In Case You Missed It

You are currently browsing the archive for the In Case You Missed It category.

By Christopher R. Hughes

China Dream coverLiu Mingfu 刘明福, China Dream: The Great Power Thinking and Strategic Positioning of China in the Post-American Age (Zhongguo meng: hou meiguo shidai de daguo siwei zhanlue dingwei). (Beijing: Zhongguo youyi chuban gongsi, 2010).

China Dream, by Colonel Liu Mingfu, a professor at Beijing’s National Defense University, is the latest of several books to speculate on how China can displace the leadership of the United States after the global economic crisis. Understandably, Liu’s military background has led to conjecture over whether his views reflect the ambitions of the PLA or even China’s leaders. Yet China Dream is most interesting not so much for what it recommends for foreign and defense policies, as for what it says about the deployment of nationalistic themes in the debates over China’s domestic politics.

As with works like Jiang Rong’s Wolf Totem (2004), and the 2009 title Unhappy China (co-written by Huang Jisu, Liu Yang, Song Jiang, Song Xiaojun, and Wang Xiaodong), China Dream contains much that will be of interest to anyone monitoring the belief in China’s racial supremacy, militarism and political voluntarism. Yet, although Liu joins the chorus calling for a stronger military, it is wrong to present him as an adventurist hawk. He is even prepared to acknowledge that the United States has made some positive contributions to the world, quoting Mao’s view that the good American people should be separated from the bad interest groups who drive its anti-China policies. He proposes that war can be avoided if the United States behaves itself and China gives it enough time to adjust to the age of “yellow fortune”, a synthesis of the superior civilisation of the East with the best elements of the West.

This is quite different from the venomous anti-Americanism found in some of the authors of Unhappy China, or the influential geopolitical  thinker Zhang Wenmu, a professor at the Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics. Combined with other elements of the book, this raises the possibility that China Dream reflects concerns in the military to divert the nationalist wave away from a show down with the United States. This view becomes more compelling when the book shifts its focus steadily towards a strong critique of what it regards as the low status of the military and the corruption of the current political elite.

This trajectory can be seen in the way that Liu addresses the orthodoxy of China’s “peaceful rise”. On the one hand he is happy to align with the leadership by citing Hu Jintao’s statement to the 17th CCP Congress as evidence that China will not be a hegemonic or expansionist power. Yet he then goes on to criticize those who harbour naïve illusions about the intentions of the United States because they do not understand that concepts like “peaceful world” and “harmonious world” can only be realised in the context of an international balance of power.

In case the relevance of this for contemporary debates is lost, Liu finishes this argument with a critique of Zheng Bijian, the architect of the “peaceful rise” orthodoxy. Agreeing that China will not become a “hegemonic” power, Liu differs from Zheng by insisting that great military power is still necessary to protect national security, uphold world peace and achieve unification. A country with a big economy and no military, he concludes, is like a plump sheep waiting in the market.

The significance of this argument becomes clearer when Liu adds his voice to those currently calling for a revival of China’s “militaristic spirit” (shangwu jingshen 尚武精神). China Dream presents this in the context of a grand historicist vision of the founding and decline of great dynasties, which is similar to the argument developed in Wolf Totem. Rather than looking to the warlike culture of China’s nomadic minorities, though, he looks to the founders of three great dynasties, Qin Shihuang, Han Wudi and Tang Taizong as models for using force for unification, going on the offense to expel enemies and combining soft with hard power. But Liu is careful to add that it was the CCP that revived the “militaristic spirit” most recently, as demonstrated by the Korean War.

This is important, because when China Dream looks for an explanation of why the militaristic genes of the great founders degenerate, the answer is found in the corruption of the bureaucratic political elite and the enervating life style that comes with wealth and prosperity. The Song dynasty is thus singled out as the source of China’s “culture weakening” (wen rouhua 文弱化), because it centralised power in the Confucian bureaucracy in order to prevent the possibility of a military coup. The result was an emphasis on compromise and retreat in foreign affairs, a mainstream philosophy that emphasised peace at the expense of security, and a mistaken strategy of defending the south and neglecting the north that left the country open to attack. Overall, argues Liu, the dynasty that produced by far the largest number of theoretical texts on war craft ended up with a military that was bloated and lacking in quality.

In this context, Zheng Bijian becomes just one representative of a much broader crisis afflicting China’s political elite. This is made very clear when the last section of the book consists of four chapters devoted to an exploration of the theory that China will collapse. One might expect Liu to dismiss such a theory at the end of a book celebrating China’s rise to world dominance. Instead, he quotes a warning given by Mao Zedong in 1956 that the most dangerous time for China would arrive 40-50 years later, when the country would have to deal with the temptations of corruption, bureaucratism and great power chauvinism. He also cites Deng Xiaoping’s concerns over the threat to stability posed by growing inequality of wealth. Returning to his grand historicist cycle, Liu then cites a poem by Du Fu, of the Tang Dynasty, which attributes the demise of the Six Kingdoms and the Qin Dynasty to internal causes.

Anger over corruption and inequality is of course widespread in China and makes up a significant part of a book like Unhappy China. What China Dream shows is that the military also has a voice in this clamour. Liu indicates that he is not alone in this respect when he cites an article carried in the press cuttings section of the PLA newspaper Jiefangjun bao, in 2009, listing the problematic areas in which China stands as number one in the world, such as the number of its bureaucrats, the cost of government administration, the amount of public money spent by officials and the accidental death rate. Neither does Liu pull his punches when he fixes the blame for this degeneration on the CCP, using the fate of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union to show what happens when the founding generation of idealists is replaced by a group of people who pursue their own material interests.

Rather than dismiss the theory of China’s collapse, then, Liu doubts whether a possible economic decline can be managed on the basis of growing inequality and corruption. This allows him to argue that domestic corruption and ossification (jianghua 僵化) are the problems that will obstruct the search for solutions to enormous domestic concerns like the greying of the population, rather than US-led Westernisation and division.

When it comes to offering real solutions, however, aside from calling for “creativity” to solve the “three big contradictions” of the environment, society and international affairs, Liu does little more than side with the authoritarian and moralistic turn taking place in Chinese politics. At one point he adds to the still tentative calls for a strong leader that are now appearing in Chinese texts, pointing out that a rising nation needs a Lenin, Stalin, Mao or Deng to succeed. Interestingly, given current speculation over divisions between the Youth League and the Shanghai factions at the top of the Party, Liu even adds Jiang Zemin to this list of great dictators.

In the context of a China that is now looking beyond the CCP for ideological inspiration, it is also notable that the figure of Sun Yatsen looms large throughout the book, although it is the National Father’s advocacy of Chinese racial superiority that is stressed, rather than his contribution to republican democracy. The paucity of this search for indigenous solutions is revealed, however, when Liu falls back on a foreign author like John Naisbitt’s popular China’s Megatrends, to argue for the possibility of a vertical, one-party “democracy with Chinese characteristics”. Again, such arguments are only interesting to Liu because they are compatible with his desire to build a political system that is superior to US democracy insofar as it can consolidate the use of power and creativity for the demands of national strategy.

Yet it is the pessimistic conclusion of China Dream that is most striking, as Liu despairs that the present situation is worse than it was under Mao and that CCP rule will be challenged if corruption cannot be controlled. Even the creation of a stabilising welfare system seems impossible when CCP cadres are working with “two hands” – one to serve the people, one to help themselves. Yet Liu remains stuck on the horns of China’s political dilemma as he is unwilling to countenance the return to using mass political movements to combat corruption, while the alternative of multiparty democracy is condemned as part of an anti-Chinese US conspiracy.

That the best Liu can do to inject a note of optimism into the conclusion of China Dream is to cite a number of quotes from Martin Jacques to confirm that China will not follow the fate of the Soviet Union because the CCP will remain in control and the Chinese government is imbued with a high degree of creativity, can only be taken as symptomatic of the conflicting emotions and political paradoxes that are reflected in the current spate of political literature from China. Yet, rather than expecting coherent theories and clear arguments, it is the ways in which nationalistic themes are adopted and deployed by numerous actors in the discourse of domestic politics that makes such texts so useful for gaining insights into China’s trajectory. In this respect Liu might have hit even more headlines around the world if he had given his book the title Unhappy PLA.

Christopher R. Hughes is Professor of International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science, where he specialises on the international poltics of the Asia-Pacific region, with special reference to Chinese foreign policy and its linkage with nationalism. His latest monograph is Chinese Nationalism in the Global Era (London and New York: Routledge, 2006).

By John Gittings

Fractured Rebellion coverAndrew G. Walder, Fractured Rebellion: The Beijing Red Guard Movement (Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA, 2009).

A group of former Red Guards at Beijing’s Qinghua University, interviewed in spring 1971 about their recent factional struggles, laughed loudly (always a sign of uneasiness) and made their “frank confession”: yes, they had not always behaved in a spirit of proletarian comradeship, they admitted. “We used to sit on either side of the table and agree to make up our differences, but even while we shook hands we were kicking one other under the table!”.

If only it had been confined to kicks. This account, given to a delegation from the Society of Anglo-Chinese Understanding (I was a member of it on my first visit to China), was a highly sanitised version. William Hinton, author of Fanshen — the classic account of rural revolution during the communist-led civil war in the late 1940s — heard a much bloodier tale when he interviewed at Qinghua. Hinton was told how the struggle on the campus in April 1968 had escalated “from cold to hot weapons”, from stone slingshots and wooden spears to revolvers and hand grenades. One group welded steel plates onto the body of a tractor to convert it into a tank. Ten students were killed and many more badly injured in the next three months till July 1968 when Mao Zedong finally sent in groups of local workers, backed by the army, to restore order.

Hinton’s account caused quite a stir on the left outside China when it was published as a special issue of Monthly Review (July-August 1972) under the title “Hundred Day War: The Cultural Revolution at Tsinghua University”, but even so his discussion of Red Guard violence was limited to the final months of the first phase (1966-68) of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). For many Chinese who remember these times, especially among the families of teachers, intellectuals, artists and “cultural workers”, government officials dubbed “bureaucrats”, and others labelled as “capitalist-roaders,” the most severe Red Guard violence in Beijing — which set the tone for elsewhere — had occurred two years earlier. By mid-1968 the survivors of these first months were simply keeping their heads down while the factions fought it out.

Read the rest of this entry »

Tags: ,

By Miri Kim

Karyn L. Lai, An Introduction to Chinese Philosophy. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Lai coverIn this well written and organized book, Karyn L. Lai lays out the founding personalities, texts, and interventions in the early history of Chinese philosophy. What could easily have been a tortuous path through centuries’ worth of extant materials and a plenitude of voices devoted to their understanding is, rather, a brisk and focused guided tour that covers major developments in Chinese philosophy without eschewing its lesser known – but still important – aspects. An Introduction to Chinese Philosophy does exactly what it promises to do: provide a clear introduction, neither too truncated nor too bogged down in detail, that is accessible to the lay reader or student just beginning his or her journey. The book is organized thematically, with each chapter devoted to a particular philosophical tradition. For readers amenable to meandering, notes at the end of each chapter provide detailed information and suggestions for further reading on the topics discussed. Finally, after clearly explaining the main concepts of various aspects of Chinese philosophy, and providing useful summaries of the scholarly debates around them, a postscript addresses the ways in which organizing Chinese philosophy in this manner can de-emphasize the degree of differences and diversity found even within such “traditions.”

To this reader, what is particularly pleasing in this book is that the author takes time aside to cover less familiar works, like those produced by the Mingjia philosophers and the Later Mohists, which might easily be rendered into blurs by the wayside against the prominence of Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism in Chinese philosophy. However, as Lai demonstrates, even though their potential was curbed by the hostile attitudes of contemporaries and the indifference of later generations, strands of Chinese thought represented by these groups still have much to contribute to our knowledge of Chinese philosophy. For example, some of the thinkers found under the Mingjia umbrella had a reputation for sophistry, but “seriously considered methods of argumentation and criteria for justification” (112), an area that was undervalued by the major schools. Mohists also debated issues in the physical sciences, the relationship between language and thought, and how to go about evaluating human knowledge, but like the works of the Mingjia philosophers, Mohists’ writings, too, felt the political fires of the Qin dynasty more keenly than Confucian and Daoist works, which survive in far greater numbers, possibly skewing our perspective of the philosophical terrain (113). Nevertheless, when they do survive, even the most obscure of philosophical works can go on to have a rich afterlife; one such legacy can be glimpsed in the discussion of Gongsun Long and his “White Horse” thought experiment (118-123), which is as lucid as the puzzle itself is baffling. Indeed, the paths not taken in Chinese philosophy prove just as fascinating and worthy of investigation as its main thoroughfares.

A look at the foundations of Chinese philosophy, framed from a slightly different angle, is as much a story of the political developments of early Chinese history as it is a story about intellectual trends and developments. The chapter on Legalism presents Legalist philosophy in terms of its significance in the Qin and Han dynasties, but also connects it to broader debates among Confucian thinkers about human nature, and how viewing it as essentially good or essentially bad affected notions of good governance (186-189). Lai refocuses Chinese philosophy in another way when she highlights possible points of comparison between Chinese and Western philosophy. For example, when discussing the significance of the ideas found in the Zhuangzi to Chinese philosophy in general, Lai emphasizes the ways in which different schools of thought built upon one another’s work, arguing that the progressive gestalt of early Chinese philosophy may be a fruitful site to bring the philosophy of the European Enlightenment to bear (166-168). Throughout the book, Lai emphasizes that the self in Chinese philosophy, broadly conceived, is shaped in relation to its contexts – embedded within social relationships and constantly shaped and re-shaped in the interstices of the human and natural worlds (6-7). At the same time, Lai is careful not to draw too sharp a distinction between Western and Chinese conceptions of the self, since both Chinese and Western notions of self share some of these features, albeit emphasized in different measures.

Lai strongly argues that “a sense of intellectual history” is essential to capturing the plurality and dynamics within Chinese philosophy (15-16). As she illustrates, the political and social developments of the day informed Chinese thought in profound ways. An Introduction to Chinese Philosophy also reminds us that the ancients who composed these texts were not just thinkers and writers, but storytellers as well. One cannot quite imagine Zhuangzi’s ideas having so much traction had he not been able to put himself, his friend Hui Shi, and the reader inside the mind of a fish—and, paradoxically, inside the patent impossibility of being inside the mind of a fish—using a delightfully tesseracting vignette (152).

Each chapter of An Introduction to Chinese Philosophy builds on previous chapters but all are modular to an extent, so instructors of introductory and survey courses on Chinese or East Asian culture may find this feature of the book helpful. As Lai and other scholars maintain, the study of Chinese philosophy is incomplete without the reading alongside of the classical texts – suggesting that conversely, analyses of Chinese philosophy such as these can contribute to advanced language courses that expose students to the classical Chinese language through Confucius’ Analects and the like. This book is a surefooted addition to our efforts to understand and appreciate Chinese philosophy in its historical, political, and intellectual contexts.

Miri Kim is a graduate student in the Department of History at the University of California, Irvine. Her most recent China Beat post was a review of Making Religion, Making the State.

Martin Jacques, When China Rules the World: The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order. Penguin, 2009.

Yasheng Huang, Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics: Entrepreneurship and the State. Cambridge University Press, 2008.

By Howard French

During his first trip to China recently, Barack Obama was excoriated by pundits for his meekness on a host of issues, from Tibet to exchange rates to human rights. Newspaper commentary in the United States went on endlessly about the curtailment of American influence in an age where a fast-rising China has become this country’s main creditor. The event that supposedly crystallized all of this was the American-style town hall meeting the president had planned, but which the Chinese government appeared to control. In the end, Obama was limited to a stilted forum with an audience of carefully screened and coached students, and a previously negotiated national television audience was denied him.Jacques cover

It’s an open secret that many in the publishing industry see book subtitles as vehicles for shameless hype, pushing their claims to the limit in order to juice reader interest. During the week of Obama’s East Asian sojourn, though, the subtitle of Martin Jacques’ new offering, When China Rules the World: The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New World Order, may have suddenly seemed like it wasn’t such a stretch. At the very least, the appearance of a book like this from a major publisher like Penguin Press is a telling measure of a profound and ongoing shift in perceptions about the staying power of American — and, more broadly, Western — might and vigor, in the face of the challenge of a fast-rising China.

On this subject, a recent Pew survey highlighted the gap between perception and reality, showing that 44% of the American public already believes that China is the world’s leading economic power. Just 27% named the United States.

This, then, surely is a great time for a book to take a hard look at the relative decline of American power along with the stirring rise of China, followed by a host of other emerging global actors, and come to some informed and well-reasoned conclusions. Most see this story as fundamentally based in economic history, but on this subject, and indeed on economics in general, Jacques has little of interest to say. China will probably continue to grow quickly for another 20 years (186), the author asserts, placing much stock in the hazy art of economic projection, whether quoting the track records of previous takeoffs, from those of Britain, the U.S., and the so-called Asian Tigers, to the now famous work of Goldman Sachs. By 2050, its forecast anticipates the United States ranking a close second behind China, followed at some distance by India (3).

Almost defiantly, though, Jacques proclaims this is not a book about China’s “economic wow factor”(415). Make no mistake, the growth is important. Among other feats, China doubled its economy between 1977 and 1987 (159), and its GDP went from twice the size of Russia’s to more than six times larger between 1990 and 2003 (161). But this analyst is impressed by other things and wants us to share in his awe.

Read the rest of this entry »

By Maura Elizabeth Cunningham

P7070006

I took this photo on my first day in Hangzhou when I arrived there in July 2005 for a six-week Chinese language course. I didn’t find the billboard especially interesting, but one of my friends hails from Kohler, Wisconsin, and I thought he might enjoy seeing that his hometown is known in a Chinese city that I’m fairly certain he had never heard of before I announced I would be spending the summer there. At the time, I didn’t give much thought to the billboard itself, or the thousands of other advertisements affixed to the sides of buildings, encircling construction sites, or coating the exteriors of Hangzhou’s buses. They simply surrounded me, providing a backdrop for the city’s more compelling sights; the moody and misty West Lake, I thought, was far more photogenic than the façades of the luxury car dealerships lining its shore.

In a photographic collection titled Learning From Hangzhou (Timezone 8, 2009), however, Mathieu Borysevicz places the focus squarely on those car dealerships, as well as innumerable other signs throughout the city. Images of billboards, store awnings, and digital marquees fill the book, which is beautifully printed on high-quality glossy paper (although that paper makes the book quite heavy — it’s not a good candidate for airplane reading).

Learning From Hangzhou, though, is not only concerned with advertisements — Borysevicz’s work examines the ways in which public spaces are filled, as well as how city residents appropriate and change those spaces through their interactions with them. As he explains in the volume’s introductory essay,

The goal of this case study is to index a moment in China’s evolutionary transition as it occurs in Hangzhou; to index through an extended visual essay the physical manifestations accrued by economic transition and to examine where sociological change and urban development overlap (23).

In addition to thousands of color photographs taken between 2003 and 2008, Borysevicz reflects on Hangzhou’s constant state of flux in small essays — some only a paragraph long — throughout the book, which are printed in both English and Chinese, making Learning From Hangzhou a truly bilingual work.

As I paged through Learning From Hangzhou, I was struck by the fact that while each vibrantly colored photo spread verges on sensory overload, Borysevicz’s book is also tightly organized. He pulls the pictures into double-page spreads that revolve around a particular object or theme, grouping together, for example, sixteen different shots of water dispensers that call attention to their ubiquity while also demonstrating the range of brands and models available to consumers shopping at different price points (144-145). Water dispensers are shown to be objects that reside in a variety of locations throughout the city: standing alongside a leather sofa in an immaculate home, shoved onto an already-crowded kitchen counter, and squeezed into the narrow space between a door and stack of crates. Time and again, Borysevicz’s camera is directed at everyday items that are, like the ever-present billboards and bus ads, more often than not overlooked by the casual glance.

The book itself is divided into six sections, moving from the ground up and from the inside out: Part 1 features demolition and construction sites (portraits of construction workers create a particularly striking spread on pages 44-45), while Part 2 examines the architectural styles of the structures built on those sites. In Part 3, Borysevicz  emphasizes “The Performative in Architecture,” looking at how activities such as hanging clothes out to dry changes the landscape of the city. Part 4, the book’s longest section, is devoted to signs, beginning at eye-level with paper ads pasted onto buildings and lampposts and gradually moving up to the billboards that rise high above our heads. While people are present in the first four sections of the book, human figures are not the focus of photo spreads until Part 5, which spotlights the urban canvas. Borysevicz initially assembles collections of constructed figures — mannequins, women in beauty advertisements, couples posing for wedding portraits — before he moves into a sub-section on ordinary “Hangzhou-ers” as they go about their daily business. Part 6 looks at the city’s markets, from hidden DVD stores to massive Carrefour.

While Learning From Hangzhou certainly highlights the increasingly globalized nature of Hangzhou, the book does not argue that Hangzhou is becoming more Westernized, or Americanized. There are few obvious foreigners walking through Borysevicz’s pictures (I must confess, I looked for my own face among the crowds), and his photo spread on coffee shops shows as many local brand names as international. Nowhere does Borysevicz call attention to poor English or strange pictures on the signs he photographs; he is not interested in capturing the weird or outlandish, but rather the omnipresent urban clutter that pervades cities around the world. Borysevicz normalizes Hangzhou, taking what might be seen by outsiders as an alien or exotic metropolis and revealing it to be just another globalized city:

. . . it could’ve also been “Learning from Omaha” or Manila or London or the many other cities of the world permeated with outdoor signage. . . . The idea is not to present what is novel, but on the contrary, to codify what is ubiquitous and subsequently what has become invisible to us (319).

Learning From Hangzhou prompted me to revisit my own Hangzhou photographs, which primarily center on tourist attractions. I see, however, that around the edges of my photos, the subject of Borysevicz’s work often intrudes, as signs and billboards hover alongside snapshots of the West Lake and Lingyin Temple. If I had edited the photos immediately after taking them, I would have probably cropped out those snippets of commercial life, attempting to preserve a particular (certainly romanticized) image of Hangzhou that is still the first to come to mind when I think of the city. Learning From Hangzhou, however, fills in the negative spaces of my photographs, as Borysevicz aims his lens at the objects that I overlooked or avoided. His book is a fascinating glimpse into the city, and one that, I am sure, will prompt me to think more carefully when I raise my camera in the future. If I shift my attention a few feet in any direction, I realize, an entirely different archive can be created, and a different city comes into focus.

« Older entries