June 2010

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This post follows up on previous ones, such as those found here and here, that have focused on the way that public conversations about China can complement other kinds of methods for communicating ideas and information about the country, from lectures given by one person to written works ranging from essays to books. One thing that has inspired me to revisit this subject is that I’ve become addicted (and this certainly qualifies as a “positive addiction”) to the Sinica podcasts hosted by Kaiser Kuo.

We’ve mentioned these before at “China Beat,” but they deserve another shout out–and not just because my China in the 21st Century came in for some positive (and humorous) attention from Kaiser and guest Jeremiah Jenne of the Jottings from the Granite Studio blog in the “Review of China Books” episode that just aired (see the summary and list of books provided here). Recent shows (and all of the ones I’ve listened to so far have been lively and engaging) have tackled a variety of topics, such as the role self-censorship plays in Western discussions of Chinese politics, that are likely to be of interest to “China Beat” readers. And I know for a fact that many topics tackled in the Sinica conversations are of interest to “China Beat” contributors. After all, without any prior coordination (though people involved in both projects are in touch with each other from time to time) they aired an episode on Chinese science fiction right around the time that this blog was running a post on the same subject; and they also ran a show on the Honda strikes and related issues not long after I’d published something on the same topic at the Huffington Post (during China Beat’s vacation period) and while I was just starting to write a longer commentary on the subject that’s just appeared on Foreign Policy’s website.

Most Sinica episodes are made up of discussions between people who join the multi-talented Kaiser (he’s known to some primarily as a shrewd analyst of contemporary Chinese culture, but to others primarily as a member of Beijing rock bands) for face-to-face conversation. Two of my favorite parts of the China books episode, though, were short pre-recorded commentaries by Danwei’s Jeremy Goldkorn (in which he made an excellent case for the value of Sang Ye’s China Candid as a work that everyone interested in the PRC of today should read, while also stressing the importance to publications dealing with earlier periods in Chinese history) and the Guardian’s Jonathan Watts (who wove together neatly discussion of several different books that are all framed as travel tales, but use journeys as jumping off points to explore many different kinds of issues).

A second reason for revisiting the theme of dialogs is that, following closely on the heels of the conclusion of a series of events of this sort sponsored by “China Beat” and other local entities held here in Irvine, I’ll be taking part in five Shanghai ones. Four of these will be held on successive July Sundays and jointly sponsored by the M Restaurant Group and CET Academic Programs, at a locale we’ve mentioned here before (the same Glamour Bar at M on the Bund where the Shanghai International Literary Festival is held each March). Full details about this series of “Cosmopolitan Conversations” can be found here, and regular readers of this blog will see that nearly everyone who will be joining me on stage (Paul French, Graham Earnshaw, Lijia Zhang, Evan Osnos and Howard French) has written for this site in the past, while the one person who doesn’t fall into that category (Tess Johnston) is someone whose participation in last year’s literary festival was discussed by one of our contributors.

I’m delighted that the fascinating writers just listed have all agreed to join me in discussing topics ranging from Americans in Old Shanghai to blogging about 21st century China. And I’m very grateful to Tina M. Kanagaratnam and Jeremy Friedlein (director of CET’s Shanghai program) for all they did to make this line-up of events possible.

The fifth Shanghai event I’ll be taking part in, which will be held at a different locale one week before the M on the Bund/CET series starts, also has “China Beat” connections. It will be a discussion of the 2010 Shanghai Expo (and World’s Fairs and Expos of the past) that will be part of an ongoing series of urban studies workshops organized by “China Beat” contributor Anna Greenspan and the person with whom I’ll be exchanging ideas will be Nick Land of Urbanatomy, whose new book on the topic was excerpted on this site not long ago. (This event will take place at Mesa Manifesto 748 Julu Road on Sunday June 27, from 4-6 p.m., with 35 RMB charged at the door–but that will get you your first drink as well as, we all hope, a lot of food for thought.)

And a final note about “China Beat” connections: I’m not the first person involved with this blog to have a tie to CET. For as I recently learned, both CB’s founding editor Kate Merkel-Hess, and its current editor, Maura Cunningham, are alums of this excellent study abroad program.

To keep up with the latest happenings at CET Shanghai (and their many other study abroad locations), check out the CET Facebook page.

Expo Watch 2010

By Shellen Xiao Wu

In Shanghai these days it is impossible to avoid the World Expo. Hotels are packed with domestic tourists and school groups; subway and bus televisions show a constant news loop about events at the Expo; and Haibao, the rectangular, blue mascot of the Expo, graces numerous government offices, posters, and official merchandise stalls. To ensure the target of 70 million visitors is met and exceeded for the duration of the Expo from the beginning of May to the end of October, various government offices in Shanghai have handed out Expo “gift packs” of one free ticket per Shanghai resident family. Work units, danwei, have also given out tickets to employees both current and retired, some valid only during a particular month. All of the hubbub has guaranteed a massive influx of visitors, with long lines at many of the popular pavilions, and images of old and young alike sprinting from the gates at the opening of the Expo park at 9 am each morning (watch a video of this at Shanghaiist).

Wu Expo 1

A steady crowd of people stream into the Expo park from one of eight entrances.

Despite the images of surging crowds and rumors of near-riot conditions at the soft opening of the Expo park at the end of April, I have to admit to that I was quite excited to finally see the results of years of intense preparation. An entire fleet of buses has been commandeered to serve as direct shuttles to the Expo park from various points around Shanghai. On the morning of Tuesday, June 15, a group of friends and I walked to the nearest shuttle pick-up point, little knowing that the day, in the middle of a three-day holiday period, would prove to be the most jam-packed yet at the Expo. By 9:30 pm, the official tally reached 552,000 attendees. If we didn’t realize the extent of the crowds at the entrance gate, we certainly got an inkling when the loudspeakers in the park announced around 10 am that the lines at the popular Japan and Germany pavilions had already reached 5 to 6 hours long.

The Expo is a behemoth stretching alongside both sides of the Huangpu River in the southern corner of the city. The larger Pudong side of the river features the national pavilions, while the Puxi side has a number of pavilions sponsored by companies, including China Telecom, China Eastern, and GM. Realizing the futility of spending half the day trying to enter the Japan pavilion, we decided to first head towards the Iran, Mongolian, and North Korean pavilions, clustered in one corner of the park. Even the North Korean pavilion had a line, albeit a fast moving one. Big screen televisions inside showed children dancing and other happy images of the “socialist paradise,” and a small gift shop was doing brisk business selling stamp albums and Kim Jong Il’s collected works, including his treatise “On the Art of Cinema,” in Chinese, Russian, and English.

The China pavilion looms over the central axis of the Expo park. Entrance is limited to 50,000 people per day and requires a reservation.

The China pavilion looms over the central axis of the Expo park. Entrance is limited to 50,000 people per day and requires a reservation.

After listening to a live music performance at the Iranian pavilion and examining dinosaur fossils in the Mongolian pavilion, we decided to take a shuttle bus and head towards the African countries at other end of the park. Even taking the bus, however, turned into a harrowing situation, with throngs of people surging onto the shuttle. At one point, people started shouting at the driver to let them off, although it wasn’t clear that the doors could open with people packed in so tightly.

The East Angolan pavilion proved surprisingly informative. The massive warehouse-like structure of a consortium of African countries had enthusiastic crowds of people holding their Expo “passports,” going around trying to get them stamped at each country. For those too lazy to spend hours on line, there is now apparently a brisk online market, with these passports filled with country stamps going for as much as 5000 yuan, or over $700. The price seems far less astronomical given the amount of time spent on lines it would take to collect the stamps.

By late afternoon, many people simply camped out on the grassy areas in the park.

By late afternoon, many people simply camped out on the grassy areas in the park.

Around 4 pm, we decided to head to some of the more popular pavilions. Canada and Spain both have externally spectacular pavilions with neatly designed, multi-media displays inside. And in the late afternoon, the wait times for these two were around one hour. Even at 7:30 pm, however, a long line of people snaked around and in front of the Japan pavilion. We had to be satisfied with joining a stampede to the ferry across to the Puxi side of the park. At the end of our long twelve-hour odyssey in the Shanghai Expo, all of us were ready to collapse from exhaustion.

The western press has largely focused its coverage of the Expo as an expensive enterprise for the Chinese government and Shanghai to showcase their entrance onto the world stage. Stories in the New York Times and other outlets have examined various complaints over the cost of the Expo and various mishaps along the way, including the disastrous soft opening. I think all these stories make valid points, and moreover provide an essential counter to the hagiographic press coverage in the official Chinese media outlets. Yet all complaints aside, now that I have spent a very long day at the Expo with 552,000 other attendees, I must admit that I witnessed genuine excitement among the largely Chinese crowd.

At every pavilion, after waiting patiently on long lines, people rushed to get their Expo passports stamped. Ticket prices have been set at reasonably accessible points, 160 yuan for regular one-day tickets (around $23), and 90 yuan for retirees and students. While tickets to the 2008 Beijing Olympics were notoriously difficult to acquire, especially for popular events, post offices, China Mobile branches, and several convenience stores and supermarket chains all offer tickets to the Expo. In this sense the Expo is perhaps the most democratic event China has ever hosted for its own citizens.

The Expo park also contained the greatest concentration of waidiren, visitors from other provinces, speaking in assorted dialects, I have ever witnessed or heard in Shanghai. In the years after 1949, in many ways Shanghai had become an insular city. Outsiders were immediately looked upon askance once they opened their mouths and spoke the standard Putonghua rather than the local Shanghai dialect. In recent years, Shanghai has attempted to reclaim its spot as an international city in the ranks of Paris, London, and New York. With the 2010 World Expo, however, Shanghai is finally also a Chinese city, opening its doors to visitors from around the country.

Shellen Xiao Wu is a graduate student at Princeton University.

This post originally appeared at History Compass Exchanges. It is republished here with permission.


(Read Part I, “Beijing’s Book Landscape,” here)

By Eric Setzekorn

Dozens of bookstores continue to dot Beijing but recent developments are changing the landscape for readers and publishers by forcing many smaller stores out of the market. Part of this trend is due to advances in public transportation, particularly the enlarged subway system, that make it possible to travel across town for a larger selection and lower prices, leading to a decline in neighborhood bookstores. A less positive part of the bookstore consolidation is the increasing leverage state sector bookstores such as Xinhua can exert on private booksellers using market and political forces. A mixed element in the dynamic Beijing book market is internet-related growth, which has seen the rapid expansion of online booksellers, but the flip side of the internet has been increasing illegal file sharing of e-books which some writers claim results in lost sales. Finally, consumption patterns are changing because although Amazon’s Kindle and other specialized book readers have not become big sellers in China, small LCD tablet screens that can be read on the subway or bus are increasingly popular, promoting new reading habits and tastes.

Although in contemporary China both public and private bookstores use market mechanisms — and must do so to be economically viable in the long run — systematic advantages in money and influence are seen by some to be stifling Beijing’s book market. In many ways, the commercialization of China’s publishing and distribution sectors has seen the entrenchment of government influence rather than its withering away. Xinhua Bookstores are the largest and only country-wide chain of bookstores; in 2006, the chain had over 14,000 stores, giving Xinhua tremendous economy of scale advantages to buy and sell books in bulk and make or break authors. Another key advantage for state sector bookstores, and Xinhua in particular, is their unique legal mandate to sell official school textbooks developed by the Ministry of Education, which is the most lucrative part of the Chinese book market. As if this weren’t enough, Xinhua is a holding of China Publishing Group, a state-owned corporation in the process of obtaining a 1.8 billion RMB initial listing on the Shanghai stock exchange, which will massively increase Xinhua’s access to capital for future expansion. Xinhua Bookstores’ ubiquity is matched by their bland book selection, which often includes large displays of pro-government works and never carries controversial material such as the magazine Yanhuang Chunqiu.

Xinhua’s ability to utilize its government influence was exhibited this spring with the launch of the “Book’s Fair Trade Rule,” which theoretically limits the discount online retailers can offer to 15%. Online vendors such as Dangdang and Joyo Amazon had gained tremendous market share over the past few years by offering sharp discounts and cheap shipping that appealed to many urbanites comfortable with online shopping. Part of the motivation for the rule is the argument that brick-and-mortar bookstores are becoming “show rooms” for books, where readers can browse but then return home to buy their selections at lower prices online. It is unclear, however, whether the “Fair Trade Rule” will actually take effect because it’s a joint edict from the China Publishers Association, Xinhua Bookstore Association, and the China Book Distribution Industry Association, not an official regulation of a government agency. Due to the complex organizational mandate of these three associations to license and inspect publishers, distributors, and bookstores, there is a degree of leverage they can exert but the exact boundaries of their formal power remains vaguely defined.

An opportunity for Beijing’s middle-brow book culture is the rise of e-reader devices and new forms of book consumption by white-collar readers. With many white-collar workers now commuting over an hour each way on buses and subways, small e-reader devices are becoming increasingly common. Most of these devices measure 3 by 4 inches, slightly bigger than a cell phone screen, and lack the ability to use ‘electronic ink’ displays like the Amazon Kindle or the Sony e-Reader. Available for less than 700 RMB, these devices lack wireless features and are loaded with material, normally less than 2 GB, through a USB connection. After the initial investment, the e-readers cost their owners little, as new content is widely available through illegal online downloads and file sharing. The small screen size and cramped environment where these devices are used means that readers use them leaning forward in the way a person reads the newspaper, rather than leaning back like reading a traditional book. This reading posture and the environment these readers are used in may be the reason e-reader selections of a small sample of Beijing readers I spoke to on the subway skewed towards lighter, more sensational works of the Han Han or Guo Jingming variety.

The Lady Book Salon, a shop specializing in books for women

The Lady Book Salon, a shop specializing in books for women

One of the brighter spots for Beijing readers is the growing numbers of book-themed coffee shops and cafes, many of which have a small “library” within them or sales area attached. Particularly in Haidian, it is possible to find cafes aimed at a particular demographic niches — students or women, for example — that have small selections of books and magazines to appeal to their target audience. Another bright spot is the popularity of Japanese manga or Chinese derivatives among many younger readers. Although currently online downloads seem to be the most popular way to get the latest manga in China, throughout Taiwan and Japan many internet cafés offer magazines and manga in addition to food, creating a hybrid bookstore/internet café/restaurant where many young people spend their free time, which might soon be commercially viable in China.


Beijing Bibliophile

By Eric Setzekorn

Part I: Beijing’s Book Landscape

One of the major advantages Beijing enjoys over other Chinese cities is a vibrant and comprehensive book culture that dates back hundreds of years. Although indistinguishable neighborhood bookshops serve the general reading needs of much of the population, a wide range of more specialized shops are patronized by particular reading groups such as academics and government officials. With the continuing economic development of Beijing and rapid changes in cultural and social dynamics due to increasing gentrification of parts of the city center, easy access to rapid transit and influence of the internet book sellers, traditional bookstores are struggling to adapt. The book landscape of Beijing is comprehensive but geographically dispersed, making shopping — particularly for those in town for a short period of time and reliant on public transportation — very difficult. This brief review is designed to highlight noteworthy bookstores and will, in Part II, briefly explore the changing market dynamics for readers in Beijing.

Beijing Book Building

Beijing Book Building

For mainstream books, the pole star of the Beijing book market is the massive Beijing Book Building, which is part of the Xinhua bookstore chain. Conveniently located at Xidan on West Changan Avenue, directly above the intersections of subway lines 4 and 1, its five stories offer over 300,000 titles spread over 16,000 square meters of floor space. The primary advantage of the store is the massive book selection cutting across all genres. As a government-run business, the Beijing Book Building has to contend with political and economic interests and includes large “Public Morality” and “Success Studies” sections, both of which encourage readers to work hard, serve their country, and trust the Party with the big issues. The basement level is the foreign language section, but this essentially means English-language books. Although the Wangfujing Foreign Languages bookstore (discussed below) might have a few more English-language non-fiction books, Beijing Book Building has far more English-language paperbacks and fiction. It’s indicative of the changing market for foreign books in Beijing that many of the shoppers in the English-language section of the store are Chinese rather than expats, and many young Chinese are reading novels such as the Twilight series in English rather than buying the translated versions. In five to ten years, Chinese students studying in America will likely bring with them reading habits and tastes largely the same as American students, both having been raised on Dora the Explorer, Harry Potter and Twilight.

The Success Studies section at Beijing Book Building

The Success Studies section at Beijing Book Building

The only serious challenger to the Beijing Book Building in terms of size is the Zhongguancun Book Building at the corner of Suzhou Street and the fourth ring road, 250 meters south of Peking University’s west gate. Zhongguancun Book Building has benefited tremendously from the changing landscape of Haidian from a district of cottonwood tree-lined campuses to gleaming hi-tech skyscrapers, and it stocks a wide variety of economic, management, and self-improvement books that appeal to a white-collar demographic. While conventional Party histories appear popular at the mainstream Beijing Book Building, Zhongguancun’s interests are more revisionist, and prominent displays of recent Chiang Kai-shek and Chiang Ching-kuo biographies overshadow the dusty biographies of CCP leaders. Zhongguancun has a decent English-language selection that draws exchange students unwilling to travel across town, but poor service, very limited in-store seating, and a continuous music loop of Muzak versions of 1970s rock hits creates an atmosphere that discourages lingering.

For English-language material, the infamous Foreign Languages Bookstore in Wangfujing remains open but is increasingly out of place in the 21st century. Its cracked facade has been repainted, but the store has otherwise preserved its time-capsule feel of dark staircases, strange smelling bathrooms, and slippery tile. Its selection of non-fiction books is still maybe the best in town, but with increasing competition there is no longer any real reason to come here except for nostalgia.

In stark contrast to the Foreign Languages Bookstore’s un-welcoming “buy and get out” atmosphere, the Beijing Bookworm is a new business and cultural model for English-language material that encourages lingering. Located on South Sanlitun, diagonally across from The Village shopping center, it successfully attempts to fuse a bookstore, restaurant, and event room into a unified semi-public space that encourages conversations and browsing across genres. Although its prices are a little on the high side, the Bookworm provides an excellent space for medium-sized book talks, and with numerous academics and intellectuals increasingly passing through Beijing there are no shortage of speakers and discussants for its lively events.

One of the unique aspects of Beijing’s book scene is the presence of high-level government and military bookstores scattered throughout the city. To name a few, the National Defense University, Academy of Military Science, and Central Party School are all located in northwest Haidian near the Summer Palace, each with its own publishing house. These bookstores are an untouched gem for anyone interested in understanding the mentality and opinions of those at the center of China’s government and party institutions. In just one example of the research possibilities of this material, the National Defense University Press publishes many of the dissertations of its students, all senior military officers, which in plain Chinese explain what they feel is important, what policies they favor, and why. It’s unfortunate that these windows into Chinese power are not more utilized, because many of the claims that China’s government — particularly its military — is not transparent could be demolished with one backpack full of books. Although these specialized bookstores accept foreigners, don’t expect a warm welcome, in part because some areas of the store contain “neibu,” or internal material, which is often sensitive and not available for open distribution. When I shopped in a military bookstore, one salesperson stood in the door to the neibu section to block my entry in case I wandered into that area, while another followed me around in case I needed “help.”

All Sages bookstore

All Sages bookstore

For academic and literary works, the renowned All Sages bookstore on Chengfu Lu in Haidian between Qinghua University’s South Gate and Peking University’s East Gate is the outstanding bookstore in Beijing. With a massive selection of academic works on every conceivable subject, All Sages is the place to go when filling your book-shopping list. What really distinguishes All Sages from its competition is a very balanced selection that includes many works from Taiwanese and Hong Kong writers. All Sages is also perhaps the only bookstore in Beijing to employ highly knowledgeable and skilled staff. While picking up books for a Chinese friend in the US, the All Sages staff member not only took me to the appropriate section without using the computer inventory, but also suggested other related areas with relevant material. Not only is the bookstore fantastic and the shopping experience relaxed, but All Sages has an excellent café on the second floor which hosts frequent events and book talks; keep an eye out for intellectual celebrities like Wang Hui while you’re there.

The other outstanding academic bookstore in Beijing is San Wei, located 200 meters west of the Xidan subway stop on the south side of the street. San Wei’s humble two-story building is dwarfed by the massive banks and corporate headquarters on Chang’an Avenue, and while its selection is small it offers a convenient space for lectures and events. The small selection San Wei carries, much of it from its own independent press, pushes the envelope of what is available in Beijing, and many of its talks, such as a legal discussion of public interest litigation, also skirt the boundaries of propriety in politically sensitive Beijing.

Coming far behind All Sages and San Wei in the academic bookstore sphere, Forest Song bookstore is located 100 meters east of the Peking University south gate. Forest Song offers a decent selection but not much character, and the character it has isn’t very good. Located in a converted air defense shelter, Forest Song has claustrophobia-inducing low ceilings and a selection that seems skewed towards CASS (Chinese Academy of Social Sciences) reports that include the word ‘empire’ in their titles. There is one small table where patrons can sit and read books discussing the fall of the USSR, American hegemony, and the perils of democracy, but it’s not the kind of bookstore where I want to linger.

For highly specialized academic reading, Haidian Book City is not one main store but a hive of dozens of individual shops that specialize in every conceivable subject, which makes Haidian Book City ideal for finding specific titles within one field but makes browsing across topics difficult. Located opposite the Zhongguancun Book Building on Suzhou Street, 200 meters south of Peking University’s west gate, Haidian Book City’s decentralized structure destroys any atmosphere of calm and reflection, and the sensory overload is probably too much for non-native level speakers.

Check back tomorrow for Part II, “Market Change and New Technology.”


Richard Baum, China Watcher: Confessions of a Peking Tom (University of Washington Press, 2010).

By Angilee Shah

Looking back on China’s dramatic recent history, from the devastation of the Great Leap Forward to today’s exuberant “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” is a fascinating exercise. China Watcher offers the rare opportunity to learn this history as author Richard Baum did — from the front row.

China Watcher is a memoir and a contemporary history rolled into one. A professor of political science at UCLA, Baum is a self-proclaimed China addict. “For more than forty years China has been my drug of choice,” he begins his narrative of “more than three dozen trips to China” to almost every province.

Baum began his academic career at a time when virulent anti-communism and the Free Speech Movement collided with leftist academic admiration for the Cultural Revolution, and when China was still closed to foreigners. Baum spent a year researching in Taiwan, where he recalls accidentally spending his first night abroad with his wife and infant son in a hotel frequented by prostitutes and their clients. Baum is forthcoming about his own cultural education, stumbling with language and bureaucracy — or, as he calls it, “China’s Great Wall of Inconvenience.” And he took the country’s tensions in stride, writing limericks about Mao’s notorious wife and the shortcomings of a colleague’s television appearance, and recognizing his own imperfections. “Over the years,” Baum explains,” I have generally prided myself on not taking myself — or my career — so seriously that I couldn’t laugh at my own foibles.”

Being a smart-aleck got him in trouble in academic circles at times, but it has served his memoir well. It is rare to find a serious scholar who is able to write about his life’s work with such levity. We witness not just his knowledge (and ours) about China grow, but also watch him coming of age. These are the strongest chapters, full of political missteps and scholarly achievement — sometimes both in one, as when he illegally copied a classified document outlining Mao’s socialist education program, which helped him analyze the Party’s secret directives.

The violent end of student and worker protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989 represent a turning point in history and in Baum’s narrative. The second half of China Watcher focuses more on China’s growth — its relationships with American universities and Baum’s own experience building exchanges included — and on the author’s cultural observations and political assessments, leaving behind the wonderfully vulnerable and personally revealing tone of earlier chapters. Baum believed that the Chinese Communist Party would have to do much to repair the wounds they inflicted in 1989, but “Reform and Opening” re-awakened a nationalism among Chinese students that he could not have predicted. By the late 1990s, alongside China’s growing economy and pride came rifts in U.S.-China relations and a spate of American books warning against China’s rise.

Baum does much to counteract China hysterics; he argues that China’s politics and society are becoming more open, along with its economy. He also holds that China’s leaders are insecure about the potential for uprisings: “The long, dark shadow of post-Tiananmen stress disorder lingers in China, casting a pall over the country’s political life,” he writes. His measured optimism for the country and its relations with the rest of the world are all the more convincing for his exciting narrative about a long career of China watching.

Angilee Shah is a freelance journalist who writes about globalization and politics. You can read more of her work at www.angileeshah.com.

This review originally appeared at Zócalo Public Square. It is reposted here with permission.

Read an excerpt from China Watcher here.

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