October 2010

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Today’s reading round-up is in a somewhat different format from the one we generally use: instead of just listing links, we’ve first grouped our reading recommendations around two broad topics that have been in the news lately, then included some stand-alone stories at the end.

Haibao Packs His Bags
The 2010 Shanghai World Expo is now over, after six months, 73 million visitors, and heaps of press attention. Adam Minter at Shanghai Scrap, who has been covering the Expo since long before the entrance gates opened, has devoted the past week to event wrap-ups at his blog. See his interviews with Zachary Franklin, Malcolm Moore (who calls the Expo “a distinctly unimaginative, uncreative, uninteresting event”), and Juan Pablo Cavelier, Director of Colombia’s pavilion; Minter’s thoughts on the Urbanian Pavilion; and his latest post, “Why Expo 2010 Mattered.” Marta Cooper, an initial Expo cynic, ruminates on the same question at her blog, . . . in Shanghai. And China Digital Times has links to several news reports about the Expo’s end.

This is a topic of particular interest here at China Beat these days, as editor Maura Cunningham went to India in September (and wrote about her trip here) and consulting editor Jeff Wasserstrom traveled to Delhi in late October (his thoughts on China-India comparisons are here). But many other people are looking at the relationship between the two countries as well. At the Middle Order blog hosted by the Hindustan Times, Reshma Patil asks “Indians or Chinese: Who Gives More?” and also considers how India is “The Distant Neighbour” in the minds of many Chinese. At The Hindu, Ananth Krishnan discusses a Chinese Academy of Social Sciences report on “national competitiveness” that places China in the 17th spot and India at #42, but which also observes that China should learn from India’s strengths in categories such as rule of law and cultural preservation.

During the Commonwealth Games in Delhi earlier this month, China-India stories abounded as reporters tried to decide how the CWG compared to the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Chris Devonshire-Ellis looks such stories and has this to say:

At the end of the day, despite all the criticism and the inevitable comparisons with China, India’s Commonwealth Games have proven a success for a country still adapting and emerging from decades of neglect and disarray. They weren’t perfect, but India will learn from this and will move on. India’s Commonwealth Games worked. They represent a platform for a newly resurgent nation, and as such, showed off India’s capabilities rather well.

For more on that topic, at the Business Standard, Pallavi Aiyar writes “A Tale of Two Games,” while at the Hindustan Times, Pranab Bardhan considers how the CWG and Olympics both shed light on the national political cultures of their host countries.

Bits and Pieces
An update to the calendar of events we posted last week: a fourth “Capital Conversation” has been added to the schedule at Capital M in Beijing. The talk is scheduled for November 28 and will feature Kaiser Kuo and David Wolf discussing “Brand China.”

Southern Weekly recently published “You Set a Good Example,” discussing a former Red Guard’s apology, last week, and an English translation can be found here.

At Cinema Scope, Tony Rayns discusses Jia Zhangke’s I Wish I Knew (for which he did the English subtitles) and the challenge that Chinese directors face in finding foreign audiences for their films.

Christina Larson looks at China’s “Inscrutable Shoppers” as she reviews Karl Gerth’s new book, As China Goes, So Goes the World: How Chinese Consumers Are Transforming Everything, at Washington Monthly.

The Economist Intelligence Unit got in touch with us to help spread the word to China Beat readers that they can now receive one free country briefing from the EIU, detailing the economic, environmental, and political climate of one’s country of choice. See here for more information.

Finally, if you’re at home with the kids one rainy afternoon and looking for an arts-and-crafts activity, why not build some paper buses? Paper Bus Connection has templates for buses from a variety of Chinese cities, which can be printed, cut out, and glued together. Add a few hundred Matchbox cars to recreate a Beijing traffic jam in your own home.

By Wang Chaohua

1. The Nobel Peace Prize

What does a Nobel Peace Prize stand for politically? We probably can’t take the written words of Alfred Nobel himself and of the awarding committee at face value. In the past century, the prize has stirred up numerous controversies. For example, a war-mongering, coup-conspiring politician like Henry Kissinger was chosen to be honored, leaving the rest of the world with jaws dropped and the winner himself reluctant to revisit the moment in public. After all, the prize was decided and awarded by a committee of five retired politicians. In addition, no matter how politically balanced each of the actual committee members might be, there could hardly be universal consensus in today’s world as to which candidate is more worthy than the others, and on what grounds. Controversy is almost an integral part of the peace prize.

Yet, bolstered by its sister prizes in other fields — fields of natural sciences in particular — as well as following historical trends towards social justice, democracy, and multi-ethnic, multi-cultural co-existence for “peace,” the Nobel Peace Prize has indeed built up a certain international reputation for itself by awarding the prize, for example, to Martin Luther King, Jr. of the U.S. in 1964, the International Labor Organization in 1969, Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar in 1991, Rigoberta Menchú Tum of Guatemala in 1992, and Muhammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank he set up in Bangladesh in 2006. Not surprisingly, the prize’s influence has grown, with matching expectations around the globe. Some activists overlooked by mainstream Western media have tried to draw attention to their causes by lobbying for the prize for one of their own. Likewise, both George W. Bush and Tony Blair were nominated right after they launched the second Iraqi War in 2003; if either had won, it could have indicated an international consensus on the war’s legitimacy. The prize’s symbolic meaning matters to those who oppose the committee’s decision no less than to those who congratulate the chosen laureate(s).

This year’s winner of the Nobel Peace Prize is Liu Xiaobo, a Chinese dissident I know personally from the heady days of the Tiananmen protest of spring 1989. When the news of his winning the prize came through on October 8, it was an exciting and moving moment for me. It is true that we have not seen each other for more than twenty years, though we did maintain some contact before he was arrested in late 2008. He was sentenced to eleven years in prison a year later.

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If you have a bit of free time, check out one of these China-related talks around the world this week and next:

• Tomorrow (October 28), Jeff Wasserstrom will be speaking at Pomona College on the topic of “Shanghai in the World — and the World in Shanghai: 1850-2010.”

• Jonathan Watts, Asia Environment Correspondent for the Guardian, is doing a tour in support of the American release of his book, When a Billion Chinese Jump: How China Will Save Mankind — Or Destroy It. Here’s where Watts will be in the next week:

At the University of Southern California Monday, November 1, sponsored by the US-China Institute

At UC Irvine Tuesday, November 2, in conversation with Ken Pomeranz as the latest speaker in the China Lecture Series produced by China Beat and the UCI Humanities Collective (talk co-sponsored by Orange Goes Green, the Department of History, and the UCI Environment Institute)

At Berkeley on Wednesday, November 3, discussing “Why Japan and the World Are Concerned about China’s Environmental Crisis”

In Seattle on Thursday, November 4, at the University of Washington (tickets required, purchased either in advance or at the door)

• The Huntington Library in Pasadena, CA, will be hosting a conference November 5-6 exploring “Pacific Spaces: Comparisons and Connections Across the Pacific Ocean in Early Modern and Modern Times” (register by October 29).

• Beginning Sunday, November 7 (and continuing on the next two Sundays after that), Capital M in Beijing will be featuring “Capital Conversations,” a northern version of the “Cosmopolitan Conversations” that M on the Bund initiated over the summer. Here’s the schedule of speakers and topics:

November 7: “China in the 80s: How Far Have We Come?” with Zhang Lijia and Geoff Raby

November 14: “Values in China,” with Gady Epstein, Ian Johnson, and Evan Osnos

November 21: “The Chinese Internet,” with Jeremy Goldkorn, Kaiser Kuo, and Mary Kay Magistad

By Jeffrey Wasserstrom

What can we learn, about either the People’s Republic of China or India and about what makes the two countries similar to and different from one another, by placing recent mega-events in these two young nation-states side by side? As a China specialist who watched the Beijing Olympics from afar with great interest in 2008, spent a month in Shanghai last summer while it played host to the 2010 World Expo, and is now nearing the end of his first stay in India, which took place in an autumn week that began right after the Commonwealth Games had concluded, I’ve been ruminating on this question a lot lately. Here are several things that strike me as worth considering, after a week in Delhi that has included participation in an academic workshop and public events devoted to themes of urban change.* In some cases, my comments bring up issues that have received a lot of attention in mainstream media coverage of the mega-events; in other instances, I push in directions that the press has not tended to go. In all cases, I am drawing upon not just my own reflections, but also on private and public conversations I have had during my brief time in Delhi, especially discussion at a stimulating October 19 Delhi Urban Platform event, which was held at the Center for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) and gave me the opportunity to share a stage with Ravi Sundarum (an urban theorist and media studies scholars who is one of the initiators of the inspiring SARAI network) and former CSDS director Ashis Nandy (the globally famous and provocative political thinker).

1. Politics and the Public Sphere. A common theme in commentaries about mega-events, as well as other topics, is that discussions of Chinese and Indian politics should begin with drawing contrasts between China’s hyper-efficient authoritarian model and India’s unruly democratic one. There are certainly important differences to note in this regard. And there is no question that focusing on mega-events can draw our attention to those disparities, as well as to similarities beneath the surface of this general divide: e.g., in each setting, grand spectacles and other urban transformations are often accompanied by corrupt deals between officials and developers that disadvantage the ordinary people who get displaced to make way for new stadiums or shopping malls. At least equally interesting, though, is the way that a focus on mega-events suggests the need to break free of the tendency to take a democracy=elections approach to politics (something particularly strong perhaps in the U.S.), and think instead of a democracy=free-flowing public debate approach.

Here, again, corruption provides a way in. The question of who exactly will profit most from how new luxury dwellings in the Commonwealth Village are parceled out has been the subject of a lively discussion in the Indian press throughout my time in Delhi (and is also discussed in this piece by political scientist Mita Sengupta). But though there are definitely comparable issues to debate where the Shanghai Expo is concerned, there was not a similar sort of airing of concerns in the Chinese press last summer nor can we expect one after the event ends October 31. Similarly, satirical commentary about the Games has been taking place in the open in Delhi (including via a lively public display of politically pointed postcards and CWG-mocking buttons at SARAI), whereas in China, it has been confined to Chinese-language Internet sites and the writings of foreigners (the wittiest Expo criticism in English coming via Access Asia weekly updates, which among other things feature a countdown clock ticking off the time until a giant sigh of relief can be breathed about the event finally being over).

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By Vignesh Pillai

Denise Chong, Egg on Mao: The Story of an Ordinary Man Who Defaced an Icon and Unmasked a Dictatorship. Toronto: Random House Canada, 2009.

In her book Egg on Mao, Denise Chong chronicles the life of Lu Decheng, a seemingly ordinary man who committed the very extraordinary act of vandalizing Mao Zedong’s portrait during the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. At the heart of the book is an exploration of morality under Communist rule in the Hunanese village of Liuyang, beginning with the lead-up to Lu’s birth in 1963, his formative years, his involvement in the 1989 protests, and his incarceration. Chong draws her narrative both from interviews with Lu, who now lives in Canada, and from interviews she conducted in China in April and May of 2007. Her focus on Lu gives her book a personal perspective which, from a historical point of view, has both benefits and drawbacks.

One of the immediately discernable benefits of this approach is its ability to convey Chinese history at a captivating and visceral level. Instead of showing how policies shaped China on the large scale, reducing people to facts and figures, Chong gives us an emotional understanding of those policies as they affected individuals on a personal level. For example, Chong makes brief mention of how China was recognized by the United Nations for its success with the one-child policy. But she contrasts this with the pressures the underage Lu and his wife, Qiuping, were under to have an abortion, and the difficulties Lu had finding treatment for his illegal child. The later death of the child and Qiuping’s grief is only one example of how Chong, in adopting this personal perspective, conveys the very real impact the Chinese Communist Party’s policies had on the lives of Chinese people.

Chong’s focus on the personal also leads her to explore how the Party’s pervasive involvement in the day-to-day lives of the Chinese people has perhaps resulted in the development of unique character traits. Lu Decheng’s father, Lu Renqing, is the best example of this. In Lu’s eyes, Renqing has become a man who “believes whatever he is told,” “doesn’t have an original thought in his head,” and is often guilty of “mindless bowing to someone else’s stronger will” (66, 104). Chong later mirrors these traits in the general town folk of Liuyang, noting their inability to critically think about the robbery trial of a local teacher. In this way, Chong subtly asks us to speculate whether this inability to think critically is an inescapable result of authoritarian society.

The character traits of Lu Decheng’s grandmother and his mother are also explored, but they serve another purpose for Chong. In these people, Chong portrays a morality that seems to endure very much in spite of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). It is also a morality that Lu comes to adopt for himself. Importantly, these people also allow Chong to explore the issue of morality as it pertains to society as a whole. For Lu, Chong writes, his mother’s death “came to delineate a time before, when he knew happiness and believed in goodness, and a time after, when he would see that this virtue had lost currency” (50). This sentence is the most poignant of Chong’s book, and, in many ways, is its central argument: Communist China is a society where morality has no value; “authoritarianism had emptied the Chinese people of their humanity” (185).

This is a very powerful argument, and Chong portrays this in her book aptly. But from a historical perspective it raises questions that Egg on Mao does not address. Chong never asks us to grapple with the moral calculations which the CCP or the student protesters would have had to have made. Why did the CCP institute the policies that it did? Why did the students turn Lu and his friends over to the government after their attack on Mao’s portrait? These questions are given only cursory attention, and we must be satisfied with simplistic answers: communists know “only the language of brutality,” and the students’ “ability to stand on principle” had been “undermined” (219, 214). From a western perspective, which often takes as a given the moral superiority of the democratic system, and views authoritarian government as intrinsically evil, this may not seem to be a problem. But from a historical perspective this treatment does not do justice to the complexity of the situation.

But this is very much a product of the personal approach which Chong took. Involving us so deeply in the mind of Lu Decheng, Chong provides an emotional and intimate perspective of life in Communist Chinese society. In the process however, we become dependent on Lu to inform us of the realities of that society. This means that the treatments we get of groups like the CCP and the student protesters are heavily biased and often lack nuance. Although this does not undermine Chong’s portrayal of the Chinese people as having “lost their moral compass,” it does not properly address the question of why (184).

Egg on Mao is a powerful and captivating tale of an ordinary man’s act of protest. Its portrayal of Chinese society as one where morality has “lost its currency” is convincing, primarily because Chong shows us this society at such a personal level. However, this dependence on the personal perspective also hinders her ability to capture the complexity of the situation, limiting the historical scope of the book. For this reason, Egg on Mao would serve best as a supplementary source that can shine a personal light on what is often impersonal history.

Vignesh Pillai is an undergraduate majoring in English and History at Simon Fraser University.

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