February 2011

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• Guest-blogging for James Fallows last week, Jeremiah Jenne devoted several of his posts to discussions of protests and the possibility of a “Jasmine Revolution” in China. His columns on this topic include “China: Not Quite a Revolution,” “After Protests, Beijing Cracks Down,” and “In China, Droughts Bring the Crazy.” Jenne also provided on-the-spot reporting today from Wangfujing in Beijing, the site of a planned protest that was primarily attended by security forces and foreign journalists.

• Tom Lasseter of McClatchy Newspapers writes at his “China Rises” blog of the juxtaposition of the crackdown on protests with the message of an online forum held Sunday morning by Wen Jiabao:

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao on Sunday held an online forum in which he promised to focus on making the lives of ordinary people in China more comfortable and secure.

Just a few hours later, thousands of Chinese police deployed in Beijing, Shanghai and other cities to clamp down on public gatherings after a second week of overseas Internet-based calls for protests across the country.

The combination of Wen’s comments about government efforts to raise living standards, accompanied by a display of China’s police state tactics aimed at squelching dissent, neatly laid out in one day’s time the Chinese Communist Party’s approach toward avoiding the kind of unrest seen across the Arab world.

In the morning, Wen pushed the official position of more stability and prosperity through one party rule. And in the afternoon, security personnel swarmed public spaces to be sure nobody suggested otherwise.

• In the wake of Best Buy’s announcement that it has shuttered its branded stores in China, Adam Minter of Shanghai Scrap takes a look at what went wrong.

• At Miller-McCune, Jeff Wasserstrom writes about “Media and Revolution 2.0: Tiananmen to Tahrir”:

Have the latest advances in communication technology radically altered the fundamental dynamics of struggles for change in authoritarian settings? Or have cell phones and social media merely brought about small shifts in the dynamics of revolution? Is the Web a godsend to those trapped in oppressive states, as Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo suggests in his essay “The Internet is God’s Gift to China”? Or does this thinking give in to a form of “cyber-utopianism” that glosses over the potential of new media to be used by autocrats, their propaganda ministries and security forces to massage public opinion, keep tabs on dissidents and ensure that populations stay docile and distracted, as Evgeny Morozov argues in The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom?

• Maura Cunningham reviews Pallavi Aiyar’s new novel, Chinese Whiskers, at the Asian Review of Books.

By Maggie Greene

In the fall of 2010, I advanced to candidacy at the University of California, San Diego, and bearing the new title of PhD candidate in modern Chinese history, I set off for that great and time-honored pilgrimage to the People’s Republic of China to start researching my dissertation. I’ve been here four months, and while the process of researching Chinese opera (particularly kun opera and ghost plays) in the PRC has not been as smooth as I would have hoped, there is one thing that’s been going swimmingly: book shopping. More precisely, shopping online for books related to my dissertation.

There are numerous sites out there dedicated to selling books: in the PRC, Dang Dang ships internationally and has a wide variety. My perennial favorite (both for their brick and mortar stores and online selection) is the Taiwanese chain Eslite (they also ship internationally, with reasonable shipping rates to boot). But for someone on the hunt for books and materials beyond recent publications, there is the holy grail of Chinese book websites: Kong fuzi, the Chinese portal for thousands of individual bookstores and countless titles, both recent and antique. And, unlike many other sites, it’s one that can really only be used while one is in China.

For a bibliophile like myself, who likes to own every bit of material related to my research that I can get my hands on, book shopping in China can be an unparalleled paradise. I was first introduced to the wonders of kongfz.com in 2009 by a classmate, who kindly offered to pick up some purchases for me when she returned home to Guilin. My spoils from that first foray included a 1960s practice edition of Li Huiniang used by the Northern Kun Opera Troupe in the first performance of the opera—mimeographed, torn cover, printed on appallingly bad paper (that I now realize is standard issue for mimeographed anything from 1950s and 1960s China), and with old school brads holding the whole thing together (and adding nice rust stains on the cover). I think I paid a whopping 20 RMB for it (about $3 USD). I was hooked—it was like the Chinese Alibris, but cheaper!

Although I had said I’d be in a buying frenzy as soon as my feet hit Shanghainese earth on this research trip, it actually took me a couple of months before I got around to mining the wonderful treasure trove I had been introduced to. While I mentioned the site to a number of friends, general skittishness about dealing with the Chinese banking system and other pressing concerns put book shopping on the back burner until this month.

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By Jane Leung Larson

We recently learned that the Chinese government has deemed the term “civil society” [gongmin shehui 公民社会] too sensitive to use in Chinese news reports. Apparently, even the mention of Chinese citizens voluntarily joining together for a common cause challenges the authority of China’s rulers, especially when that cause is political. Such aversion to autonomous organizations goes back to imperial China, and it was not until the last throes of the Qing dynasty that the first truly political Chinese organization emerged and grew. And that organization had no choice but to be based outside of China.

Chinese civil society took a big step forward in 1899 with the founding of the Chinese Empire Reform Association, or the Baohuanghui 保皇会 (literally the “Protect the Emperor Society”), in Victoria, Canada. In effect a proto-political party, the Baohuanghui was founded on the premise that the first step in reforming China was the launching of an organization of like-minded Chinese who believed in its mission and would support a variety of methods, from uprisings to newspapers, to achieve their goals. This kind of voluntary association, or qun [群 group], was distinguished from the traditional Chinese organizations that formed around native place, clan, guild, or religious identities, which only reinforced the cliquishness and infighting of Chinese people. From the qun, it was hoped, would come the guo [国 the nation].

The Baohuanghui became the largest and most influential overseas Chinese political organization during its late Qing heyday, far surpassing Sun Yat-sen’s revolutionary groups in scope and influence, both inside and outside China. By 1905, more than 150 chapters had been established in Chinese communities in North and South America, Southeast and Northeast Asia, Australia and even Africa, totaling perhaps 100,000 members with a broad reach into China. Its ultimate objective—transforming China’s autocratic system into a constitutional monarchy, much like that of Great Britain or Japan—failed, but it was crucial in spreading the acceptance of constitutionalism, nationalism, and popular sovereignty among Chinese both outside and inside China.

How did the Baohuanghui arise, expand so rapidly among overseas Chinese, and get its message inside China? And why has it received so little attention by scholars of modern Chinese political history?

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• If you’re looking for a few China book recommendations, check out these two recent interviews at The Browser’s “Five Books” feature: the New Yorker’s Evan Osnos suggests five books that first-time visitors to China should read before they go, and Victor Shih of Northwestern University shares his favorite titles dealing with the Chinese economy.

• Osnos also writes about “China’s Education Binge” at his “Letters from China” blog on the New Yorker’s site.

• China Beatniks around the web: at the International Herald Tribune, Daniel A. Bell evaluates the chances of protests in the Middle East being replicated in China. For a comparative look at how the Chinese and North Korean governments have been reacting to the ousting of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, see this article at the Korea Times, where China Beat consulting editor Jeff Wasserstrom is quoted on the parallels between present-day protests and the anti-Chiang Kai-shek demonstrations of the 1940s in China. And at the Business Standard, Pallavi Aiyar writes about why the Egyptian protests could be a warning for China.

• Jottings from the Granite Studio guest-blogger Yajun analyzes “Why Groupon is Flailing in China”:

I argue that Groupon’s problem is its arrogant attitude. It had no sense of political sensitivity of certain issues for Chinese consumers. Its inefficient internal coordination and its lack of effective communication with its Chinese partner put them in an embarrassing situation. It ignores advice from Tencent, and their management team doesn’t seem to have the experience necessary to really get in touch with Chinese consumers.

As a Chinese tuangou veteran, I suggest that rather than paying expensive salaries to MBAs, they should listen to what their partner say about Chinese market. They should find out what young urban people with money to burn wish to burn it on.

Have you ever seen an old Chinese woman buy vegetables at a morning market? Consumers in China are tough and persistent. We like to bargain and we are good at it. Most of us don’t care about the background of the company. (Even though Groupon is well-known abroad, for Chinese consumers, it is just another group buy website). I personally only care about the best value and reliable service.

• If you’re a polo fan, see Lara Farrar’s article at the Wall Street Journal discussing the sport’s rising popularity among the very rich in China.

• Finally, for a glimpse at how food moves from the farm to the dining tables of Beijing’s residents, see this slideshow by Jonah Kessel. Kessel visited one of the city’s major food markets, the Xinfadi Agri-product Wholesale Market, to see how the operation worked.

Diamant, Neil Jeffrey. Embattled Glory: Veterans, Military Families, and the Politics of Patriotism in China, 1949-2007. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2009. xiii, 463 pp. $34.95 (paper).

By Harold Tanner

Will virulent nationalism make China a threat to the international order? This is the question that Neil J. Diamant sets out to address in Embattled Glory. A number of academics as well as the mass media have argued that after 1989 the Chinese Communist Party purposely fostered a wide-spread and strongly-felt popular nationalism, and that this sense of nationalism pushes Chinese foreign policy toward more hard-line positions that could lead to diplomatic or even military conflict between China, its neighbors, and even the United States. Diamant points specifically to Peter Gries’ China’s New Nationalism: Pride, Politics and Diplomacy as an example of this approach. But where, asks Diamant, is the evidence for deep, broadly-held feelings of “patriotism” or “nationalism” (Diamant uses these terms interchangeably) on a truly popular level, beyond the “relatively small cohort” of extremely vocal “urban writers and elites” that Gries focuses on? (p. 19) Diamant’s study of the treatment of veterans and military families from 1949 to 2007 suggests that popular nationalism is in fact very weak: that in China “nationalism and patriotism are rather cheap sentiments of the bumper sticker and American flag lapel variety, and, notwithstanding all the hoopla surrounding this topic, the world should not have to worry too much about the threat it poses to the rest of the world” (p. 415). Diamant’s book, although painstakingly researched, engaging, thought-provoking and even moving, falls somewhat short of proving his point.

Diamant has chosen to look for evidence of nationalism in the state and society’s treatment of veterans and military families. Drawing on an impressive array of archival and published sources, Diamant skillfully presents and analyzes anecdotal evidence to show us how Chinese veterans have been treated and what this tells us about China’s Communist Party, its state bureaucracy, and society. Aside from the introduction and conclusion, the book includes seven chapters dealing with various aspects of the veteran and military family experience: rural veterans’ quest for urban residence; the complications of veteran identity; the difficulties of finding employment; the dismal cracks and loopholes in policy and the bureaucracy; issues of health, family, and sexuality; failure on the part of the state and society to care for or even respect military families; and the problems of veterans in the reform era.

Throughout the book, Diamant convincingly makes the case that Chinese veterans have been, and continue to be, poorly treated. Most of China’s veterans were from the countryside. When they were demobilized they were returned to their villages, although many (perhaps most) would have preferred to pursue higher incomes and more comfortable lives in the cities. Diamant describes both the challenges of re-integrating into rural life after military service and rural veterans’ attempts to move into the cities, often in violation of Party policy and in the face of severe discrimination in regard to housing and employment. Particularly in the highly politicized 1950s through 1970s, veterans’ status and identity was complicated by their expectations, habits of life and behavior learned in the military, and, for some, the contradiction between their service to the revolution and their landlord or bourgeois class background. A lack of connections (a function of having been away from home for years or of trying to make their way somewhere other than their native place), low educational levels, lack of job skills and openly expressed prejudice on the part of bureaucrats and employers often left veterans out in the cold. Policies regarding resettlement, benefits, and employment were purposely vague, which left the policy implementation to the discretion of cash-strapped, unsympathetic lower-level bureaucrats.

Diamant succeeds brilliantly in making the case that China’s veterans have been shabbily treated, both by the Party, their government, and their fellow-citizens. He also draws on secondary literature and on his experience as a veteran of the Israeli army to put China’s treatment of veterans into comparative perspective (in the process, places other than China come out looking pretty poorly too). But what does it all mean? What does the shameful treatment of China’s veterans tell us about Chinese nationalism and whether or not it is a significant force in China’s domestic politics, its foreign policy, and its management of international crisis situations?

It is here that Diamant falls somewhat short of the mark. In comparative terms, Diamant suggests that democracy and the existence of a public sphere do make some difference in the treatment of veterans: a free press and independent veterans groups can effectively draw attention to veterans’ issues. In China, veterans’ attempts to organize independent advocacy groups have been brutally crushed. But in the long run, Diamant sees “no direct connection between democracy and ample veterans’ benefits and positive treatment” (p. 410). In Diamant’s view, the key factors in making society more supportive of veterans are universal conscription and legitimate wars. China does not have universal conscription: instead, soldiers are drawn disproportionately from the rural areas. Urban elites and civilian bureaucrats do not identify with, and even look down on, rural men. Diamant also argues that although China’s wars have been celebrated in propaganda, Chinese society has not accepted them as legitimate. Here, Diamant is on shaky ground. His arguments make sense, and he may in fact be correct, but the evidence is anecdotal, and readers may not be ready to follow him as he leaps from the poor treatment of veterans to the assumption that lukewarm support for China’s wars and therefore a lack of patriotism is the underlying reason. Shabby treatment of veterans may just as well be caused by prejudice, selfishness, and hypocrisy.

Hypocrisy is, in fact, an issue that Diamant should take more seriously. He condemns the hypocrisy of a government that fails its veterans but excels at erecting billboards trumpeting “the people’s support of the military” (p. 420). But he pays too little attention to the hypocrisy of nationalists, whether they be ordinary people or urban elites. In Diamant’s eyes, it seems that hypocritical nationalism does not count: “Advocating violence with someone else’s blood does not a ‘nationalist’ make” (p. 423). “Chicken-hawk” nationalism may indeed be shallow, and it may be expressed by a vocal, unrepresentative, hypocritical urban elite, but it can still have serious policy consequences. It is this potential that Peter Gries and a number of other scholars (including Susan Shirk) whose work Diamant does not take into account are concerned with. To argue that China’s post-1989 nationalism constitutes a threat to world peace is clearly irresponsible alarmism. But to dismiss it as a possible factor in the Chinese leadership’s decision-making on the grounds that China’s veterans have been poorly treated is a bit of a stretch. Despite these points of disagreement, I cannot emphasize too much that Embattled Glory is an excellent and thought-provoking piece of scholarship which would make excellent reading for graduate and advanced undergraduate students as well as to scholars with a serious interest in the history and politics of the People’s Republic.

Harold Tanner is Professor of History at the University of North Texas.

© 2011 by Twentieth-Century China Editorial Board. All rights reserved.

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