February 2008

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A lot has been written about a rise in the number of protests in China – particularly mass demonstrations and those by farmers and villagers who face government land seizures. (Historian Charles Hayford wrote an interesting essay about the terminology journalists use to describe different classes of people in China.)

But protests from the middle class in China are also garnering increased attention from the American press. The latest protest, a January “stroll” by homeowners in Shanghai who disagreed with an extension of the city’s famous Maglev train, have been described as “the strongest sign yet of rising resentment among China’s fast-growing middle class” (The New York Times) and “a quiet middle-class battle against government officials” (Washington Post). The South China Morning Post reported today (subscription required) that some residents say they’ve applied to hold a “legal protest” against the Maglev expansion this weekend.

Benjamin L. Read (right), from the Department of Political Science at the University of Iowa, has been researching grassroots organizing with a particular focus since 1999 on homeowners movements in China. In a Q&A over email with The China Beat, Read puts the Shanghai protests in context.

AS: Your research has been on organizations in East Asia, including what you call “Civil Society Organizations.” Can you tell me a bit more about your research and what kinds of civil society organizations you’ve studied?

BR: By “civil society organization,” I mean groups or associations of people that have substantial autonomy from the state. In other words, those that are not controlled by the government or otherwise dependent on it. Civil society is a term that goes back centuries in Western philosophy, and its definition has evolved over time. There have been extensive debates over whether civil society groups existed in different parts of Chinese history, whether Confucian thought contains ideas related to the notion of civil society, and more generally how relevant it is to China at all.

So it’s a somewhat controversial concept. But it has become a term used around the world by social scientists and activists and others to capture the common-sense idea that citizens getting together in self-organizing groups are able to communicate, deliberate and act politically in distinctive ways. You can do things in groups that you can’t do alone. Whether we use the term civil society or some other term, this kind of activity is taking place in China to some extent and I think it’s worth studying.

Civil society organizations contrast with other kinds of organizations, for instance those that are managed or fostered by the state. My research in China started off looking at Residents Committees (jumin weiyuanhui, or RCs), the official, government-organized groups that go back at least to the 1950s and are found in most urban neighborhoods. This general type of local organization, closely linked to the state, is prevalent not just in China but in most parts of East and Southeast Asia, and I find them intensely interesting in their own way. But in the course of studying the RCs in 1999 and 2000, I came across some of the early homeowner organizations, called yezhu weiyuanhui or yeweihui, and I started writing about them as well.

AS: How strong do you think organizations that are not run by the state are in China? What kinds of things can they accomplish and whom do they serve most often?

BR: The homeowner groups in China’s new private housing estates (xiaoqu) are a complicated mosaic. Some of them can be seen as a manifestation of civil society, while others are something else. For instance, a lot of them are not actually controlled by the homeowners themselves but instead are dominated by the property developers and their management companies. Sometimes the homeowners themselves become factionalized and get bogged down in internal conflict, so that there’s no functioning organization. In some places the government has blocked the formation of a formal yeweihui, although there can be informal activity regardless. In other neighborhoods, the homeowner group functions well, holding regular meetings and elections and representing the residents’ interests much as, say, a healthy condo association might in the United States.

AS: The Washington Post report on the January protests against extending the Maglev train in Shanghai highlights the role of a residential organization. The Post did not explicitly call these residents a housing association, but is this kind of civil society organization you are referring to?

BR: It’s clear that homeowners in the new, private neighborhoods I talked about above played a central role in these demonstrations. One thing that’s not immediately obvious from Chinese or Western sources is to what extent the homeowner organizations (yeweihui) themselves or their leaders encouraged members to participate in the protests. Concerns about noise and harmful radiation from the maglev trains seem to have galvanized large numbers of people who might not previously have been involved in the homeowner movement.

Regardless, it is clear that the protests drew on infrastructure that is very much a part of that movement, notably the new neighborhoods’ web-based bulletin boards. Some of the posts from the first weeks of January have now been removed from these forums, some are still there. But they carried a flurry of posts and discussion, and this was a key part of how information about the maglev line extension plan came to the attention of homeowners who stood to be affected by it, and how they encouraged each other to turn out for the rally in downtown Shanghai on January 12. Moreover, residents in some neighborhoods hung large protest banners from their windows, which is a tactic you often see in the homeowners’ struggles against exploitative property developers and management companies. And according to reports in the livelier parts of the Chinese media like Southern Metropolis (Nanfang Dushibao) and Beijing News (Xin Jing Bao), residents of some of the neighborhoods organized representatives to talk to government officials about the plans.

AS: One of The China Beat‘s founders, Jeff Wasserstrom, writes that the Shanghai protests were about practical demands.

BR: Wasserstrom’s essay makes the point that the Shanghai protests look like a form of NIMBY-ism (Not In My Back Yard). People’s motivation seems to be based, at least in the first instance, on property rights rather than more inclusive notions like human rights or civil rights. So they don’t look as idealistic as some protests in the past did. But as he suggests, the line between local or self-regarding motivations and broader, society-wide claims can be a fine one. Commentators in China have hailed these euphemistically termed “walks” as a healthy form of public expression, and I think we can agree without reservation.

The reasons that NIMBY protests have a negative connotation are first, that such movements may thwart the creation of necessary public infrastructure, and second, that unwanted institutions may be dumped into communities that are less wealthy or vocal. But in this case, with regard to the first point, protesters question the need to extend the train line at all. The second point is potentially valid, but in my view it is far outweighed by the desirability of subjecting government to forceful public input. If Chinese homeowners help bring about checks and balances on state decisions previously hidden behind closed doors, then more power to them.

AS: What kinds of trends do you see among property owners in China?

BR: To the extent that these Shanghai protests were fueled by homeowners, it constitutes a new departure in that the great majority of the time when homeowners undertake collective action it’s one neighborhood at a time and inward-focused, not about public policy. Usually the spur to action will be something like high management fees, control over neighborhood assets or shoddy construction. To the extent that homeowners contact and lobby the government in these cases, they are trying to win support from the authorities against the developers, not protesting against something the government is doing. The maglev extension plan is unusual in that it’s something the government is directly responsible for, affecting a large number of neighborhoods (one report said nearly 40) in the same way all at once.

So I think we should guard against reading too much into this event. Howard W. French, in his New York Times story makes a rather bold claim that the protests are “the strongest sign yet of rising resentment among China’s fast-growing middle class over a lack of say in decision making.” Social classes rarely act in unified ways politically, and it’s questionable at best whether the middle class in China is generally characterized by resentment.

Still, I agree that we’re looking at an important form of political action that deserves our attention. It was undertaken by people who now have resources (money, education, communication tools like cell phones, the internet and video cameras) that were missing or less prevalent in earlier parts of PRC history. When they buy expensive homes in these new housing developments it gives them a strong interest in protecting that investment — British Thatcherites and U.S. “ownership society” advocates would nod their heads at this.

But I think homeowners are also motivated by a sense that when they acquire their piece of what we might call the “Chinese dream,” there’s an implicit social contract going with it. The system in China now encourages people to devote their energy to getting ahead in the new economy, and once they “make it” by acquiring a nice, modern home, once of the ultimate markers of success, they feel entitled to certain things: fair treatment in matters concerning their home, veto power over unreasonable arrangements, some control over the neighborhood environment, peace and quiet, privacy, and freedom from certain kinds of impositions. This sense of being entitled to things beyond what’s specified on the property deed is a big part of what underlies the homeowner movement more generally.

(Posted by the China Beat on behalf of David Porter)

Have you ever suspected that all this recent talk about China and globalization might be just a little belated? China historian Timothy Brook, author of the award-winning Confusions of Pleasure, reminds us in a new book that global commercial and cultural exchanges were already profoundly shaping the lives and world views of Europeans 350 years ago.

Vermeer’s Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World (Bloomsbury, 2007) offers an eye-opening and eminently readable account of how the ever-expanding circulation of goods and people from several continents began flattening the world several centuries before NAFTA and Wal-mart.

The story begins in Delft, where Brook happened to fall off his bike on a youthful cycling journey across the Low Countries. The discovery of Vermeer’s gravestone in the city’s Old Church led to an enduring fascination with the painter’s works, five of which serve in this book as the starting points for adventurous journeys of a different kind.

Brook begins each of his main chapters with a close reading of a well-known Vermeer masterpiece. As we peer with him ever more deeply into the frame, we find ourselves transported well beyond Delft’s Schie Canal and the North Sea to Spain, Acapulco, Lake Champlain, Manila, Korea, Japan, and of course China. Details in the paintings—a river barge, a porcelain dish, a felt hat—lead us to the gripping tales of pitched battles and piracy, captivity and conversion, riots and massacres concealed beneath the cozy bourgeois scenes depicted on the canvas.

The reader is regularly and usefully reminded that in Vermeer’s age and for centuries preceeding it, China, not Europe, was in many ways the center of the world. But just as important, we are reminded that cultures at the two ends of the Eurasian continent actually had a great deal in common. Later orientalist rhetoric about the inscrutible Chinese and inexorable differences between East and West notwithstanding, the lives and values of elites from prosperous commercial cities in seventeenth-century Holland and China reveal remarkable parallels, from worries about plague epidemics to concerns about the effects of rapidly spreading luxury, from a delight in tobacco and porcelain to an insatiable lust for silver. Vermeer’s paintings and Brook’s archival discoveries reveal the seventeenth century to be an intricately interconnected world, and one in which translation and transculturation played a crucial role in the creation of meanings both within and beyond the picture frame.

Living in Beijing as I do, it’s not uncommon to be asked about my feelings on the Olympics. Chinese friends, family, colleagues, and even complete and total strangers (for reasons passing understanding) seem interested in hearing my opinion.

But I’ve learned the hard way that my perspective per se is not what is actually being sought, but rather confirmation of what The People’s Daily and CCTV assure all Chinese is the only possible correct answer: Yes, the Olympics are going to be a huge success and will demonstrate to the world that China is becoming a modern, developed nation. Deviations from that line are not always received well and sometimes elicit outright hostility, which leaves me to wonder: Why is that? Why does concern about the Olympics, criticism of Chinese government policies, or even a news story about the effect of air pollution on athletes, provoke such a visceral response from many Chinese?

Obviously no one set of reasons can cover the gamut of reactions, everybody perceives issues in different ways, but in perusing the comments section of China blogs and the threads on Chinese BBSs, I sense three main themes: the close integration of state/nation/party in both PRC ideology and the minds of the Chinese people; genuine pride at China’s rise in the world and a belief that many countries in “the West” seek to undermine China’s development to satisfy their own selfish strategic goals; and finally, a barely smoldering resentment born out of a history of foreign imperialism in China.

In the United States, there is a tradition–fragile though it may be at times–that says criticism of government policies is not only a right, but in fact is the responsibility of a concerned citizen. Painting in the broadest possible strokes, the founding fathers established a system whereby the state and the nation were separate entities, one under the supervision of the other. This separation means that one can accuse the government of wrongdoing without necessarily implicating the nation or its people. Sure, I might get annoyed a bit whenever non-American friends denounce the United States for the invasion of Iraq or whatever, but at the end of the day it doesn’t affect me all that much: I know it’s a policy of my government that’s being criticized, one which I also oppose, and generally speaking they aren’t attacking me personally or the American people as a whole.

In China, on the other hand, the demands of 20th-century state building, first under the KMT and later by the CCP, fused the ideas of nation and state (and later nation, state, and party) into an inseparable ideology which was then disseminated through propaganda and education to the people.* To criticize one is to attack the whole. Political culture in the PRC has no place for a loyal opposition, never mind the dictum, tenuously attributed to Thomas Jefferson, linking dissent and patriotism. As a result, publicly questioning the government in China is a crime for which the perpetrator risks arrest as a ‘threat to social stability and state security.’ Foreigners who do so are counterattacked as China-bashers; those Chinese who speak out against their own government in the foreign press are pilloried on electronic bulletin boards as hanjian, traitors to their race, an epithet to which Chinese nationals working for foreign media organizations are also frequently subjected.

Moreover, this response carries with it the implicit–and occasionally explicit–tag that those who criticize China are simply jealous and/or fearful of China’s rise.

The Chinese are justifiably proud of how far their country has advanced in the last 25 years, and today’s China is a testament to the spirit of its people, who through their hard work and entrepreneurial drive have launched an era of unprecedented economic growth and development. At the same time, old ideas die hard.

Social Darwinism was first introduced to China through the writings and translations of Yan Fu and Liang Qichao in the late-19th century, at a time when the rapacious demands of the imperialist powers threatened to carve up China (as the oft-quoted trope goes) like a melon. It is little wonder then that early 20th-century intellectuals and state builders looked out into the world and saw nothing but power politics and a global struggle for national survival. After the founding of the PRC, this concept of a Darwinian international order diffused throughout society as CCP propaganda stressed the need to strengthen the state so that China would never again be bullied by foreign powers. Early production campaigns called on the people to overtake Britain and catch up with the United States. Competition was the name of the game. The antagonism and paranoia of this Cold War propaganda reinforced lessons learned during a long 19th century, and many Chinese came to believe that the world was indeed out to “get China” and geopolitics was a zero-sum game. It’s a perception that lingers to this day.

What is a bit unusual however is the assumption by many people here that all Americans think this way too: that every single person in the US is fixated and frightened by China’s rise, and it is this fear that drives the negative media reporting on China’s environment, food safety problems, human rights abuses, etc. Part of this reaction can be attributed to the “CCTV-effect.” In China, the media is a tool for political control, and many Chinese–especially those who have limited international experience–have trouble believing that the foreign media could operate any differently.

Adding to this, the Chinese media is fond of parroting government officials who label the United States as human rights hypocrites, citing the usual suspects (slavery, imperialism, policy toward indigenous peoples) as well as tossing out a few new ones (waterboarding, the invasion of Iraq). Whether one feels this is a valid defense or not, the salient point is that many in China accept the government line as unequivocal proof that foreign critics cannot be trusted.

Now, I can’t speak for everybody, but in conversations in Beijing with foreign journalists, activists, bloggers, researchers, businesspeople and teachers, the general consensus is that few, if any, have a problem with China’s development or truly fear China’s rise, certainly not in the way that nationalist rags like The Global Times would suggest. Generally speaking, we believe that criticism of the government is based on the notion that certain reforms would make the lives of the Chinese people more secure, prosperous, and free. Surely this is not “bashing China,” rather it’s expressing enthusiasm for our hosts’ good fortune and concern for our friends, the Chinese people. Right?

Wrong, apparently. For you see, China has a long history of foreign do-gooders stepping on her soil and offering suggestions. (Who could forget Columbia professor Frank Goodnow’s helpful hint to Yuan Shikai in 1915 that what the Republic needed most was an emperor?) Missionaries, traders, academics, officials, and writers came to China in droves during the age of imperialism, all with ideas on how to fix China and make the lives of the Chinese better. The problem was of course that no matter how well-intentioned a notion, no matter how sound or rational it might have been, any idea becomes a hard fit when it arrives shoehorned between military occupations and adventures in gunboat diplomacy.

This left its mark on how foreign ideas were perceived and deployed in Chinese society. The challenge in the early-2oth century to reconcile Chinese tradition and foreign ideas has been a recurring theme in the literature on modern Chinese intellectual history. That struggle to define modernity, to understand how to be both fully modern and fully Chinese, and how to achieve a sense of equivalency with the West, was left unresolved at the time of the CCP takeover in 1949. Marxism purported to be the answer to this dilemma, but as Marxism loses its intellectual currency in today’s China A-Go-Go, old questions and nagging insecurities start to reemerge.

At the same time, the legacies of imperialism are reinforced in many ways, not the least of which is through the ‘patriotic education’ that’s a key part of the elementary and secondary curriculum in the PRC. Nobody needs to be reminded of the intimate link in China between history, politics, and education. The CCP itself never stops telling the people that it was the Party who was responsible for driving out the foreign imperialists and ending the ‘century of humiliation’ that began with the Opium War in 1840. As such, the story of imperalism is not only an important aspect of China’s recent history, but also a fundamental building block of the CCP’s political legitimacy.

Given that historical context, the politics of education, and the effectiveness of CCP propaganda, it is easy to understand why many Chinese have a hard time believing that foreigners who criticize the Chinese government might actually be doing so in the interests of the Chinese people. At best, it’s seen as a kind of misguided paternalism, at worst, a wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing attack on Chinese sovereignty. The issue becomes murkier still when the issue is “Chineseness” itself, as in the case of Tibet, Taiwan, and Xinjiang.

The notion of ‘face’ obviously deserves to be a part of this discussion, but at the same time it’s a bit of an intellectual cul-de-sac. It’s not that I consider face to be unimportant, but I do feel non-Chinese are too quick to dismiss an inability to handle criticism as some sort of inherent quirk of Chinese culture. Nobody would deny that ‘face’ is a crucial factor in business, diplomacy, and even daily life here, but there is more to the Chinese response beyond the somewhat simplistic and essentialist explanation of ‘saving face.’

China’s development has been something to behold, but there are challenges still unresolved: staggering environmental problems, a widening gap between the haves and have-nots, and endemic corruption that flourishes in a political culture where the media is censored, non-governmental organizations are proscribed, public speech is still tightly controlled, and where the priority of judges and the courts is maintaining ‘harmony’ at the expense of petitioners’ requests to avail themselves of their legal rights. The CCP and the Chinese government have done a thorough job of spreading a message that is equal parts Lenin, Louis XIV, and Ronald Reagan: The party represents the people because apres mois, le deluge and, by the way, it’s morning again in China and you are better off now than you were four years ago. It’s an interesting mash-up of political philosophies, but one that has to a large extent become internalized by the Chinese people, especially the urban elite who have benefited the most from the recent economic boom. Regardless of class however, the idea that the nation’s interests exist independent of the state and party is, for most people, inconceivable.

Foreigners should be allowed to criticize the Chinese government when such criticism is warranted, and I don’t waive my right to speak out against injustice just because I wasn’t born in the country where that injustice is occurring. But at the same time, I shouldn’t be surprised when my criticism sometimes meets resistance and resentment. Sincere engagement with the Chinese people can only come about when the roots of that resistance are acknowledged, and met with equivalent understanding and sensitivity. In this way a true dialogue can begin with people talking to–rather than at–each other.
* For further reading and a more in-depth treatment of this issue, see John Fitzgerald, Awakening China: Politics, Culture, and Class in Nationalist China. (Stanford Univ. Press, 1998)


In their coverage of the 1989 student demonstrations, foreign and domestic media focused almost exclusively on the demonstrations in Beijing. However, sympathetic students and workers protested and marched across China in May and June 1989, and there has been little coverage or scholarship written about the shape and scope of those events. In the spring and early summer of 1989, professor and philosopher Ian Hacking was teaching in Wuhan and Lanzhou. In this installation of the audio feature, “China on My Mind,” China Beat contributor Tom Mullaney chats with Hacking about what he saw during this critical moment in Chinese history. (Users who have trouble with the interface can follow this link directly to the audio file at imeem.)

By Kate Merkel-Hess

This week marks the 36th anniversary of Richard Nixon’s visit to China, so it was serendipitous that on meandering through the public library’s history section I happened on Margaret MacMillan’s Nixon and Mao: The Week That Changed the World. Largely a play-by-play examination of the week’s events (and its larger-than-life stars in Nixon, Mao, Kissinger, and Zhou Enlai), the book is littered with fascinating anecdotes about the China Nixon and his entourage encountered: for instance, Beijingers were ordered to studiously ignore the welcoming motorcade and Chinese pilots who took over Kissinger’s plane for the Shanghai-to-Beijing leg during his 1971 prepatory visit navigated visually, stymied by the plane’s up-to-date systems.

MacMillan’s intricate accounts of the meetings between Chinese and American leaders are the most engaging parts of the book, but she does an equally good job of articulating Nixon’s reasons for seeking rapprochement with China, as Warren Cohen noted in his review in Foreign Affairs. (Other substantial and insightful reviews of the book include Roderick MacFarquhar’s review in New York Review of Books, Louis Menand’s in The New Yorker, and John Lewis Gaddis’s in the New York Times) Nixon’s decision to override American concerns with China’s “internal affairs” (re: Taiwan) in order to establish diplomatic and economic relations set the stage for a continuing tug-of-war between two poles who felt (and feel) that China foreign policy should be a way to convey American standards on everything from democracy to disease control, and those who believed dialogue and economic exchange would, of themselves, bring China in line with the world community. That battle is unresolved, making the full implications of Nixon’s visit yet unclear, but the struggle continues to manifest itself in popular swings between an eagerness to engage with China and a fear of China’s growing power and, sometimes, markedly differing opinions on world events.

In Britain, the book was published as Nixon in China, more accurately reflecting its American-centered perspective (MacMillan is a professor of history at Oxford University and her previous research has focused on the British Empire and modern international affairs). Chinese history asides may occasionally make China buffs gnash their teeth (for instance, a reference to the imperial tributary system as explanation for the Chinese government’s prickliness about whether China had invited Nixon or he had asked to come). While not groundbreaking in its presentation of China’s history during this period, Nixon and Mao provides a very readable overview of the American vision of China and its leaders and MacMillan’s research yields many new details about the week’s events.

There are a number of internet resources that provide more information about the Nixon visit, including photos from the Ollie Atkins Photograph Collections (the above photo of the Nixons and Zhou is from this collection) and this recent piece about the death of Mao’s English tutor, who acted as an interpreter during the visit (and whom MacMillan interviewed for her book), in the New York Times.

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