China Beat: Is there any question that you've been asked a lot since returning to Beijing that you think is off the mark or plays into simplistic or misleading thinking about a complex issue?
James Miles: No. The question I get asked most is what happened, and then why. What happened in Lhasa from midday on the 14th to late on the 15th did not fit the normal pattern of unrest in Tibet. It was not monk-led, it displayed little explicitly-stated political purpose, and it was violent. Reporters who interviewed me during the unrest and afterwards seemed to readily understand this. If I were a media studies specialist I'd have a very good look at this case. The foreign media were almost entirely absent from Lhasa (a couple may have sneaked in under cover after the riots broke out but would have had limited access). Yet I have seen some very good reporting on what happened, notwithstanding the Chinese media's nitpicking. Reporting in the official press, by contrast, while reasonably on the mark as far as the violence goes, has been highly misleading by failing to look at the bigger picture of unrest in Tibet and beyond, by not asking what might have caused this anger and by portraying this as the actions of a handful of people organised by the Dalai Lama's "clique." It wasn't a handful, and I saw no evidence to suggest anything other than spontaneity.
China Beat: Is there any question you wish you were asked? Maybe even are surprised you haven't been asked?
James Miles: Again no. I found those questioning me from foreign news organisations wanted me to explain the story as I saw it. Their questions were often open-ended, putting the onus on me to tell the story as fully as I could. Some of them devoted considerable airtime and print and web space to what I told them. Nobody has asked how I felt being on my own, journalistically, in the middle of this huge story. Journalists hunt in packs on big stories, competing with each other but also cooperating with one another. Bouncing ideas off one another helps to sharpen our thinking. Having others there means that some can break away from the main story and look at what is happening on the edges. It is exhilarating being on one's own, but this was not an exclusive of my own creation -- it was the product of an environment where newsgathering is restricted.
Though this approach at cultural exchange is well-intentioned, it continues a particularly egocentric understanding of China as a recipient of American (increasingly presented as global) culture rather than a generator of trends of its own. This tendency crops up in the cover story—“Ten Reasons Why China Matters To You” by Thomas P.M. Barnett—in which reason number 8 is “Because China’s transformation echoes much of America’s past.” When Barnett writes that “right now, China is somewhere in the historical vicinity of ‘rising America’ circa 1880,” he reiterates this progressive view of history and its accompanying notion that there is a trajectory of development (exemplified by England and the United States) along which all nations travel.
Similarly, in an article on the ritzy Beijing development, “Orange County” (whose homes look just like their Socal counterparts), author Daniel Brook begins from the premise that modern China is familiar—perhaps even a replicate of the US—and, in his attempts to turn the replicate back on us (positing “If the Chinese are set on emulating us, we might as well give them something worth emulating”), reinforces the idea that the Chinese are indeed copying the United States (rather than a more nuanced view that would argue that the similarities in material culture mask deep differences in use and meaning). This feeds into the naïve belief that China will, indeed, eventually be “just like us,” rather than crediting that there are multiple legitimate paths to modernity, the majority of which do not look like America’s.
There is much to admire and enjoy in Good’s thirty-plus page China spread, including features on (and the art and photos of) many up-and-coming young Chinese designers and an essay by Jia Zhangke (the director of Unknown Pleasures, and Still Life, a recent film shot at Three Gorges Dam). In addition, regulars on the China blog circuit will recognize Jeremy Goldkorn (of Danwei.org) and Dan Washburn (of Shanghaiist) in a feature of interviews with expats who have lived (and stayed) in China.
1) The Far Eastern Economic Review does a great service by making available, free from its archives, the magazine's reports on the 1959 Tibetan insurgency.
2) Foreign Policy has posted a thoughtful interview with Robert Barnett, author of the recent Lhasa: Streets with Memories and a leading American Tibet specialist based at Columbia University.
3) Ian Buruma, in "The Last of the Tibetans," takes up the common theme of parallels between the treatment of Native Americans then and Chinese ethnic minorities now, but gives it some very interesting novel twists at.
4) The Economist, which continues to have the advantage over the other main Western media outlets of having had a reporter on the ground in Lhasa when the demonstrations and riots began, provides a valuable retrospective and update of things that just happened (like the disruption of a choreographed press conference by angry monks).
5) Richard Spencer, of the Daily Telegraph, offers an unusually wide-ranging and interesting discussion of the complexities to media "bias" concerning Tibet on his lively blog.
6) Parallels between recent events involving Tibet (and Iraq) and 1930s events involving Japan (and Manchuria) are explored by China's Beat's Jeff Wasserstrom, in a commentary that muses on what Hu Jintao and George W. Bush might have to say to one another in Beijing in August. Donald Lopez, one of the leading American specialists in Buddhism and author of Prisoners of Shangrila, also posted a recent piece called "How to Think about Tibet" at openDemocracy, asking us to ponder the historical analogy provided by Latvia.
Foreign media coverage of the demonstrations and riots in
Over at the popular online forum Tianya, I stumbled across a thread in which a patriotic and enterprising youth has cut and pasted pages from a media directory, telling readers that the telephone is their greatest weapon and they should use it against the foreign news organizations:
If someone is there, inquire about their mother (ahem). If they don’t pick up, keep calling and when somebody answers, curse them out and then hang up—the idea is to jam the lines so the SOBs can’t use their telephones. [paraphrase]
Charming. I remember playing this game once. When I was 12.
On a more serious note, criticism of Chinese government actions and policies is once again perceived as being anti-China, but that said: those who claim that some foreign media organizations have reason to apologize might well be right.
In the hours and days following the event, there were several cases of words and especially images misrepresenting what was going on in Tibet. While I doubt this was due to a global anti-China conspiracy (a state-sponsored bogeyman if there ever was one) it certainly suggested sloppy journalism. As the first news of significant unrest emerged from Lhasa on May 14, it seemed like one of those stories that writes itself, which is a classic trap for any journalist: "Tibetan Monks! Chinese Troops! Film at 11!" Not that the Chinese coverage was any more nuanced (“Let’s blame it all on the Dalai Lama Clique!”), but at least CCTV and Xinhua wear their lack of objectivity on their sleeve.
For its part, Xinhua blamed the Western media bias on a “cognitive blackout,” and many foreign journalists in
When sympathy demonstrations and unrest broke out in ethnic Tibetan regions in Sichuan, Gansu, and Qinghai, foreign media representatives rushed to these (slightly) more accessible areas, resulting in a flood of "Dateline: Xiahe" stories even as the PSB, local cops, and the usual hired goon squads tried to keep the foreigners away from hot spots. One Beijing-based journalist out west last week retorted that if a meeting of The Foreign Correspondents Club of China had been called in the
The whole mess has become a PR nightmare of Olympic proportions.
(On some level, you have to feel just a little bit for CNN: When Xinhua calls you out for lack of objectivity it’s a bit like Britney Spears suggesting that your life is out of control and you should think about getting some counseling, but I digress...)
Asked about claims of a western media bias regarding the Tibetan situation, Jonathan Watts called the events of March 14, “The most important story of my five years in
Raymond Zhou took a different view, arguing that Western media coverage of
Mr. Zhou has a point, except that the negativity of the media in Europe and the
I’m a historian by training, and as I’ve written elsewhere, history is a slippery ally in contemporary political disputes so I'm frustrated by the extent to which the historical record has been twisted and warped by both Chinese state media and the free
At the same time, while the Chinese-language online world is bursting with harsh condemnations of foreign media treachery, almost all opinions or ideas expressed in opposition to the official line are quickly blacked out, blocked, or deleted. There is little incentive for the government to allow open discussion of the Tibet question, and the curriculum of ‘patriotic education’ in the schools means that alternative perspectives on history or politics get short shrift.
The government line that
At the Danwei session, Steven Lin, argued that the role of the online forums was as a psychological release valve for these angry young people (actually the metaphor was a little more scatological, but you get the point). Raymond Zhou concurred and said that 99% of what is posted on the BBSs is "garbage." That may be, and certainly the fenqing are more extreme than mainstream Chinese views on the subject, but not by much and their anger suggests that disruption of future events, not the least of which the Beijing Olympics, will be treated with the same indignant fury as the riots in Lhasa. These past few weeks, many young Chinese responded on BBSs with anger, natural enough given the brutality of some of the attacks on Han Chinese in
It's true that following the outbreak of unrest on March 14, many in the foreign media dropped the ball, in some cases due to lazy or mistaken reporting, in others as the result of preconceived notions of the situation and a misunderstanding of the complexities in the Sino-Tibetan relationship. Meanwhile, coverage in the Chinese state media was little better in its histrionic attempts to portray the Dalai Lama as a demonic mastermind bent on splitting
1. On Danwei.org, an intriguing short piece on YouTube videos, which asks if this might be "the world's first international user generated propaganda war?"
2. When the crisis began, we were eager to see what Pico Iyer and Pankaj Mishra, both elegant writers who have penned thoughtful commentaries on Tibet in the past, would have to say, and we linked to pieces by each of them in earlier posts in this series. Now, on the New Yorker's site, as free content, at least for the moment, is a fascinating lengthy review by Mishra of Iyer's new book on the Dalai Lama.
3. The Shanghaiist has a good short piece (with accompanying video) on the varied ways that the lighting of the Olympic torch in Olympia on March 24 (and the disruption of the ceremony by protesters) was covered inside and outside of the PRC.
4. China Digital Times effectively brings its readers to date on issues such as a petition by Chinese critical intellectuals calling for, among other things, an end to what they see as Cultural Revolution-type rhetoric in the government's statements about the situation in Tibet.
5. "Riots" vs. "protests"? Outbursts of social unrest are often accompanied by battles over terminology, and Chinese bloggers have been complaining that the Western media has been using more neutral terms, such as "marches" to describe what in fact have been "riots" in Tibet and nearby areas. This piece in the BBC highlights a dilemma that Western journalists face, lacking direct access to the regions in question, and having only Chinese official reports to go on, which cannot be cross-checked easily with other sources--yet it does use "Tibetan riots continue in China" as its headline.
6. Several articles have been reporting on and breaking down the anger at the foreign media’s “bias” that has grown in China over the past week (fanned in a part by the government and its media outlets, and in part by nationalistic netizens). Read about its affects on foreign media and the atmosphere inside China here, or here. (There is also a piece in the Wall Street Journal, which requires a subscription.)
This semi-autobiographical novel follows the young Chinese intellectual, Chen Zhen, in Inner Mongolia during the Cultural Revolution. Chen’s drunken admiration for the steppe leads him to kidnap and raise a wolf cub. The novel essentializes ethnic identity as utterly contingent upon nature, and identifies Mongols with the wolf (bold and brave), and Han Chinese with the sheep (meek and, well, sheepish). Despite its artless plot, Lang Tuteng appealed to millions of Chinese readers who found double happiness in its pages: romanticization of the Mongolian “wilderness” as the urbanites’ playground, and a symbolic reversal of the woes produced by internal colonization: wolves don’t lose to sheep. The novel’s closing scene underscores the limited capacity of this symbolic reversal, as Han immigration and resource exploitation turn the last of Inner Mongolia’s majestic grasslands to desert and a foreboding sandstorm shrouds Beijing. The ecological disasters of internal colonization come home to roost on Beijingers’ windowsills.
Jiang Rong is following in the footsteps of a veritable army of intellectuals who fanned out across “northwest China” in the first few decades of the twentieth century, most of them traveling on behalf of the Nationalist government. Their published journals evince the same mixture of admiration and befuddlement that makes Wolf Totem the latest literary expression of a long-lived Chinese political identity crisis in which fear of emasculation drives Han men to their nation’s cultural frontier in an existential search for virility and assertiveness, qualities believed to be more abundant among the ethnic minorities than among China’s Han majority.
Ten of these early twentieth-century journalists—nine men and one woman—will be featured in my presentation at the upcoming Critical Han Studies conference organized by Tom Mullaney. Among them was the famed intellectual Gu Jiegang, who in the late 1930s stated matter-of-factly that the idea of the Han people as a unified “race” is a mere fiction—an argument that later appeared in Mao Zedong’s 1956 speech, “On the Ten Major Relationships,” and which was of course used to gloss over the
very real exploitation of minority groups in the construction of a “unified” nation with the vast majority of power and wealth in Han hands.
Although the Republican-era intellectuals’ prose would put Jiang Rong to shame, none of their journals ever sold two million copies or sparked a pop-culture revolution with global proportions—Penguin is simultaneously launching Wolf Totem in the US, the UK, and Australia, with the Indian and South African editions hot on their heels. Their travel journals also may not have had the ability to spark thousands of blogger debates on the bestial origins of the Chinese race—dragon or wolf?
Despite Goldblatt’s best intentions to enhance Western understanding of China by introducing a Chinese bestseller to an English readership, Wolf Totem is likely to appeal to an Orientalist audience. It is already hailed on Amazon.com as “an epic Chinese tale in the vein of The Last Emperor.” We know where that leads. Now that China’s eastern seaboard is packed to the gills with people, congested roads, and belching factories, it seems that we can all locate our nostalgia in Mongolia and Tibet (protests and their violent quashing aside, tourism in the Dalai Lama’s homeland is on the rise). At least in this regard urbanites the world over can be united.
For his part, Frank Hsieh and his allies proved unable to overcome disappointment with DPP rule, while corruption scandals contributed to a "throw the bums out" mentality. The DPP may also have engaged in a bit too much negative campaigning against Ma and his family, while not placing enough emphasis on the substantial achievements made while in power (including the completion of the High Speed Railway, the reform of the banking system, etc.) as well as their vision for Taiwan's future.
In the end, the people of Taiwan voted for Ma in hopes that this would lead to greater stability and prosperity in the future. His new government, supported by a nearly three-quarters majority in the Legislative Yuan, will have an opportunity to enact its policies that the DPP never enjoyed, but little excuse should campaign promises go unfulfilled.
It is time to move forward, and Taiwan is ready.
Beijing Time, by Goldsmiths, University of London Professor of Politics Michael Dutton and independent scholars Hsiu-ju Stacy Lo and Dong Dong Wu (the advance copy I read did not clarify how research and writing was split between them), is a theory-driven investigation of Beijing as both location and symbol. The authors explore Beijing through layout and buildings, investigating how Beijingers interact with their city’s built environment, and asking, ultimately, what that interaction says about the city’s (and by extension, China’s) past and future.
Dutton et al., clearly familiar with the city, manage to avoid such an extreme, as the goal of this book is—in a pursuit that will certainly be replicated in many different media as this summer’s Olympic Games draw closer—to uncover a “hidden” Beijing. To that end, the most interesting section of Beijing Time is the final two chapters, in which the book considers the varied meanings of authenticity and inauthenticity in Beijing. This is a theme others have explored as well: Peter Hessler, for instance, deployed this same theme in Oracle Bones (2006). “Authenticity” does not take quite the same manifestations in China as it does in the West, and this is indicated here through various illustrations of the authentic and the inauthentic in China. This is a topic with clear room for further work, however, as the many Beijing Olympic stories that litter publications these days have at their heart a narrative of trust/distrust and authenticity (Will Beijing have clean air, as the government promised? Is the government trying to hide the real China behind glossy new buildings and freeways? Etc.). This tension deserves more thoughtful consideration than it is currently getting in the popular press, and requires a heavy dollop of self-reflection in addition to articulation of these issues as they play out in China.
Urbanatomy: Shanghai 2008 guidebook is just the thing backpackers might make room for (particularly those who are planning to stay in the area a while). I wrote two very brief historical pieces for this book last year—one on the author Ding Ling and another on May Fourth in Shanghai—though I have absolutely no financial stake in whether any of you buy it. (Jeff Wasserstrom, another China Beat contributor, also wrote for the guidebook, as did a number of other scholars and journalists.) The book is thick—almost 600 pages of glossy type and pictures, so it’s not easily toted around during the day (my favorite for this is an old standard—the Lonely Planet Shanghai City Guide—if you have favorite guidebooks, please feel free share your suggestions).
[i] This is a reference to the lively book by Russian scholar Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, which was originally published in 1965 and published in English translation in 1993. The book analyzed the novels of French Renaissance author Francois Rabelais and defines in them two strains of thought that Bakhtin believed had been overlooked in previous readings: “carnival” (a time during which European masses felt free to subvert the hierarchy through humor), and “grotesque realism” (basically, scatological and sexual humor; the main means by which subversion of hierarchy was accomplished).
1) This insightful piece on the economic roots of discontent in Tibet by Pankaj Mishra, an Indian intellectual who wrote an illuminating essay in the New Yorker last year about the impact of the new railroad through the Himalayas and recently was in China.
2) A careful day-to-day reconstruction of events, which highlight violence done by both sides on dramatic individual days such as March 14.
3) A fascinating look at the life and thought of the Dalai Lama by Pico Iyer, who has just published a book based on many years of conversations with the Tibetan leader in exile.
4) This news wire report of Chinese dissidents and critical intellectuals calling on the Beijing leadership to "directly engage in dailogue with the Dalai Lama."
5) Also of interest is this piece by the official Xinhua news agency that, in an effort to counteract any sense that the international community tout court is critical of Beijing at this moment, lists the countries around the world (North Korea, Syria, Nepal, Fiji, etc.) that have "expressed support to the Chinese government in its efforts to ensure social stability and the rule of law in Tibet and to defend the fundamental interests of the Tibetan people."
1) A very timely joint review of two new books (one by noted travel writer Pico Iyer) that place Tibetan history and the Dalai Lama's life into perspective have just appeared on the Economist's website.
2) An interesting extended look at how the current unrest compares with and is linked to events of the 1950s and 1980s, written by an adviser to the Tibetan government in exile.
3) If you would like to read further on the complex implications of the Tibetan events for the Taiwan election (further, that is, than Yong Chen’s commentary below), they are introduced well in this piece by a Financial Times correspondent in Taipei.
4) A blog tied to Wired magazine has good updated coverage of the flow and blockage of information on the web.
5) The Nation's website has just published a take on recent events by China Beat's Jeff Wasserstrom.
6) Newsweek has an exclusive new interview with the Dalai Lama here.
So many authors and pundits today attempt to predict China’s future by looking at the numbers: GDP, population, military spending, trade surplus, environmental measurements. Taking any combination of these figures, it is easy to declare that China is either a rising superpower, destined for world domination, or a teetering giant, bound only for disaster. The fact that both perspectives can—and have—been argued indicates the complexity of China’s situation and the inability of statistics to predict much of anything.
Rob Gifford, former Beijing correspondent for National Public Radio, took a three thousand mile-long journey along China’s Route 312, from Shanghai to the border with Kazakhstan, in his own effort to answer the question, “Which is it going to be for China, greatness or implosion?” (xix). China Road (Random House, 2007), the product of that trip, offers no definitive predictions for China’s future, but does provide readers with an enjoyable and informative glimpse into various pockets of Chinese society today and the challenges the country faces as it moves into the twenty-first century.
Gifford’s first trip along Route 312 produced a seven-part series of reports for NPR in the summer of 2004; the book is an expanded account of that journey and an additional, longer, trek the following year. China Road is clearly geared toward the widest audience possible: Gifford takes pains to include pronunciation guides for all those tricky Chinese words, and his tales of life on the road are interwoven with basic explanations of Chinese history and society. While I didn’t find any of Gifford’s analysis revelatory, I appreciated the fact that he often appears as confused about China’s direction as I am, and I’ve recommended China Road to several friends and relatives who seem to like my stories about living here. For China specialists, this is beach reading—no highlighter or note-taking required.
The premise of China Road is a simple one: Gifford begins in Shanghai—the Emerald City—and travels backward along the Yellow Brick Road of Route 312, reversing the route of migrant laborers who come east looking for jobs. As he moves deeper into China’s interior, Gifford encounters people and places which spark ruminations on all the Big Questions of China today: the One Child Policy, AIDS, environmental degradation, prospects for democracy, the legacy of Communism, and the gulf between rich and poor, east and west. This “journey into China’s frailties” (xviii) vividly portrays all the contradictions of contemporary China, and raises questions as to how long the government in Beijing will be able to sustain a system in which cities are oases of prosperity and development dotted among a vast rural backdrop of grinding poverty. While Gifford acknowledges the cyclical nature of Chinese history, and the possibility that social unrest will once again topple a dynasty in the near future, he sees Route 312—and the other new long-distance roads and railroads crisscrossing the country—as a potentially crucial factor in breaking the cycle. By providing an outlet for rural citizens seeking a better life in the cities, highways “have become the steam-release valve on the pressure cooker that could previously be released only by rebellion” (277). Whether or not these roads and China’s urban centers can bear the burden of 800 million villagers in search of an escape route remains a question in my mind, but I understand Gifford’s point nonetheless.
While Catherine Sampson had the privilege of being a featured speaker at the recent Shanghai International Literary Festival, I went as an audience member and joined a large crowd of expats assembled in The Glamour Bar (a stylish nightspot located in one of the Bund’s elegant treaty-port era landmark buildings) to hear Rob Gifford speak about China Road and his thoughts on China today. Appropriately enough, Gifford’s first words were almost drowned out by the sound of jackhammers at a construction site next door—tools probably operated by migrant laborers who had traveled to Shanghai along Route 312 or one of China’s other major arteries. Gifford’s talk, like China Road, was smooth and polished—he has, after all, been publicizing the book for almost a year now—but not stilted or stale. Relaxed and self-deprecating (two necessary qualities for an appearance on The Daily Show), Gifford also spoke seriously about the feelings of both hope and despair he sees in Chinese society; to illustrate this contradiction, he read two memorable selections from the book. The first concerns his encounter with Amway salesmen in the Gobi Desert (chapter 15), who enthusiastically aspire to change their families’ fortunes and transform their society through pursuit of the new Chinese Dream: success, empowerment, respect (and, of course, a car and apartment as well). In stark opposition to this, the next excerpt concerns his meeting with a restaurant owner in Xinjiang (chapter 19), who sees no prospects for change in the lives of China’s peasantry, stating “Endure. That is all we can do. Ren shou. We can and must endure. That is all we have ever been able to do” (232). The disparity between these two visions for China’s future is a gap few statistics can portray; despite its occasional weaknesses, China Road effectively calls into question the notion that China is heading along any single predictable path, and does so in a pleasant and engaging manner.
1. James Miles (Beijing bureau chief for the Economist and the author of The Legacy of Tiananmen: China in Disarray, on China in the aftermath of 1989) is apparently the only Western journalist who is or was in Lhasa. He's published good reports like this one on the Economist's website and in the Times (London).
2. An NPR report in which they interview Miles and also Luisa Lim, NPR’s Shanghai correspondent.
3. Here's a good news round-up (to which China Beat’s Jeremiah Jenne has contributed).
4. For those curious about the cyberchatter the situation is generating, check out China Digital Times’ coverage. For translations into English of Chinese web chatter about Tibet, go to the Global Voices Online coverage here.
5. For those who would like to learn a little more about Tibet, here's a list of seven things Westerners often get wrong about Tibet by Donald S. Lopez, Jr., author of Prisoners of Shangrila.
Who’d have thought it? Book festivals – originally the cultural preserve of western cities – are popping up in several of China’s big urban centers. With one major difference, of course – they are run and largely attended by a rapidly growing population of expatriates. Much of the content is China-related – even those of us who have China in front of our eyes are always eager for more information, and different ways of interpreting what we see.
I started at the Bookworm in Beijing, where I live, then flew down to Hong Kong, and now, if it’s Thursday, I must be in Shanghai.(No Suzhou or Chengdu for me, I hang my head in shame.)
In Beijing, I was delighted to take part in an event with Qiu Xiaolong, now based in the US, whose atmospheric crime books are set in Shanghai, where he was born. He uses crime fiction to write about Chinese society, and his Inspector Chen is a gentle and poetic man who struggles to do the right thing in a politically complex world. Qiu described with great good humor how, when translated into Chinese, his mainland publisher finds it necessary to excise all mention of Shanghai, and instead to set the stories in a fictional city despite the fact that the descriptions in the book could be of nowhere else.
In Hong Kong, I met another of my literary heroes, US-based Yan Geling, whose book The Uninvited (The Banquet Bug in the US) is a wonderfully funny satire. It tells the story of an unemployed man who discovers that if he poses as a journalist he can not only gorge himself at fabulous banquets, he can also support himself with the cash he is given in the red packets he takes away from press conferences. The trouble begins when people who believe he is a real journalist approach him to ask him to write about their very real grievances. Yan Geling has the same dry sense of humor in person that she has on the page, and spends much of her time in Beijing researching her stories.
I particularly enjoyed arriving in Hong Kong and plugging in my high-speed internet access line. The first thing I did was to visit the China Beat site for the first time. For the first time because… now, this is where I have a problem… according to a recent blog I read on China Beat, I should not be defining China by the use of negatives. Indeed it shows my arrogance to do so. Oh dear! My problem is that I simply cannot access China Beat in Beijing. I’m not meaning to look at this in a negative way, but every time I try to access China Beat my screen goes blank.
I couldn’t help thinking, this week, that I know lots of Chinese people who would welcome the chance to gather (without fear) and listen to Chinese writers speak in Chinese, about the books they had written (also without fear) in Chinese on all sorts of topics, including Chinese politics and recent history.
This week, at China’s various book festivals, there will be launches for the English-language editions of Jiang Rong’s Wolf Totem. Winner of the Asian Man Booker prize, a huge bestseller in China itself, Wolf Totem and its author walk a political tightrope. Because of his political background, Jiang Rong uses a false name. It doesn’t fool the authorities, of course (indeed, he’s allowed himself to be photographed) but the pen name allows them to look the other way. It is, after all, a story about wolves. It may have a political message, but it is not an overt polemic, it doesn’t name names or cite numbers. Still, so far Jiang Rong hasn’t dared to accept his many invitations to speak about his book abroad because he is afraid he may not be allowed to come back.
This posting about the politics of pop concerts in Shanghai is mostly about an American duo (Jan and Dean), whose hits included “Surf City,” and the hard-to-categorize Icelandic songstress Bjork, who last week made headlines and drew the ire of the Chinese state by saying the words “Tibet, Tibet” after performing a song called “Declare Independence" (on the heels of which, there was apparent tinkering with Harry Connick Jr.'s song list at a recent performance). It still seemed right, though, to give the piece a title adapted from a song by a famous British band. Why? Because the Rolling Stones, like Bjork and Jan and Dean back in 1986, made headlines when they played Shanghai. And because the band’s lead singer, Mick Jagger, made the funniest statement I’ve ever come across regarding the often singularly unfunny topic of censorship in the PRC. When told before the group’s 2006 concert that the authorities forbid them from playing “Brown Sugar” and several other sexually suggestive songs, at a concert that Jagger knew would probably be attended largely by Western men, accompanied by either Western of Chinese women, his comment (made with his famous tongue firmly in cheek) was: "I'm pleased that the Ministry of Culture is protecting the morals of the expat bankers and their girlfriends that are going to be coming.”
So what, you may be wondering, could efforts to pre-censor the Rolling Stones (not a new thing for them to deal with, since Ed Sullivan had made them change the lyrics of “Let’s Spend the Night Together” to “Let’s Spend Some Time Together” almost four decades earlier) and the outrage that came in the wake of Bjork’s reference to Tibet (from official spokesmen and also from some Chinese fans) have to do with Jan and Dean? Well, as far as I know, none of the songs on that surf band’s play list was deemed unacceptable when they performed in Shanghai, back when I was doing dissertation research in the city (though, alas, I didn’t make it to their concert). Nor did they make any statements before, between or after they played that caused a stir. Still, as I’ve noted elsewhere before, their concert, too, involved efforts by authority figures to limit freedom of expression—in that case by Chinese members of the audience that came to hear the music. According to reports that quickly made the rounds at Shanghai campuses, when some of these fans, students from Tongji University, eager to be part of the history-making first rock concert held in their city, got up to dance in the aisles, security guards told them to sit back down—and in a few cases, pushed them around a bit.
It is widely known, among China specialists at least, that rock music played a significant role in the Tiananmen protests of 1989. Wu’er Kaixi and other student leaders of the time cited Cui Jian (who would seventeen years later join the Stones onstage in 2006 for the Shanghai renditions of their song “Wild Horses,” by the way) and other performers as having influenced and inspired them, while Hou Dejian’s “Children of the Dragon” was a popular anthem at Tiananmen Square—where the song’s author, who had moved from Taiwan to the mainland, joined the protesting crowds. What has sometimes been forgotten is that anger at the way students were treated at the Jan and Dean concert played a role in the 1986 Shanghai demonstrations that, while smaller and more short-lived and far less dramatic than the ones to follow in 1989, helped pave the way for the Tiananmen movement.
What are the lessons to be drawn by this brief look back at rock music’s role in Chinese political struggles and cultural upsurges of the late twentieth century—a history that has been documented in insightful and detailed ways by the likes of Geremie Barmé, Linda Jaivin, Andrew Jones, and Andreas Steen? It might suggest that the authorities are right to worry about what happens during pop concerts. I would argue, though, that the line running from Jan and Dean to Bjork suggests something a bit different. Namely, that China’s rulers want their country to be one in which world-class events take place routinely in the cities of their country, but also want those same urban centers to be kept free from unexpected forms of expression. They want to be able to bring to China performers who gained fame partly through defying expectations—before her concert, in an article prophetically titled “Bjork’s Shanghai Surprise,” one officially sponsored China-based English language website enthused about the Icelandic star as someone known for her capacity to “surprise the public and the media with her new artistic directions, her quirky sense of fashion and her controversial attitudes” —and then have them eschew doing anything “quirky” or “controversial” while in the PRC. (Presumably an over-the-top fashion statement, such as the much-talked-about swan dress she wore to the 2001 Academy Awards would have been okay.)
A desire to control the script of public performances is not unique to China, with Ed Sullivan’s call for Jagger to tone down one of his lyrics and the flap over Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” during a recent Super Bowl half-time show being just two American cases in point. Still, it is hard to have things both ways, to convince international observers that your cities now offer the same things that London and New York do and to persuade students within your own country that they can be part of global youth culture without venturing abroad, and yet keep the occasional unexpected thing from happening in public. This is worth keeping in mind as the Olympics near, for individual Games are often remembered for surprising things that happened during them. And it might actually be better for China if the 2008 Olympics were remembered for some small, embarrassing surprises—a few moments like that which came during Bjork’s performance in Shanghai—than for being such a tightly controlled mega-event that it was drained of excitement. A mega-event so stripped of spontaneity that felt off somehow, like, well, a rock concert where everybody in the audience sat quietly in their seats.
These “international” holidays took local meanings and bore the weight of local politics. Borne out of socialist and labor movements in the United States, International Women’s Day (celebrated on March 8) is one of these events, though its path into China was less League of Nations and more Lenin: the first celebrations of International Women’s Day in China were sponsored by the CCP, after Lenin established it as an official Communist holiday in 1922.[ii] In the mid-1940s, both the GMD and the CCP sponsored their own Women’s Day celebrations; at the GMD event, speakers emphasized the need for women to effect change through traditional roles, while the CCP speaker advocated active participation by women on behalf of democracy and liberation.[iii] Only a few years earlier, in 1942, Ding Ling published her famous essay, “Thoughts on March 8,” which called out Communist leaders for focusing criticism on women rather than the social context that determined their choices.
Though largely adopted to the official calendar only in currently or formerly socialist countries, IWD also remains an integral celebration of the international calendar (for more, for instance, on the celebration in Russia, see Choi Chatterjee’s Celebrating Women). The United Nations and NGOs use the day to raise awareness about issues facing women around the world from HIV/AIDS to violence against women. This video posted by Sexy Beijing last year explores some of the meanings of Women’s Day in China.
[i] The first celebration of Arbor Day in China actually occurred a few years earlier, in 1914, under the rule of Yuan Shikai. At the urging of American protestant missionary-turned-agricultural reformer Joseph Bailie, the day was scheduled on Qing Ming, to combat Bailie’s observations that Chinese were denuding trees on the way to their ancestor’s graves in order to, per tradition, stick willow branches into the grave mounds. For more, see Randall Stross, The Stubborn Earth (1986), pp. 82-83. Arbor Day is now celebrated in China on March 12, to commemorate the death of Sun Yat-sen.
[ii] Temma Kaplan, “On the Socialist Origins of International Women's Day,” Feminist Studies 11.1 (Spring 1985): 163-171, p. 170.
[iii] See Jeff Wasserstrom, Student Protests in Twentieth-Century China (1991), p. 250-253.
An NPR report yesterday on the opening of a new session of the National People's Congress in Beijing began with a disparaging comment to the effect that China is still a long way from democracy. As a statement of fact, this is no doubt both true and lamentable. As an attempt to convey useful knowledge to American listeners about China's current situation, however, it seems to me nearly useless. Like many such statements, it is based on an implicit comparison between the Chinese political system and Western-style democracy. And like many such implicit comparisons, it falls victim to a particularly seductive and misleading form of comparative fallacy.
Any time we set out to compare two things, we need to identify and describe the differences and similarities between their corresponding parts. There's no problem if we are comparing two equally familiar and equally distant objects by applying a neutral, objective standard of
comparison. If I assert that granny apples have a green skin and sour flavor, while fuji apples have a golden skin and sweet flavor, I am unlikely to raise many hackles. If I claim that the average American's diet is relatively high in saturated fat and low in fiber, which the average Chinese diet is the reverse, I'm again on reasonably solid ground. As soon as we allow one of the two objects under study to represent, implicitly or explicitly, a normative standard of comparison, we're much more likely to produce skewed results. Imagine how a Washington apple would appear to a provincial Floridean who had encountered only naval oranges: as an abnormally hard orange with a dark smooth surface, lacking in internal sections and a readily peelable skin.
The vast majority of Western attempts to describe China, alas, have more than a little in common with our Floridian's account of an apple. We are inescapably products of our culture and so thoroughly identify with certain of its norms and values that we are strongly predisposed to take these elements as normative standards when attempting to identify or describe instances of cultural difference. We might well be entirely correct in the perception of difference. The trouble is that this predisposition warps the experience of difference so that all we finally see is the absence of qualities we take for granted in ourselves.
Consider, for a moment, some of the major themes that have dominated US news coverage of China over the past year or two. Stories about poisoned toothpaste and lead paint-coated children's toys point out that China lacks effective oversight of product safety. Articles about the brown skies of Beijing and the algae-green lakes of Jiangsu make clear that the country lacks effective environmental regulation. And reports concerning the arrest and harassment of outspoken dissidents, lawyers, and journalists remind us, yet again, that the Chinese still lack freedom of speech and other basic political rights.
The common rhetorical thread running through all of these news stories is the notion of a Chinese lack or absence: the Chinese fail to measure up, in each case, to one normative Western standard or another. Once one becomes aware of this pattern, it turns up everywhere. The Chinese, we learn from reporters and commentators, lack intellectual property rights, worker protection laws, legal transparency, government accountability, journalistic freedom, and judicial independence. From 20th-century historians, linguists, and comparative philosophers we learn of deeper, structural deficiencies: the Chinese, in many recent accounts, lack a tradition of innovation, abstract reasoning, hypothetical thought, taxonomic classification, a sense of public virtue, respect for personal freedom, declinable verbs, and so on. If you type the phrase "the Chinese lack" into Google, you can come up with 2354 more examples. The Chinese would seem to be lacking in so many essential qualities, in fact, that it seems something of a wonder that they can sustain a functional society at all.
The problem with such formulations is not that they are factually "false," though some of them certainly are. It is true, after all, that Washington apples "lack" a readily peelable skin and internal sections, that declinable verbs are not a feature of the Chinese language, and that the discourse of individual rights has not been a dominant current in Chinese political thought over the past several centuries. The problem, rather, is that negative assertions make for utterly inadequate descriptions.
Imagine that I want to tell you about a creature I saw on a recent trip, but that all I can remember about it is that it didn't have a trunk, tusks, floppy ears, teath, legs, toenails, or deeply textured skin. You might surmise, correctly, that the creature I'd seen was not an elephant, but you'd be hard pressed to conjure up a satisfactory mental picture from my account. My account is an entirely true and accurate description of a whale, but it doesn't get us very far in understanding what a whale is. A knowledge of China consisting largely of a series of negations-no human rights, no free press, no environmental protection, no effective regulation, no public manners, no democracy-is really no knowledge at all.
What this kind of surrogate knowledge does provide, however, is a wonderfully flattering self-conception for those making the comparison. For if China lacks all these good things, the implication is that "we" possess them, and presumably always have. What American, on reading yet another New York Times article on Chinese human rights violations, doesn't feel a certain pleasing rush of indignant self-righteousness? Perhaps Americans are justified in feeling pride in a constitution that succeeds in protecting most citizens' rights most of the time. To the extent, however, that we allow the "knowledge" of Chinese lacks to reinforce our appreciation for our own ways of doing things, we develop a compelling interest in seeking out and perpetuating such negative claims about China, which often, on closer examination, turn out to be useless and misleading. We run the very real risk of being led astray, in our well-intentioned pursuit of cross-cultural understanding, by the very conditions of that pursuit.