January 2010

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By Shakhar Rahav

The application of justice, or rather its perceived absence, in the People’s Republic of China in the past month has been the subject of much commentary in the popular media, as several high-profile cases surfaced. The two most prominent cases concerned a British drug smuggler and a Chinese dissident. On December 29th Akmal Shaikh – a British citizen convicted of smuggling roughly 4kg of heroin into Xinjiang– was executed. Literary critic and well-known dissident Liu Xiaobo was convicted of incitement to subvert state power and sentenced to 11 years in prison. Drawing less attention was a case of an academic, Professor Feng Chongyi, who sued Chinese customs for confiscating books he had in his possession upon his reentry to China after a visit to Hong Kong (detailed accounts and critiques can be found at Danwei and China Daily, December 24, 2009).

Judging by the various press reports about the cases, Liu Xiaobo’s case – following his role in the composition and circulation of “Charter 08” – appears to be the only one that was overtly political; the charter explicitly challenged the existing political system and the political system responded swiftly and harshly. But the other two cases did not challenge the system as such. Shaikh’s actions would be illegal in most countries. Feng’s books might arguably challenge the party-state’s authority, but only indirectly. What then comes to the fore as the subject is the aspect of procedure (see, for example, Jerome Cohen’s “Arbitrary Justice” South China Morning Post article from December 23, 2009), leading both critics and supporters of the Chinese government’s actions to debate the legality of the cases and whether procedure has been properly followed. Yet why has procedure, rather than justice, emerged as the focus of debate?

If we accept that the Chinese government defines political justice in terms different than those of Western democracies (where the term “democratic dictatorship” – which appears in the conviction of Liu Xiaobo – seems an oxymoron) then there is no real ground for debate. After all, conceptions of justice have to do with fundamental values and assumptions, and it seems that there is clear disagreement about these between Western human-rights activists and the Chinese government. If that’s the case, then arguing over issues of justice is futile; and, as so many commentators have done in the past weeks, critics have instead focused on issues of procedure.

Procedure is easier to deal with – it is clearly defined and it is easier and safer to allege that the state deviated from the procedures it has itself defined. Most importantly, focusing on procedure avoids the big questions of values. So even if the state concedes that it deviated from procedure, this will still not disqualify its larger objectives.

Now, justice is of course something quite different from procedure. In a democracy we are devoted to procedure, and it is often on these grounds that criticisms are raised against the Chinese party-state focus on procedure. Why? The premise is that while in a democratic system we might not be able to agree on what is just (Should drugs be legalized? Should drug dealers be jailed or executed?), we can conceivably agree on the legal, political, or bureaucratic procedures that will get us to a decision point.

Laws and procedures form a convenient focus for debate because they allow dissidents and critics to point out the disparity between the state’s own image of itself (e.g. a law-abiding, just, embodiment of a nation) and reality and use that gap to put pressure on the state without actually challenging the state’s right to rule. Both sides can thus avoid a “showdown” situation.

The post-Mao reforms entailed adopting, formalizing, and publicizing procedures, which gives citizens recourse to the law. This often meant trying to hold the state true to its stated procedures. The adoption of procedures does impose some restrictions on authority and office-holders, but the outcome of procedures remains subject to manipulation. This becomes clear if, for instance, we try to think when – despite cases in which citizens, such as professor Feng, try to use the law and occasionally even sue government organs – did we last hear of a stinging rebuke of the Chinese state from one of its courts?

One way for the state to defend itself from excessively critical citizens who object to certain policies is to reinforce nationalism and the image of the party-state as loyal representative of the nation. Nationalist feelings have been promoted by the state for several years – witness, for example, the finely orchestrated ecstatic celebrations of the 60th anniversary of the PRC, or the national sentiments invested in hosting the Olympics. This gives the party-state legitimacy to manipulate outcomes of procedure in its favor. Thus, even if Mr. Shaikh was not treated exactly properly, this is dwarfed by the foreign attempt to intervene in Chinese sovereignty, as some Chinese responses have alleged.

State legitimacy will be threatened only if a large number of Chinese see their individual welfare threatened. The market reforms that fragment society into niches make this unlikely – since for every citizen who feels hurt by certain reforms, another citizen profits from them. Thus, even if critics successfully argue that the state failed to live up to its own procedures and did not grant Akmal Shaikh a fair trial, or that customs officials were over-zealous in confiscating Professor Feng’s books, the public will remain indifferent. After all, who cares about a British (shades of the Opium War!) drug-smuggler? Who but a handful of academics cares about confiscating scholarly books?

Allegations against the state for failing to live up to its perceived image can emerge local and small-scale protests (from the riots two years ago in Weng’an to the protests after the Sichuan earthquake over shoddy school construction). And in these cases procedure is pursued as if it was supposed to provide justice, its absence leading to state failings.

Yet some cases can even lead to support for illegal actions. For instance, AP reports that a young man in northern China has been sentenced to death for murdering a hated and allegedly corrupt local village official, yet that 20,000 local residents have petitioned the court for a more lenient sentence (Gillian Wong, “China teen seen as hero for killing local official” Washington Post, January 20, 2010). It seems then that when perceptions of justice are unequivocally clear, procedure may once again be marginalized in favor of justice.

Shakhar Rahav is an assistant professor at the Department of Asian Studies at the University of Haifa.

By Sam Crane

We saw Avatar last night (I know, I’ve been on a movie kick of late…). It was visually stunning. The story was unremarkable: a melodramatic morality tale (the good guy wins in the end!). But it did have a couple of Taoist elements, which were no doubt quite consciously incorporated into the story.

First is the indirect invocation of Qi (Ch’i). In the movie, the planet of Pandora is, as the Sigorney Weaver character says, a complex, organic network of energy. Everything is interconnected and a life’s-force energy flows through and around all. That is pretty much the notion of Qi. Now, strictly speaking, this is not just a Taoist concept but something more general in Chinese culture. Confucius and Mencius both mention Qi. But the notion of Qi as a broader natural force, which humans must learn to live with and through, is very much a part of Taoism, in both its philosophical and religious forms. In the film, the indigenous people are able to flow with Qi to such an extent that they can use it as a restorative and healing force. This is the essence of Chinese medicine (which owes much to Taoism): working with the flow of Qi to gain maximum physical health.

The movie also embraces a notion of Tao (Way) that comes rather close to a Taoist understanding. The grand maternal spirit, said to encompass all things, is called upon at a critical juncture: the hero character asks it to intervene in the consummating battle. But he is told by his indigenous lover that the grand maternal spirit does not take sides. All inclusive but indifferent – sounds like the Tao Te Ching to me:

Way is the mystery of these ten thousand things.
It’s a good person’s treasure and an evil person’s refuge.  Its beautiful words are bought and sole and its noble deeds are gifts enriching people.
It never abandons even the evil among us.
When the Son of Heaven is enthroned and the three dukes installed, parades with jade discs and stately horses can’t compare to sitting still in Way’s company.
Isn’t it said that the ancients exalted Way because in it whatever we seek we find, and whatever seeks us we escape?
No wonder it’s exalted throughout all beneath heaven.  (62)

It turns out, in the film, that the grand maternal spirit does intervene at the crucial moment, which suggests that Way is not perfectly neutral but may tend in certain directions. This, to my mind, comes close to Chuang Tzu’s notion of Way, which provides a kind of liberating joy. Way “acts,” it “governs,” in a manner beyond human comprehension, but with a tendency to balance “evil” with “good.”

In any event, there are other more obvious Taoist themes: a pro-environmental message and an anti-militarist stance. All told, Pandora, the planet-utopia, is something of a Taoist ideal, which the greedy earthling humans are destroying…

I should also mention the name of the mineral that fuels human greed: “unobtainium.” Nice! The thing we desire the most is unobtainable. Again: an idea right out of the Tao Te Ching

Finally, let me comment on the Chinese reactions to the movie that Roland, over at ESWN, posts. Take this response by film director Lu Chuan:

I felt as if I had gone back to my childhood and became a small boy full of dreams … but the simple story was flawless and the plot was very engrossing. Avatar let us know that we lack not only just in technology. Technology can be acquired. Avatar let me realize how far our movies are from simple perfection; how far our movies are from crystal-clear purity; how far our movies from passionate dreams; how far from genuine sincerity are we who are embroiled in grim entanglements and dim vulgarity! We ought to ashamed in the face of the purity of Avatar. This is a complete defeat that we Chinese filmmakers must collectively witness and concede.

This strikes me as an overreaction, but one with a kernel of truth. I suspect that Chinese filmmakers will embrace and expand upon the technology of Avatar with little trouble. And certain kinds of storytelling, especially melodrama, are very much a part of the Chinese cinematic repertoire. But something that distinguishes Avatar, and makes it unlikely to be reproduced in Chinese film making any time soon, is its critical nature.The film is a direct assault on American modernity in general and the Bush administration more particularly. Yes, the critiques lapse into caricatures — the evil military man crying out that we must “fight terrorism with terrorism” and launch a preemptive attack (Dick Cheney is clearly the model here) — but they are critiques nonetheless. And such obvious criticisms of specific political authorities and broader historical trends are just not possible in the PRC, given the political sensitivities of the CCP and the power of state censors. Even though ideological policing has relaxed significantly since the Maoist period, it is still constricting enough to prevent movie stories like Avatar.

If China wants to make movies like Avatar, the powers that be will have to press further with a famous Deng Xiaoping line: liberate thought — 解放思想. Or, as Wen Jiabao said in 2008: “We have to free the minds of everyone, particularly of leaders, so that everyone can have independent thought, critical thinking and innovation capabilities”…

Sam Crane, Professor of Political Science at Williams College, is currently working on a book manuscript, Integrity Perfected: Ancient Chinese Thought in Modern American Life. He also maintains a blog, The Useless Tree, where this essay first appeared. It has been reposted here in full with permission.

By Stanley Rosen

There’s been a lot of discussion of the political meanings that can be read into Avatar and how this might relate to it being pulled from or simply ending its run in some Chinese theaters. As a political scientist with a long-term interest in the Chinese film industry, and the fate of Hollywood movies in China, and someone who is interested in the working of SARFT (the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television), here are four things worth keeping in mind when considering the situation:

First, Tong Gang (the Director of the Film Bureau under SARFT) and Zhang Hongsen (The Deputy Head of the Film Bureau) have felt the need to clear up a variety of “rumors” relating to the replacement of Avatar with Confucius and other issues. In part, this is in response to the rapid spread of information that cannot easily be controlled. For example, the word on the removal of Avatar from film screens began with the southern media, but reports from Chengdu, Shenyang, Ningbo and other places on the removal of the film were quickly spread by “word of mouth” and QQ messaging. No one waited for a formal announcement, which contributed to SARFT feeling the necessity to get out in front of the story.

Second, the Film Bureau under Tong and Zhang held a seminar on January 19 for those who work on film on the lessons of Avatar for the Chinese film industry. Much of what Tong and Zhang said was in praise of Avatar, particularly its artistic and technical achievements, and they pointed out the weaknesses of the Chinese film industry. It should also be mentioned that on January 8, in his annual report on the achievements of the Chinese film industry over the past year, Tong at several points brought up the threat from Hollywood films, with language that suggested that a long-term war was being fought, despite the fact that domestic films made up 56.6% of the market in 2009 (but Hollywood films finished first and second and are also now first, second and third all-time).

Third, as has been pointed out by others, it’s very clear that Chinese audiences, particularly the youth who make up the bulk of the film audience, want to see Avatar in 3-D and are willing to wait on long lines to do so. It’s quite common for those I know to say that the only way they’ll spend money to see the film in an age of downloading will be in the 3-D format. There’s also peer pressure. I don’t think anyone would want to admit that they saw this film in a theater in 2-D.

Fourth, Avatar is already revolutionary, and not just because it’s now the biggest grossing film in Chinese history. My friends in the film industry cannot think of a major foreign “tentpole” film released around the period of New Year’s Day and Chinese New Year’s Day. For the so-called “New Year Films” (hesuipian, 贺岁片), it’s always been only Chinese films. This suggests that there was no great desire to limit the success of this film, particularly since it appears that the 3-D version will continue. One could perhaps argue that Avatar is being shown to stimulate creativity in the Chinese film industry which, as Tong has noted in his comments, has been largely concerned only with making commercial films with little art and even less creativity.

Without going into even more detail, I would just note that at the leading theater chain in Beijing, according to the manager, the showings in 3-D and IMAX make up more than 90% of the box office receipts and that IMAX showings are already advance booked through February 5. Of course there are only about 700 3-D screens in China out of 4,600+, so some people will lose out and not see the film theatrically, but Confucius was originally scheduled to open on January 28 on 2-D screens, so it’s basically been moved up only a week.

Of course rumors persist on why the decision was taken — many people are skeptical that it was ONLY because of the release of Confucius — and even some of the best-placed film people in China have their theories. These spin off in all different directions, sometimes dovetailing with and sometimes diverging from speculation outside of China.

Stanley Rosen is a Professor of Political Science and the Director of the East Asian Studies Center at the University of Southern California, and his most recent book, co-edited with Peter Gries, is Chinese Politics: State, Society and the Market, which is being published this month by Routledge.

christ in pingyao

In the old town of Pingyao, right next to the Confucius temple,
Christmas banners still hang on a Catholic Church, built 1910. Mr
Zhang, housesitting the Church while its priest is away, stands
messianically in his room, shortly after his quiet attempts to convert

In the old town of Pingyao, right next to the Confucius temple, Christmas banners still hang on a Catholic Church, built in 1910. Mr. Zhang, housesitting the Church while its priest is away, stands messianically in his room, shortly after his quiet attempts to convert  me.

–Alec Ash

By Geremie R. Barmé

A Year of Anniversaries
The year 2009 was marked by a series of important anniversaries in the history of the People’s Republic of China. Some of these were commemorated with due pomp and circumstance in the official media and dissected at length during learned gatherings and discussions. Others, those events that I think of as ‘dark anniversaries’, passed by in an atmosphere of heightened alertness, surveillance and official anxiety. Dark anniversaries are the signposts of quelled protests, social unrest and state violence, events such as the 1959 rebellion in Lhasa, the shutting down of the Xidan Democracy Wall in Beijing in 1979, the tragedy of the 1989 protest movement and the religious repression of 1999. Such events offer alternative narratives to the official Party-state story of modern China; an understanding of them also contributes to our appreciation of the ways that the strong unitary state, and its anxieties, has evolved over the past decades. The ‘forgotten dates’ in the official Chinese calendar offer a penumbra of history; they stand in shaded contrast to vaunted moments the commemoration of which is carried out in the merciless glare of publicity and official largesse. Although formally ignored, or recalled only in verso, the dark anniversaries cast a gloomy shadow over the orchestrated son et lumière of state occasions.[1]

Only days after the 1 October 2009 celebration of the sixtieth anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China in Beijing, the Chinese Premier, Wen Jiabao 温家宝, paid a state visit to North Korea. During his stay in Pyongyang, Wen visited the memorial to the fallen members of the Chinese ‘volunteer army’ that had fought alongside Soviet and Korean communist forces during what is known in China as the ‘War to Oppose American Aggression and Support Korea’. Among the war dead is Mao Anying 毛岸英, the favoured son of Mao Zedong, the founding leader of the People’s Republic. After laying a wreath at Anying’s tomb, Wen directly addressed a stone likeness of the dead soldier. He said: ‘Comrade Anying, I have come to see you on behalf of the people of the motherland. Our country is strong now and its people enjoy good fortune. You may rest in peace’. (Anying tongzhi, wo daibiao zuguo renmin lai kanwang ni. Zuguo xianzai qiangdale, renmin xingfule. Ni anxi ba.岸英同志,我代表祖国人民来看望你。祖国现在强大了,人民幸福了。你安息吧。[2]

Although this statement passed by the media with little comment, among well-informed friends in Beijing Wen’s was seen as a remarkable utterance. Some argued that, in essence, it meant that a contemporary Chinese leader was declaring that the efforts to create a strong and prosperous nation—a Herculean enterprise that has inspired and haunted Chinese thinkers, politicians and people for over a century—have to all intents and purposes borne fruit. Taking things one step further it would seem that, in offering consolation to the long-dead son of modern China’s founder, Wen was also declaring that the mission of the ‘Chinese revolution’ had been achieved. If, friends remarked to me in private, the revolution is over and the aims of the Communist Party all but achieved, then what will the next grand mission of the Chinese nation be in the twenty-first century?

As China continues along the trajectory it is enjoying as a strong, and increasingly willful, modern power it therefore becomes necessary to speculate about the future enterprises of not only the Party-state that rules China, but of the Chinese people collectively. While the orchestrated mass celebrations of the People’s Republic were being held in Beijing, thoughtful writers and thinkers recalled the solemn undertakings that had originally brought the Chinese Communist Party to power shortly after the Second World War. In a country racked by years of invasion and internecine strife and economic collapse, at that time the Communists not only offered national unity and economic stability, they also won over the urban classes and intelligentsia by declaring that they would create a polity that instituted political democracy and secured human rights in ways unachieved by the Nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek. During the late 1940s, in countless essays, editorials, speeches and documents, time and again China’s revolutionary leaders undertook to fulfill the promise of China’s original revolution of 1911 that had seen the end of dynastic autocracy. It was a promise to realize national prosperity and democratic politics.[3] Read the rest of this entry »

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