October 2010

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By Leksa Chmielewski

Winners and losers in a twist on a museum café

In American museums, the museum gift shop or café stands as a constant reminder—before exhibit visits, after them, even in between them—of the dire financial straights in which nonprofits chronically find themselves. Museum gift shops and cafes are multiplying in Chinese museums too, even though the vast majority of Chinese museums are state-affiliated and enjoy full government funding. Chinese academics who work with museums lament that the Chinese museum scene still has much to learn from the American nonprofit-based system—but if that implies budget cuts, layoffs and a proliferation of museum shops selling finger-puppet versions of classic paintings, it’s not entirely clear why. Museum gift shops and cafes are common in America and becoming more common in China, and those that museum staff (in my experience, both American and Chinese) find more acceptable are those that manage to integrate product offerings with exhibit themes. But few go as far as the Liu Changsheng House in Shanghai’s Jing’an District, where visitors conclude their walk through an exhibit about the Communist Party’s pre-liberation underground activities with a cup of coffee flame-percolated the old fashioned, labor-intensive way, and by a very overqualified librarian.

The Liu Changsheng House Museum in Jing’an District

The Liu Changsheng House, now located on Yuyuan Road beside the Jing’an Si subway station, was built in the early 1920s, according to those who work there. It was occupied by at least one foreign family, including a family of Jewish refugees, before Liu Changsheng moved in. Liu Changsheng was Vice-Secretary General of the CCP, and after the Party went underground in the late 1920s, some secret meetings were held in the home.

Plotting the revolution over a cup of joe. Wax models of Liu Changsheng (in Chinese dress) and Liu Xiang (in Western garb) “consulting on the strategy for the revolutionary struggle” in secret

The rough narrative according to staff, who disagree on some of the details, is that the Jing’an District Library petitioned to save the house as a historic site, and it was dragged bit by bit down the street before the Jiuguang Mall was built over the original site. The house was renovated and given a permanent exhibition taking up the second and third floors, and an old coffee shop relocated into the ground floor from a site a few blocks away. After a total investment of 40 million RMB, the Liu Changsheng House opened in 2003. The permanent exhibition on the second and third floors tells a politically correct story of the CCP in Shanghai until 1949, with a focus on the time it operated underground. Visitors can enter for free and opt for a self-guided tour or a tour led by student volunteers recruited by local schools and universities. Visitors are fed into a teleological funnel from 1927, by way of the only possible path through the exhibit, to 1949, which looms inevitable and festooned with red banners and lanterns at the end of the second floor of the exhibition. Visitors may then opt to stop by the first-floor coffee shop before they leave.

It seems I didn’t hide my surprise very well when I first heard of the ground-floor coffee shop. The tour guides rushed to explain that Liu Changsheng and his cronies used to sit around in the house drinking coffee while they made their woodblock printed newsletters and dreamed of the utopian future. It wasn’t until I reached the coffee shop itself and had a chat with the staff there that I realized what most visitors who walk through, even stop to have a drink, never do: visitors might pause to appreciate the 1930s-era décor and flame-percolated offerings without ever learning that the shop is the latter-day incarnation of an actual café which was located a few blocks away, frequented, according to staff, by the likes of Eileen Chang. It turns out that the café staff and museum staff belong to separate departments of the same work unit. The café and museum are two separate (but similarly themed) units coming together in one building, and they may not be the only ones. The museum exhibit includes a small “water jail” exhibit in a corner where a dummy appears to be submerged in water up to its waist. When the tour guide presses a button, the display is bathed in blue light, a “fire” burns in a sconce on the wall, and a soundtrack of rattling chains plays. The guide explains that this is a recreated scene from a jail run by the municipal government under Japanese occupation. The original jail was nearby on what is now Wanhangdu Road. Now a school stands there.

“Water jail”

It appears that what was at first glance a museum café better integrated with the theme of the Historic House than most in-house money-making ventures, is actually all that remains of a historically significant café. The “water jail” recreated display in the exhibit area, and three framed original manacles on the wall, are likewise all that is left of the nearby jail. Suddenly the high cost of moving the Liu Changsheng House is put into perspective: does that price tag include the “preservation” of the café and the jail as well? And who ended up footing the bill to move the house—the Jing’an District Government, or the developers who wanted to build the Jiuguang Mall over its original location?

Perhaps the less obvious questions have to do with the relationship between the (at least) three targets of preservation—the house, the jail, and the café—housed in one building: the jail is relegated to a small corner of the house museum’s display about the CCP; what does it mean when one is reduced to a bullet point that bolsters the message of the other? The café hosts events that bring in a tidy 20,000 yuan for a four-hour party; what does it mean when one supports the others financially?

A house, a jail, a café: winners and losers.

Leksa Chmielewski is a graduate student in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Irvine. Part 2 of “A House Museum Café” will appear at The China Beat tomorrow.

By Thomas Kellogg

Richard McGregor, The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers (HarperCollins, 2010).

David Shambaugh, China’s Communist Party: Atrophy and Adaptation (University of California Press, 2008).

On August 16, 2010, China reached yet another milestone in its decades-long breakneck run of economic development: it became the world’s second largest economy. According to official economic data, China surpassed a still-struggling Japan, leaving it behind only the United States in terms of overall economic size. Some analysts predicted that China could pass the US to become the world’s largest economy as early as 2030.

The ruling party that has overseen this stunning and historic economic transformation, the Chinese Communist Party, deserves much credit for transforming China from an economic backwater to a world powerhouse with massive influence on virtually every aspect of global economics and finance.

Most observers put the Party’s adaptability and flexibility at the top of the list of reasons why the CCP has been able to hold on to power, even as Communist regimes elsewhere tumbled into the dustbin of history. A key question for China going forward is whether the Party can sustain that flexibility and adaptability, and engage in much-needed political reforms that match the economic changes of the past thirty years, or whether, as many observers fear, its reformist energies have ebbed. After all, for all of the changes that have taken place in China, the Chinese Communist Party itself has remained more or less the same. In many ways, the CCP of 2010 would be recognizable to a 1970s or even 1950s apparatchik, even as the country it governs has changed beyond recognition.

Any sense of where the Party might go from here must be grounded in some sense of its current status. Yet insight into what is one of the most secretive organizations in the world can be difficult to come by. Two new books, one by Financial Times journalist Richard McGregor, and the other by George Washington University professor David Shambaugh, attempt to describe to western audiences how the CCP functions, and how it has, amazingly, managed to preside over an incredible run of economic growth without formally renouncing its Marxist ideological stripes or reshaping itself to adapt to a 21st century economy and society.

Taken together, both books provide a detailed and balanced portrait of how political power is used in China. They are all must-reads for anyone looking to understand a country that will be one of the US’ key partners—if not competitors—in the years to come. In particular, McGregor’s book, The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers, provides the best account yet of the influence of money on politics in China, and of how the CCP manages its relations with an increasingly wealthy corporate sector.

How has the CCP succeeded? As noted above, it has shown a surprising amount of adaptability and flexibility. Over its first quarter-century in power, from the Communist takeover in 1949 until the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, the CCP held sway over virtually every aspect of Chinese life, so much so that distinctions between public and private were largely meaningless. The Party told people where they would live and what jobs they would have. It approved marriages, divorces, and births. It churned out approved readings for an entire country, and exercised complete control over all cultural products, from books to movies to music to theater.

Today, many middle-class Chinese live lives largely indistinguishable from their Western white-collar counterparts. Their career prospects are determined by their own skills, connections, and luck. They marry whom they choose, dress as they like, spend too much money at trendy restaurants, and see the latest Hollywood blockbusters. If they choose, they can—within limits—read up on the latest political gossip online, or read an increasingly hard-hitting array of newspapers and magazines. The Party allows their private lives to remain private. Stay away from overt political activity, keep any serious complaints to yourself, and you will be fine. Cross the line, and the Party will let you know that it is not pleased.

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By Paulina Hartono

Liu Xiaobo is, and now is probably much more so after Friday’s announcement, one of China’s most well-known dissidents—or activists, depending on the term you prefer. Most people who have heard of him know about his hand in penning part of Charter 08, a manifesto based on Charter 77, which advocates broad democratic political reform and human rights protections in China. Those who are more familiar with Liu’s name know of him for his hunger strike in Tian’anmen, or his prolific number of essays published in print and on the Internet.

For his role in drafting Charter 08, and writing six essays, he was sentenced to eleven years in prison on December 25, 2009 for state subversion. The sentence is an extraordinarily harsh one, considering other noted activists like Gao Zhisheng and Hu Jia were also sentenced for state subversion, but received sentences of three and three-and-a-half years, respectively. (For more on “incitement of state subversion,” see Article 105 of PRC Criminal Law.)

There is a well-known phrase in Chinese, 杀鸡儆猴 (shā jī jǐng hóu). Literally, it means “kill the chicken to scare the monkeys,” but should be more properly understood as “punishing one to warn the others.” Arguably, the state used Liu’s heavy sentence as a lesson to others as an example of what happens when one fails to adhere to Party ideology. In so doing, Liu was recast not only as a criminal, but as a pedagogical symbol.

Never mind that some people find the particular six essays to not be particularly reactionary, or wonder about whether Liu contributed so much to the Charter that his name appeared at the top, or if he just acceded to hedging the blow to come. These hinge on personal opinion and speculation, and are therefore moot. However, because Liu’s wishes for political change and human rights have not yet come into being, I think these documents remain firmly within the realm of political thought and speech. Though—or because—they are not concrete, they hold a lot of symbolic power, regardless of one’s subjective reception.

In some ways, the December 2009 sentencing seemed to be a layering of one symbol on top of the next. Now, the 2010 prize conferral appears to be yet another layer. This is largely because the goal of the prize is unclear. From Alfred Nobel’s will:

The said interest shall be divided into five equal parts, which shall be apportioned as follows: /- – -/ one part to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.

The prize is in large part, a recognition of an individual’s or group’s efforts. However, it has either had, or has come to have, other purposes as well. I use the following quotes to probe more deeply at this issue.

From Adam Smith, Editor-in-Chief, Nobelprize.org:

An article [Liu] wrote for the South China Morning Post in February 2010 contains the statement “Opposition is not equivalent to subversion”. This sentiment was echoed by the Norwegian Nobel Committee’s remarks, following this year’s Nobel Peace Prize announcement, regarding the sign that they hope this award will send about the importance of supporting debate, and those who champion it, in all countries of the world.

See also the Nobel Peace Prize press announcement:

China’s new status must entail increased responsibility.

Given the prize’s stated prescriptive aim (“this award will send about…”) and its instructive claims (“must entail”), it is arguably also a type of pedagogical symbol.

* * *

Symbols lie within a tricky territory because they are so open to interpretation. Earlier, I wrote that Liu’s work has a lot of symbolic versus concrete power. That is not to rob it of its value in the least. If anything, I think it speaks to the might that is harnessed by a seed of thought, as made manifest through open—while not yet free—speech.

So I do find it somewhat ironic that while the prize is a recognition of freedom of speech advocacy, there won’t be much human rights dialogue going on.

First, because many of Liu’s ideas are rather broad-based, there is no settled understanding of what kind of human rights need to be discussed, or what China’s “entail[ed] increased responsibility” is. Nobody disagrees that China should have better human rights, not even its central government. The points of contention are which specific rights should be protected, how following legislation should be implemented, and in what time frame reforms must take place.

But who are the actors to make such decisions? The international community, or the Chinese state itself? If this prize conferral does not bring human rights dialogue to the table, it will provide heated discussion on national sovereignty and international relations. For one, you will be hard-pressed to find news on Liu’s prize in Chinese-language newspapers. But you will find governmental condemnations of Liu as a criminal, as well as questions over the validity of the Nobel Peace Prize more generally.

Notably, these same articles refer to fractured ties between China and Norway; Norway has effectively become conflated with the Prize Committee. Granted, the Committee’s members are appointed by the Norwegian parliament (Storting), but I think most people conceive of the Nobel Prize Committee as being a supranational entity. Perhaps that is too naive. In any case, clearly the Chinese government does not perceive it as a supranational entity.

Not only this, but Chinese activists have hailed Liu’s selection as indicative of the “West’s recognition.” In this case, the Committee is the West.

Most recently, the U.S. has also been implicated in this symbolic fray; see an Associated Press report “US-China Ties Strained by Dissident.”

A quote from Ma Ying-jeou that states the award is for all Chinese people around the world also lends no clarification to this extremely tangled topic.

In essence, if any human rights dialogue is to happen, we need to know what is going to be talked about, and who is going to talk about it. These very important components have become obfuscated in the past two days.

* * *

In the short-term, I don’t expect any constructive developments. The long-term is of course the big question. But I hope that in the years to come, Liu Xiaobo will not be seen merely as a contentious symbol, a tool utilized by various powers for condemnation or glorification purposes, but as an important human being who had something to say.

* * *

Note: My thoughts on this have been highly influenced by Lydia Liu’s The Clash of Empires: The Invention of China in Modern World Making (2004), and to a lesser degree, James Hevia’s English Lessons: The Pedagogy of Imperialism in Nineteenth-Century China (2003).

Paulina Hartono is a student in East Asian Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. She is also a frequent contributor to China Digital Times. The above post originally appeared at her blog, _mphatic, on October 9, 2010.

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When we heard of Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel Peace Prize win last week, we quickly reached out to a variety of China Beatniks and asked for either their reactions to the news or links to any writings they had done on Liu in the past. Below are some of the responses we received.

Geremie Barmé, the Australian National University

“China’s Promise” (China Beat, January 2010):

On Christmas Day 2009, as a momentous year of anniversaries drew to an end, the Beijing authorities announced that Liu Xiaobo had been sentenced to eleven years in jail for ‘inciting subversion’. According to media reports, this was the longest term given to any offender accused of this particularly nebulous crime since it was introduced in 1997. Ironically, for the two decades since the tragic denouement of the 1989 mass protest movement that pressed for media freedoms and basic rights Liu’s has been a voice of reason and decency. Like patriots who had agitated for the party to make China a modern and civil nation in the 1940s, activists like Liu, and the thousands who signed the Charter 08, have used peaceful means and public protest to appeal to Chinese authorities to respect their own constitution.

As China continues on its path to become a major world influence, it is important that we remain heedful of the complex realities of China’s society and the varying demands of its citizens. As international criticisms of China’s failure to realize a social and political transformation concomitant with its economic achievement, the Chinese authorities have become increasingly anxious to present their monolith version of Chinese reality to the world as the only truly Chinese story worthy of our consideration. The Chinese Party-state, with the support of many citizens nurtured by a guided education and media industry, is now investing massively in presenting what it calls the ‘Chinese story’ (Zhongguode gushi 中国的故事) to the rest of the world. However, in doing this, it constantly limits and censors the variety of stories and narratives that make up the rich skein of human possibility in China itself. To many it would appear self-evident that no political force can or should claim to represent in its entirety or in perpetuity such human richness.

See also this 1990 essay, “Confession, Redemption, and Death: Liu Xiaobo and the Protest Movement of 1989” (originally published in The Broken Mirror: China After Tiananmen and republished in the March 2009 issue of China Heritage Quarterly).

Anne-Marie Brady, University of Canterbury

It is important to understand that when news like this breaks, “frames” and “tifa” (standardized formulations) are already in place that guide the Chinese media. I doubt there’ll be any big banner headlines in China about the prize (at least not negative ones), as the usual strategy is to downplay such events if they reflect unfavourably on China. And as to what the average person in China will think about it all, apart from select circles in Beijing, most of the rest of the country aren’t quite sure who Liu Xiaobo is, and I doubt they’ll get all stirred up by Charter 08 as a result of the prize. I’ve been on the road a bit this last month and everyone is talking about the economy these days—how tough things are getting as costs go up—to most, Liu represents another era remote from their realities. Personally I think he is a great guy, tough, principled and determined. I met him just before his re-arrest in 1996.

Regarding availability of information in China online about Liu getting the award, here in Wuhan my internet connection closed down for a few minutes when I did a search in Google.cn in Chinese on his name. When it started again I did a search in Chinese for Nobel Peace Prize and the same thing happened again. It also happened when I switched to Google.co.nz, my usual access to Google, though I could search for Nobel Peace Prize in English from there. I’m staying in a foreign expert’s apartment with better than average internet access, though no proxy server. You can never assume that if you can see things in Chinese outside China people inside can access them.

Perry Link, University of California, Riverside

“A Nobel Vision of a Better China” (Wall Street Journal, October 9, 2010):

In 2005, China’s President Hu Jintao issued a classified report called “Fight a Smokeless Battle: Keep ‘Color Revolutions’ Out of China.” The report warned against allowing figures like Boris Yeltsin, Nelson Mandela, Lech Walesa or Aung San Suu Kyi to appear in China. It borrowed the Chinese idiom “blast the head off the bird that sticks its neck out” to recommend that, when troublemakers appear, “the big ones” should be arrested and “the little ones” left alone.

This formula appears to have been put into practice in November 2008. Shortly after Chinese police discovered that people were signing Charter 08 online, the Communist Party Politburo held a meeting at which Charter 08 was officially declared to be an attempt at “color revolution.” Accordingly, Mr. Liu became “the big one” to target.

There is irony here. The other “color revolution” leaders named in the Hu report had strong political organizations behind them: Mr. Yeltsin was a high-ranking Soviet official, Mr. Mandela led the African National Congress, Mr. Walesa led Solidarity, and Ms. Suu Kyi led a political party that had already won a national election.

Mr. Liu, by comparison, was a free-floating intellectual. If he turns out to be a “big one” of the kind Mr. Hu fears, then Mr. Hu can only blame himself for having made him so. By awarding him the Peace Prize, the Nobel Committee and Communist Party have become unwitting partners in producing what China’s democrats and political dissenters have most needed: a leader of transcendent moral stature to rally around.

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Many more commentaries about Liu Xiaobo winning the Nobel Peace Prize have been published since we collected an initial round of readings on Friday. Here’s the latest:

• Jeremiah Jenne writes about “The Nobel Prize and the CCP’s Ignoble Response” at Jottings from the Granite Studio.

• At the New York Times, read a Room for Debate roundtable offering five perspectives on “China’s Unwanted Nobel Prize.”

David on Formosa offers a survey of reactions in Taiwan to Liu Xiaobo’s win.

• Seth Gurgel of the Chinese Law and Society blog explains why Liu’s award inspires both happiness and sadness, and why it reminds him of Beethoven.

• At Global Voices Online, an analysis of Liu’s transformation as an intellectual.

• Listen to Perry Link speak on the award and its potential repercussions for Chinese activism at NPR’s “All Things Considered.”

• At Al Jazeera, Jillian York suggests that Liu is the first “digital” Peace Prize laureate.

• Xujun Eberlein of Inside-Out China considers why Liu has been called both too moderate and too extreme in his activism.

• At the Guardian, Jonathan Watts describes an attempted post-award celebration among Chinese intellectuals and the government crackdown that followed.

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