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China Beat readers in Southern California are invited to join us this Friday at UC Irvine for a dialogue between James Carter of Saint Joseph’s University and UCI’s Vinayak Chaturvedi, who will be discussing the topic of “Nationalism and Religion in Twentieth-Century Asia.” Carter’s new book is Heart of Buddha, Heart of China: The Life of Tanxu, a Twentieth-Century Monk (read an excerpt here); Chaturvedi is author of Peasant Pasts: History and Memory in Western India.

The dialogue will be held from 1:30 to 3:00 in Humanities Gateway 1030 (building #611 on this campus map), and copies of Carter’s book will be available for purchase after the talk. Event co-sponsored by China Beat, the UCI Humanities Collective, Department of History, and the UC World History MRU.

If you have a bit of free time, check out one of these China-related talks around the world this week and next:

• Tomorrow (October 28), Jeff Wasserstrom will be speaking at Pomona College on the topic of “Shanghai in the World — and the World in Shanghai: 1850-2010.”

• Jonathan Watts, Asia Environment Correspondent for the Guardian, is doing a tour in support of the American release of his book, When a Billion Chinese Jump: How China Will Save Mankind — Or Destroy It. Here’s where Watts will be in the next week:

At the University of Southern California Monday, November 1, sponsored by the US-China Institute

At UC Irvine Tuesday, November 2, in conversation with Ken Pomeranz as the latest speaker in the China Lecture Series produced by China Beat and the UCI Humanities Collective (talk co-sponsored by Orange Goes Green, the Department of History, and the UCI Environment Institute)

At Berkeley on Wednesday, November 3, discussing “Why Japan and the World Are Concerned about China’s Environmental Crisis”

In Seattle on Thursday, November 4, at the University of Washington (tickets required, purchased either in advance or at the door)

• The Huntington Library in Pasadena, CA, will be hosting a conference November 5-6 exploring “Pacific Spaces: Comparisons and Connections Across the Pacific Ocean in Early Modern and Modern Times” (register by October 29).

• Beginning Sunday, November 7 (and continuing on the next two Sundays after that), Capital M in Beijing will be featuring “Capital Conversations,” a northern version of the “Cosmopolitan Conversations” that M on the Bund initiated over the summer. Here’s the schedule of speakers and topics:

November 7: “China in the 80s: How Far Have We Come?” with Zhang Lijia and Geoff Raby

November 14: “Values in China,” with Gady Epstein, Ian Johnson, and Evan Osnos

November 21: “The Chinese Internet,” with Jeremy Goldkorn, Kaiser Kuo, and Mary Kay Magistad

Earlier this week, we held the final event of this year’s “China Lecture Series” at UC Irvine, featuring a dialogue between Ian Johnson and Angilee Shah. Johnson, formerly of the Wall Street Journal, is author of Wild Grass: Three Stories of Change in Modern China and A Mosque in Munich: Nazis, the CIA, and the Rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in the West. Shah is a freelance writer and blogger; her work has appeared at the Far Eastern Economic Review, Global Voices Online, Zócalo Public Square, and The China Beat. Below, a summary of the conversation between Johnson and Shah.

By Miri Kim

Angilee Shah’s first set of questions touched upon civil society in China and its relationship to the Chinese government. When asked if the government has made any progress in winning over the faith of the people since Wild Grass was published (2004), Johnson noted that at the larger level, there has been no real change in the degree of official control on what can be discussed; however, in areas such as religion, the government has allowed more leeway in what can be practiced and expressed, perhaps learning from the lesson provided by the now-banned Falun Gong, which flourished where officially sanctioned religions could not go at the time. And while the creation of grassroots networks on the national level has been discouraged, examples like the earthquake relief efforts for Sichuan show that there are instances when large sectors of Chinese society can mobilize for a common good. Organizing is definitely a frustrating process for many Chinese, but, Johnson emphasized, their efforts are often not overtly dramatic or political. Even so, he suggested, such low-key political activity is a double-edged phenomenon; on the one hand, it can channel goods and services where they are needed without being threatening; on the other, it brings in an “embarrassment factor,” showing exactly where and how the government is unable to do certain things.

Johnson Shah talk

Angilee Shah and Ian Johnson

Shah then asked a few questions about how the role of the journalist can shape the narrative and asked Johnson to comment on balancing the good news with the bad, as well as dealing with the gravity exerted by US foreign policy concerns, the news cycle (the danger of becoming irrelevant if you stick too close to something that is “hot”), and the tendency of stories about China to be sorted into either positive narratives of China as a rising nation or negative narratives of China as an entity to be feared.

Johnson talked about the hurdle of dealing with the gap between the China in people’s imaginations, which might be shaped by older stories and images, and the current reality. He pointed to Leslie T. Chang’s Factory Girls as one recent work that uses individualized stories to make workers into agents, not victims, of China’s rapid economic growth, in contrast to, for example, the largely negative recent coverage of the the Foxconn suicides. Even though his new book, A Mosque in Munich, is not about China, Johnson commented that in it, he is still interested in the ways civil society gets instrumentalized by the government. He also emphasized the importance of keeping one’s eyes open when tackling sensitive topics.

The issue of writing and craft then came up around A Mosque in Munich, which tells the story of how radical Islam was exported to the West by the CIA the 1950s and ‘60s, through a particular mosque and the Muslim Brotherhood. The book, Shah mentioned, is more about the US than about Islam, discussing the effects of American efforts to harness religion for foreign policy objectives.

Asked about parallels between US-China relations today and the US during the Cold War, Johnson replied that present-day American propagandizing in the case of China is much more explicit than for it was for the Soviet Union, and that it is likely to be unsuccessful at creating a lot of influence.

Shah then noted how A Mosque in Munich reads like a mystery, as well as being an analysis of big geopolitical issues largely based on archival research, and asked how Johnson went about “translating” dry documents into “real life” in the book. A very insightful behind-the-scenes look at the researching/writing of the book followed, introducing the audience to figures such as Bob Dreher, who had rather interesting hobbies to go along with his interesting job with the CIA. (To my chagrin, I’m afraid that I’m not able to reproduce for you here how wonderfully Johnson brought this character to life during the talk.) A part of research is luck, Johnson admitted, and is dependent on the willingness of relatives and acquaintances to share information about a subject, but it seemed clear from the discussion that the intense investigative footwork underpinning this book is a major factor upping the chance of encountering this kind luck. The other side of that, however, is the sheer amount of time and sustained effort involved in gathering information and bringing it together in writing a book like Wild Grass or A Mosque in Munich, in a publishing environment/market where readers have to deal with limited time and favor quick takes.

We had many great questions from the audience, of which I’ll highlight just a couple. One concerned journalists’ responsibility to their subjects. Johnson panned cavalier attitudes about sources in foreign countries where the worst things that might befall a journalist is deportation, versus imprisonment or worse for informants. He also disagreed with the stereotype of Chinese people as being reticent and not willing to talk, commenting that in his experience, he has had to tread carefully concerning the frank outspokenness of his sources — for example, when the discussion is about politically sensitive topics.

Johnson had a very interesting and nuanced response to a question about whether or not better reportage on China comes from those with language and area expertise, characterizing language as just one of the many tools a journalist needs to have — perfect Chinese would not be that useful to a journalist if not accompanied by analytic skills or the writerly know-how to turn pieces of information into an coherent piece. As an example, a journalist with a deep knowledge of an industry, just from being familiar with things like mechanical specs and factory conditions, would be able to parse out much more intimate information than someone with only spoken/written language or general area expertise. Johnson suggested that what we conventionally think of as “language” is just one (albeit important) component in the the foreign correspondent’s toolkit.

Other questions dealt with the impact of the Internet on the news and newspapers. Johnson suggested that it has hastened the demise of strong regional newspapers while concentrating readership at national newspapers like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, which have ramped up their foreign coverage, but in a way that encourages short pieces rather than long-form investigative pieces.

Angilee Shah’s questions, connecting A Mosque in Munich with Ian Johnson’s previous work, and drawing from her own experiences covering Indonesia and Sri Lanka, made for an engaging but also really fun talk. The question-and-answer at the end provided an excellent opportunity to pick the brain of a writer thinking deeply about some important issues — and the messy history behind them — shaping our world today. A great way to wrap up China Beat talks for this academic year!

Miri Kim is a graduate student in the Department of History at UC Irvine, and has most recently reviewed An Introduction to Chinese Philosophy for The China Beat.

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We’re returning from a two-week hiatus just in time to call your attention to the final event in a series of author talks that China Beat has produced in cooperation with several other UC Irvine organizations during the 2009-2010 academic year. Tomorrow’s dialogue at UCI, featuring Ian Johnson and Angilee Shah, is free and open to the public (details here).

Ian Johnson and Angilee Shah poster

Johnson and Jeff Wasserstrom will also appear together tomorrow evening, at the Latitude 33 Bookshop in Laguna Beach, CA (event details here). If you can’t make it, listen to this broadcast of Jon Wiener: On the Radio, in which Wasserstrom comments on the recent strikes at Honda’s Foshan factory and Johnson discusses his new book, A Mosque in Munich: Nazis, the CIA, and the Rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in the West.

Mosque cover

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• Kevin Rudd, Prime Minister of Australia, presented the 70th George E. Morrison Lecture in Ethnology at the Australian National University last week, speaking on the topic of “Australia and China in the World.” Audio of Rudd’s lecture is available online here; those who would prefer to read a transcript of the talk can find one here.

For Geremie Barmé’s thoughts on an earlier China-focused speech by Rudd, given in April 2008 at Peking University, turn to pages 212-214 of China in 2008: A Year of Great Significance and read “Facing Up to Friendship,” or see a shorter version of Barmé’s piece in an op-ed at the Sydney Morning Herald.

•Ken Pomeranz is traveling to Princeton University this week to deliver the Stone Lectures, a series of three talks on a broad historical theme designed for a general audience. Event details can be found here; an overview of the schedule is:

Tuesday, April 27: “Almost All Under Heaven: Making and Remaking a “Civilized” Empire”
Wednesday, April 28: “Land, Water, Marriage, and Migration: Regional Economies and Imperial/National Politics”
Thursday, April 29: “One Nation Under Gods: Religion, Culture, and the Containment of Local Loyalties”

• Jonathan Spence has been named the 39th Jefferson Lecturer in the Humanities by the National Endowment for the Humanities, and will give a public address on May 20 in Washington, D.C. The title of Spence’s talk is “When Minds Met: China and the West in the Seventeenth Century”; tickets, though free, must be reserved in advance, and requests should be submitted by May 3 using this online form.

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