Self-Promotion Saturday

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After a few weeks of vacation, China Beat is back to posting (though we considered making an 8 percent reduction in our future posts in honor of the UC furlough, we’ll just be back to business as usual). Even so, it is still summer and a few contributors have been using the time to publish in other venues.

Last Saturday, Ken Pomeranz mentioned a few of his recent publications, including this one at the New Left Review.

Jeff Wasserstrom recently reviewed Lisa See’s new book, Shanghai Girls for Time Asia. (We ran an interview with See this spring, which you can read here.)

The new issue of Journal of Democracy also features a piece by Wasserstrom, “Middle-Class Mobilization,” which revisits some issues he’s written about for China Beat and The Nation. This issue also includes pieces from Yang Guobin (a China Beat contributor) as well as Elizabeth Perry and Andrew J. Nathan. Journal of Democracy makes a few articles from each issue free; this issue the free-access articles are “The Massacre’s Long Shadow” by Jean Philippe-Béja and “Authoritarian Impermanence” by Andrew J. Nathan. (The other essays can be accessed through Project Muse, for those with library access.)

Here is a short selection from Wasserstrom’s piece:

I worry that some foreign observers will jump to the wrong conclusion when thinking about Chinese middle-class protests, especially if we see more and larger ones in the years to come: namely, that they signal the imminent arrival of the sort of democratic transition that has so often been predicted for China since the 1980s. When protesters took to the streets of Beijing twenty years ago, with the fall of Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos fresh in many minds, some thought that the CCP would be toppled by something akin to the “people power” rising in Manila. Then, after Solidarity won elections in Poland and the Soviet system unraveled, some outsiders predicted that China would follow in the footsteps of one or another East European country. All it would take would be some “X factor” or other, perhaps the appearance of a reform-minded official with bold ideas or the rise of a charismatic organizer able to bring workers and intellectuals together.

More recently, while the search for a Chinese counterpart to Mikhail Gorbachev or Lech Wa³êsa has not been abandoned completely, one “X factor” on which some have begun to bet has been a restive middle class. Once an authoritarian country has undergone a dramatic period of economic development, members of the middle class will demand more of a say not only in how they make and spend money, but in how they are governed. The CCP, according to this logic, could end up facing the same pressure to share power that its erstwhile rival, the Nationalist Party (KMT), faced and eventually gave in to on Taiwan. It is easy to see the appeal of the thought that China, a country which has so often surprised us of late, is still destined to have a future that will resemble some other formerly authoritarian country’s recent past. Yet there are important flaws in this mode of thinking. How justified, for instance, is the assumption that because a number of Leninist regimes fell between 1989 and 1991, communist rule everywhere must be teetering?

In Central and Eastern Europe and many parts of the old USSR, communist rule was essentially a foreign imposition. In China, as in Vietnam, Cuba, and North Korea, the communist regime has at least some basis for grounding its claim to legitimacy in its role in a struggle not to impose but to throw off foreign domination. Then too, one must account for the cautionary lessons that many Chinese (ordinary citizens as well as rulers) have drawn from watching the post-communist travails of places such as the former Yugoslavia and the former USSR. Have the economic hardships, internal wars, social upheavals, and loss of respect in the world that such countries have had to bear made them seem like models for emulation in Chinese eyes, or worrisome examples of sad blunders best avoided?

And here is a short selection from Yang Guobin’s article, “Online Activism”:

One reason why contentious activities thrive in online communities is that controversy is good for business—disagreement raises interest, and with it, site traffic. Within limits, websites encourage users to participate in contentious interactions. Some sites strategically promote and guide controversial discussions in order to generate traffic. Behind this business strategy of promoting user participation is the logic of nonproprietary social production in today’s Internet economy.

Internet consumers are Internet-content producers too. When they post on message boards, write blogs, upload videos, or protest online, they contribute directly to the Internet economy. Chinese Internet users are active and prolific content producers. A January 2008 nationwide survey shows that about 66 percent of China’s 210 million Internet users have contributed content to one or more sites. More than 35 percent indicated that in the past six months they had either posted or responded to messages in online forums. About 32 percent had uploaded pictures, while 18 percent had uploaded films, television programs, or other video materials.

A third important condition is the creativity of Chinese netizens. Generally speaking, netizens try to stay within legal bounds and refrain from directly challenging state power. As skilled observers of Chinese politics, they understand which issues allow more leeway for discussion, and when. To a certain extent, the four types of online activism reflect netizens’ strategic responses to the political opportunities for pursuing different issues. If the cultural, social, and nationalist varieties of activism online are more widespread than political activism, that is partly because the former types enjoy more political legitimacy. As in street protests, cyberprotests directly challenging the state are much more constrained than those that can be based either on existing laws or else on claims about justice and morality that do not touch directly on questions of state authority.

By Ken Pomeranz

“Self-promotion Saturday?” My mother would be appalled, but times (and media cultures) change, and I do have a few things that might be of interest to China Beat readers. In addition to co-editing China in 2008 (which regular visitors to this site might possibly have heard of), I have another co-edited volume that came out this spring, and another book I edited has just come this summer.

The spring volume is The Environment and World History, 1500-2000 (UC Press), co-edited with Edmund Burke III; it includes both regional essays (I did the one on China), and topical ones (on energy and land use), plus an overview by yours truly (in which China figures prominently), that tries to make sense of the big picture.

The brand-new volume is The Pacific in the Age of Early Industrialization ca. 1800-1914 (Ashgate Publishing). This is the final volume in Ashgate’s 11 volume “Pacific World” series, and we take that term seriously – my volume looks at developments in Chile and California as well as China, Japan, Korea, and various parts of Southeast Asia. Several of the essays are classics – by Takeshi Hamashita, Kaoru Suighara and others – that were originally published in places where English-language readers may have a hard time finding them. I have added a long essay of my own on how development in different parts of the Pacific littoral have affected each other, on what is and isn’t distinctive about the way industrialization has occurred in Japan, Korea, Taiwan and coastal China, and about what some of this may mean for the contemporary world.

Last but not least, I have an essay coming out in two different places this week (actually already out in one of these venues) on China’s water problems, plans for additional mega-projects, and what the most ambitious of those plans – which focus on the waters of the Tibetan plateau – may mean for various groups of Chinese and for the even larger numbers of people who rely on Himalayan waters that start on China’s side of the border but wind up in South and Southeast Asia. (Those governments, of course, have their own plans, which are also covered.) This actually started out as a few paragraphs in the conclusion for China in 2008 and grew, and grew and

Anyway, there’s a more concise print version in the July/August issue of New Left Review, and a more detailed (and heavily footnoted) one online in Japan Focus: Asia-Pacific Journal. Not the most fun way to spend one’s summer – I became pretty depressed as I researched some of this – but it is an attempt to think through water problems and policies directly affecting roughly half the world’s population, whose future drinking water, irrigation water, hydropower, and so on may intersect amidst the retreating glaciers of Tibet.

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I’ve recently been lucky enough to be asked to do a couple of radio interviews to promote Global Shanghai, 1850-2010: A History in Fragments, and also to get an opportunity to explain what I was trying to do in the book to various journalists working for Chinese and English language publications. This is a very nice development because I wrote the book with general readers as well as academics in mind, and because I hoped that my ideas about Shanghai would start to make their way into Chinese as well as English language discussions of the city’s past, present, and future. It was gratifying, for example, to see part of my conversation with Mina Choi (held before I spoke at the Shanghai International Literary Festival in March) appear last month in the Beijing-based English language magazine China International Business (the text as well as her review of the book is available here); to see a podcast show up on the web of the conversation I had with Jerome McDonnell for his excellent “Worldview” show; and to come across several pieces online (like this one) that draw on a discussion I had with a group of Shanghai journalists before giving a talk at Fudan’s new Institute for Advanced Study in the Social Sciences.

One question these recent interviewers didn’t ask, perhaps because they were too polite, is one that a couple of colleagues, who knew how long I took to finish Global Shanghai, asked me before I finally delivered my manuscript to Routledge. They wondered whether I was worried that being so slow to finish it up would have adverse effects on the book’s impact and reception, due to either my being scooped by another writer producing a very similar book, or the Chinese and international fascination with Shanghai petering out.

In the end, I don’t think the delayed appearance of Global Shanghai was a problem on either of these fronts. A lot of Shanghai books, including some superb ones, had already been published when I started work on mine, and many more appeared while I was working on Global Shanghai. But I felt from the start that there was one thing in particular that would set Global Shanghai apart from other works on the city in English: namely, the fact that it would be a scholarly yet accessible book that was by a single author and dealt with both the treaty-port era and the post-1949 one in detail, highlighting both the continuities and discontinuities between the internationalizations of these two periods.

When the release date of Global Shanghai finally arrived late last year, there was still no English language book, at least that I know of, that fit this category. The closest thing to direct competition, I had long thought, was Histoire de Shanghai, an excellent book by Marie-Claire Bergère, but that is still only available in French (and perhaps also in a Chinese edition). It is, however, a good thing that I didn’t wait yet another year to finish Global Shanghai, as Histoire de Shanghai, retitled Shanghai: China’s Gateway to Modernity, is finally coming out in English from Stanford University Press toward the end of 2009. Though this development might have left me concerned (about the fate of my own book) as well as pleased for my colleague and friend Marie-Claire (who has been very generous to me throughout my career), I can now welcome the appearance of this translation without mixed feelings. After all, it would be great from my point of view to see the two works, which differ in some intriguing ways, end up being taught and perhaps even reviewed together.

As for worrying that the fascination with Shanghai would dissipate as I finished my book, I’ll admit that this did cause me a bit of concern at a few points, especially during the build-up to the Beijing Games. Back in 2004, Giorgio Armani who, as I’ve noted elsewhere may be no urban theorist but certainly knows a thing or two about trends, apparently told a journalist from China Daily that he considered Shanghai to qualify as the “world’s most talked about city,” but around 08/08/08, the city’s northern rival had a much better claim to that distinction. Nevertheless, there are plenty of indications that Shanghai’s past as well as its present and its future continue to generate a good deal of interest, both near to and very far from the Huangpu River. I’ll end this post by simply listing a few widely varying and in some cases rather peculiar developments that suggest to me that Shanghai has by no means been completely eclipsed, either in the local or global imagination, by Beijing’s Olympic moment:

1. There’s a new countdown clock in Beijing, but it is ticking away the time not until a local event begins but until the Shanghai Expo starts.

2. The melodramatic play “Shanghai Gesture,” which opened on Broadway in 1926 for a two-year run and after that was rarely performed (though it was transformed into a von Sternberg film–his second one linked to the city, for he’d previously directed the Marlene Dietrich star vehicle “Shanghai Express”), has just been revived by a New York theatre company.

3. The city’s name continues to show up in the titles of English language works of fiction (including a whodunit called The Shanghai Moon that just came out).

4. Hollywood films that have scenes set in the metropolis and sometimes also invoke its name in their titles haven’t stopped being made, with one starring John Cusack and Gong Li and called simply “Shanghai” due out in the fall.

5. Though the latest Shanghai Biennale (that ran late in 2008) had many themes, not all of which were focused on the place that was hosting the events, works drawing attention to aspects of the local past and present and expectations for what the future holds in store for people living near the Huangpu figured prominently in some displays (as the accompanying photo, which I took last November, indicates).

We were delighted to come across a piece by Friend of the Blog Michael Meyer (called “About That Book Advance…“) in last week’s New York Times Sunday Book Review section. We figured, based on the author’s track record as a writer (and the insightfulness of his comments when talking about his work), that this piece would be lively and offer some illumination on an interesting topic and that it might also have some China tidbits. Well, it was not just illuminating (explaining how tough it can be for an author to live on what sounds at first like a very good advance, once the agent’s cut and self-employment taxes come into play) but also entertaining (a favorite part: how in literary circles advance amounts are sometimes “coyly described like cigarette brands — the ‘mid-fives,’ the ‘low sixes,’ the ‘mild sevens'”).

But as for China tidbits… there were only two. We learned how much of an advance Meyer got for his book, The Last Days of Old Beijing (as in the spirit of disclosure he tells us precisely: $50,000), and even better we learned that his book will be coming out in paperback next month (take note all those in book groups, as it would work nicely in that setting). What kind of advance, you may be wondering, did we receive for China in 2008? Rather than tell you a number, let’s just say it was in the “barely fours”–so barely that with just a dollar taken away, it would have been a three figure advance (albeit one of the “mighty threes”). Of course, Rowman & Littlefield basically doubled their up-front lay-out by giving each of our contributors a free copy.

After reading the piece, some of us had two thoughts. First, that academics trying their hand at writing for general audiences are lucky to have day jobs to cover the bills. And, second, that it would be nice if the New York Times Sunday Book Review section editors liked Meyer’s essay as much as we did, in which case they might commission a sequel, in this case demystifying the high amounts paid for translation rights. A good starting point might be that famous $100,000 reportedly offered to bring out the English language version of a certain Cry of the Wild with Chinese characteristics, boy meet wolf tale that was criticized and celebrated by different China Beat contributors last year (and incidentally inadvertently helped China Beat earn its first mention in the New York Times’ excellent “Paper Cuts” book blog).


As an addendum, we wanted to mention this upcoming event with Michael Meyer in New York:

The Last Days of Old Beijing – A Conversation with Author Michael Meyer
May 7th 6:30 – 8:00 pm New York Asia Society and Museum, Auditorium, 725 Park Avenue, New York
Cost: $7 students and members, $10 nonmembers

A longtime Beijing resident, Michael Meyer has, for the past two years, lived as no other Westerner – in a shared courtyard home in Beijing’s oldest neighborhood, Dazhalan, on one of its famed hutong (lanes). As Meyer describes in his book, residents’ bonds are rapidly being torn by forced evictions as century-old houses and ways of life are increasingly destroyed to make way for shopping malls, the capital’s first Wal-Mart, high-rise buildings, and widened streets for cars replacing bicycles.

Meyer will be joined in conversation with Orville Schell, Arthur Ross Director of the Center on US-China Relations at the Asia Society. Click on the above link for more information.

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Last Wednesday, Amazon dropped the price of China in 2008 to its lowest yet–just over $20 (the price has been fluctuating over the past couple weeks). And the site has also bundled China in 2008 with Peter Hessler’s Oracle Bones for about $30, so if any River Town fans never got around to ordering the second book by one of our contributors, now would be a great time to do so.

Amazon’s book bundling can be a little hit or miss, so we were wondering who Amazon would pair China in 2008 with, and were hoping it wasn’t a book we’d criticized or felt uncomfortable being linked to. Suffice to say, we are delighted by what the web wizards came up with.

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