Coming Distractions

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China Watcher coverRichard Baum, professor of political science at UCLA, has been engaged with China for over four decades as a scholar, analyst, commentator, and author. This month, he publishes China Watcher: Confessions of a Peking Tom (University of Washington Press) — a genre-bending book in which Baum blends elements of memoir with a history of the country from the 1960s to the present. Baum is also the founder and moderator of Chinapol, an invitation-only internet forum in which China specialists come together and share their thoughts. Since its founding in 1995, Chinapol has grown into a dynamic online community frequented by many of the world’s leading China-focused academics and journalists, as well as people with related interests from the worlds of policy and business. In this excerpt, Baum explains how Chinapol came into being and traces the way it has developed — and the challenges it has faced — over the past 15 years.

By Richard Baum

In the winter of 1994 I moved to Yokohama, Japan, to direct a semester-long U.C. Education Abroad Program (EAP) curriculum on Peace and Development Studies at Meiji Gakuin University. Because all electronic communications in Japan were controlled by the government’s telecomm monopoly, NHK, Internet access was extremely expensive, and my Compuserve subscription was costing me a small fortune —over US$250 each month — in connection charges. Since I was in more-or-less regular e-mail contact with a number of other China scholars in various countries, I decided to economize on my on-line connection charges by periodically sending group e-mailings to several recipients at a time, on subjects relating to Chinese politics. My monthly telecomm bills quickly dropped by 70 percent.

By the time I returned to Los Angeles in the late summer of 1994 there were twenty-one China watchers on my group recipient list; by March of 1995 the list had grown to thirty-one, including a handful of international journalists residing in China. At that point I decided to set up a dedicated on-line SIG (special interest group) exclusively for specialists working on contemporary Chinese politics. The idea was to create an interactive electronic forum where scholars, journalists, diplomats, and other China experts could exchange information, ideas and insights about current events and developments. I sent out a request to each of the thirty-one people on my group e-mail list, inviting them to take part in the new forum and asking them to provide the names and addresses of other China watchers who might be interested in participating. Needing an eight-letter alias for the group in order to conform to the standard DOS file-naming protocol, I called the group “Chinapol.” Here is the letter I sent out:

Date: Wed, 15 Mar 95 08:45:00 PST
Subject: creating a Chinese politics forum

Dear friends and colleagues:

I would like to establish an on-line e-mail forum to facilitate rapid, 
informal communication among Internet-linked specialists in contemporary Chinese politics, economics, and related fields. Insofar as my personal list of e-mail addresses is rather limited, I would like to invite you to help me expand my mailing list. For the moment, I would like to limit the group (which I have called “Chinapol”) to academics, Government analysts, and journalists who specialize in contemporary Chinese affairs. It may also be possible later to add a few advanced graduate students, people in the private sector, and others on an individual basis. . . .

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Hessler cover

By Maura Elizabeth Cunningham

I made my initial foray into China studies in the fall of 2000, when I took a course called “Travelers in History.” Beginning with The Travels of Marco Polo, we moved forward through the centuries, reading a sampling of China-related travel narratives as well as works by historians looking back at those who had journeyed to and from China (such as The Question of Hu by Jonathan Spence and Peter Hopkirk’s Foreign Devils on the Silk Road). For the “modern” period,  we read Paul Theroux’s Riding the Iron Rooster: By Train Through China (1988). Although I thoroughly enjoyed Theroux’s book, and thought of it often in later years when I embarked on my own Chinese train adventures, if I were designing a book list for “Travelers in History” in the fall 2010 semester, Riding the Iron Rooster probably wouldn’t make the cut.

Why? Because in the past decade, there has been something of an explosion in excellent writing by foreigners who have lived and traveled in China — to the extent that an entire semester could now be devoted to discussing only books published in the past ten, or even five, years. In the fall of 2000, the professor teaching “Travelers in History” had just a handful of post-1980 books to consider when he designed the course (Theroux’s Iron Rooster, Vikram Seth’s From Heaven Lake, and Mark Salzman’s Iron and Silk are the three that come to my mind). Today, he could pick from a variety of works that do not fall neatly into a single genre, but which bring together elements of travel writing, personal memoir, and China reportage.

This mini-publishing boom began, as I see it, with Peter Hessler’s River Town (2001), and while the publication next week of Hessler’s Country Driving: A Journey Through China From Farm to Factory does not (I hope!) mark an end of these cross-genre works, it does conclude a China trilogy penned by Hessler (the second title being 2006’s Oracle Bones). Hessler, a New Yorker correspondent, as well as an early China Beat contributor (though I should note that I’ve never worked with him — nor any of the other authors I discuss here), has written so prolifically about contemporary China, in fact, that his work has inspired a humorous blog post, “How Peter Hessler Ruined My China Life.” Hessler, however, is one of a number of authors who have recently produced thoughtful and insightful books that offer a taste of the China experience to armchair travelers — and students. With River Town and Country Driving serving as bookends to the decade, what other titles might I consider for a 2010 iteration of “Travelers in History”?

I would probably give some thought to Rachel DeWoskin’s 2005 memoir, Foreign Babes in Beijing, a sharp and funny account of a young American woman’s life in China during the late 1990s. Another option would be Smoke and Mirrors, written by Pallavi Aiyar and published in 2008. Aiyar’s perspective as an Indian woman living in China makes her work doubly fascinating, as most of the other books out there are authored by American males, and it’s refreshing to get a different take on China’s recent development.

I might consider assigning a book that focuses on the transformation, both physical and social, of China during the past 15 years. In that case, Hessler’s River Town or Oracle Bones would both be strong candidates, as would The Last Days of Old Beijing (2008) by Michael Meyer. For a more traditional travel narrative along the same theme, I would think about Rob Gifford’s China Road (2007), which I’ve written about previously for China Beat. These four books are, in some ways, rather similar: all are well-researched and well-written works of narrative non-fiction that look at China’s increasing urbanization and the effects of that process on the lives of people across the country.

I might also give some thought to three books that fall more toward the “journalistic” end of the spectrum than the “memoir/travel narrative” one. The first of those would be James Fallows’s Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009), a collection of his columns about China written for The Atlantic. Another likely candidate would be China Underground by Zachary Mexico (2009); Leslie T. Chang’s Factory Girls (2008) also comes to mind. Fallows, Mexico, and Chang all primarily write about China, not about their experiences in China, so perhaps they wouldn’t fit very well on a “Travelers in History” syllabus, but their books are excellent contributions to the literature on China and shouldn’t be missed.

I have read, enjoyed, and recommended to others each of the books I’ve mentioned above, and any of them would be a fine choice for my imaginary course next fall. But if I were forced to pick one book that would convey to students what it was like to explore China during the first decade of the 21st century, my final selection would be Country Driving.

Hessler divides the book into three clearly delineated, yet linked, narratives, each of which deals with the repercussions of China’s new car culture. His story begins with “The Wall,” a travelogue detailing Hessler’s wild road trips along the Great Wall at the beginning of the decade. Part two, “The Village,” is a stirring look at Sancha, the small village outside Beijing where Hessler made his weekend home. The section focuses in particular on a peasant couple, Wei Ziqi and Cao Chunmei, and their young son as all three struggle to deal with the impact that the slow creep of urbanization from Beijing toward Sancha has on their lives. Finally, “The Factory” follows the overnight growth of a bra-parts manufacturer in Zhejiang Province, describing the experiences of both the factory’s owners and its migrant workers, all of whom have been drawn to the region by newly paved roads penetrating what were once endless swaths of farmland (for a taste of part three, check out “China’s Instant Cities,” a piece Hessler wrote for National Geographic in 2007).

Country Driving is thoroughly researched, and Hessler possesses the admirable ability to explain complex aspects of Chinese history and society in a few well-placed sentences. His observations are sharp and thought-provoking; I found it fascinating to read about the ways in which Sancha’s increasing contact with urban centers, and urbanites, affected Wei Ziqi and Cao Chunmei differently. While much of Country Driving will ring true to readers who have spent time in China (and likely encourage them to share their best “I once had this crazy taxi driver . . .” stories), I think the book will prove equally captivating to those who have not yet had a chance to visit the country.

What elevates Country Driving above all the other excellent books I’ve mentioned is the quality of Hessler’s writing, which also shines through in this “Why I Write” interview that he conducted recently with Urbanatomy. Hessler’s quiet, measured tone throughout the book is occasionally pierced by flashes of dry humor that truly made me laugh out loud (his descriptions of driving schools in China make for some particularly hilarious moments). County Driving, like both River Town and Oracle Bones, strikes me as a volume in which every word and every phrase has been carefully selected to convey the most vivid picture possible, and the superb craftsmanship of Hessler’s prose impressed me time and time again. For example:

The year that I received my driver’s license, I began searching for a second home in the countryside north of Beijing. Empty houses weren’t hard to find — occasionally I came across whole villages that had been abandoned. They were scattered around the front ranges of the Jundu Mountains, in the shadow of the Great Wall, where the farming had always been tough and the lure of migration was all but irresistible. Sometimes it felt as though people had left in a rush. Millstones lay toppled over; trash was strewn across dirt floors; house frames stood with the numb silence of tombstones. Mud walls had already began to crumble — these buildings were even more broken-down than the Ming fortifications. Whenever I saw an empty village, I thought: Too late (129).

Country Driving is a great book about China, but it’s also, quite simply, a great book — the kind that I love to recommend to others and hope that they enjoy as much as I do. And, in my hypothetical “Travelers in History” course, it would be the book that I’d choose to represent the post-Reform era in China because Hessler so movingly expresses what it feels like to be a traveler in China at a time of constant change. Whether the traveler is Hessler himself, or the millions of Chinese who are on the move today, Country Driving beautifully captures the uncertainty and exhilaration of taking to the road in China during the early 21st century.

The Asia Society of New York will be holding a conversation between Peter Hessler and Emily Parker on February 9; more information about the event, as well as an excerpt from Country Driving, can be found here. China Beat readers in Southern California can see Peter Hessler in dialogue with UC Irvine historian Ken Pomeranz on Tuesday, February 16 (details here). Hessler and Leslie T. Chang will be speaking together at the World Affairs Council of Northern California on February 23; see here for info about the event.

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Prominent Qing specialist Pamela Crossley of Dartmouth College has a new book coming out in February, The Wobbling Pivot, China Since 1800: An Interpretive History, 374_Pamela_Crossleywhich is aimed at general readers and is designed to be suitable as well for classes devoted to modern Chinese history. One theme in the book that is likely to be of special interest to those who follow this blog is her frequent discussion of similarities and differences over time in patterns of unrest and the way that the state and its representatives respond to challenges from below. Focusing largely on tensions and modes of accommodation between central authorities and local communities, Crossley offers an intriguing new way of thinking about many of the big upheavals of the recent past, from the White Lotus Rebellion to the recent unrest in Tibet and Xinjiang. In this excerpt, however, which gives a good sense of the liveliness of the book’s prose as well as the kinds of subjects it addresses, we see how her approach can also be used to shed light on minor fracases of the sort that anyone who has spent time in China is likely to have witnessed at some point during their stay.

It is unusual for the contents of a semi-confidential email to become universally known on the Internet. But in March of 2009, after the nomination of Charles W. Freeman Jr. as chair of the American government’s National Intelligence Council, his email to the ChinaSec listserv group of May 26, 2006 drew attention for this comment about the Tiananmen incidents of 1989: “I find the dominant view in China about this very plausible, i.e. that the truly unforgivable mistake of the Chinese authorities was the failure to intervene on a timely basis to nip the demonstrations in the bud, rather than – as would have been both wise and efficacious – to intervene with force when all other measures had failed to restore domestic tranquility to Beijing and other major urban centers in China. In this optic, the Politburo’s response to the mob scene at ‘Tian’anmen’ stands as a monument to overly cautious behavior on the part of the leadership, not as an example of rash action.”

Freeman’s suggestion that the contrast is to tactics, and not to politics, leaves the comment dangling above the ground, out of contact with historical patterns of China’s recent centuries. The hearts of China’s political capitals have been occupied by state opponents and dissidents repeatedly over the centuries. State reaction is rarely swift, though it is often bloody. These events are products of a structural relationship between government and society that was strongly in evidence from at least 1644 to 1958, and since 1976 has been reestablishing itself to a modest degree. It is a system with a peculiar way of producing social and economic order, but one that in very extreme circumstances is vulnerable to catastrophic breakdown. Considered outside its historical context, it sometimes leads observers too quickly to words like “instability,” “disorder,” “chaos.”

When I was following the thread that now runs through this book, my mind kept returning to scenes from contemporary China. I was in China for the first time in 1977. On an otherwise quiet afternoon in Luoyang, where the streets did not look particularly crowded, a loud discussion broke out between two men over a bicycle (in those days, bicycles were all Flying Pigeon, identical to any but the eye of love). A small knot of people quickly wound itself around the disputatious men, listening carefully, advising moderation and not, coincidentally, preventing the bicycle from going anywhere. The knot grew to a crowd large enough to block the narrow street. A few men at the front of the throng had joined in the conversation, questioning the men in turn, and repeatedly advising calm and honesty. After some minutes the inevitable representative of local public security arrived. She was a small woman, not plump but solidly built, with the regulation even hair length and middle part, and a bright red arm band proclaiming her official status. The crowd shifted only enough to allow her to make her way to the front, a few people darting glances of blame at the bicycle men for having brought the authorities onto the scene. The public security woman asked a few questions of the men and appeared, for a moment, to be attempting to break up the congregation and send the men on their way. But she was a late arrival on the scene. The two men who had begun negotiations between the adversaries continued in their role, with polite acknowledgment of the official’s presence. Occasionally Public Security would inject her questions or views, but at roughly the same rate and pitch as others at the center of the circle. After ten minutes, the contenders nodded agreement to each other, one moved off with the bicycle, and the crowd, including the woman distinguished by her bold red armband, moved on to their business.

I had the strong feeling that I had seen something that was not the least unusual. Everybody took the dispute, the resolution and the public participation in stride. The crowd was not merely bystanders, camp followers or observers for sport. The quickness with which they organized themselves for conflict containment and resolution, the precision with which certain individuals assumed and fulfilled their roles, suggested to me something basic about the social methods of the Luoyang inhabitants who had entered the street expecting to do their shopping or their chores, but instead became embroiled in the forensics, the philosophy and the administration of a dispute between two men over a bicycle. I did not know at the time, but am convinced now, that in 1977 such a social phenomenon in Luoyang evinced ancient practices that a decade before had been under extreme assault, and wounded seriously though not fatally.

Another side of this phenomenon seems to be evident in two anecdotes recently related by the journalist Tim Johnson in 2008. In the first, Johnson discovers that it is impossible to get taxi drivers in Changchun to actually use the meters and issue receipts from them. Since the law requires that the meters be used and the receipts issued, Johnson approached a “security guard” (the contemporary equivalent of the security maiden I spoke of in Luoyang in 1977) to complain. The guard merely shrugged. Johnson commented, “At first, I found this a little irksome. But on reflection, I sort of admired the taxi drivers. The local authorities apparently had imposed an impractical limit on fares, and the cabbies rebelled in the only way they could. The security guard understood and sympathized.” In a second vignette, Johnson ends up on a bus after the flight he expected to take was cancelled. The airline had chartered the bus at no expense to the passengers, and had obviously provided the driver with sufficient cash to take the high-speed, well-maintained toll roads to the destination. The driver, however, took a meandering, pothole-riddled route, keeping the toll fees for himself. Passengers repeatedly pointed out to him the highway ramps he was passing, but otherwise took no issue or action. Johnson experienced some outrage at this, too, but then reconsidered after taking a comparative view: “It was a minor inconvenience. I thought back to times in South America, where bus drivers would be in cahoots with armed bandits, pulling buses over at remote spots where everyone would be robbed.”

We’re pleased to present here an excerpt from the introduction of Julia Lovell’s forthcoming translation of Lu Xun’s fiction. Lovell examines the uses (and abuses) of Lu Xun’s writings by Mao Zedong in the decades after the author’s death, pointing out the ways in which the CCP smoothed over rough edges and ignored inconvenient truths as it disseminated Lu Xun’s work for the Chinese public to study. Since the reforms of the late 1970s, Lu Xun has been transformed yet again, and now occupies a status equivalent to that of Charles Dickens in Britain: while his work might be respected, it strikes some students as out-of-date. Yet, as Lovell notes, Lu Xun is a ripe target for commercialization — a topic that China Beat will explore later this week.

Lovell Lu Xun coverOn 19 October 1936, Lu Xun died of tuberculosis in Shanghai, still mired in quarrels with the leadership of the League of Left-wing Writers, and especially with Zhou Yang, the literary politico who would become Mao’s cultural tsar after 1949. “Hold the funeral quickly,” he set out in a mock testament written a month before his death. “Do not stage any memorial services. Forget about me, and care about your own life – you’re a fool if you don’t.” And finally, a message for his son: “On no account let him become a good-for-nothing writer or artist.”[1]

In perfect disregard of Lu Xun’s instructions, the writer was swiftly adopted by Mao Zedong – who would within twenty years crush into socialist realism the sardonic irreverence that defined Lu Xun’s legacy to Chinese literature – as “the saint of modern China”. “He knew how to fight back against a rotten society and the evil imperialist forces,” Mao lectured school children in 1937. . . .

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By Dustin Wright

There has understandably been no shortage of commentary on China’s rapid economic development. Much like Japan’s economic “miracle” of the last century, this other industrialization in East Asia has generated considerable discussion, both in academia and popular media. No doubt, much of the discussion rests on a healthy crop of skepticism regarding the actual sustainability of China’s growth. However, though export growth has slowed since the boom apex in 2007, the country’s economy is nonetheless continuing to grow and many observers maintain that China is surviving the global recession better than any other major economy.

But as both domestic and foreign observers continue to watch China’s economic growth, it follows that we should want to know more about the individuals behind it, the entrepreneurial cogs in the increasingly battery-powered wheel. In Shanghai, China Beat contributor Anna Greenspan called the city’s street vendors “the most entrepreneurial and creative sector of society.” One way to see how the average person—a Shanghai street vendor perhaps—views the growth is to take a look at what they watch on TV when they go home at night.

WIN Revised Poster

Back in 2007, in an entertaining piece, James Fallows reported on the Chinese game show “Ying Zai Zhongguo,” or “Win in China.” The TV show has immense popularity in China, generating ratings that make the Super Bowl seem like a city council meeting on your local public access channel. On his blog, Alec Ash spoke with one of the show’s fans.

The premise will be familiar to American reality TV fans: entrepreneur saplings compete for prize money put up by some of China’s most successful entrepreneurs-turned-venture-capitalists, who also serve as the show’s panel of judges. Promoting your business plan, displaying business acumen that would thrill any MBA student, exposing your competitor’s lack of experience and undermining their qualifications are all keys to winning a chunk of the prize money, which totals over USD $5 million.

Filmmaker Ole Schell, son of renowned Sinologist Orville Schell, has profiled the show in a new documentary, also called “Win in China.” The filmmaker recently posted a great piece at CNN’s AC360 blog, where he describes meeting up with one of “Win’s” successful contestants, now putting his prize money to use with a lingerie business. Here, Ole Schell talks with us about the film.

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