June 2010

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Maura Elizabeth Cunningham: How did Danwei get started, and what is its primary mission? Has this changed over time?

Jeremy Goldkorn: The reason I started Danwei was that there seemed to be a huge gap between the China I was living in and the way it was reported in the English language media. More specifically, I had worked in the media industry since 1997, and I wanted to describe the excitement and dynamism of the Chinese media scene. In 2003, there was very little written in English and published on the Internet that reflected the real situation and an outsider could have been forgiven for thinking all Chinese journalists and editors were brain-washed apparatchiks.

I started Danwei in 2003 as a one man blog, translating and commenting on interesting articles and trends I was seeing in Chinese media and advertising. At the time, there were very few English-language online sources of information about the Chinese media, and far less coverage of China in the international press than there is today. The information gap between presentations of China in English and the reality of life in China seemed almost criminal.

In its early years, we posted short translations from the Chinese media and Internet postings, comments on funny advertisements and egregious intellectual property infringements, and articles about off the wall subjects like transssexuals entering beauty pageants.

We still do more or less the same thing, but we publish much longer translations now. Every weekday, we summaries the front page of a Chinese newspaper, so we now have an archive of daily snapshots of Chinese life as seen through the mainstream media going back four years. We produce a lot of video, mostly interviews in English and Mandarin. Another relatively new feature is the extensive links blog at the top of Danwei.org where Danwei writers recommend news and good writing in English about China elsewhere on the Internet.

Danwei is now a four person company. We make money mostly from jobs ads on DanweiJobs.com, and from custom research projects for media companies, and for other companies that want to know what Chinese people are saying about them in the media and online.

MEC: On blogs and websites, stories quickly live and die — one week a post will get picked up and linked to by dozens of different people, but by the next week it’s already been left behind. Is there a story you’ve run that had a particularly long life? What do you think were the reasons for its endurance?

JG: The stories that people continue linking to long after they have been published are usually long pieces with original research and reporting, particularly some of the contributions from writers who don’t work for Danwei, such as the essays we’ve published by David Moser about Chinese media, self-censorship, and Chinese comedy (e.g. “Stifled Laughter: How the Communist Party Killed Chinese Humor”). We also come quite high on Google-related searches, so depending on what’s happening in the news, old stuff sometimes gets a new life if it is about a popular or newly trending search term.

Our videos also continue to get watched on Youtube, Vimeo.com and Tudou.com.

MEC: What’s one China story that you would like to see told in a different way?

JG: I don’t think it’s one particular story. It continues to amaze me how little the average Westerner knows about China. It’s not that the information isn’t available, especially online. But mainstream new media in the U.S. and other countries remains parochial, and generally does not cover China except when there is bad news or a visually appealing event like the Olympics (television is of course the worst culprit).

MEC: In addition to blogs and websites, where do you turn for China updates, news, and insights? Are there authors, books, or newsmedia that you turn to for their reliable China coverage? Are there any new websites that you’ve recently begun tracking that you’d recommend to other readers?

JG: We recommend a lot of blogs and China websites in our Model Worker’s section.

Aside from the China websites, China reporting by newspaper journalists and blogs, one must at some point escape the Twitterized Internet and read books. I recently did a segment on an episode of Kaiser Kuo’s Sinica podcast that recommends a huge range of good books about China:

MEC: What is the future of Danwei? Where is it headed? Any changes on the horizon?

JG: More of the same, but better. We want to commission more original work, cover broader cultural and social issues than we have in the past and our team is also now working closely with the newly established Australian Centre on China in the World at the Australia National University at Canberra. Details of our collaboration will be announced as the Centre begins its formal activities from July.

• Heading for the beach and looking for the perfect book to toss in your tote bag? At Five Books, authors are interviewed and asked to recommend five books on a specific topic. Though the site covers far more than China, several of the features are China-focused and worth a look; check out Rod MacFarquhar on the Cultural Revolution, Isabel Hilton on China’s environmental crisis, and Richard McGregor on the Chinese Communist Party.

• Another source for China Beatniks looking to fill up their summer reading lists is this recent Sinica podcast, in which host Kaiser Kuo and guests Gady Epstein, Jeremiah Jenne, and Will Moss (as well as several other contributors) discuss their favorite books about China.

• Those who would prefer to spend their summer days sitting by the local fishing hole should read Adam Minter’s ongoing posts on the topic at Shanghai Scrap. Part I explores the intricacies of shopping for angling equipment in Shanghai; Part II details Minter’s inaugural carp-fishing experience and his reflections on the sport’s future in China:

A friend from Minnesota, a walleye fisherman of some repute, once told me: “The only thing that comes close to the thrill of catching a fish is not catching a fish. If you don’t understand that, then you don’t get to fish with me.” I know exactly what he meant and no, it has nothing to do with six packs in the cooler on the floor of your boat. Instead he was talking about anticipation, and the itchy possibility that the mundane routines of daily like might just run into something wilder – with a little luck and patience. It’s the kind of anticipation that leads experienced fishermen to sit on a boat in the heat of the mid-day sun, lines in the water, knowing that – under such conditions – they’re about as likely to catch a blue whale as a walleye or a bass. And it’s just that kind of anticipation which – along with growing wealth, leisure time, automobile ownership, and restlessness – drives the quickening growth of recreational fishing in China.

• Finally, readers whose idea of relaxation is to hit the links can learn about the growth of golf in China at the Wall Street Journal’s China Real Time Report blog. Emily Veach reports at the WSJ site and in the video embedded below.

By Maura Elizabeth Cunningham

Richard McGregor is the former Beijing bureau chief for the Financial Times and author of the newly released The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers. I recently conducted the interview below with McGregor via e-mail; you can read excerpts from the book here and here and also find a “Why I Write” profile of McGregor at the Urbanatomy site.

What is The Party about? What new knowledge do you hope readers will come away with after they’re finished?

My purpose was simply to describe the political system as it really is. I think few people, even foreigners living in China, appreciate just how vast and resilient the party apparatus that underpins the government in China is, and how deeply its tentacles extend into all manners of institutions, like universities and the media. And often people who do know a lot about the party will attempt to explain it away, as a product of Chinese culture or some such. I wanted to describe in an unflinchingly fashion a system that is the product of resolutely political arrangements.

The other major theme of my book is secrecy. Once you begin to describe bodies like the Central Organisation Department, which is really the world’s most powerful human resources outfit, you can convey just how absurdly secretive the CCP is. This body controls the lives and careers of a vast elite in China, and it has no sign outside of its office and no listed phone number! To me, simple facts like this don’t need dressing up. Just tell it as it is and hopefully readers will get a sense of what a strange pre-modern body the CCP is.

I think a lot of western journalists do have a sense of how pervasive the party is but it is quite a hard thing to explain in day-to-day news stories. Frankly, it is also hard to explain to editors back in head office at all. It is kind of like – “The Central Organisation what?!”

How did you penetrate “the secret world” of the CCP leadership? What kinds of sources did you draw on to write The Party?

I am not sure I did really penetrate it. A friend of mine once compared reporting on China as like knitting a sweater. You get one strand of wool here and one there. Eventually you have enough for a sleeve. A few years later, you have a full sweater. Once I settled on the topic, I discovered there was all sorts of strands of information out there but you rarely get to sit down with a government official who will give you box-and-dice about how the system works from the inside. There is lots of stuff, much of it new, in my book. But in truth, I think I have barely scratched the surface.

In a recent Huffington Post piece, you wrote that “the remarkable and largely overlooked truth about China is that it is still governed on Soviet hardware.” What challenges do you imagine that might create in the years to come?

The system is both rigid and flexible. Rigid because of the party’s insistence on a monopoly on political power. And flexible, because it is an administrative system, not subject to the law. The system has proved much more adaptable than many people thought it would, but I think the path has been made easier by the success of the economy. Once the economy slows and there is less money to pass around, it is not clear how the system will manage except by ramping up the repression. Expectations have been raised in China along with living standards. If the party has to fight to hang onto power, I think large sections of the population will push back.

In your opinion, what has held the CCP together in the face of massive social changes over the past two decades?

On top of economic growth, nationalism is the stickiest glue binding the people and powerholders together. The Chinese are quite rightly proud of what they have achieved in the last three decades. They have a chip on their shoulder about the developed world, but equally, the way the imperialist west, and Japan, trampled over China in the 19th and 20th century gives the nationalist lobby lots of ammunition. The party has been very cynical and canny in the way they have used this to scrub up their own image. China gives free rein to anyone who wants to publicise Japanese wartime atrocities but heaven help anyone who turns the mirror of history onto the CCP’s own record!

What is your sense about the relationship between the Chinese people and the CCP today? Do you think your book says anything that would surprise a Chinese reader?

I wouldn’t pretend to know what the Chinese reader might think, except that a number of Chinese have been quite thrilled to read about their system in a way they are constrained from saying or writing themselves.

As to the relationship between the CCP and the people, it is a highly sensitive topic. In some ways, they have little to do with each other directly. People deal with the system through the government rather than the party. The party in turn has a rather patronizing daddy-knows-best attitude to the people. By and large, they leave each other alone in day-to-day life. But once anyone crosses that red line into organized politics, the party can turn into a very brutal beast indeed.


By Zhang Lijia

The suicides among workers at Foxconn and the ongoing strikes at Honda and other foreign-owned factories are cries for help. Within its Shenzhen plant, Foxconn seems to provide everything its 400,000 workers can hope for: canteens, clinics, a library, entertainment and sports facilities.

It reminds me of the state-owned rocket factory I worked for in the 1980s which provided plenty of socialist welfare but also controlled our lives: no lipstick, no permed hair, and no dating within three years of entering the factory.

Have the work conditions improved over the years? Yes, probably, within the state-owned enterprises that still hold China’s key industries. The labor intensity in those, though much increased, isn’t nearly as bad as in some of the private sectors. Over the years, foreign and private investment have turned China’s coastal regions into the factories — and often the sweatshops — of the world.

Foxconn workers are allowed only a few minutes for toilet breaks and are barely permitted to talk to their colleagues. To keep the production line running, they have to work 12-hour shifts. All workers have to sign a statement, saying they “voluntarily” work over-time. The truth is: without the over-time payment, they can hardly survive on their basic salary of 900 yuan. No one at Foxconn has any time to use amenities at the plant.

The local government often tolerates certain violations of labor laws because of the revenue the factories bring in to the region — they “keep one eye open and one eye shut,” as the Chinese would say.

Compared with their predecessors, the new generation of workers are better educated, less financially desperate; they are more worldly, savvy with the Internet, and have higher expectations from life. Li Hai, a 19-year-old from central China’s Hunan province was the 11th worker who leapt to his death from a Foxconn building this year. In a suicide note to his family, he said the gap between reality and his expectations was too big and he had lost hope in life.

These workers, more aware of their rights, are no longer willing to be treated like machines. It was not entirely accidental that the Honda strikes took place when the spate of suicides at Foxconn sent shock waves across the factory floors in China. As discussed in chat rooms on the internet, some argued that it would be better to put up a fight than to take one’s life.

As someone who had endured the demoralizing existence at a factory, I know how these protesting workers feel. Their motivation may be economic, but in a broad sense, they are also demanding to be respected as human beings.

Zhang Lijia is author of Socialism is Great! A Worker’s Memoir of the New China. This post is an expanded version of an essay that appeared at the New York Times “Room for Debate” blog.


Scott Tong of Marketplace is concluding his three years as the program’s Shanghai bureau chief by taking an in-depth look at the One-Child Policy as it approaches its 30-year anniversary. Tong will be filing reports on the policy all week; the first segment aired last night and can be heard here. Two of his interviewees are anthropologist Susan Greenhalgh and demographer Wang Feng, both professors at UC Irvine and friends of the blog. Marketplace has also set up a special webpage on Tong’s series, which can be found here.

For more on the One-Child Policy, see Susan Greenhalgh’s award-winning book, Just One Child: Science and Policy in Deng’s China.

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