Interview

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By Jeffrey Wasserstrom

Whenever I take a trip that includes stops in Shanghai and Beijing, two people I make sure to meet up with are Jeremy Friedlein and David Moser, the Academic Directors of the CET study abroad programs in those cities. I do this for several reasons. One is that CET has deep ties to China Beat, since the blog’s founding editor Kate Merkel-Hess and current editor Maura Cunningham are both alums. Another reason is that, for almost two years now, CET has been sponsoring a series of literary events at M on the Bund (in Shanghai) and now also Capital M (in Beijing) that put me in dialogue with local journalists and freelance writers. Last but by no means least, Jeremy and David know a lot of interesting people, so getting together with them always leads to my meeting at least one new person worth knowing. In the case of my most recent visit to Shanghai, this meant being introduced to Mary Bergstrom, who has been working on the topic of Chinese youth. Wearing her business professional’s hat, she runs a firm, The Bergstrom Group, that provides expert information on the subject to various international businesses, and wearing her writer’s one, she’s the author of the new book All Eyes East: Lessons from the Front Line of Marketing to China’s Youth. I recently sent her a series of questions about her work, as well as a couple that ask her to respond to recent youth-related pieces of writing by Evan Osnos and Pallavi Aiyar, authors well known to readers of this blog. Here are the things I asked her and her responses:

JW: You’ve been tracking trends relating to Chinese youth for years now, so what do you think are three things readers outside of China might not know about young people in the PRC that they should? Or tend to get wrong about this population?

MB: 1. Chinese youth are not “just like” or “on the way” to becoming Japanese or American (or any other population).

Of course they exhibit in some ways like other international cohorts, but in terms of motivations and expectations, they are on their own path that allows them to assign fresh meaning. Without siblings or parents who can really help them navigate modern China, young Chinese are in a unique situation.

2. Consumption is an important social value.

While the word “consumerism” has almost become a dirty word in many places, having the ability to consume has positive meaning in China. It means that you are able to participate in a modern lifestyle; you are not being left out. Unable to participate politically or rebel openly against authority, youth can take their work as consumer pioneers very seriously. Sharing their experiences and expertise helps them build important social capital and get recognition for providing value to their social circles.

3. The future is up for grabs.

Youth in China are doing more than just buying brands and downloading free entertainment, they are quietly and irreverently changing the future of the world we all live in. Youth’s ideas about intellectual property (a product’s value to a consumer is more important than its value to a company), constant digital connectivity (a 24/7 lifeline and best friend), and flexibility about subcultures (valuing personalized mash ups over paying homage to past conventions) are a few areas where youth are leading.

JW: I often stress the impossibility of generalizing about “the Chinese,” due to the enormous variability within the population of the PRC, due to factors ranging from class to region to generation. I assume you would agree about the generation gap idea, which I argue is far more extreme than in, say, the United States due to the rapidity of change in China during the last couple of decades. I wonder, though, if you think regional divides are as crucial among young Chinese as they are among members of other generations. To put this another way, is popular culture and mass media making young Chinese in Shanghai less different than young Chinese in Sichuan than older Chinese in those two places might be in terms of the way they spend their time and think about the world?

MB: Many differences in attitude and behavior in China can be related to access. Because of the Internet, there is a certain amount of common culture that has no physical boundaries. The combination of this connectivity and increased time spent outside communities they are born into (for work, travel, study) allows people to explore specific interests and bring that knowledge back to their own communities.

Regional differences are important and migration patterns complicate matters further but the big and unavoidable difference is that someone from a larger city has more role models and outlets to broaden their ideas about what is possible—and acceptable. Youth in areas with less access are confined to the norms of their immediate communities.

JW: One piece on Chinese youth I’ve come across recently that interested me is this blog post by Evan Osnos. Does it fit in with your feelings about the topic?

MB: An image of an individual figure holding up a sign to communicate a personal feeling is popular online and in magazines. I am glad to see that someone is taking the time to collect and share the style thoughtfully. Hopefully getting a wider audience for the real lives of young Chinese (not just the numbers) will inspire more investigation.

JW: Here’s a second, very different piece on young Chinese I’ve read lately that I liked a lot. Any reactions to this one, which was written by Pallavi Aiyar?

MB: It’s funny. I am reading this article in Paris actually and have just finished an errand for my ayi who just happens to be from Chongqing—buying a gift for her husband who is doing construction work in Inner Mongolia. I was tasked with finding a Swiss watch for him that would cost her more than a month’s salary (but would cost around 5000 RMB). Unlike these young travelers, she is not rich but she does share the same aspiration to show that her family is part of the tide of change, they are not being left behind. This need to broadcast as a modern consumer drives the stories of young Chinese saving months of salary for a luxury branded handbag or newly released mobile phone.

When it comes to paving the way for the next generation, Chinese parents are experts. Even though the article is about privileged families, middle class parents will gladly scrimp for months to help their child access tools that can help them get ahead in the future (extracurricular activities, tutoring, travel abroad, etc.). This article highlights two uniquely Chinese points of view: consumption is an important part of modern life and it is parents’ role to pave the way for youth (with the understanding that youth will then reciprocate when parents age).

The last point in the article that I agree with that may shock readers is a pride in country, even after being exposed to the outside. Chinese are proud of their country’s path and in terms of opportunity, flexibility, and pace of development, they understand that there is no place like home.

JW: Last but not least, about your book that I mentioned in the lead-in to this interview. When does it come out? What sort of audience or audiences did you have in mind when writing it? And what do you think it does that none of the other books on China—and there have been a flood of them lately—do?

MB: I wrote All Eyes East to serve as a testimonial to a truly unique population set adrift into the future without siblings or parents to guide them. When I first began researching youth in China, I wanted a book like this for myself. In all these years working with companies who depend on youth as workers and consumers, I wanted a book like this for them. It is built for those who are considering the market and also for those who have been here for decades.

First of all, it is a true honor and privilege to be able to share this. I wanted to make it a truly fundamental and worthy piece so I planned an outline that would help readers understand young Chinese as people and how their environment guides them as consumers. I gathered years of our own research and hand-picked the most interesting youth phenomena and marketing campaigns that would allow the audience to truly grasp the past and glimpse the future. Interviews with marketing icons, dedicated academics, and brand leaders were also carefully selected to help readers benefit from lessons earned.

I hope that the end result helps get people to feel like they know and understand the biggest game changing population of our time and maybe even inspire them to make better choices because of it. The book is out now in the US, the end of April in Europe and end of May in Asia.

By Jeffrey Wasserstrom

Publisher’s Weekly recently praised Eating Bitterness: Stories from the Frontlines of China’s Great Urban Migration, the new book by talented freelance writer Michelle Dammon Loyalka, for offering a “thorough and insightful examination of the gritty, arduous side of the Chinese economic miracle.” I can also attest, having read the manuscript, that it’s stimulating and enjoyable work. While the University of California Press book, which focuses on a migrant work community in Xi’an, isn’t due out until later this month, you can read an excerpt from it now by clicking here. You can also get a further sense of it from the following Q & A that I carried out with author.

JW: What was the biggest challenge you faced in research and writing this book?

MDL: A lot of literary nonfiction about China is written in the first person, with the author as a central character of the book. From the beginning of this project I knew I wanted to try to convey how migrants view their own lives and situations rather than how I, as a Westerner, perceive them. But keeping myself out of the story proved to be much more difficult than I’d imagined. In Xi’an, migrants rarely have an opportunity to interact with foreigners, so wherever I went I became the center of attention. Eventually they got used to me hanging around and settled back into their daily routines, but it took quite a bit of time to get to that point.

JW: You’ve spent a lot of time in Beijing as well as Xi’an, so what stands out for you as something that doesn’t get talked about enough that is similar about the two cities—and something that might be overlooked that sets them apart?

MDL: People often have the impression of western China being so remote and rural, but that can be misleading. Xi’an has a population of more than 7 million people. In the US it’d be the third largest metropolitan area in the entire country. Like most Chinese cities, it most certainly has under-developed areas, and the migrant enclave that I write about in Eating Bitterness is definitely an example of that. But now Xi’an also has a well-developed, active urban life just like Beijing or any other big city.

If anything, the biggest difference I’ve noticed between the two cities is that Xi’an is transforming much faster than Beijing. During the first two decades of China’s economic reform places like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou shot ahead, while inland cities like Xi’an moved forward much more slowly. I lived in Xi’an from 1999 to 2004, right at the beginning of the government’s push to develop western China, and then again in 2006 and 2007. The rate of change was simply unbelievable—not just in material terms, but also in terms of social norms and values and behaviors. Even for me, having grown up in the States and knowing the direction all this was heading, it was difficult to deal with such an incredibly rapid transition. In Beijing, I don’t get that feeling. Perhaps it was just as frenetic in earlier years, but to me Beijing feels much calmer and more settled than Xi’an ever has.

JW: Novelists are often asked if they have a favorite fictional character, so I wonder if you have a favorite among the people you profile—maybe not so much as a person (I realize you may have kept in touch with them, some may be friends) but as someone to write about? I guess that’s really a way of asking if you have a favorite chapter in the book?

MDL: That’s a tough one. Everyone I talked to had such a different story to tell, and I find each one so compelling in its own way. But if I had to choose a favorite I’d probably pick Chapter 8, “The Big Boss.” It’s about a 32-year old second-grade dropout who’s amassed a small fortune, only to find himself more lonely and dissatisfied than he ever was as a poor man. He longs to turn his focus toward philanthropy, but those around him find this desire completely incomprehensible.

To me his story really does represent the direction China is heading. In recent decades Chinese have focused on material progress to such an extent that anything else is seen as a distraction. But as conditions around the country continue to improve, people are gradually reassessing that mindset. There’s a real restlessness that’s starting to set in, and “distractions” like religion, volunteerism and social activism are all on the rise. As China’s economy continues to rocket ahead, that search for a purpose beyond sheer material prosperity is only going to grow.

JW: I know you are gearing up for seeing the book, which is your first one, appear and that you have some book events on your mind, but is there a next project underway or at least the seed of one being nurtured?

MDL: There are several, but at this point they really are just seeds. And at least one of them has nothing to do with China, so I’m a bit torn by that. It’s easy to come to China for a week or a month or even a year and think you understand what’s going on here. But I think the longer you stay, the more you realize just how complex and nuanced and contradictory today’s China really is. After 13 years here I feel like I’m just starting to get a grasp on the China story, so it seems like a real shame to switch topics now. I guess it’s a decision I’ll need to make soon, but for now I’m just focusing on getting Eating Bitterness out there.

By Jeff Wasserstrom

Every society sees and treats its poorest members differently. The distinctive way that Victorian Britain dealt with poverty is a central theme in many novels by Charles Dickens, the prolific author whose books are getting even more attention as the bicentennial of his birth is being marked. For those more interested in India’s present than England’s past, the book of the moment on this theme seems to be Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, which is earning enthusiastic advance reviews and is due out soon (coincidentally or not on February 7, Dickens’ birthday). For China specialists, the most important new publication on the impoverished is one that neither goes as far back as the days of Dickens nor deals with out own time, but is rather Guilty of Indigence: The Urban Poor in China, 1900-1953. It’s a very impressive first book by historian Janet Y. Chen, a member of Princeton’s History Department. A blurb by China Beat co-founder Ken Pomeranz describes it as a “surprising and creative work” that is “social history of the highest caliber,” and political scientist David Strand and I also have very good things to say about the book on its back cover. Rather than present my own assessment of the book, though, I’ll let you hear about some aspects of it from the author herself. I recently sent Janet a set of questions by email, which she was good enough to answer as follows:

JW: One thing that sets your book apart from a lot of first monographs on the Republican era (1912-1949), from Gail Hershatter’s The Workers of Tianjin, 1900-1949 (1986) to Peter Carroll’s Between Heaven and Modernity: Reconstructing Suzhou, 1895-1937 (2006), is that you deal with two cities rather than just one. Did you know from the start that Shanghai and Beijing comparisons would be part of your project?

JYC: At the outset I considered six different cities. My goal was to write about the experiences of the poor, and I worried that there would not be enough materials. So the initial plan was to do a kaleidoscope, piecing together what I thought would be patchy sources. But against all expectations, I found more archival materials than I knew what to do with. I could have chosen one city, but I had found such amazing sources that I did not want to give any of them up. The single-city focus is the model for urban studies on the Republican era, and the inevitable question is always whether city x was typical or not. By using two cases, I foreground that question, and I use the comparisons to highlight the specific local conditions that shaped experiences of destitution. Crafting a narrative based on two cities was challenging, but ultimately I think my research was much more interesting for it.

JW: In a similar vein, though there are other works I can think of that move from the Republican era into the Mao years (1949-1976), such as Susan Glosser’s Chinese Visions of Family and State, 1915-1953 (2003), stopping your story in 1945 (with the end of the war) or 1949 (with the establishment of the PRC) would have been options. Did you consider those, or were you set upon crossing the 1949 divide and dealing with the early 1950s from the beginning?

JYC: The first iteration of the book, in its dissertation form, stopped in 1949. Just about everyone I knew urged me to “do something” about the post-1949 era, and when I finally did, I was very surprised at the continuities that I found. Despite radically different ideological underpinnings, and despite rhetorically emphasizing the National regime’s failure to provide for the welfare of the people, the new socialist state in 1949 embraced many of the assumptions and institutions that its predecessor left behind. The biggest surprise in my research was a moment when I figured out a poorhouse established in the final years of the Qing dynasty in Beijing was still in use in 1950, as a Communist detention center for vagrants.

JW: What was the biggest challenge in terms of archives and materials that you had to deal with in researching this study?

JYC: In retrospect, I was very lucky in terms of timing. I was at the #1 Archive in Beijing and the #2 Archive in Nanjing in 2001 and 2002, and at the time both places were very open and welcoming. That has changed dramatically, and if I were to attempt the same project today I probably would not get very far. At the local archives in Beijing and Shanghai, which the research draws most heavily from, the challenge was literally too much material. I cast my net very widely (since my initial worry was about not finding enough sources). It became a sprawling and at times out of control process—but it also led me to some unexpected places.

JW: Some readers of this interview are likely to be more interested in China’s present dilemmas than in its past, so what would you say makes your book relevant for them?

JYC: It is completely unfashionable to use the words “poverty” and “China” in the same sentence today. But the rising tide of prosperity in Chinese society has produced new forms of homelessness and impoverishment, and questions about government responsibility and public concern and indifference are surfacing as vital issues. I hope this book will provide a historical lens for understanding present-day contestations over the meanings of poverty and welfare in Chinese society.

JW: Finally, just as courses in a meal are sometimes paired with specific wines, can you name a specific book or article on a different period or a different subject that would go well with Guilty of Indigence—or if want to belabor the culinary metaphor, maybe a reading per section like a wine per course?

JYC: I learned a lot from Joanna Handlin Smith’s The Art of Doing Good: Charity in Late Ming China. For the PRC, Dorothy Solinger writes powerfully about issues of social citizenship (Contesting Citizenship in Urban China: Peasant Migrants, the State, and the Logical of the Market). For a different part of the world, Brodwyn Fischer’s A Poverty of Rights: Citizenship and Inequality in Twentieth-Century Rio de Janeiro.

By Jeffrey Wasserstrom

Earlier this year, a Beijing-based Israeli journalist named Rachel Beitare contacted me out of the blue to set up an interview about the impact the Arab Spring events might have in China. I ended up impressed by the caliber of the questions put to me, so I started keeping an eye out for her byline, in case she published things in English (much of her work comes out in Hebrew, which I don’t read). I wasn’t disappointed, as before long Foreign Policy ran a smart commentary, ”Guilty By Association,” in which Ms. Beitare looked at the way the Party had been not just cracking down on critics of the government but hassling their relatives as well. When I opened a Twitter account, she was someone I made sure to follow (she tweets as @bendilaowai), and she’s one of several China-based journalists I think uses the medium especially well.

I was thus excited to learn from her Twitter posts that she’d made it to Wukan to report on the dramatic events unfolding in that South China community, where villagers have been mourning a fallen protester while engaged in a stand-off with representatives of the government. A recent NPR report described the Wukan struggle as a conflict that “began as a property dispute [and] has escalated into an open revolt [that has become] one of the most serious episodes of unrest that the Chinese Communist Party has faced in recent years.” The Wukan events are important because they underscore just how much anger there is in China over efforts by unscrupulous developers and corrupt officials to take advantage of rural landholders, and have a special interest to me, since just before the story broke Megan Shank and I had made the final corrections on a story, “Anxious Times in a Rising China,” which will appear in the Winter issue of Dissent magazine and focuses on recent protests and expressions of discontent in the PRC.

Eager to learn more about what is going on and to find out what she makes of it, I sent Ms. Beitarie an email with a set of questions; these are provided along with the answers she sent in Tuesday morning (Beijing time):

JW: You recently tweeted that you’d finished a report on the protests. Is it online yet? If not—or if it is only up in Hebrew—can you fill me in on what sort of piece it is, if there’s a main take-away about the state of play or likely prospects of the struggle?

RB: Thank you very much for this kind introduction. The report I was tweeting about will come out in Hebrew this Thursday. It’s a magazine piece for “Calcalist” in which I try to chronicle events in Wukan pretty much hour by hour from Saturday onward (we are still updating it). That was actually my editor’s suggestion and was a good way to give a sense of a story in progress and to record the ups and down in daily life in Wukan these days. It is a bit like tweeting actually. We also tried to give a broader perspective in the text to show how each of Wukan’s grievances is related to a broader issue in China. I suppose the main take-away is that whereas Wukan’s problems are local, a real long-term solution can only come through some wider government reforms in China. I really don’t have a definite view regarding the prospects of the struggle, but I’m not very optimistic. I’m afraid at least for the leaders of these demonstrations, there will be severe retribution, though for the village as a whole, they might get some of their land back, so it can make things a bit better, but I don’t see much chance of a fundamental change under the current system of village governance.

JW: I’ve been following the Wukan events long distance via reports like a much-circulated early one by Malcolm Moore and the later one by Louisa Lim, from which I pulled the phrases used in my opening summary. Have these given me a clear basic sense of what’s been going on and the stakes of this confrontation? Is there anything crucial that you feel is being left out or underplayed in the international coverage of the standoff?

RB: The reports you’ve mentioned were probably some of the best to come out of Wukan, and of course Malcolm Moore deserves all the credit for being the first to break the story to international media. In general I think there has been a lot of really excellent reporting from many different angles. Obviously I haven’t read all the reports, so I can’t say if something has been left out. (Last night in Wukan’s improvised media center, a few locals asked me to show them via my computer whether their issue was really being reported. We did a Google news search that came back with some 1300 hits in English and hundreds in Chinese.) However, one point I can think about that will probably still be open for much discussion is the role the foreign media itself has been playing in this story. Inviting the media in was the villagers’ own decision and helped them get a lot of publicity, but it may land them in even bigger trouble in the end than if they hadn’t. I think we all need some distance from the situation to properly analyze the pros and cons.

JW: A month or so ago, I would probably have been tempted to flag the high-speed rail crash of July as the most significant Chinese political event of 2011, due to the rage unleashed online by the event itself and the Party’s efforts to cover-up what had happened. Others might have put Ai Weiwei’s detention at the top of their list. Do you think Wukan might tell us even more important things about sources of discontent in today’s China than either of those two things?

RB: Oh absolutely. The reason Wukan is such a gripping story is that the village’s situation encapsulates almost all of the big issues that trouble Chinese society: Rural poverty vs. rapid development, unchecked power, growing economic gaps, environmental degradation, corruption, official violence, the balance of power between Beijing and the provinces, it’s all there in one incident. Also, the power of the Internet and social media, as well as their limitations—that was demonstrated in the Wenzhou train crash case and with Ai Weiwei and is also present here.

What’s more, the Wukan case is different than either Wenzhou’s or Ai Weiwei’s in that it takes place in the countryside, where most Chinese still live and where the problems are most acute, but get little attention, so definitely it touches all the most serious reasons for discontent.

JW: Any final thoughts? Perhaps about lines that could be drawn, however tenuous, to connect developments in Wukan to the Middle East and North Africa or the Occupy protests in other parts of the world.

RB: Well, unlike the people in Egypt or Libya, in Wukan they clearly and repeatedly say they do not wish to overthrow the government and trust the Communist party. How sincere they are in saying this remains for us to speculate about but that is the message they want to get out.

Having said that, there are some similarities to some movements we’ve seen around the world this year in both causes and conduct. They are similar in that protest stems from a sense of gross injustice caused by ever growing economic gaps. Another similarity is in the way people form their own mechanisms for self governing a micro-environment, in Wukan like in Tahrir or in tent cities in NYC, Madrid, my hometown, Tel-Aviv, and elsewhere around the world, and in how people gradually find ways to educate themselves about their own situation, the causes of what is happening to them and valid ways to solve their problems.

The situation here is very different, but maybe the sentiment of people power, the will and ability to work together with others to achieve better results instead of trying to get results individually is very similar. Ironically, educating and organizing peasants is how the Communist Party itself got to power so they probably understand better than anyone else the potential of such developments in rural areas, which is why the Wukan case is important—and the situation very risky for Wukan’s people.

This post also appeared at Dissent.

By Nicole Elizabeth Barnes

Gail Hershatter’s new book, The Gender of Memory: Rural Women and China’s Collective Past, is the outcome of a decade spent conducting oral history interviews of 72 women—and a few surviving men—in rural Shaanxi province. The interviews focus on farming women’s experiences of political campaigns in the 1950s, ranging from land reform to the 1950 Marriage Law to agricultural collectives. The book adds individual women’s voices—often quoted at length—to the narrative of 1950s rural reform, illustrating the taffy pull between empowerment and continued discrimination that women experienced throughout the decade. The Gender of Memory is incredibly thorough, emotionally powerful, beautifully written, theoretically innovative, and personally searching; it will have an earth-shattering effect on the study of Chinese history, calling scholars to new fields of inquiry for decades to come. In order to find out more about the making of this landmark book, I talked with Gail Hershatter and conducted the following interview:

NEB: This book is the product of collaborative research conducted with Gao Xiaoxian, Shaanxi native, research office director of the Shaanxi Provincial Women’s Federation, and secretary-general of the Shaanxi Research Association for Women and Family. Can you tell us more about how you first met Gao and how the two of you decided to collaborate?

GH: Gao Xiaoxian was invited to an early conference on “Engendering China” that I helped to organize in 1992, but because of a blip in U.S.-China tensions, she and others who were then working for the Women’s Federation were not able to attend, although she sent a paper about rural women in the first decade of post-Mao reform. I met her later that year at a conference in Beijing. We quickly discovered a common interest in the years of early socialism in rural China. For me, as I say in the book, this interest was partly a response to the lack of good teaching materials about the collective era. In between Fanshen’s mesmerizing account of land reform and the reportage of the 1980s, surely many complex things had happened in the countryside, but it was difficult to get beyond policy pronouncements and cheerful posters to a more complex picture. (In the past 20 years, the scholarly picture has improved somewhat with respect to rural China.) Women far from centers of power were even less well represented in the historical record than rural men. For Gao Xiaoxian, who was deeply involved in trying to assess and improve the status of women under the reforms, it was important to understand how three decades of collective arrangements had changed people’s aspirations and capacities. While almost everyone else I met in China was talking about rupture between the Mao era and the reforms, she was curious about continuities as well. We couldn’t stop talking, and we hatched a project to go interview rural women in Gao’s native Shaanxi. Once we got started, it was difficult to stop. We were both reluctant to bring our interviewing trips to an end.

NEB: You describe Gao’s usefulness as a partner in the section “Listener” in Chapter 1, which details the importance of having local contacts, the ability to speak the Shaanxi dialect, and a local identity to get access to villages and introductions to the women interviewees. What skills did you bring to the table for this partnership?

GH: Often, believe me, I asked myself what I was contributing to this project beyond a lot of complications for Gao Xiaoxian. It was easy for her to move around the countryside alone; with a foreigner in tow, permissions and logistics got much more complicated. Once we were installed, however, no one monitored or interfered with our interviewing. Gao Xiaoxian generously says that she always learned something from how I interpreted the stories women told us. Perhaps I brought some experience with oral history interviewing and analysis. Mainly, however, I think I brought the curiosity and omnivorous interest of an outsider. If something in an interview or a village situation confused me, I usually attributed it to my ignorance. If something confused both of us, however, there were usually interesting conversations to be had about it.

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