Chinese in Cambodia

By Caroline Finlay

Foreigners travelling to Phnom Penh in the mid 19th century didn’t find a sleepy Khmer fishing town. Instead, they happened upon thousands of bustling Cantonese traders. Their legacy in the Sino-Khmer population continues as these long settled immigrants dominate the oil and tourism industries and own countless shop fronts in Cambodia’s cities, while newly arrived mainland Chinese invest in garment production and construction.

In the 1800s, French colonials allowed Chinese-run businesses to flourish. William Willmott, a mid-century expert on Chinese communities, claimed the ethnic Chinese controlled 92 percent of Cambodian commerce in the mid 1900s. They traded in urban areas and worked as shopkeepers, moneylenders and traditional healers in rural areas, while Chinese farmers controlled Cambodia’s lucrative Kampot pepper industry.

The golden Sino-Khmer era came to an abrupt end when the Khmer Rouge sent urbanites to the killing fields and the ensuing economic collapse destroyed the businesses of rural Chinese-Khmers. The Vietnamese, who were invaded by China in response to their ousting of the Khmer Rouge, were deeply suspicious of the Sino-Khmer population, and although ethnic Chinese Cambodians made up a tiny fraction of the population of Cambodia, they accounted for half of Cambodian refugees fleeing to the US in the 1980s.

The tides have turned, though, in the wake of Hun Sen’s bloody 1997 coup and the subsequent severing of diplomatic relations with Taiwan. Chinese investment has soared, with Chinese nationals opening up hundreds of garment factories, construction projects and mines, and are often seen by Cambodian businessmen as preferential to Western investors who tend to push human rights issues and transparency.

Ethnic Chinese-Khmers are making a comeback as well, establishing a council of “Oknha,” or Lords, a title purchased from the Cambodian Royal family and often bestowed on Chinese-Khmer businessmen. The two most influential Oknha are Sok Korn, the president of Sokimex, and Sorn Sokna, his vice chairman. Together they control at least 35 percent of Cambodia’s petroleum industry and ticket concessions at the Angkor Wat, among other huge tourism and development projects. New generation Oknha Kith Menh is challenging old attitudes on Westernization and has partnered with Australia’s ANZ bank. He also owns telecommunications company Mobitel and the only legal football gambling outfit in Cambodia, Cambo Six.

In an article published two years ago in The Cambodia Daily, Chinese Chamber of Commerce president in Cambodia, Jimmy Gao, said Chinese investment is “a question of what Cambodia needs now,” and that the Chinese “are suitable to a tough position, because we were so poor 20 years ago,” and acknowledged that Sino-Khmers can act as a bridge between the two communities.

The good has come with the bad, though, as the Chinese mafia is apparently investing in Cambodia, famous for providing foreign tourists with easy access to drugs and sex. In 2004 Pierre Legros, then director of the NGO Acting for Women in Distressing Circumstances, said that the “Malaysian-Chinese mafia” are behind the sex trade in Cambodia, and that “organized crime is applying pressure on the Cambodian government.”

Good or bad, the Chinese are on the rise in Cambodia, and Chinese language study is increasing in Phnom Penh, with the subject recently added to the national curriculum at the university level. As reported in the Phnom Penh Post earlier this summer, the Duan Hoa Chinese School, for primary and secondary students, has 7,000 mostly ethnic Chinese pupils. Ethnic Khmers and Vietnamese also study there “to learn Chinese so they can join the family business or find work in a private company—especially working in factories or in the tourism industry as many Chinese investors are coming to Cambodia now,” school administrator Kim Hean told the paper.

“The Chinese New Year is the busiest time of the year in Phnom Penh because foreigners come to Cambodia from Korea, China and Vietnam to escape the holiday,” says Jim Heston, a long-time Phnom Penh resident and bar owner. How much longer they can flee by coming to Cambodia, no one can say.

Caroline Finlay is a writer for Southeastern Globe, an English-language publication in Cambodia, and has also written for Global Voices.


FAQ#7: Why were Chinese people so angry about the attempts to seize the torch in the international torch relay?

I have just returned from five days in the earthquake disaster zone in Sichuan province, where I was a member of the “People’s Olympic Education Promotion Team” that visited Deyang city to conduct “Youth Olympic Games Re-enactments” at six local primary and secondary schools. There I realized that for the people we encountered, The Torch is a sacred object. I call it The Torch because that is what they called it – 火炬 – as if there were only one, and no further adjectives were necessary.

The project expressed the mission of Donnie Pei, a professor at the Capital Institute of Physical Education and Zhou Chenguang, a primary school p.e. teacher, to take the Olympics to the grassroots (discussed in my previous posting). Pei could not come with us, so our team leader was Zhou. The member who attracted the most attention everywhere was Sun Yiyong, songwriter and a torchbearer during the Inner Mongolia torch relay, who was called simply The Torchbearer (火炬手)。 The other members, who paled next to his luminance, consisted of Wu Ji’an, China’s “King of Games,” who creates and collects games and teaches them to schoolchildren and teachers nationwide; Zhou’s son Bowen; myself; and three support staff. We came from Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu and Deyang and were self-funded but for the “soft implements” (discus, javelin, hammer, hurdles, and epees made out of flexible packing foam) funded by the Haidian District government in Beijing. Thus, we were a determined “people’s” (民间)group and not an “official” (官方)group. As Zhou put it to the local city officials, we were the three “have nots”: have no organization, no discipline, and no funding. Such a group had probably never been seen in the area before in this form, although the earthquake relief effort had accustomed the locals both to NGOs and to roaming foreigners.

We were received – initially, as we realized, with considerable skepticism – by the Education Bureau of the Deyang city government as part of its current work in “psychological intervention.” As the reality of post-disaster life is setting in, children are realizing that they have no parents for whom to study hard, parents whose lives revolved around their one child feel that have no reason to live, people who lost limbs are realizing that they are a burden on their families, and volunteers are suffering post-traumatic stress syndrome from what they saw. And so there are starting to be suicides. As a result, a major initiative in psychological intervention is being carried out in the schools and communities, utilizing Young Pioneers counselors, visiting expert psychologists (including foreign experts), and others.

Our assigned task was to bring the Olympic spirit into the schools in order to aid the recovery. When we arrived, we were received by the Chief of the Students Section, Mr. Zeng. He told us with intensity, “I hope that we can do our best to solve the conflicts as fast as possible. Of course we cannot solve all the conflicts. But let us do our best to solve the ones that we can solve.” As we concluded our dinner, he told us, “You cannot fail.”

The next day we drove to the disaster zone and saw the site of the collapsed school where 50 of 200 students had survived, pile after pile of brick rubble, acres of newly-created pre-fabricated communities, and the clocktower in Hanwang whose clock had stopped at 2:28. We spontaneously stopped at one of the schools that had been relocated into a pre-fab complex because their school building had collapsed, and there I first observed the power of The Torch.

Each torchbearer gets to keep the torch that he or she carried, minus its internal mechanism. Because it was a National Treasure, Sun Yiyong carried it with him everywhere he went, inside its special box cradled in a yellow silk case sewn by his mother, which he slung over his shoulder. As he told us, “When I got my own torch it was not at all like the others. It’s like your own child – you feel differently toward it compared to the others, it’s special.” When we introduced ourselves to some of the students standing in the concrete walkway between the pre-fab classrooms, they wanted to see The Torch. Sun Yiyong took it carefully out of its box and the students began to crowd around to touch it. They started streaming out of their pre-fab classrooms. To allow each student a chance, Zhou asked them to line up and pass it from hand to hand until each student had touched it. Because we were taking them away from their classes, we apologized to the teachers who came to see what was up, and left as they asked us to come back.

The next day at the sports field of the Oriental Power Primary School we conducted our first Youth Olympic Games re-enactment for 1,000 of the 3,000 students at the school, building on the model developed by Pei and Zhou at Yangfangdian Primary School in Beijing. We played our “meet song” – “Pass on the Flame’s Spark,” which Sun had written as a eulogy to the Olympic torchbearers, and conducted a little opening ceremony, following the protocol common in China. My role was to be the International Person. I delivered a short address in Chinese, in which I said that the Olympic spirit is a spirit of mutual respect, mutual understanding, fair play, and the pursuit of international friendship and world peace. As a member of big family of the global village, I sincerely wished them success in rebuilding their happy homes, and hoped that the Olympic spirit of “swifter, higher, stronger” would help them in their effort.

After the flagbearer entered the stadium bearing the Olympic education banner designed by Zhou and Pei, the Olympic Angel, Zhou’s son Bowen, entered in a white robe adorned with real feather wings and a green wreath on his head. The Olympic Angel was an inspiration of Donnie Pei, who wondered how to reduce the philosophy of Olympism to a level understandable by primary school students. He believed that Olympism should make you into a good person, and that an angel embodies goodness. Also, the white robe and wings recall the figures of Nike, winged god of victory, in the athletic scenes on ancient Greek amphora. For him, the angel symbolized ancient Greece and was not a Christian symbol. And so as our Olympic angel entered the stadium carrying a cardboard reproduction of the Olympic torch, it was announced that it was bringing the flame, symbolizing hope, from Mount Olympus in ancient Greece to China.

Finally, The Torchbearer entered the stadium, wearing his red-and-white official torchbearer’s shirt and shorts and carrying the real Lucky Clouds torch, images that were easily identified by the children because the real torch relay was being broadcast daily on Chinese TV as it passed through China. Deyang had originally been scheduled for a stop, but it had been eliminated after the earthquake, a source of great regret to local residents. Sichuan had been moved so that it was the last province on the relay before the torch returned to Beijing. As a result, ours was the first Torch to reach Sichuan. But the local education officials were looking forward to the fact that after the relay left Sichuan, Deyang would have its own Torches, since several locals had been designated to carry it.

What happened next took us all by surprise. A high-pitched cry of excitement rose into the air as the children recognized The Torch, and one thousand children began spontaneously streaming toward it. They surrounded Sun Yiyong as he rounded the field and for a while they were allowed to follow, but they began pressing so hard to get near and touch The Torch that it became difficult for him to move and he was afraid he was going to step on a child. The situation was rapidly becoming dangerous. The school’s p.e. teacher (p.e. teachers are the ones who keep order in Chinese schools, since they lead the recess exercises) grabbed the microphone and began shouting, “Children! Maintain order!”

Eventually order was restored, and Sun Yiyong walked the periphery of the crowd while the students looked without touching. But we had learned a lesson. At subsequent events, a group of four boys clothed in red and yellow T-shirts jogged with him and acted as bodyguards for The Torch, as had the Blue Men who were so maligned in the Western media during the international torch relay. For these boys it was an honor to protect The Torch. But in the following five events, each time The Torchbearer appeared at the entrance to the sports field, the high-pitched cry would go into the air and the children would start moving toward it like metal shavings being pulled toward a magnet. The idea of allowing large numbers of children to touch the torch was abandoned, and at subsequent events about 10 to 20 “outstanding students” were invited to stand at the front of the crowd. First they passed the reproduction torch down the line, and then they passed The Torch along. Finally the reproduction torch was used to “light” The Torch (neither was actually aflame, though the reproduction torch had red construction-paper flames coming from its top), and they exited the scene.

After a reading of Pierre de Coubertin’s Ode to Sport, Zhou conducted the activity called “We are all Torchbearers.” He asked, “Who is a Torchbearer?,” answering, “I am a Torchbearer! You are a Torchbearer! We are all Torchbearers!” Each child had been asked to bring a textbook and had been given a square of flame-red crepe paper. By rolling up the textbook and sticking the crepe paper into the top of the cone, each child had a little torch which she or he waved in the air. Zhou explained, “Take your knowledge and your strength and twist your book to make it into a torch, then put your torch into your heart.”

On our second night several members went to a school that had been cobbled together from students from several different schools and relocated into pre-fab buildings. Unfortunately I missed it - it turned out to be one of the most moving events of the trip. As they told me later, the curfew arrived and the electricity was cut off as they were in the midst of passing around The Torch. Zhou said to the students, “Are you afraid?” and they said, “Yes.” He said, “Don’t be afraid. Remember The Torch. The cinders are in your heart and will always be there, even when it is dark.” They concluded by signing autographs to the light of a flashlight, and then Zhou let them in shouting, “Go China! Go Sichuan! Go Deyang! Go School!” One of the children added, “I tell myself to go!” (我为我加油)which Zhou considered to be one of the most inspiring events of the trip, because it showed the child had taken the Olympic spirit inside himself, and made it his own.

At each stop, people wanted to touch The Torch, and the teachers and officials were more aggressive about it than the children. They wanted to take photos of themselves holding The Torch, or of groups of people each with one hand on The Torch. They seemed to feel, at least at some level, that touching the Lucky Clouds Torch would bring them good fortune. The undisputed star of our group was The Torch. After that, The Torchbearer. And after that, the International Person (me).

I also got mobbed for autographs and had to be rescued by a bodyguard.

I learned that in Chinese, a flame is a living thing with an anatomy like a plant. At its base are the “seeds of fire” (火种), or cinders, which represent hope, and are the thing that one holds in one’s inner heart. Out of the seeds come the “sprouts of fire” (火苗)or tendrils of flame. It grows into a full flame (火焰). It sends off “star fire” (星火),or sparks, which symbolize the passing of inspiration from one person to another. All of this was metaphorical – our torches did not have fires, because that would be too dangerous for children.

We organized Olympic re-enactments at two schools per day for three consecutive days, a total of six schools and over 3,000 children. Our status in Deyang increased each day. Local education officials held a meeting midway through our second day to assess our achievements. The head of the Deyang Education Bureau, Mr. Mao, observed, “The Olympic spirit is the spirit of conquering the disaster. Could we recover so quickly without the spirit of ‘swifter, higher, stronger’? This is also our spirit… Our students’ psychological wounds are serious. We will organize our students to get into motion. We humans cannot stop, our spirit cannot stop.” After three days and six schools, we were completely exhausted. At our farewell lunch, Section Chief Zeng observed that we had accomplished psychological intervention on a large scale. The standard psychological intervention reaches people one by one, so the experts who had been brought in could only reach about 1,000 people per week. We had reached over 3,000 students in three days. Zhou later explained, “Psychological intervention opens up a hole in your body and then sews it up again. It takes a long time to recover. We don’t open up a hole to do surgery. We let the sun shine on them and they absorb it into their bodies and keep it there. Chinese medicine is not in favor of doing operations, so this method is appealing.”

* * *

When I first began studying anthropology, I took part in the famous seminar of Victor Turner, one of the most influential anthropologists of his time. He was then experimenting with ritual re-enactments, which we conducted in the seminar. He believed that ritual action and the handling of symbolic objects function to channel human emotions like a laser beam. He believed that rituals could have this affect on humans even when the rituals were not their own and our re-enactments tested his theory. He was also interested in the use of rituals in healing processes. Like many of his former students, I have carried on this tradition in my own teaching. Every year my theory class repeats the experiment by re-enacting a ritual of their choice. Without further belaboring the complicated theory behind this, I will just note that I regularly see and feel the transformative power of ritual re-enactments, which seem to be able to exert at least some effect on some people no matter how impromptu they may be. It was in this spirit that I entered into our Youth Olympic Games Re-enactment. Did we “solve the conflicts that could be solved”? Hard to say, but I do think that we made a small difference. For the theoretical background, see Turner’s The Ritual Process, The Anthropology of Performance, and From Ritual to Theatre.

In my classroom re-enactments, I am often surprised at the effect on myself, and in Deyang I experienced the sudden insights into my own culture that Turner says are a potential of ritual (a product of “liminality”). Against the background of the furor over the international torch relay, observing the reverence and emotion for The Torch and The Torchbearer made me suddenly see how cynical we are, more often than not, in the West, as a product of our secularized, rationalized society in which there are only small spaces in which it is acceptable to express reverence for symbols. A picture appeared in my mind which is an exaggeration but perhaps with a kernel of truth: In China, the majority of public expressions take place in a vast field of rituals and symbols, while the protest zones that were recently announced for the Olympic Games are the small, circumscribed spaces where critical analytical thought is expressed. In the US, the majority of public expressions take place in a vast field of critical analytical thought, while ritual expression takes place in small, circumscribed places like churches and, arguably, sports events. I realized that at least part of the anger that many Chinese people felt at the disruptions of the international torch relay was the result of the (to them) appalling and uncivilized lack of respect for a nearly-sacred object.

In the West the Olympic Games have struggled with a loss of idealism due to challenges like commercialism and doping. The ChineseOlympic organizers and many Chinese people held an idealistic faith in the transformative power of the Olympic Games, believing that they could facilitate China’s integration with the world and benefit its future development. The West duly regarded this with skepticism. According to Turner, a balanced social process requires rituals. The global village needs its ritual and the Olympic Games are currently serving that function. But also according to Turner, ritual has the potential to either increase solidarity or initiate irreparable schisms.

In Deyang it was possible to foresee the closing of this cultural gap between China and the West. Everyone agreed that our final performance at the elite Foreign Languages Middle School in Deyang was the “most orderly” – and all but myself and the artist Sun Yiyong considered this a good thing. The children did not mob The Torch or me. They spoke very good English and they paid 40,000 yuan per year in tuition. Apparently for such privileged children The Torch and The International Person had already lost some of their lustre.

星火相传 (火炬手之歌)




演唱:单待 汤子星
民间奥林匹克教育执行团队对歌 北京奥运会火炬手之歌

Pass on the Flame’s Spark (The Torchbearer’s Song)

Pass the flame’s spark, from you on to me
Grand relay of peace and fraternity
Pass the flame’s spark, let passion flow on
Its unending journey of harmony

Sacred fire’s seeds, lit from the sun’s rays
In matchless glory, your flames leap up high
All will remember this twinkling day
Five lands below, five rings in the sky

Hot blazing torch will light up the stars
Linking countless hearts’ desires
The whole world is passing on one dream
All can see the great acts it inspires

Lyrics and melody: Sun Yiyong
English translation: Susan Brownell
Singer: solo Shang Zixing

Song for:
2008 Youth Olympic Games Re-enactment, People’s Olympic Education Promotion Team Beijing Olympic Torchbearers

Smoke and Mirrors: China and India

After reading a short excerpt from Pallavi Aiyar's new book, Smoke and Mirrors: An Experience of China, at Danwei.org, we wanted to ask her a few questions about her experience as a journalist and writer working in China (Danwei has also posted an interview with Aiyar, asking for her insights on the relationship of and comparisons between China and India; and additional reviews of the book have been posted at the WSJ China Blog and The International Herald Tribune). Here are her answers to our questions, followed by a short excerpt from the book. Smoke and Mirrors can be purchased at this website, and, according to Amazon, will be available in the US in September.

China Beat: Did you expect to end up spending as long a stretch of time in China as you have?

Pallavi Aiyar: Not at all. I came to China only reluctantly, following my then boyfriend who was a Sinophile. I was at the time, a typical middle-class Indian with an Anglophone education so that “abroad’ and “the UK/US” were almost synonymous for me. China might have been next door to India geographically but conceptually it was a black hole. I spent my first year in the country teaching something called “English journalism” (which turned out to be mostly English) to students at the Beijing Broadcasting Institute while learning Chinese myself. At the end of the year, I felt it would be a waste not to stay for at least another year and recoup the investment of that first year in China. And so it went, year-after-year. With hindsight, moving to China was the best decision of my life. Not only did the boyfriend become my husband, but the timing was right and ripe for an Indian in China. Bilaterally, relations began heating up and internationally as well the China story increasingly became the China-India story. An almost bottomless appetite for China news was to evolve south of the Himalayas and I was one of the very few people in a position to sate that hunger. Given that China and India together account for almost 2.5 billion people, the fact that when I first began writing from Beijing I was one of only two Indian correspondents in the country is a profound comment on how disconnected these two neighbors were. There are now four of us Indian correspondents in China (compared to some 125 American journalists), but I remain the only Mandarin-speaking one.

CB: What was the single thing that surprised you most about China during your time there--the thing that jarred most with the image of the country you had formed by reading about it ahead of time?

PA: To be honest I hadn’t done much purposeful advance reading about China. What I knew about it was primarily based on random articles I came across from time-to-time in Indian and foreign media. I had a vague understanding of the fact that after some two decades of reforms China was generally thought to have pulled well ahead of India economically but wasn’t quite able to visualize what this would mean in terms of the visceral difference in the physical experience of being in say New Delhi and in Beijing.

In my immediate impressions of the country I was very much the average Indian. What really “shocked and awed” was thus Chinese infrastructure. Beijing’s roads seemed impossibly smooth, its airport impossibly efficient, given that despite what I had read about China’s material progress it was still designated as a “developing” country.

Once I was able to look beyond the razzle and dazzle of China’s infrastructure, what jarred most was the homogeneity of the country. I had read much about the diversity of China, its foods, its fifty-plus minorities, its linguistic multiplicity, etc. But in fact I found it remarkably similar in architecture (from the “historic” pagoda-style buildings to the more modern bathroom-tiled atrocities), language (all the dialects shared the majority of written characters so that in fact the diversity really existed only in spoken form and the country was knit by hanzi) and most of all attitude. It was really strange how no matter whom I was speaking to—taxi driver, economics professor or the bicycle repairman round the corner—the moment I said I was Indian, the response consisted of how wonderful Hindi movies were, how Indian women had such large eyes, and how the dancing and singing was simply fantastic. The whole country seemed programmed to reproduce the same answers to the same questions.

I must stress that my reaction was conditioned by my Indian-ness. India was a country of 22 official languages and over 200 recorded mother tongues. Far from being bound by a common script many of the languages in India did not even belong to the same linguistic group. In my “Hindu” country, there were more Muslims than in all of Pakistan. India’s cultural inheritance included fire-worshiping Zorastrians, and Torah-reciting Jews. With no single language, ethnicity, religion or food India’s diversity was on a whole other plane to China’s.

CB: Do you see particular advantages or disadvantages you have working as a reporter in China due to being Indian? Or due to being female? And if the latter, do you feel this is dramatically different than the advantages or disadvantages a Chinese female reporter would have in India or, say, England, where I see from the web you studied for a couple of different graduate degrees?

PA: On the whole, being an Indian helped me gain access as a reporter because I did not automatically fit into the “foreign/western media = anti-China” equation. The fact is that as an Indian journalist my agenda was different than that of many Western colleagues. The audience in India was rarely interested in the usual human rights/corruption issues that the US media, for example, focus a lot on.

Given India’s own human rights problems and abysmal levels of corruption, the idea of having me write about China was not for me to serve as a watchdog on Beijing. It was rather to explain a changing China to an audience that knew very little about its neighbor, in addition to suggesting ways and means by which the Indian establishment might learn from China regarding economic policy, foreign policy power projection, poverty alleviation, etc.

Moreover, over the course of the time I spent in China, the Chinese authorities gradually began to take India a lot more seriously—especially after the likes of Goldman Sachs and McKinsey started to mention India in the same breath as China. They were as a result increasingly keen to reach an Indian audience.

Being a female reporter in China was a liberating experience. I felt free to travel and report in even relatively remote parts of the country without my gender being an issue. India is a far more difficult place for women in general. Even in big cities like New Delhi it’s hard for women to walk on the streets free of harassment or what Indian law rather quaintly calls “eve teasing.”

While I don’t think being female brought any particular advantages to reporting in China what struck me most was how it did not bring any disadvantages. I never felt patronized by male interviewees or sexually threatened in any way.

Regarding England—let me just say that I spent three months back at Oxford last year as a Fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. At one of the very first seminars organized for the term, the presenter (an eminent German foreign correspondent) bemoaned the decline of “serious” journalism in the West, attributing this to “sensationalization, simplification and feminization”!

CB: If you could convince academics to do more work related to a topic in Chinese history or contemporary China, what might that be?

PA: The impact of model worker Shi Chuanxiang on the profession of manual scavenging. The difference in attitude and circumstance between toilet cleaners in China and India struck me strongly and is something I write about at length in the book.

CB: What do you feel is the most exciting part of covering China?

PA: Trying to penetrate and understand well enough to explain to others a society that is so perfectly self-contained that its language requires even proper nouns to be translated. China, I would hold, has been the least outward-oriented of all major cultures, in recent centuries. To be a link or bridge, however minor, in the new process of connecting this civilization outwards is exciting. It feels pioneering in a way that, say, reporting from Brussels or even Moscow wouldn’t.

CB: A lot has been written lately about comparisons and contrasts between China and India. Is there anything you've read lately that you found particularly insightful on that topic?

PA: My book!

Immodest humor aside the answer would be: not really. As you say there is so much out there at the moment that I’ve almost made it a rule not to read anything with “dragon” “elephant” or “chindia” in the title!

India and China are not only different in their modern political avatars, but have historically been very different cultures. India’s philosophical and cultural underpinnings were steeped in metaphysics, ontology and epistemology forming major intellectual planks of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, etc. Territorial integrity and notions of empire were much less central to India’s image of itself. As a result, the Indian civilization was more of a conceptual rather than geographic entity; less united territorially and politically than the Chinese empire. In contrast, China was always more coherent territorially. Its empire was moreover underpinned by philosophies like Confucianism that tended less to the metaphysical and more to the practical, legalistic and political.

The point to remember is that while the two countries share superficial similarities they are very, very different, often making comparisons unhelpful and on occasion even disingenuous.


From Smoke and Mirrors: An Experience of China, by Pallavi Aiyar, HaperCollins India, 2008.

Five years was a decent slice of time to spend in a country and I had used it relatively well: travelling and asking questions. But as I geared up to draw a curtain across my China-life, I was increasingly being called upon to answer a few questions as well.

“Where was China heading?” people would ask me when I travelled outside the country to Europe or the U.S. Was the CCP doomed or would it continue to be a formidable political force in the coming decades? Would China implode in the absence of a democratic revolution? Was its economic growth sustainable without fundamental institutional reform?

In India, the key question was different. From newspaper editors to the maid at home the most common query I encountered was a deceptively simple one: what could India learn from China? What should India be doing that China had already been doing? For China the U.S remained the ultimate benchmark when it came to its self-assessment of national power and achievement. But for India, it was China that had emerged as a commonly used yardstick to evaluate its own progress.

Back in China the question I faced with greatest frequency was again different, at once the crudest and perhaps most difficult of all to answer. “Which is better? India or China?” taxi drivers in Beijing had asked me with monotonous regularity. “Do you prefer India or China,” my students at the Beijing Broadcasting Institute had often queried. “Do you like living in Beijing? Or was it better in Delhi?” my hutong neighbours enquired whenever they got the opportunity.

This last question in its various forms was one that I spent much thought grappling with and my answers were as variable as the day the question was posed. Following conversations with Lou Ya and other toilet cleaners in my neighbourhood I would think back to the wretched jamadarnis back home and marvel at the relative dignity of labour that China’s lowliest enjoyed.

In my hutong the refuse collectors wore gloves when picking up the garbage on their daily rounds. This single, simple article of protective clothing and the barrier it created between bacteria and skin leant them at least a modicum of self-respect. Their children almost always went to school. They may not have been well educated themselves but could usually read and write enough to avoid the worst kind of exploitation.

These were modest gains and not everyone in China could claim even such moderate progress. But were I one of the millions-strong legions of cleaners, sweepers, janitors or night soil workers in India, I would probably prefer by some twist of karma to have been born Chinese.

But on other days I felt differently. These were days when I spent hours hunting for a Chinese source amongst the country’s think tanks, universities and research institutes for fresh insight or an alternative point of view on an issue for a story I’d be working on. It was always such dishearteningly hard work.

China’s was a pragmatic society and over the years I met any number of people blessed with more than usual amounts of a canny, street smart, intelligence. As evidenced by the Zhejiang entrepreneurs, ordinary Chinese were masters of locating the loophole, of finding escape routes, of greasing the right hands and bypassing stifling regulations. If need be they could sell contact lenses to a blind woman and chicken feet to a vegetarian.

But while it may have abounded with consummate salespeople and irrepressible entrepreneurs, Chinese society remained deeply anti-intellectual. More a product of a political and educational system that discouraged criticism and encouraged group-think, than any primordial characteristic, this was the aspect of China I personally found most wearying.

It was the absence of a passion for ideas, the lack of delight in argument for its own sake, and the dearth of reasoned but brazen dissent that most often gave me cause for homesickness. When the Foreign Ministry interpreter Xiao Yan claimed in Tibet that China was different from other countries in that all Chinese must think the same thing, she was consciously overstating her case in light of Jes’ comments. Nonetheless a nub of truth in what she said remained.

In China, those who disagreed with mainstream, officially sanctioned views outside of the parameters set by mainstream officially sanctioned debate, more often than not found themselves branded as dissidents – suspect, hunted, under threat.

Thus a professor who misspoke to a journalist could suddenly be demoted. An editor who pursued a corruption investigation too zealously might find herself fired. A lawyer, who simply tried to help his client to the best of his abilities, could were the client of the wrong sort, ironically land in jail himself.

In universities like BBI the idea was drilled into students’ heads that there were right answers and wrong answers. While ambiguity and nuances may have been both sensed and exploited in practice, on a purely intellectual plane there was little space for them.

For an argumentative Indian from a country where heterodoxy was the norm, this enforced homogeneity in Chinese thought and attitude scratched against my natural grain[1]. There were thus occasions when despite all of India’s painful shortcomings, I would assert with conviction that it was nonetheless better to be an Indian than endure the stifling monotony of what tended to pass as an intellectual life in China.

But then I would return to Delhi for a few days and almost immediately long to be back in Beijing where a woman could ride a bus or even drive a bus without having to tune out the constant staring and whispering of the dozens of sex-starved youth that swarmed around the Indian capital’s streets at almost any given time.

Later on the same day however, I might switch on the TV and catch an ongoing session of the Indian parliament, not always the most inspirational of bodies but when looked at with China-habituated eyes, more alluring than usual.

China’s economic achievement over the last 30 or so years may have been unparalleled historically, but so was India’s political feat. Its democracy was almost unique amongst post-colonial states not simply for its existence but its existence against all odds in a country held together not by geography, language or ethnicity but by an idea. This was an idea that asserted, even celebrated the possibility of multiple identities. In India you could and were expected to be both many things and one thing simultaneously.

I was thus a Delhite, an English speaker, half a Brahmin, half a Tamilian, a Hindu culturally, an atheist by choice, a Muslim by heritage. But the identity that threaded these multiplicities together was at once the most powerful and most amorphous: I was an Indian.

India’s great political achievement was thus in its having developed mechanisms for negotiating large-scale diversity along with the inescapable corollary of frequent and aggressive disagreement. The guiding and perhaps lone consensus that formed the bedrock of that mechanism was that in a democracy you don’t really need to agree – except on the ground rules of how you will disagree.[2]

All of which being true still did not help to definitively answer the question, “If I could choose, would I rather be born Indian or Chinese?”

Perhaps part of my problem was that unlike how students were educated in China into believing there were right and wrong answers I had been encouraged to do precisely the opposite. “Always problematise,” my earnest, khadi kurta clad professor, Sankaran, used to thunder at us during class back in my undergraduate days as a philosophy student in Delhi.

But if forced to reply in broad brush strokes I would assert the following: were I to be able to ensure being born even moderately well-off, I would probably plump for India over China.

In India, money allowed you to exist happily enough despite the constant failure of governments to deliver services. Thus most Delhi households that could afford it had private generators for when the electricity failed and private tube wells in their gardens to ensure the water supply that the municipality couldn’t. The police offered little protection from crime and so many households hired private security guards.

Having developed the necessary private channels with which to deal with the lack of public goods one was free in India to enjoy the intellectual pleasures of discussing the nature of “the idea of India” or to enjoy the heady adrenalin rush of winning a well-argued debate.

These were real pleasures and freedoms and their broader significance was not merely confined to the elite. A tradition of argumentation was fundamental to India’s secularism and democratic polity, with wide-ranging implications for all sections of society.

On the other hand, were I to be born poor, I would take my chances in authoritarian China, where despite lacking a vote, the likelihood of my being decently fed, clothed and housed were considerably higher. Most crucially, China would present me with relatively greater opportunities for upward socio-economic mobility. So that even though I may have been born impoverished, there was a better chance I wouldn’t die as wretched in China, as in India.

This was not to deny the importance of the vote for India’s poor, which undoubtedly endowed them with collective bargaining power. Dislocating large numbers of people to make way for big infrastructure projects for example was an uphill task for any Indian government. As a result, the kind of wanton destruction of large swathes of a historic city like Beijing justified by the hosting of a sporting event would be extremely unlikely to occur in India.

In China on the other hand, not only did the poor lack a vote,[3] but the CCP was also adept at disabling the capacity of disaffected peoples to organise, thus depriving them of the influence of numbers that could pressure government policy through other means.

However, it was also patently clear that in India the right to vote did not necessarily or even usually translate into better governance. Fear of alienating a vote-bank might persuade a local politician to turn a blind eye to illegal encroachment by migrants on city land. But the ensuing slum would lack even the most rudimentary facilities like sewage or water supplies.

Citizens threw out governments in India with predictable regularity. The country’s vast poor majority dismissed on average four out of five incumbents, so that what was called the anti-incumbency factor was possibly the most crucial in any Indian election.

Often celebrated as a sign of India’s robust democracy what this state of affairs in fact reflected was a track record of governance that was so abysmal that even in regions where incomes had improved and poverty reduced, people believed this was in spite and not because of the government.[4]

So ultimately despite political representation for the poor in India and the absence of political participation in China, the latter trumped India when it came to the delivery of basic public goods like roads, electricity, drains, water supplies and schools where teachers actually show up.
This counterintuitive state of affairs was linked to the fact that while in China the CCP derived its legitimacy from delivering growth, in India a government derived its legitimacy simply from its having been voted in. Delivering on its promises was thus less important than the fact of having been elected.

The legitimacy of democracy in many ways absolved Indian governments from the necessity of performing. The CCP could afford no such luxury.

[1] See Sen Amartya, The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian Culture, History and Identity, Penguin, 2005
[2] See Guha Ramachandra, India After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy, Macmillan, 2007
[3] 40 million peasants have been forced off their land to make way for roads, airports, dams, factories, and other public and private investments, according to China: the Balance Sheet, Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Institute of International Economics: Washington, DC, 2006
[4] Aiyar Swaminathan, A vote against misgovernance, The Times of India, 15 May 2004


China Beat Contributors around the Web

1. Jeff Wasserstrom was recently interviewed about the Shanghai NIMBY protests for a Danish newspaper.

2. For visitors heading to the Olympics, Wasserstrom also recently published a few suggestions at Outlook India for a Beijing itinerary for “culturally-minded tourists.”

3. Contributor Richard Kraus was referenced recently in a New Yorker article on the classical music scene in China.

4. Pankaj Mishra (oft-referenced in these pages) published a short piece a few weeks ago in The Guardian on inter-war travel writing. Mishra mentions off-hand that, in contrast to the quickly seen and sketched travel writing of the 1930s, “the best non-fiction books about foreign countries today…are products of prolonged engagements”—and Mishra cites China Beat contributor Peter Hessler as a prime example of this.

5. If you are curious about Cantabs among the China watchers, take a peek at Harvard Magazine’s recent list of alums on the China beat. These include one writer actually on our China Beat, Leslie Chang as well as several regularly referenced here, like James Fallows and Evan Osnos


Susan Brownell Around the World

China Beat contributor Susan Brownell is showing up all over the web these days, as her special knowledge on Olympic and Chinese sports history is in high demand. Here is a list of some of her recent media appearances:

1. On PRI’s “The World,” Brownell talks about some of the differences between Western and Chinese notions of body and sports; the report also includes a short excerpt from Jonathan Spence’s Reith Lecture “The Body Beautiful,” which Xu Guoqi blogged about at China Beat earlier this month.

2. Brownell has also been cited in several NPR reports, including these two by Louisa Lim: “Sporting Fame Comes with Limits in China,” and “China Trains Cheerleader to Rally the Masses.”

3. In this AP report, Brownell comments on the Chinese allocation of protest zones, an idea she discussed earlier in her #4 and #5 Olympic FAQs, originally posted at China Beat.

4. Brownell has talked about the Chinese Olympic training program in several places recently, including The Christian Science Monitor, The Macau Daily Times, and The Los Angeles Times.

5. Brownell has also been quoted in a number of pieces abroad, including papers in France, Hungary, Spain, and Sweden.


Securing the Olympics

Security has been a major issue and challenge at all recent Olympic Games and failures of that security (as in Atlanta in 1996) surely weigh heavily on the minds of Olympic planners. However, the Beijing Olympics have been marked not only by their incredible security preparations, but also by foreign scrutiny and suspicion because of China's international reputation as a heavily-policed state. Here, Eric Setzekorn shares what he is seeing on the ground in Beijing.

By Eric Setzekorn

More than any state-of-the-art sports complex or amazing athletic performance, many visitors will remember the Beijing Olympics as the world’s largest security event. In an effort to squelch any sort of protest or more serious terrorist act the government has instituted strict new rules and enforced many existing but hitherto disregarded laws. Estimates of total security personnel range from 250,000 to 500,000, depending on the criteria, but visitors should be either alarmed or comforted to know their every action is monitored and scrutinized.

The epicenter for Olympic security is Tiananmen Square. Since 1989 and even more so since the Falun Gong crackdown, Tiananmen Square has boasted a comprehensive security plan based on numerous security cameras backed by scores of uniformed and plainclothes police. New checkpoints have been established at all entrances to the Square and are equipped with larger than average cameras, most likely biometric scanners, and all bags are thoroughly searched. The level of scrutiny is high--after inspecting not only my bag but a folder of articles inside, I was asked by the polite but stern officer why I carried several papers regarding Chinese politics.

Above, Security Checkpoint in Tiananmen Square

In the square itself much of the large area has been subdivided and occupied with space-filling decorations. A large area of plants and trees has been constructed in the northeastern corner between the Square and Chang’an Avenue. Large barriers block direct line of site from Mao’s Mausoleum toward the Forbidden City. While this ruins much of the stark beauty of the square it makes sense from a security and crowd control perspective.

Barriers north of Mao’s Mausoleum

Olympic Garden In Tiananmen Square

In a smart public relations move, most police and military officers patrolling the square are unarmed except for pepper spray and a taser. Long black vans parked nearby hold SWAT teams if there is any real trouble and the lack of overt weapons makes the police presence less intimidating to ordinary visitors than the AK-47-carrying soldiers that typically inhabit the Square.

Leaving the square and walking along Chang’an Avenue long rows of local university students line the road at 40-foot intervals. Given a t-shirt, fanny pack, and sun umbrella (teal for boys, purple for girls) they stand motionless unless approached to ask for directions or information. Given only a small stipend for meals and transportation, they volunteered because of a genuine desire to help the Beijing Olympics but also to practice their English.

Student volunteers along Chang’an Avenue outside Raffles Hotel

In less commercial areas, this type of duty is relegated to older residents who are given an orange and white Olympic shirt and a red armband saying they are a “public safety officer,” and who then sit in front of their buildings on low stools chatting and fanning themselves in the heat. These “officers” have no real duties to perform, schedule to maintain, or uniform to wear. For men, rolling their shirts up above their stomachs seems to be popular, as is wearing large sun hats for the women. While it does appear somewhat comical with small groups of retirees sitting every 50 feet they are probably the best monitoring system imaginable. Although given no training, having no English skills, and bringing their own cell phones to call the local patrolmen directly if there is “trouble,” they are an extremely cost effective and numerous auxiliary force. As a secondary benefit, for the price of a t-shirt, sponsored by Yanjing Beer, they are made to feel they are part of and responsible for the success of the Olympic games.

Retiree volunteers outside their apartments

Outside the second ring road, security decreases with an emphasis on regular patrols by foot and car. Police are now much more visible directing traffic at major intersections and assisting traffic wardens to clear accidents quickly. When motorcades or VIPs are on the move, small groups of heavily armed military police occupy strategic intersections in full uniform with helmet, body armor, and assault rifles. Due to stringent housing laws that were previously un-enforced, private housing areas have also increased security and tightened regulations. These rules are designed to limit a large floating population of foreigners and domestic tourists that could be hard to track during the games.

Private security checkpoint in housing area

Most housing areas have installed gates manned 24 hours a day to separate residents from any potential guests who must proceed to the local police station for a temporary residence permit. Large police sweeps of twenty to thirty officers going through housing blocks for any unauthorized visitors seem mainly to inconvenience the large floating Korean student population in the Haidian district and stops landlords from renting apartments at huge mark-ups for the month of August.

While there is clearly a need for a comprehensive and large security presence at obvious targets during the Olympics, for many visitors the true symbols of the Beijing’s Games could be the 6th and 7th Fuwas, JingJing and ChaCha (jingcha being the Chinese word for police).


A Defense of Jiang Rong’s Wolf Totem

By Timothy Weston

I have a confession to make: I was moved by Jiang Rong’s Wolf Totem, think it’s an important novel and that it’s well worth reading. The reason I say I feel a need to “confess” as opposed to just being able to state this is because recent postings on The China Beat, as well as some of the reviews referenced in those postings, attack the book with a sharpness and thoroughgoingness that initially made me question my own taste and to think that I was politically incorrect for liking and being impressed by the novel as I read it. But after finishing Howard Goldblatt’s translation of Wolf Totem—a book that we now know is the work of Lu Jiamin, using “Jiang Rong” as a pseudonym—my conviction remains unchanged that this is indeed a major work. Reactions to the novel have varied widely, as Jeff Wasserstrom pointed out in an earlier post to this site. Here, very briefly, I’d like to add one more voice of praise, for in my opinion it would be a pity if, swayed by the negative things they have read about it here or elsewhere, China experts (or other interested readers) were to decide that reading the novel isn’t worth the effort.

Before saying more I want to make clear that I agree with many of the criticisms made of the book: it is didactic, does lack character development, and is too long. Moreover, to the extent that it advocates that Chinese adopt wolfish cunning and aggressiveness as national characteristics, it does open itself to the charge of being nationalistic, though personally I did not find this theme overly offensive. Fully mature and great literature it may not be, but courageous, imaginative, and a deserving winner of the inaugural Man Asian Literary Prize I think it is. No other novel, from any country, has given me so deep an appreciation for the vitally important and interconnected roles played by all creatures and species within the natural environment, or of the fragile relationship between we human beings and the ecological setting in which we live. At a moment when awareness of our endangerment of the planet is rising to new levels, Jiang Rong has produced a profound lament about what it can mean when human beings and human societies carry on with little-to-no regard for the natural environment.

This message is of course universally relevant and highly timely. The fact that is has been articulated so passionately by a Chinese writer is remarkable, given the low level of environmental consciousness usually attributed to contemporary China. Here, then, we have a powerful Chinese contribution to the global discussion about our human-caused planetary environmental crisis. For me, this is a welcome development.

Also welcome, in my view, is Jiang Rong’s willingness to merge his tale of environmental destruction with an open discussion of Han Chinese cultural and political imperialism. In Wolf Totem disregard for other cultures (in this case nomadic Mongolian culture) goes hand in hand with disregard for the natural environment; the same unthinking mindset produces both. Having noted with sadness the scarcity of publicly expressed Chinese compassion for the feelings of Tibetans during the recent disturbances in Tibet and elsewhere, I find it refreshing to encounter Jiang Rong’s concern over Han insensitivity to minority peoples.

While Jiang Rong is critical of Han Chinese ignorance and arrogance with regard to minority cultures and ways of life within China, Wolf Totem is not a simplistic good guy versus bad guy story, nor an overly determined good ethnic group versus bad ethnic group tale. Ethnicity is not treated in an essentialist fashion in this novel. Chen Zhen, the novel’s protagonist, is a Han Chinese, as are several other important characters, and they develop a deep appreciation for the environment and the brutal and amoral ways of nature. Han Chinese are not irredeemable, in other words. Nor are Mongols portrayed as being wholly in touch with nature; among other things, in fact, the novel narrates fissures within Mongol society along generational, geographic and ideological lines. As with the Chinese, some Mongols are shown to be sensitive to the environment and some are not.

As environmental studies becomes an ever more important part of school curricula there’s a growing need for books that speak to environmental issues in creative and compelling ways. While reading Wolf Totem I kept thinking about how to use it in my teaching. Since I am a historian, I thought of pairing it with Mark Elvin’s recent monumental historical study, The Retreat of the Elephants, or with Judith Shapiro’s Mao’s War Against Nature. My sense is that Jiang Rong’s literary exploration of environmental issues in China would work well with those more academic treatments.

There is of course also the question of why Wolf Totem has been so amazingly popular in China. I can imagine an entire class session devoted to that issue alone, for if, as one blurb on the cover of Goldblatt’s translation states, the novel has in fact outsold any other book in Chinese history since Mao’s little red book, that is a truly astonishing fact. What does it tell us about Chinese society today? No doubt many things, not all of them positive (other reviewers are likely right that the macho tone of the novel is at least partially responsible for its extraordinary appeal in China). Nevertheless, at this time, when the price of decades of disregard for the natural environment is becoming painfully obvious to more and more Chinese, my hunch is that a great many of the millions of Chinese readers of Wolf Totem have been attracted to the message of environmental warning that is its central theme. Along the way, of course, they are treated to an unusually self-reflective discussion of Han Chinese relations with minority peoples who belong to the Chinese nation. One can hope that in this way, too, the novel is having a positive affect on those who have been reading it.


What We're Reading Today

There are a few themes we've been tracking lately at China Beat, including growing Chinese nationalism, middle class protest, and India-China comparisons. Here are a few stories we've noticed around the web this week that address some of these issues:

1. For a thoughtful take on the fenqing phenomenon, check out Evan Osnos's recent New Yorker piece, "Angry Youth: The New Generation's Neocon Nationalists."

2. Financial Times ran a recent piece on the efforts to stop construction of a nuclear power station in Rushan (southeast of Beijing)--see "China Pressure Groups Learn to Tread Carefully."

3. Earlier this week, Danwei.org ran an excerpt from the book Smoke and Mirrors: An Experience of China by Pallavi Aiyar. The excerpt considers the differences between development in China and India.

4. In May, we ran a piece by Steve Smith on disaster rumors in the wake of the Sichuan earthquake. In the weeks to follow, some Chinese began to speculate that the cute little Olympic mascots, the fuwa (the Friendlies), were actually harbingers of doom, each one predicting an Olympic year debacle. Today, Shanghaiist reports that their own creator has disowned the fuwas. Look here for the piece, along with links to spoofs on the fuwa and further explanation of their role as harbingers of the apolocalypse.

5. And, for a little lighter reading for those of you carefully packing and repacking your Beijing Olympic wardrobes, check out this Sartorialist-inspired blog of Beijing street-style, Stylites in Beijing.


Rocking Beijing

By Eric Setzekorn

Like almost every aspect of Beijing life in the past five years, the live music scene has undergone rapid but uneven development. Beijing has always prided itself onthe gritty originality of its live music compared to the dominance of cover bands in Shanghai or the saccharine Canto-pop of Hong Kong. The recent opening of new, modern venues on both sides of the city has allowed dozens of new bands and a newly affluent urban youth to establish a flourishing but still shallow live music scene.

For live music, particularly rock and hip hop music, the Olympics are bringing challenges such as new rules and regulations but could allow some bands to develop a global fan base which remains a central difficulty for Chinese groups. A less immediate and more difficult issue will be resolving the internal contradictions between Chinese rock and its relation to Chinese society. The elephant in the room of any discussion of China’s music scene is how to rectify the anti-authoritarian values which infuse rock music and even more so punk and hip-hop with the boundaries of the Chinese political system. At present the young, often highly nationalistic youth seem to be pulling in the same direction as the government, which comes as a shock to many foreign visitors and seems to betray the core anti-establishment values of rock, punk and hip-hop. However, the post-1989 cultural détente in which musicians stayed away from politics may be eroding.

Beijing has slowly struggled to rebuild its music scene after rock music had been identified by the government as a “bad element” following the events of 1989. The introduction of punk and alternative rock sounds from groups like Nirvana and Sonic Youth in the 1990s helped influence new groups like the all-girl band Hang on the Box, which was the first Chinese band on the cover of Newsweek Asia, and whose music marked a sharp change from the Bruce Springsteen-esque Cui Jian types of the 1980s.

However, the still small underground rock scene suffered from a lack of funding and limited exposure that kept most groups at a non-professional level. It has only been in the past few years that bands have been able to perform in purpose-built, high quality venues in front of large crowds. The opening of D-22 in 2005 by American professor Michael Pettis was a turning point and helped revitalized the Haidian university district’s languishing nightlife and live music scene. Across town in business-oriented Chaoyang, several venues with a capacity of up to 2,000 opened their doors to both local and foreign groups.

One of the most interesting clubs is the centrally located “Mao Live House” near the Bell and Drum tower, north of the Forbidden City. A converted movie theater, it has space for up to 400 and, with backing by the Japanese “Bad News” record label, installed high quality lighting and sound equipment--surely a first for Beijing. Its snarky logo features only the hairline of Mao circa 1970 in black set against a white backdrop. Mao also shows various local underground films during set breaks. A recent five-minute film showcased a young film student doing tai-chi while standing on an on-ramp to the second ring road. Throughout the five minutes the incredibly brave/foolish filmmaker was not questioned or stopped by any passerby or even the police but his attached microphone recorded a constant stream of profanities from drivers.

It would be easy to assume that venues like “Mao” possess and cultivate the anti-establishment ethos that permeates many rock, punk or hip-hop clubs in the U.S. or Europe, but the non-political tone of the majority of musicians and fans limits many of the protest aspects of rock music. The majority of live music fans are under thirty, urban, middle class, often have a university education, and have benefited greatly under the current political system. For a variety of reasons--strong economic growth, a tightly controlled education system, and no memory of 1989--the younger generation is generally optimistic and supportive of current policies, which means bands that inject politics into their music risk isolating themselves. In addition, some Chinese musicians are highly sensitive to criticism they are “acting like foreigners” by playing rock or punk music. At a recent show at D-22, a lead singer prefaced his set by appealing to the audience to remember that even though he wore western style clothing and his band used western style guitars and drums they remained wholly Chinese in spirit.

More than any other event, the now infamous Bjork concert in Shanghai on March 4th, where the Icelandic singer closed her song “Declare Independence” by shouting "Tibet," has deeply affected Beijing’s music scene prior to the Olympic games. For fear of other political disturbances by foreign acts, the always-cautious Beijing city government postponed until October the widely anticipated annual Midi rock music festival that normally draws over 10,000 rock fans.

There is also a fear of violence by Chinese fans directed towards any band that might make a political statement about Tibet or Darfur. Even without provocation, Chinese fans can be highly temperamental; in 2003 and 2005, nationalistic young Chinese pelted Japanese bands with beer bottles during the music festival. The Tibet protests this spring have also encouraged nationalistic tendencies and a more belligerent attitude among many young Chinese, musicians included. In one of the small CD stores catering to underground and local rock groups, one of the most prominent DVDs is a brutally graphic account of the Lhasa riots showing charred bodies and graphic violence captured by security cameras. The video’s narration continuously denounces the rioters as traitors who serve the Dalai Lama and his foreign sponsors and stresses the need for firm action to regain control. Adjacent to this grisly and apparently popular documentary, shop workers sat on the floor with guitars strumming along to a Nirvana Unplugged CD.

However, not all musicians are in step with the party line and many do succeed in hiding political and social criticisms in their lyrics. The wildly popular Carsick Cars song “Zhongnanhai” has a chorus of,

“Zhongnanhai, Zhongnanhai, if you smoke just smoke Zhongnanhai
Zhongnanhai, Zhongnanhai, can’t live without Zhongnanhai,
Zhongnanhai, Zhongnanhai, who the fuck smoked my Zhongnanhai?”

The subtly of the double meaning (Zhongnanhai is both a brand of cheap cigarettes and the senior government housing area adjacent the Forbidden City) no doubt overshoots many listeners, but vagueness is necessary when every recorded lyric must be vetted by the Ministry of Culture. In a recent Time Magazine article that listed Beijing band PK14 as one of its five bands to watch in 2008, lead singer Yang Haisong listed American protest singers Woody Guthrie, Phil Ochs and Bob Dylan as his inspirations. While not every band will go to the extreme of the hip-hop group Pan-Gu, which is currently in exile in Sweden due to their anti-party message, the growing cross-pollination of foreign and Chinese bands could possibly increase the desire for musicians to become more vocal social critics.

To eliminate the possibility of disruptions during the Olympic Games, the Ministry of Culture has issued guidelines stating that acts that "undermine national unity, endanger state security, stir up ethnic hatred, violate religious policy and ethnic customs, publicize pornography and superstition will be barred," with offenders likely being blacklisted but not arrested. Like many other socially undesirable facilities such as Beijing’s infamous Maggie’s bar, police have mostly used indirect tactics to halt activity. At present D-22 is closed due to “licensing issues” but hopes to re-open before the games. Other clubs have had problems getting visas for foreign groups to enter China. While the authorities will likely get their wish and eliminate any potential trouble spots during the games, the growth of live music in Beijing coupled with a more outspoken artistic community could be a potential source of future conflict and friction.

Eric Setzekorn is a graduate student at UC Irvine specializing in military history and is currently finishing an exchange semester with the Beijing University history department.


Beijing's New Flame

Currently the London correspondent for NPR, Rob Gifford also covered China for six years and his recently published China Road continues to receive positive reviews. Here, Gifford has allowed China Beat to reprint a piece reflecting on Beijing’s renewed building boom that originally appeared in Condé Nast Traveler.

By Rob Gifford

The essence of Beijing has always been found in its buildings. The city has no major river, no coastline. There are some hills to the west and the north, with the Great Wall stretched across them, but there is none of the geographic razzle-dazzle that created towns like Hong Kong or San Francisco or Sydney or Istanbul. As the historian Arnold Toynbee noted when he visited in the 1930s, Beijing as a city owes little to nature and everything to art.

The art of which Toynbee wrote was contained within the ancient walls of the Forbidden City, where the emperor resided at the heart of old Beijing. But the art was also the buildings themselves: beautiful, angular structures that suffused the dusty soil beneath them with an imperial significance, sanctifying an otherwise unremarkable spot on the North China Plain.

The man responsible for creating Beijing was the third emperor of the Ming dynasty, known as Yongle. On his orders, between 1405 and 1421 thousands of workers constructed a new city, a city that would be the new capital not just of China but of the world, and indeed the universe. In traditional thinking, all under heaven belonged to Yongle, and all the world revolved around his domain, a belief made explicit by the country's name for itself: Zhong Guo, the Middle Kingdom.

There was a reason for the Chinese to believe this, too. At the time, China, though a little past its heyday, was still the world's economic superpower. With no competitors (Europe had yet to rise), China was confident of its moral and financial superiority, and Yongle's capital was appropriately grand, fit for the throne of the Son of Heaven. Built according to ancient rules of geomancy and surrounded by suffocating layers of walls, its design reflected the cosmic symmetry that the emperor sought to keep in balance through his just and harmonious rule.

But such cosmic (and terrestrial) equilibrium is hard to maintain indefinitely. After a final, fatal flowering under the Qing dynasty in the eighteenth century, China fell into a death spiral of humiliation and semi-colonization. By the late nineteenth century, Western incursions had transformed it from Alpha Male Middle Kingdom to Sick Man of Asia, struggling on the periphery of the modern world.

Now, though, the wheel is once again turning.

When China's current ruler, President Hu Jintao, declares the Games of the XXIX Olympiad open in August 2008, he will be looking out upon a city that, like the entire country, bears little resemblance to the one Yongle knew. The stadium where he will be standing—modern Beijing's own imperial palace—is one of the most talked-about buildings in Asia. Swiss architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron have dubbed their creation the Bird's Nest, an allusion to the strands of steel that weave around its frame, but it looks more like a shiny silver spaceship that has landed amid the browns and grays of northern Beijing. Certainly its design is alien to any Chinese architectural tradition. But that's the point: Beijing is being rebuilt along Western lines—not weighed down with the heavy symbolism of Chinese tradition but exploding with the sparks of Western postmodernism. Now it is the Bird's Nest that is suffusing the dusty soil, this time with a twenty-first-century significance.

Adjacent to the Bird's Nest is another example of this new aesthetic—an angular, rectangular structure whose exterior is a honeycomb of blue bubbles. Known as the Water Cube and designed by the Australian firm PTW Architects, it will be the stage for the Olympic swimming and diving events. Farther south, in the Central Business District—not far from Tiananmen Square—looms another monument to the changed Chinese psyche: the new headquarters of China Central Television (CCTV). Dutch maestro Rem Koolhaas's $600 million project has twisted twin towers that seem to leap from the earth, embracing each other in midair. Beside the square itself is the titanium egg that is the National Theater, its smooth lines clashing with the ancient Greece-meets-Soviet Union angles and pillars of Tiananmen. There, eyed warily by the twenty-five-foot portrait of Chairman Mao, a forty-three-foot-high clock counts down the minutes to the Opening Ceremony on August 8.

These new architectural masterpieces are testaments to the rule-flouting individualism that is changing China's cities, symbols of the break the country has made with its past, and celebrations of the country's brave new post-Mao world. They speak of the psychological transformation, not to mention the confusion, in the Chinese mind. And they speak of the eagerness of the Chinese people to leap into a postmodern world, even as huge parts of the country are only just learning what it means to be modern. Nowhere is the metamorphosis more evident than in Beijing, a city of fourteen million that has changed more in fifteen years than it did in the previous five hundred. The capital is still discovering its new identity, and in its quest, walls have become windows as a vertical city rises from the carcass of the old horizontal one.

This rebirth has come at a price. You can still visit the heart of Yongle's spectacular Forbidden City, with its maze of rich red walls and its yellow roof tiles heavy with history, but much of the rest of the city has been destroyed. Many of Beijing's ancient hutongs, or alleyways, some of which date to the fourteenth century, have been demolished, and their sense of community has died with them. The sounds and smells of old Beijing have disappeared. Traditional courtyard houses have been knocked down to make way for unremarkable apartment buildings and office blocks. The cosmic balance has been lost, replaced by a capitalist iconoclasm that has proved as destructive as Communist iconoclasm was in its day. Many people have complained about the destruction of Beijing's heritage, but their complaints have run up against one of Beijing's few remaining walls: the wall of Communist party power.

Who knows if that wall, too, will crumble? For now, though, this and many other questions about the future have been put on hold, suspended in time until after the Olympics. The shiny ziggurats of Beijing issue a welcome as outsiders—both Chinese and foreign—hasten to observe and participate in the transformation. The glass and metal, the curved edges and winking windows, all whisper of something more than just the gentle shock of a new architectural order. They proclaim a new cosmic order: that China is open, that it is looking forward and outward as never before. And they declare that Beijing—the imperial city, the capital city, and now the Olympic city—has once again become the center of the world.

Photo by Matt Merkel-Hess