January 2011

You are currently browsing the monthly archive for January 2011.

By Alice Miller

Chinese President and CCP General Secretary Hu Jintao’s remarks on human rights during his joint press conference with President Obama in Washington on 19 January have been widely regarded in foreign media as a grudging concession that broke new ground in Beijing’s position on the issue. Specifically, confronted by a persistent Washington press corps, Hu for the first time acknowledged “the universality of human rights” in international politics and conceded that “a lot still needs to be done in China in terms of human rights.”

Whether Hu attempted to dodge a question about China’s human rights position posed by an Associated Press reporter, as many Western media have concluded, or the initial question was inadequately translated into Chinese, as Hu claimed, cannot be answered conclusively from available reporting. But the remarks that Hu gave to the follow-up question on the issue when a Bloomberg reporter pressed for an answer—which, according to a BBC account, Hu read from a note card prepared for the occasion—did not break new ground. They merely repeated longstanding PRC positions on this issue.

Beijing has repeatedly and explicitly acknowledged that human rights are universal since the mid-1990s in statements at home and abroad. Even before then, Beijing indirectly acknowledged the principle of the universality of human rights in endorsing the 1948 “Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” and over the years it has accepted the principle in signing on to several international human rights covenants and protocols. Last year, for example, Beijing’s ambassador to the UN He Yafei summarized Beijing’s position in an interview with the PRC news service Xinhua:

China respects the universality of human rights and believes all rights are universal, indivisible, interdependent, and interrelated. The principle of universality has been included in the UN Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and other international human rights instruments. Chin has so far ratified more than 20 international human rights instruments, including seven of the eight core human rights instruments. This demonstrates clearly China’s affirmation of the universality of human rights. (Xinhua, 17 March 2010)

This position has been a staple of authoritative PRC statements for more than a decade. For example:

  • Foreign Minister Qian Qichen enunciated it in Washington in April 1997 in a speech before a luncheon sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations, the U.S.-China Business Council, and the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations. (Xinhua, 30 April 1997)
  • Qian repeated it in his annual address to the UN General Assembly in September 1997 and again in remarks at the opening ceremony for the International Symposium on World Human Rights Toward the 21st Century in Beijing. (Xinhua, 24 September 1997 and 20 October 1998)
  • In January 1999, Assistant PRC Foreign Minister Wang Guangya underscored acceptance of the principle as major point of agreement between the United States and China at the end of the first U.S.-PRC bilateral dialogue on human rights in Washington. (Xinhua 14 January 1999)

The principle has been incorporated as a point of agreement in several joint declarations signed by the top leaders of China and other countries, including two between Paris and Beijing, one signed by former PRC President and CCP General Secretary Jiang Zemin and French President Jacques Chirac in 1997 and the other signed by Chirac and Hu Jintao in 2004. (Xinhua, 16 May 1997 and 27 January 2004).

Nor is the acknowledgment that China “still has a lot to do” with regard to human rights new. Since 1991, for example, Beijing has issued a total of eight white papers on human rights in China, most of which have acknowledged shortcomings in Chna’s performance on the issue and the need for progress. For example, Beijing’s first human rights white paper in November 1991 stated in its preface:

As a developing country, China has suffered from setbacks while safeguarding and developing human rights. Although much has been achieved in this regard, there is still much room for improvement. It remains a long-term historical task for the Chinese people and government to continue to promote human rights and strive for the noble goal of full implementation of human rights as required by China’s socialism.

Similarly, the 2001 white paper stated:

Nevertheless, it must be admitted that China is still a developing country. Limited by impediments of natural, historical and economic development, there is still room for improvement with regard to the levels of China’s democracy and legal system building, the degree of social civilization and people’s living standards. (2000)

And, most recently, its 2010 white paper acknowledged:

China is a developing country with a population of 1.3 billion. Due to its inadequate and unbalanced development, there is still much room for improvement in its human rights conditions. The Chinese government is taking effective measures to promote the sound development and social harmony with a view to building a more just and harmonious society and ensuring that the people enjoy a more dignified and happier life. (2010)

As these successive expositions indicate, Beijing’s perspective on human rights is evolutionary, not absolute. That is, human rights are in principle universal, but assessment of their achievement in any given society at any moment must take account of its material and historical capacity to achieve them. The value attached by Western societies to human rights in the contemporary era, Beijing argues, reflects their overall level of economic and social development. By the same token, while all countries should endorse achievement of the universal goals of human rights, progress toward those goals must be assessed in the context of their respective levels of development. And so attainment of basic human rights of economic subsistence must come before full achievement of other ideals, including of civil liberties.

Alice Miller teaches at Stanford University and the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School. She is also a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, where she edits the China Leadership Monitor.

By Jacob Dreyer

Like any good Shanghai resident, I am more or less terrified by the China that exists outside of metro line 3. However, I had been obsessing for months about the municipality of Chongqing, a radically unusual city even by the standards of contemporary China. When I found that I had a spare weekend, I finally took a trip there to explore. Instead of describing my trip, or offering a journalistic take on the city à la Christina Larson, whose piece in Foreign Policy does that more competently than I could hope to, what follows is a series of meditations on Chongqing’s urbanism, in text and images. A Buenos Aires to Shanghai’s Paris, Chongqing has the air of being a forgotten or undiscovered metropolis, completely overshadowed by a more worldly and prominent counterpart. Shanghai’s new cityscape has received thorough attention from photographers such as Greg Girard, but Chongqing hasn’t yet been the focus of such work.  Here, I’ve tried to initiate such an exploration of the city.

The development of Chongqing is unprecedented in modern Chinese history: for its scale, for the ambition of its planning, for the rapidity with which it has sought to transform the rural into urban. Not an urban melting pot, Chongqing is a boiling cauldron of energy, analogous to the local specialty, hotpot.

Chongqing hotpot, originally developed by the bangbang men, those whose duty it is to haul loads up endless stairs, froths with heat. The heat setting on this was intermediate.

Read the rest of this entry »

By Christopher C. Heselton

Amid all the fanfare and fear-mongering over President Hu Jintao’s visit to the United States last week, the Chinese government has also launched an advertising campaign to enhance its national image in America. The campaign includes a 60-second ad showing on a mega screen at Time Square, New York, a 30-second segment at Gallery Place, Washington DC (DC’s “Chinatown,” though it’s a rather small one), and a series of 15-second advertisements airing on several news networks over a multi-week period. A host of Chinese celebrities, models, entrepreneurs, astronauts, and other household names appear in these advertisements, standing and smiling at the camera with their names and significance to China written on the screen in English. For a look, here are both of the segments that began running on BON last week, which also appeared on several major US networks:

At first glance, this attempt at promoting a favorable view of China to the American public seems like an utter failure. Many in the blogosphere and media have claimed the ad to be a major flop because it is too distant from its American viewers (see, for example, “China’s Latest PR Fail?,” “Pro-China Ad Makes Broadway Debut,” “Wary Powers Set to Square Off,” and this excellent discussion at Kaiser Kuo’s Sinica Podcast [9 minutes in]). The advertisement has little action or movement, no dialogue, awkward phrasing, and the celebrities and renowned figures in it might be familiar names in China but are virtually unknown to most Americans. When asked by a CCTV news crew if she recognized any of the figures in the advertisement, one New Yorker at Times Square replied, “I know Yao Ming and some of the models, but not a lot” (though the last four words were not translated on CCTV). While from a Chinese standpoint, the message of the ad may seem to be that these great people are Chinese too, for many Americans the message is not as clear since most of these names are unknown and not very memorable. Speaking to the Wall Street Journal, David Wolf, Chief Executive of Wolf Group Asia, said that the advertisement even gives a negative impression to many Americans, by invoking China’s “material strengths, which worry America.” The advertisement is a confusing and unusually baffling piece, and, in this sense, it does seem to be unsuccessful in giving Americans a truly new sense of what China is and assuaging American concerns over a rising China.

I think, however, that viewing these advertisements purely as a public relations campaign aimed at the American public is missing a large piece of the picture; we also need to consider the Chinese popular and political audience. In this respect, the advertisement has two possible intents, in my opinion. The first possibility is that the advertisement is intended to serve as a mark of national pride for a Chinese domestic audience. This is one of the most ambitious and highly publicized attempts to enhance the image of China in American minds since the 2008 Olympics. Unlike the Olympics, when the PR push was in Beijing, this time the message is airing in the very heart of the United States. This is something that the Chinese media has seemed to emphasize as a point of pride and demonstration of China’s progress. Thirty-odd years ago it would have been almost inconceivable that the Chinese government would have the desire and ability to take out an advertisement in Times Square. The message seems to say to Chinese audiences, “Look how far we’ve come! Our faces and our celebrities are in the cultural center of the US.” Of course, it’s not as nearly as exciting as China’s aerospace missions, but still acts as a badge of progress to display to the Chinese public (in some ways, it could also be seen to have similar purposes towards an American audience, though the message likely isn’t as clearly received). The commercial’s desire to reach Chinese audiences is made clearer with its use of well-known celebrities instead of nobodies. The designers of the ad claimed that their aim was to literally put a human face on China. If that were so, they could have shown a variety of everyday Chinese people—but instead they chose to feature a large group of Chinese notables that are virtually unrecognizable to most Americans, though highly recognizable to most Chinese. This suggests to me that the ad was meant to reach Chinese viewers, and not just Americans.

A second possible intention of this marketing campaign—though I admit this is more speculative—is to gain the attention of both domestic and international political leaders. Although one of the top planners of this endeavor, Shen Zanchen, maintains that the timing of these ads with President Hu’s arrival was “purely a historic coincidence,” it is difficult to shake the notion that there is more than a passing connection. In my previous work experience with several Chinese Information Offices that are responsible for city marketing, the synchronization of political events and marketing campaigns often ran like clockwork. I recall one time in 2009 (I promise this is my only anecdote) while at a conference on Chinese city image branding, I asked the head of an Information Office for a major Chinese city how she chose the timing slots for the city’s advertisements, as I noticed they never seemed to appear during popular television dramas. She remarked, “We always put it on during the evening News Broadcast (新闻联播), because that is when the leaders are most likely to watch television.” The goal, at least for this particular propaganda chief, was to catch the attention of the political leadership—possibly for her own promotion, but also to gain prestige for her city and the mayor of that city (her boss) among other CCP leaders. And this increased stature does lead to concrete results, as political leaders often help broker investment deals. In fact, the success of city branding campaigns in China, and even Chinese endeavors in international marketing, is not just measured in terms of viewership and ads, but also in which political leaders participated in, attended, or viewed their efforts. This way of weighing the effects of regional marketing shapes how many people in China understand public relations campaigns.

In this case, these new ads seem to be directed at gaining the attention of Hu Jintao, Barack Obama, and other Washington political leaders. Two aspects of the PR campaign make this point very plausible to me. First, in the segment on “Enchanting Chinese Art” we see Song Zuying (宋祖英), the diva of propaganda, who is very popular among CCP leaders but largely ignored in mainstream music. This possibly shows an attempt to play on the favorites of many older Chinese officials. The PRC leadership might not be as intrigued, and might even be uncomfortable, if pop-icons like Jane Zhang (张靓颖), Kym (金莎), or Jason Zhang (张杰) were on screen, though they are more popular with a younger audience. Second, the display of the ad at Gallery Place in Washington DC is a somewhat unusual choice for a commercial promoting China’s national image. Gallery Place is not a particularly high-traffic portion of DC, if one’s goal is to capture a large audience, but the location happens to be very close to the White House and Capitol Hill, and is smack-dab in the middle of DC’s Chinatown, which is a popular eating spot for Washington politicians, bureaucrats, and aides. So, it seems to me that another possible intention of these ads is to gain the attention of political leaders directly. It is speaking to them—not just to a generalized American public. Regardless of whether or not this is merely my overactive imagination at work, I think that when looking at these advertisements we should also consider the political dimensions and political understanding of what public relations means.

I would, however, like to end on a positive note about this advertisement campaign, because these ads are unique. In the past, advertisements portraying China seemed to come in only a few forms: tourism promotions that displayed Chinese monuments and traditions, investment promotions that emphasized favorable business conditions, or international event promotions in which improving the national image was not the overt goal of the message. This recent set of advertisements seems to be the first attempt to explicitly market China to the US, showing a greater understanding of the importance of manipulating a national image to gain favorable international support. Moreover, it moves beyond hackneyed images of the Great Wall, quaint ethnic customs, or cuddly panda bears, but instead pushes a more modern depiction of the country and its people that places China in a light that Americans could find very familiar, despite the unfamiliar faces. For Americans whose understanding of China is limited to what they’ve seen in Kung-Fu films or media images of impoverished Chinese slums, these commercials offer something new.

Christopher C. Heselton is a graduate student in Chinese history at the University of California, Irvine. He has previously written for China Beat on “Rock is Not Revolution.”

By Thomas S. Mullaney

“Rise of the Hans,” by Joel Kotkin, is a troubling article to find published in a high-profile venue such as Foreign Policy. It reinforces misleading ideas about China and is problematic for a variety of specific reasons, the biggest of which has to do with Kotkin’s use of key terms.

Words are the buildings blocks out of which all arguments are constructed. If these building blocks are made of compromised or substandard material, then even the most carefully crafted, intentionally provocative, or aesthetically pleasing arrangement thereof cannot prevent the structure from ultimately collapsing. Approaching this article as a “building inspector,” and looking closely at the substance of each of the most important, load-bearing words—race, ethnicity, nationalism, tribalism, Han, and Chinese—there is only one conclusion to be reached: a complete and immediate evacuation of the building, because the structure cannot hold. For Kotkin, “race” and “ethnicity” are interchangeable concepts, as are “nationalism” and “tribalism,” and “the Han” and “the Chinese.” None of these commensurations are accurate, however.

Let’s consider Kotkin’s use of the terms “race” and “ethnicity,” for example, both of which he employs to describe the Han (or “Hans” in his phrasing), who are his main concern. Race is a specifically biological conceptualization of collective identity in which greatest weight is given to consanguinity and the idea of genetic predisposition—i.e., that people “are the way they are” because of their genetic make-up. It is further tied to a specifically hierarchical view of human difference, in which certain biologically defined communities are regarded as superior to others. What’s more, the concept of race disallows for the possibility of changing identities within the span of a single lifetime (which is one of the reasons that acts of genocide have almost always involved defining the targets of extermination in terms of biological, i.e., unchangeable, difference). Ethnicity, by contrast, is a form of collective identity in which the primary criteria of identification are not biological or body-based, but cultural, affective, and sometimes linguistic. Indeed, the very origins of the term are in part related to efforts by social scientists who rejected primordialist or biologically determined ideas of identity, the idea that people “are who they are” or “act the way they act” because of their genetic make-up. As has been amply demonstrated by anthropologists, ethnic boundaries can form between communities that, from an outsider’s perspective, do not seem to exhibit strong cultural or linguistic differences. Likewise, ethnic groupings can emerge that encompass communities that, from an outsider’s perspective, seem to differ markedly. What’s more, unlike biological notions of identity, it is understood as possible for a person to undergo ethnic transformation within a lifetime (which itself is one of the reasons that assimilationist programs have historically defined their targets in terms of ethnic, i.e., fungible or plastic, difference). So what kind of identity is Han, then? Is it a race? Is it an ethnicity? Is it a tribe? Is it the same thing as “the Chinese”? The author evades these questions entirely and, in a bizarre move, lumps them all together. For Kotkin, the Han is a kind of “3-in-1 shampoo” of human identities: it is a “race” and a “cohesive ethnic group” and “a tribal superpower” all in one package. What a deal!

Beyond this type of basic, linguistic structural flaw, the article is virtually an evidence-free zone that amounts to little more than a long, unoriginal cliché that trades on prejudicial stereotypes. Although this might not be fair, since the author may well not have selected it himself, the most direct way to summarize the article’s characterization of Han is by looking closely at the image that accompanies the piece: a Photoshopped montage of expressionless Hu Jintao clones staring back at the reader with a creepy equanimity.

Whoever at Foreign Policy thought of this image—in particular, thought of using the metaphor of clones—captured the essence of Kotkin’s argument flawlessly: the Han, we are meant to believe, is a singular mass of physically, politically, ideologically, socially, culturally, and linguistically indistinguishable replicas, one that brings to mind the clone troopers of Kamino in Star Wars or, perhaps, hive-like, sci-fi adversaries, such as the “Buggers” in Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Trilogy, the Arachnids of planet Klendathu in Robert Heinlen’s Starship Troopers (who, incidentally, was writing in the aftermath of the Korean War and was also fascinated by the racist idea of an ego-less, self-less, and homogenous Asian adversary), or the Borg of Star Trek (a tendency that some commentators have explicitly used to refer to the PRC—something that one of the co-founders of China Beat criticized in a piece that appeared in Foreign Policy itself last year). Kotkin omits, or perhaps does not know, that the Han is one of the least homogenous groups history has ever known: contained within its ranks are people who literally cannot understand each other’s spoken languages and people who—let’s just be basic about this—exhibit the same sort of diversity of worldviews as one would expect to find among a group of one billion people anywhere on earth. To imagine even for a second that one billion people could ever think alike, believe alike, act alike, or look alike is a delusion.

But Kotkin doesn’t mention any of this. Rather, like each of the eerily coordinated and unflinching sci-fi adversaries mentioned above, the “Han race” (or ethnicity, or tribe, or…) possesses a “very homogeneous worldview” that, if we follow the author’s advice, should strike a mixture of admiration and fear in the “less tribally cohesive, more fragmented West.” Even the author’s closing admonition—that we must, in part, adopt the ways of the Han in order to counteract its rise to global domination—reads like something straight out of the imagination of Card and Heinlen. In place of a conclusion, let me finish with a brief juxtaposition of passages:

Kotkin: “English-speakers may not straddle the world like the 19th century empire-makers, but they are likely to remain first among equals well into the current century. Ultimately, this will depend on how the English-speaking world evolves and learns to embrace its multiracial population without losing its sense of a common identity. Ideally, the Anglosphere can offer an alternative that embraces not merely a language but a set of historically achieved values such as democracy and freedom of speech, religion, and markets. Already many of the English-speaking world’s exemplary writers, artists, industrialists, and entrepreneurs hail from a vast and ever expanding array of backgrounds. It is in the melding of many into one dynamic culture that the Anglosphere may retain a powerful influence over our emerging world of tribes.”

Card: “[M]aybe it was just that Ender had got inside the hivemind somehow, when he was studying them in order to defeat them. Maybe he had simply learned to think like a bugger.” (Xenocide)

Thomas S. Mullaney is Assistant Professor of History at Stanford University and author of Coming to Terms with the Nation: Ethnic Classification in Modern China (UC Press, 2010).

Photo from Foreign Policy.

By Yong Chen

Many people in both the U.S. and China were happy to hear that the Obamas were hosting a state dinner last night to welcome the visiting Chinese President, Mr. Hu Jintao. Finally, President Hu got the dinner that George W. Bush declined to offer him (substituting a less formal lunch instead); the last time a Chinese visitor was treated to a state dinner was 13 years ago. People see the Obama gesture, quite correctly, as a sign of respect and recognition of the importance of Sino-American relations. But the menu,which included meat, potatoes, apple pie, and ice cream, does not sound too exciting to me. A quintessentially American meal is perhaps more appropriate than a Chinese feast with dishes like shark’s fin and bird’s nest, and Hu’s chefs certainly know better than the White House chefs about how to prepare that kind of food. Besides, some Americans would find such fare distasteful, not only politically but also gastronomically—after all, these were the kind of foodstuffs that 19th-century Anglo Americans strongly disliked and mocked the Chinese for eating. For others, such a Chinese feast would have too much a flavor of Orientalism. But the all-American menu was still less than ideal. Despite the saying “as American as apple pie,” even most Americans do not eat apple pie more than a couple of times a year. And meat and potatoes are not just that special any more. The large-scale consumption of meat used to be something distinctive about America—the young and fast-expanding nation’s abundance in meat, especially beef, attracted millions of immigrants and visitors to the New World—but those days have passed. Meanwhile, while the potato, a New World native, was once new to China, it is now a staple food there. And both meat and potatoes are readily found in American-style restaurants, which are doing very well in China these days.

But perhaps even less ideal than the uninspired menu was the setting. To truly demonstrate the strengthening U.S.-China ties of which both leaders speak, maybe Obama should have taken President Hu to a hamburger joint, such as Ray’s Hell Burger in Arlington County. It’s not far from the White House, and Obama has been there as recently as June 24, 2010—he went with the Russian President, Mr. Medvedev. On that occasion, Obama picked Ray’s to “bond” with the Russian leader, showing the personal and close relationship that can often be found between the U.S. and European countries. In comparison, the formality of a state dinner, however desirable for those who want to see the two countries improve their ties, emphasizes the cultural distance that still lies between the U.S. and China.

It is, of course, too late to change things now. But there is still time in the future. I hope to see, in the not-so-distant future, the day when Chinese and American national leaders choose to go to an American fast food place in D.C. or a Chinese breakfast place in Beijing for doujiang and youtiao—soy milk and a deep-fried twisted dough stick that the Chinese have had to begin the day for a long time. And if they really want apple pie, there’s always McDonald’s—in either country.

Yong Chen is Associate Professor of History and Asian American Studies at UC Irvine. He is author of Chinese San Francisco 1850-1943: A Transpacific Community (Stanford University Press, 2000).

« Older entries