February 2010

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By Kate Merkel-Hess

In January, we marked the end of our second year online. China Beat has changed a lot during that time, and will be changing more in the coming weeks and months as China Beat’s new editor, Maura Cunningham, takes the helm. It’s been my pleasure to have been founding editor of China Beat, and as I transition to a new role at the blog (I will now join the ranks of the blog’s consulting editors), I wanted to look back at how China Beat has developed since January 2008—for new readers and for readers who have been with us since the beginning.

How did China Beat get started?

China Beat grew out of conversations between Ken Pomeranz and Jeff Wasserstrom, both professors of Chinese history at the University of California, Irvine (UCI). In fall 2007, they began to talk about the likely focus on China during its Olympic year, and felt there was a need to bring more scholars of China into those media discussions. Inspired by other historian bloggers, for instance the big crew at History News Network and Juan Cole’s Informed Comment, they thought that a blog might be one way to start getting those voices into the mix. At the time, I was a Ph.D. candidate at UCI, and when Jeff and Ken began to draw up a list of potential regular contributors to the blog (mostly academics in various disciplines, but also a couple of writers from outside of the academy) I was one of the people they approached. As the only local who had previously dabbled in blogging, I volunteered to get the venture up and running. At that point, we all envisioned that the blog would be self-perpetuating—that the “editor” would be doing little more than ensuring that the blog stayed online and that the group of 20 or so contributors would regularly generate and post their own content.

As it turned out, however, we quickly began soliciting new content from contributors outside that initial group to respond to current events or to address specific topics. Very quickly, we were operating much more like a standard magazine than a group blog—soliciting pieces, editing submissions, and heavily moderating the content that appeared online. Jeff and Ken, as the blog’s founders and “Consulting Editors,” have not only contributed posts but also play an important role in recruiting contributors and brainstorming with me (and more recently Maura, too) about new directions the blog could or should move. I kept the blog running day-to-day; I also wrote or pulled together the many byline-less posts from the author “China Beat” (those posts have, in recent weeks, largely shifted to Maura’s responsibility).

What was China Beat’s primary goal and how has it changed over time?

China Beat’s primary goal was to counter the steady refrain of reports on air pollution, Chinese nationalism, and other Western media tropes that were the stock in trade for many daily journalists and even more so newscasters leading up to the Olympics. That isn’t to say that those weren’t important stories—just that we felt that there were more complicated, interesting ways to tell those stories (as well as the many other stories that were overlooked). And we knew that we could draw on a network of scholars of China who were rarely, if ever, tapped by journalists and Western media as “China experts,” despite the fact that these people had valuable, critical knowledge to contribute to the discussion. We also thought we would find willing collaborators among some non-academics (such as China-based freelance writers and journalists) with an interest in offering beyond the headlines views of the PRC.

In addition, we worried that the media was relying too heavily on a small group of “China experts” (some of whom were wonderfully perceptive but others of whom had rather limited knowledge of China), and these voices were dominating the discussion, sometimes to the detriment of Western understandings of China. We wanted to feature opinions and perspectives on contemporary China that were grounded in cutting edge scholarship, that were historically contextualized, and that were informed by what was actually happening on the ground in China. Most importantly, we hoped to convey the diversity and heterogeneity of China (intellectually, socially, culturally, demographically, etc.) rather than trying to boil China down to simple sound bites (which often ended up being “China’s scary,” “China’s impervious to change,” or “China’s becoming just like the U.S.”).

We can claim some successes in this regard—China Beat contributors like Susan Brownell and Caroline Reeves were contacted to comment on contemporary events as a result of posts they wrote for us, and writings that first appeared at China Beat have been reprinted (and sometimes translated), reaching broader audiences at publications from Shanghaiist and Japan Focus (where some of our posts have run in expanded formats, after skillful editing by Mark Selden there) to Huffington Post and Poland’s Gazeta Wyborcza. But there is still a lot of work to do to shift how China is framed in popular discussions in the US and elsewhere, and it will take more than just the work of China Beat to accomplish it.

That’s one important reason we think of ourselves as part of a broader network of China-interested writers, and why we celebrate when one of China Beat’s contributors has work appear elsewhere. That is really our second mission—to draw attention to quality writing on China. That is a pretty standard goal for a blog, and one that we share with our colleagues at China Digital Times, Danwei, and others. To that end, we are always looking to bring new voices into the discussion. Our special approach is that we focus on voices that are coming from the academy, but we’ve always had contributors who are outside it as well, from Leslie T. Chang (part of the original group Ken and Jeff lined up for the blog) to Xujun Eberlein (a more recent addition), whose works are, like those of our academic contributors, grounded in research and careful analysis. Some of our early contributors even had a foot in both academia and journalism—like Susan Jakes, a former reporter for Time and current graduate student of Chinese history at Yale, and Howard French, the former Shanghai bureau chief for The New York Times and current professor at Columbia School of Journalism.

What is the institutional structure for China Beat and how does that shape its content?

China Beat was initially built around a group of contributors at the University of California, Irvine (not only Jeff, Ken, and me, but also Yong Chen, Guo Qitao, Nicole Barnes, Pierre Fuller, Jennifer Liu, Shi Xia, Miri Kim, Chris Heselton, and others), but quickly grew beyond that. Even so, the blog’s focus on thinking of China in the world reflects some of the particularities of how China is studied at UCI—which has a vibrant and friendly cross-disciplinary community of China scholars (like Dorie Solinger in Political Science, Wang Feng and Su Yang in Sociology, Hu Ying and Bert Scruggs in East Asian Languages and Literatures, and many others across campus) as well as being the center of an innovative approach to the study and teaching of world history that was pioneered by two China scholars—Ken Pomeranz and R. Bin Wong (now at UCLA). In addition, UCI hosts a lively community of writers centered around the UCI MFA in Writing program and the International Center for Writing and Translation (an organization that funded a memorable weeklong visit to campus by novelist and essayist Pankaj Mishra, a longtime friend of the blog).

Despite the strong influences of UCI on China Beat, the blog does not share an official affiliation with the university—we do not receive regular financial support from the university (though some campus entities have helped us to put on local events, like the recent campus reading by Peter Hessler, an original member of the blogging team) and none of us are paid for our work at China Beat. This limited support means that, over time, we have scaled back the interactive features of the blog, such as the decision last year to eliminate reader comments (we were spending increasing amounts of time moderating reader feedback and spam). We do invite readers to submit more traditional “letters to the editor” (they can be sent to our email address, thechinabeat@gmail.com) and we have run several of these submissions as stand-alone commentaries at the blog in recent months.

As the blog has grown over the past two years, we have incorporated contributors from many other institutions—not just in the United States but around the world—and each brings a unique perspective and frame of analysis to China Beat. As a result, though our UCI roots were important in shaping the blog in its early days, we now see ourselves as reflecting a broader conversation among China specialists and writers who seek to reach a wider audience.

What is China Beat’s future?

As I mentioned above, we are going through some personnel changes. I have recently accepted a position in History and Asian Studies at Penn State, and will begin my position there in fall 2010. In anticipation of my changing status, we brought Maura Cunningham on as associate editor in fall 2009; she will now transition into the post of editor of the blog and I will move into the role of consulting editor, continuing to contribute posts and be involved, as Ken and Jeff have been, in coordinating and recruiting content.

At a less functional level, China Beat’s future is hard to predict. Practically, we intend to keep on as we have—featuring quality writing about China and drawing attention to good stuff that appears elsewhere—but we also recognize that the blog is a platform that continues to evolve. Blogs are now recognized as an important component of the media landscape (and now look more like magazines than the navel-gazing personal sites that were the granddaddies of the form), but the technology is not standing still. We want to continue to reach new audiences where and how they read. To do that, and yet retain the deep and critical analysis we think is a vital part of the intellectual project, is an exciting challenge. We love our print books enormously (we are historians, after all, and we were delighted to see a print book, China in 2008: A Year of Great Significance, bring the sensibility of and some material from China Beat into bookstores and Amazon.com), but we aren’t afraid of the changes that are inevitably coming to how we teach, learn, discuss, and, ultimately, think. China Beat is just one way that many of us are experimenting with how to reshape (or perhaps revitalize) the role of the academic as public intellectual.

Since Jeff Wasserstrom posted a round-up of reviews of Martin Jacques’ When China Rules the World, pieces that reference the book have continued to be published, including a column by Robert Samuelson at the Wall Street Journal that calls Jacques’ book ”masterful.” Jacques, meanwhile, published another op-ed on China and the US last week titled ”Crouching Dragon, Weakened Eagle” in the International Herald Tribune. Below, Harald Bockman raises his concerns about the on-going attention Jacques’ book is receiving, and points out—despite that attention—the weakness in the book that most reviewers are still missing.

By Harald Bockman

In a recent post at China Beat, Jeff Wasserstrom summarized reviews of Martin Jacques’ When China Rules the World from six scholars and journalists. Having followed how the book has been received, I found it quite surprising that hardly any of the reviewers have confronted the author with the undergirding of the books’ central argument: historical evidence that is mobilized to prove that China will be the dominant world power within a generation. (In London Review of Books Perry Anderson did present a pointed crititcism of claims of historical uniqueness, and in The Spectator Jonathan Mirsky presented a piecemeal historical criticism, but neither of them provide a thorough critique of Jacques’ interpretation of Chinese history as such.) This is surprising as Jacques’ book is the first ambitious attempt to apply an historical approach to this subject.

This blind spot of the reviewers is particularly worrying in light of the absence of historians engaging in a critical assessment of Jacques’ book. It seems like historians are still to a large degree concerned with different texts. This is further exacerbated by Beijing’s persistent recent offering of a rehashed version of Chinese history, a new type of  geneaology which may seem rather enticing to the uninitiated writer (like the state-sponsored myth of 5000 years of history, which Jacques swallows).

I have hardly read a work on China which is dependent to such a degree on other sources as When China Rules the World. The arguments largely become a function of the selected sources, and reveals that Jacques is unable to establish a critical and knowledgeable approach to his sources. The publishers have summoned Eric Hobsbawm to appear on the dust cover (at least for the British edition) to state that this is a work ”… full of historical understanding and realism …” Hobsbawm’s history bona fides thus just seem like window dressing for the book’s failing historical insights.

The historical part of the book starts and ends with Lucian Pye and his notion of ”civilization-state”, with Huntington applauding from the bibliography. The term passes mostly without resistance from the reviewers, except for Anderson. From there on, we are led on a guided tour through historical aspects of issues like nation-building, perceptions of race (a section which would have collapsed without Frank Dikötter’s The Discourse of Race in Modern China), Tibet, overseas Chinese, the tributary system, Confucianism, politics, democracy, and soft power. The silliest claim of all must be Jacques’ use of Mengzi’s notion of caring for the old to explain why there is not a single gray hair to be seen in the Central Committee (CC)! The vain use of hair dye in the present CC outdoes any of the former CCs. (If you are looking for gray hair, the chances are better in the National People’s Congress, but by far best in the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Congress.)

Jacques makes use of cultural determinism to explain economic determinism. Above all, Jacques’ alarmist presentation of Chinese history will not ring positively in the ears of the average Westerner. The Yellow Peril may be just around the corner, and Jacques’ book should be taken as a warning, even if this is not the intention of the author. To sum up: Jacques’ arguments in favor of a new Chinese world order may just as well be used to argue against the prospects of a new Chinese world order.

Harald Bockman is a Researcher at the Centre for Development and the Environment, University of Oslo

There have been plenty of news stories recently about today’s meeting between Barack Obama and the Dalai Lama. Here are some suggestions for further reading (and viewing):

1. Tibet expert Robert Barnett of Columbia University is interviewed by Deborah Jerome of the Council of Foreign Relations:

All American presidents since 1990 have met with the Dalai Lama, yet President Obama’s scheduled meeting Thursday has drawn a sharp warning from China that the visit will undermine U.S.-China relations. Is China more irritated about this visit than it has been previously?

There is certainly a higher level of angry rhetoric from Beijing. . . . But in fact, behind the scenes, Beijing was far more disturbed by the previous presidential meeting, President George W. Bush’s presentation of the Congressional Gold Medal to the Dalai Lama in October 2007—because that was the first and only time a U.S. president and the Tibetan leader had met in public.

So for Chinese diplomats, the real objective for the last six months or so has been not to stop the meeting, which their experts knew was impossible, but to get it to be private. That’s been achieved, because the meeting will take place in a private room, the White House Map Room. But that’s an obscure issue of protocol that, as the White House knows, makes a lot of difference to Beijing officials but none to American or Tibetan perceptions of the meeting. For China, the symbolic details matter, but for Tibetans in Tibet, it’s only whether the two people meet that is meaningful.

2. “Tibet Is No Shangri-La,” writes Christina Larson at Foreign Policy:

The political and territorial stakes are serious, and not likely to be resolved anytime soon. But there is also a gauziness with which the region and the man who represents it to the West are most often discussed. Even in the fast-paced and cynical 21st century, talk of Tibet still elicits a 19th century aura of romanticism and melancholy. In general, sentiment veils critical thinking. In the case of Tibet, our collective nostalgia, inexplicably, for a place most of us have never seen lends itself to a striking absolutism with which we discuss the place, its people, its present condition, its future destiny. While most things in life are murky and grey, the Tibet of our imagination is pristine, and the lines between good and evil are as clear as a mountain stream.

3. We’ve mentioned Donald Lopez’s “7 Things You Don’t Know About Tibet” before, but it seems appropriate to call attention to it again this week:

Tibetans have never heard of their famous religious text The Tibetan Book of the Dead. What is known in the West by that title is a short Tibetan work, the Bardo Thodol, meaning “Liberation through Hearing in the Intermediate State.” It is a mortuary text, read over a dead or dying person to help him or her escape from rebirth or, if that’s not possible, to have a good rebirth in the next life. It is an example of a genre of similar texts used in one of the four sects of Tibetan Buddhism. It became the most famous Tibetan text in the West after Walter Wentz, a wealthy American Theosophist, traveled to India in the 1920s, and commissioned a translation. Wentz then added his own commentary, transforming the Tibetan mortuary text into a Theosophical treatise. The text has lived on through several reincarnations, including one by Timothy Leary that uses the Tibetan text as a “flight plan” for an acid trip. Leary’s book (The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead) is best remembered for the line “Whenever in doubt, turn off your mind, relax, float downstream,” which was lifted by John Lennon for the song “Tomorrow Never Knows” on the Beatles’ 1966 album, Revolver.

4. At Time, Jeff Wasserstrom discusses the current Sino-U.S. relationship and declares it “Too Big to Fail”:

While Washington and Beijing seem very much at odds just now, we shouldn’t let their current state blind us to how intertwined they have become, nor to parallels between America’s rise at the start of the last century and China’s at the start of this one. Whether they like it or realize it, their relationship is truly one thing too big to fail.

5. “The Caucus” blog of the New York Times has a short video assembled by Ben Werschkul of statements Obama and the White House have made regarding Tibet during the past year — all of which are “notable for their caution.”

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We wanted to draw reader attention to a few interviews that aired this week from regular China Beat contributors.

Yesterday, Jeff Wasserstrom appeared on NPR’s Morning Edition to discuss Obama’s meeting with the Dalai Lama. You can listen to the four-minute interview here.

On Tuesday, an interview with Sam Crane, who posted a piece about Avatar at China Beat last month, aired on “Here on Earth: Radio Without Borders.” The show devoted an entire hour to the topic “Confucius vs. Avatar.” You can listen to the show, which includes lengthy conversation with Crane, here. You can also listen at Crane’s blog, The Useless Tree.

This essay is based on the script of a talk Ying Zhu gave at Google’s New York offices on February 12, 2010. Sections in bold were not part of the original talk, but have been added by the authors to tease out some of the issues that were left without further elaboration due to time constraints.

By Ying Zhu and Bruce Robinson

Editor’s note: This piece originally ran with Ying Zhu listed as its sole author. After it appeared, Ying Zhu informed us that it should be described as a co-authored commentary, in recognition of the extraordinary contribution to it by Bruce Robinson, with whom she had collaborated closely on a related project; we have followed her wishes; and both Ying Zhu and China Beat ask that in further attributions or discussion both authors be equally credited for this work.

I have recently been reading new books about China with titles like What Does China Think? and How China’s Leaders Think: The Inside Story of China’s Reform and What This Means for the Future — good books that give us genuinely valuable insight into the thinking of many of China’s leading political and intellectual lights. But what they make me think is that we may not be thinking enough about what Chinese society thinks, so I would like to take the opportunity to discuss the concept of China’s emerging “critical masses,” and the power that the critical masses have in shaping the future of China.

I would like to propose that the Chinese people are more and more the masters of their own destiny, and maybe yours. As you know, sometime in 2008 China surpassed the U.S. as the country with the largest number of Internet users. That’s the same year that it became the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter. It is also the United States’ leading creditor, owning, by most accounts, over 1 trillion dollars of U.S. debt, and it will soon pass Japan as the world’s second largest economy. So as Americans, as citizens of the world, and especially as Googlers, you all have something riding on China’s choices now and in the future, even without the current controversy. And speaking of that controversy, naturally, I should factor Google’s recent adventures in China into the overall scheme of my take on Chinese media and society.

I want to say first that I am thrilled to be here at the reigning search engine of “Life, the Universe and Everything.” Thrilled, but I might also say “in thrall,” since in my line of work it has become nearly impossible to operate without constant resort to the little magic box that transforms keywords into the raw material of articles and books. Maybe you could get it to do the writing too, in addition to dating?

Once, of course, there was no Google. Back in the days before Google, say 30 years or so “BG,” communications scholars used to give too little credit to audiences, who they regarded as mostly passive recipients of messages contained in a one way flow of mass mediated communication.

We are repeating the same pattern today in paying too much attention to China’s leaders and intellectuals, and to the surface content of media messages, without considering how Chinese audiences use and interpret media and produce their own mediated information. We also tend to emphasize government control and censorship of the media and the Internet, citing the “Great Firewall of China” without considering either the real extent of information available, or what people do with it. We are not alone in this. The Chinese state may also be giving audiences too little credit, persisting in a deep-rooted conviction that national unity and political stability can only be maintained through paternalistic management of culture and information.

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