Another great article by James Palmer, one of the very smartest people it’s been my pleasure to meet in Beijing. His in-depth look at the efficacy of TCM — “an odd, dangerous mix of sense and nonsense” — and its future in China is a delightful read.
June 14, 2013
June 11, 2013
Everyone seems to have a post up today about whether Edward Snowden, the high-school dropout who became a contractor for the NSA and leaked a copious amount of secret data this week, is a saint or sinner. I say we still can’t say for sure, but, knowing it will cost me some friends, I lean toward the latter. But before I explain why I am suspicious and wary of Snowden, let me say that I’ve found the whole dust-up in the media the past few days to be somewhat head-scratching. I mean, how many of us really had no idea the NSA was chronicling our online and telecom data? That’s what they are there for, for better or worse — to accumulate vast amounts of data and comb through it. Do I like that? No, and it opens the door to abuse. But did America sign off on it and give it its blessing? Of course we did. It’s all permitted under the vile Patriot Act, it’s all legal. Watch movies like the 1998 Enemy of the State or the Jason Bourne series or read Ron Suskind’s books like The One Percent Solution and it’s all spelled out, it is no secret: the NSA knows everything you’re saying, emailing, surfing, etc. How can anyone actually be surprised? Americans went hysterical after 911 and accepted — no, celebrated — a new lack of privacy. I remember the polls that came out after Bush decided to circumvent the FISA court and allow authorities to listen in on any phone conversations. The overwhelming number of Americans were in favor of it. Bush said, “If someone’s calling Al Qaeda I want to know about it,” and the public lapped it up. We accepted it. Today’s NSA and all its power to watch over us is a product of our own making.
Let me make another point before I get to Snowden. One of the most appallingly irresponsible acts performed by the media as this story broke was the Washington Post’s reporting that the big Internet companies like Google and Facebook had agreed to give the NSA “direct access” to their servers, allowing them to pore over the personal data of millions of users. Only problem was that it was false — soon the WaPo backpedaled on the story and took back the line about “direct access.” You can read all about this bad journalism here — one of the best analysis of how the media screwed up this story. Snip:
Has our collective attention span become so ridiculously short that we’re suddenly shocked by news of the NSA attaining data about Americans as a means of fighting evildoers? Has everyone been asleep for the last 12 years?
To summarize, yes, the NSA routinely requests information from the tech giants. But the NSA doesn’t have “direct access” to servers nor is it randomly collecting information about you personally. Yet rending of garments and general apoplexy has ruled the day, complete with predictable invective about the president being “worse than Bush” and that anyone who reported on the new information debunking the initial report was and is an Obamabot apologist.
Speaking for myself on that front, I’m not apologizing for anyone. I’m merely noting that Greenwald and the Washington Post reported inaccurate information.
The Daily Beast adds:
But even in the past few days, some aspects of the program originally reported as terrifying and incontrovertible fact have changed. For instance, the Post claimed that the NSA was “tapping directly into the central servers of nine leading U.S. Internet companies” with the express consent of the companies involved. The Guardian made similar claims. But as one intelligence source told CNET, the program is “not as described in the histrionics in the Washington Post or the Guardian. None of it’s true. It’s a very formalized legal process that companies are obliged to do.” The Post updated its story, no longer claiming that major tech companies such as Google and Facebook provided the NSA with direct access to their servers. As tech journalist Ed Bott wrote, “Almost no one who reacted to the story initially did so with any skepticism about the Post’s sources or its conclusions.”
This was one of the worst rushes to judgment I’d ever seen. The rush to canonize Snowden by the likes of Ron Paul, Glenn Beck and, of course, Glenn Greenwald and others on both the left and right seems to me altogether misguided. I urge you all to see Jeffrey Toobin’s piece in The New Yorker, maybe the most sensible piece I’ve seen on Snowden yet.
[S]ome, including my colleague John Cassidy, are hailing him as a hero and a whistle-blower. He is neither. He is, rather, a grandiose narcissist who deserves to be in prison….And what of his decision to leak the documents? Doing so was, as he more or less acknowledges, a crime. Any government employee or contractor is warned repeatedly that the unauthorized disclosure of classified information is a crime. But Snowden, apparently, was answering to a higher calling. “When you see everything you realize that some of these things are abusive,” he said. “The awareness of wrongdoing builds up. There was not one morning when I woke up. It was a natural process.” These were legally authorized programs; in the case of Verizon Business’s phone records, Snowden certainly knew this, because he leaked the very court order that approved the continuation of the project. So he wasn’t blowing the whistle on anything illegal; he was exposing something that failed to meet his own standards of propriety. The question, of course, is whether the government can function when all of its employees (and contractors) can take it upon themselves to sabotage the programs they don’t like. That’s what Snowden has done.
So, finally, how is this all being received over in China? I predicted in an earlier thread that the story would have little to no resonance there, and so far that seems to be the case. From the Atlantic:
And if you head over to Xinhua, a state-run paper, you’ll notice that there’s no mention of Snowden in the top 10 stories on the site’s front page. There’s not even really a Xinhua report to be had on Snowden — there’s something on the NSA as a “spy agency” categorized as a video report. In that category, which isn’t advertised on Xinhua’s front page, it’s at least the top story (pictured at right). Whether that’s a conscious news/propaganda decision to order to avoid sparking a conversation that might come back to China — well, it’s hard to tell, and it’s still a bit early in the news cycle. But remember this is the United States and digital intelligence and, the Chinese government has accused the U.S. of hacking its sites, and this Snowden thing is the biggest hacking leak story in U.S. history, apparently, so you’d think China’s papers wouldn’t shy away from the opportunity to make this a bigger deal.
The hand-wringing will continue and self-righteous blowhards like Greenwald (who I used to love and used to link to until he became so cloyingly moralistic) will continue to leak out more bad stories about the NSA — he’s already promised, “More to come!” — and Snowden will continue to be consecrated by the likes of Michael Moore and Ron Paul, but I say let’s take a step back and look at what he’s really all about, and whether this was an act of selfless defiance of an evil authority or an act of narcissism, and a criminal one at that. I mean, as much as I may sympathize with the message that the NSA has too much power and control, we remain a nation of laws, and should every contractor who has agreed to keep the data they deal with confidential split his gut and reveal the nation’s secrets? I’m a big supporter of Daniel Ellsberg and believed what he did was a pure act of conscience, and whose revelations — and this is important — caused no harm to anyone but instead awakened the nation to the bright shining lie that was Vietnam. I don’t put Snowden in that category. He is relishing the publicity, and has done no one any service except those who want to see America in turmoil.
June 4, 2013
Once again, I am resisting the temptation to write another long post about a story that has been rehashed and argued about so many times that any attempt at serious debate would most likely be futile. Instead, simply go to my post on the TSM last year and follow the excellent links. Whatever you do, don’t miss the post by Philip Cunningham, someone I’ve taken issue with in the past and who is known for cutting the CCP a lot of slack. Read it, and see why he calls it an “unnecessary tragedy.”
No, the students were no angels, and yes, some angry mobs killed some Chinese soldiers, and yes, the story is in no way black and white. But most of the demonstrators were sincere and they were idealistic and they hoped to make a difference. None deserved to die. The argument that it was all worth it because the CCP then did so much good is depraved. The CCP could have gone on to do all that good stuff and grow the economy without the massacre. Revisionists who see the killings as a good thing are, in my humble opinion, self-deluded and, yes, brainwashed.
Also, if you are new to this blog, check out my post on an interview with a demonstrator from 10 years ago, It’s still among my very favorites, even if I totally disagree with the young man I interviewed.
We don’t have to make a huge deal about this day, but like 9/11, we should never forget it. That’s why every year I’ll say something about it, even if it’s all been said before. And let’s not forget, the CCP can be a benevolent force that can do a lot of good. But when its survival is threatened, something very different can emerge. Things are good now, China’s huge middle class is relatively content. But if things go sour and the people demand change from their government, don’t think what we saw on June 4, 1989 couldn’t happen again. The party will do absolutely everything it needs to to stay in power. Everything. Never forget.
June 3, 2013
The copy editor who wrote the headline for this must-read blog post in the NY Times should get a raise; it’s perfect.
We’ve all seen it: the grinning, dancing, singing ethnic minorities at government events and the televised craptaculars (go to the link to see my first-hand story about one such celebration). They are happy, innocent, contented and they live to sing and dance. They are so cute. And they are ubiquitous; as you flip through Chinese television channels it’s almost impossible not to find some example of happy minorities.
In China’s worst single outburst of ethnic violence in four years, 21 people died last month in the far western region of Xinjiang. But never mind that. According to the deputy governor of Xinjiang, Shi Dagang, the region’s Muslim Uighur population is far too busy treating guests “to meat and wine, with song and dance” to create any problems. In fact, Shi insisted to reporters this week, “The ethnic minorities are simple-hearted and honest, very kind and unaffected. They love guests.”
Chinese officials like to paint a picture of China as one big happy multicultural family. To that end, the state pushes the stereotype that ethnic minorities are little more than entertainers who sing and dance in bright costumes. Song-and-dance minority troupes regularly appear on state television — often singing in Mandarin rather than their native tongue.
….Unsurprisingly, Chinese media are less interested in showcasing genuine ethnic minority culture than in using portrayals of happy, traditional ethnic minorities as entertainment to boost Han rule. As Zang Xiaowei, a professor of Chinese studies at the University of Sheffield, explained to me this week, the state media aim to “strengthen Han ethnicity for nation-building purposes.”
We all know the advantages many of Chinese minorities enjoy under the CCP, the improvements in infrastructure, the right to more than one child. For the lucky few, their singing and dancing can lead to careers as professional performers. But the picture painted in the craptaculars is quite misleading. Minorities are still at the lower end of China’s caste system.
But when minorities attempt to venture outside the zones of tourism and entertainment, many hit a wall, a problem exacerbated in more restive areas like Tibet and Xinjiang.
A Uighur acquaintance of mine living in Beijing told me this week: “I went to college. I got a degree. I speak Mandarin. But if I apply for a job in Urumqi they don’t want me.’’ He was referring to the regional capital of Xinjiang, his native city. “I was born in the city and the other candidate is from somewhere 2,000 kilometers away. Why not me? Why him? Because he’s Han.”
The Hans hold all the advantages and get most of the good jobs in what can only be described as a caste system. Can you imagine a Uyghur or a Tibetan serving as Prime Minister, or even in the central committee? I can’t because for all the celebration of minority culture they aren’t really Chinese as are the Han. This image of happiness and joy is indeed “China’s Ethnic Song and Dance.” All the ethnic unrest is papered over, and what we see is a propaganda fantasy. The minorities’ relationship with the Han who administer them and go to work in their towns can only be described as a form of Apartheid. There are those with opportunities and power and then there are the minorities. And you’ll never see that on CCTV.
Update: This brief well-written essay underscores the extent to the government regulates the lives of Tibetans, often stripping away their most fundamental civil rights.
May 29, 2013
This article is a few days old but I think it’s well worth mentioning. Written by Chinese novelist Ma Jian, it is the most horrific examination of the one-child policy I’ve ever seen. For example:
On ramshackle barges moored on the remote waterways of Hubei and Guangxi, I met hundreds of “family-planning fugitives” — couples who’d fled their villages to give birth to an unauthorized second or third child in neighboring provinces.
Almost every one of the pregnant women I spoke to had suffered a mandatory abortion. One woman told me how, when she was eight months pregnant with an illegal second child and was unable to pay the 20,000 yuan fine (about $3,200), family planning officers dragged her to the local clinic, bound her to a surgical table and injected a lethal drug into her abdomen.
For two days she writhed on the table, her hands and feet still bound with rope, waiting for her body to eject the murdered baby. In the final stage of labor, a male doctor yanked the dead fetus out by the foot, then dropped it into a garbage can. She had no money for a cab. She had to hobble home, blood dripping down her legs and staining her white sandals red.
The brutality and inherent unfairness of the one-child policy are no secret; the wealthy can get around it by paying a special fee, while those less fortunate have no recourse, resulting at best in extreme government intrusion and, at worst, infanticide if their one child is born a girl.
One of my informal, utterly unscientific “surverys” I conducted in China about five years ago dealt with how Chinese people feel about the policy. I realize these were all white-collars I was talking to, all in Shanghai and Beijing; about half of them were native to those cities, and all of these were single children. The other half were young people who had moved to Beijing or Shanghai, usually from second-tier cities. Maybe 10 in all. Totally unscientific and non-representative of China as a whole, of course, but interesting nonetheless.
I was surprised to hear a very similar answer from most of the respondents, almost the sort of canned response I heard in regard to Taiwan. Most said it was a shame China needed such a policy, but it was absolutely imperative that something be done to control the burgeoning population. It had to be done, unfairness and intrusivenss did not make a difference. We are talking about China’s survival, and China, they argued, would be seriously handicapped if its population kept soaring. Some single children complained about what the policy has meant for them — a world without siblings and a fear they wouldn’t develop the right social skills to deal with the outside world due to growing up in a kind of cocoon, spoiled and with no brother or sister to talk to.
I would be interested in seeing the results of a real survey to measure how the Chinese feel about the one-child policy. I’d also like to know, did the government make a conscious decision that dealing with a huge surplus of unmarried men was a fair tradeoff for limiting families to one child, knowing so many would insist their child be a boy? Did they know the result would be tens of millions of “bare branches”?
I’ve seen many articles, especially recently, predicting the government is on the verge of relaxing the one-child policy. But Ma Jian argues hardliners are refusing to abandon it, and if reform comes it won’t be anytime soon. Ma closes,
Ending this scourge is a moral imperative. The atrocities committed in the name of the one-child policy over the last three decades rank among the worst crimes against humanity of the last century. The stains it has left on China may never be erased.
I don’t disagree, even if Chinese friends and acquaintances say it’s been a necessary evil. Read the whole piece to understand why there is now particular outrage against the policy because of its loopholes for the rich and powerful.
Do Chinese people still believe the policy is essential for China’s growth? I’d be very curious to know.
May 9, 2013
I’ve made it a point not to link to the Hidden Harmonies blog, let alone use it in a post title. As a rule, I refuse to read it to avoid a heightening of blood pressure. But this is one article you all have to see, even if it’s four days old already. (Link via James Fallows, who is as surprised as I am.) It begins,
After living here for more than 9 months, I have come to a most repugnant conclusion. It pains me to even think about it for I am a Chinese person who has often defended the traditions, institutions, values and dignity of the Children of Heaven. But the truth is often painful at first. I realize now that much of the problems in Chinese society, and a plethora of problems there are, are not from the Chinese government (not a surprise to me since I am a long time China watcher suspicious of the anti government rhetoric of the west). What is surprising is that the myriad problems within Chinese society comes from the behavior, values and the beliefs of its people, a people that with all their traditions of wisdom behave in the most atrocious, despicable manner towards each other today. In a sense, I’d always expected this but were perhaps too proud to admit it and needed first hand experience for verification. Now I cannot escape that basic truth.
Of course, it lets the government off the hook completely, but it’s still a surprise. The comments are almost as startling as the post, although the thread inevitably breaks down in the second half as a few desperate commenters try to steer the comments toward the “America is worse or at least equal” argument.
The blogger writes, “The Chinese people especially in the north, display selfishness, rudeness, greed, ignorance, and pettiness the likes I have never seen before.” And he gives examples for his claim. Say what you will of the content, but it can’t be denied it is well written and well documented. Having just returned from a long trip to China, I can safely say a lot of it is true even if it is getting better (which it is; I was struck by people waiting in neat lines at Shanghai subway stations, but was still incensed at the rampant line cutting while I was waiting for a taxi at the new Shanghai railroad station). The writer even acknowledges that millions starved to death in China during the Great Leap Forward without blaming it on the West (and yes, that’s what other HH posts have claimed – an embargo from the West is what killed those 30 million farmers).
Read the whole thing and the comments.
May 5, 2013
I’m back home and never experienced jet lag like this, getting up at three in the afternoon. The total trip home, with layovers, was nearly 21 hours.
My last days in China were spent in Beijing, and for all it’s flaws (air, traffic, the usual headaches) it remains my favorite place to be even though Shanghai wins in the aesthetic category, with its gorgeous, winding tree-lined streets and colonial architecture, at least in the French Concession area. I can see why so many people I know swear by Shanghai and say its their favorite place to live, even though they are totally wrong.
There’s a new Sinica podcast out in which I’m interviewed. Please check it out.
April 24, 2013
I had originally planned to go to Chengdu but the plan was changed after the earthquake. I was in Nanjing for three days before arriving here, and it would have been great if there hadn’t been icy rain and raw weather for three days in a row. What can you do?
For whatever reasons, I feel more relaxed in Hangzhou than any other place in China. It’s just so beautiful, a perfect place for drinking tea and just sitting back and enjoying the scenery. I was in Beijing and Shanghai for a week, and it was anything but relaxing, just one interview after another. (If you’d like to see my interview with Xinhua News in Beijing from a few days ago, go here. That’s part one, with the second part to follow next week.)
This was a business trip, not recreation. Next time I go to China I promise to put up more posts about the trip.
April 13, 2013
I arrived in Beijing last night and will be in China for 17 days, if anyone wants to gt together. The itinerary will be Beijing, Shanghai and Chengdu. If my VPN keeps working I’ll try to make periodic updates. Nice to be here, pollution and traffic and all.
Update: Forgot to add, Fuck the firewall. Nastier than ever.
April 9, 2013
I wanted to give a brief shout-out to a book I just finished and highly recommend.
Chongqing Burning, a dark, intense novel about the meteoric rise and sudden collapse of Bo Xilai and his wife is a true page-turner. (The characters are renamed, but there’s no doubting who they are.) The main character, the chain-smoking, heavy-drinking David Northerly, is an old-school journalist feeling the pressures of an industry under siege. The book makes you appreciate what great journalism really is in an age of bloggers and “citizen journalists” armed only with a keyboard. With his two decades-plus of reporting, Northerly is hardened and relentless. As he pursues the story of the murder of an American businessman at the hands of Bo Xilai’s wife and her henchmen, he is harassed, thrown in a secret jail cell, gets beaten and worse. The book offers an engrossing mystery as Northerly uncovers who shot the American and why, but Adam Najberg’s best achievement may be his capturing how corruption works in China and how it lubricates the entire government apparatus. He has a deep knowledge of China and how its government operates, and one finishes the book with a better understanding of Chinese politics, and a much greater appreciation of what foreign correspondents there have to go through every day. (Najberg is an editor with the Wall Street Journal in Hong Kong. and has been with the paper for nearly two decades) A delightful read, a finely written thriller that I finished in two nights. Highly recommended. Available as an ebook of Amazon, and it’s for sale at a great price.