September 2009

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Regular China Beat readers might have noticed that our posts suggesting articles and links to check out online generally take the form of a feature we call “The Five-List Plan.” Today, in recognition of the massive coverage of the PRC’s National Day and 60th anniversary celebration, we’ve decided to super-size this post. There are simply so many wonderful and fascinating things being written, spoken, photographed, and filmed in connection with the October 1 extravaganza that we couldn’t stop at five. Below, ten items worth checking out as the festivities get underway:

1. One of the persistent myths surrounding October 1, 1949 is that Mao Zedong stood atop the Tiananmen rostrum and declared “中国人民站起来了!” (“The Chinese people have stood up!”). While this is a great line . . . it’s not true. The South China Morning Post has put together a short video discussing the persistence of this myth, and we applaud their attempt to set the record straight (for a previous CB foray into mythbusting, check out Jeff Wasserstrom’s “Top-Five List of Shanghai Urban Legends”).

Read the rest of this entry »

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By François Lachapelle

This essay originally appeared on David Ownby’s blog, China at Our Gates, in June. It is reposted in full here with the permission of that site.

2009 is no piece of cake for Chinese officialdom. Having survived the invisible torment of the twentieth anniversary of Tiananmen they turn now to the preparation for the 60th birthday of the People’s Republic. Despite daily high temperatures in the 30s in North China, one wonders if Peking bureaucrats might be suffering from cold sweats.

Certain early indicators indicate that the event is being taken seriously. Visas are being restricted, as they were in the period leading up to the Olympic Games. Several travel agencies have already announced that they will be unable to secure business visas for travellers after mid-September.

China’s 60th birthday will not be a one-day event. In fact, festivities began…on October 1, 2008. So as to encourage patriotism and health among the younger generation, the Ministry of Education decided to add jogging to the curriculum. The goal for the month of April, 2009, was for elementary school children to log 120 kilometers, high school students 180, and university students 240. (The astute mathematician will notice that all these numbers are multiples of 60).

If the Beijing Olympics were meant to showcase China’s modernization and the quality of Chinese athletes, and Expo Shanghai 2010 the glowing future of the young dynasty, the first parade of the Chinese military in the 21st century will serve to put China’s military power on display. For Fang Fenghui, Commander of the military region of Peking and Deputy of the 11th People’s Congress, “the appearance of new military hardware will be one of the highlights of the military parade.” This 14th parade will be particularly important in that the Chinese contribution to the first parade in 1949 was limited to horses, while in 2009, again according to Fang Fenghui, “there will be a great deal of equipment of Chinese manufacture, of impressive quality, to be seen during the parade.”

What is the interest of this 60th birthday for those who will not be in China in the coming months to witness the ballet performances of the Red Guards, or for those who are not fascinated by military matters, straight lines, and squeaky clean uniforms? For one thing, an ostentatious display of Chinese military power is an excellent occasion to take the pulse of the American political elite and to see how many of them remain enamored of the theory of the “yellow peril.”

The theory of the China threat is a « hard » version of realist geopolitics built in part on the history of dealings with the rise of Fascism, and which tends to see each new emerging power as a threat to the balance of power. Those who hold such tenants do not believe that engaging China and linking it to the international system (as liberal theorists would prefer) will change China. On the contrary, they believe that such an approach will only allow China to get richer and to continue to modernize its military. For the China threat crowd, October 1st will be a painful day in that they will see that China is at least twenty years behind the US in terms of military technology.

At present, however, it would seem that the yellow peril is haunting Washington less than in the past. What we find are rather sentiments which argue against the China threat hypothesis, such as those expressed by Thomas Barnett, author of Great Powers: America and the World after Bush (Putnam Adult, 2009) : « If there is anything to worry about, it’s not China’s massive military; it’s the economy, stupid.»

With the economic crisis and the new administration in Washington, we see more “panda huggers” than “panda sluggers” around Obama. In 2001, Bill Gertz’s China Threat (Regnery, 2000) was all the rage, while the liberal theory of cooperation seems to be making a comeback. The idea of a Chinese-American partnership is upheld by those in Washington who oppose the notion of the China threat and see cooperation with Beijing as being in the national interests of the United States. Is Beijing happy to see the yellow peril go into hibernation? Surely, but at the same time, a rapprochement with the US might mean that China would have to play a more active role in international affairs and in the leadership of the new world order: « With great power comes with great responsibilities »! In the willfully provocative language of the geostrategist Barnett:

China has great power and demands much in the way of resources and finances and trade from the world, but China does not give much back in return. It hides behind diplomacy, denying that its troops should ever spill their blood in defense of Chinese economic interests that are now protected by American blood spilt in the Middle East…It simply does not fulfill its rising—and already enormous—responsibilities as a great power. So, yes, if you were waiting for the time to declare America to be no longer omnipotent, that time has arrived. But the bad news is, now is the time for China to stop simply talking and start actually doing something. Slogans are not enough…China needs…now to start acting much older and much wiser and much more willing to play a seriously active role, because the days of hiding behind the skirt of the U.S. Leviathan and pretending Beijing can always play the “good cop” to America’s “bad cop” are over.

China’s leaders prefer the current situation, where they can have their cake and eat it too. American leaders can (or could) justify themselves by claiming to spread democracy, individualism, and liberty. Should Beijing claim world leadership, it would be accused of hegemonism, given its confusing model mixing authoritarian politics and state capitalism. And calls for greater liberalization would accompany the accusations.

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Rocker

eijing’s new generation of rockers is beginning to attract
international notice. At a much hyped rock gig at the venue
Yugongyishan, lead singer of student band ‘Mr Graceless’ bawls
gracefully, while just in front of him is an all-Chinese mosh pit.

rocker

Rocker

Beijing’s new generation of rockers is beginning to attract  international notice. At a much hyped rock gig at the venue Yugongyishan, lead singer of student band ‘Mr Graceless’ bawls  gracefully, while just in front of him is an all-Chinese mosh pit.

–Alec Ash

(Ash’s related post can be found at his blog, Six.)

With the PRC’s massive National Day and 60th anniversary celebration now just days away, we wanted to spotlight some of the major stories — as well as a few interesting images — that have been circulating recently. Here are several fascinating links that have caught our eye in the past few weeks as preparations for October 1 reached a fever pitch:

1. Fans of the Jackie Chan song “Country” (国家) and its music video should check out a new amateur version that went viral soon after its posting online (hat tip to Shanghaiist for the video link). The video features a spirited sing-along, much flag-waving, and a cute baby at the end.

2. China Digital Times drew our attention to this photo of a National Day float, which has been photoshopped to display a webpage familiar to many Chinese Internet Explorer users attempting to access information blocked by the country’s web monitors: “This page cannot be displayed.”

Censorship float
The picture inspired this blog post by Rebecca MacKinnon, in which she provides an overview of different anti-censorship strategies and their current status in China. It seems that most of the previously reliable ways to circumvent internet restrictions on the mainland have been targeted and disabled by authorities, both in preparation for the October 1 celebration and in response to unrest in Xinjiang over the summer.

3. Media controls around the 60th anniversary are also the topic of an essay recently posted at China Media Project by Qian Gang and David Bandurski. The authors examine three ways in which the Chinese media might attempt to “dance with their shackles on” as they seek to report events in accordance with government regulations, yet also push the envelope when the situation calls for doing so:

[By] Keeping distance from the discourse of power, but seeking to publish “words of conscience” within the bounds delineated by the authorities, evincing the professional character of the media. A few web portals, such as QQ.com, have attempted to highlight important lessons of the past 60 years through reasonably safe but backhanded methods.

QQ set up a section allowing users to vote themselves on what they saw as key events in the PRC’s history. Some sites have also tried to walk the line through special interviews with Chinese scholars, who may on occasion step gingerly into progaganda grey areas. Another important tactic is to run tragic personal stories from ordinary citizens in an indirect attempt to highlight the crooked path of China’s history over the past 60 years. Their focus is not on the party or the nation, but on the individual.

4. A compelling look at 60 years of China Pictorial covers can be found here (hat tip to Danwei).

China Pictorial Cover 1

5. Another great video (and another hat tip to Danwei) was produced by Polish journalist and photographer Janek Zdzarski. Two minutes of clips vividly showcase the pre-National Day aura in Beijing, “a surreal mix of festive exuberance manifested by the unfurling flags and floral decorations, as well as the wariness caused by heavy military and security presence.”

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China Beat has examined the bestselling novel Wolf Totem (Lang tuteng) from a number of different angles, including reviews (by Nicole Barnes and Timothy Weston) as well as several cultural critiques of the book and its media coverage (by Jeffrey Wasserstrom and Haiyan Lee). Now, on the eve of China’s big anniversary, and in a moment, simultaneously, when ethnicity is a crucial flashpoint in the PRC, William Callahan reflects on what the book tells us about China’s nation-building ideology.Wolf Totem

By William A. Callahan

The fantastic success of Jiang Rong’s Lang tuteng [Wolf Totem] shows how notions of Chinese identity and culture are moving in new directions (Wuhan: Changjiang wenyi chubanshe, 2004). This novel, which is based on the author’s experience living in the Mongolian grasslands during the China’s Cultural Revolution (1966-76), has sold over 25 million copies since it was published in 2004, making it China’s no. 2 bestseller after Mao Zedong’s “Little Red Book.” The novel is popular abroad as well: its English translation won the inaugural Man Asian Literary Prize in 2007 (Howard Goldblatt, trans., Penguin, 2008).

Wolf Totem is an autobiographical story about a Han student who leaves his intellectual family in Beijing to go to the grasslands of Inner Mongolia at the height of the Cultural Revolution. Chen Zhen, the main character, lives and works with nomadic Mongolians. As a shepherd, Chen becomes fascinated with wolves and the role they play in the local economy and culture of the grasslands. He is drawn to wolves’ strength, cunning and ferocity, and adopts a wolf pup to “scientifically” study how they “think.” But in the end Chen has to kill the wolf pup because it can’t be tamed to live among humans.

Wolf Totem is praised for its environmentalist sensibility: the Han student criticizes his people’s economic invasion of the Mongolian grasslands that complements Beijing’s military invasion. Chen watches as Han settlers ruin the grassland environment as they try to turn it into farmland. The novel ends with a plea to ethnic Han to preserve the grasslands and its ecological balance of nomadic Mongolians, sheep and wolves. This environmental message was popular among foreign readers; the Man Asian Literary Prize judges praised Wolf Totem for giving a “passionate argument about the complex interrelationship between nomads and settlers, animals and human beings, nature and culture.”

But Wolf Totem’s environmental message is wrapped up in a broader political message about China’s national rejuvenation and international politics. Indeed, Jiang Rong is a pseudonym for Lu Jiamin, a political scientist who spent time in jail for participating in the Tiananmen Square movement in 1989. His ideological program is outlined in detail in the novel’s sixty-four page appendix, “Rational Exploration: A Lecture and Dialogue on the Wolf Totem,” which is not included the English translation.

Like Europeans and Americans, Chinese people generally fear wolves, seeing them as a serious problem that needs to be exterminated.  This fear is metaphorical as well as literal: in 2008 the Chinese Communist Party’s worst epithet for the Dalai Lama was “wolf with a human face,” and historian Yuan Weishi worries that educating China’s youth with the “wolves’ milk” of xenophobic history textbooks is turning rational citizens into the violent angry youth. Wolf Totem, on the other hand, lionizes the ferocity, strength and violence of wolves, turning them from a problem into the solution for China’s future development.

Following a theme popular in modern Chinese literature, Jiang stresses how “reform in China is not just about the transformation of the economic and the political system, but about the transformation of national character” (Lang tuteng, 298). Echoing a popular idiom from the early twentieth century that saw China as the “Sick Man of East Asia,” Jiang tells us that the Chinese people have been weakened over the centuries by a Confucian culture that only teaches them how to be followers. Since “the root of China’s disease is sheep disease,” Jiang argues that the wolf-nature of nomads is the best model for China’s national character.

Many Chinese authors now tell us how China needs to reclaim its Civilization to assimilate national minorities and fight western barbarians. Hence Wolf Totem is interesting because it reverses China’s guiding Civilization/barbarian distinction by directly criticizing Han Chinese and Confucianism, while praising the freedom and independence of nomadic ethnic groups.

To promote his ideological program in the untranslated “Rational Exploration” Jiang rewrites Chinese history from the mythical Yellow Emperor up through the Qing dynasty. Going against the grain of official dynastic historiography, which he argues is warped by a reverence for Confucianism, Jiang reverses the standard argument of how Civilization transformed barbarians and tamed conquest dynasties. He asserts that the Yellow Emperor came from grasslands in the Northwest, and that China’s first Great Unity [da yitong] in the Qin dynasty did not come from Confucianism, but from wolf-nature’s attack on Confucianism.

Because Han are soft and weak, Jiang explains, outsiders prey on them – just as wolves prey on sheep on the grasslands. Jiang thus argues that throughout history fierce nomads from the Mongolian grasslands and the Northwest have continually conquered and occupied China proper. This is not seen as a problem, but as an important contribution to the greatness of the Chinese race. It is not simply a metaphor of nomadic cultural influence; one of Jiang’s main arguments is that the soft “sheep-nature” of the Chinese race has been strengthened, again and again, through transfusions of Mongolians’ ferocious blood (through rape and/or intermarriage?).

Wolf Totem’s revision of history also explains why what he calls “the Western race” was able to dominate China, and become the most advanced civilization in the world. Europeans are ferocious, Jiang explains, because they have wolves’ blood from the same Inner Asian grasslands as a result of attacks from Huns, Turks, and Mongols. The Europeans’ wolf-nature then was used to conquer Asia: “The Westerners who fought their way back to the East were all descendents of nomads. … The later Teutons, Germans, and Anglo-Saxons grew increasingly powerful, and the blood of wolves ran in their veins. The Han Chinese, with their weak dispositions, are in desperate need of a transfusion of that vigorous, unrestrained blood. Had there been no wolves, the history of the world would have been written much differently” (Wolf Totem, 217-218).

So while nomads are dismissed as China’s most backward element by Beijing minority nationalities policy, according to Wolf Totem China must now look to them since “the most advanced people today are descendents of nomadic races. … What is hard to learn are the militancy and aggressiveness, the courage and willingness to take risks that flow in nomadic veins” (Wolf Totem, 303).

Like with nomadic Mongolians, Jiang revalues the Western race from “barbarian enemies” to “civilized wolves” who should serve as the model for China’s national character. His goal then is to transform Han Chinese from being “civilized sheep” first into “civilized wolves,” and finally into “civilized humans” who have democracy and the rule of law. The main problem for Jiang is how to release and contain the power of what he calls the “thermonuclear reaction” of wolf nature – whose ferocity can not only save a nation, but also destroy a society (Lang tuteng, 399-402).

By reversing the Civilization/barbarism distinction to value Mongolian nomads over Han civilization, Jiang certainly is offering a fresh perspective. Indeed, a few years before the novel was published, cultural theorist Wang Hui lamented that in the PRC there was “not a single Chinese postcolonial critique of Han centrism from the standpoint of peripheral culture” (China’s New Order, 2003:170).

Yet while Jiang’s narrative reverses the Civilization/barbarism distinction, it still reproduces the same zero-sum structure of feeling that divides humanity into binary opposites: wolves and sheep, nomads and farmers, Chinese and Westerners. Such reversals don’t question the logic of essential identity, and actually tend to reinforce its logic of violent confrontation. Rather than looking to international society’s rules and norms, Jiang sees international relations as a series of violent Darwinian race wars between wolf nations and sheep nations. In this struggle for the survival of the fittest nation, wolf-nature is worshiped for its strength, ferocity and violence.

This is an odd way to get to Jiang’s goal of democracy and the rule of law, and provides a rather negative counterpart to Wolf Totem’s generally positive calls for environmental conservation. This argument, which is the main topic of the “Rational Exploration,” is only hinted at in the novel itself. Readers of the English translation thus largely miss Jiang’s promotion of race war and violent struggle between the strong and the weak.

Lastly, it is important to note how Jiang’s ideological program shifts our attention from the particulars of the Mongolian grassland wolf to general prescriptions about wolf-nature as the key to success in today’s ruthless social environment. Indeed, the story’s popularity comes from more than its nostalgic description of an exotic past; businesses and the military use Wolf Totem to train managers and officers with strategies for success in today’s dog-eat-dog world. The novel itself ends with the disappearance of wolf-nature on China’s Inner Mongolian frontier: Chen returns thirty years later to find that the wolves are gone, the grasslands have been turned into desert, and the Mongolian nomads have been overwhelmed by Han settlers.

The wolf survives only as a ferocious metaphor for what Han Chinese need to succeed in the twenty-first century. Once again, the minority is sacrificed for the majority; discussions of outsiders like national minorities tell us more about the insiders, mainland Han Chinese.

When thinking about China’s grand celebration of sixty years of the PRC or 5000 years of civilization, it is necessary to appreciate how such nation-building also involves nation-destroying, where glorious Civilization depends upon violent barbarians.

William A. Callahan is the Acting Director of the Centre for Chinese Studies at the University of Manchester. This essay is from his forthcoming book, China: The Pessoptimist Nation (Oxford, 2009). He previously wrote, “China: The Pessoptimist Nation” for China Beat.

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