China Behind the Headline

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By Christian Hess

The past week has seen Dalian become the focal point of significant global press coverage for two different reasons. The uptick in interest started with the maiden voyage of China’s first aircraft carrier, the former Soviet vessel Varyag, which set sail from Dalian’s harbour after years of not-so-secret rebuilding. More recently, the ongoing drama of citywide protests over the feared environmental impact caused by damage to one of the city’s major chemical plants has made the rounds of the international press.

Perhaps because it does not feature prominently on the foreign journalist’s map of China, the coverage of events in Dalian quickly transcends the city itself. Seemingly out of nowhere, Dalian is the place which has rebuilt a weapon which may allow China to project power in the region in important new ways, and a site of protest where we may be witnessing a nervous government making major capitulations to the demands of outraged citizens.

There are of course important local contexts here. The two previous posts in this series, by political scientist Meg Rithmire and historian Miriam Kingsberg, reminded us of this, as they explored the origins and development of an environmental discourse related to urban planning in Dalian that stretches from the colonial period into the reform era. I’d like to add two more points to this discussion.

The first deals with Dalian’s industrial heritage, which likewise harkens back to the colonial era. The ongoing protests over the PX plant in particular reveal significant changes in what industrial development means for Dalian and its people.

The second and related point I want to make touches on the nature of planning models and order in the local past. And how this has been linked to an endless series of top-down, state definitions of the city’s identity.

The recent protests remind us that Dalian’s makeover as one of China’s greenest cities shouldn’t blind us to the fact that potentially harmful industries continue to play an important role in the city’s growth. While similar protests have occurred in other parts of China, the intensity of the movement in Dalian is likely due to the fact that, for many years, industry (including chemical production) served as a defining feature of the city. Dalian’s industries, led by shipbuilding, locomotive plants, and chemical production enabled this former colonial city to rebuild quickly after 1945, and gave the city and its people a privileged position in the new urban landscape of the People’s Republic.

The city did not start its life as a major industrial base. Dalian was built by Russian (1898-1905) and Japanese (1905-1945) colonial powers as a trading port, billed by the South Manchuria Railway Company as “The Gateway to Manchuria.” It stood as an ultramodern point of access to the agricultural and mineral wealth of Manchuria.

By the 1920s Dalian was on the global map as a major port, home a burgeoning commercial and consumer economy best symbolized by the central plaza. This often photographed space was ringed with monumental buildings which reflected this economic vitality, including banks, stock exchanges, post offices, and luxury hotels, and still stands today as the core district of the city. While locomotive and shipbuilding facilities were also major features of the economy, it wasn’t until the 1930s that Japanese authorities began to implement significant industrialization plans for the city.

It wasn’t an easy transition. Dalian lacked space and ready access to water for large scale industries. But Dalian’s geographical location, and the pressing needs of an empire at total war would make the transformation of the colonial port into an industrial center of Japan’s wartime empire an urgent priority. With its advanced rail and port links, raw materials could move into the city with relative ease and finished goods, ranging from chemicals and armaments, to locomotives, ships and machined tools could flow out. New industrial zones were built in the suburbs, which came to replace the central plaza as the city’s center of economic gravity. Importantly, many of these industries were large in scale, and state-owned. This industrial base would prove critical for the city’s survival in the postwar era.

At the end of the war in 1945, Dalian was in a state of geopolitical limbo. Soviet troops occupied the city, and Chinese political powers had to work under Soviet authority while at the same time building legitimacy for themselves. Unlike Harbin and Changchun, Dalian had never been a Chinese administered city.

Yet, Chinese were the majority population throughout the colonial period, and many had lived there for decades. How would they be treated? Dalian might have easily been condemned for its colonial past. Instead, once the CCP started to gain control, the city’s industrial base, along with its colonial built environment served as the foundation for rebuilding the city. Equally important, reindustrialization provided the storyline for Dalian’s integration with China. By the late 1940s, it was rebranded as “China’s model production city.” Since the bulk of its industries had been in state hands under the Japanese, Dalian’s new authorities had a significant lead over places like Shanghai in terms of the transition to state ownership. Skilled Chinese workers who worked in these industrial units, trained under the Japanese, were not threatened politically, but rather were rewarded for staying on the job, often with former Japanese houses as part of their benefit package.

Dalian’s colonial built environment was used to build an image of the city as a “worker’s paradise.” The new story of Dalian as a production model and worker’s paradise was empowering in a time of renewed civil war. Moreover, it emphasized to workers that both their individual path to redemption and the city’s reintegration with China rested on their ability to live up to the new, state-ordained status as model production city.

Things have obviously changed quite a bit since then. Dalian sits far more comfortably on the map of China than it did in the late 1940s. As Meg Rithmire’s post shows us, the reform era has brought new state initiated efforts to build Dalian into a powerful new model with multiple “branding” operations. This pursuit to order the city through the use of models has been a constant feature of the city since its inception by Russian planners in the late 1890s. From Russia’s dream of a European style imperial metropolis and Japan’s building of a vibrant trading port and then industrial city, to its status as a vanguard production city in the late 1940s, “Dalian as model” has, at different times brought wealth and prosperity, or certain political clout to people here.

Yet such systematic and often overlapping schemes to rebrand, reorient and reorder the city often leave city residents out of the equation. It was a total colonial space, full of inequalities and exploitation. People here had little say in what happened to them after the 1940s. The brutal campaigns of the 1950s and 1960s did dive into family backgrounds, and past ties to Japan and even the Soviets cost people dearly. In recent years, Dalian’s GDP has risen, and new models have firmly planted it on the global map as a major IT center. It is still regarded as one of the cleanest cities in China. Yet the PX plant was allowed to set up shop here along with other polluting industries, and Dalian’s new image has involved much relocation and destruction, a fact not lost on city residents.

Perhaps it is more useful to view the recent events here as less a rigid tale of the Chinese government vs. the People, and more about local people trying to claim some control over what their city is and how it functions. And also about what it means to be from Dalian.

Christian Hess is Research Council Fellow/Assistant Professor of Chinese history at the University of Warwick. He is currently completing a book manuscript on the history of Dalian. He can be reached at

By Meg Rithmire

Where is Dalian, the city that has just made its way into international headlines due to large-scale demonstrations in its central square? Ask this question in China and “Dongbei” is the one word answer you are likely to get. And you can’t argue with it. The term means simply “Northeast”—with the first character the same one that’s in the song “Dongfang Hong” (The East is Red) and the second the same one that’s in Beijing (literally: Northern Capital)—and on a map of the country, Dalian is right up there in the right hand corner (the red dot on the image above taken from Wikipedia’s page on the city).

One of the first things to note about this Dongbei city, though, is that it has started to be more dong and less bei, so to speak. It has begun to have less and less in common with cities that neighbor it to the north (many of which have gone from being centers of Mao era crash industrialization to becoming economically troubled rust belt locales) and more and more in common with booming eastern seaboard ports to the south (many of which, including most famously Shanghai, have done well in the Reform era). While many other Dongbei cities (Daqing, for example), struggle against unemployment, are marred by blighted post-industrial urban landscapes, and contend with a bevy of environmental problems, Dalian enjoys not only exceptional wealth but also a reputation as an excellent place to live and work, thanks in large part to how it has become integrated into global economic systems. It has been praised as the “Bangalore of north Asia” and called “China’s best business city.” It has also amassed a number of awards acknowledging the quality of its urban landscape and handling of environmental issues: it was declared an “Environmental Protection Model City” (Huanbao Mofan Chengshi) in 1992, a “Sanitation Model City” (Weisheng Mofan Chengshi) in 1991, and was the first city in China and second in Asia to be included in the UN “Global 500” for livable environments in 1995. The city’s landscape—the built as well as natural environment—is revered throughout the region; it is a prime destination not only for migrants but also wealthier retirees who seek healthier air and access to fresh seafood.

In light of all this, it is striking that the largest protests to break out in Dalian since 1989, the ones that exploded last weekend, would concern an environmental issue: the main aim of demonstrators was to force the closure of a chemical plant. And it is notable as well that protests did not occur when two of Dalian’s northern neighbors experienced incidents associated with pollution and toxic spills. Nearby Harbin (whose architecture was the subject of James Carter’s recent post on this site), had to shut down the city’s water supplies for four days in 2005 as a result of a benzene spill into the Songhua River. And that spill was a result of a chemical plant explosion in Jilin City, another regional hub, which killed or injured dozens of people and resulted in a massive evacuation. But neither Harbin nor Jilin residents took to the streets six years ago.

Yet, in Dalian, middle-to-upper class residents who live in the city’s downtown area, twenty kilometers from the industrial zone in which the PX chemical plant is located, have been agitating to demand the factory’s relocation. Dalian’s economic and political trajectory since reform and opening sheds some light on why.

Dalian’s success was a function of early open door policies bestowed by Beijing, natural geography, and the efforts of an effective and charismatic mayor—Bo Xilai, who was central to Dalian politics from 1985-2000. Now famous for presiding over the Chongqing Model and a “Red Revival,” Bo began his political career as the party secretary of Maqiaozi, a small village about 35 kilometers east of the city center. In 1985, Maqiaozi became the site of the Dalian Economic and Technology Development Zone (ETDZ), the very first such zone nationwide.

When Bo ascended to the Mayor’s office in 1992, he initiated sweeping changes to the city’s physical landscape as a major part of efforts at reform and growth. These changes involved a spatial division of labor within the city of Dalian: the development zone to the east would be home to the city’s manufacturing base, and the downtown area would be home to commercial and residential development as well as the burgeoning service sector. Realizing this spatial division of labor involved major campaigns to relocate downtown industrial enterprises, campaigns that were accompanied by the rhetoric of removing “polluting enterprises” to the suburbs to improve quality of life. Constant appeal to the environmental benefits of locating industry outside the city to both protect residents’ quality of life and Dalian’s environmental reputation offset objections over the inconvenience of suburbanizing jobs and the loss of downtown residences.

In this sense, the PX plant protests reflect the political legacy of Dalian’s transformation. Dalian residents share a sense of entitlement to a high-quality urban environment. Many of the city’s newer residents were drawn to Dalian because of the environment, and its older residents perceive a safe and clean city as their hard-won prize from rounds of economic reforms and relocations. Protest placards with slogans like “Love Dalian, Reject Poison” underscore the centrality of the urban environment to the city’s political self-image.

In another sense, the protests are somewhat surprising to Dalian watchers. A consequence of the city’s spatial division of labor and the distance between downtown and the development zone has been a remarkable gulf between the “old city” and the “new.” The development zone is home to a largely migrant population and downtown to the more traditional, long-time Dalian residents. If the better-off, downtown residents of the old city are considering the zone as part of their “backyard” in the PX protests, this is perhaps suggestive of growing integration of city and suburbs in larger Dalian. Whether this concern will extend to the dozens of other chemical and petrochemical companies in the development zone remains to be seen.

Meg Rithmire ( is an assistant professor of Business, Government, and the International Economy at the Harvard Business School. From 2007-2008, while researching her dissertation project on urban planning and politics in China, she lived and conducted research in Dalian and other cities in the Northeast. Her first stay in the area, though, came five years before that, when she studied Chinese in Harbin in a program run by CET Academic Programs, an organization with long ties to this blog (e.g., both founding editor Kate Merkel-Hess and current editor Maura Cunningham are CET alums, and China Beat contributor David Moser, whose most recent post analyzed the documentary film “He Shang,” is Academic Director of the CET Chinese Studies program in Beijing).

By Alice Miller

Chinese President and CCP General Secretary Hu Jintao’s remarks on human rights during his joint press conference with President Obama in Washington on 19 January have been widely regarded in foreign media as a grudging concession that broke new ground in Beijing’s position on the issue. Specifically, confronted by a persistent Washington press corps, Hu for the first time acknowledged “the universality of human rights” in international politics and conceded that “a lot still needs to be done in China in terms of human rights.”

Whether Hu attempted to dodge a question about China’s human rights position posed by an Associated Press reporter, as many Western media have concluded, or the initial question was inadequately translated into Chinese, as Hu claimed, cannot be answered conclusively from available reporting. But the remarks that Hu gave to the follow-up question on the issue when a Bloomberg reporter pressed for an answer—which, according to a BBC account, Hu read from a note card prepared for the occasion—did not break new ground. They merely repeated longstanding PRC positions on this issue.

Beijing has repeatedly and explicitly acknowledged that human rights are universal since the mid-1990s in statements at home and abroad. Even before then, Beijing indirectly acknowledged the principle of the universality of human rights in endorsing the 1948 “Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” and over the years it has accepted the principle in signing on to several international human rights covenants and protocols. Last year, for example, Beijing’s ambassador to the UN He Yafei summarized Beijing’s position in an interview with the PRC news service Xinhua:

China respects the universality of human rights and believes all rights are universal, indivisible, interdependent, and interrelated. The principle of universality has been included in the UN Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and other international human rights instruments. Chin has so far ratified more than 20 international human rights instruments, including seven of the eight core human rights instruments. This demonstrates clearly China’s affirmation of the universality of human rights. (Xinhua, 17 March 2010)

This position has been a staple of authoritative PRC statements for more than a decade. For example:

  • Foreign Minister Qian Qichen enunciated it in Washington in April 1997 in a speech before a luncheon sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations, the U.S.-China Business Council, and the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations. (Xinhua, 30 April 1997)
  • Qian repeated it in his annual address to the UN General Assembly in September 1997 and again in remarks at the opening ceremony for the International Symposium on World Human Rights Toward the 21st Century in Beijing. (Xinhua, 24 September 1997 and 20 October 1998)
  • In January 1999, Assistant PRC Foreign Minister Wang Guangya underscored acceptance of the principle as major point of agreement between the United States and China at the end of the first U.S.-PRC bilateral dialogue on human rights in Washington. (Xinhua 14 January 1999)

The principle has been incorporated as a point of agreement in several joint declarations signed by the top leaders of China and other countries, including two between Paris and Beijing, one signed by former PRC President and CCP General Secretary Jiang Zemin and French President Jacques Chirac in 1997 and the other signed by Chirac and Hu Jintao in 2004. (Xinhua, 16 May 1997 and 27 January 2004).

Nor is the acknowledgment that China “still has a lot to do” with regard to human rights new. Since 1991, for example, Beijing has issued a total of eight white papers on human rights in China, most of which have acknowledged shortcomings in Chna’s performance on the issue and the need for progress. For example, Beijing’s first human rights white paper in November 1991 stated in its preface:

As a developing country, China has suffered from setbacks while safeguarding and developing human rights. Although much has been achieved in this regard, there is still much room for improvement. It remains a long-term historical task for the Chinese people and government to continue to promote human rights and strive for the noble goal of full implementation of human rights as required by China’s socialism.

Similarly, the 2001 white paper stated:

Nevertheless, it must be admitted that China is still a developing country. Limited by impediments of natural, historical and economic development, there is still room for improvement with regard to the levels of China’s democracy and legal system building, the degree of social civilization and people’s living standards. (2000)

And, most recently, its 2010 white paper acknowledged:

China is a developing country with a population of 1.3 billion. Due to its inadequate and unbalanced development, there is still much room for improvement in its human rights conditions. The Chinese government is taking effective measures to promote the sound development and social harmony with a view to building a more just and harmonious society and ensuring that the people enjoy a more dignified and happier life. (2010)

As these successive expositions indicate, Beijing’s perspective on human rights is evolutionary, not absolute. That is, human rights are in principle universal, but assessment of their achievement in any given society at any moment must take account of its material and historical capacity to achieve them. The value attached by Western societies to human rights in the contemporary era, Beijing argues, reflects their overall level of economic and social development. By the same token, while all countries should endorse achievement of the universal goals of human rights, progress toward those goals must be assessed in the context of their respective levels of development. And so attainment of basic human rights of economic subsistence must come before full achievement of other ideals, including of civil liberties.

Alice Miller teaches at Stanford University and the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School. She is also a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, where she edits the China Leadership Monitor.

By James Carter

Many readers have by now heard of the brawl that broke out in the first half of an international basketball match between China and Brazil on October 12 in Henan province. The international “friendly” became increasingly chippy as the Chinese side objected to hard fouls and “dirty” play by the Brazilians. Dissatisfied with the officials’ response, the Chinese team (and its American coach, it should be noted) took matters into its own hands:

I was particularly struck by footage of the coach of the Chinese team taunting the officials by screaming, “You call yourself Chinese?!” Apparently, national allegiance should have led the officials to call the game differently. While some internet comments on the incident criticize the Chinese team for its lack of dignity, others celebrate that the Chinese athletes stood up to bullying from foreign guests.

The scene reminded me of the episode that, in many ways, was my first foray into Chinese history. In graduate school, I worked with the papers of Howard Lee Haag, the American director of the YMCA in Harbin in the 1920s. In these papers, Haag included his firsthand account of a basketball game—the city championship—in 1926, between a team of Russian refugees and a local Chinese middle school. The game ended in violence when the Russians won. In that case, the crowd—not the athletes or coaches—took their wrath out on the Russian officials, whom they accused of fixing the game, by hurling roof tiles onto the court and chasing the referees into the YMCA building. Order was restored when police, called by Haag and the American Consul, arrived on the scene. (I recount the incident in more detail in the introduction of Creating a Chinese Harbin, available at Google Books.)

In the weeks that followed, editorials in local Chinese newspapers described the incident as illustrating foreigners’ condescending attitudes toward China. In this case, the Americans and Russians were accused of being unable to accept China’s new status (having supplanted Russian colonial rule in Harbin) and of having resorted to fixing a basketball game to avoid further national (racial?) embarrassment.

The issues in the Brazil-China game—and in similar recent episodes of violence in athletics—are somewhat different. However, as China continues its growth as a cultural, economic, and political power, events like the “basketbrawl” seem to illustrate both the power of Chinese nationalism and the frustration that boils over when other nations are perceived to be slighting China’s success, or attempting to “bully” China and deny its power. Internet commentators make the connection plain when they post remarks like “Break out of Asia towards the world, courageous and upright men’s basketball team, bravely throw your punches!”

James Carter is Professor of History at Saint Joseph’s University, editor of Twentieth-Century China, and author of Heart of Buddha, Heart of China: The Life of Tanxu, a Twentieth Century Monk, forthcoming from Oxford University Press.

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Here in California, we woke up early this morning to the news that Liu Xiaobo had indeed been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. There’s been an outpouring of coverage in the hours since Liu’s win was announced, which will surely continue in the days to come; at the moment, “Liu Xiaobo” and “Nobel Peace Prize” are also in Twitter’s top-ten trending topics worldwide. We’ve been combing through news stories and tweets and put together this quick list of readings:

• Gady Epstein of Forbes, writing at his Beijing Dispatch blog on “What Liu Xiaobo and the Nobel Peace Prize Stand For.”

• At Jottings from the Granite Studio, Jeremiah Jenne has reposted a piece from 2009 suggesting that, based on the lessons of twentieth-century Chinese history, we shouldn’t dismiss the potential long-term importance of Charter 08.

• Evan Osnos of the New Yorker now has two new posts at his blog, the first recounting a meeting he had with Liu in 2007 and the second asking “What Do Chinese Leaders Really Think About the Nobel Prize?”

• James Fallows congratulates Liu at his Atlantic blog.

• Shanghaiist’s post about the prize pointed us to this collection of quotes from world leaders and activists about Liu’s win (Reuters).

• The Wall Street Journal’s China Real Time Report, on censorship in the wake of “China’s Silent Peace Prize.”

• At ZaiChina, seven interesting points about the decision to honor Liu (in Spanish).

• Peter Ford of the Christian Science Monitor, writing about “Why Liu Xiaobo Nobel Peace Prize could harm Chinese rights activists.”

• At Global Voices Online, translations of Chinese tweets and reports of police action against netizens in China attempting to discuss the prize.

• Elizabeth Economy at the Council for Foreign Relations website, “Lessons for China in Peace Prize.”

• Kwame Anthony Appiah on “China’s Burden of Shame” at Foreign Policy, which also reprints Appiah’s letter to the Nobel Peace Prize Committee explaining “Why I Nominated Liu Xiaobo.”

• Tom Lasseter of McClatchey Newspapers spoke with Liu Xiaobo’s wife, Liu Xia, after news of her husband’s win.

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