July 2009

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1. The new Journal of Current Chinese Affairs is out—and all its articles are available for free in PDF at its website. Those of possible interest to CB readers include:

“Beijing Bubble, Beijing Bust: Inequality, Trade, and Capital Inflow into China” (by James K. Galbraith, Sara Hsu, Wenjie Zhang);
“Realpolitik Dynamics and Image Construction in the Russia-China Relationship: Forging a Strategic Partnership?” (by Maria Raquel Freire, Carmen Amado Mendes);
“The Regulation of Religious Affairs in Taiwan: From State Control to Laisser-faire?” (by André Laliberté);
“Nationalism to Go – Coke Commercials between Lifestyle and Political Myth” (available only in German, by Nora Frisch);
“China’s Employment Crisis – A Stimulus for Policy Change?” (by Günter Schucher); and others.

2. The 60th anniversary assessments have started to roll out. At The Daily Beast, two commentaries stand in contrast to one another. First, Peter Osnos’s optimistic take in “Why China Eclipsed Russia” (Osnos is the Washington Post’s former Moscow correspondent):

…when it comes to comparing China today with the Soviet Union at a comparable stage, it feels safe to conclude that China is a country with a much stronger foundation for progress than its predecessor Communist behemoth. This is mainly because it has abandoned Marxist-Leninist economic principles without meaningful political reform, a trade-off its own people seem largely to accept. The simple way to summarize the difference is that the Soviet Union, for all the immense nuclear strength and apparent self-regard of its heyday, was really a facade, behind which was an economy that, at its pinnacle, was shallow and shoddy. Neither the industrial nor the agricultural system was of a size or quality to fill its needs. Most of its international trade was essentially in barter, particularly with its Eastern European satellites. Those were the early years of the computer age, but for all the engineering and scientific talent in its population, the Soviets were way behind the West in most areas, except the military—even as the United States, in particular, chose to portray the Soviet Union as being on the verge of overtaking it in crucial ways.

Russia still has a nuclear armory of immense strength and has become a formidable petrocracy. But whatever Russia’s revived superpower pretensions, there is no real doubt that China far exceeds it in economic, financial, and technical development. By sheer size, China’s military capacity and reach is enormous, though still lagging far behind that of the United States. History suggests that armed power tends to be used one way or another once it is accumulated. Yet the Chinese leaders appear for now convinced that only by steadily lifting the living standards of its people can party supremacy be assured. The Soviets said they would and could improve the lives of the citizenry, but never remotely reached their goals…

Over thousands of years, China’s history has experienced cycles and eras far longer than the six decades since 1949. My own measurement of time is even shorter. It is only twenty years since the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy movement ended in tragedy, and forty years since the upheavals and violence of the Cultural Revolution. There are deep-seated tensions in China—the riots in Tibet last year and in Urumqi this summer being only two recent examples. Nonetheless, this is an extraordinary period of largely positive changes for China. And unlike in the Soviet Union at sixty, the Chinese leadership’s rhetorical declarations of triumph seem to be anchored in accomplishments that are measurable to the population in ways that count. As the fate of the Soviet Union dramatically showed, modern superpowers cannot be sustained by polemics and police forever.

Isabel Hilton (editor of China Dialogue), takes a more pessimistic tack:

…But mistakes not acknowledged tend to be repeated, and policies that have provoked angry responses in the past are unlikely to promote harmony in the future. The test of China’s future trajectory, of its ability to go from large power to great power, is only partly about economics. Thus far, China’s economic growth has been based on unsustainable low-end manufacturing for the export market and the legitimacy bestowed by rising living standards. To manage the next phase of development successfully, China needs to move up the value chain, improve its governance, cut down on the huge waste in the economy, distribute the rewards of the effort more fairly, and inject some justice into its politics and legal affairs. But to do that, the Communist Party has to take on the vested interests on which it depends for its power.

We all have an interest in China’s success, as President Obama underlined at the opening this week of a two-day high-level dialogue with visiting Chinese officials. With just a nod to the recent troubles in Xinjiang, Obama ticked off a list of common concerns from climate change to economic recovery. In all of them, Chinese cooperation is essential.

In a globalized world, China’s troubles are everybody’s troubles and the U.S. has little interest in seeing them grow. But China’s solutions, to date, are unlikely to help. The revolt of the minorities is only a symptom of a wider political malaise. Even taken together, their numbers, compared to the overwhelming majority of Han Chinese, are small. But the indignation and resentment that burst into view in Xinjiang in Tibet are also visible, for a wide variety of reasons, in the Han population.

3. Pico Iyer reflects on travel writing in the post-imperial age at Lapham’s Quarterly in “Travel Writing: Nowhere Need Be Foreign,” with a mention of Peter Hessler (he writes “if you want an American narrative of sensitivity, learning, and reflection, there are few better books (let alone better guides to contemporary China) than the deeply literate, graceful narratives of Peter Hessler”):

I call, therefore, for a travel writing that doesn’t care where it comes from and doesn’t get fussy about what it’s addressing (The Mall of America and John F. Kennedy International Airport are scenes as worthy of scrutiny as the Great Wall of China or the Pyramids of Giza ever were). A kind that, as in the best of Greene, blurs to some degree the issue of nationality in favor of something more human. Our hybrid world makes a mockery of saying that Kenyans are all savages, or that Laotians or Tibetans are all saints. The Kenyan is now an upper-class girl from Edinburgh; the Laotian is working in a hospital in Sacramento; the Tibetan is busy setting up a shop in Paris with his Breton wife. Writing about travel becomes a matter of writing about confusion and mixed identity and the snares of cultural transformation.

4. At PopMatters, a review of Ted Koppel’s 2008 Discovery Channel documentary on China (as well as of Leslie Chang’s Factory Girls). Jack Patrick Rodgers writes:

In essence, it’s a broad primer on the Chinese pre-meltdown economy and culture, designed to appeal to viewers who don’t know much about the country. The series opens with a segment on US-Chinese relations that quickly taps into the resentment of many blue-collar Americans who have watched their jobs migrate to China over the past two decades.

Take for example the company Briggs and Stratton, a maker of small motors for lawnmowers, which recently moved a manufacturing plant to the Chinese city of Chongqing and laid off almost 500 US workers in the process. At first it seems like Koppel is ready to depict this situation as an example of China stealing jobs that should rightfully belong to Americans, but the truth reveals a more complex relationship between the two countries.

Goods manufactured in China are substantially cheaper thanks to lower wages, and superstores like Wal-Mart owe their success to the rock-bottom prices that Chinese factories are able to provide. Koppel interviews Pam Leaser, a 50-year-old former employee of Briggs and Stratton, who is angry about the loss of her job but admits she does most of her shopping at Wal-Mart. When Koppel points out that her own shopping habits are the reason why China is siphoning jobs away from the America, Leaser has no response.

5. If her blog is not already on your RSS feed, this post from Xujun Eberlein (we’ve re-run several of her blog postings at CB in the past) should convince you to add it. It is a smart analysis of how the Tonghua Steel Corp. riots demonstrated that the government’s media policies continue to be ill-suited (at least in practice) to a changed media environment:

Two seemly unrelated but notable events took place in China on Friday, July 24th. In the morning, the official news agency Xinhuapublished an article titled “Ten Suggestions for Local Governments on How to Respond to Internet Opinion” on its website… [CB Edit: Eberlein directs readers to Danwei’s full translation of the article.]

As if setting up an immediate reality test for the government’s new media policy, that very day a large mass incident erupted in Tonghua,Jilin. Thousands of workers of the Tonghua Steel Corp protested a private takeover of their enterprise, which had a 50-year history of state ownership. The steel factory had already suffered a failed privatization attempt from the same company. It was recovering from that and last year’s financial crisis, when the renewed and expanded ownership was announced. Angry workers beat to death the new general manager appointed by the private company, Jianlong of Beijing, on his first day at work. The workers gradually dispersed only after the Jilin provincial government announced its on-the-site decision to have the private company withdraw from Tonghua Steel’s business. Some Chinese netizens called the event “the first workers movement since 1949″ – the year Communist rule in China began.

As a test of the new media policy, it seems to have failed. For three days, China’s media kept totally silent on the shocking incident, not even the independent and daring papers such as Caijing said a word. On every commercial web portal, posts and discussions on the Tonghua riot were quickly deleted. The Western media first learned the news from a Hong Kong human rights group and reported the incident briefly on the 25th , all in a monotonous and minimalist way, quoting the same source.

Meanwhile, Chinese netizens acted quicker than the government’s media controllers, and one detailed anonymous eye-witness account landed on overseas Chinese websites and was circulated around the world. It could no longer be deleted. (An English translation of this account can be found on Hong Kong-based ESWN, one of the most popular China blogs.) So far no Western media outlet has cited the far more informative account, whose content seems to be verified by various sources, including the government’s own belated reporting. The speed of selection and elimination by internet surfers is amazing, and the quality control of the selection process is even more impressive.

6. At “Writers Read,” Guobin Yang gives some of his recommendations.

7. Just in case you haven’t heard, some violent video games are now verboten in the PRC.

The violence in Xinjiang took place almost a month ago, but it continues to generate interesting commentary (see, for example, this thoughtful essay by Pallavi Aiyar). The early July events have also recently had two reverberations in Australia, as Jia Zhangke and two other Chinese filmmakers pulled out of a Melbourne film festival where a documentary expected to present a sympathetic view of one of the people Beijing blames for the unrest was to be shown, and then hackers attacked the festival’s website to protest that film’s inclusion in the line-up. In light of this, we asked James Millward, a leading specialist in the history of Xinjiang who has written about related issues for us before, to share with the readers of China Beat his take on what happened in early July and how it should be understood.

By James Millward

The ugly mob violence that roiled the western Chinese city of Urumchi in Xinjiang on July 5th was rather quickly suppressed, and Urumchi is now quiet. Thanks to an unprecedented degree of openness to the international press, moreover, we have a better idea specifically what happened than we have for other such incidents in China.

Students who are members of the Uyghur minority—a largely Muslim, Turkic-language speaking group who are natives of the Xinjiang region in far northwestern China—demonstrated on Sunday, July 5 to call for a more thorough investigation into a deadly brawl among Uyghur and Han workers that had occurred at a factory in Guangdong province the previous week. The demonstration turned violent, possibly while it was being repressed by security forces, and thousands of Uyghurs went on a rampage, attacking Hans and destroying property. By Monday, July 6, mobs of Han—the majority ethnic group in China—took to the streets armed with clubs, meat-cleavers and other makeshift weapons, seeking revenge. Police eventually calmed the situation with batons, tear-gas, firearms with live ammunition, curfews and mass arrests. At least 192 people died, and some 1000 were injured.

Though we know the broad outlines of what happened, why it happened remains in dispute. The official story from the Xinjiang regional and Chinese authorities is that the riot was instigated by Rebiya Kadeer and the World Uyghur Congress, an umbrella group made up of overseas Uyghur organizations in Europe, America and Central Asia that claims to represent Uyghur interests internationally. (A Uyghur economist and outspoken blogger, Ilham Tohti, has also been blamed by Xinjiang authorities for inciting the riot, and has apparently been detained.) The PRC routinely claims that the WUC and Kadeer—a charismatic spokeswoman for the Uyghur cause who enjoys sympathy in the US Congress and EU parliament—is surreptitiously engaged in separatist and even terrorist activity. Some of the commentary in Western media has harkened back to the issue of alleged Uyghur jihadism, involvement with Al Qaeda, and terrorist plots—issues much discussed with regard to the Uyghurs who wound up in Guantanamo.

When it comes to the recent Urumchi riots, however, terrorism and even separatism are red herrings. China’s control over Xinjiang is not threatened by these demonstrators or even the handful of jihadi Uyghurs outside of China who espouse terrorism or militancy. No government internationally has ever challenged the PRC’s sovereignty in Xinjiang or officially sympathized with calls for an independent Eastern Turkestan state. The mainstream Uyghur exile groups—World Uyghur Congress and Rabiya Kadeer’s Uyghur American Association among them—do not call for an independent Uyghur or East Turkestan state; rather, these groups lobby for cultural autonomy, legal rights, equal employment opportunity and similar issues—they could not lobby for an independent state without losing their access to members of Western governments or, in the case of Rabiya Kadeer’s Uyghur American Association, jeopardizing funding from the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy. But most telling of all is the fact that the Uyghur students in their initial demonstration marched under the flag of the People’s Republic of China, explicitly sending a non-separatist message of loyal dissent.

What Urumchi experienced was what Americans, recalling our own troubled history, might call a race riot. The reasons underlying it were likewise familiar: mundane prejudice including easy use of racial slurs by both Han and Uyghur about the other; a widespread perception by the minority Uyghurs, with some justification, that the political, legal and economic system, especially job opportunities, are stacked in favor of the majority Hans; and a simple lack of understanding or empathy for the different cultures of fellow citizens.

Diversity in the US is the result of the colonization of North America by northern Europeans, our proximity to parts of the Americas first colonized by Spain, subsequent migration from other parts of the world, and of course the African slave trade. Though China is of continental dimensions and has long been diverse, the most pressing ethnic issues today largely stem from the 17th and 18th century expansion of the Qing empire which brought Xinjiang, Tibet, Inner Mongolia and Taiwan under Beijing’s rule. Regardless of the different historical background, however, China shares with the US, and, for that matter, with India, Great Britain, France, Canada, Australia, Russia and other large nations, the strengths and challenges of an ethnically diverse population. Economic growth, urban development, political evolution, globalization and other processes can exacerbate tensions among ethnic communities in any country.

The proximate cause of the Urumchi troubles was labor migration, both of Uyghurs from Xinjiang to Guangdong, and of Han from other parts of China to Xinjiang, all associated with China’s super-charged market economy and state program to develop western parts of the country. But the deeper problem is essentially the same as that in any large, modern state: how to incorporate ethno-cultural diversity into the national vision. Chinese official rhetoric and policies in the past—especially in the early 1950s and late 1980s—were directed at this goal, but more recent approaches have too often depicted Uyghurs and Tibetans as ungrateful “others,” and even as threats to security. Both Uyghurs and Han have absorbed this message from state media. It has fueled Uyghur frustration and violence, and instilled in Hans a sense of grievance against minorities, their fellow Chinese.

China faces problems of interethnic tension and civil rights all too familiar to other countries in the world. Chinese leaders could enjoy international sympathy and support should they address these issues directly. But claiming that all ethnic problems at home arise from the conspiracies of exiles or machinations of foreigners will only elicit more international sympathy for Chinese minorities and criticism of China’s human rights record.

James Millward is professor in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. He is the author of Eurasian Crossroads: A History of Xinjiang and an expert on China and Central Asian history.

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By Sam Goffman

The fact that China and the US spy on each other should come as no surprise to anybody. Each country is nervous about the other, and espionage, though it is surely not conducted with the same vigor as during the Cold War, is still an important part of interactions between states.

What’s interesting about Chinese espionage operations in the US, however, is that they appear to involve strong racial and nationalist overtones. The Soviet Union tended to appeal to ideology, or simply offer money or other types of benefits to its agents; China, it seems, is mainly going after overseas Chinese communities in its efforts to recruit spies.

In the latest example, Dongfan “Greg” Chung, a Boeing employee who had been with the company for 30 years, was convicted two weeks ago for passing numerous sensitive documents to the Chinese government. The judge in the case proclaimed, “The trust Boeing placed in Mr. Chung to safeguard its proprietary and trade secret information obviously meant very little to Mr. Chung. He cast it aside to serve the PRC, which he proudly proclaimed as his ‘motherland.’” Afterwards, a think tank analyst told the New York Times, “The Chinese communist government is seeking to divide the loyalties of Chinese-Americans. By defending ourselves in this way, asserting our sovereignty, we are making clear to all those who would be turned by nationalist appeals from China’s communist government that there is price to pay.”

This kind of language is indicative of a broader fear in the American government and its environs that Chinese-Americans are more likely to serve as spies than Americans of other ethnic backgrounds. Several Chinese-Americans have been convicted of espionage activities in recent years—for example, Chi Mak, Tai Shen Kuo, and Katrina M. Leung—and quotes such as the one above indicate there is a broad understanding that the PRC targets Chinese-Americans in its recruiting efforts. Ira Winkler, a security consultant, has said, “They [the Chinese government] play upon the ethnic heartstrings of people with Chinese heritage, telling them they must help. They identify in social settings who is here on a Green Card, who has relatives in China and who can be compromised.”

Another alleged strategy of the Chinese government, which has gotten some attention from the media, is a phenomenon that could be called “micro-espionage.” A former Chinese diplomat named Chen Yonglin, who defected to Australia in 2005, has confirmed that this strategy exists. In a discussion about Chinese espionage efforts in Canada, he said, “China has a huge network of secret agents, and it is working hard to influence governments, including Canada’s. It infiltrates the Chinese community and also puts pressure on groups that it considers the enemy, like Falun Gong, democracy activists and others.” And Sreeram Chaulia, in an article on Chinese espionage, writes, “US counter-espionage professionals contend that this is a unique style patented by China wherein the agents are relative amateurs such as Chinese students, businesspersons, visiting scientists as well as persons of Chinese heritage living in the US. Each individual may produce only a small iota of data, but a network of such persons could vacuum up an extensive amount of sensitive military and economic information.”

Such is the vision: a vast array of overseas Chinese, working in every corner of the economy and government, all funneling small pieces of information back to their “home” country, which, presumably, fashions the pieces together to form a comprehensive view of America’s secrets. It is difficult to think of a conspiracy theory grander in scope, more racist in content, and more frightening in its implications. Every Chinese-American is a suspect. Not only does the vision assume that a large number of Chinese-Americans would be willing, even eager, to spy for the “motherland”; it also assumes that the Chinese government has the kind of sophisticated information-gathering apparatus in place to collect all these little shards of information, and that it would be capable of forming them into something useful.

It perhaps should not be surprising that Americans would extrapolate the Chinese practice of targeting individual Chinese-Americans into a grand conspiracy—during the Cold War, similar fears of broad Soviet espionage were all too common. And it should not be surprising that the PRC would attempt to use race to persuade Chinese-Americans to become spies—Chinese nationalist discourse has consistently invoked race as a fundamental part of being Chinese, and such rhetoric has seen a resurgence in recent years. Both countries are merely doing what they have already been doing for a long time.

It may boil down to competing ideas of what a nation-state should look like: in the US, the specter of large numbers of Chinese-American spies could be yet another test for American-style multiculturalism. Caught in the middle, of course, are Chinese-Americans themselves.

Sam Goffman previously published a piece on the Seoul Olympics at China Beat and blogs regularly at his own blog.

By Sam Goffman

The fact that China and the US spy on each other should come as no surprise to anybody. Each country is nervous about the other, and espionage, though it is surely not conducted with the same vigor as during the Cold War, is still an important part of interactions between states.

What’s interesting about Chinese espionage operations in the US, however, is that they appear to involve strong racial and nationalist overtones. The Soviet Union tended to appeal to ideology, or simply offer money or other types of benefits to its agents; China, it seems, is mainly going after overseas Chinese communities in its efforts to recruit spies. Read the rest of this entry »

By Haiyan Lee

America’s finest news source The Onion has a new owner! Since last week, readers have been bombarded with the good tiding, from the modified masthead, logo, and tagline, to news headlines, editorials, audio and video clips, and ads, lots of ads. The new owner goes by the appetizing name of Yu Wan Mei 鱼完美 Amalgamated Salvage Fisheries and Polymer Injection Group, supposedly a Chinese conglomerate from the inland province of Sichuan. The corporation specializes in fish by-products salvaged from the “ocean’s bounty.” Some of its finer samples are “Broiled Shark Gums,” “Multi-Flavor Variety Pack Of Pickled Fish Cloaca,” “Lightning Power Monkfish Cerebral Fluid Energy Drink,” “Mr. Steve’s Safe And Natural Rhinoceros-Cure For The Inferior Male,” and “Yu Wan Mei Miscellaneous Flavor Paste.”

But, as the YWM homepage proclaims in bold letters, the corporation is “diversifying into myriad subsidiaries” such as “Szu-Maul Lethal Injection Truck And Van Manufacturing,” “Speedee Slab Quick-Setting Concrete Consolidated,” “Jhonson & Jhonson Baby’s Shampow,” “Yu Wanmei EZ Home Foreclosure Program,” and “Amalgamated Chinatowns of America, Inc.” The new owner is pushy, to say the least. Every news and non-news item in the paper comes with at least one YWM product placement reference. Ads containing shibboleths in simulated non-grammatical English (“Glorious Fish By-Product Make for Long Life, Good Fortune”) rudely bisect or multiply interrupt any and all reports. At a more subliminal level, the end of every text is marked with the Chinese character for fish. The video clips go overboard with animated YWM icons and messages flashing across the screen and with the anchors blending YWM commercials effortlessly into their tabloid-style interviews. The Onion has positively turned fishy. Read the rest of this entry »

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