August 2009

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After Barack Obama’s inauguration, we ran a series at China Beat of various China experts’ reading recommendations for Obama on China (See installments I, II, III, IV, V, VI). At the time, we assumed a trip to China would be one of Obama’s top priorities–as is now clear with last week’s announcement that Obama will visit China in November 2009. So we sent out a few emails to China watchers from a variety of backgrounds, asking if they had advice for Obama as he prepares for the summit in Beijing. Here, the first installment from Robert A. Kapp, former president of the U.S.-China Business Council.

By Robert A. Kapp

Dear Mr. President,

As a (perhaps the least prominent) member of your Asia Foreign Policy Group during the campaign, I am thrilled that you are soon headed for China. If your trip is, for you, anything like my trip was for me (albeit more than 32 years ago), you will be fascinated, impressed, and perhaps sobered at how much there is to see and know and how little time you have to accomplish all that you might want to.

Here are a few random tips on how to make your visit most successful; from what I have seen of you as president, most of the things I offer have long since come naturally to you anyway, and your personal grace and dignity, as well as your intellect and grasp of issues, will prove the guarantors of your successful visit. Still, here are a few thoughts.

1.   Make a point of listening attentively. The pace of high-level meetings can be slow; don’t try to force it by pushing ahead before your counterpart has finished.  If you do not fully understand, in translation, something your host has said to you, ask for clarification. Allow time for silence between deliveries. Sometimes the Chinese waits for a while to be sure that the American visitor has finished his remarks; unable to tolerate the silent interval, the American starts talking again. Let things settle in any back-and-forth.

2.   Avoid verbal pyrotechnics and culture-bound American colloquialisms. You are blessedly well spoken anyway, but popular culture terms, US sports jargon, and humor based either on purely American experiences or on English language word play don’t work. We veterans of the early days will remember Doonesbury’s figure Honey (still very much alive and active in real life in Beijing, by the way) telling her Chinese official boss, “The American is making a joke; laugh now.”

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1. Hu Jintao has made a trip to Xinjiang, his first since riots there in July. Xinjiang was in the news earlier this week as well, when international news organizations picked up a story, first reported in Monday’s China Daily, which announced that trials would begin shortly for more than 200 people arrested in connection with the riots. The regional government, however, quickly denied that any trials have been scheduled, and stated that only 83 people have been officially arrested to date. Over at the Wall Street Journal’s China blog, Sky Canaves writes on this story and what it reveals about the media landscape in China today:

Regardless of which account is accurate, the episode appears to be yet another reminder of the unofficialness of much of what is still often called China’s “official” media. Once upon a time, China Daily (and much of the rest of the country’s state-run media), could be relied on to dutifully relay the government’s pronouncements – especially on sensitive issues – and to do little else. But in today’s increasingly competitive media landscape, China Daily and other publications often doing their own reporting – with all the potential that brings for publishing things that don’t accord with the official line. It can be confusing for readers to discern the difference.

2. Another post by Sky Canaves at the WSJ blog discusses the release of Xu Zhiyong from custody on Sunday morning. Xu was granted qubao houshen, or “obtain a guarantor while pending trial”–not exactly bail, but closer to non-custodial detention or probation. Although Xu’s supporters are calling this a victory, Canaves reports that Chinese authorities can use qubao houshen to their advantage as well:

Unlike in the United States, where bail is routinely granted in cases where the suspect doesn’t pose a major flight risk or a danger to society, qubao houshen is rarely granted to Chinese suspects, who are generally held in custody until trial. China’s legal activists have long called for authorities to increase the availability of bail to suspects in criminal cases, especially when relatively minor crimes are involved.

The fact that bail is granted only in extraordinary cases in China has led many to proclaim Mr. Xu’s release as a sort of victory, even if only temporary. As Mr. Xu himself noted, police are still investigating his tax evasion case and he may still be subject to prosecution . . .

However, in certain respects, Mr. Xu’s release puts police in a better position to continue investigating him. Under qubao houshen, police can monitor his activities for a full year, investigating not only the tax charges for which Mr. was arrested, but any other leads that could be used to make a case against him. Had Mr. Xu been kept in custody, the police investigation would have typically had a much shorter period of a few months in which to conclude their investigation.

3. Malcolm Moore at the Telegraph examines the current “beat and compress,” or da ya, mode of the Chinese government. The da ya mode is most prominently characterized by the recent detentions of many leading activists as the government tightens its control. Although many observers are linking this da ya period to a desire for stability in the lead-up to the quickly approaching 60th anniversary of the PRC, Moore writes, “The question is whether the current round of da ya will relent after the anniversary passes in October, or whether it is the beginning of a longer period of repressive measures by the Communist Party.”

4. Alec Ash, who blogs at Six, has a piece at the Huffington Post on today’s Chinese university students and their attitudes toward the 1989 Tiananmen protests. While Beijing University (“Beida”) students led several major protest movements during the twentieth century, Ash’s conversations with members of the campus community show that times have changed:

In 2009 — a new generation of students, a fresh capitalist incarnation of ‘new China’ — there is no indication in Beida of such a rebellious past. The 90th anniversary of May 4th and 20th of Tiananmen passed on campus not so much without incident as without notice.

Ash takes up the question of why current Chinese students are less active in protest movements than their predecessors were, and disagrees with some answers, such as disinterest and lack of knowledge about the past, that are frequently offered by the foreign press when contemplating this issue:

If a Beida student doesn’t talk to Western journalists about their personal views on May 4th, Tiananmen or any other taboo, it doesn’t mean they are ignorant or don’t have any. There are plenty of students reading banned books and discussing forbidden topics – they do it in their dorms (if cautiously, in case of informers), or more quietly in canteens. Just not anywhere where they might seem to be taking a public stand.

But, these dorm discussions are (I hazard a generalisation) more in agreement with the general status quo in China than they are against it. While democracy is an appealing model for most, they are not convinced it is an appealing model for China at this point in its development. Western ideas no longer hold sway for them purely by virtue of being Western. They would all go study in America in a heartbeat, but none fawn over the US: many are disillusioned by Western press coverage of China, and Timothy Geithner’s June visit to campus barely raised a head from its study. They consider themselves less naive than their predecessors, and most think of protest as simply not the way to fix China’s domestic problems – rather, they believe central government is doing a good job in difficult circumstances. A surprising number of those I talked to volunteered that their futures are brighter for the failure of Tiananmen and the economic miracle which followed it.

5. The myths and realities of China’s firewall are the topic of a post at the China Solved blog. While the blocks against social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube might appear inconsequential to those working in the business world, the post’s author argues otherwise:

The 20th century benchmarks for international trade were how many containers or freighters one nation sent across the water to another. In the 21st century, it will be about data, viewers and users. The few big sites that have been blocked and hobbled in China are powering thousands of small businesses and driving the future of online commerce. China has become a dead-zone for any business planning on building an international online presence.


The Wilson Center’s China Environment Forum has released two new research briefs, adding them to their growing archive of reports on issues ranging from health challenges in Xinjiang to waste disposal in rural areas. Particularly notable is the collection of reports resulting from a collaboration with Western Kentucky University; the two newest reports are both part of this series.

The first report is “Electric Cars: The Drive for a Sustainable Solution in China,” by Peter Marsters:

The CEO of Chinese automaker BYD has recently taken to drinking vials of his company’s battery fluid. The fluid, designed for use in electric cars, is theoretically non-toxic and environmentally friendly. While the CEO’s choice of beverage may seem trivial or even suicidal, it is symbolic of new Chinese entrepreneurs who aim to build businesses on being green. Some of the most promising of which are the growing government and private sector investors who are dedicated to producing the next generation of clean vehicles….

In an interview with China Environment Forum (CEF) staff, general manager of BYD America Fred Ni discussed the potential for growth in the EV market and BYD’s goal to be at the forefront. He stated that BYD has developed a battery that is of high quality, 100 percent recyclable, and perhaps most importantly, cheaper than its competitors. He hopes that these batteries can be used to overcome cost hurdles in EV development. Currently, BYD is working with local Shenzhen officials to produce electric fleet demonstration models, such as shuttle buses, which it hopes will serve as a model to other cities in the country. BYD, in addition to its own domestic production, wants to work with the big three U.S. automobile companies to produce electric cars with BYD’s battery. This is just one of many expanding Chinese companies hoping to reap the benefits of a potential multi-billion dollar EV economy….

The second new report is “Wising Up: Smart Grid as New Opening for U.S. China Energy Cooperation” by Kexin Liu:

With an average GDP rate of 10 percent for the past thirty years, China’s economic boom has brought millions out of poverty and fueled a rate of urbanization that is faster than any country in human history. Between 1980 and 2008, China’s urbanization rate rose from 20 to 44.9 percent, with the current urban population reaching slightly over 600 million. Strikingly, in an effort to address growing poverty in rural areas the Chinese government aims to promote urbanization of nearly 15 million each year until at least 2030, at which time 60 percent of China’s population will be urbanites. Maintaining a stable, safe, efficient, and clean national power grid for China’s rapid economic and urbanization growth is truly a Herculean task for the Chinese government and power utility companies.

China’s grid has not been able to keep up with the country’s growth and it faces particular challenges in times of extreme weather, such as during the Chinese New Year holidays in early 2008, when more than a dozen provinces in southeast and central China were hit by the most severe snowstorm in the last 50 years. The power grid throughout the region was severely disrupted, both by downed lines and delayed coal deliveries. According to the Ministry of Civil Affairs, more than 30 million people were affected by the snow-triggered power shortage. This outage highlighted the low self-recovery and regional coordination capacity of China’s outdated power grid. However, large-scale power outages are not simply products of extreme weather or natural disasters in China. In recent years brownouts and blackouts are regular occurrences in China’s developed east coast cities, especially during peak hours in the summer. The reason for this situation is threefold; low generation capacity, shortages of coal, and the incapability of the transmission grid to deliver electricity to meet demand. In the first half of 2004 alone, 24 out of China’s 31 provinces and municipalities suffered from blackouts due to insufficient power supply. The economic cost of these blackouts equaled nearly 1 percent of China’s annual GDP growth that year. The overall situation has not improved significantly since then….

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Many things have happened in the PRC this year that echo phenomena discussed in China in 2008: A Year of Great Significance, including the recent renewal of Shanghai protests relating to train lines.  As Associated Press reporter Elaine Kurtenbach notes in her valuable dispatch on the subject, the latest demonstrations have been on a smaller scale than the early 2008 ones discussed in our book.  They have also been directed toward a more convetional kind of railway (albeit one that moves very fast) rather than a Magnetic levitation (Maglev) one.

Nevertheless, Kurtenbach’s summary of the situation (in this case regarding a line that would head out of the city in order to link Shanghai to Hangzhou, as opposed to one that would run through the heart of the metropolis to connect its eastern and western districts) describes a familiar source of discontent.  Here’s how she puts it: “China’s topdown style of governing and state-controlled media allow for scant public input, and increasing affluence has left many residents expecting more opportunities to be heard.”

The developing situation seems similar enough overall that of the early 2008 anti-Maglev “strolls” (a term used by protesters to suggest a reasonable and non-confrontational call to be heard rather than a militant action) and some other urban struggles of the last couple of years (e.g., the 2007 Xiamen demonstrations trigged by plans to built a chemicle plant) that it seems useful to provide a few links here to commentaries on those events of the recent past.  The use of the acronym “NIMBY, standing for “Not in My Backyard,” seems appropriate again (it is a term that some of us commenting on the anti-Maglev protests used at the time), since the 2009 railway protests again involve homeowners and renters trying to protect the livability of neighborhoods and sometimes also the health of their children and their property values.

If you happen to have China in 2008 handy, you can find a good deal of background reading that helps put the latest railway protests into perpsective.  On pages 15-21, for example, you will find two views of Chinese NIMBY protests–protests that, it is worth noting, have sometimes achieved at least some degree of success, delaying if not always derailing (pardon the cheap pun) the development plans to which the demonstrators involved objected.

The first of these two pieces from the book that I have in mind is a short commentary on the subject that I wrote in January 2008, which first appeared and is still available online at the Nation’s website here, where you will find it accompanied by a Youtube clip of an anti-Maglev demonstration.  (Much that I say there dovetails with what others wrote about the subject before or after I weighed in on it, but I think I am still the only one to have placed  the Shanghai protests into a historical context that takes in not just the Xiamen ones of the previous year but the actions of rickshaw pullers worried about the introduction of streetcars that threatened their livelihoods early in the 1900s.)

The other relevant contribution to China in 2008 I was thinking of is a reprint of an interview that blogger and freelance journalist Angilee Shah did with political scientist Benjamin L. Read, who has been doing important work on homeowners’ associations in both the PRC and Taiwan.  That interview, which first appeared as a very early China Beat post, can be found online here.

Other valuable takes on the phenomenon that are just a click away include:
1) This smart piece on the anti-Maglev protests of early 2008 (again with a YouTube video accompaniment and nods back to Xiamen) by Maureen Fan.

2) This extended analysis of “strolls” and other forms of non-confrontational protests (and their possible impact over the long run) by two social scientists, George J. Gilboy and the aforementioned Read, which appeared in the Summer 2008 issue of The Washington Quarterly.

3) This look at Chengdu protests of May 2008, with nods back to Xiamen and Shanghai, by Jeremy Goldkorn of the invaluable site, who quotes liberally from a New York Times report but also makes some additional points of his own and lets the interested reader know the characters used for a couple of the terms mentioned (in case they were wondering what “stroll” looks like in Chinese, for example, though alas we do not get his gloss of NIMBY in Mandarin).  There are also some interesting comments from readers appended to the piece.

4) This useful report by Jonathan Watts of the Guardian on Beijing NIMBY protests (by people who wore surgical masks to highlight their concern over pollution) in the aftermath of the Olympics.

5) This wide-ranging and thoughtful essay surveying the rise, during the years immediately preceding the Xiamen protests, of various forms of environmental activism, much of which relied on the use of new media of communication of the sort that have figured in all of the actions just mentioned.   Assessing the potential of a new “green public sphere,” this article was co-written by Guobin Yang (who also deals with many related issues in his important new book on the Chinese Internet) and Craig Calhoun (President of the Social Science Research Council and author of one of the best book-length studies of the Tiananmen Uprising of 1989).

By Paul Katz

Siaolin’s survivors are in the midst of grappling with three main issues: mourning the dead, coping with current difficulties, and planning for the future (see the online chats about these issues on Siaolin’s own website, the 甲仙鄉小林社區入口網). On August 21, I attended two meetings with Professor Chien Wen-min 簡文敏 and his colleagues (林清財, 吳旭峰, 段洪坤, 張東炯, 黃智慧, 潘英海, 簡炯仁, 謝世憲). The first meeting focused on the needs of Siaolin’s villagers, who were preparing a petition to present to President Ma when he attended mourning rituals the next day. Consensus was reached on three main points, namely requesting the government allow disaster victims to participate in reconstruction planning, simplify the compensation process for survivors, and commit to Siaolin’s cultural reconstruction. The goal of the second meeting was to lay the groundwork for the formation of the Association for the Reconstruction of Siaolin and its Plains Aborigine Culture (小林平埔文化重建協會), which is currently submitting an application to the government for formal approval.

Photo AThe next morning (8/22) began with an early morning visit to the site of the disaster, which we timed to avoid the usual political theatrics that took place when President Ma attended the 二七 mourning rituals for the nearly 500 victims of the Siaolin mudslide. Accusations of blame for the slow disaster response continue, but it is becoming increasingly clear that this tragedy was also a result of 921 Earthquake (which loosened soil in terrain consisting largely of volcanic ash mountains), poor land management policies, and illegal land exploitation, all of which set the stage for the horrific events that accompanied unprecedented rainfall. At this point, the challenge for Taiwan’s government will be to institute and enforce land policies that take the interests (and voices) of disaster victims into account, especially the south’s Aboriginal peoples.

However, the true focus of the mourning rituals (and hopefully subsequent reconstruction efforts as well) was on remembering the victims and supporting the survivors. The China Beat -- Mourning (Photo B)These rites, presided over by numerous Buddhist specialists (and some Taoists), vividly revealed the sheer magnitude of the tragedy (some altar tables had as many as 10 photos). A sizeable percentage of the victims were children, with some altars featuring milk bottles for babies and toddlers. In some cases, only one or two family members survived, especially young people who had been away at work (it was mainly the elderly and small children who actually resided in Siaolin village). There are pressing psychological concerns, especially children in tears over losing their classmates or unable to fall asleep if it is raining outside. There was also one reported case of ghost marriage (冥婚) between a fiancé and his bride-to-be who died in the mudslide.

The importance of ritual to the mourning and spiritual healing processes was also readily apparent, including the presence of numerous Buddhist volunteers who stood by the survivors, guided them through the ritual’s stages, and provided hugs and other comfort when emotions proved overwhelming. Professor Chien and I stopped at many of the altar tables to offer incense and attempt to comfort, and I soon realized that Chien was in possession of a truly invaluable gift, namely local memories in the form of audio and visual records that he has compiled during his years of studying Siaolin’s Plains Aborigine culture. These will prove of the utmost importance as the reconstruction process progresses.

The China Beat -- Mourning (Photo C)In terms of where the survivors will next reside, there is talk of temporarily housing them on local military bases, while the Buddhist Compassion Relief Merit Society (Fojiao Ciji gongdehui 佛教慈濟功德會) has announced plans to construct a set of villages for different Aboriginal groups at Shanlin 杉林 (a township in Kaohsiung County nearer to the Kaohsiung metropolis). Nonetheless, many survivors hope that one day they will be able to resettle in nearby areas, especially the village of Wulipu 五里埔. Plans are already underway to rebuild Siaolin’s Plains Aborigine shrine (公廨) in that location and stage traditional rituals traditional rituals during the ninth lunar month (other Plains Aborigine groups have promised to help). Other reconstruction efforts currently in the planning stages include a memorial hall near the site of the tragedy and a Museum of Plains Aborigine Culture, all of which is designed to ensure the perpetuation of Siaolin’s intangible cultural heritage.


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