Coming Distractions: The Annual AAS Meeting

Robert Buswell, Association for Asian Studies President, and Jeffrey Wasserstrom, the editor of the Journal of Asian Studies (and a China Beatnik, of course, who regularly contributes to this blog), have released a joint letter that may interest those who will be or are considering attending the AAS annual meeting in late March (or who simply like to follow the organizational goings-on of AAS and its flagship publications).

In the letter, Buswell, a U.C.L.A. specialist in Korean studies, and Wasserstrom lay out changes to this year's and future annual meetings, including efforts to expand the scope of the association to include diplomats, journalists, and public intellectuals as well as emphasizing disciplines not traditionally well-represented in the association (and speaking to issues that engage this broadened audience through topical essays in the JAS), and increasing the internationalization of the association's membership and journal coverage. To read the full contents, you can visit the AAS website.

For those who are interested in learning more about the schedule for this year's meeting in Chicago, March 26-29, the program is available online. The conference (where, incidentally, our by then-just out China in 2008 will be displayed in the book exhibit hall) will include keynote speeches by Christopher Hill, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, and Han Sung-Joo, the former Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Korea and former Ambassador to the U.S. Journalists participating in panels at the conference include Howard French, Jonathan Fenby, Ching Ching Ni, Ted Fishman, and Nayan Chanda.


A Bible for Beijing

By Pierre Fuller

A few weeks ago my mother learned at her Greenwich, Conn., church that, beyond church grounds, Bibles cannot be purchased in the People’s Republic. Her informant was a man from the Bible Society of Singapore who gave an evening talk on the state of Christianity in China at my parents’ mainstream Protestant parish. My mother soon asked her son in Beijing, me, about this fact over the phone and I couldn’t say either way: a Chinese-language Bible was not something I’d been actively looking for yet I could have sworn I’d spotted one in a shop a while back when living in China’s Northwest. Then again, that was a long decade ago. I am clearly no expert on the subject.

Then on a recent morning in a basement bookstore in the National Library in Beijing a volume with a black binding and gold lettering caught my eye. I pulled it off the shelf. In no shape to identify the Chinese word for “Genesis” or for “Psalms”, I checked the volume’s opening passage: “Shen shuo: ‘Yao you guang’, jiu you le guang,” it read. God said: “Let there be light,” and there was light.

I was holding a Bible.

I took the book to the counter – its look was so plainly familiar it could have had the stamp of the Gideons on its cover– and without so much as a glance at my selection the cashier, while barking into a phone, rang it up. At fifty percent off, I thought, they’re practically giving these away – and in the very belly of the National Library of the People’s Republic of China, no less (a bookshop, it must be said, that was hardly as glamorous as its location might suggest, a labyrinthine afterthought with an uninspired selection). So much for my mother’s stateside informant.

Returning to my research chores at the microfilm room upstairs I was reminded of a feature story I did for a Japanese daily a while back on the growing popularity of Christmas in China, specifically a very commercial version of it that I observed sprouting in 1990s Xi’an, the ancient capital. (One thing I was told by a church official then is that proselytizing in the PRC is legally limited to church grounds, but that hadn’t stopped the draw of crowds at one downtown Xi’an church on Christmas Eve 1999 from requiring crowd control as bodies spilled out of the doors during the service. Mostly curious students, I was told.)

Walking the city for material back then I came across a dramatic scene at a small church on the avenue running north from the city Bell Tower. A gaggle of old women were wailing at the steps of their church. At first I thought it might be a funeral; I quickly learned it was the funeral of the church building itself, a plastered structure suggesting 1980s construction. The building was condemned, the grounds beneath claimed for development, while the authorities promised to rebuild one for the parish in the outskirts of town. This meant a long commute to Sunday services and the women were adamantly opposed it. As for me, the foreigner with the notepad, I’d been sent by God himself, a teary-eyed woman announced, to let this be known to the world. The crowd around agreed. Overwhelmed, I escaped before any miracles could be expected of me.

A year later an underground film project brought me to rural Liaoning Province in the Northeast where we were invited to informally film an animated Christian service at a towering village church, its choir decked in white and red vestments as they sang before a congregation of several hundred. I recall our hosts sporting T-shirts emblazoned with “Jesus Saves” in red characters all that afternoon as they cooked us produce pulled, no doubt, from the neighboring fields.

I couldn’t have imagined a more idyllic atmosphere. But more significant was what occurred several days later in downtown Shenyang when the temptation to interview a 90-year-old man occupying his daily sidewalk perch at our apartment building’s side gate was too hard to resist. Naturally, our crew of three, Sony VX-1000 and boom mic in hand, attracted a crowd – and, soon enough, police, who escorted us back to our apartment to figure out what these foreigners (and one Chinese) were up to.

We’d just been in the surrounding countryside filming quaint rural scenes but also the homes of residents, some very poor. That meant there were videotapes all over the house. But the authorities didn’t even ask about that possibility. Some six hours at the precinct followed, many cigarettes passed around. The end decision was that we were to return with the offending tape (yes, we were allowed to take it home with us) the following business day. We did so, and sitting in a room with a plainclothes officer we ran through the content on a TV: the church service wasn’t deemed objectionable; the humble interior of a “peasant” abode? That had to go.

I could understand the logic. Why not broadcast a thriving congregation? But a reminder of the rural majority languishing in poverty? That’s no good. So we erased it right then and there and returned to our stockpile of other footage, our equipment intact, our visas unchanged. I would’ve thought the fist would’ve come down harder on us. Had we received special treatment because we were foreigners? Doubtless. But then we’d also been picked up precisely because we were white guys attracting a crowd to the otherwise innocuous interview of an old pensioner. And confiscating the equipment of these touring amateurs would hardly have warranted a call to Human Rights Watch. Someone could’ve made a few thousand bucks off our camera, easy. (A good thing no one thought of it, it was borrowed equipment.)

Looking back, the plight of that Xi’an parish deserved to be told, but I didn’t have it in me to write it then. Today, it strikes me as a scene straight out of Michael Meyer’s newly-published Last Days of Old Beijing, a moving account of the tragic face-lift and social dislocation of China’s capital. As in much of Meyer’s Beijing, the destructive forces on that ill-fated Xi’an church were a combination of cancerous developers given carte blanche to ruin and raise along with a cruel system of little warning to those affected, and no appeals. That plaster house of God could have been a much-needed clinic or neighborhood senior social parlor before the profits, “prestige” and conveniences of “development” tore it down. But I was hard-pressed to see Christianity in the equation.

As for my new Chinese Bible, it’d be a challenge for me to get through it, so maybe I’ll pass it on to a curious friend. Which brings me back to the Bible Society and its talk-China tour: It’s easy to get sloppy when you’re preaching to the choir. But if tracking Bibles is your business, at least get the facts straight.


Everything Old is New Again

One year ago today, I posted an essay entitled "What Shall We Do with the Dead Dictator?", which discussed the DPP government's efforts to further the cause of transitional justice (轉型正義) by reexamining the legacy of former ROC President Chiang Kai-shek (1887-1975). A number of related policies ended up sparking considerable controversy, included renaming the CKS International Airport as Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport, and especially changing the name of the National Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall to National Taiwan Democracy Memorial Hall.

The KMT regained power just two months later, following which things began to move in reverse. Most recently, the Ministry of Education, in one of its last policy decisions during the Year of the Rat, announced that in July 2009 the Democracy Hall's name plaque will be removed and the original plaque restored. This was based on an Executive Yuan decision to withdraw the former government's request to abolish the Organic Statute of the CKS Memorial Hall< (國立中正紀念堂管理處組織條例廢止案), as well as a resolution by the Legislative Yuan that the Hall's name be changed back to Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall.

Although the Ministry of Education had originally proposed holding a public forum to discuss whether or not to change the plaque, no such event was arranged. According to one top-ranking official, this was due to concerns that such a forum might spark tensions between DPP and KMT supporters. While it is true that political discussions in Taiwan tend to be heated, and can even turn violent, one cannot help but recalling the observation that Judge Damon Keith made in a 2002 federal appeals court ruling, namely that "Democracies die behind closed doors".

Another rejuvenation of the past involves the redeployment of the Hall's honor guard in time for the Lunar New Year holiday, which means that tourists and other visitors can once again see soldiers marching (goose-stepping?) in front of Chiang's statue (an image of the guard also adorns the new home page of the Hall's website). One of the few things that will not change is that the Liberty Square (自由廣場) inscription at the entrance to the hall is to remain untouched.

Party politics aside, one cannot help but wonder when Taiwan's leaders will choose to promote the examination of the complex facets of Chiang's rule, positive and negative alike. In contrast to nations like Argentina, Rwanda, South Africa, South Korea, etc., Taiwan has yet to entrust a truth and reconciliation commission with the task of investigating past wrongdoings (its sole "Truth Commission" was created in order to delve into the 2004 presidential election shooting). Fortunately, scholars have made considerable efforts to pick up the slack, with Jeremy E. Taylor and his colleagues organizing a conference entitled "Reassessing Chiang Kai-Shek: An International Dialogue" to be held at Queen's University, Canada on August 7-9, 2009. In addition, the Institute of Modern History at Academia Sinica has organized a Chiang Kai-shek Research Group, which includes participants from Taiwan, China, Japan, and the United States. Perhaps with time some form of justice will prevail, for only after a nation's triumphs and tragedies have been accorded the thorough study they deserve can true reconciliation take place.


The Past and Present of the CCP First Congress Memorial, Shanghai

2009 is a year of anniversaries for China, with the 90th birthday of the May 4th Movement coming in the spring and the 60th of the PRC arriving in the fall. With this in mind, we've asked Samuel Liang of the University of Manchester, a specialist in Shanghai's built environment, to provide our readers with background on a locale that has special significance for both of the just-mentioned anniversaries. Namely, the building where an early meeting of the Communist Party was held in 1921, which stands near the recently built shopping and entertainment district known as Xintiandi.

This structure, often treated as a sacred revolutionary shrine, has a complex history, as readers will see. It is tied to the May 4th Movement because many of those who attended the Party Congress held within its wall, including Mao Zedong, had been active in those 1919 protests and the general "New Culture" intellectual fermentation of the time, and as a birthplace of the Communist Party it is tied to the founding of the PRC in even more obvious ways.

By Samuel Y. Liang

In the late nineteenth century, foreign landowners and Chinese builders jointly created lilong compounds for Chinese residents in the foreign settlements of Shanghai. Somewhere between enclosed compounds and open alleyways, the lilong houses opened up traditional walled domains, generated fluid spaces between houses, neighborhoods, and streets, and accommodated a wide range of commercial and residential functions and people from all walks of life.

Toward the end of the Qing dynasty, traditionally-trained scholars sojourning in Shanghai were influenced by modern nationalism, thanks to the print media introduced into the city from the West, and they often disseminated revolutionary ideas of overthrowing the Manchu empire when meeting in courtesan houses in the lilong neighborhoods near Fuzhou Road. It was in such obscure spaces that the first group of radical, progressive intellectuals emerged from the community of self-pitying and discontented literati at the turn of the century.

After the May Fourth Movement in 1919, a new generation of Chinese intellectuals embraced the Western ideals of democracy and science and enjoyed the city’s new, Western-style public spaces, such as coffee houses, cinemas, and public parks. Yet the living quarters of the new intellectuals were still in unassuming lilong neighborhoods of mixed functions, which had mushroomed in the new urban areas as the city expanded rapidly in the 1920s and 30s.

When communism was first introduced to China, it also flowered in the milieu of Shanghai lilong. The most radical thinkers and activists of China used the lilong’s inclusive and obscure spaces as their covert bases to promulgate revolutionary and iconoclastic ideas. In July 1921, thirteen delegates, including Mao, from around the country and two representatives of the Communist International gathered in the small living room of an unassuming lilong house in the newly urbanized Taipingqiao area of the French Concession and held a secret meeting to found the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The meeting is now considered to be the First Congress of the CCP. The house, 106-108 Wangzhi Road, was at that time the sojourn residence of the Wuhan-based official Li Shucheng and his brother Li Hanjun. The latter hosted the meeting but soon left the party because of his different political viewpoints. In the next year, the Second Congress of CCP was held in another lilong house a few blocks away, which was then the home of Li Da. Around that time, the residences of the party leaders, such as Chen Duxiu and Li Da, were in fact the Party’s undercover offices.

Born in the lower strata of the urban environment, the Party had never succeeded in coming to power through urban revolutions. Though a small number of its agents continued to carry out “underground works” in the city, the Party achieved its final victory through successful managements of its rural bases. When the Party’s peasant army finally took over Shanghai in May 1949, the city as the Party’s birthplace was hardly known.

Rediscovery and Restoration
In September 1950, the Propaganda Department of CCP Shanghai Committee set out to search for the site of the First Congress. Assisted by Yang Shuhui, the wife of the Congress delegate Zhou Fohai, the Department rediscovered the former Li residence in April 1951; its new address was 76-78 Xingye Road, which, renamed in 1943, had turned into a busy street quite different from the former Wangzhi Road next to a vegetable field thirty years ago. The house was then used as a small noodle workshop and store, which had a traditional shop façade featuring a dark stone portal on a white plastered wall.

76-78 Xingye Road in 1951 when it was rediscovered as the CCP First Congress site (source: Lu and Zhang 2001).

Inside the CCP First Congress Memorial, 1951 (source: Lu and Zhang 2001).

The Party committee immediately rented the house from the private landlord and, after consulting the Congress delegate Li Da, recreated the Congress meeting room on the second floor of 78 Xingye Road; in the room were displayed the portraits of Marx and Lenin and Mao’s handwritten script: “Little sparks spread into a prairie fire.” On July 1, 1952, the city’s official newspaper Jiafang Daily announced that the Shanghai Revolution History Memorial had been preliminarily completed after one year’s repair and renovation, featuring an article lauding the city as the original site where sparks of revolution fire first spread out. The key city officials visited the site on the same day.

Shortly after, the chief of National Relic Bureau visited the memorial from Beijing; he considered the memorial’s current outlook and layout as not genuinely reflecting the original condition of the Congress site. In June 1953, the white-washed walls of the memorial building were restored to their “original” brickwork and the commercial signs of the noodle workshop and the next-door pickle store were also removed.

The partially restored CCP First Congress Memorial, 1953 (source: Lu and Zhang 2001).

In the restoration process, the memorial officials interviewed the landlord Madam Chen and her tenants for a history of the neighborhood. In 1920 Chen built a small lilong compound called Shudeli, which consisted of two rows of houses. The front row facing Xingye Road had five units (100-108 Wangzhi Road); each unit was one-bay wide and two-story high and had a small courtyard behind the front entrance. The Li brothers rented two units right after the compound was built. They moved out about three years later and then Chen let the whole front row to a merchant, who extensively rebuilt the complex into two bigger units: 100-104 became a three-bay house and 106-108 a two-bay house. The courtyards of 104 and 106 were rebuilt into the houses’ two new wings. The merchant then opened a soy sauce and pickle store in 106-108 and sublet 100-104.

In October 1957, following Beijing’s further direction on faithful restoration of revolution heritage sites, the memorial restored the complex’s the five stone portals and courtyards. And the Congress’s meeting venue was now set in the downstairs living room of 76 Xingye Road, which was then meticulously furnished for its original appearance in the 1920s, and in which no portraits or handwritten scripts of the leaders were displayed again. Now the memorial complex was given a monumental façade of grey brick walls, red arched portals, and dark wooden doors.

Revolution and Museum
Seeking to recreate the original form of the Congress venue, the restoration project in fact produced a monument free from any traces of the lively lilong neighborhood of mixed functions and inclusive spaces. It was a purification process against the locale’s combined commercial and residential contents. The result was a uniform façade and dead (or monumental) space rather than the original unassuming neighborhood where the secret meeting took place. By erasing the locale’s natural and evolving history through the decades that had bred rebellious potentials, the regime installed a hegemonic power structure, which the memorial symbolized, to prevent any future revolutions. As soon as the revolutionary process turns into a monumental space, its beautiful soul gets lost. The monument is then an empty shell that attempts to eternalize a reinvented past by terminating the place’s living, natural history.

After the restoration, the Revolution Memorial was open internally to the Party cadres. In March 1961, the memorial was designated as a “Key National Cultural Heritage Site.” During the Cultural Revolution, the rebels/red guards filled the memorial with posters and slogans, turning it into a stage of their revolutionary activities. In 1968, it was formally renamed the CCP First Congress Memorial and opened to the public. To accommodate the increasing amount of visitors, in 1973 the memorial incorporated the four housing units in the back row of Shudeli as auxiliary spaces. In 1984, Deng Xiaoping handwrote a title plate for the memorial.

The CCP First Congress Memorial during the Cultural Revolution (source: Lu and Zhang 2001).

The history of the memorial has been reconstructed by the memorial’s officers and researchers since the 1990s, coinciding with Shanghai’s rapid development. Before this time, the memorial was mainly regarded as a local base for revolutionary education, not a national monument of revolutionary history (probably because the Party still considered Shanghai a stronghold of the “bourgeois lifestyle”). From Mao’s perspective, the Chinese revolution started in remote rural areas. For decades, as featured in primary-school textbooks, the iconic birthplace of the CCP had been a tour boat in the South Lake at Jiaxing, about sixty miles from Shanghai; the boat is a remade copy of the one on which the Congress delegates held the last day’s meeting after their secret meeting venue on Wangzhi Road was discovered by the French Concession police. As the last refuge of the secret meeting, the tour boat and its idyllic setting better represented, and indeed anticipated, the late course of the Chinese revolution history.

In the meantime, the Maoist regime continued the revolution legacy by mobilizing the masses in a series of political campaigns—an ongoing violent, destructive process rather than peaceful commemoration of the revolutionary past. Turning that legacy into static monuments would be against the true spirit of revolution, and similar to the revisionist approach of the Party’s bureaucrats, against whom Mao launched the infamous Cultural Revolution. For Mao, revolution had be powered by endless class struggle, as he wrote when organizing Hunan peasant revolts in the 1920s: “A revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery; it cannot be so leisurely and gentle, so temperate, kind, courteous, restrained and magnanimous…” Neither is revolution, I might add for Mao, a peaceful pilgrimage to a revolution museum.

Expansion in the New Age
In the late 1990s when Shanghai reemerged as a global city, the First Congress Memorial acquired a new title, “National Model Base for Patriotic Education,” and attracted an increasing number of visitors each year. The old complex of about 900 square meters became inadequate and overcrowded, with visitors often queued up on the street. In 1996, the CCP Shanghai Committee decided to build a new wing for the memorial. Funded by private donations and assisted with volunteer labor, the construction project started in June 1998 and was completed just before the fiftieth anniversary of the “liberation” of Shanghai in May 1999.

Located to the west of the original Congress site, the expansion adds 2,316 square meters to the memorial. While the new wing’s façade simulates the rusticated appearance of lilong houses, the new wing is a space of modern simulacra. Passing through the old-style stone portal, visitors enter a grand and shiny hall that encompasses almost the entire ground floor. At the end of this rather empty hall hangs a huge Party flag in front of which initiation ceremonies for new Party members are held on some key dates, such as July 1(the CCP’s Birthday) and October 1 (National Day). The exhibition gallery upstairs displays a pictorial narrative of the Chinese revolution, including a group of wax figures forming a reconstructed scene of the Congress. A visitor wrote: “In the wax figures, I saw realistic and vivid human characters and their pensive faces showing confidence in China’s future.”

Indeed, the memorial is now a training ground for the Party’s future cadres and bureaucrats (urban economic development) and has probably superseded the Jiaxing tour boat as the icon of the CCP birthplace. It indeed symbolizes a new turn in China’s red course—a new urban revolution of demolition and rebuilding rather than the Maoist (anti-urban) revolution of class struggle. This new development is turning the whole city into a gentrified, museum-like space of visual display.

The entrance hall of the new extension of the CCP memorial, 2006 © Samuel Y. Liang

The memorial’s new extension (on the right) and the entrance to Xintiandi (on the left) on Xingye Road, 2007 © Samuel Y. Liang

An Urban Revolution
In 2001, the two urban blocks surrounding the CCP Congress Memorial were developed by the Hong Kong-based Shui On Group into a trendy place of leisure and consumption, known as Xintiandi. Because the city’s planning code stipulates that the memorial be preserved and new buildings around it be of limited height, Shui On innovatively combined historic preservation and commercial development, making lilong architecture the theme of the project. Like the Congress memorial, the commercial spaces in this new development are sites of modern simulacra—be they of political propaganda or of consumerist persuasion. Here, indeed, the work of the architect and developer is comparable to that of the Party in rebuilding the memorial. While the latter retrospectively invents the revolution history as an ideological structure of the ruling class, the former re-manufactures the colonial and socialist neighborhood into a consumer paradise for the new elite class.

Now global capitalists such as Shui On cooperate with the local government to carry out an urban “revolution” in Shanghai—one of space and architecture. This revolution targets the decayed lilong neighborhoods and entails the relocation of the residents (socialist workers from the Maoist era) from the decaying urban core, which is then reclaimed or, rather, re-colonized by the transnational elite.

The Congress memorial and the Xintiandi now co-exist quietly at Xingye Road; they not only symbolize the two distinct stages of China’s revolutionary/modernization course but also reveal the paradoxical continuity between them. Indeed, the current rebirth of the Congress memorial seems an architectural restatement of Elizabeth Perry’s assessment that “For better and worse, China has not yet bid farewell to revolution.”

Further readings:
For the history of the CCP First Congress Memorial published in Chinese, see
Lu Miqiang. 2002. “Yida huizhi jianguan 50 nian lishi zhi huigu.” Shanghai dangshi yu dangjian, 2002.9: 28-30.
Lu Miqiang and Zhang Jianwei. 1999. “Fengyu Xingye lu.” Shanghai dangan, 1999.1: 23-27
----. 2001. “Zhonggong yida huizhi xiushan fuyuan jishi.” Shiji, 2001.2: 8-11.
Ye Yonglie. 1991. Hongse de qidian. Shanghai: Shanghai renmin

For the expansion of the memorial in the late 1990s and how the memorial is currently received, see
Ni Xingxiang. 1999. “Xiangei Shanghai jiefang 50 zhounian: zhonggong yida huizhi jinian guan kuojian gongcheng xunli.” Dangzheng luntan, 1999.6: 20-22.
Zhao Zhengyong. 2001. “Zhanyang ‘taiyang’ shengqi de defang: Ji canguan zhonggong ‘yida’ huizhi jinianguan.” Zhibu jianshe, 2001.8: 42-43.

For a spatial and symbolic reading of the memorial in relation to the Xintiandi project, see
Liang, Samuel Y. 2008. “Amnesiac Monument, Nostalgic Fashion: Shanghai’s New Heaven and Earth,” Wasafiri, 23.3: 47-55

For an assessment of the CCP’s governance strategy and contemporary Chinese politics, see.
Perry, Elizabeth J. 2007. “Studying Chinese Politics: Farewell to Revolution?” The China Journal, 57: 1-25.


Presidential Reading Recommendations: II

By Kate Merkel-Hess

A few days ago, we ran the first installment in a feature that posed the question “What Should Obama Be Reading About China?” to prominent China watchers. While Evan Osnos at the New Yorker pondered Chinese responses to Obama’s inauguration, our contributors mulled over which five readings on China would give the new president the essential knowledge he will need to navigate one of the U.S.’s most critical relationships. Here are few more of the recommendations we’ve received this week…

Pankaj Mishra is the author of, most recently, Temptations of the West: How to Be Modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet, and Beyond and a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books.

Obama will be given plenty of briefing papers to prepare him for meetings with Chinese leaders. As a sensitive and unusually perceptive writer, who seems to possess a great deal of negative capability, he would, I suspect, enjoy reading more general and literary books about Chinese history and culture. Here is my list.

1. The Gate of Heavenly Peace, Jonathan Spence. An elegant account of the passionate and tormented men and women who made China's modern history, more accessible—for the busy president at least—than Spence's comprehensive but mammoth The Search for Modern China.

2. China Hands, James Lilley. This rather rambling and self-important memoir may seem a curious selection, but Obama ought to read at least one book that covers the history of US-China relations before and during the Cold War and, furthermore, amplifies the kind of American attitudes—personal as well as official—toward China that have no place in the twenty-first century.

3. China’s New Order, Wang Hui. In the wake of the financial collapse, the New Left’s critique of China’s uneven growth resonates more strongly than before, and reading Wang Hui’s book, the President would learn a bit about the crisis at home as well as the problems in China. He may also want to look into Wang Hui’s forthcoming collection of articles, The End of the Revolution.

4. I Love Dollars, Zhu Wen. Notwithstanding the libraries devoted to China in the West today, literary fiction by Chinese writers still offers the most penetrating insight into Chinese society's self- perceptions, and Obama could enjoyably and profitably spend some of the many hours on the flight to Beijing by reading a few stories in this excellent collection.

5. China Beat. The assortment of lucidly written and interesting articles at this website could provide the cyber-savvy Obama with a swift and painless introduction to contemporary China.

Warren I. Cohen is Emeritus Professor of History at University of Maryland, Baltimore County, an expert in U.S.-China relations, and author of East Asia at the Center and America’s Failing Empire: U.S. Foreign Relations Since the Cold War.

1. Read Warren I. Cohen's America's Response to China (4th ed.) for an overview of Chinese-American relations from colonial times to 2000 (If he can wait, the fifth edition will go to press next week).

2. Read Nancy Bernkopf Tucker’s Strait Talk (out officially next month) for a comprehensive review of the Taiwan issue since 1969—essential for understanding why the Taiwan Strait is so dangerous and what mistakes the U.S. has made in past

3. Robert Suettinger’s Beyond Tiananmen for a close analysis of U.S. policymaking from 1989 to 2000. Suettinger was on the National Security Council and gives insight into how and why the U.S. did what it did (it will be a few years before Dennis Wilder provides the equivalent for the Bush years).

4. James Mann’s China Fantasy to get past all the nonsense we've been told about the benefits of engagement.

5. Philip Pan’s Out of Mao’s Shadow for an understanding of what life in China is really like today.

Bruce Cumings is Department Chair and a Professor in the History Department at the University of Chicago. His book, Korea’s Place in the Sun (1997), remains the foremost textbook on Korean history and he is the co-author, most recently, of Inventing the Axis of Evil, as well as contributing regularly to a variety of publications.

If he just read Lin Chun's The Transformation of Chinese Socialism, I would be happy. I think it's the best book on contemporary China in many years, but some American scholars don't like it because her orientation is social democratic rather than liberal.

Still Reading Mishra...This Time on Yu Hua

Just over a year ago, in one of the first posts that appeared on this site (and one of the very first commentaries I had written for any blog), I directed readers to five short pieces worth checking out that had one thing in common: they were about China but not by China specialists per se. One was a London Review of Books essay by Pankaj Mishra, who we've gone on to link to or quote often and who will be represented in our China in 2008: A Year of Great Significance, via a commentary on Tibet that first appeared on The Guardian's lively and wide-ranging "Comment is Free" site. Now, in today's New York Times Sunday Magazine he has yet another piece likely to interest readers of this blog, which focuses mainly on the novelist Yu Hua (still best-known in the West as the author of To Live, which became a Zhang Yimou film), but features a cameo appearance by historian and "new left" cultural critic Wang Hui.

Since the LRB essay alluded to above was devoted largely to Wang Hui (a close friend of Yu Hua's), this latest publication of Mishra's (which has the catchy title of "The Bonfire of China's Vanities") can be read as a kind of more literary-minded sequel to that earlier overview of intellectuals trends in the PRC. It is also interesting for what Yu Hua has to say to Mishra about various issues "China Beat" has addressed before, from the legacy of 1989 to recent upsurges in virulent nationalism.

Readers who come away from "Bonfire of China's Vanities" wanting to know more about Yu Hua or Wang Hui might want to turn to the following readings: a New Left Review essay on Dushu, the periodical that Wang formerly edited, and this interview with Yu Hua. Better still, there are Yu Hua's fictional works. I've just begun to read around in these, starting with the widely varied tales (there's even one that plays with the convention of martial arts magical sword stories) collected in The Past and the Punishments: Eight Stories, which comes with a valuable translator's afterword by Andrew F. Jones that puts the works and the author into context. An interesting discussion of contemporary youthful nationalism to place beside the comments in Mishra's piece is this Evan Osnos New Yorker article to which we've directed readers before.


Self-Promotion Saturday: Upcoming Events

There will be three China Beat contributors participating in an upcoming conference at the University of Southern California. On January 30, Jeffrey Wasserstrom, Susan Brownell, and Kate Merkel-Hess will all be speaking at the USC Center for Public Diplomacy’s conference, “The 2008 Beijing Olympics: Public Diplomacy Triumph or Public Relations Spectacle?” In part, our participation at USC is an outgrowth of the things we have been writing at China Beat this year, as well as the content of our forthcoming volume, China in 2008: A Year of Great Significance.

There are a lot of China-related events in Southern California these days. As proof, the USC conference will be held on the same day as a fascinating-looking event across town, enormously relevant to the “What Should Obama be Reading” feature that we’ve been running (and makes some of us wish we could be in two places at once). Also on January 30, the UCLA Center for Chinese Studies will be holding “Two Systems, One World: US-China Relations under the Obama Administration.” (Since none of us will be able to make it, please get in touch if you are attending and would be willing to blog about the proceedings for China Beat.)

The USC conference will be the first of several opportunities we’ll have this spring to talk about and promote China in 2008. Though we’ll mention these again when they get closer, there will be a number of the volume’s contributors on hand at the annual Association for Asian Studies meeting, one co-editor (Jeff Wasserstrom) will be speaking in March in Shanghai and Hong Kong, while another co-editor (Kate Merkel-Hess) and contributor Susan Brownell will be participating in the Virginia Festival of the Book in Charlottesville. In case you forget to mark your calendars, have no fear…we’ll mention it again!


In Case You Missed It: Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics

A Review of Yasheng Huang's Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics: Entrepreneurship and the State (Cambridge University Press, 2008)

By Eric Setzekorn

With China’s export-centered economy looking increasingly unbalanced and unsustainable, there has been growing public support for state involvement in the interests of rural development. Yasheng Huang, of MIT’s Sloan School of Management, provides a powerful economic rationale to this emerging movement with his new book Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics. Huang argues that urban biased government policies over the past fifteen years are the cause of skewed proportions of China’s economy and have tremendously hindered stable private sector growth. Huang debunks the consensus view that China’s economy has become increasingly open to private enterprise during the thirty year of the reform period, suggesting an alternative narrative of a resurgent state sector sidelining the vibrant, sustainable and equitable development pattern of the 1980s.

Huang centers his analysis of China’s reform period on the often neglected rural economy of the 1980s, a period he dubs the “The Entrepreneurial Decade.” To Huang, the 80s pattern of rural development of private sector labor intensive production offered the possibility of a “virtuous” development based on a trajectory commonly seen in other East Asian developing nations. The beating heart of this decade’s growth is the dynamic role played by the Township and Village Enterprises (TVE), which provide both mass employment and management opportunities for poor but entrepreneurial residents. To get TVEs off the ground, aspiring entrepreneurs either pooled capital informally or were able to access official sources due to lenient credit policies encouraged by senior party leadership.

In contrast to many observers, of which Huang singles out Joseph Stiglitz as the main offender, these organizations are shown to be functionally private operations cloaking themselves in the necessary legal fiction that they are collective entities in order to register with the government. One of the recurring themes of the book is the extent to which foreign observers continue to grossly misunderstand cultural and administrative terminology and functional differences between China and other nations, in this case misunderstanding TVEs as an organizational identifier rather than merely denoting locality.

To work around the criticism that weak property rights and government policies were still relatively unfriendly to private capitalism in the 1980s Huang articulates the notion of “Directional Liberalism.” This term encapsulates his contention that faith in property rights and recognition of profits are relative concepts, and that, although the business environment in China in the 1980s was nowhere near the standard of the Washington Consensus, incremental positive changes were nevertheless sufficient to encourage hard work and risk-taking by rural individuals when judged from a pre-1978 perspective. The representative Horatio Alger figure in Huang’s narrative of this period is Nian Guangjiu, a rural entrepreneur who successfully brands his sunflower seeds as “Idiot Seeds” and quickly expands from four workers in Anhui to hundreds of employees distributing seeds across China. In 1989, Nian Guangjiu was arrested on vague charges of hooliganism and immoral relationships during the post-Tiananmen crackdown, and like Nian the initial, balanced stage of China’s reform development came to an end and the urban-centric 1990s began.

Where the story of the 1980s was fundamentally about the rural private-sector, the following decade was dominated by a shift to capital-intensive, state-directed urban development described in the chapter titled “The Great Reversal.” It is in the analysis of the 1990s where Huang significantly deviates from conventional narratives of China’s private sector growth, which focus on the private sector’s increasing share of output rather than his preferred method: using measures of capital inputs to determine the policy environment. Per Huang’s interpretation, fears that the economy is moving outside the control of the party’s leadership led the state to increase its role in the setting of investment priorities, for example by shoring up SOEs, building urban infrastructure, and initiating national prestige projects.

This policy shift reflected the post-1989 leadership transition, which saw pragmatic, patient reformers with experience in rural areas replaced by a bevy of Shanghai technocrats and risk-averse party apparatchiks. The result was a steady squeezing of entrepreneurs through more restrictive government regulations and tighter macro-economic policy controls which limited private access to credit. As a consequence of this gradual restricting of opportunity in the countryside, the rural population became a pool of cheap, migrant labor rather than potential entrepreneurs. Locked out of asset appreciation and forced to rely only on unskilled labor positions to supplement their income, rural residents net income growth rates plummeted both in absolute terms and relative to urban households.

The end result of this statist investment bias was the rapid but hollow development of showroom cities, which Huang pointedly skewers in the final substantive chapter “What is Wrong with Shanghai?” In chart after chart, Huang successfully makes the case that the development of Shanghai into a world-class city that receives global praise for its infrastructure and breathtaking development has harmed China’s real economic growth trajectory. Huang’s list of Shanghai’s failings is long and angry: income levels that have failed to match the rapid ascent of per capita GDP, income inequality that has continually widened since the late 1980s, a private sector starved for capital, incredible corruption in land development and infrastructure projects, a bloated, greedy government.

In summing up the city Huang writes “Shanghai represents the political triumph of the Latin American path, anchored on the prominence of statist interventions, huge urban biases, and distorted liberalism in favor of FDI at the expense of indigenous entrepreneurship. Shanghai, as the world’s most successful Potemkin metropolis, is both the sign of and the culprit for what is structurally ailing the Chinese economy today.”(230-231)

As with most works on economics, it is sometimes difficult to bridge the massive gap between common and specialized knowledge, but aside from several paragraphs groaning with statistics Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics should be readable (barely) by a general audience. The genuine outrage at what Huang feels to be an unjust and unbalanced pattern of development gives the work a passion most political economy works lack, although his depiction of some well-respected economists such as David Dollar of the World Bank can be overly harsh. Overall, the conclusions Huang arrives at are cogent and convincing; the 1980s were a vibrant era whose lessons have been ignored; China has significantly deviated from the East Asian model into a Latin American style economy; and although capitalism in China has deeper roots today than in the 1980s, the fruits of development are increasingly falling into the hands of the state or the rich.

In the midst of this depressing account, Huang seems optimistic about China’s future. He approves of the policy initiatives of the Hu-Wen government although he is unsure whether their rhetoric to re-balance and improve the livelihood of poor and rural Chinese will overcome entrenched interests. In this respect I think some of Huang’s optimism is misplaced. The recent Chinese economic stimulus package continues to favor capital intensive government industries like steel that produce prestige goods for the leadership--such as Olympic stadiums and potentially aircraft carriers--rather than rural education or healthcare. In the midst of a turbulent global economy Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics should, and judging by the initial response will make economists and policy makers pause to consider how China got into its current situation and what its proper economic objectives should be.


Hollywood, Bollywood, and Kung Fu Fighting

By Angilee Shah

Akshay Kumar's last trip west was in the 2007 Bollywood hit Namastey London. He played the provincial but lovable Punjabi boy, Arjun, who eventually won the heart of the British Indian leading lady with his desi values and pride. The movie did very well overseas, making a particular impact in the U.K. and U.S.

Less than two years later, Kumar’s globetrotting is taking a different turn. This time, Kumar's road west goes through China. Warner Bros. co-produced its first Hindi film, Chandni Chowk to China, and released it to 131 theaters in the U.S. and Canada on January 16. The story is similar to that in Namastey. Kumar plays a silly and superstitious vegetable cutter from the famous Delhi market, Sidhu, who wins the heart of the glamorous heroine Sakhi (Deepika Padukone who made her debut in Om Shanti Om), except this time he does it by learning kung fu.

Gordon Liu, most famous for his role as a martial arts monk in 36 Chambers of Shaolin, is cast as the villain, Hojo, a vicious boss who terrorizes a village by killing people with his hat. The villagers believe that Sidhu is the reincarnation of the mythological warrior Liu Sheng, and bring him to China to battle Hojo. At the same time, Sakhi discovers that Hojo abducted her long-lost twin sister, Meow Meow (also played by Padukone), and that her Chinese father, who becomes Sidhu's kung fu master, is still alive. In short, the plot is an indulgent combination of every slapstick storyline screenwriter Shridhar Raghavan and producer Ramesh Sippy could think of.

But plot is not really the driving force for the 168-minute comedy. CC2C -- Bollywood fans lovingly abbreviate the titles of movies -- capitalizes on a growing interest in the over-the-top drama and dance of Bollywood and the universal truth that every great movie has a kung fu training sequence. But the potential for disaster was huge. For how often India and China are put together in sentences about globalization and growing economies, most people in both countries know surprisingly little about each others' lives. So far, India's most significant pop culture connection with China is gobi manchurian, the ubiquitous Chinese dish of India that isn't actually Chinese. So the fact that the CC2C movie poster -- which was created before the film -- features Kumar wearing a straw paddy field hat in front of a rising red sun did not bode well for China enthusiasts looking for a new perspective on the far far east. CC2C is Bollywood's first foray into China, but it is not a deep reflection on Chinese-Indian relations. Moviegoers who approach it that way won't enjoy CC2C any more than they would gobi manchurian.

Still, CC2C paints a decent portrait of Indian people's day-to-day relationship with their East Asian neighbors: Martial arts are cool, China makes a lot of electronic goods (in this film, they mass produce translating earpieces and flying umbrellas) and the Great Wall is a really big tourist attraction. Then it digs a bit deeper, calling on Wong Kar-Wai-esque Hong Kong glamour (which could be an excuse to put Padukone in a qipao) and creating the Bollywood version of a Forbidden City mega-scene. And for all of the film's unabashed stereotyping of Chinese villagers and kung fu masters, it is surprisingly not insulting. Even Sidhu is a parody, with his pencil thin mustache and devotion to a potato that looks like the Hindu god Ganesha, and, though there is a character named Chopsticks (Ranvir Shorey), he is an Indian guru hack. CC2C is self-aware of its absurdity, which makes its absurdity forgivable. And often very entertaining, even if it is predictable and long-winded. (For the abridged version, see the CC2C YouTube channel).

CC2C had a disappointing $650,000 opening in North America; Kumar's last film released here, Singh is Kinng, took in $1 million, perhaps owing to the movie's repetitive but catchy title tune, a surprising East-West rap collaboration. Notwithstanding the spectacle of Bollywood going to China, maybe the best way west is still through Snoop Dogg.


A Few Readings around the Web This Week…

1. Rebecca MacKinnon yesterday posted a marvelous wrap-up of Charter 08, with many links included. We usually use a rather light touch with these recommendations, but this time…head on over. If you read one thing on China today, it should be this.

2. To follow up, there are a few related readings that are worth a jump, early writings by some of the figures MacKinnon mentions in her piece: “That Holy Word, ‘Revolution’” by Liu Xiaobo, and “Thirsty Dragon at the Olympics” by Dai Qing. For another take on Charter 08, check out the piece we ran at China Beat by Jeremy Paltiel last month.

3. For other quality reading around the web this week, you might check out the newly relaunched Sino-Japanese Studies. Browsers may find the archives, with links to full-text articles, particularly appealing.

4. Regular China Beat readers will recognize Geremie Barme’s name. At ArtAsiaPacific this month in a piece titled “Shock of the Obvious,” Barme reflects on the changes in the Chinese art world since the publication’s debut fifteen years ago:

In 1993, the centenary of Mao Zedong’s birth, the chi-chi Beijing eatery Maxim’s de Paris organized a celebratory buffet for 200. The invitations bore the slogan “Long live Chairman Mao!” and patrons were requested to wear Mao suits. The restaurant was decked out with pictures of the chairman and Cultural Revolution posters. While the food was European haute cuisine, the evening’s entertainment featured an excerpt from The White-Haired Girl, a showcase production of the Maoist era…

5. And finally, here are a few oldies but perhaps new-to-you, in case you have a hankering for book reviews: the book review section at Modern Chinese Literature and Culture and a site of reviews and essays maintained by the Chinese history graduate students at UCSD. Both are well worth some browsing.

Remembering John DeFrancis

When John DeFrancis died, we invited FOB (friend of the blog) David Moser to write this piece, drawing on his background in Chinese studies and comparative linguistics. Moser holds a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan and is Academic Director of the CET Beijing Chinese Studies program. He was a contributor to a compilation dedicated to DeFrancis entitled Schriftfestschrift: Essays in Honor of John DeFrancis on His Eightieth Birthday.

By David Moser

Legendary sinologist, linguist and educator John DeFrancis passed away on January 2, 2009 at the age of 97.

For any student of the Chinese language and writing system working in the latter part of the twentieth century, DeFrancis was simply a titan. Prior to his arrival on the scene, major China scholars researching the Chinese script, such as Bernard Karlgren, Arthur Waley and Herbert Giles, tended to communicate mainly with other experts, while the popular press, under the spell of figures such as Ezra Pound and Ernest Fenollosa, reinforced notions of the Chinese script as exotic, ineffable, mystical or even – pardon the term – inscrutable. After a century of confusing myths and sheer nonsense promulgated about the Chinese characters (some of it occasionally produced by even the above-mentioned scholars), DeFrancis appeared and changed everything by producing a steady stream of invaluable books and articles that presented the facts about the Chinese writing system in a clear and coherent fashion for specialists and lay readers alike.

The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy (1984—still in print) is an explanatory marvel that still holds up perfectly. If you are currently studying Chinese and have not read this book, go get it instantly. Amazingly lucid and informative, it is still without a doubt the best source for understanding all the various linguistic, historical, cultural and pedagogical aspects of the Chinese characters. After decades of researching and teaching the Chinese language and script, DeFrancis was well aware of how easy it is for even well-meaning scholars to make simplistic or misleading claims about the Chinese writing system. He knew that, confronted with the labyrinth of faulty assumptions and stereotypes, a true understanding of Chinese writing required the utmost clarity and focus of mind.

In a passage teasing apart the key concepts of “language,” “speech” and “writing,” DeFrancis writes:

Authors who are clear in their own minds about the range of meanings involved in these terms are usually careful in their use of specific terminology. Careful readers of such authors are likely to obtain a clear understanding of what is being said. But confused and careless writers, and careless readers of such writers (and of careful authors as well), can create a cloud of misunderstanding. This has indeed happened to Chinese on a scale that appears to exceed that for any other form of human communication.” (The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy, p. 40)
DeFrancis succeeded in dispersing this cloud of misunderstanding once and for all. It was George Orwell who said “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” I, along with many intrepid students of Chinese in the 1980s, spent countless hours staring at characters just a few inches from my nose, but was not able to truly fathom their nature until I read the DeFrancis book. I had been told by friends and informants – Chinese and Western alike – that Taiwan school kids can read Confucius in the way we could read Shakespeare; that speakers of Cantonese speak exactly the “same” Chinese as Mandarin speakers, only with a different pronunciation for each character; that the average Chinese “knows” about 5,000 (or 8,000 or 10,000) characters; that each character is a picture of something; that each character is mysteriously imbued with more semantic meanings than English words; that pinyin could be used for learning the sounds of Chinese, but Chinese could never be represented adequately by using an alphabetic system; and so on.

Fact and Fantasy debunks all these diehard notions by providing the reader with the clearest, most conceptually nuanced explanation of the Chinese writing system ever put into print. Given the esoteric linguistic nature of the subject matter, the book is a remarkably easy read, exhaustively thorough and precise without being geeky. I always recommend the book to my students (including Chinese students; as evidence for the Orwell observation, Chinese people are not born with a clear functional understanding of the characters they use every day), and each time I dip into it, I appreciate again how DeFrancis was able to demystify the Chinese writing system while at the same time not diminishing a certain awe for its complexity and cultural uniqueness.

Which is not to say DeFrancis was a defender of their continued use. Ever a beady-eyed pragmatist, DeFrancis was very much in the camp of language reformers such as Lu Xun, who called for the abolition of the characters in favor of an alphabetic system. Indeed, Peter Hessler reports in his book Oracle Bones that Mao Zedong’s botched plan to eradicate the Chinese characters (Mao called for the development of a Chinese alphabet instead of simply adopting the Roman alphabet) infuriated DeFrancis so much that he refused to return to China for 49 years.

DeFrancis was also one of the most influential language educators of his time. Students of Chinese today, who swim in a world of Internet sites, podcasts, interactive multi-media CD-ROMs, hand-held translation and dictionary gadgets, and a plethora of time-tested paper-and-ink textbooks at all levels, are perhaps to be forgiven if they do not appreciate the importance of DeFrancis’ monumental twelve-volume series of Mandarin teaching texts published by Yale University Press, commonly referred to simply as “the DeFrancis series.” During the 1970s and 80s there was nothing else comparable in the field of Chinese textbooks, and many ambitious students of Chinese cut their teeth on this magnum opus.

Part of the reason for the series’ sheer heft (of which I was acutely aware, having lugged it from apartment to apartment during my years of study) was precisely because in those pre-Internet days there was a relative lack of other Chinese-language resources, and so this method was designed to be quite self-contained. There were so many practice drills that one could – and many did – go through it without a teacher. Perusing the series now, one is struck by the out-dated usages and quaint formality required by the times (DeFrancis was in the midst of revising the text when he died). Still, what emerges from the structure is a reminder that language is not just words and grammar rules, but patterns. In the DeFrancis method, each new linguistic pattern was introduced, placed in varying contexts, and then woven seamlessly into the fabric of structures one had already acquired. In this sense, it was more than just a Chinese textbook; with its logical pacing and cumulative philosophy, it was effectively a cognitive model of how to go about mastering any language. And its effect on a generation of scholars is indisputable.

Active well into his 90s, DeFrancis’s last great gift to the field of Chinese language study was the ABC Dictionary, a phenomenally useful reference tool that I call on nearly every day. (In fact, I had just consulted this dictionary a few minutes before I read the email from a colleague informing me of DeFrancis’s death.) Funded in part by DeFrancis’s own money, the ABC Dictionary project filled a longstanding gap in Sinology, providing readers with lexical items arranged completely alphabetically by pinyin, thus avoiding the problem of “Which Graph is it, Anyway?” when confronted with a new term in a spoken context. You simply don’t know how useful this arrangement is until you start using it. The work bears all the hallmarks of DeFrancis’s output; it is clear, concise, rigorous, and academically invaluable. It also addresses a problem that was always right there – in front of everyone’s nose – but it took John DeFrancis to notice it and address it in his inimitable way.

For further information on John DeFrancis’s life and work, see this special memorial site, his Wikipedia entry, the New York Times obituary, or the brief, impassioned tribute by Andrew Leonard of Salon.


Presidential Reading Recommendations

By Kate Merkel-Hess

There are many people just now wondering what Barack Obama’s China policy will look like, and many eager to advise him. For instance, the National Bureau of Asian Research’s journal, Asia Policy, has published a lengthy roundtable that does just that. I was curious too—what would a learned group of distinguished China watchers, including academics, journalists, and public intellectuals, propose as the new President’s information sources? Here was the note I sent out:

The United States has a new President who seems intellectually curious, will definitely have to deal with many issues relating to China, and is likely to take a trip to Beijing before too long. Imagine that you have just been told that he wants you to send him (via his Blackberry, of course) a list of five things you think he should read to help him formulate policies relating to China and/or prepare to go there on a state visit. He'd also like you to give just a sentence or two of explanation for each item, justifying its inclusion on your list, and he wants you to be clear that you can choose books, articles or online pieces as readings, and that they can be old or new. What would you write?
Over the next few weeks, I'll be running the answers China Beat receives. I hope some of them will be inspirations for further inquiry and reading, for you and for (fingers crossed) President Obama. Here is the first installment…

Ezra Vogel is Henry Ford II Research Professor of the Social Sciences, Emeritus at Harvard University, where he has taught since 1964. From 1993 to 1995, Vogel served as National Intelligence Officer for East Asia at the National Intelligence Council. His publications include Japan as Number One: Lessons for America as well as numerous other books and articles on China, Japan, and East Asia.
1. Qian Qichen, Ten Episodes in China's Diplomacy. A readable authoritative account by China's leading diplomat of recent decades of China's diplomacy.

2. Bob Suettinger, Beyond Tiananmen: The Politics of US-China Relations, 1989-2000. Authoritative account by leading U.S. government official.

3. Patrick Tyler, A Great Wall: Six Presidents and China.

4. Bill Overholt, The Rise of China. Instructive account of China's economic rise, though outdated.

5. Sections in books by Jimmy Carter, Kissinger, Zbrezinski on their contacts with China.

6. Recent speeches by Stapleton Roy, former ambassador to China (whose brother David Roy is a professor at U of Chicago). [Editor’s Note. Here are few links to recent speeches by Stapleton Roy: At National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, 2005; At Center for American Progress, 2008; and see video below.]

Edward Friedman is professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His publications include Chinese Village, Socialist State and What If China Doesn’t Democratize?

1. I would want the new president to understand how the CCP regime has taken on the role of enemy of the spread of human rights and therefore urge him to read Ann Kent's new book on the topic [Ed note: Beyond Compliance: China, International Organizations, and Global Security]. But I'd also want the new president to reverse the Bush policy of walking away from the U.N. Human Rights Council which now highlights social and economic rights rather than civil, political and religious rights. The U.S. should be a leader of the cause of all of these rights treated as part of a single agenda, including labor rights, women, indigenous people, and development. This would be change the world could believe in.

2. Second, I would want the president to understand the dog-eat-dog nature of Chinese life combined with the great broadening of personal freedom within an unaccountable, corrupt and cruel party-state. There are numerous books which could clarify these domestic Chinese realities, including novels. I prefer John Pomfret's Chinese Lessons. It makes vivid the entrepreneurial frenzy that creates the China price which facilitates China's global competitiveness.

3, 4. Third, I want the new president to cooperate with, deeply engage and even accommodate China (e.g. welcome it to rule-making bodies such as the G-8 in return for China bearing more of the global economic burden) but to do so understanding how Chinese politics infuses Chinese foreign policy with explosive possibilities since the traumas of 1989-91 which led to the purge of liberal reformers and the entrenchment of dangerous left conservatives, the military and security forces. Two books which capture this politics are Susan Shirk, China: Fragile Superpower, and Robert Suettinger, Beyond Tiananmen. These books also reveal how Chinese domestic political forces contain nasty tendencies which can be dangerous to peace and to fundamental American interests and values. There is too much wishful thinking by analysts who are predicting China's democratization tomorrow and its peaceful integration with the norms of the industrialized democracies globally the day before that. This is silly. Chinese leaders see China as a moral pole which has as much right as America to be its own global superpower, but serving Chinese interests.

5. Finally, for a president who cares about energy and the environment, I'd have him read, as a fifth book, Elizabeth Economy, The River Runs Black, which makes clear the ecological degradation and human cost of the CCP's growth path. In short, I would want the president to have a positive agenda in approaching China, but to be without illusions about the nature of the Chinese system because the Beijing-Washington relationship decisively impacts what kind of a world will be left to future generations.

Dr. Kerry Brown is a senior fellow on the Asia Programme at Chatham House (the Royal Institute of Institutional Affairs, an international affairs think-tank). Brown writes widely on China, from briefing papers published by Chatham House (such as “Thirty Years On – China Celebrates the Reform Process”) to regular pieces for openDemocracy (such as his recent “China in 2009: a year for surprise”) and book reviews at Asian Review of Books.

1. The River Runs Black, by Elizabeth Economy. It sets out, in the starkest terms, the environmental price China has paid for its economic model, the mess it is in dealing with this, and why this is not now just China's problem – but the world's too.

2. Will the Boat Sink the Water: The Life of China's Peasants, by Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao – banned in China, a no-holds barred account of the suffering of China's 750 million farmers at the hands of corrupt officials and central government policy making. A reminder of how China still relies on its agriculture sector, and of how much poverty there is in this new superpower

3. China Into the Future, edited by John Hoffman and Michael Enright – Excellent collection of essays on every aspect of China as it moves into the next decade. Tony Saitch's piece on the demographic time bomb (ageing, and gender imbalance) is particularly sobering. As he said, “China will be the first country in history to grow old before it grows rich, and poison itself before it gets rich.”

4. China at the Crossroads by Peter Nolan - a brilliant account, by one of the most knowledgeable economists now operating in the UK, on the key issues facing China in the next decades – from its economic challenges, to its problematic integration into the global economy.

5. Struggling Giant: China in the 21st Century, by, alas, me! Very brief book, which sets out the characteristics of China now, and looks at the options for what it might be, negative and positive, by 2028.

I'll keep posting recommendations as they arrive...


China Beat: A Reintroduction

China Beat has just celebrated its one-year anniversary, and while a few of you have been with us since the beginning, the majority of our readers have tuned in somewhere along the way. For that reason, we thought it might be worth a little recap of who China Beat is and what we are about. In the spirit of brevity (of sorts), let’s do it as a top-five list…

1. China Beat is based in the U.S. (in Irvine, California, specifically) and while many of our contributors also hail from the United States, we also regularly publish pieces by writers based in China (like Zhang Lijia’s discussion of China’s death penalty), Australia (such as Geremie Barme’s interview about the torch relay), Taiwan (see Paul Katz’s regular blogging for “Tales from Taiwan”), Vietnam (see, for instance, Caroline Finlay’s piece on Vietnamese protests of the torch relay), Japan (such as James Farrer’s analysis of Japanese media coverage of the Olympics) , Canada (like David Luesink on the similarities between the Olympic preparations in Beijing and Vancouver) , New Zealand (like Paola Voici’s piece on “Big and Small Nationalisms”), Britain (Rob Gifford on Beijing architecture), and Israel (Shakhar Rahav’s piece on Olympic celebrations in Israel).

2. Uniquely for a blog, we draw on a wide and ever-changing group of contributors that range in background and expertise. We have published pieces by academics from graduate students in their first few years of study (for instance, Xia Shi, who wrote about the history of the Terracotta warriors) to university professors (the co-founders of the blog, Jeffrey Wasserstrom and Ken Pomeranz, are both faculty members in the history department at the University of California, Irvine) to the chancellor of a university (Daniel Little at University of Michigan-Dearborn, who wrote memorials for two scholars who passed away this year, Charles Tilly and Bill Skinner). We also regularly incorporate the works of journalists (such as James Miles on the Tibet riots), non-fiction writers (like Peter Hessler), and even a mystery novelist.

3. While we run a lot of book reviews and reflections on media coverage of China, we have also published historical pieces (see Ed Jocelyn’s narration of the late General Xiao Ke’s life), book excerpts (such as a selection from Robert Kapp’s foreword to the reprint of Graham Peck’s Two Kinds of Time), to movie reviews (like Angilee Shah’s report on a documentary about the school collapses in Sichuan or Matthew Johnson’s analysis of Lust, Caution), environmental writing (like Alex Pasternack on the new train to Tibet), and cultural analysis (such as Charles Hayford’s reflections on Wikipedia and Chinese history, Micki McCoy and Kelly Hammond’s discussion of a Pepsi commercial filmed in a Xinjiang sports stadium, and Hongmei Li’s examination of Chinese femininity and gender expectations).

4. While we’re definitely heavy on the print format, contributor (and Stanford prof) Tom Mullaney has also been experimenting with podcasts under the feature “China on My Mind.”

5. As those of you who’ve been reading regularly have already heard (and heard, and heard…!), we’ve got a book based on the blog coming out in March, China in 2008: A Year of Great Significance (if you follow that link, you’ll find that Amazon appears to be listing the hardcover price for the paperback edition….It’s $26.95 from Rowman & Littlefield). However, one of the things we haven’t told you yet is that Jonathan Spence is writing the foreword for the book--yet one more thing about the book that has us looking forward to sharing it with you!


In Case You Missed It: Cape No. 7

By Peter Zarrow

Cape No. 7” (海角七號) is an energetic bon-bon of a film that is Taiwan’s official entry for the Oscars this year, in the “best foreign film” category. Who was it who first compared a certain type of movie to the bon-bon? The Taiwanese film sensation “Cape No. 7” fits the description perfectly. Light romantic comedy with an edge of tragic love lost. And above all, let’s all rock together—Hoklo, aborigines, young and old, Japanese—even an energetic Hakka!—invited into the mix. Not a corrupt politician or political judge in sight. The film even had, now that I’m thinking of confectionary, an otherwise completely pointless set of cute triplets for the frosting.

I like bon-bons as much as anyone, and while not a great film, “Cape No. 7” is a perfectly fine two-plus hours of entertainment with a number of very witty jokes. I laughed, I wept, I thought of Oscar Wilde (One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing), which wasn’t really apropos but still came to mind. My inner curmudgeon was summoned forth, as is perhaps increasingly the case with age. Other reasons will appear below.

The plot, in brief: Aga阿嘉, wannabe Taipei rock star, returns home to Hengchun and becomes a postman. Meanwhile, his stepfather, a town councilman, forces a local hotel that is putting together a big rock concert to use local talent to open the show. Slowly, a band is put together, led by Aga, and even more slowly an attraction develops between Aga and Tomoko 友子, the Mandarin-speaking Japanese given the job of putting the band together. Aga is not exactly a prize specimen (lazy on his postal route as well as moody pretty much all the time) but his pout is so cool that he can do anything. Tomoko is actually more interesting and makes things happen. In an undeliverable package, Aga discovers letters originally written in 1945 by a Japanese teacher to his Taiwanese lover, also named Tomoko. Narration of these letters provides a tragic wrap-around story—a small sour plum in the middle of the bon-bon.

Bloggers and critics have complained about the wrap-around, which does seem a little forced and completely irrelevant till the end of the film. But the film would have been no less sentimental and even more arbitrary without it. The sixty-year-old love story not only has a certain gravitas but links “Cape No. 7” with Taiwanese memory and a set of films that touches on the Japanese colonial experience. Furthermore, the wrap-around story does lead to the climax of the film, when Aga finally actually does something, and he and Tomoko declare their love in front of the concert’s fans, who were enthusiastic although, strangely, not one of whom looked stoned.

The question I then ask, is how this pleasant but inconsequential film became the country’s most successful box office, within three months of its release last August the second top grossing film here ever (after only “Titanic”). And this mostly by word of mouth, without a great marketing budget. In December, “Cape No. 7” won several Golden Horse awards (Taiwan’s Oscars for Chinese-language films). And it has launched or revived several careers.

Sociologically, the question can only be asked with prejudice, for it brackets the issue of aesthetic worth. Some of the film’s popularity might have reflected the attraction of recognition. There are actors themselves—pop stars and walk-ons by a few winners from the “Taiwanese Idol”-type TV shows. Plus the sheer range provided by local yueqin (月琴) master Lin Zongren 林宗仁 and J-pop star Kousuke Atari 中孝介. There are Taiwanese social types to identify with, particularly disaffected (but not too disaffected) youth, and the obnoxious but sad entrepreneurs just trying to get what’s theirs. Not to mention the one falling-down drunk obligatory at every wedding. There is certainly the music, mostly contemporary pop but also various folk music and even a climatic Guomindang-era song once learned by every school kid. Finally, there is the geography, such as the beaches of Kenting—the film literally begins with the hero, disgusted and disappointed, heading out of big ugly Taipei. Thus we can spend the next two hours in more bucolic surroundings—emerald isle rice fields and the broad ocean, to which both our tormented hero and his very untormented stepfather turn for comfort. And the number of clear-sky rainbows is simply surreal. I originally had hopes of that stepfather, a rude and pushy city councilman who could have made a good villain. However, he turned out just to be a lovable—crude but well-meaning—local town booster.

The question of identity does have a political side as well. It is no accident that the plot revolves around the growing friendship of people from different backgrounds and two Japanese-Taiwanese love affairs. A bunch of racially mixed foreign models appears at the beginning of the film but they promptly disappear. Still, they perhaps make a point about Taiwan’s cosmopolitan nature—that the real Taiwan is a product of its own peoples.

I think even more of the success of the movie came from its insidious flattery of its audience. There is not the slightest hint of social criticism. Even the hotels that monopolize the very limited shoreline are just a part of the condition that is, after all, necessary for us all to make beautiful music together. So perish the thought they might be a despoiling presence. Granted, bon-bons are not supposed to deconstruct the problems of society, but for “Cape No. 7” it is as if there is no larger society at all. This is notwithstanding the somewhat grim Guomindang soldiers who appear at briefly the reprisal of the parting of the lovers in 1945—but that’s long, long ago and even far, far away (perhaps Gaoxiong).

This brings me to a final point. By the Hollywood standards of “romantic comedy” there is rather a lot of tragedy and mishap. A film without a good deal of sadness would surely feel incomplete or somehow just wrong in Taiwan. But as long as the film-makers avoid virtually any hint that there might be something wrong with contemporary Taiwan, tragic elements remain sentimental indulgence. The wrap-around story of the 1945 separation of the Japanese teacher and his Taiwanese lover—that small sour plum in the rock’n’roll bon-bon—reminds us just a bit of the cruelties of the colonial period, but even more speaks of reconciliation, now that Aga has his new Tomoko. The West is irrelevant. The Mainland isn’t helpful, as the 1945 shot of the parting lovers, framed with the Guomindang slogan “The Recovery of Taiwan,” makes clear. The slogan seems either ironic, from the point of view of Taiwanese separated from Japanese friends, or just irrelevant, from the point of view of the younger generation.

It has been professionally predicted (“Variety,” Nov. 7, 2008) that “Cape No. 7” will not do so well in the West. But it would be interesting to see how it plays in China—if it ever does. It was originally slated to become the first Taiwanese film allowed in for over a decade, but recent news reports suggest that censors have had a rethink. I wonder if they are having trouble with that small sour plum, or with the Taiwanese bon-bon itself.