Merry Christmas

I don’t think there’ll be many readers sitting around reading blogs today (I won’t be), but just in case, this is an open thread. Anything goes.


Guest Post: Charity with Chinese Characteristics

This is a guest post by our commenter Xilin.

Charity with Chinese Characteristics: Nourishing Africa’s Indigenous Culture?

The Amitofo Care Centre (ACC) is a charity working in association with a number of other organisations in Taiwan and South Africa. It was founded by Master Hui Li after he visited Africa in 1992 and witnessed firsthand the suffering caused by AIDs and the plight of the orphans it had left behind. Among other activities, the ACC has built and run a number of orphanages in Africa.

The following is taken from the ACC’s website:

The main principles of ACC are based on local African culture, Chinese culture and Buddhist philosophy which are given to the orphans in need. This is considered a unique and remarkable characteristic of ACC although it must be stressed that none of the orphans have taken refuge to Buddhism, as we respect their religious freedom and will allow them to choose their own religions as they enter adulthood.

Now here is a translation of a section from a speech given by Master Hui Li in Malaysia, the original of which is available here on the ACC website:

And we all deeply agree that the obvious benefits from the orphanages in the three countries of Malawi, Swaziland, and Lesotho, are that they have helped raise over three thousand orphans, and besides providing basic food, accommodation and education, have passed on Buddhism and Chinese culture to the children, allowing the bodhi seeds of Buddhism and the spiritual civilization of Chinese culture to shine in Africa. We look forward to raising a new generation of Africans, and lighting the heart light of benevolence, wisdom, the power of vow, and gratitude in them and then from this foundation we can start a virtuous circle and change the bitter fate of Africa’s needy, war, savagery and disease.

Giving details of the education and care of the children, the following is a translation of part of a newspaper article, the original of which is available here on the ACC website:

They receive a trilingual education here. Everyday, besides their mother tongue (Nyanja) and English, they also have two hours of Chinese classes. Master Huili himself teaches ‘Standards for being a Good Pupil and Child’ [弟子規] , ‘The Three Character Classic’ [三字經] [both Qing dynasty Confucian works], poems from the Tang and Song dynasties, and other Chinese culture. He wants to use ancient and broad Chinese culture to nourish Africa’s indigenous culture. He has even invited an wushu coach from China to pass on to the children orthodox Shaolin wushu in order to train the children’s bodies so that they all have strong physiques and vigorous spirits.

If you are interested in seeing the results of ACCs work in Africa, you can check out one of their videos on youtube. In it, you can see the children learning Chinese, meditating, reciting Buddhist scriptures, eating a vegetarian diet (which includes eggs and milk), using chopsticks and practicing Shaolin wushu.

Other videos online show the orphans performing at fundraising concerts in Taiwan. You can check them out if you want to see the children singing or doing Shaolin Wushu.

The ACC’s mission to help these orphans is commendable, but what of the cultural and religious elements of ACC’s work? Is it right, or even necessary, to try and ‘use Chinese culture to nourish Africa’s indigenous culture’ (‘中華文化去滋養非洲的本土文化’).

Finally, here is a translation of Master Hui Li’s own thoughts on what Chinese culture can offer the world:

And only by carrying forward Chinese culture can we bring genuine peace for humanity and for the world and get rid of the disasters of confrontation, division, and of all humanity set against each other, caused by five hundred years of white supremacist-lead European colonialism, might, and Euro-American pride, discrimination and plunder.

The translations above are all my own. If you have any questions about certain words or how I have translated them, please post a comment.


Mo Yan and his stories

A.E. Clark, the translator of one of my favorite contemporary Chinese novels, has written an essay about Mo Yan and his defense of himself in the light of attacks that he is not concerned enough with human rights in China or with the plight of his fellow Nobel winner Liu Xiaobo, about whom Mo has remained silent. In response to such criticism, Mo told three stories, each of which Clark translates and analyzes (they were translated By Howard Goldblatt).

I cannot urge you strongly enough to go to his site and read these translations and commentary. I can’t do justice to them in a blog post. I love the way Clark writes, and I stand in awe of his panoramic knowledge of China. Each of these stories (parables, really) is an attempt by Mo to put into perspective his reactions to the criticisms of him, but Clark sees them as telling us much more about Mo than the author intended.

The first story is about a young boy who, along with his classmates, is expected to cry when viewing “an exhibit of suffering” presumably during the Mao era. Clark explains:

This scene was not an uncommon one for its time. The “exhibit of suffering” (in ‘63 or ‘64) would have consisted of dioramas that showed landlords extracting rent from peasants, KMT officials lording it over the poor, and other scenes representative of life under the old regime. The exhibit might have included Japanese atrocities and perhaps even the depredations of the British during the Opium Wars. What is important – and what Mo Yan as a novelist would grasp perfectly even if this anecdote were not autobiographical – is how meaningless and bewildering the exhibit must have seemed to a bunch of eight-year-olds from a farming village…

The unnamed situation to which the scene is being compared is none other than the situation in which Mo Yan finds himself today. Now he is the boy who will not cry. In the weeks since the award’s announcement, he has been badgered about human rights by Western reporters, pressured to sign a petition on behalf of Liu Xiaobo, and invited to join in Western handwringing about Chinese censorship. He has refused. But with this story, he does more than refuse. He dismisses all these issues as fake indignation manufactured in the service of a conformist ideology. He doesn’t feel the distress or the outrage voiced by his critics and, crucially, he doesn’t think they do either (“the tears are only for show”). This is not as extraordinary a statement as it might appear. Apologists for the Communist Party of China often say that foreigners’ purported concern for human rights is a pretext for China-bashing. To put it personally: Mo Yan doesn’t care what happens to people like Liu Xiaobo, and he doesn’t believe you care either. To him, the clamor for rights is humbug and bullying like what he witnessed under Mao, and he asserts his right to stand aloof from it.

This is very powerful stuff. I am somewhat on the fence about Mo because I still haven’t read his works (I have one ordered) and I’ve read wildly contradictory opinions about him. One writer/translator I have huge respect for recently wrote an eloquent post about Mo’s constant criticisms of China’s government, its policies and its cruelties, and how he is anything but a government patsy. And that’s a matter of fact. But I see those as two separate issues. As scathing a critic of the government as he might be in his novels, might it not be possible that at the same time he functions as an apologist for the party? Are the two mutually exclusive? I find Clark’s arguments more than compelling.

I’m not offering a definitive answer. But reading Clark’s essay certainly made me think, especially his take on the third story (too long for me to paraphrase here). He concludes by asking why it even matters if Mo Yan is making apologies for the CCP.

It matters, finally, because – even if he never wanted this role – winning the most prestigious international prize moves Mo Yan to the forefront of China’s pursuit of soft power. The leadership is surely pleased that he dismisses as hypocritical nonsense the values underlying the defense of human rights against the State. We will hear more of this, from Mo Yan and others, and it won’t always be so subtle. That is not to say there will be no improvements in the area of human rights. Liu Xia has probably already been assigned better guards.

Again, please read the whole brief piece. Even if you disagree with Clark’s conclusions, his arguments are beautifully crafted and certainly thought provoking.


Mao: The Real Story

Alexander V. Pantsov and Steven I. Levine, two China experts with superb credentials, have written a biography of Mao that is sweeping, fine in detail, well written, engrossing and ultimately problematic.

Mao: The Real Story is a book I highly recommend to anyone who wants to understand Mao’s life and times. It draws heavily on Russian and Chinese archives that have only recently been made available, and this is what makes the book special. The relationship between Mao and Stalin threads through nearly the entire book, at least from the point when Mao became a leader in the Communist party, and their relationship helps shed insight into many of Mao’s most important decisions, like entering the Korean War, cozying up to the Guomindang in the late 1930s and joining with them to fight the Japanese. Stalin was Mao’s Great Teacher and mentor, and most importantly his banker — even when Mao violently disagreed with his Soviet masters, he had little choice but to go along, as they controlled the purse strings. The Chinese Communist Party would scarcely have existed without Stalin’s generosity. As usual with Stalin, he used China as a means of fulfilling his own agenda, namely the spreading of Stalinist-style communism, and for more practical purposes such as keeping the Japanese busy with China so they’d be less inclined to attack the Soviet Union.

When the publisher sent me a review copy of the book I was intimidated, and wondered if I could read it; it is nearly 600 pages long. But once I started I quickly got swept up and finished it within a week. That is not to say it’s easy; it isn’t. There are so many names and so much minutiae I had trouble keeping up with who was who; I was constantly flipping back to double-check. Some of these details could almost certainly have been spared.

It was fascinating to learn of Mao’s transformation from an idealistic youth, inspired by anarchism and the promise of democracy, to an ideologue who cared nothing for the lives of his people and who was convinced of his infallibility, with tragic consequences. We watch him grow and develop, and pretty soon we can’t help but to be repulsed. As he became a hardened communist, he had basically one modus operandi, namely to slash and burn, to destroy, to encourage chaos, to weed out enemies, to promote endless class struggle and violence. He did relatively little building, and that which he did build often ended in catastrophe.

Throughout his life in the revolution Mao manipulated the basest of human emotions. It was not brotherly love that he conveyed, but rather enmity and universal suspicion. “Down with the landlords!” “Down with rich peasants!” “Down with the bourgeoisie, merchants and intellectuals!” “Down with those who are not like us!” “Down with the educated, with businesspersons, with the talented!” Down with all of them, down with them, down.

The story the authors tell of the early years of the Cultural Revolution is particularly upsetting, as Mao proclaims, “In the final analysis, bad people are bad people, so if they are beaten to death it is not a tragedy.” Mao’s use of “class struggle” to eliminate his perceived enemies was coldly and ruthlessly calculated, as was everything Mao ever did as a communist leader. He discarded people like worn-out shoes, and he looked on absolutely everyone with suspicion. He was, especially in his later years, a miserable, lonely man held captive by the very class struggle he so cunningly initiated. Enemies were everywhere.

And yet Mao did unify the country and make it independent. There is more to him than just pure badness. But here I believe the authors actually cut him too much slack. In trying to be balanced and to take the middle road, they take pains to say Mao was “complex, variegated and multifaceted” and a different kind of murderous dictator than Stalin. This argument was for me one of the weakest parts of the book: they claim Mao is different from the Bolshevik ideologues because he was “not as merciless” as Stalin. Many if not most of Mao’s enemies in government were allowed to live. “He tried to find a common language with all of them after forcing them to engage in self-criticism. In other words, he forced them to ‘lose face’ but also kept them in power.” Okay, it’s good he didn’t kill them, but he did make many of their lives miserable (think Liu Shaoqi banished and living in misery in a single room with a dirty stretcher on the floor). And think of the millions he did kill by inciting students to attack their teachers, and by doing nothing for years to stop the misery in the countryside thanks to the Great Leap Forward. It was almost contradictory for this book to reveal just how awful a person and a ruler Mao was, to examine all the misery he created for millions, and then to argue he was “multifaceted.” After reading the book you would not arrive at this conclusion, which the authors express in the epilogue. They really can’t have it both ways.

Other small things: the Great Leap Forward is given very little space and I would have liked to learn more about how Mao reacted to the plight of the starving, and more about his decision to end it. Its coverage of the early years of the Cultural Revolution is superb, rich in detail and deeply disturbing, as it should be. But then the book seems to shift gears; we learn the Red Guards were called off, but we don’t learn nearly enough about the last five years of the CR. At this point the book focuses instead on Mao’s efforts to build ties with the United States, and the CR seems to be forgotten.

That doesn’t makes this any less of an important and impressive book. I highly recommend it to anyone who isn’t afraid of long books and who has a thirst for understanding how Mao lived and thought, how he could have done what he did. For this, Mao: The Real Story is invaluable. It is especially impressive that the authors were able to take such a wealth of new materials, along with other sources like the diaries of those who knew Mao, and weave it all into a compelling and page-turning narrative. The book is imperfect, but it is also indispensable.

Let me just add as a side note that I am well aware of how defensive Chinese people, my good friends included, are of Mao, and I understand that. I understand also that they don’t like foreigners to tell them what they should think of Mao. I talked with my Chinese teacher about Mao just last week, and she told me that the GLF and the CR were unfortunate mistakes but dismissed them with the words that “we all make mistakes.” (She also corrected me when I referred to him as “Mao” without the “Chairman,” and told me Chinese people would never leave that out.) But as with any great figure of history, Mao is fair game and it would do a disservice to history not to explore his life and try to understand “the real story.” I only wish the book would be available in China, in Chinese.


New thread, links, etc.

Please feel free to talk about anything, as long as you’re nice.

Also, please listen to this new piece on National Public Radio’s Marketplace. It’s about sex shops in China, and I’m interviewed briefly. An amazing subject; sex shops there are a world of difference from those in the West.

There’s also a lengthy new article by James Fallows on the possibility of more companies, especially tech start-ups, choosing to manufacture their goods in the US, not only in China. An important new trend?

Finally, there’s a disturbing new article on the surging AIDS epidemic in China. Some heartbreaking stories. (It’s World AIDS Day today.)

And now you can continue the never-ending debate on China’s system vs. America’s, if you don’t think you’ve yet said it all.


A peaceful rise

You have to go read Jame Fallows’ alarming piece on a crazy threat by Hainan officials, who claim sovereignty over a vast swath of the South China Sea reaching almost all the way down to Brunei (!).

If you’re worn out worrying about Syria, Gaza, Iran, you name it, I give you: the announcement today by police on China’s large southern island of Hainan that, starting on January 1, they will assert a right to stop and board any vessel they consider to have violated China’s very expansive claim of territorial waters in the South China Sea.

….For months, Chinese patrol boats and other craft have scuffled with foreign vessels, mainly from the Philippines and most often over contested fishing grounds. But an assertion from officials in Hainan that they can stop and board any vessel passing through these waters is something quite different. The US Navy has had a lot of different missions over the centuries, but one of its elemental purposes has been defending freedom-of-navigation on the high seas. The Seventh Fleet is the regnant military power in this area. I am usually in the “oh calm down” camp about frictions, especially military, between China and America. But it is easy to imagine things becoming dangerous, quickly, if the new Chinese administration actually tries to carry out this order.

You have to see the map of China’s territorial claims to believe it. Let’s hope Xi shows us early on that he’s a reasonable leader devoted to China’s peaceful rise by scrapping this idiotic plan.


Xi pledges national renewal; cites Opium War, of course

Can there be any talk of China’s greatness without bringing up its past humiliation and bullying? Does every call to inspire the Chinese people need to be larded with references to its past degradation? Xi Jinping makes his pledge to the people of China:

Xi said that socialism with Chinese characteristics, which has made huge progress, has proven to be the right path to realize China’s rejuvenation.

Xi said after the nation’s 170 years of hard struggle since the Opium War, it has become clear that a weak nation would be the target of bullying, and only development can make it stronger.

“It is so difficult to find the correct path, and we’ll resolutely carry on our cause on this road,” he said….

“Everyone is talking about a China Dream. I believe the revival of the Chinese nation is the greatest dream of the nation since modern times,” Xi said.

I do wish China the best as it seeks “national rejuvenation…of its past glories,” and think they’ve done a pretty good job thus far. I just find it odd that in a forward-looking promise to your nation that you’d reference its most painful defeat. Unless you’re using the reference strategically to remind your citizens of China’s perennial victimhood and arouse a greater sense of nationalistic indignation. Why else bring up the Opium War?

Last time I checked, the Opium War was over more than a century and a half ago. Is there a reason to bring it up as if it were yesterday? Sure there is.

I mean, imagine a US president — or the president of any other country — using what is in effect his inauguration speech to unify the nation making reference to its most humiliating episode from more than a hundred years ago. Usually you use these speeches to speak to your nation’s greatest strengths, not its most painful defeats.


Another expat leaves Beijing

Will Moss has written a typically excellent and witty post, this time announcing to readers his plans to leave Beijing and head back to California. It is an eloquent farewell, and if you haven’t read it by now (and I’m assuming most of you have) be sure to check out the entire thing.

One of Will’s key points in the post is that expats come and go — in fact, he points out, nearly all of those who come eventually go. Thus the title of his post, “I’m leaving China and it doesn’t mean a thing.” He makes the argument that just because a couple of expats recently made the decision to move back from whence they came it is hardly big news. Not at all. He points to Charlie Custer and Mark Kitto, both of whose unexpected announcements of their departures created quite a ripple effect throughout the blogosphere and other media (here’s my brief contribution to the noise), and wonders why it seemed so novel.

Will writes:

But I was never in danger of staying forever, and nor are most other western expats. That’s why I was amused by the mass fluster that surrounded the public departures of Mark Kitto and Charlie Custer. All of a sudden foreigners were abandoning China! I know and like both Mark and Charlie, and admittedly much of the fluster was within our particular echo chamber, but, seriously, coverage in the New York Times, BusinessWeek and The Economist? Both of their personal experiences can be used to tell larger stories about life and power and business in China (and maybe I’m just jealous that my own departure is about as newsworthy as a bad air day), and both of their articles were great reads. But “foreigner departs China” is the very definition of dog-bites-man. The satirical site China Daily Show nailed it with a funny “dear John” letter from a foreigner to China.

“Foreigner stays in China,” now that’s a story.

Obviously Will is right about expats being famously transient. Those who choose to be “lifers” are a relatively insignificant minority (Jeremy Goldkorn and Kaiser Kuo might — might — fit into that category, as does my former boss in Beijing).

But I kept thinking about this, and wondered, was all the “flutter” being made about expats leaving unjustified, or at least overkill, as Will says? Why did we see that rash of articles and blog posts? Should we have been at all surprised by the media’s reaction?

I don’t think so, and here is why: Charlie Custer and Mark Kitto were not just your ordinary expats who did their time in Beijing and decided to move back home. They were both high profile. Mark was famous for his work in Chinese media and the price he ended up paying for it. (There’s even a Wikipedia page about it.) Charlie was perhaps the most high-profile English-language blogger in China, his posts and translations frequently cited in the likes of the NY Times and the New Yorker.

But their being high profile is only a small part of the story. It wasn’t just that they were leaving, it was how they told us they were leaving. (more…)


Open thread

There are some shouting matches going on down below. I need to close those threads as they are way too congested; if you think there’s still more to say you can put it here.


Wukan reforms fizzle?

Remember Wukan? At the end of last year this Chinese village was catapulted into the global limelight when villagers arose in protest against local leaders taking their land and selling it to developers for obscene profits. Many of the villagers received nothing, some were paid a mere pittance. The riots that followed were sparked by the death of one of the protest leaders, who many rioters believed was murdered by corrupt officials. The story was covered brilliantly by UK Telegraph reporter Malcolm Moore and chronicled in pictures, videos and translations over at China Geeks.

Wukan stood out as much for the spectacular images of an enraged public as it did for what to many looked like a happy ending, with higher authorities stepping in and implementing one-man-one-vote elections that ousted the corrupt local leaders. Custer at China Geeks was, at the time, very cautiously optimistic, as I was, too:

Most people seem to be happy for and/or jealous of Wukan, and many also see it as a sign of impending reforms or, for some, more sweeping changes:

Wukan is the beginning of Chinese democracy, a single spark can ignite a prairie fire.

We’ll see. As of now, I don’t believe they’re even finished counting the votes. But how things will look in a year is even less clear. Still, it’s hard not to feel good about what’s happening there right now, for me personally and, it appears, for an awful lot of Sina Weibo users, too.

Well now, nearly a year after the demonstrations began, things look far less promising. As noted in the Wall Street Journal’s China blog:

Immediately after riots broke out in Wukan, Guangdong Communist Party chief Wang Yang interceded, which led to free elections that resulted in the village leaders being displaced by protest leaders, who then undertook to undo illegal land sales. This supposed success, fueled by Wang Yang’s involvement and attention from both traditional and social media, inspired a small number of reported village protests elsewhere in the country.

Today, those same Wukan villagers are frustrated because their original grievances have yet to be resolved. Disappointment has also reached other villages that had been encouraged by Wukan as an example of change arising from Chinese society. For example, an activist in a Zhejiang village, who had led protests against corrupt local leaders, was elected as village leader, but she found she could not work with the new party head. She then went to Wukan “on a whim,” only to be disappointed at finding reform had faltered there….

First, undoing the land sales has been complicated. It is unclear how much land can be reclaimed. Nearly 60 percent of the village’s 11 square miles was reportedly sold beginning in 1993. Some land has since been resold, in some cases more than once. Another complicating factor is the involvement not only of Wukan village officials, but higher-level officials at both township and country levels.

Wukan was looked at as a model of how the Party implemented reforms that led to fairness and social stability. It still is by many Chinese. But that’s simplistic. As the article notes, “The current system does not afford legal means of undoing corrupt land takings.” So dissatisfaction remains high in Wukan and justice has clearly not been served. While it was undoubtedly a step in the right direction, it was ultimately a very mixed “success” and not nearly the happy ending so many were hoping for. Instead of highlighting the government’s efforts at reform it underscores just how difficult it is to make real changes and achieve justice for the little guy. Elections are great, but they are not a panacea, especially in villages where rule of law is all but unknown.