April 2011

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By Chris Cherry

Chen Jun

Tianjin to Shahe Village, Henan

They are China’s most precious economic asset: migrant workers. Each year, millions upon millions untie themselves from the rhythms of rural life to chase down a future in the prestige cities and sudden boomtowns of the eastern and southern coasts. In doing so, they begin a dramatic journey from farmer to worker; one marked by a profound shift from cultivating land they own, to producing goods they don’t. But few will be allowed to transform completely. Oft belittled for their unsophisticated ways, to urbanites they are forever “waidiren” — outside people. Most will be marked by their speech the moment they open their mouths.

On the factories and construction sites where they will find work they are considered lower still. Here migrants are merely human capital, valued for their sweat and energy — the raw materials of capitalist growth. As anonymous as lumps of coal, their sheer numbers only act to deepen their insignificance; if one decides to revert from worker back to farmer, more will inevitably arrive to fill the vacancy. But such a throwaway quality is also what makes them of unique value to the nation. Over three decades of growth and development, it is they who have supplied China with its competitive edge — a miraculous, low cost, infinite resource. Chinese newspapers even like to celebrate them as such with a heroic communist sobriquet: 不冒烟的工厂, or “factories without smoke”.

This is the beginning of a series of photographs that tries to return a modicum of identity to these people. It will be a set of portraits taken at various train stations across the country — the most obvious place to locate a transient population, and what seemed a fitting backdrop for a people in flux. Subjects are either on their way to cities, or are returning home to their villages. Often, candid postures make it easy to guess at which. After the click of the camera shutter, I conducted brief interviews, during which I was repeatedly reminded that these are men and women who have been dealt hard hands in life. But what could I really know of that? I decided only to take a note of their names, and their individual journeys — to try and etch a few humble lines of migration onto an imposing map. It seemed appropriate. Each of these has surely made a mark on the rise of a great nation.

Chris Cherry is a photographer loosely based in Beijing.


Cheek, Timothy, ed. A Critical Introduction to Mao. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010. xxi, 369 pp. $90.00 (cloth), $27.99 (paper).

By Brian J. DeMare

At the outset of the final chapter of A Critical Introduction to Mao, Jiang Yihua, a senior Chinese scholar, suggests that it will still be many years before historians will be able to draw any definitive conclusions concerning Mao Zedong, revolutionary China’s most imposing figure. This inability to give a final and authoritative interpretation of Mao, Jiang suggests, is due to difficulties of archival access as well as the fact that Mao is still being recreated and reshaped by his ever loyal followers and his equally dedicated detractors. Jiang’s skeptical approach to the problem of knowing Mao, a problem rarely mentioned by his biographers, is both telling for the challenges of studying Mao, and for why editor Timothy Cheek’s excellent collection of essays should be considered essential reading for students of Chinese history.

For this collection, Cheek has gathered a diverse set of scholars to tackle the problem of understanding Mao and his legacy. This has long been a vexing issue for historians. In any given modern China survey course, students might be introduced to Mao as an insightful intellectual, writing in defense of feminist empowerment as he laments the suicide of Miss Zhao. The image of Mao during later lectures, particularly during the PRC era when Mao ruled in an increasingly tyrannical style, is never so positive. Cheek and his authors confront this problem by embracing the multiplicity of Mao, both in the complexity of his longtime role as historical actor in revolutionary China and in the contested legacy he has left behind. The Mao that emerges in these pages resists easy categorization, a sharp contrast to biographies that push to demonize Mao as a monster or praise him as a perfect revolutionary. But it is this nuanced view of Mao that the non-specialist audience needs to see, and as such Cheek’s collection serves as a necessary counterweight to recent narratives of Mao’s life. Its sophisticated approach to the problem of knowing and interpreting Mao as a historical figure, moreover, makes it an excellent choice for undergraduate seminars.

The text is divided into two parts, the first covering Mao’s life, the second his legacy. Timothy Cheek and Joseph Esherick’s chapters covering Mao’s life and the historical context from which he emerged are followed by Brantly Womack’s overview of the first half of Mao’s life, with special attention to Mao’s rural turn and the resulting creation of what would eventually be canonized as Mao Zedong Thought. Hans J. Van De Ven then explores Mao’s rise to paramount party leader and his concurrent push to eliminate “cosmopolitan” or international Marxism in favor of a Chinese and highly nationalistic Marxism; one of Van De Ven’s key insights is to examine the Yan’an Rectification Campaign as an attempt to suppress cosmopolitan Marxism. Using digestion, one of Mao’s favorite topics, as a metaphor, Michael Schoenhals then examines the final two decades of Mao’s life with an eye on explaining how Mao’s desire for rapid change encouraged him to purge the CCP and create all-out chaos in China.

Subsequent chapters on the historical Mao focus on key themes in his life. Frederick C. Teiwes takes up the problem of Mao’s willing followers, focusing on the top level leaders who served Mao out of a mixture of fear and loyalty. Similarly, Hung-yok Ip looks at the troubled relationship between Mao and China’s intellectuals, emphasizing that Mao’s “anti-elitist elitism” was in fact common among China’s educated elite. Delia Davin follows with another chapter on Mao’s ties with key groups, here women, tracing the disappearance of his feminist ideals as he adopted Marxism as his guiding ideology. In the final chapter on the historical Mao, Daniel Leese sifts through the massive iconography built up around Mao, a process that started as early as the 1930 and steadily gained steam up through the Cultural Revolution. As Lesse makes clear, Mao was well aware of the power of his image and even today he remains a powerfully divisive symbol.

The second part of the text moves to an analysis of Mao’s legacy, starting with Geremie Barmé’s investigation of the oft cited Mao-as-emperor metaphor. Barmé admits that the imperial metaphor is an easy fit, especially given Mao’s increased autocratic behavior in his final years, but ultimately finds this metaphor limiting. Xiao Yanzhong introduces readers to recent Chinese scholarship on Mao, and perhaps unsurprisingly finds that in the PRC there also exists a multiplicity of Maos, with emerging “schools” variously promoting critical, idealized, or increasingly historically grounded views of Mao. Maoism in the “third world” is the focus of Alexander Cook’s chapter; he argues that Maoist thought has been effective as a military strategy, but not as a ruling ideology. Charles Hayford highlights how Mao has been understood in the West, tracing the Chairman’s trajectory from menace to partner. The final chapter of the text provides a forum for two senior Mao specialists, Jiang Yihua and Roderick Macfarquhar, to offer their unique perspectives on Mao. Jiang praises Mao for liberating the Chinese people while admitting that Mao failed to create a utopia for them. Macfarquhar, meanwhile, suggests that Mao’s legacy would have been better served if he had exited the historical stage after establishing the PRC.

In sum, the chapters in Cheek’s collection contribute to an understanding of Mao Zedong that is as messy and complex as it is compelling. The text, moreover, encourages readers to engage the problem of knowing the historical Mao, while reminding the reader of the equal importance of Mao’s ahistorical legacy. Sadly, this text will most likely never be sold in airport bookstores alongside popular biographies of Mao, but Cheek’s collection will hopefully spark lively discussion in seminar classrooms.

Brian J. DeMare is Assistant Professor of History at Tulane University.

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

By Geremie R. Barmé

Author’s Note:

A much shorter version of this essay was originally destined for a leading newspaper outlet. Unfortunately, so much editorial “back-filling” was required to transform it into something more accessible to even a relatively sophisticated readership, I decided that it would be best to pull it. Instead, I offer it here with considerable additional material to readers of China Beat.

Ai Weiwei with sculpture from his "Zodiac Heads" project

This essay was written on the eve of the 2 May unveiling by New York City and the arts group AW Asia of Ai Weiwei’s “Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads” at the Pulitzer Fountain, Grand Army Plaza (located at the south-east corner of Central Park). That sculptural work is the artist’s over-sized comment on the controversy surrounding the auctioning of two of the twelve bronze “Zodiac Heads” plundered in 1860 from the Garden of Perfect Brightness (Yuanming Yuan, which is always erroneously referred to as the “Old Summer Palace”), the Qing-era garden palace to the northwest of Beijing. As Weiwei said of his reinterpretation of the originals:

My work is always dealing with real or fake, authenticity, what the value is, and how the value relates to current political and social understandings and misunderstandings. I think there’s a strong humorous aspect there. The [Yves Saint-Laurent] zodiac auction [in February 2009] really complicated the issues about art, about the real, about fake, resources, looting, about the appreciation of objects—all these kinds of issues. [From an interview with the artist by Eugene Kan]

[For further background to the “Zodiac Heads” of the Garden of Perfect Brightness and the history, as well as the contemporary significance, of China’s formerly ignored “national ruin,” see China Heritage Quarterly, No.8 (December 2006).]

Ai Weiwei's "Zodiac Heads"

In the event, as an Australian writing about Ai Weiwei and the broader context of his detention at this time, it seemed timely in another regard as our Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, was undertaking on 25-28 April her first visit to Beijing as head of government. On her arrival the PM was peremptorily cautioned by the Chinese ambassador in Canberra to be mindful of the country’s “tremendous progress” in the area of human rights. While by necessity economics dominated the state visit, as it indeed dominates the bilateral relationship, issues related to minorities, Christian groups and human rights abuses could not easily be avoided. Not surprisingly, Gillard was reassured by the Chinese Premier, Wen Jiabao, that the country was not “taking a backward step” in these areas, despite glaring evidence to the contrary widely reported in the international media.

It is also worth noting a 22 April 2011 opinion piece in The Global Times in which the official Chinese stance, one that is repeatedly critical of former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s stewardship of the Australia-China relationship in 2008-2010, was made quite clear:

What is especially unacceptable to the Chinese people is Australia’s challenging of Chinese values. The two countries are vastly different in their national situations, especially in term [sic] of population. If China has no right to make light of the Australian model, Australian should not belittle the 1.3 billion Chinese people’s right to choose their own political path, either.

We hope Gillard can bring some changes. The Australian government should at least show basic respect to China. This is one of the fundamental rules of this civilized world.

Moreover, Canberra should be more tolerant toward a rising China. This will also make Australia happier. [See: “Redefining Australia-China Ties”]

In the particular lexicon of the party-state, “basic respect” means support or at least tacit acceptance of even the most egregious acts of Chinese officialdom.

Fortuitously, an English-language selection of Ai Weiwei’s Internet writings has recently appeared, providing the general reader, as well as easily cowed foreign government officials, a first-hand account of how a major contemporary Chinese cultural figure sees the dilemmas surrounding “basic respect” in China today. [See Lee Ambrozy, ed., Ai Weiwei’s Blog: Writings, Interviews, and Digital Rants, 2006-2009, Cambridge, Ma.: MIT Press, 2011.] I should also note that, in mid April, a major international petition addressed to the Chinese Minister of Culture on behalf of Ai Weiwei was launched by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation and, at the time of writing, had amassed 123,509 signatures, a number that continued to grow, despite attempts by unidentified hackers to disable the host site. [For the online petition, see here.] One would observe that presumably to the Beijing authorities such international support merely confirms their view that Weiwei is a nefarious agent of the West, itself hell-bent on regime change and “peaceful evolution” in China.—Geremie R. Barmé


On 11 February 2010, in response to a question from a foreign journalist the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu observed: “There are no dissidents in China.” This came only hours after a Beijing court had quashed an appeal by Liu Xiaobo, the democracy advocate who had been jailed for eleven-years on charges of “subverting the state.” The charges related to his involvement in the Charter 08 petition movement. Asked to elaborate, Ma said: “In China, you can judge yourself whether such a group exists. But I believe this term is questionable.”

Shortly after the People’s Republic was declared a “dissident-free country,” the artist and cultural blogger Ai Weiwei offered his analysis of Chinese-style doublethink via Twitter:

Foreign Affairs Ma’s statement contains a number of layers of meaning:

1. Dissidents are criminals;

2. Only criminals have dissenting views;

3. The distinction between criminals and non-criminals is whether they have dissenting views;

4. If you think China has dissidents, you are a criminal;

5. The reason [China] has no dissidents is because they are [in fact already] criminals;

6. Does anyone have a dissenting view regarding my statement?

On 3 April this year, Ai Weiwei was detained while preparing to board a flight to Hong Kong. It is claimed that he had been taken into custody on suspicion of economic crimes. Whatever that case may be, there is little doubt that the Chinese party-state had finally decided to silence its most outspoken free-range dissident.

Read the rest of this entry »

By Daniel Knorr

A few days after the Japan earthquake last month, the high school student I tutor asked if I had considered leaving Beijing with my wife. I had been keeping up with the news about the crisis at the Fukushima nuclear plant, and to the best of my knowledge there was no real threat to us in Beijing so I was a little surprised by his question. Even though I assumed the nuclear plant was the source of his concern, I asked what he was referring to. (Honestly, part of me was a little afraid that he knew something I didn’t.) When he confirmed that it was Fukushima that was on his mind, I tried to reassure him that there was little or no danger to Beijing, but he was still rather worried—understandable given the magnitude of the disaster that had just occurred not so very far away.

In the face of such a massive crisis and the subsequent frightening possibility of a nuclear meltdown, people understandably reacted in very different ways. Along with my student, a lot of people here in China were simply afraid and thus prone to believe all sorts of rumors, many spread online. Although not surprising, the role of internet communication in responses to the earthquake and tsunami is what has struck me most in the weeks since the earthquake. The internet has been talked about quite a bit recently in relation to stories such as Egypt’s internet shutdown after the outbreak of protests and the Chinese government’s increased censorship of the internet and telecommunications (as well as the apparent recent Gmail hack). Because the issues of social media and online communication in China have been attached to questions of censorship and political protest, though, I think it is worthwhile to think about them in another context that may shed some more (or at least different) light on how they relate to current events, the mainstream media, government controls, and the lives of ordinary people.

The most well-known example of rumors going viral online, of course, is the one that caused a panicked buying of salt in many parts of China in mid-March, out of a belief that eating enough table salt could offset the effects of radiation poisoning, as well as a fear that radiation contamination would lead to a shortage of sea salt. One of the originators of this rumor has been detained and fined, but the effect was widespread and far outpaced the ability of news outlets and government offices to combat it. I heard another earthquake-related rumor second-hand, through a teacher of mine. She asked a classmate and me if we had heard that Yuko Yamaguchi, the designer of Hello Kitty, had died in the tsunami; I only found out several days later from a news report that this too was a fictitious rumor, as were others about the deaths of various Japanese celebrities. Fortunately, false reports about the spread of radiation into China did not cause a panicked exodus from coast cities, which certainly would have caused more harm than buying some extra bags of salt and wrongly believing a celebrity had died.

I don’t know why exactly people started these rumors, but their lightning-fast dissemination confirms the power of the internet to rapidly spread information regardless of whether it is true or false, as well as its capacity to prompt mass action or belief, a fact as true of China as of anywhere else.

To some degree, this could actually justify the government’s policy of censorship and desire to control the flow of information. I found it hard to disagree with the decision to arrest and fine the internet user who started the spread of the salt rumor. Of course, this is hardly unique to China: after all, free speech in the U.S. has its limits, such as the prohibition against shouting “Fire!” in a crowded movie theater. Maybe the enormous effect of a single rumor spreading to millions of people through the internet emphasizes the inherent interest of the government in protecting the stability of the crowded movie theater that is China (and the whole world wide web, for that matter). At the same time, though, it showed that censorship and official news outlets cannot match the speed at which this kind of rumor can spread, and that repairing the damage caused by false information disseminated online is no easy or simple task, particularly when the public has little faith in the official media. Once the cat is out of the bag, it’s very difficult to get it back in—and even government control is no match for a spontaneous uprising of salt-buyers.

It would be wrong to think that the only reactions to the disaster have come from the media, people who spread rumors online, and those who blindly listen to one and/or the other. A couple of days after the tsunami, one of my teachers started talking with my class about the safety of nuclear plants, how many there were in the U.S., where they were, how reliant the U.S. and China are on nuclear power, etc. Of course, this is a large and ongoing issue in the U.S., and I suspect that it is that way for a number of people in China as well. However, the reports I have seen about nuclear plants in China and about the possibility of radiation coming from Japan have been reassuring in tone, and the media doesn’t seem too ready to wade into this issue.

This is not to say that safety is not a concern for the Chinese government, or for the Chinese media. Everywhere you go in Beijing you see signs exhorting safety, especially when it comes to transportation and construction:

Pollution and environmental protection are big issues, too, so it seems natural that there would be official and public concern about the safety of China’s nuclear plants, especially when people hear about rural villages whose land and crops have suffered long-term contamination from nearby factories and numerous dairies being shut down because of quality concerns. While the role of Chinese media vis-à-vis holding the government, individual officials, and large state and private enterprises accountable is still developing, some journalists are undeniably interested in highlighting environmental issues and their impact on the Chinese people (as discussed in this report by The Guardian’s Jonathan Watts).

As one would expect in the response to a major catastrophe, reporting and public attention has ebbed as time has passed. While there is still uncertainty about the final, overall effects of the radiation leak, the real issue now, I think, is how this disaster will settle into the minds of people here. Will it be remembered as another tragic, yet unavoidable natural catastrophe? Or will it come to represent something more, as, for example, Hurricane Katrina symbolized social inequality and the aloofness of the federal government for U.S. citizens? It is possible that Japan could become a cautionary tale about the dangers of economic development and the need for public accountability. The final outcome, I think, will depend on the response of the Japanese people and the attention their actions receive from Chinese media and the discussion this may or may not prompt among China’s informed netizenry.

Daniel Knorr is currently a student at the Inter-University Program in Beijing and will be attending graduate school at UC Irvine in the fall.

By James A. Millward

“Maybe we will block content in some countries, but not others,” Adam Conner, a Facebook lobbyist, told the [Wall Street] Journal. “We are occasionally held in uncomfortable positions because now we’re allowing too much, maybe, free speech in countries that haven’t experienced it before,” he said.

“Right now we’re studying and learning about China but have made no decisions about if, or how, we will approach it,” said Debbie Frost, Facebook’s director of international communications.”

So this is what Facebook’s lobbyists and international communications folks are saying openly about how they are planning to enter the Chinese market. This article has been much cross-linked, and the sentiments of the lobbyist may be publicly decried. But then there will be the inevitable responses: “why should FB care about democracy? They’re a business, after all, and responsible only to their shareholders (as yet not public, though FB has made private offerings to select investors). Why should Facebook be any different than Bob Dylan? You gotta serve somebody, you must accept censorship to get into the Chinese market. It’s the cost of doing business; we respect their local ways.”

But what about racism, or at least chauvinistic culturalism? Should we care if FB embraces that? Whether it’s “Asian Values” advocates, hard-nosed business “realists,” or gradual evolutionists within or outside of China, the argument that certain people, in certain places, aren’t quite ready to speak or think for themselves based on unfiltered information is a tyranny of low expectations. If an American food critic said Chinese people aren’t ready to appreciate, say, good wine, or a foreign film critic said Chinese have lousy cinematic taste, or a Western academic said Chinese don’t really understand what real scholarship or good writing is—they would be pilloried on-line, and Chinese students would track them down and stake out their house. Yet it’s become increasingly routine to hear, both in China and abroad, that Chinese people are okay with a dumbed-down internet since China is strong, China’s economic rise has been remarkable, and in any case you can still play games, shop and read about celebrities on the Chinese intranet. In other words, the Global Times (China’s hyper-nationalistic, pro-government tabloid) is good enough for China, and it’s fine for international media companies to adhere to the standards of the Global Times to get access behind the great firewall.

Lu Xun (in 呐喊 Call to Arms) cared about the people in the iron house:

“Imagine an iron house without windows, absolutely indestructible, with many people fast asleep inside who will soon die of suffocation. But you know since they will die in their sleep, they will not feel the pain of death. Now if you cry aloud to wake a few of the lighter sleepers, making those unfortunate few suffer the agony of irrevocable death, do you think you are doing them a good turn?”

“But if a few awake, you can’t say there is no hope of destroying the iron house.”

Lu Xun lived in different times, and these lines are admittedly too dramatic for the present. But the issue is the same. Does one let them sleep? Is “friending” China a plus, better than nothing, even if the proposed FB-PRC is monitoring the “friend”ship? Would Lu Xun care, today, if he lived outside China or were among the few who have a passport and a VPN connection that allows the savvy and affluent in China to span the firewall? Do I want to keep wasting time on Facebook, or link up with my friends in China using Facebook, when I know that they would not be able to read all my FB posts? Would units at our universities (for example the Asian Studies Program at Georgetown, where I teach) which increasingly use FB as an announcement board, still want to do so knowing that FB itself would censor our announcements of talks that Chinese censors disapproved of?

The WSJ piece mentions that some members of Congress are critical of Facebook for not signing the Global Network Initiative or participating in the Senate Judiciary Committee’s panel on “global Internet freedom.” But it will not be helpful for any branch of the US government to bludgeon or shame Facebook into compliance. Facebook shouldn’t be lockstep with US policy any more than it should be handmaiden to PRC censors. And I wouldn’t even say that Facebook should be fighting for human rights in China or anywhere, since it won’t be FB but domestic Chinese internet and other media that gradually erodes or overwhelms the controls. Rather, Facebook should simply remember its stated principles: in Mark Zuckerberg’s words, that Facebook was intended “to help people understand the world around them” (David Kirkpatrick, The Facebook Effect, p. 143), or that “our main goal at Facebook is to help make the world more open and transparent.” By “blocking content in some countries, but not in others,” does Facebook now want to add a caveat that unlike everyone else, Chinese people should only be vouchsafed translucent understanding of part of the world around them?

Sun Yat-sen wrote a century ago that the Chinese people would need a period of “political tutelage” before they would be ready for democracy. It’s not Facebook’s job to fight for Chinese internet freedoms or human rights. But it’s not Facebook’s job to help the PRC government further extend that “tutelage,” either. Let’s not patronize the Chinese people by accepting the argument that some kind of stripped-down, partially-gated, government-monitored Facebook (or any other media) is good enough for them. I (and, I hope, the other 499,999,999 global FB users) want to be friends with Chinese, not just “friend” them.

James A. Millward is Professor of Intersocietal History at the Edmund Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University and author of, most recently, Eurasian Crossroads: A History of Xinjiang (Columbia University Press, 2007).

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