May 2010

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By William A. Callahan

Since mid-2009, China has become much more assertive in world affairs, taking positions that challenge the US and Europe on numerous fronts including climate change, exchange rates, nuclear Iran, cyber security, and human rights. This list of problems came as a surprise to the many experts who for the past decade have been telling us that China’s peaceful rise demonstrates that Beijing has been socialized into the international system as a responsible actor.

Yet recent events suggest that ‘responsible stakeholder’ is not China’s preferred goal. The PRC is in the midst of a transition, shifting from trying to fit into the international system, to confidently – even arrogantly – asserting itself as the newest great power.

Martin Jacques, author of When China Rules the World, tells us that we shouldn’t be surprised at China’s new assertiveness: it is merely returning to a Chinese-style of global governance. We need to understand this new situation in terms of China’s own concepts about foreign relations, rather than Eurocentric theories of diplomacy. Thus along with economic power shifting from West to East, he and others argue that intellectual power is shifting from Europe and America to China.

I agree that a change is taking place, but am not convinced that it is a grand continental shift from a Western to a Chinese world order. Rather, what we are witnessing is a dramatic transition from the PRC’s elite political culture (Marxism and/or Confucianism) to the global popular culture that China shares with the rest of the world.

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When the dust settles from my still-in-progress “book tour for the post-book tour age” (as I’ve taken to calling the series of events relating to China in the 21st Century that I’ve been taking part in, sometimes having the stage to myself, sometimes sharing it with others), I’m going to try to write something about the experience as a whole (though there won’t be any video log of my travels a la the ones by Rebecca Skloot I’ve been enjoying: h/t to Mara H. for leading me to them on the web). But for now I’m still too busy accumulating frequent flyer miles (and sometimes selling and signing some books) to do that, so a few quick updates from the road (or actually from home, but about to go back on the road) will have to suffice.

Update 1: Tomorrow, I’m off to the East Coast…again. Last time I was there, a couple of weeks back, one of the most interesting conversations I had (during a trip that was memorable largely for a lot of interesting conversations with old friends and people I’d just met) was with Devin Stewart of the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, someone who knows a great deal about Asia (though his focus has been on Japan more often than China). That conversation is now up here as a podcast (with an accompanying transcript for anyone who would rather read than listen–and the transcript even has some links embedded in it, a nice touch by the folks at Carnegie, that take you to place to find out more about subjects that came up when we chatted).

Update 2: Between that last East Coast leg of the “tour” and a short West Coast one (about which I’ll provide some details another time), I did a segment of the “Here on Earth” radio show with World’s Fair expert Urso Chappell as the other guest, and you can hear what we had to say here.

Update 3: On May 11, I’ll be speaking about the book from 6:30pm to 8:00pm in New York in an event sponsored by NYU’s China House: the address for the talk is 19 University Place, Room 102, New York University.

Update 4: On May 12, I’ll be in Washington, D.C. speaking at an event sponsored by the World Affairs Council, which requires advance registration and even buying a ticket if you aren’t a member of the organization–or a student or intern, as they get in free as well.

Update 5: On May 15, I’ll be back on the West Coast speaking at an event that includes presentations or comments by several other people whose names should be familiar to many readers of this blog: Perry Link (like me, a main presenter), Richard Baum (commenting on Perry’s talk), and Daniel Lynch (commenting on mine).

Update 6: In the “wish I could be in two places at once category”…on May 11, while I’m speaking in one part of New York, Ian Johnson (who does stellar reporting on China and is a longtime friend of this blog) will be speaking in another part of it. He’s on his own book tour, you see, promoting his fascinating new non-China book A Mosque in Munich (I’ve read it and can recommend it as a thoroughly compelling work). Fortunately, after discovering that we’d both be in the same city at the same time, we did work out a time between talks to meet and compare notes. And, of course, I’ll get to see him again and hear him talk about his book (as well as about China) when he comes to UCI in June to engage in a dialog with Angilee Shah that continues the China Beat series of writers-in-conversation events.

Though we spend a lot of time reading over here at China Beat headquarters, we also like to keep up with the many China-related podcasts and videos that are proliferating on the web these days. A sampling of what’s caught our attention recently:

• The conversation that Jeff Wasserstrom and Mara Hvistendahl had at UC Irvine last month, “The Challenge of Writing about a Fast-Changing China,” is available online at the Making History Podcast website (run by UCI graduate student Jana Remy).

• Kaiser Kuo is now hosting a weekly podcast called Sinica, where he is joined by regular guest contributors such as Bill Bishop, Gady Epstein, and Jeremy Goldkorn.

• If you prefer some video with your audio, check out this talk at the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations by Jerome A. Cohen, in which he reflects on fifty years of Chinese legal development. For those who don’t have time to watch the entire hour-long program, an especially interesting portion begins at the 11-minute mark: Cohen discusses his meetings with figures such as Zhou Enlai and Chiang Kai-shek.

• Visit the Asia Society’s webpage for a variety of videos, on topics such as the legacy of Pearl S. Buck and the possible ramifications of a Chinese currency revaluation.

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For updates and insights on the 2010 Expo, one of the first places we turn is Shanghai Scrap, where Shanghai-based writer Adam Minter has been following the story for almost two years. Minter’s Expo posts cover topics such as the emergence of Haibao (September 2008), the renovation of the Bund (December 2009) and demolition of neighborhoods (October 2009), and an ongoing in-depth investigation of the twisted saga of the U.S. pavilion (most recent post here; full archive here). Minter also has an article and slideshow about the Expo at The Atlantic. In the wake of last Saturday’s opening ceremony, we posed a few questions to Minter via e-mail, and his responses appear below.

1) What — if anything — surprised you about the Opening Ceremony?

I was astounded at how archaic it appeared. The people with whom I was watching it compared it to a CCTV variety show, circa 1985. The fireworks, however, were spectacular.

2) What — if anything — has surprised you about how the first couple of days of the Expo have gone in terms of news coverage, buzz in Shanghai, crowd or street responses?

I’ve been surprised at the negative undertone in the state media’s coverage of the event. The stories are positive, of course, but they’re sprinkled with mentions of over-crowding, lines, and heat. The lead Shanghai Daily story on the second day, for example, pointedly noted that the Expo Bureau had limited admission to 204,000 to prevent over-crowding; for months, they’d been touting the fact that the Expo grounds hold 700,000 on peak days. On a personal note, I applaud the decision: the grounds simply can’t handle more than 200,000 people.

3) What should we keep our eye out for, or pay attention to, as the event continues?

Shanghai Daily reported 150,000 no-shows on an opening day that attracted 204,000. Now, these numbers need to be taken with a grain of salt, but even so they do seem to suggest that significant numbers of people are choosing not to come to the Expo. Why? I suspect that reports of over-crowding and lines are the culprit. It’ll be interesting to see whether this trend continues. I’m sure that the organizers are doing everything they can to change the situation on the ground and — more importantly — change the story in the media. Let’s see.

I’m also very curious to see how some of these pavilions hold up for the next six months. They are temporary structures, with temporary features, and I wonder how the June rains and the humid heat of July and August will impact them. For example, the wicker skin of the Spanish pavilion, beautiful as it is, strikes me as wholly inappropriate to the Shanghai climate.

But look, for all of its problems and over-crowding, the Expo is a wildly weird and wonderful event, and I think anyone interested in China’s place in the world would be making a mistake if he or she didn’t make a few visits, just to see how this thing evolves. At a minimum, there will be some terrific performing arts programs over the coming six months (Herbie Hancock, a giant Bollywood extravaganza, etc) worth keeping an eye out for.

4) Any final thoughts on living in Shanghai at a time when most countdown clocks have just hit zero, even though the AccessAsia.co.uk clock still has months to go before it zeroes out when the Expo ends?

To be honest, aside from the inconvenient security checks and traffic, I don’t think that the Expo is having a very significant effect on the city — at least, not yet. I know many blame the recent demolition boom on the Expo — but I’m of the opinion that those demolitions would’ve happened, anyway (especially in the wake of the economic stimulus-induced building boom). That’s not to excuse them, but rather to say that the blame needs to be properly apportioned.

In any case, my university days were spent in Hyde Park, Chicago, site of the 1893 World Colombian Exposition. The landscape of the neighborhood was shaped by the event, and there are still a handful of buildings that remain from it. Like many people who have lived there, I became fixated on the history of the event and its impact upon Chicago. I own too many books about it, and even today, when a new novel or non-fiction work concerning the 1893 Expo is released, I have a hard time resisting it. So, for me, at least, it’s an unexpected and welcome twist and treat that I find myself living in a city that — in its own way — is trying to replicate a little bit of what Chicago did a century ago. I intend to enjoy the moment.

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When the first World’s Fair, the Crystal Palace Exhibition, took place in 1851, it did so amidst much breathless talk of a new technology of communication that was capable of sending information across vast distances at incredible speed. That then novel but now very old “new media” invention was the telegraph, which inspired commentary much like that we’ve heard recently regarding the Internet. And it is thanks to the wonders of that newest of new media, the Internet, that I have been able to follow the final lead up to and first days of the 2010 World Expo from afar, and indeed to publish this post (written while taking advantage of the free wifi at the Hartford Airport heading home after a series of East Coast book talks).

Here, for others trying to make sense of China’s first World’s Fair from a great distance are a few links that I’ve found particularly interesting. Some their information, some for their visuals, some for their sheer bizarreness.

1) An Al Jazeera video dealing with the opening ceremonies and the way that the current economic state of specific countries and their relationships with China have influenced their displays. (An added plus: for anyone who, like me, has been following Adam Minter’s smart reporting on the Expo on his blog, “Shanghai Scrap,” but didn’t know what he looked and sounded like, you get to finds out toward the end of this clip.)

2) Xinhua, always looking for something to run about the Expo, came up with this curious tale of fans from Portugal driving to the Fair.

3) Since my new book is in a Q & A format, I’m kind of partial just now to pieces that pose and provide replies to basic questions, as reporters from Reuters do here in a short article on why Shanghai is hosting an Expo.

4) I’m hopelessly biased here, since I’m quoted in this New York Times article by David Barboza (and in a nice bit of timing it appeared during the Manhattan stop of my book tour), but it does do a nice job of putting the event into context.

5) Some good photos at the new Forbes.com “China Tracker” blog.

6) One of many reports that highlight the problems (big crowds, sweltering heat, you name it) that don’t figure centrally in Xinhua articles.

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