November 2010

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Karl Gerth is a tutor and fellow at Merton College and a historian of modern China at Oxford University. His new book is As China Goes, So Goes the World: How Chinese Consumers are Transforming Everything (Hill & Wang, 2010). (See this review by Christina Larson at the Washington Monthly and this one at Kirkus Reviews for more on Gerth’s book.) Below, an excerpt from chapter 1 of As China Goes, which takes a look at one of the most notable phenomena of 21st-century Chinese life: the sudden boom in car ownership and its far-reaching consequences.

No Going Back? China Creates a Car Culture and Economy

Today’s China sounds different. Back when I arrived in Nanjing for my junior year in college in 1986, one of the first things that struck me was the absence of car noise, signaling, of course, the absence of cars. As I rode the Communist-era bus from the airport, aside from the growl of its engine and the tooting horns of a handful of trucks and cars, the air was instead full of the ringing of bicycle bells and the whirring of their wheels.

Determined to hit the ground running, the next morning, as the other students slept, I got up early to change money, finding my way to the brand-new luxury hotel towering over the heart of the city. Built to comfortably house foreign businesspeople, the hotel did not admit Chinese. That morning a dozen stood at its entrance simply gawking at their city’s first high-rise. I marched right in, along with a group of Chinese teenagers sporting Nikes; only much later did I learn that the hotel guards identified overseas Chinese and allowed them entry by looking at their shoes—most local Chinese were still wearing either cloth or inexpensive leather. After changing money, I set off by bus across town to the Friendship Store, where foreigners, and Chinese with a special currency, could buy Chinese trinkets and hard-to-find imported items. The bus chugged along as an ocean of bicycles as far as the eye could see floated past, carrying an army of Chinese pedaling their way to work and weaving back and forth in front of the bus as if to assert the self-evident fact that the road was theirs.

Safely delivered to the store, I browsed a little and selected a bike. Its most distinguishing feature was the lack of any—namely, it looked like a shinier version of the thousands of bicycles I had already seen on China’s roads, and so seemed to promise that it would carry me around this new and exciting city. But to my surprise, the store clerk wouldn’t allow me to buy it. I had assumed that all I needed to buy something was enough of the right kind of money. I had had only a year of college Chinese, barely enough to correctly pronounce the tones of my Chinese name (Ge Kai, two characters pronounced with tones that each rise and fall), so it was hard to follow what the problem was, but I eventually figured out that I needed a ration coupon from my employer, or “work unit.” The store workers (they could hardly be called “salespeople,” as they did not seem very interested in selling anything) realized the absurdity of the situation, but it took some lengthy deliberations and a few phone calls, for reasons still unclear to me, before I could buy the bike.

I rode off triumphantly back toward campus, anxious to share my victory with my American classmates. Along the way home, though, the bicycle began to disintegrate, as parts started to come loose, and finally, as I rounded a corner, the bell fell off and tumbled down the street. I later learned that new Chinese bikes only looked assembled. Every part required additional tightening and, as one Chinese friend told me, a good rainstorm to rust the parts together. Chinese bicycles were notoriously poorly built and required constant maintenance. The following semester, when I was studying at Beijing University, one student taught me a local expression: “Every part of a bike makes noise except the bell.”

What made the joke work, of course, was the fact that in 1986 you could still hear bicycles. Today, they are overwhelmingly drowned out by the rumble of car engines. The change was so abrupt—in less than ten years—that the brains of those familiar with China before its rapid embrace of a car culture still haven’t quite adjusted to the difference in sounds. In fact, a distinguishing feature of China’s embrace of consumerism is its headlong nature—what Western consumers took decades or a century or so to adopt, Chinese are managing in mere years. By any measure, the accomplishment is impressive. It also defies controls and begets consequences that beget yet more consequences. I treasured my bicycle because it gave me mobility without the need to rely on the slow and extremely crowded buses. (To this day, after my experiences pushing my way onto China’s overcrowded buses, I still see an elevator as always having room for one more.) My bicycle allowed me to explore the city and to do so relatively safely, as there were very few private cars, and the noisy, slow-moving buses posed little threat. Getting a taxi was expensive and difficult—you had to order one or find a queue at a hotel for foreigners. That was in 1986. Jump forward two decades. Today cabs are so common I grow impatient if I have to wait more than a few minutes to hail one. . . .

This change is what makes the story of the car in China so important. In the early 1980s, China had only one car or truck for every 1,200 of its 800 million people; for local transportation, the vast majority of Chinese relied on bicycles. Indeed, the bicycle—the manufactured product most closely associated with Mao’s China—had served as an iconic image of China for over half a century. While the decade that followed my first visit to China saw a steady increase in the number of motor vehicles on those once blissfully quiet roads, at the end of the 1990s China’s car industry went into overdrive, and within a decade China overtook the United States as the world’s largest market for cars and also one of the world’s largest manufacturers of cars. This was no accident, nor a mere “correction” in the market, but the result of deliberate policies.

Why did China’s leaders elect to build a car industry and culture almost overnight, thereby making their economy and society—like ours in the industrialized world—highly dependent on cars? Consider that Chinese grade-school students in the mid-1990s were still being taught the dangers of an American-style car culture; state-approved textbooks told them that America’s car culture was unsafe, polluting, and wasteful of natural resources. At the same time, the country’s top scientists were advising against going down this route. They cited the inevitable accompanying need to import massive amounts of oil and the country’s resulting loss of energy independence and urged the government to develop a massive public transportation network instead. Nobody can argue that China didn’t understand the downside to embracing cars, but the perceived upside was more compelling. To grow and to compete in world markets on terms partially dictated by others, China decided to embrace cars and encourage its population to desire and buy them.

As with its decision to embrace consumerism itself, Chinese leaders didn’t think they had a choice. China decided to join the World Trade Organization in the mid-1990s to gain expanded access to global markets for its exports, a decision that required the country to play by WTO rules and relinquish some control over its own markets. The race was on. Before imports stormed into the previously protected market once full membership took effect in 2001, the country’s leaders recognized that they had less than a decade either to quickly develop a domestic car industry or to surrender the domestic market to foreign companies, perhaps permanently. China wanted to introduce cars on its own terms—namely, it wanted to have a domestic car industry rather than ceding a key industry to foreigners. To develop its domestic car industry in time, it would have to ease barriers on imports just enough to create an internationally competitive car market and entice foreign investment and technology from global car manufacturers.

Efforts to create domestic demand worked. The resulting price cuts, access to world-class car models, and easier credit from state-owned banks quickly led to soaring demand on the part of Chinese consumers, most of whom just a few years earlier had never dreamed of riding in any car, let alone one of their own. That soaring demand soon made China the world’s largest car market, surpassing the United States in 2009. In one of countless estimates regarding China that proved to be under rather than over expectations, the rise of the Chinese car market to world supremacy occurred six years ahead of earlier projections. The strategy also created a massive domestic car industry, with the country manufacturing some ten million cars a year, contributing to a global car glut that threatens to bankrupt its American competitors. As in the United States, the Chinese government and, of course, car manufacturers now practically beg citizens who two decades earlier could only aspire to own their own bikes to desire and buy cars, regardless of the environmental and geopolitical consequences.

No aspect of China’s consumer revolution occurs in isolation. The emergence of a vast market for cars is simply a part of many simultaneous and reinforcing changes, each change having its own far-reaching effects. The Chinese state itself is behind many of the changes promoting car use. Until the late 1990s, most urban residents worked in state-owned factories and lived in company-owned housing nearby, meaning they could easily walk, ride a bike, or take public transportation from home to work and back. But as increasing numbers of state-owned enterprises were closed and others relocated to the suburbs, workplaces became less accessible and a new commuter culture emerged. In place of mixed-use development, where people live and work in the same neighborhood, city centers across China are being razed and rebuilt into central business districts of gleaming office skyscrapers, pushing affordable housing out to distant suburbs. None of this is occurring without the implicit and explicit support of the state; all of it carries as a consequence the demand for more cars.

Like their counterparts around the world, Chinese consumers now not only want to own cars but also “need” private transport. The country adds an estimated 12,000 to 14,000 cars to its streets every day, for a total of more than 35 million—a number expected to grow to more than 150 million within ten years. In 2006 alone, Chinese consumers purchased 6.8 million vehicles, overtaking Japan as the world’s second largest car market, and at the start of 2009, China became the world’s largest such market, selling more than 12 million cars annually. In a 2002 survey of families in Beijing, Guangzhou, and Shanghai, 70 percent reported that they planned to buy cars for personal use within five to ten years; in 2005, two fifths of Chinese respondents reported that owning an automobile was their grandest dream.

The successful drive to get the Chinese to buy cars has paved the way for the arrival of such other icons of American-style consumerism as shopping malls on city outskirts, suburban gated communities, leisure homes in the countryside, and weekend holidays. For a country set on stoking domestic consumer demand, all of these are positive developments. Yet the car craze has also led to a number of more troubling and largely unanticipated consequences. These problems are most visible in China’s major cities, where the majority of car ownership is concentrated. In 2009, Beijing alone had four million cars traveling its heavily congested roads, triple the number a decade earlier, and even with the continual addition of new and wider roads, the city cannot confiscate land, demolish residential buildings, and build roads fast enough to accommodate them all. . . .

There has also been a belated rush to expand the public transportation system with new subways. But the genie is out of the bottle. The Chinese now desire cars. Just as significantly, China needs its citizens to want cars and has consciously created policies to promote private car ownership . . .

© Hill & Wang; reprinted with permission.

by Jeffrey Wasserstrom

Over the summer, there was a changing of the guard in the Shanghai office of Marketplace, an American radio program that has consistently carried smart reports about China. Scott Tong moved from the PRC back to the US (where he continues to work for the show) and former Peace Corps volunteer Rob Schmitz took his place. I had the pleasure of meeting them both in Shanghai in July and ran a post with the former in early August, in which he reflected on his time covering the China beat. Now, as a sequel to that post, comes a quick q and a with Schmitz, who recently did a great feature on Inner Mongolia (listen to it here, and check out the striking photos that he took to accompany the report here), which among other things is a fascinating addition to the growing number of intriguing pieces, in varied media, on how life in the PRC is being transformed by the increasing importance of cars as forms of transportation and status symbols:

JW: What story has been the most fun to cover for Marketplace since you arrived in Shanghai?

RS: I just finished a series of stories on the rapid economic transformation of the Ordos basin in Inner Mongolia. All the big dreams, hope, and optimism that make life in today’s urban China so full of electricity seemed to shine even brighter in this tiny region. The area is making a mint off its status as one of the most prominent coal and natural gas producers of China.

Nearly everyone I met there was either looking for investors or looking to invest. Both groups were overcome with a type of gold fever that made them fun to be around. One guy intercepted me on the airplane to Ordos and talked me into scheduling an interview with the CEO of his logistics company. When I showed up the next morning, I was ushered to the corner office. The CEO shook my hand without letting go. At the point where it started to become uncomfortable, a photographer appeared out of nowhere and began to snap photos. The CEO then released my hand and announced that he was too busy for an interview. They had gotten what they needed: a photograph of their leader with a foreigner for promotional material to attract more investors. But I fought for a consolation prize. After the paparazzi shoot, I asked my new acquaintance for a tour of the automobile industrial park his company was constructing. He was happy to do so, and the result ended up in the first piece of the series.

Two days later, I met my Mongolian fixer. I found him through a mutual acquaintance, and we had spent the week prior emailing each other about the details of my upcoming trip and some of the rural areas where we could find ethnic Mongolian herders to talk to. I expected him to be middle-aged, possibly a former herder. Not even close. Baigaal was 24 years old, had a shaved head, and upon meeting me, had one question: “Do you like Eminem?” Baigaal was an aspiring rapper. He brought two of his college friends along on our day-trip through the grasslands. There we were: three ethnic Mongolians, my Chinese assistant, and me, crammed into a tiny Suzuki Swift, listening to a mix CD Baigaal had put together of Mongolian hip-hop music. All of the sudden the car goes silent. Two electronic gongs pound through the speakers. It’s ‘Beat It’ by Michael Jackson. Within a minute, we’re all humming along—Mongolians, a Chinese, and an American—as the grasslands of Inner Mongolia flash by outside our Japanese car… there’s nothing like Michael Jackson to make the world a little smaller.

JW: What do you consider the biggest challenge to reporting from China just now?

RS: On the surface, China is a journalist’s playground: It’s changing at an historic pace, it’s home to the largest human migration the world has ever known, and its fate has become intertwined with the world’s fate. The trick is to make sense of all this. China forces you to become a better reporter—you’re constantly having to check your facts, because what you thought were facts oftentimes weren’t facts to start with. It’s difficult to find the reality behind economic numbers from Beijing, and it requires persistent follow-up with a variety of economists, academics, social scientists, and, most importantly, laobaixing. Once you’ve got what you think is a reasonable amount of material to tell a story, then the challenge becomes trying to fit the nuance and complexities of China into a four-minute feature. The amount of material left on the cutting room floor could fill books.

JW: What has surprised you most about how China has–or hasn’t–changed since you were there last?

RS: After living in Sichuan as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the mid-90s, I’ve returned to China every two years or so as a journalist, and, like many who live here, I’ve learned to reset my expectations each day when I wake up. Anything can and will happen here, and the rapid pace of change makes surprises an everyday part of life. I just came back from a weekend trip in Hangzhou. My wife, son, and my mother, who’s visiting from the states, walked a few blocks from our home to the subway, where it took 20 minutes to arrive to Shanghai’s new Hongqiao train station. From there, we boarded a sleek, comfortable bullet train that whisked us to Hangzhou in 38 minutes. A trip that used to take 3-4 hours was now reduced to under an hour. As the countryside went by at around 220 mph, my two year-old sat in my lap with his forehead planted on the window, screaming in excitement at how fast we were going. I felt the same way.

JW: During your first stay in China you were based in Sichuan and now you are living in Shanghai. Any thoughts you want to share, besides the obvious ones of infrastructure and access to international goods and the like, about how the two living experiences are similar and different?

RS: My China experience has changed alongside my evolving career path and in tandem with the economic transformation of the country. In the 1990s, I was a volunteer teacher in the city of Zigong. My Peace Corps site mates and I were the first foreigners to live in the city since 1949. I lived on a hundred US dollars a month and it was my job to help people. Today, I’m a journalist in China’s largest city, I’m one of at least 150,000 foreigners in Shanghai, and it’s my job to pester people with questions. I make more money than I did during my Peace Corps days, but I miss the relationships I shared with my Chinese students and colleagues when I was a teacher. As a journalist, it’s more difficult to cultivate these types of meaningful relationships because you’re always rushing to meet the next deadline. But it’s not impossible. I’m working hard to establish a handful of sources from all walks of life who I can check-in with from time to time. It’s not a daily routine like I had when I was a teacher, but it’s regular enough to serve as a suitable substitute. On the flip side, being a journalist gives me the freedom to explore and analyze parts of Chinese society I was always curious about but didn’t have access to as a teacher. It gives me the opportunity to tell the stories of the Chinese people to an audience thirsty for more knowledge about this fascinating land. It’s a fantastic job. China inspired me to become a journalist in the first place, and I’m thrilled to have this opportunity.

JW: Now that the Expo is over, any predictions on how it will be viewed in China a year from now, whether it will be thought of as a success, a failure, a bit of both?

RS: I think it depends on whom you talk to. For the Chinese, I think Expo was a rousing success. Tens of millions of people attended the event. Many of them were from smaller cities throughout China and were making their first trip outside their province to ‘see the world’ in Shanghai. It’s easy to criticize the flaws of the event, and many foreign journalists did. But I think dwelling too much on the negative aspects misses the point that this World’s Fair really wasn’t designed for the international community. It was made for China, and the Chinese clearly benefitted from it, no matter how long the lines became and how tacky some of the pavilions were. For the more sophisticated worldly visitor, yes, parts of the Expo were a huge disappointment. To many, the mix of corporate and Chinese propaganda throughout much of the fair was an accurate reflection of a disturbing new world order. But for me, a former teacher in rural Sichuan whose Chinese friends were constantly dreaming of seeing the world and learning about different cultures and ideas, Expo gave them a chance to do that, and I think that’s great.

By William A. Callahan

John and Doris Naisbitt, China’s Megatrends: The Eight Pillars of a New Society (New York: Harper Business, 2010).

The future is a hot topic in China; bookstores are full of tomes asserting the 21st century as China’s century: Liu Mingfu’s The China Dream (2010) and Chan Koon-chung’s The Gilded Era: China 2013 (2009) are but two of the most recent books that describe how China is destined to become the number one country in the world.

While there are many books by academics — and even novelists — what about the prognostications of professional futurologists? Sadly, futures studies institutes in China are thin on the ground; indeed, last month when I visited the address listed on the China Society for Futures Studies website, I found that its headquarters was being torn down — leading one witty colleague to wonder whether China’s future was likewise chaile 拆了(i.e. torn down).

Luckily, noted international futurologist John Naisbitt has come to the rescue with his new book, China’s Megatrends: The Eight Pillars of a New Society, which is co-authored with his wife Doris. Frustrated with how China has been (mis)represented in the western media, the Naisbitts’ task is ambitious: to tell us the good news about the Real China. They argue — at length — that westerners can’t understand China because they are blinded by their own values, which are inappropriate for seeing what is actually happening in China. Their solution is to see China from the inside-out by listening closely to Chinese voices and the positive stories that they tell.

While most authors (including me) likewise claim to use Chinese sources to understand the PRC, the Naisbitts conduct their research in a novel way: in 2007, they founded the Naisbitt China Institute in Tianjin. Since neither Naisbitt speaks Chinese, they hired dozens of students and instructed them to comb provincial newspapers for the facts of the dramatic changes taking place in China. Using this pile of “objective facts” to understand China in a new way, the Naisbitts come to this exciting conclusion: “China in 2009 was creating an entirely new social and economic system — and a political model, which may well prove that ‘the end of history’ was just another pause along history’s path.”

China’s Megatrends describes this new model of governance in terms of eight pillars that hold up China’s new society: Emancipation of the Mind, Balancing Top-down and Bottom-up, Framing the Forest and Letting the Trees Grow, Crossing the River by Feeling for Stones, Artistic and Intellectual Ferment, Joining the World, Freedom and Fairness, and From Olympic Gold Medals to Nobel Prizes.

The book thus explains how China liberated itself from its Maoist ideological mindset and reactivated China’s “entrepreneurial gene” when Deng Xiaoping came to power in 1978. The Chinese leadership is praised for creating new values and culture that build trust rather than fear. Instituting the “right mixture of control and freedom,” the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) thus has been able to direct the people’s creativity towards positive economic development — rather than political reform, which is seen as negative. The key to China’s success, the Naisbitts tell us, is its continuity of leadership, able to make long-term plans rather than having to address short-term electoral pressures; the CCP’s legitimacy thus is based on results, rather than votes. This has made China the workshop of the world, and its next goal is to be the “innovator of the world.” The Naisbitts thus are confident that China will soon move from winning Olympic gold medals to winning Nobel prizes.

The Naisbitts should be careful what they wish for: much to the chagrin of the CCP leadership, Liu Xiaobo became the first PRC-based Nobel Laureate when he won the Peace Prize this year.

While China’s Megatrends is quite hostile to democracy — which it calls western democracy — the book spends a fair bit of space talking about it. At times, the Naisbitts see China as democratizing, albeit at a much slower pace than “western critics” demand. Their prediction for China’s democratic future is enigmatic: “The last steps toward full political emancipation will be to let the butterfly fly and to call it what it is: a butterfly.”

But their main argument is that China has developed a different — and better — form of democracy, which they call “vertical democracy.” Freedom, they argue, means something different for Chinese people: social order and harmony. The focus of democracy thus shifts from individual choice to group harmony. The main task of vertical democracy is not to represent the people’s will, but to harmoniously balance top-down and bottom-up forces. Top-down refers to the CCP leadership’s plans and policies; yet the book’s examples of bottom-up influence are not so clear: mass demonstrations were okay when Shanghai residents successfully stopped the East China Maglev Project (2007-08), but were a threat when they took place in Tian’anmen Square in 1989.

For all this talk about the importance of bottom-up influence, China’s institutional structures for listening to popular needs, concerns and ideas are quite weak, and it seems that the CCP decides what is “acceptable” bottom-up activity ex post facto – which is hardly a good formula for building trust. The Naisbitts’ new model of good governance thus begs many questions that are familiar to both pundits and political theorists: “Who watches the watchmen?”

Rather than get caught up in a debate about Asian collectivism vs. Western individualism, we can best understand the strengths and weaknesses of China’s Megatrends by examining its methods and sources in more detail.

Recall that the Naisbitts have concluded that western media can’t properly understand because it is biased by western values; their solution to this problem is to use Chinese media sources that have authentic Chinese values. Unfortunately, the Naisbitts don’t grasp how tightly the party-state controls the Chinese media. As Anne-Marie Brady explains in Marketing Dictatorship (2007), China’s propaganda system goes way beyond negative censorship to produce positive stories of China’s many successes — which are often contrasted with European and American failures.

Hence while the dozens of students at the Naisbitt China Institute were instructed to gather the facts — and only the facts — about China’s rise from media clippings, the tight ideological control of the Chinese media means that we cannot so easily separate “the facts” from the narrative promoted by the CCP’s Central Propaganda Department. Indeed, the party-state’s official formulations (tifa 提法) form the book’s conceptual backbone: emancipation of the mind; learn truth from facts; crossing the river by feeling for stones; scientific development and social harmony; and so on.

This uncritical use of Chinese media products (or any country’s media products, for that matter) means that China’s Megatrends tells us less about what is “really happening in China,” and more about how the party-state wants everyone (including Chinese people) to understand the dramatic changes taking place in the PRC.

While China’s Megatrends is weak on truth-value, it is strong in another sense. The Naisbitts were given extraordinary access to China’s movers and shakers. Who would not be envious of their list of sources, which includes a two-hour interview with President Jiang Zemin; indeed, John Naisbitt explains how this book was actually Jiang’s idea: “President Jiang, Taiwan has a small story to tell, and tells it very well. China has a big story to tell, and does a terrible job in telling it.” To which Jiang replied: “Why don’t you tell it? We will give you all the support you need.”

The strength of China’s Megatrends is that it tells us how China’s elites want outsiders to understand them. Curiously, some of the Naisbitts’ business sources have a view of their country and its politics that strays from the official line, giving us a hint of China’s future direction.

Rather talking about the PRC as a nation-state, these entrepreneurs see China as a corporate enterprise. This formulation caught the Naisbitts’ attention, leading them to conclude that “China has reinvented itself as if it were a huge enterprise.”

The Naisbitts thus explain China’s fundamental transformation between the Cultural Revolution and the present:

“China in 1978: A visionary, decisive, assertive CEO takes over a very large, moribund company that is on the verge of collapse. The workforce is demoralized, patronized, and poorly educated. The CEO is determined to turn the run-down enterprise into a healthy, profitable, sustainable company, and to bring modest wealth to the people. And he has a clear strategy for achieving this goal.… China in 2009: The company has changed from an almost bankrupt state into a very profitable enterprise, the third largest of its kind in the world. It has made clever moves in its challenges and crisis, and its economic success is now recognized around the globe.”

This appeal to corporate governance also helps explain the Naisbitt’s idea of vertical democracy: people in corporations don’t have rights, they have tasks; a corporation is not a commonwealth organized for the good of its members — its purpose is profit. As the Naisbitts explain, “Survival of the company has to take priority over individuals’ interests and benefits. Those who would prefer to fight against the company’s culture and goals would have to choose: leave or adjust.” Since this is a country we are talking about, I suppose resigning means you leave China, while being fired means you end up in jail.

This shift from the PRC as a nation-state to China as a corporation clarifies how a free-market capitalist like John Naisbitt can so enthusiastically endorse CCP rule: both are pursuing an authoritarian capitalist model of governance, at the expense of democracy and social welfare.

William A. Callahan is Professor of International Politics at the University of Manchester and author of China: The Pessoptimist Nation (Oxford University Press, 2010).

By Maura Elizabeth Cunningham

On November 19, 2009, I posted a story here at China Beat that I titled “The Good, the Bad, and the Boring.” The article was a review of Barack Obama’s first presidential visit to China, during which he held a somewhat bland town hall meeting in Shanghai, performed the de rigueur tours of the Great Wall and the Forbidden City, and met with Hu Jintao and other Chinese leaders behind closed doors. All in all, Obama’s trip seemed to be little more than an icebreaker, a quick and innocuous introduction to one of America’s most important strategic partners. But that was last year.

Fifty-one weeks later, Obama again made a November visit to Asia, though his itinerary on this four-country trip didn’t include a stop in China. That isn’t to say, however, that China wasn’t on the president’s mind as he traveled—a fact that was quite clear at several points, never more so than during a news conference at the conclusion of the G-20 meeting in Seoul on Friday. On this occasion, Obama showed none of the restraint that characterized his trip to China last year; instead, he spoke out against Chinese undervaluation of the renminbi and criticized unnamed “countries with large surpluses” that rely on an export-oriented growth strategy. Here’s the section of Obama’s remarks that’s been getting the most attention:

I’ve been very clear and persistent since I came into office that we welcome China’s rise; we think the fact that China has grown as remarkably as it has, has lifted millions of people out of poverty, and that is ultimately good for the world and good for America—because it means that China has the opportunity to be a responsible partner. It means that China can be an enormous market for the United States, for Korea, for countries throughout Asia and around the world. And it’s just good to get people out of poverty and give them opportunity.

What I’ve also said is that precisely because of China’s success, it’s very important that it act in a responsible fashion internationally. And the issue of the RNB [sic] is one that is an irritant not just to the United States, but is an irritant to a lot of China’s trading partners and those who are competing with China to sell goods around the world. It is undervalued. And China spends enormous amounts of money intervening in the market to keep it undervalued.

(Full text of Obama’s remarks is available here.)

Obama actually spent relatively little time on the topic of China during the press conference, but his newly assertive tone regarding the renminbi has been the among most attention-getting aspects of the entire 10-day trip. Obama met with warm receptions in both India and Indonesia before traveling on to Seoul for the G-20, where tensions quickly arose over not only the renminbi but also questions such as global trade imbalances and American stimulus plans. As Louisa Lim of NPR notes, Obama’s outspokenness in the press conference contrasts with his inability to get such strong language about the currency issue into the communiqué the G-20 hammered out during the summit. In the end, Lim says, “This trip was designed to reward America’s natural allies in Asia; it’s served to highlight the limits of American power.” It also served to highlight the growing importance of Chinese strength in Asia; that’s certainly not a new development, but the looming presence of the PRC during Obama’s trip made many of his actions in both India and Indonesia appear specifically calibrated to counter Chinese influence in the region (see this report at McClatchy and “The elephant outside the room” at The Economist for more).

Despite Obama’s strong words in Seoul, the U.S. and China are clearly not going to shut each other out any time soon. This was the message of a music video circulating online last week, the “US-Sino Currency Rap Battle” produced by Taiwan’s Next Media Animation. In the words of the song’s annoyingly catchy chorus, “They’re not enemies / They’re frenemies / With co-dependent economies.” But these “frenemies” seem to be moving toward a rough patch in their relationship—one that could make Hu Jintao’s scheduled January visit to the U.S. anything but boring.

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It has now been a little more than one month since the announcement of Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel Peace Prize win, with the December 10 award ceremony a bit less than a month away. Here are a few links we’ve come across recently in our search for updates on the story:

• Hat tip to China Digital Times for pointing us to Dai Qing’s November 5 statement concerning her feelings about being one of the 140 individuals named on “Liu Xia’s Grand List,” an invitation to Liu Xiaobo’s friends to attend the award ceremony in his absence:

. . . there is still more than a month before the awards ceremony. The closest friends and comrades of the Laureate, who have been with him through all of the hardship, should be allowed to go to Oslo. But if the authorities ignore all these calls and no one on Liu Xia’s list is permitted to go abroad through the proper procedures, it happens that I am in Canada now for an academic conference.

To comfort Xiaobo in prison and Liu Xia under house arrest, and for all who are on Liu Xia’s list – those who are either under police surveillance or in custody or warned to behave during a forced “tea conversation with the police,” or worse, those “wearing a wig” (a term to describe those hooded and taken away by the security police) – then I shall tell the world that it is not true that no Chinese citizen who fights against authoritarianism will be able to attend the grand ceremony in Oslo. If necessary, I will go there to fulfill my duty to my friend.

I have just received mail from my home, where I learned that the authorities have sent someone to show me their warm regards. I asked a family member to hand this article to the authorities, and I sincerely expect them to report it to their supervisors – as they reported on my activities over the past 20 years. Then at last, perhaps, we will hear good news saying the government has made a gracious decision to allow the most deserving on Liu Xia’s list to travel to Oslo, and leave me, the least deserving person on her list, free to return home to China.

• At East Asia Forum, Julia Lovell writes of “China’s quest for a suitable Nobel,” and David Kelly comments on “Liu Xiaobo and universal values.”

• The Institute of Asian Research’s Asia Pacific Memo site features a series of short video commentaries by Professor Timothy Cheek speaking about Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel Peace Prize (part 1 embedded below).

• Hear both David Kelly and Timothy Cheek speak about Liu on Wisconsin Public Radio’s “Here on Earth” show.

• At his Letter from China blog on the New Yorker website, Evan Osnos has been covering the fallout from Liu’s prize in posts such as “Liu Xiaobo: The Official Portrait” and “Paying a Visit.”

• Also at the New Yorker, but only available in full to subscribers, is “Servant of the State” by Jianying Zha, which looks at Liu Xiaobo and the writer Wang Meng.

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