A Man Bites Dog Story: Picky Academic Praises Journalist

Well, I don't think I'm actually quite as bad when it comes to giving reporters their due as the title I've selected for this post suggests, as I have recently gone on record praising a variety of journalists based in China. Still, the ones I typically say the best things about are people who have a long-term commitment to the country (though I've been critical of some of these, of course), while the ones I most often pick on for things like missing important aspects of a story or failing to go to the best possible specialists for quotes are those who, like Barbara Demick of the Los Angeles Times, end up in China while cycling through different foreign bureaus (in her case, based on a very quick web search, it seems she was in the Middle East and Seoul before heading to Beijing). And true to form, when I started reading Demick's "Clocks Square Off in China" in this morning's paper, where it was given the excellent front-page "Column One" feature spot (saved for longer than usual and often somewhat personal pieces) that remains one of the best things about the Times, I was initially on my guard, looking for flaws. I quickly had to admit, however, that the piece handles very well indeed a couple of fascinating issues: the fact that China could easily have five or six time zones, yet officially all clocks are supposed to keep Beijing time, and the cultural divides that tend to separate Uighur and Han residents in this part of China's "Far West" (as the region is sometimes dubbed--including in the retitled online version of Demick's article).

I am sure that there are terms used or ideas broached in the article that could be picked apart by still more specialized readers than me--someone who tends to focus on a city, Shanghai, that lies far to the East of Xinjiang and someone who has not done much on either issues of ethnicity or, for that matter, on what clocks read, aside from co-writing one commentary that used the one time zone curiosity as a lead-in. For me, though, it was a very fine example of smart and accessible journalism, which effectively mixed on-the-spot anecdotes (I particularly like the interchange with the young boy who looked at the foreigner's watch) and analysis on the fly with queries put to just the right academic experts.

I was pleased to see recent China Beat contributor James Millward quoted, and delighted to see that he managed to slip in an allusion to former Association for Asian Studies President and Southeast Asia specialist James C. Scott's important "weapons of the weak" concept--and do so in a manner that made it immediately understandable to those who had never read that theorist's important 1987 book by that title. I was even happier to see a quote solicited from Gardner Bovingdon, a former Indiana University colleague of mine (he's still there, I've just moved on to America's "Far West"). Why? Because everything I know about time zones in China I learned from reading a draft of a very smart paper of his that is mentioned in passing by Demick.

All in all, it was nice to start the day reading a story dealing with China (complete with a map that very nicely showed just how far it is from Beijing to Xinjiang and a good color photo of Kashgar store selling clocks showing different times--not the one included with this post, but similar to it) that seemed right on target. It didn't leave me itching to write a letter to the editor suggesting that something be corrected or some glossed over point be brought into the light.

Still, there's one small issue that I want to bring up, since it has been perplexing me ever since I made my first phone call to India a couple of months ago--and discovered inadvertently, while trying to figure out how to phone a friend there without waking him up, that there's more than one big Asian country with a single time zone. If the way Beijing handles time zones is linked to authoritarianism, which definitely seems correct, why is it that democratic India has a similar chronological approach? Yes, India does not have nearly as wide an east-to-west spread, but there does still seem a story to tell here, even if it is a matter of 3 time zones rather than twice that many being compressed into 1. And while I like Demick's report a lot, it doesn't enlighten me on this, as when she looks to a neighboring country with which to compare China's situation, her gaze goes, not surprisingly and very effectively, to Russia...with its 11 time zones!


Five Quirky Blogs to Check Out

A few blogs we’ve stumbled across in recent weeks that, depending on your interests, may merit your further attention:

1. “China Book Reviews” runs (as you might expect) reviews of an unusual selection of China books, including a few we’ve mentioned or reviewed ourselves, like Jeff Wasserstrom’s Brave New World and Mobo Gao’s The Battle for China’s Past (which Kate Merkel-Hess reviewed for TLS last spring).

2. Anna Greenspan wrote a piece for China in 2008 about the tainted milk scandal in China last fall. Now she is keeping her own blog about her experiment with placing her three-year old in local Chinese preschool rather than sending him to international school.

3. Mark Anthony Jones has become one of our most regular commenters, but he also has his own website, where he has just started a blog with some great images from his visits to his students’ dorms.

4. Crystal Mo keeps an entertaining food in Shanghai blog at City Weekend.

5. Chinese historian Jim Millward keeps his own blog called “The World on a String,” that includes musings on everything from the history of the pipa to the Jonas Brothers.


Living the Game: WoW-China

Last fall, we ran an interview with UCI Professor of Informatics Bonnie Nardi, who was conducting research on the different ways World of Warcraft (an MMO-RPG, Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Game) was used in China and the US.

Recently, a reader drew our attention to interesting images where Chinese players envisioned themselves in the game (often quite playfully). In honor of Chinese New Year (a game players celebrate in-game as "Lunar Festival"), WoW-China invited players to submit photos of themselves "blending their Lunar New Year celebration with their enthusiasm for World of Warcraft." The contest received more than eight thousand submissions and almost 1.5 million votes. Winning photos have been posted at WoW's website, for those who'd like to learn more.

Blogging AAS

From Paul Katz (3/28/09, 2:27 p.m.):

Saturday morning was a disaster, or at least full of fascinating panels about disaster and resulting relief efforts. Panel #139, alluded to by Kate Edgerton-Tarpley in her earlier post, explored the sociocultural impacts of the Great Leap Famine. Relevant research has also been done by Steve A. Smith in his "Talking Toads and Chinless Ghosts" article, published in The American Historical Review in 2006, and he has also written on this topic for the China Beat. There was also Panel #167, organized largely by a group of German scholars, which builds on the pioneering work of scholars like Kate, Pierre Etienne-Will, Fuma Susumu 夫馬進, Joanna Handlin-Smith (whose book is at last out!), and Angela Leung (梁其姿) in examining philanthropic responses to natural disasters. It would also be interesting to learn more about the extent to which such activities were inspired by religious beliefs, not to mention organized by religious associations.

In addition to disasters, there was also extensive border crossing, this time in the world of art. This could be seen in two panels (#126 and #149) that focused on the international dimensions of Asian art, including its links to cultural nationalism.

Finally, a word about the book exhibit: One cannot help but be amazed at the number of high-quality studies of Chinese religions now being published by Harvard University Press, including works by Vincent Goossaert, C. Julia Huang, David Johnson, Liu Xun, Rebecca Nedostup, James Robson, and Jeffrey Snyder-Reinke. HUP is clearly joining the ranks of other prestigious presses that continue to contribute to the growth of this field, including California, Leiden, Hawaii, and Stanford.

Pictures from Jeff Wasserstrom (3/28/09, 3:52 p.m.):

The Second Annual Blogger's Breakfast

L to R: Par Cassel (who blogged about the term "Tiananmen" in June 2008), Benjamin Read (featured in a CB interview on homeowners), Paul Katz (Taiwan, Taiwan, Taiwan--and Chinese religion), Susan McEachern (the Rowman & Littlefield editor who made China in 2008 happen), Julia Murray (who hasn't blogged for us but is in the book with a piece on the revival of Confucianism), and Shakhar Rahav (who wrote about how the Olympics were covered in Israel for CB). Haiyan Lee is not shown, due to the limitations of the photographer...

China Beatnik Goes from Writing about Prizes to Winning One

Speaking of Haiyan Lee, whose last piece for CB was about a book prize, won her own prize last night. Lee was awarded the Levenson Prize for 20th Century China (there's also one for pre-20th century topics).

Don't Judge a Book by Its Cover (But Cool Cover...)

Here is Paul Cohen, who was featured in a CB interview, posing beside a display for his book. Like many authors, he doesn't want his book to be judged by its cover, but there's widespread buzz here that it is wonderful cover indeed (the cover of another book we've talked about on the site, Susan Mann's Talented Women, shows up in the photo as well).

AAS Blogging

Jeff Wasserstrom (3/28/09, 7:41 a.m.):

This is, of course, the first AAS meeting at which a book associated with the China Beat has been displayed. And nicely displayed it definitely is, as the accompanying photo illustrates (and note that it is shown in the company of books like Voices Carry, China Ink and The Subject of Gender, which have been discussed on our site before).

More than that, though, this is also a conference that, overall, has some features that run in tandem with some of the goals of China Beat. For example, just as we've tried to encourage more interchange between academics and other kinds of writers, there have been some sessions here that, thanks to generous support from the Luce Foundation, have already included or will include reporters and freelance writers. China Beat contributor Lijia Zhang (shown below posing with a poster for her memoir) and Ching-Ching Ni of the Los Angeles Times (shown below sharing her thoughts on the challenges of covering Chinese topics in the field), for example, were both part of a lively session on the Olympics, during which they shared the stage with Beijing-based specialist in Olympic studies Jin Yuanpu (shown below giving his presentation in Chinese), Susan Brownell (who did double duty as both moderator and Jin's translator), and Korea specialist Bruce Cumings (who gave a very smart summary of all the problems with thinking of the Seoul Games as a major contributing force in South Korea's democratization).

Lijia Zhang

Ching-ching Ni

Jin Yuanpu and Susan Brownell

Conference Report: Asia and the Environment

By Maura Elizabeth Cunningham

I began reading Pallavi Aiyar’s Smoke and Mirrors on my flight to Philadelphia last week to get me into a China-India frame of mind before I attended the “Asia and the Environment” conference held at Saint Joseph’s University on March 20-21. Although Friday’s sessions (which I unfortunately missed) were devoted to India, and Saturday’s topic was China, the goal of the conference organizers was to encourage some comparative discussion of the environmental problems—and possible solutions—shared by the two countries. Readers interested in specific presentations should watch the above SJU website, where podcasts of the talks will be available in the future; for now, I’ll share a few of the most frequently recurring themes from Saturday’s events.

As Ken Pomeranz pointed out in “China’s Water Woes” (Feb. 12, 2009, China Beat), China and India are inextricably bound by their shared water resources. Since China controls the headwaters of many of Asia’s major rivers, this gives Beijing a tremendous amount of control over the fates of various populations living beyond Chinese borders. Pollution, of course, doesn’t stop at national boundaries, and dams built in China have major effects on downstream communities. Given the increasing scarcity of unpolluted water in Asia, the potential for international conflict over river resources seems to be heightening with each new dam project or toxic spill.

To put a more positive spin on this situation, however, several conference-goers emphasized that dependence on shared resources also provides China, India, and other Asian countries new opportunities for negotiation and cooperation. How much optimism is warranted? Perhaps not as much as I have, but the transboundary nature of environmental issues does seem to offer an ideal platform for countries to develop good working relationships with each other. State officials simply cannot afford to ignore the necessity of collaborating with leaders in other countries; it is in their best interests to unite together as they attack environmental problems.

As one panelist at the concluding round table discussion noted, “We can talk about Asia as a whole through the environment,” and it would seem natural for China and India to take the lead in promoting environmental protection throughout the continent. Although a fair number of ominous-sounding facts and figures were mentioned by different speakers as they related the terrifying extent of Asia’s environmental troubles, the final message that I took away from my day at the conference was the importance of looking beyond the problems and thinking more about what’s being done right, and seeing the creative solutions taking hold in response to various crises.

State leaders, NGOs, and private corporations throughout Asia are already stepping in to address environmental issues, and will hopefully make enough progress to prevent any sort of catastrophic event in the future. The next major step that needs to be taken is for those organizations to recognize how essential international cooperation is for environmental protection measures to work. China alone is not "Choking on Growth"; the country shares its problems—and, with luck, successes—with every one of its neighbors.


From the AAS

From Kate Edgerton-Tarpley (3/27/09, 4:03 p.m.):

Attending Panel 44, "Visualizing Order: Images and the Construction of Legal Culture in Ming and Qing China" inspired me to continue Paul Katz's discussion of religion -- as well as law and ritual -- for a moment. Both Katz's paper on representations of underworld justice in late imperial China and Yanhong Wu's paper on legal order in Ming case stories and illustrations provided fascinating examples of ghosts, spirits, birds, and leaves entering courtrooms to either exonerate an innocent person or condemn a guilty one. Katz argued that Underworld justice was seen as less corrupt than the law system for the living, so women and others who had trouble getting justice often turned to it. The discussant, Edward Farmer, then made the point that there was a need for this alternative justice system because imposing and upholding hierarchy, rather than bringing about justice, was the main concern of the official legal system. I thought, however, that some of the examples offered in the papers, both Yanhong's and Thomas Buoye's, did show a real concern with justice in the official courts. Perhaps the degree of concern for justice in official courts could be a topic for future discussion.

Panel 44, as well as comments made by Keith Knapp during his presentation on "Magistrates and Miracles" in panel 118 on "The Mandate of Heaven at the Local Level in Imperial China," both highlighted the need to acknowledge how real, important, and powerful the religious aspects of Confucianism (not to mention Daoism and Buddhism) were for official as well as everyday life in imperial China. These panels demonstrated a fascinating degree of interplay or, as Katz termed it - a continuum between official duties and religious duties, between official courts and underworld courts, between human plaintiffs and ghost/spirit plaintiffs, between the human and the supernatural.

In the Great Leap Famine panel tomorrow morning (#139), I plan to touch upon the impact -- in terms of official responses to famine -- that the loss of the Mandate of Heaven idea and religious constructions of famine and drought had in 1959-61.

Blogging the AAS

The Association for Asian Studies annual meeting is taking place this weekend in Chicago. We'll be posting occasional updates from China Beatniks who are attending the meeting and will be checking in about the sessions and meetings they've participated in. Below, our first two postings from the meeting.

From Jeff Wasserstrom (3/26/09, 11:53 a.m.):

As Editor of the Journal of Asian Studies, I needed to be on site a couple of days before the Association for Asian Studies panels and other main events begin, and I have been struck since arriving by how many things I've seen inside or near the Sheraton hotel (the conference base) that link up to Chinese events and locales, blogging, or things people whose China blogs I follow have addressed.  I've rolled thoughts and images relating to these into a pre-conference post.

Blog-Based Books Enter the Mainstream (of American publishing)
On the blogging front, this morning's edition of USA Today, provided free to all hotel guests, had a piece called "Books Editors Look to Bloggers for Possibilities," which caught my attention in part because this conference is the first at which China in 2008: A Year of Great Significance will be on sale. Like most American reports on the topic of blog-based books, it didn't mention the fact that such publications became more routine in China before doing so in the U.S. It also didn't give any examples (are there any out there?) of books that, like ours, is based on a group blog with many contributors, as opposed to, for example, solo ones by Colby Buzzell. The piece ends by wondering: "Can the Twitter novel be far behind?"

The Games after the Games after the Beijing Games
Here's a photo taken a block from the hotel, of a flag promoting Chicago's bid to host the 2016 Games. Surely, the backers of this bid are relieved for many reasons, including budgetary ones that, if they succeed, they will be following London's show as opposed to Beijing's.

Did They Know the Asian Studies Crowd Was Coming When This Statue Went Up?
Here are two photos of a massive piece of public art, playing upon a famous American painting. Its presence a few blocks from the hotel has nothing to do with the AAS meetings, but it is hard to imagine a more fitting statue to see when walking near a Midwestern conference with panels dealing with many of the cities and countries flagged on the suitcase.

Some Ties Grow Tighter, Others Loosen
If the statue suggests an increase in travel between Chicago and Asia (also signaled by the number of flights to Asian cities that leave from O'Hare airport), there's one kind of longstanding connection between here and there that a recent blog post by Evan Osnos reminds us have recently been severed. Namely, the Chicago Tribune (whose headquarters is right near the stature) closed its Beijing bureau (part of a general scaling back of reporters based abroad)--Osnos (who now works for The New Yorker) was the Windy City newspaper's final China correspondent. 

The Tribune's tradition of fine reporting from Asia will be represented at this conference, however, as Michael Lev, who used to be based there and now is Chicago-based, though still working for the paper, has graciously agreed to pinch-hit for a panelists who had to pull out at the last minute on a special roundtable devoted to "Asia and the Global Economic Downturn" that takes place on Saturday at 5 p.m. (with Nayan Chanda, Ted Fishman, and Ezra Vogel, the other participants). I'll be on a different panel at the same time, but maybe someone else will blog about that session, which covers a topic that could hardly be more timely. I hope so, as I'm eager to learn what transpires there.

From Paul Katz (3/26/09, 9:12 p.m.):

Just spent the first night of our Annual Meeting bopping between Sessions 16 & 17, both of which concerned the religious revival in China today. The papers by Sebastien Billioud (on Confucianism), as well as Gareth Fischer and Wu Keping (on lay Buddhism) were particularly striking in terms of demonstrating the intensity of popular participation in these movements, as well as its links to the formation of different types of individual and group identities. Their works suggests that religion in China today is actively addressing the concerns of its people, which in some ways seems related to ideas of modernity. At the same time, however, this also exhibits profound continuity, as religious movements have been dealing with the concerns of their worshippers throughout the ages.

Tomorrow will be a typically hectic AAS schedule, beginning bright and early at 8:30 with my paper on images of the judicial underworld, which will be presented in Session 44 ("Visualizing Order: Images and the Construction of Legal Culture in Ming and Qing China"). I also plan to attend two other Chinese religion panels: one on lay Buddhism in modern China (#93), the other on the Mandate of Heaven at the local level (#118).


Coming Distraction: Shanghai Girls

Lisa See has written seven books set in China--including novels like Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, mysteries like Flower Net, and an account of her family's immigration from China to the U.S., On Gold Mountain. Her most recent book, Shanghai Girls, will be released on May 26, 2009.

Kate Merkel-Hess: Your forthcoming book, Shanghai Girls, will be released in May. What is the book about? What inspired the novel's subject?

Lisa See: Shanghai Girls is about two sisters who leave Shanghai in 1937 and come to Los Angeles in arranged marriages. Four things inspired me. First, I’ve been collecting Shanghai advertising images from the Twenties, Thirties, and Forties for many years. The so-called Beautiful Girls, women who posed for commercial artists, were right in the heart of the excitement in Shanghai. The charming and captivating life illustrated in advertisements is one thing, but I was interested in seeing what real life was like for those women. I also wanted to write about what it was like for Chinese women who came to America in arranged marriages. (We had a lot of arranged marriages in my family. I know how hard life was for the women.) Third, I wanted to write about China City, a short-lived tourist attraction in Los Angeles. And finally, I wanted to write about sisters. The sibling relationship is the longest that we’ll have in our lifetimes. A sister knows you your entire life. She should stand by you, support you, and love you, no matter what, but it’s also your sister who knows exactly where to drive the knife to hurt you the most.

For your earlier work Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, you did a great deal of historical research. Did you also do historical research for Shanghai Girls? What types of sources informed your writing?

Research is my favorite part of the writing process. I never know what I’m going to find. I live close to UCLA and I love to spend time in the Research Library stacks. But the real excitement comes from going to places—I go to every place I write about—and from talking to people.

I’ll mention two sources that “informed” the writing in Shanghai Girls. The first was going to Angel Island. As you probably already know, the Angel Island Immigration Station—the Ellis Island of the West—has been closed for several years for an extensive renovation project. While it was closed, I was invited to go on a private tour of the island. It was a very strange feeling to walk where my family members had walked, to get a sense of their isolation and fear, but also to see how beautiful the island is.

I also did lots of interviews. In Shanghai Girls, I’ve written about the Confession Program, which ran from 1956 to 1965. The government asked Chinese to “confess” their paper-son status. They were also encouraged to reveal the people they knew in their own families—fathers, sons, brothers, wives—who had come in using false status. But it didn’t stop there. People were also asked to name neighbors, business associates, and anyone else they suspected might be a Communist. There is still a lot of shame and embarrassment about what happened during the program. People don’t like to admit that they were targeted; others don’t want to admit that they confessed. And this can happen in the same family! I got some people to talk to me about what happened to them during those days. The stories were sad and very hard to hear. One man said to me, “There were a lot of suicides, a lot of suicides. It’s hard to remember these things because of the pain.” Another person said, “I don’t know that we’ve ever mentioned any of this to our kids.” He then added, “We aren’t dead yet, so we aren’t safe yet.” Interestingly, a whole other way to look at the Confession Program was as an amnesty program. When you change “confession” to “amnesty,” the connotations are very different, aren’t they?

The heroines of Shanghai Girls trace the same path that some of your own ancestors did when they came to the U.S. from China (though a few decades later). Did you draw on the experiences of your family-which you wrote about in On Gold Mountain (1996)-to imagine the experiences of Pearl and May?

Absolutely! My family traveled back and forth to China quite a bit, so they were passing through Angel Island pretty regularly all the way up until the Immigration Station finally closed. When I was working on On Gold Mountain, I was very fortunate to find at the National Archives over 500 pages of interrogation transcripts, photographs, boarding passes, and health certificates relating directly to my family’s experiences at Angel Island. I used a lot of that material for On Gold Mountain, but there was a lot I didn’t use until Shanghai Girls. Pearl and May’s interrogation scenes on Angel Island come almost verbatim from the file for Mrs. Fong Lai, the wife of one of my great-grandfather’s paper partners.

I’ve already mentioned that we had a lot of arranged marriages in my family. For example, back in 1932, my great-great-uncle took his family back to China in part to get wives for his sons. The oldest wife was about 25; the youngest was something like 14. They’d had servants in China, but they lived like servants in America. In China, especially after Liberation, women’s lives and the culture changed rapidly, but in U.S. Chinatowns people held on to their traditions and beliefs. Chinese women in the U.S. led very difficult, traditional, closed in lives.

Finally, my fictional sisters come to Los Angeles Chinatown. My family has lived and had businesses in Los Angeles Chinatown for about 120 years. I really know the history, the people, the food, the streets, and the secrets. All of that I was able to give to May and Pearl.

Most of your other books have been set in China, but this book returns to the U.S.-where much of On Gold Mountain took place. What about the story or time period of Shanghai Girls brought you back to the U.S.?

I’ve always been interested in the push and pull of immigration. What pushes people out of their home countries? War, prejudice, persecution of one sort or another, famine, the desire to get rich and make a better life. What pulls people to a new place? The hope for freedom or the desire to have a better life for yourself and your family. The fact is that we all have someone in our families who was scared enough, brave enough, or crazy enough to leave their home countries to come here.

The timeframe for Shanghai Girls has several of these elements: Shanghai was at a fascinating moment in 1937. Shanghai was at the height of decadence, the Paris of Asia, and all that. It was a place people wanted to be. It had great pull. It was a place people went to, not left. But everything began to change when the Japanese invaded. There are several reasons why Pearl and May flee China, and this is one of them. Again, this was a very specific moment in Shanghai. (After 1937, Shanghai went through a long period of decline. Even after Deng Xiaoping inaugurated the Open Door Policy in 1979, Shanghai still languished. It wasn’t until 1992, when Deng gave his emphatic support for Shanghai to become a once and future financial and commercial center, that things began to change…and very rapidly.)

Once my sisters get to Los Angeles, they are also in an interesting moment. Old Chinatown had been torn down, and two new Chinatowns—China City and New Chinatown—opened with great fanfare. People may know Chinatown, but hardly anyone remembers China City. China City was a tourist attraction developed by Christine Sterling, who also developed Olvera Street, a Mexican marketplace here in Los Angeles. Mrs. Sterling started both of these projects during the Depression as a way to give poor immigrants a chance to start small businesses. Chinese City was intended to look and feel like an “authentic” Chinese city. It was one square block surrounded by a miniature Great Wall. Inside it was built from the leftover sets from the filming of The Good Earth. The people who worked there were required to wear Chinese costumes. Those who came to visit rode in rickshaws and nibbled on Chinaburgers. China City was also home to the Asiastic Costume Company, where movie studios rented props and costumes, and also hired Chinese extras to work in films. I think it’s safe to say that China City wasn’t terribly authentic, but it did have a lot of charm. And it’s really lived on in the memories of the people who worked there. My great-great-uncle had a shop there. His children—my cousins—have wonderful memories of playing and working in China City.

I also wanted to write about the Confession Program, which I talked about earlier.

In On Gold Mountain, you write that the book grew partly from a desire to preserve your family's history. But in your subsequent novels, you have returned to China again and again. What keeps you coming back to it as a setting and subject?

I don’t look at it as “returning to China again and again.” Rather, one book has led to the other in a very organic way. Three paragraphs in the penultimate chapter of On Gold Mountain led to Flower Net. Once the characters in the mysteries were established, one idea led to another in those too. There was a line in the penultimate paragraph in Snow Flower and the Secret Fan that let me understand how I could write Peony in Love. I’d been thinking about the true story of the three wives for years, but there was something that the character of Lily said that just clicked in my mind. I can tell you that the book I’m working on now never could have happened without Shanghai Girls. So it’s definitely been a natural progression.

At the same time, other things drive me: personal interest in a subject, curiosity about why we followed or continue follow certain traditions in my family, and a desire to understand and know myself. This last part is really about exploring who I am and what I know. Obviously, being part Chinese has had a huge impact on me. But what does that even mean? Not to you or readers, but to me.

Finally, why not write about China? It’s beautiful. It has a rich and deep culture that very few people—even Chinese!—understand or know fully. The country accounts for a quarter of the world’s population. It’s a global economic superpower. With all the stresses in the world, we need to know more about China, not less. I’m doing what I can to help others learn about China not in an academic essay but through stories. It’s through fiction that we connect to real people and by extension to the shared human condition. I’m interested in finding the universals through the uniqueness that is China.


Huiyuan(汇源): my “nationalistic” juice

By Yu Zhou

On March 18, 2009, the Chinese Commerce Ministry rejected Coca-Cola’s proposal to take over Huiyuan, the top juice maker in China. This deal was a closely watched one as an early test of China’s newly instated anti-monopoly law. The veto was greeted with dismay in the major western media and widely interpreted as a new signal of Chinese protectionism. The article in the Times and the editorial by Financial Times suggested that the Chinese government made decisions based on nationalistic considerations, rather than any sound economic or legal rationale. The rejection is thought to have far-reaching ramifications for foreign investment in China and Chinese acquisitions abroad.

I do not know how far-reaching the ownership of a bottle of juice can be. But secretly, I am glad about the collapse of this deal. Let me explain.

I have been living in America since 1989. But in 2000, I spent one year on sabbatical in Beijing with my six- and one-year-old children. One of my biggest challenges was to find a drink to suit their made-in-America tastes. This was especially a problem for the six-year-old since he had keen tastes and was uncompromising. Soda was out, as he had never touched it. It took me a frustrating month to find the right milk brand for him after what seemed an endless trail.

Fortunately, juice was not a problem as he accepted Huiyuan apple juice on the first try. It was a big relief since apple juice is not a traditional Chinese drink, and I was not sure I could find it. Most supermarkets did have a few foreign brands of apple juice on the shelf, but they were pricey, based on their dollar value in America or New Zealand. While my income was from America, I could not bring myself to spend 30 yuan for a bottle of juice. As far as I could tell, one yuan in China could buy about $1 worth of goods in America at that time. Would I ever consider spending $30 for a bottle of apple juice in America? Huiyuan apple juice had a clear and refreshing taste with a lower sugar content than comparable brands in America, at only a fraction of the cost. I was grateful that this new Beijing company was providing my kids with the comfort and sweetness of America, and it was also a connection to the local apples of my childhood in Beijing. I have visited China several times since 2000. Huiyuan was always the reliable and inexpensive local juice to sate my kids’ sugar thirst.

I have to say that I was not particularly excited to hear that Coca-Cola wanted to acquire Huiyuan—by now a national company with almost half the juice market share in China. We never drink Coke or Pepsi in my home and I have cut down my kids’ juice consumption because of the high sugar content, so the fizzy drink giant has never enjoyed much of a buzz in my household. I cannot imagine that Huiyuan would taste better if Coca-Cola were the owner (though I can see that a merger might bring better profits). I am afraid that it might become more loaded with sugar, or core syrup for that matter, or become more expensive.

I suspect that Chinese consumers agreed with me when they heard about the proposed merger. This is why, in an unscientific on-line poll, over 80 percent voted “no” to Coke’s acquisition. Most media outlets characterized the Chinese attitude as nationalistic. But no one bothered to ask what motivated that “nationalism.” After all, the Chinese can hardly be said to be against globalization. You cannot live in Beijing without using brand names from around the world. So why the insistence on keeping Huiyuan domestic?

It would be helpful to know a bit more about Chinese consumers. Most Chinese consumers, with the exception of those younger than 20, remember a time when there was very little choice in consumer brands. Everyone used the same things: “Arctic” (北冰洋) soda, “Forever” (永久) and “Flying Pigeon”(飞鸽 ) bicycles, “White Cat”(白猫) detergent, “Zhonghua”(中华)toothpaste, “Beauty and Clean” (美加净) face cream, “Nanfu” (南孚) batteries, and so on. Some of these products were made by state-owned companies and they looked the same decade after decade. Others were made by emerging private companies. Huiyuan is the latter kind. None of these products were fancy, but they were reliable and inexpensive.

In the 1990s, many of these companies were short of capital to compete with growing foreign brands. Some simply disappeared. Others were restructured with the injection of foreign capital. It was thought that only foreign capital with better management and higher quality could modernize these old companies. Everyone supported such a move and some local governments were so eager that they forced their enterprises to accept foreign investment.

At the time, no one thought much about the value of these well-known brands, even though they might have had the largest loyal consumer base in the world. Restructuring, however, brought almost none of these Chinese brands back. They either completely disappeared or became marginalized, only showing up in country stores. Nowadays, Chinese consumers drink bottled water from Kang Shifu (康师傅, Taiwan), use P&G (宝洁) and J& J for household cleaning, drink Coke and ride “Giant” bicycles. The well-off use Japanese, European or American beauty products for skin care.

Meanwhile, the simple, dependable and affordable merchandise of once common Chinese brands, sentimentally tied to the childhood of several generations of Chinese consumers, vanished. Around the early 2000s the Chinese government realized that it would be good for Chinese companies to have brand-name recognition, but by then most long-established brands were nowhere to be found or had lost their toehold in the mainstream market. With only a small number of local brands around, the few successful ones, such as Huiyuan, became especially precious. This explains the 80 percent “no” vote.

Now, lawyers and consultants are indignant about the failed Coke-Huiyuan marriage. I am sure that each side will come up with legal explanations for the wisdom (or lack thereof) of this decision and its far-reaching ramifications. It is also true that for the average consumer changes in ownership may not bring much of a difference—whether Huiyuan is owned by the Chinese or by foreigners. But, as for me, I am glad that Huiyuan remains a Chinese company.

It is not because I worry that China could not develop into a superpower without its own juice company, though. I have a hunch that by continuing as a Chinese company, Huiyuan would have to remain devoted to its Chinese consumers, and would develop unique products suited to their tastes and purchasing power. Being a subsidiary of Coke, however, might reduce Huiyuan’s commitment to local particularities. I could be wrong. But I happen to think that the world needs such a great variety of drinks at different price ranges that it might not fit the bottom lines of the two soda giants to provide for them all.

Yu Zhou is professor of geography at Vassar College and author of The Inside Story of China’s High-Tech Industry: Making Silicon Valley in Beijing.


On Contemporary China

(In 75 minutes)

It's no small task to sum up the work of 53 separate authors but I gave it a go last Friday at the Virginia Festival of the Book when I spoke about China in 2008. I shared the stage (and live C-Span connection) with Susan Brownell (who gave a fascinating presentation on the Beijing Olympics and Olympic education in the Chinese schools) and our moderator, UVA professor of politics Brantly Womack. The session turned into a lively discussion with the audience of about 45 about how we can find ways to more accurately represent (and then hopefully understand) China in the U.S. Here's a quick list to give you a sense of some of the issues that the audience raised (and since I don't have access to the C-Span broadcast, I'm going to have to wing it from memory).

Action shot, before the panel started

1. Best question on the Chinese internet: "I thought China was a closed society. But you seem to be describing a different kind of media environment. Can you give some more examples of that?"
It's easy to forget, living in a little blog bubble, that not everyone is keeping up with the excitement and subterfuge of the Chinese internet. I referenced China's Censorship 2.0 by Rebecca MacKinnon as evidence of how patchwork internet censorship is in China. But this question is also a reminder that the media's emphasis on the "Great Firewall" has skewed general understanding of China's media environment as a blackout zone. 

2. Most complicated question: "The picture of China you are presenting doesn't seem much like what I read in the news. Why is that?"
This is a toughie. There is a lot of great reporting and writing on China, but unfortunately there's crummy stuff too. And in a world of soundbites it's easy for the story to be reduced to "China: Bad." As I reiterated at the panel, the most important thing is to try to understand China as it is, not as we expect it will be or as we hope it will be. And we should understand China as just as complicated and diverse (if not more so) than the U.S.--when you hear someone talking about "the Chinese believe this" or "the Chinese do that" it's a red flag that you're not getting the full story.

3. Most fun question to contemplate answers to: "I'm about to take a trip to China. What should I read?" 
This question was asked after the panel had ended and I recommended taking a gander through China Beat and several other blogs as well as (since the asker was headed to Beijing, among other places) Michael Meyer's Last Days of Old Beijing. Of course there are a lot of other options--I'm curious to hear what you all recommend to your China-bound friends, so feel free to leave comments to that effect.

4. Question I couldn't answer, but have since fished up a little info about: "How is China addressing disabilities like dyslexia?"
My immediate thought was, "Is is possible to be dyslexic when reading Chinese characters?" I clearly needed a little educating on this topic. The answer is: yes, but dyslexia rates are lower in China (and Japan) than in the U.S. Interestingly, recent studies have found that the neurological abnormalities that make English readers dyslexic are different from those that make Chinese readers dyslexic. Perhaps some readers have more information on how dyslexia is addressed in Chinese schools.

5. Questions I was expecting (but wasn't asked): What's up with China pestering our spy boats? How is the economic downturn affecting China? Why doesn't China want Coke to make their apple juice? 
I thought one of these questions might pop up. But this well-read crowd wanted to talk meta-questions--how China is represented in the media and why. In terms of events-related questions, though, I did get a follow-up about the winter 2008 ice storms, which some in the crowd did not remember. Brantly Womack jumped in with solid info, holding up his cup to show how thick the ice was on the powerlines and saying, "If this storm had happened here, we'd still be talking about it." It was a good example of how to bring the foreign home. 

L to R: Susan Brownell, Brantly Womack, Kate Merkel-Hess


Coming Distractions: China Events at the 2009 AAS Meeting

USC's very useful US-China Institute website, which helps us keep up with relevant events taking place in Southern California and other places as well, has a helpful guide to the upcoming Association for Asian Studies meetings, which will be held in Chicago March 26-29. Even if you won't be anywhere close to Chicago on the relevant dates, scrolling through this list of China-related panels can be an effective form of one-stop shopping for those interested in getting a quick sense of the sorts of things that academics (mostly North American, but the meetings pull in participants from other parts of the world as well) are working on and talking about these days. Not everything of potential interest to readers of this blog is mentioned there (e.g., some that have a China plus other parts of Asia focus were skipped), so if you are going be sure to look at the main page for the meetings, which among other things calls attention to the organization's recent efforts to bring more policy-makers and journalists into the mix at AAS gatherings.

There are so many panels listed on the USC website that involve people who've blogged for us, people who've written things we've blogged about, people we'd someday like to have write for us, etc., that we're loath to single out any sessions for special attention. Still, we can't help mentioning one that includes participants not often seen (especially together) at conference held on this side of the Pacific. This is SESSION 70, which will take place from 10:45 A.M.–12:45 P.M. on the Friday of the meetings and bring together into a discussion on Chinese intellectual life, among others, Geremie Barmé (coming over from Canberra), Worrying about China author Gloria Davies (coming over from Melbourne), and former Dushu (Reading) editor Wang Hui (who is based in Beijing).

If any reader involved in another panel wants to draw special attention to it (and explain why readers of the blog might find it particularly interesting) by posting a comment--please do so. And there's another kind of comment we'd welcome. Namely, since many of us will be at the meetings (a good one for us to attend in part because the just-out CB-based anthology China in 2008: A Year of Great Significance will be displayed at the Rowman and Littlefield booth), we may well run one or more posts about the meetings, so if you can't be there and see something listed that you'd particularly like to learn about long distance after the fact from someone who caught it, feel free to post a comment about that as well.


Marxist Mash-ups

Danwei.org recently called attention to plans being made in Beijing to stage a musical based on Karl Marx's major tome, Das Kapital, and the Guardian also ran a piece about this effort to create an unlikely mash-up of Vegas style entertainment, a Broadway song and dance extravaganza, and a closely argued (and very long) work of political economy. These reports (as well as Jeremiah Jenne's earlier review on this site of a film about Mao that makes use of unexpected visual techniques) set us thinking about other kinds of unlikely textual or visual mash-ups with either a Chinese or Marxist dimension to them, and here's the top five list (with some links that definitely provide some levity for those in a Frivolous Friday sort of mood) that emerged from those musings:

1) As Danwei's original post mentioned, there's been a popular manga out in Japan based on Marx's work. You can see a story about this and one sample illustration from it here, but it is worth noting that long before the Marx manga, there were the illustrated "for beginners" books by the cartoonist Ruiz, who had a field day with Mao's thought as well as Karl's life, times, and ideas..

2) Even better (if you like cartoons that move) is the Marx mash-up to end all Marx mash-ups, the video called "Manifestoons," which uses images taken from classic works of animation to illustrate the points made in "The Communist Manifesto."

3) Not quite in this same category, but still worth a mention, is the report by the Financial Times' Geoff Dyer that the Dalai Lama's speeches have "been played on the dance-floors of London nightclubs." Alas, there's no video of said dance hall performances provided by the FT, though the pop culture hungry will find a nifty color caricature drawing of the Tibetan spiritual leader provided at the start of the piece, as well as an unexpected but illuminating juxtaposition of celebrities in a comment by Pankaj Mishra, who is quoted as saying that the Dalai Lama "seems as ubiquitous as Britney Spears" these days.

4) The Olympics Opening Ceremony wasn't exactly a mash-up, but we did get to hear songs from the Chinese Revolution mixed in with tunes of more recent vintage and more bourgeois lineage, with a quote from Confucius thrown in, so surely it can get a nod here. And the critique by one Chinese blogger, mentioned on this site in piece we ran by Geremie R. Barmé, that the show was supposed to be like a "banquet" but ended up merely like "hot-pot" is much the kind of thing that would be said about a mash-up gone astray.

5) Last but far, far from least, there's the one-of-a-kind, won't even bother trying to explain it (just click to watch it) Monty Python sketch that brought together Marx, Mao and Che (among others) to participate in a quiz show that touches upon such crucial texts of classical revolutionary theory as...the songs of Jerry Lee Lewis.

French Tibet

By Pierre Fuller

Visiting family last summer I was surprised to spot the amount of red, blue and gold fabric – yes, Tibetan flags – flying from the roofs of village homes in the French Alps, something of a solidarity I guess with high altitude brethren at the other end of the Eurasian expanse. A little of Tibet in France. After the Olympic torch events of last year, why not. But then that did not prepare me for reporter Edward Cody’s piece on France in today’s Washington Post.

French Workers Return to Streets in Protest” predictably reported that a million-plus French were pounding pavement to shake Sarkozy out of his cautious, unsympathetic leadership in the face of jobs hemorrhaging around the country. No surprises there. Then:

“Despite the rancor on their banners, most marchers seemed cheerful in the spring weather as they marched and shouted anti-capitalist slogans. They moved past the house where Gustave Flaubert, author of "Madame Bovary," lived in the 19th century; they walked by the Kunga Tibetan restaurant, from where three Tibetans peered out at a raucous phenomenon that their countrymen left behind under Chinese rule were unlikely to witness any time soon; and they spilled into the Place de la Bastille, where street protesters kicked off the French Revolution in 1789 by tearing open a royal prison tower.”

Wow. Non sequitur extraordinaire. Where did that come from? I tried to follow the train of thought: Reference French literary giant. Reference launch of French Revolution. Reference China’s stranglehold on Tibet. Huh? Talk about conditioned synapses. Maybe predict that workers in the world’s third largest economy – China – might not be commanding the streets in protest “any time soon.” But Tibet?

I guess all (mental) roads these days do lead to Lhasa.


Thoughts on China Underground--A Book I Didn't Want to Like (But Did)

To Tweet or Not to Tweet?

That’s not necessarily the question, but it's one I’ve been pondering for a while.

On the one hand, I’m loath to add another new form of communication to my life. After all, blogging is only something I’ve been doing for a bit over a year.

On the other hand, as I argue in a commentary about blogs that I’m hoping will be published in the next couple of months (in paper format—as it is aimed at people still skeptical about online writing), things change so fast in the digital world that we need to reckon time like dog years these days, which means it’s already been about a decade since I embraced the blogging life. In addition, Rebecca MacKinnon and Jeremy Goldkorn, two of the people whose views on such matters I value most highly, have just made good cases for giving Twitter its due.

I learned of Rebecca’s views via that most old-fashioned of communication formats, a face-to-face conversation (admittedly illustrated by show and tell on her laptop) we had at the Foreign Correspondents Club in Hong Kong earlier this week before taking the stage together for a public dialogue on blogs (more about that in a later post perhaps). She described the way that (as a reader) "tweets" by others can help her get a sense of what’s happening on the ground in China, while (as a writer) her twittering can assist others who strive to stay up to date on various things (even where and when events she's involved in like our Literary Festival gig are taking place).

I learned of Jeremy’s take in a more high-tech way: by reading his website (one that I keep up with via an RSS feed, a wonderfully useful method for staying abreast of Danwei or for that matter China Beat, which as many but not all people reading this know isn’t hard to set up at all via Google Reader). He claimed Twitter was perfect for haiku-like mini-reviews of “really bad books,” using this tweet to illustrate his point: “Just finished ‘The Black Swan’ by Nassim Nicholas Talib. What an unpleasant man the author is.”

Well, surely Twitter could be just as useful for comparable reviews of “really good books,” which could be praised via shorthand references that you assumed people who followed your “tweets” would get (even if others might find them hopelessly elliptical or enigmatic). If that is the case, it would have been nice to have been a fully hooked up wannabe member of the Twitterati yesterday. I’d have composed this tweet on the plane en route home from Hong Kong and sent it out immediately upon arriving in San Francisco: “Just finished ‘China Underground’ by Zachary Mexico. Think Zhu Wen meets Warren Zevon, dark, funny, different, compulsively enjoyable, informative read.”

Well, I haven’t made the jump to Twitter, but I do want to get my take on China Underground out there right away—if for no other reason than to encourage CB readers lucky enough to be in Shanghai for the final weekend of the city’s International Literary Festival (that I had a great time being part of at its midpoint) to go hear Mexico tell some of his wild true-life tales. So, I’ll do so via the once-new but now so-last-month format of a blog post. I will have more to say about my brief though event-packed time in Shanghai and Hong Kong (a 7 day stretch during which I gave 7 talks and did 5 interviews, including one with a roomful of Chinese journalists asking questions about Global Shanghai and my thoughts about the 2010 Expo). I might also, later on, give some details about how I ended up with China Underground (and very suitably Zhu Wen’s I Love Dollars) as my post-Shanghai reading material (and what I read when heading to Shanghai). For the moment, however, I’ll just say a bit more about Zachary Mexico’s book.

I want to stress that, as the title of this post indicates, I liked it in spite of myself. I certainly didn’t want to be swept away by it. I actually was kind of hoping I’d hate it, so that I could have the fun of writing a harsh review of something for a change (after turning out a string of positive takes on books by journalists lately for periodicals such as Newsweek and Foreign Policy). So even though Paul French of the invaluable Access Asia website raved about it to me ("it's really special"), I began the book skeptically, especially after reading an “Introduction” that talked of the author’s admiration of Peter Hessler (an excellent writer to have as a model but a very hard one to emulate successfully) and a back cover that told me one chapter by the young American looking at “the diverse characters and subcultures” of today’s China would be an interview with a prostitute (something that is hardly a breakthrough given that comparable interviews show up in lots of recent books by Westerners as well as Sang Ye’s wonderful China Candid).

[Full disclosure: in a funny way, the fact that French had plugged the book to me gave me an added reason to hope I wouldn't like it. We've become friends, but Paul's lately been chiding me in online comments, generally in the nicest possible way of course, about my or my fellow China Beatniks being insufficiently cynical about some things and people he thinks deserve to be looked at through less rosy lenses, from the upcoming Shanghai World Expo to Emily Hahn. So I thought it might be particularly enjoyable to write a caustic review of China Underground that took him to task as its champion for being insufficiently cynical himself.]

Yet, by the time I finished the opening chapter (“The Peasant Who Likes to Take Pictures”) on the flight from Shanghai to Hong Kong, I found myself frustratingly enthralled. And when I reached Chapter 6 (“The Uighur Jimi Hendrix”) early in course of the flight to the States a couple of days later, I stopped fighting the book and gave in to its many charms. It is not without flaws (occasional small bits of repetition, some references to Chinese history that are smart but a bit too broad-brush for my tastes, etc.), but there’s no question that Mexico is a brash and compelling new voice in English language writing on China, and that his first book takes us into some of the many worlds within worlds that make up the PRC today (including that of people hooked on role playing games and that of Wuhan's distinctive punk scene) that other books in English just don't.

Reviewers in the U.S. will surely liken his approach to that of New Journalists like Hunter S. Thompson, thanks in part to the role that sex, drugs and rock-and-roll play in his often hallucinatory true-life stories (some of the very things that brought the late “Lawyers, Guns, and Money” songwriter Warren Zevon’s creations as well as those of Tom Waits to mind as I read the book), but the way it complements and resonates with the work of certain mostly post-Cultural Revolution or even post-Tiananmen generation Chinese authors and film-makers (not just the aforementioned Zhu Wen and Sang Ye but also Jia Zhangke, who gets alluded to in passing in the book, and Mian Mian, who gets thanked in it) is even more important.

If I Twittered, maybe I'd have actually done an early tweet saying something like "Reading 'China Underground,' at Paul French's suggestion, expecting to be underwhelmed," in which case I'd have to have added a final clause to the tweet I described above, not just noting the book's Warren Zevon-meets-Zhu Wen punch but also saying simply: "Hate to admit it; Paul was right."

Around the Web

We like to keep tabs on the contributors who write for us, and some of them have been publishing some interesting pieces lately. Here's a quick reader of five excerpts from China Beatniks.

1. At Inside-Out China, Xujun Eberlein has translated an essay (in two parts) by Sun Liping, professor of sociology at Tsinghua University. The essay has been making the rounds on the Chinese Internet. A selection:
In recent years, signs of societal breakdown have become more apparent. The core problem is the loss of control over power. During the past 30 years of reform, despite the establishment of a basic framework for a market economy, power remains the backbone of our society. Because societal breakdown first appears as the loss of control over power, corruption is but the surface manifestation. By loss of control over power I mean that power becomes a force unconstrained not only externally, but also internally. Before this, although it lacked external constraints, internal constraints had been relatively effective. The power base is weakening; several years ago we had already heard the saying "commands don’t reach outside of Zhongnanhai [the headquarters of the CCP and China’s Central Government]." Local power and sector power have become unconstrained from above and unmonitored from below, at the same time lacking any check or balance from the left or right. This is to say, state power is fragmented, and officials are unable to work responsibly. To preserve their positions they don't balk at sacrificing system benefits (not to mention societal interest). With this background, corruption has gotten beyond control and become untreatable.
2. Earlier this month, Jeff Wasserstrom analyzed the legacy of the Beijing Games, six months later at History News Network (HNN):
The Chinese government had varied international goals vis-à-vis the Games. Three key ones were to present the PRC as the following things: modern, not to be feared, and a place that ethnic Chinese living in different countries can identify with—however they once felt about Mao or now feel about the Chairman’s successors.

The Games and subsequent global commentary point to the need for a mixed assessment of this three-pronged effort. The venues and spectacles definitely left many viewers around the world with a powerful sense that Beijing definitely can do modern. The event was less successful at creating a sense that this is not a source of concern—as it was not only “South Park” characters who found nightmarish some parts of the “One World, One Dream” Olympics, and many things happened before and during the Games (acts of censorship and repression, for example) that reinforced negative ideas about the PRC as a highly controlled, oppressive state.
3. Amy Hanser, professor of sociology at the University of British Columbia, gave a talk at UCLA in January titled "Service Encounters: Class, Gender, and the Market for Social Distinction in Urban China" and the podcast is now available online. Though Hanser's writing has never appeared at the blog, she contributed a piece to China in 2008 and Maura Elizabeth Cunningham reviewed Hanser's book, Service Encounters, in July 2008.

4. Last July, we interviewed Pallavi Aiyar about her book Smoke and Mirrors: An Experience of China. Last month, she published a piece at Asia Times Online on crises in Sino-Indian trade relations:
On the Indian side, there is a widening trade deficit, worry over the composition of exports and concern at the inability of Indian companies with Chinese operations to break into the domestic Chinese market.

The Chinese complain that India is holding back on a proposed regional trade agreement and that Chinese companies have on occasion been prevented from investing in India on the grounds that they pose a security threat.

Both sides also complain of insufficient knowledge of the business practices and the regulatory framework of the other country. Cultural discomfort involving language and food habits form an additional barrier - despite being neighbors, the two countries appear culturally more comfortable doing business with the West than with each other.
5. David Flumenbaum hasn't ever published anything at China Beat, but he is our contact at Huffington Post and so we keep an eye on his occasional writings on China there. A few weeks ago, Flumenbaum wrote a column about the censorship and mistranslation of the Oscars in Asia:
Instead of simply omitting Penn's acceptance speech, as they did for Dustin Lance Black, China's censors decided to mistranslate Penn's words so that his speech appeared to make no mention of gays. According to the China blog Black and White Cat, CCTV subtitled Penn's line, "You commie, homo-loving sons of guns," with "你们可真够宽容的." The rough translation of these characters is, "You really are so generous." So, to non-English-speaking Chinese viewers reading the subtitles, Penn never uttered the word "commie" or "homo," or Mao forbid, a sentence incorporating both.
6. Sky Canaves has also never written anything for China Beat, but she does link to us frequently at the WSJ China Journal. So we were pleased to learn more about her in Danwei's recent interview.
What are your areas of interest in China reporting, and what do you hope to achieve in 2009?

The pressing social issues that are often cited as the top concerns among Chinese people — employment, health care, education, corruption — and how these are being addressed by the government and the people, along with the impacts of the economic downturn on various groups — the rising middle class, young people who have only known the boom years and the elderly who lack a safety net.

This year I’ll continue my work on the blog, expanding its China coverage in collaboration with the rest of the WSJ’s China reporting team. On a personal note, I’m looking forward to a long overdue return visit to Nanjing, where I lived ten years ago, and seeing how much it has changed since.


Chinese Intellectuals and the Problem of Xinjiang, Part 2

Wang Lixiong and progressive democracy

This essay continues the discussion of Wang Lixiong's work begun in Part I, which ran at China Beat on March 9, 2009.

By Sebastian Veg

Having analyzed the issues of colonialism, cultural rights of Uyghur populations, and the question of a Han nationalist revival, Wang Lixiong concludes the book by three “letters” to his Uyghur friend Mokhtar, in which he reframes the discussion on Xinjiang within his more general ideas on political reform in China. His reluctance to consider Xinjiang as “different” from other regions in China (while he is less reluctant to do so in the case of Tibet) is not unproblematic; nonetheless his voice is important because he is a critical intellectual “on the edge” who has visibly not entirely renounced influencing the debate in Beijing policy circles.

Wang Lixiong has some deep-set doubts, both about the practicality of independence as a goal for Xinjiang (due to the presence of a large Han population and their control of resources), and about what he calls “large-scale democracy”. In another text, he expresses his agreement with a draft Constitution prepared by a group of dissidents (Yan Jiaqi and others), under which Tibet would receive a high degree of autonomy and the possibility to determine its own status after 25 years, while Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia would only be granted the status of autonomy through a two-thirds vote in the National People’s Congress.[1]

While Wang insists that he doesn’t mind one way or the other whether Xinjiang becomes independent, he emphasises alternatives to independence: the guarantee of genuine religious freedom, and the possibility of controlling labour migration by a work permit system that would apply to “cultural protection zones” (including Tibet), and which would serve to prevent desertification, degradation of the environment, and growing water shortages (p. 439). For Wang, democratisation in China, as opposed to a higher degree of autonomy, might be prone to nationalist manipulation and internal fracturing. He therefore calls for an embrace of the Dalai Lama’s “Middle Way” of a high degree of autonomy within the framework of a federal China, going so far as to propose that the Dalai Lama become the chairman of a provisional government.

Nonetheless, his three “letters to Mokhtar” reveal some of the contradictions underpinning his thoughts on political reform in China. The first letter, devoted to terrorism, is very much in the apocalyptic mode of his science-fiction novel Yellow Peril. In his second letter, he insists on Chinese nationalism. For Wang, China did not experience the nation-state model before 1911, and at that time its first formulation included Xinjiang and Tibet in Sun Yat-sen’s “Republic of five races” (Han, Man/Manchu, Meng/Mongolian, Hui/Muslim, Zang/Tibetan). He adds that nationalism has always been an essential part of CCP ideology, and now the only portion remaining. For these two reasons he believes that democratisation would not necessarily solve the nationality question (p. 444).

Whereas the Soviet constitution, no matter how misused, originally foresaw regional autonomy on paper by virtue of its federal nature, Wang asserts that no similar provision exists in the PRC Constitution, and that as a result, if China began unravelling, there would be no framework to stop the process from spreading to Guangdong or Shanghai. Conversely, he worries about an independent Xinjiang continuing to break down along ethnic lines into myriad autonomous micro-states, underlining that Uyghurs represent a majority of the population in only about one third of the territory concentrated in Southern Xinjiang, where there is no oil and resources. He wonders about the rights of the Hui (although one could easily object that there are Dungan populations in most of Central Asia), and highlights that Tibet, by contrast, is practically a mono-ethnic area. This is somewhat troubling, as in his articles on Tibet Wang argues against the viability of Tibetan independence, despite its ethnic homogeneity, on the grounds that the small Han elite controls the most productive sectors of the economy and the most dynamic groups in Tibetan society (“Zhuceng dijin zhi”, art. cit.).

Wang’s assertion about the lack of a legal framework is not quite true: China’s Law on Regional Ethnic Autonomy (Zhonghua Renmin Gongheguo Minzu quyu zizhifa), revised in 2001 and largely disseminated though a 2003 State Council White Paper on the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), could provide a legal framework for autonomy (though not for secession, like the Soviet constitution), even though it clearly remains a political fiction at the present time (as was the Soviet constitution).[2] More largely, within the context of the international conventions ratified even by the present Chinese government, as well as other international declarations, a stable body of norms regarding minority rights and rights for indigenous populations would be available to guarantee either substantial autonomy for Uyghurs within China, or for Han within an independent Xinjiang. In this respect, Wang Lixiong seems to remain captive to conventional views in China that describe international covenants as instruments of power play: he describes them as merely a pretext for American or Western intervention in Xinjiang aimed at destabilising China, and quotes the theory of “precedence of human rights over sovereignty” or renquan gaoyu zhuquan.

His third letter deals with his system of proposed “progressive democracy” (dijin minzhu) and the implicit critique of liberal democracy it contains. Wang calls the latter “forum democracy” (guangchang minzhu, p. 457), and believes it can only exacerbate interethnic tensions, which will be fanned by the elite, a phenomenon not unknown in “mature democracies” (he cites support for the Iraq war). “Large-scale democracy” (daguimo minzhu) will polarise political debate and lead straight to fascism (p. 460), as opinion leaders in Xinjiang will want to settle scores with China, the media will pour oil on the fire to make money, and the “masses,” who love heroes and lofty speeches, will follow populists and opportunists.

Nonetheless, he sees democracy as the key to resolving ethnic conflicts, the problem being not democracy itself but “large-scale democracy.” Therefore, Wang goes over old ground by proposing a system of indirect elections, based on natural villages, in which votes would take place by household, each household selecting one representative (one wonders how women would fare in this system of representation), thereby allowing for direct deliberative democracy by consensus. The elected representative automatically becomes a voter on the higher level, and so on, preserving the direct and participatory nature of democracy (p. 464). In fact, this blueprint clearly reveals Wang Lixiong’s misgivings about representation and vote by majority. He favours consensus over voting, pointing out that all elections are problematic, even in the United States (the 2000 presidential election inevitably comes up), not to mention in a Tibetan village in which a majority of inhabitants are illiterate.

Although he writes that in this system policy decisions on various levels should not interfere, he gives no guiding principle, not even a philosophical one, to explain how responsibility should be divided. The implicit assumption is, in fact, that voters are not qualified to deal with any matters beyond their immediate experience, and that the only decisions taken on each level are those that directly affect the life of the constituency. “Regarding larger matters that go beyond the borders of their immediate experience, it is very difficult for the masses to gain a correct grasp” (p. 466). This is a highly elitist system, the most worrying aspect of which is that it relies on the spontaneous generation of a social elite to foster democracy, rather than on an institutionalised system of checks and balances. Although Wang insists that this system will ensure that China does not break apart by guaranteeing both autonomy and cohesion (p. 468), one cannot help but wonder whether China and Xinjiang would not be better served at the outset by a full implementation of China’s own Autonomy Law, to be completed by other guarantees of the rights of minorities as set out in international laws and norms. Interestingly enough, while he is so wary of representative democracy, Wang Lixiong entirely trusts his own electoral system to guarantee individual and collective rights by its intrinsic mechanisms rather than by formalised norms (p. 469).

For these reasons, although Wang Lixiong has gone further than most Chinese intellectuals in exploring the rights and claims of ethnic minorities and how they fit into the political problems of China as a whole, this book remains somewhat disappointing. It is true that he paints a sympathetic portrait of “ordinary Uyghurs,” far removed from the usual clichés of official discourse, exoticism, or commonly repeated slurs -- an important accomplishment that may act as bridge towards even-minded ordinary Han Chinese citizens. But just as he portrayed Tibetans as prone to blindly following Maoism as a new religion during the Cultural Revolution, smashing their own temples and Buddhas, and then blindly reviling Mao when he proved not to have been a god after his death,[3] his view of Uyghur intellectuals as influenced by terrorism and Islam seems excessively culturalist in relation to modern, secular Xinjiang. His analyses of several issues appear uninformed. Leaving aside academic research, he is weak on government policy; a close reading of Hu Jintao’s readily available 2005 speech to the State Commission on Ethnic Affairs could have yielded important insights: one of Hu’s central tenets is that any form of increased autonomy remain subordinate to the “three inseparables.”[4]

Nonetheless, Wang’s openness to dialogue and public discussion of his ideas, without any taboos or prerequisites, is an important step towards weaving the concerns of Uyghurs or Tibetans into the debate on the democratisation of China -- taking into account, of course, that the present book cannot be published on the mainland. In this capacity, as also demonstrated by his March 2008 initiative on Tibet, Wang Lixiong is one of the closest examples of a public intellectual in China. In this context, his writings also demonstrate that, despite what the Chinese government publicly states, there is no consensus in China over the fact that no price is too high to ensure that the CCP remains the dominant force in Xinjiang or Tibet. His ideas may even trickle, gradually and windingly, to the corridors of power. Wang Lixiong opposes independence for both Xinjiang and Tibet, but his willingness to discuss practical measures such as migration restrictions or enhanced religious freedom also serves as a reminder that Chinese intellectuals are not necessarily Han nationalists.

Part 2 of 2.
The full text of this review essay is published in China Perspectives, no. 2008/4. The author is a researcher at the French Centre for Research on Contemporary China.

[1] Wang Lixiong, “Zhuceng dijin zhi yu minzhu zhi: Jiejue Xizang wenti de fangfa bijiao” (A Successive Multilevel Electoral System vs. a Representative Democratic System: Relative advantages for resolving the Tibet Question ), http://www.boxun.com/hero/wanglx/6_1.shtml (19 September 2008).
[2] The Autonomy Law is available on http://www.gov.cn/test/2005-07/29/content_18338.htm. See also: Information Office of the State Council, “History and Development of Xinjiang,” May 2003, http://news.xinhuanet.com/zhengfu/2003-06/12/content_916306.htm.
[3] This is the object of the debate between Wang Lixiong and Tsering Shakyar. See Wang Lixiong, “Reflections on Tibet,” art. cit., and the rebuttal: Tsering Shakyar, “Blood in the Snow,” New Left Review, no. 15, May-June 2002. The gist of Tsering Shakyar’s argument is that Mao-worship in Tibet was no more blind than elsewhere in China, and that traditional Tibetan society remained dynamic and changing despite its religious characteristics. Woeser also documents the importance of the Mao-cult among Tibetans in Shajie: Forbidden Memory: Tibet during the Cultural Revolution (Taipei, Dakuai wenhua, 2007).
[4] The “three inseparables” (sange libukai) are: the Han cannot be separated from minorities, the minorities cannot be separated from the Han, and the minorities cannot be separated one from another. See: “Hu Jintao zai Zhongyang minzu gongzuo huiyi shang de jianghua” [Hu Jintao’s Speech at the Central Nationalities Working Committee], May 27, 2005, http://politics.people.com.cn/GB/1024/3423605.html (12 August 2008).