January 2010

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1. While quite a few writers have discussed the Avatar-versus-Confucius battle currently going on in Chinese cinemas (China Beat posts on the subject can be found here and here), the December 2009 issue of China Heritage Quarterly includes a piece by Gloria Davies and M.E. Davies on another attention-getting film, The Founding of a Republic. The authors point out that the movie, released to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the PRC’s founding, is notable for setting forth a new narrative about the events leading up to October 1, 1949:

It is a cliché to say that history is written by the victorious, but in this era of Party-generated harmony a corrective is necessary: never has history on film been so generous to the opponents of the winners. The Founding of a Republic offers a version of the bloody Chinese Civil War as little more than an ideological disagreement between otherwise noble Chinese antagonists—indeed it is hard to find a villain on either side of the conflict, rather just passionate Chinese patriots who disagreed to the point of armed conflict as to what political system was best for the country. Hence, Chiang Kai-shek 蒋介石 (中正) and Chiang Ching-kuo 蒋经国 are both portrayed as valiant, principled and sincere men who simply chose the wrong path. Chiang Ching-kuo, in particular, is presented as behaving in a virtuous manner at all times. He is depicted as a paragon of unbending integrity in his confrontation with his corrupt cousin, David Kung (孔令侃). This humanistic rendering of the Chiangs, père et fils, in a film made to celebrate the founding of a socialist people’s republic is evidence of a new foundation myth in the making. It also confirms in no uncertain terms that the worker-peasant-soldier dream, once the clarion truth and raison d’être of the People’s Republic, has been consigned to the archives of irrelevance. It would appear that the new message is: although the Communists and Nationalists may have had their differences they have always been able to pursue their alternative visions in a principled manner. More to the point, principled opposition and conflict resolution is, regardless of the political hue, innately Chinese.

2. William Callahan, who previously contributed a piece to China Beat titled “China: The Pessoptimist Nation,” now has a book by the same name. An excerpt from Callahan’s book can be found at Danwei.

3. The Winter 2009/2010 issue of China Ethos magazine is available online for free, and features articles on a wide array of topics. Jeffrey Wasserstrom offers “Five Things Worth Knowing About the 2010 Shanghai Expo”; Duncan Hewitt writes about “China’s Feminism and Internet Activism”; and Paul French describes the “completely unqualified yet eminently readable” Peter Fleming, author of One’s Company and News From Tartary, in “With Fleming to China.”

4. At Global Voices Online, Andy Yee has a post on “China’s Orwellian Future,” which includes short translated excerpts from “China’s dystopian novel,” The Fat Years, China, 2013, by John Chan.

5. Finally, to end where we began, two interesting pieces about the continuing Avatar v. Confucius story. Sam Crane asks “Confucius, the movie . . . where is the love?” at his blog, The Useless Tree; Confucius vs. Avatar: And the Winner Is . . .” by Mary Kay Magistad appears at YaleGlobal Online. Magistad writes of the lengths that state officials and movie promoters are going to in an effort to attract viewers to Confucius:

. . . state enterprises and government offices have been block-booking “Confucius” tickets for their employees. Some theaters are giving away free “Confucius” tickets with “Avatar” tickets. Others are enticing those who buy “Confucius” tickets with the opportunity to purchase much sought-after Avatar tickets.

A thought-provoking parallel between The Founding of a Republic and Confucius is that both Chiang Kai-shek and Confucius were figures vilified during the Mao era — meaning that the Chairman would certainly not look kindly on the sympathetic treatment that each receives in these two state-supported films.

Google and China: The Analysis Continues

Almost three weeks have passed since Google’s January 12 announcement that it would be reconsidering its Chinese operations, and although the company has not yet indicated a final decision about its future in China, the issues raised by this matter have sparked a number of thoughtful analyses. Yesterday, China Beat featured a piece by Geremie Barmé on “The Harmonious Evolution of Information in China”; below, some more recent commentaries on the Google and China story that have gotten our attention:

1. NPR’s Fresh Air program, “Fighting Cybercrime, One Digital Thug at a Time.” Fresh Air contributor Dave Davies interviews Joseph Menn, a journalist who has been investigating hacker collectives and daily lives of hackers (chronicled in his new book, Fatal System Error), and Barrett Lyon of 3Crowd Technologies.

2. At Foreign Policy, Adam Segal writes of “The Chinese Internet Century.” Segal considers Hillary Clinton’s January 21 speech, “Internet Freedom,” but has little hope that Clinton’s words will effect much change:

Censorship, hacking, and economic warfare as practiced in China are rooted in a political and economic calculus that is unlikely to change. From the first introduction of modern information technologies, the Chinese have viewed them as a double-edged sword: essential to economic growth, but a threat to regime stability. Using a combination of old-school intimidation and high-tech surveillance, Beijing has managed to keep most materials it deems harmful off most computer screens in China and still promote economic growth.

The fact is that the majority of Chinese simply don’t care, giving the government even less incentive to change its ways. Technologically savvy Chinese “netizens” — if that term even has meaning in a place like China — find ways to fan qiang (scale the “Great Firewall”), but most users, like their counterparts elsewhere, are more interested in entertainment gossip, pirated MP3s, and updates from their friends than missives from Falun Gong or the latest report from Human Rights Watch. U.S. State Department spending on proxy servers or technologies that hide users’ identities temporarily allow some Chinese greater access to information online, but won’t substantially change the underlying dynamics.

3. Two conversations about China, Google, and internet freedom have been posted at the Carnegie Council’s website. Alexandra Harney and Devin Stewart discuss “A Question of Values” in one conversation; in the other (originally at Newsweek on Air), Devin Stewart and Daniel Gross consider Google’s threat to pull out of China.

4. At History Compass Exchange, Shellen Xiao Wu relates today’s “Google v. China” story to conflicts between China and foreign powers going back to the eighteenth century:

Admittedly, historians are rather annoying creatures, prone to making pronouncements like, “Well, actually in 1740….” But I can’t help feeling that when the dust settles, the great Google v. China show-down of 2010 will be seen as only a minor episode in an ongoing debate over the boundaries between commerce and state intervention.

5. YaleGlobal Online features a two-part story, “China and Google: Searching For Trouble.” Part One, by Jonathan Fenby, is here; Part Two, by Jeffrey Garten, can be found here.

6. Thanks to Danwei for directing our attention to this video of Thomas Crampton interviewing Orville Schell, who remarks that Google functions much like a country. Asked if any other company could take a stance similar to Google’s vis-a-vis censorship, Schell declares that “Only Google could do it alone and not be vulnerable.”

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By Geremie R. Barmé

As the contretemps involving Google’s conflicted presence in the People’s Republic of China unfolds, it is timely to recall one anniversary that passed by all but unnoticed in 2009: that of a covert Cold War-era clash between John Foster Dulles and Mao Zedong in 1959. This overlooked anniversary is worth recalling now, since it is of particular relevance to contextualizing the remarks—and the Chinese response to those remarks—that US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made regarding Internet freedom and US policy at the Newseum in Washington on 21 January 2010 (see here for full text of Clinton’s speech).

In that speech Clinton reminds her audience of comments that President Barack Obama made on Internet freedom during the webcast section of his November “town hall meeting” in Shanghai. As Clinton said: “In response to a question that was sent in over the Internet, he [Obama] defended the right of people to freely access information, and said that the more freely information flows, the stronger societies become. He spoke about how access to information helps citizens to hold their governments accountable, generates new ideas, and encourages creativity. The United States’ belief in that truth is what brings me here today.”

In her speech the Secretary of State also referred to the First Amendment of the US Constitution, as well as to Franklin Roosevelt’s support for the Four Freedoms in 1941 (that is, freedom of expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear), and Eleanor Roosevelt’s efforts to have those freedoms enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights years later following the end of WWII.

Something Clinton did not mention, however, was the policy advice of another Secretary of State given in the crucial years after the war and during the opening salvos of the Cold War. That Secretary of State is John Foster Dulles, and his strategy related to “peaceful evolution” would have quickly figured in the thinking of Chinese political figures and strategists as they pored over Clinton’s January 2010 remarks.

Dulles first articulated a US policy in support of the peaceful evolution of socialist countries into polities more acceptable and in tune with the western democracies in 1953; he further elaborated it in 1958 and again in ’59. Dulles formulated this policy as a way of encouraging a peaceful transition within those disparate societies away from violent authoritarian, one-party control in favour of political and social pluralism, not to mention the market economy. Among other things, Dulles argued that support for nascent forms of opposition within socialist countries, cultural subversion and the spread of information were all important in the ideological Cold War.

In China, as he became more concerned with the future of the revolution, the political backsliding of the Soviet Union and the question of “revolutionary successors,” Mao Zedong formulated a response to Dulles. He outlined his views at a small Party gathering convened at what is now the Dahua Hotel (Dahua fandian 大华饭店) in Hangzhou in November 1959. The Party elder Bo Yibo 薄一波 quotes from Mao’s Hangzhou speech in his fascinating memoir (published in two volumes in 1991 and ’93 respectively):

Dulles said that justice and law should replace violence and that war should be abandoned, and law and justice should be emphasized. Dulles also argued that the abandonment of force under the circumstances did not mean the “maintenance of the status quo,” but meant a peaceful “change.” (laughter) Change whom peacefully? Dulles wants to change countries like ours. He wants to subvert and change us to follow his ideas…. Therefore, the United States is attempting to carry out its aggression and expansion with a much more deceptive tactic…. In other words, it wants to keep its order and change our system. It wants to corrupt us by a peaceful evolution.

In the following months and years, Mao frequently mentioned the dangers of peaceful evolution (heping yanbian 和平演变in Chinese), and the looming threat of revisionism in China. This double threat, and his own concerns about the limited semi-market policy reforms of his colleagues, as well as anxiety over the successors to his revolutionary cause, contributed to his thinking on what would become the Cultural Revolution.

As I have noted elsewhere, since the initiation of the Reform era some three decades ago, the Chinese Communist Party’s policy on peaceful evolution has effectively been evacuated of its earlier pro-socialist and radical revolutionary ideological content. What remains is a theoretical justification sanctioned originally by Mao Zedong and later Deng Xiaoping for a nationalism (or “Chinese particularism”) wedded to authoritarian one-party politics. It would be unwise to forget that Deng and his colleagues were quick to blame the United States and other countries for politically manipulating the 1989 Protest Movement, for attempting to use civil unrest in China to turn the country into a “bourgeois vassaldom” (zibenzhuyi guojia fushuguo 资本主义国家附属国) of the West, or a “totally Western-dependent bourgeois republic”. This “plot” aimed at encouraging China to peacefully evolve into a democracy dependent on international capital was seen as a continuation of a struggle in which China’s Communist Party had been engaged since the late 1950s. (See my editorial introduction to Qiang Zhai, “1959: Preventing Peaceful Evolution,” China Heritage Quarterly, Issue 18, June 2009).

One could argue that the fundamental national-ideological, nay philosophical difference between China’s Party-state (or Party-empire, to use Chu Anping’s powerful term from the 1950s), and that of liberal democracies has changed relatively little since Mao enunciated the anti-peaceful evolution line in 1959. While the present leaders might not read many controversial accounts of Chinese history, there is no doubt that through the influential Zhongnanhai Lecture Series (Zhongnanhai jiangzuo 中南海讲座, invited lectures by specialists in various fields) and the reading of memoirs by party elders such as Bo Yibo (Politburo member Bo Xilai’s 薄熙来 father) present (and future) leaders learn and revisit the struggles of the nascent Party-state in the 1950s. Strategist and advisers of my acquaintance sometimes also revisit the works and strategies of Mao Zedong when formulating their own advice.

Hillary Clinton’s recent speech on freedom of information and the Internet is a clear enunciation of the long-term rhetorical and ideological divide between various authoritarian states and the liberal democracies. One such state, China, was in 1959 in the grip of a new phase of ideological and nationalistic fervour that would play out with tragic consequences in the 1960s and ’70s. Again, in 1989, the old Maoist strategic response to US policies espousing various basic freedoms served both a familiar, and a new purpose. The effect since—carefully honed patriotic education, the increasingly sophisticated use of the semi-independent media, the guided commentariat on TV and radio—have melded together both as a result of careful planning and sheer happenstance to form a continued response to “Western” efforts and hopes to see China evolve into a more pluralistic society. Since 2005, the Hu-Wen leadership of the Communist Party has pursued a policy underpinned by a strategy to create and maintain a “harmonious society.” It is a kind of harmony that is policed with overt rigour. So much is “harmonized” (和谐掉 hexie diao) in the process of creating a quiescent socio-economic environment in which authoritarianism and plutocracy hold sway, that “to harmonise” has become a common verb in colloquial Chinese meaning “to censor,” “elide” or “expunge.” Under the Party China eschews the old strategy of peaceful evolution and its recent upgrades in favour of what I would call “harmonious evolution” (hexie yanbian 和谐演变).

In her January speech Hillary Clinton added a new freedom to Roosevelt’s 1941 list of four: the freedom to connect, or as she put it, “The freedom to connect is like the freedom of assembly in cyber space.” She announced that the US government is “supporting the development of new tools that enable citizens to exercise their right of free expression by circumventing politically motivated censorship.” She also identified the crucial importance of information flows, noting in particular that, “Historically, asymmetrical access to information is one of the leading causes of interstate conflict. When we face serious disputes or dangerous incidents, it’s critical that people on both sides of the problem have access to the same set of facts and opinions.” Clinton concluded that, “By advancing this agenda, we align our principles, our economic goals, and our strategic priorities. We need to create a world in which access to networks and information brings people closer together, and expands our definition of community.”

Such assertions, along with clearly articulated and appropriately funded strategies, to undermine autocracy through new media and via the agency of connected communities with free and equal access to information lead some mainland commentators to suggest that the Chinese Party-state is wise to maintain its unilateral freedom to pull the plug. Not surprisingly then, the Chinese media was quick to cast Clinton’s 21 January speech as merely the latest expression of US “information imperialism,” one that is nothing more than an example of post-colonial hegemonic behaviour. It is careless and unhelpful to dismiss such bloviating as just the usual sensationalist hyperbole and overblown official rhetoric. To my mind, these responses are reflective of something more basic and enduring, and we discount such formulations as mere semantics, or the latest example of Chinese bombast, at our peril.

In 1997, China’s avowed “Year of the Internet,” the oral historian Sang Ye and I were invited by the editors of WIRED magazine to conduct an informal survey of the Chinese Internet. The piece, published in the June 1997 issue of the magazine, was titled ‘The Great Firewall of China’—to my knowledge, the first time that expression was used (WIRED, vol.5, no.6). For our study we interviewed the then head of the Internet surveillance authority in Beijing, a man we called “Comrade X.” He summed up the basic official response to the ever-spreading net, as well as information hegemony and online anarchy with a crisp and clear formulation: “You make a problem for us, and we’ll make a law for you.”

Also in that article we interviewed Xia Hong, the PR man for a company called China InfoHighway. He offered us a view that thirteen years ago adumbrated the line taken more recently by such outlets as the Global Times in response to both the Google affair and Hillary Clinton’s speech on Internet freedom. Xia said to us, “A network that allows individuals to do as they please, lets them go brazenly wherever they wish, is a hegemonistic network that harms the rights of others.” He made the following prediction:

As we stand on the cusp of the new century, we need to—and are justified in wanting to—challenge America’s dominant position. Cutting-edge Western technology and the most ancient Eastern culture will be combined to create the basis for dialog in the coming century. In the 21st century, the boundaries will be redrawn. The world is no longer the spiritual colony of America.

Judgment Day for the Internet is fast approaching. At most it can keep going for three to five years. But the end is nigh; the sun is setting in the West, and the glories of the past are gone forever.

In the present context an observation we made in the conclusion to our 1997 survey is also worth recalling here. We wrote:

China’s Open Door policies have had momentous, mostly uncalculated consequences. But that doesn’t mean that the China of the future is going to look more and more like us. It is going to continue to look like China—and will have the wherewithal to do so. As China gets stronger and more wired, it will still be limited by intellectual narrowness and Sinocentric bias. Pluralism and the open-mindedness that comes with it—the worldly curiosity of previous great powers and the idealism that often supports it—simply are not present. More to the point, they are not about to be encouraged.

The Chinese authorities haven’t forgotten the lessons of 1959 or ’89: why should anyone else?

Geremie R. Barmé is an Australian Research Council Federation Fellow and Professor of Chinese History in The ANU College of Asia & the Pacific and the editor of China Heritage Quarterly. He is also the co-designer and main writer of two websites that are blocked in China: www.tsquare.tv and www.morningsun.org.

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Lessons from Sichuan for Haitian Survivors

By Sascha Matuszak

China has just sent its second medical team to Haiti, along with 20 tons of supplies and five Chinese peacekeepers to replace the four who died in the earthquake that destroyed Port-au-Prince on January 12th. The current group replaces a set of Chinese International Search and Rescue workers and sniffer dogs who arrived in Haiti the day after the disaster struck.

In a Beijing News editorial on January 15th, Shi Jia, a Beijing-based scholar, writes that the quick Chinese response to Haiti’s earthquake has to do with empathy and the fact that just over a year ago, Sichuan went through the same experience. In the China Daily, the devastation in Haiti was front page news and an editorial reiterated Shi Jia’s point:

The suffering of people anywhere in the world strikes a chord in the hearts of Chinese people. The death of four Chinese peacekeepers in Haiti has little to do with it. Chinese people feel a special sympathy for Haitians because just less than 20 months ago they were struggling to rise from the debris of one of the biggest quakes in human history.

It is noteworthy that the official Chinese media has refused to compare the logistical nightmare that Haitians are experiencing with the amazing efficiency of the Chinese state back in May 2008. In the U.S., much of the discussion surrounds the deep infrastructural and economic problems that have exacerbated the tragedy in Haiti and made for some very gruesome photo-ops: corpses piling in the streets, people looting and an atmosphere of general chaos and despair.

Taking this into account, comparisons with the quake in Sichuan that killed at least 80,000 people will find that, although the tragedy here in Sichuan was horrific and scarred the region forever, what is happening today in Haiti might prove to be even more devastating. The nearest big city to the Beichuan earthquake, Chengdu, is a provincial capital that escaped most of the damage; in contrast, the earthquake in Haiti destroyed the capital, decapitated the government, and killed the top UN officials in country at the time. The city of Chengdu was able to provide a large and capable base of operations for the domestic relief efforts (blood drives, water drives, clothes drives etc.) and the international aid and media organizations that poured in from all over the world. Places like the Bookworm Cafe in Chengdu provided couches, Internet access and hot coffee for dozens of different operations. In Haiti, by contrast, organizations have had to set up facilities in whatever surviving structures they can find—even the airport.

People arriving in Haiti may feel as though they are entering a war zone, as they see U.S. Marines unloading gear and hear helicopters hovering over head. In this New York Times article, written five days after the quake, the frustration of aid workers from around the world is palpable:

“There are 200 flights going in and out every day, which is an incredible amount for a country like Haiti,” said Jarry Emmanuel, the air logistics officer for the agency’s Haiti effort. “But most of those flights are for the United States military.” He added: “Their priorities are to secure the country. Ours are to feed. We have got to get those priorities in sync.”

My memory of the situation in China in 2008 is very different. In the wake of the disaster, China didn’t require quite as much synchronization. The country was secure. There was very little looting or violence in Sichuan after the quake, and the nation responded at once and as one to provide monetary aid and manpower to clear roads, re-build bridges and establish a systematic relief program that kept frustration and death at bay. One day after the earthquake in Sichuan I was able to access the roads to Qing Cheng Mountain, just outside of Dujiangyan. This region was devastated by the quake: houses were flattened and boulders the size of semi-trucks had slid down the hillsides and buried entire communities. Nevertheless, people had cell phone coverage, water, tents and food, and volunteers were already streaming into the hills looking for something to do.

Haiti, by contrast, was a poor, corrupt country that was barely able to stand on its own two feet without the UN at its elbow and was beset by many problems before this quake even hit. In terms of infrastructure, Haiti is widely considered on par with Somalia — an assessment tragically confirmed by images of bulldozers piling the bodies of earthquake victims into dump trucks.

It is important to note that Beichuan and the rest of northern Sichuan were and for the most part still are under-developed and poor parts of China.  So, in 2008 as well, the epicenter of the quake was a backward, poverty-stricken region with corrupt local officials, who had been cashing in on infrastructure funds meant to develop the area — not much different than Haiti, in some respects.

The tragic scandal of decrepit engineering and shoddy materials is still seething in Sichuan as couples mourn the children who died at their school desks and attempt to move on with their lives. China is not a First World Country, no matter what the economic growth rates tell us, and regions like northern Sichuan are prime examples of the eddies of poverty that exist even after waves of progress have washed over the country.

On January 14th, David Brooks commented on the ills of Haiti and attributed them to a combination of “too much aid,” historical oppression and culture:

We’re all supposed to politely respect each other’s cultures. But some cultures are more progress-resistant than others, and a horrible tragedy was just exacerbated by one of them.

He ends his essay by calling for a “Huntington-esque” cultural revolution in Haiti that would help turn poverty and hopelessness into affluence much better than any aid could. The overwhelming influence of culture is an easy assumption to make, given the prevailing attitudes about China’s culture (united, industrious, obedient) and the response to the earthquake in Sichuan as a basis for comparison. Brooks, however, knows very little about northern Sichuan and how poor and uneducated the region is; clearly, culture did not save these people when the earthquake struck.

It might be more productive to see what China actually did and is still doing to repair the damage of the 2008 earthquake. Sichuan and Haiti have deadly earthquakes in common and the experiences of the one can definitely inform the decision of the other. With most natural disasters, logistics, or the lack thereof, tends to be the biggest factor in reducing the damage and death of a natural disaster.

In China, the quake was pragmatically viewed by some as a chance to re-build the region from scratch with central government (and private) funds and a clear and unambiguous program of reconstruction supervised by authorities in Chengdu and Beijing. These authorities organized meetings with city planners from around the world in order to devise a plan that would not only repair the logistical net that was destroyed, but strengthen it as well.

In the weeks after the quake the central government assigned each province in China to an affected region in Sichuan. Construction workers from Anhui, Shandong, Shanxi and Guizhou were building temporary homes, roads, latrines, bridges and other needful things within two weeks of the earthquake.

China aimed then (and still aims now) to re-vamp the entire region with a top-down approach of heavy spending and heavy building, and Beichuan and Dujiangyan have Beijing and Chengdu to rely on. A project underway right now involves linking Gansu, Shanxi and Sichuan Provinces through a highway network built in the very mountains that shook like leaves in 2008. The idea is simple: enable the free movement of people and goods and the economy will flourish, the community will be strengthened and future disasters will not take as heavy a toll as they would have with less infrastructure in place.

One thing to look for in the months ahead is how Haiti (and the world) responds to the glaring inadequacies of the Haitian infrastructure and government. Will Haiti be rebuilt stronger than before? Will the Haitian people unite under a banner of common suffering, or tear each other apart in order to survive? Will the international community spend billions to build a massive port in Port-au-Prince and a six-lane highway linking the port to the hinterland and then leave the locals to figure it all out, like they did in Bali?

Reconstruction and aid are complex issues and are susceptible to graft, infighting and mixed solutions with mixed results. What we can learn from the Chengdu earthquake is that a solid base with the mandate and a long term plan seems to work well in getting a region back on its feet and running again. This essay here, by Chen Rong for The China Daily, argues that a base of operations and a determined government make all the difference.

The key is that Beijing and Sichuan saw a chance to improve a part of the country that, although a vital part of China’s long-term development, had yet to enjoy the fruits of the nation’s economic rise.

Port-au-Prince should be regarded as providing a similar opportunity to fix what has been broken for far too long.

Sascha Matuszak is a Chengdu-based writer read more of his work at Chengduliving.com.

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Over Exposure

“The Expo story that couldn’t be printed.” That’s what editors at Shanghai’s City Weekend magazine found they had on their hands several weeks ago, when Chinese censors deemed the story below “too negative” to run. A revised version was subsequently submitted, approved by the censors, and printed in the January 20, 2010 issue. City Weekend decided not to post the original story on its website as planned, as they were told it was inadvisable due to an official caution against publishing media reports critical of the Expo. Here, we are pleased to share with China Beat readers the full, uncensored text of Lisa Movius’s story.

By Lisa Movius

The excited LED gleams of countdown clocks in public spaces around Shanghai parallel mental tickers in the minds of many of Shanghai’s foreign residents. The latter variety anticipates a later date: when it will all be over. Months before it started, many in our fair city have developed Expo fatigue—even the most enthusiastic Expo boosters have grown weary of psychedelic Haibaos insistently smiling at us with creepy ubiquity.

A profound ambivalence towards the upcoming Expo, however, taps concerns deeper than a visceral visual irritation. All over the city, frantic construction transforms neighborhoods, at the price of air pollution and beloved historic landmarks. Foreigners are the first to admit Expo’s obvious benefits, but still lament that the cost goes deeper than the physical. They worry that the pre-Expo whitewashing is creating a Stepford-sanitized, ad-copy vision of a futuristic, international city which is at odds with the quirky, complex urban reality that those of us who live in Shanghai so love.

“Yeah, attitudes are sort of odd,” remarks China Environmental Law blogger and international energy and environmental lawyer Charles McElwee. “There is an ambivalence: most of the expat community doesn’t know how to feel. It has been so long since the U.S. participated in one that it is out of the consciousness of most Americans. We don’t know what to expect.”

Sustainability

One of the major Expo themes is ecological sustainability. “Shanghai benefits from the subway construction, the change to cleaner fuel and the cleaning of the air [due to the Expo],” observes McElwee. However, he continues, “There has been so much effort on beautifying the city, so much superficial renovation—but god only knows the quality of the material. There have been these huge efforts to look good. Like the flower boxes to line the streets: they are high-maintenance and non-native. Either they will not be maintained and will look bad, or the city will be saddled with this unsustainable burden.”

And, as McElwee points out, “The very notions of Expos are unsustainable: to throw up buildings, then after six to eight months, tear them down again.” He explains that, by Expo rules the pavilions must be temporary. To prevent the pavilions and their long-term maintenance from becoming a burden to the host or participating nations; only a handful of Expo structures are slated to stay past the closing date.

He adds that the Expo site is a “brown belt” of former industrial land, and that questions remain about the standards of its clean-up. “Some of it will be converted to residential use—and will it be up to the standards for human health?”

“There is nothing sustainable about a two square mile construction site,” grants Expo enthusiast Adam Minter. A journalist who also blogs at ShanghaiScrap.com, Minter has broken a lot of the news and scandal surrounding the U.S. pavilion. “The Expo idea is partly as a laboratory. If you are going to show sustainability, then you need to build something sustainable … On the other hand, if you are going to experiment on urban practices, Shanghai is a good place to start.”

Building Boom

Far beyond the fences of the Expo site, the city’s slap-dash transformation troubles many. Spiraling property prices and the redevelopment of old neighborhoods have banished many Shanghainese to the suburbs. Those who remain are admonished to abandon traditional practices that are now deemed unsightly, like pajama-wearing and laundry-hanging. Fresh paint has been eagerly if hastily slopped onto seemingly every exterior wall in downtown.

“Walls get painted, but then the paint gets all over the sidewalk. They clean one thing, and get something else dirty,” sighs Rebecca Catching, director of Shanghai’s OV Gallery, which opens an Expo-themed group exhibition entitled “Make-Over” on January 23. “Like laundry hanging out: it is very sustainable, but officials find it unsightly, while foreigners find it charming or just don’t care. There is a lack of consciousness about what is important … It is not just about the fair, but about face—the image that China wants to present to the world. What China wants to project versus what the world wants to see of China is very different.”

“China has this complex about being seen as backwards,” she continues. “It needs to stop focusing on [physical] infrastructure:  it’s not about high speed trains or skyscrapers, but people.”

Catching cites a work in OV’s show by Shanghai-based German designer Jutta Friedrichs, who interviewed street vendors who could be out of work during the Expo. “They are not harming anyone, and tourists like them. No one wants to see a place that is the same as their home, and vendors present Chinese people as hard working and entrepreneurial,” she says. Friedrichs collected mundane items from their carts and then sets them in resin covered in wood and concrete. “It is the idea of these colorful and lively things getting paved over, as is always done for big events, like with APEC,” Catching explains. “It conveys the paving over of local culture.”

“One can look at downright silly ‘improvements’ that have been made all over the city in terms of beautification before Expo,” says Spencer Dodington with an eye-roll. Dodington is an interior designer who meticulously restores old Shanghai buildings to their former glory. He cites as a ready example the “false facades placed on buildings on the Nanjing Dong Lu, with Romanesque columns and other architectural gew-gahs hastily constructed of molded plaster and tacked on top of the original detailing [which] seems doubly sad as it deprives the city of the original look of the underlying structures.” 
 
The intended transformation of the Bund and the streets behind it into another luxury shopping destination ensures the destruction of the historic Shanghai Rowing Club, saddening many foreign lovers of Shanghai history. Much of Shanghai’s original walled city, well pre-dating the concessions, fell to Expo bulldozers. The carnage most lamented among foreigners, though, has been the so-called North Bund redevelopment, which has claimed much of the celebrated former Jewish quarter.

“Preparation for the Expo has been used as an excuse to completely destroy large parts of historic Shanghai,” says Dodington. “Most of these buildings—which probably were some of the oldest urban structures in the city—were in Hongkou, between Broadway Mansions and the wartime Stateless Refugee area. This newly created urban space, ‘the North Bund’, in the end won’t raise one kuai for Shanghai during the Expo, as it is years away from completion.”

While the Hongkou development may be “heartbreaking”, Minter counters that “a lot of it would have happened anyway.” He argues, “Shanghai’s already Disney—what else is Lujiazui, or Nanjing Lu? The clean-ups probably do not exactly extend to Baoshan. Shanghai will come into its own in 2010 … Shanghai is so absurd on so many levels, with or without the Expo.”

The Arts

Rebecca Catching explains that OV decided to do a show around the Expo and urban transformation because, “I think there is an official voice about the Expo, but not much informal dialogue about why do it, and what benefits it brings to the city.” She again references a piece of artwork in the show, this time by Shanghai-based American artist Maya Kramer: A stereoscope juxtaposes images of Shanghai’s and New York’s Expo sites, exploring physical and chronological placement.

“It is very old technology, which premiered at an expo,” describes Catching. “The piece is very interesting, because it is an illusion, and presents the idea of near and far. It is a neat metaphor for the Expo, the passage of time and what will happen after.” She muses, “What will happen afterwards? Does our vision stop after opening day? How much does an expo mean after it happens?”

The Expo presents a conundrum for the arts in Shanghai: while a wealth of international act will be shuttled in over the duration, the local scene may largely be shut out. Independent music and theater venues are gnawing their nails over permits and whether or not they will be able to stay open. Performers have been advised of tighter restrictions on permissible content.  
 
Visual art venues anticipate fewer difficulties, but remain trepid. Says Catching, if the Expo resembles Beijing’s Olympics, then bans on construction and on importing certain materials will be onerous for artistic creation, while getting documents and permits will be made more difficult. “Galleries are ambivalent because few were asked to participate. We were asked [to do an exchange], but they wanted a huge budget…You’d think they would want to showcase Chinese art; they have involved a few individual artists, but they should be asking BizArt, ShanghArt…a lot feel that the Expo is happening on its own,” complains Catching. 
 
Minter contends that the incoming wealth of international acts will more than compensate. He particularly highlights the many small performers who would not afford to or be allowed to come to China otherwise. By rule, artists brought by national pavilions are exempt from the performance permits otherwise required in China. He adds that a third of the pavilion budgets will be dedicated to programming—not small change. “I do not excuse anything, but I do think there is real value in bringing in all these performing artists who could not come on their own,” he says.

Whose Expo?

Minter continues, “Is it a positive for foreigners? I don’t know. But for China it is good.” “It is estimated that 70 to 90 million people will come, of which 95 percent are Chinese. Five percent will be foreigners, some 3.5 to 4.5 million, which is no more than usually visit Shanghai. It is not for foreigners: there will be this whole wave of Chinese people who have never been to Shanghai, coming to see these 190 plus pavilions or booths designed to impress upon the Chinese what their country is all about. I can’t see anything but good coming from that.”

Even for those of us for whom Shanghai’s rushed rhythms are normal, the city has its moments of surrealism. Whatever else happens during and after, the Expo is certain to be another one, and on a gargantuan scale. Shanghai’s foreigners will all enjoy some part of the event—if only because it allows them to indulge in a favorite expat past-time: complaint. Even the transience of the structures has something very Shanghai about it: merrily, merrily, it is like a dream. The real question is what happens after.

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