Jasmine Revolution = Tiananmen 2.0? (No)

It’s not just right-wing hacks like Beck that get China all wrong. Liberals who insist on seeing China as painfully repressed and brutalized can sometimes be even more way off. This piece in today’s Huffington Post is a great example of a left-leaning activist who looks at rebellion in Tibet and other demonstrations and thinks a successful Tiananmen Square-type uprising may be imminent.

His conclusion:

In spite of China’s image as a high-functioning economy, many of the social causes of mass discontent that exploded in the Arab world — endemic corruption, income inequality, labor unrest, inflation, pollution — continue to plague the nation. Since 2008, China has witnessed the Tibetan uprising, the Uyghur uprising in East Turkestan, and 90,000 mass incidents of public unrest each year. The Chinese government spends almost as much money on maintaining internal security as on its national defense. This underlines the overwhelming danger the regime faces from within its own empire.

2011 marks exactly a century since a previous generation of Chinese overthrew the Manchu dynasty and established a republic that lasted till 1949. This week, as organizers of a “Jasmine Revolution” issued calls for protest rallies every Sunday in thirteen cities in China, I started to feel that the stars are aligned against dictatorships everywhere. If the Chinese people seize this opportunity by combining nonviolent tools with strategic planning, they stand to liberate a quarter of the world’s population. It is about time.

This argument is weak on so many levels. The suppression of the Uyghur and Tibetan uprisings is supported by most Chinese people, and will in no way contribute to a spirit of revolution. Most Chinese people, from everything I see and hear, don’t yearn to be “liberated” and resent it when we in the West insist they do. Pointing to Tibet and Xinjiang and concluding Chinese everywhere are in the mood to revolt shows a fundamental misunderstanding of what China is today.

Maybe sometime in the future the disenfranchised of China will find a means to coalesce and stand up en masse to the government. That could really happen, someday. But China’s middle class and many of its working poor, who see a lot of opportunity for their future, are simply not interested, as Yajun eloquently argued.

If the right-wing is paranoid and hysterical about China, the left-wing can be wildly simplistic. And both sides can be very, very ignorant. There’s a lot of anger at the CCP and a lot of discontent among the have-nots. But China simply cannot be compared to Tunisia and Egypt, where many of those organizing the protests were in the middle class and relatively well educated. These were the ones using social media. China’s middle class and its intellectuals are hardly in the mood for open revolt. They don’t want to spoil what they’ve worked so hard to achieve. For them, it’s absolutely not “about time.” And it may never be.


What if they held a revolution and nobody came?

There are already many posts written about the so-called Jasmine Revolution, or the revolution that wasn’t. I’ve always maintained that China is nowhere near revolution and that any efforts to draw comparisons with Egypt and Tunisia were unrealistic. Some of the ignorance-fueled hype has been truly embarrassing.

Now let me offer the perspective of a Chinese person on this topic, one who I’m lucky enough to know personally and whose opinion I truly value. Pardon the long clip, but it’s a great post.

Yes, China has many social problems, including corruption, unemployment and inflation, some of which may be even more severe than is the case in Egypt, but I still argue that the chances of a “Jasmine Revolution” – never mind anything on the scale of the 1989 Tian’anmen Square protests – are quite small at least for the foreseeable future. The main reason being that discontent towards the government in China hasn’t translated into meaningful opposition.


China today is different from 1989. Over the last twenty years, rapid economic growth has raised the standard of living to an unprecedentedly high level. Most families enjoy a life style that previous generations couldn’t have even imagined. For example, my mom could only afford a small piece of sugar for lunch during the Great Famine in 1960, but her daughter traveled in three continents before she turned 25. Few urban Chinese seem eager to trade their chance at prosperity for dreams of revolution.

Maybe Chinese people’s trust in their government is not as high as the 88% claimed by a recent Pew poll, but the majority of Chinese do believe that this government can lead them to a better life. Think about it: If China had fully democratic elections tomorrow, who do you think would win? It would be the CCP in a landslide.

Furthermore, this anonymous letter was spread through websites which are blocked in China. Spending 60 USD each year on a VPN in order to read articles about democracy and revolution is not a priority for many people in China. People have other things to worry about. How to buy a house? How to buy a car? How to make smart investments and find financial security? How to find a job that doesn’t require too much hard work but guarantees great benefits? This is what we think about every day.

The Tian’anmen generation – some of whom starved themselves in order to see a better future for their country — is long gone. This generation, actually my generation, keeps ourselves very busy with trying to make our lives better, and frankly…there is nothing wrong with that. This is a phase many countries and societies go through. Mao’s been dead for 35 years, is it okay if we don’t have to think about revolution every day and night?

Beautifully said, and I couldn’t agree more. There’s a time and a place for revolution, and the conditions in China are not now rife for one. Do read the whole piece.

I agree with many of my Chinese readers that the US media often shows a good deal of ignorance when it comes to China (though often it’s the haters and blowhards like Beck and Limbaugh and Drudge – as well as some hysterics on the left – who drown out other media and make this ignorance seem more pervasive than it really is). The fact that this story got so much traction in some US media struck me as shocking, but not really surprising, especially in the wake of the media frenzy over the hysteria in the Middle East. A lot of Americans who can’t understand how anyone could happily live under a non-democratic system of government want very much to believe that ultimately the Chinese people must stand up and revolt. Misleading reports of thousands of demonstrations throughout China every year muddy the waters and cause many to see China as a tinderbox that the slightest spark can ignite into a fireball. Those who view a real masses-in-the-street revolution in China as imminent are bound to be disappointed, at least for a long while. Sometimes I think we’re more likely to see a massive popular uprising in America before we see one in China.


View from a Beijing window


From James Fallows’ new update from Beijing. Along with the smog, he reports that prices there have soared, and he’s having trouble accessing social networking sites even using an industrial-strength VPN. And I want to go back? (Yes, I really do. For every negative there are many positives.)


China Law Blog on Shaun Rein

I’ve written about Forbes columnist and China-based marketer Shaun Rein before, notably here, here and here. All I tried to do in these posts was to throw his own words back at him to show why I disagree with him so strongly. My approach may have been “colorful,” but I tried to be fair. In the last of those links I don’t even say a single word about what Rein wrote: I let his own column speak for itself so readers can draw their own conclusions.

A perennial supporter of all things CCP who states as fact that real poverty in China has been wiped out, that the Chinese people are happy, that Google declared war on China, that Deng should be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, that China is like a teenage boy clumsily flexing its muscles (and must therefore be given lots of space to grow and develop), Rein has, I admit, irritated me no end. Nothing is ever China’s fault or responsibility. All blame for China’s problems get pinned on “the West” (read the US), and any attempt to call China to account, be it on its currency manipulation or lack of response to IP violations, seems to make him bristle. He is unfailingly hostile to any in the West who have the temerity to criticize China. He frequently uses straw men, along the lines of “Many in the West say…” He also, without fail, promotes his own marketing company in just about every column he writes, whether it’s for Forbes or CNBC or Seeking Alpha and often seems to slip in self-promoting nuggets (“Many of my classmates from Harvard’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences have been actively recruited…”). It’s okay to promote your company sometimes, and it’s okay to remind people you went to a Harvard grad school and that you go fishing with high-ranking CCP officials, but must it be so often and so blatant?

I could write an exhaustive analysis and prove these things point by point, but luckily Dan Harris of China Law Blog has done it for me. In a painstakingly detailed but typically professional post, Dan goes through a recent Rein column line by line to make the point that Rein “categorizes all those who disagree with him as spewing ‘rhetoric,’ and implying that the only reasons for their doing so are political.” He also points out the typical Rein straw man (“[m]any attribute China’s boom as a result of stealing American jobs and intellectual property, rather than efficient economic policies and hard work ethic”] and then goes on to two of Rein’s most annoying devices, (1) insisting that everyone who criticizes China is wrong while he and he alone is right, and (2) using dubious statistics from his marketing company to draw conclusions that are questionable at best.

Mr. Rein then suggests how it is that he is right and America’s Commerce Secretary and its leading investors and economists are all wrong:

In fact, more than 70 percent of big American multinationals operating in China told my firm they did not want the renminbi to appreciate too much because it will cut into their profits. The majority also said they would increase costs to the American consumer or move to cheaper production areas if it rose.

What does Mr. Rein even mean when he says “more than 70 percent of big American multinationals operating in China told his firm” of their views? What constitutes a “big American multinational operating in China? Something like 80 percent or more of the Fortune 1000 operate in China. Did Mr. Rein really hear from all 800 of these? Who at these big multinationals was doing the talking? I very much doubt it was the CEOs, so who? What led these “big American multinationals” to reveal these views to Mr. Rein’s firm? Were the “big American multinationals” really asked if they wanted the renminbi to appreciate “too much”? Does not the phrase “too much” itself have negative implications? If someone were to ask me whether I wanted the renminbi to appreciate “too much,” I would say, “no, I do not want it to appreciate ‘too much,’ I want it to appreciate just ‘the right amount’ and no more.”

Mr. Rein’s claim that the majority of these “big American multinationals” said “they would increase costs to the American consumer or move to cheaper production areas if it [the renminbi] rose” also means nothing. Is Mr. Rein saying that the majority of these “big American multinationals” would increase costs to the American consumer if the renminbi were to increase by .0001%? Or is Mr. Rein saying that the majority of these “big American multinationals” would increase costs to the American consumer if the renminbi were to rise “too much”? Without a specific percentage rise in the renminbi as a reference point, the views Mr. Rein attributes to these “big American multinationals” are extremely vague.

…I am also troubled by Mr. Rein’s final sentence, which seems to say that because “China has played a critical role in helping the world’s economy recover from the financial crisis and is making great strides in protecting intellectual property and promoting more gender equality,” anyone who expresses disapproval of Chinese policy is “ill-informed.” I too am impressed by what China has accomplished, but I would never claim it is above criticism or that those who criticize it are “angry,” “ill-informed,” or “strikingly wrong.”

This is a long, detail-rich post and I encourage all of you to read the whole thing.

Already on Twitter Rein is showing his usual maturity and professionalism:

Shaun Rein
Not sure why Dan Harris seems so mad at me personally. Criticisms seems more personal than rationale [SIC]. Maybe his business is slow.

This, of course, is what he did with me, crying out that I was unprofessional and was personally attacking him. Shaun, these are your words, it’s what you said, it’s what you always say, and it’s why bloggers like Dan, FOARP, Modern Lei Feng and me have called you to the carpet. I don’t know who you are, I have nothing against you, and I even have said that when you write about marketing in China your columns can be quite good. It’s when you step out of your area of expertise and wag your finger at Google or the US Secretary of Commerce that you leave yourself vulnerable to criticism. And you never seem to learn. Same old same old. (And to readers who haven’t read FOARP’s excellent deconstruction of a recent Rein column, please go there now. Same with Modern Lei Feng’s post.) Shaun, don’t you wonder why so many commenters and bloggers make the same criticisms of your columns over and over and over again? Are we always wrong, while you are always right?

I want to thank Dan Harris for taking the risk to stand up to Rein and call him to account. This is what good blogging is all about. Just be prepared for Rein to bad-mouth you and call you unprofessional. Pot, kettle….


“Falun Dafa is Good”


I volunteered to help at an annual Phoenix event today, “Phoenix Chinese Week,” which is like an outdoor trade show for local companies to reach out to the Chinese community, to sell their Chinese wares, offer Chinese massage and acupuncture, serve up Chinese food, etc. There are also fashion shows and demonstrations of Chinese calligraphy. I loved it. It was the first time since I moved back to Phoenix that I was able to practice my Chinese for hours at a time.

Phoenix Chinese Week is held at the Phoenix Cultural Center, a huge complex housing a Chinese supermarket, a number of Chinese restaurants and a lot of office space, much of it unoccupied. The money-losing COFCO center is closely affiliated with the CCP, which helps it survive with generous funding.

So it caught my eye when I saw a booth for the Falun Dafa, with their usual battery of literature, including a “special edition” of the Epoch Times, which seemed even more over the top than usual.



I stopped by and chatted with the staff at the booth, who seemed very nice, though they didn’t seem to be very busy. Many of the attendees were from Mainland China, and they tended to steer clear. I just wondered how the Chinese Cultural Center felt about the Falun Dafa’s presence on what is for all intents and purposes CCP territory. This isn’t China, however, and I’m guessing there was little the Center could do about it. You can’t discriminate based on religion.

I might be more sympathetic to the Falun Dafa if their materials and methodology weren’t so extreme. I think they’re a cult, but then again, I think Mormonism and the Republican Party and several sects of Christianity qualify as cults, too. I can never accept the argument that the CCP’s treatment of them is justified because they’re “a dangerous cult” (another well-drilled message nearly all Chinese people I’ve met adhere to, as they do to the message, for example, of “the Dalai Lama clique”). That said, I find them singularly distasteful, even though I don’t think they should be beaten, tortured or discriminated against.

This is another of those topics I learned long ago never to discuss with my Chinese friends. It is simply impossible to have a rational discussion about Falun Dafa. It’s impossible to make the argument that even if they are a cult, they should have a right to exist. Creepiness is not a crime.

(All photos taken, poorly, on my iPhone.)

Update: To better understand how I feel about the Falun Dafa, I want to refer readers to this earlier post.

The scripts for FLG are… predictable: their leader is a lunatic who believes, among other things, that he can fly. They don’t allow practitioners to see a doctor when they’re sick, causing a terrible threat of disease and loss of life. They recruit and multiply and they can’t be trusted. Of course, the No. 1 script is the “dangerous cult,” a phrase that has been permanently soldered onto the words Falun Gong and can be heard in virtually every conversation with Chinese people about it.

I’ve always believed the cult part, and I’ve never believed the dangerous part. I would see FLG members practicing their breathing exercises outside the National Museum in Taibei, and while they may have looked odd they certainly didn’t seem to be threatening anyone. In Country Driving, Peter Hessler describes how the family he shadows in Book Two participated in the dangerous cult before it was banned:

Falun Gong was hard to define. – in some ways it felt like a religion or philosophy, but it was also a basic exercise routine. All of these elements combined to create something enormously popular, and this was especially true in the economically challenged parts of northern China. In Sancha, practitioners liked having a new structure to their lives, and soon others began to join them. By the late 1990s, it seemed most villagers met every morning on the lot at the top of the dead-end road. Cao Chunmei and Wei Ziqi became part of the faithful, and years later she described that period fondly. “Wei Ziqi didn’t drink or smoke in those days, because Falun Gong says you shouldn’t do that. And he was so angry then. It seemed the people in the village were happy we all spent time together in the morning.

I can think of other things that sound a bit more dangerous than that.

So again, I want to be sure it’s clear, I am not anti-Falun Dafa, even though I find the propaganda and methodology of its zealots (as in the photos from Epoch Times above) to be unappealing. I think most of its practitioners are normal, decent human beings who have a right to practice as they choose.


Groupon Tibet ad in questionable taste

Will Timothy Hutton (and Groupon) regret this Superbowl ad?

I’d say it’s not very sensitive to make light of the plight of many Tibetans. I know, their living standard has improved and there are schools and hospitals (believe me, I know), but to make light of their culture being in danger, and using the “joke” to promote Groupon….well, I just felt it was kind of hokey and maybe even borderline creepy. Even if there’s room to debate whether Tibetan culture is at risk or not. It’s just not a funny topic.

Reaction on Twitter has already gone wild, of course, so maybe it will end up being a net plus for Groupon, which must have known this would create a firestorm. But it smacks of insensitivity and poor taste.

Update: great post on the ad over here. Also here.


Red Crag martyrs

Xujun Eberlein, one of my favorite bloggers (and one of my favorite people) is guest blogging for James Fallows. Don’t miss her great multi-part post about the SACO (“Sino-American Cooperative Organization”) concentration camp in Chongqing, where, in the 1940s, hundreds of communists were allegedly tortured and murdered by Chiang Kai Shek’s loyalists in cooperation with his allies the Americans. Not surprisingly, the SACO massacre, which took place in the village of Red Crag, has been exploited to the hilt for its propaganda value:

Twelve years after the massacre, in 1961, Luo and a co-author published the hugely successful novel Red Crag, eulogizing the Communists’ heroic struggles in the Refuse Pit and Bai Mansion prisons…. In the years that followed, a long-lasting Red Crag fever swept all of New China. In the 1960s and ’70s the novel was far more effective than any textbook for educating school children in both “revolutionary heroism” and anti-Americanism. It was the very first novel I ever read, when I was in the 2nd grade. Every Chinese I know from my age, to those ten years younger, has read it, and some are still fond of it today. The novel has lots of graphic torture scenes, and the shadow of a high-ranking American adviser representing SACO was often behind the torturers. But, with an upbeat heroic theme and sensational plot of underground struggles, I have to say the story was gripping to a young mind. I savored it then; only in retrospect do I realize how sentimental and propagandizing its language was.

A fascinating story of Chinese history, propaganda and education by someone who actually grew up in Chongqing and whose family knew one of the escapees from SACO.

When I was in Chongqing with Lisa a couple of years ago, Xujun was kind enough to take us on a tour of the outrageously commercialized SACO museum, described in stunning detail in these posts. They are not to be missed.


China quick to label Egypt uprising as “chaotic”

We all know the line abut Tiananmen Square, that we can only thank God the CCP saved China from chaos by cracking down on the protesters by whatever means necessary. This argument was carried to another extreme in the case of Russia, where the rapid switch to democracy plunged the nation into chaos. Every schoolchild in China knows about that. And now Egypt. Seems like whenever a dictatorship is threatened, the CCP feels the need to desperately convince its citizens that change equals chaos.

Egypt may well be facing chaos. Russia indeed went through a long period of chaos. The protests in Tiananmen Square were nothing if not chaotic. But sometimes chaos is part of a phase toward stability. Often the relatively brief period of chaos ultimately leads to something better than the decades of oppression that preceded it. But that’s not how the CCP sees it, and they were lightening-swift in branding the Egyptian protests as an invitation to chaos.

Censoring the Internet is not the only approach. The Chinese government has also tried to get out ahead of the discussion, framing the Egyptian protests in a few editorials and articles in state-controlled news publications as a chaotic affair that embodies the pitfalls of trying to plant democracy in countries that are not quite ready for it — a line China’s leaders have long held.

The English-language edition of Global Times, a populist newspaper, ran an editorial on Sunday about the Tunisian and Egyptian protests with the headline “Color revolutions will not bring about real democracy.” Though Global Times is not the official mouthpiece of the Communist Party, the message of the editorial was consistent with official thinking, saying bluntly that whether democracy “is applicable in other countries is in question, as more and more unsuccessful examples arise.”

….Some of the news coverage of Egypt that has appeared in People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s main newspaper, and Xinhua, the official news agency, has focused on attempts by China to evacuate its citizens, simply leaving out the political discontent at the root of the unrest.

Of course, if I didn’t know better, I might think the party was nervous about its own people seeing what’s going on in Egypt as a good thing, and getting their own ideas about how it might be time to try the same approach in China. Now, as I said in my last post, this is a pretty groundless fear. There is no reason to believe the Chinese will take to the streets and risk life and limb to tear down a regime that most of them see as a vast improvement over what they had before, or that they at worst see as a necessary evil. But the CCP always gets the jitters when it sees people anywhere rising up to demand democratic reforms.

The “C word” is a very powerful tool for convincing people to shut their pie holes and get back to work and be happy for what they’ve got. For a society taught at birth to prize harmony over nearly everything else, nothing can be more terrifying than the threat of chaos. So it’s hardly a surprise to see the propgandists spinning their wheels to get the chaos meme out there, while censoring like mad to keep awareness of the Egyptian protests at a minimum. They have to worry that a lot of Chinese people are watching Egypt closely, despite the censorship and propaganda:

….Zhao Jing, a liberal Chinese blogger who goes by the name of Michael Anti, said that “it was amazing netizens on Twitter cared about Egypt so much” that they had begun drawing parallels between China and Egypt. President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt was being called Mu Xiaoping, a reference to Deng Xiaoping, who quashed the 1989 popular protests in Beijing, while Tahrir Square in Cairo was being compared to Tiananmen Square.

But that interest isn’t translating into rebellion. The government should be a little more secure. They’ve made it nearly impossible for a challenger to arise and take their place, and despite the buzz on China’s social networks, the Chinese are in no mood for another Tiananmen Square. Conditions would have to be a lot worse, with more people convinced they had nothing to lose. Maybe someday not too far off, but not today.