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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
Not unlike the country’s own 260-million-strong “floating population” of itinerant laborers, I myself am also a nongmingong (migrant worker), presently dividing my time between our village and neighboring Shanghai, where I work. But the “simple life” I lead back in Jiangsu is not something I have been entirely inclined to share with other foreigners here. There seems to be an unspoken but prevalent attitude amongst more colonial-minded expats in China that leaving the luxury of the big city for the countryside is not becoming of us as westerners.
No, Western imperialism is not dead, and ironically it is found more frequently today among the Chinese themselves, especially the well-heeled, urban second-generation, whom harbor a deep-seated disdain for their agrarian countrymen. The derision is palpable, as if anyone with sun-kissed skin and a provincial hukou (identification card) is a shameful, sepia-toned reminder that China was not always an economic powerhouse.
Lest we forget, it is they — not the government who steals their land, nor the second-generation snobs residing in the skyscrapers built by them — who are the true People of this eponymous republic. And if the China watchers are correct in their prediction that the country’s profound social divisions may culminate into outright revolution within the next decade, my forecast is that the numbers are in favor of the farmers.
It’s very moving to see an expatriate championing China’s farmers. It is certainly not something you see very often. Please read the whole article.
I once wrote a post about my talking with one friend after another at the Global Times about what happened at Tiananmen Square 24 years ago, and whether they were familiar with the Tank Man photo. As I reported then, only one friend was familiar with the photo, and said she couldn’t understand why the West saw him as a hero. What he was doing was against the interest of society.
The author, a Chinese writer, sees the manipulation of history as a disaster for China.
The amnesia I’m talking about is the act of deleting memories rather than merely a natural process of forgetting. Forgetting can result from the passage of time. The act of deleting memories, however, is about actively winnowing out people’s memories of the present and the past.
In China, memory deletion is turning the younger generation into selective-memory automatons. Memories of history and the present, yesterday and today are all going through this uniform process of deletion and are being lost without trace.
I used to assume history and memory would always triumph over temporary aberrations and return to their rightful place. It now appears the opposite is true. In today’s China, amnesia trumps memory. Lies are surpassing the truth. Fabrications have become the logical link to fill historical gaps. Even memories of events that have only just taken place are being discarded at a dazzling pace, with barely intelligible fragments all that remain for people to hold on to.
This isn’t exactly new; I’ve been thinking about it for more than ten years now. But I hadn’t really realized the sheer scope of this massive, ongoing state effort to cleanse its people’s neurons and create its own history, almost in real time. After noting the whitewashing of the Cultural Revolution and the 1970 war with Vietnam, the author reminds us that state-sponsored amnesia is with us today, and the goal is always the same: to keep the ruling class in power.
What else is lost to memory? Everything that has happened in recent times: the AIDS epidemic caused by unhygienic blood selling; the innumerable explosions in illegal coal mines; the modern day slavery that takes place in illegal brick kilns; the rampant production of toxic milk powder, toxic eggs, toxic seafood, gutter oil, carcinogenic vegetables and fruit; forced abortions; violent demolitions; mistreatment of petitioners — the list goes on and on.
Anything negative about the country or the regime will be rapidly erased from the collective memory. This memory deletion is being carried out by censoring newspapers, magazines, television news, the Internet and anything that preserves memories.
… The oppression of words and ideas is not unique. It has been exercised by all authoritarian regimes around the world at various times. Under oppression, intellectuals — the people who are supposed to have good memories — are the first to become silent after being administered amnesia by the state. Next comes the general public.
The state prefers the intelligence of its people to remain at the level of children in a kindergarten. It hopes people will follow instructions, just as children follow their teacher’s instructions — they eat when they are told to eat, they sleep when they are told to sleep. When they are asked to perform, these innocent children enthusiastically recite the script prepared by adults.
As you can probably see, this is one scary article. Obviously in recent years the Internet has made it harder to stamp out memories of the more recent outrages and scandals, but the fact remains, most Chinese growing up in the Chinese education system have been denied the knowledge of much of China’s history. And I’m ready for the response that it’s the same in the US. Um, no. We are taught about the disaster of Vietnam, we see television shows about the folly of the Iraq War, we learn how we exterminated the American Indians. Some textbooks may try to put America in the best light possible, but there is no government-mandated effort to uproot history and deny Americans knowledge of their past. It’s all out there for whoever wants to know about it.
This is a long and engrossing article. Let me just quote its last lines:
The late Chinese writer Ba Jin had a dream for preserving memory — to build a museum in China devoted to the Cultural Revolution, the “revolution” that took place in the 1960s and 1970s and turned the nation into a madhouse.
Carrying on Ba Jin’s dream, I also have a naïve hope: I hope one day a memorial to amnesia engraved with all our nation’s painful memories of the last century can be erected on Tiananmen Square.
I believe a truly great people are people who have the courage to remember their own past, and a truly great nation is a nation that has the courage to record its own history.
China so longs for true greatness, it dreams so much of soft power and global influence. But as long as it insists on excising anything negative about its history from the minds of its citizens, it cannot be taken entirely seriously. How can they be taken seriously when they are so afraid of the past, so insecure about the present that they must reshape the truth to avoid any dissent or disharmony? Do they not know that it makes others wary to see how China manipulates its citizens’ minds? Is there any hope that this very basic notion is getting through to anyone at the top? Based on everything I’m hearing and reading, the answer is, for now, no.
One of the few benefits of blogging is that I get sent a lot of books to review. I only review about half of them, the ones that interest me most. And then when I’m done, the books get stacked in a corner of my study. But Tom Carter’s gorgeous book China: Portrait of a People, went straight to my living room coffee table, the only book ever to grace a table cluttered with antiques and China paraphernalia. It will stay there where guests will see it.
Embarking on a two-year quest to travel across China’s 33 provinces and capturing photos of the very different faces of China, including all 56 minorities, Carter has produced a moving tribute to the Chinese people. It’s easy to forget all the different Chinas that there are and this comprehensive book puts them all together in one place. And what a place it is! This book is well over 600 pages and includes more than 800 photographs. Carrying just a backpack and a digital camera, Carter achieves the impossible, portraying Chinese people and their environments as they go about their daily business, as they sleep on the streets or on park benches, as they farm the soil, as they fish, swim, party and protest.
No words can do justice to the book; it’s the photos that say it all. This beautiful video captures the heart and soul of the book.
These are rare, wonderful photographs. In his introduction Carter writes, “The snapshots in this book are not works of art. I was too preoccupied with participating, with reveling in the moment to worry about perfection.” I have to disagree. These photos are works of art. If you are still in doubt, visit this tribute to the book in the Atlantic and tell me if you’re not deeply moved. If any photos are works of art, these qualify. One can only marvel at how intimate they are, how Carter managed to win the trust of his subjects, at how he captures them at the perfect moment, whether they are shooting an arrow or walking out of a coal mine or peeing on the sidewalk. I asked Carter how he managed to be right there at the right moment:
Intimate moments were captured as a result of me not approaching subjects and situations as a “photographer”, but simply by being there in the first place. My only priority at the time was total immersion in China’s culture and humanity; the photography was an afterthought.
As he says in his introduction, “Where I have been, you will be; what I have seen, you will see.” He visited one-third of all the cities and villages in China, so there’s a lot to see. He captured the essence of every Chinese minority. And it’s not just pictures. Each chapter begins with a beautifully written description of that chapter’s region. These are not snips from Wikipedia or random web searches. The descriptions are as intimate as his snapshots. He writes, for example, of Heilongjiang.
I never in my life felt colder than here on the top end of China. Pain is actually the sensation I most vividly recall. During the bus ride to Beijicun, China’s northernmost village on the banks of the Amur River, two elderly Manchurian women sitting beside me couldn’t help but notice this underdressed foreigner shivering uncontrollably.
Wrapping me in the People’s Liberation Army coats, they held me close in their arms until we arrived, the warmth of Chinese hospitality radiating in China’s least hospitable climate.
As you’ll see when you open the book, hundreds of subjects allowed Carter to enter their world, and to trust him enough to allow him to photograph them. This was something I wondered about from the first page: how did he win the people over and have them share intimate moments? Carter explained:
Winning my subjects’ trust can be attributed to my sincerity in wanting to get to know them without having any kind “ulterior motive,” as might a journalist who is more concerned with bylines and facts than the actual human being in their presence.
Finally, I asked Tom what his favorite photo is, even though I knew this was impossible to answer. I wanted to know which one(s) was closest to his heart. Here’s one of those photos, and Tom’s response.
There are too many photos from this journey that have special and significant memories attached to them for me to recount, but one pic that I think really stands out is this one, taken in Yinchuan, the capital city of Ningxia. I came across hundreds of out-of-work men standing around a street corner waiting for day-labor, but they had spotted me as soon as I spotted them and immediately swarmed around me out of genial curiosity. I must have answered a couple dozen of the same questions (“Where are you from?” “Do you like China?” etc.) before I realized what a fantastic photo was right in front of me. The stories on each of their faces speaks volumes about China on so any levels.
You love China or you wouldn’t be reading this. So get a copy of this book and experience what Carter has achieved. It belongs on all of my readers’ shelves, or coffee tables, anyplace where it is within easy reach. You will want to open it again and again. Get it here; for a mere $16 this is a wonderful treat.
You can like Tom’s Facebook page here, and visit his website here.
I don’t think I need to say that blogging hasn’t been a high priority for me recently. But I saw a piece this week that I need to share, even though it’s already been out there a couple of days and has received enormous interest. It’s by editor, author, friend and all-around genius (and I mean that) James Palmer. (I reviewed his most recent book here.)
His story that has gone viral is all about the balinghou, Chinese young people borne after 1980, and the many myths about them, namely that they are all spoiled brats with no social skills and infinite greed and a sense of entitlement. Not so fast, Palmer argues. In fact, those descriptors may apply more to their parents than to the balinghou. It is the parents, disoriented by China’s hyperbolic growth and relatively new focus on money, so different from their lives under Mao, who now see greed as the key to success, to survival.
[M]any of the post-1980 generation — contrary to their reputation for greedy materialism — want to help others. Levels of volunteering are higher than ever, though still significantly lower than in the West, and college students or young white-collar workers are the primary founders of NGOs. But to their parents, charity can be a dirty word. ‘One of my friends has a sick wife, and very little money,’ said Zhang, the PhD student. ‘I wanted to give him 500 yuan to help him, but while I was waiting to meet him, I could hear my mother’s voice in my head, telling me I was a fool. Every time I give money to someone, I feel like I’m being cheated somehow.’ Another person I interviewed said: ‘If I tell my mum I gave money, she berates me because I don’t even have an apartment of my own yet.’
…And for parents whose own dreams were frustrated by history, the temptation to force their children into the path they wanted for themselves is even stronger.
This article is so brilliant, so intriguing, so well argued and so beautifully written that it generated a discussion from a panel of China experts including the likes of Orville Schell that is as essential a read as the article itself.
I’d like to quote nearly every line of Palmer’s article. This is partly why I am so down on blogging at the moment. There are many others who can offer more insight into China than I can, and there is no sense in my trying to add to it: Palmer’s article is as perfect as they come.
Let me just add that the myth of the balinghou as social misfits who’ve been spoiled to death, like all myths, certainly has an element of truth to it, as Palmer acknowledges up front. In my own research on the topic more than a year ago I spoke to several Chinese young people who grew up with no siblings, and they felt they were cheated — with no siblings they didn’t learn how to interact with their peers (or so they told me) and they lacked the social skills their parents had learned in their larger families. But that doesn’t mean they think only of themselves and have no moral compass. Greed is not their sole driver.
After reading the article (which you have to do) you may well feel that the ones who we should feel most concerned about are the parents, not their children.
[T]he parents of China’s post-1980 generation (themselves born between 1950 and 1965) grew up in a rural, Maoist world utterly different from that of their children. In their adolescence, there was one phone per village, the universities were closed and jobs were assigned from above. If you imagine the disorientation and confusion of many parents in the West when it comes to the internet and its role in their children’s lives, and then add to that dating, university life and career choices, you come close to the generational dilemma. Parents who spent their own early twenties labouring on remote farms have to deal with children who measure their world in malls, iPhones and casual dates.
Older Chinese, especially those now in their fifties or sixties, often seem like immigrants in their own country. They have that same sense of disorientation, of struggling with societal norms and mores they don’t quite grasp….
The young people’s sense of materialism didn’t spring up in a vacuum, but was instilled in them by their parents, suddenly living in a world with values radically different than the ones they grew up with in rural China.
There is much more to this article, and it is no surprise to see the storm it has generated. I would say it is the single best piece on China I’ve seen in a very long time, maybe years. It is gripping, and it is shattering. (Sorry, I don’t mean to gush, but I’ve rarely been so mesmerized by an article on China.) Read it now if you haven’t already, and if you’ve read it already go and read it again. Just two words to James: Thank you.
As a former PR practitioner in China, I’ve heard stories of unethical, underhanded and illegal activities carried out by certain Chinese PR companies many times. A common complaint I heard was the agencies slandering their client’s competition and artfully spreading the attacks on search engines and blogs and portals. But that said, I worked with a few Chinese PR agencies and found them to be incredibly hard-working, industrious, talented and ethical. I never worked (to my knowledge) with agencies in China that dealt in the “black arts” of PR though I heard their stories and have no doubt they’re true.
And now we have documentation. Thanks to commenter t_co for bringing to my attention this intriguing article on just how China’s “black” PR industry operates. This summer the government waged a widespread crackdown, arresting hundreds of practitioners of Internet deletion and shutting down a number of companies that sold clients on their ability to scrub away material on the Internet that they believed harmed their reputations.
Almost everyone knows about the public relations industry, but fewer people know about what in China is referred to as Black PR, the underground internet industry that has evolved with the spread of web 2.0 through China. Black PR firms provide client companies with both post deletion services to help them escape negative news stories, and some also provide placement for soft ads and hit pieces attacking competitors. The top black PR firms can offer these services even for stories posted to China’s most popular news portals.
Getting posts deleted is an exercise in sleaze. One of the original and worst perpetrators was a PR company, now closed down, called Yage Times. Its founder, Gu Dengda, now awaiting trial for bribery and other charges, used to work at Baidu, where he developed a business on the side helping companies scrub posts from Baidu’s search engine and portals. Gu figured out how to game the system at Baidu and began to make serious money. As an accompanying article in Caixin notes,
Gu’s knowledge of Baidu’s website-user rules worked to his advantage. He knew, for example, that the search engine’s around-the-clock complaint department would work with website technicians to quickly remove any posts about which they received a Baidu-user complaint. At that time, blog posts, comments and other data could be scrubbed based entirely on a single complaint.
Moreover, Gu knew how to make direct contact with website administrators and their colleagues. This skill – coupled with his ability to grease palms and cultivate good relations with website staffers – proved to be the key to his business success.
Gu started by charging 800 to 1,000 yuan per deleted post while still employed at Baidu. He would start working his magic after finding an image-conscious customer who wanted something scrubbed from the Internet. He would then file complaints with Baidu about relevant postings, and watch the Web until they disappeared.
Blocking keywords on Baidu requires high-level connections, but Gu did it, probably by bribing Internet management officials outside of the company. It is to the government’s credit that they have cracked down hard on this activity, but it reveals an Internet management system rife with corruption.
Yage is gone, but I suspect there are many other “black” PR companies still in operation. Yage used to boast openly on its website of its ability to block keywords on Baidu. Now, companies that offer such services will probably go underground.
If you want to get a negative article scrubbed from the web, or post fake bad news about your competitors, you still have plenty of options. And while it’s increasingly well-understood that such services are illegal — a Baidu search for “delete posts” now displays a special warning reminding users these services aren’t legal, for example — it’s not likely that much will change if black PR companies can make literally millions in profit, and internet management officials and police are all also onboard the money train.
No way to stop it until the corruption is dug up by its roots. I suggest no one hold their breath.
A peculiar hybrid of personal journal, dilettantish punditry, pseudo-philosophy and much more, from an Accidental Expat who has made his way from Hong Kong to Beijing to Taipei and finally back to Beijing for reasons that are still not entirely clear to him…