August 2008

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Reviewed by Nicole Barnes

Everyone’s attention this month has been on the Olympics, and rightly so, but August can also be a time to reflect on China’s War of Resistance against Japan (1937-45). Throughout the entire month of August 1938, Japanese planes bombarded Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Party headquarters in the first provisional capital of Wuhan, a tri-city region in the central Yangzi river region in Hubei province. The fall of Wuhan after a protracted ten-month battle, on October 25th 1938, forced the government to move further inland to its second provisional capital, the city of Chongqing in Sichuan province. This gives us some perspective as we reflect upon the unprecedented success of the Beijing Olympics, 70 years after Japan seized China’s second capital city in one of modern history’s bloodiest wars (though they did try, Japanese bombers were never able to annihilate Chongqing).

Having already produced several excellent works on this war (too many to name, in fact, but one notable book is his co-edited volume, China at War), Stephen MacKinnon has put forth a very bold argument in his latest book, Wuhan, 1938: War, Refugees, and the Making of Modern China, published this year by the University of California Press. MacKinnon asserts that those ten months in Wuhan—from January 11 to October 22, 1938—forever changed Chinese society in no less than four significant ways (listed here in no particular order).

First, the mass of refugees pouring westward from the besieged east coast caused a public health crisis, the creative responses to which led to the creation of a new kind of public health infrastructure and new ethic of responsibility to care for the wounded and sick, which MacKinnon argues served as the foundation of both the PRC and the ROC states’ health systems in mainland China and Taiwan, years after the war’s end. Previous estimates of wartime refugees have ranged from 3 to 90 million, but MacKinnon believes that there were over 100 million civilians fleeing the eastern war zone (p. 60), making this the single largest forced migration in Chinese history (the Taiping Rebellion of 1851-64 produced about 30 million). Although refugee relief efforts were more successful within the urban area of Wuhan than in the surrounding countryside, MacKinnon argues that the relief effort fostered a new definition of national community because it brought together people from all walks of life and both sides of the political spectrum, and incited the participation of state-run organizations, which for the first time worked in concert with private charities. Relief organizations managed to serve about half of this massive refugee population (so MacKinnon argues, though the one statistic he cites doesn’t back this ratio up), and sparked new interest in voluntary service, especially among the 100,000 student refugees in Wuhan.

The urgency of this refugee crisis brought about a second fundamental change in Chinese society, as the public gaze was turned toward economic development in areas that had previously been regarded as the cultural hinterland. Here MacKinnon’s argument gets a little fuzzy and it is unclear if he is referring to truly rural areas, or simply to the urban area of Wuhan in inland China. As Lee McIsaac has shown, when Shanghai urbanites got to Chongqing in late 1938, they looked down on Chongqing residents as country bumpkins, even though they lived in the cultural heartland of southwestern China (see “The City as Nation: Creating a Wartime Capital in Chongqing” in Joe Esherick’s edited volume, Remaking the Chinese City). It can be easily imagined that they saw Wuhan people in the same light, making MacKinnon’s argument that the cultural renaissance of Wuhan and the popularization of culture was achieved by the likes of authors Lao She, Wen Yiduo, and Guo Moruo, as well as other east-coast intellectuals who came in the refugee wave and stayed on, cleave a bit more than it should to the same cultural bias that Shanghailanders held against anyone who did not hail from their illustrious city.

MacKinnon also argues that Wuhan enjoyed the greatest press freedom ever to be seen in any Chinese capital city before or since. For a brief period in 1938, not a single journalist or editor was assassinated. This owed largely to the disorganization of the Nationalist power structure with the hasty move, and elsewhere MacKinnon argues that by the time the GMD got to Chongqing, the secret service of Dai Li became more oppressive (“The Tragedy of Wuhan, 1938” Modern Asian Studies 30.4 (1996): 931-43). But because of the power shake-up in Wuhan, military generals from the Baoding academy were able to gain an upper hand over Chiang’s favorites from Whampoa and put a clamp on Dai Li (p. 63). Nonetheless, the Guomindang immediately maneuvered for greater censorial power, and significantly refined its propaganda work while in Wuhan (p. 70).

Last but certainly not least, Wuhan’s ten-month hold-out against a concerted military assault changed Chinese, Japanese, and other foreign attitudes about the strength of the Chinese resistance. As Chinese armies fled for Wuhan, foreign reporters and observers doomed China for failure, but China’s unforeseen resilience in the battle for the central Yangzi valley changed their tune, and by the end of the siege even the fall of Wuhan could not quash the newfound optimism and an outpouring of international sympathy for China’s plight. In other words, although Japan won the military battle for Wuhan, China clearly won the spiritual and cultural battles, and the sympathetic reporting and images from Wuhan of the likes of Danish film director Joris Ivens, American journalist Agnes Smedley, and Hungarian photojournalist Robert Capa sealed international attention on China’s war.

MacKinnon also argues that both the Guomindang and the Communist Party failed to organize Wuhan’s students successfully, despite the students’ ardent desire to aid in the war effort. This comes as some surprise—wouldn’t a bloody war fought on your own soil against a seemingly ruthless enemy be the perfect opportunity for the government to harness young people’s energy for state-directed projects? Yet the Nationalists battled amongst themselves for control over some 100,000 student refugees, and when the ultra-conservative Minister of Education Chen Lifu won against the more radical Peng Wenkai, Chen immediately created the Three Peoples’ Principles Youth Corps. (sanminzhuyi qingniantuan 三民主義青年團, or Sanqing for short). Chiang Kai-shek quickly motivated to turn this group into more of a motor for party revitalization (with all of its leaders well beyond their youth) than an actual youth group, and some previously independent groups joined more out of a sense of coercion than loyalty to the Generalissimo’s request that all youth groups join this new, centrally-controlled one. Hence MacKinnon’s argument that the Nationalists’ actions did not represent inherent interest in the student movement.

The Communist failure was more obvious: wanting desperately to preserve the United Front, the CCP simply refused to organize any of the students on their own, satisfying themselves with a lame request that radical youth disband their more leftist organizations and join the Sanqing Youth Corps. Some youth groups that resisted were simply banned by the government. Yet despite the weakness of central Party direction, students were very much at the forefront of the refugee relief effort. They staffed refugee health clinics, organized patriotic marches, wrote and performed patriotic plays, and pasted patriotic slogans on fresh wall posters each day.

I do suspect that future research on wartime Chongqing might prove some of MacKinnon’s assertions about the singularity of Wuhan to be a bit overblown. Yeh Wen-hsin of UC Berkeley is currently researching journalism in wartime Chongqing, which might show that certain pockets of journalistic freedom existed in another provisional capital. The upcoming dissertation of UC Berkeley PhD student Edna Tow, on wartime bombing in Chongqing, might show that it was not only the experience of Wuhan that impacted China’s subsequent public health infrastructure. Although I will begin my in-country research next year, my dissertation on public health in wartime Chongqing may also be able to show similar long-term effects.

Nonetheless, this book is concisely written and very engaging, and MacKinnon deserves respect for going out on a limb to make forceful arguments about one of the central battles in China’s eight-year war against Japan: the ten-month siege of Wuhan.

Let’s face it: Hua Guofeng just never could get any respect. He’s the former leader of China, but was sidelined by Deng Xiaoping and relegated to the ashbin of history: the triumph of mediocrity…the Gerry Ford of Chinese politics. His death last week was greeted with a chorus of “Who? He was still alive? No kidding. How’s Liu Xiang’s ankle?”

The great Han historian Sima Qian once wrote that a man’s death could be as weighty as Mt. Tai or as light as a feather. Hua’s death was eclipsed by the achilles tendon of a 20-something hurdler/professional product endorser.

Anyway, a quick round up of Hua remembrances, such as they are:

Blood and Treasure dismisses Hua as “Chairman Who?: The only Chinese leader to qualify as an answer in a pub quiz.”

Vincent Shih argues in support of the nepotism theory: Hua as Mao’s unacknowledged son.

The BBC gives a pretty straight-ahead timeline of Hua’s career, calling him “Mao’s loyal lieutenant.”

Mure Dickey writing in the Financial Times views Hua as an example of the ‘slavish sycophancy’ Mao sought in his subordinates, and includes an anecdote from the waning days of Hua’s rule when a young man looked up at a propaganda poster celebrating Mao’s famous passing of the torch (“With you in charge, I can rest easy”) and retorted: “With you in charge, I fart.”

No collection of Hua information would be complete without including Stefan Landsberger’s excellent collection of Hua Guofeng related prints at Stefan’s Chinese Propaganda Posters Pages. Black and White Cat has also put together some of Stefan’s posters into a Hua Guofeng montage.

In the NYT, Kenneth Lieberthal sums up Hua as “more a figure who was there when Chinese politics pivoted than himself being a pivotal figure.” Ouch. The Washington Post joins the, erm, fray calling Hua “an obscure functionary who briefly served as the handpicked successor to CCP chairman Mao Zedong.” Are you feeling the love? I know I am.

Joel Martinson at Danwei and the blog A shameful waste of madhouse time dig further into the Chinese reaction. Joel translates online commentary from Xinhuanet and excerpts from a short essay by Peking University law professor He Weifang while David Bandurski and Joseph Cheng at China Media Project offer an excellent overview of the coverage in the Chinese press.

Finally, The Guardian has perhaps the most complete and thoughtful obituary among the foreign media, arguing that while “Hua’s account of his mandate from Mao looked extremely shaky, there was logic behind his elevation.” Logic further explored in this essay (shameless self-promotion alert) at Jottings from the Granite Studio.

China and America, according to much U.S. Olympic commentary, currently offer a study in contrasts. Not surprisingly, we’ve been hearing repeated references of late to the stark differences between our young land and their old one when it comes to religious freedom and press censorship. And we’ve seen some novel variations on the familiar U.S.-China contrasts theme, like an August 18 Los Angeles Times piece by Mary McNamar that focused on style. Our every-day-can-be-casual-Friday approach, she claimed, clearly differentiated the look of “laid-back,” gum-chewing U.S. competitors, a sockless Matt Lauer, and a shirt-sleeved George W. in sports fan mode from the look of their Chinese counterparts.

There definitely are many basic U.S.-China differences, including not just how our presidents dress and act (it’s tough to imagine the buttoned-down Hu Jintao hanging out with beach volleyball players), but more importantly how they’re chosen. Still, Americans should realize that, to international audiences, recent events could be read as revealing how much, not little, China and the U.S. have in common.

For this is a year when we keep showing up side-by-side in global rankings. Medal counts prove we’re in a league of our own as Olympic sports powers. We’re also neck and neck at the top of the pack in percentage of global manufacturing output (U.S. 17%, China 16%). And we share the top (or bottom) greenhouse gas emissions spot: they’re ahead overall, but on a per capita basis, we’re leading.

Returning to the Games, the Opening inspired many only-in-a-country-like-China comments. These stressed the number of performers (China’s so big), the synchronized movements (China’s so conformist), the echoes of Berlin 1936 (China’s so authoritarian), and the fakery (China’s people accept being lied to).

The PRC is likely the only country that could and would spend so much money on this kind of state-run extravaganza just now, and while there were some disturbingly authoritarian aspects to it. But the spectacle sometimes brought to mind Hollywood—the place where the phrase “and a cast of thousands” was coined. The choreography was sometimes more Busby Berkeley than Leni Riefenstahl. And a friend told me seeing those 2008 drummers made him think of a 2002 Hollywood production, “Drumline,” which also featured young men furiously keeping the beat.

It is true that revelations of White children pretending to be Native American ones would have caused more of a flap here than revelations that Han children pretended to be Tibetan and Uighurs on 08/08/08 did there. But a country whose past includes minstrel shows and Charlie Chan movies without ethnically Chinese leads shouldn’t be too smug. When it comes to the lip synching scandal, as McNamar notes in her piece, Chinese efforts to ensure that a song that sounded just so seemed to come out of the mouth of a girl who looked just right resonate disturbingly with our fetish for simulated physical perfection via plastic surgery.

As for populations that accept lies, while it would be foolish to suggest any kind of complete moral equivalency, this is another case of people in glass houses being careful about throwing stones. International audiences remember well our collective gullibility concerning the Bush Administration’s proof-deficient claims concerning Saddam Hussein WMDs and Al Qaeda ties.

One common assertion in U.S. commentary is that the Chinese press is much more controlled than is ours. That’s definitely true. But the view from outside could still be that NBC and its Chinese counterpart have pursued similar agendas.

The coverage has produced what Olympic historian David Wallechinsky aptly calls “parallel” Games. Chinese audiences see more footage of some sports than Americans and vice versa. And different ways of showing medal counts (NBC has focused on total medals, a fairly unilateralist approach, while CCTV, like much of the rest of the world, has focused on number of gold ones) allows each national group to believe they’re ahead. The networks are on the same page, though, when it comes to two things. Striving to keep the main storyline of the Beijing Games positive, and structuring their programs to play to an intensely patriotic domestic fan base.

The contrast between China’s long past and America’s short one is not even absolute. The People’s Republic, founded in 1949, is less than a century old. It’s a rapidly developing country mounting a big show in a city with striking buildings. This event is meant to convince skeptical outsiders that the country has put a traumatic era behind it and deserves to be treated with respect, not just dismissed as a renegade land that makes cheap, dangerous goods.

Much the same was true of the U.S. after the Civil War. Writing in the Boston Globe (August 26, 2007) last year, historian Stephen Mihm pointed out that in the 1800s to many Europeans it was not China but America that was viewed as a “fast-growing nation [with] a reputation for sacrificing standards to its pursuit of profit.” And one strategy for overcoming this reputation was to put on big shows, like the ambitious, controversial, problem-plagued but ultimately very memorable 1893 Chicago World’s Fair—held in the city that had just invented skyscrapers.

Proving we could pull off that spectacle, back when World’s Fairs generated enormous amounts of attention, helped show Europeans that America was a force to be reckoned with. And convinced some people across the Atlantic they had more in common with us than they’d realized.

A similar realization of commonality could be one useful after-effect of these Games, since big issues like global warming are best approached by people who can focus on what they have in common. It will only have that result, though, if we’re willing to discard the comfortable but often misleading notion that we’ll only see contrasts when gazing across the Pacific.

* This piece is being published simultaneously, under a different title, on the Huffington Post’s Olympic page, which has previously run several pieces that I co-wrote with China Beat editor Kate Merkel-Hess and which continues to feature commentaries by other “China Beatniks” like Susan Brownell and friends of this blog like Monroe Price, co-editor of Owning the Olympics: Narratives of the New China.

As we go into the final laps of the long race to the Closing Ceremonies, here are five things worth reading (actually, four to read and one to watch) to put issues related to the Olympics (albeit sometimes vaguely) into novel perspectives.

1) Warren Cohen, a leading scholar of U.S.-China relations has a smart essay on the truthdig site that compares and contrasts the frameworks and details of books on the PRC by journalists, Philip Pan’s Out of Mao’s Shadow and Joshua Kurlantzick’s China’s Charm Offensive.

2) Speaking of Kurlantzick, whose book came out some time ago, he’s got an interesting new piece out that looks at how differently some villagers view the Games than do urbanites of the sort that are usually the focus on Western media reports on “Chinese” attitudes toward the Olympics.

3) The always valuable Roland Soong site has an excellent collage of translations that bring to light the varied ways that Chinese athletic triumphs and tragedies are being discussed–and on the different reactions over time to Olympic successes by people with Chinese ancestral ties and sometimes PRC backgrounds who win or help win medals for other countries.

4) On the lighter side, Joel Stein offers readers of Time magazine some provocative suggestions on improving the Olympics. Here’s a sample: “The first step is to eliminate all but one medal event per sport. You know why Michael Phelps won eight medals? Because they were all for doing the same thing. Turns out, he can swim fast when he does two laps and four laps–and when he’s alone and when three other Americans go after him! You want multiple medals, do multiple sports. Phelps only gets two medals if he’s the fastest swimmer and the best Taekwandoist.”

5) What would a China Beat top five round-up be without a mention of a “Sexy Beijing” webisode? So here’s a final suggestion of a place to turn, which lets you watch our favorite bilingual female Beijing-based broadcaster talking to experts and people on the street about Olympic issues associated with sports and gender.

Beijing Architecture: Part 2

By Eric Setzekorn

In the midst of the forest of new skyscrapers, a subtle change is occurring in Beijing architecture which may have more lasting importance than the soaring towers of the Central Business District. Outside the fourth ring road massive new apartment blocks are greatly increasing the average living space and comfort level of the growing middle class.

Built in record time by massive crews of migrant laborers the new complexes promise residents a more controlled and relaxed life , but the centralized, homogenous designs hinder the development of neighborhood feeling and community. The new developments allow the beneficiaries of China’s thirty years of rapid development to isolate themselves from urban crime, noise and pollution in gated communities removed from the majority of the population.

Construction site for massive new complex with over 30 cranes in operation.

The developments have been fueled by easy credit at rates often below the rate of inflation, the desire of city officials to leave tangible legacies, and real estate developers eager to tap into the booming wealth of Chinese professionals. The resulting scale of Beijing’s new communities is unrivalled in East Asia, with the possible exception of South Korea’s chaebol apartment blocks. Single developments can occupy up to a square kilometer, with average buildings up to twenty floors high. Located far from the major commercial areas in Chaoyang or the city center, massive underground parking garages extend up to three floors below ground. Residents are mostly young professionals with university educations and stable high-income jobs in technology, finance or service industries.

Compared to the cramped, five and six story brick apartment blocks built in the 1960s and 70s, the new areas are bright, airy and spotlessly clean. Large kitchens boast a full range of modern appliances and multiple bedrooms allow one-child families to have private rooms, often with a spare room available for visiting grandparents. With average prices ranging from $150,000 to $300,000 U.S. dollars, the quiet dignity of homeownership is relatively accessible and many buyers are in their mid to late 20’s. Although many analysts expect a post-Olympic slowdown, most buyers are confident the double-digit growth in property prices will continue for the foreseeable future.

New, wide roadways with separate bus lanes and elevated subway line.

While home ownership is undeniably a good thing for individual and society, and Beijing needs to continue new development projects to improve the quality of life for its citizens, there are multiple blind spots in the centralized pattern of Beijing’s urban architecture. Much of Beijing’s development program seems to have been copied wholesale from historical bad examples, such as Robert Moses’s automobile-centered vision of New York or the hubris of Chicago’s Cabrini Green.

The popularity of grey tile and unfinished stone is practical given Beijing’s harsh environment but presents a rather gloomy, cold and foreboding appearance. Residents spend little time outside their apartments due to a lack of congenial open spaces such as parks or courtyards. Shopping for groceries normally involves a trip to a large shopping center, often a Carrefour with attached parking garage, which can be kilometers away. Due to the one-child policy and the career orientation of many young residents, children are few in number and seldom seen. Large numbers of private security guards in sometimes garish uniforms complete with tassels and braid occupy all entrances and patrol the grounds.

High-end housing development adjacent to elevated subway.

The overall effect is to create a highly structured, managed space with little variation or required social contact. Some of this effect can be blamed on 1950s zoning, which divided Beijing into large city blocks that not only make the city difficult to walk, but also increase traffic congestion and hinder small development of individual parcels of land in favor of large, square complexes stretching from street to street.

A deeper problem for Beijing is the rapidly growing social stratification that has accompanied the housing market expansion. New buildings are built by work gangs of unskilled laborers coming from the countryside who live eight to ten to a room on site until the project is completed. In these temporary structures, sanitation facilities are limited, bare bulbs provide lighting and the un-insulated metal or tents rely on weak space heaters in the winter months.

Mule haulers under elevated subway with local resident in background on roller blades .

View from northernmost subway stop in Beijing, Tiantongyuan on the new line 5, looking south at new developments all completed in last 3 years.

Meanwhile, many residents commute to work by car along wide, well designed highways or can take the modern, efficient metro service which has expanded rapidly into the wealthy northern suburbs. Older, normally working class areas of the city are forced to rely on the crowded and unreliable bus system. Very selective public and private schools have also boomed in these new areas as parents with sufficient income seek to provide their children with every advantage in gaining access to domestic and foreign universities. These schools boast fantastic computer and language facilities and in several cases cricket teams.

Open fields in north of Beijing with subway line already completed and ready for future expansion.

While every city wrestles with issues of growth and income distribution the sheer size, high rates of economic growth and the fact it is the national capital make Beijing an interesting test case for Chinese mega-city development. In the next twenty years, as the ratio of urban to rural population steadily increases, dozens of other Chinese cities will be confronted with similar problems of sustainable, equitable urban growth.

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