17 in Asia for me, we’re moving back to Palo Alto in January. I’m going because my company has asked me to move to the Silicon Valley office, very near where I grew up and where most of my family still live.

For a long time I resisted the idea of moving back to the United States. My self identity is largely based on being “the one who’s in Asia.” I was 27 when I left the US in 1995, six months out of graduate school and, in most measurable ways, a complete doofus. My personal and professional development has pretty much all been in Asia, and most of my friends and virtually all of my experience and network are out here.

Which, when you think about it, seems like a really good reason to do something different, even if that something is going home. Sometime in the last year or two my previously steadfast resistance to going home started to soften. Last May, when my boss proposed I come back to Sunnyvale, which is now where most of our senior execs are based, I found myself much more receptive to the idea than I would have expected.

There is no greater message behind our departure. I’m not disappointed in China. I haven’t been involved in public slanging matches with any Chinese celebrities. There is no shroud of legal action looming above me. I am, in fact, profoundly grateful to have been able to live and work in China for as long as I have. We all take it for granted, and piss and moan about the air and traffic and censored Internet and sketchy food because that’s our version of water-cooler sports talk. And we all rationalize a bit to be here. But step back and think about it for a moment. From your average suburban American perspective, who gets to live in China? Nobody, that’s who. It’s the stuff of fantasy and scarcely-believable tales from exotic relatives, like my mysterious uncle Stephen, who lived and worked in Hong Kong in the late 1980s. It has been a gift, and under other circumstances I would have remained here at least for a while.

But I was never in danger of staying forever, and nor are most other western expats. That’s why I was amused by the mass fluster that surrounded the public departures of Mark Kitto and Charlie Custer. All of a sudden foreigners were abandoning China! I know and like both Mark and Charlie, and admittedly much of the fluster was within our particular echo chamber, but, seriously, coverage in the New York TimesBusinessWeek and The Economist? Both of their personal experiences can be used to tell larger stories about life and power and business in China (and maybe I’m just jealous that my own departure is about as newsworthy as a bad air day), and both of their articles were great reads. But “foreigner departs China” is the very definition of dog-bites-man. The satirical site China Daily Show nailed it with a funny “dear John” letter from a foreigner to China.

“Foreigner stays in China,” now that’s a story. For an increasingly cosmopolitan and globally interconnected country, China isn’t really a place encourages foreigners to settle down. In fact, it goes out of its way to keep us at arm’s length. I should make a collage out of eight years of temporary residence certificates arranged around the confession I had to sign for registering my son’s birth with the police a few weeks late. Economic migrants bleed across the borders in search of something better, and perhaps some Vietnamese mail-order brides wind up here for the long haul, but in general foreigners don’t immigrate to China. We just visit, sometimes for a very long time.

In the end, there are only two possible outcomes for a foreigner in China: you either stay here for the rest of your life, or, sooner or later, you leave. If you were to diagram it, it would look something like this:

That little dot encompasses the handful of old communists who settled here for ideological reasons, such as Israel Epstein andSidney Shapiro, and maybe Carl Crook, who was born in Beijing. One or two businessmen I’ve met have been here for thirty or more years, and a couple of journalists I know are edging in that direction. Maybe Kaiser is here forever (though I doubt it). But even Sidney Rittenberg, famously “The Man Who Stayed Behind,” didn’t actually stay behind. He retired to Washington State in 1980. Of course, he was thrown in jail in China. Twice. You’d probably retire to Washington State, too. According to the People’s Daily, China has granted permanent residency to less than 5000 foreigners since it started doing so in 2004, and itmade the news when Shanghai issued its first batch of green cards in 2005. It’s a safe bet that granting citizenship is even rarer.

We leave. That’s what we do. But just because leaving China is normal doesn’t mean something isn’t going on. Among my friends there has been a tangible change in mood in the last couple of years. A sense of excitement about being here that endured for many years has in many cases given way to a sense of weariness or indifference. The most common reaction when I tell people my company is moving me back to California is, “you’re so lucky!”

There’s nothing sinister happening. It’s just a generational change. My cohort is largely mid-career expatriates, many of whom, like me, had their children in China. As our lives have changed, so in many cases have our expectations and needs. At the same time, the China we arrived in has also changed profoundly. Change is part of what makes China exciting, and on balance much of the change has been good. But people come looking for different things, and for some China today is less appealing or simply different than whatever they arrived looking for.

So they move on, and new people come in. That’s as it should be. Out with the old, in with the new. One thing that has not changed is the number of students and young professionals interested in working in China or studying Chinese. One of the fun parts of my job is speaking to MBA and undergraduate student groups, and I always ask who actually wants to live and work in China. Trust me; the supply of young westerners interested in China is not in danger of drying up.

I quit a perfectly good job in Singapore in 2004 and came to China with rudimentary Mandarin and the dream of living here. It was a crazy stunt that worked out better than I could have ever imagined. I’ve not lived the hard-boiled life of my journalist friends, many of whom are forever getting tossed out of some hardscrabble village by local thugs. Nor did I arrive in the FEC era or spend two or three years in the boondocks. But I’ve had my share of adventures. I’ve bargained for long distance taxis in Yanji and ridden through the Zhalong Wetlands in the back of a xiaobengche, surrounded by crates of live fish. I got caught in a youthful waterfight in the alleys of old Kashgar. I’ve been invited into a Uighur house in Tuyoq for tea and sweets, and into the one-room hutong apartment of a family from Shanxi for homemade noodles. I stood on Tian’anmen Square with tens of thousands of Chinese people during the memorial a week after the Wenchuan earthquake. I was in the Bird’s Nest during its Olympic pomp. I helped companies wrestle with the melamine crisis and the acrimonious collapses of their Chinese joint ventures. I had huge stretches of unrestored Wall all to myself on spectacular, blue-sky days. I scuba dived on a sunken village in the dark and freezing depths of Qiandaohu, on sunken Great Wall in Tanghsan, and with a whale shark in Dalian’s morose Tiger Bay aquarium. I walked from one-side of Beijing to the other and discovered neighborhoods I’d have never found any other way, and went for runs in the pre-dawn winter darkness when the city is as still and quiet as it ever gets. I spent a year in Shanghai and learned that it is every bit as cool as Beijing, in its own way. I made great friends, worked with amazingly talented Chinese colleagues who disabused me of every stereotype of Chinese employees. I wrote a silly blog that people actually read. And I raised a little boy who calls Beijing home and speaks Mandarin with an effortless fluency that I am scandalously jealous of.

They’re the experiences of a lifetime. Some scruffy air and occasional difficulty with Facebook seems a small price to bear. I’ll miss it, but it’s time to go. Here’s to the next generation of young westerners who are dreaming of living in China. May they all get the chance, and may their lives in China be as amazing and rewarding as mine has been.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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.

Getting On In Chinese Media

 by Mike Cormack

I feel a bit foolish making myself out to be any kind of success in media. I am not a trained journalist, and there are many practitioners of that fine calling in Beijing, such as Tania Branigan, Christina Larson and Gady Epstein, who really show how it’s done. However, I have made my way up to managing editor of a Beijing magazine from having been a freelancer only three years previously, so my story might be useful to those looking to get on in the English-language media in China.

I know myself how baffling the media can seem when you’re just starting out. If you have a headful of ideas, a keen interest in the news, and good writing skills, media work can seem the ideal career. I felt this when freshly graduated in English and politics, with no real idea how to go about getting any kind of writing job. Getting an internship in London was an absurd impossibility, and there didn’t seem to be any other kind of entry-level posts: every advert I saw in the Guardian Media Jobs section required experience. I remember reading Private Eye’s “In The Back” section, as written by the campaigning journalist Paul Foot, seeing the phone number listed at the bottom, and wanting to call up to demand: “How did you get started? How do you get a foot in? Where can I begin?” There were practically no entry-level posts and no doubt the few that were advertised were responded to by avalanches of naive, fresh-faced, would-be writers.

Eventually I gave up even the idea of media work and settled for being an English teacher, the great fallback career. However, this wasn’t satisfying, and I moved to Huia’an, Jiangsu province, in 2007, ostensibly to finish the zombie novel I had been plodding on with for the past several years. Though I’d only intended to stay a year, China got its claws into me, and I decided to stay. Huai’an not having any particular charm, when I was offered a job with English First in Tianjin I made the move north.

Tianjin was far bigger than Huai’an, of course, large enough to host English-language media. A few weeks after arriving, so say about October 2008, I saw an ad in Jin, the expat magazine delivered to the teachers’ room, looking for freelance writers. Swiftly I wrote up a review of the local expat dive bar and emailed it in. The editor invited me in for a chat, and I began doing some occasional freelance work for them. The assistant editor would call me up and ask me to go to some shop or restaurant; I would meet them there then write-up a 100 word piece: about one or two per monthly issue. Then sometime in 2009, I saw an ad for the rival expat magazine, Tianjin Plus, and applied. They offered more articles per issue and more money per word, so I defected.

At Tianjin Plus, I got more to do: as well as bar, shop and restaurant reviews, I did opinion pieces, then interviews with expats of note (such as there are in Tianjin). Then I got invited to do the “Last Words” article in the sister magazine, Business Tianjin, like what Kaiser Kuo did in the Beijinger. Then, after I grumbled about the copy editing in one issue, I got invited to do that too, so once a month I would receive about eighteen articles to do over the weekend. Then, in about January 2010, the owner of the magazines asked if I’d be willing to come into the office during my weekend, which as an ESL teacher was Monday and Tuesday, for a consideration on top of the payment per word. I was willing, of course. So for the next four months I didn’t have a day off. The good thing was, though, that after a day in the office, I didn’t feel tired or drained, as I did when teaching: I felt energized. You always know when you’re doing the stuff you love.

As they seemed to like my work, I asked the editor if there was a possibility of going full-time, but we couldn’t agree on salary so I looked to Beijing. Come May 2010, I got a job with an editing house, and I’ve been here since. Fortunately, Tianjin Plus were also looking for someone to write about Beijing at that time, so I became their Beijing editor and kept on copyediting. As Beijing editor, I reviewed two shops, bars or restaurants, interviewed one expat of note (I think I was the first person to interview The Beijing Beatles, for example), and wrote a short general column on Beijing life.

In Beijing I continued to accumulate obligations: a monthly column for Pregnancy and Parenting magazine, the website director for Tianjin Plus. By this time my full-time post was senior copywriter for Dentsu, a big advertising agency, so to say I was busy is a comical understatement. I was looking for editorship of a magazine by this time, but such posts are few and become available only rarely. However, when the post of managing editor of Agenda came up I was straight in there, and took it up at the start of February 2012.

That is a bald summary of three and a half years. Obviously it’s mostly been a case of taking it step by step. Sometimes I’ve been lucky when opportunities have just fallen into my lap, but all the same you have to be there to take advantage. Looking back, then, perhaps I can draw various lessons.

  1. The first and most essential one is: if you have any kind of writing gig, deliver copy on time (preferably earlier), and make as good a go of it as you can. This is always the most important thing. There’s nothing worse than being let down when someone is promising you an article. Get it in!
  2. If you’re looking for outlets, in Beijing there are lots. There are Agenda, the Beijinger, beijingkids, City Weekend, City Weekend Parents & Kids, Time Out, That’s Beijing, Global Times, China Daily, eChinacities, the Beijing Review, and more. If you’ve got an idea for an article, most are very easily approachable. It would be a foolish editor who did not at least consider the idea, regardless of whether you’ve got experience writing or not – all that really matters is the quality of the piece.
  3. Having a good knowledge of a particular field is very helpful. For myself, I have been following the Beijing and China blogosphere/Twittersphere closely since about 2009: this has been a great help in writing for the expat media. If you’re into something niche like welly-throwing or cross-stitching, there are magazines and websites out there, but necessarily exposure in China will be limited. If you haven’t any particular interests, you won’t have anything to say.
  4. Similarly, lots of people think they can just “start writing”, as though it’s as natural as breathing, or that their undergraduate essay-writing skills will see them through. I disagree. Writing is a skill which can be practised and improved upon, but which nevertheless requires some degree of innate talent: just the same as with playing the guitar or assembling code in C++. Writing a snappy blogpost is far different to the 3000 word humanities essay, and both are especially remote from headline writing. If you haven’t been practising writing through having a blog, a journal, or whatever way of writing you choose, those skills and techniques have not been developing.
  5. Social media, then, is I think today utterly essential. You don’t have to be into Twitter or Instagram etc, but a blog of some kind is fantastically useful for the budding writer. You hone your ideas and opinions; you find what you can write about well; you get good at finding appropriate pictures and trying to write arresting headlines; you get into the habit of writing regularly and to order; you get used to fumbling around for ideas; you learn how to link with other bloggers and try to drive up traffic. Your ideas written down can look very different to how they feel in your head.
  6. For a writer, the ability to handle prose is not, I would suggest, the essential skill. The most important thing is insight. Are you observant – of people, of trends, of your field of interest? Can you draw parallels, see similarities, discover underlying patterns? If so, can you look back at stuff you’ve written and find the observations stay relevant? That’s the real stuff every editor is looking for.
  7. Every day, I read and write for fun, beyond work. Before I was writing professionally, I would read and write about 20-25 hours a week. If you don’t put in the time, you ain’t gonna get good. If you think about doing a job reading and writing for 20 hours for free and the idea fills you with horror – you’re in it to make money, you say – I suggest you find something better to do.
  8. If you’re an English teacher and working evenings and weekends, you’re in an ideal position to get an internship, if you’re seeking an entry-level post. Once you’ve got some credits to your name and some feedback from an editor, you can move onto doing freelance or part-time work, and so on. It’s just step-by-step.
  9. Ultimately it comes down to what energizes you. I did not find teaching energizing – I could do it professionally, but it was draining. Advertising writing at Dentsu was better, but still not quite there. But I knew from working in the Tianjin Plus office on my weekends that media work was satisfying, and exactly what I’m most suited to. If you’re writing about your time in China already, in a blog for example, that’s a good sign.
  10. Nonetheless, I’ve no doubt there will be lots of candidates for media work in China. Despite the restrictions, there’s a lot of great content out there. If you think you can do better, get writing.


The author is the managing editor of Agenda Magazine.

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…


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