Urbanization: A tale of two Chinese cities

I was struck to see on the same day two articles in two publications each covering the progress (or lack thereof) of two Chinese cities both undergoing massive urbanization projects. What was striking was the huge difference between the two cities’ approaches. One article appears in the NY Times and covers the sad fate of migrant workers being all but forced to move into the township of Huaming located on the outskirts of Tianjin. The second, in the Wall Street Journal, tells a far more optimistic and upbeat story about how urbanization seems to be working in the city of Tongling in Anhui province.

Urbanization, of course, is one of the crown jewels in China’s plan to stimulate the economy and help relieve rural poverty, moving more and more farmers off their farms into cities where they can, ideally, find better jobs and hopefully begin their entrance into China’s middle class, thus helping spur domestic consumption. Easier said than done.

The Times’ story is nothing less than tragic. While Huaming at first glance appears attractive with rows of apartment houses and tree-lined streets and public schools, the story behind the scene is dire. Shoddy construction makes living in these apartments a grueling experience, and promises to retrain the new inhabitants, fresh from their farms, so they can find work have all been broken. These farmers were offered extravagant promises by the government of a transformed life with new jobs and housing and opportunity, but the article’s author, the great China Hand Ian Johnson, writes:

Today, Huaming may be an example of another transformation: the ghettoization of China’s new towns.

Signs of social dysfunction abound. Young people, who while away their days in Internet cafes or pool halls, say that only a small fraction of them have jobs. The elderly are forced to take menial work to make ends meet. Neighborhood and family structures have been damaged.

Most worrying are the suicides, which local residents say have become an all-too-familiar sign of despair….

But the new homes have cracked walls, leaking windows and elevators with rusted out floors. For farmers who were asked to surrender their ancestral lands for an apartment, the deterioration adds to a sense of having been cheated.

“That was their land,” said Wei Ying, a 35-year-old unemployed woman whose parents live in a poorly built unit. “You have to understand how they feel in their heart.”

The sense of despair and alienation surfaces in the suicides, a late-night leap from a balcony, drinking of pesticide or lying down on railroad tracks.

The plan is for hundreds of millions of China’s rural poor across the country to be moved into cities like Huaming. But is China really prepared to take this leap, and can they possibly succeed in giving these farmers a better life? The answer seems to be a resounding no — at least in certain instances.

But then there is the WSJ’s stunningly different story about Tongling in Anhui Province. The farmers, importantly, are still allowed to keep their land, and in every way it sounds like the local government is making the shift from rural to urban as smooth as possible for the new arrivals. There is, however, one huge difference: Tongling is a copper mining town and constantly needs new workers.

So it is doing what many places in China are unwilling to do. It is inviting migrants and their families to settle, giving them the same rights to education, health care and housing as locals, and even letting émigrés from China’s villages retain their exemption from China’s notorious one-child policy, so they can have a second child.

he approach shows signs of working. Tongling’s population is growing, while overall Anhui province’s is falling, and the local economy is getting a small boost. “Farmers are leaving their land and coming to work in the city’s factories,” says Chen Lei, a manager at the Tongling subsidiary of Hailiang Group, which makes copper tubes and plans to more than double its workforce of 280 in the next three years. “We’re seeing that now.”

This enlightened approach even includes reforming the hukou system so the once-rural residents receive the benefits of an urban hukou, including free education, public housing and health insurance. Everything in this article is positive. It is proof that under certain circumstances China’s monumental effort to urbanize its rural poor can work. But the story of Tongling is the exact opposite of what is happening in Huaming, its thirst for urban factory workers making what seems to be all the difference.

Reading the story of Huaming it sounds like it is already a lost cause. Can China learn from tragedies like this, while also learning a lesson from what’s happening in Tongling? I understand there is a bit of apples and oranges to this comparison; Tongling can actually offer the new arrivals a future. Without such an offer, the mass movements into the cities are most likely doomed to fail. If urbanization is going to work there absolutely must be jobs available or these new cities will indeed become ghettos of hopelessness, broken promises and shattered dreams. You can’t just take their land away and leave them to rot in crowded apartments that are falling apart.

Read the two articles. They offer a very thought-provoking contrast.


Toxic air shuts down Harbin

This photo taken yesterday in Harbin is all over the Internet, but I couldn’t let it go without posting it. As the article explains, the air darkened and filled with smoke after the city turned on its coal-powered central heating system.

“School was canceled, traffic was nearly paralyzed and the airport was shut down in the northeast Chinese city of Harbin on Monday as off-the-charts pollution dropped visibility to less than 10 meters in parts of the provincial capital.”

Nothing poses a more serious problem to China than its poisoned air and water. It could choke off the country, driving away tourism and casting a dark shadow over its “economic miracle.” A shame. I have been dying recently to get back, then I hear stories from hell from my friends who are still there, and I see pictures like these, and I wonder if I really want to go. A “lifer” I know who was going to live in China until his dying day is now looking for a home in the West for fear his children will be harmed by Beijing’s toxic air.

So many Chinese people have told me that the government, for all its faults, could achieve anything it wanted to once it had its sights on the target. But I don’t think they can solve this problem. There are two options: choke on pollution, or drastically slow down growth. China’s in a box, and really has no choice: the growth must go on if the CCP is to hold onto power. Breathable air takes a back seat. I know, they’re investing heavily in green energy, but that will take years to implement. China runs on coal, and will do so for decades to come. A tragedy.


70 percent good

There is a narrative about the halcyon period in China from when Mao assumed power in 1949 through late 1956 when he launched what turned out to be the insidious “Let 100 flowers bloom” campaign. These were the good years when women were liberated and the nation’s new leaders seemed reform-minded and effective. The bad stuff all came later.

In a scathing new book, The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution, 1945-57, Frank Dikotter, a harsh critic of Mao in his earlier book on the Great Leap Forward’s unnecessary famine, demolishes the myth of Mao’s golden years. He maintains instead that was a time of unimaginable cruelty and wanton murder. I haven’t read the book yet, but recommend you read the review of the book in the Economist. These were years drowned in bloodshed.

The genius of communist violence was to implicate ever more people in it. After landlords were tried in front of village tribunals, then beaten and shot, land and possessions were divided up among the crowd. It was an incentive to find new victims, many of whom were burned or buried alive. But the more victims, the greater the fear of reprisals from distraught families. So the tribunals kept on killing. Children were not spared. By the end of 1952 up to 2m Chinese had been murdered.

A parallel terror was waged against those deemed to be counter-revolutionaries, Nationalists or foreign spies, some as young as eight, with new victims trucked daily to execution sites. Throughout these orgies of violence, Mao and other leaders coolly laid down quotas—up to four deaths for every thousand Chinese was considered appropriate. In the three provinces under the jurisdiction of Deng Xiaoping, known today for having been open-minded, 150,000 had been executed by November 1951. The total number of deaths will never be known. But in late 1952 Bo Yibo (father of Bo Xilai, whose recent trial has caused a sensation) said, approvingly, that 2m had been executed.

Not everyone could be killed, Mao acknowledged. So a vast gulag was born, swallowing up counter-revolutionaries, vagabonds, prostitutes, capitalists, marketeers, foreigners and, later, intellectuals. The population in the “reform through labour” camps quickly reached about 2m. The relentless indoctrination, one inmate later said, was nothing less than the “physical and mental liquidation of oneself”.

The country was, as Mr Dikotter puts it, well down “the road to serfdom”—literally so for farmers. All the landlord blood spilled was supposed to empower peasants. But the upheaval had devastated the countryside. Draught animals, fertiliser and skills were in short supply. The markets and other networks on which farmers had long depended were destroyed. Farming risked being branded the work of the evil landlord, yet the state demanded ever more grain from farmers in tax. Hardships multiplied. Villagers sold their children.

I realize that Chinese people don’t like to hear foreigners say negative things about Mao. It’s a topic of great sensitivity, as I myself learned the hard way when I tried to discuss it with a co-worker some years ago. But the story needs to be told anyway. They aren’t going to read about it in Chinese textbooks so I am grateful to scholars like Dikotter for making sure that anyone interested can learn the truth. Again, since I haven’t read the book I can’t say it’s all gospel truth. But based on the review, it sounds like a good and important read. I admit, I’ve been sucked into the “halcyon years” myth myself. It’s good to see it debunked.


Unsavory Elements, edited by Tom Carter

I’ve never met an expat in China who didn’t have his or her own extraordinary stories to tell, stories that at times made them stop and ask themselves, “What exactly am I doing here?” Every day one can experience an “only in China” moment, like waiting three hours to see a bank teller or seeing teenagers sleeping and snoring at an Internet cafe. I’ve described many such situations on this blog, like my being harassed for being a “laowai” in Kunming, or my delightfully nauseating experience at a Beijing duck restaurant, or my experience watching a beggar on a bus.

Having lived in Singapore and Taipei, I’ve been struck by the cities’ huge differences with China in terms of daily life. In the former two, there are rarely any surprises at all. They are great places to live, but they are also predictable (which is why expats with kids love living there). You are rarely taken aback by what you see on the street. China, as we all know, can be one surprise after another. We all have a battery of stories that prove it.

Which brings me to Tom Carter’s superb book of short stories, Unsavory Elements: Stories of Foreigners on the Loose in China, written by some of the most prominent writers in (or formerly in) China, like journalist and author Jonathan Watts, Alan Paul (author of Big in China), Deb Fallows (a linguist, author and wife of James Fallows), novelist and Fulbright Scholar Kaitlin Solimise, and an epilogue by the great Simon Winchester, author of The River at the Center of the World. And there are 23 others, most of them writers of incredible competence and backgrounds rich in China experience. Somehow, Tom Carter, the photographer behind the acclaimed photo-essay book China: Portrait of a People, has achieved the impossible, tracking down 28 of the most brilliant China hands and inducing them to write first-rate stories about some of their most exceptional experiences in China. (Peter Hessler also contributed a story, but it’s a piece he originally wrote for the New Yorker, the only story that wasn’t commissioned for the book.) Carter somehow got them all to deliver their stories, edited them and whipped them into a book that is fast paced (I read it in two or three sittings) and, like China, full of surprises.

It is impossible to write a thorough review of this book. That would take 28 posts, one for each story; trying to choose which ones to mention in this review is painful, because there is so much good in so many of them. You really need to read the whole thing. If you live in China or are curious about expat life there, this is required reading.

Like any book with 28 authors, there is going to be some unevenness. There was one story that I found disappointing, as I thought the author was puffing it up. One or two were too long, a couple were inconclusive and begged for more finality. But the remarkable thing is just how high the quality of nearly all the writing is and how remarkable the situations are, some of them downright bizarre.

Michael Levy, author of a book I should have reviewed a long time ago, Kosher Chinese, kicks the book off with the kind of moral dilemma China is known for: Michael, teaching at an English training school for rich Chinese kids, is offered a bribe to write the students’ admission letters so they can get into exclusive American boarding schools. At $1,000 an essay, it’s a tempting offer. Levy takes us into the world of teaching in China and, coming back to the bribe, leaves us hanging in a surprise ending.

One story that fascinated me for its sheer strangeness was by author Dominic Stevenson about his stay at a Shanghai prison for smuggling dope across the border. When I’ve read in the newspaper about foreigners being arrested in China and put in jail I’ve always wondered what they go through and how they survive. While this story isn’t poetic, it paints a wonderful picture of life behind bars and the special privileges foreigners enjoy there. (Despite some of the relative comforts they enjoy, it’s an experience I plan on never knowing first-hand.)

The most breathtaking story is told by Susie Gordon about her night out with a fabulously rich Chinese businessman who, with no second thought, plunks down $20,000 for a few bottles of wine in a single sitting. Describing one wild night with Mr. Zhou and his son and friends, Gordon transports us into the rarefied world of China’s super-rich, with all the luxuries, the trappings, the sins and temptations. She describes the behavior of Zhou’s son and his obscenely wealthy friends at a lavish karaoke bar operated by a friend, Yu Haiming.

The customary libation at KTV is whiskey mixed with green tea, or watery beer from tall green bottles, but Yu Haiming’s place was unsurprisingly different. He had two of the girls bring in a magnum of champagne, a little silver tray arrayed with slim white lines of powder that might have been coke but in all likelihood was ketamine, and pills nestled like candies in a brass bowl. At one point, I remember looking around at the girls, the men, the drugs and the money, and wondering how long this utopia could last: the Chinese dream in its second prodigal generation.

The entire story is a tour de force. And there’s much more: Deb Fallows’ observations on all the things you’re not allowed to do in China (the story is appropriately titled Bu Keyi), and how she and her husband came face to face with the law while shooting photos on Tiananmen Square on the 20th anniversary of the June 4 “incident.” Jonathan Watts making a visit to an environmentalist in the rain forests of Xishuangbanna. Bruce Humes’ truly harrowing depiction of his brutal mugging and subsequent experience in a Shenzhen hospital… The most poignant story is Kaitlin Solimine’s gorgeous depiction of her “second mother” when she lived in China as an exchange student, who became a lifelong friend.

Unsavory Elements is the title of editor Tom Carter’s own story, a tale of his visit with two friends to a seedy Chinese brothel in the countryside on a lane called “Teen Street.” The story has generated considerable controversy, as you can see in this review and its explosive comment thread. The story is hilarious — one of the friends is a consummate loser and Carter’s description of him caused me to laugh out loud. It took a lot of chutzpah to write a story like this, and I give Carter credit for his daring to tell a story that many expat men experience but usually choose not to tell to the world. I enjoyed reading this fast-paced piece, but I have to say that I understand why it is so controversial. The story is farce, and to shift gears and go the politically correct route and tell about the sorrows and tragedy of prostitution would have disrupted the tone. I thought, however, that Carter could have woven at least something into this story that conveyed a bit more empathy for the girls’ plight, without being preachy. It’s a hard thing to do, interjecting such a serious note into such a side-splitting narrative, but I know Carter has the skill to do this. Nevertheless the story stands out as one of the highlights of the book, another look behind the scenes of what most of us will never experience ourselves.

Do yourselves a favor and read the book. From high farce to heartbreaking poignancy, it’s all here, and you get to peer into aspects of China you may never have known about otherwise (like Dan Washburn’s trip deep into the Guizhou countryside, or Kay Bratt’s moving story of a girl in a Chinese orphanage). One can only marvel at Carter’s ability to get these stories written and then to draw them all together to form a unified whole. I’ve now read the book twice. It is a labor of love, and I think you’ll love it, too.


China: Beware Subversive Western Ideas

The CCP is in trouble. Unless it can stamp out seven dangerous Western-inspired trends that are already infecting the country the party’s power might be negated and the country thrown into chaos. This is a big story.

Communist Party cadres have filled meeting halls around China to hear a somber, secretive warning issued by senior leaders. Power could escape their grip, they have been told, unless the party eradicates seven subversive currents coursing through Chinese society.

These seven perils were enumerated in a memo, referred to as Document No. 9, that bears the unmistakable imprimatur of Xi Jinping, China’s new top leader. The first was “Western constitutional democracy”; others included promoting “universal values” of human rights, Western-inspired notions of media independence and civic participation, ardently pro-market “neo-liberalism,” and “nihilist” criticisms of the party’s traumatic past….

“Western forces hostile to China and dissidents within the country are still constantly infiltrating the ideological sphere,” says Document No. 9, the number given to it by the central party office that issued it in April….Opponents of one-party rule, it says, “have stirred up trouble about disclosing officials’ assets, using the Internet to fight corruption, media controls and other sensitive topics, to provoke discontent with the party and government.”

As the Times article says, these are not idle words. Already China is arresting more dissidents and stepping up its aggressive censorship of the Internet. Liberal Chinese intellectuals are crushed, having naively hoped Xi Jinping would usher in reforms and greater freedom of expression. I remember hoping exactly the same thing in 2003 when Hu Jintao took power, and I remember how painful it was when he almost immediately stepped up censorship and tighter controls across the board. “Mr. Xi has signaled a shift to a more conservative, traditional leftist stance with his ‘rectification’ campaign to ensure discipline and conspicuous attempts to defend the legacy of Mao Zedong.” So much for optimism.

I can’t really stress just how depressing this is. It means adherence to orthodoxy and a rejection of any open-mindedness toward even moderate reform. Read the article to see just how vitriolic (and paranoid) the language directed at constitutional government is, and how it implicitly and explicitly blames the West for all the perceived threats.

And it’s really as bad as it sounds. For example:

Staff members at the Southern Weekend newspaper there [Guangzhou] protested after a propaganda official rewrote an editorial celebrating constitutionalism — the idea that state and party power should be subject to a supreme law that prevents abuses and protects citizens’ rights.

The confrontation at the newspaper and campaign demanding that officials disclose their wealth alarmed leaders and helped galvanize them into issuing Document No. 9, said Professor Xiao, the historian. Indeed, senior central propaganda officials met to discuss the newspaper protest, among other issues, and called it a plot to subvert the party…

Everything’s a plot to subvert the party, and the West, as usual, is behind it. For anyone who’s been going easy on Xi during his honeymoon, this should serve as a brutal wake-up call. If the directive is rigorously carried out censorship and repression can only get worse.

I think the directive makes the Chinese leaders look awful — prickly, paranoid, insecure, reactionary and worse. But I also think they couldn’t care less. They have a country to hold onto, and if they perceive a threat to its grip on power it will go to any extent to tighten that grip. Read the article; it’s the most depressing thing I’ve read about China in many months.

Update: For a brilliant analysis of the directive and why it is such a bad move by the party go here.


China: Boom or Bust?

In recent weeks we’ve seen a flurry of articles about China’s slowdown and whether the country has the ability to keep social order intact as things slow down. I am not an economist, but I’ve followed these stories with great interest. I have many friends working in China, and the last thing I want to see is a US-style financial meltdown that could wipe out opportunities for millions of Chinese.

That China is slowing down dramatically is a matter of fact, not debate. Even those who are the most optimistic about China’s future say there is no denying that in the foreseeable future we won’t see the 9 percent growth rates we’ve so gotten used to. The difference of opinion deals with how China deals with the slowdown and whether it can avoid a hard landing. Another thing I believe all parties agree with is that no matter how things end up, China will remain an economic engine of huge global influence. China won’t go away, and its importance as an economic superpower will remain largely intact.

I want to look at a link from several weeks ago that caught my eye, a piece in Forbes by the founder and CEO of the highly respected Straford think tank. If you look through their archives you’ll see they have no bias against China. The article is decidedly pessimistic about China’s economic prospects in the near future, the country being caught between the rock and the hard place of needing to keep the economy growing and needing to rein in uncontrolled borrowing.

Beijing was terrified of unemployment and the social consequences that flow from it. This was a rational fear, but one that contradicted China’s main strength, its wage advantage. Because the Chinese feared unemployment, Chinese policy, manifested in bank lending policies, stressed preventing unemployment by keeping businesses going even when they were inefficient. China also used bank lending to build massive infrastructure and commercial and residential property. Over time, this policy created huge inefficiencies in the Chinese economy. Without recessions, inefficiencies develop. Growing the economy is possible, but not growing profitability. Eventually, the economy will be dragged down by its inefficiency.

As businesses become inefficient, production costs rise. And that leads to inflation. As money is lent to keep inefficient businesses going, inflation increases even more markedly. The increase in inefficiency is compounded by the growth of the money supply prompted by aggressive lending to keep the economy going. As this persisted over many years, the inefficiencies built into the Chinese economy have become staggering.

The second thing to bear in mind is the overwhelming poverty of China, where 900 million people have an annual per capita income around the same level as Guatemala, Georgia, Indonesia or Mongolia ($3,000-$3,500 a year), while around 500 million of those have an annual per capita income around the same level as India, Nicaragua, Ghana, Uzbekistan or Nigeria ($1,500-$1,700)… Stimulating an economy where more than a billion people live in deep poverty is impossible. Economic stimulus makes sense when products can be sold to the public. But the vast majority of Chinese cannot afford the products produced in China, and therefore, stimulus will not increase consumption of those products. As important, stimulating demand so that inefficient factories can sell products is not only inflationary, it is suicidal. The task is to increase consumption, not to subsidize inefficiency.

We’ve all heard about the necessary shift in China from relying on exports to adopting a more domestic consumption-based model. But that’s not realistic. Chinese people still save more than they consume, and the market to buy all the goods China produces simply isn’t there. I highly recommend reading this entire fascinating article. It’s scary as hell.

China has recently tried to cool off its real estate buying and selling frenzy and has tried to rein in the banks, something they have been schizophrenic about, as the more they try to cool things off the greater the possibilities of greater unrest. That’s why they’ve tolerated over-production and endless construction. Some Chinese argue that all that new housing in urban areas is necessary to fulfill the government’s strategy of moving millions of Chinese from the countryside to cities to improve their lives. but so much of what is being built is middle-class and even luxury housing. Can migrant workers possibly be expected to afford living there? (No.)

There is no easy way out. The best China can do is try to forestall the inevitable for as long as they can, and try to take measures now that will soften the impact.

They continue to have a command economy; they are still communist, after all. But they cannot avoid the consequences of their economic reality, and the longer they put off the day of reckoning, the harder it will become to recover from it. They have already postponed the reckoning far longer than they should have. They would postpone it further if they could by continuing to support failing businesses with loans. They can do that for a very long time — provided they are prepared to emulate the Soviet model’s demise. The Chinese don’t want that, but what they do want is a miraculous resolution to their problem. There are no solutions that don’t involve agony, so they put off the day of reckoning and slowly decline.

Around the same time, Paul Krugman, whose economic predictions tends to always be right, wrote that China has hit a wall. An economic crisis isn’t coming, it’s already here.

Wages are rising; finally, ordinary Chinese are starting to share in the fruits of growth. But it also means that the Chinese economy is suddenly faced with the need for drastic “rebalancing” — the jargon phrase of the moment. Investment is now running into sharply diminishing returns and is going to drop drastically no matter what the government does; consumer spending must rise dramatically to take its place. The question is whether this can happen fast enough to avoid a nasty slump.

And the answer, increasingly, seems to be no. The need for rebalancing has been obvious for years, but China just kept putting off the necessary changes, instead boosting the economy by keeping the currency undervalued and flooding it with cheap credit. (Since someone is going to raise this issue: no, this bears very little resemblance to the Federal Reserve’s policies here.) These measures postponed the day of reckoning, but also ensured that this day would be even harder when it finally came. And now it has arrived.

China’s slowdown, he argues, would create or at least greatly contribute to a global slump. He concludes, “No doubt many readers are feeling some intellectual whiplash. Just the other day we were afraid of the Chinese. Now we’re afraid for them.”

My view is that the “day of reckoning” will have to arrive, but this being China it might still be years away. The problem is the longer they put it off the more painful the crash will be. All economies have to go through recessions, and China’s can’t put that off forever. There has to be a time when it reaches a breaking point, where factories can’t keep producing goods no one is buying and developers can’t keep building ghost housing. Yet China never ceases to amaze me with its ability to plod forward and put off the catastrophe many economists have predicted for years, even for decades.

One last article to look at. Michael Pettis, a very well-regarded professor of economics at Beijing Daxue, argues that the slowdown China is now going through doesn’t need to be as awful as some predict, even if it goes down to 4 percent growth a year.

An orderly rebalancing, in which China’s savings rate declines steadily relative to investment, implies a contracting trade surplus that will add net demand to the world. A disorderly rebalancing might imply an explosion in the trade surplus that would weaken an already struggling global economy. Whether slowing Chinese growth is good or bad overall for the world, in other words, depends on how it affects China’s balance of trade, and this depends on how swiftly and forcefully Beijing is able to constrain credit growth and rebalance the economy.

How a Chinese slowdown affects the global economy, in other words, depends crucially on how China rebalances. The seeming determination of Premier Li Keqiang to come to grips with debt and force a rebalancing even if that brings, as it must, a sharp slowdown in economic growth bodes well for an orderly rebalancing which will benefit most of the world.

What about the social impact of slower Chinese growth – can ordinary Chinese tolerate growth rates much below 7 percent? The same process that determines the impact of slower Chinese growth on the rest of the world will also determine how it will affect ordinary Chinese.

Pettis compares China’s slowdown to what we’ve seen in Japan, and argues that maybe, like Japan, the Chinese won’t care so much about the declining GDP as long as their own family’s disposable income is enough to meet their needs. Again, I’m no economist, but it seems to me Japan had a crucially different situation because so much of its population was already very comfortable financially when the decline arrived. They had/have enough to keep on buying goods. In China, most citizens aren’t that lucky and may not be able to deal with the impact of a massive slowdown.

For every theory you may have about China’s economy you can find the data to support it. Ongoing prosperity or a financial catastrophe. I don’t pretend to know which, if any, of these scenarios plays out, but I do know that the current slowdown will have to have gut-wrenching effects at some point in the future. I hope China’s leaders can apply their “scientific” approach to economics and save China from a hard landing. But they have a daunting task, and no matter what they do, somebody’s going to be hurt, eventually.


Global Times takes us behind the Great Firewall

This is interesting. I’ve often expressed surprise that the Global Times can go as far as they do in pushing the envelope and covering stories that seem clearly to cross the typical red lines the government imposes. We saw it very early on the year the English-language version first went to press and one article made a passing reference to the June 4 Incident — a passing and innocuous mention, yes, but it was also historic. All that said, we know the GT’s main function is to serve party interests and often to stoke nationalism and, when it suits them, to portray the US as a country that is not always China’s friend.

The interesting part: Today the newspaper published a rather detailed look at how China’s Internet community, Sina Weibo users in particular, can retrieve censored Weibo entries. For instance, it explains the machinations of the website Freeweibo:

Launched on October 10, 2012, Freeweibo retrieves data automatically from Weibo to provide “uncensored and anonymous Sina Weibo searches.”

“We ignore relevant laws, legislation and policy,” the welcome message on the website reads, a response to the expression Weibo and Chinese search engines use to explain why searches for certain words come back empty.

The website, in both English and Chinese, displays posts that are blocked or deleted on Sina Weibo. When searching for keywords, Freeweibo breaks search results down to “blocked by Sina Weibo” and “official search results,” which allows users to see which search results are missing from the official Weibo.

Freeweibo has around 10,000 unique visitors per day, with most coming from China, including Taiwan, based on the language setting, according to Percy Alpha, the pseudonym used by one of the founders.

A week after the website went live, it was blocked on the mainland. But the creators of the website have also been trying to provide mirror sites that are accessible without a VPN.

From the list of blocked keywords provided on the website, it is also clear when some words become sensitive and when such scrutiny is lifted.

For instance, the name of Bo Xilai, former Party chief of Chongqing who was recently prosecuted on corruption charges, was banned from searches until July 25, the day the news of his prosecution was announced.

The article describes other tools in remarkable detail, and lets those responsible for them refer to “censorship,” a word the government usually tries to dance around. It even tells readers they can find deleted Web material over at China Digital Times, an organization you’d think they would never reference.

The entire tone of the article, especially looking at the interviews they conduct with the developers of these tools, is welcoming, as if citizens have a right to understand how the censorship works and it’s okay to tell them how they can find ways to get around it. It freely acknowledges the filtering and banning, such as Bo Xilai’s name. And it acknowledges there are ways to see sites like Freeweibo without a VPN.

This is a far cry from the usual party line that these sites are blocked due to technical or economic issues. You can read my earlier post about such excuses over here: “Fang Binxing, president of Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications, attributed the interruptions to Internet service providers’ economic concerns.” Right.

Global Times continues to surprise. Read the whole thing; it’s like they’re lifting the curtain over the GFW, and actually admitting what it’s all about.


China’s celebration of humiliation

An interesting article by Orville Schell and John Delury looks at China’s obsession with its past humiliations, noting that their equivalent of the US’ Fourth of July is China’s defeat in the first Opium War.

Every July, amid festivities and fireworks, the U.S. and France mark their birth as nations. Accustomed as we are in the West to histories that begin with triumph—the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the storming of the Bastille—it may seem strange that China, the fast-rising dynamo of the East, marks the beginning of its journey to modern nationhood in a very different way: with the shock of unexpected defeat and the loss of national greatness.

Many Chinese date the start of their modern history to Aug. 11, 1842, when the Qing Dynasty, by signing the Treaty of Nanjing, capitulated to Great Britain in order to end the disastrous First Opium War (1839-42). It was from this and many other subsequent defeats that China’s political elites—including the most progressive 20th-century reformers and revolutionaries—wove an entire national narrative of foreign exploitation and victimization. Even today, this fabric of ideas continues to hold powerful sway over China’s relations with the rest of the world.

This is a subject that always fascinates me, the dialogue of China as victim of exploitation and oppression. Obviously there really was a lot of exploitation and oppression, but there comes a time to get over it and make your national dialogue one that is less self-martyring and more constructive. A lot of people throughout history have been the victims of appalling suppression and brutality. I don’t know of any other great nation, however, that hangs on to these humiliations and brings them up at every possible opportunity to stoke the flames of nationalism. It is, of course, no accident that the government focuses on China’s most dismal periods, and why, as the article notes, “In this authorized version of modern Chinese history, 1842 is Year One. Every Chinese high-school student is expected to know the official narrative dividing Chinese history neatly into pre-Opium War and post-Opium War periods. It is China’s counterpart to the familiar American exercise of learning the preamble of the Declaration of Independence.”

China’s branding itself today as a victim of humiliation may suit the CCP’s goals of keeping its people nationalistic, a strategy that has helped it maintain power. It makes for outstanding propaganda. But on the international stage, this obsession with past failures and humiliation does little to advance China’s image, and leaves the world wondering why China can’t get over events of 150 years ago. Those events should never be forgotten. They were unjust and inexcusable. But they should not define what China is in the 21st century.


June 4th, yes, again

Once again, I am resisting the temptation to write another long post about a story that has been rehashed and argued about so many times that any attempt at serious debate would most likely be futile. Instead, simply go to my post on the TSM last year and follow the excellent links. Whatever you do, don’t miss the post by Philip Cunningham, someone I’ve taken issue with in the past and who is known for cutting the CCP a lot of slack. Read it, and see why he calls it an “unnecessary tragedy.”

No, the students were no angels, and yes, some angry mobs killed some Chinese soldiers, and yes, the story is in no way black and white. But most of the demonstrators were sincere and they were idealistic and they hoped to make a difference. None deserved to die. The argument that it was all worth it because the CCP then did so much good is depraved. The CCP could have gone on to do all that good stuff and grow the economy without the massacre. Revisionists who see the killings as a good thing are, in my humble opinion, self-deluded and, yes, brainwashed.

Also, if you are new to this blog, check out my post on an interview with a demonstrator from 10 years ago, It’s still among my very favorites, even if I totally disagree with the young man I interviewed.

We don’t have to make a huge deal about this day, but like 9/11, we should never forget it. That’s why every year I’ll say something about it, even if it’s all been said before. And let’s not forget, the CCP can be a benevolent force that can do a lot of good. But when its survival is threatened, something very different can emerge. Things are good now, China’s huge middle class is relatively content. But if things go sour and the people demand change from their government, don’t think what we saw on June 4, 1989 couldn’t happen again. The party will do absolutely everything it needs to to stay in power. Everything. Never forget.


“China’s Ethnic Song and Dance”

The copy editor who wrote the headline for this must-read blog post in the NY Times should get a raise; it’s perfect.

We’ve all seen it: the grinning, dancing, singing ethnic minorities at government events and the televised craptaculars (go to the link to see my first-hand story about one such celebration). They are happy, innocent, contented and they live to sing and dance. They are so cute. And they are ubiquitous; as you flip through Chinese television channels it’s almost impossible not to find some example of happy minorities.

In China’s worst single outburst of ethnic violence in four years, 21 people died last month in the far western region of Xinjiang. But never mind that. According to the deputy governor of Xinjiang, Shi Dagang, the region’s Muslim Uighur population is far too busy treating guests “to meat and wine, with song and dance” to create any problems. In fact, Shi insisted to reporters this week, “The ethnic minorities are simple-hearted and honest, very kind and unaffected. They love guests.”

Chinese officials like to paint a picture of China as one big happy multicultural family. To that end, the state pushes the stereotype that ethnic minorities are little more than entertainers who sing and dance in bright costumes. Song-and-dance minority troupes regularly appear on state television — often singing in Mandarin rather than their native tongue.

….Unsurprisingly, Chinese media are less interested in showcasing genuine ethnic minority culture than in using portrayals of happy, traditional ethnic minorities as entertainment to boost Han rule. As Zang Xiaowei, a professor of Chinese studies at the University of Sheffield, explained to me this week, the state media aim to “strengthen Han ethnicity for nation-building purposes.”

We all know the advantages many of Chinese minorities enjoy under the CCP, the improvements in infrastructure, the right to more than one child. For the lucky few, their singing and dancing can lead to careers as professional performers. But the picture painted in the craptaculars is quite misleading. Minorities are still at the lower end of China’s caste system.

But when minorities attempt to venture outside the zones of tourism and entertainment, many hit a wall, a problem exacerbated in more restive areas like Tibet and Xinjiang.

A Uighur acquaintance of mine living in Beijing told me this week: “I went to college. I got a degree. I speak Mandarin. But if I apply for a job in Urumqi they don’t want me.’’ He was referring to the regional capital of Xinjiang, his native city. “I was born in the city and the other candidate is from somewhere 2,000 kilometers away. Why not me? Why him? Because he’s Han.”

The Hans hold all the advantages and get most of the good jobs in what can only be described as a caste system. Can you imagine a Uyghur or a Tibetan serving as Prime Minister, or even in the central committee? I can’t because for all the celebration of minority culture they aren’t really Chinese as are the Han. This image of happiness and joy is indeed “China’s Ethnic Song and Dance.” All the ethnic unrest is papered over, and what we see is a propaganda fantasy. The minorities’ relationship with the Han who administer them and go to work in their towns can only be described as a form of Apartheid. There are those with opportunities and power and then there are the minorities. And you’ll never see that on CCTV.

Update: This brief well-written essay
underscores the extent to the government regulates the lives of Tibetans, often stripping away their most fundamental civil rights.