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With much gratitude, the China Beat editors say goodbye

What a difference four years can make—for a blog, a country, and a planet. (“Blog, country, planet” might have made a nice coat of arms if we’d thought of it…) When China Beat launched early in 2008, blogs seemed like relatively new kids on the block, at least to academics. Four years later, the genre is old hat, sharing a landscape with newcomers like Tumblr, Twitter, and other microblogging platforms, and we’re increasingly catching up on China news not on computers but on devices that fit in our palms.

It isn’t just the technology that’s changed, but also the way China is written and thought about in the West. In early 2008, China had never held an Olympics or World’s Fair and it wasn’t the world’s second economy. Not many people were talking yet about a day coming when it would “rule the world” (though Jon Stewart, always ahead of his time, had already parodied the notion), and Bo Xilai hadn’t made headlines—good, bad, or indifferent—outside of China. Few besides China buffs had heard of Ai Weiwei or Chen Guangcheng.

Many things related to China that we’ve dealt with on the blog could have been predicted, but there have been many surprises as well. Perhaps the biggest surprise has been how many of the stories that captured our attention four years ago have rolled forward to today. The riots in Tibet in March 2008 caught us off guard, but it has now become a—tragically, depressingly—persistent story with the continued self-immolations, in some cases of people who were arrested during spring 2008. The Sichuan earthquake that year is another story that has continued to resonate in multiple ways, particularly for how it has highlighted China’s inability to make space for public calls for local government accountability. In July 2008, riots roiled Weng’an, Guizhou in response to concerns over local corruption—again last year, riots (in response to a very different form of local corruption, it should be noted) in Wukan, Guangdong garnered headlines around the world. Finally, as it has turned out, the furthest-reaching (at least to today) of 2008’s stories has certainly been the economic downturn of that fall, a downturn China seemed to weather well. At the end of China in 2008 we predicted that that story would probably dominate at least the next couple of years, but also predicted, hesitatingly, that in China, its pain it would ultimately be filed under “the human cost of continued development” rather than “the beginning of a breakdown” in economics and/or politics. As it turns out, we’re all still holding our breath.

The blog itself developed in ways that we never could have foreseen back in January 2008. We began China Beat with a small core group of contributors, imagining that each would write for the site once or twice a month, with an occasional guest post thrown in every now and then if someone outside the group wanted to post. That setup changed quickly, as more people than we ever imagined expressed an interest in becoming China Beatniks, and the distinction between “regular contributors” and “guest contributors” became irrelevant.

Even we aren’t sure exactly how many China Beatniks are out there, but over the past 999 posts, we’ve featured the writing and photography of an incredibly wide range of people. They include undergraduates, graduate students, faculty, journalists, photographers, and freelance writers from around the world. A number of them have pieces in China in 2008: A Year of Great Significance, the book that grew out of the blog’s first year—another development that we didn’t have in mind when we began the site. In the meantime, a group that started over lunch around a little table outside Murray L. Krieger Hall on the sunny, eucalyptus-laced campus of the University of California, Irvine, has now scattered far from California.

Along the way, though, the blog showed us what the brave new academic world looks like—not a lone professor writing quietly in a dim office, or even (if you were lucky, as we were at Irvine) a small cohort of China geeks in a single place—but a cacophonous, global network of like-interested scholars, journalists, and everybody else chiming in, debating, sharing, linking, recommending, analyzing. (And there’s yet another group of people who read without commenting, whose identities might surprise us even more: one of us discovered an airline seatmate with no China background of her own who was an avid reader, because her son was working in Shanghai.) It’s been a pleasure for China Beat to be part of that conversation. And while the site is closing down, the vibrant community that the blog contributed to will continue to do its good work of sharing and showcasing provocative and thoughtful writing about China. We’ll see you there.

Maura Cunningham
Kate Merkel-Hess
Ken Pomeranz
Jeff Wasserstrom

A few notes on the future

We will be maintaining the China Beat site for the time being, so our archives will not disappear immediately. And China Beat will live on through our Twitter feed, where we will continue to post links to great China stories and announcements about events around the world. You can also follow three of our four editors on Twitter—Maura Cunningham, Kate Merkel-Hess, and Jeff Wasserstrom. We’ve been very happy to feature book reviews from Twentieth-Century China at the site for the past eighteen months; stay tuned for information about where those reviews will appear in the future.

Thank you

The Confucius Institute, China Studies, and the University of Kentucky

Opening Ceremony of the Confucius Institute at the University of Kentucky, 2010

By Denise Ho

To conclude my Chinese history lecture course at the University of Kentucky, I introduce my undergraduates to the concept of “soft power” and suggest that Confucius Institutes are emblematic of China’s cultural diplomacy, which aims to project a peaceful image abroad. Confucius Institutes are centers for teaching Chinese language and culture overseas; they are organized by an office known as Hanban in the Ministry of Education, though their funding comes directly from the Chinese government’s treasury. There are now over 350 Confucius Institutes in the world, and two of these are in the state of Kentucky.

When my students and I first proposed capping off our “Year of China” guest column with a story on UK’s Confucius Institute, I thought the article would be an incisive look at American perceptions of China and the politics of teaching and learning about China here in the South. As readers of this blog may be well aware, Mandarin lessons funded by the Chinese state have created controversy. Some communities have protested the presence of Confucian Classrooms in American schools; the story of Alhambra, California’s experience was spoofed in the Daily Show’s feature, “Socialism Studies.” In March, the New York Times covered the controversy over Confucius Institutes, showing that the world of higher education—in both the United States and Europe—is split on whether to accept Hanban funding to establish centers, pay teachers and staff, and even to endow university professorships. Even academics are beginning to study the phenomenon of Confucius Institutes. As the anthropologist Jennifer Hubbert explained at the 2011 meeting of the American Anthropological Association, the reality of the Confucius Classroom is far more complex than the media would have it. Hubbert’s ethnographic study of a Confucius Classroom in Oregon suggests that though the Chinese teachers often contest their role as agents of the state, many students continued to essentialize “both teachers and nation as synonymous with the Chinese socialist state.”

My observation of UK’s Confucius Institute in the past month—interviews with Director Huajing Maske, observations of the Chinese 1 and Chinese 2 courses for adults, and attendance at their faculty meeting and campus events—revealed a situation at once more nuanced than the media representation and less political than Hubbert’s study of the Oregon high school. To provide a brief sketch of UK’s Confucius Institute: it was established in November 2010 with Shanghai University as its partner institution and with a particular focus on fine arts. UK’s Confucius Institute supports 10 teachers and staff, which includes four instructors for the community-oriented night courses and the rest devoted to teaching in K-12 programs in neighboring Woodford County. When asked about community impact, Maske estimated that UK’s Confucius Institute serves about 2,500 students (2,000+ from Woodford County public schools), and many more through public programming: over 2,000 in two separate Chinese New Year celebrations, several thousand students in the Children’s Museum and in other community centers, and others on campus through co-sponsorship of UK events such as the Year of China. Though my observations with the UK students have yielded enough for several articles, I’d like to make three observations here:

1. The Confucius Institute has to create its own market. Media coverage of learning Chinese in general and Confucius Institutes in particular has suggested a rush of American interest in studying Chinese. When I sat in on the Confucius Institute’s faculty meeting of April 18, I was struck by how hard the staff is working to generate interest. Much of the faculty meeting focused on publicity, on how to actually get students to come to summer camp or to night classes, on how to get university staff to come out for taiji or what sorts of games would engage small children at public events. I found myself empathizing with the staff as they strategized, realizing that it is not unlike my struggle to make China interesting to the UK community at large. The reality of interest in learning Chinese is reflected in the numbers of students in adult classes; Chinese 2 is significantly smaller than Chinese 1, and of the students we interviewed the most compelling reasons for studying Chinese were personal. Rather than be concerned about or interested in China as a rising power, they were there because they had Chinese students, Chinese friends, or Chinese spouses. The dignitaries at the ribbon-cutting in 2010 spoke as though establishing a Confucius Institute would result in an instant flowering of US-China relations; my primary takeaway from observing UK’s Confucius Institute is that interest is not given, and sustaining interest is hard work.

2. University faculty here and elsewhere must find ways to make the Confucius Institute our ally. One of my central concerns as the Year of China draws to a close is: what happens after the Year of China? For places like the University of Michigan, which had a Year of China in 2007-2008, or Brown University, which had one this academic year, their theme years drew attention to programs of study that were well-established and at least relatively well-funded. At the University of Kentucky there are four tenure-track faculty members in China studies: three in Chinese language and literature, and myself. The Year of China will be over and gone, but the Confucius Institute—with a half-million dollar operating budget—is here to stay. Though I share the concern about academic freedom, after this year we may have no other funds to bring speakers to campus; if the Confucius Institute can sponsor a speaker series (albeit one that avoids Tibet, Taiwan, and human rights), then this is better than none at all. Ideally a visionary university leadership might take this as an opportunity to provide content in exactly these taboo issues, but after my colleagues in Chinese language have been denied funding ($3600) to open a second section of Chinese 201 for two years running, I am not optimistic. For want of a nail…the kingdom was lost.

3. The importance of the individual, one-on-one contact of cultural diplomacy. In preparing to write this article I watched the videotape of the University of Kentucky Confucius Institute Inaugural Ceremony from November 6, 2010, an event I attended in my second year on the faculty. As I revisited the remarks made by representatives of UK, Shanghai University, the Chinese Embassy, Hanban, and former labor secretary Elaine Chao, I reflected on how far removed they were from the classes and meetings I had attended. There are two gaps: the first is between stereotype and reality, and the second between the bureaucrat and the teacher. For the two keynote addresses were chockablock with the very stereotypes that “cultural understanding” purports to confront; Hu Zhiping of Hanban gave a speech on the deliciousness of Kentucky Fried Chicken and how he hoped that Confucius Institutes would be just like KFC in providing a “cultural feast,” and Elaine Chao—despite saying that her talk was based on anecdotes and concluding that “China is not a monolithic country”—spoke entirely in clichés: “The family is the foundation,” “the Chinese respect education,” and “the Chinese value harmony and order.” If these are the caricatures expressed by our own cultural and political leaders, then it is all the more important that members of the community meet Confucius Institute teachers and see them as individuals. As for the second gap, that between politician/bureaucrat and teacher, it seems to me that the former makes the news while the latter—as Hubbert’s research and our observation suggest—is actually where cultural diplomacy happens.

A Chinese class at the UK Confucius Institute

By Jared Flanery

Throughout the course of the University of Kentucky’s “Year of China,” both Western scholars of China and Chinese nationals alike contended with the seemingly interminable question of China’s rise in specially designed courses, seminars, and lectures. Yet the themed year has now come to an end, and the recent conclusion of the spring semester immediately provokes another question: what is next for China Studies at the university? One method of contextualizing UK’s efforts is through comparison with a more permanent organization, the Confucius Institute.

As Denise Ho’s blog mentions above, the Confucius Institute at UK was inaugurated in November 2010. Since then, Director Huajing Maske identified a shift in focus from Hanban from Chinese traditions and cultural studies to K-12 classes. The next strategic phase for UK’s Confucius Institute is “internationalization.” This consists of partnering with Chinese universities like Shanghai and Jilin Universities and participating in academic exchanges (sending academics and students across borders). Yet this does not indicate a reluctance to engage in political controversy on campus. On the contrary, this reconsideration of priorities may reflect another persistent theme – the dearth of demand. While a 2008 article from Xinhua cited the “booming” Confucius Institutes as a result of increasing American demand for language studies, in Lexington reciprocal interest appears difficult to inspire. K-12 classes offer a captive market and audience and comprise the majority of students receiving soft power services. Moreover, most of the scholars and students selected or self-selected to travel to China likely already display interest in the region.

Much of the media discourse on Confucius Institutes surrounds the theme of soft power and the potential threat of an encroaching China. Politically divergent observers, including concerned parent Teresa Macias, who was interviewed by the Daily Show, and historian Bruce Cumings, allude to the purported increase in influence the Institute will afford the interests of the Chinese government. The site of soft power varies according to the critic. For Cumings, the danger lies in self-censorship as a result of a collision of funding interests. For Macias, the good will of the Confucius Institute could not conceal an insidious curriculum bent on indoctrination.

Although in the actual classes the question of nationality arose, it was purely in a linguistic context, while both students and teachers we interviewed said their relationship to Chinese was mainly didactic and apolitical. Furthermore, the majority of students in Chinese-language classes at UK were not even aware that the program was funded by Hanban. Matt Treblehorn, an attorney in Lexington, said he saw the teachers as representatives of the Chinese government, but other students tended to view their language instructor as just that: a teacher. As part of our ethnographic research, a few teachers responded to a questionnaire that asked how they viewed themselves in the classroom context. Bi Yifei, a ceramicist who teaches Chinese 1 at UK, avoided the issue of political representation, and responded that she was “just a teacher.” Simmons Elementary teacher Carol Chen, by way of contrast, claimed her role “as a gateway to Chinese language and culture.” Politics was notably absent from that formulation. K-5 teacher Zhang Huihui admitted that sometimes she is viewed as a stand-in for China, but not the Chinese state. Still, she sought to stake out a sense of personal identity as well: “sometimes, I am just myself.”

Zhang Huihui also informed us about the training process she underwent before arriving in the United States as a member of the Institute’s faculty. There is a two month “intensive training” at Beijing Language and Culture University, in which a variety of mostly linguistic subjects are covered. For Zhang, though, this training is “far from enough.” Though the teachers viewed themselves as apolitical classroom figures, students occasionally ask political questions that must be addressed. Instructors from K-5 and the instructor at UK described their students’ views of China in a similar fashion. Bi Yifei downplayed the potential for classroom discord arising from difficult political conversations, saying she would simply use “her way” to defuse them. Students in the university-level classes noted that while there was no concerted effort to avoid touchy subjects, the instructors exhibited national and cultural pride.

Carol Chen identified the primary political stereotype in the minds of Confucius Institute students as there being an excess of crime and war in China. Most of her students, however, were too young to pose such questions and instead were familiar only with “yummy Chinese food.” The comments of Zhang Huihui essentially accord with Chen’s. Some young students’ comments apparently viewed Chinese people as eating dogs and the Chinese government as killing children. Clearly these topics are sensitive and pose a real challenge to teachers, even those with more than two months of training. Zhang responded by inviting students to maintain an open mind and seek out facts rather than stereotypes. Zhang also emphasized that the vast majority of students here in the American South are focused on other received representations of Chinese culture: “Kung Fu Panda, Karate Kid, and Chinese food.” The faculty of the Confucius Institute, it should be noted, is not engaged in imposing standardized views of China on small children. Rather, the teachers are tasked with addressing the pre-conceptions of the students themselves. At the K-12 level, at least, image supersedes reality.

Perhaps the more practical question is whether pedagogical methods will ever overshadow political controversy in scholarly approaches to the Confucius Institutes. The general sense among students was that their respective instructor was comfortable with questions, as well as “animated” and “encouraging.” The classes also acted as a cost-effective alternative to accredited courses, and attracted students of China from both the university and the wider Lexington community. Yet according to the students, class attendance in Chinese 1 diminished substantially as the semester wore on, and Chinese 2 was even smaller in size. Despite the success of the “Year of China,” it is unlikely that through public outreach alone the Confucius Institute will attract significantly more people. As the cultural, political, and economic motivations to study China proliferate, interested community members are just as diffuse. A long-term strategy would acknowledge that, on the University of Kentucky’s campus, there are multiple actors working toward somewhat similar ends: the Asia Center, the Confucius Institute, and UK’s relatively new China Studies program. Hanban’s resources could be better used in conjunction with these institutions, while simultaneously moving beyond the depoliticized realms of K-12 education and international exchange. A joint center focused on contemporary Chinese history and issues could serve as a diplomatic combination of efforts, without eliding the perpetual need to engage in difficult political discourse.

Denise Ho is assistant professor of history at the University of Kentucky. Jared Flanery is a rising senior from Louisville, KY. This article is the last of a four-part series on teaching and learning about China at the University of Kentucky, a public land-grant institution founded in 1865. For more information about the Year of China, please click here. To learn more about the University of Kentucky’s Confucius Institute, please visit their website. The authors of this blog would like to thank the Confucius Institute, in particular Huajing Maske, Bi Yifei, and Zhang Dandan, for their assistance.

By Xujun Eberlein

One April day in my birth city of Chongqing, I encountered a rare quarrel in People’s Park. The park is one of several places in downtown Chongqing that offer low-cost “baba cha” (open-space tea), where retirees and others with time on their hands lounge under leafy banyan trees with their teacups and bird cages for a good part of the day. Two fiftyish men sat at a plastic table drinking tea and chatting about Bo Xilai, their city’s ousted leader. One of the men said that Bo’s promotion of “people’s livelihood” had been a fake show, because during his four-year rule, prices of meat, food, and other daily goods had risen steeply in Chongqing. Two young women, who happened to be nearby, cellphones in hand and apparently waiting for someone, did not like what they heard and started to argue that Bo made Chongqing better. The man got very upset; his face reddened and he raised his voice, which attracted the attention of onlookers, including me. I asked the man whether his criticism was formed after Bo’s downfall. He was insulted. “This has always been my opinion! I’m not brainless, I was once a journalist!” he yelled.

Tea-drinkers in People's Park, Chongqing

This scene is rare because, seemingly illogically, in the weeks since his downfall, Bo’s local dissenters have been much quieter than his supporters.

Chongqing people’s attitudes toward Bo Xilai range from supportive to condemnatory to “who cares” and everything in between, a broad spectrum with two heavy ends. (For the indifferent, a typical expression I often heard was “The gods fighting is none of our business.”) So far, however, foreign journalists seem to have a hard time penetrating the famous fog of the river-mountain city to find more than one stratum of views. In the English media it is easy to see headlines such as “Bo Xilai Still Admired Locally in China” and “Bo Xilai Remains Popular in Megacity He Once Oversaw.” In those reports quoting “the average people on the street,” the term “average people” generally does not include intellectuals, writers, journalists, academics, and so forth.

In fact, among local intellectuals, professionals, and the middle class, there has been an overwhelming sentiment against Bo’s doings in Chongqing since 2009, according to a dozen such men and women I have spoken to this month, all of whom requested anonymity. One reason their opinions have not been widely reflected in the foreign media is that they are much more reluctant to speak than the “stick men” (棒棒, or porters-for-hire) who roam the streets. When I asked why they were still afraid of speaking up even after Bo was gone, a local journalist told me that the government had issued orders forbidding them from talking to foreign journalists.

There is a long tradition in China of intellectuals being more tightly controlled than any other social class. Their present silence reflects a deep distrust of the government regardless of its position. Though Bo is now officially on the outs, it is still safer not to voice one’s opinions.

A researcher of Chongqing’s Cultural Revolution told me that in early April, within two hours of talking on the phone with the Chinese assistant of a British journalist and agreeing to have an interview about Bo and the Cultural Revolution, two policemen paid him a visit and requested he cancel the interview, on the grounds that it was a sensitive time and speaking to foreign media would damage Chongqing’s image. After turning them down, he was visited by two old ladies representing the “neighborhood committee,” who presented the same request. The next day his boss at his work unit talked with him—again urging him to cancel the interview. He wondered how the government found out about the interview and whose phone was monitored: his or the journalist’s. To their credit, the researcher told me, all of his uninvited visitors were polite. “At least that is progress.”

The local scholars I spoke to view Bo as either a hypocritical opportunist or a ruthless megalomaniac who regards himself as the savior of China, in either case pursuing his own agenda by fair means or foul. Their condemnation of Bo comes down to the bottom line that the system Bo delivered put the ruler’s authority above the law. The billion-dollar gingko trees, expensive police platforms, and subsidized housing that pleased many were all parts of his “face engineering.” My interviewees pointed out that every district of Chongqing is now facing bankruptcy.

Bo’s supporters can be most easily found among housewives, retired workers, “stick men,” and taxi drivers. One reason that many in the lower-income or laboring classes advocate for Bo is that Bo’s violence did not touch them, a university professor said; instead they received small benefits, for which they are grateful. “The poor don’t know that Bo looks down on them in his bones,” the aforementioned Chongqing journalist said. He gave me an example that once, people in a poor neighborhood unexpectedly saw their benefactor inspecting the area, and they ran to him to express their thanks, only to be pushed back by Bo’s guards. Bo simply turned his back, pretending not to see them.

“Chongqing people are very vain,” a local writer told me, giving another explanation for Bo’s popularity. “What made them most happy about Bo is that he dressed the city up with trees and made Chongqing famous. They don’t care what system is behind all this. They don’t care how much the government is spending. Their logic is that since I don’t get to use the money anyway, it is better to waste it on expensive gingko trees than drop it in the pockets of corrupt officials.”

Several scholars have pointed out that Bo drew on a common sentiment among lower-income people today: hatred of the rich, hatred of corrupt officials. Bo satisfied them by killing or punishing some of those people; how he did it or whether anyone was wronged does not matter.

The scholars I talked with are not rich—they do not even qualify as middle class according to the commonly accepted definition of “a house and a car.” But they have better access to information than many people who only see Bo’s propaganda—for example, the “five Chongqing” posters, which were still pervasive in the city during my April visit.

One day during my trip, a middle-aged women sitting behind me in a shared van was talking to another woman about how the police platforms along Chongqing’s streets have made the city much safer—a commonly heard praise of Bo—and how criminals would return now that Bo was gone. I asked what she thought about singing red songs. “Those songs purify people’s souls,” she answered, as if picking a sentence right from a Party newspaper. “Would you like to go back to the Mao era, then?” I continued to ask. “The Mao era was better than now,” she said, “at least poor patients would be accepted and rescued at an emergency room! Nowadays no one cares if you don’t have money.” “But what about the millions of people who starved to death in the great famine?” I had to ask. She replied, “That was a natural disaster!” (The woman is not alone on this—many ordinary people in China are still unaware that the great famine that lasted three years from 1959 to 1961 was mainly caused by Mao’s erroneous policies.)

Other fierce advocates of Bo come from the “CCP (Maoist)” group, a small local organization with no more than two or three dozen members—all retired factory workers. They “elected” Bo Xilai (whose consent was not required) as their “general secretary” in an October 2009 conference at which a number of participants were detained by Bo’s government. After Bo’s downfall in mid-March of this year, a handful (exaggerated by internet rumors to thousands) of “CCP (Maoist)” members held a protest at Chongqing’s riverfront Chaotianmen. A local observer familiar with the incident said that group had tried unsuccessfully to mobilize ex-Red Guards who had suffered imprisonment and other punishment for their activities during the Cultural Revolution. Those past “heroes,” who remain excluded from China’s economic miracle and live in poverty, were disappointed in Bo Xilai after their open letter asking to improve their living condition was ignored.

Bo’s supporters and dissenters all believe their side is in the majority, and each side uses very different logic when interpreting the charges against Bo and his wife. Four out of five taxi drivers I spoke to, for example, said they didn’t believe that Gu Kailai had murdered Neil Heywood or that Bo was corrupt and hiding money overseas. “Think about it,” one driver said in a teaching tone. “Gu Kailai is a very smart lawyer, wouldn’t she know the consequences of murder? Bo Xilai’s interest is in politics, would he care about a few bucks? It is just that simple!” Their interpretation is that all the charges are made-up excuses to bring Bo down because Bo is more capable than Hu Jintao, Wen Jiabao, and Xi Jinping. The dissenters, on the other hand, believe Bo is completely capable of murder because he has no regard for the life of someone standing in his way. Curiously, regardless of their stance on the Bo affair, most of those I spoke to suspected that Wang Lijun’s entry into the US consulate was part of a plot to bring Bo down.

The last thing I heard before leaving Chongqing was that Bo has requested a public trial. If this is true, the request is most ironic: Bo himself put numerous people on “public trial” during his “crackdown on gangsters” campaign in 2009-2010 and no witnesses for the defense were allowed in court. A dozen or so of those arrested were hastily executed as results of such trials. In a country without an independent judiciary, there is no reason to expect Bo’s prosecution would be any more evenhanded, and Bo should know this better than anyone. So an interesting question is what his real motive in asking for a “public trial” would be. Presumably, it indicates his extreme self-confidence, a characteristic that has done him much damage to date.

On the other hand, the Party leaders must have known that given the wide divide in public opinion, an open trial would put the Party in hot water. That is probably why Bo has only been charged with a discipline violation, an offense that can be handled completely within the Party.

The public divide reflects two sides of the same coin; it is a social crisis caused by rapid economic development ill-supported by the country’s political system. The purge of Bo Xilai puts China’s ruler—the Communist Party—to another legitimacy test. It will be most interesting to see how the Party comes out of it.

Xujun Eberlein is the author of an award-winning story collection, Apologies Forthcoming, and the blog Inside-Out China.

By Duncan Hewitt

It was just like old times—in many of China’s major newspapers, a prominently displayed half-page story headlined: “Officials and citizens all across the country express unwavering support for central party leadership’s decision.” It followed hot on the heels of the previous day’s People’s Daily headline: “Resolutely support the party’s correct decision,” which appeared on many front pages. In the wake of the stunning news that Bo Xilai, one of China’s most prominent politicians, had been suspended from the ruling Politburo, and his wife arrested on suspicion of being involved in the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood, the Chinese Communist Party was in full damage limitation mode. And as so often in a time of crisis, it reverted to tried and trusted methods—in this case wheeling out headlines and slogans straight out of the Mao-era propaganda lexicon. Even the well-known liberal Guangzhou newspaper the Southern Weekend had obviously been ordered to fill its front page with them—though it did manage to squeeze in a recent quote from Premier Wen Jiabao calling for continuing reforms. And by the end of the week, state media had begun pushing other default buttons, with an editorial in the often nationalistic Global Times newspaper accusing the western media of trying to use the affair to split the Communist Party.

But of course times have, in fact, changed. “These headlines are like something out of the Cultural Revolution,” said one very modern urban intellectual, shaking his head in disbelief. And while newspaper editors have apparently been summoned to meetings to ensure they follow the correct line, the authorities have had to work hard policing the Internet against critical comment in recent days. Even before the latest news broke, they had already felt they had no option but to close down the comment function on China’s two biggest microblogging sites for several days, claiming that this was to prevent the spread of rumors, following online speculation about a possible coup attempt by people sympathetic to Mr. Bo. Last week they again blocked the use of (and searches for) the names of Bo Xilai, Neil Heywood, and Wang Lijun, Mr. Bo’s former police chief in the city he ran, Chongqing, whose flight to the US consulate in nearby Chengdu in February was the first hint of the affair.

Yet many people have sought ways to get around the blockade, using abbreviations and homonyms. And opinions are clearly less unified than the official media would seek to have the nation believe. For all that newspapers like the Global Times ran headlines suggesting that the detention of a member of the party’s inner circle, apparently in connection with a murder investigation, was a stirring symbol of the party’s commitment to the rule of law, cynics on the Internet were busy suggesting that it was, in fact, a sign of just how rotten the upper echelons of the party appear to have become. Others, even some who did not necessarily sympathize with the campaigns to promote traditional socialist culture which Mr. Bo ran in Chongqing—which seemed to alarm some people in the central leadership—were suspicious, rightly or wrongly, that his ouster should have come just as he was apparently getting close to an even more powerful post in China’s leadership transition later this year.

In a nation where the media has, despite ongoing official controls on the most sensitive political issues, continued to diversify over recent years, and where the Internet and in particular microblogs have revolutionized the flow of information, it’s now much harder to control public opinion. In Shanghai, for example, where the city’s former Communist Party secretary Chen Liangyu was ousted in 2006, and later convicted on charges of corruption relating to misuse of the city’s pension funds, it’s not hard to find people who argue that Mr. Chen was in fact a good man who put the city’s population first, and claim that his dismissal had more to do with political clashes with the central leadership than any unusual degree of corruption. (And these contrarian attitudes relate to a case which occurred several years before there were microblogs to send such views shooting around cyberspace.)

Some people are undoubtedly glad to see the removal of Mr. Bo, whose populist approach sat awkwardly with the cautious, consensual style of China’s top leadership over recent years. And many liberals in China certainly welcomed Premier Wen Jiabao’s warning, at his press conference in March, that the country had to be on guard to prevent a return to the days of the Cultural Revolution—an apparent reference to Mr. Bo’s Maoist-inspired mass campaigns in Chongqing. It was one of the first times in many years that a top leader had mentioned the Cultural Revolution, serious debate about which still remains almost taboo in China.

Nevertheless, the government’s heavy-handed, traditional-style management of the media—and Internet—during this crisis has made some wonder just how far the Communist Party has moved from its Mao-era traditions. Well-known liberal scholar Liu Junning last week wrote a post (which was quickly deleted, according to Hong Kong University’s China Media Project) warning that the greatest threat to social stability was in fact autocratic rule—an apparent reference to the Party itself.

It’s all added to the sense that, for all its talk of embracing “public scrutiny” via the Internet, the Party is struggling to keep up with the pace of social change in China. It recently revived a campaign to promote the example of Lei Feng, an early 1960s’ soldier promoted by Chairman Mao as a model of altruism—and a throwback to the days when people in China really did “express unwavering support” for the decisions of the party central committee.

But even in the same Shanghai newspapers that hailed public enthusiasm for the government’s handling of the latest events last week, there was a reminder of just how much times have changed. Several papers reported how twenty airline passengers, furious at having been delayed overnight at Shanghai’s Pudong International Airport when a flight was cancelled—and at receiving no compensation for their troubles—burst past security guards and blocked a runway near the plane they were eventually due to leave on, forcing one international flight that had just landed to change its course on the taxi way. The protesters were soon removed from the runway, but to the anger of some local media, the authorities were apparently initially unwilling to take any further action against them (though after much media criticism, they were later reported to have been given unspecified “administrative punishment.”)

It’s perhaps not surprising: with Chinese people increasingly aware of their rights as consumers—and, perhaps, as citizens too—these days, protests by passengers angry at shoddy treatment by state-run airlines (many of which still seem to hanker for the unaccountable days of old) have become commonplace, and the police are often very wary of intervening for fear of provoking a violent reaction. (I saw such a case myself at Shanghai’s Hongqiao Airport a couple of weeks ago, when a passenger furious at the cancellation of his flight due to fog leapt onto the counter of an airline desk and began screaming at the top of his voice. Two young policemen hovered nervously nearby, watching but taking no action.) These days, it seems, achieving total unity of opinion among people who feel increasingly empowered as individuals may not be quite as easy as it was in the days when the People’s Daily first wrote such headlines.

Duncan Hewitt is a former BBC China correspondent who now writes for Newsweek and other publications from Shanghai, and is the author of Getting Rich First—Life in a Changing China (Vintage UK, 2008).

Here at China Beat, of course, we spend a lot of time trolling the web for great commentary on China. If you follow us on Twitter (as over 3500 people do, which we really appreciate), you’ll get a daily rundown of the articles we find interesting. But in addition to tweeting individual story links, we wanted to call special attention to two new blogs and one reinvigorated podcast whose RSS feeds are worth grabbing:

The Economist recently launched a dedicated China section in its print magazine, the first time a country-specific section was added since 1942 (when the country under examination was the United States). To accompany the new section, the magazine has also set up Analects, a blog for its China correspondents. In addition to short posts on topics in the news (lately, the National People’s Congress and the increasingly convoluted Bo Xilai saga), Analects also ran a lengthy article by Gady Epstein on the history of Economist coverage of China, extending back to 1843. It’s a lively, enjoyable read in which Epstein carefully points out that China correspondents of the past got as much wrong as they did right (and vice versa).

• The other new China blog—very new, actually, as it just launched last Thursday—is Rectified.name, a group blog whose contributors include Jeremiah Jenne, Dave Lyons, Will Moss, Brendan O’Kane, and Chinese journalist YJ. Read an introduction to the site (and explanation of its name) here, then follow @rectifyname on Twitter. Notable posts so far include “The Game of Thrones Guide to the 2012 Transition” (Part I, Part II) and “I Apologize if Anyone Felt Killed,” on Mike Daisey’s non-apologetic apology to This American Life listeners.

• The Sinica Podcast, co-hosted by Kaiser Kuo and Jeremy Goldkorn, has been around since 2010 but has ramped things up lately, thus meriting its inclusion in this post. They now have a Sinica Twitter feed as well as a Facebook page to interact with listeners. Recent guests include a number of China Beatniks, such as Geremie Barmé, Jeff Wasserstrom, Paul French, and Rob Schmitz. As a bonus, each podcast ends with the hosts and guests offering reading (or viewing, or attending) recommendations—not always China-focused—that are always worth checking out.

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