Wednesday, December 29, 2010

A Nation of Wusses

The pace in which structures get built in China is staggering. Xi'an markedly changed in the three and a half years I lived there. I would often leave the city for a few days, come back, and be amazed to see a new building erected or road paved in the time I was gone.

This following viral video (h/t @elliotng) really captures what I'm talking about. The video is of a hotel in Changsha, the provincial capital of Hunan Province, being built in two days (literally):

This is an eye-opening video. It fits in nicely with a popular meme in the US right now: that the US is a "nation of wusses" and that China is "kicking our butts."

Last night, I hung out with Qian, my brother, and my roommate from college at our apartment. We watched the Sunday night NFL game of the week on a Tuesday night. The game in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania between the Eagles and Vikings had been pushed from Sunday night to Tuesday night because of snow.

Pennsylvania's governor, Ed Rendell, had a lot to say about the NFL delaying a football game because of bad weather:
"My biggest beef is that this is part of what's happened in this country," Rendell said in an interview on 97.5 radio in Philly. "I think we've become wussies. ... We've become a nation of wusses. The Chinese are kicking our butt in everything. If this was in China do you think the Chinese would have called off the game? People would have been marching down to the stadium, they would have walked and they would have been doing calculus on the way down."
This is a rather bombastic statement from Rendell. My old roommate from college, who lives in DC, commented that Rendell is notorious in political circles for bloviating and loves to hear the sound of his own voice.

I don't think Rendell's words are all that accurate.

Chinese people often get very worked up about weather. From my experiences of living in the middle of the US and the middle of China, Americans are not wusses when it comes to weather and braving the elements. While I get what Rendell was going for, he's off base.

First, domestic sports leagues are just not that popular and don't hold the same value in Chinese society as they do in the US. There is no comparison in China for something like an NFL night game in Philadelphia. And second, Chinese people would not pay boat loads of money to voluntarily sit in mind-numbingly hostile conditions to watch sports. I don't see any city in China packing 60,000+ people into a stadium to watch a sporting event in a blizzard.

All that said, the rapid development in China and the US' economic sluggishness scares a lot of Americans. The video above is a beautiful portrait of what the US is envious of China for. We pride ourselves on being hardworking and industrious. Seeing a different country beat us at our own game (and Communist China of all places) stirs up great emotion. I sense nostalgia for the way things were in the US post-WWII both in the media and in daily interaction with family and friends. I think Rendell is grasping for those "good old days" when the US was the economic engine of the world in his comments from the other day.

Things have changed. I don't see those heady industrialist days ever coming back to the US. That's a difficult pill for many Americans to swallow. But even if those days are gone forever, I don't think the US is done for as a country or an economic powerhouse. Although frustratingly sluggish, the US economy continues to churn. We went close to the brink, but did not collapse. We, as a nation, need to adjust our priorities, expectations, and, most importantly, education system. Wusses we are not, though.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Merry Christmas

The Christmas season is upon us. Qian, my parents and brother, and I saw a performance of "The Christmas Carol" at the Kansas City Repertory Theater last night. I have quite a Christmas buzz going on after seeing that. This is a truly special time of year.

My brother is back in town (and the US) for the first time in a year and a half. It's been great seeing him. I have several family events in the next few days. In addition to the more Christmas-y stuff, I'm going to Arrowhead Stadium on Sunday to cheer on the division leading Kansas City Chiefs vs. the Tennessee Titans.

I want to thank the readers who continue to frequent this blog. I'm going to try to keep it going even though I'm no longer in China. I'm still having a fun time and hope to continue blogging indefinitely.

This picture below - from our trip in July to Chicago - is what we would send if Qian and I were ones to send out Christmas cards:

Photo edited out

Merry Christmas to all.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Ant Tribes

It is a terrible time to be a fresh college graduate looking for a job. Even in China.

I'm going to highlight three pieces in the western media on "ant tribes" (蚁族), the term referring to the millions of college-educated young Chinese people looking for work, that I've seen in recent days.

First, an article from The New York Times:

Photo from Newsweek (see below)

BEIJING — Liu Yang, a coal miner’s daughter, arrived in the capital this past summer with a freshly printed diploma from Datong University, $140 in her wallet and an air of invincibility.

Her first taste of reality came later the same day, as she lugged her bags through a ramshackle neighborhood, not far from the Olympic Village, where tens of thousands of other young strivers cram four to a room.

Unable to find a bed and unimpressed by the rabbit warren of slapdash buildings, Ms. Liu scowled as the smell of trash wafted up around her. “Beijing isn’t like this in the movies,” she said.

Often the first from their families to finish even high school, ambitious graduates like Ms. Liu are part of an unprecedented wave of young people all around China who were supposed to move the country’s labor-dependent economy toward a white-collar future. In 1998, when Jiang Zemin, then the president, announced plans to bolster higher education, Chinese universities and colleges produced 830,000 graduates a year. Last May, that number was more than six million and rising.

It is a remarkable achievement, yet for a government fixated on stability such figures are also a cause for concern. The economy, despite its robust growth, does not generate enough good professional jobs to absorb the influx of highly educated young adults. And many of them bear the inflated expectations of their parents, who emptied their bank accounts to buy them the good life that a higher education is presumed to guarantee.

“College essentially provided them with nothing,” said Zhang Ming, a political scientist and vocal critic of China’s education system. “For many young graduates, it’s all about survival. If there was ever an economic crisis, they could be a source of instability."

Read the Entire Article
Here is a short video from the author of the article:

Several of my Chinese friends and colleagues from Xi'an had jobs similar to the ones described in this piece. Salaries of around 1,500RMB (or about $220) a month or less. Shared living quarters in "city villages" (城中村), cramped and inexpensive areas of cities with very low-rent units. Few prospects for upward mobility.

The job situation for college educated youths in China are, in many ways, just as bad as they are for young people in the US.

I'm pretty sure most Americans attribute employment problems to the sluggish US economy. But China's "ant tribes" suggest that the problem is not only because of slow growth. Even booming countries have this problem for young people right now.

This afternoon after work (I'm so thankful to not be part of the US' "ant tribe" right now), I heard a story on NPR about life inside of Foxconn's factory in Shenzhen:
Foxconn, the Taiwanese company that manufactures iPhones and iPads, was in the news this year as more than a dozen factory workers leaped to their deaths. NPR's Melissa Block talks with Bloomberg Businessweek reporter Frederik Balfour, who spent time at the Foxconn plant in Shenzhen, China, about what the company's response has been, and how effective it's been.
You can download the audio of this story here.

The story of suicides at Foxconn's factory in Shenzhen from earlier this year were a symbol of a larger problem in Chinese society. Young people living far away from their families, insanely long hours, and a low tolerance for mistakes are among the many pressures involved with factory life in China. It goes without saying, but the lives of those on the ground floor of the Chinese "economic miracle" are arduous in a way that is impossible for many western people to imagine.

And lastly, Newsweek has a photo gallery of ant tribes in Beijing. The photo above on the New York Times story is from this collection. The photos below are too. All of them are really well done:

It's not easy being a young person looking for work anywhere in the world right now. Expectations across the globe are as high as they've ever been. Young Chinese people want a piece of big city life and the riches millions are beginning to reap. They have an opportunity that their parents did not have. Unfortunately, it seems that higher education, the path most often prescribed to "get ahead," is not a guarantee of financial success, though.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Good Women of China

Leslie T. Chang writes about the lives of the young women working in factories in her book, Factory Girls. I thought some of the most interesting parts of that book were when Chang spoke with the host of a radio show in Dongguan that the young factory girls called into with their problems. It's not hard to imagine the issues women from farms in interior provinces have once they enter factory life in a coastal megalopolitan Chinese city.

When looking for more books to read on China recently on, I saw a book written by a radio host of a women's talk show from Nanjing - The Good Women of China: Hidden Voices by Xin Ran. Seeing how much I took from Chang's interviews with the host in her book, I gave Xin's book a chance.

Xin Ran was the host of the first call in radio show for women in China with her program in the early 1990s. She was wildly popular. Women from all over China, not just Nanjing and the surrounding Jiangsu Province, were drawn to her. Women of all ages and from all walks of life poured their hearts out to Xin both on her radio program and through mail.

Xin paints several vignettes in her book: a liberalized university student speaking openly of sexual promiscuity, a beggar, a lesbian, women who survived the Tangshan earthquake in 1976 (when their children didn't), women living in caves in a primitive village in northern Shaanxi Province, and women whose lives were shattered by the cultural revolution.

The women Xin described in The Good Women of China show a comprehensive picture of what it means to be a Chinese woman in contemporary society. They also portray the painful history Chinese women have endured for centuries.

There is one particular passage that I think shows the oppressive history Chinese women have gone through in particularly stark terms. This paragraph is from a discussion with a women who was able to get an education in the 1940s, a time when most women did not have such an opportunity on page 114:

These "Three Submissions and Four Virtues" that Chinese women were to live by show a lot about the value placed on women in traditional China. Although the "Three Submissions and Four Virtues" are not pertinent to life in China today, women in Chinese society still face uniquely difficult challenges.

Both Chinese people and foreigners have told me more than a couple times something along these lines:
"Mao and the communists weren't all bad. They changed China's backwards attitude towards women and made women equal to men. Women don't have their feet bound any more, after all."
I've always found that argument spurious. After reading Xin's book, I now find such arguments completely disingenuous off-base.

The second half of Xin's book highlights women and stories from the cultural revolution. I wasn't expecting Mao's cultural revolution to be a major part of the book since it was written in the 1990s. But it makes sense; there is no way that women in the 90s, or even now, could have broken free from everything Mao inflicted upon his own people decades ago. And seeing how taboo trying to reconcile or discuss that era is, there still has to be a lot of emotion teeming beneath the surface.

From pages 202 and 203:

Women in China have the highest suicide rate in the world. Baby boys are valued much more than baby girls; there are 126 boys for every 100 girls aged one to four in rural areas. Despite the great steps China is making and has made in recent decades, there are still deep scars both from contemporary and more ancient Chinese history. Xin Ran's book gives the reader a deeper understanding of the struggle Chinese women face.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

It’s Not Over Til The Fat Man Sings

Over the Thanksgiving break, I asked Qian if she remembered the "This American Life" program we listened to a year ago about an American guy and Chinese girl and the story of how they found each other. Qian got a smile on her face and said that she remembered. I couldn't help but beam a little bit too as I recalled the story again.

Here is the synopsis of the radio program that brought smiles to our faces:
It’s Not Over Til The Fat Man Sings

When Eric Hayot was 23, he went on an exchange program to China one summer. He took an opera class on a lark, and before he knew it, he was on stage, singing the part of a famous judge. Accompanying him, on a traditional two-stringed fiddle, was a 19-year-old musician named Yuanyuan Di. Eric fell for her the moment he saw her, and began spending time with her. But a couple of weeks later he went back to the States, and that was that. They didn't keep in touch—it was too hard to communicate by letter. Then, two years later, Eric went back to China to study, and decided he had to find Yuanyuan again. Only he didn't have her phone number, or address or any other way to contact her. So to track her down, he deployed his secret weapon: The fact that Chinese people love it when westerners sing Chinese songs. This American Life Producer Sarah Koenig reports. (19 minutes)
You can listen to this episode here. The story of the American boy and the Chinese girl can be heard at the 9 minute 30 second mark of the broadcast. I recommend listening to the Prologue before the "The Fat Man" begins as well, though.

I'm not sure exactly why I randomly remembered this story that we listened to well over a year ago. It probably had to do with having a very nice Thanksgiving weekend. I have a lot of family in Kansas City and Qian and I had a great time visiting with my family and friends back in town. Having good people in our lives has made our move from China to America a smooth one.

Although the days are shorter and the temperature has plunged, there's something very bright and warm about this time of year. This story that I highlighted above should bring you this joy this holiday season. I heartily recommend listening.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Expressing the Orient: A Photo Exploration of China

I have finished my photo book. It is titled - Expressing the Orient: A Photo Exploration of China.

Here is the cover:

Expressing the Orient is 70 pages of color photographs that I took during my three years in China. Some of the most interesting places in China are featured. Chinese people, both the Han majority and ethnic minorities, distinct landscapes, and the contrast between ancient history and contemporary development are themes explored in the book.

The book can be purchased from here.

The book ships anywhere in the US as well as internationally. Just now, I looked at Blurb's Shipping Calculator. Shipping rates are actually quite reasonable across the globe (the book is "Standard Landscape" and is 70 pages). The one place Blurb does not appear to ship to is China. If you are in China and would like to purchase a copy of the book, email me at markschinablog at gmail dot com and we can work something out.

You can see a the first few pages of the book here:

I'm really happy with the way this book came out and hope that you can enjoy it.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Son of the Revolution

Son of the Revolution by Liang Heng and Judith Shapiro is a first-person account of growing up in China during some of the most harrowing times in human history.

Liang Heng was born in 1954, just five years after China's communist revolution. Liang's childhood was turbulent. Some of his first memories were of the One Hundred Flowers Campaign and the Great Leap Forward. And then his formative teenage years were spent navigating through the chaos of the Mao's Great Cultural Revolution.

At the start of the book, Liang's life seems fairly normal. He is the youngest of three children with two older sisters living in Changsha, Hunan Province in southern China. His mother and father live a relatively happy life. His father works as a journalist at the Hunan Daily newspaper.

Things turn against Liang Heng early in life, though. His mother had family members - aunts and uncles and cousins - who went to Taiwan at the time of the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949. Liang's whole family's life would be pay dearly time after time for that action. There was no way to live down such a mortal sin committed by family members, even if distant ones. The family's "politics" were always in question and Mao's campaigns/whims always affected Liang and his family gravely.

Most of the book focuses on Mao's Cultural Revolution. The idea of that campaign, simply, was to destroy China's long history in the hopes of creating a "pure" culture and society free from the "olds" of Chinese culture that existed before the communists remade the country in 1949.

The passage below from pages 66 - 68 describing the early stages of the Revolution from Liang's eyes:
The "Sixteen Articles" had stressed the need to criticize the "Four Olds" - old thought, old customs, old culture, and old morals - and this was the thrust of the Red Guards' first campaign. The immediate and most visible result was that the names of everything familiar changed overnight. Suddenly "Heaven and Heart Park" became "People's Park." "Cai E Road," named for a hero of the Revolution of 1911, became "Red Guard Road." The Northern Station where I had pushed carts for a day was now to be found on "Combat Revisionism Street," and a shop named after its pre-Liberation Capitalist proprietor became "The East is Red Food Store." Changsha quickly acquired a "Red Guard Theater," a "Shaoshan Road," a "People's Road," and an "Oppose Imperialism Road."

All this was extremely confusing, especially for the old people, and everybody was always getting off at the wrong bus stop and getting lost. To make matters even worse, the ticket-sellers on the buses were too busy giving instructive readings from the Quotations of Chairman Mao between stops to have much time to help straighten out the mess. Of course, there were some people who never did get used to is, and to this day they live on the ghosts of streets whose names today's young people have never heard of.

People changed their own names, too. One of my classmates rejected his old name, Wen Jian-ping ("Wen Establish Peace"), in favor of Wen Zao-fan ("Wen Rebel"). My neighbor Li Lin ("Li Forest") called herself Li Zi-hong ("Li Red from Birth") to advertise her good background. Zao Cao-fa ("Zao Make Money") became Zao Wei-dong ("Zao Protect the East"). Another friend got rid of the "Chiang" in his name because it was the same as Chiang Kai Shek's.

So, there is a lot of excitement in the city, but at home it was very quiet. Father spent every evening at his writing, and Liang Wei-ping (Liang Heng's second sister) and I never felt much like talking. We were sitting silently like this, reading and writing, on the hot night that Liang Fang (Liang Heng's oldest sister) came home. I hadn't seen her in more than three weeks. She was a changed person.

She looked splendid, never better, strong and slim where her leather belt cinched in her waist. Her green army-style uniform with its cap of authority over her short braids gave her an air of fashion and confidence I had never seen in her before. She looked a real soldier, and I sat up straight and stared with big eyes, unsure whether or not she was really my sister. My desire for my own Red Guard uniform dated from that instant.

Father emerged when he heard voices and looked glad to see Liang Fang. "How have things been going?" he asked. "We haven't seen you in a long time."

"The situation is excellent," she answered in the language of revolution. "We're washing away all the dirty water. But I never sleep. Every night we're out making search raids."

"What's a search raid?" I asked.

"You know, before you've been on a search raid you have no idea what's really going on in this society. People have been hiding all sorts of things. Counterrevolutionary materials, pre-Liberation Reactionary artworks, gold, jade, silver, jewelry - the trappings of Feudalism-Capitalism-Revisionism are everywhere."

My father looked surprised. "What do you care about those kinds of things?"

But Liang Fang was too involved in her story to answer. "We have a schedule to follow. Every night we go to a series of homes and go through every book, every page to see if there's any anti-Party material. It's an incredible amount of work. We have to check all the boxes and suitcases for false bottoms and sometimes pull up the floors to see if anything's been hidden underneath."
Liang's family, not too long after Liang Fang described giving these raids as a Red Guard, is the victim of such raids. Because of Liang's father's position as a writer (a "stinking intellectual") and because of his family's "political" history, Liang is always treated particularly harsh by the maniacal campaigns being directed by Mao from Beijing.

Liang Heng, going through everything he did, has fantastic stories. There are the accounts of machine gun firefights between rival gangs on the streets of Changsha. There is his trip to Beijing where he saw (with his own eyes!) the great leader, Mao Zedong, in Tiananmen Square. There is his own personal "Long March" where he and friends take a pilgrimage from Changsha to the revolutionary shrine, Jinggang Mountain in Jiangxi Province.

There is a lot in Son of the Revolution. This account of the book has only scratched the surface. It's hard for me to say that I "enjoyed" the book. It was grueling to finish. But it is something I'm glad I've read.

Liang's life and the China the book describes are tragic. But there is hope in Liang's story. The simple fact he survived to write it is a testament to human endurance. By the end of the book, you have to marvel at the man he's become.

I feel that that same hope can also be found looking at China as a whole. No matter what one thinks of its currency manipulation, environmental degradation, or strict internet regulation, there's no denying that China and its people's story is a remarkable one. I think and hope that there is still much progress to be made. But even for China to be where it is today, after having suffered the heartache and turmoil just a few decades ago described in Liang's book, is astonishing.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Taoism Rises

Ian Johnson has a very insightful article on religion and the rise of Taoism in China in this past week's New York Times Magazine.

Below is a section I particularly liked from the article:

RELIGION HAS LONG played a central role in Chinese life, but for much of the 20th century, reformers and revolutionaries saw it as a hindrance holding the country back and a key reason for China’s “century of humiliation.” Now, with three decades of prosperity under their belt — the first significant period of relative stability in more than a century — the Chinese are in the midst of a great awakening of religious belief. In cities, yuppies are turning to Christianity. Buddhism attracts the middle class, while Taoism has rebounded in small towns and the countryside. Islam is also on the rise, not only in troubled minority areas but also among tens of millions elsewhere in China.

It is impossible to miss the religious building boom, with churches, temples and mosques dotting areas where none existed a few years ago. How many Chinese reject the state’s official atheism is hard to quantify, but numbers suggest a return to widespread religious belief. In contrast to earlier surveys that showed just 100 million believers, or less than 10 percent of the population, a new survey shows that an estimated 300 million people claim a faith. A broader question in another poll showed that 85 percent of the population believes in religion or the supernatural.

Officially, religious life is closely regulated. The country has five recognized religions: Buddhism, Islam, Taoism and Christianity, which in China is treated as two faiths, Catholicism and Protestantism. Each of the five has a central organization headquartered in Beijing and staffed with officials loyal to the Communist Party. All report to the State Administration for Religious Affairs, which in turn is under the central government’s State Council, or cabinet. This sort of religious control has a long history in China. For hundreds of years, emperors sought to define orthodox belief and appointed many senior religious leaders.


Taoism has closely reflected this history of decline and rebirth. The religion is loosely based on the writings of a mythical person named Laotzu and calls for returning to the Dao, or Tao, the mystical way that unites all of creation. Like many religions, it encompasses a broad swath of practice, from Laotzu’s high philosophy to a riotous pantheon of deities: emperors, officials, thunder gods, wealth gods and terrifying demons that punish the wicked in ways that make Dante seem unimaginative. Although scholars once distinguished between “philosophical Taoism” and “religious Taoism,” today most see the two strains as closely related. Taoist worshipers will often go to services on important holy days; they might also go to a temple, or hire a clergy member to come to their home, to find help for a specific problem: illness and death or even school exams and business meetings. Usually the supplicant will pray to a deity, and the priest or nun will stage ceremonies to summon the god’s assistance. Many Taoists also engage in physical cultivation aimed at wellness and contemplation, like qigong breathing exercises or tai chi shadowboxing.

As China’s only indigenous religion, Taoism’s influence is found in everything from calligraphy and politics to medicine and poetry. In the sixth century, for example, Abbess Yin’s temple was home to Tao Hongjing, one of the founders of traditional Chinese medicine. For much of the past two millenniums, Taoism’s opposite has been Confucianism, the ideology of China’s ruling elite and the closest China has to a second homegrown religion. Where Confucianism emphasizes moderation, harmony and social structure, Taoism offers a refuge from society and the trap of material success. Some rulers have tried to govern according to Taoism’s principle of wuwei, or nonaction, but by and large it is not strongly political and today exhibits none of the nationalism found among, say, India’s Hindu fundamentalists.

Read the entire article
The growth of religion in communist China is a very interesting topic. Ian Johnson, the writer of this article above, has written the best pieces I've read on religion in China. The section of his book, Wild Grass, on the Falun Gong is journalism at its finest.

(All of Johnson's Wild Grass is journalism at its finest, actually. The book is at the top of my must-read China book selections along with Out of Mao's Shadow. I read it earlier this year but didn't quite get a review of it written for my blog. My thoughts on the Wild Grass in short: read it!)

Johnson compliments his NY Times article about Taoism with a piece he authored over at the blog, The China Beat. In his blog post, Johnson gives a primer to those interested in reading more about Daoism. I just ordered a copy of the number one book on his list - Road to Heaven: Encounters with Chinese Hermits.

Taoism is intriguing to me. I'm not too familiar with its specific tenets, but I have been moved by what I've seen. I'm particularly fond of Taoist holy mountains (they occupy spots #1 and #5 on my "Top 10 Travel Destinations in China" list from last year). Maybe I'm just a sucker for the commercialization at those sites that Johnson's article talks about. Or maybe I will find something exciting about Taoism once I look into it. I'm looking forward to finding out.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Mandate of Heaven

Orville Schell's The Mandate of Heaven: The Legacy of Tiananmen Square and the Next Generation of China's Leaders was published in 1995. Most books I've read about contemporary China more than five years old feel dated. This book, written more than fifteen years ago, does not have that problem. In fact, with Liu Xiaobo winning the Nobel Peace Prize a few weeks ago, The Mandate of Heaven is astonishingly relevant to present-day discussions about China.

Weighing in at more than 450 pages, Schell covers a lot in this book. It is split into five meaty sections: The Square, Three Routes to Exile, Dead Time, The Second Channel, and The Boom. Through these five sections, Schell lays out, in exhaustive detail, what happened in Tiananmen Square in 1989, the consequences of such events, the malaise China faced from '89 to '92, the counter-cultures that arose in response to putting down the protests, and, finally, the economic boom orchestrated by Deng Xiaoping and his "Southern Tour."

Prior to reading The Mandate of Heaven, I had a general knowledge of the student protests in 1989. Now, my understanding of those events is many times deeper.

There are several passages I want to highlight from this book. Questions raised in The Mandate of Heaven about how China is ruled are as important as ever right now.

The meaning of the title of the book is laid out on page 21:
And finally, it was through Tiananmen Gate that with awesome pomp and ceremony the emperor himself passed whenever he left the Forbidden City to travel the empire or make his annual pilgrimage to the Temple of Heaven, where he performed rituals to protect the dynasty from losing the favor of heaven.

An emperor's ability to rule was said to reflect the cosmic sanction bestowed on his reign by tianming (天命), or the "mandate of heaven," which Chinese believed was signified by peace and harmony with his realm. Traditional political philosophers held that moral legitimacy was a vital component of tianming and that if the moral bonds between ruler and ruled were irrevocably violated, the all-embracing forces of "heaven" from which an emperor drew his "mandate" to rule as "the son of heaven" would be withheld and his dynasty would collapse.
天命, as described by Schell, sounds a lot like the English word "legitimacy." In the spring of 1989, after the death of Hu Yaobang, students in Beijing were not impressed with the "cosmic sanction" the CCP was maintaining. Legitimacy was what was in question during those protests.

As the protests grew both in numbers and passion, splits within the leaders of the Party widened. There is one particular passage on page 113 that put the dilemma in stark terms:
On May 17 the leadership struggle erupted again at a late-night emergency session of the Politburo at Deng's house where Zhao Ziyang was accused of sowing division within the Party and an appeal made by him to visit the students was voted down. When a declaration of martial law was formally endorsed, Deng was reported to have told Zhao, "I have the army behind me."

"But I have the people behind me," countered Zhao.

"In that case, you have nothing," Deng replied.
Maybe I shouldn't have been surprised, but Deng's coldness and bluntness here hit me hard.

What happened a couple weeks later will live in infamy forever.

The CCP survived a tremendous challenge to its legitimacy in 1989. It also succeeded in building an economic powerhouse in the subsequent decades. Many in western democracies now see China as quickly surpassing the West. In many ways it is. But I think that many of the fault lines brought to light in 1989 have not been resolved.

The past few weeks have been turbulent. Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Peace Prize. A prominent group of Party elders wrote an open letter calling for the Party to guarantee the rights granted in its constitution. Premier Wen Jiabao's interview with CNN was harmonized.

Several weeks ago, I wrote my review of The China Fantasy through the lens of recent discussions of political reform. With all of this recent controversy, I believe that this topic of legitimacy and political reform is worth highlighting again.

Schell presents ideas being bandied about almost twenty years ago that sound remarkably like the ones being discussed today. From page 408:
And there were other signs that seemed to suggest political relaxation. In July 1992, the relatively liberal Politburo Standing Committee member in charge of propaganda, Li Ruihuan, gave a speech that sounded more as if it had been delivered by a New Age California guru than by the propaganda boss of a Communist party. "The establishment of wholesome human relations is a basic requirement in the construction of a socialist ethic," gushed Li. "The cardinal principle for government lies in comforting the people, and the most important task in comforting people is to discern their hardships." Li then took a swipe at those who had fallen "under the influence of 'leftist' ideology" and used the pretext of class struggle to persecute people, thereby "seriously distorting human relations and causing unnecessary tension." That August, when the French paper Le Figaro interviewed Li, he became the first leader in some time to publicly link economic and political reform: "the two should go hand in hand, in order to improve speech, participation, and control." When the NCNA chimed in a few days later, it was even more emphatic. "The matter has become clear: The development and the reform of the political system. If reform of the political system drags on for a long time, reform of the economic system will be subject to a bigger restraint."
Continuing to page 412:
Whether such signs of relaxation were just so much cosmetic image polishing aimed at enhancing China's chances of assuring renewed MFN status and winning its bid for the 2000 summer Olympic Games or part of an ineluctable trend toward greater political liberalization was still not clear. But even the ambiguity came as a relief, and many Chinese allowed themselves to be soothed by cautious optimism. Perhaps, they reasoned, if political confrontation with the government could be avoided while Deng's economic reforms took deeper root and the country gathered a new sense of dignity and self-confidence, aspects of a civil society, of which gray culture was a harbinger, might mature and slowly nudge the Party into accepting more openness and political pluralism. The hope of many of those who allowed themselves to be encouraged by such optimism was that since the Party was obviously not about to relinquish political control voluntarily, free markets provided the best available goad toward greater democracy. But few had forgotten that for Deng, development and political stability, not democracy, were the primary goals. He might allow a certain vague promise of political liberalization to be lofted about, but for him the ideal was still authoritarian politics combined with economics. While there was no doubt by 1994 that life in Chinese society was in many ways becoming increasingly relaxed, there were few signs that the Party was any more prepared to tolerate real challenges to its political hegemony. Each time manifestations of even moderate political opposition arose, the Party moved to suppress then with a familiar thoroughness.
And then to page 414:
As momentous as economic changes were, China was still a one-party state. And as reform efforts in the past had repeatedly proven, it would be no easy task for a country as deeply rooted in the traditions of authoritarianism and Big Leader cultism as China to change politically, especially when the ruling leadership viewed such changes not just as a challenge to its power, but as an invitation to disorder. Deng was caught between the two conflicting sets of political purposes that Tiananmen Square symbolically represented: the tradition of broadly based liberal reforms first called for by the May Fourth generation, and the tradition of stubborn conservatism that since the failure of the Hundred Days Reform in 1898 had rejected almost all fundamental change. His solution was to adopt aspects of each side of this contradiction, and to goad one side of society into radical change while leaving the other frozen in place. In this sense he was much more in the tradition of those nineteenth-century reformers who had imagined that China could borrow technology and management techniques from abroad without affecting the existing society's culture and values, or political "essence." Now as then, such an effort depended on something of a split personality. For Deng, the contradiction manifested itself as an attempt to separate politics and economics in a way that led some observers to refer to his experiment as "laissez-faire Stalinism," "Confucian-Leninism," or "gulag capitalism." Such a bastardization might temporarily give the appearance of stability, but it was difficult to imagine how a system with such internal inconsistencies could long contain itself, especially when it was in such a dynamic state of unbalanced change.
The Mandate of Heaven is a monster of a book. I've had a hard time reviewing it; no blog post/review can do it justice. Schell is a China hand's China hand. His understanding of and insights into China jump out at the reader. I can't recommend this book highly enough.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

A Conversation with Edgar Snow

The 14th Biennial Edgar Snow Symposium took place in Kansas City on Monday through Wednesday of this week. Snow is the author of one of the best-selling and most influential English language books ever written about China - Red Star Over China - published in 1937. The Kansas City connection is that Snow was born and raised in KC at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Several events related to Snow's life went on early this week. I was only able to go to one of them. Last night, I saw "Meet the Past: Edgar Snow" at Kansas City's downtown public library.

I liked the premise of this performance a lot. You had a Kansas City intellectual, Crosby Kemper III, interviewing a local actor, Bob Brand, playing Edgar Snow on stage in front of about one hundred people (the dialog was taped and will be on Kansas City's public television and online at some point in the future). Both men immersed themselves into their roles. I can't imagine how much time and energy went into making this free hour-and-a-half performance what it was.

The interview began with Snow talking about his early life in Kansas City - growing up the son of a printer in a Catholic family, attending Westport High School, and going west to work on farms near Topeka, Kansas to earn money during the summers. Snow also described his road trip with friends to California in 1922, an event he said got him into traveling.

Snow then talked about attending the University of Missouri, Columbia's masters in journalism program. Mizzou takes pride in being the best journalism school in the country. Snow talked about how the "Missouri Mafia" - a group of influential journalists - was in full force when he arrived in China in the 1930s and that his Mizzou guanxi opened up countless opportunities for him.

He described taking the train from Beijing to Xi'an and then heading into northern Shaanxi Province to find the mythical communist stronghold (some people, apparently, didn't even believe the place existed). This was probably my favorite part of the conversation last night. It is also probably my favorite aspect of Edgar Snow's life. I appreciate the story of a KC boy going to Xi'an and Shaanxi Province for the adventure of a lifetime (even if his story and mine are completely different in just about every way imaginable).

A beautiful description of Bao'an, the lush, low-lying valley where the communists had settled, was painted. Snow recounted meeting Mao and the subtle details of the man that would fifteen years later become the leader of China. He also talked about the general sense of camaraderie and excitement that one felt being at the camp.

The discussion then moved to the writing and publishing of the Red Star Over China and the decade or so that followed, which was largely spent outside of China.

Towards the end of the interview, Kemper asked Snow about his visit to China in 1960. On this visit, China was in the middle of the most horrific famine in the history of the world - the Great Leap Forward. Snow, amazingly, did not witness any effects of the tragedy on his visit. He famously wrote in his book, The Other Side of the River: Red China Today:
Throughout 1959-62 many Western press editorials and headlines referred to "mass starvation" in China and continued to cite no supporting facts. As far as I know, no report by any non-communist visitor to China provided an authenticated instance of starvation during this period.

I assert that I saw no starving people in China, nothing that looked like old-time famine (and only one beggar, among flood refugees in Shenyang) and that the best Western intelligence on China was well aware of this. Isolated instances of starvation due to neglect or failure of the rationing system were possible. Considerable malnutrition undoubtedly existed. Mass starvation? No.
Kemper asked Snow to explain himself - "How did you not see this famine that historians estimate killed 35 million people?" The actor playing Snow did a wonderful job here. One could see the pain, embarrassment, and anguish on his face. He couldn't come up with a good explanation. He knew that this mistake was one of the defining moments of his career and that history had punished him for it. After stammering a bit, Snow conceded that he'd been betrayed.

I was really glad to see this darker aspect of Snow's legacy addressed. I honestly wasn't sure it would be at an event commemorating his life. In recent months, I've written about my problems with Edgar Snow. It's hard to refute that Snow was an enabler to Mao and the terror he brought upon the Chinese people. Snow's glowing reports from China during a time of unimaginable horror legitimized the awful things that that were going on there.

I'm proud that one of the most important China writers ever is from my hometown in the middle of America. But I also acknowledge the serious problems surrounding Edgar Snow.

I often see Snow mocked today by western writers and China hands. I can completely understand why this happens. It's fair that history judges him harshly. At the same time, I don't see Edgar Snow and his work in 100% black-and-white terms. He made grave mistakes during his career and got way too close with people he shouldn't have. The world's understanding of Mao and China in the middle of the twentieth century is certainly richer thanks to his work, though. Maybe I'm being too sympathetic, but I see Snow as a complex figure.

After the conversation finished and a few people from the audience asked questions, Qian, a couple friends of ours, and I went to the back of the library where there was a photo exhibition on the Chinese Cultural Revolution - Red-Color News Soldier: The Photographs of Li Zhensheng - on display. Here is a write-up from the website about the collection:

The Red-Color News Soldier exhibit is among the first visual records of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, which spanned from 1966-76.

Almost no visual documentation of the era exists—and almost all that does is biased—due to the Chinese government’s control of the media, arts, and cultural institutions.

Li Zhensheng, a party-approved photographer for The Heilongjiang Daily, was granted unusual access to capture events during the Revolution and managed to hide and preserve over 20,000 stills for more than four decades. Those stills became the basis for a book, Red-Color News Soldier by Zhensheng and Robert Y. Pledge, as well as the accompanying exhibit.
These photos alone would've been worth a trip downtown to the library. They were haunting.

Between this Edgar Snow discussion, this cultural revolution photo exhibit, and the Gao Brothers' exhibit I wrote about the other day, Kansas City is a treasure trove of China-related events and information right now. I hope similar China-related events continue to occur in KC and that I can participate in them.

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Gao Brothers' Artwork in Kansas City

Qian and I finally went to the Gao Brothers' art exhibit currently on display at the Kemper Art Gallery in Kansas City tonight. It is amazing. I'm so impressed that this exhibit - an artistic exploration of Mao and the Cultural Revolution - is on display in my home city.

To hear a radio program about the Gao Brothers' exhibit in KC from PRI's "The World," click here.

Below are photos of some of the pieces I took on my phone:

This next photo is a close-up of this map of China:

The piece that struck me most from the exhibit is the sculpture below entitled "Mao's Guilt:"

Here is the placard explaining the work (sorry about the low quality on this):

"Mao's Guilt" was the focus of this New York Times article from last year.

Mao's reign and the turbulence China went through under his leadership, particularly the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward, fascinate me. I have such a hard time reconciling that time period with the China I lived in for three years. Seeing where China was under Mao forty years ago and comparing that with the country now makes China's rise seem so improbable.

But despite the economic prosperity, Mao's Party is still the one running the show in China. There is no cult of personality around Mao any more, but he still is very much a larger-than-life figure. His portrait hangs in Tiananmen Square. His face graces every denomination of currency above 1 yuan. Mao statutes look down upon several Chinese cities.

China has not had a national dialog about Mao and the trauma the country endured under his rule. The official line is that he was 70% good, 30% bad. While that's what everyone is supposed to say, I believe Chinese people think it's more complicated than that.

The Gao Brothers' work I saw this evening is a fascinating meditation on Mao. I find their attempt at "taking off the emperor's clothes" (literally in one piece) and examining the psychology and spirit of the man intriguing. While the Gao Brothers' art is certainly not the mode in which most Chinese people would, if possible, examine the former leader, I thoroughly enjoyed their take on the man.

Anyone living in or passing through Kansas City before January 2nd should see this exhibit. It is something you will not forget. I will surely go back in the coming weeks. I forgot to mention, admission is free.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

China's Water Crisis

China's Water Crisis by Ma Jun is a comprehensive look at one of China's most serious problems. Ma covers all of the bases of China's water problems in his book - dying rivers, over-development, pollution, the building of dams, and the many other issues related to trying to hydrate China.

The biggest thing I took from Ma's book is this - the destruction of China's water systems and environment goes back much farther than its recent rise in the past few decades. The roots of China's water problems go back to the birth of Chinese civilization thousands of years ago.

Break-neck industrialization in contemporary China has certainly been bad for the environment. Mao and his Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution were possibly even worse than anything done since reform and opening. But the seeds of China's environmental destruction were sowed millenia ago.

China takes pride in its long and continuous culture and history. And it should. Such longevity is impressive. Having such a history has a very high cost though. China's natural resources, and especially water, have been taxed and manipulated by both the population and emperors with little regard for future generations.

Maybe this is common knowledge to others, but I had no idea how much China's topography has changed over the past several centuries. The deserts of Xinjiang used to be green. The barren loess plateau of Shaanxi used to be fertile. And 90% of the industrial northeast's land used to be lush forest.

To illustrate this example, I want to highlight an excerpt from the book on pages 130 and 131 about the history of north China's water problems:
The degradation and ultimate destruction of the Hai River system, especially of its once verdant forests, occurred over a period of centuries - since humans started inhabiting the area, in fact. The first emperor of the Qin (Qin Shi Huang Di) has gone down in the history books as China's great unifier and the first contributor to the Great Wall. But what is often overlooked in this record of nation building is the fact that his grandiose construction project required an enormous amount of wood. The first large-scale attack on the forests of the Yan and Taihang mountains began there.

During the following dynasty, the Han (206B.C. - A.D. 221), a dramatic increase in the population of the empire led to large-scale land development across the North China Plain. That resulted in a reduction of the area's once-rich forests and grasslands. Subsequent dynasties had a practice of moving the capital to different cities, and the construction work on city walls and ornate imperial buildings for each and every one of the meant an increased demand for lumber from the Yan and Taihang mountains. Aside from the more obvious uses of timber for beams, supports, and rafters, it was needed for the equally important wood that fired the immense number of kilns that produced all the bricks needed to build the walls.

As Buddhism spread throughout China from the fourth century A.D. on, even more wood was needed for the many temples that still dot the area, In the Wutai mountains along the upper reaches of the Yongding River, there was one peak alone that had 300 temples, which were built at great expense for the surrounding forests.

By the time of the Yuan dynasty (A.D. 1271 - 1368) local forest reserves were already depleted, and the Yongding River, the largest tributary of the Hai system, began silting up so much that it soon became known to locals as the "Little Yellow River."

By the Ming Dynasty, whose capacity for destruction of the environment has already been noted several times, the population increase had pushed the land reclamation efforts farther up into the mountains. The Ming emperors made an attempt to strengthen and connect parts of the Great Wall, and by the time they had finished the large construction projects, virtually all the forests within several hundred kilometers of the wall had been denuded.

But "civilization" was not about to be stopped. By the time of the last dynasty, the Qing (A.D. 1644-1911), population growth was so unchecked that per capita access to arable land began to decline. Put another way, the ecological limits of the Hai River valley had been reached, as was made amply clear but the frequency of the droughts and floods that hit the valley. In 2,000 years of civilization, the forest cover of the North China Plain went from 60-70 percent to just around 5 percent by 1949.
Showing that China's resources have been exploited for centuries is a major point of the book. But the past fifty years, particularly the Great Leap Forward and the economic development of the past thirty years, are shown to have wreaked an amazing amount of havoc as well. Ma goes into great detail on these issues.

Ma takes the reader through a tour of the entire country writing about the problems that each region faces. I look at China in a completely new way having read Ma's book.

One of the only issues I have with Ma's China's Water Crisis is that it was published in 2004 with much of the data coming from the 1990s. There are a number of issues - northern Chinese cities being built of falling water tables, the moving of "heaven and earth" to hydrate Beijing, and general shortages - that would be interesting to see updated. This is a small quibble seeing that these things are all addressed. It would still be nice to see a revised edition though.

As global warming intensifies and climates change at more rapid rates, China's water problems very well may be the country's most difficult social issues in the coming decades. Himalayan glaciers that are the source for China's (and Asia's) major rivers are melting. Huge urban metropoli are being built on falling water tables. And industrial pollution has made many of China's rivers unusable by those lucky enough to be positioned next to fresh water.

Ma's book is a great primer on some of the biggest challenges facing the people and the leaders of China.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Photo Book Done

I've FINALLY finished my China photo book. I've been working on it on-and-off for nearly a year now. It hasn't been that time-intensive really. It's just been a matter of putting it down and picking it up and having trouble making real progress.

I just ordered a copy for myself. Once I make sure the physical book looks like it does on the software I've used to build it, I'll put it up for sale and will start promoting it.

Hopefully it all turns out like what I'm expecting and it will be ready to sell in time for the holiday season.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Red China

I saw a disturbing map the other day from a report on China's pollution from the Wall Street Journal (h/t to @danharris):

Here's an explanation of the map:
To get a sense of how China’s air quality compares with the rest of the world, there’s a new map of global air-particulate pollution from Canadian scientists using National Aeronautics and Space Administration satellite data. The verdict: It doesn’t look good.


It’s important to note that the data used for this map are derived from 2001 to 2006. But as The Wall Street Journal noted in July, authorities affirmed that China’s air quality continues to get worse, not better.

According to the NASA post, health officials say fine particulates can get past the body’s hair-like cilia defenses, penetrate the lungs and blood, and lead to chronic diseases, such as asthma, cardiovascular disease and bronchitis.

Read the Whole Article
This isn't too surprising. It's still disturbing though.

The biggest drawback of living in Xi'an is its air. It's horrific. The mountains in the (not-too-far) distance cannot even be seen because of the omnipotent smog. When I lived there and was outside for too long on particularly gray days, the air made me feel like I was getting strep throat. When I used to ride my bike, I would wear a cloth facemask in a futile attempt at limiting the number of harmful particulates entering the membranes of my body.

There are plenty of things I miss about China and life in Xi'an. They greyness there isn't one of them. The fiery sunsets of the great plains are a new-found appreciation I've discovered upon coming back to the US.

Friday, September 24, 2010

China Underground

I didn't finish China Underground by Zachary Mexico. I read six of the book's sixteen chapters/vignettes. It's been the only book in recent months that I haven't finished.

In those first six chapters, I read profiles of gangsters in Qingdao blowing ketamine and partying hard with corrupt police officers, prostitutes working at a KTV parlor, and a virtuosic Uyghur guitar player trying to make it in Shanghai (who Mexico smokes hash with).

Now that I'm writing this post, those stories sound pretty cool (except for the prostitute profile which is a played-out topic for me at this point having already read similar accounts in China Road and Factory Girls). The reviews I've read of China Underground - both on Amazon and the internet at large - have been overwhelmingly positive as well. Despite thinking that I should like China Underground, this book didn't do it for me.

I appreciate Mexico's language skills and ability to document a segment of China's population that has been largely elusive to western writers. But I just found China Underground too over-the-top. The stories seemed superficial and the characters didn't resonate with me. I didn't feel as though I gained perspective or learned anything particularly noteworthy from the sections that I read.

I concede that my inability to get into the book may very well derive from me being too big of a square at this point in my life.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Shaanxi Pomegranates

Qian and I went to the Chinese super market near our house today to buy moon cakes (月饼) for the students Qian is teaching this fall. I enjoy shopping at this Chinese market. We can buy a lot of Chinese food products that I hadn't realize would be available in America before coming back. Every trip to the market is good listening practice for me too; there are always tons of Chinese people there speaking their native tongue (which, unfortunately for me, is usually incomprehensible southern dialects). It really is a nice little slice of China in the middle of suburban Kansas City.

One of the things we saw today was pomegranates. They were expensive - $2.70 for one. We didn't get any hoping that they'll drop in the next couple weeks as we fully enter pomegranate season. But even assuming that the pomegranates do get a bit more affordable, I'm sure the market will never offer the quality of pomegranates I had in China.

Xi'an is right next to one of the pomegranate-growing capitals of China - Lintong, Shaanxi. At this time of year in Xi'an, pomegranates straight from the farms are everywhere. They generally range in price from 1 to 5 kuai ($.18 - $.80) depending on the quality. Over the three falls I lived in Xi'an, I became accustomed to having copious amounts of insanely good pomegranates at my disposal.

Talking about my Chinese home town and one of its greatest flavors, I feel as though I should share this great article I saw recently on Twitter painting a picture of Xi'an and Shaanxi Province:

Resource-rich Shaanxi has seen significant developments in the past few years, as this most traditional of Chinese provinces enters a new century full of hope, promise and a gleaming makeover of its capital city, Xi’an.

Like the most attractive of China’s magnets for investment, Shaanxi can rely on more than one component part for attracting development and creating opportunities. Coal supplies are plentiful and of a high quality, while the province also has large reserves of natural gas and oil. While that does give it a more hardened feel to life here, the province also boasts a rich cultural history, and that, coupled with excellence in engineering academia, gives Shaanxi a fairly unique character not found elsewhere in China. From the historical perspective, Shaanxi is considered one of the cradles of Chinese civilization.


Shaanxi’s mineral reserves are ranked the highest of all the provinces in China, and particularly coal, oil, and natural gas. Communist-led education to exploit this over the years has also led to the province having a very strong pool of well educated workers, ranked third in the country, only after Beijing and Shanghai, while most of Shaanxi’s universities – over 50 of them – provide education in many different engineering disciplines from aviation, dam building to coal and gas extraction, much of it pioneering work. Shaanxi has an additional 2,000 science and technology research institutes, and these have taken a leading role in R&D in aerospace, equipment manufacturing, electronics, and agriculture.

Shaanxi’s GDP has been developing well over the last few years, growing at about 12.5 percent per annum since 2004, and with now the expanding secondary sector accounting for 54.9 percent of this figure. Shaanxi’s nominal GDP for 2009 was RMB818.7 billion (US$112 billion) while GDP per capita was RMB21,729 (US$43,179), ranking it 14th in the PRC. The minimum wage in Xi’an is RMB760.

Natural resources are crucial to Shaanxi’s development – the province ranks third in coal production, and fifth in oil production nationwide. A complete industrial system comprising high technology, fruit, animal husbandry, tourism, national defense, energy and chemical industries also developed and is well integrated. Large reserves of natural resources have been a spur to heavy industry such as oil drills, and equipment for mining, railways, petroleum, and chemical processing. In agriculture, the main produce is fruit and grain. Regulations are also in place to encourage investments in infrastructure, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, metallurgy, machinery, electronics, light industry, and building materials. Utilized foreign investment in the province was US$1.2 billion in 2009, and has proven sustainable at about this figure over the past decade.

Read On
Shaanxi Province is one of China's most interesting. It's the cradle of Chinese civilization. It's topography - largely mountains and loess plateau - is unique. And it's one of the poorest yet fastest-growing provinces in China.

Xi'an, the capital of Shaanxi Province, is a place that I'd recommend to any foreigner traveling to China or wanting to live abroad. The pace of life for a big city is very relaxed. Another positive is that Xi'an is not as overrun with foreigners as it seems other coastal cities in China (not that having a thriving ex-pat scene is necessarily a bad thing). There are scores of universities and job opportunities there. And as evidenced by the above article, it's not a bad place to get familiarized with for business purposes.

I'm not sure exactly why I'm writing this post. I suppose seeing pomegranates at the Chinese supermarket reminded me of my Chinese 第二个故乡 (second home). I have such warm memories and such a positive impression of Xi'an and Shaanxi in my mind.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

China Shakes the World

"Let China sleep, for when she wakes, she will shake the world." - Napoleon

There is a ton of valuable information in China Shakes the World: A Titan's Rise and Troubled Future - and the Challenge for America by James Kynge. Kynge is the former Beijing bureau chief for The Financial Times. He knows his stuff.

The first half of China Shakes the World largely focuses on how China's has affected and is affecting other nations around the world with its rise. Kynge profiles a steel factory from Dortmund, Germany that was dismantled and then reassembled in China, the "China town" of Prato, Italy (which just happened to be featured in the New York Times a couple days ago), and the, now, dreary rust belt town of Rockford, Illinois. These stories are somewhat dated - they are from the first half of this decade - but are still very relevant and insightful.

The second half of the book focuses on China and its domestic issues. Pollution, the social problems arising from the transition from a planned to open economy, and issues regarding China's lack of political reform are all explored. There is a lot to take in from these chapters. I took a lot of notes.

I always try to highlight something that caught my eye in these book review on this blog. It took me a while to decide what to feature in this review. There is so much in this book. I eventually decided to go with a passage from the chapter, "The Collapse of Social Trust," on page 169:
The horrific nature of such cases (the contamination of blood supplies with the HIV virus in Henan Province and the authorities knowledge of such events) provides a bleak commentary on contemporary society. It also detracts from the national image. To some people, that may seem a mere inconvenience. But the reputation of a country, like that of an individual, is of inestimable value. China has much going for it in this regard: an ancient culture, sparkling traditions in literature and the arts, the accumulated wisdom of thinkers over thousands of years, the size of its potential power, the taste of its cuisine, king fu and other martial arts, the diligence and intelligence of its people, the gleaming skyscrapers in cool new cities such as Shanghai, and of course the cuddly giant panda. But against these positive associations are a raft of less alluring images: shabby products, counterfeit goods, ripoffs of intellectual property, exploited labor, human rights abuses, the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, official nepotism and corruption, the persecution of religion and other forms of spirituality, a sick environment, outbursts of angry nationalism, and opposition to the exiled Dalai Lama. All or any of these impressions, plus others too numerous to mention, can coalesce to shape the attitudes of people in the West when they read the label "Made in China" on products. The resulting image, or brand, is often far from positive, and Chinese companies pay handsomely every year for the poor perceptions held in the west.
I really like this paragraph. It sums up China's "brand" issue so well.

China just has so much going for it in so many different ways. The mystery and romanticism surrounding some its most ancient and traditional customs are one-of-a-kind. There is not another culture on earth that can compare to what China's has to offer.

Yet at the same time, China has just so much going against it in the eyes of the international community. Kynge's exhaustive list in the paragraph above only scratches the surface. The many positives China's culture brings to the table are tarnished on a daily basis.

Such is the dilemma of being a country with many remnants of its fascinating past developing at an unprecedented pace often at the expense of the rest of the world. Kynge doesn't have the answers to China's "branding" problem. But he does do a wonderful job of laying it out.

China Shakes the World is both meaty and accessible. That is a very difficult thing to achieve. I was reminded a lot of China Road by Rob Gifford as I read this book. I mean that as a great compliment. China Shakes the World makes a great economic-leaning companion to Gifford's book. Being a largely economics-focused book written more than five years ago, it is dated. But that shouldn't keep someone interested in China from reading it. There is more than enough timeless material in this book.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The China Fantasy

The China Fantasy: How Our Leaders Explain Away Chinese Repression by James Mann is a short, quick-hitting book about, as Mann says in the first sentence of his book, the "China he has encountered outside of China." Mann is a China hand who's spent much of his life watching China from news rooms in the United States. The goal of his book is to make his readers re-think their conceptions about China's political system and the direction China is heading.

Mann says that the US political and media establishments are essentially divided into two camps when it comes to China and its political future - those who believe in the "soothing scenario" and those who believe in the "upheaval scenario."

Those in the "soothing scenario" camp believe that "eventually, increasing trade and prosperity will bring liberalization and democracy to China." Basically, the more China opens up economically, the closer China is getting to real political reform. Liberalization under the current regime is inevitable.

Those in the "upheaval scenario" camp believe that "things can't go on the way they are in China and that eventually the current system will be pushed to the breaking point." Basically, China's current Leninist system will not be able to keep control in the coming years and decades. There will be an earth-shaking upheaval. It's just a matter of when.

Mann doesn't believe either of these conventional wisdom schools of thought. He lays out a convincing argument that there might be a "third scenario:"
What if China manages to continue on its current economic path, yet its political system does not change in any fundamental way? ... What if China becomes fully integrated into the world's economy, yet it remains also entirely undemocratic?
This "third scenario" sounds like a very likely outcome to me. Mann does a good job laying out the reasons why he believes that there is a good chance China develops economically but not politically. In fact, in the weeks since I finished the book I've found his ideas to be an insightful prism through which to view China news.

First, I want to highlight a passage from page 98 and 99 of The China Fantasy:
In May 1998, then secretary of state Madeleine Albright landed in China to lay the groundwork for a visit by President Clinton. She had planned to give a speech in Beijing on the subject of the rule of law. Shortly after she arrived, the China Daily "coincidentally" published a story about what China was planning to do to improve the rule of law. When the time came for her speech, Albright proudly help up that day's newspaper to her audience as a sign the situation in China was already getting better. "Clearly, both your leaders and your citizens recognize the need to strengthen the rule of law," she said. She did not seem to grasp that the newspaper story was not some random, independent bit of journalism but had been timed specifically to influence her and her trip.

In that same spring of 1998, while Clinton was deciding whether to visit China, the Chinese leadership suggested on a number of occasions that change was in the air. There was a lot of talk of political reform, of a new "Beijing spring," of a loosening of controls on political debate. In the end, Clinton decided to make the trip. On the day he arrived in China, a handful of dissidents moved to establish an opposition party, the China Democratic Party. The event, too, was taken as a sign of change in China. That fall, when top representative of the Human Rights Commission was preparing her own trip to China, the authorities said they might consider letting the China Democratic Party operate in some provinces.

Clinton and the UN representative had smooth visits to China. Then, at the end of 1998, after all these prominent visitors had returned home, Chinese authorities made their move. They cracked down on the fledgling party, ended its operations, and sent all its leaders to jail. The talk of a a Beijing spring ended, as it often does, with the reality of Beijing winter.
Now I want to highlight an editorial from The Wall Street Journal from a few weeks ago about comments that Wen Jiabao, the Premier of China, made about political reform:
As the Chinese nation grapples with a series of disasters — floods, landslides and now a plane crash — some in the Party are clearly trying to prevent what they see as another calamity: the further postponement of political reform.

And it is becoming clearer that Premier Wen Jiabao agrees with them.

Symbolism and celebration matter greatly in Chinese politics. When China’s then-paramount leader Deng Xiaoping wanted to restart economic reform in 1992, he made a trip to the south of the country, blessing the Special Economic Zones as the fire of China’s future, singling out Shenzhen in particular.

Over the past weekend, Wen made his eighth visit to Shenzhen since becoming premier. The inspection trip was supposed to be celebratory, praising Deng as the architect of opening and reform, and emphasizing the importance of China not straying from the socialist path of the past 30 years. Wen paid obeisance to much of that sentiment, placing flowers at the foot of a statue to Deng at a Shenzhen exhibit.

Wen’s sojourn to Shenzhen was also intended as support for “talking about economics, not politics” — the central Party dictum under Deng wherein ideology took second place to the great rush toward a more robust economy.

But here Wen went well off-message. Instead of engaging in platitudes, Wen insisted that strengthening socialism depended on producing political reform to protect the gains that economic restructuring had already provided.

Wen did not stop there. People have the right to criticize and monitor the government, he intoned, and the bureaucracy needs to start paying greater attention to those made most vulnerable by economic success. Wen did not bother to use codewords such as “democracy with Chinese characteristics” or “accountability,” and he also lashed out at what he cast as the overcentralized and unrestrained system of power in China. For a trip that was supposed to be a simple celebration of success, Wen’s comments were pointed, and profound reminders of what was still lacking.

None of that made the conservative wing of the Communist Party happy. Cadres in that camp were quick to corral much of Wen’s rhetoric. While the local press felt free to feature the Premier’s remarks in close to full-form, the central Party media offered only truncated versions of Premier’s remarks, and reverted back to an economic focus as the new week began. The official discourse defaulted again to the main line of “no politics, if you please.”

Read On
This seems to be the same thing - CCP leaders giving lip service to political reform - that tricked Madeline Albright over a decade ago. I literally read this story about Wen Jiabao from August 25th minutes after reading that section above from The China Fantasy. It was pretty amazing, actually.

I'm not the only one who sees the emptiness of Wen's comments from late August. Below is an article from The China Media Project highlighting the usage of the words "political reform" from China's leaders:
The issue is now back in the spotlight. Why? Because Premier Wen Jiabao (温家宝) said on a recent visit to Shenzhen to commemorate the city’s 30th anniversary that: “We need not only to promote economic reform, but must also promote political system reforms. Without the guarantee provided by political system reforms, the results of economic reform will be lost, and the goal of modernization cannot be achieved.”

Was this a bold and forward-thinking statement from the Premier? Did Grandpa Wen go off script?

No, not really.

Any statement on political reform is significant. And at the very least, Wen’s statement offers an opportunity for Chinese media to push more searchingly on this issue. But let’s not forget, either, that Wen Jiabao said the exact same thing during this year’s National People’s Congress back in June, when he delivered his government work report.

Read the whole article
Go check out the full article at the CMP. It's a really interesting study.

Over the past few months, I've come to the firm conclusion that there is little to no chance of meaningful political reform in China in the coming years. I don't think I'll be buying into any of these "soothing scenario" arguments any time soon. Saying that, I'm not much of a proponent for the "upheaval scenario" either. The CCP's grip on power continues to impress me.

Weighing in at only a little more than one hundred pages, The China Fantasy reads more like a think-tank paper than a book. I was disappointed it is so short. Mann's writing style and tone are a bit off-putting as well. But I did find the book to be a very helpful tool in my quest for crystallizing what China is and the direction it is going.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

AmCham-China Podcasts

I found a treasure trove of China podcasts for all of the China news/culture/politics/economics nerds out there. The podcasts are all produced by the American Chamber of Commerce from the People's Republic of China - AmCham-China - and can be found here.

So far, I've listened to the following:

Bill Bishop (@niubi on Twitter) talking about Chinese real estate.

Jeremy Goldkorn (from talking about censorship.

Zachary Karabell talking about the US/China economies and his book Superfusion.

There are dozens more discussions on the site with prominent China thinkers that I look forward to listening to (Ambassador Jon Huntsman, Peter Hessler, Evan Osnos, etc.). The ones I've heard so far have been quality. Go listen.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Though I am Gone

I read a very sad blog article from McClathy's bureau chief, Tom Lasseter, last week:
I wasn't sure why at first, but this moment lingered longer than the rest: Wang Jingyao sat at a small breakfast table in his apartment and stared at me for several seconds. Two small plastic fans whirled next to the wall. There was a bouquet of fake flowers, a collection of cookie tins, and some old apples in a bowl.

We'd been talking for a while and sipping tea, working our way slowly to the subject of his wife, who was mercilessly beaten to death during the Cultural Revolution. I thought that Wang, 89, was just gathering his thoughts. The old man, wearing shorts and a white T-shirt, was in fact thinking over a question before asking it.

He'd been the central character in a 2006 documentary about the murder of his wife, Bian Zhongyun. It is a powerful piece of film in which Wang repeatedly looks straight into the camera's eye and talks plainly about Bian, a mother of four, being bludgeoned by teenage girls until she died in a mess of her own blood, urine and excrement in 1966.

So now he had a question for me: "How much influence has this movie had in America?"

Read On

The first ten sections of the movie, Though I am Gone, can be seen here. I'll go ahead and embed the first one if anyone care to begin viewing (the movie is in Mandarin but has English subtitles):

Several of the books I've read in recent weeks have delved into these dark chapters of contemporary Chinese history. All of the information I've taken in, including this movie above, has been eye-opening and disturbing.

I love China. I'm fascinated by the country. I'm trying my best to wrap my mind around the Leninist-capitalist amalgamation that is every day wielding more power across the globe. But aside from macro-economic and geo-political trends that I enjoy following, I also am trying to understand the people and culture of China better.

My wife is Chinese. I lived in China for more than three years. I met scores of wonderful people in China who have affected me greatly. I've invested a lot of time, energy, and, honestly, my heart into the country. It is very possible that Qian and I would want to live in China again in the future.

All of these stories on recent Chinese history, such as the one above, strike very close to home for me.

When my parents were being moved by speeches from Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, witnessing men land on the moon, and listening to Jimi Hendrix and Miles Davis, my wife's parents were living through the insanity of Maoist China.

Now, nearly a half-century later, a decade into the twenty-first century, Qian's parents are the ones living in the country who's economy is developing at unprecedented rates while my parents' country is the one stagnating (more than just economically). My parents dream of retirement. Qian's parents (who are a few years younger than my parents) are about to start their pensions.

The world is a crazy place. Looking at China as an American can be strange. I apologize if this blog is often contradictory, rambling, and/or nonsensical. I'm just trying my best to make sense of it all.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Kansas City and China

I came across a hilarious quote while reading The China Fantasy the other day:
"With God's help, we will lift Shanghai up until it is just like Kansas City."
- Senator Kenneth Wherry of Nebraska during the era of Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist China (in the 1940s).
It's funny how misguided people often sound after history plays out.

Photo of Kansas City from

Photo of Shanghai from

While talking about Kansas City, my hometown, I'm going to feature an article I found while searching for information on that quote from Senator Wherry. From
Missouri and China do not ordinarily go together in people's minds. One tends to think of China as most closely tied to parts of the U.S. that either sit by the Pacific (like California) or were early magnets of Chinese migration (like New York)-and neither is true of the Show Me State. Still, dig around a bit and a host of connections between Missouri and the Middle Kingdom emerge. Some are merely interesting historical tidbits. For example, the fact that a nephew of the Chinese emperor attended the St. Louis World's Fair of 1904, or the fact that the plane that launched the missiles that hit the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in 1999 set off for Serbia from a Missouri airfield. Other China-Missouri links are more significant, such as that a native of the Show Me State, Harry S. Truman, was President when Chinese and American forces fought each other in Korea. Still others are just bizarre. In this category, I would put the presence of the “New Shanghai Theater,” which hosts year-round performances by the Acrobats of China performing group, in Branson, Missouri (aka the “Las Vegas of the Ozarks”). And the infamous 1940 statement by a U.S. Senator that has often been quoted in the past to epitomize a certain kind of recurrent American hubris concerning nation-building projects: “with God's help we will lift Shanghai up and up, ever up, until it is just like Kansas City.”

Probably the single most intriguing connection between the two places, though, is a literary one, which was brought to my mind by the recent announcement that a National Book Award nomination had gone to Oracle Bones: A Journey between China's Past and Present. Peter Hessler, the author of this elegantly written book, which mixes elements of travelogue and memoir with reportage and political analysis, grew up in Columbia, Missouri-and he is just the latest in a long line of writers with ties to that state to emerge as an influential shaper of American images of China. The originator of the lineage can even be said to be none other than Mark Twain, the first Show Me State citizen to gain global renown as an author. Though he never made it to China on his travels, Twain was fascinated by the country, and he wrote everything from an epistolary tale about a Chinese immigrant (“Goldsmith's Friend Abroad Again”), to a newspaper editorial denouncing the “unequal treaties” that the West had forced upon the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) in the mid-1800s, to essays sympathetic to the anti-Christian Boxer insurgents (since, in his mind, any foes of missionaries couldn't be all bad).

The highpoint of China-writing by people with ties to Missouri came a bit later than Twain's day, in the early-to-mid 1900s. This was when Edgar Snow and Agnes Smedley, both Missouri-born journalists, published famous books on the Chinese Revolution. The influence of Snow's Red Star Over China (1936), the book through which many Americans got their first close look at the previously mysterious figure of Mao (presented there as a very sympathetic, indeed heroic figure), is hard to overstate. Smedley never wrote a book that had as big an impact, but her writings introduced American readers to new topics, such as the role that women played in the Chinese Revolution, and her Battle Hymn of China (1941) was one of the most widely read accounts of the country published in the United States during World War II.

Read On
I'm not sure if I've talked about it much on this blog, but the reason that I ended up going to China is the Kansas City/Xi'an's sister-city organization. A group of people in Kansas City and a group of people in Xi'an have a relationship and work together to promote friendship between the US and China. Hardly anyone in either city has even heard of their sister city, but there are groups of people passionate about the relationship on each side. When I was looking for an opportunity to go abroad back in 2005 after graduating from college - I was looking at Japan, Taiwan, and Chile - I was introduced to someone in the friendship organization.

The foundation of the KC/Xi'an connection is largely based upon Edgar Snow who is mentioned in the article above (the geography of KC and Xi'an is quite similar too... gateways to the west). Snow was born in Kansas City and ended up spending a significant amount of his later life in China. He's most famous for his book - Red Star Over China - where he embedded himself with the Communist rebels in northern Shaanxi Province (Xi'an's province) in the mid-1930s.

I read Red Star Over China years ago. I wrote a review of the book on my old blog here. The book is a bit tedious at times, but it's something someone interested in China should read.

Overall, Snow's legacy is not a positive one. He's credited for deepening our understanding of Mao in Red Star Over China. But he was used badly by Mao throughout much of his life. I blasted Snow in a recent post for the things he wrote about the Great Leap Forward. He really was a pawn being played by Mao at that time.

Conceding that I, and many others, have major problems with Snow and his work, I do appreciate Snow's life. Growing up in Missouri in the early-1900s and then going to China during a tumultuous time in its history, Snow's life was a unique one.

I know it's not the same at all, but I like to think that the journey I took to China has at least some elements of his adventure. I also appreciate Peter Hessler's story (a writer who I have the utmost respect for), which took him from Columbia, Missouri to China. I take pride in the fact that middle-America, my home, has such a strong legacy in the Middle Kingdom.