Boss Hu and the Press

In early May, we published the first installment of our feature, "China Around the World." We asked scholars, journalists, and graduate students working outside China and the US to reflect on Chinese media and coverage of China. This reflection on the implications of Hu Jintao's recent visit to the People's Daily newsroom is from Nicolai Volland, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Chinese Studies at the National University of Singapore.

By Nicolai Volland

One June 20, Hu Jintao paid a high profile visit to the People’s Daily. His foray to the editorial offices of the CCP mouthpiece was first announced in the form of what turned out to be all but a Hoax: “General Secretary Hu chats with Chinese netizens!” The news spread like a wildfire, but surfers who rushed to the People’s Daily’s “Strong Nation Forum” found themselves barred from entering. Disappointed, they vented their anger in the freely accessible Tianya forum.

As it turned out, they may have missed little. Sitting in the offices of the People’s Daily, “Boss Hu” (Hu zong – the slightly irreverent way Chinese netizens refer to Hu is, ironically, a consequence of Hu’s name being blocked by most online forums) looked at a screen and was read three questions asked by what presumably were loyal and prescreened users of the forum. All questions were harmless (“Mr. General-Secretary, what do you read on the web?” “Mr. General-Secretary, do you review many suggestions and proposals from netizens on the web?”). Hu answered to one of the forum’s editors, who keyed in the general secretary’s answers. Then the “chat” was over and Hu rushed on to other business – his real business.

It turned out that Hu Jintao’s June 20 visit to the People’s Daily was not accidental, and the “chat” was but a deft move to raise the publicity of his visit. So much has become clear in the following days, when the Chinese media began to roll out a massive campaign relaying the importance of Hu’s visit, with the People’s Daily itself spearheading the movement. Hu Jintao used his visit to the offices of the paper to deliver a short but carefully planned speech to the newspaper’s assembled staff; in fact, his target audience were not the several hundred employees of the Central Committee organ, but rather the three millions employees across China’s vast media sector in general. Hailed as a “programmatic document” by the Central Propaganda Department, Hu’s speech in fact sets out the rules for the Chinese media not only for the upcoming Olympics, but in fact for years to come.

Hu’s visit and the high profile attached to it is not without precedent. For more than half a century, CCP top leaders have made it a tradition to visit the Party press and, in the course of “chats” with editors and journalists, to outline the Party’s policy towards the media. In April 1948, Chairman Mao visited Jin-Sui Daily, one of the CCP’s wartime papers. His “Talk with Editors at Jin-Sui Daily” was included in volume four of Mao’s Selected Works and has since been a cornerstone of CCP press theory.

In 1956, Liu Shaoqi held two meetings with journalists at the Xinhua news agency in which he signaled a significant relaxation on the ideological front that became known as the “Hundred Flowers” policy. Xinhua staff should not dogmatically copy the Soviet TASS agency, said Liu, but also see what might be learned from the news agencies in capitalist countries (Liu’s remarks were quoted by radicals from Beijing media units during the Cultural Revolution and were taken as evidence of Liu’s “crimes”).

In 1985, then general secretary Hu Yaobang paid a similar visit to People’s Daily, as did Jiang Zemin in 1996 (thanks to Alice Lyman Miller for the references to the visits of Hu and Jiang). Jiang’s speech was given wide publicity, especially his attempts to balance the media’s function as loyal mouthpieces of the Party with their emerging role in “public opinion supervision” (yulun jiandu) through means such as investigative journalism. It is thus obvious that Hu tries to place himself within a long tradition of making major announcements of media policy through visits to the Party’s top media. So what are we to expect from the Chinese media in the coming years? A closer reading of Hu’s June 20 speech tells us much about core points of the CCP’s media policy in the twenty-first century.

First of all, what makes Hu’s speech interesting are his acknowledgement of new developments in the Chinese media industry. In particular, Hu mentions the popular urban dailies (dushibao, such as Nanfang dushibao, the cutting edge investigative paper from Guangzhou) and the Internet as crucially important new components of the Chinese media landscape. The rise of a popular press appealing to readers’ tastes in a competitive market is probably the biggest change in the decade since Jiang Zemin reiterated the importance of the Party papers. Hu elevates the product of the Party’s media reforms and the commercialization of the press sector and gives them legitimacy within the Party-dominated public sphere. In a similar vein, the electronic and web-based media are now officially incorporated into the CCP’s media theory – as demonstrated by Hu’s “chat” with surfers at the Strong Nation Forum.

However, Hu Jintao is quick to balance the newly emerging media and their counterpart, the Party press, and lay down an authoritative definition of the respective roles of the two media types: “With the Party papers and broadcasting stations as the mainstay...” – the commercial papers are supplementing the role of the Party press, but are by no means supposed to replace the latter. In fact, the urban dailies and the web-based media are what the Party press is to the CCP: “propaganda resources” (xuanchuan ziyuan). Hu Jintao acknowledges the existence of a “multi-layered public opinion” and the need to take all these layers into account in the Party’s propaganda work. That seems to be evidence for a more sophisticated and flexible approach to thought work and propaganda.

Propaganda, however, is the core theme of Hu’s speech, and it remains the defining framework for the Chinese press of the 21st century. The overall parameters have changed remarkably little, and in these respects Hu’s speech closely follows Jiang’s 1996 address. Indeed, in the very first paragraph, Hu speaks of the “news front” (xinwen zhanxian), a term that is decades old; the militaristic vocabulary harks back to the CCP’s perception of the media as a weapon in its struggle for power. Of all the media principles that Hu consequently invokes, the first and most prominent is partiinost (dangxing), a Soviet concept that has been the core of the CCP's approach to the media since the 1930s. Its reiteration in the current context is a clear signal that the basic line remains what it has been: the press – no matter Party press or other media – must unwaveringly follow the line of the Party center.

The third and fourth paragraphs of Hu’s speech in particular are outright cold war rhetoric. Hu declares that “News and public opinion are at the forefront of the ideological field,” and in the next paragraph he explains that China finds itself amidst an intensifying ideological conflict with the West (“...the struggle in the field of news and public opinion is getting more intense and more complicated”). The means of this struggle may be changing, but not its nature. China’s ideological conflict with the West remains as acute as ever in the eyes of the CCP’s top leader. These are the external factors that determine the Party's use of the media. In his explanations on partiinost, Hu says that “correct guidance of public opinion benefits the Party, the nation, and the people”; incorrect guidance, in turn, is prone to bring disaster: the CCP has learned its lesson from the democracy movement in 1989 and from the breakup of the Soviet Union. The CCP is not going to let it happen in China.

A crucial measure to ensure that the Party stays in control of the media is journalism education. Again, Hu takes his cue from Jiang Zemin, who had stressed the same point in 1996. As the gatekeepers in the media field (there is no pre-publication censorship in the PRC, so journalists and editors are responsible to judge what goes and what not), journalists will be carefully watched; their ranks may be weeded from time to time, to ensure that they stick to the role the Party has assigned to them. Over the last years, the CCP has driven an aggressive push to standardize registration and examination of prospective and practicing journalists, and in light of Hu’s speech, more of the same may be in the offing.

In the run-up to the Olympic Games, the Chinese media have been in the headlines repeatedly. On the one hand, the Party has cracked down across the board, discouraging expressions of dissent before and during the Olympics. In particular, publications that have existed for many years in the cracks of the Party-state, such as the popular English-language magazine That’s Beijing have been ordered to shut down or have seen takeovers by their Chinese joint venture partners. Experiments with new media forms are clearly not encouraged.

On the other hand, much has been written about the surprisingly swift and broad coverage of the Wenchuan earthquake, when the Chinese media ignored an early ban on reporting and went into a nearly round-the-clock coverage of events, while Xinhua and the other paragons of the state media stood by. An emancipation of the Chinese press? Less so in Hu Jintao’s eyes. The upsurge in earthquake reporting was quickly brought under control and was superseded by massive mainstream propaganda that focused on the heroic rescue efforts of the PLA and the national Party leadership. Controversial topics such as construction problems at school building that collapsed and corruption were quickly suppressed. Well done: Hu Jintao congratulated the People’s Daily staff on their extraordinary achievements during four major news events earlier this year: the winter storms that brought traffic to a collapse in much of Southern China, the struggle to “protect social stability in Tibet,” the preparation of the Olympics, and finally, the Wenchuan earthquake.

No fear of media openness, then; the CCP has demonstrated its ability to open up temporarily but quickly rein in the media once a return to its close control of the media was deemed desirable. Overall, both Party media and their more popular counterparts have played their role within the Party’s concert on the “news and propaganda battle front” remarkably well. In his speech Hu Jintao, or “Boss Hu,” as the surfers at Tianya called him, has summed up from the theoretical vantage point the experiences of the past decade, and has staked out the direction for the next years: be open to the new, but only once it is effectively co-opted and integrated into the Party’s existing framework of governance.


China Around the World: Brazil

China Beat occasionally reposts material that contributors have prepared and published in other venues. Below, Yong Chen has provided the transcript of an interview with a Brazilian paper.

By Yong Chen

The recent earthquake in Sichuan Province that devastated Wenchuan and the surrounding areas has generated much sympathy from people all over the world. They are also concerned about the broader impact on China, especially its economy and the upcoming Olympic games. Recently, I was recently interviewed by Correio Braziliense, the most important and influential in Brasilia. The interview questions exemplify such concerns and the global attention to China’s future development.

Q: Your nation is recovering from a big earthquake and is still under polemics about Tibet protests. What kind of economical impact will the earthquake have on the Olympic Games? Does there exist the risk of China not be able to be ready to host Olympic Games this year? Why?

A: China will be ready for the Olympics. There is no question about it. The earthquake is undoubtedly devastating, especially for the local residents and enterprises in the damaged areas. And economically, it will have some impact on the national economy. According to Chinese official figures, about 14,207 enterprises were affected, and the direct economic loss would be around 67 billion Chinese dollars. The indirect cost will be much, much higher. Experts estimate that China’s GDP growth rate will be reduced by .5%. Overall, however, the Chinese economy remains strong.

There are weakening sectors, such as the financial and real estate industries, which had shown signs of weakness even before the earthquake; but I have seen an indication that the growth trend will be reversed or even significantly slowed down. Moreover, investors have not lost confidence in China, which is evidenced by the continued growth of China’s enormous foreign currency reserves in the aftermath of the earthquake (such growth does not result from a corresponding growth of exports, as is shown by China’s trade figure in the first quarter of 2008).

As devastating and disastrous as the earthquake has been, it has also increased the sense of solidarity among the Chinese, socially and politically. As a nation, the Chinese are more determined than before to be successful in conducting the 2008 Olympic Games.

Furthermore, the earthquake gives the Chinese, including the government, more experience in dealing with unexpected events. Finally, it also eased the recent tension between China and some Western media organizations. I have do doubt that cities and villages in the earthquake will rise again from the ruins of the earthquake. As a nation, China is ready the Olympic games.

Q: How much money is China government investing in the event?

A: They spent a lot of money for sure. I do not think anyone could put a precise figure on such investments. I cannot, for sure. This is in part because of the money spent was directly related to the event; others are more indirect, including the cost of improving the roads, relocating some f the major polluting factories. The important thing is that China can afford to spend the money - as much as it requires to have a successful 2008 Olympic Games; and it also has the organizational capacities to do it at this moment.

China had tried to bid to host the 2000 Olympic games but failed. That failure may have been a failure in disguise because I think the country is in a much better position to do it now than 2000.

Q: What kind of economical impact do you believe Olympic Games will have for China? How much money and investments opportunities would it be possible to create with this event? Why?
A: In the short term, I do not think the event will generate much revenue in any significant way. Its success will have to be measured in other areas, such as global image, internal improvement in numerous ways -- including people's behavior patterns, the environment, social organization—and China's connectivity to the rest of the world. For the Chinese, these are far more important than economic measures. If China can succeed in those non-economic areas, investors will see the country as a desirable place to invest. They will do so.

The Olympic Games will be a watershed event in Chinese history. In the past 20 years (some people say 30 years), China's phenomenal economic growth has transformed the country, and the world. In the past few years, some of that growth is geared toward, or perceived as connected to, the Olympic Games. So the entire world is watching the Olympic Games very closely. A successful Olympic Games event would boost the confidence of the Chinese and the rest of the world in China's future. I do not think the Olympic Games will immediately and directly bring a lot of investments. People have been investing in China heavily in the past 20 years, and they do not need to "discover" China as a place for investment opportunities. They want to see if China can remain such a place in time to come.

Just as we should not underestimate the importance of the Olympic Games, we must not overestimate its economic impact. Many people in Latin America remember the 1968 Mexican Olympic Games and the fact economic growth of the Mexican economy in the post-World War II years. I do not think the economic difficulties that Mexico experienced after 1968 can be attributed to the Olympic Games. By the same token, we cannot simply attribute the economic success of post-war Japan to the 1964 Tokyo summer Olympic Games.

In short, the hosting of Olympic games is not the only thing going on in China; its importance should be appreciated in the context of what is happening in the country as a whole. In other words, instead of focusing solely on the event, especially its immediate economic impact, we should use it as a window through which to understand China and appreciate what is taking shape there in the economy and in people's everyday life. The Chinese world will not come to halt after August 2008, nor will the Chinese economy.


Wei Cheng: From an Elite Novel to a Popular Metaphor

China Beat is a global operation (with posts being written thus far everywhere from Beijing to Boston, Colorado to Cambodia) but it is edited at the University of California, Irvine, and more than a few CB pieces have grown out of casual conversations held on this campus. This post, for example, began when one of us mentioned to Xia Shi, who moved here from Beijing last year to do graduate work in history, that an interesting essay on the novel Fortress Besieged had appeared in the June 12 issue of the New York Review of Books (alas, only a teaser for this essay by Pankaj Mishra is available free online if you don't subscribe), and she asked if it had dealt with the old novel's popularity among members of her generation. It hadn't. And her explanation for the 21st century relevance of this pre-1949 work seemed well worth sharing, so we asked her to write about it.

By Xia Shi

Wei Cheng (Fortress Besieged) has been hailed by some critics as “the most delightful and carefully wrought novel in modern Chinese literature” and “perhaps also its greatest.” (See Hsia, C.T., arguably the novel’s earliest proponent, A History of Modern Chinese Fiction. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1961) Written by Qian Zhongshu in 1947, it is an acerbic comedy about the hapless hero Fang Hongjian’s wanderings in middle-class society. Its 1979-translated English title is based on a French proverb: Marriage is like a fortress besieged: those who are outside want to get in, and those who are inside want to get out. The British equivalent of this French saying draws a picture of a gilded bird cage with the birds outside wanting to get in, and the birds inside wanting to fly out. Both these versions are mentioned by Qian’s characters.

Since its initial publication, the novel’s reception in China has swung from early criticism of the book as a product of elite culture to the 1980s and 1990s wide acclaim amid pop culture’s frenzied consumption. Nowadays, Wei Cheng and Qian are household names. Its canonization process involved not merely “rediscovery,” but “reinvention,” in a surprisingly diverse number of ways. In 1990s China, “Wei Cheng” was a prominent popular word, ranked alongside “Karaoke,” “stock market,” “privacy,” and “MBA.” Nowadays, it has been incorporated into common people’s daily speech. If you ask an urban Chinese of average education what “Wei Cheng” means, most of the time, the answer will fall within the following four aspects:

First of all, “Wei Cheng” is used as a metaphor for marriage. It denotes the complexities of the institution of marriage. Jonathan Spence in his Foreword for the novel’s English version (just reviewed by Pankaj Mishra in the New York Review of Books ) regards it as “one of the finest descriptions of the disintegration of a marriage ever penned in any language.” When Fang Hongjian deplores marriage as a besieged fortress, Qian clearly conveys an anti-romantic pessimism about marriage.

Considering the ever-increasing divorce rate in big cities, more and more Chinese are catching Wei Cheng”s connotation today, as the following typical daily life dialogue on marriage reveals:

Friend A: I am going to get married soon.
Friend B: (joking) Wanna enter “Wei Cheng,” huh? Congratulations!

To be sure, ambivalence towards marriage is a universal mentality. However, it could be said that it was Qian who first created the Chinese equivalent of the French “fortress besieged” or the English “gilded bird cage.” According to Jonathan Spence, the phrase “Wei Cheng” in Chinese “had been most prominently used by a Chinese poet back in 1842 to describe the city of Nanking when it was besieged by the British after their defeat of China in the first of the so-called ‘opium wars.’” Thus, he infers, “shame and national humiliation would have been very much in people’s thoughts.” However, since Qian’s usage, it has gained a new life and it is this new meaning that contemporary Chinese are most familiar with.

Interestingly enough, the phrase “Wei Cheng” in Chinese not only conveys similar meanings to its French or English equivalent, but also has unique national and cultural characteristics. If literally translated, it should be “surrounded cities.” If you ask Chinese people what image they conjure when hearing this phrase, many will reply that they picture ancient Chinese architecture—walls in rectangular shape, with four gates, sometimes with four turrets. Even the textures of the bricks of the walls, they will sometimes vividly add, resemble those of the Great Wall (Chang Cheng, literally “Long Walls”). It is absolutely not a fortress or a birdcage or a modern city. However, it should be admitted that it is hard to concisely and precisely translate this layer of distinct Chinese architectural flavor of the term into another language. As Lydia Liu argues, the choice for translatable equivalents between languages always faces the danger of leaving something missing. Nonetheless, “fortress besieged”, in spite of bringing to mind “European” castles, can still be regarded as a rough equivalent of Chinese city walls. Qian in his book never give any specific descriptions on what this “Wei Cheng” looks like and thus left a space for individual imagination. In analyzing the varied meanings of Wei Cheng, however, it becomes clear that amazingly similar images can be deployed to represent a common human idea—that of marriage as an imprisonment, of sorts—despite vast national, cultural, and linguistic differences.

More broadly speaking, “Wei Cheng” can also be used to describe the dilemma of perpetual human dissatisfaction. By insisting that the human condition is doomed to dissatisfaction, Qian’s attitude toward humanity is outside any particular context. In this sense, it is more often used in the phrase of “Wei Cheng Xianxiang” (the phenomenon of Wei Cheng). A google search will reveal to you an amazing amount of “Wei Cheng Xianxiang” that are currently perplexing modern Chinese society, in the fields of education, investment, or retirement and so on. For instance, you may see a report on the current fever of college graduates taking the highly selective national examinations to vie for the limited posts of government employees. Here, the “Wei Cheng Xianxiang” the reporter points out is between those who see stability and “invisible but potential” good income offered by government jobs and are thus eager to get in on them, and those ambitious talents who are already in government jobs but soon became bored and thus wanted to quit.

The third aspect of the novel that has entered the Chinese idiomatic lexicon is associated with the fad of studying abroad and fake diplomas. In particular, the term “Carleton University,” (克莱登大学) from which Qian’s character Fang Hongjian purchased his fake Ph.D. diploma, can be applied to refer to an illegitimate degree qualification or academic institution. Qian scorned the fake diploma as “Adam and Eve’s fig leaf,” which “could hide a person’s shame and wrap up his disgrace.” Since China’s open and reform, more and more Chinese have been choosing to study overseas so as to return years later with a “gilded” layer. (镀金). Correspondingly, many people soon realize that some of these returned students, like Fang Hongjian, have fake diplomas. As a result, we can see that public discourse on various media soon began to warn employers of removing the scales from their eyes to recognize those who were back from “Carleton University”. However, it should be noted that Qian’s satire was not merely limited to those fake degree holders. In his novel, even those characters with real Ph.D. degrees were nothing but pretentious and arrogant intellectuals. In fact, in Spence’ s view, what Qian was aiming to satirize is the whole “baleful effects of the excessive adaptation of Western literary and aesthetic theories,” which had “corroded the integrity of the Chinese.” In other words, Qian expressed his doubts that China had to throw off the shackles of tradition and urgently modernize itself in order to be a strong, self-confident nation. He mocked the entire phenomenon of overseas studying as “modern keju” (Imperial Examination System), the alternative of “reflecting glory on one’s ancestors” (光宗耀祖). The following words from Wei Cheng have been widely regarded in China as the most classic satire of the mentality of those who blindly followed the fever of studying abroad.

“…the studying abroad today is like passing examinations under the old Manchu system…It’s not for the broadening of knowledge that one goes abroad but to get rid of that inferiority complex. It’s like having smallpox or measles, or in other words, it’s essential to have them….Once we’ve studied abroad, we’ve gotten the inferiority complex out of the system, and our souls become strengthened, and when we do come across such germs as Ph.D.’s or M.A.’s we’ve built up a resistance against them… Since all other subjects ….have already been Westernized, Chinese literature, the only native product, is still in need of a foreign trademark before it can hold its own…”

It should be noted that Qian himself received a Bachelor degree on English Literature from Oxford University in 1937. His thesis was about “China in the English Literature of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century”.

Last but not least, if you happened to be familiar with the more “vulgar” side of contemporary Chinese popular culture, unexpectedly, you will be amused to find that many laobaixing (commoners) like to use “Wei Cheng” to refer to playing Mahjong. It is unclear why and when “Wei Cheng” became a Mahjong nickname. Probably it is because the way playing mahjong is like building up “surrounded walls.” As an aside, it is equally interesting to notice that Qian mentioned Mahjong in his novel. When he described bored Chinese students playing Mahjong on the ship home from their overseas studies, Qian referred to it as “the Chinese national pastime,”that was “said to be popular in America as well,” and sarcastically remarked, “thus playing mahjong not only had a down-home flavor to it but was also in tune with world trends.” As early as the 1920s, if not earlier, Mahjong was well known in China for its corrupting influence. In particular, it was often associated with the stereotypical image of the “parasitic and decadent” taitais (wives of upper or middle class men), as you may have seen from the beginning of Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution or in the descriptions of novelist Eileen Chang (Zhang Ailing), whose works often invoke popular nostalgia for the 1930-40s Shanghai. (Interestingly, she began to receive escalating critical attention almost at the same time with Qian and both of the two writers had been greatly promoted by C.T. Hsia) Therefore, here by using mahjong, Qian actually scorned that China’s “bright future” was in the hands of these returning students, representatives of modern “civilization and progress,” spending “their entire time gambling, except for eating and sleeping.”

All of the above four aspects demonstrate that the degrees to which Wei Cheng has permeated contemporary Chinese popular culture. In a sense, it could be argued that Wei Cheng’s “metamorphosis” from a novel to a phrase or idiom in Chinese daily lexicon provided a new arena for the expression and elaboration of social phenomenon and mentality on many major fields such as family life, work, and education. It is closely linked to a post-Cultural Revolution China on its road to modernization.

Wei Cheng’s later popularization was something that Qian could never have expected considering the various criticizing voices he heard after its initial publication in 1947. In spite of the recognized accuracy of the novel’s biting social commentary, it was derided by critics as “high class reading,” “out of this universe,” unconnected with ordinary people’s devastating wartime living experiences, and for being apolitical, “not embodying either leftist or anti-Japanese values.” As for the majority of the population, they barely heard of it due to its limited circulation.

Half a century later, exhausted from various political struggles and movements, apparently, the Chinese masses have changed their tastes and reading expectations. Caught by its tone of futility, they began to enjoy its apolitical stance, honesty and humor, psychological insights, and the erudite display in its skillful manipulation of language. After its adaptation to a well-received TV show, mass media further led common people to find the rich relevance of this novel to their own lives in 1990s China, a society with a reflective orientation amid its everyday newness. Lacking even one lovable character or role model (including its four heroines), readers nonetheless believe that Qian gave them a sympathetic portrayal of real persons, in whom they found a little bit of themselves. Meanwhile literary critics’ lavish praise set a new standard of evaluation, emphasizing the importance of aesthetic criticism and cultural cosmopolitanism, and confirmed the masses of their “high” tastes as well. This criticism raised consumption of the novel from the simple act of reading to the demonstration by its readers of their participation in a “high quality” and cultured lifestyle. Consequently, we see that the dramatic transformation Chinese people and society experienced changed readers’ expectation as well as the novel’s relevance to society and hence led to its unexpected canonization and its author’s apotheosis. In other words, it can be argued that the process of reception to the novel of Wei Cheng tells us a lot about China’s historical journey in the past half century.

Finally, a question that some Wei Cheng scholars have been perplexed and obsessed with for a long time is: Considering the novel’s wide influence and status in modern Chinese literature, why is the existing body of English language scholarship on Qian and Wei Cheng extremely limited even today? The answer to that question would require another post altogether.

1. Qian Zhongshu
2. A still from the popular television series, based on the book.


Finding Trust Online: Tigergate to the Sichuan Earthquakes

Recent events have shown just how vital a part of Chinese life and politics the Internet has become, so China Beat asked sociologist Yang Guobin, who has been researching the topic to share some of his thoughts with our readers about this important subject. Here is his guest post, which ties together two recent developments that highlight sources of trust and distrust in cyberspace and other realms.

By Guobin Yang

On December 15, 2007, China Digital Times posted a story about last year’s “Tigergate incident.” Titled “The Truth is More Endangered than Tigers in China,” the story begins:

The “South China Tiger” [华南虎]saga continues. Now known as “Tigergate” among Chinese netizens, this event will no doubt be one of the top media/internet stories of 2007. On December 2nd, NetEase (one of China’s leading news portals) published all 40 digital photos that farmer Zhou Zhenglong alleged he took of the tiger and also published six independent experts’ evaluations of the authenticity of these photos. These six independent third party evaluations include no less than American Chinese criminologist Henry Lee (李昌钰), the China Photographers Association (CPA)’s digital photo authentification center, and China’s top South China Tiger expert Hu Huijian (胡慧建). And all of their evaluations of the tiger photo reached the same conclusion: they’re fake.The story goes back to October. On October 12, 2007, the Shaanxi Forestry Bureau announced at a news conference the discovery of a South China tiger believed to be extinct in the wild. The proof of the discovery was a photograph taken by a peasant hunter called Zhou Zhenglong. The photograph was allegedly authenticated by a team of scientists and experts the local government had commissioned to appraise it. Yet as soon as the photograph was released on the internet, China’s inquisitive netizens challenged its authenticity. On November 16, someone posted the image of a traditional Chinese New Year tiger painting in an internet forum, contending that Zhou’s tiger was a photo of the tiger in the painting. Even as the evidence overwhelmingly showed that Zhou’s photograph was a forgery, the Shaanxi Forestry Bureau remained evasive and refused to acknowledge the truth. Lasting for months, the online debates among frustrated netizens became a virtual quest for truth that was just not forthcoming.

The “Tigergate” incident has symbolic significance. As the CDT posting puts it, it is “a reflection of the existing crisis of public trust in China society.” It reflects citizens’ yearning for trust.

Not only do people use the internet in search of real-world trust, as the Tigergate case shows, but there are many acts of trust in cyberspace. This is not to say there is no dark matter on the internet. Cyberspace is no more a pure land than other places. And yet, talk to any “net friends” (网友), and they usually have a supply of stories about friendship, love, philanthropy, understanding, trust, and solidarity in virtual reality.

But let me turn to the recent Sichuan earthquakes. One striking thing about public responses to the earthquakes was the demonstration of public trust. According to a survey of 523 respondents conducted on June 1, 2008 by researchers from Qinghua University, the internet was the most important channel of information after the earthquake, while television came the second and newspapers the third. The sample is admittedly small, but it is still revealing and thought-provoking. If it is true that more people used the internet than television for information, it indicates, among other things, a high degree of trust in information online.

Another example of such trust was the amount of donations people made online. Many people donated online. In partnership with several other web sites and Jet Li’s One Foundation, Tianya.com began to solicit online donations for disaster relief on the day of the earthquake. Three days later, on May 15, it had already raised 24 million Yuan (RMB). Most of this amount came from individual online donors, who would have to trust the web sites they use to make monetary donations.

Expressions of online trust interacted with and were matched by the outpourings of trust offline. Han Hai Sha, an environmental and educational NGO in Beijing, raised money, medicine, tents, and other materials and equipment for disaster relief within days of the earthquakes. Initially, however, activists in this small NGO were at a loss about how to transport these donations to the distant earthquake regions in Sichuan. They then thought of a friend in an internet-based automobile friendship club (che you hui 车友会). This individual immediately posted messages in the web sites of several such clubs. Within about ten minutes, Han Hai Sha had recruited ten netizens, who all volunteered to provide free transportation with their own automobiles at their own costs (which included expenses for gas, meals, and accommodation for a 4-5 day round trip from Beijing to Chengdu).

These acts of trust among common citizens, online and offline, formed a contrast with a deep-seated distrust of government officials. Entertaining doubts about whether local government officials would put the donations to proper use, many people resorted to the internet to push for transparency and accountability. In the middle of all the relief efforts, netizens revealed online, complete with digital photographs, “disaster only” tents showing up in the streets in Chengdu when they should have belonged to the much more heavily hit earthquake regions. In response to such public demands, the Chinese government issued policy guidelines avowing severe punishment of corruption related to earthquake donations.

In China today, stories about the lack of trust are many and all too familiar: People have poor trust not just in government officials, businesses, and police, but also in teachers, professors, scientists, and even physicians. There are fake foodstuffs, fake brand-name liquor, fake medicine, fake diplomas, fake beauty products. Everything is fake. Nothing and nobody can be trusted. At least for some people, that seems to be China’s harsh reality.

Why can there be trust in virtual reality when it is lacking in “real” reality? Why do people seek trust in cyberspace rather than in their communities? This puzzling phenomenon probably says more about the sorry condition of community than about the internet. If the degree of trust is a good measure, its weakness indicates the weakness of community. If people go online in search of trust, does it mean that there is an alternative community online? Do online communities make up for the poverty of community in the “real” world? Are they signs of escape or do they signal new practices of civic engagement? Contrasting citizens’ quests for trust in the Tigergate incident and after the Sichuan earthquakes opens up some interesting questions.


Jonathan Spence’s Yale Lectures: A Memoir

One member of the China Beat team, Susan Jakes, has had the unusual experience of both taking Jonathan Spence’s famous “History of Modern China” course as a Yale undergraduate, and then later returning to the university as a graduate student and serving as a teaching assistant for a later version of the same class. As a complement to our series on Spence’s Reith Lectures, we asked her to reflect on this experience.

By Susan Jakes

I first heard Jonathan Spence give a lecture thirty minutes or so after the first time I heard his name. It was the beginning of my fourth semester at Yale in 1995 during the chaotic week known on campus as “shopping period,” when students are allowed to attend any classes they choose. My roommate had announced that she was going to “shop Spence” and invited me to join her. Fortunately, she wasn’t too aghast to bring me along after I’d replied, “Sure, I’ll come with you, but what’s Spence?”

I don’t remember precisely how she answered, but whatever she said persuaded me to get dressed in a hurry and follow her to Yale’s largest auditorium a full half hour before the first lecture of History of Modern China was scheduled to begin. As my roommate had predicted, the huge room filled up quickly. A few minutes after we arrived, a figure in a hooded coat slipped through the crowd toward the blackboard and began, silently, to fill it with a list of unfamiliar words written in slender uppercase letters. When he took the lectern, he made no sales-pitch to the assembled shoppers. He said only, “I’d like to start now” and began a lecture he called, “Ten Things I Find Fascinating About China.” I’ve lost the notes I took that day—though I’m fairly certain the list included the Three Gorges Dam, the future of the one-child policy and the legacy of June 4th—but what has stuck with me, indelibly, is how quickly after Spence began to speak I knew that anything he found fascinating was something I needed to hear more about.

I wasn’t the only one. When the lecture ended, there was applause. I don’t how long it lasted because my roommate, whose wisdom I was beginning to appreciate, insisted we sprint to the bookstore a block away and buy the books for the course before they sold out. Which they did. Before we’d even left the store.


Spence lectured three times a week that year, which meant he had about forty lectures to span the period from just before the Manchu conquest to the present, or roughly a decade per each 50 minute class. The course moved chronologically, but it did so at what felt like an unhurried pace, with time for detours into art or literature and often deep within the layers of individual lives.

The lectures had the feel of finely crafted short stories, and at times full-length novels. They were beguilingly titled—“The View from Below,” “All in the Translation,” “Into the World,” “Bombs and Pianos”—and they built in intensity to end in startling revelations or quietly delivered lines of poetry. Often they played on the juxtapositions in their titles to explore social tensions: “Famine and Finance,” “Sects and the Social Fabric,” “Warlords and Bandits,” “Socialists and Revisionists.” Spence liked to put two biographical sketches side by side to capture different dimensions of a given moment, a technique he used to electrifying effect on Yuan Mei and Zhang Xuecheng in the “The Poet and the Historian,” and on writers Ding Ling and Xu Zhimo in a lecture called “Being Modern.”

Even in less experimental modes, he always put individuals front and center. No event worth mentioning was too large to be refracted through a single human life and no life was too minor to have its humanity summoned up from the past alongside the abstraction of its historical significance. Spence could manage this level of detail even in a 50 minute lecture because of his knack for drawing a profile out of a single image—the Kangxi Emperor advising a bondservant on his health, Ding Ling’s mother running around an athletic field on her newly unbound feet, a Boxer victim’s Steinway piano, Mao aboard his private train. He could “catch the essence,” as he sometimes describes it, of people and of historical moments so they lit up like lightning bugs in a jar.

Not that his delivery was flashy. He spoke casually, musingly, from behind a sheaf of yellow notepaper, in a way that sometimes made it sound as if what he was saying was only dawning on him at the moment he said it. The effect was disarming. There was an open-endedness about the way he presented even the subjects he knew best that invited us to feel a part of them. Seldom did a lecture not include the phrase, “I’ve always hoped someone would write an essay on this subject.” Questions were as much a part of the lectures as exposition and from time to time he answered them, “Well, we’re not sure.” But for the most part, his lectures held out the promise that China and its past could be, if not quite within our reach, than at least a little closer than they seemed.

Among some of my classmates this promise produced an almost instantaneous decision to reorient their studies or move to China. I came more hesitantly to the subject and the country, but I am sitting in Shanghai as I write this, quite as certain as one can be about historical causes and effect, that had I not found my way to that lecture hall in the spring of 1995, or if Spence had been lecturing on astrophysics or on Luxembourg, I would not be here.


That first Spence lecture was very much on my mind this January as I returned to the auditorium, amid the hubbub of another shopping period, to hear Spence teach a course now called “History of China: 1600 to the Present”—this time as a graduate student and one of his teaching assistants. Little had changed at Yale in the intervening 13 years, but China was a different place or at least it meant something different to my students than it had to me. During my first meetings with them I asked them to write a few sentences about why they were taking the course. A few wrote that they had heard the class was excellent or that Spence was “awesome.” But the vast majority explained their interest in terms of China’s prominence in world affairs, its power, its “rise.” Some of them explicitly related their interest to future careers in business. One described the class as “a necessity.” They were at least as interested in China’s future as they were in hearing about its past.

That China had become a much more forceful presence in the consciousness of his students must have been on Spence’s mind as he began his first lecture. He spoke about what he called “the extraordinary drama of emotions aroused by China,” and said he found “depressing” the recent “great emphasis on the negative aspects of China.” In place of 1995’s list of ten fascinating things, he gave two lists, one on China’s frequently emphasized negative sides (pollution, corruption, tainted products, Tibet, etc.) and the other on developments he saw as more encouraging, including “the development of urban restoration” and “Chinese presence in Africa” along with the transformation of the middle class, stability in recent leadership transitions, the Olympics and the fact that “China [was] working enormously hard on energy.”

If I found it hard to share his optimism on some of these counts, I was reminded at the end of that first lecture of just how much change in China’s present Spence has witnessed in the years he has been studying its past. “I started out studying China here at Yale in 1959,” he told the final group of students who would hear him teach the course, “We weren’t being told very much...We really didn’t realize that one of the largest famines in China was happening—a missing cohort of 20 million to 30 million people…The People’s Republic was only 10 years old—now it’s 58 years old and somewhere in there is my life.”

This year’s lectures moved more briskly than they had in 1995. There were only two a week now and an extra decade to cover. But even in more compressed form they teemed with the kind of detail that had captivated me the first time around. Spence reflected more often about the development of his scholarship, and on his own encounters with contemporary China. Often when the class ended, he would climb down to the corner of the room where the teaching assistants sat and regale us with anecdotes or questions he hadn’t had time to include in the formal part of the class.

One side of the class I hadn’t remembered was the way Spence used humor, the way his formal British diction could give way to a reference to Kangxi as Yongzheng’s “old man” or a description of people in the 17th century “visiting tea houses for R&R.” He likened the life of a low-level Chinese scholar to “being trapped in high school your entire life—a grim prospect for many of us.” When the Yankee Doodle, a local greasy spoon where Spence had eaten his first American meal in 1959 closed its doors this winter, he asked the class for a moment of silence. Then he said, “Don’t write this on the midterm but Kangxi would have liked the Doodle and Qianlong wouldn’t have gone near it and that may explain my feelings about those two emperors.” Watching my students respond to these moments of playfulness, the way their affection and awe for their teacher drew them closer to his subject, I understood a little better how I had wound up where I was.


Spence used his final lecture to explore seven “enduring themes” in Chinese life that spanned the four centuries covered in the course—and new pressures on Chinese society. Another two lists. The first included the absence of permitted public debate on leadership transition, the closeness to power of highly educated male elites, the lack of a powerful nationwide religious structure, “good order” as a high state priority, changing borders and ideas about borders, pressure on scarce resources and rich aesthetic and cultural realms including wit, erudition, sensuality and history. Among the new stresses were the internationalization of China’s strategic interests, the scale of urbanization, the collective leadership of the CCP, the availability of capital for “colossal projects,” environmental degradation, the battle for control of information technology and “seeing China as a source of change for the rest of the world.”

In closing, Spence turned toward one last enduring theme, one that was much closer to home and yet more fleeting. To an unusually packed house full of former as well as current students and a good number of colleagues, he read aloud Mark Strand’s poem, “The Whole Story.”

How it should happen this way
I am not sure, but you
Are sitting next to me,
Minding your own business
When all of a sudden I see
A fire out the window.

I nudge you and say,
“That’s a fire. And what’s more,
We can’t do anything about it,
Because we’re on this train, see?”
You give me an odd look
As though I had said too much.

But for all you know I may
Have a passion for fires,
And travel by train to keep
From having to put them out.
It may be that trains
Can kindle a love of fire.

I might even suspect
That you are a fireman
In disguise. And then again
I might be wrong. Maybe
You are the one
Who loves a good fire. Who knows?

Perhaps you are elsewhere,
Deciding that with no place
To go you should not
Take a train. And I,
Seeing my own face in the window,
May have lied about the fire.

“The only gloss you need is that ‘train’ is Yale,” he had said as he began to read, “and the fire is China.”


Ping Pong Diplomacy Revisited

With “Ping Pong Diplomacy” back in the news recently, thanks to a rematch between Chinese and American table tennis players that made headlines on both sides of the Pacific, China Beat asked historian Xu Guoqi to write a short piece for us reflecting on the topic. As a specialist in Chinese international relations and the author of a new book that places the Beijing Games into historical perspective, he seemed an ideal person to weigh in on this subject.

By Xu Guoqi

2008 is China’s Olympic year, which means that the world is watching that country through the lens of both sports and politics. However, this is not the first time China has attracted global attention because of sports. The 1971-1972 Ping Pong diplomacy that Mao Zedong played with the Americans had more serious consequences than this year’s Beijing Olympic Games, since the result of the Ping Pong friendship games fundamentally changed the international political scene and reshaped the world order.

Thirty-eight years later, however, when the Richard M. Nixon Presidential Library celebrated the historical moment earlier this month by hosting an event called “American/Chinese Ping Pong Diplomacy: the rematch,” many people still didn’t know very much about the true story of what happened in the early 1970s or had forgotten parts of the tale that they once knew. In some cases, newspaper reports in very respectable periodicals even got some basic historical facts wrong. Two recent articles on the rematch, described below, are cases in points that illustrate a general pattern.

The first of these, published on June 13 in the Los Angeles Times and titled “Cold War-era Ping Pong foes meet for some back-and-forth,” includes several ideas that are debatable at best. For instance, the article says that “Ping Pong is to China what soccer is to Brazil, and Geliang is the Pele of Chinese Ping Pong.” The Chinese might be dominate players at Ping Pong but today’s Chinese share the same passion and obsession as the Brazilians for the “beautiful game,” namely soccer. And while Chinese men’s soccer teams have not won many international matches, the Chinese women’s soccer team has done very well in major tournaments and the Olympics. During the era of Ping Pong diplomacy, moreover, the “Pele” of Ping Pong was Zhuang Zedong not Liang Geliang (Geliang is his given name). Even today, more Chinese probably remember Zhuang than Liang.

These may seem only trivia issues, but a crucial fact is blurred in an article posted on the New York Times website on June 10. Titled “China and the U.S.: Ping Pong diplomacy, 38 years later,” it describes Zhou Enlai inviting the American Ping Pong team to visit China in spring 1917. However, Premier Zhou did not want to invite the Americans that year and recommended to Mao that this not be done. It was Mao who in the last minute vetoed Zhou’s recommendation and single-handedly decided to invite the team and thus started the famous Ping Pong diplomacy. In other words, Zhou might have gotten to serve as the happy and effective messenger, but Mao was the person who wrote the message. This article also got another smaller fact wrong. It claimed that the three-day tournament in the Nixon Library would include a match between two of the original players, Tim Boggan and Liang Geliang. It is true that Liang was an original player, but Boggan was not. In fact, Boggan went to Beijing in spring 1971 not as a player but as an official of the U.S. Table Tennis association.

These may seem like small points, but in a matter as historically significant as the opening of relations between two of the world’s great powers, the details do count. And as anyone who follows sports knows, in the realm of athletics little errors can quickly add up and become consequential. The same can be true with the history of international relations.

Xu Guoqi’s latest book, Olympic Dreams: China and Sports, 1895-2008, includes a detailed study of Ping Pong diplomacy.


Jonathan Spence’s Third Reith Lecture: Dreams, Paradoxes, and The Uses of History

By Charles W. Hayford

In the third lecture of the Chinese Vistas series, “American Dreams,” Jonathan Spence talked about American dreams of China and, more tantalizing, Chinese dreams of America. He sees a series of “paradoxes” from the American Revolution to the present which set Chinese and American dreams at odds.

In the question period, another paradox emerged, one between different uses of history. The lecture was broadcast from the Asia Society on Park Avenue in New York, where the initial questions came from Richard Holbrooke, President of the Asia Society and heavyweight diplomat, and Henry Kissinger, an even heavier weight (Spence had written about him, so it must have seemed strange). The questions asked if China had been more xenophobic than other countries, if industrialization would change Chinese mentalities, if China would be expansionist, and so on.

After responding to several questions, Spence started his answer to another by saying “I don’t know.” This was refreshing but perhaps it was also a tactful rebuke to the type of questions he was getting. Spence is not a present minded policy advisor, he is a public intellectual who writes about history to address questions of general meaning. Another Qing historian was recently asked what he told policy makers who sought his advice. He replied “as little as possible.” One of the few authentic lessons of history is that history does not offer “lessons,” much less predictions or tips on the horses, only stories of complications and confusion.

Of course, we might conclude, along with my Alan Baumler, my colleague at Frog in a Well, that Chinese History Sucks, but we could also just admit that historians are a feisty bunch and that they work in different ways.

Some historians use explicit theory to fit their material into patterns and compare it to other times and places. Theory works for them but tends to limit their audience to fellow academics. Other historians, including Spence, want to show us what is often called “the strangeness of the past.” Like poets, they give us the particular and the peculiar. Spence takes contemporary poetry seriously but his favored genre is biography, which by nature does not demand theoretical generalization and PhDs tend to avoid it.

Yet Spence’s work shows that writing history without explicit theory does not have to be mere antiquarianism nor do biographies of unrepresentative people have to be, in the phrase of a contemptuous scientist, “stamp collecting.”

Spence’s To Change China: Western Advisers in China, 1620-1960 (Little Brown, 1969) almost off-handedly set up a framework which we all still use. The biographical sketches, a seeming patchwork, start with the Jesuits, then tip toe through several Protestant missionaries, Michael Borodin, and Joseph Stilwell.

These “China helpers” certainly showed the “strangeness of the past” and Spence did not connect them to the Vietnam War, but he put his judgments clearly in the “Conclusions”: After a long cycle, China regained the right of “defining her own values and dreaming her own dreams without alien interference,” so the virulent anti-imperialist pronouncements of the 1960s were a “paradoxical combination of hostility and relief.” Westerners had thought that packaging technology and Western values together would change China. They were wrong.

The phrase “to change China” entered our vocabulary, but to my mind Spence’s most fruitful book on East-West perceptions is The Chan's Great Continent: China in Western Minds (1998), originally a series of lectures. It’s a tour de force of insights yet there is scarcely a theoretical generalization in it, simply groupings of Western “sightings” of China. Like a good host at a party, without seeming to strain, Spence introduces us to any number of voluble guests from history and by his craft lets them tell their stories. Among his subjects was Henry Kissinger, whose memoirs portrayed Mao in the “grand exotic tradition of the Chinese emperor,” ascribing “enormous calculation and cunning.”

Which brings us back to the Reith Lectures and the series of paradoxes. Spence at one point confesses that he “jotted down” ideas for the paradoxes, and, to be honest, some of them seem forced. The initial paradox involves Americans on board the ship Empress of China who arrived in Canton in 1784. The British there apologized for the recent wars and offered their support: together, we’re unbeatable. On the other side, the Chinese government forbade the teaching of the Chinese language on pain of death (Chinese language teachers should have a prize in memory of Liu Yabian, who was executed in 1759 for that crime).

Spence inserts a fascinating little discussion of a problem in political science which frustrated the Chinese. In figuring out the nature of the American system they debated how to translate the word “president” – should it be “head man”? At one point baffled translators simply call him “huangdi,” or “emperor.”

The next paradox was that Protestant translations of the Bible sparked the Taiping Rebellion which the Christian powers then supported the imperial government in suppressing. Another was that sympathy for the Chinese Republic did not mean that Wilson’s call for self-determination was extended to Asia. Chinese who dreamt that their own world would be made safe for democracy felt betrayed by Versailles, a partial explanation for the bitterness and complexity of the 1920s radical revolution.

American missionaries and the YMCA brought a package of technical aid, education, science, and Christianity, but the Nationalist Party unbundled it and removed the democratic values. An even more bitter paradox was between Open Door paternalism and American refusal to confront Japanese aggression until the attack on Pearl Harbor.

These are some of the well turned vignettes, but they leave me wanting something richer. I’d like to have heard Spence take the whole four lectures to talk about any one of the topics. Then we’d have more gems like that fact that in the nineteenth century there were ninety different Chinese terms for “America.”

If Chinese had trouble fitting concepts such as “president” into Chinese, English lacked important words to fit what Westerners saw in China. In the second lecture Spence remarked on the usefulness of Pidgin, which, like chop suey, has been disrespected for fear that it’s not “authentic,” whatever that means, there was also a China Coast vocabulary. For instance, government office in England and North America was allotted by patronage or aristocratic inheritance, but China had no aristocracy, so office was given on merit as determined by examination. What word would translate guan? The British adopted “mandarin” from Malay, originally from the Sanskrit for “official.” Did there need to be a new word for “common laborer”? “Coolie” was taken from Hindi to fill the gap (it later made its way into Chinese).

I’d be willing to skip lunch to hear Spence talk about this and how he chose the word “dreams” for the title of this talk. Of course, dreams come up often in his writings, such as Hong Xiuquan’s dreams of his Heavenly Father in God's Chinese Son : The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan (Norton 1996), and in the common Chinese view dreams reveal alternative realities. I can see why Spence passed over “images,” which is tired and misleading, even though many works used it creatively. The metaphor behind the word implies that China is just passively out there and impinges on our eyeballs and is interpreted by our brains. The process only goes one way. An image just sort of happens spontaneously, not like an analysis or interpretation or observation or representation or construction, which require thought.

In the end, the policy questions from Holbrooke and Kissinger miss Spence’s point. History is definitely (in another historians’ cliché) the search for a “usable past,” but not for answers to a quiz. No prognostications. When the United States and China wake up from their “American dreams,” the policy makers take charge, not historians. We can only hope that their eyes have been trained by history as they deal with the “strangeness of the present.”

Charles W. Hayford is Visiting Scholar, Department of History, Northwestern University, and Editor of the Journal of American-East Asian Relations.


The Return of the Two Nationalisms

One fascinating aspect of the KMT's regaining political dominance in Taiwan is the reappearance of two forms of nationalism that have been central to that party's political ideology, namely Greater China (大中華) and anti-Japanese resistance (抗日). Both have enjoyed a certain degree of legitimacy in the context of modern Chinese history, yet each carries its own risks as well.

The theme of Greater China found clear expression in President Ma Ying-jeou 馬英九's inaugural address, which emphasized the idea that the residents of both China and Taiwan were part of a greater ''Chinese nation'' (中華民族). It also seemed significant that Ma made no mention of Japan, as well as the issue of whether Taiwan (or the Republic of China, for that matter) is a sovereign state. From a diplomatic perspective, the skirting of such issues in order to enhance cross-Strait negotiations makes considerable sense, as can be seen in the successful conclusion of agreements on direct flights and tourism. However, as I noted in a previous blog, the question of who will benefit from these policies is unclear, and there are also concerns about the costs. One example is Ma's agreeing to be addressed as ''Mr. Ma'' when he meets China's Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait (ARATS) Chairman Chen Yunlin 陳雲林 later this year. While such compromises have a reasonable chance of furthering future ties between China and Taiwan, one cannot help but think of other leaders from the previous century who were willing to make all manner of sacrifices in the interest of ''peace in our time''.

Anti-Japanese sentiments made a dramatic comeback in Taiwan's political arena during a diplomatic row with Japan that ensued after the June 10 sinking of a Taiwanese fishing vessel by a Japanese patrol boat in disputed waters surrounding islets known in Taiwan as Tiaoyutai 釣魚台 and in Japan as the Senkakus. Both Taipei and Tokyo claim these islets and their surrounding waters, in part due to their abundant fishery resources and potential natural gas deposits. Japan subsequently apologized and offered to negotiate compensation for the fishing boat's captain, but the immediate aftermath of the incident was marked by highly provocative comments, including Premier Liu Chao-shiuan 劉兆玄 allowing himself to be goaded by hard-line KMT legislators into saying that he did not ''exclude war'' with Japan.

Perhaps more importantly, in addition to recalling Koh Se-kai 許世楷, Taiwan's de facto ambassador to Japan, the Ma government scrapped the Committee on Japanese Affairs, a body that had played a key role in improving Taiwan's ties with Japan. Established in 2005, this committee comprised experts who reported directly to the foreign minister and provided recommendations on Taiwan-Japan relations. The presence of this committee contributed to steadily improving yet unofficial links with Tokyo, with Japan overtaking the United States as Taiwan's second-biggest trading partner after China in 2006, and the two nations becoming each other's top foreign tourist destinations.

Now that this committee has been axed, one wonders who will be responsible for managing ties with Japan, and whether the links between these two countries will improve or continue to deteriorate. If the Ma administration continues to play on emotional anti-Japanese sentiments, the people of Japan might well conclude that years of friendship with Taiwan are now at risk. Such sentiments are already being expressed in editorials in the Japanese media, which point to the rise of Greater China and anti-Japanese sentiments as harbingers of what could be a ''nightmarish'' future.

There have also been signs that these tensions are infecting Taiwan's own domestic arena. On June 18, following a meeting with former president Chen Shui-bian 陳水扁, Koh Se-kai was struck by a protester who claimed to be a member of the pro-unification Patriot Association (愛國同心會). This assault followed highly charged comments by KMT lawmakers, who labeled Koh as a "Taiwan traitor" (台奸) and "a Japanese, not a Taiwanese". There have also been reports of Japanese students being beaten up, and there is now enhanced security at the Taipei Japanese School.

It seems particularly fascinating that both of these forms of nationalism have also helped shape CCP ideology, which suggests that they might serve as a common ground for future negotiations. Moreover, both the CCP and the KMT have found it useful to exploit such sentiments in order to distract attention from other issues. In Taiwan today, the stock market has plummeted 15% since Ma's inauguration, while prices are continuing to rise. In addition, the new government has been plagued by controversies over its members having until recently enjoyed dual citizenship or permanent residency, including the current Foreign Minister, who somehow managed to apply for a green card while serving as ambassador to Guatemala. As a result, the administration's popularity has been steadily declining, and even a recent United Daily News (聯合報) poll showed Ma's own rating at 50%, down from 66% one month ago.

Finally, there are disturbing indications of politics once again extending its claws into academia. One example is the decision by National Cheng Chih University (國立政治大學) not to extend the contract (不續聘) of former Ministry of Education Secretary Chuang Kuo-jung 莊國榮 on charges of "conduct unbecoming of a professor" (行為不檢). While Chuang had made some highly offensive remarks about Ma's father, he had subsequently apologized, and the department and college faculty review committees had only recommended a suspension, only to be overruled by the university review committee in favor of the harsher punishment. During the past 10 years, there have been 106 instances of contract termination at Taiwan's universities, but those that involved charges of "conduct unbecoming of a professor" tended to be cases of sexual harassment, rape, and corruption, and usually followed the accused faculty member's being convicted in a court of law. There have also been difficulties surrounding the proposed reappointment (回任) of former Representative to the United States Joseph Wu 吳釗燮 at the same university. These events, combined with reports that many officials appointed by the Chen administration are now in danger of losing their jobs, suggest a return of the ''cicada in winter effect'' (寒蟬效應), by which opposition voices gradually fall silent.

One hopes that the above instances are merely aberrations, and that the KMT's return to power, combined with the understandable quest for improved relations with China, do not come at the price of rampant nationalism and the abandonment of the democratic freedoms that so many men and women fought so hard to achieve.

Note: Some of the contents of this blogpost were inspired by Max Hirsch's June 17 article entitled "Goodwill between Japan, Taiwan fading after key committee scrapped".

Jesus in China—Evan Osnos on an Upcoming Frontline Documentary

The Public Broadcasting Corporation’s Frontline series has a long tradition of airing documentaries on China. Carma Hinton and Richard Gordon’s prize-winning look at 1989, “The Gate of Heavenly Peace,” was shown as part of the series, for example, as was a later Tiananmen documentary, “The Tank Man.” And thanks to the online extras, from guides to further reading to lesson plans for teachers, the PBS Frontline site has become a valuable resource for those who offer classes or simply want to learn about the PRC. Still, it is rare (probably unprecedented) for two China shows to run back-to-back on Frontline. But that is just what is happening now, as yet another sign that 2008 is no ordinary year where either Chinese events or international fascination with China are concerned. Last week’s “Young and Restless in China,” which was the subject of an earlier China Beat post and has become the latest Frontline show to be supplemented by online classroom-friendly features, is about to be followed by “Jesus in China,” which premieres June 24.

No one at China Beat has seen the show yet. But we did check out the materials available in advance online, which include a “video diary” featuring Chicago Tribune reporter Evans Osnos. So, we decided to pose a few questions by e-mail to the award-winning journalist, who along with his involvement in the film has continued to file reports on the earthquake and other breaking news stories for the Tribune and has also begun to write occasionally for The New Yorker. Here is what he had to say about “Jesus in China” and the general topic of the surge of Christianity in the PRC, which is also the subject of a series he’s doing in print, beginning with this piece published today.

CB: Is this your first experience working on a documentary film?

EO: Yes, if we don't include—and we shouldn't—my brief tenure as a student documentary-maker some years ago.

CB: You note in your video diary that one big shift that has taken place since you first went to China is the increased visibility of Christians and the sheer number of them. Do you think of the rise of Christianity mainly as a subset of a larger phenomenon, such as a turn toward spirituality more generally that has also seen an increase in the popularity of other imported and local religions? Or do you see it as something that is completely distinctive?

EO: The rise of Christianity in China is part of a broader spiritual awakening. People are seeking new sources of guidance everywhere, from mystical Taoist sects to the Bahai faith. Among the measures of that, a survey by East China Normal University found that nearly a third of those polled described themselves religious. In particular, the rising middle class seems to be searching for a kind of moral reference as they confront new social and economic choices. One of the interesting things about Chinese Christians is that we don't yet know what kind of social positions they will endorse: Will the mainstream of Christianity in China be a form of liberal Protestantism familiar in some American churches or will it be closer to the conservative brand that is thriving in the developing world?

CB: What struck you as most exciting or perhaps most daunting about trying to convey ideas about China via involvement in film as opposed towriting on your own for the Chicago Tribune or The New Yorker?

EO: Writing for the Tribune and The New Yorker is a fairly solitary exercise. I tend to spend a lot of time with people I'm profiling, but, otherwise, there are no other journalists in the room. And the process of writing, of course, is one of staring at a blank empty page until a story appears. But this project meant hashing out story ideas and strategy with a team of talented people, and that was terrific. Luckily, Cassandra Herrman, an incredibly talented producer, came to China for a month to oversee the production for Frontline/World. I've written two Tribune pieces to run alongside the film, and they tell related but separate stories than what we followed with the cameras.

CB: When China Beat ran a piece on the last Frontline episode, about young people in China, we paired discussion of the film with discussion of Duncan Hewitt's Getting Rich First, a book by a journalist that dealt with similar issues. Is there any book or article you've come across lately that you think would make particularly appropriate reading to pair with the "Jesus in China"?

EO: I recommend several things:
--The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life has a valuable report on China, including survey and demographic trends.
--The Council on Foreign Relations last week conducted a day-long seminar on religion in China. Most of the transcripts are available here.
--The CFR also has a useful backgrounder.
--The latest U.S. State Dept. report on International Religious Freedom describes how laws on religious expression are implanted.
--Christian writers have produced a range of books and articles—too many to list—but a frequently-cited text is the updated edition of Jesus in Beijing, by David Aikman, which includes a history of the growth of the church.

For China Beat readers who would like further information on the history of Christianity in China, we also recommend the following sources:
Christianity in China, edited by Daniel Bays
Fuzhou Protestants and the Making of a Modern China, 1857-1927, by Ryan Dunch
The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci, by Jonathan Spence
To Change China: Western Advisors in China, by Jonathan Spence
’A Penny for the Little Chinese’: The French Holy Childhood Association in China, 1843-1951,” by Henrietta Harrison (from American Historical Review 113:72-92, February 2008)


What We Do When We’re Not Blogging (for China Beat)…

There’s a virtual version of the game tag, in which bloggers who get a cyber-tap on the shoulder have to reveal five things people don’t know about them on their blog, and then can call on five people to do the same. We enjoy it when bloggers we enjoy reading, such as Rebecca MacKinnon, get tagged and we get to learn things like, in her case, which Disney cartoon she was “obsessed” with as a child.

Despite the title of this post, though, you won’t get those sorts of personal revelations here. So, I’m afraid you’ll end up frustrated if you are wondering which person who has contributed to China Beat once recorded an album called “Here Comes the Elephants” and which of us has done concerts as part of the band the Black Spoons (hint: they are different China Beatniks, just both have musical backgrounds), as we won’t be naming names. And when it comes to the various Irvine-based bloggers involved with this site, we won’t tell you which spends the most time at the lovely beaches that lie a 15 minute drive or so from campus in one direction, nor which has an annual pass to the world’s most famous theme park that’s located about a 20 minute drive (up to 40+ in rush hour) from campus in the other direction. What we’ll be focusing on instead are the things we do, outside of writing for this blog, that relate to its mission of trying to make sense of and share ideas about China’s past and present.

For example, when not blogging for China Beat, many contributors write for online and print periodicals. For instance, the special issue of National Geographic discussed in an earlier posting had articles by Peter Hessler and Leslie T. Chang, while Angilee Shah recently had a piece in Asian Geographic. Several of us who have reviewed books for China Beat have recently done the same for magazines. Kate Merkel-Hess recently had a review of a Zhou Enlai biography appear in the Times Literary Supplement (or TLS, for short), while Jeff Wasserstrom just told readers of Newsweek International what he liked about Michael Meyer’s account of Beijing hutong life, and Nicole Barnes has been contributing assessments of various China books to Choice: Current Reviews for Academic Libraries, which ran her take on a new book about the Rape of Nanjing in May. And several China Beatniks, including Pierre Fuller, have written pieces for newspapers, probably none more frequently than recent guest post contributor Graham Earnshaw, whose 1980s Daily Telegraph reports are getting a second lease on life just now in a great Danwei series.

In addition, some of us plan conferences. The large-scale one on Han ethnicity that Tom Mullaney convened in April, for example, and the series of interconnected workshops on Olympics held in various locales (most recently the International Olympic Academy in Ancient Olympia) that Susan Brownell co-organized with colleagues based in China and Greece. And the upcoming September 2008 meeting in Boulder of the Western Conference of the Association for Asian Studies that Tim Weston is involved in pulling together.

Other China Beatniks travel to these and other symposia—or just go different places to give solo talks. Ken Pomeranz has been racking up frequent flyer miles speaking in different locales—he could be spotted in D.C. in January, at USC in February (all right, he just drove there) as well as Warwick, Lisbon and Hawaii in March, Boston in April, and at the London School of Economics last week. If we were a more tech-savvy site, we’d have a map that would let visitors keep track of his progress via a “Where in the World is KLP Now” animated game. (When this appears, we think he’ll be in London about to head to Bristol, where he’ll be giving a talk on June 23 that fittingly addresses the global topic “Chinese Development and World History”).

Other things we do when not blogging for China Beat include doing interviews for radio shows, magazine stories, and newspaper reports. Yong Chen , for example, is regularly consulted by journalists at the Los Angeles Times writing about everything from Chinese-American views on politics to the Sichuanese community in the U.S. We also contribute articles to academic journals and finish up books on topics ranging from women’s experiences in a changing China, to Shanghai’s past and present status as a global city , to similarities and differences between popular participation in the Chinese and Russian revolutions, to Chinese legal culture.

And some of us, when not blogging for China Beat just, well, blog around, contributing to our own solo sites or collective online ventures. Jeremiah Jenne is particularly noteworthy in this regard, maintaining a very active and much-commented on Beijiing-based solo blog, Jottings from the Granite Studio. We also sometimes take things we’ve done for China Beat and expand upon them for other English-language venues or have them translated into Chinese and reposted, in original or updated form .

Well, enough about our regulars and contributors of guest posts, even for a Self-Promotion Saturday feature. But we are an active crowd, so the above really just scratches the surface. And, before closing, we do want to do something for those who were left curious by the opening teasers concerning hidden musical talents and Disneyland. While we meant it when we said we wouldn’t name names where those things were involved, we didn’t say we wouldn’t provide links that would make it pretty easy to guess which of us recorded “Here Comes the Elephants” (as well as “The Peking Tapes,” volumes 1 and 2), which of us was half of the “Black Spoons,” and which of us is a regular visitor to the Magic Kingdom.


Mass (On)Line

Hu Jintao participated in an online discussion today (his first) with Chinese netizens where he answered questions about his online habits (he emphasized that he uses the internet to see what Chinese people think about the Communist Party—the mass line for a new generation). When NPR broadcast a report on Hu’s online summit this morning, they noted that Hu met with Chinese “netizens,” and then proceeded to define the term. Regardless of whether “netizen” is a new term to you, or you are a netizen, here are a few additional readings and source pages about the Chinese internet.

1. A roundtable discussion between John Palfrey, Rebecca MacKinnon, Jeremy Goldkorn, and Yan Sham-Shackleton on “The Struggle to Control Information.” It accompanied the broadcast two years ago of Frontline’s “Tankman.”

2. A report on the Wall Street Journal’s China Journal on Chinese bloggers’ tendency to challenge authority.

3. This story from last fall in the San Francisco Chronicle about virtual “cybercops.”

4. James Fallows’ March 2008 report on the Chinese internet (and its limitations) for The Atlantic.

5. A report on internet activism in China by Guobin Yang.


The Lord of the Wolves?

By Haiyan Lee

Since hitting the bookstores in China in 2004, Wolf Totem has been a most unlikely bestseller and a phenomenon to be reckoned with. From the start, it has been riddled with paradoxes: it was written by a political science professor who had to remain anonymous because of his run-ins with authority in 1989; it went on to win ten domestic literary prizes with the endorsements of party officials, scholars, and business tycoons alike; the audio version was serialized on Radio Beijing; its sales figure is dwarfed only by that of Mao’s Little Red Book in the history of modern publishing in China; the author (Lu Jiamin) has come out of hiding after winning the inaugural Man Asian Literary Prize, but is not allowed to travel abroad to promote his book.

The novel also has the distinction of attracting unprecedented international attention after and largely because it had become a mass cultural sensation within China, thereby breaking the pattern of writers and their works achieving fame overseas only to be ignored or spurned by mainland readers and critics—thanks usually to censorship, but not always. It is perhaps one of very few bestselling Chinese novels that has genuinely stirred up some controversy among international critics and managed to split critical opinion (almost always strongly-worded) pretty much down the middle (see Jeff Wasserstrom’s earlier survey of the reviews for this site). And to top it all off, The New York Times reported in 2005 that Peter Jackson, director of the Lord of the Rings series, has bought the movie rights to Wolf Totem.

What will the movie be like? With a rumored budget of $48 million, the expectations are understandably high. As a fan of the Rings series, however, I am a bit uneasy with the way Jackson seems to have rushed into the deal—before he could have possibly read the novel since the English translation by Howard Goldblatt came out only a few months ago. I cannot help but slip into typical fan behavior and busily speculate how he is going to deal with this cinematic hot potato, as it were.

If you have read (or attempted to read) the novel, you’ll know what I mean. It’s notorious for its many lecture-like passages, where the author lets his professorial self get the upper hand of his story-telling self, browbeating the reader with grandiose theory about wolves acting like (brave) men and (Mongolian, European, and Japanese) men acting like wolves. No doubt it’s the macho textbook aspect (a bit like a take-no-prisoners guide to succeeding in business) that drew kudos from the likes of the highly successful Zhang Ruimin, the C.E.O. of the Haier Group and the hero of a 2002 bio-pic by Wu Tianming (one of whose personal mottoes is said to be “Tread on eggs always”). But what is there for the popcorn munching crowds at the multiplex? Into what Hollywood genre will Jackson’s adaptation fall? If we rule out romance, adventure, cops and robbers, mystery, and the buddy genre, the only viable option seems to be the “man and his pet” type, as in “everything I learned about life, I learned from my dog.”

As it happens, there is a pet of sorts in the novel. The main character Chen Zhen and his fellow “educated youths” (zhiqing) are so obsessed with the steppe wolves that they raid a wolf lair and steal a cub, intending to raise it outside their tent with the help of a nursing dog. Their Mongolian host and surrogate father objects vehemently, but they ignore him and embark on their experiment to raise the cub (Little Wolf) with pious dedication and reverent circumspection. My hunch is that the film adaptation will make much of this doomed experiment that nonetheless supplies some of the most heart-breaking episodes in the novel. These episodes will likely appeal to a broad audience because they dramatize, in the sweeping-shots-of-glorious-landscape-friendly setting of the Mongolian grasslands (even negative reviews of the recent film “Mongol” enthuse about the region’s cinematic potential), humankind’s familiar predicament of romanticizing nature while trying to subjugate nature.

Chen Zhen develops an intense affection for Little Wolf. Little Wolf’s make-shift lair becomes his private shrine which he visits several times each day to observe the restless creature with rapture and to meditate on the way of the wolf. But chained to a pole and confined to a human routine, Little Wolf is no less pathetic than a common domesticated animal destined for the slaughterhouse. The loving gaze that elevates it to a mythic being is also an epistemological gaze that reduces it to a lab creature. Chen is acutely aware of the paradox of trying to domesticate a wild beast in order to study its wild nature. His absurd experiment, however, is enthusiastically endorsed by the commune head, who considers it a laudable application of Mao’s know-thy-enemy dictum. Indeed, what Chen is doing is no different from the many monumental projects undertaken in the Mao era that sought to tame nature with bloated human will, until nature rebels against man’s hubris with “natural” disasters and ecological deterioration. In the novel, nature’s revenge takes the form of the desertification of the grasslands, after the wolf population is decimated by extermination campaigns and reckless development.

It’s possible, of course, that Jackson knew exactly what he was doing when he allegedly beat the crowd to the film rights. Perhaps he sensed that a social Darwinian parable that repackaged the “might makes right” doctrine with spectacular imageries and environmentalist sentiments may appeal to Western and Westernized audiences against their better judgment. After all, the novel affirms not only the origin myth of Western capitalism, but also what some have characterized as the neoliberal and neoimperialist world order of our post-September 11th era. And yet, if we go against critical orthodoxy for a moment and imagine that we could hold a director to the message of his best known films (The Rings series did very well in China despite the SARS interruption, thanks in part to their liberal borrowing of action sequences from Hong Kong cinema), then we might be able to find some silver lining.

In the Lord of the Rings, the slight and insignificant Frodo Baggins is the reluctant bearer of a magical ring that is coveted by all and tempts all, including himself. Whoever wields it is necessarily corrupted by it. The mission entrusted upon Frodo by the great Council is to dispose of it in the Fire of Mordor so that no one can have it. The story has been claimed by religious groups as a Christian allegory. In my view, it is also a political allegory about democracy. The French radical political theorist Claude Lefort tells us that democracy thrives on a contradiction: between the idea that power emanates from the people and the idea that it is the power of nobody. Symbolically, he says in one of his most influential books, popular sovereignty is tied to the image of “an empty place” that can never be occupied by anyone. If Tolkien’s magical ring is the forbidden embodiment of power, then it must be destroyed so that the “empty place” can be restored to its emptiness. It is significant that the ring bearer is a humble Hobbit who is assisted by the representatives of the hoi polloi of Middle-Earth—who together stand for the political category of the “people.” It is the people who save democracy.

In the long appendix of Wolf Totem (which the English translation omits for good cause), the author makes a passing mention of democracy, which he concedes is the only thing that can harness the “nuclear power” of the wolf nature. But very quickly he returns wolf totemism to the position of first principle: democracy is but a castle built on sand without a prior engineering project of transforming the national character—from sheepishness to wolfishness. And this can only be accomplished via a transitional stage of “roaming in the wild.” As to what this entails exactly, the author is vague. But we may be able to glean something from the way Chen Zhen fantasizes about the outcome of his “scientific experiment” of raising Little Wolf:

“It’s been my dream to have a friend in a real wild wolf. If I rode a horse to the slopes off the Northwest border highway and called out to the deep mountains on the opposite side: “Little Wolf, Little Wolf, mealtime!” Little Wolf would lead its entire clan—a pack of genuine steppe wolves—running towards me full of cheers. They would not have chains on their necks; their fangs would be sharp and bodies strong; they would roll around with me on the grass, lick my chin and nibble my arms, without actually biting.” (My translation; the University of Hong Kong Library I use doesn’t yet have the English version on its shelves.)

But the dream is dashed when Little Wolf dies of a throat infection after nearly breaking his neck while resisting being dragged on an oxcart leash during a move. It seems that Little Wolf’s tragic death is a warning sign that the wolves let out to roam the wilderness and yet so endearingly responsive to the beckons of the intellectual are but the specters of a cruel fantasy, much as the idea that democracy will grow out of some sort of national character laboratory where people are programmed to undergo a spiritual rebirth and recover their “wolf nature.” The intellectual does not and should not have the ring.

To my knowledge, there has been no follow up reporting to the initial 2005 story of the film rights deal, and maybe Peter Jackson will be spending his next few years more productively, making the long-awaited “Hobbit” film or films (there’s been talk of not just one but two of them serving as a prequel to his Tolkein trilogy). That the Wolf Totem deal might be a mere rumor almost comes as a relief: for the time being at least, we don’t have to fret about an international blockbuster fanning the flame of civilizational clash by portraying the Chinese prostrating before a lupine symbol. Let wolves be wolves, neither “an enemy species” to be extirpated as in Mao’s China, nor a heroic species to be worshipped as is advocated in the novel.

Haiyan Lee teaches modern China studies at the University of Hong Kong. She can be reached at haiyan@hku.hk.