1. Yale Global
This site was founded and continues to be run by Nayan Chanda, whose credentials as a commentator on global issues are impeccable (born in India, educated in Paris, covered Vietnam as a journalist, and so on). But so, too, are his credentials as a China specialist, as he studied Sinology in France and worked in Hong Kong as editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review. So, not surprisingly, he has run some very good pieces on China, such as Anita Chan and Jon Unger’s insightful recent commentary on lead paint and toys.
Andrew Leonard tracks globalization for Salon on this site. He often turns his attention to China, generally focusing on its role in contemporary global flows. But here’s an example, particularly relevant for China Beat readers, in which he moves between the global past and the global present via the subject of porcelain.
3. Foreign Policy
This is the blog of a magazine devoted to international issues, which a few years ago underwent a dramatic redesign (becoming a jazzier looking periodical) and also began paying increased attention to the cultural as well as economic and political aspects of globalization. The magazine itself has done a lot on China (including a cover story, cleverly titled “Chairman Yao,” on the country’s most famous basketball player). For a sense of how the blog handles the PRC, here’s a piece on mining disaster.
4. The Globalist
A daily online publication devoted to globalization, The Globalist features pieces by many different kinds of area experts and people looking at worldwide trends. Here’s a useful rundown on international investment and China by its editors.
5. World Changing
World Changing: Change Your Thinking is a site that, to be honest, we’ve just become aware of, but some of its postings relating to China have caught our attention. With a heavier emphasis on technologies of communication and the environment than the other sites, it also has something unusual for a globalization blog—a regular contributor based in China. She’s a freelance writer named Mara Hvistendahl and here is one of her postings on Chinese environmental issues.
1) What was the most intriguing, amusing, inspiring, or eye-opening story that you have covered in China?
I think the favorite story I covered was about farmers in northern Shaanxi who were filing class-action lawsuits against the authorities for overtaxing them. I had been aware of Chinese class-action lawsuits, at least from the 1990s when I read about them in China Quarterly. But I never thought that they would be used in such a poor area and, to some degree, to such effect. This is a really poor part of the country and yet people were aware of their rights and had banded together to try to protect them. In one particular case I wrote about, the farmers succeeded in reversing illegal fees. In another they didn't, but overall I think that such lawsuits had an effect. The government has since repealed most of these fees and the situation has improved a lot.
I remember one thing in particular—the farmers didn't realize what their tax rate was supposed to be until they saw it on the television news. This showed the transformative power of electricity and mass communications, which essentially bypassed corrupt local officials. And of course the local people were extremely hospitable. I had never thought that a cave could be so comfortable.
2) If you could convince academics to do more work related to a topic in Chinese history or contemporary China, what might that be?
It's hard to think of a topic that academics haven't sliced and diced, but what I think would be an excellent service would be more accessible macro-histories of certain topics that our Bildungsbürgertum [educated middle-class] could read to learn about China.
This is an old gripe and one that many academics share. What bothers me is that it's often hard to recommend one book in a certain field because most academic books are too specialized. Journalist books, by contrast, are often too perishable or too banal. So I think there's a lack of books that serious, educated non-specialists can pick up and read on various topics. (To clarify, I don't mean a book on just China, but even on something more specific, such as Chinese economic reforms or Chinese politics.)
I've read a lot of great books recently by academics but few that I could recommend, say, to my father. That's because they are loaded with jargon and even coin words or dredge words out of the depths of the OED to describe what essentially are very ordinary phenomena. This is a pity because all that great work ends up hitting a tiny fraction of the population. Again, I don't see an easy answer to this given the reward structures in academia, but it's something worth considering.
3) Are there certain questions that you get all the time as a journalist covering China that just irritate you? In other words, are you commonly confronted with certain stereotypes or misconceptions about China which endure despite your multiple attempts to dismantle them?
Well, besides whether Chinese really eat dogs or whatever, I'm bothered by questions that reflect an overall lack of understanding. As a journalist, the most sobering experience I have is when friends come to China and are astounded at how China doesn't fit their expectations. I think this is due to our failure in the media to convey China accurately.
One example is migration. If you believe most journalistic coverage, migration is a disaster, with exploited peasant girls getting sucked into Dickensian factories, the only escape from which is suicide or prostitution. This happens, but the bigger and more accurate story is one of urbanization, wealth creation, and empowerment. Young people with no future on the farm are going to factory towns to work and save money, which they send home or use on themselves. It's not all Horatio Alger, but the dominant storyline of victimization is plain wrong.
The problem is that readers lack the ability to contextualize. If an American reads about an exploited worker in the U.S., he or she knows that this is atypical; most factory workers don’t work in brutal sweatshops. If they read about it in a foreign country, they often make a reverse assumption: that it is representative. This is a logical assumption because we want to know about what's the big picture in foreign countries; we don't want to waste our time reading about a bunch of exceptions. Who can figure out what's exceptional if we don't know what's typical?
Journalists, meanwhile, are conditioned to report on the exceptional. You put the two together and readers are often misinformed. They think China is a polluted gulag on the verge of collapse. But when readers come here, they sense the dynamism and wonder how they got it so wrong.
4) What is the most exciting or rewarding aspect of working as a foreign correspondent?
Being able to barge into people's lives and nose around.
5) What first drew you to China, and how has your job changed your life in ways that you never imagined when you first began?
I got interested in China for two reasons: one, my father worked for Swire (a big Hong Kong conglomerate that owns, among other things, Cathay Pacific airlines) and had made some trips to the company headquarters. I think that piqued my interest. Maybe because of that I signed up for Chinese as a lark—I certainly never intended to study it. I had attended the University of Florida because it was an affordable, local state school and had a good journalism program. The university had a language requirement and I didn't want to learn another western language (I grew up in Montreal, so had French as a second language). A teacher posted a note somewhere saying he was looking for students to fill out his beginning Chinese section and so I thought this would be fun for a year. The teacher (Chauncey Chu) was an incredibly gifted and enthusiastic teacher. I fell in love with the language and changed my major after the second semester, and later continued my studies in Taiwan and Germany. So I have an academic to thank (and a linguist at that) for my engagement with China.
For the past year, Taiwan has been in the throes of grappling with the legacy of former ROC President Chiang Kai-shek (1887-1975). One aspect has involved a "rectification of names" (zhengming 正名) campaign (for example, renaming CKS International Airport as Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport), which also includes affixing the word "Taiwan" to as many state organizations as possible (a case in point being Taiwan Post). At the same time, government officials and scholars have been striving to achieve some degree of transitional justice (zhuanxing zhengyi 轉型正義) by holding Chiang and other former ROC leaders accountable for human rights abuses, especially the death and imprisonment of thousands of Taiwanese during the 228 Incident of 1947.
The debate over these issues reached a crescendo last month, when the government renamed and redesigned the sacred space of the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall (now National Taiwan Democracy Memorial Hall), while also withdrawing funding and the military honor guard from the Cihhu Presidential Burial Palace (Cihu qinling 慈湖陵寢) in Daxi (Dasi 大溪) where both the elder Chiang and his son, former President Chiang Ching-kuo (1910-1988), had been temporarily laid to rest. Both of these sites are powerful symbols of the presence the Chiang's continue to exert over Taiwan. The mammoth Memorial Hall, modeled after the Sun Yat-sen Mausoleum in Nanjing yet also resembling an imperial palace, was constructed over a three and a half year period extending from 1976 to 1980, with the imposing bronze statue of Chiang weighing in as the fourth largest in the world. The Cihhu mausoleum was built on land originally belonging to the renowned Lin family of Banqiao (Panchiao 板橋), which was presented to the state in 1955 and used as a site for one of Chiang's residences since the summer of 1959.
Plans to rename the Memorial Hall were announced in May 2007, but the formal opening of the new site and the replacement of the renowned characters "Great Centrality and Perfect Uprightness" (dazhong zhizheng 大中至正) adorning the site's main gate with "Liberty Square" (Ziyou guangchang 自由廣場) did not take place until the end of the year. There had also been fears that Chiang's statue would be demolished or enclosed in an iron cage, but when the hall reopened on New Year's Day it was found to have been surrounded by kites and photographs commemorating Taiwan's arduous struggle towards democracy. Even these alterations caused considerable furor, especially after strongly worded statements in their favor by leading officials from the Ministry of Education and Government Information Office.
The government's decision to withdraw its support from the presidential mausoleum, which was made at the same time the Memorial Hall was being rectified, sparked a different set of rhetorical fireworks, especially when Chiang Fang Chih-yi 蔣方智怡 (Chiang Ching-kuo's third daughter-in-law) proposed having both Chiang's remains reburied in their native home of Fenghua 奉化, Zhejiang. President Chen Shuibian 陳水扁 immediately voiced his outrage, pointing out that the government had already spent NT$30 million (approx. US$925,000) in taxpayers' money to build permanent tombs for the former leaders at the Wuzhishan (Wuchishan 五指山) Military Cemetery in Xizhi (Hsi-chih 汐止; suburban Taipei). With elections for the Legislative Yuan fast approaching, the above issues became subjects of an increasingly acrimonious debate. One of the few voices of reason was none other than one of Chiang Kai-shek's descendents, Demos Chiang (蔣友柏), who posted thoughtful entries on his own blog pointing out that while his great-grandfather had been responsible for great suffering, he neither merited deification nor deserved demonization.
Now, with election fever (temporarily) subsiding, so has the controversy over the Chiang's legacy, although some have blamed the DPP's stunning defeat as being in part due to the clumsy way in which the government handled this issue. The transformation of the National Taiwan Democracy Memorial Hall is largely complete, although its website still features the hall's former abbreviation. The mausoleum is now being managed by the Taoyuan County Government, while a new park in Daxi has been built to hold hundreds of discarded statues of Chiang Kai-shek. The wounds caused during his rule remain, but many still regard him as a great leader, and there is even some nostalgia for the rule of his son. However, the question of how to come to grips with this facet of Taiwan's modern history remains unanswered. While archives have been opened and studies published, the past has been politicized by both the DPP and the KMT, and Taiwan's sole "Truth Commission" was created by the pan-Blue camp merely to investigate the shooting of Chen Shuibian and Lu Hsiu-lien 呂秀蓮 prior to the 2004 election. However, while both democracies and dictatorships attempt to manipulate the past to serve the present, Taiwan deserves credit for allowing such topics to be the subject of free and freewheeling discussion.
Best known for her 1997 book, Precious Records: Women in China’s Long Eighteenth Century, whose arguments rely on a more literal and textual analysis of elite women’s poetry, in this work Mann has taken a new direction. She provides a creative reading of the poems, essays, and letters that passed between seven women in three generations of the erudite and prestigious Zhang family of nineteenth-century Changzhou (a city located between Nanjing and Shanghai). The book is as smooth as a novel, but readers like me who trust Mann’s research know that she fills in the gaps with the talent and creativity of a historian-cum-sleuth, who first reads late Qing gynecological health manuals and then deduces that Tang Yaoqing’s aunt probably told her about the importance of women’s orgasm to conception (especially of a son!) in the weeks before her wedding.
Charting their lives through the Taiping Rebellion, Hundred Days’ Reforms, first Sino-Japanese War, and up to the eve of the Boxer Uprising, Mann shows that the oft-neglected “talented woman” (cainü) of late imperial China was a direct link to the much-celebrated “new woman,” despite Liang Qichao’s hyperbolic claim that these genteel ladies were late nineteenth-century China’s principal source of cultural backwardness and national shame. She therefore crafts a potent argument for cultural continuity across the empire-nation divide.
Harriet Evans is the celebrated author of Women and Sexuality in China: Female Sexuality and Gender since 1949 (1996), and the co-editor with Stephanie Evans of Picturing Power in the People’s Republic of China: Posters of the Cultural Revolution (1999). Some of the posters from the latter text are featured in an online exhibition, co-curated by Evans and China Beat's Jeff Wasserstrom.
Drawing on hundreds of personal interviews with urban women in contemporary China, Evans’ new book examines how the mother-daughter relationship has changed in response to the dramatic social, political, and economic changes in China over the past 50 years. With unspeakable candor, these women depict how their “uterine” relationships have alternately served as their principal means of support and their chief source of emotional turmoil. Yet despite differences in class, ethnicity, and personal experience, ultimately all the women relied on relationships with their mothers to make sense of their own gender identity in an era of rapid social change and increasing opportunities.
So why read these two books in tandem? What do the eighteenth-century cainü and the 1980s factory worker have in common? Well, a lot more than you might think. Despite sincere attempts to completely eradicate much of what might be simplistically labeled as “Chinese tradition” in the early twentieth-century New Culture Movement and the 1966 to 1976 Cultural Revolution, Mann and Evans show that contemporary Chinese “superwomen” (nü qiangren) are carrying on the legacy of their late imperial sisters, and that in so doing they rely on some degree of cultural continuity to make sense of their lives. And isn’t that the case for all of us?
Although time, space, and mother tongue separate us from the books’ subjects, Mann and Evans bring them right into your heart. Thanks to Evans for honing in on a much-neglected subject, and kudos to Mann for giving us a highly enjoyable read in a field that, sadly, is often chided for its unbearable dryness.
As anyone who has been to Beijing knows, there has been an almost obsessive focus on public hygiene in getting the city ready for the games. I could go on at length here about regulation of bodily functions, hygiene, and ideas of modernity and progress, but John Fitzgerald and Ruth Rogaski have already done that far better than I ever could. For those wishing a--slightly--less academic take on the subject, check out Danwei guest author Eric Mu's humorous essay "Beijng WC, Illustrated.
Also on Danwei this week, Joel Martinson translates an article first published in the China Youth Daily on the new telenovela Journey to the Northeast (闯关东). The story, which begins in the final years of the Qing Dynasty and ends with the Mukden Incident of 1931, centers on Zhu Kaishan, a poor farmer who migrates from Shandong to Manchuria where he finds success, owns land, and hires others to work the land for him. The twist? Zhu is a sympathetic character and is not portrayed as the stock 'evil landlord' figure of so many other historical dramas. Chinese blogger Ten Years Chopping Timber wonders at the contradiction, and Joel provides the excellent translation.
The China Blogosphere mourned this week with news that Xinhua mole and language polisher Chris O'Brien is leaving the news agency. Chris' weekly dispatches from inside the Chinese spin machine were a must-read for anyone interested in Chinese politics or the media. Hopefully, Chris will keep blogging, but his glimpses behind the Xinhua screen will be sorely missed. Daily Telegraph China Correspondent Richard Spencer gives his thoughts on Chris, other media moles, and the Beijing blogging scene.
Finally, David Bandurski of the China Media Project dishes the dirt on Guangdong Province's 'twin meetings' (People's Congress and People's Consultative Committee) last week. It goes to show that even the best scripted and choreographed of provincial political events can go pear-shaped when you least expect it.
Last year the International Olympic Committee (IOC) invited me to write an essay on the Beijing Olympics, and “The Beijing Effect” was published in the July-September 2006 issue of The Olympic Review. At the end of that essay I wrote, “China hopes that it will change the Olympic Games, but is the West really open to that possibility? Are we truly ready for ‘One World, One Dream’?” Since that article appeared in the official magazine of the IOC, it is not implausible that Beijing decided to answer my question. On August 8, 2007, Beijing marked the one-year countdown to the Games with the premier of what became a hit song and a slogan that one can see everywhere on TV advertisements and billboards: “We Are Ready,” 我们准备好了. Indeed, Beijing’s preparations exceed all previous Olympic Games in their scale and financial investment. Beijing is ready for us. But are we ready for Beijing?
I don’t think the outside world is ready to understand what it will see in August 2008. So I am doing my small part to get it there. My participation on The China Beat is one part of my effort. If you want to know more about me and my experience of China, take a look at the interview with me that was just posted by my fellow Fulbrighter in Beijing, Dan Beekman, who is “Blogging Beijing” on the homepage of the Seattle Times.
As one of the world’s few academic experts on Chinese sports, I am getting a lot of requests from journalists these days. And then there are my opinionated and sometimes politically-misguided family members in the U.S. (you know who you are), and my academic colleagues (thanks, Allen Guttmann). Since there are a few basic questions that get repeated over and over, I have started compiling my e-mail responses into Beijing Olympic FAQs. Below I give my answers to FAQ#1: Is it possible to keep politics out of the Beijing 2008 Olympics?
FAQ#1: Is it possible to keep politics out of the Beijing 2008 Olympics?
I get a little impatient with this naive question, "is it possible to keep politics out of the Olympics?" The Olympics have been intimately tied to national politics at least since the 1906 Intermediate Olympic Games in Athens. These were the first Olympic Games at which athletes marched into the stadium behind national flags and the three flags of the medalists were raised in the awards ceremony. To protest that Irish athletes had not been allowed to compete as a separate nation, the silver medalist in the triple jump, Peter O'Connor, climbed up the flagpole to wave the Irish flag in place of the British Union Jack that had been raised. [The first Olympics in Athens in 1896 were so well-supported by the Greeks that the IOC approved a Greek request to hold intermediate Olympic Games in the middle of the Olympiad. The 1906 Intermediate Games were the first and last because of political and economic instability in Greece.]
The reviver of the modern Olympics, Pierre de Coubertin, was a rather sophisticated thinker about the relationship between sports and politics, and always understood that politics were an integral part of the Olympic Movement. IOC presidents during the Cold War (Sigfrid Edstrøm, Avery Brundage, and Lord David Killanin) often tried to forbid people from "mixing sport and politics," but that was largely part of their effort to keep the political conflicts over which they had no control from disrupting the Olympic Games. It was never official IOC policy. And it is not today. The IOC’s only official stance on politics is contained in Fundamental Principle #5 of the Olympic Charter, which states, “Any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement.”
The Olympic Games have often functioned as an alternative to mainstream diplomatic channels. The IOC is a non-governmental organization, which therefore is able to function in the cracks between governments. And it is important for it to maintain that independent intermediate position, so its presidents and other leading thinkers have correctly understood that they must maintain political independence from national governments to the degree possible. This complex political reality was captured in sayings like "keep the politics out of sport," but in order to understand what this really means, you have to delve a little bit deeper and understand the global structure that underlies Olympic sport. I will get into that in my answer to FAQ#2.
So the answer is, no, it is not possible to keep politics out of the Olympics, and in fact their political role is what makes them important in today's world and in the quest for world peace. This is as true in 2008 as it was over 100 years ago.
Stay tuned for FAQ#2: Will calls for a boycott of the 2008 Olympic Games be successful?
1. Which of the following actresses studied Mandarin at Harvard and wrote a senior thesis on anti-African sentiment in the PRC?
a) Jodie Foster
b) Mira Sorvino
c) Nicole Kidman
d) Uma Thurman
2. Which of the following actors took a Chinese history class with Jonathan Spence at Yale, cites this as having inspired him to make a film set in China, and says he read one of his former prof’s books to prepare for his role in that movie?
a) Tim Robbins
b) Ralph Fiennes
c) Kevin Bacon
d) Ed Norton
3. Which of the following actresses can be seen speaking Chinese and quoting Confucius in a film called “Stowaway”?
a) Judy Garland
b) Mae West
c) Shirley Temple
d) Lana Turner
4. Which of the following celebrities performed in a film whose name flagged a Chinese location—but did not include a single scene set in that location?
a) Jack Lemmon
b) Rita Hayworth
c) Owen Wilson
d) Jane Fonda
e) All of the above
5. Long before Steven Spielberg agreed to serve as a consultant to Zhang Yimou for the extravaganza that will open the 2008 Olympics, he made a film that opened with a song and dance number (“Anything Goes” by Cole Porter, fittingly enough) being performed in a nightclub in Old Shanghai. Was that film:
a) The Empire of the Sun
b) Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark
d) Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
1. b—and we’ve been told by a Harvard prof who read it that Sorvino’s thesis, with a little work, would have been publishable, meaning that Hollywood’s gain, in this case, was Sinology’s loss.
Bonus question…You might be a Sinologist if…you can tell us what Uma Thurman’s tie to China studies is…Answer: Her father is a noted specialist on Tibet.
2. d—though the other actors all have ties to China, since Robbins recently starred in “Code 46” (a film set in a Shanghai of the future), Fiennes starred in “The White Countess” (a film set in a Shanghai of the past), and Bacon’s architect father (who later played a key role in the redevelopment of Philadelphia) spent some time as a youth working in Shanghai.
You might be a Sinologist if you can guess which of Spence’s books Norton says he turned to in order to understand the character of the British doctor he played in “The Painted Veil”…Answer: To Change China.
4. e—the films in question are “The China Syndrome” (a and d), “The Lady from Shanghahi,” and “Shanghai Noon” (that’s the only one with scenes set in any part of China, but only Beijing is portrayed).
5. d—though the action quickly moves from Shanghai to India.
Bonus question…You might be a Sinologist if…you know why it is somewhat anachronistic in the film when the Chinese gangsters who appear are dead set on getting hold of the ashes of Nurhaci, whom they seem to treat as a sacred figure…Answer: members of the kinds of secret societies to which these gangsters belonged tended to look at the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) as foreigner usurpers from Manchuria who had unjustly wrested control of China from the Ming (1368-1644). Since Nurhaci was a Manchu leader, they wouldn’t have worried about his ashes being scattered or destroyed in their fight with Indiana Jones.
“Stripping away all the Japanese excuses about military necessity…the stark fact remains that the conditions in Nanking one month and ten days after the victorious Japanese Army crashed the gates of China’s former capital are so lawless and so scandalous that Japanese authorities continue to refuse permission to any foreigners except diplomatic officials to visit the city…Again on Jan. 7 Japanese authorities apologetically admitted to the writer that conditions in Nanking were still deplorable but gave assurances that the division of troops then out of hand and daily criminally assaulting hundreds of women and very young girls would be removed from Nanking within two or three days.” [i]
More than a month into the “Nanjing Massacre,” in which Japanese troops entered the city and, in search of fleeing Chinese troops, killed tens of thousands of Chinese civilians, the Times piece was part of a steady stream of reports to the U.S. via AP, Reuters, and various other news bureaus. Topics ranged from what might be considered, in the context of broader events, rather innocuous—like the Times report on January 23 that the American ambassador to Japan had lodged a formal complaint about looting of American property by Japanese troops—to first-hand accounts of violence that are heart-wrenching even seventy years later. Even so, the coverage of the Nanjing events in the American media was remarkably stark and prescient in its read of what the massacre augured for Sino-Japanese relations in the coming years.
Commemorations of the massacre have taken place already in China this year, though they have been remarkably low-key given that this winter marks the 70th anniversary of the massacre. As in past years, Japanese officials have protested those commemorations—this year focusing on the renovated massacre museum in Nanjing—with particular objection (again, a redux of earlier years) to the Chinese victim count of 300,000, which Japan views as an overestimate. (For an investigation of how the massacre has been remembered in both countries, interested readers might look at The Nanjing Massacre in History and Historiography, edited by Josh Fogel.) But both the objections from Japan and the nationalist rhetoric from China have been at a lower level than in previous years; in China commemorations of the massacre were dampened by the government, preventing nationalistic fervor from reaching the peaks it did three years ago when there were widespread anti-Japan protests focused on Japan’s continuing struggles over accurately representing wartime atrocities in school textbooks.
The continued debates over how and when to commemorate the Nanjing Massacre point to its incredible power—right from the beginning—to focus larger political struggles, in great part because evidence of the massacre emerged from a new, evocative, popular media environment. As is frequently noted in American narratives of the massacre, from Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking a decade ago to the American-made documentary out last year (“Nanking”; rights in China have been sold to CCTV), it wasn’t just newspaper reporters who were recording the events. The most stunning accounts of the massacre are the photographs and film footage taken by regular people who were in Nanjing, from the 16mm footage shot by American missionary John Magee to the celebratory or mocking photos taken by invading Japanese soldiers themselves. It is in part this evidence of atrocity—caught on tape because the timing of the Nanjing events coincided with the popularization of cameras and the emergence of film technology—that has made this particular event a flashpoint for Japanese-Chinese relations.
[i] Hallett Abend. “Reign of Disorder Goes On in Nanking; Suggests a Mutiny: Lawlessness at Nanking.” The New York Times (Jan. 25, 1938): 1. Those with Jstor access can read a review of Abend’s autobiographical My Time in China.
Last week, our blog-list focused on sites specifically devoted to the PRC or Taiwan, but astute commentaries on and information related to China Beat topics sometimes shows up other kinds of places on the web. With this in mind, we’ll be doing at least two sequels—this one on sites we value that have an Asian focus but are not China-specific, then another later on that deals with sites that have a global purview (but periodically have insightful things to say about Chinese themes).
1. Japan Focus
Since this site’s editor, Mark Selden, is the author or co-author of several important books on China, it is no surprise that, despite its title, it often carries pieces that move between Japan and its biggest neighbor. If you want to go directly to one of these, a good place to start is with Geremie Barmé’s smart take on anti-Japanese sentiment in the PRC.
This site has geographical breadth—again, no surprise, given who is behind it, as Rebecca McKinnon did stints as CNN’s Beijing and then Tokyo bureau chiefs, has been a close follower of North Korean affairs, and is now based in Hong Kong. China Beat has already linked to one of her PRC pieces, but for a sample of something else she’s done, check out her take on Yahoo and the ethics and practicalities of policing internet use in China.
3. Far Eastern Economic Review Forum
This is the recently launched companion to the former-weekly magazine that was revamped several years ago as a monthly journal of opinion. Its goal is to generate debate via mini-essays, and the editor, Hugo Restall, is not above contributing his own provocative forays into this genre, such as this look at colonialism and Hong Kong’s past.
Based at UCLA and largely run by students, this impressive site offers original content and links to news stories on various parts of the continent, including China. Tom Plate writes a lively regular column for it (here's a recent sample), and others who have written for it include China Beat’s own Tim Weston and Jeff Wasserstrom, as well as Chuck Hayford, who wrote this piece on the Bingdian (Freezing Point) controversy.
5. Asian Review of Books
Due to the enormous amount being published on Asia in English alone, having a website devoted to timely reviews of works on Asian themes in that language intended for general readers is of great value. The reviews tend to be positive (though this doesn’t mean they are devoid of criticisms or suggestions for improvement) and are written with readers based in Asia in mind. A good place to start checking out the site is with a review of Love and Revolution, a novel focusing on the lives of Sun Yat-sen and even more so the post-Sun years of his widow Soong Qingling.
What would you do if an ATM started unexpectedly giving you $100 bills while charging your account just $1? Such was the dilemma faced by Xu Ting, and who knew that the Guangzhou resident was a fan of the Steve Miller Band? The bank, obviously not devotees of 70s arena rock, took a different view and Xu, 100,000 RMB richer than before he went to the ATM, was arrested, tried, and sentenced to life in prison. Now a higher court is prepared to reopen the case. Joel Martinson of Danwei looks at how the trial is playing out in the media and in the court of Chinese public opinion.
Finally, on the Shanghaiist, JFK Miller argues that the recent Taiwanese election (or as it is referred to here in Beijing "the elections for Taiwan's so-called 'legislature') was not a rejection of the pro-independence leanings of Chen Shui-bian, but instead hinged on domestic problems of corruption and a sluggish economy.
Still, there’s always a danger of a guild mentality setting in. So, it is important for us to acknowledge from time to time just how valuable a different sort of perspective can be, whether it is offered by Chinese writers who are not China specialists or by non-Chinese scholars and journalists who have a recent or just passing interest in Chinese topics. Sometimes a journalist just posted to China, without much background on the place, will come up with fresh insights, noticing something to which others were blind. And within the world of scholarship, I can think of several people based outside of Chinese studies who have made major contributions to topics that interest when they’ve turned their attention, even if briefly, to China. Judith Stacey’s work on gender in China, Saskia Sassen and John Logan’s comments on Chinese cities, and Barrington Moore and Eric Wolf’s studies of comparative revolutions—these are just a few “outsiders” with insights who come to mind.
This explains the reason for the list below, which points readers to five worthy short works by non-China specialists who have contributed to debates on fairly recent (I go back as far as an insightful eyewitness account of Tiananmen by a sociologist, Craig Calhoun, who admitted at the time to having a very limited knowledge of Chinese) topics within the purview of China Beat. Some have a serious ongoing interest in China (manifested in going there regularly, writing more than occasionally about, in one or two cases even taking lessons in the language), but part of what they bring to the subject that is useful is an immersion in the history and present dilemmas of other parts of the world.
The people I’ve chosen are a widely varied lot: Calhoun and also Perry Anderson straddle the line between sociology and history, Amartya Sen’s a philosophically minded economist, Andrew Ross is a specialist in cultural studies, and Pankaj Mishra is best known as a novelist and author of thoughtful pieces of travel writing and reportage. And the sample publications I provide links to below are about disparate subjects, from the Tiananmen protests (Calhoun), to Shanghai as a center for outsourcing (Ross), to the concept of “Asian Values” (Sen), to China’s “New Left” (Pankaj Mishra), to Taiwan elections (Anderson).
One thing they have in common for me is that each is someone whose writings on topics unrelated to Chinese affairs I had already read—and appreciated—before I came to the works listed below. Two have whole books devoted to China that are definitely worth reading (Calhoun and Ross), while the other three have excellent books that include chapters on Chinese themes—if, that is, these samples leave anyone wanting more.
The list (to which I hope followers of this blog will add by sending in a comment with a link to a favorite in this category) is provided below. When you click on each name, you’ll be taken to a complete short article from a political magazine or literary review, except in the case of Ross—with him (because the best comparable thing by him was a "for subscribers only" contribution to the Nation), you’ll be taken to an online excerpt from his latest book:
1. Craig Calhoun
2. Andrew Ross
3. Amartya Sen
4. Pankaj Mishra
5. Perry Anderson
This has been rumored for awhile here in Beijing, but the Angry Chinese Blogger gives the lowdown on the decision by some of the top Olympic teams to avoid staying in Beijing during the games. Reportedly, teams from Europe and America are making arrangements to stay and train in (and this is sure to be particularly galling to the Chinese) Japan out of concerns for pollution, food safety, and other issues. No idea how many teams are considering such an arrangement and, needless to say, Beijing authorities and BOCOG have kept mum on these developments. If it turns out to be a trend, it could be a real blow to Beijing's self-esteem and, as ACB reports, official reaction could offer an indication of how authorities will handle other 'embarrassing' stories in the domestic press during the Olympics.
Moreover, it will not only be the games that will come under scrutiny in 2008, and the same officials may find the foreign press corps more difficult to control than the homegrown variety. The Foreign Ministry has said, doth too much a wag might suggest, that foreign journalists will have unprecedented freedom to report on China this summer. Anecdotal evidence (Mrs. Jenne works for the Beijing bureau of an American newspaper) suggests that many officials, especially those in local areas, haven't gotten the memo. But as the Olympics approach, Chinese officials struggle with how to handle foreign criticism of long standing problems (pollution, human rights, etc.) as well as the inevitable PR snafus that arise whenever an event of the magnitude of the Olympics is held. The most common response so far to negative reports in the foreign media has been to whine about how foreigners don't/can't understand China. Cam at the Zhongnanhai blog says that learning how to take criticism is essential if China is serious about improving its image around the world. As Cam astutely notes, a Falun Gong protester on camera is embarrassing for the Chinese government, but video of the Chinese police, not known for their restraint, beating the guy before hauling him away would be catastrophic for China's PR campaign. That scenario would probably mean the ballgame in terms of China's new image, thank you for playing, and all the Fuwa you could muster likely wouldn't be enough to fix it.
Citizen journalism also presents a challenge to the CCP spinmasters. Via Global Voices Online, Chinese blogger Lao Humiao has published a series of reports on Beijing's homeless population, who are living in desperate poverty amidst the glitz and redevelopment of the Olympic City.
Why does China care so much about its image? Well, its part of a long history to try and achieve equivalency, as Yan Fu once wrote (via the late Benjamin Schwartz) it's about the search for 'wealth and power.' In the dark days of the late-19th and early 20th centuries, the struggle for national survival consumed Chinese intellectuals, many of whom were convinced that China's weakness would result in her passing into oblivion. Those fears still linger today. China is not in danger of disappearing, but presenting an image of a unified, strong, and confident nation is still seen by many in power as a priority of the highest order. One of the foremost intellectuals of the 20th century, and somebody whose ideas continue to resonate in contemporary China, was Liang Qichao. Dave of The Mutant Palm, has a beautiful post on Liang looking at the influence of Social Darwinism on Liang's thought and on the subsequent development of Chinese attitudes regarding race and the competition among nations.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown is visiting Beijing and the Daily Telegraph has a dour op-ed piece written by Bruce Anderson in today’s edition.
succeeds, there will be a price. The West would lose power. But Chinese success is much the lesser evil. Imagine what would happen if that huge and powerfully armed nation became a failed state.” China
Fair as it goes.
Anger. Sex. Fear. These are things sure to titillate op-ed readers and attract fans of the “Jerry Springer Show.”
Let's ignore, if we can for a moment, that the modern concept of race as Anderson seems to use it, had little, if anything, to do with the pre-20th century Chinese worldview. When more contemporary ideas of race did appear, 20th century Chinese intellectuals, influenced in large part by imported theories such as Social Darwinism, stressed the weakness of the Chinese race vis-à-vis the rest of the world. In
Contemporary nationalism in the PRC is also just as much the product of ‘patriotic education’ that emphasizes historical attacks on
So, let’s talk about sex, baby. (Did I just date myself with that song reference? I think I did. No matter. Press on.) In his piece, Anderson summarizes the Baby Boy Bomb argument: China’s One Child Policy will create a veritable army of pampered and spoiled male children in for a huge shock as they come of age and realize that some of them are going to be left out of the marriage pool.
Again, fair as it goes. It’s not a given, but if one wishes to destabilize a particular society, having a large group of underemployed young males with little hope of being able to enter into normative family relations is a good start. It was a factor in the rebellions of the late Qing and, for some, it’s a cause of concern in the
The One Child Policy and its long-term effects are a favorite topic for western commentators on Chinese affairs. It's hard not to ignore a strong whiff of "exoticization for the post-modern age" in the West’s continuing fascination with the Chinese family planning regime. To be sure there have been and will continue to be negative consequences (infanticide, abortion for the purposes of sex selection, and increased trafficking in women to name but a few of the most horrific) but it is far from certain that the One Child Policy will have the kind of political or even international ramifications that some have suggested.
It's definitely worth watching, but there seems to be an assumption in the West that China is definitely heading for some sort of Male Malthusian Meltdown. Like many aspects of China's recent re-emergence, we really don't know, there just aren't any models by which to predic the outcome of this kind of large-scale social engineering.
Finally, we have fear itself, more specifically the Chinese government’s fear of its own people. Here
Anderson argues, “The Chinese are an individualistic race; they do not share the Japanese tendency to a group mentality.” Thus, he contends, the demand for individual rights will grow stronger and become an irresistible force for change.
I do think that the demand for individual rights is bound to grow in the coming decades but I think this has less to do with the Chinese as ‘a race,’ and more to do with urban Chinese as newly-enriched property owners seeking to preserve their gains over time and generations. Eventually, the choice will be have to be made by China’s emerging urban elite over which is the greater danger to the preservation of accumulated wealth: social instability (the bugaboo of ‘chaos’) or the unchecked power of the state in its myriad forms (official corruption, state appropriation of property, inadequate legal protections of property rights, etc.).
In the final balance,
Too often op-ed pieces on China’s rise seem to be written by recipe: A couple of references to late-Qing history, a soupçon of Mao, a quirky anecdote from earlier historical annals and/or a Cultural Revolution reference (though some prefer the minty freshness of a Great Leap Forward pun), a dash of economic data on China trade, a smidgen of your favorite T-for-Trope: Tyrannical Tots, Taiwan, Tibet, or Tiananmen (to taste). Garnish, if wished, with a cab driver quote, picked up on the way to or from the
Part of the goals of this space is to provide a corrective to the sort of “robot errors” that creep into reporting and writing on
First the demography. Here the key point is one of the great under-played China stories : the rapid aging of the Chinese population. For roughly 30 years now, China has had compulsory birth control of various sorts, and (as most people reading this probably know) its birth rates declined at a rate that has very few historical parallels. So while the number of young people entering the work force every year has remained quite high until recently (China had so many births in the 1950s and 1960s that even with them having relatively few children per couple when they grew up, birth rates per 1,000 population stayed high into the late 1980s), the percentage of children in the population became quite low. Meanwhile, because Chinese death rates were very high before the Revolution, and stayed pretty high into the mid-1960s, there were also relatively few old people. So what economists call the “dependency ratio” – the ratio of people in the labor force to people whom workers need to support – has been extremely favorable for China over the last couple of decades:it's now at about 2 workers per non-worker, versus about 1:1 for the U.S. But that is now changing pretty quickly (thanks mostly to public health improvements under Mao)and China will soon have a fairly old population; by 2030, it will have as high a percentage of old people as countries like Italy and Germany today, whose pension problems, etc., you read about periodically. [Some of the best work on this is by my UC Irvine colleague Wang Feng and Andrew Mason at the University of Hawaii – their paper in a newly published Cambridge Press book – China’s Great Economic Transformation, edited by Loren Brandt and Thomas Rawski, is well worth a look, though the book won't be available for a couple more months.] China's dependency ratio will probably reach today's global average by 2020, and the current U.S. level of 1:1 by 2030.
A country with a higher ratio of dependents to workers –like a family in similar circumstances -- simply cannot save at the same rate as a country with relatively few dependents, no matter what the government may want to do and how many provisions it has to siphon the dollars China’s exports earn out of the economy and into a massive national savings account. And since China also has plenty of investment needs , as Fallows emphasizes – for schools, hospitals, sewers, you name it – it is likely to start spending down its dollar hoard before too long, no matter what happens in US-Chinese negotiations. Its true that both sides recognize the dangers of this happening too fast – leading to a run on the dollar and the collapse of China’s biggest market –but the pressures for it to at least start happening soon are even stronger than Fallows lets on.
That brings us to the history. China, like Japan and Taiwan before it, differs from Europe and the US in having undergone very substantial industrialization before its countryside began to empty out. (Japan’s rural population kept rising in absolute terms until World War II; China’s until roughly 1998.) Thus they were quite industrial before they were heavily urban, in part because they had lots of industry in the countryside. (Think of China’s Township and Village Enterprises.) Even today, China has a lower percentage of its population in cities than Britain had in 1840. There are all sorts of reasons for this – and anyone who becomes a loyal reader of my posts will eventually hear about them ad nauseam; but it is likely that in China, as in Japan, this will end with a period of extremely rapid urbanization. This rapid urbanization is now really getting underway (you ain’t seen nothin’ yet!), as rural industrial job creation slows to a crawl (as it now has) and the rural urban income gap becomes so large that even with many barriers to migration remaining, many more people will pick up and leave. So far, China’s urbanization rate pretty closely tracks Japan’s, with a 50 year lag – and beginning in the mid-1950s, Japan went from about 35% urban to about 70% urban in less than 20 years. Most people think China is poised to do the same – which will require China’s cities to grow by roughly the total population of the US and Mexico combined by 2030.
And here’s the rub. The Chinese government has worked very hard to avoid creating the kinds of slums that ring Mexico City, Manila, Cairo, etc . In fact, this has been one of the few real continuities in policy between pre- and post-1978, though the tools used to insure this -- outright prohibition of migration, guaranteeing land allocations, encouragement of rural industry, phasing out land taxes, various local policies that deny rural migrants access to urban services, etc. – have been an ever-changing mix. To a great extent they’ve been successful in meeting this goal: certainly there are grim communities in Chinese cities, but the numbers of people lacking access to electricity hook-ups, running water (of whatever quality), etc., is quite low by “third world” standards. This matters, among other things, for social and political stability. Maintaining this record as urbanization accelerates will require huge amounts of investment.
Meanwhile, even though the number of new job-seekers entering the labor force each year is now declining, China can’t really afford to see job creation slow down, because there is still a lot of labor to be absorbed. To go back to the Japan comparison, when Japan’s phase of very rapid urbanization began in the 1950s, its unemployment rate was around 2%, so even though people newly arrived in the cities faced crowding and other ills, they all had jobs. Nobody knows for sure what China’s urban unemployment rate is, but 15% seems like a plausible ball-park estimate. So job growth has to keep going, and presumably, most of that growth has to be making things and providing services for people in China. And that means a lot of the money now abroad has to come home – no matter how much, or little, resentment grows over China subsidizing U.S. over-consumption, or American backlash against Chinese ownership of U.S. assets. Nonetheless, Fallows has the main point right -- whether this happens smoothly or abruptly, and on what timetable, has enormous implications.
On the plus side, general interest in China, already on the rise, grew even greater over the course of 2007. On the negative side, this interest sometimes took forms (including dreams of striking it rich by investing in a new market and fears of a menacing rising power) that led people to seek in books simple answers to complex China questions, and mine refuses to offer a simple thumbs up or thumbs down assessment.
On the plus side, the newsworthiness of China made it more likely than it might have been in another year that radio show hosts would interview me about the book. On the negative side, due to budget cut-backs, 2007 saw many American newspapers dramatically reduce the number of reviews of books of any kind they ran.
On the plus side, more and more foreigners took or began planning trips to the PRC, which was good for a book, like mine, that might be considered agreeable airplane reading (and that even got a plug from an in-flight magazine). On the negative side, it wasn't as though PRC-bound travelers were limited in their options, as 2007 saw a lot of interesting books appear and saw at least two very notable ones—Peter Hessler's Oracle Bones and John Pomfret's Chinese Lessons—make it into paperback. (And to compound this problem, I published a couple of pieces—one at Outlook India, reprinted here by History News Network, and another for Campaign for the American Reader—that drew attention to the quality of works that could be thought of as "the competition," though in a way that admittedly encouraged readers to also keep my own work in mind.)
What kind of year will 2008 be for China's Brave New World, in terms of its ability to find a comfortable niche in the curious and often hard to understand (particularly perhaps for an academic) world of trade publishing? Frankly, I have no idea.
I do enter the new year, though, with some ideas about things I will do differently the next time around. I have thoughts, that is, about strategies to try to make sure that my next book, Global Shanghai, 1850-2010 (a work that is eagerly awaited—at least by me and my wonderful and patient series editor, Mark Selden, and publisher, Routledge—and finally near completion), comes to the attention of lots of those “elusive general educated readers” for which it too will be intended. (Though as I think is indicated by my recent short publications on Shanghai’s past and present that try out ideas to be showcased in that book—such as one in The Nation and another in The Globalist—that work also will not offer simple answers to complex China questions.)
And, where China’s Brave New World is concerned, I'm upbeat about one aspect of the way 2008 is starting, namely with the appearance of two urls that allow curious readers to listen to me read aloud from two of my favorite chapters, "Mr. Mao Ringtone" and "All the Coffee in China," and then decide whether they want to buy the book (published from the start in paperback, incidentally), check it out from the library, or, if they teach courses on globalization or modern Chinese history and are looking for a "dessert course" reading to wrap up a class, even assign it to their students.
The popular American television show, America's Next Top Model (hosted by Tyra Banks), took its final episodes to Shanghai and then Beijing last fall. Below, the would-be models' reactions to "fashion capital" Shanghai; the complete episode (and the follow-up episodes in Beijing) are available at YouTube (just click on the video itself to follow the link to YouTube).
Best One-Stop Source of Information: China Digital Times
Best Media Blog: A tie between Danwei and China Media Project
Best Industry Blog: China Law Blog
Best News Blog: Beijing Newspeak – Written by Chris O’Brien, a language polisher/rewrite artist for Xinhua, a fascinating and frequently hilarious look behind the scenes of Chinese media.
Best Issue Blog: China Dialogue: Chinese and English articles on environmental and human rights issues.
Best Translation Blog: EastSouthWestNorth: A daily stop for most bloggers and journos in China; collects and translates a selection from China’s media and blogosphere.
Best Journalist Blog: This one is a toss-up between China Rises and Richard Spencer.
Best PR Blog: Imagethief, fabulously written blog by Will Moss, a PR professional in Beijing.
Best Personal Blog: Life in Suzhou. A fixture in the China blogosphere for a long time, this blog’s author still brings a fresh and unique perspective to his daily observations of life. Another strong one, with anecdotes from a working journalist, is Spot-On by Jonathan Ansfield.
Best Regional Blog: Opposite Side of China: Absolutely essential reading for anyone interested in Xinjiang and central Asia.
Best Taiwan Blog: Michael Turton’s The View from Taiwan.
Through a mix of archival footage, Chinese and American TV clips, and contemporary interviews with one of the few surviving defectors, Wang tries to unearth why the young men chose to stay in China, attend university, and work as factory workers, farmers, truck drivers, and government propagandists. All but one of the men returned to the U.S. prior to the Cultural Revolution. (The one who stayed, James Veneris, lived out his life as a factory worker in Shandong, his fellow workers protecting him from persecution during the Cultural Revolution.)
Wang attempts to counter the argument that the men had been brainwashed by the Communist government (these soldiers were among the first tangible cases in U.S. media of the “brainwashing” phenomenon), instead presenting the men as “dissidents.” However, it becomes clear over the course of the movie that each of the men made the choice to stay for different reasons. Clarence Adams, a black soldier from Memphis, speaks of escaping from the racial discrimination and inequality in the United States, others seemed excited about the adventure of living in China, and others appear to have truly committed to socialism, maintaining their political beliefs even after returning to the U.S.
China buffs will find most interesting the footage Wang dug up from the POW camps—including film of the camp-wide “Olympic Games” prisoners organized—and clips of the soldiers explaining why they chose to stay in China. The film is rather hard to track down in the U.S. unless your local university or public library has a copy; it is not currently available through either Netflix or Blockbuster.
Here’s the list I’ve prepared for them (with a bit of explanation—also kept short for this era of limited attention spans):
1. The True Story of Ah Q
China’s greatest modern writer (Lu Xun), telling a dark but also comic tale linked to a major event in Chinese modern history (the 1911 Revolution) in only 68 pages. Need I say more?
2. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress
Dai Sijie’s elegantly written 176 page coming-of-age tale set during the Cultural Revolution.
3. The House of Lim: A Study of a Chinese Family
A stylish piece of illuminating ethnographic writing by Margery Wolf; provides many insights into kinship and gender in a mere 147 pages.
4. Mao Zedong and China’s Revolutions: A Brief History with Documents
A bit long for this list, coming in at 272 pages, but editor Timothy Cheek manages to put a lot of important material into this slim paperback, including samples of Mao’s own writings and some scholarly takes on the Chairman (full disclosure: one of the scholars is named Wasserstrom), plus provide a quick tour of Chinese history from 1893 through 1976 (the years of his subject’s life)—and he nicely steers clear of either demonizing or romanticizing the Chinese leader.
5. The State of China Atlas
Cultural studies specialist Stephanie Donald and political scientist Robert Benewick’s map-filled and graph-packed overview of a wide range of features of contemporary Chinese society—a nice 128 page primer on what’s been going on in the PRC since Mao’s death.