June 2009

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With so many references to Tiananmen showing up in the news, we wanted to take a quick break from our time away to recommend a couple of the best uses of 1989 analogies (if we weren’t on hiatus, we’d also look at some of the worst, and there have been some pretty bad ones). One powerful rumination on the relevance of China’s 1989 for thinking about Iran’s 2009 is by Andrew Leonard of the “How the World Works” blog at Salon.com:
He begins as follows:
“In the spring of 1989, the fax machine was China’s Twitter — the miracle technology connecting Chinese democracy activists with each other and the outside world. In Berkeley, Calif., the apartment of one Chinese expat student who owned a fax became a 24/7 information clearinghouse. Documents produced by students camping out on the square would emerge magically from the machine in all their subversive glory”…
Make the jump to read all of his “Tiananmen’s Bloody Lessons for Tehran,” which went up on Friday and has provoked some interesting comments.
Also noteworthy, from early in the Iran crisis, was a post by Sam Crane at his “Useless Tree” site called “Tehran and Tiananmen.”
Posted on June 16, it begins:

“Watching the extraordinary political events unfold in Iran, I am reminded of the massive protests that swept across China twenty years ago. Here are a couple of comparative ideas:

1) Protests of this sort start out spontaneously, in response to some unexpected political event (election fraud in Iran, Hu Yaobang’s death in China). But they create a self-reinforcing momentum, driven by the regime’s response to popular mobilization. In China, an editorial, reportedly written under the supervision of Deng Xiaoping, was published on April 26th that harshly (in PRC political terms) criticized the student demonstrators. This sparked the massive march of April 27th, which propelled the movement forward.

Are we at that moment in Iran? Whether yesterday’s big march develops into a more sustained political movement will depend, in large part, on how the regime proceeds….”
To read the rest, make the jump by clicking here.
China Beat will be taking a break for the next few weeks as we do a little site maintenance, traveling, and, now that the school year has finally finished at UCI, try to get some breathing in as well.
Though we may post little bits of things if the mood strikes us, expect it to be a rather quiet June around here. We will be back in the swing of things by July.

A week (or so) after the anniversary of the “May 35th” events (as some Chinese netizens put it to circumvent automatic blocks on mention of a highly charged date), we got several more responses to our request to Friends of the Blog for word on how June 4th was commemorated, discussed, or ignored in various parts of the world. The most substantial (reproduced in full below) is a second contribution to the series (click here for her first) by Paola Voci (an Italian-born, American-trained, New Zealand-based specialist in Chinese visual culture whose book, China on Video: Small Screen Realities, is due out later this year). [Her post explains the eye-catching image we are running here, which she sent to us along with her e-mail.]

We also heard from a couple of people regularly or temporarily based in Central or Eastern Europe, both of whom noted how relatively little interest there was in looking back to Tiananmen and connecting China’s 1989 to the upheavals that took place in that same year in the region.

Grabriella Ivacs, a Budapest-based archivist at Central European University’s extraordinary Open Society Archive (it has holdings on human rights, the history of Communism in Europe in particular, and other topics that are too special to try to summarize, so we’ll just encourage readers to make the jump and explore their website, where they’ll also find information on the innovative exhibitions OSA has mounted, some of which have dealt at least in part with China) wrote to say that “Hungarian papers and online news portals were not particularly interested in Beijing events” last week. She stressed that “Hungary is going through a serious political crisis, and [the press in] early June was focused on [the] EU election campaign.” She notes that there were occasional articles on the anniversary, including one in a “left wing daily,” Nepszabadsag, that placed the Massacre “in the context of 1989…the symbolic year of Transition in Eastern and Central Europe,” but, “(i)nterestingly,” claimed that the “1989 changes in Europe had no direct connection” to the contemporaneous “Beijing events.”

A. Tom Grunfeld, an American scholar spending the year in Romania (and a two-time past contributor to this site before), confirmed this sense of relative lack of interest: “Apart from CNN and a single article in every Romanian and Hungarian paper on the appropriate day (edits from the wire services as best as I can make out) there is no interest here.”

Here’s Paola’s comment in full:

Yesterday I got my copy of The New Zealand Listener (the 13-19 July issue) in the mail and, to my surprise, “Has China learnt from the Tiananmen Massacre?” was included as part of a much longer feature story on “Wealth: How Chinese consumers could drive our recovery? ” While NZ seemed uninterested to remember June 4th when most other countries’ media were covering the anniversary (i.e., just before or on that very day), one of NZ most popular national magazines chose to have a reflection on those events 10 days later, when almost every other national media had moved to different topics. But maybe, rather than reading this choice as a belated answer, one can interpret it as an attempt to look at the event outside the specific temporality of the 20 year anniversary and frame it instead in the on-going economic and political engagement of NZ with China. Tiananmen becomes a provocative footnote to the economic partnership that is both needed and feared by many in NZ.

The Tiananmen anniversary was discussed from two main critical angles: firstly, the issue of forced memory loss imposed by the Chinese government and how, despite the government’s efforts, many are still remembering; secondly, much more interestingly (I think), June 4th was remembered with a piece on Zhao Ziyang’s Secret Journal (an edited extract from the book’s preface (by one of the three co-editors, Adi Ignatius).

But, possibly even more interestingly, the magazine’s cover itself was particularly surprising as the image (attached) clearly evokes the visual rhetoric of the Cultural Revolution posters; one wonders how familiar this visual metaphor is to the Kiwi readership. I personally find the cross-cultural mix (or mess?) that the image conveys is really intriguing and open to quite contradictory readings. See and judge for yourself.

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Berkshire Publishing has recently published its Encyclopedia of China with contributions by China scholars like Sherman Cochran, Kerry Brown, Judy Polumbaum and many others and featuring one thousand entries on a diverse range of historical, social and cultural topics.

A few of the entries caught our attention as a little unusual for a print encyclopedia—including entries on “internet use,” “online social networking,” and “blogging.” As these topics are of particular interest to us (and we’re guessing to many of you, too), we were curious how Berkshire would cover them in the encyclopedia format. Here are a few relevant excerpts (selected from much longer entries), reprinted with Berkshire’s permission.

Internet Use

Internet use if regulated and monitored by the government. Watchers scan website content for hot political issues, such as Falun Gong and the situation in Tibet, and content deemed socially unhealthy, such as pornography and violence. Web masters also monitor online discussions in chat rooms, a method of self-censoring. Generally speaking, Chinese Internet uses accept government intervention much more readily than users in Western countries would do. In CNIP surveys conducted in 2003, 2005, and 2007, more than 80 percent of respondents in China said that the Internet should be controlled (mainly on pornography and violence) and that they government should be the controlling agent.

Social Networking

China’s online youth are finding friendship and solace, as well as information and entertainment, in cyberspace. They are searching for others who can relate to their experiences and who may share their mind-set. Online social networking is also becoming functional and a way to adjust to real-world relationships. Online dating sites, such as lotus.com and love21cn.com (or Jiayuan.com), are increasingly chosen for meeting potential marriage partners. Web portals, such as MSN, Skype, and QQ (which boasts more than 220 million users), are accessed by many merchants as customer-service and marketing tools to reach out to real-world customers…

For many Chinese, online communities offer an alternative to traditional sources of information, an alternative that is often viewed as more trustworthy than corporate or government sources and more relevant than received wisdom handed down from elders with assurances that it is true because they say so.

Social and entertainment infrastructures in China are more limited than they are in the West. The Internet, however, provides easy access to entertainment. Its interactive nature seems to fit particularly well with Chinese culture.

Educational opportunities are still uneven in China, with most major universities and information centers still clustered in and around Beijing and Shanghai, but the Internet allows students anywhere to make use of online databases and other global information sources. Online initiatives are seen as crucial to solving the East-West educational divide…

BBS, relationship management media (sites such as MySpace or Cyworld), massively multiplayer role-playing games (MMORPGs), file-sharing systems, and wikis are examples of social media in which many people interact with many other people—from the many to the many. Cyworld is an interesting example. Originating in South Korea, it currently has some 17 million users. It combines the features of MySpace, Flickr, and virtual worlds; its many users upload approximately 6.2 million photos daily. (Flickr, by contrast, uploads approximately 500,000 photos daily.)…

Another interesting phenomenon is the race to be the first to respond to a post. Being the first to respond demonstrates respect; therefore, it has special importance. The first-response slot is given a special name: the “sofa.” People routinely compete to “grab the sofa” 抢沙发, that is, to try to be the first reader to respond.

Blogs

The year 2003 was important for the development of blogs in China; the number of users reached 200,000. In 2004 came the commercialization of the blog. In 2005 blogging spread from the elites to all netizens and non-netizens. In July 2005 the first Chinese blog movie was made. Since 2006 the number of Chinese bloggers has grown rapidly. According to the Survey Report of Chinese Internet, by the end of November 2007 the number of Chinese blogs had reached 72.82 million, whereas the number of Chinese bloggers had reached 47 million—30 million more than in August 2006. Among those bloggers 17 million were active.

The statistics of CNNIC show that only 3 percent of blogs are visited more than one hundred times per day, and 8 percent are visited more than fifty times per day. It is difficult to exploit the advertisement value of blogs if one only operates a single blog as a media forum.

Berkshire Encyclopedia of China 宝库山 中华全书. 5 volumes, 2,754 pages, 8½×11 inches. ISBN 0-9770159-4-7. Published May 2009. Price: US$675 (includes free one-year online individual subscription, value $129). Orders may be placed online, or by e-mail to amy@berkshirepublishing.com. Tel +1 413 528 0206 Fax +1 413 541 0076.

We wrote to the peripatetic Pico Iyer, a Friend of the Blog, to see how June 4th was marked wherever he happened to be this year on the anniversary date. He sent us the following ruminations, in which he alludes to the mid-1980s when he first went to Beijing and first saw Lhasa, at a time when each, in ways he’s described elsewhere, was a very different place than it is now:

On the Fourth of June–the great annual feast-day at my old English school, the very opposite of its associations for modern Chinese–I was, as I so often am, at my regular Benedictine monastery on the coast of California. The bells tolled for vigils before the light had come up and wisps of fog ran up the eucalyptus-shaded hillside. Then there was silence and more silence until the next tolling of the bells.

Steller’s jays landed on my wooden fence. Rabbits scurried off into the undergrowth. The sun rose over a hill to the south, making the ocean below sparkle and recasting us all in a golden light. Thoughts of Beijing in 1985 and Lhasa in the same year came back. Everything changes and turns and goes round and nothing much seems to move at all.

The monastery and the daybreak singing of the white-hooded monks seemed, in certain regards, the perfect way to think and ask questions about modern China’s irresistible rise.

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