Xi pledges national renewal; cites Opium War, of course

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Another expat leaves Beijing

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

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

Will writes:

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

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

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

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

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

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


Open thread

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


Wukan reforms fizzle?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Homosexuality in China: mini-podcast

As I was writing my book, the most eye-opening topic I researched was the history of same-sex love in China (followed closely by the history of prostitution). As I was finishing the book a friend helped me prepare a brief podcast on the subject. You may find it very surprising:


The trajectory from tolerance to complete prohibition and back to tolerance, at least in urban areas, is as dramatic as it is improbable.


The unintended consequence of the “China-as-meritocracy” debates

The estimable Kaiser Kuo, who needs no introduction here, put up a post on Facebook yesterday that caught my eye, and lots of other readers’ eyes as well. (It was perhaps written in a moment of pique, but that’s when all of my own best posts are written.) It discusses the unintended harm apologists like Daniel Bell and Jiang Qing (go here for background) do when their preposterous drum-beating for China’s allegedly “meritocratic system” drowns out a part of their message that may be valid, in particular their criticisms of the shortfalls of American democracy. And I don’t disagree with Kaiser. Their nonsense on a “Confucian Constitution” and the outspoken critical reaction to it as BS only serve to make readers view the differences between the systems as starkly black and white, with the American democratic system obviously being superior. In other words, the writings of the Daniel Bells and Jiang Qings of the world backfire and do the opposite of what they intend, making China’s system appear inferior to that of the US, and misrepresenting what democracy here is really like. But Kaiser makes this argument more clearly than I can. The Facebook post in full:

By now many of us who follow news about China are familiar with the op-eds penned of late by the likes of the Canadian Tsinghua University professor Daniel Bell, Shanghai-based American-Chinese venture capitalist Eric X. Li, and Chunqiu Institute fellow Zhang Weiwei. Arguing that China’s one-party system is essentially a meritocratic form of enlightened authoritarianism that is somehow appropriate to China’s political culture and the realities of Chinese developmental stage and social conditions, these essays (appearing in the New York Times and in the Financial Times just in the last week or so) have had derision heaped on them. Many journalists and scholars have skewered them for their naïveté, citing numerous reasons why the Chinese system is far from meritocratic in practice: the disproportionate “merit” evidently to be found in scions of the CCP aristocracy and in the very wealthy, the apparent absence of this “merit” in women and so forth. I agree emphatically with all of these criticisms, and for the record, I’m convinced that these writers are badly deluded.

As an American, though, I’m troubled that these misplaced encomia for the CCP have completely obscured the few valid criticisms of failures in the American democratic system contained in their essays. As we pick apart their arguments in praise of China’s “meritocracy,” we should be careful not to dismiss out of hand–however vindicated we might feel about American democracy’s proper function after last week’s election–the shortcomings they point out. Taking their statements about the problems with American democracy out of their comparative context, I can only read them and nod in agreement. But the polemical approach they’ve chosen isn’t going to encourage any much-needed introspection. (For that, I’d highly recommend Christopher Hayes, “Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy”)

The other thing that worries me that is in the eagerness by so many people who influence ideas about Chinese politics to repudiate this half-baked apologia, some nuance gets tossed out. I’m not ready to reject, for instance, the notion that what constitutes an appropriate form of government is culturally conditioned. Nor, to be sure, do I accept (as Eric Li and others seem to) that culture is immutable: what’s appropriate changes as culture does. My concern then is that in reading these take-downs of the largely execrable positions staked out by Bell, Li and Zhang people conclude that the alternative must be political pluralism along American lines.

These apologists, then, are doing a disservice at more than one level. While they purport to be rejecting a false dichotomy between diametrically opposed systems, they are I suspect only making it, in the minds of readers, more starkly binary.


As a reminder, let me first give an example of how Bell-Jiang describe Western-style democracy:

The political future of China is far likelier to be determined by the longstanding Confucian tradition of “humane authority” than by Western-style multiparty elections. After all, democracy is flawed as an ideal. Political legitimacy is based solely on the sovereignty of the people — more specifically, a government that grants power to democratically elected representatives. But there is no compelling reason for a government to have only one source of legitimacy.

Democracy is also flawed in practice. Political choices come down to the desires and interests of the electorate. This leads to two problems. First, the will of the majority may not be moral: it may favor racism, imperialism or fascism. Second, when there is a clash between the short-term interests of the populace and the long-term interests of mankind, as is the case with global warming, the people’s short-term interests become the political priority. As a result, democratically elected governments in America and elsewhere are finding it nearly impossible to implement policies that curb energy usage in the interests of humanity and of future generations.

Like Kaiser (I suspect), I see a lot of truth in this. Our democratic system is deeply flawed, and these flaws have become uglier in the past few years, with more and more wedge issues blocking out serious debate, and some in the government brazenly using the power vested in them to subvert the democratic process (think “voter fraud” legislation), often with a good deal of success. What can be messier, sleazier and more dysfunctional than democracy (aside from any other form of government)? On the other hand, what Kaiser is saying can also be interpreted as the equivalency argument we see so often in the comments; critics denounce an aspect of China and the other side argues, “Yeah, but it’s bad in America, too.” But I’m a big believer in taking the flaws of the US government into account, and the issue is a legitimate one, if the argument is made correctly, as I believe Kaiser’s is.

So do those who repudiate the apologists’ arguments really drown out the nuance of these arguments and unintentionally influence the public to view the differences between the two systems in black and white, and to conclude that the best thing that could happen to China would be the imposition somehow of Western-style democracy? I believe they might. But on the other hand, I’m even more glad they speak out; as Kaiser notes, such high-brow journals as The New York Times and Financial Times are lavishing the Meritocracy Gang with precious space on their opinion pages. They have to be counteracted. But I agree, they should be counteracted with nuance. The argument needs to be made that democracy is not one-size-fits-all, and that it comes with a great many flaws and pitfalls. I have always made the case that those advocating Western-style democracy for China are barking up the wrong tree. China will have to find its own path to a more representative government, it cannot be imposed on them. My own hope is for continuing reforms that make China more democratic which in turn leads to greater rule of law and checks and balances. We keep seeing glimmers of hope, but these are frequently dashed as the CCP appears more determined than ever to hold on to what they’ve got. I see no significant changes happening anytime soon.

You can find a spirited Peking Duck thread on the meritocracy argument here.

Finally, today in the NY Times we find an excellent response to the Meritocracy vs. Democracy debates that pretty well smashes the myth of China’s being a meritocratic system, now or in the past. Its author has impeccable credentials.


Mao’s cheerleader

Han Suyin, who died last week, was a successful novelist I never heard of until I read this intriguing article on her role as an evangelist for Mao and the Cultural revolution. She denied the horrors of the Great Leap Forward’s famines and later admitted she “lied through her teeth” about it. Although she later turned against the Cultural Revolution as Jiang Qing fanned the flames that led to mass murder and hysteria, in the early years she never met a Red Guard she didn’t love.

In Han’s telling, the Red Guards—the paramilitary social movement of young fanatics—were “clean, well behaved and polite” youngsters who “learn democracy by applying democratic methods of reason and debate.” The army’s assumption of control over the government was “the continuation of the revolutionary tradition” and “the reassertion of ideological primacy over purely military ambitions.” The societal ferment also lent “an enormous spurt to production, to the development of productive forces along socialist lines.”

Still, even as she lavished praise on the Cultural Revolution she fully understood its dark side. She epitomized the concept of “useful idiot” but was in a class by herself; useful idiots often don’t know the truth and don’t look for it, lapping up the lies of the government. But she knew, and still she evangelized.

The closing lines of the article ring true:

Don’t imagine that there could never be another Han Suyin. Ambitious apologists for authoritarianism will certainly vie to take up her mantle. And who could blame them? Her works might appear odious to us now, but she had a very successful run.

Imagine that, ambitious shills for the party who enjoy personal gains for their sucking up to a government they know is doing terrible things. Do they really still exist?



This is already two days old but I wanted to record it on my site. For all the CCP’s efforts to portray itself as Tibet’s liberators and benefactors, many Tibetans are still treated as second-class citizens, and the party remains deathly afraid of those who would speak out about it. This is a shocking story, and if you read the whole thing it gets worse.

I don’t belong to a political party and have never felt that Communist Party meetings are any of my business. But my home is in Beijing. I am a writer, and Han Chinese. My wife, Woeser, is also a writer, and Tibetan. The other member of our household is my mother, who is 90.

A few weeks ago, China’s political police asked my wife to leave Beijing because “18th Major,” a once-in-a-decade coronation of new party leaders, was on the way. The Communist Party views Tibetans and Uighur Muslims from western China as noxious. They are constantly under suspicion as troublemakers, if not terrorists. My wife, as it happens, is petite, as lacking in guile as a window pane, and about as far from a terrorist as one could get.

She has, however, written some words in protest of the fate of her fellow Tibetans. And for this, the party has put her on a blacklist, barred her from publishing, deprived her of her job, and denied her a passport. When she obeyed the recent order and headed home to Tibet, police officers along the way stopped and searched her at nearly every juncture. While Chinese people — on airplanes, trains, buses and motorcycles — are streaming into and out of Tibet by the thousands, Tibetans themselves have become outsiders in their own land, blocked at every turn.

Shortly afterward, the author himself was visited by the PBS and was told he should leave Beijing with no explanation. Guards were posted at his door.

Just imagine being told you had to separate from your spouse due to the irrational fears of the government. Just imagine the government stationing “state security” guards in front of your home. All for no logical reason, just illogical fear of…of what? For all the reform and improvements, it remains the same insecure government at heart. Blocking websites, silencing Tibetans and Uyghurs and exiling those who threaten harmony remain business as usual, and all you can do is wonder what they’re so afraid of. Is it a surprise there remains so much unrest in Tibet?


Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958–1962

Is there any point in putting up yet another post about the Great Leap Forward. Obviously I think there is or I wouldn’t be writing this. But I will keep it brief. There is a beautiful review of the recently released English translation of Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958–1962, Yang Jisheng’s epic retelling of the history of the Great Leap Forward and the horrors that it wrought. Not that we don’t already know a lot about these horrors, but this book is in a class by itself thanks to the resources that were made available to Yang, a Xinhua journalist and once a loyal member of the CCP.

Reviewer and China scholar Ian Johnson starts by telling us of his trip to the city of Xinyang in Henan province, where he talks with a pastor about what happened there fifty years ago.

“Traditional life [the pastor said] was wiped out around the time I was born, fifty years ago. Since then it has been a difficult area, with no foundation to society. Most people in China haven’t heard of this but here in Xinyang, people all know.

“It was called the Xinyang Incident. It destroyed this area like the wrath of God on Judgment Day.”

The Xinyang Incident is the subject of the first chapter of Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958–1962, the Chinese journalist Yang Jisheng’s epic account of the worst famine in history. Yang conservatively estimates that 36 million people died of unnatural causes, mostly due to starvation but also government-instigated torture and murder of those who opposed the Communist Party’s maniacal economic plans that caused the catastrophe. Its epicenter was Xinyang County, where one in eight people died from the famine. The sixty pages Yang spends on Xinyang are a tour de force, a brutal vignette of people dying at the sides of roads, family members eating one another to survive, police blocking refugees from leaving villages, and desperate pleas ignored by Mao Zedong and his spineless courtiers. It is a chapter that describes a society laid so low that the famine’s effects are still felt half a century later.

Officials launched campaigns to dig up grain that peasants were allegedly hiding. Of course, the grain didn’t exist, but anyone who said otherwise was tortured and often killed. That October, the famine began in earnest in Xinyang, accompanied by the murder of skeptics of Mao’s policies. Yang describes in graphic detail how Xinyang officials beat one colleague who had opposed the communes. They ripped out his hair and beat him day after day, dragging him out of his bed and standing around him, kicking until he died. One official cited by Yang estimates that 12,000 such “struggle sessions” occurred in the region. Some people were hung up by ropes and set on fire. Others had their heads smashed open. Many were put in the middle of a circle and pushed, punched, and jostled for hours until they collapsed and died.

….Yang interviewed a colleague at the Xinhua news agency who had been stationed in Xinyang. During a long-distance bus ride, he said, “I could see one corpse after another in the ditches along the roadway, but no one on the bus dared to talk about the starvation.” The reporter found out that a third of the population in some areas had died while “the leading cadres continued to stuff themselves.” But “after I personally witnessed how people who spoke the truth were brought to ruin, how could I dare to write an internal reference report?”

Just as appalling is Mao’s irrational reaction to the “Xinyang incident,” which only made things there worse. If the GLF was failing to reap the results Mao expected, it had to be the fault of local officials or rightists, and even stricter order would have to be imposed. And so we have a vicious circle of death and devastation.

Please read the entire review, which makes clear why Tombstone is such an important contribution to the body of works on the GLF, and contrasts it with Dikoetter’s Mao’s Great Famine. The latter puts more blame on Mao than does Tombstone, which, Johnson says, “lays the blame firmly on the top leaders — not just Mao but also supposed moderates like Liu and Zhou.”

So to answer my opening question about why I’d put up another post on the Great Leap Forward: Tombstone is the most important, most exhaustive work ever written about the tragedy. It opens a new window on what happened with research we’ve never had access to, bolstered by first-hand accounts by Chinese memoirists. Its availability in English is big news (I wish the Kindle version were a little less expensive but I’m buying it anyway).

The GLF is a topic I have endless curiosity about. Maybe it’s the pointlessness of the man-made calamity that makes me want to understand it better, and the fact that so many people you’d think would know better followed Mao blindly into the mouth of hell. Based on Johnson’s review, and other articles I’ve read over the past, there’s no doubt this is the most definitive, most groundbreaking exploration of Mao’s doomed utopian experiment. The English version is big news.


Friday night cat blogging

My two cats are constantly intertwined. The most beautiful, most loving cats in the world. I only wish they could stay kittens forever.

And on a totally unrelated note, here’s the review of my book that just came out today in the UK newspaper The Independent. Life is good sometimes, especially when you have cats to share it with.