Benjamin Read on homeowners' protests in Shanghai

A lot has been written about a rise in the number of protests in China – particularly mass demonstrations and those by farmers and villagers who face government land seizures. (Historian Charles Hayford wrote an interesting essay about the terminology journalists use to describe different classes of people in China.)

But protests from the middle class in China are also garnering increased attention from the American press. The latest protest, a January “stroll” by homeowners in Shanghai who disagreed with an extension of the city’s famous Maglev train, have been described as “the strongest sign yet of rising resentment among China’s fast-growing middle class” (The New York Times) and “a quiet middle-class battle against government officials” (Washington Post). The South China Morning Post reported today (subscription required) that some residents say they've applied to hold a "legal protest" against the Maglev expansion this weekend.

Benjamin L. Read (right), from the Department of Political Science at the University of Iowa, has been researching grassroots organizing with a particular focus since 1999 on homeowners movements in China. In a Q&A over email with The China Beat, Read puts the Shanghai protests in context.

AS: Your research has been on organizations in East Asia, including what you call "Civil Society Organizations." Can you tell me a bit more about your research and what kinds of civil society organizations you've studied?

BR: By "civil society organization," I mean groups or associations of people that have substantial autonomy from the state. In other words, those that are not controlled by the government or otherwise dependent on it. Civil society is a term that goes back centuries in Western philosophy, and its definition has evolved over time. There have been extensive debates over whether civil society groups existed in different parts of Chinese history, whether Confucian thought contains ideas related to the notion of civil society, and more generally how relevant it is to China at all.

So it's a somewhat controversial concept. But it has become a term used around the world by social scientists and activists and others to capture the common-sense idea that citizens getting together in self-organizing groups are able to communicate, deliberate and act politically in distinctive ways. You can do things in groups that you can't do alone. Whether we use the term civil society or some other term, this kind of activity is taking place in China to some extent and I think it's worth studying.

Civil society organizations contrast with other kinds of organizations, for instance those that are managed or fostered by the state. My research in China started off looking at Residents Committees (jumin weiyuanhui, or RCs), the official, government-organized groups that go back at least to the 1950s and are found in most urban neighborhoods. This general type of local organization, closely linked to the state, is prevalent not just in China but in most parts of East and Southeast Asia, and I find them intensely interesting in their own way. But in the course of studying the RCs in 1999 and 2000, I came across some of the early homeowner organizations, called yezhu weiyuanhui or yeweihui, and I started writing about them as well.

AS: How strong do you think organizations that are not run by the state are in China? What kinds of things can they accomplish and whom do they serve most often?

BR: The homeowner groups in China's new private housing estates (xiaoqu) are a complicated mosaic. Some of them can be seen as a manifestation of civil society, while others are something else. For instance, a lot of them are not actually controlled by the homeowners themselves but instead are dominated by the property developers and their management companies. Sometimes the homeowners themselves become factionalized and get bogged down in internal conflict, so that there's no functioning organization. In some places the government has blocked the formation of a formal yeweihui, although there can be informal activity regardless. In other neighborhoods, the homeowner group functions well, holding regular meetings and elections and representing the residents' interests much as, say, a healthy condo association might in the United States.

AS: The Washington Post report on the January protests against extending the Maglev train in Shanghai highlights the role of a residential organization. The Post did not explicitly call these residents a housing association, but is this kind of civil society organization you are referring to?

BR: It’s clear that homeowners in the new, private neighborhoods I talked about above played a central role in these demonstrations. One thing that’s not immediately obvious from Chinese or Western sources is to what extent the homeowner organizations (yeweihui) themselves or their leaders encouraged members to participate in the protests. Concerns about noise and harmful radiation from the maglev trains seem to have galvanized large numbers of people who might not previously have been involved in the homeowner movement.

Regardless, it is clear that the protests drew on infrastructure that is very much a part of that movement, notably the new neighborhoods’ web-based bulletin boards. Some of the posts from the first weeks of January have now been removed from these forums, some are still there. But they carried a flurry of posts and discussion, and this was a key part of how information about the maglev line extension plan came to the attention of homeowners who stood to be affected by it, and how they encouraged each other to turn out for the rally in downtown Shanghai on January 12. Moreover, residents in some neighborhoods hung large protest banners from their windows, which is a tactic you often see in the homeowners’ struggles against exploitative property developers and management companies. And according to reports in the livelier parts of the Chinese media like Southern Metropolis (Nanfang Dushibao) and Beijing News (Xin Jing Bao), residents of some of the neighborhoods organized representatives to talk to government officials about the plans.

AS: One of The China Beat's founders, Jeff Wasserstrom, writes that the Shanghai protests were about practical demands.

BR: Wasserstrom’s essay makes the point that the Shanghai protests look like a form of NIMBY-ism (Not In My Back Yard). People’s motivation seems to be based, at least in the first instance, on property rights rather than more inclusive notions like human rights or civil rights. So they don’t look as idealistic as some protests in the past did. But as he suggests, the line between local or self-regarding motivations and broader, society-wide claims can be a fine one. Commentators in China have hailed these euphemistically termed “walks” as a healthy form of public expression, and I think we can agree without reservation.

The reasons that NIMBY protests have a negative connotation are first, that such movements may thwart the creation of necessary public infrastructure, and second, that unwanted institutions may be dumped into communities that are less wealthy or vocal. But in this case, with regard to the first point, protesters question the need to extend the train line at all. The second point is potentially valid, but in my view it is far outweighed by the desirability of subjecting government to forceful public input. If Chinese homeowners help bring about checks and balances on state decisions previously hidden behind closed doors, then more power to them.

AS: What kinds of trends do you see among property owners in China?

BR: To the extent that these Shanghai protests were fueled by homeowners, it constitutes a new departure in that the great majority of the time when homeowners undertake collective action it’s one neighborhood at a time and inward-focused, not about public policy. Usually the spur to action will be something like high management fees, control over neighborhood assets or shoddy construction. To the extent that homeowners contact and lobby the government in these cases, they are trying to win support from the authorities against the developers, not protesting against something the government is doing. The maglev extension plan is unusual in that it’s something the government is directly responsible for, affecting a large number of neighborhoods (one report said nearly 40) in the same way all at once.

So I think we should guard against reading too much into this event. Howard W. French, in his New York Times story makes a rather bold claim that the protests are “the strongest sign yet of rising resentment among China’s fast-growing middle class over a lack of say in decision making.” Social classes rarely act in unified ways politically, and it’s questionable at best whether the middle class in China is generally characterized by resentment.

Still, I agree that we’re looking at an important form of political action that deserves our attention. It was undertaken by people who now have resources (money, education, communication tools like cell phones, the internet and video cameras) that were missing or less prevalent in earlier parts of PRC history. When they buy expensive homes in these new housing developments it gives them a strong interest in protecting that investment -- British Thatcherites and U.S. “ownership society” advocates would nod their heads at this.

But I think homeowners are also motivated by a sense that when they acquire their piece of what we might call the “Chinese dream,” there’s an implicit social contract going with it. The system in China now encourages people to devote their energy to getting ahead in the new economy, and once they “make it” by acquiring a nice, modern home, once of the ultimate markers of success, they feel entitled to certain things: fair treatment in matters concerning their home, veto power over unreasonable arrangements, some control over the neighborhood environment, peace and quiet, privacy, and freedom from certain kinds of impositions. This sense of being entitled to things beyond what’s specified on the property deed is a big part of what underlies the homeowner movement more generally.

In Case You Missed It: Vermeer’s Hat

(Posted by the China Beat on behalf of David Porter)

Have you ever suspected that all this recent talk about China and globalization might be just a little belated? China historian Timothy Brook, author of the award-winning Confusions of Pleasure, reminds us in a new book that global commercial and cultural exchanges were already profoundly shaping the lives and world views of Europeans 350 years ago.

Vermeer’s Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World (Bloomsbury, 2007) offers an eye-opening and eminently readable account of how the ever-expanding circulation of goods and people from several continents began flattening the world several centuries before NAFTA and Wal-mart.

The story begins in Delft, where Brook happened to fall off his bike on a youthful cycling journey across the Low Countries. The discovery of Vermeer’s gravestone in the city’s Old Church led to an enduring fascination with the painter’s works, five of which serve in this book as the starting points for adventurous journeys of a different kind.

Brook begins each of his main chapters with a close reading of a well-known Vermeer masterpiece. As we peer with him ever more deeply into the frame, we find ourselves transported well beyond Delft’s Schie Canal and the North Sea to Spain, Acapulco, Lake Champlain, Manila, Korea, Japan, and of course China. Details in the paintings—a river barge, a porcelain dish, a felt hat—lead us to the gripping tales of pitched battles and piracy, captivity and conversion, riots and massacres concealed beneath the cozy bourgeois scenes depicted on the canvas.

The reader is regularly and usefully reminded that in Vermeer’s age and for centuries preceeding it, China, not Europe, was in many ways the center of the world. But just as important, we are reminded that cultures at the two ends of the Eurasian continent actually had a great deal in common. Later orientalist rhetoric about the inscrutible Chinese and inexorable differences between East and West notwithstanding, the lives and values of elites from prosperous commercial cities in seventeenth-century Holland and China reveal remarkable parallels, from worries about plague epidemics to concerns about the effects of rapidly spreading luxury, from a delight in tobacco and porcelain to an insatiable lust for silver. Vermeer’s paintings and Brook’s archival discoveries reveal the seventeenth century to be an intricately interconnected world, and one in which translation and transculturation played a crucial role in the creation of meanings both within and beyond the picture frame.


Prejudice Made Plausible? Foreign criticism and Chinese sensitivity

Living in Beijing as I do, it's not uncommon to be asked about my feelings on the Olympics. Chinese friends, family, colleagues, and even complete and total strangers (for reasons passing understanding) seem interested in hearing my opinion.

But I've learned the hard way that my perspective per se is not what is actually being sought, but rather confirmation of what The People's Daily and CCTV assure all Chinese is the only possible correct answer: Yes, the Olympics are going to be a huge success and will demonstrate to the world that China is becoming a modern, developed nation. Deviations from that line are not always received well and sometimes elicit outright hostility, which leaves me to wonder: Why is that? Why does concern about the Olympics, criticism of Chinese government policies, or even a news story about the effect of air pollution on athletes, provoke such a visceral response from many Chinese?

Obviously no one set of reasons can cover the gamut of reactions, everybody perceives issues in different ways, but in perusing the comments section of China blogs and the threads on Chinese BBSs, I sense three main themes: the close integration of state/nation/party in both PRC ideology and the minds of the Chinese people; genuine pride at China's rise in the world and a belief that many countries in "the West" seek to undermine China's development to satisfy their own selfish strategic goals; and finally, a barely smoldering resentment born out of a history of foreign imperialism in China.

In the United States, there is a tradition--fragile though it may be at times--that says criticism of government policies is not only a right, but in fact is the responsibility of a concerned citizen. Painting in the broadest possible strokes, the founding fathers established a system whereby the state and the nation were separate entities, one under the supervision of the other. This separation means that one can accuse the government of wrongdoing without necessarily implicating the nation or its people. Sure, I might get annoyed a bit whenever non-American friends denounce the United States for the invasion of Iraq or whatever, but at the end of the day it doesn't affect me all that much: I know it's a policy of my government that's being criticized, one which I also oppose, and generally speaking they aren't attacking me personally or the American people as a whole.

In China, on the other hand, the demands of 20th-century state building, first under the KMT and later by the CCP, fused the ideas of nation and state (and later nation, state, and party) into an inseparable ideology which was then disseminated through propaganda and education to the people.* To criticize one is to attack the whole. Political culture in the PRC has no place for a loyal opposition, never mind the dictum, tenuously attributed to Thomas Jefferson, linking dissent and patriotism. As a result, publicly questioning the government in China is a crime for which the perpetrator risks arrest as a 'threat to social stability and state security.' Foreigners who do so are counterattacked as China-bashers; those Chinese who speak out against their own government in the foreign press are pilloried on electronic bulletin boards as hanjian, traitors to their race, an epithet to which Chinese nationals working for foreign media organizations are also frequently subjected.

Moreover, this response carries with it the implicit--and occasionally explicit--tag that those who criticize China are simply jealous and/or fearful of China's rise.

The Chinese are justifiably proud of how far their country has advanced in the last 25 years, and today's China is a testament to the spirit of its people, who through their hard work and entrepreneurial drive have launched an era of unprecedented economic growth and development. At the same time, old ideas die hard.

Social Darwinism was first introduced to China through the writings and translations of Yan Fu and Liang Qichao in the late-19th century, at a time when the rapacious demands of the imperialist powers threatened to carve up China (as the oft-quoted trope goes) like a melon. It is little wonder then that early 20th-century intellectuals and state builders looked out into the world and saw nothing but power politics and a global struggle for national survival. After the founding of the PRC, this concept of a Darwinian international order diffused throughout society as CCP propaganda stressed the need to strengthen the state so that China would never again be bullied by foreign powers. Early production campaigns called on the people to overtake Britain and catch up with the United States. Competition was the name of the game. The antagonism and paranoia of this Cold War propaganda reinforced lessons learned during a long 19th century, and many Chinese came to believe that the world was indeed out to "get China" and geopolitics was a zero-sum game. It's a perception that lingers to this day.

What is a bit unusual however is the assumption by many people here that all Americans think this way too: that every single person in the US is fixated and frightened by China's rise, and it is this fear that drives the negative media reporting on China's environment, food safety problems, human rights abuses, etc. Part of this reaction can be attributed to the "CCTV-effect." In China, the media is a tool for political control, and many Chinese--especially those who have limited international experience--have trouble believing that the foreign media could operate any differently.

Adding to this, the Chinese media is fond of parroting government officials who label the United States as human rights hypocrites, citing the usual suspects (slavery, imperialism, policy toward indigenous peoples) as well as tossing out a few new ones (waterboarding, the invasion of Iraq). Whether one feels this is a valid defense or not, the salient point is that many in China accept the government line as unequivocal proof that foreign critics cannot be trusted.

Now, I can't speak for everybody, but in conversations in Beijing with foreign journalists, activists, bloggers, researchers, businesspeople and teachers, the general consensus is that few, if any, have a problem with China's development or truly fear China's rise, certainly not in the way that nationalist rags like The Global Times would suggest. Generally speaking, we believe that criticism of the government is based on the notion that certain reforms would make the lives of the Chinese people more secure, prosperous, and free. Surely this is not "bashing China," rather it's expressing enthusiasm for our hosts' good fortune and concern for our friends, the Chinese people. Right?

Wrong, apparently. For you see, China has a long history of foreign do-gooders stepping on her soil and offering suggestions. (Who could forget Columbia professor Frank Goodnow's helpful hint to Yuan Shikai in 1915 that what the Republic needed most was an emperor?) Missionaries, traders, academics, officials, and writers came to China in droves during the age of imperialism, all with ideas on how to fix China and make the lives of the Chinese better. The problem was of course that no matter how well-intentioned a notion, no matter how sound or rational it might have been, any idea becomes a hard fit when it arrives shoehorned between military occupations and adventures in gunboat diplomacy.

This left its mark on how foreign ideas were perceived and deployed in Chinese society. The challenge in the early-2oth century to reconcile Chinese tradition and foreign ideas has been a recurring theme in the literature on modern Chinese intellectual history. That struggle to define modernity, to understand how to be both fully modern and fully Chinese, and how to achieve a sense of equivalency with the West, was left unresolved at the time of the CCP takeover in 1949. Marxism purported to be the answer to this dilemma, but as Marxism loses its intellectual currency in today's China A-Go-Go, old questions and nagging insecurities start to reemerge.

At the same time, the legacies of imperialism are reinforced in many ways, not the least of which is through the 'patriotic education' that's a key part of the elementary and secondary curriculum in the PRC. Nobody needs to be reminded of the intimate link in China between history, politics, and education. The CCP itself never stops telling the people that it was the Party who was responsible for driving out the foreign imperialists and ending the 'century of humiliation' that began with the Opium War in 1840. As such, the story of imperalism is not only an important aspect of China's recent history, but also a fundamental building block of the CCP's political legitimacy.

Given that historical context, the politics of education, and the effectiveness of CCP propaganda, it is easy to understand why many Chinese have a hard time believing that foreigners who criticize the Chinese government might actually be doing so in the interests of the Chinese people. At best, it's seen as a kind of misguided paternalism, at worst, a wolf-in-sheep's-clothing attack on Chinese sovereignty. The issue becomes murkier still when the issue is "Chineseness" itself, as in the case of Tibet, Taiwan, and Xinjiang.

The notion of 'face' obviously deserves to be a part of this discussion, but at the same time it's a bit of an intellectual cul-de-sac. It's not that I consider face to be unimportant, but I do feel non-Chinese are too quick to dismiss an inability to handle criticism as some sort of inherent quirk of Chinese culture. Nobody would deny that 'face' is a crucial factor in business, diplomacy, and even daily life here, but there is more to the Chinese response beyond the somewhat simplistic and essentialist explanation of 'saving face.'

China's development has been something to behold, but there are challenges still unresolved: staggering environmental problems, a widening gap between the haves and have-nots, and endemic corruption that flourishes in a political culture where the media is censored, non-governmental organizations are proscribed, public speech is still tightly controlled, and where the priority of judges and the courts is maintaining 'harmony' at the expense of petitioners' requests to avail themselves of their legal rights. The CCP and the Chinese government have done a thorough job of spreading a message that is equal parts Lenin, Louis XIV, and Ronald Reagan: The party represents the people because apres mois, le deluge and, by the way, it's morning again in China and you are better off now than you were four years ago. It's an interesting mash-up of political philosophies, but one that has to a large extent become internalized by the Chinese people, especially the urban elite who have benefited the most from the recent economic boom. Regardless of class however, the idea that the nation's interests exist independent of the state and party is, for most people, inconceivable.

Foreigners should be allowed to criticize the Chinese government when such criticism is warranted, and I don't waive my right to speak out against injustice just because I wasn't born in the country where that injustice is occurring. But at the same time, I shouldn't be surprised when my criticism sometimes meets resistance and resentment. Sincere engagement with the Chinese people can only come about when the roots of that resistance are acknowledged, and met with equivalent understanding and sensitivity. In this way a true dialogue can begin with people talking to--rather than at--each other.
* For further reading and a more in-depth treatment of this issue, see John Fitzgerald, Awakening China: Politics, Culture, and Class in Nationalist China. (Stanford Univ. Press, 1998)

China on My Mind: Ian Hacking on the 1989 Demonstrations

In their coverage of the 1989 student demonstrations, foreign and domestic media focused almost exclusively on the demonstrations in Beijing. However, sympathetic students and workers protested and marched across China in May and June 1989, and there has been little coverage or scholarship written about the shape and scope of those events. In the spring and early summer of 1989, professor and philosopher Ian Hacking was teaching in Wuhan and Lanzhou. In this installation of the audio feature, "China on My Mind," China Beat contributor Tom Mullaney chats with Hacking about what he saw during this critical moment in Chinese history. (Users who have trouble with the interface can follow this link directly to the audio file at imeem.)


In Case You Missed It: Nixon and Mao

(Posted by the China Beat on behalf of Kate Merkel-Hess)

This week marks the 36th anniversary of Richard Nixon’s visit to China, so it was serendipitous that on meandering through the public library’s history section I happened on Margaret MacMillan’s Nixon and Mao: The Week That Changed the World. Largely a play-by-play examination of the week’s events (and its larger-than-life stars in Nixon, Mao, Kissinger, and Zhou Enlai), the book is littered with fascinating anecdotes about the China Nixon and his entourage encountered: for instance, Beijingers were ordered to studiously ignore the welcoming motorcade and Chinese pilots who took over Kissinger’s plane for the Shanghai-to-Beijing leg during his 1971 prepatory visit navigated visually, stymied by the plane’s up-to-date systems.

MacMillan’s intricate accounts of the meetings between Chinese and American leaders are the most engaging parts of the book, but she does an equally good job of articulating Nixon’s reasons for seeking rapprochement with China, as Warren Cohen noted in his review in Foreign Affairs. (Other substantial and insightful reviews of the book include Roderick MacFarquhar’s review in New York Review of Books, Louis Menand’s in The New Yorker, and John Lewis Gaddis’s in the New York Times) Nixon’s decision to override American concerns with China’s “internal affairs” (re: Taiwan) in order to establish diplomatic and economic relations set the stage for a continuing tug-of-war between two poles who felt (and feel) that China foreign policy should be a way to convey American standards on everything from democracy to disease control, and those who believed dialogue and economic exchange would, of themselves, bring China in line with the world community. That battle is unresolved, making the full implications of Nixon’s visit yet unclear, but the struggle continues to manifest itself in popular swings between an eagerness to engage with China and a fear of China’s growing power and, sometimes, markedly differing opinions on world events.

In Britain, the book was published as Nixon in China, more accurately reflecting its American-centered perspective (MacMillan is a professor of history at Oxford University and her previous research has focused on the British Empire and modern international affairs). Chinese history asides may occasionally make China buffs gnash their teeth (for instance, a reference to the imperial tributary system as explanation for the Chinese government’s prickliness about whether China had invited Nixon or he had asked to come). While not groundbreaking in its presentation of China’s history during this period, Nixon and Mao provides a very readable overview of the American vision of China and its leaders and MacMillan’s research yields many new details about the week’s events.

There are a number of internet resources that provide more information about the Nixon visit, including photos from the Ollie Atkins Photograph Collections (the above photo of the Nixons and Zhou is from this collection) and this recent piece about the death of Mao’s English tutor, who acted as an interpreter during the visit (and whom MacMillan interviewed for her book), in the New York Times.


A Coming Distraction--Rana Mitter's Modern China: A Very Short Introduction

If I rode the subway to and from work, I’d be seriously addicted by now to the Oxford University Press “Very Short Introductions” series in which Rana Mitter's next book is about to appear (it’s due out late in February in Britain, soon after that in the U.S.). This is because these slim volumes seem custom-made to be read over the course of a day-or-two’s worth of hour-there and hour-back train rides.

The best way to sum up the series is that it’s made up of little books on big topics. They are all short (100 to 150 pages of text). They all have the same subtitle—as in Architecture: A Very Short Introduction (a work I’ve come to rely on in my research on Shanghai, whenever I’m trying to keep straight which treaty-port era landmarks should be called “neo-classical,” which “art deco”) and Globalization: A Very Short Introduction (a book I wrote about for Newsweek International--fittingly enough, given the brevity of the book, in a mini-review that was only about 100 words long). And each VSI (easy to remember, rhymes with CSI: I’m not sure whether the publisher or the TV producers got there first with the abbreviation) is issued in the same attractive, shrunk-down format. They are just the right size to slip into the back pocket of your jeans. Unfortunately in one sense (but fortunately for my health and the health of my research account, lest I be tempted to squander too much of it on VSIs), I generally get to and from work by bike, so consuming them en route isn’t an option (though I suppose if they came as podcasts...).

Having grown fond of the series and liking Mitter’s earlier books, The Manchurian Myth and A Bitter Revolution, I was eager to get my hands on an advance copy of Modern China, but then found myself feeling a bit anxious about reading it once it arrived. After all, it seemed possible (maybe even probable) that I’d come away disappointed, less enamored of the series than I had been. I wondered if I would feel, after reading Mitter’s latest, that the VSI were fine when dealing with subjects one knew little about (the case, for me, with architecture) or had just a passing knowledge of (the case, for me, with globalization a few years ago), but not when they were right up your alley. As it turned out, though, I needn’t have worried.

This is because there's a lot to like about this book, which covers a great deal of ground in a consistently engaging fashion and manages to remain accessible even when tackling complex issues. For example, the varied things that being “modern” has meant to Chinese actors of different generations—and the ways that the second word in the book’s title, “China,” can also turn out to have a far from simple and stable meaning.

One of the book’s many strengths is its catchy opening. Mitter begins with a quotation from a book called New China, which reads in part: “It is impossible to do other than assent to the unanimous verdict that China has at length come to the hour of her destiny…Even in the remote places we have found a new spirit—its evidence, strangely enough, the almost universal desire to learn English” (1). Mitter knows that his readers will find these lines familiar, as they come across ones like them in newspapers and magazines all the time in stories about the current phase of China’s history.

But, he stresses, the Westerners who wrote New China “did not pen their observations having landed back at Kennedy or Heathrow airports on one of the many Air China 747s that ferry thousands of travellers daily between China and the West. They wrote their book a full century ago” (2). New China, you see, may have been subtitled “a story of modern travel,” but it was published in 1910, while the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) still clung to power and the most “modern” routes from West to East and back again were by railway or steamship.

Don’t get me wrong: much as like this opening (the rhetorical device is a familiar one, but the source was new to me and seemed particularly well chosen) and other sections as well, there is a lot in Mitter's account with which a specialist can quibble. Each of us—and I’m no exception—can find plenty of nits to pick. For example, especially if I were thinking of using this in the classroom, I would have liked to see it peppered by more quotations from Chinese sources.

In addition, though he is hardly alone in this, Mitter falls prey to the somewhat misleading tendency with both the May 4th protests of 1919 and the Tiananmen ones of 1989 of placing these upheavals into too intensely Beijing-centric a framework. Yes, actions by students in the capital were crucial in 1919. But the May 4th Movement peaked with a general strike in Shanghai. It is remembered now largely as a Beijing and student story, but without workers joining in (and merchants, too) and other cities being affected, it seems doubtful that it would have had the same impact. Would, for example, the three officials that Beijing students targeted for criticism have been dismissed from office if the movement hadn’t spread like wildfire across geographical and class lines?

Similarly, there is good reason to concentrate on Beijing when talking about 1989, but there is more to the story than just what was done by locals (again of many different classes, though students were key). It is worth remembering, for example, that the groundwork for the Tiananmen protests was laid partly by the 1986 campus demonstrations in Anhui and other cities. And that one thing that kept the struggle going through May was the steady influx into the capital of students from other provinces.

These kinds of quibbles aside (and I have no doubt that had I written the book instead, some would have felt that Shanghai showed up too often in its pages), it would be wrong to end this review (or perhaps I should say “preview,” given the “Coming Distractions” title of this feature) on a critical note. Instead, I’ll close by drawing attention to something I find appealing: the stress Mitter puts on continuities as well as ruptures between the periods of Nationalist Party rule (when Generlissimo Chiang Kaishek held power) and of Communist Party control of the country.
While well aware of the differences between the Nationalists and Communists that need flagging, one of his chapters does a nice job of showing how appropriate it can be to treat Chinese “politics since 1928 as a changing of the baton” between two parties that shared many fundamental beliefs, including a conviction that China’s best shot at becoming strong and modern lay with top-down rule by a tightly disciplined Leninist organization (73). He is not the first to make this argument, but he puts it forward very nicely indeed.

For example, while many people (myself included) have played with the idea of pondering what Mao would make of twenty-first-century China, with its many capitalist dimensions, Mitter puts a novel twist on the notion by bringing the Generalissimo as well as the Chairman into the picture. After pointing out that “the Communist Party of today has essentially created the state sought by the progressive wing of the Nationalists in the 1930s rather than the dominant, radical Communists of the 1960s,” Mitter leaves us with this compelling image (particularly apt at a time when there is talk of transporting the Generalissimo’s body from Taiwan to the mainland): “One can imagine Chiang Kaishek’s ghost wandering around China today nodding in approval, while Mao’s ghost follows behind him, moaning at the destruction of his vision” (73).


China Annals: Interview with Catherine Sampson

This week, The China Beat interviews Catherine Sampson, former BBC journalist and The Times correspondent, as well as the author of four mystery novels (see below). You can learn a lot more about her on her website, which also includes an exciting blog.

NB: What was the most intriguing, amusing, inspiring, or eye-opening story that you covered in China?

CS: I worked as a journalist in Beijing for The Times of London between 1988 and 1993. Both the most inspiring and then the most awful was 1989. The student demonstrations went on for 6 weeks and drew in all sorts of other people. It was an exhilarating time, a gutsy, good-natured, hopeful, time. It all came to a horrible end on June 4th, and the next few years in China were bleak ones. I haven't worked as a journalist here since 1994, and it's June 4th that stays with me, the political intrigue that surrounded it, and the myriad stories of bravery and tragedy. I think we're wrong if we believe people have forgotten about 1989 in the excitement of economic activity that has swept the country.

NB: How has your "previous" life as a journalist impacted your work as a novelist?

CS: My 'previous life' as a journalist reminded me to keep my sentences short, my storyline clear, and to deliver on deadline. I think it also made me a good editor of my own writing. But starting to write as a novelist I also had to learn how to leave journalism behind, and to shift stylistic gear entirely. My 'previous life' as a journalist in China also taught me a lot about the country, so that when I started writing about it in fiction, it felt like a natural step.

NB: Tell me about your books and their settings—Beijing and London.

CS: I started writing my first novel, Falling Off Air, set in London, when I was living in London from 1998 to 2001. We moved back to Beijing in 2001 because my husband, James Miles, was taking up a job as Beijing correspondent for The Economist. At that point I had a draft novel but no contract. In 2004, Falling Off Air was published in the UK and the US (Mysterious Press), and my next book, Out of Mind had to be set in London also because I was contracted to write a series. I found it hard to live in Beijing and write about London. So, when it came to my third book, I was determined that I should write a mystery set in Beijing, and that's how The Pool of Unease was written. It is set in Beijing, in Anjialou, a neighbourhood just down the road from where I live, and has a Chinese protagonist, private detective Song Ren. (It has no US publisher as yet. But the Macmillan edition can be bought on UK Amazon). My next book, The Slaughter Pavilion, is also set in Beijing, and Song Ren is once again my hero.

NB: What was the most difficult thing about being a foreign correspondent, or a foreign author in Beijing? What has been the most exciting or rewarding aspect of your work?

CS: Way back in 1988 to 1994, when I was working as a foreign journalist, the most difficult thing was the harassment of Chinese friends and contacts by the police and by the state security apparatus. We were followed, our phones were bugged, and friends knew that they were running a risk by seeing us. On a less important level, believe it or not, at that point in history, even after June 4th, it was still difficult (in the UK anyway) to interest editors in China stories. I think that has probably changed... The most rewarding part of my work, whether as a journalist or an author, has always been the opportunity to travel and to meet people in all walks of life. The best part about being a journalist is being able to ask questions.

NB: What first drew you to China, and how have your interactions with Chinese people and culture changed your life in ways that you never imagined?

CS: I can't pinpoint what it was that first drew me to China - whatever it was, it's lost in the mists of time... I think my parents' interest must have played a part. Anyway, I was interested in languages and interested in politics, and that inclined me to study either Chinese or Russian. I was part of a group of Leeds University students who came to Fudan University [in Shanghai] way back in 1981-2 at the age of 19, and a lot of us have kept coming back to China time and again. I have spent a total of 15 years in China, and a further 2 in Hong Kong. I count myself immensely privileged to have witnessed history unfold here, and immensely privileged to have met brave and gracious people who have lived fascinating lives often in the most difficult of circumstances. Looking out my window at the New Year fireworks, I'd say this is also a very optimistic culture, and that is good for all of us.


From East to West with Grant and Li*

(Posted by the China Beat on behalf of Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom)

One thing that American newspaper readers can’t help noticing—no matter which section matters most to them—is that people, objects, and images are circulating between China and the West at a dizzying pace. In 2007 alone, business reporters told of tainted food and dangerous toys coming from East to West, while their colleagues covering entertainment reported that film crews were heading in the opposite direction to shoot “Survivor: China.” Sports fans got
reports of U.S. athletes preparing for the Beijing Games as well as articles about Yao Ming moving back and forth across the Pacific, to shoot baskets in Houston and get married in Shanghai.

What’s more, on a single recent Sunday (December 2, 2007), the Los Angeles Times greeted subscribers like me with not just one but two headline-grabbing stories about 21st century tourism with Chinese characteristics. On the front page, a story titled “
Opening the Door for China” described changed visa rules that are likely to “unleash a new wave of tourism,” bringing Chinese visitors streaming into Southern California in record number to go to theme parks, stay at hotels and shop in the heavily Mandarin-speaking San Gabriel Valley, and buy herbal medicines and brand name luxury goods (confident, as they wouldn’t be at home, that they’ll get the real things, not fakes). The cover of the Travel section, meanwhile, showed snowcapped mountain peaks topped by large white lettering spelling out “REVVED UP for the SILK ROAD,” with smaller type above reading “Countdown to the 2008 Olympics” (a reminder of the media frenzy and big upsurge in West-to-East tourism predicted for this year).

The increasing intertwining of China and the West—and the excitement and anxiety it’s generating—has inspired breathless forward-looking commentaries about things like whose century this young one will be, as if it has to belong to either Us or Them. But what really seems in order during this countdown to the Olympics is slowing down and trying to catch our breath. Instead of peering anxiously ahead into the unknown, we would do well to pause, look back over our shoulders, and ask: Can we learn something useful from revisiting past moments when East-West exchanges increased? And those interested in the topic have some attractive places to turn just now, thanks to the recent appearance of four books and the mounting of two new exhibits.

A good place to start a backward look is with two books that shed new light on Chinese
ties to Europe in the 1600s. One is Vermeer’s Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World, an elegantly written book by Timothy Brook, a leading China specialist making an assured foray into world history. His organizing conceit is simple: the objects in Vermeer paintings (articles of clothing, maps, etc.) can serve as “doors” that open to reveal surprisingly global dimensions of the Delft painter’s time. Vermeer’s Hat has much to recommend it to those interested in everything from art to colonialism, but its biggest pay-off here has to do with fakes. In Vermeer’s time, as Brook notes, European imitations of high quality Chinese porcelain were far more common than Chinese imitations of any Western good.

A second book,
China on Paper: Chinese and European Works from the Late Sixteenth to the Early Nineteenth Century, which is linked to an exhibit by the same name running at the Getty Research Institute, provides a different sort of new perspective on the same period. One thing it highlights is China’s long history as an appealing destination for Western armchair travelers. (This is an important group of travelers, since it has always far outnumbered that comprised of Westerners who actually made it to Asia—and this will surely long continue to be true, since, after all, the premiere episode of “Survivor: China” alone was watched by more than 15 million Americans.)

According to a chapter by Marcia Reed, one of China on Paper’s two co-editors, the most popular books about China circulating in the West a few centuries ago presented themselves as offering practical guidance to those bound for mysterious Cathay. But they were mainly intended to serve a different purpose. They were “books of wonder collected for—and sometimes by—armchair travelers.” These European readers were invited to pretend to follow in the legendary Marco Polo’s footsteps by reading the text and looking at the pictures, the same kind of invitation travel writer Susan Carpenter recently offered Los Angeles Times readers in her “REVVED up for the SILK ROAD” piece.

Moving forward to the late 1800s and early 1900s, we come to another pair of books, one again linked to an exhib
it, that help place current phenomena into historical perspective. The first, Picturing China: 1870-1950: Photographs from British Collections, accompanies an exhibit by the same name that recently ran at London’s Brunei Gallery and is now traveling to other UK locales. (Alas, the book, which shows an arresting shot of a Chinese woman with a camera on its cover , is currently available only at museums, but armchair travelers who want to see the images in the show and others from the same digital archive project can do so without leaving home via the click of a mouse.) Of special interest here are the book’s arresting shots of Chinese and Western individuals, as well as Eurasians, who moved between different cultural worlds. In straddling divides between East and West, some of the subjects of these photographs, like today’s Yao Mings, went back and forth across oceans (albeit carried by ships, not jets). Others, though, navigated borders within a China that, at the time, had many divided cities, designated “treaty ports,” that contained foreign-run sections. This allowed people to move, in a single day, from an enclave like Shanghai’s International Settlement (the landmark buildings of which contained clock towers and other Western features) to a Chinese-run part of that same metropolis (where different design features, like curving tile roofs, topped the finest structures).

Last, but I hope not least (for obvious reasons), there is a fourth recently published book to consider: my own China’s Brave New World—And Other Tales for Global Times. Many of its sections deal with East-to-West or West-to-East flows. But perhaps the most germane to focus on here are a playful pair of chapters on globetrotting in the era of Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days, “Traveling with Twain” (a chapter in which China only comes in indirectly, via such things as the author’s
virulent disdain for missionaries and imperialism), and “Around the World with Grant and Li, (which looks at the global circuits of a famous American and much less well-known Chinese traveler who met briefly at the 1876 Philadelphia World’s Fair).

One topic I addressed in both of these chapters is, once again, armchair travel—this time taking the story beyond the realms of the books and visual representations dealt with in China on Paper. Yes, Twain was a wildly popular writer of books about his foreign travels. Yes, there were
books published about the trip to China and other distant lands that Ulysses S. Grant took after his presidency. And, yes, Mr. Li, the Chinese globetrotter who met the General-turned-Statesman at the Philadelphia Fair wrote a travelogue to let his fellow countrymen know of the technological wonders he had seen in America and Europe (telegraph and train systems particularly impressed him). But written records of this sort were by no means the only devices that people turned to when hoping to experience far-off places vicariously in the late 1800s. Then, as now, there were many other ways to venture imaginatively to the other side of the world.

Americans and Europeans interested in getting a feel for the “East,” for example, could go to World’s Fairs, like the
1867 Parisian one) whose Middle Eastern displays Twain took in while en route to the Holy Land (and wrote about in Innocents Abroad) or the 1876 Centennial Exhibition where Grant met Li). According to an illustrated history of the latter World’s Fair, upon entering its Chinese Pavilion visitors could “for a moment imagine” that they had “put the sea” between themselves “and the Exhibition and had suddenly landed in some large Chinese bazaar.” (For an extended discussion of this kind of imaginary travel to China by Americans during the first century of U.S. history, see the fascinating 2006 book by John Rogers Hadded, The Romance of China). As for Chinese of the same era who wanted to vicariously experience the “West”—they could simply go to Shanghai’s International Settlement, which provided a living and breathing display of Western lifestyles more immersive than any Epcot Pavilion or Travel Channel program.

Of course—to point to a final present-day echo of bygone days that helps us place a story about a twenty-first-century trend into a long-term perspective—what Grant liked about the International Settlement was surely not its whiff of the “exotic” West. Rather, stopping at Shanghai’s famed
Astor Hotel, with its Western meals and English-speaking staff, doubtless gave him a comforting sense of familiarity in an alien environment—something that contemporary Chinese travelers who end up spending some of their time in the U.S. in places like the San Gabriel Valley would surely appreciate.

* A
shorter version of this piece appeared in the St. Petersburg Times (Florida), January 13, 2008; the Twain chapter alluded to above is adapted from a piece that originally appeared in the online journal Common-Place.


Five Chinese Historical Events That Don’t Get Much Attention

After Jeremiah Jenne recently posed a question about "the most important Chinese historical figure most people have never heard of," I got to thinking about the vast expanse of Chinese history that is so often neglected in favor of the (admittedly sometimes more-relevant) post-49 events. In chronological order, here are my five nominations for Chinese historical events I wish were more often talked and written about. What events make your list?

1. The An Lushan Rebellion
Led by the rogue general, An Lushan, the civil war that riled the Tang Dynasty from 755 to 763 caused death by violence and famine of over ten million people. But the An Lushan Rebellion is not on this list because of its high death toll. The rebellion also destabilized the Tang political regime and the aristocratic clans who supported it, reshaping a system that relied heavily on pedigree for advancement. Histories of China’s imperial exam system often note that it existed (in some form, though off-and-on) beginning in the Han. But until the An Lushan Rebellion, hereditary position mattered more than merit. In the post-rebellion upheaval, however, the state centralized the process of appointing officials, a process that would become increasingly regulated and transparent in the following centuries (and particularly with the reforms of Zhu Xi in the 12th century). Until the end of the Qing (and beyond, but that’s another story), most officeholders were, indeed, from the wealthy families that could afford to support their sons as they studied decades for the exams (exam passers were often in their 40s or even older), but there was the possibility—and some famous examples of—poor men who rose to high position. China’s meritocratic officialdom—the world’s first meritocracy—had enormous ramifications for the bureaucracy itself, but its greatest impact was to create a national elite culture whereby well-educated men from around China, despite linguistic tradition or family background, participated in a shared intellectual tradition. Notably, this intellectual life took deepest root in the wealthy southern Yangzi Delta, an area whose population and economy grew rapidly after the An Lushan Rebellion as a direct result of the southward migrations that resulted from the rebellion’s upheaval. The nouveau riche landlords who emerged in this area found the revised exam system a particularly effective way to convert their wealth into officially-recognized status.

2. The Founding of the Yuan Dynasty
Most people even a little familiar with Chinese or world history have heard of Kublai Khan (grandson of Genghis), the founder of the Yuan Dynasty, which ruled China from 1271 to 1368. The Mongol conquering and governing of China, however, had more implications than just the spread of the plague and the introduction of new warfare techniques. Sinologists have traditionally seen the Yuan as an exception in Chinese history—foreign, nomad
ic rulers who practiced Tibetan Buddhism (as well as their own animist traditions) who were not, unlike the Manchus, successfully “sinicized.” Recent revisitations of this history, however, have provided new ideas about the legacy of the Mongols. On the one hand, there are the accidental implications—the incursions of northern nomadic peoples, even before Genghis’s military sweep, sent many northern Chinese south during the preceding few centuries (as did Mongol clearing of lands in northern China to make room for more pastureland). These settlers not only turned southern wilderness to arable land, but established the cultural and economic heartland of China. Politically, the Mongols centralized power, strengthening the control of the emperor over the bureaucracy and over local elites. Perhaps most importantly, the Mongols in many ways set a model for the Qing dynasty—not only as nomads governing an agricultural empire (as Mark Elliott argued in The Manchu Way, the ruling Manchus—rightly or wrongly—used the weakening of Mongol nomad customs as the explanation of their downfall, and used that fact as a rallying cry to maintain their own culture against the incursions of the attractive, but supposedly soft Chinese culture), but also as a unified multicultural empire that encompassed under a single state structure a variety of religious and ethnic groups. These geographic boundaries and ethnic diversity were ideas that early twentieth century reformers worked hard to maintain, and homages to them can be readily seen in today’s Chinese culture and politics.

3. The Single Whip Reforms
Arguably of greater importance to world history than Chinese history, the Ming Dynasty Single Whip Reform of 1581 ordered that all land taxes in China be paid in silver. One in a series of reforms (referred to in their entirety as the “Single Whip Reforms”; 1581 is perhaps the most important of them) that increasingly monetized the Chinese tax system, the changes impacted even the lowliest Chinese peasant—who could no longer pay his taxes in kind, but instead had to purchase silver in order to do so. The reform could not have been implemented without the large amount of silver pouring into China from Spanish Empire (South American) mines, and the resulting domestic need for silver pushed up its global price. It has even been argued by Dennis Flynn that without Chinese demand pushing up silver prices, the Spanish crown would not have earned enough from its New World possessions to keep governing them, much less finance decades of warfare in Europe itself. And it’s also worth remembering that under the Song and Yuan Dynasties, China actually had a functioning paper currency system—the world’s first. Had the Ming restored that rather than following the private sector’s turn to silver (after the late Yuan and especially the early Ming destroyed confidence in paper currency by over-printing it) both Chinese and global history might have been quite different.

4. The White Lotus Rebellion
Arguments about China’s nineteenth-century “dynastic decline” often begin with the White Lotus Rebellion, a sectarian uprising from 1796 to 1804, arguing that the rebellion exposed the inherent weaknesses of the ruling Manchus and the Qing dynasty. While it is true that there were a range of symptoms that, retrospectively, indicate the coming problems for the Qing (the increasing neglect of the waterways over the course of the nineteenth century, for instance), the Qing response to the White Lotus Rebellion was not one of them. Recent research (for instance, the doctoral research of my colleague, Wensheng Wang) argues that the Qing government dealt effectively and flexibly with the White Lotus Rebellion, countering the notion of a static, out-of-touch court too steeped in tradition and luxury to respond to contemporary events. In this reading, the White Lotus Rebellion becomes instead an example of the continued vibrancy of Qing rule into the nineteenth century, and raises further questions for Chinese historians about what events were most important to the “downfall” of the Qing.

5. The 1911 Chinese Revolution
Overshadowed in twentieth century history by the 1949 Communist Revolution, the 1911 Chinese Revolution proceeded from a remarkable series of localized events. It was not the result of an inevitable march towards “Westernization” as it is sometimes portrayed in shorthand, but rather reflective of two strong late nineteenth century trends: increasing nationalism and increasing localism. Both were extensions of shifts grounded in the elite efforts to suppress the Taiping Rebellion in the mid-nineteenth century. As Philip Kuhn described in his 1970 landmark book, Rebellion and Its Enemies in Late Imperial China, the central government’s inability to suppress the Taiping rebels forced local (mainly southern) elites to band together their own militias to protect their cities and counties. These militia, in turn, became the recruiting grounds for full-blown armies (which unlike militia, would fight away from home for long periods) under regional commanders; this was an important step toward the warlordism that would wreak havoc in China in the 1910s and 1920s. This tendency, which grew into a full-blown self-government movement in the first decade of the twentieth century, moved alongside a growing fin de siècle Chinese nationalism (exemplified, for instance, in the Boxer Rebellion). Both came to a head over a nationwide push to repurchase railroad rights (which is one of the primary issues around which the Wuhan New Army member, who actually touched off the Qing overthrow, had organized). In the wake of that event, local elites—some military leaders, others old-school gentry—declared their independence from Beijing. The resulting tensions of growing nationalism but also militarized localism plagued the young republic and reverberations of these tensions can be traced down to the present day.
"Tang Scholars," by Han Huang, active 723-787
Portrait of Kublai Khan.


Frivolous Friday: From China, to India, to Southern California

(Posted by the China Beat on behalf of Nicole Barnes)

I live in Southern California where I always have to look my best, so I get my eyebrows threaded at Vinita’s Beauty and Threading Studio in Tustin. Vinita’s is owned and largely patronized by South Asian women. I’m frequently the only white woman in the place, but I get a sweet deal: a full eyebrow threading for only 5 minutes and 6 bucks! In case you suffer through waxing, you really need to know about the wonderful process of threading. It’s literally done with a sewing thread: the “threader” holds one end of the thread in her mouth, wraps the middle around two or three fingers in her left hand, and manipulates the other end like a pair of scissors in her right hand. This way she can grab a whole row of eyebrow hairs and yank them out before you even notice; it’s only a little bit painful.

Although in the US and UK most enterprising eyebrow threaders are Indian women, in India the work is done mostly by Chinese immigrants. Still, there is virtually no consensus on its exact origins; there are claims that it originated in Iran, India, China, and Egypt, and it is practiced all over the world, on both male and female clients. It seems that, no matter our nationality, we are all obsessed with shedding our simian roots through depilatory arts!

Perhaps eyebrow threading does in fact allow us to change our very nature. Sohu.com has a feature that describes your personal character and destiny according to the shape of your eyebrows. So when you get tired of your Big Dipper brows (beidou mei) giving you an overactive libido, or when your Rebel brows (luohan mei) are making it hard for you to find your soulmate, you can go for a threading and adopt the forthright friendliness of Sleeping Silkworm brows (wocan mei).


Why was Yao Ming Fined?

A colleague here at the Beijing Sport University whom I have known for over ten years, Yi Jiandong (易剑东), is one of the two most vocal media commentators on Chinese sports in the academic world (along with Lu Yuanzhen 卢元镇). He has reached an exalted status that an American professor like myself can only marvel at from afar. He is one of the "Big-Name Bloggers"(名人博客) on the Qzone blogsite, where he shares space with the likes of Feng Shuyong, head coach of the national track and field team (whose main purpose seems to be to report on Liu Xiang, 2004 gold medalist, 2007 world champion, and world record-holder in the 110m hurdles) and Lin Dan (two-time world champion in badminton, who writes his own blog).

Professor Yi also gets paid good money to blog, something that cannot be said of myself. Among his 80+ posts since August 2007, the one that has gotten the most hits was on the topic, “An explanation for why ‘Japanese Don’t Show Respect for Liu Xiang,’”, which elicited 1,594 comments and 224,447 hits. Not only can a lowly American professor not aspire to his kinds of numbers and financial remuneration, I can’t even expect that sports fans care about what I have to say. I take this as an illustration of the greater respect for university professors in Chinese popular culture generally and – in contrast to the U.S. - in the sports world in particular.

I thought it might be interesting to The China Beat readers to know what my Chinese counterpart is blogging about, so I selected one of his blogs from September 22, which at 55,902 hits and 321 comments was also one of his more popular posts. Since non-Chinese probably aren’t that interested in whether Japanese respect Liu Xiang (do non-Chinese even know who Liu Xiang is?), I have selected a post about the NBA star Yao Ming – who, based on my superficial impression, seems to take a backseat to Liu Xiang in China at the moment. After all, Yao Ming has never won a world championship and probably will not win an Olympic gold medal. In keeping with a theme of The China Beat, Yi uses Yao Ming to launch into a criticism of the poor treatment of sport journalists in China, explaining that this is due to the fact that sports are less market-oriented here. Foreign journalists, take note – you are not the only ones who get high-handed treatment.

A biography of Professor Yi follows the post.

Yi Jiandong's space: an independent critical voice, realizing the value of constructive action, growing along with the Olympics.

Why was Yao Ming Fined?

According to a report in the Houston Chronicle on September 21 (Beijing time), Morey, the general manager of the Houston Rockets in the American NBA, said that Yao Ming would be fined because his participation in the opening ceremony of the Special Olympics forced him to miss the team’s media day and the first two days of practice.Morey also specially pointed out that the team would send someone to Shanghai to oversee and coordinate Yao Ming’s training in an attempt to reduce the effects of his inability to train with the team. However, the fine for missing the media day was mandatory and Yao Ming must accept it. Many fans might ask, what is media day and why would Yao Ming be fined for missing it? I found a fairly clear definition of media day in the American book Media Relations in Sport. American’s aren’t real fond of giving definitions to things, but excel at pinpointing their attributes and outlining their range and function in actual practice. The book said, “Media day is a news event created by college and professional teams, which is an effective and popular means of publicity.”

Some sources I have read say: Media day, a reception for the media that is meticulously organized by sports organizations, is a very important public relations event. The media day of college teams typically organizes reporters to visit the college campus and the team facilities, and to interact with the athletes, or even eat a meal together with them. Every fall, the media days of some college teams give reporters and coaches, team leaders, and media spokespeople an opportunity to get together. Furthermore, the usual situation is: the reporters who have been invited will have an opportunity to ask questions of any official or athlete in the sport organization.

For the four big professional sports leagues, including the American NBA, media day is an opportunity to deepen relationships with the media before the start of the season. It is also a good chance for the team to improve its external image, market itself, and strengthen relationships with its public and fans. When the reporters come to the team on media day, in addition to receiving various brochures that the club has prepared ahead of time and printed out, the team introduces the preparations for the new season, and the coaches and some of the starting players give interviews.

Frankly, this model, which American professional sports have already employed for decades, is extremely unfamiliar to the Chinese sports world.

A sports bureaucrat once said to me: On what basis do you state that coaches should learn tactics for handling the media? They can close their training sessions and absolutely can ignore the media.

And there was once a very well-known scholar of sports communication who said: Sport organizations do not need to provide services to reporters – since they come to report on sports events on their own, they ought to prepare everything on their own.

These opinions vividly illustrate a current trend in China: it is not worthwhile for sport organizations to provide services for the media.

So why does the American NBA care so much about media day?

Because if the media do not get enough information services, they might produce more erroneous reports.

If the media does not get the requisite transportation services, their game reports might be affected.

If the reporters can’t even find something to eat, it’s hard for them to keep reporting on a game.

In both of the last two Olympic Games there were reporters who died during the Games, and for a long time there have been statistics demonstrating that journalism has become one of the high-risk occupations globally. In the last few years there has been an annual average of nearly 100 journalists who have died. I’m sure that many people still remember Zeng Li, the Beijing TV reporter who died for his country during the Athens Olympic Games. For this reason it is considered that the fierce battle fought by the media at major sports events is more brutal than the sports competitions themselves. On the one hand this is because different media covering the same event must necessarily set themselves apart in order to appear original. On the other hand this is because the media personnel always work more hours than the athletes. The technical personnel covering the Olympic Games work for at least one month, and their workload and its intensity are extremely high. Furthermore, at the Olympic Games a large number of events start at the same time and most media are short-handed, so they need the support of media transportation, etc.

In American history, the first media public relations personnel and sport agent were both originally sport reporters, and in order that the media could produce better coverage of events and clubs, America started to put a huge effort into pushing media services in the mid-20th century. Media days are an excellent activity for serving the media.

If you are interested, you can take a look at the NBA club websites, where there are photos and brief introductions of the partnerships of the various clubs with all of the media reporters or editors. You could say that many clubs see their media partners as members of the family, or at least they see them as honored guests of the family. It should be a natural task for sport organizations to serve their family’s honored guests.

And so there is a certain significance in the fact that Yao Ming missed media day in Houston on behalf of the Special Olympics held in his hometown of Shanghai. He responded to the needs of his country and his hometown, but was not able to meet the needs of his new home at the same time – the needs of the Houston Rockets, and he did not meet with his family guests – the partner media of the Houston Rockets – to talk about expectations for the upcoming season.

And so the fine for missing training could be negotiated, but the fine for missing media day was mandatory. The former is an internal problem that can be settled, the latter is an external problem that cannot be easily settled. In fact, in a mature professional league, a fine for not taking part in media day is only one part of a whole code of conduct. Because the team recognizes all too well that the media and the team, together with the local community, corporate sponsors, fans, etc. are “links” in the entire chain of interests in professional sports that cannot be broken. If one is left out, it harms the operation of this community of vested interests and everyone will lose the opportunity to secure their own benefits.

While they are calculating their interests, when will China’s sport organizations recognize the irreplaceable and important role played by the media? Or when will they be able to recognize why there are media days, why they should provide service to the media?

Behind the attitude in the saying “avoid fire, avoid theft, avoid reporters” is impatience with some of the adverse behavior of the media, but if we could recognize that the media exercise an element of influence on our interests that we cannot avoid, perhaps favorable treatment of the media would become an automatic action and attitude.

When will media day be introduced in China?

As an increasing number of international sports competitions land in China and push forward the formation of a system of event services that links up with Western standards, we hope our professional teams will be able to learn something from American management experience. Setting up and implementing media day could be a breakthrough. On this point, our CBA [Chinese Basketball Association], through the operation of its all-star competitions, has already done a lot to improve treatment of the media. When will other sport organizations wake up?

About Yi Jiandong:

Yi Jiandong is chair of the Sport Journalism and Communications Department at the Beijing Sport University. He received a B.A. in history from Nanchang University, where he was also the school champion in the 1,500m., 5,000m. and 10,000m. running events. He earned an M.A. at the Chengdu Institute of Physical Education, and a Ph.D. from Beijing Sport University. He was a visiting scholar at Victoria University (Melbourne, Australia) in 2002-2003. He is the author of 10 books, including 社会资本与企业成长:对当代中国体育用品企业的研究 (Social Capital and Enterprise Growth: A Study on the Contemporary Chinese Sporting Goods Enterprise) (2005) and 体育文化学(Cultural Studies in Sport) (2006); he has edited 3 books, including Coverage and Media Service for Major Sporting Events (2008), 奥林匹克运动百科全书(Encyclopedia of the Olympic Movement) (3 vols.)(2007), and 中国体育媒体服务系统的构建(The Construction of China’s Sport Media System) (2006). He has also translated two books into Chinese, Media Relations in Sport (2005) and Sport Public Relations (2008). For CCTV-5 (China Central Television Station’s sports channel) he wrote the text for the documentary series “Fifty Years of Sport in Modern China,” and gave 80 5-minute lectures in “Olympic Classroom” (2004-2005). He has written regular columns for 人民日报市场报 (People’s Daily - Market News), 新京报 (The Beijing News), 环球日报 (Global Times), and 北京青年报 (Beijing Youth Daily). He is a member of the expert lecturer’s group of the Volunteer Department of BOCOG and is vice president of the Special Committee on Sport Communication of the Chinese Communication Association.


Two good China stories where you don't usually look for China stories

In the last few days, some good stuff to read about China has appeared in places you might not think to look. First, the Winter, 2008 Dissent has an excellent article by Thomas Pogge (pp. 66-75) called “Growth and Inequality: Understanding Recent Trends and Political Choices.” It’s an admirably clear overview of some of the vagaries of poverty statistics, differing ways of estimating inequality, and the relationship between growth and poverty reduction, tied to a very sensible argument about how somewhat slower growth could actually do much more to reduce poverty (and wreak less havoc on the environment) if it was accompanied by a decrease in inequality – or even a slowing of the increase. The scope of the article is global, but several of the key examples are Chinese. If you don’t usually think quantitatively, but you’re not a complete numero-phobe, this is a good place to get caught up on what the recent data do and don’t tell us about changes in the material conditions of the poor.

Second, Science News for January 19, 2008 (pp. 36-37) has a brief but thought-provoking piece on changes in the Chinese diet and their implications for the country’s ever-worsening water shortages. The main focus is on how rising meat consumption (driven by rising incomes) strains the water supply (raising a kilo of beef uses 10-15 times as much water as raising a kilo of grain); animal-related foods account for 16% of China’s diet, but use almost half the water used for food consumption. But in some ways the growth of fruit and vegetable production may be just as big a story. Consumption of fruits and vegetables is up over 300% since the 1960s, but production of these products is rising faster, as they have become export commodities: fruit production has more than quadrupled just since 1992. (China now grows more than 1/3 of the world’s apples, for instance.) Because fruit and vegetable production absorbs a lot more labor per acre than grain production, while also yielding higher incomes to producers, shifting to fruits and vegetables has been an important way for farmers to raise their incomes without abandoning the land: and China needs every such expedient its people can find, as income from grain-growing falls further and further behind other occupations, and the strains of very rapid urbanization intensify. Fruit tree planting has also been encouraged for environmental reasons, and a number of local governments subsidize farmers who want to switch from grain to fruits. But anything that increases the demand for water is a problem. Urban water shortages are getting worse and worse, and there is probably far less waste to cut there than in agriculture (as is true almost everywhere in the world). I have seen estimates that the economic benefits of water used in North China industry are anywhere from 20 to 60 times the benefits of that same amount of water being used in agriculture; even if these numbers are inflated, it’s not hard to see that the pressures for reducing agricultural water use will rise. (Prices for irrigation water have been rising for the last several years, thus far with limited effect.) But when more water-intensive kinds of farming are also among the best bets for keeping people in the countryside while raising their incomes – especially in the North, where fruit boom has been greatest and the water crisis most severe – the trade-offs are likely to become more and more difficult as both social and environmental pressures intensify.