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.


People’s Daily on mahjong

This is now the kind of thing one tweets, not blogs about, but I have to share it here anyway. The People’s Daily has published a piece on China’s “mahjong culture” that made me laugh out loud. It makes the argument that it deserves to be added to the UNESCO World Heritage list, while it also makes the argument later on that mahjong can incite illegal gambling.

Take a look at the snippets below. Was it written by an intern? Is it a case of bad translation? What is this?

Together with Beijing opera, traditional Chinese painting and medicine, Mahjong is known as the quintessence of Chinese culture, and its application for the world heritage again caused high attention of outside world.

In the eyes of many people, playing mahjong means idle and doing no decent work. In fact, it is somewhat biased to view and understand mahjong in this way. Mahjong has a long history in China and is loved by numerous Chinese people. Now, it has been transmitted to other countries, with many blond foreigners participating in the mahjong competition….

[I]f the relationship between Mahjong and the “gambling” habit cannot be clearly cut off, the application cannot be justified. Therefore, the application is reasonable provided the public should be advocated to return to healthy, scientific, and friendly Mahjong culture by getting rid of gambling.

Blond foreigners? You may want to read it all because it just gets funnier and funnier. (What is “scientific mahjong culture?”)


Dumb responses to the Wen family scandal

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

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

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


New web site

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

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

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

Comments Off on New web site

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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