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Readings: Expo Preparation, Food, Music, and Fashion

A variety of readings that piqued our interest this week:

1. In a New York Times story, Howard French takes a look at the ongoing preparations in Shanghai as next year’s World Expo grows closer. In addition to Expo-related construction in the city center, French notes, attention is also being paid to outlying neighborhoods, which are being spruced up in anticipation that some Expo-goers will want to explore Shanghai’s innumerable side streets and alleyways:
Shiny new aluminum facades are being hastily stapled onto grubby family storefronts, and fresh coats of paint and mortar are being applied, often for the first time in decades. This Potemkin salubrity is regarded with frank skepticism by many locals as a gigantic, government-run “face operation.” Its aim, they say, is to impress foreign visitors, even those who wander off the beaten path, with Chinese living standards.

Shanghai authorities are seeking to achieve more than just cosmetic changes, however; like Beijing did prior to the Olympics, Shanghai is also exhorting its citizens to become more “civilized” before the Expo begins.

2. It’s the height of shui mi tao, or water honey peach--“The Best Peach on Earth”-- season in China, but American consumers can’t enjoy any of these delicious treats, as Stan Sesser writes at the Wall Street Journal. U.S. markets prize long shelf life and durability in the produce they sell, and the honey peach is a delicate fruit that quickly turns rotten, so it cannot survive the long journey to American tables. The honey peach isn’t especially attractive, either, which is a further strike against it in the U.S., where fruit is bred to have a vibrant exterior color that pleases the shopper’s eye. Because of all these factors,
Growing honey peaches on U.S. farms isn't practical, either. "It can be done, but it would be very time-consuming," says [Al Courchesne, a farm owner in California], speaking of Agriculture Department regulations that require quarantine of imported fruit trees. To prevent the arrival of agricultural viruses, the USDA requires a period of isolation that could last several years, he says. When that period was over, growers would have trees bearing an ugly-looking fruit so delicate it would require special handling and rapid-fire distribution.

It appears, then, that honey peaches will remain a special treat to be enjoyed on visits to China--which is almost a novelty these days, now that so many foods are shipped around the world at the click of a mouse.

3. In more food news, organic farms are popping up in China, though their number is still small, as Joshua Frank reports in the Los Angeles Times. While organically grown food is comparatively expensive, recent tainted-food scandals have made many consumers wary and willing to pay more for peace of mind. Even large chain stores such as Carrefour have picked up on the trend: organic produce is accompanied by informational posters that chart its journey from farm to store, and staffers stand by to answer any customer questions. In Beijing, Lejen Chen and her husband have started the Community-Supported Agriculture program:
Fifteen families receive baskets of fresh seasonal vegetables, and have access to the Green Cow farm, about 20 miles from the center of Beijing, as a leisure spot.

The privilege of a year's involvement with the program costs roughly $45 a week, and families are also expected to help out with chores such as weeding and harvesting at least three times a year. The farm's crops go to program participants, and are also used to supply Chen's New York-style diner nearby.

Issues of trust, however, persist:
Conforming to organic standards when you have no control over neighbors' practices, or what rains down on you, is difficult. But on paper, China's organic farming standards are strict enough, Chen says.

The problem, she says, is making sure that farmers stick to those standards, and ensuring that there are enough authorities to adequately monitor producers who claim their food is organic--a tall order in a country where toxic, heavy-metal-filled sewage sludge is the cheapest, most easily accessible fertilizer around.

4. Over at the Fool’s Mountain blog, a recent post spotlights Louis Yu, a PhD student in theoretical computer science who also produces a weekly podcast featuring world indie music (podcast archives available at woozy.cn; Chinese only). Yu shares his thoughts on the state of indie music in China right now, which he views as a constantly evolving scene:
Most bands are just copying random Western indie bands, they don’t know WHY they’re making indie music, or rather, what indie music is. It should be craft on songs, melody, and lyrics the foremost, not styles you pick and choose from swatches because they happen to be “hip” at the moment . . .

That being said, like most things in China, Chinese indie has the ability to surprise the hell out of everybody. For one, it’s growing and progressing in such an alarming speed. I mean, the quality of the music got so much better just within the last 4-5 months, I personally can see the progress from when I first really paid attention to the Chinese indie scene a year ago, till now.

5. We previously linked to Gina Anne Russo’s post on femininity and advertising in China, in which she notes that most ads, especially provocative ones, seem to feature Western women. A story in The Guardian, however, hails the arrival of Asian supermodels on the international fashion scene (hat tip to Stylites in Beijing):
The monopoly of white models on the catwalks and in the glossies over the past decade has been immovable, but many fashionistas now believe the future is Asian. As Condé Nast prepares to launch GQ China, its fourth Chinese title, and Vogue India increases its print run to 50,000 copies a month, British model scouts say a new demand for Asian talent is being created that will transform the face of fashion . . .

It was the summer launch of Supermodelme.tv that gave Asian models a boost. The show, which appeared online in June, follows 10 aspiring models from Singapore, Malaysia, Korea, Thailand, the Philippines and India as they compete for a prize of $10,000 and the chance of fame. Karen Seah, of Singapore-based media group Refinery Media, came up with the idea after witnessing "a growing market for Japanese and Chinese models".

Even so, modelling has yet to attract the same kudos in the south and east Asian communities as in the west. White says that many Asian girls view modelling as a "hobby" to pursue much later in life than their European counterparts. Ashanti Omkar, former editor of Asian lifestyle magazine Henna, says change will not happen overnight. "An increase in the number of Asian models is to be expected, but it will take time. Many young Asian girls don't think of modelling as a career."


Siaolin Stands Up

Bouncing over ruined roads washed out by Typhoon Morakot (some roadbeds have been transformed into river beds), a group of scholars (including myself) drove to the township of Chia-hsien 甲仙 (Kaohsiung County) on August 18 to attend a press conference marking the formation of the Reconstruction Committee for Siaolin’s Plains Aborigine Culture (小林平埔文化重建委員會). Arriving in Chia-hsien, one is soon struck by the roar of helicopters and generators, as well as the smell of flood debris and betel nut juice, which serve to cover up other odors. Power has been restored, but there is still no running water, which puts a huge strain on the limited number of Port-a-pots available to disaster victims now sheltering in local temples. Relief supplies are relatively plentiful, but distribution remains haphazard, and appeals for needed items are issued on a regular basis.

The press conference was held to initiate planning for the rebuilding of Siaolin Village 小林村 (Xiaolin; Sio-na in Southern Min), once a center of Taiwan’s Plains Aborigine (平埔族) culture. Today, all that remains is a massive tomb of mud containing the corpses of hundreds of victims buried under a five-storey landslide that engulfed the village when two nearby mountainsides collapsed (Recent reports allege that the landslide may have been caused by a faulty water diversion project (越域引水工程), which involved dynamiting mountainsides to build a massive tunnel from two major rivers to a nearby reservoir). Searchers have started to find some remains, including those of a mother and child hugging each other during their final moments on earth. They are also digging up body parts, some surrounded by pools of blood. Local tallies list a total of 491 individuals missing and presumed dead, but they have yet to be granted to the dignity of being recognized by the state. According to government statistics posted on the Center for Disaster Prevention and Relief (災害防救中心) website on the day of the press conference, 136 people have been listed as dead and 337 missing, with 71 of the dead and all of the missing coming from Kaohsiung County. As for the Siaolin villagers, their status is currently "under investigation" (查證中).

The difficulties surrounding the aftermath of the Siaolin tragedy reflect larger problems with the overall disaster response and relief effort, not to mention reports of high-ranking officials going out for banquets, wedding parties, and hairstyling appointments during and immediately after the typhoon. The result has been a tidal wave of disappointment, disbelief, and disgust that has transcended the usual party lines. One on-going Yahoo forum contains 3,818 essays commenting on President Ma’s performance (up from over 1,000 just two weeks ago), while a recent ICRT poll had 14,998 people (96%) responding in the affirmative to the question of whether Ma should step down, with a mere 513 (3%) saying there was no need for him to do so.

All this is of little import to the Siaolin survivors, however, who are simply trying to cope with the magnitude of their loss. The press conference we took part in, which started just after noon, was packed. It began with a deeply moving film prepared by Professor Chien Wen-min 簡文敏, who has been studying Siaolin’s Plains Aborigine culture for over a decade. For 4 minutes, we watched scenes of Siaolin’s vibrant village life before the disaster struck, followed by images of devastation and mourning, but concluding with survivors expressing their wish to rebuild. Dozens of villagers showed up while film was running, so it was shown a second time. Chien then explained the Reconstruction Committee’s goals, namely to build a safe and secure community that would be healthy and eco-friendly, while also preserving the essence of Plains Aborigine culture (安定、安全,具有平埔文化特色的健康生態社區). This was followed by remarks by village leaders (林建忠 and 蔡松瑜), scholars, and other outside experts. Villagers also had a chance to express their feelings of grief, frustration, and anger. In their closing statements, the village leaders called for an end to all tears in favor of a new sense of self-reliance, so that Siaolin’s future would be assured (there are now plans to establish a private foundation to help achieve that goal). Finally, the leaders left the podium and joined the villagers in loud chants of "Go Siaolin!" (小林加油). The Reconstruction Committee starts its work this Friday, while a second set of mourning rituals for the victims (二七) will be held on Saturday.

If history is any guide, the prospects for recovery are not as dim as they might seem. Residents of this part of southern Taiwan have suffered worse calamities in the past, especially during the Ta-pa-ni Incident, which caused thousands of deaths. Those who have toughed it out are fiercely independent and resilient. They have rebuilt before, and they certainly have the ability to do so again. However, many other communities have also been devastated. It will take much more time and a lot more hard work before the job can be fully and well done.


Readings on Liu Xiaobo and Xu Zhiyong

News came today that legal scholar Xu Zhiyong was formally arrested last week, though he has not yet been charged, according to his lawyer (see recent China Beat posts on Xu Zhiyong here and here). Xu is one of several detainees whom netizens are seeking to free through a postcard campaign; another is Charter ’08 organizer Liu Xiaobo, who has been in custody since last December. Here are several readings related to Liu, and one on Xu, that have caught our attention:

1. Before Charter ’08, Liu Xiaobo was already well-known as a participant in the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations. His essay on “That Holy Word, ‘Revolution’” is posted on the website of the Tiananmen documentary Gate of Heavenly Peace. In June 2006, Liu reflected on the 17 years that had passed since the 1989 movement, expressing his dissatisfaction with “China’s Tiananmen Paranoia,” but also speaking of his hopes for the future.

2. In that essay, Liu Xiaobo briefly mentions the changes to China’s activist landscape brought by the internet. This topic is the focus of another 2006 piece by Liu, re-posted last April by the Times (UK), in which he calls the internet “God’s present to China.” While in past years Liu and his colleagues wrote essays by hand, collected petition signatures one-by-one, and bicycled great distances to find fax machines they could safely use, the introduction of new technology has completely changed their work since the late 1990s:
The internet has made it easier to obtain information, contact the outside world and submit articles to overseas media. It is like a super-engine that makes my writing spring out of a well. The internet is an information channel that the Chinese dictators cannot fully censor, allowing people to speak and communicate, and it offers a platform for spontaneous organisation.

3. During the months before last summer’s Olympic Games, quite a bit of attention was focused on the possibility of the Games having a liberalizing effect in China (Der Spiegel ran an interview with Liu on this topic). In the year since the Olympics ended, however, events like the arrests of Liu Xiaobo and Xu Zhiyong have led observers to conclude that the Games left no such legacy. "The Olympics were a delightful event with no direct, meaningful impact on altering the way China is run or where it might be heading," states scholar Russell Leigh Moses in an article run by the Ottawa Citizen.

4. Quoted in that same Ottawa Citizen article is Phelim Kine of Human Rights Watch, who authored “Free Liu Xiaobo,” at the Far Eastern Economic Review. Kine outlines the story behind Liu’s arrest, then asks
Why should Mr. Liu be charged for actions the Chinese government periodically insists are within the boundaries of the law? After all, Charter ’08’s affirmation that “freedom, equality, and human rights are universal values of humankind and that democracy and constitutional government is the fundamental framework for protecting these values” echoes the Chinese government’s own human-rights rhetoric. China’s Constitution guarantees the freedoms of expression, assembly, and religion, and states that, “The state respects and preserves human rights.”  And on April 13, 2009, the Chinese government issued its first ever National Human Rights Action Plan which states that “The Chinese government unswervingly pushes forward the cause of human rights in China.”

So why does Mr. Liu’s reality stand in such stark contrast to the government’s rhetoric?  Because he and Charter ’08 by their very existence make that contrast painfully clear, and in doing so thoughtfully and peacefully challenge the legitimacy of the ruling Chinese Communist Party. The document demonstrates that at least a wide cross section of the intelligentsia the government had long assumed it had bought, bullied or bludgeoned into submission is questioning the trade-off of economic development at the expense of fundamental human rights. Consciously modeled on Charter ’77, a document issued in 1977 by dissidents in the then-Czechoslovakia, Charter ’08 declares that the status quo is unacceptable and unsustainable.

5. Elizabeth Lynch of chinalawandpolicy.com published a piece at The Huffington Post yesterday on “Xu Zhiyong and What His Detention Means for Rule of Law in China.” Lynch argues that recent moves by the Chinese government against public interest lawyers are not simply due to a desire to control dissent before the PRC’s 60th anniversary celebration this October. Rather, Lynch states,
all of these actions paint the picture of a government that has become increasingly more alarmed by a more vocal and organized group of lawyers. The government, and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) which ultimately controls all governmental bodies, has begun to view the development of these non-profit lawyers and legal reform as a threat to its authority and to the one-party rule of the CCP. Recent governmental assaults on the public interest law field are not just a one-off affair. Rather, they show a CCP not looking to embrace the "rule of law," but instead seeking to contain it.

Lynch discusses Xu’s arrest in the context of the Chinese government’s increasingly conservative legal ideology, and comments on the difficulty of establishing rule of law in such an environment:
In recent months, Chinese public interest lawyers have been effectively organizing themselves, especially through the internet, to challenge the current system. However, these lawyers are far from what the rest of the world would deem radical. They are merely using the laws passed by the National People's Congress to protect people, especially those in disadvantaged groups like rural parents in Sichuan or people with AIDS. They are not looking to overturn underlying constitutional principles; they just want to enforce the law as written.

Even though these lawyers work within the system to improve Chinese society in a way that the law permits, as soon as they amass sufficient numbers, in the minds of the CCP, they are no longer operating within the legal system, but within the political one. In these situations, the CCP will abandon the legal system in favor of the political one.



There are several recent pieces on China's internet controls that are worth reading if you haven't already looked at them. First, "How China Polices the Internet" at Financial Times, gives an interesting account of what David Bandurski has called China's "Control 2.0," an increasingly adept deployment of online discourse on behalf (rather than at the expense) of the government. After vigorous online debate emerged over a Yunanese man's suspicious death while in police custody, officials did not just cut off discussion:
Wu Hao, deputy propaganda chief for the area, put out an online appeal for “netizens” to help investigate the case. Within hours, thousands had signed up. Wu picked a group of 15, among them some of the bloggers who had been most vocal in attacking the police’s behaviour and in fuelling the debate. He invited them to tour the Jinning detention facility and be briefed by the wardens. State media outlets ran stories about the bloggers entering through the heavy metal door that had banged shut behind Li three weeks earlier.

And while the blogger investigation committee couldn’t do much real investigating – its members were refused access to surveillance camera footage and to key witnesses – the stunt proved a coup for Wu. The bloggers released a report concluding that they knew too little to give a proper assessment of what had happened, while provincial prosecutors announced that Li had not died from playing blind man’s bluff but had been beaten to death by another prisoner. Soon, the debate died down.
For more on this topic, see David Bandurski's recent piece on government control of the internet, "Are China's Leaders Becoming More Responsive?", at China Media Project. Those who were not reading China Beat last summer may enjoy the tongue-in-cheek piece Bandurski published here in July 2008, "Things We'd Rather You Not Say on the Web, Or Anywhere Else":
We must not forget – and this begins with not remembering – how Zhao Ziyang said on May 6, 1989, in the midst of popular demonstrations, that propaganda leaders should “open things up just a bit.” “There is no big danger in that,” he said. His words were careless, and the end result was chaos. Nobody wants chaos. Just try to picture what it does to GDP.

Comrade Zhao, you see, failed to understand the real power of words. He failed to understand that the Party and the masses must not be too profligate with them if they are to “do the great work of socialism with Chinese characteristics.” That is why the Party had to step in afterwards to reorder your words and ideas. We have our own word for this: “guidance of public opinion.” Say it with me: “guidance of public opinion.”

Good. Now, dear citizens, I think it is best to instruct you with a couple of examples of what I mean about words. This way you will understand how to use them with responsibility and care, correctly upholding – say it with me – “GUIDANCE of PUBLIC OPINION.” Right. I hope these examples will help you remember how to forget the right things.
At her blog (now cleverly titled "Records of a Grad Historian"), Gina Anne Russo writes about what it is like to be a foreign woman in China:
I think my awareness of how most Chinese people see me comes to discussions about Sex and the City. I won't deny that I love that show, but the dangers of exporting such a liberal hyperbole of American male/female relationships became clear to me when Chinese girls began telling me that life in America is very "kaifang" or "open," just like Sex and the City. Statements about this show often are accompanied by a look of both interest and disdain; most Chinese girls admire the independence and openness with which American women can live their lives, but also consider them to be a bit too morally degenerate, which is why Chinese society is better. At first, I found these statements funny, but this quickly became something that made me incredibly angry and defensive. As a woman who is quite proud of my independence and my personal choices, I hated being pigeonholed into this "morally degenerate" category. But it seemed like a losing battle; for everyone I told that this was not the case for even most American woman, 10 other Chinese people would continue to have this same stereotype. Over time, I came to hate that show and the way it represented white American women...

And this stereotype was furthered by advertisements found all over Shanghai ... Almost all advertisements about lingerie or sexy clothing had white women; advertisements showing good wives or girlfriends in cutesy scenarios were more often than not Chinese. One particular advertisement made me feel naseous; it showed a man and a woman on top of each other, and he is about to touch in her in a way that should be R rated, and not all over the subway (meanwhile, of course, she is all bust). I thought about how the Chinese would react if that girl were not blonde, but instead Zhang Ziyi or some other Chinese star; it would have looked completely out of place. I actually wrote about this when I was writing my thesis last year, as photos in women's magazines from the 1930s had similar patterns of putting white women in more liberal situations. What I argued (and would argue still) is that this allowed the Chinese population to live vicariously in this liberal, modern society without feeling to threatened by too MUCH moral openness. In a sense, they enjoyed the idea of the liberalism, but also wanted to maintain their own standards of morality and culture, and by seeing white women act this way, their own ideas about morality weren't under threat. ...

John Pasden, who keeps the blog "Sinosplice" and also works at ChinesePod, tries an experiment with the Google translator at "Translation Party" (an enormously diverting website, particularly given, as Pasden notes, the simplicity of its concept). Here is the image Pasden shares at his website (see the original at his Flickr page):


Fell Rains

The people of southern Taiwan are suffering the ravages of the worst flooding to hit the island in 50 years. This tragedy was brought about by Typhoon Morakot, which combined with a tropical depression near the Philippines to produce a blob of tropical moisture nearly 1,000 kilometers in diameter that dumped between 6-7 FEET of rain on Taiwan's southern regions from August 7-9, 2009, with the most severe rainfall occurring on August 8 (Taiwanese Father's Day or 八八(爸爸)節). The resulting floodwaters and mudslides have toppled buildings and buried entire villages. Current casualty figures stand at 103 dead and 45 injured, with hundreds of other people unaccounted for (some reports claim that the authorities have begun to acquire 2,000 body bags). Thousands of other people are homeless.

The areas that have been worst affected encompass the mountains of Nantou, Chiayi, Tainan, Kaohsiung, and Pingtung counties, including many villages that my research assistants and I visited while doing fieldwork for my book about the Ta-pa-ni Incident. Their inhabitants are in many ways least prepared to cope with a disaster of this magnitude. Most are poor or lower middle class wage earners, entrepreneurs and agriculturists, who struggle to scrape out a living from cash crops like bananas, betel nuts, and taro, most of which have been destroyed. Others have profited from the tourism industry, especially hot springs hotels, but these have been washed away. They are also an ethnically diverse group, including numerous Hoklo descendents of migrants from Fujian, but also sizeable percentages of Hakka, Plains Aborigines, and Mountain Aborigines. Through the years, these men and women have struggled to overcome the ravages of natural and man-made calamities, and I have never ceased to be amazed by the inner strength they have shown in coping with intense adversity, as well as their willingness to move forward despite the odds against them.

Now those fortunate enough to survive face the prospect of trying to recover after having lost everything. Unlike an earthquake, where people can salvage items that have not been crushed under the rubble, personal possessions that have been drenched in water or mud are utterly unusable. In addition, the flooding has wiped out crops and decimated livestock, with the fouled waters posing the very real risk of sparking outbreaks of contagious diseases. The government is doing its best, but faces the usual problems of inefficiency and competing political agendas. The afflicted regions have the additional misfortune of being in the south, which has long been neglected when it comes time to distribute flood control funds (this represents a longer-term problem of favoring the north over the south or 重北輕南). After Typhoon Nari ravaged northern Taiwan in 2001, for example, effective flood control measures were enacted; the same cannot be said for the south, which has suffered disastrous flooding for years with no sign of relief. It probably does not help that this region is the DPP's last remaining stronghold.

One consolation is that the devastation is bringing out the best in many of Taiwan's citizens. One leading humanitarian group at the forefront of the relief effort is World Vision Taiwan, while the unstinting efforts of Buddhist and Christian groups are especially striking. For example, the Buddhist Compassion Relief Merit Society (Fojiao Ciji gongdehui 佛教慈濟功德會) has mobilized 15,000 volunteers, while Buddha Light Mountain (Foguangshan 佛光山) and Dharma Drum Mountain (Fagushan 法鼓山) are raising funds and performing Buddhist services (法會). Members of the Presbyterian Church of Taiwan (台灣基督長老教會) are also busy organizing relief efforts at the local level.

Perhaps even more impressive are the efforts of Taiwan's vibrant Internet community. One group of Netizens has put together a website providing updates about damage and casualties, with visitors being able to post messages about missing persons or ask for assistance. There is also a section for donations. A second website contains similar information, but also uses Google Map to help users locate communities in need. Leading citizens are also stepping forward, including the island's most renowned artists and athletes. Yankee pitcher Wang Chien-ming, who comes from Tainan, has made a donation of NT$2.6 million, while players from Taiwan’s own baseball league (the CPBL), many of whom are southerners, have been active in fund-raising efforts as well.

More is needed. While the disaster has received extensive international news coverage, it will soon begin to fade from memory, while the long and hard recovery is expected to take years. News articles posted on the Taiwan's news websites list many websites and post office accounts where donors can make contributions. At present, food, clean water, and medical supplies are of the utmost urgency, but the needs of disaster victims will change as time goes on. Let us do what we can, and do our best.

China’s Migrant Workers in the Wake of the Economic Crisis: Unemployed, Undeterred

By Robert D. O’Brien

After growing at double-digit rates for most of the last three decades, the Chinese economy is now in jeopardy of failing to achieve the eight percent GDP expansion benchmark widely considered necessary for the government to stave off social unrest. Although a fairly insulated and underdeveloped financial market allowed the PRC to avoid the first order effects of the global financial crisis, the drying up of China’s main export markets – the U.S., Europe, and Japan – has wreaked havoc on the manufacturing sector, leading to the unemployment of over 20 million migrant workers.

In the wake of the recent mass layoffs, there has been rampant speculation over the possible ramifications of such widespread unemployment for political stability. A multitude of scholars and journalists have written of a migrant class on the edge of revolt – jobless, landless, and growing increasingly desperate.[1] Relatively small, largely localized “mass incidents” (quntixing shijian) – 300 aggrieved migrant workers rioted in Guangdong, 1,000 commenced a march on Beijing from Hebei, and one man blew himself up in a northwest China government office – are widely cited as indicators of future unrest, possibly on a grander scale.[2] A careful analysis of the situation, however, leads one to question the soundness of any claims predicting an impending political crisis. Indeed, an examination of several critical factors, namely the ability of laid-off migrants to meet their basic needs, their reactions to getting laid off, their capacity to organize on a large-scale, and the government’s response to the crisis, all show that it is highly unlikely that Chinese political stability will be seriously threatened by the country’s migrant worker class.

The Vast Majority of China’s Migrant Workers Can Meet Their Basic Needs

Western observers often view the plight of unemployed Chinese migrant workers in stark terms. The prevailing sentiment seems to be that laid-off migrants face many of the same challenges as recently unemployed workers in America – no source of income and no savings with bills to pay and debts accrued. Such a bleak outlook only worsens in severity when the weakness of China’s social safety net is taken into consideration. The combination of the two, unemployment and China’s weak social welfare system, leave many believing that the PRC’s jobless migrant workers have no means of subsistence. This, however, is rarely the case.

While Chinese migrants may lose a significant source of income when laid-off, they are seldom left without a way to meet their needs. A high personal savings rate combined with the difficulty of procuring personal bank loans ensures that most unemployed migrant workers have both accumulated some capital and avoided significant debt. More importantly, they possess land, a dynamic and stable asset. The vast majority of Chinese migrant laborers are either the children of farmers or former farmers themselves. Though some have lost their plots to commercial development, corrupt officials, or environmental degradation, most still have land that they can farm when they lose their jobs in the city. A recent nationwide household survey conducted by the Chinese Bureau of Statistics confirms as much, finding that among unemployed migrants, only 6.6 percent do not have any farmland.[3] When coupled with any savings and a lack of debt, this land provides migrants with a means of subsistence in the face of unemployment.

Given the Chinese government’s historic propensity to skew certain numbers – unemployment figures, cases of social unrest, etc. – in order to make the country’s condition seem better than it actually is, there will doubtless be many who question the reliability of the Chinese Bureau of Statistics’ survey results. While there is no way to independently confirm the findings’ accuracy, the figures are lent credence by current Chinese governmental policy. In the wake of the recent mass lay-offs, the CCP has been “offering numerous subsidies for workers willing to leave the cities and go to rural areas.”[4] Some believe that the government’s belief that a disaggregated migrant population is less likely to engage in social unrest has guided it in devising such incentives for migrant laborers to return home. As scholar Ray Yep points out in a recent Brookings commentary, though, relations between migrant workers and local level officials are growing increasingly volatile, rendering this motive for the subsidies improbable.[5] It is more likely the case that the distribution of such subsidies indicates the Chinese government’s confidence that, as the survey results indicate, migrant laborers can meet their needs in the countryside. If the Bureau of Statistics numbers are indeed inaccurate, then they are fooling not only the outside world, but also China’s own government officials, a highly unlikely scenario.

Migrant Workers are Looking to Find Jobs, Not Start a Revolution

In recent months, numerous notable periodicals have published articles suggesting that mass lay-offs have led to a widespread sentiment of anger and frustration among China’s migrant workers. One prominent example can be found in the Washington Post’s “In China, Despair Mounting Among Migrant Workers,” which quoted one migrant laborer as saying “this is an unfair society” and noted that, as a whole, China’s migrant workers “are becoming desperate.”[6] There are undoubtedly some migrants who feel this way. Anecdotal evidence, however, along with a thorough understanding of the nature of migrant work reveals a migrant class whose sentiments are far from revolutionary.

As a Fulbright Scholar conducting researching in China this past year, I have interviewed numerous unemployed migrants living in areas such as Beijing, Shanghai, Guangdong, Suzhou, Nanchang, and rural Henan. Such interviews are striking in that they feature relatively few expressions of anger and desperation. On the contrary, the sentiments most frequently shared by the migrant workers are that a) the government is working to aid China’s migrants and fix the economy, and b) that the downturn will not last long. Though this collection of reactions does not represent empirical evidence demonstrating that no migrant workers are enraged by their plight, it does speak to both the widespread nature of these benign sentiments and the importance of understanding the nature of job loss in the migrant worker’s world.

Migrant work is, by nature, both transitory and nomadic. The disappearance and reappearance of jobs is part of the migrant worker’s reality; one that rarely has a conspicuous underlying logic. While many migrant workers understand that the root of their latest job loss is the economic crisis, their reaction to being laid-off is not changed by the cause of their unemployment. In some extreme cases where corruption and/or fraud led to significant personal financial loss, migrants have engaged in small-scale, short-lived incidents of social unrest. The vast majority, however, have responded to their status as unemployed laborers by finding their bearings in the new economic climate and beginning to search for new work. For the migrant masses, their focus lies neither on their agitation in the wake of the mass-layoffs nor on how the government may have failed to protect them from the effects of the economic crisis. Rather, their efforts are zeroed in on finding a new job, just as they always are when work arrangements fall through.

Migrants Cannot Organize to Incite Large-Scale Unrest

Even if there did exist a widespread sense of anger and frustration among China’s laid-off migrant workers, they are impotent to incite large-scale social unrest. In this regard, they are constrained by both their inability to organize themselves and the fact that no outside group can help them in the organization process.

The geographic distribution of migrant workers alone makes it difficult for them to organize in a way that could lead to collective political action. The waves of workers who returned home this last winter are now disparately located and unlikely to aggregate. Meanwhile, in the cities, where there remains a critical mass of migrant workers, the police and other public security officials are on high alert for potential social unrest, making organization a near impossibility.

Outside forces are also unable to organize the migrant class. In recent years, China has witnessed the proliferation of non-governmental organizations designed to aid and support its migrant workers. These members of China’s adolescent civil society, however, recognize the fragile nature of their existence in the authoritarian PRC. Thus, in an effort to steer clear of any activities that could lead the state to shut them down, they focus on politically innocuous issues such as education and healthcare, staying away from potentially dangerous tasks such as organizing workers and fostering political consciousness among them.

The Chinese Government’s Response to Migrant Unemployment

The above analysis assumes that the government is a passive actor in this situation; that it is not implementing policies to address migrants’ needs. The Chinese government, however, has been anything but passive in responding to the employment crisis. With the central authorities loudly announcing the need for programs to aid jobless migrants, provincial and local governments have launched numerous initiatives designed to ameliorate the concerns of the migrant laborers. Though such aid has come in several different forms, vocational training and entrepreneurship are the two most prominent, both having been endorsed by the powers that be as panaceas to the problem of mass unemployment.

In recent months, Xinhua has repeatedly published articles lauding the importance of vocational education. The titles speak for themselves: “Skills Training Key to Future for China’s Jobless Migrants,” “Vocational Education to Help Laid-off Chinese Workers Find Jobs,” and “Skill Training: A Way to Bail Out Migrant Workers.” The National Development and Reform Commission has followed suit, announcing that a “special program” will be created to increase vocational training for migrant workers in 2009 and 2010.[7] For its part, the Ministry of Education made such promises a little more concrete, stating that vocational schools would enroll 8.6 million new students this year, 500,000 more than in 2008.[8] With the central government leading the push to educate migrants in vocational schools, several provinces have pledged to expand their training institutes. Sichuan has made $11 million in training vouchers available, Guangxi has allocated $35 million to the cause of providing free training to migrant workers, and Anhui has promised to educate at least 50,000 migrant workers this year.[9]

Entrepreneurship, too, has been championed as a solution to migrant woes. The government’s belief that laid-off workers are returning home with practical experience, skills, and capital drives their efforts to convert unemployed migrants into entrepreneurs. In articles such as “Migrant Workers Try Hand at Entrepreneurship in Hometowns,” the state-controlled media celebrates migrants-turned-entrepreneurs, encourages more migrants to make the switch, and calls for local governments to support migrants in such endeavors. Several provinces have rallied to the central government’s battle cry, initiating programs aimed at inspiring migrant workers to consider starting their own enterprises. Henan has pledged $220 million in small loans for peasants to start small businesses. In the same vein, Hunan and Shandong have promised that farmers who start businesses will enjoy tax or fee exemptions for three years.[10]

Though vocational training and entrepreneurship have dominated government efforts to aid migrant workers, some less orthodox methods are also being implemented. At the national level, China Education Television is opening a new channel to offer vocational training and educational services to the masses, with some segments designed explicitly for migrant laborers. Locally, one Zhejiang county is subsidizing migrants’ purchases of tea processing machines and teaching them how to grow tea leaves, while a Jiangxi county is encouraging unemployed migrants to turn to forestry by giving out free tree seeds.[11]

Should these proactive policies not mollify the aggrieved migrant workers, China is counting on its security forces to quell any potential uprisings. In late February, more than 3,000 public security directors gathered in Beijing to “learn how to neutralize rallies and strikes before they blossom into so-called mass incidents.”[12] In addition, several prominent Chinese publications, including Outlook (liaowang), a weekly newsmagazine put out by Xinhua, have warned officials to be prepared to combat social unrest.

On their own, government efforts to aid migrants and stave off social unrest would likely be sufficient to ensure political stability in the PRC. When combined with the ability of migrants to meet their basic needs, their general lack of angst and desperation, and their inability to organize in any meaningful way, the CCP’s handling of the situation renders the prospect of China’s migrant laborers seriously threatening social stability extremely remote.

China’s Migrant Workers Will Inspire, Not Challenge, Future Development

China’s migrant laborers have been the heroes of their country’s long drive toward modernization and will play an integral role in any future development. As a result, any assessments of the PRC’s economic and political trajectory must include an evaluation of the dynamics of China’s migrant labor class. Incomplete examinations of the welfare, sentiments, and abilities of China’s migrants have led many to conclude that they may derail their country’s march forward. A more thorough examination, however, indicates otherwise.

Though China’s migrant workers have undoubtedly been hit hard by the global economic crisis, they seem poised to trudge through their hardships rather than incite large-scale social unrest. The challenges posed by the economic downturn may have left them momentarily wounded, but they appear undeterred in their quest for ever-greater prosperity.

Robert D. O’Brien is a graduate of George Washington University and a current Fulbright Scholar in the People’s Republic of China.

[1] Ray Yep. “Economic Downturn and Instability in China: Time for Political Reform?” Brookings Northeast Asia Commentary, No. 28. April 2009; Austin Ramzy. “Migrant Workers Suddenly Idle in China.” Time Magazine. February 1, 2009; Ariana Cha. “In China, Despair Mounting Among Migrant Workers: Millions Are Without Jobs, Options.” Washington Post. March 4, 2009.
[2] Lu Yanan. “As Job Losses Bite, Unrest Grows in China Province.” Xinhua. February 25, 2009.
“Over 1,000 Workers March on Beijing in Protest Over Job Losses.” Channel News Asia. April 4, 2009.
Peter Foster. “Chinese Worker Blows Himself Up Over Unpaid Wages Claim.” The Telegraph – U.K. April 3, 2009.
[3] “2008 Year End Survey of Migrant Workers.” Chinese Bureau of Statistics. March 25, 2009.
[4] Ramzy, “Migrant Workers Suddenly Idle,” Feb. 1, 2009.
[5] Yep, “Economic Downturn and Instability in China.”
[6] Cha, “In China, Despair Mounting Among Migrant Workers,” March 4, 2009.
[7] Fang Yang. “Government-aided Job Training Helps Migrants Find Work.” Xinhua. February 27, 2009.
[8] “Vocational Education to Help Laid-off Chinese Workers Find Jobs.” Xinhua. March 12, 2009.
[9] Calum MacLeod. “Return of Jobless Strains China.” USA Today. February 16, 2009.
“Skills Training Key to Future for China’s Jobless Migrants.” Xinhua. March 13, 2009.
Lu Yanan. “Migrants’ Mass Return Tests China’s Rural Administrators.” Xinhua. March 5, 2009.
[10] “Hard Road for Chinese Migrants to Start Businesses.” Xinhua. March 31, 2009.
[11] Lu Yanan. “China Launches Satellite TV Channel to Train Students, Teachers and Migrant Workers.” Xinhua. February 25, 2009.
Liu Fang. “Local Governments Help Migrant Workers Find Jobs.” CCTV. March 31, 2009.
[12] Andrew Jacobs. “China Fears Tremors as Jobs Vanish From Coast.” New York Times. February 22, 2009.


Rolling the Dice in Macau

It has been almost a decade now since China regained control of Macau, but the city’s present and future crops up in news coverage much less than Hong Kong, another reclaimed colony. We’re delighted, then, to be able to run this piece about Macau from someone who has been spending time there, meditating on not only whether or not Macau is democratizing but also how Macau’s relationship to the mainland and the world is changing its economy and society. For those interested in background information on Macau, see the reading list that follows the piece.

By Dustin Wright

Sitting in a hip dessert shop recently, I asked three University of Macau undergraduates, all Macau natives, what they thought about Macau’s new Chief Executive-elect, Fernando Chui. He is only the second person to hold the post since the Portuguese handover in 1999.

“I don’t really think about it,” one told me. “Young people here don’t really think about who is in the government.” The two others nodded in agreement. “Connections are the most important thing to succeed in Macau. Anyone here who is rich was born rich.”

Such apathy can be understood, given that Chui’s appointment as the new head of Macau was decided by a 300-member “election committee” comprised of the city’s elite, many of whom have strong ties to PRC officials. Chui, the former Secretary of Social Affairs and Culture and holder of college degrees from the United States, including a PhD in Public Health from the University of Oklahoma, will be officially sworn in this December. The victory of his unopposed election was a foregone conclusion, emphasized by the fact that The Macau Daily lead with a headline declaring Chui’s victory before the vote actually took place. An online poll at the English language MacauNews.com showed that 44 percent of respondents felt that Chui’s top priority should be combating public corruption, while only 2.3 percent stressed the importance for political reforms. This strong displeasure towards corruption was likely exacerbated by a recent high-profile case involving a former official in Macau, now serving 28 years in prison.

However, not everyone is apathetic toward the election process. On election day, pro-democracy legislators unveiled banners and staged a protest in front of the iconic façade of St. Paul’s ruins, calling for universal suffrage by 2019. The rally hinted at the fact that political (and economic) disparities are just as Macanese as Portuguese egg tarts.

As with the changing of the guard in the Chief Executive’s office, the gaming sector might also be in a state of transition. For nearly four decades, the casino industry has been heavily influenced by one man, the philoprogenitive Stanley Ho, whose failing health has raised speculation as to who will make up (and benefit from) Macau’s next generation of corporatists.

All of this begs the question: What is the Macau that Chui will soon be running?

Macau Special Administrative Region (SAR) is a city of variations, scattered with amalgamations, and permeated with assimilations. Since the sixteenth century, Macau’s seemingly effortless blending of cultures has impressed and marveled those who visited and inhabited this Portuguese outpost on the Pearl River Delta. “Culturally,” writes Austin Coates, “there has never been anything like Macao, where so much of China and so much of Europe are enshrined in one small place.”[1] Wang Zeng Yang, President of the Cultural Institute of Macau, remarked that this is a city “where different cultures are treated not as mere rituals, but instead, as truly symbiotic, as totally complimentary,” and that “even tourists in Taiwan advise their friends if they wish to know Europe but do not want to take long trips, to visit Macau, to know how it feels to be in a European city.”[2] At a very cosmopolitan and Iberian dinnertime of 10:00 p.m., you might find yourself dining on stewed bacalhau (Portuguese salted fish) and African chicken. At the same restaurant the previous night, it was mapo tofu, steamed Chinese broccoli drowned in oyster sauce, and eggplant sautéed in oil and chilies, washed down with milk tea.

Just as identity and cuisine are in constant motion in Macau, so is the movement of capital. Since the handover of Macau back to Chinese rule a decade ago, and the relaxation of monopolistic gaming licenses in 2002, foreign casino operators have set up shop at a dizzying pace. Macau peninsula—along with the islands of Taipa and Coloane—makes up only 29 square kilometers and often goes unnoticed when compared to the larger Hong Kong SAR. However, in terms of generating wealth, size doesn’t matter: Las Vegas is 7.5 times bigger than Macau, yet more money is generated in the SAR than Sin City.

Climbing up the hill to Guia Fortress, one of the many historical sites that pepper the peninsula, one can see much of Macau spread out below. Looking south, the Sands Macao Hotel, which is responsible for fully two thirds of Las Vegas Sands Corp.’s profit, fights for elbow room with a bevy of Chinese and foreign-owned casinos. Large condominium complexes are still being built within sight, though at a slower pace than this time last year. Fisherman’s Wharf, a Disneylandesque amusement park built in the images of famous landmarks and cities, including a mock Coliseum, sits atop 111,500 square meters of concrete along the waterfront. Even Isidoro Francisco Guimarães, governor of Macau from 1851 to 1863 and the first to introduce licensed gambling, could hardly have imagined the garishness of the city today.

To the west, towards the central business district of Macau, one can see the immense and lotus-shaped Grand Lisboa rising from a sea of comparatively diminutive casinos, along with banks, shopping malls, pastel-colored cathedrals, and apartment blocks. Nearby, a towering needle, complete with a rotating restaurant and bar, confirms Macau’s ascension as a tourist haven. Wynn Macau is visible, a casino as much as a high-end shopping bonanza for tourists, most of whom come from mainland China. An American expat working in Macau told me about his experience watching a man, who was half-naked and sweating profusely, struggle to fit into a shirt while standing in the middle of Wynn’s Giorgio Armani store. I asked why the store personnel would allow such behavior, to which the expat, shocked by my ignorance, replied without pause, “Because he had money.” (When Henry Kissinger came to Macau a few months ago to speak at Macao Polytechnic University, his old friend, Steve Wynn, made sure to come to listen and, perhaps, comped the former Secretary of State’s room at the Wynn Macau.)

On a clear day you can catch a glimpse of a smattering of islands to the east, the largest of which is Lantau, part of Hong Kong SAR, while to the north is the city of Zhuhai, gateway to Guangdong Province and mainland China, visible from much of Macau. Travelling between the SARs and the mainland ensures one’s passport is stamped with the frequency of a pre-EU jaunt through Europe.

It’s a small city, yes, but the numbers are big. Macau’s population is roughly 560,000, nearly identical to that of Las Vegas. With such a small land area, Macau is one of the mostly densely populated places on earth. Government figures indicate that 23 million people visited Macau in 2008 and helped the city generate nearly $22 billion in GDP. With so many visitors spending so much money, Macau is a city that truly never sleeps.

The massive expansion of Macau’s gaming industry dovetailed with the global real estate gorge of the last decade, giving way to a bevy of expensive condominium projects, followed by the subsequent drop in market prices late last year. In Senado Square, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a lodestone for tourists, the young professionals who bought many of those condos bark into Blackberries and loosen their European-brand ties, while tourist families vie for space to take their portraits in front of the picturesque St. Dominic’s Church. Macau’s overall standard of living is quite high, with a quality-of-life index comparable to Singapore, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.

However, even with the huge influx of capital (or because of it), economic inequality is prevalent. Not far away from Senado Square, in an area known as Fátima Parish, lies a rusted and mosquito-infested slum, where elderly women can be seen washing dishes at a communal spigot. It isn’t a unique example of poverty in greater China, but it’s proximity to the corporatist wealth of the casinos makes the disparity all the more egregious. Inoperable cars sit on blocks as they are slowly parted out, while above, a messy labyrinth of wires indicates that much of electricity that people can access in this area is pirated. It is a squatter community of mostly mainland Chinese immigrants, some of whom entered Macau illegally but were later granted legal status. Until 1979, Chinese mainlanders could enter Macau without restriction, though it was illegal for them to do so under PRC law. Portuguese administrators tacitly endorsed the immigration of Chinese mainlanders, eager to have a ready supply of cheap labor that could be easily repatriated once their labor had been exploited.

Fatima Parish. Photo by Erica Hashiba.

The size of the slum has been halved since 1991, mostly through government campaigns to tear down the shacks and build high-rise housing and commercial buildings, evicting many of the squatters once their labor had been utilized to build the more expensive new real estate. Today, these towers loom over the shacks of corrugated tin that remain. Even though the slum is physically smaller and stronger immigration laws have made it more difficult for mainlanders to come to Macau, squatters are just as essential for today’s labor demands as they were twenty years ago. Sociologist D.Y. Yuan, a longtime researcher of Macau’s immigrant community, writes that, “Squatters have continuously provided a cheap source of labor, helping Macau to remain competitive in the international trade market.”[3] Last year’s census indicates that there was an increase of 8.2 percent in the number of “non-resident workers,” making up a population of over 92,000, many of whom have less than a junior high school education. Most of these workers are not salaried staff in the casinos (jobs which can require expensive training) but are instead employed in construction and more vulnerable to the global recession. When the economic crisis hit last fall, many ambitious building projects were shuttered and thousands in the construction industry lost their jobs.

For those lucky enough to have kept their jobs in the casinos, gaming is still profitable, even though the number of tourists has decreased (due in part to travel restrictions by Beijing and the curtailing of gambling by PRC officials). Direct gaming tax revenue doubled from 2006 to 2008 to nearly $5 billion and many of the Macau government’s 20,000 employees can expect a pay raise this year. For the slums in Fátima Parish, things will likely remain the same.

The hotel Lan Kwai Fong. Photo by Erica Hashiba.

It remains to be seen whether Chief Executive-elect Chui will be able to oversee the level of prosperity heralded during the last decade, or indeed whether Macau can remain a global gambling Mecca. For some, surely, things could be worse. Down the street from my apartment, I recently happened upon the opening party for a new hotel. On the street where I stood, looking rather pathetic with my mouth agape, throngs of people queued for admittance, while glittery VIP couples seemed to prance in slow motion as they made their way to the front of the line. Up above us, the silhouettes of a dozen voluptuous women—paid performers—gyrated in the windows of the new hotel. A powerful sound system blasted Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus” throughout the neighborhood, inviting all of Macau to find “someone to hear your prayers, someone who cares.”

This fall, Dustin Wright will begin his doctoral studies in the Department of History at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Recommended readings on Macau:

Lucky for us, Hong Kong University Press just republished many of Austin Coates’ informative and immensely enjoyable books on Macau: City of Broken Promises (fiction), A Macao Narrative, and Macao and the British: 1637-1842 Prelude to Hong Kong.

For a general background on Macau, check out Jonathan Porter’s Macau : The Imaginary City : Culture and Society, 1577 to Present (Westview Press, 1999).

Cathryn H. Clayton, Assistant Professor of Asian Studies at the University of Hawaii and a prominent scholar on Macau, has written the forthcoming Sovereignty at the Edge: Macau and the Question of Chineseness (Harvard University Press, 2009).

Atlantic correspondent James Fallows’ take on Macau.

César Guillén Nuñez, art historian and Research Fellow at the Macau-based Ricci Institute, recently wrote a wonderful book entitled, Macao's Church of Saint Paul: A Glimmer of the Baroque in China (Hong Kong University Press, 2009).

[1] Austin Coates, A Macau Narrative (Hong Kong: Heinemann Education Books [Asia] Ltd, 1978), p. 105.
Wang Zeng Yang, “Unveiling a Cultural Dialogue,” in Lucy M. Cohen and Iêda Siquera Wiarda (eds.), Macau: Cultural Dialogue Towards a New Millennium (USA: Xlibris Corporation, 2004), p. 17.
[3] D. Y. Yuan, Chinese Immigration and Emigration: A Population Study of Macau (University of Macau, 2000), p. 11.


On the Web: Images of China

China Beat readers looking for cool “new” desktop pictures for their computers might want to think old. More and more archives are digitalizing their collections of photographs and making them available online, so now finding that perfect snapshot of Old Beijing or the Great Wall couldn’t be easier. Here are just a couple of the many websites out there, and some sample photos that we found by searching for topics like “Shanghai” and “China.”

1. Friend of the blog Jeremy Friedlein (Program Director, CET Shanghai) pointed us to Life magazine photos available on Google Images. Adding “source:life” in the search box limits results to those photographs from the Life collection--a helpful hint, since searching for “Shanghai” in Google Images produces over 20 million results. In the much more manageable two hundred Life photos of Shanghai, there are plenty of street scenes, Bund panoramics, and rickshaw snapshots, as well as pictures showing the city in the last days of the civil war:

2. Jeremy also knows of our interest in the upcoming Shanghai World’s Fair, and turned our attention to more Life photos of World’s Fairs in the past:

3. The Library of Congress has a large online digital archive, which is an excellent source for photos of historic Beijing:

4. Finally, instead of looking to the past, why not imagine the future? This poster advertises a “Worlds’ Fair” to be held in Shanghai in 2474 (no, the placement of that apostrophe isn’t a typo). It doesn’t seem that the Pudong waterfront will change much, but we’re hoping that the Jetsons-style flying cars will reduce some of Shanghai’s traffic woes.


China Behind the Headlines: Xu Zhiyong

A few days ago we suggested readings about the disappearance of legal scholar and activist Xu Zhiyong in Beijing. There has been more news on the subject here and here. China Beat contributor Susan Jakes, who has known Xu since 2004, contributed the following comment.

By Susan Jakes

Earlier this year, a graduate of his country’s most prestigious law school with an impressive record of public service, a comfortable academic post at a major university, and a political office he’d won in a trailblazing election summarized his life’s mission for a local newspaper. “I strive to be a worthy citizen, a member of a group of people who promote the progress of the nation,” he told the reporter. “I want to make people believe in ideals and in justice and help them see that there is hope for change.”

Like a more well-known community organizer, Xu Zhiyong has made a career of breaching barriers and raising hopes. But, as we were reminded, painfully, last week, this kind of project looks different in the cavernous plazas and narrow lanes of Beijing than it does on the streets of Chicago. The victories are harder to see, the defeats loom larger.

In the week since Xu was detained at his apartment on July 29, much has been written about the reasons for his disappearance, what they may augur, how much worse things may get. Most stories have mentioned at least a few of Xu’s long list of achievements. But none has quite captured the remarkable breadth of his activities and the distinctive approach he brings to his work.

I’ve known Xu for five years. I met him in my capacity as a journalist and got to know him better through his work with my husband who works at Yale’s China Law Center. As was the case for many people in China, I first heard Xu’s name in June of 2003. A young graphic designer in Shenzhen named Sun Zhigang had been beaten to death in detention after being picked up by police for not carrying his household registration ID. In part because of Xu’s involvement, the case had become a national news event and I was covering the story for TIME. Others protested the brutality of the beating and the way the police had mishandled Sun’s arrest or complained about the notorious corruption of Custody and Repatriation, the system of extra-judicial jails for “vagrants” to which Sun had fallen prey.

But Xu, just 30 at the time, took a different tack. In addition to offering legal advice to Sun’s family, he and two of his law school classmates wrote a petition to the National People’s Congress, demanding that Custody and Repatriation be abolished on the grounds that it was unconstitutional. In a matter of weeks, China’s Sate Council ordered an end to Custody and Repatriation. And although none of the official statements made reference to Xu or to the constitution, the prospects for both seemed, momentarily, to brighten.

Xu’s advocacy in the Sun Zhigang case displayed what would become the hallmark of his career: the decision to base his calls for political change and social justice in China’s existing laws and political institutions. Rather than just shouting from the sidelines—the only available options for a previous generation of Chinese political critics—Xu has made a point of investigating and trying to improve troubled political institutions from the inside. This approach is evident in the way he handles his advocacy on behalf of death row inmates—Xu conducts exhaustive, Innocence Project-like interviews with prosecutors, witnesses and judges before he takes on the case. It’s evident in the research he put into his calls for reform of China’s petitioning system—he lived for several months among petitioners in their make-shift “village” on the outskirts of Beijing before circulating his findings. When Gongmeng—an outgrowth of the organization he founded along with Teng Biao and Yu Jiang, the other two legal scholars who co-wrote the Sun Zhigang petition—issues an opinion, it’s a safe bet that careful, thorough research has gone into it. This is part of what makes the group’s recent report on Tibet so powerful and so unusual.

Xu has a knack for seeing what’s possible where others see only futility. In 2003 and again in 2006 he ran as one of China’s handful of independent—that is, not CCP pre-approved—candidates in an election for his district People’s Congress. He not only won by a landslide, but in both of his terms in office has sought to prove through his actions—by providing constituent services, demanding budget reviews, preventing the relocation of the Beijing Zoo and lobbying on behalf of aggrieved dog owners—that the congress was not the parody of a political institution it sometimes seemed to be. “Actually,” he explained, “the People’s Congress has real power. It’s just that people don’t take it seriously.” I interviewed Xu shortly after his first election. When I asked him how he decided to run, he looked at me evenly for a moment before replying. “I ran,” he said, “because the law allows me to.”

Of course, Xu has never been naïve about the degree to which his work takes him into sensitive territory. Over the years following his election I tended to see or hear from Xu when things the law allowed him to do put him at odds with officials nominally in charge of law enforcement. In 2005 we had lunch together after his sojourn in the petitioners’ village. He’d been beaten repeatedly in the process, but he was in good spirits, talking about gradual change and talking with quiet conviction about his faith in “step by step progress.”

In 2006 we talked on the phone a few minutes after he’d been released from a night in detention that had also involved a beating; a group of hired thugs had dragged him off the road to keep him from going to court to defend Chen Guangcheng, a blind activist who himself had studied law and tried to use it to defend the rights of victims of forced abortion. Xu swiftly deflected my questions about his night in jail and reminded me that what he’d been through was nothing compared to the ordeal of his client, who was on his way to four years in jail after an absurd trail in which he was convicted of disrupting traffic.

Not everyone is cut out for this kind of work. But Xu, who happens to have been born in Minquan Xian—literally “Civil Rights County”—in Henan Province and was raised in a Christian family, has a temperament that suits the path he’s chosen. He has an impressive capacity for empathy. As he explained in a recent blog post, he feels “anguished” when he’s unable to help clients, but he channels those feelings into focused hard work. He is also—despite the Ph.D., the official title, the international reputation—self-effacing. When he lived in the petitioners’ village, he was often mistaken for a migrant. Mayling Birney, a political scientist and expert on local elections at Princeton who has followed Xu’s career remembers watching him sit down to talk to a group of peasants who’d traveled days to come to Beijing seeking legal aid. “His respect and humility were so clear I could just see these people’s spirits were fortified,” she recalls, “Xu is among the most talented and inspiring public servants I’ve ever met, and I say this having worked in the U.S. Senate for Bill Bradley.”

Xu’s mission was never going to be an easy one. But he’s been a brave and patriotic contributor to the progress China’s leaders say they embrace and he deserves far better than the attacks he’s had to endure in the past few weeks. He often closes his public speeches by telling people he’s an optimist, that the darkest aspects of life in China are brightening and that there’s good reason to jump into the fray, “to do something.” I believe him every time I hear him say that. And I’m hopeful he’ll be back to work making more people believe it very soon.