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.


“China’s Brutal One-Child Policy”

This article is a few days old but I think it’s well worth mentioning. Written by Chinese novelist Ma Jian, it is the most horrific examination of the one-child policy I’ve ever seen. For example:

On ramshackle barges moored on the remote waterways of Hubei and Guangxi, I met hundreds of “family-planning fugitives” — couples who’d fled their villages to give birth to an unauthorized second or third child in neighboring provinces.

Almost every one of the pregnant women I spoke to had suffered a mandatory abortion. One woman told me how, when she was eight months pregnant with an illegal second child and was unable to pay the 20,000 yuan fine (about $3,200), family planning officers dragged her to the local clinic, bound her to a surgical table and injected a lethal drug into her abdomen.

For two days she writhed on the table, her hands and feet still bound with rope, waiting for her body to eject the murdered baby. In the final stage of labor, a male doctor yanked the dead fetus out by the foot, then dropped it into a garbage can. She had no money for a cab. She had to hobble home, blood dripping down her legs and staining her white sandals red.

The brutality and inherent unfairness of the one-child policy are no secret; the wealthy can get around it by paying a special fee, while those less fortunate have no recourse, resulting at best in extreme government intrusion and, at worst, infanticide if their one child is born a girl.

One of my informal, utterly unscientific “surverys” I conducted in China about five years ago dealt with how Chinese people feel about the policy. I realize these were all white-collars I was talking to, all in Shanghai and Beijing; about half of them were native to those cities, and all of these were single children. The other half were young people who had moved to Beijing or Shanghai, usually from second-tier cities. Maybe 10 in all. Totally unscientific and non-representative of China as a whole, of course, but interesting nonetheless.

I was surprised to hear a very similar answer from most of the respondents, almost the sort of canned response I heard in regard to Taiwan. Most said it was a shame China needed such a policy, but it was absolutely imperative that something be done to control the burgeoning population. It had to be done, unfairness and intrusivenss did not make a difference. We are talking about China’s survival, and China, they argued, would be seriously handicapped if its population kept soaring. Some single children complained about what the policy has meant for them — a world without siblings and a fear they wouldn’t develop the right social skills to deal with the outside world due to growing up in a kind of cocoon, spoiled and with no brother or sister to talk to.

I would be interested in seeing the results of a real survey to measure how the Chinese feel about the one-child policy. I’d also like to know, did the government make a conscious decision that dealing with a huge surplus of unmarried men was a fair tradeoff for limiting families to one child, knowing so many would insist their child be a boy? Did they know the result would be tens of millions of “bare branches”?

I’ve seen many articles, especially recently, predicting the government is on the verge of relaxing the one-child policy. But Ma Jian argues hardliners are refusing to abandon it, and if reform comes it won’t be anytime soon. Ma closes,

Ending this scourge is a moral imperative. The atrocities committed in the name of the one-child policy over the last three decades rank among the worst crimes against humanity of the last century. The stains it has left on China may never be erased.

I don’t disagree, even if Chinese friends and acquaintances say it’s been a necessary evil. Read the whole piece to understand why there is now particular outrage against the policy because of its loopholes for the rich and powerful.

Do Chinese people still believe the policy is essential for China’s growth? I’d be very curious to know.


Hidden Harmonies

I’ve made it a point not to link to the Hidden Harmonies blog, let alone use it in a post title. As a rule, I refuse to read it to avoid a heightening of blood pressure. But this is one article you all have to see, even if it’s four days old already. (Link via James Fallows, who is as surprised as I am.) It begins,

After living here for more than 9 months, I have come to a most repugnant conclusion. It pains me to even think about it for I am a Chinese person who has often defended the traditions, institutions, values and dignity of the Children of Heaven. But the truth is often painful at first. I realize now that much of the problems in Chinese society, and a plethora of problems there are, are not from the Chinese government (not a surprise to me since I am a long time China watcher suspicious of the anti government rhetoric of the west). What is surprising is that the myriad problems within Chinese society comes from the behavior, values and the beliefs of its people, a people that with all their traditions of wisdom behave in the most atrocious, despicable manner towards each other today. In a sense, I’d always expected this but were perhaps too proud to admit it and needed first hand experience for verification. Now I cannot escape that basic truth.

Of course, it lets the government off the hook completely, but it’s still a surprise. The comments are almost as startling as the post, although the thread inevitably breaks down in the second half as a few desperate commenters try to steer the comments toward the “America is worse or at least equal” argument.

The blogger writes, “The Chinese people especially in the north, display selfishness, rudeness, greed, ignorance, and pettiness the likes I have never seen before.” And he gives examples for his claim. Say what you will of the content, but it can’t be denied it is well written and well documented. Having just returned from a long trip to China, I can safely say a lot of it is true even if it is getting better (which it is; I was struck by people waiting in neat lines at Shanghai subway stations, but was still incensed at the rampant line cutting while I was waiting for a taxi at the new Shanghai railroad station). The writer even acknowledges that millions starved to death in China during the Great Leap Forward without blaming it on the West (and yes, that’s what other HH posts have claimed – an embargo from the West is what killed those 30 million farmers).

Read the whole thing and the comments.


Back from China

I’m back home and never experienced jet lag like this, getting up at three in the afternoon. The total trip home, with layovers, was nearly 21 hours.

My last days in China were spent in Beijing, and for all it’s flaws (air, traffic, the usual headaches) it remains my favorite place to be even though Shanghai wins in the aesthetic category, with its gorgeous, winding tree-lined streets and colonial architecture, at least in the French Concession area. I can see why so many people I know swear by Shanghai and say its their favorite place to live, even though they are totally wrong.

There’s a new Sinica podcast out in which I’m interviewed. Please check it out.


In Hangzhou

I had originally planned to go to Chengdu but the plan was changed after the earthquake. I was in Nanjing for three days before arriving here, and it would have been great if there hadn’t been icy rain and raw weather for three days in a row. What can you do?

For whatever reasons, I feel more relaxed in Hangzhou than any other place in China. It’s just so beautiful, a perfect place for drinking tea and just sitting back and enjoying the scenery. I was in Beijing and Shanghai for a week, and it was anything but relaxing, just one interview after another. (If you’d like to see my interview with Xinhua News in Beijing from a few days ago, go here. That’s part one, with the second part to follow next week.)

This was a business trip, not recreation. Next time I go to China I promise to put up more posts about the trip.


Adam Najberg’s Chongqing Burning

I wanted to give a brief shout-out to a book I just finished and highly recommend.

Chongqing Burning, a dark, intense novel about the meteoric rise and sudden collapse of Bo Xilai and his wife is a true page-turner. (The characters are renamed, but there’s no doubting who they are.) The main character, the chain-smoking, heavy-drinking David Northerly, is an old-school journalist feeling the pressures of an industry under siege. The book makes you appreciate what great journalism really is in an age of bloggers and “citizen journalists” armed only with a keyboard. With his two decades-plus of reporting, Northerly is hardened and relentless. As he pursues the story of the murder of an American businessman at the hands of Bo Xilai’s wife and her henchmen, he is harassed, thrown in a secret jail cell, gets beaten and worse. The book offers an engrossing mystery as Northerly uncovers who shot the American and why, but Adam Najberg’s best achievement may be his capturing how corruption works in China and how it lubricates the entire government apparatus. He has a deep knowledge of China and how its government operates, and one finishes the book with a better understanding of Chinese politics, and a much greater appreciation of what foreign correspondents there have to go through every day. (Najberg is an editor with the Wall Street Journal in Hong Kong. and has been with the paper for nearly two decades) A delightful read, a finely written thriller that I finished in two nights. Highly recommended. Available as an ebook of Amazon, and it’s for sale at a great price.


China’s selective amnesia

I once wrote a post about my talking with one friend after another at the Global Times about what happened at Tiananmen Square 24 years ago, and whether they were familiar with the Tank Man photo. As I reported then, only one friend was familiar with the photo, and said she couldn’t understand why the West saw him as a hero. What he was doing was against the interest of society.

That episode came to mind as I read a piece in the NY Times that you should read, too, on “China’s State-Sponsored Amnesia.” We’ve discussed it here before — the air brushing of the horrors of the Great Leap Forward out of the public record, the erasure of June 4th, the downplaying of Mao’s misdeeds and blunders.

The author, a Chinese writer, sees the manipulation of history as a disaster for China.

The amnesia I’m talking about is the act of deleting memories rather than merely a natural process of forgetting. Forgetting can result from the passage of time. The act of deleting memories, however, is about actively winnowing out people’s memories of the present and the past.

In China, memory deletion is turning the younger generation into selective-memory automatons. Memories of history and the present, yesterday and today are all going through this uniform process of deletion and are being lost without trace.

I used to assume history and memory would always triumph over temporary aberrations and return to their rightful place. It now appears the opposite is true. In today’s China, amnesia trumps memory. Lies are surpassing the truth. Fabrications have become the logical link to fill historical gaps. Even memories of events that have only just taken place are being discarded at a dazzling pace, with barely intelligible fragments all that remain for people to hold on to.

This isn’t exactly new; I’ve been thinking about it for more than ten years now. But I hadn’t really realized the sheer scope of this massive, ongoing state effort to cleanse its people’s neurons and create its own history, almost in real time. After noting the whitewashing of the Cultural Revolution and the 1970 war with Vietnam, the author reminds us that state-sponsored amnesia is with us today, and the goal is always the same: to keep the ruling class in power.

What else is lost to memory? Everything that has happened in recent times: the AIDS epidemic caused by unhygienic blood selling; the innumerable explosions in illegal coal mines; the modern day slavery that takes place in illegal brick kilns; the rampant production of toxic milk powder, toxic eggs, toxic seafood, gutter oil, carcinogenic vegetables and fruit; forced abortions; violent demolitions; mistreatment of petitioners — the list goes on and on.

Anything negative about the country or the regime will be rapidly erased from the collective memory. This memory deletion is being carried out by censoring newspapers, magazines, television news, the Internet and anything that preserves memories.

… The oppression of words and ideas is not unique. It has been exercised by all authoritarian regimes around the world at various times. Under oppression, intellectuals — the people who are supposed to have good memories — are the first to become silent after being administered amnesia by the state. Next comes the general public.

The state prefers the intelligence of its people to remain at the level of children in a kindergarten. It hopes people will follow instructions, just as children follow their teacher’s instructions — they eat when they are told to eat, they sleep when they are told to sleep. When they are asked to perform, these innocent children enthusiastically recite the script prepared by adults.

As you can probably see, this is one scary article. Obviously in recent years the Internet has made it harder to stamp out memories of the more recent outrages and scandals, but the fact remains, most Chinese growing up in the Chinese education system have been denied the knowledge of much of China’s history. And I’m ready for the response that it’s the same in the US. Um, no. We are taught about the disaster of Vietnam, we see television shows about the folly of the Iraq War, we learn how we exterminated the American Indians. Some textbooks may try to put America in the best light possible, but there is no government-mandated effort to uproot history and deny Americans knowledge of their past. It’s all out there for whoever wants to know about it.

This is a long and engrossing article. Let me just quote its last lines:

The late Chinese writer Ba Jin had a dream for preserving memory — to build a museum in China devoted to the Cultural Revolution, the “revolution” that took place in the 1960s and 1970s and turned the nation into a madhouse.

Carrying on Ba Jin’s dream, I also have a naïve hope: I hope one day a memorial to amnesia engraved with all our nation’s painful memories of the last century can be erected on Tiananmen Square.

I believe a truly great people are people who have the courage to remember their own past, and a truly great nation is a nation that has the courage to record its own history.

China so longs for true greatness, it dreams so much of soft power and global influence. But as long as it insists on excising anything negative about its history from the minds of its citizens, it cannot be taken entirely seriously. How can they be taken seriously when they are so afraid of the past, so insecure about the present that they must reshape the truth to avoid any dissent or disharmony? Do they not know that it makes others wary to see how China manipulates its citizens’ minds? Is there any hope that this very basic notion is getting through to anyone at the top? Based on everything I’m hearing and reading, the answer is, for now, no.


Tom Carter’s China: Portrait of a People

One of the few benefits of blogging is that I get sent a lot of books to review. I only review about half of them, the ones that interest me most. And then when I’m done, the books get stacked in a corner of my study. But Tom Carter’s gorgeous book China: Portrait of a People, went straight to my living room coffee table, the only book ever to grace a table cluttered with antiques and China paraphernalia. It will stay there where guests will see it.

Embarking on a two-year quest to travel across China’s 33 provinces and capturing photos of the very different faces of China, including all 56 minorities, Carter has produced a moving tribute to the Chinese people. It’s easy to forget all the different Chinas that there are and this comprehensive book puts them all together in one place. And what a place it is! This book is well over 600 pages and includes more than 800 photographs. Carrying just a backpack and a digital camera, Carter achieves the impossible, portraying Chinese people and their environments as they go about their daily business, as they sleep on the streets or on park benches, as they farm the soil, as they fish, swim, party and protest.

No words can do justice to the book; it’s the photos that say it all. This beautiful video captures the heart and soul of the book.

These are rare, wonderful photographs. In his introduction Carter writes, “The snapshots in this book are not works of art. I was too preoccupied with participating, with reveling in the moment to worry about perfection.” I have to disagree. These photos are works of art. If you are still in doubt, visit this tribute to the book in the Atlantic and tell me if you’re not deeply moved. If any photos are works of art, these qualify. One can only marvel at how intimate they are, how Carter managed to win the trust of his subjects, at how he captures them at the perfect moment, whether they are shooting an arrow or walking out of a coal mine or peeing on the sidewalk. I asked Carter how he managed to be right there at the right moment:

Intimate moments were captured as a result of me not approaching subjects and situations as a “photographer”, but simply by being there in the first place. My only priority at the time was total immersion in China’s culture and humanity; the photography was an afterthought.

As he says in his introduction, “Where I have been, you will be; what I have seen, you will see.” He visited one-third of all the cities and villages in China, so there’s a lot to see. He captured the essence of every Chinese minority. And it’s not just pictures. Each chapter begins with a beautifully written description of that chapter’s region. These are not snips from Wikipedia or random web searches. The descriptions are as intimate as his snapshots. He writes, for example, of Heilongjiang.

I never in my life felt colder than here on the top end of China. Pain is actually the sensation I most vividly recall. During the bus ride to Beijicun, China’s northernmost village on the banks of the Amur River, two elderly Manchurian women sitting beside me couldn’t help but notice this underdressed foreigner shivering uncontrollably.

Wrapping me in the People’s Liberation Army coats, they held me close in their arms until we arrived, the warmth of Chinese hospitality radiating in China’s least hospitable climate.

As you’ll see when you open the book, hundreds of subjects allowed Carter to enter their world, and to trust him enough to allow him to photograph them. This was something I wondered about from the first page: how did he win the people over and have them share intimate moments? Carter explained:

Winning my subjects’ trust can be attributed to my sincerity in wanting to get to know them without having any kind “ulterior motive,” as might a journalist who is more concerned with bylines and facts than the actual human being in their presence.

Finally, I asked Tom what his favorite photo is, even though I knew this was impossible to answer. I wanted to know which one(s) was closest to his heart. Here’s one of those photos, and Tom’s response.

There are too many photos from this journey that have special and significant memories attached to them for me to recount, but one pic that I think really stands out is this one, taken in Yinchuan, the capital city of Ningxia. I came across hundreds of out-of-work men standing around a street corner waiting for day-labor, but they had spotted me as soon as I spotted them and immediately swarmed around me out of genial curiosity. I must have answered a couple dozen of the same questions (“Where are you from?” “Do you like China?” etc.) before I realized what a fantastic photo was right in front of me. The stories on each of their faces speaks volumes about China on so any levels.

You love China or you wouldn’t be reading this. So get a copy of this book and experience what Carter has achieved. It belongs on all of my readers’ shelves, or coffee tables, anyplace where it is within easy reach. You will want to open it again and again. Get it here; for a mere $16 this is a wonderful treat.

You can like Tom’s Facebook page here, and visit his website here.


China’s Spoiled Brat Generation

I don’t think I need to say that blogging hasn’t been a high priority for me recently. But I saw a piece this week that I need to share, even though it’s already been out there a couple of days and has received enormous interest. It’s by editor, author, friend and all-around genius (and I mean that) James Palmer. (I reviewed his most recent book here.)

His story that has gone viral is all about the balinghou, Chinese young people borne after 1980, and the many myths about them, namely that they are all spoiled brats with no social skills and infinite greed and a sense of entitlement. Not so fast, Palmer argues. In fact, those descriptors may apply more to their parents than to the balinghou. It is the parents, disoriented by China’s hyperbolic growth and relatively new focus on money, so different from their lives under Mao, who now see greed as the key to success, to survival.

[M]any of the post-1980 generation — contrary to their reputation for greedy materialism — want to help others. Levels of volunteering are higher than ever, though still significantly lower than in the West, and college students or young white-collar workers are the primary founders of NGOs. But to their parents, charity can be a dirty word. ‘One of my friends has a sick wife, and very little money,’ said Zhang, the PhD student. ‘I wanted to give him 500 yuan to help him, but while I was waiting to meet him, I could hear my mother’s voice in my head, telling me I was a fool. Every time I give money to someone, I feel like I’m being cheated somehow.’ Another person I interviewed said: ‘If I tell my mum I gave money, she berates me because I don’t even have an apartment of my own yet.’

…And for parents whose own dreams were frustrated by history, the temptation to force their children into the path they wanted for themselves is even stronger.

This article is so brilliant, so intriguing, so well argued and so beautifully written that it generated a discussion from a panel of China experts including the likes of Orville Schell that is as essential a read as the article itself.

I’d like to quote nearly every line of Palmer’s article. This is partly why I am so down on blogging at the moment. There are many others who can offer more insight into China than I can, and there is no sense in my trying to add to it: Palmer’s article is as perfect as they come.

Let me just add that the myth of the balinghou as social misfits who’ve been spoiled to death, like all myths, certainly has an element of truth to it, as Palmer acknowledges up front. In my own research on the topic more than a year ago I spoke to several Chinese young people who grew up with no siblings, and they felt they were cheated — with no siblings they didn’t learn how to interact with their peers (or so they told me) and they lacked the social skills their parents had learned in their larger families. But that doesn’t mean they think only of themselves and have no moral compass. Greed is not their sole driver.

After reading the article (which you have to do) you may well feel that the ones who we should feel most concerned about are the parents, not their children.

[T]he parents of China’s post-1980 generation (themselves born between 1950 and 1965) grew up in a rural, Maoist world utterly different from that of their children. In their adolescence, there was one phone per village, the universities were closed and jobs were assigned from above. If you imagine the disorientation and confusion of many parents in the West when it comes to the internet and its role in their children’s lives, and then add to that dating, university life and career choices, you come close to the generational dilemma. Parents who spent their own early twenties labouring on remote farms have to deal with children who measure their world in malls, iPhones and casual dates.

Older Chinese, especially those now in their fifties or sixties, often seem like immigrants in their own country. They have that same sense of disorientation, of struggling with societal norms and mores they don’t quite grasp….

The young people’s sense of materialism didn’t spring up in a vacuum, but was instilled in them by their parents, suddenly living in a world with values radically different than the ones they grew up with in rural China.

There is much more to this article, and it is no surprise to see the storm it has generated. I would say it is the single best piece on China I’ve seen in a very long time, maybe years. It is gripping, and it is shattering. (Sorry, I don’t mean to gush, but I’ve rarely been so mesmerized by an article on China.) Read it now if you haven’t already, and if you’ve read it already go and read it again. Just two words to James: Thank you.