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.