January 2008

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As the last in our trilogy (for now) of nods to internet resources we rely upon, we offer up five valuable sites that deal with globalization (some are exclusively devoted to that topic, others just have a lot about it). They are on our radar screen because each fairly regularly brings China into the picture in interesting ways. To illustrate this, as with the last list, we provide first a link to a homepage and then a link to a China story.

1. Yale Global
This site was founded and continues to be run by Nayan Chanda, whose credentials as a commentator on global issues are impeccable (born in India, educated in Paris, covered Vietnam as a journalist, and so on). But so, too, are his credentials as a China specialist, as he studied Sinology in France and worked in Hong Kong as editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review. So, not surprisingly, he has run some very good pieces on China, such as Anita Chan and Jon Unger’s
insightful recent commentary on lead paint and toys.

2. Salon
Andrew Leonard tracks globalization for Salon on this site. He often turns his attention to China, generally focusing on its role in contemporary global flows. But here’s
an example, particularly relevant for China Beat readers, in which he moves between the global past and the global present via the subject of porcelain.

3. Foreign Policy
This is the blog of a magazine devoted to international issues, which a few years ago underwent a dramatic redesign (becoming a jazzier looking periodical) and also began paying increased attention to the cultural as well as economic and political aspects of globalization. The magazine itself has done a lot on China (including a cover story, cleverly titled “Chairman Yao,” on the country’s most famous basketball player). For a sense of how the blog handles the PRC, here’s
a piece on mining disaster.

4. The Globalist
A daily online publication devoted to globalization, The Globalist features pieces by many different kinds of area experts and people looking at worldwide trends.
Here’s a useful rundown on international investment and China by its editors.

5. World Changing
World Changing: Change Your Thinking is a site that, to be honest, we’ve just become aware of, but some of its postings relating to China have caught our attention. With a heavier emphasis on technologies of communication and the environment than the other sites, it also has something unusual for a globalization blog—a regular contributor based in China. She’s a freelance writer named Mara Hvistendahl and here is
one of her postings on Chinese environmental issues.

The China Beat will be posting periodic interviews with journalists who cover China in widely read newspapers and magazines in the US and UK. Our first interviewee is Ian Johnson, China journalist for the Wall Street Journal, and author of Wild Grass: Three Stories of Change in Modern China. In 2001, Johnson won the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of China.

1) What was the most intriguing, amusing, inspiring, or eye-opening story that you have covered in China?

I think the favorite story I covered was about farmers in northern Shaanxi who were filing class-action lawsuits against the authorities for overtaxing them. I had been aware of Chinese class-action lawsuits, at least from the 1990s when I read about them in China Quarterly. But I never thought that they would be used in such a poor area and, to some degree, to such effect. This is a really poor part of the country and yet people were aware of their rights and had banded together to try to protect them. In one particular case I wrote about, the farmers succeeded in reversing illegal fees. In another they didn’t, but overall I think that such lawsuits had an effect. The government has since repealed most of these fees and the situation has improved a lot.

I remember one thing in particular—the farmers didn’t realize what their tax rate was supposed to be until they saw it on the television news. This showed the transformative power of electricity and mass communications, which essentially bypassed corrupt local officials. And of course the local people were extremely hospitable. I had never thought that a cave could be so comfortable.

2) If you could convince academics to do more work related to a topic in Chinese history or contemporary China, what might that be?

It’s hard to think of a topic that academics haven’t sliced and diced, but what I think would be an excellent service would be more accessible macro-histories of certain topics that our Bildungsbürgertum [educated middle-class] could read to learn about China.

This is an old gripe and one that many academics share. What bothers me is that it’s often hard to recommend one book in a certain field because most academic books are too specialized. Journalist books, by contrast, are often too perishable or too banal. So I think there’s a lack of books that serious, educated non-specialists can pick up and read on various topics. (To clarify, I don’t mean a book on just China, but even on something more specific, such as Chinese economic reforms or Chinese politics.)

I’ve read a lot of great books recently by academics but few that I could recommend, say, to my father. That’s because they are loaded with jargon and even coin words or dredge words out of the depths of the OED to describe what essentially are very ordinary phenomena. This is a pity because all that great work ends up hitting a tiny fraction of the population. Again, I don’t see an easy answer to this given the reward structures in academia, but it’s something worth considering.

3) Are there certain questions that you get all the time as a journalist covering China that just irritate you? In other words, are you commonly confronted with certain stereotypes or misconceptions about China which endure despite your multiple attempts to dismantle them?

Well, besides whether Chinese really eat dogs or whatever, I’m bothered by questions that reflect an overall lack of understanding. As a journalist, the most sobering experience I have is when friends come to China and are astounded at how China doesn’t fit their expectations. I think this is due to our failure in the media to convey China accurately.

One example is migration. If you believe most journalistic coverage, migration is a disaster, with exploited peasant girls getting sucked into Dickensian factories, the only escape from which is suicide or prostitution. This happens, but the bigger and more accurate story is one of urbanization, wealth creation, and empowerment. Young people with no future on the farm are going to factory towns to work and save money, which they send home or use on themselves. It’s not all Horatio Alger, but the dominant storyline of victimization is plain wrong.

The problem is that readers lack the ability to contextualize. If an American reads about an exploited worker in the U.S., he or she knows that this is atypical; most factory workers don’t work in brutal sweatshops. If they read about it in a foreign country, they often make a reverse assumption: that it is representative. This is a logical assumption because we want to know about what’s the big picture in foreign countries; we don’t want to waste our time reading about a bunch of exceptions. Who can figure out what’s exceptional if we don’t know what’s typical?

Journalists, meanwhile, are conditioned to report on the exceptional. You put the two together and readers are often misinformed. They think China is a polluted gulag on the verge of collapse. But when readers come here, they sense the dynamism and wonder how they got it so wrong.

4) What is the most exciting or rewarding aspect of working as a foreign correspondent?

Being able to barge into people’s lives and nose around.

5) What first drew you to China, and how has your job changed your life in ways that you never imagined when you first began?

I got interested in China for two reasons: one, my father worked for Swire (a big Hong Kong conglomerate that owns, among other things, Cathay Pacific airlines) and had made some trips to the company headquarters. I think that piqued my interest. Maybe because of that I signed up for Chinese as a lark—I certainly never intended to study it. I had attended the University of Florida because it was an affordable, local state school and had a good journalism program. The university had a language requirement and I didn’t want to learn another western language (I grew up in Montreal, so had French as a second language). A teacher posted a note somewhere saying he was looking for students to fill out his beginning Chinese section and so I thought this would be fun for a year. The teacher (Chauncey Chu) was an incredibly gifted and enthusiastic teacher. I fell in love with the language and changed my major after the second semester, and later continued my studies in Taiwan and Germany. So I have an academic to thank (and a linguist at that) for my engagement with China.

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One of the thorniest problems facing fledgling democracies involves how to cope with memories of their former dictators. Attempts to assess this aspect of a country’s history are especially problematic due to the fact that the trauma many citizens have suffered is tempered by the lingering impact of indoctrination and hero worship (consider the debates over Suharto’s rule now that he has just passed away). Add to this mixture of emotions the spices of identity formation and electoral politics and its volatility can increase exponentially.

For the past year, Taiwan has been in the throes of grappling with the legacy of former ROC President Chiang Kai-shek (1887-1975). One aspect has involved a “rectification of names” (zhengming 正名) campaign (for example, renaming CKS International Airport as Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport), which also includes affixing the word “Taiwan” to as many state organizations as possible (a case in point being Taiwan Post). At the same time, government officials and scholars have been striving to achieve some degree of transitional justice (zhuanxing zhengyi 轉型正義) by holding Chiang and other former ROC leaders accountable for human rights abuses, especially the death and imprisonment of thousands of Taiwanese during the 228 Incident of 1947.

The debate over these issues reached a crescendo last month, when the government renamed and redesigned the sacred space of the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall (now National Taiwan Democracy Memorial Hall), while also withdrawing funding and the military honor guard from the Cihhu Presidential Burial Palace (Cihu qinling 慈湖陵寢) in Daxi (Dasi 大溪) where both the elder Chiang and his son, former President Chiang Ching-kuo (1910-1988), had been temporarily laid to rest. Both of these sites are powerful symbols of the presence the Chiang’s continue to exert over Taiwan. The mammoth Memorial Hall, modeled after the Sun Yat-sen Mausoleum in Nanjing yet also resembling an imperial palace, was constructed over a three and a half year period extending from 1976 to 1980, with the imposing bronze statue of Chiang weighing in as the fourth largest in the world. The Cihhu mausoleum was built on land originally belonging to the renowned Lin family of Banqiao (Panchiao 板橋), which was presented to the state in 1955 and used as a site for one of Chiang’s residences since the summer of 1959.

Plans to rename the Memorial Hall were announced in May 2007, but the formal opening of the new site and the replacement of the renowned characters “Great Centrality and Perfect Uprightness” (dazhong zhizheng 大中至正) adorning the site’s main gate with “Liberty Square” (Ziyou guangchang 自由廣場) did not take place until the end of the year. There had also been fears that Chiang’s statue would be demolished or enclosed in an iron cage, but when the hall reopened on New Year’s Day it was found to have been surrounded by kites and photographs commemorating Taiwan’s arduous struggle towards democracy. Even these alterations caused considerable furor, especially after strongly worded statements in their favor by leading officials from the Ministry of Education and Government Information Office.

The government’s decision to withdraw its support from the presidential mausoleum, which was made at the same time the Memorial Hall was being rectified, sparked a different set of rhetorical fireworks, especially when Chiang Fang Chih-yi 蔣方智怡 (Chiang Ching-kuo’s third daughter-in-law) proposed having both Chiang’s remains reburied in their native home of Fenghua 奉化, Zhejiang. President Chen Shuibian 陳水扁 immediately voiced his outrage, pointing out that the government had already spent NT$30 million (approx. US$925,000) in taxpayers’ money to build permanent tombs for the former leaders at the Wuzhishan (Wuchishan 五指山) Military Cemetery in Xizhi (Hsi-chih 汐止; suburban Taipei). With elections for the Legislative Yuan fast approaching, the above issues became subjects of an increasingly acrimonious debate. One of the few voices of reason was none other than one of Chiang Kai-shek’s descendents, Demos Chiang (蔣友柏), who posted thoughtful entries on his own blog pointing out that while his great-grandfather had been responsible for great suffering, he neither merited deification nor deserved demonization.

Now, with election fever (temporarily) subsiding, so has the controversy over the Chiang’s legacy, although some have blamed the DPP’s stunning defeat as being in part due to the clumsy way in which the government handled this issue. The transformation of the National Taiwan Democracy Memorial Hall is largely complete, although its website still features the hall’s former abbreviation. The mausoleum is now being managed by the Taoyuan County Government, while a new park in Daxi has been built to hold hundreds of discarded statues of Chiang Kai-shek. The wounds caused during his rule remain, but many still regard him as a great leader, and there is even some nostalgia for the rule of his son. However, the question of how to come to grips with this facet of Taiwan’s modern history remains unanswered. While archives have been opened and studies published, the past has been politicized by both the DPP and the KMT, and Taiwan’s sole “Truth Commission” was created by the pan-Blue camp merely to investigate the shooting of Chen Shuibian and Lu Hsiu-lien 呂秀蓮 prior to the 2004 election. However, while both democracies and dictatorships attempt to manipulate the past to serve the present, Taiwan deserves credit for allowing such topics to be the subject of free and freewheeling discussion.

(Posted by The China Beat on behalf of Nicole Barnes)

Two new English-language books by two of my favorite scholars in Chinese women’s studies are not to be missed: Susan Mann’s The Talented Women of the Zhang Family, and Harriet Evans’ The Subject of Gender: Daughters and Mothers in Urban China. Harkening to Margery Wolf’s foundational concept of the “uterine family” (see Wolf’s Women and the Family in Rural Taiwan), both works explore Chinese culture and history through the lives of women and their relationships with their sisters, mothers, daughters, and aunts.

Best known for her 1997 book, Precious Records: Women in China’s Long Eighteenth Century, whose arguments rely on a more literal and textual analysis of elite women’s poetry, in this work Mann has taken a new direction. She provides a creative reading of the poems, essays, and letters that passed between seven women in three generations of the erudite and prestigious Zhang family of nineteenth-century Changzhou (a city located between Nanjing and Shanghai). The book is as smooth as a novel, but readers like me who trust Mann’s research know that she fills in the gaps with the talent and creativity of a historian-cum-sleuth, who first reads late Qing gynecological health manuals and then deduces that Tang Yaoqing’s aunt probably told her about the importance of women’s orgasm to conception (especially of a son!) in the weeks before her wedding.

Charting their lives through the Taiping Rebellion, Hundred Days’ Reforms, first Sino-Japanese War, and up to the eve of the Boxer Uprising, Mann shows that the oft-neglected “talented woman” (cainü) of late imperial China was a direct link to the much-celebrated “new woman,” despite Liang Qichao’s hyperbolic claim that these genteel ladies were late nineteenth-century China’s principal source of cultural backwardness and national shame. She therefore crafts a potent argument for cultural continuity across the empire-nation divide.

Harriet Evans is the celebrated author of Women and Sexuality in China: Female Sexuality and Gender since 1949 (1996), and the co-editor with Stephanie Evans of Picturing Power in the People’s Republic of China: Posters of the Cultural Revolution (1999). Some of the posters from the latter text are featured in an online exhibition, co-curated by Evans and China Beat‘s Jeff Wasserstrom.

Drawing on hundreds of personal interviews with urban women in contemporary China, Evans’ new book examines how the mother-daughter relationship has changed in response to the dramatic social, political, and economic changes in China over the past 50 years. With unspeakable candor, these women depict how their “uterine” relationships have alternately served as their principal means of support and their chief source of emotional turmoil. Yet despite differences in class, ethnicity, and personal experience, ultimately all the women relied on relationships with their mothers to make sense of their own gender identity in an era of rapid social change and increasing opportunities.

So why read these two books in tandem? What do the eighteenth-century cainü and the 1980s factory worker have in common? Well, a lot more than you might think. Despite sincere attempts to completely eradicate much of what might be simplistically labeled as “Chinese tradition” in the early twentieth-century New Culture Movement and the 1966 to 1976 Cultural Revolution, Mann and Evans show that contemporary Chinese “superwomen” (nü qiangren) are carrying on the legacy of their late imperial sisters, and that in so doing they rely on some degree of cultural continuity to make sense of their lives. And isn’t that the case for all of us?

Although time, space, and mother tongue separate us from the books’ subjects, Mann and Evans bring them right into your heart. Thanks to Evans for honing in on a much-neglected subject, and kudos to Mann for giving us a highly enjoyable read in a field that, sadly, is often chided for its unbearable dryness.

Following up on Susan’s excellent post (the first in a series) about preparations for this summer’s Olympics, this Saturday edition of The Taelspin leads off with reports that members of Team USA have been issued specially designed anti-pollution masks to wear in Beijing. Tim Johnson, the Beijing bureau chief for McClatchy Newspapers, and author of the blog China Rises: Notes from the Middle Kingdom, gives his take on the situation.

As anyone who has been to Beijing knows, there has been an almost obsessive focus on public hygiene in getting the city ready for the games. I could go on at length here about regulation of bodily functions, hygiene, and ideas of modernity and progress, but John Fitzgerald and Ruth Rogaski have already done that far better than I ever could. For those wishing a–slightly–less academic take on the subject, check out Danwei guest author Eric Mu’s humorous essay “Beijng WC, Illustrated.

Also on Danwei this week, Joel Martinson translates an article first published in the China Youth Daily on the new telenovela Journey to the Northeast (闯关东). The story, which begins in the final years of the Qing Dynasty and ends with the Mukden Incident of 1931, centers on Zhu Kaishan, a poor farmer who migrates from Shandong to Manchuria where he finds success, owns land, and hires others to work the land for him. The twist? Zhu is a sympathetic character and is not portrayed as the stock ‘evil landlord’ figure of so many other historical dramas. Chinese blogger Ten Years Chopping Timber wonders at the contradiction, and Joel provides the excellent translation.

The China Blogosphere mourned this week with news that Xinhua mole and language polisher Chris O’Brien is leaving the news agency. Chris’ weekly dispatches from inside the Chinese spin machine were a must-read for anyone interested in Chinese politics or the media. Hopefully, Chris will keep blogging, but his glimpses behind the Xinhua screen will be sorely missed. Daily Telegraph China Correspondent Richard Spencer gives his thoughts on Chris, other media moles, and the Beijing blogging scene.

Finally, David Bandurski of the China Media Project dishes the dirt on Guangdong Province’s ‘twin meetings’ (People’s Congress and People’s Consultative Committee) last week. It goes to show that even the best scripted and choreographed of provincial political events can go pear-shaped when you least expect it.

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