NYT: In Chinese Boomtown, Middle Class Pushes Back

Howard French has an article in this morning’s New York Times on middle-class activism in Shenzhen. Two years ago, local residents learned of city plans to build an expressway right through the middle of their neighborhood. But these weren’t your typical, ordinary peasants or hutong dwellers. They were part of China’s new latte set: China’s growing urban middle class. Led by former rocket scientist Qian Shengzeng, local residents organized and protested to the Shenzhen municipal government. Finally, after two years of fighting, authorities agreed to compromise and change the route of the proposed highway and also agreed to design changes that limit the environmental impact of the roadway.

It was no accident that the battle was waged in Shenzhen, a 26-year-old boomtown that was the first city to enjoy the effects of China’s breakneck economic expansion and that has served as a model for cities throughout the country.

Increasingly, though, with its growing pains multiplying, Shenzhen looks like a preview, even a warning, of the limitations of the kind of growth-above-all approach that has gripped much of China.

But Shenzhen may also herald more promising changes. Possibly the greatest force taking shape here is the quiet expansion of the middle class, thicker on the ground here than perhaps anywhere else in China. This middle class is beginning to chafe under authoritarian rule, and over time, the quiet, well-organized challenges of the newly affluent may have the deepest impact on this country’s future.

Since the 1980s, there has been a theory that a growing middle class in China would be the catalyst for change as a new urban elite emerges to challenge the authoritarian rule of the CCP. Supporters of this argument point to similar changes in South Korea and Taiwan in the 1970s and 1980s. The more skeptical would say that this is hogwash and that China’s middle class is too small and too absorbed with making money and economic status to challenge the party. Moreover, the legacies of the Cultural Revolution and the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests left those Chinese with the greatest economic resources, the urban elite between the ages of 35 and 55, with little desire to engage in political dissent.

Whether or not the urban middle class is yet a force for national change is doubtful. But the recent experience of Shenzhen’s Professor Qian and his neighbors show that this new elite can create change at the local level. And when you want to change something big, sometimes it’s best to start small.


Law of Rules

So, say you have a government that doesn’t allow any direct political competition but is still in need of a legal system in order to develop a modern, globalized economy. The country’s citizens, having endured many years of arbitrary authority, centuries, in fact, see themselves as having certain rights, and many begin to use this legal system in order to settle disputes and stand up for their rights when they are being abused. Even political protestors have rights according to the country’s constitution, and they too use the developing legal system to defend themselves. This puts the government in somewhat of a quandry. How can they build a rule of law and yet maintain their monopoly on political power?

Well, here’s one way – require defense lawyers to cooperate with the government. A Human Rights Watch report released earlier this week charges that:

the rule of law in China has been sharply curbed by regulations approved in the spring by the All-China Lawyers Assn., which is in effect the nation’s bar association.

The regulations require that lawyers representing political protesters be “helpful to the government,” share otherwise-confidential information about their clients with prosecutors, and be of “good political” quality, generally a euphemism for dedication to the ruling Communist Party.

The new rules are “restricting access to justice, and access to justice is really a make-or-break issue for China today,” said Nicholas Bequelin, the China researcher for Human Rights Watch. “You’re shutting down the pressure release valve that’s very badly needed in a one-party system.”

Bequelin said the so-called Guiding Opinion on Lawyers Handling Mass Cases was approved by the lawyers association March 20 but was only officially published a month later and was all but ignored by the Chinese press…

As described by Human Rights Watch, the Guiding Opinion makes it clear that lawyers’ first responsibility is to society, not their clients. “During these important times,” the rules say, “correct handling of cases of a mass nature is essential to the successful construction of a socialist harmonious society.”

“These regulations,” Bequelin said, “spell out rules that are simply incompatible with carrying out your professional duties as a lawyer.” He said they negated “the principle that is consecrated even in Chinese law, that the lawyer’s duty is to his client.”

Oh, and one more thing:

The rules also warn lawyers not to “stir up the news,” and to take special care with international media.

I know! Talk about the Olympics!


Look, up in the sky!

That’s me, flying to the US tonight. Obviously I won’t be posting for a day or two. I fly late tonight, and being incorrigible I will perhaps find time to put up another post or two before take-off.

I’ll be back in Taiwan on January 4 to settle all accounts and pick up my stuff and then leave for good, flying to Beijing on the weekend. A whole new life. Brrrr.


How do you spell i-r-o-n-y?

Lke this.


Teaching China’s Police to Handle Troublesome Reporters

Via Sonagi in the duckpond, this article includes an actual excerpt from the training manual coaching Beijing’s police on how to deal with the foreign media during the Olympics. It’s already a week old but it’s worthy of a mention.

‘Illegal’ news coverage

What follows is the dialog “How to Stop Illegal News Coverage” that appears in a training manual distributed to Beijing policemen learning English in preparation for the 2008 Olympic Games.

P(oliceman): Excuse me, sir. Stop, please.

F(oreign journalist): Why?

P: Are you gathering news here?

F: Yes.

P: About what?

F: About Falun Gong.

P: Show me your press card and your reporter’s permit.

F: Here you are.

P: What news are you permitted to cover?

F: The Olympic Games.

P: Falun Gong has nothing to do with the Games…. You should only cover the Games.

F: But I’m interested in Falun Gong.

P: It’s beyond the limit of your coverage and illegal. As a foreign reporter in China you should obey China law and do nothing against your status.

F: Oh, I see. May I go now?

P: No. Come with us.

F: What for?

P: To clear up this matter.

I love the “Come with us.” This is a sure-fire way to win the hearts and minds of the world’s foreign correspondents. I’d love to know who their PR agency is. They have a challenge in front of them.

Update: The US has some skeletons in its own closet as well when it comes to media relations. This story is a shocker, even if it’s from three-quarters of a century ago.


Living Abroad in China

living abroad in china.jpg

Disclaimer: This book was sent to me for review by the publisher.

I think I can safely say that this book, Living Abroad in China, will be of little to no use to nearly all of the readers here. That’s because it presumes you know next to nothing about China and are going there totally green.

If, however, you really are going there with little or no knowledge of the trials, tribulations and joys of daily life in China, then this book would be an excellent tool to take along. I wish such a book had been available when I went there in 2002. I found similar books back then, but nothing as broad-ranging and specifically focused on survival in China. For that, it’s quite valuable.

The book is written by a husband and wife team, Stuart and Barbara Strother, who went there to live for a year with their two young children. Their effort will appear hopelessly superficial to any China hand, but again, for the beginner I’d strongly recommend it. It gives an overview of how to set up your life in various big Chinese cities and provides useful factoids about looking for property, getting a hand phone, paying taxes, finding a maid, picking a school to learn Mandarin, etc. The timing is good for me – superficial as it is, there is still plenty of stuff in here I can use as I relocate in just a few weeks.

Useful, but far from perfect. For example, it claims broadband is better and more ubiquitous in China than in the US. The ubiquitous part is probably true, but the “better” is not. Everyone going to China who is used to broadband elsewhere will be shocked at how slow Web surfing there can be. There are several other examples of the book glossing over problems you’re likely to encounter, and along with that there’s tons of “D’oh!” stuff (the Chinese are enigmatic to us Westerners, if you didn’t know). But the majority of the information is useful if on the sketchy side. And it has to be sketchy – it covers a huge range of topics and places. Despite that, I’m glad I’ll have it with me for quick reference. If you are going for the first time, I definitely recommend it.


Beijing, Bernanke, and the rising yuan

The media and the blogosphere have been alive this week with Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Fed Chariman Ben S. Bernanke’s trip to Beijing. Washington still feels the best way to quiet the clamor over the trade imbalance with China is to pressure Beijing to raise the value of the yuan. This week’s Economist chimes in arguing that revaluation of the yuan is not the solution that American policy makers seem to believe and furthermore might have unintended consequences both in China and in the US.

Mr Paulson has taken the rather unusual tack of pleading with the Chinese to come to his aid against protectionist factions in America. Citing “resistance in both our countries to greater integration into the global economy”, he called for tangible results “on the most important issues facing our nations.” This is code for allowing the yuan to appreciate, and other measures to rein in the massive trade imbalances between the two countries. China’s cheap currency is the prickliest issue, at least in the public mind. A Democratic senator, Chuck Schumer, along with a Republican, Lindsey Graham, have been pushing a scheme to slap penalties on Chinese goods if China’s currency is not allowed to appreciate. Given the composition of the incoming Senate such actions are, worryingly, starting to look more possible.

But China’s leaders have big political concerns of their own, notably the millions of underused workers in state-owned firms, and the huge numbers each year who join China’s workforce. A booming export sector is helping to absorb many of these workers, so the last thing China wants is to slow sales of its goods abroad. Nor would the government be at all inclined to defer to the demands of China-bashing American politicians. In her statement to the summit, Ms Wu said that America misunderstands the situation in China, and that change is coming as fast as it can. The yuan has already been allowed to appreciate by about 6% since the middle of last year, which is more than many observers expected.

But Messrs Paulson and Bernanke say that letting it rise further will benefit China as much as the United States, by putting its growth on a more sustainable footing. China’s economy grew by 10.7% in the first nine months of the year, fuelling worries about inflation and an overheating economy. Given the fragile state of many Chinese institutions, particularly its banking sector, an unsustainable boom could lead to a nasty bust, which would please nobody except possibly Ohio’s steelworkers.

Still, the very fragility of those institutions limits how quickly China can move. No one is quite sure what a big and sudden shock to the system would do, and they don’t particularly want to find out. And at any rate, letting the yuan appreciate might not help as much as everyone fancies. Much of China’s manufacturing consists of assembling parts made elsewhere; a rising yuan would make those inputs cheaper, limiting the price impact on its exports. Moreover, the American economy seems to be relatively insensitive to currency fluctuations, which means that it will probably take more than a somewhat cheaper dollar to adjust its enormous current-account deficit.

Admittedly I’m not an economist. I got into the history game because, in the words of Chevy Chase/Gerald Ford, “I was under the impression there would be no math.” But on a personal note, as part of a couple who receives grant support and fellowships in dollars and euros respectively but must pay our bills and rent next year in RMB, I’m not crazy about watching the yuan rise any faster. In the words of St. Augustine, “Lord, grant me chastity. But not yet.”

cross-posted at Jottings from the Granite Studio


Does the Future Belong to China?

Interesting back-and-forth in the British magazine Prospect between Will Hutton, the author of The Writing on the Wall: China and the West in the 21st Century, and Meghnad Desai. a former director of the Centre for Global Governance and an emeritus professor of economics at the LSE and a Labour peer.

Hutton leads off:

It is a commonplace to observe that the rise of China is transforming the world. Extrapolate from current growth rates and China will be the world’s largest economy by the middle of this century, if not before. If it remains communist, the impact on the world system will be enormous and very damaging. Britain and the US are, for all their faults, democracies that accept the rule of law. This is not true of China. If an unreformed China takes its place at the top table, the global order will be kinder to despotism; the fragile emergence of an international system of governance based on the rule of law will be set back and the relations between states will depend even more nakedly on their relative power.

All that, however, is predicated on two very big “ifs”—if the current Chinese growth rate continues, and if the country remains communist. I think there are substantial doubts about each proposition. What is certain is that both cannot hold. China is reaching the limits of the sustainability of its current model, and to extrapolate from the past into the future as if nothing needs to change is a first-order mistake.

Our concern in the west should be to help China face its enormous challenges without damaging us in the process. If Chinese communism can transform itself, then China could, like Japan before it, smoothly integrate into the world power system. If not, severe convulsions lie ahead.

To which Professor Desai responds:

For a liberal pluralist, you sound oddly like a monist, if not a monotheist. For you, there is only one road to capitalism—the western one—and only one political system—ours.

China has a lot to learn about macroeconomic management, but its failings have nothing to do with totalitarianism. India is also shy about liberalising its capital account. The Asian financial crisis of 1997 taught China and India to keep a pool of liquidity handy, even at the cost of forgoing a better use for the money.

Yes, there is a Leninist party in power within a state capitalist system. But capitalism has no unique path, nor does it require a liberal democratic infrastructure to flourish. Japan’s economic rise took place without a fully liberal infrastructure, and most European states, including Britain and Germany, were capitalist before they were democratic. What the most recent phase of globalisation has shown is that capitalism requires neither the Weberian Protestant ethic nor liberal democracy; any country with a decent savings rate, mass education and access to western markets can “do” capitalism. It is not a western Christian monopoly. Indeed, some Asians are proving better at it than the Europeans.

It is a rich exchange and there is much with which to agree and much which needs to be challenged. I myself hew a bit closer to Hutton’s view in that I believe that China’s current problems are deep and systemic and cannot easily be solved without calling into question the whole system. These weaknesses jeopardize China’s continued economic growth, perhaps not in the short-term, but unless the CCP finds its way to resolving key issues of environmental degradation (Anyone want to buy a baby blue dolphin olympic mascot keychain? Anyone?), endemic corruption, and a creaky banking system, the long-term future of China’s economic miracle is uncertain to say the least.

Towards the end of the exchange, however, Professor Desai gets in this parting shot:

I do not defend the inequities or brutalities thrown up by China’s growth. But I don’t think they are a sign of weakness. Despite similar problems in most other economies in the past, none collapsed because of excessive growth. The USSR died because of stagnation.

You see the inequities and brutalities of China’s growth as unique to China’s communist system, and it offends your liberal sensibilities. You want these inequities and brutalities to be swept away. I see them as part of the historic path of rapid accumulation that many economies pass through. This is how income growth occurs in capitalism. What’s new?

Much to discuss here.

via Arts & Letters Daily
cross-posted at Jottings from the Granite Studio


Inexplicable Chinese Laws: a guest post

I’ve been exchanging emails with a reader who harbors some interesting points of view on life in China. I told him if he wrote some of these things up, I’d post them as guest contributions, and this is what he sent me. While his views don’t necessarily reflect my own – I don’t know enough about the Chinese law in question to agree or disagree – I think he raises some fascinating questions.
Does the rule of law in China support Lawful or Unlawful acts?

By Guy

Reading the news in China recently, a man is driving his car down a main road in Beijing. He follows the rules, drives carefully, isn’t speeding, however a pedestrian decides to jump over the central reservation (the barrier that separates the lanes on busy roads) this is in direct disregard of the local traffic rules. When jumping over the reservation he jumps directly into the way of the car and as such is run over and killed as the driver of the car has no chance to react. However the driver is found guilty and has to pay compensation to the family of the killed man of about 150,000 RMB. How can it be right for an innocent driver to be penalized for following the law? I understand that this rule has been changed in Shanghai recently, such that the driver is not automatically found guilty, but in many parts of China this still appears to be the case.

In the event of an accident the police will come along, take pictures and then tell the people affected to talk to each other to arrange who pays for what. The driver normally will be expected to pay for all medical expenses, repairs to the other vehicle and also for the time off work of the injured party, even though they did nothing wrong. Even then, once an agreement is reached the police don’t give any advice to the injured people (assuming they were not killed) about how dangerous it is for them to behave that way on the road. I have been informed by local Chinese that whatever you do if you drive a car in China, and you hit an old man or woman, make sure they are killed in the accident. It sounds callous, but the reason being if they are alive it will cost you a lot more money as they will go to the doctors and come back with fees for every thing wrong with them, whether this is caused by the accident or not.

Why is it that such gross stupidity and ignorance is rewarded in China? Why is no money spent on educating the drivers of mopeds and bikes as well as normal pedestrians in China? Especially since the majority of road accidents seem to involve them. Almost all of them are not even insured .

Back to Richard… Well, I’m not so sure about the last paragraph; should you really have to spend government money to educate pedestrians not to walk across highways that are forbidden to pedestrians? If they are that mind-numbingly stupid that they would even consider doing such a thing, would some public service announcements really convince them to alter their behavior? In any event, this brought back memories of an old blog post that I found one of the most interesting ever; here’s the part it reminded me of:

This idea is sometimes taken to its logical, but most grotesque end. At accidents that occur at places and times where there are no witnesses, but one of the drivers is injured, the other driver sometimes intentionally hits the other person again to kill him. Why? Because if he stayed alive the other driver would be responsible for his medical bills, but if he’s dead then he doesn’t have an impact on the other driver’s life or pocketbook. Pause and consider the twistedness of that. Then pause again to consider that such stories are common enough to make it onto CCTV.

So what’s the reasoning behind a legal system that permits – no, encourages – such inanities? What’s the logic? Is it grounded in any philosophical or legal argument, or is it simply a matter of pure insanity? I really wonder. I really want to know what’s behind it.


Learning Chinese

I’m finding this site really useful, and enjoyable, too. (Thanks, Sinosplice.) The post on assigning each tone an emotion is awesome. I’ve employed a similar system myself, but never really formalized it like this. (One day, when I get lots of courage, I’ll post about my own experiences learning Chinese, a topic I studiously avoid in order not to set myself up for mockery from those who are already fluent.)

Relatedly, some friends have recommended the Pleco dictionary as a tool for looking up Chinese characters I’m not familiar with. But before I order it I have to get a PDA, and that’s where I’m hoping some of you have a suggestion. A friend here is telling me to get this Taiwan-made Dopod, which has a phone, video camera, keyboard and every conceivable bell and whistle. He says I can use it to surf the Web in WiFi hot spots, post to my blog at Starbucks and write way faster thanks to the keyboard, as opposed to tapping or writing each letter with a stylus. If anyone has thoughts or suggestions, I’d love to hear them.