Why political reform in China is inevitable

Tom Friedman, one of my least favorite columnists, has a worthy enough (if typically simplistic) column today about the need for China to embrace political change. It all boils down to economics. The country simply can’t prosper until it’s instituted meaningful political reform.

Can China continue to prosper, while censoring the Internet, controlling its news media and insisting on a monopoly of political power by the Chinese Communist Party?

I don’t think so. To be sure, China has thrived up to now — impressively — by permitting its people only economic liberty. This may have been the sole way to quickly take a vast country of 1.3 billion people from massive poverty to much-improved standards of living, basic education for all, modernized infrastructure and even riches for some urbanites.

But the Nobel committee did China a favor in sending the tacit message with its peace prize: Don’t get too cocky and think that you have rewritten the laws of gravity. The “Beijing Consensus,” of economic liberty without political liberty, may have been a great strategy for takeoff, but it won’t get you to the next level. So this might actually be a good time for Beijing to engage peaceful democracy advocates like Liu [Xiaobo], who is now serving an 11-year sentence, or the 23 retired Chinese Communist Party officials who last week published an open letter challenging the government to improve speech and press freedoms.

As China ages, Friedman contends, it has to move from low-wage manufacturing jobs to more “knowledge- and service-based jobs.” Has to. So you have the usual conflict: a government that wants to control everything and shape its people’s thinking, countered by market forces – China’s growth can only go so far without a problem-solving, innovative workforce.

Dovetailing with this column today is this new piece by my friend and fellow blogger Paul Denlinger on why Wen Jiaobao is thinking along the same lines, and why he will push for more political reform. Denlinger argues that you can’t balance so much social change with so little political change. I’ll just snip two of his seven reasons as to why this is so.

4. China’s president, Hu Jintao, is obsessed with social harmony and stability as his legacy, but Wen thinks that this is a pipe dream. Wen thinks that social change is happening faster than the party, government leadership understand.

5. Wen feels that the current leadership continues to think that economic growth is the answer to China’s problems when past growth rates are no longer possible.

This topic seems to be taking on a life of its own. I think that Liu Xiaobo’s winning the Nobel Peace Prize will continue to fan the flames, and that those who said Oslo’s choice would have no ramifications in China are dead wrong. China’s fate depends on more liberty. Wen knows it, Liu knows it, I know it. Manufacturing can’t and won’t soar forever. What’s next? China has to prepare for the inevitable.


Communist Party elders call for free speech. Seriously.

I don’t expect this to get very far, but you really do have to read it.

On October 11, 23 Chinese Communist Party elders known for their pro-reform positions, including Mao Zedong’s former secretary Li Rui (李锐) and former People’s Daily editor-in-chief Hu Jiwei (胡绩伟), submitted an open letter to the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, formally China’s highest state body, calling for an end to restrictions on expression in China.

The letter urges the Communist Party to abolish censorship and realize citizens’ right to freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Seizing on the opportunity afforded by the awarding of Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo (刘晓波) with the Nobel Peace Prize last week, the letter refers explicitly to prior statements on reform and free speech made by both President Hu Jintao (胡锦涛) and Premier Wen Jiabao (温家宝).

You can read the entire translated letter at the link above. I think this takes the wind out of the sails of those who’re been chirping that Liu Xiaobo’s winning the Nobel Peace Prize wouldn’t have any effect in China. These people are almost as annoying as those chirping that Liu Xiaobo is an American agent because he’s supported by the NED, a claim that is patently absurd. Just because someone gives you some money doesn’t make you their spy or agent. Lots of US NGO’s give money to the Dalai Lama, and he is still an outspoken and self-avowed Marxist. The fenqing have their long knives out for Liu and will grasp at any straws they can. For some interesting debates about this see the comments to this post and this post. Our friend pugster is really banging the NED drum on both threads, and probably others as well. 50 mao here, 50 mao there.

Meanwhile, I strongly recommend that no one hold their breath while waiting for censorship in China to go away. But it’s encouraging to see Liu’s prize embolden others who want to make China and its government freer, more transparent and more accountable.


Was Liu Xiaobo the right choice for the Nobel Peace Prize?

This reporter columnist for the Guardian seems to think he’s not, and contends the choice may hinder the reform efforts of those in China who are more deserving of the prize.

But there are many unsung heroes – within the Communist party and “official” media, as well as among NGOs and the academy – who are working for incremental political reform, increased “public participation”, greater economic and social equality and negotiated compromise between competing interests in the complex and stratified society that is developing. These are China’s real peacemakers. They typically eschew the adversarial approach of activists like Liu – whose Charter 08 movement threw a gauntlet down to the authorities – not out of fear, but because they feel there are more constructive ways to achieve peaceful change in the Chinese social, cultural and political context.

The Nobel award will embolden those in China who are most inclined to confrontational tactics. It may well also prompt renewed state security surveillance of reform-minded academics and NGOs, which may, in turn, nudge some more of them over the line from pro-reform advocacy to outright dissidence.

Beyond doubt, though, it will strengthen the argument, within China, that the west is determined to derail China’s progress by promoting internal strife.

Like Hu Jia before him, Liu Xiaobo has done a masterful job of capturing the eye of the media. Despite the relatively small number of signatures on his Charter 08 petition, a day hasn’t gone by in the past year (when I started getting Google alerts for Charter 08) without at least one, and usually more, stories in the international press about it.

As for the complaint that the selection of Liu Xiaobo will only reinforce the CCP-cultivated mindset that the West is “against China,” all I can say is that shouldn’t be a consideration in the selection of the Nobel Peace Prize winner. Just about everything the West does confirms they are “anti-China” in the eyes of the Chinese, and once we let our sensitivity to this type of charge determine our actions you’ll know the West has totally sold out. I mean, should Aung San Suu Kyi not have received her Sakharov Freedom Award because it would turn Myanmar further against the West?

My personal feelings about the prize going to Liu Xiaobo: He’s a courageous man and he has to be credited with turning the spotlight on human rights and political reform in China. Was he the best choice for the prize? I’ll leave that up to you. What I will say is that I find articles like this to be irritating in that they follow the Shaun Rein model of treating China like a teenage boy and advocating that we tiptoe around any destruction the adolescent with raging hormones leaves in its wake. How low must we bow in order not to “hurt the feelings” of China?

Most irritating sentence in the article:

But it is hard to see what contribution he has made to peace, in China or beyond, or how this award will further peace.

Dude, it’s about awareness. What did Martin Luther King or Mother Teresa do that contributed to world peace? What they did was elevate the consciousness of millions around the world to injustices. While Liu may not have been my No. 1 pick for this honor, it should be clear why he was chosen: like him or not, he brought the need for political reform and human rights in China to the forefront of the global psyche. His selection may not have been the best, but it can easily be justified.

H/t to Danwei for the link.

Update: For a splendid piece on Liu Xiaobo and the Peace prize please go here. The journalist, Gady Epstein, first notes that there are many unknown dissidents languishing in the maze of China’s legal apparatus. Most of these activists who disappear are all but forgotten. Living in China, where authoritarianism is taken for granted, it’s easy for us to become “desensitized” to their plight. From there, Epstein arrives at a splendid conclusion:

This has been the unfortunate fate of most Chinese dissidents, to be remembered by only a few and known to very few of their own countrymen. Chinese writer Zha Jianying wrote movingly of this in a 2007 New Yorker article about her imprisoned dissident brother Zha Jianguo, posing the existential question of what good her brother’s sacrifice has done.

This Nobel Peace Prize helps answer that existential question. It has been awarded to one man, and his wife, Liu Xia, is rightfully proud of her husband. She will never have to worry that her husband will be forgotten, and she knows that many around the world and some within her country will learn what he stands for. But the award also confers a proud legacy to so many other Chinese dissidents who have been forgotten. More people around the world and inside China will know what they all stand for, and for a time will remember them and their cause a little better. That is one deeper meaning of this prize.

Who can say it any better? I hope the Guardian columnist finds time to read it.

Update 2: You must read Xujin Eberlein’s level-headed and insightful post on Liu’s winning the Peace Prize. One of the most idiotic memes running around among the fenqing is that Liu advocated China being “colonized” by the US. Of course, there’s no context for this remark, made nearly a quarter of a century ago. Xujun gives us the context and demolishes this nonsensical argument. Go read it now.


China’s mystifying holiday system

Last week I arrived in Beijing after a few days in Hangzhou and met up with some old colleagues, at our old office. It was a Saturday, but they were all working – the price they had to pay for the three-day Mid-Autumn Festival holiday. Get three weekdays off, but pay back one of those days by working on the weekend. One Chinese colleague lashed out at the government for what she called the world’s most irrational holiday system.

I was delighted to see a piece in yesterday’s NY Times that captures just how strange a system it is.

Beyond the frustration of overloaded transportation and jam-packed tourist attractions, there is the problem of figuring out what has become a decidedly confusing rubric of work and vacation days.

According to a government-mandated holiday schedule that took effect in 2008, workers were given three consecutive days off last week for the Mid-Autumn Festival, but they were required to make up two of those by working the Saturday and Sunday on either end of the holiday.

This give-and-take arrangement is then repeated for the National Day holiday, with employees enjoying seven straight days off — Friday through Oct. 7 — except only three of those are official free days. (The four “gifted days” will be made up over the weekends before and after.)

If you have trouble with the math, you are in good company…. A cheat sheet that has been making the rounds on the Internet sums up the pattern as such, beginning Sept. 18: One day off, three days on, three days off, six days on, seven days off, two days on, one day off.

Confusion aside, many Chinese resent having to pay back some of their vacation days.

The article does a good job of explaining how China’s “Golden Weeks” got started and how they’re being changed, and why so many Chinese feel exasperated with such a complicated mess.

I first experienced Golden Week-induced culture shock back in October 2002, and it never really went away. Being forced to work on weekends to make up for mandatory holidays was something I’d never fully get used to.


Made it to Pingyao

Sorry for the long silence. I’ve been traveling and dealing with VPN issues all along the way. Even using Witopia, Twitter and Facebook have been mainly inaccessible no matter where I go, using Chrome or Firefox. Sometimes Facebook will partly open, leaving me with an odd page that’s more like a list, with no graphics, and then I can’t navigate anywhere. So I have several Scrabble games in limbo and lots of unanswered messages and requests. You just deal with it. (And yes, I made the DNS fixes, to no avail. Maybe an issue with my MacBook?)


Pingyao is gorgeous and has all sorts of treasures that gave me deeper insight into life in ancient China. The Ming architecture is breathtaking. On the other hand, the city has been so touristified that a lot of the charm is diminished. So many hawkers and cheap shops selling cheap lacquer boxes and the same tired scrolls and Mao statues. My friend Ben, who went with me and who took the photo, said it just right: “When you’re in Dali, you want to stay. You feel like you can stay a long time. In Pingyao, you want to see the buildings and then you just want to leave.” I couldn’t have said it better. I can’t pinpoint exactly why Dali is such an inviting and charming experience while Pingyao is more of a lets-see-the-sights-and-get-out-of-here kind of place.

I most enjoyed what I would have thought would be relatively dull, namely the government administration buildings and the banks. And the wall, of course. You have to marvel as you step through this time warp and see how China administered far-away cities so many centuries ago. It’s most magical when you can get away from the tourist coaches and vendors. Maybe that’s why I enjoyed the administrative buildings and the banks, where I felt immersed in what life was actually like in China in centuries past. [Corrected my historical error – thank Billy.]


You know you’re back in China

This is cross-posted at my other site:

I’m having serious Internet issues, and to those of you who’ve been sending me messages on both Twitter and Facebook I need to apologize for the silence (and I hope you’re reading this): despite my using industrial-strength VPN Witopia I cannot get onto either FB or Twitter. I can get on all the other blocked sites I tried, including my personal blog, with no problem. Friends tell me they’re not having the same problem with Witopia so I’m guessing it’s an issue with my hotel, if that’s possible.

Whenever I visit China after a few months in the States the pattern is the same: Things here are so shiny and new and up-to-the-minute, I forget state control permeates much (or at least some) of what you can and cannot do, like freely surf the Internet. So minutes after I arrived last night I set up my computer, jumped to Facebook, and zam, the great Net Nanny reminded me I’m not in Arizona anymore.

So to repeat, if you tried to contact me by Twitter or FB messages, please understand I can’t access either right now. Please try email. Thanks.

Aside from this nuisance it is absolutely wonderful to be back in Beijing at the most beautiful time of the year. Maybe this year God will let the Autumn last a little longer than the usual five weeks…?


Heading to China in a few hours

It’s time for my periodic return to the Motherland. Please be patient if your comment doesn’t show up right away or if this site goes into coma mode for a few days.

Comments Off on Heading to China in a few hours

Welcome to China Media Strategies


After I returned home from nearly 8 years in Asia last year I was lucky to keep getting freelance work for China-based clients, including a wonderful PR gig that sent me to China multiple times.

One of the most enjoyable parts of my work was holding media trainings for companies in the US that wanted to increase their brand recognition in China. This let me harness everything I’d learned in Greater China over eight years, especially my two years working on the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, to create a training focusing to a large degree on China and its unique challenges. At the end of one training a participant asked me why I wasn’t actively marketing myself as a China-focused media trainer. That got me thinking.

This was the conversation that led to today, the launch day for my new business, China Media Strategies. The best way to see for yourself what China Media Strategies does is to check out the videos that are up over here. (For those of you who’ve wondered what Richard looks and sounds like, here’s your chance to find out.) If you want to hear what my clients and colleagues have to say, check out the testimonials. (No, none of them owed me favors.)

I’ve also started a new blog for China Media Strategies that you can find here (much of this post is cross–posted over there). There will be more to come. The new blog is about my thoughts on current events from the perspective of a media trainer and China watcher. It won’t be about politics or the controversial issues I prattle on about over here, and comments moderation will be a bit tighter. One blogger, two personas, so to speak.

What I offer is radically simple: I help clients prepare for media relations in China, and, if they’d like, I help them book time with reporters there as I’ve done for my other clients. Is there a market for this service, and will it work? I honestly don’t know. The one thing I do know is that if I hadn’t gone ahead and tried it out I’d be mad at myself for the rest of my life for not taking the leap.

China hands are sure to take issues with some on the material on my site. Some, for example, may see the ubiquitous red envelopes for domestic media as a flat-out bribe, and others may argue that “guanxi” is so hackneyed and over-used it doesn’t merit yet another post about it, let alone an entire video. But keep in mind, this new site isn’t necessarily for China hands. It’s for people who have limited or zero knowledge of working with the media in China.

I had hoped to open the site a few weeks earlier but technical and travel issues got in the way. So I’m opening it now, the day before I leave on a three-week trip to China. This is the soft launch, an invitation to check out what China Media Strategies is all about. I’ll do a more formal launch when I get back. Please do take a look at the site, the videos and, of course, the blog.


On the road

I’ll be in San Francisco for the holiday weekend, then back for a few days before heading over to Beijing to see old friends and some new places. I’m determined to finally make it over to Pingyao this trip, and maybe even to Xinjiang. If anyone has any off-the-beaten-path suggestions for China travel please let me know. Otherwise, please use this as an open thread.


Retrospective: Half a decade of Math’s trolling

We’re coming up on an important Peking Duck anniversary, namely the first half-decade of comments from the troll esteemed commenter known as Math.

Math is unique among my trolls commenters. Unlike the loquacious Ferin-Merp, the detestable Hong Xing and the neuron-free pugster, he almost never fights back. He has responded to comments about his comments only two or three times over the past five years. He appeared out of the blue a twentieth of a century ago in this thread and has remained a mystery ever since. Note that in that thread, Math actually responds to commenters who criticize his little “essay,” something he almost never did again. His style is a bit different in his first comment as well; he actually seems to be talking to the readers (“Who wants to help me”) as opposed to preaching, as he does in virtually every other post to follow.

Math of course rails against America, its inferior food and women and government, and lavishes praise on everything China, including the Great Leap Forward and, needless to say, the TSM. He rejects the creativity of the West in favor of the “discipline” of the East. He lauds Mao’s genius in adding brilliant new phrases to the English vocabulary (!), and he lambastes the US for its freedom of speech.

Which raises the question, why was his very first diatribe sent to us via the servers of Columbia University in Upper Manhattan, and why have virtually all of his following posts come from a New York City IP address? (His kissing cousins, Merp, pug and Red Star, also comment exclusively from within the confines of the Evil Empire.)

I don’t have the fortitude to chronicle every one of Math’s contributions. There is plenty more from the archives.

Several readers have asked over the years why I don’t ban Math and delete his tomes. The answer is simple: Math is amusing. Math is bizarre. Math may be deranged, but he’s never made personal attacks (he just tosses his grenades and runs away, unlike his more confrontational comrades). And I have to give him credit for his sophisticated taste; in half a decade I don’t believe he’s graced any other blog with his sagely remarks.

The year he first appeared, 2005, was a tumultuous one, for those who’ve been here that long. It was the year of Mark Anthony Jones and the Duck Pond and the first open threads. But if I’m going to get nostalgic about the good old days, Math has to play a leading role among our fond memories. Of course, he’s clinically insane and the closest thing I’ve ever seen to a highly customized spam-bot, and there’s a lot of hatred and aggression in those comments. But let’s put all that aside as we wish Math a happy anniversary.

Now, Math, why don’t you return the favor and tell us: Who the fuck are you?