Dumb responses to the Wen family scandal

Evan Osnos of the New Yorker writes a dryly amusing column on the fallout of the NY Times’ exposee of the wealth of Wen Jiabao’s family members. Some in China see it as a massive conspiracy from the likes of Bo Xilai to feed the Times damaging information about Wen. Others indignantly claim it’s an intentional smear against all of China (big surprise). My favorite reaction is from those who say “What’s the big deal?” Osnos responds:

One of the standard lines going around in recent days has been the notion that this subject is somehow old news, that people already “knew” that Chinese leaders benefit from public office, so why bother? To me, that’s akin to saying that since we “knew” that campaign finance corrupts American government, we shouldn’t have bothered to unearth the crimes of the lobbyist Jack Abramoff; and since we “knew” British tabloids would walk a fine line to get a story, we shouldn’t have gotten so exercised about digging out the details of phone-hacking and the paying of police for information.

These reactions are designed to brush the story away, as is the blocking of the NYT website. Check out the column; the closing lines are killer.


New web site

I wanted to encourage you to visit my new author’s web site. In case you’re interested, it includes a lot about me that you probably don’t know.

In addition, there have been two new reviews of my book in the past 48 hours, each by one of my favorite bloggers, here and here.

UPDATE: This has really been a good week for coverage of my book. This is the latest review, and it’s superb.

Comments Off on New web site

NY Times blocked in China as it reveals Wen Jiabao’s obscene family wealth

I remember when Wen Jiabao first became prime minister. There were such high hopes, and they’ve never really abated: Wen has always been seen as “the good CCP leader.” As if by magic, he was always on the scene as tragedies struck, be they earthquakes or floods or winter storms in Guangzhou at Chinese New Year time or high-speed rail crashes. And there was something genuine about the Man of the People, the one who cared about China’s disenfranchised. And maybe he really does care. He would have to be a damned good actor if he didn’t.

But whether he cares or not, it still looks like there’s a dark side to his story. Today China blocked the NY Times after it delivered a bombshell story: Wen’s family members have made billions — yes, billions — of dollars through investments in family ventures and the awarding of contracts. Needless to say, something doesn’t smell right here. Is it conceivable that Wen simply didn’t know, or that he knew and was disgusted by the corruption but felt powerless to control it?

Many relatives of Wen Jiabao, including his son, daughter, younger brother and brother-in-law, have become extraordinarily wealthy during his leadership, an investigation by The New York Times shows. A review of corporate and regulatory records indicates that the prime minister’s relatives, some of whom have a knack for aggressive deal-making, including his wife, have controlled assets worth at least $2.7 billion.

In many cases, the names of the relatives have been hidden behind layers of partnerships and investment vehicles involving friends, work colleagues and business partners. Untangling their financial holdings provides an unusually detailed look at how politically connected people have profited from being at the intersection of government and business as state influence and private wealth converge in China’s fast-growing economy.

Unlike most new businesses in China, the family’s ventures sometimes received financial backing from state-owned companies, including China Mobile, one of the country’s biggest phone operators, the documents show. At other times, the ventures won support from some of Asia’s richest tycoons. The Times found that Mr. Wen’s relatives accumulated shares in banks, jewelers, tourist resorts, telecommunications companies and infrastructure projects, sometimes by using offshore entities.

There was something so simply good about Wen (or the way the media portrayed him), almost saintly. He was, ironically, a crusader against corruption and he was always positioned as the one who had “the people’s interests” at heart. This story delivers a crushing blow to such a carefully crafted image. Either Wen was implausibly ignorant or implausibly impotent, unable to stop his family from exploiting his position.

This is a remarkable story. It is one of the best-researched stories on China I’ve ever seen. It is exhaustive, and by simply relaying the facts it is utterly devastating. This is Pulitzer material, and I don’t say that very often. No wonder the NY Times is blocked in China today. I would be shocked if it weren’t.


How misunderstood is China?

The blog Just Recently, written by a frequent commenter at this site, has published a splendid post about whether China is really misunderstood, and how. It’s a detailed, thoughtful post that certainly got me thinking.

One of the most frequent complaints among the fenqing types, but even of ordinary Chinese who are by no means radical, that those outside of the country “don’t understand China.” JR’s argument is that this is to a large extent true, but not in the way those issuing this complaint mean. It’s almost the opposite hypothesis: that many of those who misunderstand China are fooled by misconceptions and believe things are more positive than they actually are. These people, knowingly or not, are making excuses for China and letting the government off the hook. For instance:

*”People in China have as many freedoms as people in Europe, as long as they don’t organize to challenge CCP rule.”

Not really. Frequently, challenging one bureaucrat amounts to challenging the party. What you can and what you can’t do depends on your connections, and even if you are pretty well connected, no independent court will protect you and the liberties you have taken to do things when the party decides that it has a stake in your case.

*”The Chinese Communist Party has lifted hundreds of millions of Chinese people out of poverty.”

That’s conventional wisdom. But isn’t it the party’s decision to leave more space for privately-owned business – i. e. a withdrawal from business administration – which has led to that success?

*”Authors like Mo Yan show that you are quite free to criticize leadership decisions – even if you are formally part of the system.”

Mo Yan spoke up for Liu Xiaobo (with some disclaimers included in his talk), and that was a good decision – but if he wasn’t part of the system, and right in the limelight, such a public statement might have earned him an invitation for a cup of tea at the next public security office – or worse.

What is true is that China is much more of a mixed economy these days, than thirty years ago. What may also be true is that the cadres, too, have become much more affluent. Some leaders, especially top leaders, have become rich.

And this seems to amount to a strange excuse, frequently offered by CCP apologists: because the Communist leaders – and top leaders not least – are so corrupted, their theories can’t be taken seriously anymore. Or rather: even as a democrat, you don’t need to take their theories seriously anymore.

That’s a nice license to do business with the guys. Unfortunately, it’s a faked license.

I’ve always been skeptical about the CCP “lifting” all those people from poverty, and think the more accurate description is that they got out of its people way so they could lift themselves from poverty. The CCP does deserve credit for this, and the decision to allow and then to encourage private enterprise was a turning point for China and paved the way for the greatest economic miracle the world has ever witnessed. The party also invested in projects that helped further improve its people’s lives. But the notion that the party somehow engineered the economic miracle and actively lifted its people from poverty is simplistic and, I believe, flawed.

There is much more to this post, and while I may not agree with all of it, it certainly held my attention. Its conclusion is dramatic.

People who are using excuses like the ones quoted at the beginning are most probably those who actually “misunderstand” China most fundamentally. But it’s a wishful misunderstanding. A less friendly word for it would be complicity.

I’ve been complicit too, in some sense, dazzled at times by all the prosperity I witnessed in China, and by the good the government is capable of, and it definitely has done some very good things. It’s hard not to be dazzled. But I also always understood that the prosperity comes at a price, and that many of those who are bedazzled constantly make excuses for the CCP and believe it is something it is not. (I know more than one such person.)

My one criticism of the article is that it doesn’t look at the other side of the coin. The misunderstanding is not all one-sided. There’s also misunderstanding by those on the other end of the spectrum who see the CCP as all bad. It isn’t. There are many CCPs, and many party members striving for reform and justice. The Internet has forced the government, at least sometimes, to backtrack and even to crack down on corruption and injustices (stories like this, from today, are now commonplace). And there have been improvements. There is no black and white, and there is plenty of misunderstanding that can be spread around to both sides. But JR’s main point, about so many people making excuses for China and failing to see what’s really going on, remains a valid one.

This is one of those times when you really have to read the whole thing.


“Chinese Characters: Profiles of Fast-Changing Lives in a Fast-Changing Land”

Jeffrey Wasserstrom and Angilee Shah have done a masterful job compiling and editing this book of 15 essays, each written by the most knowledgeable and articulate China experts on the planet such as Ian Johnson, Evan Osnos, Peter Hessler, Xujun Eberlein and Christina Larson. Each essayist tells the story of one (sometimes more) “Chinese character” — ordinary people whose stories offer keen insights into life in contemporary China.

While each story revolves around an individual, the essayists put their lives in context, exploring the developments in China’s history that help explain how they arrived at their present situation. For example, a beautiful story by Ian Johnson about a Taoist monk trying to hold onto his religion in a changing world offers a snapshot of the history of religion in China that is concise, informative and poetic. It also tells of how the Cultural Revolution nearly wiped out all religion in China. He at first sees the monk as a shyster but soon comes to respect him and to see the beauty in his life. It is the most poignant chapter in the book.

In one of my very favorite essays, Evan Osnos tracks down a student who created a video during the 2008 crackdown on Tibetan rioters that rails against the West and blames most of China’s woes on imperialist forces. This was when nationalism surged in China and when Anti-CNN “exposed” the bias of Western media coverage of China. (I was there for this, and was amazed at my colleagues’ unquestioning embrace of the Anti-CNN propaganda.) The video instantly went viral and received millions of hits, soon becoming “a manifesto for a self-styled vanguard in defense of China’s honor…” Osnos describes the video frame by frame. For example:

A cut then, to another front: rioters looting stores and brawling in Lhasa, the Tibetan capital. The music crescendos as words flash across the scenes: “So-called peaceful protest!” A montage of foreign press clippings critical of China — nothing but “rumors, all speaking with one distorted voice.” The screen fills with the logos of CNN, the BBC and other news organizations, which give way to a portrait of Joseph Goebbels.

The young man is obviously full of rage, and I expected Osnos’ essay to focus on his fanaticism and hate. But then there is an odd twist, one that I found jaw-dropping. Osnos meets him at his school, Fudan University, and discovers that this is no ordinary fenqing. Tang Jie, 28, is working on his dissertation on Western philosophy. He reads English and German fluently and is working on Latin and Greek. “He is so self-effacing and soft-spoken that his voice can drop to a whisper.” His room is stacked with philosophy books, and he is “under contract for a Chinese translation of Leibniz’s Discourse on Metaphysics.” Tang explains the reason for China’s outrage, things we’ve all heard before — the West’s obsession with Tibet, CNN’s edited photos, the unfair criticism of human rights in China. As with each essay, this is not just a portrait of a character, it is an overview of the environment and the history that led this man to become what he is.

Readers won’t be surprised to learn that my favorite essay was by Peter Hessler, mainly because he has an astonishing ability to tell a story in gorgeous prose totally devoid of sentimentality. He writes about an artists’ village set up by the local Communist Party to produce paintings to be sold cheaply and en masse to tourists and overseas buyers. The main hero of his story is a young woman from the countryside who paints pictures of iconic locations in Europe such as Venice or streets in Holland, and who has no knowledge of art history or of what she is painting. She just copies photographs or postcards on request. This is simply what she does; she does not see herself as an artist per se. “She had her skill, and she did her work; it made no difference what she painted.”

There’s much more to the essay than that, and he contrasts her with some other “Chinese characters,” like a young man who plays World of Warcraft for a living. The essay is about the lives of migrant workers and how adaptable they are to change, and about how many of them live lives that are far different from Western perceptions.

Other essays include Alec Ash’s depiction of the life of a Tibetan who decries China’s treatment of Tibet while benefiting greatly from China’s development of the region. Xujun Eberlein, not surprisingly, tells of her meeting with former Red Guards who had been vicious enemies during the Cultural Revolution. China’s environmental crises, the impact of development on the lives of Uyghurs, the stunning success of Chinese entrepreneurs, the pressures of the gaokao, the rise of guitar playing throughout the country, the destruction of hutongs in Beijing (another of the best essays) — the book sheds light on all these and many other topics by following the lives of the individuals who are actually living these stories. As the title indicates, the book is all about change, about people’s lives being transformed, for better or for worse.

This is a beautiful book and one that I read very quickly. I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to learn more about the lives of Chinese we rarely hear about. It lends nuance to everything we hear in the media about China, and takes us into worlds most of us hardly know exist. It is heartbreaking, funny, uplifting, awe-inspiring and surprising. It’s one of the best books I’ve read on China and it belongs on all of your bookshelves.


How to climb the greasy ladder to the top of the CCP

BBC News has a somewhat droll “how-to article” that provides step-by-step instructions for clawing your way to a high position in the CCP. Of course most of these steps are nearly impossible for the vast majority of those struggling to make it into the Standing Committee or the Politburo, as they call for lots of patronage and connections, though hard work and good luck can help as well, as it did for Hu Jintao, who spent four years working arduous hours in Tibet. Oh, and it also pays to be a male.

Only about a quarter of Party members are women. No woman has ever reached the Politburo’s standing committee, its highest decision-making body. In the wider, 24-strong Politburo, only one woman, Liu Yandong, has a seat.

The last rule of thumb might be the most important: Be ruthless.

Ambitious leaders are advised to first read Houheixue, or Thick Black Theory – a classic of political dark arts published in the last century. It says the weapons needed to succeed are a thick skin, which is immune to shame or guilt, and a black heart, hardened to hurting others for your own gain.

This somewhat tongue-in-cheek primer on how to succeed in the CCP is worth a look, if only for a smile. But behind the humor, all of it is probably true.


Prostitution Podcast, book update, etc.

I’ve made a promise to only rarely mention my book on this site as I don’t want to bore readers to death, and constantly promoting it would be bad form. So posts like this will be very few and far between.

I wanted to direct everyone to an extensive Q & A preceded by a fine overview of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China over at the Wall Street Journal’s China Real Time Blog. You can’t ask for more than this.

Today I’m announcing the launch of my new website, where I’ll chronicle all the news coverage the book receives (so I can spare you most of it here).

I’ve also written a guest post about the unusual evolution of China’s sexual revolution at this excellent blog. Please check it out (and bookmark this blog; it’s superb.)

And finally there’s very nice new review of the book here.

Let me close with a podcast I made about prostitution in China that you should all find interesting. It’s very brief, and the goal is to give an overview of the world’s oldest profession in China from ancient times to today.


(If I could rerecord it I would have referred to the patrons of the Zhuhai incident not as “Japanese tourists”but as “businessmen.”) Please enjoy it. You can hack it to shreds in the comments. (There are a couple other very minor glitches I’m sure you’ll catch.)


“Enough is enough”

There’s a beautiful post over at one of my favorite blogs by Xujun Eberlein on the phenomenon of gatherings of mainly retired men in Chongqing. They meet on a major pedestrian thoroughfare and they talk, loudly, of the need for change in China.

Eventually, in front of the New Century apartment store, I found several circles of men. In each circle, one man stood in the center speaking loudly and excitedly, and others surrounding him listening attentively, chirping in now and then.

They were all men, most looking to be of retirement age. No women in the talkers’ circles, though I saw a couple sitting under a tree nearby, not paying attention. My appearance thus caused a small disturbance. A few men approached me, and I asked them what they were talking about. I’m not sure what they thought I was – a journalist perhaps? – but they immediately started to voice their opinions, nearly shouting: “We want a multi-party system!” “We want democracy!”

A major target for them is Bo Xilai and the corruption he represents. They even accuse him of being involved in organ harvesting.

Is this unique to Chongqing or is it part of a larger trend? I have no idea, but I find the fact that these men bother to do this on a regular basis to be rather astonishing. I wonder what motivates them; is it just Bo Xilai or is he merely a symbol of what’s wrong with the government?

The post concludes:

My friend He Shu, a Chongqing historian, tells me that spontaneous gatherings like the one I saw have appeared in several areas of Chongqing. On Yangjiaping’s Pedestrian Boulevard, he says, there are some regular speakers making intelligent remarks on current affairs and have attracted quite some audience. Again, most of the men are retired, and aging seems to instill a more urgent need in them to see a change in their country while there’s still time.

This is well worth reading in full. We can only be grateful that someone is documenting this phenomenon, and we can only wonder how long they’ll be allowed to continue if they keep drawing sympathetic crowds.

Update: Perhaps the findings from the latest Pew Research poll, just released, are relevant:

“As China prepares for its once-in-a-decade change of leadership, the Chinese people believe their country faces serious and growing challenges,” the authors of the survey wrote.

“In particular, the side effects of rapid economic growth, including the gap between rich and poor, rising prices (and) pollution … are major concerns, and there are also increasing worries about political corruption.”

Graft is a particular sore point for leaders of the world’s second-largest economy. The party has repeatedly warned that anger over corruption could threaten its survival, or at least destabilize its tight hold on power.

Half the respondents said they thought corrupt officials were a very big problem, up 11 percentage points from four years ago….

More and more Chinese people seem to be saying enough is enough.


Mo Yan

I’ll admit upfront that I’ve never read Mo Yan’s works, but after all I’ve read about his winning the Nobel prize for literature that’s going to change very soon. (If anyone has a recommendation as to where I should start it will be appreciated.)

So all I wanted to do is draw attention to two of the most interesting pieces I’ve read about Mo. First, Brendan O’Kane has written a wonderful post for Rectified.Name on whether Mo Yan is “a stooge” of the CCP, and the answer is a resounding No. From all I’ve read (like this article), I have to agree. Quite the contrary.

There’s no question that Mo’s win was welcomed by the Chinese government. CCP propaganda chief Li Changchun wrote a letter to the CWA congratulating Mo on the win, coverage occupied front pages of newspapers across the country, and foreign media coverage of the win was translated in Cankao Xiaoxi (albeit in censored form, as Bruce Humes shows). Given China’s Nobel complex, however — or, more charitably, China’s sense that a country with more than 2,000 years of literature under its belt should have a slightly higher profile on the international literary stage than China currently does — a win by any novelist not banned outright would in all likelihood have been welcomed just as warmly.

Mo may not be a ‘dissident’ in the model of Liu Xiaobo or Vaclav Havel, but his work is filled with depictions of the venality, cruelty, and stupidity of power and authority. The Garlic Ballads (天堂蒜苔之歌) opens with a farmer who organized a protest against the corrupt local government being arrested in front of his blind daughter. In The Republic of Wine (酒国), one of Mo’s more experimental works, the protagonist is invited by Diamond Jin, the corrupt Vice-Minister of the Liquorland Municipal Party Committee Propaganda Bureau, to a boozy banquet at which the pièce de résistance is braised child. The still-untranslated Frogs (蛙), whose heroine is a midwife turned abortionist, is an explicit critique of China’s one-child policy. Red Sorghum (红高粱家族), the novel that made Mo Yan (and Zhang Yimou) famous more than 20 years ago, depicts the Communist guerrillas in a decidedly unflattering light, and they don’t come off much better in his 1996 novel Big Breasts and Wide Hips (丰乳肥臀). His more recent Life and Death are Wearing Me Out (生死疲劳) begins its survey of the past 50 years of Chinese history with the protagonist Ximen Nao being unjustly shot in the head in the land reform struggles that followed the establishment of the PRC in 1949. One of the recurring themes in Mo’s novels is the juxtaposition of personal tragedy with the long, slow-motion tragedy of history, and whether you think he does this successfully or not, it’s hard to imagine coming away from his novels thinking that they are encomia to the Communist Party.

Read the entire piece; it’s beautifully written, rich in detail, and is probably the best single article you’ll find on Mo and his works.

Second is an article by Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Mei Fong. She looks at Mo’s selection for the Nobel prize from a unique perspective, namely that it highlights “the increasing number of male Chinese writers reaching a global audience.” So many of the popular books about China, she argues, come from a female perspective, which is well and good, but there is another side to the story that has been less told: the male side.

For too long, Western perceptions of Chinese have been essentially a female one, brought about to a large extent by the hugely successful writings of writers ranging from Han Suyin to the two Amys, Tan and Chua, who, though American, draw hugely on their Chinese roots for their stories. They have offered vivid, touching, and loving portraits of dysfunctional families, of the immigrant experience, of female empowerment. Stories that need a woman’s touch.

In The Good Women of China, journalist Xinran Xue describes a visit to a remote part of China where women walk with a strange swagger. She discovers it is because the women live in a dry region with little forestation, and are forced to use sharp-edged leaves to staunch menstrual bleeding. I doubt a male writer would have spotted that telling detail.

Of course, these are stories that need to be told. But the surge of stories with tropes of infanticide, abortion and rape reinforce Western perceptions of the Chinese experience as being overwhelmingly feminine. As victims or objects of desire.

Women’s stories, no matter how vital, don’t necessarily square with all that’s going on in China today, which is facing a surplus of males following three decades of a government-mandated population planning policy — popularly referred to as the one-child policy — that reinforced Chinese families’ cultural preference for sons.

A very perceptive piece that takes a hard look at the difficulties facing many men in China today, and the hope that there is a shift in Chinese literature toward telling more of their stories.


The Chinese people are cool with gays; why isn’t the government?

According to some pollsters a majority of China’s young people are accepting of homosexuality. I’d guess a lot of middle-aged and older Chinese are too (as long as it’s not their relative who’s gay). Just imagine the joy of this scene as described in an article in The Global Times:

Marriages are common over the “Golden Week,” October’s National Day holiday. Normally they draw attention only from friends and family. But the wedding of Lu Zhong and Liu Wanqiang in Ningde, Fujian Province on October 2 drew crowds of onlookers with no personal interest in the couple. Lu and Liu are both men, and this was the first public gay wedding in China.

And the reaction of the crowds, numbering up to 1,000 people, seemed ecstatic. One cab driver told the South China Morning Post the scene was “grander than the Chinese New Year.”

Although not officially recognized, Lu and Liu’s loving union certainly wasn’t unpopular.

But however accepted gay love might be in real life, you won’t find it in Chinese TV. GLBT characters are essentially non-existent in Chinese dramas, despite the presence of a substantial number of GLBT writers and actors. Homosexuality is dismissed by anxious producers as unacceptable and threatening.

I have now seen at least ten different articles in different Chinese publications covering gay marriages, and every single one of them was positive. When, in 2008, I saw the photo of two just-married men in a passionate embrace outside Tiananmen Square splashed across the front page of China Daily, I wondered for a moment whether China would legalize gay marriage before the US does. (And maybe it would, if it were put to a popular vote. Good luck with that.)

The article even points out that there are a number of scenes in Hong Lou Meng that depict same-sex love, and that China has a “rich heritage of engagement with homosexuality.” We all know that, but we rarely read about it in Chinese mass media. (I have to admit, when I read Book One of Hong Lou Meng last year I was surprised at the casual references to same-sex love between both men and women in a book that is taught everywhere in China.)

So why do the censors suppress any reference to homosexuality in contemporary entertainment? Why are young people so broad-minded and the leaders so uptight? This is not to the country’s benefit, as the article says in closing:

If China wants to promote its soft power, then the tradition of benign tolerance and sexual flexibility exemplified in such works offers a chance to show the world sexual acceptance with Chinese characteristics.

This is actually a very perceptive piece that you should read in full. I’m happily surprised to see it in the GT.